When the Beach Is Not the Beach

I’m just back from a trip to visit Dear Old Dad. At 96, he needs 24-hour in-home care provider support. One of my sisters also lives with him, another lives two miles away. I pinch hit for the residential sister, as do my four brothers.

And we’re still nearly tapped out from the sheer stamina that’s required to care for one fairly healthy, fairly financially secure Aged P. Dad is in hospice, for a number of reasons, but he can still beat me at cribbage (on a good day), still feed himself (do not leave good ice cream unattended around that guy), and will take his meds as directed much of the time.

But he no longer walks. He’s down to “stand and pivot” with assistance. He has days when he mostly sleeps, days when he won’t take his meds. Days when he can barely hold the cards and wants to know where Mom is (RIP Mom 2/5/16). The care providers try hard, but they are underfoot by necessity, and they sometimes have their own dramas. Then there’s the visiting nurse, the hygiene nurse, the church lady who brings communion, the gardener…

I went bananas, three different ways. First, I’m no longer used to being around people–real  people–24-7. My solitude tank hit empty, and this made me irritable. Second, I’m not used to having my time commandeered without notice. If Dad yelled for me, I was supposed to present myself forthwith, offering solutions to whatever the problem of the moment was. If he ran out of some hygiene supply, if the care providers had a personal emergency… as “case manager,” my role was to spackle over all the gaps in the care plan.

Being infield utility meant very little writing productivity, and that too, made me grumpy.

Third, Dad lives in suburban San Diego, in a neighborhood where the houses are close together to maximize views of the ocean. You would not believe how many power tools, leaf blowers, car horns, barking dogs, and screeching children, can be packed into one residential block, and they all start up at 7 am. My silence tank went bone dry.

Since coming home, I’ve been knocking out my writing to-dos and getting back into the stories. I’ve also hibernated at my QUIET little house, which I have a strange compulsion to Big Clean. The kind of clean where I fill up contractor bags and throw out furniture the dog has ruined. Maybe a purge is a better word. Asserting control over my time, my space, and my imagination is gradually bringing me right, but lordy, am I in awe of my sisters. Greater love hath nobody, ever, than those two ladies show our father who art in San Diego.

Have you ever had to recover from a “vacation?” A family reunion or business trip? How do you negotiate your re-entry, and is there something about home you’ve learned to appreciate more fully for having missed it? To one commenter, I’ll send an audio version of Tremaine’s True Love.Save



Now Just a Danged Minute

We know some stuff about how big families work, and one of the things we know–say about people who are number six out of seven children–is that these children will often make their contribution to the family’s functionality by changing roles. When the family needs a cheerleader, out come the pom-poms. When the family needs a voice of reason, logic is the order of the day. When the family is embarking on an ill-planned adventure, the younger siblings will often be the ones muttering, “Mapquest says this isn’t a shortcut…”

The benefit of having these folks around–cheerleaders one day, oracles of doom the next–is that the group as a whole gets a wider perspective on any situation. The “after-thought” position takes a broad view, and tries to make sure all the data gets consideration. It only FEELS like these people are contrarians, or to use the pathological term, “oppositional-defiant.” (I am not!)

Violent crime reported in the US 1990-2015

So… at this time, which many of us find trying, I’d like to offer some reason for optimism: The world really is getting better in a lot of significant ways. Let’s start with extreme poverty, which is generally defined as living on less than two dollars day. The 189 UN member nations set a goal in 2000 of cutting our extreme poverty figures in half in fifteen years. We met that goal five years early, despite that stinky old recession.

And what about population growth? It has already slowed down, and is projected to level off around 2070 and then start dropping. As people live longer and education becomes more readily available, women have smaller families. In some countries (the US and UK) this took many decades. South Korea pulled it off in eighteen years. Iran accomplished population stability in ten years. Got grandkids? Spoil ’em rotten, because there will never again be as many children on the planet as we have now.

In other areas, from education, to child mortality, to health, to freedom… we’ve made enormous strides. With fewer children to educate, by the end of this century, we should achieve just about 100 literacy. Consider that in 1900 we were at 26 percent literacy, and now we’re up to 85 percent. Take a bow, us.  More people live in democratic societies than ever before, and what we’ve done with child mortality is miraculous. In 1900, 36 percent of all children died before age five (down from 43 percent in 1800). Now? We’re at 4.3 percent worldwide and dropping.

So, yes, of course. We face big challenges, and there’s plenty of reason to be worried and tired and fed up. But there are more of us than ever before to tackle the big problems, we’re better educated and in better health than we’ve ever been before, we’re safer than we’ve been before, more of us have political freedom than ever before, and we’ve achieved miracles when we work together. My money’s on us, as are my love, my hope, and my best efforts.

Your turn: What do you see–big picture, small picture, anywhere–that gives you hope and encouragement? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of His Lordship’s True Lady, because TRUE LOVE ALWAYS WINS. (Does too.)





Writing Down the Boo-Boos

I’m a shy, introverted person, but there’s one type of group I’m always happy to get together with–a library audience. My usual library talk combines a little bit of autobiography (“So, if you’re inclined to write a book, I hope you give it a try!”), with my gratitude for the readers among us (this means you).

The benefits of reading good fiction are numerous and important. Reading makes us more tolerant, which ought to elevate it to our national pastime in my humble. Reading lowers blood pressure, improves sleep, improves heart health, expands vocabulary and thus expressive and receptive languages skills. If you’re reading good fiction, there is no downside that I can see.

And then I move on to the benefits of writing, particularly writing that expresses our emotions. The ground-breaking research in this area was done about thirty years ago, and we’re learning more year by year. James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology, asked his undergraduates to write for fifteen minutes about their most traumatic experience, or their most difficult time.

A control group wrote about another topic–their dorm room (you hope that’s not traumatic), or a building on campus. Six months later, Pennebaker tracked how many visits students in each group had made to the doctor or campus health clinic. The writers had sought medical treatment MUCH less, and this finding has been replicated many times.

Wounds heal faster when we write about them, especially if we take the gloves off, and write the real, vivid stuff about our suffering. There are a ton of caveats and yeah-buts that go with this line of research (constant bellyaching is not expressive writing, writing when you need to act is not expressive writing, et cetera). You can read Pennebaker’s book, which includes his own story (the depressed professional psychologist who wouldn’t go to therapy).

What’s the relevance of all this information to us? Well, first, we’re human so we suffer, and if writing can reduce the pain and suffering in this world–for free–then I’m all for it. Second, when do we write? Compared to the Regency folks I put in my books, who had no internet, no TV, no smartphones, but who did routinely journal, and maintain myriad, long-distance pen-pal relationships…. we don’t write much.

In this regard, I think the old days were better days. Everything from penmanship to a clever turn of phrase to being a reliable correspondent was valued for people living above subsistence level. We were expected to record our lives and to report them in writing to trusted friends and family. Maybe this was one way those ancestors compensated for a lack of antibiotics, but why shouldn’t we get the same benefit?

Who could you write a letter to this week? When was the last time you wrote or received a real letter? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of His Lordship’s True Lady (on sale from the website store now, from the retail sites on Tuesday).



The Good Old Summertime

I have been waxing philosophical lately, about Dunning-Kruger effect, workplace inequalities, neuroplasticity (the bit about learning keeps the Alzheimer’s at bay), and migraines of the heart. All quite worth pondering, but also very serious.

Time for a lighter topic, namely, what I like about summer. I can often be heard to lament The Bugs, who are much in evidence in warm weather, but what are a few flies compared to…

Birdsong. I open the house up as much as I can, and that means, I often wake to  birdsong. There’s nothing sweeter first thing in the day, and birds eat bugs, so double wonderful. (That’s a red-eyed vireo, and he sounds like this.)

Yard flowers. I went nuts this year with impatiens, New Guinea impatiens, geraniums, and gladiolus. I sit on my front porch steps and marvel at the loveliness of the flower season.

Kittens. I live in the country, and there’s a feral cat population in the area. Several of the mamas have decided to start their families on my property. I have Plans for these kittens (and their mamas, and Lars Loverboy, if I can catch him) that do not include contributing to the gene pool, which means I have to spend time making friends with those kittens. What a lovely way to take a break from everything.

The greenery. Where I live, it do be green. I love this. I love the big trees, the raspberry bushes, the horses at grass across the road. Doesn’t get any prettier than this.

The fresh air. In winter, I shut the house up, of course, and that means I don’t hear the birds, the stream, the horses whuffling, or even much traffic going by. When I’m not braced against the elements, life and nature are more at my side all day. If the cats start menacing a bird’s nest, I get the amber alert from the birds, and head into the yard, my broom at the ready. Last time the birds sounded the alarm, though, it was a big old freight train of a black snake. (Grace auditions for the 82nd airborne division while hovering over her front yard at a height of fifteen feet, muumuu flapping for all the world to see!)

The lightning bugs. Saw my first one this evening. What magic.

The sunshine. Yeah, I know, we need to wear sunscreen and hats and bug spray, but this past winter was GLOOMY. Week after week of overcast, gray, and cold, much drearier than usual. To see the sun, to see the corn coming up, the winter wheat going golden, the whole mountain leafed out, restoreth my soul.

How do you make the hot weather work for you? To one commenter, I’ll send a print version of Tartan Two-Step, (prequel to Elias in Love) which is also available now as a stand-alone ebook.




Profitable in Pink (and green and brown and blue)

I mentioned last week, that if you want to increase the collective IQ of a task-oriented group, then adding smart people won’t accomplish your goal. Adding women will. In fact, if you add people who are smart, but opinionated and domineering, all of those smart people will result in an unproductive group… unless you’re adding smart women.

Companies whose senior management is at least 30 percent female, are more profitable than companies with fewer women in senior management. Companies with a racially and ethnically diverse work force are more profitable. When it comes to the boards of directors, one study found that Fortune 500 companies with the most women on their boards out-performed companies with the fewest women on their boards by a margin of 53 percent on return on investment.

Another study reported in the Harvard Business Review looked at sixteen leadership traits across 7,280 “business leaders.” For twelve out of sixteen characteristics, the women leaders out-performed the men, and in two–taking initiative, and driving for results–women out-scored men by the widest margin.

Olympians Debbie MacDonald and Brentina

Now here (coming up soon) is the punchline: I’ve served on a mostly-female board, for a volunteer riding organization that had hundreds of members. I’ve served on a board of mostly guys for a church of nearly the same size. The riding board out-performed the church board by leaps and one-tempis.

I could go on, but the point is, when my riding board got an award for being highly effective, I shrugged, and thought, “Well, we’re a pretty go-ahead kinda group.” With the church board, I also shrugged, and thought, “I guess this is why my denomination does so much ‘church-planting.’ It’s easier to start your own group than resolve differences within the congregation.”

I never, not once, thought: Maybe women are better at management, leadership, and getting stuff done on behalf of an organization than men are. I thought my riding group was just a fluke. I thought the bogged-down, talk-in-circles church group was normal. The most effective group I’ve EVER come across is the Romance Writers of America, which is comprised largely of smart women. Just another fluke?

One of my all-time favorite books is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn. The premise of this very readable little book–backed up by many examples–is that as a society, we see the new truth only when the cost of supporting the prevailing falsehood gets just too ridiculous. All the data in the world, all the studies and experiments, won’t get an idea accepted until the cost of hanging on to the old dogma grows too high.

I hope, when it comes to racial, ethnic, and gender diversity, we’ve reached that point. I hope the next time I see a diverse group, or a group of women, making something happen despite many challenges, I won’t think, “Well, must be another fluke.”

Because it’s not.

To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of The Structure… well, how ’bout not. How about I send a copy of Elias in Love? When have you doubted your own experience, only to realize in hindsight that you were right, it wasn’t a fluke, and you’re still right?









May the Best Person Prevail

In an internet conversation I had with a public school educator this week, somebody raised the topic of the Dunning-Kruger effect. That’s a well-documented tendency (in dominant American culture) for the least skilled among us to overestimate their competence, while the highly skilled underestimate their competence. When you try to tell the incompetents that they are not da bomb, they will criticize your evidence, and go confidently on their way.

Not until they actually get some training in the area they think they already excel at do they realize their genius is lacking.

I interjected a comment into the conversation about the Hewlett Packard study.: A review of personnel records found that women working at HP applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements.

That study sparked a ton of other studies, some of which found Dunning-Kruger was at work on a gendered basis. Men do tend to overestimate their skills, women underestimate theirs. Put another way: Women were confident only if they are perfect or nearly perfect.

BUT that sparked more studies–people went back and asked the ladies, “Why not apply for a job that you could do with a little extra training?” the response from women was, essentially: Why waste my time and energy? In other words, they perceived the playing field as so grossly gender biased, that men who “think they have” 60 percent of the quals can get that job, while women who DO have all the skills will be passed over.

I see some heads nodding, but noses wrinkling as well. Not every male executive is a clueless affront to an army of perfectly qualified female subordinates, of course. Not every woman is a frustrated superstar CEO. But these findings suggest that as a culture, we have not promoted the best qualified people–we’ve promoted the most confident guys, and yes, the most confident white guys.

Those highly skilled women arrived to their decisions based on experience and observation. What we quickly labeled lack of confidence in them turned out to be lack of fairness in the work place. Men also perceived that lack of fairness, but the result in them–going for jobs they were barely half-qualified to do–was labeled confidence.

Where am I going with this?

To a positive place: Women are more effective legislators than men. Women are better doctors than men, on the whole. Women raise the collective IQ of a group more than men do. My theory is that gender has little to do with these findings–being an underdog has everything to do with why women have developed better listening skills, better social sensitivity, keener observation, more creative problem solving abilities.

The underdog always has broader knowledge than the overdogs. This encourages me. Why? Because we are a society with a lot of underdogs, and if my theory is correct, that means we have a ton of highly skilled leaders, problem solvers, thinkers, and creatives ready to go forth and make great changes… if we empower them to do so.

Am I full of baloney? Does your experience comport with the studies mentioned? Ever run across one of those Dunning-Kruger pseudo-experts? To one commenter, I’ll send a print copy of Elias in Love.






Who’s Got the Buttons?

To lose one’s buttons is a genteel term for the waning of mental faculties, usually at the end of life. Scary statistic: By age eighty, if present trends continue, one out of three of us will be cognitively flagging.

This issue is much on my mind, not only because my dad at 96 is losing ground both physically and mentally, but also because I make my living primarily with my brains. If they go, my earning capability, and thus my only prayer of self-sufficiency or security, goes with them.

But there is good cheer to be had, and some of it comes from the Nun Study. The Nun Study is an ongoing look (started in 1986) at the factors that predict or influence cognitive decline. So what have we learned from the nuns so far? First, we know aerobic exercise is great for the brain (oh, fudge), and that good sleep hygiene also matters A LOT (yay!). And genes matter slightly (phew!).

Among the individuals in the study, however, there were Sister Couch Potatoes who’d apparently burned the votive candle at both ends, whose autopsies revealed the physical indicators of Alzheimer’s, and yet, these women did not present with the symptoms of the disease, or presented with only mild symptoms.

Turns out,  one other factor, which can trump any of the foregoing, is something called neural plasticity. (My big-word back leg just started twitching.) Neural plasticity is the ability to play fox and geese with your thinking. If you can’t recall the name of my new release, then you can bring to mind the cover. If that doesn’t work, you know it was in a series with the word “tartan” in it.

By slip-slide-slithering around in your mind, you eventually come at the answer through a side door: Elias In Love, second book in the Trouble Wears Tartan series, has a headless wedding couple on the cover, and the story has something to do with a Scottish guy in Maryland… You snatch one fact from peripheral memory and daisy-chain your way to the information you’re seeking.

But what, you ask, develops this capacity for neural plasticity?

Learning, plain and simple. Learn new stuff, and your mind stays supple. The key is to learn truly new material. Don’t just do sudoku or crossword puzzles, though those won’t hurt you. Make a stab at writing your first book, take up an instrument, tackle a foreign language. Use those buttons or lose those buttons. If you can move, if you can prioritize regular rest, if you can take on even a small educational challenge, you’ll be doing yourself and those who care about you a big favor later in life.

If you could study anything–anything in the whole world–what would it be, and how can you make a step in that direction? To one commenter, I’ll send a print copy of Elias in Love.



All the Feels

When I’m coming up with a plot for a new book, the first question I ask myself is, “What is the hero/heroine’s defining trauma?” Then I ask myself, “Where did I put the Green and Black’s dark chocolate?”

From the character’s major, unhealed wound comes a world of coping mechanisms, defense strategies, choices made for the wrong reasons, and even strengths. From that one unhappy piece of backstory comes the road map for what joy looks like for that character, and what obstacles will require the most courage to overcome.

All of that comes from answering the question: Where does it hurt and why?

But there are characters enduring a different kind of suffering, and I first met them in foster care. Early, early in my courtroom career, I came across kids who couldn’t distinguish hungry from full, and who would either go for days without eating–yes, days–or gorge for no apparent reason. Other children had trouble with incontinence, still others couldn’t recognize when they were tired or thirsty.

These kids had been born into domestic war zones, more or less, and had spent all of their attention on staying out of harm’s way. They broke my heart and baffled me. How sad, to be that out of touch with your personal reality, that your survival needs never hit your own radar.

At the same time as I was getting up to speed as a child welfare lawyer, I was dealing with frequent migraine headaches. Nothing helped–not drugs, not other drugs, not acupuncture, not exercise, not nothing, not no how, except sometimes–maybe every tenth headache–if I could feel that sucker coming on, I could smack it down with caffeine, which I reserved for that one purpose.

BUT for that approach to have a prayer of working, I had to notice when the headache was first trying to creep up out of my back and into my neck. If it reached my temple, I was doomed. I began to Pay Attention. I noticed that fatigue, hunger, thirst, exercise, heat, allergies, stress, stress, and stress could all trigger a migraine.

I noticed how in the course of a day, I was usually tired, hungry, thirsty, stressed, overheated (much of the year), and stressed some more. Single parenting, running my own business, trying to make ends meet, dealing with the child welfare system, forcing myself to exercise… it was all a big, um, headache.

I couldn’t change much about my circumstances, but I could do better. I could prioritize sleep, I could ease up on exercise when it was too stinkin’ hot, I could keep a bottle of water handy. It helped, but first, I had to start paying attention to where it hurt.

Was there a time when you were the last one to get the memo? When your body had to whack you upside the head to get your attention, or a friend or family member had to point out the obvious to you about your own situation? To one commenter, I’ll send a print copy of Tartan Two-Step.





Try a Little Tenderness

When I have a chance to discuss with my cover designers what I’m looking for in an image, I start with tenderness. Tenderness is hard to capture visually, and probably doesn’t sell as many books as steam, hunkiness, or cowboy hats. I’m not backing down, though, because to me, tenderness is the essence of romance.

We choose to be both vulnerable and loving in tender moments, and if our honest emotions and courageous overtures are ridiculed or rejected, we’re devastated.  A little rejection in a tender moment lasts a lifetime. A little tenderness, when somebody is expecting ridicule or rejection, ALSO lasts a lifetime.

So imagine my surprise when I saw that Pope Francis has done a TED talk and declared that we need a revolution of tenderness. Tenderness, sayeth the Pope, is, “love that comes close and becomes real… it means to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other…Tenderness is not weakness, it is fortitude.” .

The Pope and I share a priority, and to some extent a value. Imagine that. I’m a lapsed Catholic, and I can go to town full-lawyer-female-righteous about why, but the Venn diagram of Francis and Grace has a big area of overlap. Hmm.

I found myself quoting Mitch McConnell this week too, because he and I also agree about something. He put it this way: “We have term limits. They’re called elections.” In the context of a larger discussion (gerrymandering, campaign finance reform, FCC rules regarding campaign coverage), I cited McConnell’s reasoning. If we get dark money, gerrymandering, and a few other behemoth evils out of politics, the electorate will turf out the bad eggs, and keep in office the folks who are pulling their share of the load. It’s a theory, anyway.

The point is, I almost, sorta, yikes, agreed with somebody with whom I would have said, I have nothing–nuffink!–in common. Two somebodies–the Pope and Mitch McConnell. Mercury must be in retrograde.

Then I saw the Heineken commercial, which chronicles an experiment. Two strangers cooperate on a task, putting together an Ikea-style modular bar. Unbeknownst to them, they are paired up because they hold wildly opposing viewpoints on political issues. They learn this after they’ve built the bar, and then they’re given a choice: Walk out, or have a beer together. They find the courage and humility to have that beer and talk to each other.

Division, isolation, and separation make us weak and easily frightened. What struck me this week, though, is how my default mode has become to anticipate differences, to ignore areas of common ground. That is tiring and contrary to my values. I want to live more in the middle of my Venn diagrams, where I’m connected to other people, braver, and more open-hearted.

Have you ever been surprised to find common ground? Relieved to not have to keep your dukes up all the time? To one commenter, I’ll send an audiobook of Thomas, the latest Lonely Lord to hit the audiobook shelves.







The Quiet Game

In Maryland, we can go from nights below freezing, to days in the nineties without much in-between. Some years, the air conditioning comes on in March, and the heat goes off in May. It’s… interesting.

This year, we’re having an extended period of gorgeous weather (meaning more than two days). The nights are chipper but not freezing, the bugs have been slow to come out, the days have been mostly sunny with low humidity.

What I notice, without the heat blasting, the woodstove crackling, or the fans roaring, is the quiet. We’ve all had the experience of the power winking out, and even if we’re sitting in a sunny location, we hear the house go off grid. The ‘fridge sighs, the dishwasher stops, the everything goes silent.

And our first reaction–even before, “The %$#*! power cut out again!” is a sense of relief. Studies show that people who live near chronic sources of noise–heavy traffic, airports, construction sites–will have higher blood pressure, higher levels of stress, and poorer quality sleep than the general population. The news gets worse, because that stress and elevated BP translate into heart disease.

You read that right–living loudly can cost you heart health. Other areas affected are your immune system, learning efficiency, hearing, attention span, birth weight (if your mama is dealing with a noisy gestational environment), propensity for headaches… In other words, noise is not only a nuisance, over time it can hurt us.

I am not good at tuning out sounds. I can ignore visual clutter, stink, most people, and lots of other distractions, but noise sinks my ship of creativity. I think about this when I visit those poor souls trapped in open-plan offices, particularly the exposed-duct-work, warehouse style versions. We’ve had years to study those environments, and yea, though they lower HVAC costs, and delight snoopy, insecure managers, they invariably raise sick leave totals and reduce productivity (this the opposite of team-building, ye managers). I wonder if some of the damage they do isn’t simply a function of having a lot of ambient noise.

Our brains like a good dose of silence, even to the point of finding silence more relaxing than “relaxing” music. Silence helps us integrate memories, and tend to the background brain functions related to figuring out how we fit into the world we live in.

Maybe this is why I like to write about the Regency and Victorian Highlands, and why my contemporaries are almost always rural. Those are quiet times and places, where characters can literally hear themselves think.

Do you treat yourself to regular servings of silence, or are you silence-averse? If you could add some quiet to your day, where and how might you do that? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Duchesses in Disguise, because our hero, Sir Greyville Trenton, is comfortable with silence, and can communicate well while using his handsome mouth to do a lot more than talk.