If you want to be happy for the rest of your life…

tumblr_ltw5pkFRT11qmqiht…find the thing you were meant to do in this life…and do it.

There must be something to this passion-thing when  what many would consider the most bureaucratic department of our government actually has a mandatory workshop for  workers ushered out of a job in the last year and the focus of the workshop is finding your passion. I mean, really! I knew they were pals and all, but has the government “gone Oprah”?

Once my initial shock wore off, I have to admit it made sense. The points covered in the workshop were taken from the book What Should I Do with My Life? by Po Bronson. The author studied a group of 900 successful people from every walk of life and demographic and then revealed how it was that they found their true calling. Here’s what he found:

  1.      Don’t let your fears let you jump to the wrong conclusion. A lot of us are afraid that pursuing our passion will lead right to the poorhouse—with absolutely no real facts to go on to substantiate it.
  2.      Don’t wait for a sign from God. Look into your heart. You probably already know what you should be doing with your life.
  3.      If you’re not happy, don’t stay. This is hard but so true! It is not selfish to be who you really are! Life will evolve naturally if you pursue your passion.
  4.      Wisdom is found in experience. Sometimes, you can over-think a thing until it never happens. Embrace your past experiences to show you a starting point. (The leader in the workshop told a story about her brother who was a pharmacist and who gave it all up—the big house, the money, the prestige—to open up a kennel to train bird dogs. This passion had always existed on the peripheral of his other life. When he finally paid attention to what he really wanted in his life—he made the switch.)
  5.     Don’t give up. As a writer, this last one is the one I tend to zero-in on the most. Good thing, too, because if I’ve learned anything in my years on this Earth, I’ve learned that if you don’t relentlessly pursue the thing that makes you happy in this life, it will likely not just fall into your lap.

Any thoughts, comments? I would love to hear a story of how you found your passion–especially if you had to jettison another way of life to do it.

An open love letter to the city of Aix-en-Provence

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

In my mind, Aix-en-Provence is a city created for the way people should live. Should really live. I am finishing up a too-fast week in Aix but I feel pretty confident in my statement. Now it’s true I’m probably inadvertently, unavoidably comparing it to the city I’m currently living in back in the States. (A Facebook friend posted on my timeline yesterday the fact that north Florida was experiencing three digit temperatures and an outburst of yellow flies. She kindly didn’t even mention the humidity.) I’m not sure there’s even a word in French for humidity. (Well, I guess there’d have to be because of Tahiti.) The weather for mid-summer in Aix is probably described most aptly as pleasant, warm and breezy but more succinctly as perfect. I sat out evenings here in weather that just didn’t exist. It wasn’t hot or cold, wet or dry. It was exactly right. It was so perfect you didn’t have to think about it. It just was.

I’d have to say the key reason I think Aix is a city made for how people should live is because of the daily food markets. The idea that you can wake up and take a quick (and gorgeous) walk to an outdoor array of the freshest, best possible choice of seasonal food—is something we Americans have largely given up on and the French wisely would never.

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

When did we Americans decide that we don’t need fresh-baked bread? Or to have strawberries that taste like strawberries? Or vegetables in season? When did we accept the fact that the way food should taste—succulent and specific—was something we could live without? (I have a French friend who did an internship at the advertising agency I worked at and she used to bemoan the fact that all American food tasted basically the same—like it was coated with a light caramel coating: sugar and salt but no real distinct flavors. Live a week next to an open air produce market and you’ll know exactly what she means. I feel like I’ve rediscovered my palate this week.)

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Not surprisingly, I haven’t seen a single seriously overweight person since I’ve been here. Could the availability of delicious, fresh food ingredients combined with a beautiful walking city have something to do with that?

Yuh think?

Okay, so now Aix has seen to it that you’ve gotten your cardio in such a way that you’ve window shopped and wound around and through ancient alleyways and streets. It’s de-stressed you by insisting you stop every now and then in your daily round to sip a cup of coffee (which everyone knows is good for you) and maybe nibble on a hand-made pastry (balance! Everything in moderation.) It’s made it practically impossible to find processed foods so you’re stuck with the real thing—ten kinds of olives harvested from the area, olive oil so pure it will make you weep even if you use only a dribble on your salads, tomatoes plump and red that make your plate look like a work of art (this is France after all) and that really taste like tomatoes.

Now on to the social aspect of this city. As a writer, I spend a lot of my time alone. When I finally break away (or come up for air as my husband puts it), I go to the grocery store or drive to a restaurant to meet with friends for an hour or so or maybe wander around St Augustine to find an art gallery.

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

In Aix in the summer time, because it doesn’t get dark until after ten o’clock each night, and because the city is made up of French people, the city markets are taken down and the cafes are re-erected so that people can come together—to eat, to drink, to laugh, to talk. It is such a healthy, amazingly fun, exquisite way for people to commune and connect that I literally found myself longing for anything similar in my life back home.

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

How can you not relax and unwind in a café setting? You’re outdoors, the waiter is unobtrusive but ever-there, all the food tastes better, the warmth of the day has hardly dissipated but the most soothing of breezes has been added, and you’re surrounded by your friends. As I watched café life from my own café table, I noticed over and over again how people in the café were joined unexpectedly by friends or family members wandering by (usually with ice cream cones or Nutella crepes in hand). I couldn’t help but think how it would change a person to be enjoying the evening air with the expectation that they might well see, unplanned, a loved one or friend.

Community. Food. Beauty. And on that last note, I have to add one more thing: I travelled with two men this trip and one of them a photographer. I am sure he’ll be doing his own page about the beautiful young women of Aix but even I could not help notice them. I loved watching all the city life saunter by my café table—or balcony—but the exquisite Aixoise in their inimitable fashion and style, their confidence in their beauty and youth added a intensified sense of panache to the trip. In a phone conversation with my ninety-year old mother, she asked, “Are the French women still beautiful? (We lived in France in the sixties.) How do they wear their hair styles? Their clothes?” I was happy to tell her that while plus ça change, the facts were clear when it came to French women and style that plus la meme chose too.

I leave you now until next time, mes amis. I am off Googling immigration possibilities…

Vive la France…where food meets style

In excited anticipation of my upcoming Provençal research trip, I’m going through my cookbooks and scanning favorite recipes to be uploaded to my iPad. I expect to live in the daily food markets in Aix and environs and–if just for a few weeks–live the life I write about and love.

I  stumbled across a recent article that said the French were annoyed because there was a grass roots movement to close some McDonald’s restaurants in France. And while granted, if you read the piece you’ll see that their Mickey D’s are nothing like ours, it was still a shock.

IMG_4348I hate to think that our American way of eating is leeching across the Atlantic to the land of food and style, but there are some things that seem to be the same no matter where you live and the combination of holding down a job and raising a family while attempting to bring good nutrition (and taste!) into the equation seems to be one of them.

I don’t think it’s  impossible to eat healthily and work full time, but it’s hard. That’s because here in the States our “convenience” foods—frozen processed foods and snack-packs (which tend to be tasteless and generally bad for you) are often the only things we have time to “make.”

I mean, really! Doesn’t preparing, then cleaning up after evening meals (if you bother to do it before slumping  in front of the TV set) wear you out? You work hard all day and then there’s all that chopping and prepping in order to put out a seasoned, cooked piece of meat—hopefully with some kind of sauce on it—a vegetable (better make it two, we didn’t get anywhere near our quota of fruits & veggies today), a salad, a starch (rice or risotto—both of which take at least forty minutes to cook), a piece of bread or a roll to help move it all around the plate with, and something to drink. And it’s all eaten in less time than it takes to change the channel.IMG_3209
If you have  a full time job, any kids at all, and maybe a spouse  who expects your occasional participation in his/her life AND you have the least desire to stay up with current events, friends, extended family, a clean house, and keeping your family’s shirts and shorts laundered, not to mention possibly writing a chapter in your latest murder mystery, you will be, without question, no two-ways-about-it, totally crunched for time all of the time.

I  love to cook  my family’s favorites: cassoulet, chicken and dumplings, etc. But if I do it on a weeknight, I end up agitated and grumpy—if I’m able to pull it off at all. So I reserve the creative cooking for the weekend when I have a little extra time (in between soccer games, birthday parties, church, and yard work!) and during the week I take a page from how the French dine when they dine simply and perfectly.
30770518It doesn’t take an elaborate morney sauce or a counterful of mise-en-place bowls to make an exquisite, satisfying meal, (and I’m not leading up to take-out here). Sometimes the simplest meals are the best. If you can get your hands on really good tomatoes, for example, you needn’t do any actual cooking.

The French can do wonderful things with a cold plate of pickles, a little pâté and a hunk of fresh bread. It takes seconds to assemble. (Be sure and give everything a finishing drizzle of your best quality olive oil.) Set a pretty table, open a decent rosé wine and voila! Nothing simpler.
Come to that, it’s hard to beat a good couple of cheeses (say a Brie or Gouda with a blue cheese, varying the hard and soft cheeses) with a salad, fresh bread and maybe a simple tapenade.  All of which you just pull out of the fridge and put on a plate.

Now, if you want to do a little something ahead of time—say, on the weekend when you have all that extra time— roast some peppers or shred a bunch of hard cheese or pre-bake some eggplant and store them in the fridge. Then, come Tuesday night, you can get a little jiggy with dinner without spending a lot of time in the kitchen. You’re still just assembling, but some of your ingredients have been pre-assembled.

I guess I hate the thought of anyone longing for McDonald’s–even if they do have McCamemberts instead of Monster Macs–but especially not the French!

At least not until I have one more perfect summer in fantasy land.

Why do we love Europe so?

19007453Is it weird that Walt Disney, among his fantasia rides and fairyland worlds, also re-created Europe at one of his theme parks? I try to imagine what I would think if I found out that a bunch of Europeans created an amusement park where bears talked and pirates roamed, cartoon mice and castle princesses cast spells and in the midst of all this fantasy was a replica circa 1975 of my suburban neighborhood in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida. I think I might be a little insulted.

Is it presumptuous to think of another culture as our idea of an amusement park? I think some Brits and Europeans come to New York City on holiday and I’m not quite sure why. The bagels, maybe? It can’t be the history, like us with Europe. New York is, like, five years old compared to what they have back home. It can’t be the friendly natives or the pastoral vistas, the geological landmarks or the food. I’m frankly stymied. Is it just to be someplace different?39194840

The last time I visited London, I was disappointed to discover it looked and sounded a lot like the US. (Come to think of it, Paris last year felt a little too much like Epcot Center for my comfort too.) I found the charming English accents blunted by watching too much American television. I found the architecture modern and attractive—but hardly English. I found the pubs, for the most part, a strident attempt to be pub-like for all the tourists, and the department stores, although fun and attractive, devoid of everything that had set them apart—except for their names—from American retail.

I shouldn’t be surprised that the Internet is turning us all into one big homogeneous blob of diluted Americana. But I didn’t think it would happen this fast. The last time I was in Germany, my husband—who is fluent in the language—never found a single opportunity to speak it. Everyone spoke English.

37743092Even the bathrooms have done a tip of the hat to the Americans. A few years ago, one was always challenged, especially in France, with public toilets and usually had to take a moment to negotiate even hotel room bathrooms. No longer. Europe now out-Americans the Americans for modernized bathrooms. There even seems to be fewer and fewer bidet sightings.

Not that Europe’s charm was all in its bathrooms, but it did help make the whole experience feel foreign. And that’s partly the reason I travel—to jump outside my comfort zone, to struggle to order from a menu, to snap out of the somnolent death-march that marks much of my daily round in the States, and to find the unexpected around every corner.

Jeez. Is that too much to ask?

When a fake is nearly as good as the real deal

When I look at a situation that needs changing, I first try to imagine how the flawed situation would look in a perfect world. That at least gives me a target to shoot for. I then either rearrange things that can be rearranged to head in that direction, or I camouflage the situation such that it at least looks closer to the ideal. I’m not sure how well this works on a small scale but I find it pretty effective for big-picture scenarios. And maybe that’s because the details don’t matter quite as much.

For example, when I was younger by a couple of decades, I used to imagine myself a published author. In addition to stealing hours from the night while the baby slept or from my lunch hour on my job in order to write, or to read craft books and structure endless query letters and so forth, I had this habit—usually indulged while I was driving when nothing more constructive could be accomplished—of imagining myself as a successful author being interviewed by Oprah on her show.

Feel it, baby! You're almost there!

Feel it, baby! You’re almost there!

Just the feeling of stepping into that role—smiling benignly when asked by the Big O about where I got my story ideas or did I feel guilty receiving eight-figure advances when there were still starving people in (fill in the blank)?—helped me feel more confident in my dream of becoming an author. And trust me, as with a lot of things, feeling the part goes a long way to being the part.

There’s a lot to be said for feelings following behavior. I once dated an actor who was wonderfully good—brilliant, in fact, in the way he could transform himself from an impoverished, not particularly witty thirty-year old living in Atlanta, Georgia to a smoldering powerhouse in the character of Silva Vaccaro from Tennessee Williams’ 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. It wasn’t just my fondness for him that made me think his portrayal was one of the most mesmerizing performances on stage I’d ever seen. He was that good. Which was why when he scraped the makeup off it was so perplexing to have him resort to a whiny, depressed artiste—nothing like the characters he brought to life on stage.

Oh, fie! Where is yon lip gloss...?

Oh, fie! How canst thou smile if yon lip gloss is gone mayhaps forever?

When “Robin” complained to me about some amorphous tragedy he was in the midst of (it was never anything specific like needing rent money or having an annoying boil on his nose or something), I would say: “You’re an actor. Just pretend you’re happy! If you smile—like you do on stage—you’ll eventually end up feeling that way!” (BTW: This tact totally didn’t work with him. OTOH, I imagine my Pollyanna advice was at least as irritating to him as his whining was to me.)

19088982I’m not saying I believe that we can necessarily control how we feel or what we think. I get that unwanted thoughts and emotions squeeze into our minds during our daily round derailing our best intentions, our plans, our goals. But I think creating a pretend-world is a lovely exercise in make-believe that can, for at least a little bit, supplant reality when you really need reality to be blotted out. Or if you just need a level playing field to get your mood up, your confidence running, your mojo topped off—and I think once you’ve done that—and even gotten in the habit of doing it quite a bit—you’ll end up feeling a little better.

Anybody else subscribe to the fake it ‘til you make it line of thinking? Does it work for you? Got another idea?

 

When Our Heroes Track Mud on the Carpet

(This is a revision of a post I did two years ago that still resounds with me today and I hope it will with you, too. I’ll post something new the first week of May and hope this helps me to not  fall off your radar in the meantime!)

Twenty years ago, I found an awesome book called Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach. Over the years I have worn this book out, underlining key passages, typing whole sections into my smartphone and mining it for never-fail gems upon which I have restructured my diet, my finances and my housekeeping to mention just a few things.  I  loved the author’s voice, and took comfort in the certainty of her words of wisdom–much of it anchored in essence by great writers and thinkers, explorers and doers in history and tweaked to be made current to our lives and our time by Ms. Breathnach’s own gentle voice and common sense perspective.

Ms. Breathnach sold  7 million copies of Simple Abundance and  appeared on Oprah’s show 11 times. It’s not hyperbole to say that she touched my life and many, many others. I found comfort and balance in her words and reached for her book often. If you’re not familiar with it, Breathnach gives an essay for every day of the year and while she speaks mostly to women, her essays cover everything from raising children to digging out of credit card debt to finding your passion to cooking a simple meal.

Today, I looked up the chapter where she addresses Spending Habits. She wrote:

“One of the greatest gifts my husband has ever given me is the ability to think before I spend. This is how savers behave. Savers don’t get a high from recreational shopping. Savers don’t shop in order to make themselves feel better…Today, be willing to gently explore your life-energy expenditures. Don’t blame yourself for bad choices. Do attempt to make better ones. Most of our problems in handling money stem from unexamined patterns rather than from uncontrollable urges.”

Nice, huh? And as true today in 2014 as it was when she wrote it in 1995. Which is why it was such a shocker to find out that a few years later Ms. Breathnach divorced the husband she referenced above, ran off to England with some dude who later dumped her and ended up broke and sleeping on the couch at her sister’s apartment. (As a writer, myself, this is definitely not how one dreams that being a mega-bestseller author will end up.)

We all have heroes that fail us. We are all human. I get that. I thought it was remarkably gutsy in the first place to write a book saying you have researched (and lived) all the answers and then to go on Oprah eleven times to underscore the point.

It’s even gutsier to do that, trip publicly, and pick yourself back up for a second try. Seriously, it’s one thing to be all Yoda and wise sitting in your comfy upper middle-class tract mansion typing away on how to make life work for you when you don’t have to worry about a day job because you have a working spouse. It’s quite another when you’re homeless, in debt up to your eyeballs and jobless.

So, welcome to the party, Sarah.

I fully expect her next book to have some serious practical insights that go beyond how Rudyard Kipling imagined we should use aromatherapy (in her first book) to make a home feel like home, or Edith Wharton’s advice on making peace with your hair. And you won’t be surprised to hear that, yes, she does have a new book out on her “journey.”

But for me, I think I’ll pass. Don’t get me wrong, my hat is off to her and her unsinkable Molly Brown ability to fashion opportunity and trad-pub gold out of failure, but I’ve gotten a few years under my belt since I last searched outward for my heroes. Today, I look closer to home for that and tend to sort out the codes and values that define my life the old fashioned way: by trying to live them day by day instead of reading about them.

How about you? Anybody find themselves following a mentor or teacher or role model who let them down but still managed to have a pretty good life in spite of it? Hmmm…do we even need heroes?

A little early morning rant with your espresso?

16451156Okay. I admit I don’t often read the Administrative Science Quarterly. Okay, well, I never read it. But it was cited recently in a mash-up piece on The Passive Voice and while I’m still not going to read the paper, I will throw my two cents in on what seems, combined with my own growing experience, to be an unfortunate and unpleasant phenomenon.

Here’s an excerpt from the paper in the Administrative Science Quarterly, that started this rant:

Comparing thousands of reader reviews on Goodreads.com of 64 English-language books that either won or were short-listed for prestigious book awards between 2007 and 2011, we find that prizewinning books tend to attract more readers following the announcement of an award and that readers’ ratings of award-winning books tend to decline more precipitously following the announcement of an award relative to books that were named as finalists but did not win.

First, we propose that the audience evaluating a high-status actor or object tends to shift as a result of a public status shock, like an award, increasing in number but also in diverse tastes. We outline how this shift might translate into less favorable evaluations of quality.

Second, we show that the increase in popularity that tends to follow a status shock is off-putting to some, also resulting in more negative evaluations. We show that our proposed mechanisms together explain the negative effect of status on evaluations in the context of the literary world.

So basically, it seems there is a tendency by the general reading public–once a book is deemed worthy  by some measuring stick respected by the literary-reading world–to attempt to devalue that work.

I know there will always be haters. Got it. I’m a University of Florida alumna so Been There. Won the National Championship. Got the T-shirt. It’s not the fact that, as an author, I feel vulnerable to the masses weighing in on my stories or writing ability. I  had a long career as an advertising copywriter so not only have I suffered the literary slings and arrows of clients (and account execs) as well as Creative Directors (who started out as Art Directors I feel inclined to point out) in reference to my writing, I’ve run my precious literary babies up the flag pole and had readers as far away as Australia and India use them as target practice, too.

But even as thick-skinned as I tend to be, after experiencing a couple of bad mornings which were the result of reading a particularly cruel review on one of my titles, I generally don’t go there anymore. I’m lucky enough to have a buffer between me and my reviews, good or bad. My husband  checks Amazon frequently for me so I don’t have to. I’ll often get texts from him throughout the day that read: “Another 5-star for SOF!” or “Check out your 4-star on FF…from a male reader, no less.” (Note: he’s not being sexist, most of my readers are female.)

What my husband typically keeps to himself are the 1 and 2 star reviews that inevitably come down the pike. Because he has an inquisitive mind and because he wants to know why one title with three hundred 4 and 5 star reviews would prompt someone—especially someone who goes onto the review page and SEES all the love–to write a vitriolic rant condemning it, he often tracks down the reviewer.

30326822Now I don’t mean he gets their GPS coordinates, but he traces the reviewer’s link back thru the Amazon website to find out who they are and what their story is. Once in awhile he’ll tell me: “You got a 2-star from some old lady in Tampa who’s only ever reviewed foot powder ’til now.” But usually–and it makes me mad just to write it–usually, he’s discovered the ultra-negative reviewer is not only another author–but one in my genre and one not doing well (which you can easily determine by the ranking on the book page.)

Let me say, if not from the get go (little late for that), that I’m not trying to say my books are just so awesome that someone’s negative opinion—if it results in a two-star review—must be wrong. I’m saying I see a pattern related to most of the one and two star reviews I receive on certain of my books. And it seems to reveal that the more visibly loved a book appears, (ie 300 4 & 5 star reviews) the more one-star reviews it attracts.

This post is not really about crap reviews. It is a lamentation about the fact that it appears that the higher up you go, the more people want to jerk you back down. I follow several authors’ blogs who used to regularly tell how much money they made on their book sales in an effort to help other authors figure out possible promotion methods, etc. Frankly, I’ve found those blog posts very helpful in showing me what might be. It’s unusual in publishing to have that kind of transparency and it was refreshing and beneficial to see it. Recently, I’ve been reading those same authors say that when they release that kind of information they then see an avalanche of 1 and 2 star reviews show up on their Amazon book pages. Most say they won’t do it anymore.

"While I only read part of the first chapter of this book, I knew the whole book sucked. In fact, probably ALL her books suck! In fact, I think the AUTHOR sucks! Don't read any of her books ever! You've been warned!"

“While I only read part of the first chapter of this book, I knew the whole book sucked. In fact, probably ALL her books suck!”–Signed Disgusted Reader who also has a book you’ll like lots better available for 99c HERE.”

Keep in mind, these are not blogs addressed primarily to readers. These are blogs focused specifically on writing and indie publishing. So unless there’s a bunch of Big Five spies lurking on their blogs, these knee-jerk bad reviews are coming from jealous writers!

And not just newbies–in fact, I’d say rarely newbies. My husband’s own investigations show the poor reviews that I get from other writers are writers who are either traditionally published or are attempting to sell their backlist from back-in-the-day when they WERE traditionally published.

Which makes me want to ask: does it really make anyone feel better about themselves to tear someone else down? Does it really help?

Really?