When Only Ludwig Will Do

I got stuck this week in a FB argument… the kind of stuck that means long after I’d bowed out of the thread–a discussion of the proposal to make gun owners buy liability insurance–I was still waging a yeah-but battle in my head with a troll who isn’t worth the bother.

I know why this particular moral Venus fly-trap caught me.

I once upon a time represented a kid in foster care court. Little guy was two when he was shot in the chest by his four-year-old sibling. The result was paralysis for the victim from the sternum down. The weapon belonged to an off-duty cop who left it in the unlocked glove compartment of his unlocked cruiser, the safety off, and the gun loaded. Another kid found the gun, and left it in the two-year-old’s home. Mom and Dad were upstairs when this happened, big to-do, investigations all over…

The cop got administrative leave. The child got life in a wheelchair, peeing through a catheter. His family could not afford to make his home wheelchair accessible, his sister became a CNA so her second and third unpaid jobs could be looking after her brother. I can rattle off tons of cases like this, and get myself all worked up over each one of them.

I have all this baggage, I pack it around behind me in a little red wagon of vicarious trauma, inborn advocacy skills, and un-howled outrage. For the most part, I manage pretty well, but occasionally, I lose my balance, and some trog on social media can temporarily hijack my peace. I’m better now, thank you, in part because I went to ride my lesson horse and that guy makes everything better, but also because I focused my imagination on Ludwig Beethoven.

Dear Ludwig was not long on charm, his family was barely respectable. He wanted to study with Mozart, but nope. Then he hoped to study with Haydn–another nope. By the time he was thirty–many nopes later–his hearing was going, and oops–Napoleon was leaving a literal trail of destruction across Europe. Not such a good time to be peddling tunes to the idle rich. Beethoven idolized Napoleon, bought into all that liberty, equality, fraternity stuff… until Napoleon crowned himself Emperor and showed himself to be (among other things) a vainglorious, warmongering, bloodthirsty hypocrite. Who knew?

So there’s Beethoven, scrounging hard for work, deaf, politically disillusioned, no longer able to perform in public, no love life worth a mention, his family either troublesome or not exactly supportive… the guy had a right to cop an attitude, but what does he do? WHAT DOES HE DO?

He writes the Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125. If he had written only the finale to that one work, he’d have added transcendent glory to the human condition, but he also wrote the Appassionata, the Pathetique, the Eroica Symphony (No. 3), the Emperor Concerto, the Fifth Symphony, the Eighth, the Pastoral Symphony, the Seventh… ye gods, ye gods. An entire age worth of artistic glory, from the pen of one cranky, disabled, not very happy guy.

And he did most of this while unable to hear his own creations. Stop and cry about that for a minute. I cannot wrap my mind or my heart around fortitude of that magnitude, I can only be inspired by it.

I get down. I have bad days, I feel overwhelmed, and I need to hide and rest from time to time, but on my worst, worst days, I think of Beethoven. I think of Beethoven–deaf but still writing works of immense beauty for the rest of us to hear–and I know that hope and joy can shine despite all odds to the contrary.

Who or what is your Beethoven? To one commenter, I will send a $50 Amazon e-gift card.

 

Five Deadly Sins

Last week, I was pondering how I move forward, particularly through big changes. I’m a slow and steady type when it comes to transitions. I suspect this is a lingering “potato famine” outlook that’s partly family culture (both parents grew up during the Depression), and partly my nature. I have done some really stupid things in my life because I threw caution to the wind, relied on dodgy characters, or otherwise shut down my warning systems. So I’m more cautious now, I hope.

I have also come up with a few Shoulder Angel Commandments as I’ve walked the author walk. These come under the category “advice to myself,” which I haven’t always taken. The first one ought to be obvious: Never criticize another author’s work in any venue that could possibly, possibly become public. That means I don’t review another romance author’s novels, don’t comment on them on Goodreads threads, don’t join the kaffeeklatsches that can arise at conferences. Firstly, I haven’t time read everybody else’s books (and commenting on a book without having read it is a no-no for me). Secondly, my opinions would not be, or be viewed as, disinterested, so why go there?

Another rule of thumb for me is to trust my gut when it comes to my stories. Editors are trying to craft a book into the most commercially appealing product it can be, in hopes that approach will sell the most copies. I disagree with that philosophy (politely, I hope). My approach is to create stories that are the highest possible quality and the most authentic to my brand. I figure if I start trying to pump extra humor into my stories (humor sells!) or up the action level (action sells!), I might find a few new readers, but I will lose old friends, who love the kinds of stories I can write from the heart, without contortions intended to appeal to a shifting market.

Another well worn chestnut is: Rejoice with those who succeed, commiserate with those who struggle. In other words: Don’t compare. Writing is such a peculiar business, with mediocrities hitting the big time, and geniuses toiling in obscurity. To get too attached to outcomes, (beyond can I please pay my bills?) is the road to misery.  This is unlike lawyering, by the way, where the most highly skilled lawyer usually–given reasonable facts and a sane judge–wins. It’s unlike music, where the most skilled musician usually gets the gig. It’s more like health–where you do the best you can, and genetics, chance, bad luck, and environmental factors that arose twenty years before you moved to town, can all affect your fate.

Which brings me to my writerly prime directive: Stay focused on the work. Write the books. Write the best books I can. Write another best book I can, and another. Ignore to the extent possible the industry gossip, the reviews, the who got a bigger advance, the who topped the charts, the who is having a flame war on social media. Readers pay me to write books, and I love to do that, so I write the books. Networking, promotion, my cyber footprint, my social capital…none of that supposedly necessary stuff gets any of my attention until after I’ve done my allotted writing (and often not even then).

Has your chosen path resulted in some Shoulder Angel Commandments? How did you come up with them? Do you ever ignore your own advice? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amazon e-gift card.

In Transition

There I was, in the Portland Airport stocking up on healthy (chocolate) snacks for my red-eye flight back to DC. Late on a Saturday night, the concourse wasn’t exactly humming with activity. The lady who rang me up was friendly, and asked about where I was headed and how my time in Oregon had gone. Because nobody else was in the shop, I asked her, “So how are things going with you?”

Writers do this. We invite complete strangers to confide in us.

She looked at me like, “I’m going to answer honestly even if you were only being polite,” and told me she and her hubby had just made the decision to buy land near a town up along the Columbia River gorge. She was a-quiver with both joy and anxiety, because this step involved leaving a happy situation for a potentially happier one–some loss, but also many dreams germinating. I Do Not Sleep on Airplanes, so I had a lot of time to consider this little exchange.

I thought about life transitions, and how I tend go about them. I’m struck by how SLOWLY I make most changes. It took me three years to get free of the practice of law after it became clear my services were no longer needed by the State of Maryland. When my former spouse proposed, we had a year-long engagement…. just because. When I started writing novels, it was–again–years between “I’ve written a book!”and “Maybe I could get this thing published?”

My style with a big change is cautious and noncommittal, which contrasts with my oldest sister’s approach. Once that lady makes up her mind, STAND BACK. She focuses on what has to be done to get from point A to point B, and knocks out that list boom-boom-boom. I have the same list, but I’ll take care of one or two items at a time while sticking to my general routine.

This topic is likely on my mind because several family members have lately asked, “When are you going to get the heck out of Maryland?” My daughter left thirteen years ago and has come back three times (once to look at a sale horses). I no longer practice law such that admission to the bar matters, I can write books anywhere. What is keeping me here, where I have no family, no job ties, and my house is approaching the money pit stage?

I will continue to visit Oregon (and the Portland Rose Test Garden), trying to hit every season as I do, and nosing around for areas where I feel at home. I will continue to whittle away at my property’s feral cat challenge, and I will continue to debride my house of the stuff that magically accumulates after three decades in the same location. But I’m probably not going anywhere soon. Probably.

How do you change course? How do you know a major change is coming up, and have you ever pulled one off particularly well (or not well)? To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of the RITA-award winning Duke in the Night by writin’ buddy and all around lovely person Kelly Bowen.

All Together Now

Every few years, my extended family gets together for a reunion. The past two or three reunions were held in San Diego, so that my parents could participate without traveling. Mom and Dad are both gone now, so when the momentum began to rise for another reunion, we considered a lot of different locations.

My brother Tom has been the organizing force for our gatherings, and about a year ago he started up the dialogue: Where should we meet? Jackson, Wyoming? Banff, Canada? I am the only family member living “back East,” so getting together someplace in the west made sense. We eventually settled on the Oregon coast—new territory for all of us.

Then comes the discussion of who will bunk with whom, who can carpool from the airport. Closer to the reunion we start planning Big Events. This year, a bunch of us went out on a fishing boat. Another group did a five-mile hike. One brother put on breakfast for the whole tribe, a sister sprang for a pizza night. Working out these logistics adds more fun to the anticipation.

When we get together, it’s a chance for a lot of the young people to put names with faces, and faces with tall tales. (I am famous for that time when, at aged five, I decided I needed to know how much my head weighed. Picture seven people trying to get out of the house in the morning rush, one bathroom, and me locked in there with a bathroom scale and a hand mirror. Thank heavens for mothers who know how to pick a lock with a bobby pin.)

Over a few slices of pizza, I found myself explaining to my brother’s almost-grown children that our dad never attended any of bro’s Little League games—not ever. Didn’t know what position my brother played, never attended practices. Same Dad did not attend high school or college graduations for his younger children, never came to a piano recital of mine. I passed along this information not to slam my dear old dad (who was a fine parent in many ways), but because my niece and nephew have a very involved father—maybe too involved?—and not enough context about why that is.

I approached this reunion a little grudgingly. I love my family dearly, but I do not love transcontinental flights, I do not love losing my writing momentum, I do not love big gangs of people—not even big gangs of people I care for very much. I’m intimidated by the logistics of driving around unfamiliar terrain, I’m always nervous about spending money on travel.

But I am so GLAD I went, so grateful these kind, interesting, busy people all took time out of their schedules to spend a few days with me. These reunions are the primary way we maintain a family identity, and the only way I see many of my nieces and nephews, much less my siblings and their spouses. So I left the reunion already looking forward to the next one, which is a wonderful compliment to my family.

How do you maintain the ties that bind? Is there anybody you’d like to get together with more often? Any gatherings that have out-lived their usefulness? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed ARC of Forever and a Duke.

Hot Times!

So we’re having a heat wave in Maryland, with heat indexes nudging over 120F in Baltimore. We rarely go a summer without some triple digit days, so this is not all that unheard of, but it is uncomfortable. I rode my lesson horse on Thursday morning, got off, and realized I had exceeded my heat tolerance.

I know what to do when that happens, so I did it–sponge baths, cool clothes, AC, lots and lots of room temperature water in steady sips rather than chug-a-lugs–and respect for the residual fatigue. As I sat right in front of my fan that evening, revising a scene, I was aware of how much pleasure and contentment I got out of the very simplest comforts.

A breeze. Cool water. Soft, lightweight play clothes… when the night cooled off enough I turned off the AC and fans, and oh… the quiet. The absolute, lovely, calm quiet (and the symphony of cicadas, crickets, and other bugs enjoying the quiet with me). Early Friday morning I raided my yard for those high summer favorites, dahlias and gladiolus. They are so bright and cheery, and if it’s too hot to go outside, I can bring some outside into my kitchen.

Winter has the same effect, of elevating mundane comforts to the sublime–warmth becomes precious. A cup of hot tea a benediction. A soft woven scarf becomes the most prized accessory. A shoveled walk is a thing of beauty and safety. A  calm, sunny day is a reason to rejoice, even if it is frigid.

A heat wave is a bad thing. It causes suffering and even death, but in my case, it also caused me to stop running around, to sit quietly and be glad I had the privilege of indulging my limitations. For much of my life, I have been a soldier-on-no-matter-what single working mom, and that is no way to get through a heat wave or a cold snap.

What stops you from excessive busyness? Illness? Weather? Migraines? Family? Is there a time of year when you are more likely to overdo or slow down? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed ARC of Forever and a Duke!

What I Learned at Summer Camp

Once upon a time, I decided to get a master’s degree in conflict transformation from Eastern Mennonite University. The work is meaningful and there’s plenty of it, so why not? I ended up in a cohort of about 25 students, only three of us from North America, and that in itself was an education.

One of the classes I had to take was a graduate seminar on The Literature of Conflict Transformation. Sounds dull! Litty-chure and I are not on the best of terms–where’s the happily ever after?–and the reading list was several dozen hefty titles. To chomp through it, we would have been reading a big book every three days or so.

The prof had other ideas.

He told us we should at some point read the whole list, but he asked each one of us to choose three books we wanted to report on to the whole class. Each week we would cover three or four books in a two-hour round-table discussion. The professor himself took three of the larger texts and handled the first week’s presentations. (EMU’s conflict program does not hold with the notion of professorial deification, one of its many outstanding qualities.) We divvied up the rest of the list so everybody got at least one “first choice,” and everybody got at least one doorstop.

Then the fun began. The entire class was composed of people who either had experience or aspired to become experienced, at handling difficult conversations. These were world class listeners, with big hearts, great humor, tons of creativity, and tremendous passion for their causes. The Muslim professor and the Hindu social worker debated the further use of non-violent protest in India. The Palestinian Christian raised in the camps and the Israeli journalist debated the road to peace in the Middle East. The middle-aged pastor and the twenty-something prison reformer went after stabilizing post-war societies…

If ever voices should have been raised and angry words flung, these were the topics likely to provoke that behavior.

It never happened. With thirteen other people intent on keeping all exchanges constructive and civil, any two students in the class could tackle a tough topic and know the backup team would dive in to correct over-steering. This wasn’t tone policing, it was re-framing, storytelling, personal sharing, and questioning in such a way that nobody was disrespected, and no topic was off limits. We laughed a lot, we cried some, we sat in silence from time to time. We learned lessons more precious than I can convey, and–oh, by the way–we familiarized ourselves with the conflict transformation canon as it existed at the time.

Nobody wanted the class to end.

Scott Peck, of ye old The Road Less Traveled fame, would say we stumbled upon an experience of true community, and he’d be right. The professor was brilliant, the class was brilliant, and we are ALL brilliant, given the right support and healthy processes through which to express ourselves.

Was there ever a class, a book group, a church retreat, a lunch bunch that you didn’t want to end? What made it special? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 gift e-card.

 

On My Dignity

I recently read an interview with activist Alicia Garza, and she was asked what freedom looks like for her as a member of a minority in America. In her response, she used the word “dignity” over and over. For her, a future of freedom for all of us is a future where we are each entitled to personal dignity. That resonated with me.

When I read Garza’s comments emphasizing dignity, I realized that’s part of what’s often lost for me in environments like Facebook, where a snarky meme invites snarky comments, and snarky comments degenerate into insults, and then the really vicious trolling starts.

Psychologist John Gottman, Ph.D, has developed a protocol for assessing which marriages are likely to end in divorce, and his predictions are 94 percent accurate–after observing most couples for as little as an hour. The one characteristic that spouses headed for the skids will evidence–without fail–is that they attack each other’s dignity. Name-calling, insults, mockery, mimicking, cold shoulders, indifference to suffering… once these get into the marital water supply, the results are almost always deadly for the relationship.

I am worried that these same signs of disrespect are in our social water supply, and they are wreaking the same havoc, but a survey conducted to assess the state of civility in the US finds that 93 percent of us think we have an incivility problem. But for a small minority, we ALL don’t want this contempt and sniping to go on, we recognize that it’s dangerously unhealthy.

What can I do to make sure I’m part of upholding civility rather than destroying it?

I’m thinking about that, and while I ponder the answers, I’m making a personal commitment to stay alert for what’s disrespectful and what insults somebody’s dignity. No more piling on the snarky-funny meme comments, no more going lawyer-Grace-of-doom on some thread. In the words of one my former judges, I will disagree without being disagreeable. I need to watch it, lest I fall prey to the temptation to indulge in the acerbic, belittling, argument that is the very thing I loathe.

Nobody ever changes anybody’s mind with those tactics anyway, and my priority should be to contribute to the solution of shared problems, not to get the most likes. Geesh.

What I like about focusing on dignity is that I think most of the people I disagree with, no matter where they come down on the issues, would concur that they want to be treated with dignity too. We can agree on that, and from there, we can respectfully explore what else we might agree on, or why we disagree on how to solve various problems. But if we come out swinging, we both lose, and the problems only grow worse.

How do you hold the line against incivility? How do you keep that shoulder devil from getting you into trouble? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed print ARC of Forever and a Duke.

 

 

I’m FINE…

I have had a wonderful spring, and I do mean wonderful. In April, When a Duchess Says I Do launched quite nicely. I wasn’t sure how Duncan’s understated charm or Matilda’s damsel-in-check would go over with the readers, but no worries! In May, I published A Lady of True Distinction, another duke-free HEA that the readers seem to be enjoying. This month, Theresa Romain and I teamed up for the novella duet, How to Ruin a Duke, and it’s off to a great start.

But wait, there’s more! I was privileged to attend the 2019 Festival du Roman Feminim in Paris at the end of May. I added a couple days onto the front of that trip for jet lag, a couple onto the back because PARIS, and had a great time.

On June 8, about a week after I got home, I joined the Virginia Romance Writers in Richmond to give the keynote speech at their annual award luncheon–what fun!–and then it was on to the Historical Novelists Society of North American for their annual… oops.

Wait a minute. I got it into my head that the HNS meeting was the weekend of June 15-16, but it was actually the weekend of June 22-23. When on Thursday of the wrong, earlier week, I woke up and realized I did not have to tool down the interstate to play in DC’s beltway traffic, did not have to rush off to impersonate an extrovert again, did not EVEN have to put on my comfy-but-professional conference get ups… I about cried.

I was SO relieved to have a weekend at home with my cats. I slept in, I wrote stuff, I wore my play clothes, I might even have done some housework, (but let’s not get carried away). I thought I was having a good time, hitting my wickets, balancing travel and home, work and leisure, but I was way off.

I have known for maybe ten years that I’m not as physically resilient as I once was, but with less difference between my peak performance and my valley performance, it’s easier to convince myself, “I’m fine” when in fact, I’m bushed. I’m knackered and I need solitude, rest, and unstructured time to get back on track.

I think some of the reason I overshot my capacity is because I am not working a day job anymore. I still put in long hours, but I’m at home, and that doesn’t “feel” as much like exertion–but it is, especially mentally. Another factor is that I’m no longer plagued by a menstrual cycle (thanks be to the Almighty Powers for that). When I was younger, I had to keep an eye on the calendar and plan, however subconsciously, for bodily realities. Now, I tend to hydroplane when it comes to monitoring my mood and energy.

So I’m looking around for different trail signs than the ones I used to rely on to tell me when I’m approaching my activity limits. One is that the house gets unkempt. I’m no kinda housekeeper, but when my schedule is relaxed and I have enough energy, I do tidy up the nest. Another is my joie de plume. If I’m eager to open up the Work in Progress, I’m probably in a good place.

If I’m mixing up my dates, going for weeks without downtime, that’s probably not such a good idea. How do you tell when you’re approaching overload? To one commenter, I’ll send a print ARC of Forever and a Duke!

 

A New Broom Sweeps Quietly

I am still toting around my iPhone 8, and I’ve dodged several op system updates since I bought it. It handles phone calls and texts, I can surf with it in an emergency. It tells time. That’s all I need it to do (and I’m thinking of getting a mechanical watch). I consider most apps spyware and religiously avoid them.

I consider myself a closet Luddite. I’ve reached the age where most change has gone from bothersome to burdensome. Then I came across this post from Ozan Varol, who is a smarty-pants kinda guy (think astrophysicist goes to law school). He and his family still order DVDs through Netflix–the kind of DVDs that come in the mail. They found they enjoyed the movies more if they had to search and surf for which one to order (none of this also-bought baloney stealing all the rabbit-hole fun from the process), wait for it to arrive, and unwrap it from its packaging.

The “convenience” of having their choices limited by algorithms, and the “efficiency” of instant gratification stole a lot of the joy from the process. Reading that, I was reminded of something one of my daughter’s friends observed: Innovation is often next to useless, but it’s marketed so effectively, that we come to believe it’s necessary. The broom, for instance, worked nearly as well as the vacuum cleaner, was much quieter, lighter, cheaper, and had a smaller carbon footprint.

The vacuum cleaner offered a slight improvement in cleaning result, and maybe it saved time, but it cost us quiet and did some environmental damage. Computer technology advancements now seem to mostly consist of shaving another few ounces off the machine’s weight, and making it “faster.” As if finding 250,000 hits in a quarter second is a big deal compared to finding them in half a second, and as if I lack the strength to tote around four extra ounces of hardware.

Is popping something into the microwave really a better way to prepare a meal than “by hand,” with friends or family pitching, while good smells fill the kitchen and everybody’s mouth waters? Where does the saved time go when we nuke a pre-made veggie bowl? To reading the kiddos a bedtime story, or to spending another half hour at the office?

The point of this semi-rant: I know a lot of people who must have an e-reader’s expandable type if they are to continue to enjoy books. Innovation can be great. But few innovations are all good, and sometimes the

Compact edition of Oxford English Dictionary–sold with magnifying glass.

losses associated with updated technology–privacy, quiet, breadth of choice, the joy of anticipation, good kitchen smells–are ignored as the benefits are foghorned at high decibels.

Is there a part of life where you refuse to innovate, where you still do it the old-fashioned way at least some of the time? What benefit do you get from that decision? I feel as if I ought to send a broom to one commenter, but with a $50 e-gift card, somebody can buy a broom and order some DVD’s through the mail.

 

A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Change

I’m pondering stories for the remaining Dorning brothers, and as usual, getting my hands on the external conflict–the real, interesting, substantial force pushing the couple apart–is a challenge for me. I know whatever that force is, it has to embody the worst fears for the characters involved. The characters will have to face the one choice they’ve promised themselves they will never, ever consider.

In other words, the external conflict demands that the characters change if they are to earn their happily ever after, and usually the change required is a change of heart. Darius Lindsey had to break away from his father’s view of him as a largely failed, worthless, powerless man. To cite a more recent book, Quinn Wentworth had to learn that love is a force more powerful than money.

In every case, at the start of the book, our hero or heroine has very good reasons for believing as they do. They have evidence–a lifetime and a whole society’s worth of eyewitness evidence–which they then spend years confirming, with the selective zeal of the confirmation bias. (We notice what confirms our beliefs, we ignore or invalidate whatever conflicts with our beliefs.)

If changing a mind (or a heart) was as easy as confronting that mind with facts, then the loyalty of Darius’s staff, the regard of his siblings, his success as an estate manager, should have fixed his little self-esteem problem by page 3. Same for Quinn–his siblings stuck with him though every hardship, Duncan taught him to read out of simple kindness, and Quinn himself cannot be bought off lest his family be ashamed of him. He should have figured out that money isn’t as big a deal as love.

But nope.

If my characters are to re-open a painful question that they’ve firmly settled in their minds–settled for very good reasons–somebody has to come along who can say, “I know you well enough to understand why you think the way you do–you are plenty smart and I respect that. Your conclusions made sense at the time, but here are some reasons why a different decision would be an improvement now.” (And in a romance, one of those reasons will be, “No HEA unless you reverse engines.”)

So instead of asking about what pushes my characters apart, maybe I need to ask what long-held (mistaken) belief they will be able to give up, if somebody convinces them they are lovable despite all their mistakes and wrong turns. (Valerian Dorning, Emily Pepper, I’m looking at you.)

Even writing that sentence, I’m hesitant to ask the same question of myself: What long-held (mistaken) belief would I be able to give up…? Changing my mind–changing me–is a scary prospect, one that involves admission of mistakes and regrets, but one that also holds out the hope of more joy, freedom, truth, and love.

Has anybody changed your mind or your self-image? Is there a shift in perspective trying to nudge its way into your awareness? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 e-card.