Eastward, ho!

Once a year, all the judges in Maryland get together for a judicial conference. Once a year, attorneys all over the state catch up on paperwork, sleep in a little, and bask in the experience of knowing, no matter how busy their practice is, they won’t have to wear courtroom attire to the office “just in case” there’s an emergency phone call from judges’ chambers. We can take it a little easier for a few days, thanks to Their Honors’ annual annual do.

I used the week to pop out to Oregon to see Beloved Offspring and her Devoted Swain. They are ready to house hunt, because Oregon checks all the boxes for them. Big trees, nice people, lots of horses, beautiful… So a house-hunting we did go.

The sticker shock about knocked my socks off. I have a little farmhouse on two acres here in Maryland. The house has character (by this I mean low ceilings, an oggly fieldstone fireplace, but also gorgeous, huge chestnut beams), and a lovely bank barn, a stream cutting through the middle of the property, a little summer kitchen, fenced paddock, big trees… I have always enjoyed living here, though it’s a lot to maintain for one person.

I also pay less for this little bide-o-wee each month than BO and DS are charged for a two-bedroom basement apartment–a LOT less. Yes, I heat with wood, and I’m only one person, but still… What I have here would cost me at least double in Oregon, and I couldn’t find anything exactly comparable anyway. When my house was built, Oregon had yet to be settled.

We started our house hunt looking for a property that could eventually house the three of us–something with a mother-in-law suite, a studio over the garage, a casita down by the pond. Nothing, not one single property in our price range, even had so much as a full-size chicken house, much less quarters I could move into.

I came home with a good dose of, “Guess where I am is pretty cool for what I’m paying. Maybe fixing this place up is not a crazy plan after all,” and that was a huge relief. I suspect the day will come when I do move west to be nearer to my only child, but that day is not today. Today I’m calling the electrician to fix the kitchen light, and taking out another trash bag of stuff  that’s been cluttering up my nest.

Has travel ever given you a helpful insight? Ever helped you hit reset on a problem? To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of My Own True Duchess, which goes on sale in the website store on June 15, and on the retail platforms June 19.

 

Enormous Little Quirks

I picked up a copy of Long Story Short, by Margot Leitman, who is both a storyteller and a teacher of storytellers. One of the exercises in this little tome is to list ten quirks about yourself. My initial reaction was, “I’m pretty dull. No particular quirks… I do like my daily cup of jasmine green tea with agave nectar and light cream, but that’s not a quirk. I also live with a lot of cats–that’s a cliche rather than quirk.”

I slept on the question–What are my quirks? Do I have any quirks?–and woke up without anything to put on the list. I’m the quirk-less wonder… then I was buzzing down the I-5 south of Portland, OR, and I pulled over at a rest stop. A skinny young guy was standing outside the building, staring at the sidewalk, holding a sign: Even a smile would help.

I went back to the car, got some cash, and gave it to him, because I have rule: Never pass a beggar without giving something. If somebody has reached the point where they are begging–begging–for help, then I will take the risk that I’m being manipulated by a con artist rather than chance turning a deaf ear to a plea for help. I do believe this qualifies as a quirk.

A couple days later, I’m driving around the small town where my daughter and son-in-law live, and one of them is riding shotgun and giving me directions for how to get somewhere. I realize they are sending me in the wrong direction. The two of them rely almost exclusively on their GPSs to navigate the roads, so dead reckoning doesn’t figure into their travels.  I don’t use a GPS–will NOT use a GPS–and I think this also qualifies as a quirk.

Margot has the exercise in her book because she’s found that quirks often lead to a personal story, or at least a field where a story could be mined.

While visiting my offspring, we took a little walk in the forests around Belknap, and lordy, do I LOVE big trees. Love them. The story there is easy to find: I grew up surrounded by big trees. The survey oak in the field below our house was a sentinel to the passage of time, the woods were a playground for the imagination. I played in trees, turning them into clipper ships, asteroids, rafts, and other magical craft. Of course, I love them still.

So I guess I do have quirks. The rule about beggars is my mother’s spirit come to life, for she was forever inviting strangers to share our table. The GPS… welp, I am not the most trusting soul. I need to know where I am, and where the exits are. Those little GPSs lie, and need updating, and distract me from my journey.

I will use this exercise to build more interesting characters for my books, but I also think Margot is right: Quirks can point to interesting truths. Do you have quirks? Have you worked with or lived with somebody with a notable quirk? Is there a story there? A metaphor?

To one person who comments, I’ll send a copy of No Dukes Allowed.

The Advantages of Autumn

I’ve recently finished Mary Balogh’s Someone To Care, the latest installment in her Westcott series. The heroine of the story is forty-two with grown children and young grandchildren, the hero thirty-nine going on forty, with twins approaching their eighteenth birthdays. The book as been very well received, and I suspect we’ll see more mid-life protagonists among our HEAs.

What struck me about the story–besides Mary’s gorgeous prose, diabolically ingenious pacing, and exquisite sense of setting–was the complexity of the protagonists. A young protagonists can be believably silly, somewhat superficial, and honestly lacking in sophistication. The older hero or heroine has had some of the fur loved off, and has usually created long-term relationships and obligations that complicate their lives.

The skills of older characters are different from those of a younger character too. Physical derring-do, the sort of courage required for initial forays into physical intimacy, intellectual nimbleness that comes from pure wit rather than experience… these are for the younger characters. With age, we learn patience, guile, humor–Mary’s hero is hilarious, in a grouchy, self-critical way–and humility.

When I screw up now, I’m much more likely to realize I need to apologize and more likely to offer the apology promptly and sincerely than I was forty year ago. In my twenties, I’d probably have felt lousy, but figuring out what to DO with my guilt and remorse would have taken me longer. In my twenties, I got a lot more done, but a lot less of it was for other people or with other people in mind.

A lot less of my life was on my terms, and lot more of it was because I was following a script I had yet to question.

I really enjoyed Mary’s less-young couple. They didn’t mess around with trying to impress each other, didn’t pretend they were innocent of where flirtation leads. Violet knew her mind and grabbed for a little self-indulgence with both hands. Marcel was at the height of his skill as a lover, even if he wasn’t a pawing, snorting stud muffin. He had a ton of cool, and a genuine sense of consideration where a lady is concerned. That too, fits well with a more mature view of life.

We are on a different adventure, once we choose a mate, once we have children, and once those children are grown. I like this adventure, and I like very much that Mary Balogh, who has ever been one to try her hand at fresh challenges, put such a story squarely among her latest family series.

Every phase of life has gifts and challenges, every phase of life has rewards. Are there rewards where you are, gifts you didn’t anticipate? Is there something you’d like to have back that you feel you once had?

To one commenter, I’ll send an audiobook version of Someone To Care.

 

Happy Mother’s Day, Well Sorta

I was born with a lot of what I call “Bad Fairy” skills. This is the ability to spot the uncomfortable truths lurking at the edges of fairy tales, the ability to raise a counter-example that trashes cherished theories of pleasantness and harmony. Lawyers need some Bad Fairy talent, but throw in solid expressive language skills, and the result can be somebody who is unintentionally scathing.

I recall finishing up a closing argument in court once, and the proverbial pin drop would have landed like bowling ball. The judge said, “I think we’ve just been spanked.” I had apparently been less than diplomatic. I don’t mean to spank anybody, but on this Mother’s Day, I have to say, I am angry.

Forty percent of our children are being raised by single moms, and forty percent of those single moms are living in poverty. Single dads don’t have it easy, but only eight percent of single dads are living in poverty. Both tend to be working full time, both–by a majority–started off parenting in the midst marriage. So for Mother’s Day, please, keep your brunch buffet, and give me gender wage equality and family leave. Give me back the alimony tax break that was just taken away from working families.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in American women, taking six times more lives than breast cancer. Why? Because for too long, the difference between women’s heart disease and men’s was ignored, and heart disease does not disfigure a woman’s sexuality. Autism and ADHD are under-diagnosed in girls–meaning they get no treatment, and must struggle without support while being labeled nerdy, air-headed, scatter-brained, or worse. Why? Because for too long, both diseases were only researched as they affected males, and thus the different symptoms in females have been ignored.

For Mother’s Day, keep your Hallmark smarm, and give me health care that takes women’s pain and wellness seriously. While you’re at it, please do something about Texas having the worst maternal death stats in the developed world, an ongoing tragedy about which the “family values” legislature has done nothing in the nearly two years since this fact was announced.

Men control every state and national law-making body in the United State and they always have. I assume each of those men had a mom, a woman who loved him from the moment she knew he was on the way, one who risked her health, her career potential, and her heart over and over to see that he had a good shot in life. I hope their moms would be proud of them, and I can acknowledge that I have a fewer maternal challenges than my own mother faced.

But I can also tell you, blog buddies, this mom thinks we have a long, long way to go. Until we get there, I’d rather have progress than window-dressing. What’s one change you’ve either seen for the better in your lifetime, or would like to see made for the sake of our sons and daughters?

To one commenter, I will send a big old bouquet of flowers, not because it’s Mother’s Day, but because flowers, and blog buddies, are wonderful.

 

Casual Weeding

I don’t like to weed. The work is often hot and buggy, and though I have seen only two snakes in my 25 years on this property, one of those snakes was a freight train of a serpent, and not inclined to heed any suggestions from me. Then there’s poison ivy, ticks (I already have Lyme disease), and worms. I am deathly–irrationally–afraid of earth worms.

But there is no point planting flowers in this part of Maryland unless weeding will follow. So I weed. I never plan to weed, though. I make a vague observation as I’m walking out to the car in the morning. “Yikes, that burdock has developed ambitions in the direction of world domination! Somebody should do something about it.”

Coming home from work, I will nod to the burdock. “My name is Inigo Montoya. You are choking my pansies. Prepare to die.”

The next morning, I’ll yank a few leaves as I’m taking out the trash. When I get the mail, I wreak a little more destruction. I never put weeding on my to do list  (which is also a vague notion never written down), but by the end of the weekend, I’ve usually “gotten after” a few beds, one swipe or swat at a time.

This is how I deal best with the things that don’t give me joy but must be done. I come at them sideways, in little bites, and try never to put them at the beginning or end of the day in any quantity. Same with office tasks like payroll (hates me some payroll filings), invoicing (Baby Jeebus, spare me), and coding bank statements. (Insert profanity of your choosing here.)

Deadlines attach to these tasks–let the weeds go too long, and no flowerbed. Miss the payroll filings, and penalties and interest can be yours to pay. I don’t focus on that. I focus on five-minute-resets (housework), casual weeding (yardwork), and “just do one bank statement before lunch,” (office work).

And I get a heck of a lot done, on my time, when I’m in the mood. I’m convinced that this approach to working–on the worker’s terms, for the most part–is far more efficient than the boss’s to-do list, the scheduled meetings, and the time clock. Some organizations and tasks need all that. I am endlessly grateful to have found livelihoods that allow me a lot of worker autonomy.

I’m approaching a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), which is well suited to an artisan’s job. It’s also the way most of the world worked prior to the industrial revolution. As long as I make my deadlines, the rest is up to me. Not everybody will work well without external structure, but then, I don’t work well WITH externally imposed structure (a tendency called presenteeism. I’m there, but not hitting on all eight cylinders).

For a person like me, having a time clock, dress code, and SMART goals wrecks my productivity and creativity. For others, those strategies are the sina qua non of a productive day.

Where do you fall, or do you wear different hats for different roles? If you could change one thing about your jobs or responsibilities, what would it be? To one commenter, I’ll send a print copy of No Dukes Allowed (c’mon May 15!)

Because I Say So

One of the biggest heartbreaks I deal with as a child welfare attorney is seeing people on the cusp of adulthood–sixteen and up–making choices that point their lives in violent, lonely, dangerous directions. I would give a lot to motivate these young people to stay in school, stay off the streets after dark, stay away from the booze, the drugs, the traffickers, and the gangs.

The families and foster care workers who work with this population try many strategies to incentivize compliance with commonsense rules (like “don’t pick fights,” or “come home after school.”) They offer rewards of money, goodies, outings, shoes, clothing, vacations…. the issue comes down to life or death, from my perspective, and if offering an adolescent an all expenses paid trip to Cancun would save a life, I’d do it and consider it a bargain.

Compared to housing that young person in jail for years, or in rehab, or a safe house, it would be a bargain. The problem is that, contrary to most manager’s dearly held myths, carrots and sticks don’t work. For tasks of any cognitive complexity, for tasks that require any creativity, having a possible reward based on a superior outcome usually decreases performance.

You read that correctly: Promising casual Fridays, a bonus, a higher commission percentage in exchange for higher performance generally backfires. If the task is very simple–VERY simple, like stacking boxes–then the incentive might have a positive effect. For anything else, people tend to do better when they are motivated by autonomy (being in charge of their own time and effort), mastery (the desire to improve skills and competence because that feels good), and purpose–the sense that the work is meaningful.

I think this reality–which most of us know intuitively–figures into the average work of genre fiction. One of the hallmarks of a good mystery is not that the detective solves a lot of cases in a short period of time, but rather, that he or she colors outside the lines, is motivated by the victims’ need for justice, and is from page to page, pretty much in charge of his or her time and resources.

Same with thrillers, same with romance, in that the protagonists are in pursuit of goals that matter to them personally, not goals that matter to the quarterly earnings report. The protagonists are self-motivated, they are gnawing away at complicated issues, and they are tackling the book-challenges because those are high stakes problems.

Fiction built around winning the top sales award for the year would fall flat, unless the person winning that bonus was also being creative about how they pursued the goal, and had more riding on that windfall than just a larger 401k balance.

Daniel Pink’s short TED talk provides more information about the science verifying how counterproductive extrinsic rewards can be (and the research goes back decades).

What motivates you? This week’s giveaway might be chosen from among whatever is mentioned in the comments. For me, autonomy is a huge motivator, but even Amazon doesn’t seem to have a Free Time gift card yet.

When the Tough Get Napping

In nearly every book I write, I struggle with one question: What is keeping the couple apart? What? What? WHAT? Often, I write half the book (the falling in love half), and then I hold my nose and jump, praying that my subconscious will catch me….

And usually, it’s a long way down.

What I need is a breakthrough, a new thought that has never occurred to me before, and has quite possibly never occurred to anybody. I have no idea when the new thought will pop up, no idea what it will look like. What I do know is that I can’t force it to appear. Creative problem-solving–which drives forward everything from education, to science, to public policy, to international relations–is not taught to us in school. We seldom see it modeled, but we live the results every time we pick up a well written book, drive a well made car, use a prescription drug, or pull a relationship through a knothole.

Fortunately, some people smarter than I am have focused on breakthrough thinking, and what makes it more likely to happen. The Net and the Butterfly, a lovely book summarized by the authors in this video, gives us a few clues about how to approach sticky mental problems.

First, get plenty of rest. Great work goes on in the brain when we sleep, combining what we know with what we need to figure out. Second, get plenty of new mental stimulation–read widely, talk to a few well chosen strangers, walk a mile in new surrounds or in somebody else’s shoes. Wear different clothes, try different foods. Novelty, variety and creativity are great bedfellows.

Third, foster hobbies that absorb you in ways your work routine doesn’t–read, crochet, go fishing, take a stroll (scientists apparently favor this one)–find things to do that give your mind a chew toy without taking up all your mental capacity.

In short, we are most likely to make breakthroughs with difficult problems when we… play. Goof off, follow rabbit trails, indulge an impulse, commit a random act of kindness, read a new author in a new genre, and relax enough to enjoy the frolics anddetours.

So I do this, and the answers come–eventually–but it makes me aware of the societal forces I battle because breakthrough thinking is critical to my livelihood. When as a society, we need creativity and insight the most, we’re busy working one of the longest work weeks in the developed world, taking the fewest vacation days, going short of sleep, and holding down multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Maybe we’d all be better off we built recess into every day, no matter who we are or what our calling is.

How do you build in mind-wandering time? How do you vary your routine or take small risks in the name of bolstering your creativity and problem-solving abilities? Or have you devised a different approach to solving the thorny problems? To one commenter, I’ll send a print copy of Marquesses at the Masquerade.

 

 

Tell Me Something Good

Easter weekend, I wanted to post my mom’s Easter cake recipe on Facebook. The cake is coconut, angel food cake, some sort of custard… utterly yummy. I haven’t made it for decades, so I rifled my recipe box, hoping to find it. No such luck, but I did find something else I’d been searching for.

My mom bought me a horse when I was twelve–a grand, Thelwell slug of a beast, whom I loved dearly. We kept him on my godparents’ farm, way down the valley, and for several years, I got to spend most weekends and summers on his back (and my godparents’ couch). The oldest daughter in that family was a year my senior, and we were great friends. We rode together, made hay, played piano duets. I’ve never had many friends, but the friends I have are good friends. Jeanne was a very good friend.

Way led onto way, though, and we lost touch. Our parents are no longer extant, decades have gone by, and I know at some point, Jeanne married. I couldn’t recall her married name. Couldn’t recall where she’d moved to, couldn’t find any thread to follow back to re-establish the connection.

Except… in the recipe box, where the Easter cake recipe should have been was a scrap of paper with Jeanne’s married name on it. I looked her up on Facebook, and lo, we’re back in touch.

Finding an old friend is wonderful, and this is the second person from my distant past whom I’ve found on FB. Generally, I’ve been furious with FB in recent months. The whole notion of selling our privacy to the highest bidder and obscuring those transactions, policing the third party apps inadequately, allowing leaks that are only disclosed under political pressure…. because profit is mightier than privacy? GRRRR.

But then… FB helped me find two old friends. FB isn’t all bad. Maybe we can keep the good and have less of the bad?

This week, I also took a roadtrip down to eastern Tennessee, where I was privileged to participate in a terrific writing seminar. I love me a roadtrip, I do not love me paying taxes every April. The whole way to this gathering, though, I was rolling along on interstates. I was delighting in the flower plantings that are starting to bloom along the roadways, I was pleased to see several bridges getting new decking. None of that would be possible, except that thee and me pay our fair share.

Maybe taxes aren’t all bad?

In a climate where we’re encouraged to be polarized, divided, and close-minded, I am pondering the benefits of ambiguity. At some point in recent years, an assumption has trickled into my thinking–that I must decide whether everything is either all bad or all good–and those are my only options.

Very little is all good or all bad. That makes life more complicated, but I’d rather that life be more complicated, than that I become blind to reality.

Can you give a grudging nod to some benefit from paying taxes? To Facebook? To any generally irksome aspect of life that nonetheless isn’t all bad? To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of Marquesses at the Masquerade–c’mon Tuesday!

 

 

Laughing all the Way

Sometime in the next 60-90 days, I will try my last foreseeable case in Maryland’s family law courts. I am ready to be done. In a field where few people last ten years, I’m pushing 25. Time to let somebody else carry this torch, while I get acquainted with more dukes and dunderwhelps.

I’m pondering what lessons I can take away from my tenure representing foster children. If I don’t have me an exit interview, nobody will. I want closure, for one thing, but I also want to memorialize any insights that might help those following after me.

One take-away that was dropped into my lap by a supervisor at Social Services years ago was this: We know which kids are likely to do well after foster care. We can spot them fairly easily because they have two characteristics. Their later success has nothing to do with grades, good looks, skin color, church attendance, intelligence, work habits, or any other typical indicator of success. Not. One. Thing.

The kids who will eventually thrive had two factors going for them. First, somebody modeled to them a consistent, healthy definition of, “I love you.” Might have been a clarinet teacher, an older sibling, a grandparent. Somebody was there for them on the hard days, holding them accountable on the dumb days, and celebrating with them on the good days.

The taxpayer devotes very little money to ensuring foster children are loved. We tend to their needs in terms of care, but love… can money buy that? Many children are fortunate to end up in foster homes where love is available, but one quarter of foster children nationwide end up in foster homes where abuse or neglect reaches the point where the state sees it. (And we do pay for that.)

The second factor that identifies a foster kid headed toward success is a healthy definition of play. Can this kid have fun–belly laughing, whooping-up, gotta-hug-’em, fun–without getting in trouble? Without hurting somebody? Without breaking the law?

We also devote very little money to having fun, but most foster parents instinctively pick up on this one. They know which kids can’t laugh when they walk in the door, and six months later, they notice that a kitten and some string had the kid rolling on the floor.

I am hopeful that as a society, we’re on the verge of realizing that work–while it can be meaningful and enjoyable–does not make us free. Love is a nutrient that we need every bit as much if not more than the basic food groups and a safe place to sleep. Laughter pays certain bills no paycheck ever covered.

And for me, as I head into a time when I have even more control over what I do with my day, I’m thinking about who loves me, who I love, and what my definition of a delightful day is. What makes me laugh? With whom do I share that? One answer is: My characters make me laugh, and I share them with you.

What makes you laugh? What made you laugh as a kid? What made you smile inside as a kid? When was the last time you got the giggles?

To one commenter, I’ll send a print version of Marquessess at the Masquerade, which hits the major platform shelves April 17, and downloads from the website store on April 13. . 

Here come all the flowers!

I don’t know about your 2017, but mine was a slog. The water was high in just about every direction at some point during the year–family, lawyering, authoring, health–though not everything came all together, thank heavens, and nothing rose past the level of a simple challenge.

This week, I’ve had an inkling that life is moving on. Spring is arriving, and that, more than a date on the calendar, reassures me that 2017 isn’t going to hang around forever in spirit. I’ve noticed Stuff, like how quiet the house is when the forced-hot-air heaters aren’t roaring. The first of the yard flowers–crocuses and daffodils–are starting to bloom. The light hits from a different angle during my writing hours. One fine day recently, I could open the house up, and hear the wind in the pines and the morning bird symphony as I tackled my pages for the day.

This is one of my favorite times of year, when it’s milder weather, but the bugs aren’t out yet, and the trees have no leaves so the sunshine can reach everywhere. It’s the vernal version of Indian summer from an anticipatory perspective. I’ve gone to bed with a headache a few nights lately, which I’m guessing has something to do with a stand of pernicious Bradford pears somewhere upwind. Even this makes me happy,  because it means winter is easing its hold.

Putting in my first four flats of pansies makes me happy, and the impatiens aren’t far behind. Having to change the kitty litter less often (because kittehs play outside) makes me happy. Having the sun up as I awaken makes me happy. The titles that in my head have been “Spring 2018” for most of the past year are finally barreling toward publication, and that makes me really happy. (That’s a working cover for My Own True Duchess.)

I see not one but two winter storms in the forecast. We got a foot of snow last week, the biggest dump of the year for my neck of the woods. The hard part isn’t over, but the waters of cold, darkness, and fatigue are receding. Yes, I know I’ll be bellyaching about the bugs, the heat, the snakes, the humidity, the jungle that is my yard, but for now I look forward to the warmth and light, just as I looked forward to the coziness, peace, and snowfalls of winter.

What lifts your spirits this time of year? Or do you mourn to see winter passing and dread the hotter months? To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Barnes and Noble Gift Card.