Playing It Cool

As a kid, I used to love summers. All that freedom, all that wandering in the woods, all that time (when I became a teenager) with my horse, all that reading… Where I grew up in central PA, very few people had air conditioning, and we really didn’t need it. We slept with all the windows open, hearing the crickets and birdies sing, the owls hoot, and the chickens crow…

That was fifty years and two climate zones ago. The freedom from structure that gave summer its sparkly halo is now mine fairly consistently (sweet!). But friends and neighbors, I have had it to the gills with 95F days and high humidity. I do use a window unit air conditioner in my bedroom at night, but other than that, I deal with the weather “organically.” Outdoor activities mostly in the early morning or after dinner. Light clothes and few of them, frequent showers, buckets of cold de-caf iced tea, fans, lights off, and a firm faith that fall will come again.

Riding the noble steed in the heat is hellish, and cooling him out takes a lot longer than the ride itself. Don’t get me started on the flies, skeetos, wasps, ticks, and all my other little buzzing, crawling, flying neighbors and house guests.

My house runs on renewable energy, but I make myself deal with the summer weather by day because I want to be a good global citizen, and other people have much worse climate-related burdens than I do. (Though when you learn that the top earning 5% pf us are creating more than a third of our carbon footprint… kinda frustrating.)

When I woke up yesterday, the thermometer read 55F and I about started doing nip-ups. I’d slept better because it was cool enough to leave the roaring AC unit off. Instead, I could open the windows and hear the cows across the lane munching the tall grass and making happy bovine noises. I’d kept the whole house open to the merry breezes, so when I went downstairs to start morning chores, the air was wonderful.

My daily cup of jasmine green tea was extra delightful because of the cooler air. I could cover up more of me with comfy clothes and for whatever reason, I’m happier that way. The shower is not a mental health coping mechanism saved for right before bed. I can once again contemplate yard work without dread, and–be still my thumpin’ heart–the thirty-day forecast suggests the worst is behind us for the year.

I hadn’t realized how much the crummy weather was stealing my joy and energy. Since the heat broke, I’ve had back to back good writing days, I’m getting Ideas about scrubbing out the fridge, and I want to hire a landscape crew to get after some projects around the property.

It’s like I’m no longer stuck battery-saver mode, just because the temperate dropped out of the 90s. I thought I was doing pretty well dealing with the heat this summer, but now that more reasonable weather is here, I can see the I was losing altitude despite best intentions.

When did you last find yourself in battery-saver mode? What bumps you out of it? I will put two commenters on the ARC list for Yuletide Gems.

PS New cover and lower e-book price for Tremaine’s True Love!

 

 

See the Joy

As I’m preparing to offer a webinar on staying joyous as a writer (wish me luck), my attention is drawn to the larger topic of happiness. I came across this post, about how to make it easier to think happy thoughts. The gist is, make a list of eight things you’d enjoy thinking about, then take some time to think about them.

How hard can that be? Well… for some of us,  it’s not easy. We are habituated to entertaining ourselves with screens rather than with our own cogitations, and our default thoughts might be worry, loneliness, or anger rather than fluffy bunnies or that time we got the giggles with the book club.

When I made my list, I had to ponder some to come up with ideas that were almost exclusively joyous. Bunnies are wonderful, but not if they are spreading tularemia or wrecking the garden,  and yes, that’s how my mind works.

My list included: My daughter, yard flowers, landscaping my stream (naturally, and this one’s aspirational),  Scotland, my next book, San Tome chocolate from the Highland Chocolatier, Dave Brubeck’s Time Further Out Album (and Take Five from Time Out, of course), and horses (especially dear Santa).

Having revved up my good-thoughts engine, I could come up with more (which would include my bloggin’ buddies!), but items five through eight took some pondering. The interesting thing about the cited study is, everybody derived some enjoyment from thinking of their favorite things, so to speak, but people who made the list visible had an easier time staying with the joyous thoughts. I was reminded of last week’s post, about how controlling our environment plays a big role in helping us pursue goals and accomplish tasks.

And my reflections from there go in all directions: The attention merchants of Big Tech (author Tim Wu’s term) win when we lose awareness of that environment and become absorbed in the screen world. Open office plans, with hot-desks, team benches, and other dehumanizing abominations, deprive us of a work environment we can visually influence, much less control. COVID tossed us all back into the one place we do control–our homes–and most workers (especially non-white-male workers) are apparently happier spending more time there.

What we see matters in terms of guiding our thoughts. Many of my writing buddies have an ego wall–a place to keep awards in plain sight, to frame a copy of each published book cover, to display glowing reviews, or a photocopy of that first advance check. I have referred to my home as a roofed campsite, but from my computer chair I can see a sketch my brother did when he was sixteen, the admission ticket to the 2013 Highland Games in Braemar where I first saw Her Majesty, a plastic rubber ducky with the Scottish saltire on his chest, and an inspirational quote from Lorin Oberweger’s Free Expressions writing seminars.

I’m going to make a greater effort to put the joy where I can see it. What joy do you keep in plain sight?

 

Work Easy, Play Often

I came across a post for authors about how to stay motivated, and the central comparison was, “A writing session is like going to spin class. You put it on the schedule, you dread it, you think about bailing, you hate it while it’s happening, but then you feel so good when it’s over. You just need discipline and aggressive commitment to your goals, and your book will get written.”

This kind of thinking maketh me to curse. First, creativity has its own schedule. I could go to court on Thursdays and know which cases were on my docket, but writing a book isn’t like that for most authors I know. Relationships aren’t like that. Tending a home isn’t like that. So much of what’s important in life refuses to yield to linear,assembly line thinking.

Second, I feel like crap after a workout. Mean, resentful, ugly, exhausted crap. Always have, which makes sense to me, and I often feel even worse the next day.

From an evolutionary standpoint, we aren’t meant to sit on our butts for eight hours, then hustle to the gym and impersonate an Olympic hopeful. If longevity and quality of longevity are the goals, we are far better off going for four fifteen minute walks in the middle of our work day, stretching before we get dressed, keeping hand weights where we’ll use them throughout the day, and doing some yard work in the evening.

In other words, the hunter-gatherers had it right. Nobody ever outran a cheetah.

Athletes, I am convinced, simply find joy in the exertion. They do not dread spin class–most days, they love it. My former husband (the ultra-marathoner) was very clear that his long runs–10 to 20 miles–were mood-altering as he was running. When he got home and showered off, he crashed both emotionally and physically.

But more to the point, the people who study will power and high achievement tell us that delayed gratification is a lousy motivator. Folks who can stick to a task over the long term have cracked a couple codes, and neither of them is unrelenting self-discipline. The first code they crack is how to find joy and pleasure in the task itself, how to build in micro-rewards rather than simply, “It feels so good when it stops,” rewards. Sometimes the pleasure is an organic gift–my former spouse loved to run, I love to write. Sometimes lacing in the reward means bundling a joy with a chore, sometimes it means focusing on the happy parts first, last, and most often.

Snitch some dough, arrange the floral centerpiece first, always queue up the playlist before attempting housework. Add the joy at the start and find it along the way, don’t expect yourself to slog away for days or years before you see a payoff.

The second code most highly “motivated” people crack is how to make it easy to go straight to the desired task. They don’t have tremendous willpower, but they are good at structuring the environment–from social relationships, to physical surroundings, to activity sequences–so the path to the task is simple and short. Their phones are set up to let people know, “I’m meditating now. Will get back to you later today!” or, their running shoes and socks are on the floor on the side of the bed they get up on.

They think systemically, and design a strategy that puts the least effort and will power between them and their goals. (They also get enough sleep.)

How do you approach the things you find it hard to do? How did you arrive at that strategy? I’m starting my ARC list for Yuletide Gems, so…

 

Make Good Courage

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives… And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future… To live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

From You Can’t Be Neutral in a Moving Train by Howard Zinn

As a child welfare attorney, I had to learn to find my balance by some means other than cases won or lost. I would advocate zealously for a child to be re-united with a parent, because that was what the child wanted, and the parent had made enormous efforts to address whatever the family’s problems were.

And against all odds the judge would (sometimes) agree with me! The Department of Social Services, the other parent, the meddling relatives were all defeated by my superior lawyering (so I hoped)… and home that child did go, only to witness a murder thirty days later when their custodial parent got involved in a drug deal gone sour.

I got knocked on my emotional backside regularly (as did everybody in the child welfare system, especially the children). Because I never knew when I was winning or losing, I had to find meaning in being as constructive, compassionate, and competent as I could. If my client felt listened to, believed in, supported, and understood, that was a win, and maybe as much benefit to the client as any legal service I could have provided.

Writing commercial fiction has an element of the same challenge. If I make it all about the sales figures… some of the books I am most proud of are losers, and some of the books I just kinda tossed over the transom on a lark (looking at you, Noah and Thea), have become consistent reader favorites. The object of the exercise is not to top all the charts, but rather: Are my readers for the most part happy with the work? Am I proud to have my name on it?

Similarly, in light of current events I have resigned myself to the fact that I will not be appointed to the federal judiciary or elected Chief Poobah in Charge of Fixing Everything, but neither am I powerless or without courage. I ask myself: How can the kind of courage I have now be put to constructive use?

I can be a decent human being, I can vote, I can help the food bank and my local library makes ends meet.

I can also get off my Warp Nine Introverted Duff and help other writers polish their craft and expand their tool kits. My lazy, overwhelmed, scared self would rather sit at home playing cribbage and spider, (and I do play a lot of cribbage and spider), but I also still have contributions to make and candles to light. To that end, when I was recently asked to present at writers’ conference scheduled for Spring 2023, I said yes, because that’s something constructive I can do, a small step toward the light that I can take.

And it felt good, if a little wobbly, to say yes. In these daunting times, what candles are you especially good at lighting? Has anybody helped guard your flame recently?

 

Where Your Treasure Is…

I’ve spent something like 25 years of my life officially wearing the label student (albeit often part-time), but I hated primary school.

I defy you to find a child who can enjoy an educational experience when it’s delivered by an angry nun with a yardstick in her hand, one end of which is stained red–with magic marker I presume– because that’s hilarious to a six year old?

Junior high and high school were a little better, because by then the damage was done. I’d learned that if you behave and get good grades, the authorities mostly leave you in peace, and that is the best outcome you can hope for from adults in power.

Not exactly readin’ ,writin’ and ‘rithematic.

By the time I hit junior high, though, I had also crossed paths with Mrs. Karolyn Louise Miller Rossi. She was tiny–four foot ten–had a booming voice, big hands, and a tremendous affection for young people. She was a first-rate musician, and because she took me on as piano student, I had a lifeline to hold onto from the age of eleven onward. My horse was a lifeline (thank you Mom, and the whole McCarthy family), books were a lifeline.

These joys safeguarded my spirit. They were my passions, and as I sit here half a century later, don’t ask me about the Pythagorean Theorem (something about square roots and a hippopotamus?), though I still know 90 percent of the music theory I learned, as well as the music history. The motor skills have gone, but the love of music is as strong as ever.

I am still riding horses, and when I can no longer ride them, I will doubtless go to the barn for groom-and-graze therapy.

I am still in love with books and the power they have to connect, comfort, and entertain.

As I listen with growing trepidation to the whole debate about what we should teach our kids in school, I’m also wondering about how we teach them. We forget the overwhelming majority of what’s driven into our temporary storage buffers in the classroom, but we don’t forget what got us excited, we don’t forget our passions. I recall my father railing at me as I nom-nommed through an undergrad degree in music history, “But you need real skills in this life! How will you support yourself as a musician?!”

At the time, I was paying all my bills and my tuition playing the piano. I quit piano shortly after that–I wasn’t a competent classical performer–and added a political science degree to my syllabus. I switched from accompanying ballet classes to pay my rent to dipping ice cream in the university creamery and washing glassware in the food science labs.

In the eyes of those around me, my passions–the things that have sustained and defined me for a lifetime– were tolerated little hobbies, side hustles at best.

Why don’t we respect passion, especially the passions of women and children? Why don’t we support them? Why is the periodic table of the elements (I defy to you to list the noble gases) more important than devising your own brownie recipe?

All of which is to say, your passions–Sue’s dogs, Teenie Marie’s music, Tina’s cooking, somebody else’s houseplants or scrapbooks or fridge magnets–all have my respect and appreciation. Thank you for making the world a more interesting and worthwhile place and for persisting in what matters to you.

Who or what safeguarded your spirit growing up, or in recent years? Any regrets or do-overs come to mind on the topic of your passions?

 

 

When You’re Happy and You Show It

One of my favorite lunch spots is a little cafe across the Potomac River in a nearby West Virginia college town. The fare is reliably good and the outdoor patio is shaded and lovely. Think blooming flowers, a stream running through a stone-lined channel, and hand-hewn stone walkways and steps. (And a nice dessert menu is always a plus.)

I met an old friend there for a meal earlier this week, and not two minutes after she’d sat down, our waiter, a serious, substantial, bearded young fellow, spilled a glass of water all over the table. Fortunately, the table was one of those iron mesh, heavy items of furniture that will do structural damage if it’s ever hurled from a trebuchet. We got past that, and the fellow came back around to take our orders.

He didn’t immediately grasp what “half-sweet iced tea,” was. He forgot to offer straws. He wrote out on his little pad–word for word–each item we ordered. This guy was determined to bring to the job every iota of focus and dedication he possessed.

I found him delightful. He was trying so hard, and getting the challenges of a demanding and largely thankless job mostly right. (And yes, I tipped accordingly.)

My friend and I enjoyed our meal, solved the problems of the universe, splurged on ice cream for dessert, and generally had a good chin wag. Our waiter stood patiently by the table waiting to settle up, immediately after passing us the check. Right by the table, eyes front, as if he expected to be called upon to recite Browning’s Incident of the French Camp from memory.

Not long before we left, a couple of our waiter’s friends took a table a few yards across the patio from us. How did we divine that these were his friends? Because when he beheld the occupants of that table, he leaped–went spontaneously airborne–from the top of a flight of stone steps to land flat-footed next to their table. A round of manly-man greetings ensued, as well as some obligatory bro-bro about beer, food, and the upcoming weekend.

That leap was gorgeous, not in a balletic sense (rather the opposite), but for the joie de vivre, spontaneity, and sheer glee it conveyed. I wanted to clap, I wanted to tell him to do it again, I wanted to… well, I’m blogging about it, because that one act of unselfconscious saltation was so wonderful to behold. A small thing, maybe, but for that otherwise serious young man to be so exuberantly glad to see his friends and to show it was enormously human.

Have you encountered spontaneous expressions of joy in your travels? Have you ever felt the inclination to express any? I’ll add three commenters to my Lady Violet Pays a Call ARC list (even though the title is already on sale in the web store).

 

Emotional Support Beast

I have always enjoyed cats. They are pretty, a touch mysterious, lithe, soft, ruthless, and very protective of their young. And they purr–what’s not to like? From earliest childhood, I’ve known the sensation of soft paws landing on the bed in the dark, followed by a deliberate circling and settling in on the covers. When you are a child terrified of the dark, that self-possessed, warm presence feels like the visitation of an angel.

My family knows of my feline inclinations, and thus in the middle of the pandemic, a relative who was also in the middle of a divorce (what fun–NOT) called me. “Can  you take Augustus? I’m really sorry to ask, because he’s not an easy cat, but we can’t come up with a plan for him, given that we’re both moving we know not where, and Gus doesn’t like upheaval.”

Gus is a mature, neutered male cat, but he does not take the neutered part very seriously. He loathes other cats, dogs, alterations of routine, changes of diet, noise, the scary out of doors, and birds who dare flutter past the window. Had he ever met squirrels, rabbits, or mice, he’d probably take dim view of them too.

Gus expresses his frequent displeasure by peeing–on everything. If another cat approaches him, Gus delivers a sound drubbing and then goes on a ram-pee-ge. The walls, the floors, and if he’s vexed beyond all bearing, upholstery. Gus has taught the universe many urinary lessons, and no vet has been able to find a medical cause for this charming behavior.

He’s a beautiful cat to look at–one quarter Siamese, big innocent eyes, lovely brindle and white markings (that’s him in the top photo), and I swear a hair analysis would reveal him to be a male tricolor (virtually impossible). Because he is gorgeous, but also a man of such particulars, he has several failed adoptions on his resume.

The pandemic filled up shelters, and this contrary cat had no good options. “Send him to me. I have some ideas.”

Gus arrived shortly thereafter, looking ready to visit pee-magedon on any who touched him. It took a little while, but he’s now king of the whole upstairs, which he rules in solitary splendor, but for my regular intrusions. He has a litter box in every room, the run of two big permanent-access balconies, five cat towers, and–from me–an embarrassment of affection.  Should any feline fool breach the citadel, Gus sorts ’em out with much noise and batting of paws, and–I think–he delights in doing so.

He hasn’t taken a rage-whiz in ages. A happily ever after for one wee beast. But what about for his personal body guard, chamber maid, chief cook, personal shopper, and chin-scratcher?

In recent days, I’ve found the news upsetting–seems like the news has been upsetting for years now. My usual wind-down routine at the end of the day is to read Golden Age British detective mysteries. Ye gods, the prose… the humor… the world building. But even my cherished Ngaio Marsh series hasn’t been disconnecting me from my worries lately.

Enter Gus. Now that he’s happily in charge of his world, he allows of the occasional frolic, and, lordy, that cat can frolic. If I get out the squeaky-feathers toy at the end of the day, Gus will fly around the bedroom, killing it to death, performing airs above the carpet, and generally being ridiculous.

Five minutes of Feathers, and I have usually laughed out loud, engaged in silly talk with my cat, and become completely absorbed in one variety of fun. If  I do this (and read my storiestoo, of course), I can let the day go much more easily. The cat who couldn’t find a home has made my home a happier place for me.

How are you managing worry and fretfulness these days? Any new coping mechanisms presenting themselves?

PS: Lady Violet Pays a Call is now on sale in print, and from the web store in ebook!

A Kiss by the Sea (for FREE!!!!)

This being beach season in the northern hemisphere, I thought I’d add to your virtual seaside reading list by putting my novella A Kiss by the Sea on free download in the web store. I am too busy right now with Lady Violet  and her friends to get together a fancy cover and do all the formatting and uploading for the retail sites, so have a freebie on her ladyship and me–because who can’t use a little more happily ever after?

If At First You Don’t Succeed

Jane Friedman is a publishing industry pundit who actually deserves the title. She’s been an editor, manager, author, educator, and more, in both traditional and independent publishing contexts, dealing with both fiction and non-fiction. In this week’s newsletter, Jane mentioned the concept of a “bias for survival.”

She borrowed the phrase from a tweet by Ben Orenstein who was cautioning new and aspiring pod-casters to manage to one priority: Make it through the first year. Apparently the overwhelming majority of pod-casters don’t, so his advice was to set up everything with sustainability in mind. Not market share, not monetizing content, not reach, not audience growth. Forget the metrics and spreadsheets, forget the immutable truths and eternal verities. Focus on what you need to do to sustain what you’ve started.

If you can’t stand to deal with Facebook’s ad interface, let it slide. If you have no idea how to use Canva for graphics, don’t drain your battery trying to learn now.

I wish somebody had offered this advice to me as a new author. I was bombarded with admonitions that I HAD to have a website, I HAD to be on social media, I HAD to be on MORE social media, I HAD to give away tens of thousands of free books. I HAD to have critique partners, and I HAD to take every marketing course any young guy who’d written two books had ever put together.

Madness. Fortunately, I was still working the lawyer job full time, and I’d also spent about twenty years single-parenting. At some point, I figured out that what I had to do was write more books. That mattered. The rest might or might not help sell the books, but that ship doesn’t leave port until I load it up with books. And fortunately for me, the writing is the part I enjoy the most, and because I love it, I can keep at it. Lucky me!

I went through the same kind of epiphany when I was working full time and going to law school five nights a week. Half-way through the first semester, I realized that the key to survival–not top grades, not brilliant law review articles, but survival–was getting enough sleep. Before I worried about briefing every case, finding a study group, or reading the whole bibliography, I focused on getting enough sleep.

I lasted the distance, and could support my daughter fairly well as a result, but my critical strategy wasn’t anything I’d found in First Year Law Student Tips and Tricks lists. Those resources tend to be focused on success, but for me, it’s often wiser to focus on sustainability. If this task is important to me, how can I make sure I’m still doing it well and happily a year from now? Five years from now?

Not brilliantly, maybe, but well and happily?

Where have you chosen a bias for survival and sustainability rather than the road to world domination? Is there any advice you wish you had heard earlier in life?Any you’ve heard lately that seems to resonate?

No giveaway this week, but I have put my novella, A Kiss by the Sea, on free download in the web store. This story originally appeared in the Bluestocking Belles anthology, Storm and Shelter, so if you bought that collection, you already have this tale.

 

 

Awe for One

Five of my barn buddies entered a horse show at a venue about an hour from my house. In horse show terms, that’s right next door, so I buzzed on down to the showgrounds and prepared to be a rail bird, rooting for the home team.

A dressage competition consists of riding a set pattern of movements (a test), and you compete with everybody else riding the same test. The tests get harder as you go up the levels, demanding more strength, agility, and complex communication between horse and rider. You can see the kind of stuff the cool (and well funded) kids do on this compilation video.

It’s harder than it looks, for both horse and rider. Getting to the point where you and your equine partner can do the fancy lengthenings, pirouettes, and sideways movements takes years. Sometimes, you think you’ve found the horse who can take you all the way to the top, but the poor beast goes lame or has an accident or, or, or.

I wandered around the show grounds–a venue where I’ve competed, show mom’d, volunteered, and managed shows myself–and felt a sense of nostalgia. I watched people of all ages, from early teens to significantly older than I am, all focused on laying down the best test they were capable of, from beginner to international hopeful levels. The horses were braided and buffed, the riders were in regulation attire, the facility was beautiful.

What came over me was a sense of awe, to be in the presence of that much dedication, that much talent, that much determination and love for horses. The spirit of goodwill among the competitors was palpable as was the support from show management and the judging staff.

I like Wordsworth’s Composed on Westminster Bridge because it conveys some of the sense of what I felt. Old William, an avowed pastoralist, was hustling through London during the brief Peace of Amiens, on his way to France to meet a half-grown daughter he’d never seen.  Crossing the Thames at dawn, his poetic soul got a gut-punch of meaning and beauty from a very unexpected urban quarter.

To ride well, especially in competition,  is physically, emotionally, and mentally challenging, and all around me were athletes who had made significant sacrifices for the chance to trot their stuff around those arenas. I never felt as an equestrian that, “I coulda been a contenda,” but watching those horse and rider teams, I did feel part of a legacy that is in the main good and beautiful. (I can’t say that about all equestrian sports.)

I find value in being at once humbled by something vast and touching, and also exalted to be in its presence. I’m reminded of how amazing life can be and how lucky I’ve been, in so many ways. Those hours at the horse show were good for me, and my riding has been more focused and–I dunno?– reverent for what I experienced there.

Have you encountered any moments of awe lately? Are there any that shine in memory like a gorgeous beacon? I’ll add three commenters to the ARC list for Lady Violet Pays a Call.