The Junk Pile

Romance authors figure out fairly quickly that readers will forgive a hero much more than they will a heroine. No matter how pig-headed, stuck, or dense the hero is, the reviewers will not slap the label, “Too stupid to live” on him, while any number of stubborn, timid, naive, determined [adjective of choice] heroines are accused of that failing.

I am guilty of this hypocrisy myself, in that I was very slow to develop compassion for my own mother. Not until I had a child–and was a single parent–did I begin to perceive the forces aligned against Mom’s autonomy, freedom, and happiness. From Irish immigrant culture, to her religious affiliation, to societal limitations in general, she would have been hard put to make any but the choices she did.

As as child, though, I could not understand her fanatical need to control the appearance of our home. A glass could not be left in the living room, dishes did not accumulate in the sink. She ironed pillowcases (or had her daughters iron them, in a very specific method), and mitered the corners of sheets on nine beds.

As a kid, I did not understand why anybody would miter a corner when the next thing you do is toss a bedspread over it. Nobody sees that tidy linen, nobody knows if a pillow case has been ironed 24 hours after it has gone on the pillow. What did it matter if you ate salad first or after the main course? Madness, to my way of thinking, to fixate on inanities like that.

Mom was, of course, controlling what few domains she had power in, and such was her need to be regarded as competent (I don’t know anybody else like that), if all society left her was pillowcases and tossed salads, she would subsist on them and find meaning in them. My reaction as a child though, was a resounding, “I don’t want to be like her.”

What I probably meant was, “I do not want to be frustrated and dis-empowered like her,” but what I did was avoid the areas where she thrived. She was a great cook. I don’t cook to speak of. She was always entertaining. I… well, nope. Not in my home, anyway. She made her house a show place. While… I just last week got around to having a really disgusting junk pile hauled away, after years of simply tossing my dead furniture behind the summer kitchen.

In later life, I am left with a puzzle. What parts of me did I toss out in an over-reaction to my mother’s home-bound, economically dependent, reproductively powerless fate? I like walking into a pretty, tidy, house that smells good. I like good food. I don’t expect I’ll ever throw the kind of parties my parents did, but neither–I hope–will I ever again let a junk pile sit for years because… well, I’m not sure why I did that, but I don’t feel good about it.

Are you still negotiating boundaries set earlier in life? Are you still gaining insight into choices you made as a kid or choices your parents made? Any do-overs come to mind?

To three commenters, I’ll send e-ARC files of Erica Ridley’s novella An Affair by the Sea, which goes on sale this week!

 

 

Decision Time

Darling Santiago

I’m pondering whether to continue riding dear old Santa. He’s a terrific horse. No dirty spooks, sound, calm in many situations other horses would take advantage of. A good equine egg. The issue is on the rider end. The barn is an hour away, and to get 45 minutes in the saddle means half a day shot.

By shot I mean, the energy is spent and I’m not sure that what I have to show for it justifies the expenditure. The good rides, where I get into the zone, become absorbed in the task, and communicate effectively with the horse are fewer and fewer. I’m simply not fit enough to achieve that anymore. So riding has taken on an aspect of duty, of hoping for the no-longer-possible.

I realize though, that my identity as a horse lover has been consistent clear back to early childhood. More than that, it has been an unabashedly positive identity–unlike lawyer, mother, wife, and some other labels I’ve worn. Horses have never betrayed me, in part because my expectations of them have always been reasonable.

Me on Delray the Wonder Pony (I should be looking UP more.)

Riding is the only sport where men and women compete head to head all the way up to the Olympic level. If you can communicate with a horse, you have something rare and powerful. The first horse I bought for myself stood eighteen hands at the withers, meaning when I was on his back, the world looked UP at me, and I did not feel fat.

When I ride, I cannot be all up in my head. I have to be in my body, and that body can do stuff. I can get a three-quarter-ton beast to listen to me–wow. Riding is a passion I’ve shared with my daughter, and I do believe that horses saved her life and my sanity.

But I’m afflicted with the nagging sense that it’s time to let this go. To use that time and energy elsewhere, at least for now. That’s the sticky part. If I knew for a fact that hanging up my spurs would be permanent, I doubt I’d do it. I would hang on in hopes that my energy well would somehow fill up, or my fitness ambitions would find some traction. I suspect I will ask for a leave of absence, which is my way of trying on the decision to quit without closing the door.

How do you approach complicated decisions? Is there a question you put to yourself, a process you observe? To three comments, I will send ARC files of Erica Ridley’s debut title in the Siren’s Retreat Novella Quartet, An Affair by the Sea (on-sale March 15).

 

Icing on the Cake

Growing up in Pennsylvania, I saw rain or snow, or very rarely sleet, but not–that I can recall–ice storms.  A little bit of ice will bring a city to a halt as half a foot of snow will not. There is no four-wheel-driving around an ice storm, no chaining up to go the store.

You stay home, count your candles, make sure the porch is full of dry firewood, and hope your e-reader is charged. When I first got to Maryland, the whole ice storm thing was fascinating, and the best part was the landscape the next morning. The sun rose on crystalline trees, sparkling bushes, and diamond-bright everything. Fairy tales and magic right outside the door.

But now I own a little patch of ground, and on that patch are big trees, and among those trees are conifers. Ice storms are brutal to pine trees, hacking off big limbs and piling them all over the roads, roofs, and yards. My pine trees took a beating this week, and because it was a windy ice storm, those big limbs ended across the road in my neighbor’s yard. Insert bad words and lot of them here.

I figured I’d get myself a cup of tea, wait for the horrendous drippy melting to stop, and then set about lugging the rubbishing dead fall up behind the barn. Not my fave thing to do with what little energy I have. Into the house I went, to make my second cup, and to feel overwhelmed, again.

I was doing my hand weights while waiting for the microwave to heat my tea water when, what to my wondering ears should appear, but the sound of a buzz saw. A county road crew truck went by, then another, then I heard a chipper. I took my cup of tea to the window and peered across the road.

The downed limbs were gone, only a few stray boughs lying on the wet grass to prove I hadn’t been imagining things. The improvement in my mood was ridiculous. I am not alone! I don’t have to solve every problem myself! My two spoons of energy were not frittered away dragging sticky old pine limbs out of my neighbor’s yard. Hallelujah!

I was so impressed by the impact that ten minutes of road crew help had on my whole outlook that I decided I would be somebody else’s road crew. I happened to spot one of those, “We hate to ask but three curve balls in a row and we just need a little help,” fundraisers on social, one shared by another author (so credibility, of course). I pitched in, and mentally thanked the road crew all over again. I might even have to write a letter to the editor about how grateful I still am to have heard those buzz saws.

The world is a scary place right now–again, some more, still. Are there simple acts of kindness you routinely perform to help keep your emotional balance? Have kindnesses been shown to you in recent days? My contribution to improving your week is to make the novella The Duke and the April Flowers, (formerly available in the anthology Dukes by the Dozen), a  free download on the web store. Enjoy!

 

Perdition or Progress?

I am disgusted with a media infrastructure that thinks keeping us mis-informed, polarized, and panicked is justified by the profit motive. In part this is because I am old enough to recall when the Fairness Doctrine was the norm, and in part it’s because I know freedom of the press was not incorporated into the Constitution for the sake of shareholders’ dividends.

But it’s so easy to buy into the chronic anxiety, negativity, and opining that passes for journalism these days, and to simply accept that the world is going to perdition, pandemics included.

Except it’s not. By any objective measure, as a species, we are happier, wealthier, healthier, more peaceful, more democratic, less oppressed, and enjoying more leisure time than we were even thirty years ago. Some facts:

Homicide rates and rates of most violent crimes in the US have been dropping more or less steadily for decades. We’re polluting far less than we did thirty years ago and our air quality has improved immensely. Dire poverty in the US and worldwide has been radically reduced in recent decades. More people are living under democratic governments now than at any time in the past. Steve Pinker, in this excellent Ted Talk on the topic of human progress, states that “house work” for much of history took up 60 hours a week, and now the average is 15 hours.

Pinker goes on to point out that news is about what happens, not about what doesn’t happen. “Nobody started a war today” isn’t news. “137,000 more people aren’t living in dire poverty today (and each day for the past twenty years)” is not news. He has a point, but I think it’s also the case that before we can tackle problems, we have to become aware of them. If we are to get the 700 million people still living on less than $2.00/day to better situations, we first had to realize (in 1990) that having 1.9 billion of us living in that situation was unacceptable.

We’ve had to realize that yes, spouses can rape one another, so we passed some laws about that. We realized that the planet wasn’t benefiting from having 70,000 nuclear weapons lying around (1986) so we’re down to fewer than 15,000 now. Before we can do better, we have to know better, and we are knowing a lot better.

Or that’s my theory. I see progress. My nieces and nephews are approaching family very differently–and more thoughtfully–than my parents or I did. Food-miles are now a thing, and I’m mighty aware of them. My house is powered by renewable energy not because I did anything to make it that way, but because the State of Maryland set up a program I could opt into by checking a box.

We see problems everywhere, but I suggest that if we look behind, beside, and beneath the problems, we will also see progress–and a lot more progress soon to be made.

Am I full of baloney? Are we headed for perdition, or does the fact of recent gains give you some hope? Do you see any other hopeful signs? To three commenters, I’ll send an ARC of A Spinster by the Sea.

Regrettably Yours

I’m reading Daniel Pink’s latest book, The Power of Regret. I wasn’t particularly interested in regret as a topic, but I was very impressed with the quality of the research in Pink’s previous book (When), and so far, he’s delivering the same readable, interesting, well supported treatment of his topic as he did last time.

His premise seems to be (I’m not done with the book), that though we pay lip service to “No regrets!” bumper stickers, or “There’s no point looking back,” philosophies, in fact, our regrets teach us a lot and help us improve our aim going forward.

My initial reaction to that conclusion was, “Ya think? Sadder and wiser? Live and learn? Of course we learn from our mistakes… or we should.”

Then I taught a little webinar on how to write a romance. As I was developing the writing exercises and figuring out which scenes I wanted the class to focus on, I realized that regret is often the 85% of the character iceberg hanging below the surface of the plot. Valentine Windham regrets practicing the piano so obsessively that he wrecks his hands. Darius Lindsey regrets so much. Hamish MacHugh regrets a terrible moment on the battlefield. Lydia Loveless regrets being such a headstrong girl.

The characters make wrong turns, and their attempts to cope with the fallout can take years. Hmmm.

Then I bethought of myself of a certain adolescent Grace Burrowes. I was headed for a career as a professional musician (in my own mind), and practicing up a storm on the piano. I also set a goal to become competent on one instrument in each family. I asked my parents for a trumpet for Christmas, and they came through. Finding time to learn the instrument, though, eluded me.

A friend wanted to join band, and asked to use my trumpet to get started. I wasn’t playing it, so I said sure. At the end of the school year, I still hadn’t lined up lessons for myself, hadn’t done any reading, hadn’t lifted a finger to tackle the job of learning the trumpet, but I asked for the instrument back.

The friend’s family had been unfathomably kind and generous to me. They kept my horse on their farm, which is the only way I could have had a horse. They kept me weekends and summers for much of my youth. All they ever asked of me was the loan of that dratted trumpet, and I was a dog in the manger about it.

I am so ashamed of my greedy, selfish, mean little self… I have apologized for my behavior, but such is my disgust with myself that my personal policy on lending since then has been, “Whatever you lend, don’t expect to have it back.” Whether that’s money, a pair of riding gloves, a book… If I lend it, it’s gone, possibly for good. And I generally will lend anything I don’t actually need.

This is an example of a regret that taught me a lesson. I committed the error fifty years ago, but I still feel the sting of my stingy actions. I had my reasons, but they were the weak reasons of a character dwelling in the small-minded, defensive posture of chapter one. Phooey on that. I want to dwell in the pages closer to the happily ever after.

Has regret taught you any lessons? I’ll put two commenters on the ARC list for A Spinster by the Sea!

 

Be Brave of This Everything!

As I was scrolling through my facebook feed, I came across this post allegedly conveying a five-year-old’s advice to his mom when she was facing a daunting meeting. It made me smile, not because I think affirmations and so forth ever change reality, but because I like the playfulness of substituting “I am brave of this meeting,” for, “I am afraid of this meeting.”

I take an endless procession of cats to the vet. Have used the same small-town practice for the thirty years, and they are good folks. They know me. They know I wrangle a feral herd as best I can, which–given the ability of feral queens to stay out of traps–isn’t adequate. A couple weeks ago, one of those feral mamas had tangled with the wrong set of tires, and it was clear she was not going to recover from her injuries. I caught her (at last), and in we went for that one-way ticket across the rainbow bridge.

This is not a rare occurrence in my life. I have owned many pets, and they tend not to outlive us. So. I always offer the soon-to-be-departed a word of thanks or appreciation, and what I told this old gal was, “You have been a wonderful cat. I will look after your babies, and now you get to go someplace where you don’t have be fierce and brave all the damned time any more. Just take a nap, old girl. Take a peaceful, easy nap, and steal away from the pain. Job well done.”

And then I tried not to cry too awfully hard, but if you can’t cry a little alone in your Prius while tooling down a country road, you aren’t doing it right.

Today I was driving into the vet’s office to drop off little Beowulf, a tabby fella of about four months who was ready to be relieved of some potentially troublesome small parts. He’s had eye trouble and upper respiratory trouble in his short life, but he’s amenable to treatment and the guy does have an abundance of charm. I predict a long and enjoyable life for Wulfie.

I was giving him the pep talk. “It’s going to be a bit of challenging day, my dude. Some passing ouchie, though we’ll get the pain meds for that and they will put you under before anything medical transpires. Just be brave for a few hours and you’ll be home playing crunchie-hockey in the kitchen. Better still, you will never be challenged to any stupid duels by the other lords of the couch.”

Through the bars of his carrier, he gave me a look, and it occurred to me: I am sick and tired of being brave. I have had it up to my eyeballs with being brave–brave about every sniffle and headache. Brave about finances. Brave about never seeing my loved ones. Brave about there’s no wet cat food to buy anywhere in this backward, mask-avoidant county. Brave about coming up with new ideas when I have stared at the same walls for two long years. Brave, humbug!

Wulfie made it through his day out just fine and so did I, but it helped to just say the truth–not the affirmations, not the pep talk, not the philosophical euphemisms. The truth.

What are you sick and tired of? I’ll add two commenters to my ARC list for A Spinster by the Sea.

 

The Write Time

Like many authors, I keep a pad and pen beside my bed. I do this not because I wake up with brilliant story ideas, but because I read before I go to sleep. When I come across an interesting quote, a new word, or just a word I like but lost sight of (pertinacious), I write it down. I hope this is a way to telegraph to my soon-to-be-sleeping brain: Words are fun! Clever words are big fun! Make lots of clever, fun words!

Last night’s words, courtesy of the late mystery genius, Dame Ngaio Marsh, DBE, were fossick (to dig and root and poke around for treasure) and gleek (to tease, jest, have on). Are those great words or what? (But not, alas, around in the Regency). Some nights, though, the act of writing legibly nearly defeats me. I’m old enough that I write mostly cursive and… chicken scratching is more pleasing to the eye than some of my attempts at penmanship.

So I did some research on whether typing or handwriting serves my creativity and productivity best, and the answer so far is, “Yes.” For big picture ideas, for taking notes that I can recall and learning new ideas that I can synthesize with what’s already in memory–get out the pen or pencil. For conveying information to another party, fire up the keyboard.

There’s even data (shout out to artist Austin Kleon for the link) that says we write better the faster we type, though it’s limited data and measures the essay writing skills of people who cannot type at all against peers who’ve had eight weeks of typing lessons. The explanation for the improved compositions from those who learned to type is that we think far faster than we can hand-write. Once we can type at 24 words per minute, our composing speed keeps up with our brain, and we don’t edit our communication “down” to the speed of the pen.

But again, that’s for writing that conveys information to others. I know when I’m doing a fiction-writing prompt, I get much better material from pen work. I need to mentally fossick around in that half-second gap between the thought and its expression to find the exquisite phrasing or lurking symbolism that isn’t perceptible at keyboard speed.  I also know that the more I write by hand, the better my penmanship looks. Then too, I enjoy the physical act of putting words on a page rather than on a screen.

Do you write by hand? Journal by hand? Send hand-written letters? How does the written, as opposed to the typed, word figure into your day–if at all?

 

A Famine of Beauty

Rest in peace, Andre Leon Talley, long time editor at Vogue, contributing editor to Vanity Fair, journalist, NYT bestselling author, and diversity advocate before that concept was on many people’s radar. He was 73, and the cause of death was a heart attack complicated by COVID.

Of the many reasons I could bring up the man and his contributions, I want to focus on one quote that popped out at me from the Vogue documentary, The September Issue. “So far, it’s been a bleak streak over here in America. You know what? It’s a famine of beauty. A famine of beauty, honey! My eyes are starving for beauty!”

The concept of famine smacked me upside the head. Regency characters were intimately familiar with food famines. Mount Tambora in Indonesia blew its top in 1815, the largest volcanic eruption in 1300 years, and the whole northern hemisphere endured a volcanic winter through 1816. There was no grain harvest worth the name–not in North America, not in Asia, or Europe, not no how, not no where. There was no wheat, barley, or oats to import.

In a small way, the concept of famine has been at work in my life of late. A famine of hugs. A famine of the inspiration I derive from travel. A famine of positive news. A famine of emotional intimacy. I cannot buy these blessings from Amazon, cannot pick them up at Walmart, cannot import them, or find them on the dark web.

Just putting the label famine on the sense of lack helps me figure out the feelings that go with it. Longing, hope, determination, fatigue, fear… I realize that I am using the term to apply to a manageable shortfall in a vastly privileged life, and that others are enduring far worse than I ever have or will, but the emotions still resonate. When will this end? How much worse can it get?  What can we do to ensure we’re never, ever caught in this trap again?

Though even famines can have a silver lining. Following the Year Without a Summer, the proto-bicycle was invented in the hope of giving regular people a means of locomotion that did not consume grain. JMW Turner’s brilliant sunsets reflect the influence of volcanic ash on the atmosphere. Mary Shelley and her writer friends were forced by incessant rainfall to remain indoors during the summer of 1816, and they whiled away the time tossing around writing prompts.

One result was her story, Frankenstein, generally considered the foundation of the science fiction genre. Byron’s contribution to the game became the inspiration for Dracula, the foundational story in the horror genre. In my own recent lean times, I have learned to Zoom with family–not comparable to founding a literary genre, but one way to connect  I did not have two years ago.

Do you see any silver linings resulting from the past two years? Any challenges you have tackled, or new skills learned? I’ll put three commenters on my ARC list for A Tryst by the Sea, which–now that I think about it–is a tale about surviving a marital famine. Funny how that works!

To Grinch or Not to Grinch

Yes, I know. It’s January,  but the grouchy green guy who sneers at all the stupidly cheerful Whos has been on my mind lately. For a writing class, we had to read Ernest Hemingway’s A Cat in the Rain, and the instructor noted–after praising nearly every word Hem wrote–that the author did not appear to have a warm regard for his characters.

It’s a very short story, and as I slogged through it, all I could think was, “Not short enough.” The husband is a lazy, sexist drip. The wife a cross between Blanche DuBois and June Cleaver (in a bad way). The hotel staff is alternately obsequious and exploited. The cat is so dumb it gets caught out in the rain and can find only the dubious protection to be had beneath a sidewalk cafe table.

As I’m reading through the comments of my classmates, who found the story marvelous, the instructor’s analysis marvelous, the prose-craft marvelous… I’m thinking, “Who would want to be in this story world? The author is relentlessly negative, condescending, belittling… BLECH.”

But then I thought about every piece of news “commentary” I’ve seen for the past five years. Cynicism sells. Cynics come across as pragmatic, rational, and unbefuddled by sentiment. Our words for optimist and optimism by contrast–Pollyanna, dreamer, rose-closed glasses, idealist–all connote foolishness to some degree.

But that perception–of cynicism equating with wisdom–is wrong. Though most people think cynics are smarter than optimists, and cynics must excel at spotting lies and charlatans, the opposite is true. Clever folks  (at the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab), have done the research, and found that cynics, because they tend to see everybody as a potential cheat, crook, or liar, can’t pick the real miscreants out of the crowd. Cynics tend to test with lower cognitive function (euphemism alert), and they tend to earn less than people who test as optimistic.

Cynicism might be a neat trick for provoking “engagement” on social media, but cynics are the last people we should regard as oracles or prophets. This is relevant to me because I have a great imagination for scary things. I can see all the ways the planet is going to die, how technology is wrecking democracy, and why I will end up living under a bridge with only a tin cup and one stinky set of ill-fitting clothes to my name.

But I also have the ability to wear whatever hat my tribe is missing. As a younger sibling in a big family, I developed the ability to be a cheerleader is if nobody is cheering, a realist if everybody is under-budgeting, and a workhorse if everybody else just too tired to keep plowing. This is a common trait of younger siblings, and it means that–more than most people–I have a choice as to whether I lurk up on Mt. Crumpit snarking to my pets, or join the singing down in Whoville.

I believe in love, and so I hope I take every opportunity to sing with the Whos rather than snark with the green guy, despite my gift for imagining calamities.

Who strikes you as wise? How do they create that impression? I’ll add three names to my ARC list for A Tryst by the Sea!

No Foot, No Fun

To every health profession for the past thirty years who has inquired as to how I am, the reply has been the same: Doing OK, thanks! I don’t have much physical energy, though.

My mood is usually pretty good (thank the merciful powers), and there are metabolic reasons for why I am such a spud (thyroid disease, Lyme disease, various creeping anemias), but the reality for me has not changed in decades. I am very careful about how I spend my energy, even to the point that if I don’t have to wear shoes, I don’t bother putting them on. That’s effort wasted.

Folding clothes, most cooking, changing out of my riding clothes before I hit the grocery store… all effort wasted. Sporting around the produce section in my breeches isn’t exactly stylish, but fashion-forward shopping doesn’t make the cut before I run out the proverbial spoons.

About six months ago, my feet started hurting. Because I am on my tread desk regularly, I figured I was reaching the intersection of age, weight, genetics, and repetitive stress we all fall heir to. I noticed, though, that within limits, my feet hurt just as badly on rest days as on big step days. I tried babying my feet with the usual old lady over-the-counter products, and no joy.

At the horse barn, we say, “No foot, no horse.” When a 1500-pound animal has a sore paw, that animal isn’t good for much. I don’t weigh 1500 pounds, but… The foot problem was cascading into hunched-dowager posture, which delivered a hit to the fading muscles of my belly. My hips didn’t like it when I favored my foot either, and the whole situation became a snowballing bother.

I was at my typing chair post one fine morning a couple months ago, and my usual footwear–a pair of Under Armor slides–became the toy of choice for my cats. I took the first good look at my preferred “shoes” and realized I had been wearing the same pair for two years. Since pre-P. They are beat to flinders–absolutely disgusting!–and it’s no wonder wearing them resulted in foot torment. Yes, they were a solution to the, “Who wants to wrestle with shoes every morning?” question, but still…

I started taking the time to put on my Nike men’s “heavy runner” shoes every morning, and within two weeks, my feet were much better. Clunking around in actual shoes was an adjustment, and putting them on and off is some bother, but I do not miss having sore hoofs, at all.

I simply hadn’t noticed when a solution–slipping in and out of my slides–had become a problem, but it surely had. How lovely, that a simple fix is yielding such wonderful results. Have you had to hit re-set with some tried and true solutions? Had to stop and rewind, then re-think what used to work fairly well? I’ll add three commenters to the ARC list for A Tryst by the Sea!

PS: Due to website maintenance this weekend, your comments might not post, or might post and then disappear on Monday. We will be back to smooth sailing by Monday afternoon!