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?

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?

How do you spell SUCCESS?

I was at a regional  writing conference last year (and I’m pretty sure I’m swearing off the foolish things forever) where the authors who had traditional publishers—even if they never saw an advance*—behaved poorly around the crowd of indie authors who were in attendance. From my conversations with the two groups, both seemed pretty well versed in publicity and book promotion methods. Both were focused on craft improvement. In fact, the only difference I saw between the two groups was that the Indie authors were making money on the sales of their books. And the trad authors, well, weren’t. (*Interesting note: The authors who had gotten sizable advances from their publishers didn’t tend to act like jerks lording it over the indies but the ones who hadn’t gotten any money up front, kinda did.)

It seems to me that there are two ways to claim success in any given field:

  1. You either produce something of quality that has your peers (or the general public) raving,
  2. Or you are well-paid for the thing you’ve produced even if nobody breaks down your door to tell you how marvelous you are.

After thinking not very long at all on this, I realized that my idea of writing success involves getting paid for my efforts—at least enough to live on.  I don’t have to win the lottery, but I’d consider a thousand bucks a month still “hobby” status. (I’ve been a freelance copywriter nearly my whole adult life so it wasn’t

You'll notice this writer, typical of most authors--trad or indie--is clutching a fistful of singles...

You’ll notice this writer, typical of most authors–trad or indie–is clutching a fistful of singles…

that big a jump for me to see writing fiction as something I should be paid for. I tend to believe this, in spite of the fact that artists and authors through the ages typically weren’t able to support themselves on their earnings. No one is more surprised than I am to realize that getting paid for my work—even work that doesn’t sell gym memberships or Lexus cars—is a baseline expectation of mine.

And of course, before you ask—yes, I’d do it even if I never earned a dime.

Goes without saying.

So along those lines is of course the other big reason to write. In fact, probably the main reason. It’s the reason most writers all started out with, and it’s the one that sustains us through the brown bar of shame on our Kindle Reports, the one-star reviews and the $1,000-plus editor and cover design costs.

John Gardner said it best, I think, on the last page of  his book, On Becoming A Novelist when he wrote:

“The true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga or way, an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious—a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfaction no non-novelist can understand—and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.”

So which is it? Do you write for money? Or for recognition? Do you have to have both to consider yourself successful? Or do you just write for yourself and book sales are irrelevant?

Love to hear.

The Merits of Losing

There’s this building on Peachtree Road in the neighborhood of Buckhead in Atlanta. It’s a very old apartment building called the Al Hambra. I lived there in the mid-eighties. The Al Hambra was all hardwood floors and Mediterranean-styled rounded doorways. My apartment had a stone balcony that faced Peachtree Road and I could sit out there with my friends, drink beer and watch the Peachtree Road Race every year, or just sit out and drink beer.

My apartment is the bottom one, far left (nearly out of the picture.) I've set two mysteries here in my Maggie Newberry mystery series.

My apartment is the bottom one, far left (nearly out of the picture.) I’ve set two mysteries here in my Maggie Newberry mystery series.

Sometimes, if I couldn’t sleep, I’d wrap up in a comforter and sit out there and watch the night life happen right in front of me and I always felt perfectly safe. The sounds of sirens and horns honking were background noise to my life  for the three years I lived there.

Because the Al Hambra is located in Buckhead near Garden Hills, I could walk to the neighborhood restaurants, mom ‘n pop grocers, pubs and outdoor cafes. The city’s first Fellini’s Pizza opened up next door to the Al Hambra and although in the beginning it was tattered and dark and bare bones, it was also exotic and earthy and quickly became popular. I liked meeting friends there to sit outside, eat pizza (and drink beer) because you could feel the hum of the busiest street in the city as it flew by. Living at the Al Hambra made me feel alive. It  made me feel like something exciting was about to happen.

I loved the Al Hambra. And I loved living there. But more interesting, I think, is the story of how I lost it. And how losing it became a major turning point in my life. In fact it became the final event in a series of four events that happened over a six-week period that changed my  life for good.

The first event that happened was when I lost my job as Creative Director at the ad agency that had the Hardee’s Hamburger account. It was the only account we had and when we lost it, we closed the doors. Like most out-of-work writers, I just turned my hand to freelancing with no real financial hardship.

A week later, the second event happened when I saw the movie “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Seeing that movie was significant because it lit a fire under me that helped push me over the line right when things needed to happen. That movie illustrated to me that I was young and free and there were adventures in the world to be had if I would just tap into the courage needed to find them.

The third thing that happened was that a good friend of mine introduced me to a man who was visiting him from Auckland, New Zealand. We hit it off and as I didn’t have a job to worry about, I made plans to come “down there” and visit him. I bought a round-trip ticket to Auckland for a month’s visit. I began to view my coming visit to the South Pacific as the Big Adventure I was looking for.

My parents weren’t thrilled.

Auckland is a long way away, even for a visit. It was in fact the furthest point on the globe, except for Adelaide, Australia, from where they lived in Jacksonville, Florida. In those days—before computers, before cellphones, before LOTR—most people I talked to didn’t even know where NZ was on the map.

As it happened, my folks were right to be worried. And that’s because two weeks before I was to board the jet to LAX that would take me to Auckland, I got a letter from the management company of the Al Hambra telling me to vacate the premises. They were turning the building into condos. If I—and everyone else—would clear out within thirty days, we’d get our deposits back no questions asked.

This was the fourth and most crucial event. With no job and now no apartment to come back to in ATL, there was no reason not to stretch my visit as long as I wanted to stay. With my stuff safely in storage, my plants donated to friends, a hunky new love-interest with a really cool English accent waiting for me, I was able to turn away from all the security, comfort, and familiarity of my life in Atlanta—in the States for that matter—and prepare to embrace the unknown and experience the thrill of discovering the larger world that was out there.

My parents nearly went nuts.

But it was one of the very best things I’ve ever done.

Rangitoto volcano across from Auckland Harbour. This was the view from my living room window in Parnell.

Rangitoto volcano across from Auckland Harbour. This was the view from my balcony in Parnell.

If I hadn’t lost my apartment at the Al Hambra, I wouldn’t have taken that last step—to find a job down there, which I did, or to spend the next two years living abroad and traveling the world solo—Bahrain, Australia, Singapore, Tahiti, Fiji, London, St-Tropez. The experience changed me fundamentally—as travel always does. The things I saw, the people I met, helped make me the person I am today.

My grand adventure came together in a series of coincidences combined with lucky kismet over a six-week period. But I was ready for it. I was looking for it.

I didn’t make it happen. But I knew to let it happen when it came.

I’ve recently moved away from Atlanta—my home for more than thirty years—but when I used to drive down Peachtree Road—to take my son to some piano competition or football practice, or to meet my husband for lunch (not the same fellow I should add)—and pass by the Al Hambra, I always felt a rush of gratitude when I saw it.

I felt gratitude for the joy I had living there, once upon a time when I was a single girl in Buckhead, unfettered and alive.

But also for the thrill I once had leaving there, too.

It’s a Numbers Game

63308251I love numbers. They are so starkly factual. They are so comfortingly irrefutable. There’s no wiggle room with numbers. As a creative, I like the security of facts. And there is nothing so factual as numbers. They either add up or they don’t. I once had a friend who was both a writer and an artist. She said the main reason she preferred painting to writing was because she said she always knew when she was finished when she was painting. She could look at it and know: That’s it. I’m done. With her writing, she was never certain. Let’s face it. We can always tweak and rethink most of what we write. It must be lovely feeling to look at a project you’ve labored over and know for sure that it was truly finished. Numbers give you that certainty. They’re either right or they’re not and we can all agree—from Toledo to North Korea—on whether or not they add up.

I think there’s a place for this kind of firm grounding in life—especially if you’re a “creative.” I look at it as a sort of infrastructure within which I might take chances or break the rules a bit. That makes me feel safe when I take big leaps.

Where numbers drive me crazy, however, is when we attach a value to them not based on anything but opinion or maybe personal pathology. They still add up as they should but now the numbers aren’t comforting or supporting, they’re indicting and debilitating. The most obvious way this occurs, I guess, would be in your checkbook or your family budget. But since having more money than you’re spending is a pretty universally accepted idea of a positive situation, I’d be inclined to point out other more insidious areas where numbers add up to grief.19209376

The weight on the scale, for example. There are probably very few people reading this blog who haven’t jumped on a scale only to find the numbers ruin what had up until then been a very nice day. Why, if your clothes fit as well as they did the day before and you’re basically in a good mood, would anyone let a number on the scale—a number YOU put in your head as a RIGHT number—mess with your mood or your day? Furthermore, why would you then, do this over and over again, day after day? Some days letting the numbers give you joy, and other days, letting them bring you down when—if you’d never looked at them, you’d have been perfectly happy. I’ve heard of the power of numbers before but this is nuts.

Numbers are good. I love numbers. But I believe a détente with their power is definitely in order. Numbers don’t—even IQ or test score type numbers—determine your worth from day to day. They just don’t. They don’t measure or predetermine or fulfill or prove or disprove your worth. They only label. That’s a very good thing when you’re trying to figure out how much corn syrup or GMOs are in a can of applesauce.

Less so when you’re using them to determine how you feel about yourself.

I think, as with everything, numbers are best seen as tools to enhance our lives. Using them to gauge how well my last book promotion did in the way of sales or downloads is one thing. Looking at them to determine how I feel about myself? Not so much.

Okay, now the jacket is REALLY poufy and I have about ten layers of sweaters on underneath, you realize.

Okay, now the jacket is REALLY poufy and I have about ten layers of sweaters on underneath you realize.

Mind you, having just returned from a week in Germany and Switzerland—land of the heavy, filling and ubiquitously draped melted cheese over potatoes and fried pork diet—I may be a little more hesitant to find out what the trip’s final cost was for me (and I’m not talking Euros) than at other times.
Anybody else giving more power than is probably good for you to a predetermined number in your head?

In defense of an unbalanced life

30358445I have believed for years that balance and moderation were the ideal way to live my life. I haven’t necessarily always lived it that way, but I always strove for balance and I always bowed to the wise ones among us who preached it as the roadmap to a sane and happy life. For too many years, I accepted as law and right the idea that your diet should be balanced—not too much chocolate or bacon, just the right amount of greens and protein—your work/family life for sure should be balanced: you might work the odd weekend now and then but you always had it drilled into your head that your kids’ after-school events were at least as important and needed to be put on the scale right up there with the thing that paid the mortgage and put food on the table.

I read somewhere that you should keep your writing schedule consistent in your writing week and if you missed a day, it would be noticeable in the absence of flow in your prose and your storyline. I believed this! I would create these complex schedules that squeezed a good ninety minutes a day of writing into a schedule that contained a full time job and all the stuff I’ve already mentioned and even so no matter when I scheduled it, I rarely made it there two days in a row. And because conventional wisdom said my writing would suffer as a result, I would become discouraged and think, well, what’s the point? YOU try continuing to get up at five a.m. every day to create magic on a page when ALL the experts say if you miss a day you might as well not bother!

For years, I had trouble going to my fulltime job and then coming home and writing novels and setting the table for dinner and properly feathering the nest for my one and only child the way I wanted to. My solution to it, after years of frustration and outright failure, was to throw one of the balls in the juggling mess out of rotation and when you’re a writing parent with a paycheck that’s needed, the ball that gets tossed is writing.

When my fledgling flew the coop last fall and I was concomitantly catapulted from my latest adventure in corporate communications, I thought I would have an easier time fitting in all the things I needed to do in order to have a balanced life: exercise, my writing, time with my husband, keeping an eye on my elderly mother, maintaining my friendships and all of that.  But I was wrong. Even without the annoying full time job hanging around my neck, I still struggled to get the daily word count done for my writing projects.  And the laundry? Fuh-ged-about-it.

Which is why I was stunned to discover that, for me, the key to my productivity was not a matter of balance. Never was.

I learned this last year when I came off a week’s vacation with my husband and son and, without knowing what I was doing, plunged myself into an impromptu writing marathon. We even got a brand new puppy to add to the mix and it made not a whit’s bit of difference to the fact that I was compelled to sit down and write and did so pretty much nonstop for about three weeks.

16342405For three weeks there was no exercising. No grocery shopping. No making meals. No TV. Half the time, I didn’t even climb out of my pajamas before three in the afternoon and wouldn’t have even then if my husband hadn’t started to look worried. I didn’t write to a word goal, I just wrote until my back hurt and I couldn’t sit up at the desk or until my husband called to me to mention it was after one in the morning. I wrote without any sense or desire or attention to balance of any kind.

And I loved it.

When the book was finished, I did laundry and made lasagna and drove my son to his college and visited with my mother in Florida and picked up the threads on a few other things that had gotten dropped during those three weeks.  I didn’t write a single word during this time. And when I was all caught up and the house was clean again?

I sat down and did it all again the very same way: in one exuberant, happy, obsessed gush of words and story, tumbling out of me with no time to mind yoga schedules or laundry or any other so-called necessities to maintain a balanced life.

I figured it out way too late but at least I know now: for me, a balanced life is overrated.

I grant you she's balanced, but she looks miserable.

I grant you she’s balanced, but she looks miserable.

I know if I added an hour of yoga to my daily round, I would likely add health and see diminished pounds on my 5’3 frame. I know the merits of balance and moderation, I do. But I now see that it’s not the full story. It works sometimes and for some people. But there’s something very big to be said for indulgence and impulse and immoderation and being at the mercy of your passions and your drives.

I like living this way. Bottom line, it makes me feel alive. And as far as I’m concerned, that is the best kind of balance there is.

How Being Bored is the First Step to Being Brilliant

Take their Gameboys away, and you don’t think they’ll come up with something interesting to do?

I ran across a great blog post this morning from The Passive Voice that I thought was worth noodling about. The premise is “How Boredom Promulgates Creativity.” Aside from the fact that the headline uses the word “promulgate” which will surely give tingles of delight to all word lovers, the idea behind the post is that boredom can create the right atmosphere for creative thought or action.  Edward De Bono, who wrote the book, Serious Creativity, which prompted the original post, uses bored children who operate on their teddy bears as one example of how humans hate a vacuum and might come up with ways—desperate and mad genius ways sometimes—in order to fill it. While this thought might not feel new to you, the upshot (or punch line) that made me sit up straight when I read it was the idea that our technology today may shield us from so much boredom, that the opportunity or driven need to create in order to remedy the boredom no longer exists. Trust me, playing Angry Birds or Solitaire on your smartphone may painlessly while away the time it takes to wait at a traffic light or your child’s visit to the orthodontist—but so does a coma. Neither of them is going to lead to anything special.

When we are forced to tackle boredom via creative means, we push ourselves, our abilities, and our minds forward. We go places we aren’t normally compelled to go. We explore. When we have the means to comfortably anesthetize ourselves against these spates of nonproductive, dull times, we are no longer motivated to do any more than just breathe in and out. My husband argued that we’ve always had mindless television to aid in combatting boredom for an extremely nonproductive outcome and that this post’s supposition is nothing new but I disagree. When I was a teenager—and like most teenagers, prone to being terminally bored with just about everything—I would watch any number of mind-numbing and idiotic television shows: Hogan’s Heroes, Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeanie. But these shows didn’t dope me against the monotony which drove me to watch them. As I watched—even the really stupid shows—I soaked up plotting, I registered tension and denouement, I experienced character arcs—even in cartoon characters—and I walked away with a sense of a story told with a beginning, a middle and an end.

A little bit of boredom and a stick of chalk can add up to something very interesting…

For a budding writer, lowbrow television was a training ground for something that would come later. It was establishing dormant triggers which would lay beneath the surface and focus a light on interlaced connections between people at their most basic levels. And someday they would emerge as developed characters wrestling with conflict in an attempt to deliver a fundamental human message.

You can’t say that about Angry Birds.

What do you think? I’m not sure I’ve convinced my son, for example, about the new perniciousness of our portable technology as it relates to creativity. Thoughts?

Passing the Baton on the Reality Blog Award

Last week Matthew Wright awarded me the Reality Blog Award. I was surprised and, of course, delighted. Thank you, Matthew. His is my favorite, number-one most-read blog so it’s annoying I can’t turn around and nominate him for this award since nominating awesome bloggers is a part of the responsibility of winning it, but there you have it.

The award also requires me to answer several questions:

If you could change something what would you change? Well, I have to say I’m not in love with this whole mortality thing so if we could all live forever, well, that would be great.

If you could relive one day what would it be? This one was a stumper for me. I guess I don’t dwell much in the past. I’ve had wonderful days that I’d happily relive: the day I eloped to Chicago with my now-husband of 22 years, the day I gave birth to my only child, the first time I saw the Bavarian Alps when I was ten…but I guess I would have to choose, over all of them, any day with my Dad, gone now these past 25 years.

The one thing that scares you? A phone call in the middle of any night that my child isn’t sound asleep in his own bed in my house.

One dream you haven’t completed? I’m in the middle of my dream right now—making a living as a novelist.

If you could be someone else for a day, who would you be? Myself, twenty years younger.

As for passing the award on, I’ve listed, below,  some blogs I regularly read. Some of these are about facts and insights on publishing or writing, some are amazingly spot-on revelations about life (Post Departum Depression—(Karen) who focuses on empty nesting, but the posts are usually true no matter where you are in life and not depressing at all (a lot of the time)), and France because of that whole life-long love affair thing I’ve got going on with it.

Merry Farmer

Julian East

Dean Wesley Smith

Post Departum Depression

David Lebovitz

Roni Loren

Easy Hiker

 

Why taking a risk matters—win or lose

It’s interesting. I just got back from a romance writer’s conference here in Atlanta and was reminded of some of the steps necessary when plotting a story to understand your protagonist’s motivation, and how they’ve changed by the end of the tale. It’s irresistible to think of your own story and motivation when crafting fiction. (It’s that whole unexamined life not worth living thing again.) I find it amazing how detailed and focused we can get in trying to figure out a character’s purpose or goal while, at the same time, blithely sail through life uninterested in figuring out our own. I’ll illustrate this with one antagonizing statement. And bear with me. Remember it was a romance writer’s conference I just got out of and so matters of the heart are on my mind.

The older we get, the less open we are to finding and accepting love.

Wow. Big statement. (I expect LOTS of comments!) If you’re happily ensconced in a loving relationship, you can sit this one out or not as you like. But here’s how I see it.

Remember in the 80’s there was that Time Magazine article that came out and sent millions of single women into vortexes of depression because they pronounced it easier for a woman over 30 to be abducted by aliens than find a husband? Well, with Internet dating and other available matchmaking tools, it is easier today to connect with someone but, statistically, it continues to be a major struggle for people of a certain age to find love.

In terms of actively seeking a mate, statistics show that as we age, we actually fear the companionship and love we think we crave. (We might’ve feared it a little bit when we were younger, but it gets worse as the years add up.) Steeped in habit and afraid of change, the older we get, the less inclined we are to risk getting hurt or disappointed. So, basically, just when we need love and companionship the most, we are more likely to turn away from it. (See how a little self-knowledge would be REAL helpful about now?)

Psychologists have shown that depression can be an offshoot of aging (no shit!) But struggles with loneliness are typically trotted out as a major reason for that.  What’s surprising is the fact that studies show that many older people (we’re talking forties and fifties here) are more comfortable being sad and alone than risking finding and being with someone who they might love or who might love them back. Like a lot of things, it’s easier to do nothing and take solace in the familiarity of your own depression than get off your ass, wash your face and “put yourself out there.”

You can say that life itself is a gamble and that’s undeniably true but nowhere is the gamble bigger than where it concerns the heart. Love is risky—no matter what age you are. (That’s why it makes such good fiction!) While the rewards are great, even if just temporary, the downside of a misguided or ill-matched romance is pain and even worse loneliness.

But, heavens, not even trying is just wrong.