To billion or not to billion…

I should know better… I am on social media mostly to hang out with my readers. My family isn’t there, I’m not much of a group joiner, I certainly don’t need social media to acquaint me with the news…. but there I was, scrolling along on FB, and I saw a meme along the lines of: I am so glad I wasted my time learning about parallelograms, though it sure would be nice if I knew how to do my taxes instead.

I about sploded, because that kind of “joke” is so wrong on so many levels. It subtly bashes public education, which is one way to make me start snorting and pawing, and it more specifically bashes general education–subjects you ought to study at a basic level simply to be a well-rounded thinker.

And the meme is wrong. The data we have says that people who take more high school math–Algebra II, trig, calculus (all of which come after dear old geometry), tend to be BETTER at applied math (doing taxes, managing a check book), than the people who enroll in consumer math, life skills, or other applied courses. The basic general education stands you in better stead than the “practical” education.

But the larger issue for me is, “What am I doing on Facebook in the first place?” Authors who maintain a social media presence supposedly sell more books, directly or otherwise, than authors who avoid social media. Selling books has become a necessity for me, as royalties are now my only income.

And yet, my prime directive is, “Be kind; tell the truth.” Facebook takes huge sums of money (from any and everybody, few questions asked) to propagate what it knows are lies, and–worse, from my perspective–celebrates this behavior by calling it, “Standing up for free speech.” Newsflash, Mr. Zuckerbucks: The first amendment does not protect lies. The Supreme Court is REAL clear about that. You aren’t standing up for anything except the next $1 billion added to the $85 billion you already have.

And I’m helping him make that next billion. Is he helping me sell books?

Does that even matter? I lean increasingly toward no, selling a few books  more or less does not matter, when measured against the great harm resulting from handing a huge megaphone to falsehoods favoring those with ad money. Be kind, tell the truth, and don’t lend any traction to people who ditch the truth for the next $1 billion in personal net worth.

Or am I being impractical and self-sabotaging? How do you reconcile yourself to social media–or do you? And in happier news, A Woman of True Honor goes on sale at the major retail platforms on Tuesday. (You can already snag a copy from the web store or in print.)

 

The Economics of Oggly

I spent much of my corporate life in cubicles, thinking that was just how offices were supposed to look. Then came the great day when I opened up my own law practice.

I went a little bananas. My new office was in the former county library building, and had the strange dimensions to show for it. I not only had custom curtains made, but I also paid for matching carpet, and painted the walls and wainscoting my own un-crafty self. I ended up with a seafoam, white, and pink color scheme, complete with throw pillows to match the cabbage roses on the upholstered wing chairs, and a pink cushion for my rocking chair.

Take that, corporate Murika! I bought silk flowers for the hearth, filled a basket with stuffed animals, and put an actual green plant (that was still thriving twenty years on) in the window. I hung decorative quilts on the walls along with a six-foot-wide paper fan of a Japanese tiger. I even commissioned a small stained glass window for the transom space–three doves, because doves symbolize peace.

The sheer delight I took in my workspace was shocking to me, because I’m no Martha Stewart. I figured as a self-employed attorney, how I kitted out the work place would say a lot about the extent to which I valued my work and my clients. Then too, my clients–all of whom were dealing with some sort of trauma–deserved at least comfy chairs and a few cheerful colors when they came to see me.

And lo and behold, as far back as the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow (meaning SEVENTY YEARS ago), we have studies to prove that pretty makes us happier with the tasks we’re performing, more upbeat generally, and better able to stick to the job. Ugly makes us cranky, easily distracted, and whiny.

The economic impacts of that finding are profound. Think of all the boring offices you’ve worked in, all the drab waiting rooms you’ve endured, all the classrooms that nearly put you to sleep because they were so blah. Think of the public housing developments and underfunded schools… The entire neighborhoods that haven’t so much as a pot of flowers growing on a street corner.

We regard beauty as an extra, an indulgence, a frolic, but the research says otherwise: It’s an essential nutrient for contentment and productivity.

My take-away from this topic will be to make an affirmative gesture in support of those who create beauty, but I’m also curious: Where is the greatest beauty in your life? If you had unlimited resources, where would you add to the beauty in your community?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 e-gift card for 1800-FLOWERS. (And while you’re here on the website, please recall that A Lady of True Honor is already available on the web store, and the Deals page has been updated for February.)

 

Of PBJs and HEAs…

In April, I’m supposed to present a talk to a bunch of writers about sustaining creativity.

So I’m reading, reading, reading about the challenges of sustaining creativity, and I came across My Creative Space, by architect Donald M. Rattner. The subtitle is, “How to Design Your Home to Stimulate Ideas and Spark Innovation.” One of the first premises Rattner proposes is: If your work requires creativity, then you should set up a dedicated place where that creativity routinely happens.

His point is that our minds build associations even in the absence of any causal relationship. When we suffer insomnia, one of the first pieces of advice handed out is: Don’t do anything in that bed but sleep (unless you are fortunate enough to have a lover, of course). Don’t watch the telly when you’re in bed, don’t scroll through texts, don’t read 1000-page biographies (looking at you, Grace Ann). Ditch the devices and train your brain to believe that the only thing that happens in that bed is sleep.

My house, a log farmhouse with a kitchen and bathroom added in the 1950s, was not built to be a creative residence. The intention was to make spaces for sleeping, socializing (I socialize with my tread desk in the living room), preparing and consuming food, and (now) tending to personal hygiene. That’s it. No sewing room, no play room. No game room, no library, no study, no Florida room.

I write at my kitchen table, and because it’s a small table, and my computer sits up on a special riser (thanks Graham!), I end up munching through breakfast, lunch, and dinner where I work. Or I eat standing up in the kitchen, or–in nice weather–I sit out on the porch steps to eat. I pay the bills where I work. I play cribbage where I work.

I am guessing, if I want to write another 55 novels, then I had best re-think this camping-in-the-kitchen approach to my writing space. The mind functions best with  definite on-work and off-work settings, and in my current situation I’m having recess in the biology lab and trying to study math in the gym.

I can make better use of the place where I’ve been living for thirty years. I can segregate functions, and do a better job of priming my brain to be creative here, enjoy a PBJ there, and nosh on a biography over there. More than that, I’m thinking about how I’d design my ideal space. For sure it would have a lot more natural light than my house has, it would have a desk and a kitchen table (what a concept), and it would have a cozy little nook for reading the books I love so dearly.

Do your spaces–work and home, especially–function the way you need them to, or are you making do and compromising? If you could change one thing about the place where you live or work, what would it be?

To three comenters, I’ll send advanced reader e-copies of A Woman of True Honor, and those files will starting going out early this week!

 

 

Walking the Talk

Nothing says, “Cat Toy!!!” like a bit of plastic with some string attached and a shiny glint or two of metal thrown in for good measure. Thus when the nice customer service people told me yesterday that my Tread Desk had flat-lined because the safety key was missing, I knew exactly which species to blame.  Clearly, the folks who designed that tread desk live in blessed ignorance of feline curiosity.

Well, no matter. I ordered two replacement keys and resigned myself to a sedentary day. The sky was pouring buckets of rain, and I had buckets of work to do. But one day of sitting on my rosy fundament is one day too many. My C-reactive-protein score is Not Good, and a surefire way to make it worse is to lard about on my behonkis in a blissful fog of authorial busyness.

Besides, I like being outside. The sky and the trees and the birdies, the fresh air and sunshine… they are good for me. I’m always telling everybody to go outside and play. Get your kids and your elders outside. Be one with the natural world, says me. It’s the walking part I’m not too keen on, but one little heart attack will ruin my whole writing schedule, so today I sneakered-up and out the door I went.

What I noticed first was the usual misery I associate with exercise–clammy sweat, labored breathing. an aching back, and the ghastly torment of sports induced histamine response (subcutaneous itching of the feet and legs).

After grumbling along for a while, I did notice positive aspects of the experience. Because we got a deluge last night, the cool air was humid. My skin loved that. We’re at a time of year when late day sunshine is gorgeous. I was pretty happy about that. I heard the rushing water draining into the culverts and streams, and that’s lovely music. I heard a few little birdie-tweets, and I am fiercely glad to hear that any time. I introduced myself to two cats I hadn’t met before–always nice to make new friends–and said hi to the neighbor’s kids.

I got my 10,000 steps in, and I’m glad I did. But I will also be glad when that replacement safety key shows up. My characters are always running around outside, taking tea in the garden, or going for a horseback ride. When I had less of a choice about how and when I spent the time outside, seeing the positives was an effort.  Note to self: More than being outside, I want to decide when and how I spend my time there.

Have you ever been on the receiving end of your own advice? Ever had to walk the talk and changed your tune? Is there advice you no longer hand out that your younger self was happy to share? I will add three commenters to my ARC list for A Woman of True Honor. The files should be ready to send in a week or so!

 

 

Interleaving on a Jet Plane

This might be the darkest time of year, but I am positively romping through my TBR pile. Death at Brighton Pavilion by Ashley Granger (treated myself!), The Punishment She Deserves (present from a buddy), Life Undercover (ain’t Christmas wonderful?), and… Range–Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by Daniel Epstein.

In Range, one question Epstein explores is whether we learn more when we cram on one topic (or one type of problem), or when we nosh around, take breaks, mix it up, and combine topics. On the micro-level, do we learn geometry more effectively if we focus exclusively on right triangles, then on parallelograms? Or should we mash them up, avoiding the drill-drill-drill approach?

My intuitive answer was, “It depends on the learner and the topic.” Turns out, I’m mostly wrong. There are doubtless some limited areas that benefit from a drill-drill–drill approach, but what those clever educational research types figured out was, we acquire new skills and information more slowly when we’re rotating through different kinds of material and taking breaks, and that can feel less satisfying at the time, but we’re acquiring another skill that is tremendously valuable.

When we interleave topics or sub-categories within a subject, we learn to figure out what kind of problem has come up in the rotation. We learn to spot, “Oh, this a right triangle with a missing hypotenuse problem,” versus, “This is a rhombus, which means a square AND a right triangle…” When we avoid focusing narrowly on one skill at at time, we learn to approach problems and challenges with our analytical Klieg lights on. When we hammer stoutly on the same material until we can recite it by heart, we barely keep the analytical parking lights burning. This is part of the explanation for why people who take consumer math in high school (or life skills), tend to be less able to crank through a tax return than people who took Algebra II. The consumer math class presented the material on a platter, clearly identified as “Tax Returns 101,” while the algebra student ferrets out the method with skills honed through a lot of general ferreting with numbers.

Women are, in my humble, primed by experience to be good problem analyzers, because we are virtuoso interleavers (says me). We bounce all day between roles as spouses, children, friends, household managers, parents, supervisors, coworkers, neighbors, congregants, professional experts, and more. Most of us are probably called upon hourly to solve some sort of problem, and we have learned, instinctively, to ask: What is the real issue here?

We don’t assume it’s a project budget problem because it comes up at a project budget meeting, for example. We keep an eye out for the professional jealousy issue masquerading as a budget problem, or the interdepartmental politics parading around as the new training program. For us, life is an obstacle course, not the 220 low hurdles, and we are more nimble and faster over uneven terrain as a result.

And this is ironic, because the very factors that tend to hold women back professionally–interrupting a career for the sake of child-rearing, sacrificing advancement (moving) to accommodate a spouse’s career trajectory, taking on elder care management in the face of workaholic office cultures–means that in all spheres we are likely to be better at analyzing problems and thus, solving them, while we are penalized for the very variety of life roles that characterizes much of our gender.

My hope is that as gender roles become more equitable and fluid, the problem-solving edge that women enjoy–by virtue of wearing many hats in the course of a day, and in the course of a working life–will be more appreciated, and we’ll all be better off as a result. What’s your take? Is there a gender-advantage when it comes to problem-solving in your experience? Do you prefer to drill a skill or nosh away at new material. I’ll add the names of three commenters, to my e-ARC list for a A Woman of True Honor (comes out Feb. 8 from the web store, Feb. 18 on the major retailers).

 

In Bleak Mid-Winter

In the northern hemisphere, we’re dealing with the coldest month of the year. Yes, the days are getting longer, but not by much–not yet. The holidays are behind us, and spring is weeks or months away.

If emotional burdens also pile up at this time of year, for me they land with double weight, and that prompts me to think about Big Black Moments. In every romance novel, and in most genre fiction generally, there comes a point in the tale when all is lost. The lovers cannot be together on happily ever after terms, the villain is inexorably on track to win, and we will never figure out who stole the Hope Diamond.

Then somebody has an insight, a new clue comes to light, the protags finally out-clever the villain, and a renewed push to the emotionally satisfying conclusion is possible.

All very tidy and satisfying, but in my life, no mastermind has ever attempted to sabotage my quest to retrieve a valuable diamond. When I fell in love (as best I can recall), my romantic aspirations were not thwarted by my beloved’s competing allegiance to my intergalactic enemy, nor were any secret babies or sham marriages involved.

And yet, there have been big black moments. Early on along the path of single parenting, I was frequently overwhelmed and despairing, in part because that kid was NEVER going to grow up. When Darling Child was school age, matters did not improve much because I was chronically broke, exhausted (see thyroid disease rants), and utterly alone with my fears and challenges. My nearest relative was 600 miles away, I lived way out in the country (where the cheap houses are), and the effort of making a living and raising a child meant I had little energy for even something as mundane as a book club.

What grinds me down, and what I think can daunt anybody, are problems that hit a trifecta of misery: You are alone with your burden, it appears to have no end, and the suffering feels meaningless. Any one of these qualities can make pain particularly ugly, but put all three of them together, and my courage, stamina, and optimism quickly deflate.

Fortunately, I am far enough along on my diamond hunt that I know how important it is to find the people who love me, and I am better about fostering hope and taking a long A Woman of True Honor by Grace Burrowesview. So I’m thinking about my big black moments from a different perspective: The all hope is lost version works well enough for a heroic quest, but what about a heroine’s quest? Maybe there’s a different version of despair for those us not as defined by external goal-oriented quests that make great Hollywood scripts. A version of despair that will resonate just as effectively for readers, and even be a little more credible.

The best black moment is surely a topic for mid-winter rumination. When have you or somebody you care about been brought lower than low; what contributed to the downward slide? How did you climb out of the ditch? I’ll put the names of three commenters on the list to receive an e-ARC of A Woman of True Honor (comes out Feb. 7 in the web store, Feb 18 on the major platforms.)

My Worst Habit

As I look back over the past year, I’m asking myself: What are some bad habits or entrenched assumptions I should take a closer look at?

Welp… I tend to hermit, but I’m happy hermit-ing and in that very sentence –with the word but–we see another of my prominent traits. I have a contrary mind. You say it never happened, and I am off on a hunt to find the one time it did happen. You claim it can’t be done or must be done… And there I go, down the yeah-but rabbit hole. This is a fine quality in an attorney, in moderation. At the customer service desk…?

Another tendency I have is to hang on for too long to relationships and processes that aren’t working well for me. I don’t know whether this is laziness (the devil I know…), an excessive sensitivity to abandonment guilt, or optimism gone awry, but I am slow to acknowledge an inequitable situation when it affects me directly. Over time, I have become better about shortening the distance between, “This isn’t working,” and “I’m outta here,” but there’s still much work to do.

I think about all the times I cut somebody or something loose–highly sexist Fortune 500 employers, needy boyfriends, contractors of less than honorable ethics–and never, not ever, do I wish I’d hung on longer and “tried to make it work.” Just the opposite.

Case in point: After decades banking at the same institution, through mergers, branch closures, horrendous snafus on the bank’s part (putting my tiny retirement into junk bonds, paying out on a very big check that had NO signature), I’d stuck with them. By the time I finally made the decision to switch to a more professional institution, my finances were far more complicated than if I’d switched years ago. I’d also lost a ton of investment opportunities that an ethical bank would have steered me toward.

The new bank isn’t perfect, the swap was a hassle, and the learning curve steep, but I’m much happier dealing with an organization that grasps the need to work for the customer.

Next up, I’m going after my internet service provider. Ever since the FCC rules on net neutrality were repealed, the local ISP shop (we have exactly one in the whole valley) has been offering worse and worse service for the same price. We’re supposed to call them in dismay about our “slow modems” or “traffic volume slowdowns” so they can up-sell us.

I believe in voting with my dollars. I believe in treating everybody honorably. Squeezing loyal customers (twenty years plus) isn’t honorable. And when I get the ISP situation sorted, I’m having a serious talk with my accountant, who was no use whatsoever helping me figure out how to manage payroll in two states at once. And after that…

The talk I have to have with myself is this: If I can consistently feel the pea under the mattress, then it’s not a pea. It’s sleepless nights, sluggish days, cranky conversations and worse. Some situations must simply be endured, but others… Chuck the peas, Grace. You don’t get any princess points for ignoring your own frustrations. Make 2020 the year of chucking the peas.

Is there a pea under your mattress? Was there one once upon a time that you finally tossed? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Barnes and Noble gift e-card.

 

All I Don’t Want for Christmas

I announced a few blogs ago that my Christmas presents will be green this year. Bird feeders, bee houses, bat houses, milkweed seeds… But then I got to thinking (after a big spree in the Wild Bird Store), why give any thing? One of the most thought-provoking books I’ve come across this year was Lost Connections, by Johann Hari.

The book examines causes of depression beyond “a chemical imbalance in the brain.” One chapter is devoted to consumerism, the profitable and highly toxic myth that we can (and really should) buy our way out of sadness, discontent, obesity, boredom, loneliness, and so forth. Underlying that falsehood is the corollary that most of us are living lives that–really, let’s be honest–could do with a make over.

GRRRR. Most of us are wonderful people, if you ask me, and doing the best we can despite many challenges. Getting out our wallets in slavish obeisance to ad psychology won’t do much of anything to improve our lives or extend the life expectancy of the planet–just the opposite, in fact.

Which brings me to the question of the day: What do I want for Christmas?

My first thought was, “Lordy, I want a truly clean house…” My little farmhouse is humble, but it could be charming. As I type this, I sit facing an interior wall of exposed chestnut logs bigger around than I am (in some places). I can see the ax marks where somebody, nearly 200 years ago, chopped off the bark before the raw beams were set aside to season. I love this house. I raised my kid here, made my lawyer-stand from this place, and have spent hours and hours playing in this yard. I write all of my books here, and I am profoundly grateful to have this domicile for my own.

But my house is not exactly company-ready and seldom has been. I don’t much care about the appearances–I can meet friends elsewhere, after all–but I live and work here. Sparkling windows, new curtains (what I have are 20+ years old), scrubbed floors and so forth would make this place more commodious for me, but I just don’t have the gumption to get after it. I do what’s necessary, and occasionally tackle a bigger job, but not often enough to make a lasting difference.

For Christmas, if it were possible, I’d like some gumption. I’d also like for the lonely folks to have love and companionship. I’d like for the homeless to have shelter, for those who are ill or exhausted to have health or rest. I’d like to give a batch of hope to the despairing, mix up a pot of loveliness for those suffering from a chronic vista of ugliness.

I’d like for us to treasure one another and our lovely planet, to put the myth of consumerism on indefinite hiatus, and see if maybe THAT doesn’t light the sort of candles that glow all year long. To three commenters, I’ll send a signed copy of Forever and a Duke (Frank not included), and then the blog will go on a year-end break. See you in January, but first: What gift, if any, would really make your life better?

The Goddess of Hope

I make my living with my imagination, so I’m always on the lookout for information about how to do that more successfully. I read books about creativity, about break-through thinking, about solving problems nobody has yet solved.  Thanks to some smart folks, we know, for example, that successful entrepreneurs tend to share three characteristics:

First, they create a lot. Like the legendary Thomas Edison, they churn out the ideas, some silly, some brilliant. Beethoven, Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright… they each left us a large body of work as they shaped the art of their time. Much of Beethoven’s music is merely pretty, but to get to the Ode to Joy, he was willing to slog through the merely pretty phase.

Second, successful entrepreneurs tend to work at the edge of their expertise, such that a surgeon (Dr. Judah Folkman) rather than an oncologist came up with angiogenesis as an angle for defeating cancer (cutting off a tumor’s blood supply). Working outside your wheelhouse means you have creds in some field, often big creds (Folkman graduated from Harvard Medical School), but you aren’t as invested in the “we’ve always done it that way” limitations surrounding the problem you’re tackling.

Third, successful entrepreneurs tend to be charming people who associate easily with all kinds of other people. You remember these entrepreneurs because they ask interesting questions and actually listen to your answers. This  intensity of focus and friendliness on the part of the entrepreneur means potential funding sources are favorably impressed. For the entrepreneur, a wide circle of acquaintances means they  constantly encounter fresh perspectives, because the janitor, the grad student barrista, and the tech innovator will not view life in the same light.

What strikes me about these magic beans–foraging beyond a developed field of expertise, burning the candle at both ends, keeping in touch with a big bunch of people–is how much easier all of that is to take on if a) you don’t have kids, or b) if you must have kids, then you have somebody else to look after them most of the time.

There are 950 Nobel laureates, only 48 of them are women who won the prize without sharing it with a hubbie (six couples have won). Only 25 Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs (and not a one has a black female CEO).  The US Congress is still not EVEN 25 percent female, and some state legislatures have as few as 15 percent female members (and they tend to be the least productive state legislatures, too).

All of which makes me more hopeful than mad (most days). Why? Because think of all the genius, creativity, and sheer inventive brilliance lurking in the half of the population that heretofore has had fewer opportunities to develop those creds, burn those candles, and establish those wide circles of acquaintance.

We have tremendous untapped potential as close as the girl next door, and increasingly we seem to realize how important it is that she have a chance to be the next successful entrepreneur, or the next anything she wants to be.

What gives you hope these days? Where do you see things moving in a positive direction? Christmas is coming, so I’m back to sending one commenter at $50 Amazon gift e-card.

 

Reverse Whole-NaNo-30

So my earlier post, about Forty Bags, NanoWriMo, and Whole 30 got me thinking. (This is easy to do.) I’ve lately been catching up on my doctor visits, which means doing a lot of lab work too. For months, I’ve been feeling like the air is seeping out of my tires. I told myself that was post day-job adjustment, except I quit the day job more than year ago. I’m adjusted already, and loving the change.

Then I decided it was the summer heat sapping my energy. Or traveling too much, or too many writing deadlines. I had all kinds of reasons for ignoring my own fatigue.

But I truly have no juice, and that’s on top of the chronic no-juice condition I’ve been battling since my early thirties. (Yes, the onset of symptoms coincided with the onset of motherhood. Pure coincidence.) I’m prone to iron deficiency anemia and pernicious anemia, I have Lyme disease, and then there’s ye old Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. None of those conditions actually hurt, and I’ve had them all for years, but I figured it was worth doing the labs because seriously… no juice. No physical energy, not much mental momentum either, and I make my living with my mental momentum.

Turns out I’m getting about half the thyroid medication I need. Well, heck. That’s easy enough to fix, but it’s not a fast fix. Thyroid medication can take weeks to move the metabolic needle, and that’s if the dose is correct and a bunch of other pieces of Swiss cheese line up correctly too (manganese, selenium, molybdenum… whatever that is).

So I started taking the higher dose in early November, but if the problem is thyroid alone, the best case is that nothing will kick in until about Christmas. So I did a reverse-Lent, reverse-Whole-30, reverse short-burst-of-high-discipline, and instead gave myself permission to ditch the step-counter for the whole month of November.

I aim for 10,000 steps five days a week, even though the studies data is, you get most of the benefit from the first 3000 steps. Without recourse to the tread-desk, I usually hit around 3000 steps a day just between trips to the horse barn, grocery shopping, and pet food runs. I figured 30 days of reduced activity while I waited for the meds to kick in might not be a bad idea.

It was a GREAT idea. I stopped checking the step-count on my phone ten times a day, and anything that puts the phone in my hand less is a benefit. My hips didn’t hurt as much. I caught up on some sedentary tasks, I got thoroughly back in the writing saddle after weeks of travel earlier in the fall. I judged contest entries, and read some great  books. I enjoyed being a spud, because I knew come December 1, I’d be back at the tread-desk, and because I’m still off to the horse barn a couple times a week.

So now it’s December, and yes, I did my steps today, but I think I will build periodic step-fasts into my year. There are just some seasons when putting down a burden or obligation for a time is the smart, kind, prudent thing to do. The holidays and cold weather (in the northern hem) are looming. Is there something you can put on hold for a few weeks? A reverse-Lent that might make your life easier?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Barnes and Noble gift card.