Managing Marketing for Authors in 20 Minutes a Day

Are you familiar with the website Unf*ck Your Habitat? I first learned of it on their Tumblr site. It’s a place where people upload pictures of their personal space before and after after cleaning up. It’s very satisfying to see–much, as I imagine, the same kind of fascination people have for Dr. Pimple Popper.

The idea behind UfYH is brilliant, however. This statement is from their page: 

So jump in. Don’t worry about catching up. This is about doing what you can, when you can. 5, 10, 20 minutes at a time. And then back to your normal life.

The beauty of it is that it can be applied to so much besides cleaning up your home–getting back in shape, organizing your photos, sorting your finances, you name it. Any project that seems overwhelming to you, that you keep putting off for lack of time and energy.

I decided to apply it an area of being an author I find frustrating: marketing.

See, I know on some level, I produce a decent product. Not world-class, mind you, but solid writing with good storytelling. But relatively speaking, few people know I exist. In part because I’ve refused to use KU (as a romance author, I’m going to have to rethink that…more on how to use KU without letting it eat you alive in a separate, future post), in part because I can’t produce more than one novel a year with my current workload. But also because I don’t market effectively.

I sign up for marketing seminars, Facebook groups, newsletters, etc all the time. I’m on mailing lists I never open, I’ve shelled out big bucks for workshops that I barely attended, I pay a monthly fee for good advice I never take the time to read or listen to, and in general just sort of wing it when it comes to book launches. I pay for promotional tours and buy ads, but I’m never really sure if I’m just throwing my money out the window. It certainly feels that way to me sometimes.

Ditto with craft. I’ve got all kinds of books on how to be a better writer (yes, I’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing, thank you). Romancing the Beat. Bird by Bird, etc They line my bookshelves. People love to give them to me as gifts and I appreciate their support by doing so.

But most of them are unread.

That’s on me. But the truth is, most days I feel overwhelmed by my To Do List. And after all, isn’t writing the next story the most important thing I can do as a writer?

Well, yes. But if I keep making the same mistakes, then my launching a new story is about as fruitless as Noah releasing doves every day after The Flood, hoping they will come back with evidence of dry land out there somewhere. It might eventually happen, but I could be more effective, now couldn’t I?

So I’ve decided to take the Unf*ck approach to lots of things. I’m going to tackle my marketing in bite-sized chunks of time. I’m not going to stress about what I haven’t done or read or how full my inbox is or how much time and money I’ve wasted thus far. Ditto with improving my craft. Writing itself. Or exercising, for that matter. Anything I choose.

Obviously, I don’t have endless “twenty minute” blocks of time to devote to something every day, but I can make a point of devoting 20 minutes two or three times a week to anything I choose. I’m prioritizing things into daily, bi-weekly, weekly, and monthly categories depending on urgency and need.

The other thing I’m going to do is take a hard look at the advice given by people who’ve made a successful career out of writing–and resist the urge to jump on every bandwagon that comes down the pike. No more seminars. No more expensive programs. I’m going to focus on the material I already have before taking on any more right now.

It might be like chipping away at stone a little at a time, but it’s better than doing nothing and complaining about the lack of progress. And if I keep at it, eventually I’ll have something to show for it.

First up for me is to read BadRedHeadMedia’s 30 day Book Marketing Challenge by Rachel Thompson. I’ve had a copy for several years. Now’s the time to read–and implement–it.

I’ll let you know what I think. In the meantime, what can you do with 20 minutes?

A Cultural Inability to Focus: What it Means for Authors

Lately, I’ve been battling the fear that I’m becoming–I don’t want to say stupid.  Let’s say cognitively impaired. That I’m losing my ability to process a reasonable amount of information. I find myself having difficulty reading a lengthy article, or wading through a basic legal document. Most books fail to hold my attention, and I lay them down never to pick them up again, something that never used to happen to me. When I do read, it’s usually on my Kindle, and I find myself skimming, in part because it’s just so easy to tap, tap, tap and turn the pages.

I’ve been writing the same scene for weeks. I’m lucky if I peck out 300 words in a writing session. I wouldn’t mind if they were 300 fabulous words, but they aren’t. I look at my WIP and think it’s stilted and cliched. Most writers cringe when they look back on their earlier works. I do too, but it’s because part of me believes my earlier work showed more promise. I should be getting better and this, right?

Instead of hashing out the scene and moving on, I find myself picking up my phone and cycling through my various social media sites. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. When I’m done with that, I scroll through my email, read forum digests, and check out my lists. And when I’m done, I start at the beginning and go through them all again.

My inbox is filled with links to articles on marketing and publishing that I never read. I sign up for online seminars and coursework I never take. Sometimes, in a fit of desperation, I delete them all just to whittle my emails down to something less than 400 notifications.

I could blame this on being exhausted most of the time–I am. I work long, hard hours. Chronic pain makes sleeping problematic. Healthy food choices and exercise is always on tomorrow’s To Do list. I can’t keep running on fumes and expect to remember the lyrics to a song I didn’t particularly like that I haven’t heard in twenty years or the name of my next-door neighbor whom I only know to wave to. (I know his dog’s name. I have my priorities right) But I don’t think that’s the biggest factor in my inability to focus.

I think our cell phones are to blame. 

I no longer know anyone’s phone number–I don’t have to–all my contacts are in my phone. Wikipedia is at my fingertips. Google will find me those song lyrics, direct me to that business I went to last year, remind me who said that clever quotation, and more. I don’t have to remember anything.

I’m never without entertainment, either. I can a read one of nearly a thousand books on my TBR list, watch a TV show, see the latest Avengers trailer, laugh over a viral cat video, or check out the latest drama in my writer’s forum. It used to be if I was out walking the dogs or tending to the horses, I used that time brainstorming for my stories. I’d come back from my activity on fire ready to write. Now I check Twitter.

It used to be if I had a few minutes to spare while waiting to do something, I’d open a book. Now I pick up the phone–and it’s not unusual for me and my husband to be sitting across from each other, phones or tablets in hand, concentrating on our screens instead of each other. We’re both introverted, so there was a time when that felt comfortable.

Now it feels like an addiction.

Our attention spans are getting shorter because we are being bombarded with information constantly. We bring it with us wherever we go. Work can reach us 24/7 (that’s another post for another day) and so can any friend or member of our family. Gone is the time when going for a walk meant you were temporarily out of contact. Sure, there are benefits to this–the most important of which is safety–but we’re never unplugged now. It means we can feed the streaming monster: be it TV shows, news feeds, or our Twitter timeline.

And if I struggle to put my phone down–picking it up first thing in the morning, sneaking glances at it at stoplights, opening social media at work when I want a break–if I struggle with the addiction of scrolling, having come to it late in life, what about the generation of people who grew up with a cell phone in their hands from day one? You have to wonder if the plasticity of young minds are being modeled to be incapable of concentrating on anything longer than a three minute video.

I’m sure when television first came into people’s homes, there were a lot of people who bemoaned the loss of family activities such as puzzle solving or reading aloud. I’m certain there were people who decried the bad influence TV had on young minds then, too. They were probably right to a certain degree, though not all the dire predictions came true. But now we have our TVs with us all the time.

When I was serving as one of my dad’s caretakers, I temporarily developed aphasia. I’d be in the middle of a conversation and start snapping my fingers, unable to think of the word I wanted to say. For someone who’s been an avid reader with a massive vocabulary most of her life, this was kind of terrifying. It didn’t occur to me I was worn out from working 12 hour days and then caring for my dad from six pm to midnight every night. Since he was struggling with dementia, it was no great stretch to fear I was developing serious cognitive dysfunction as well.

Back then, I ran across one of those ‘assess your memory’ tests in a magazine that asked you to look at a list of ten unrelated words for one minute, and then read the rest of the article. At the end of the article, you were unexpectedly asked to list as many of the ten words as you could remember. I could remember all ten because I’d made up a little story about them.

Years later, I still remember eight of those words. So I don’t really think the problem is memory loss or cognitive dysfunction. The aphasia resolved when my life stress improved. I’m under a tremendous amount of stress right now, so that’s probably the reason my eyes glaze over when I try to read something meant to enlighten and educate, right?

But maybe not. Maybe I need to spend less time scrolling on the phone and more time making up stories.

I came across this great post How to Focus on Writing Right Now by Rachel Thompson of BadRedHead Media, and I’m taking it to heart. 

If you’re finding it difficult to concentrate on a specific task or simply in general, consider cutting yourself off. Unplug. Put the phone in a drawer or lock out your social media apps while you’re working. Take a walk without talking on the phone, listening to tunes, or playing a game. Put your brain on an information diet.

Your creative side will thank you.

A Thousand Little Goodbyes: The Loss of a Personal Library

I’ve mentioned in the past that the home renovations have been a great motivator for applying some of Marie Kondo’s principles in my life. Some of you may be aware that she’s come in for some marked criticism for saying she only keeps 30 books on hand–which allows her the space to move older books out and make way for newer ones. Bibliophiles everywhere reacted strongly to this idea, but nowhere did Kondo say you should get rid of books that sparked joy for you. That’s the whole principle behind her philosophy. What sparks joy for you. Not anyone else.

Before the reno, I’d made a point of paring down our extensive book population. Shelf space was going to be at a premium after the remodel. We wanted to consolidate my husband’s library with mine (we’re extensive readers) and eliminate the books that no longer brought us as much joy–which for me usually means, “Will I read this again?” or “Is this a piece of my childhood I treasure?”

I was pretty pleased with how much I’d weeded out my own cache of books, ruthlessly donating ancient sci-fi anthologies and obscure British murder mysteries to Goodwill and the like. Since paying for storage was going to cost a fortune, I got rid of as much as I could and stacked the boxes of books in the garage, as they weighed the most.

I did more pruning while unpacking. The realization there were some books, despite the fact they held fond memories, I’d never read again, made me put more of them in the “donate” pile.

Then I began to wonder what that musty smell was.

Then I realized what I thought was simply dust was actually mold.

Then I recalled that the reno had taken months longer than promised–and those months held the wettest winter in my memory.

And I am violently allergic to mold.

Naturally, the most seriously affected books are the oldest–and the ones most precious to me. I suspect mold spores were present in low numbers on them all along, but given the extremely damp conditions, exploded into active growth. A closer examination showed it’s not just books–many of the pieces of furniture and collectibles are also dusted with mold. But those items can at least be cleaned. Ridding the books of mold is far more problematic.

I did some research and came up with several treatment options. The first involves putting books in ziplock bags with baking soda as a deodorizer/desiccant and freezing them a week or more. I’d have a buy a freezer to do this–or else empty out my small one and choose only the books most valuable to me. The second method is to microwave the books 5-10 seconds, which will kill mold and silverfish, but may also damage bindings and glue, not to mention the risk of microwaving anything with gilded edges or print. In fact, almost every post on microwaving says don’t do it. A third method suggests gently brushing the books with a dilute solution of bleach and placing them outside in the sun. Given we are still in the temperamental days of early spring, that means waiting for a day when it’s not likely to rain and bringing them in well before dark so they don’t collect dew or frost. Tricky when most days I go to work and come home while it’s still dark. 

And none of the methods actually remove the mold spores–they just inactivate them. The mold can reappear under the right circumstances again and can remain toxic no matter what treatment you perform. The other night, I was congested and reactive–it’s no coincidence it was the first night the book boxes had been opened.

Many of these books are childhood favorites now out of print. Some are delightful favorites I will re-read again. Even if they are available in digital format, I’m likely to find a better price on them in used bookstores than as ebooks. But it still means cutting my collection to the bone in order to replace the ones that are the most important to me.

I feel as though I’ve been a bad steward to my books. That I’ve been a bad friend to treasured friends that have gotten me through tough times. I can’t even in good conscience give them away. If I have to throw them out in the trash, I know I’ll cry.

My current plan is to photograph the favorites and upload images to social media, thus enlisting my friends in helping me locate replacements (or even soliciting replacements from friends looking to reduce their own book collection). At the moment, I have a dozen or so books packaged with baking soda in ziplock bags stacked in the freezer. I’ve selected one book (of which I have multiple copies and know is still in print) to lightly spray with Lysol and leave outside in the sun. I’m told for this to be effective at killing mold, it has to be Lysol containing bleach, and so far, I haven’t been able to locate that. As soon as we get a break in the April showers, I’ll make a dilute bleach solution and mist a few others to set in the sun. I suspect that will damage the covers and print a bit, but we’ll see. I’ll also select a sacrificial victim to microwave. Of all the methods, microwaving is the one that’s the most time effective, and the one I trust the least. I’ll let you know how it goes.

The freezer method with baking soda does seem to be working, but unless I buy a freezer for this purpose (and I’m not sure I trust the wiring in the garage to power a freezer–one potential disaster at a time…) this will simply take too long. Besides. I’m not sure how I’ll get the baking soda out of the books…

In the end, getting rid of the books and starting over may be the best solution after all.

Dear White Ladies of Romance: We Must Do Better

I’m a relatively new member of the RWA, having joined in 2017. One of the first things I did as a new member was submit a story to the RITA awards, which is the romance industry equivalent of the Oscars. I confess, I didn’t pay that much attention to the process last year. It was my first time participating, and I had a lot of personal stuff going on as well. I had no expectations.

I also submitted a story this year. No surprise when I didn’t become a finalist. The competition is brutal, right? Each time, as a participant I was required to judge an assortment of entries–none of which were in my own category, paranormal romance. There was the usual mix of hopeful entries (like myself), the enjoyable, above average submission, and the occasional outstanding read. But this year, after the finalists were listed, I became aware of a furor among romance novelists on Facebook, Twitter, and the RWA forums. Like the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the same phenomenon has been ongoing in the romance industry. Not once since its inception has a black author won a single RITA award in any category. This year, five AOC finaled, which is an improvement over the stats of 2017, in which no AOC made it that far, but suffice to say in general, AOC are grossly underrepresented in these prestigious awards.

Conversations opened up on various social media platforms and forums, and naively, with the best of intentions, I waded into discussions on how this problem could be addressed.

What resulted was an eye-opening experience. 

I learned about scare quotes, and tone policing. Clutching pearls and white fragility. I would encourage everyone to read the articles White Fragility and the Rules of Engagement, as well as White Fragility: Why It Is So Hard To Talk To White People about Racism. If you are a white female author, I guarantee you if you are honest with yourself, you will recognize past behaviors. And if not in yourself, then you will certainly recognize these defensive traits in others.

I learned that it’s hard to discuss race issues with white people because since we’re the default mode, we’re blind to our own biases and prejudices. Worse, we tend to get hostile and defensive when the status quo is questioned because it threatens our position of privilege.

Some of the proffered solutions ran the gamut of eliminating covers and author’s names in the judging rounds (which would not eliminate bias against characters of color), or offering AOC (as well as GLBTQ authors) their own, separate awards or categories (as if that wasn’t totally insulting). Rubrics that held the judges accountable for their scoring were put forward. Some people thought the awards themselves should be tabled until this judging issue was addressed.

As the discussion raged across a wide variety of platforms, other elements crept in. A denial there was an issue at all. The suggestion AOC weren’t winning because their books were inferior or they weren’t entering in the first place. The bemoaning of the fact finalists weren’t even allowed a day to celebrate their nomination before the inequities of the system were yet again being addressed.

I found myself thinking of the “thoughts and prayers” offered after every mass shooting, and how it was always “too soon” to be talking about gun control after such an event. (See that? I made good use of scare quotes there.)

I found myself wondering how we’d be reacting if instead of white women dominating these awards, it were men? Would we be saying women simply couldn’t write a romance as good as a man? That not enough women were entering the awards? That we just can’t relate to a love story written by a woman? That we prefer to read romances written by men that feature men? As ludicrous as that sounds, I saw white authors, some of whom are Big Names in the industry, making just such statements about race, religion, or the sexual orientation of characters, as well as the perceived inadequacies of AOC of color themselves.

We’ve invited AOC into the building for the feast but have given them a seat at the children’s table. If they dare to complain, we denigrate their works, chastise them for their anger, and chide them for their ingratitude. All with a brittle smile and the suggestion that we should all “be professional” and above all, “be polite.” When in doubt, attack the tone of the complaint, thus rendering it invalid, right?

I reminded myself that like most women affected by #MeToo, I’m tired of remaining silent. Of swallowing my anger. Of living in fear to do simple things, like going to the grocery store or stopping for gas after dark. Of accepting that by virtue of the fact I’m a woman, I come in for a certain amount of harassment, discrimination, and even assault. And I haven’t experienced anything like what AOC go through on a daily basis, both at in general and within our own industry. Their anger is justifiable. And it should be heard, not silenced.

We keep wringing our hands and saying something must be done–and then continue as we’ve always done without making significant change.

I can’t speak for all cis het white Christian white women. I can only speak for myself. I believe change can only come through an acknowledgment of being in the wrong and a determination to educate ourselves to be better. These are the rules of engagement I’m laying down for myself now.

1.Shut up.

This isn’t about me. I am not the injured party here. If multiple people tell me my words are hurtful, it doesn’t matter what my intention was. It doesn’t matter what my “accreditation” is. If I’m beginning my defensive statement with a list of credentials as to why I’m not racist, I am automatically in the wrong. Because whether I want to believe it or not, I am racist. I can’t help it. I was raised to it by virtue of being born white at a certain time in the Southern US. My indoctrination might not be as blatant as some others, but it’s pervasive just the same. I will have to battle it the rest of my life. I can hate it. I can be determined to do something about it. But I can’t deny it. Not if I want to be better than this.

I was very, very tempted to include an excerpt from my latest story here as a kind of proof that I’m thinking about these things and trying to include diversity in my stories. I stopped myself cold because that’s part of the problem: the insistence I can’t be biased because I promote diversity of all kinds–religion, race, sexual identity, etc–in my stories. I don’t get a free pass because I write about open-minded characters from all walks of life.

You cannot change anything if you refuse to admit there’s a problem. You can’t change an organization or an industry if you refuse to change yourself.

2. Apologize.

If I say or do something hurtful, I need to apologize upfront. Heartfelt and not half-assed. Not “Oh, you must have misunderstood me.” A straightforward acceptance that I screwed up and owe someone apology. End of story.

3. Listen.

I can’t learn if I’m so full of my own self. Of my credentials in the “I’m not racist because” game. The bias is there, whether we want to believe it or not. The only people who “don’t see color” are the default winners in the race game. Everyone else has the color of their skin (or their religion, or their sexual orientation) rammed down their throats every day. Refusing to acknowledge color bias (or any other bias) is the equivalent of erasure of the marginalized group–and not in a good way.

4. Diversify my reading.

There is an easy way to expand my horizons, to learn more outside my middle-aged white woman existence. Yes, I love Regency romances that feature characters set in England. I cut my teeth on Jane Austen! It’s familiar and beloved. But genteel impoverished white women who get rescued by incredibly wealthy white men isn’t the ONLY historical romance story out there. Ditto contemporary romances, paranormal romances, romantic suspense, you name it. Likewise, racism isn’t just individual acts of hate and spite. If you’re an AOC, it’s the inability to find cover art for your characters. It’s deciding whether or not to enter contests when you know there is existing bias. It’s knowing if you made your character’s race ambiguous, you might sell more copies when your heart cries out against such a move. It’s knowing if you give your character of color a certain wealth or status someone will question the accuracy of your creation. (I suggest you read Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack on this subject,)

The more you know about someone different from you, the more you realize how much you have in common. Reading about those outside your experience expands your compassion and acceptance.

My personal experience is VERY narrow. I live in a conservative, rural, small Southern town. Ninety percent of the people I interact with on a daily basis are white. My white privilege blinds me to things POC must deal with every day. I’ll admit right here, I’m sometimes hesitant to include characters of different racial backgrounds in my stories because I’m worried about getting my depiction wrong. That’s not a valid excuse. It’s up to me to expand my own horizons. It’s up to me to make sure my writing choices aren’t hurtful. That I avoid white savior tropes. That my characters aren’t caricatures or stereotypes, two-dimensional cameos so I can tick off some diversity points.

If I’m concerned about ‘getting them right’, I’m not doing enough diverse reading. I’m not talking to enough people.

What I can’t do is assume that race has no effect whatsoever on the character I’m building, nor assume it is the only thing, either.

5. Support AOC and those in the industry.

As authors, we have the power to use and promote whomever we wish. In general, I’m not as good about supporting fellow authors as I should be. I need to rectify this by promoting books I enjoy and services I appreciate. Follow AOC on social media. Branch out of your “comfort zone” and take a chance on editors and graphic artists who bring something different to your table. You’ll wonder what took you so long.

I wish I could name each and every person responsible for enlightening me here. I’ve read so many posts on social media and forums this past week that it would be challenging to name them all–not to mention some of these posts were made to closed platforms, so I’m not sure how much I should share. I’m also not going to call out people who exemplify white fragility, or point fingers at those who’d rather maintain the status quo than manifest real change. This is not the post for that.

Instead, I invite you to take a hard look at yourself and the assumptions you make about AOC (or other marginalized groups) and the stories they have to tell. I’m betting you’ll find more common ground than you’d think, if you’d only give everyone an equal chance.

If you don’t know where to start in broadening your reading horizons, I ran across these resources for finding books by diverse authors:

http://www.wocinromance.com

http://girlhaveyouread.com

And on Twitter, you can use the hashtag: #weneeddiverseromance to search for authors and titles.

I’m going to be expanding my reading list. And though I tend not to leave reviews on Amazon (the whole pen name thing), I’ll be making better use of my Goodreads and Bookbub accounts to share my impressions of stories I love. I invite you to do the same.

 

Spring: Rebirth, Renewal, and Transformation

I’ll be the first to admit spring is not my favorite season. Mostly because these days, spring is heralded by weeks of high winds and heavy mud, and when we finally get them, those mild, pleasant days segues all too quickly into the oppressive heat of summer.

The one thing that makes up for it here in the South is how pretty it is.

After weeks of cold, soaking rain interspersed with occasional sleet and snow, the first buds popping through the ground have me grabbing my camera for a quick macro shot. Robins appear in the yard. Mockingbirds trill their heart-breakingly beautiful spring mating songs. Spring peepers optimistically begin chirping even while frost still limes the ground at night. The grass comes in with the bright emerald green of Ireland. Leaves unfurl, and the forsythia begins to bloom.

The Appalachian mountains always strike me as a kindly grandmother, as opposed to the rocky grandeur of the mountains out west. Our mountains are rounder, softer. We don’t get the spectacular color change in autumn the way they do in New England, either. But what we do get is gorgeous springs. Starting in March, the mountains begin to green up, and redbud and dogwood dot the hills with their pink and white blooms. Mountain laurel peeks out of forests still dark with the deadfall of winter. Our Appalachian Grandmother wears a crocheted shawl done in delicate pastels.

Crocus burst through the soil, sometimes even when there is still snow on the ground. They aren’t alone, however, and are followed shortly by daffodils and irises. My personal favorite is hyacinth–there is something heavenly about their waxy blossoms and their rich scent. Phlox and periwinkle blanket banks and flowerbeds. Bradford pears lining driveways shower white petals like snowflakes whenever the wind blows. Azaleas and crepe myrtle come into flower. Lilacs and hydrangeas send out their siren call to bees, who bumble around them with a lazy drone in the balmy air. Honeysuckle fills the air with the promise of summer.

I take pictures of them all–and every year, too–as though I hadn’t taken pictures of the same emerging flowers spring after spring. There’s something heartening and encouraging about these first signs of spring. The promise of rebirth. The hope of renewal. The encouragement of transformation.

I can’t imagine living in a place without distinct seasons. The older I get, the more I appreciate the signs of spring. My mind turns toward outdoor projects and plans to go hiking, camping, and horseback riding. I need that connection to the earth in such a very real way, it’s hard to explain.

I scrape back the bark on a tree I thought was dead, and see the bright, green quick of life that tells me, no, it was just dormant. It gives me hope that I too will come out of hibernation. Something inside me unfurls with the warming rays of the sun, and I turn my face toward it with a smile, eyes closed.

So while spring is not my favorite season, it’s a close second. Because we all need to be renewed each year.

Fighting “Productivity” Culture

I work weekends, and my husband doesn’t, which frequently leads to me coming home on Saturdays and asking how his day went and what did he do? Often, he sheepishly tells me he didn’t do anything, and then he apologizes.

“What are you sorry for?” My asking about his day isn’t meant to make him feel bad. I’m just showing interest in how he spent his time while I was gone.

Invariably, he says, “I feel like I should be doing something productive.”

I know what he means.

I work 10-12 hour days. My “free” time is so constrained that I feel I must get the most out of it. The dogs have to get some exercise every day, and if I don’t ride the horse enough each week, it’s not safe for either of us. I want to finish my current WIP (and I’m so close! Nearly there!) but I also need to write blog posts, work on my newsletter, schedule social media postings, write some Bookbub reviews, and read or watch all those marketing posts and videos jamming my inbox. Weekends are when I try to do a little meal prep for the coming week, which usually means a grocery run, and then there’s trying to cram in yoga and meditation to manage my stress levels. I have so much to do on any given day, I feel as though I can’t waste any of it, especially if that means just sitting around watching TV or reading a book, or God forbid, taking a nap.

Too often I come home from work completely fried, unable to make healthy dinner choices because my decision-making capacity is used up for the day. Sometimes I can barely muster enough energy to watch TV or read a book. Because of my tight schedule, I have to plan everything pretty far in advance, and sometimes I resent the hell out of that. Most days I have to pick and choose what I’m not going to get done, and I feel resentment and guilt over that, too. 

This morning I was scheduled to meet friends to go horseback riding, but I’d slept badly the night before, and had only just dropped off to sleep when the alarm went off. The day dawned in the upper 20s with the threat of light snow–and it would still be close to freezing by the time we mounted. Normally I love riding in brisk weather, but I couldn’t make myself get out of bed. I texted my friends and weenied out. I just didn’t want to go.

More and more, this is becoming a default choice for me, even for things I love doing. I realize it isn’t necessarily a good thing–I’m missing out on activities I enjoy and spending time with people I like–but the truth of the matter is many of the things I do for fun don’t feel like fun right now. They feel like another obligation, another task that Must Be Done. Sundays can be the worst because I’m all-too conscious of the coming work week ahead and am already dreading it.

I’m reminded of the article I read about a Search and Rescue dog whose handler inadvertently burned him out by taking him to the golf course every weekend and letting the dog search for missing golf balls. The handler thought he was giving his dog a little fun, but the dog took searching for the missing balls as seriously as his ‘day job.’ In short, the handler never let his dog take a break and just be a dog.

That’s how I’m starting to feel about the things I do for fun. It’s my cue that I’m overbooked, over-committed, and completely exhausted.

This past weekend, a friend of mine confessed she was feeling guilty for not doing anything except sitting on the couch watching TV. The thing is, I know (like me) life has thrown her a series of hard blows in a row, finishing up with a debilitating illness. That sort of thing takes it out of you, and yet we live and work in a culture that expects us to shake off everything and keep going. This is so ingrained that we expect it of ourselves as well. We expect to be doing something “productive” at all times and feel bad when we don’t.

Especially here in the US, we burn the candles at both ends, scrape up the wax, slap it back on the wick, and burn it some more. We’re penalized at work if we take sick days and we’re weirdly proud of how little vacation time we take. You’d think if anyone understood the value of keeping the staff healthy and minimizing the spread of disease, it would be medical professionals, but I once had a conversation with a nurse at my doctor’s office about the fact there was an employee’s notice on the wall about staying home if they had a fever–and yet she pointed out to me they got written up if they missed too much time off work.

We’re a culture of do more with less means and yet we don’t understand why our bricks are substandard because we ran out of straw a long time ago.

This weekend, my friend needed to sit on the couch and veg out with some comfort-level movie-watching. Mentally, emotionally, physically, that was exactly what she needed to do. Know what happens to fields that constantly bear the same crops without letting the soil go through fallow periods? The dirt becomes depleted of nutrients, the quality of the crops goes down, and eventually, nothing grows.

So stop beating yourself up for those “lazy” Sundays. Doze on the couch with the cat. Read a book. Take a long walk or lie in a hammock and do nothing. It’s not a sin. It’s allowed. More importantly–it’s necessary to your mental and creative health.

Sometimes you climb the mountain. Sometimes you admire the view.

 

The Right Dog for the Wrong Reasons

A friend of mine lost his dog a while back. After a prolonged search for the ‘right’ pup to replace his beloved Max, he finally brought home a gorgeous little Aussie female a few weeks ago.

And has been bending my ear with complaints about her ever since.

She’s too energetic. She’s mouthy. She’s being difficult to housebreak. She’s not cuddly. Max was never this bad.

I get it–I do. It’s hard when everyone you see on social media with a new puppy seems totally besotted with it–and you’re not feeling that same joy. It’s hard to get back into puppy mode when you’ve had 14 years of not-puppy mode. Time tends to blur your memory of how difficult the last puppy was and grief over your loss places the previous dog on a pedestal.

But after constant texts and phone calls from my friend, my stock of patience is used up.

Probably because I’m annoyed with myself as much as I am with my friend.

See, I did the same thing. My beloved Sampson was diagnosed with cancer less than a month after my mother died of a heart attack. I had to say goodbye less than a month after that. And though I knew better, I made an emotional decision to get another puppy right away rather than waiting until I was ready.

After telling everyone I’d never have another big, energetic dog again–that it was time to downsize–that’s exactly what I got. I found myself impulse-buying a puppy after I’d brought my husband with me to look at the litter for the sole purpose of preventing me from doing just that. And it probably would have been okay, only the cycle of loss in my life wasn’t done. I took hit after hit that year and into the next.

I didn’t neglect the puppy. I worked hard at socializing him–both with people and other dogs. He met over 100 people by the time he was four months old, and I set up scores of play dates with appropriate dogs to teach him the skill set he needed to get along. We went through Basic Obedience 1 and 2, and when he was old enough, I started him in agility classes. He even passed his Canine Good Citizenship test (admittedly by the skin of his teeth).

I love him. How can you not love that face? But with all my grieving, and then the subsequent depression, I withheld the one thing he needed the most: me.

I didn’t give him my whole heart. I was still protecting that.

It took listening to my friend gripe about his Not-Max puppy for me to fully realize what I’d done. Remington turned two recently, and I’m only now recognizing that for all the dogs I’ve had, he’s one of the calmest, most “adult” puppies I’ve ever raised.

I don’t think I could have dealt with anything more energetic than he is. He is extraordinarily gentle in nature. I’m so very lucky to have him.

I don’t deserve him.

He came into my life when I was mentally, physically, and emotionally unable to connect. I based my decision to get him on a gut feeling without giving it the full commitment to make the choice a good one.

But as I said in the previous post about Sampson, I believe specific dogs come into our lives to teach us specific lessons. While Sampson’s final lesson seemed to be to teach me how to live in the moment, Remington’s lesson right now is about commitment. That you only get out what you put in. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about puppies, or relationships, or that story you’ve been working on.

I told my friend he needed to commit 100% to his new puppy. Right now. And don’t look back. Because sometimes you get the right dog for the wrong reasons.

Finding Joy in Loss

We’re nearing the end of the extensive renovations, but the work just keeps going on. It’s like one of those house flipping shows where they start in with a tight budget and big plans but discover rot in the walls, and one thing leads to another. Sometimes the unexpected expense is a delightful revelation—like when we discovered that hooking up to town water was an option—and now was the time to do it. After living with impossibly hard water for the ten years we’ve been in the house, along with the low water pressure, bad taste and odor of the well water, and the fact the water turned brown when it rained too hard, investing in the hookup to town water was a no-brainer. In addition to adding to the resale value of the property should we ever sell, I now enjoy showers with the water pressure of a luxury hotel. And like Goldilocks, this water is just right. Not so hard it limes up the coffee maker and not so soft it feels slimy—like you can never completely rinse clean. Just blissfully right.

One of the unhappy expected expenses was is the realization that the heavy construction has chewed up the yard around the house, creating huge ruts that weeks of rain have left with standing water. We have built a walkway out of plywood, plastic tarps, straw, and cardboard, but the sea of mud surrounding the house is steadily working its way inside. We hadn’t factored landscaping, or the need to rebuild the concrete patio, into our remodel plans.

As much as I’ve been looking forward to the desperately needed remodel (honestly, it’s a wonder the house passed inspection when we bought it, and a miracle it didn’t collapse or burn down around us), coming on top of everything else in the last year, it’s been stressful. Even good stress is tough to deal with at times.

I was already struggling a bit emotionally. One of the remodeling decisions we made was to take out a wall, and while it made for a lovely open space where the living room used to be dark, small, and cramped, it severely cut down on my space to hang pictures. I love pictures. Be they photographs I’ve taken myself, images of my various fandoms, or reminders of some place I’ve traveled, I tend to collect and post images that—to borrow Marie Kondo’s phrase—bring me joy. Only during the unpacking process, I’d found myself tearing off protective paper to stare down at a beloved image and have no earthly idea where it should go—or if it should even go back up again.

The remodeling process has definitely triggered my desire to go Marie Kondo on my life (I should point out this is not something new since the Netflix show but something I’ve been considering for some time now—ever since I first read her book and resisted its tenets). Both when packing things for storage and unpacking them now, I’ve been taking a hard look at everything and trying to decide if it still brings me joy or not.

So when I was unwrapping our photographs and prints, trying to decide which to put where, I was devastated to discover the glass on one of my oldest prints was cracked.

I was already in a fragile state of mind when I discovered the damage to my print. Worse, the print was something my mother had picked up at an antique store when I was a child and I’d been carting around from house to house ever since. It has literally been a part of my life as long as I can remember. See, I identified with that beaming little girl and her gentle giant of a dog. It could have been a portrait of me at the same age.

Behind the glass, you could see the ravages of time. One of the reasons I’d never reframed it was that the print was coming to pieces in places, and that removal from the frame would likely cause the whole thing to disintegrate. Now I had no choice. I couldn’t hang a picture with broken glass. So I held my damaged print in my hands and wept. One more thing to add to the things I’ve lost in the past year. And this time, it felt like I was losing me as well.

My husband, quick to respond to my distress, suggested taking it to a framing shop to see what they could do. I didn’t see the point at first—in my mind it was already a total loss as any attempt to remove it from the frame would result in the final destruction. But we went to the framing store anyway, and an incredibly empathetic woman there not only appreciated the degree to which the damage upset me, but she treated my print with the care one would bestow on a living thing. She managed to get it out of the frame without destroying it, a painstaking process that made both of us sweat just a little, as she had to remove the backing in pieces warped by age and neglect.

In doing so, for the first time, I was able to see the name of the artist, previously hidden by the frame.

In the meantime, my husband did a reverse image search on the print, just in case my fears were realized and the whole thing turned to dust like Ayeshea on stepping into the Spirit of Life the second time and reverting to her true age. Not only did he find out the print is still available, though replacing it would have cost a pretty penny, he did a little research on the artist as well. Arthur John Elsley was an English painter of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, famous for his depictions of children and dogs. He was very popular in his day, with his works appearing in magazines and calendars. His style was so distinctive, I suspect I’d recognize it if I came across another of his paintings. I checked the prices on his original paintings still available–some go for as high as $100,000!

The story has a happy ending, though. Not only was the framer able to remove the print largely intact, but she was able to clean and repair it for the most part. We made the decision to reuse the original frame (being of stout oak, of the likes it would be hard to replace without spending a lot of money) and use acrylic instead of glass to decrease the chance of future breakage. The end result is better than what I had before the glass broke.

Not only do I have an improved print to hang on my wall, but I also now know the name and history of the artist, which brings me a little extra fillip of pleasure when I look at the smiling little girl and her tolerant dog. I have something even more valuable as well—more affirmation that my guy has my back. I have no doubt that had the restoration proved terminal, he’d have seen to it I got another copy of that print.

And that, my dear Marie Kondo fans, brings me joy.

When it comes to Heroes, do you have a Type?

On some level, I’ve always known I had a “type”. A particular look that appeals to me somewhat more than others, one I’m more likely to develop a celebrity crush on, one I’m more likely to draw on when creating the hero of my latest story. While I’d love to pepper this post with examples of my said type, I can’t do so without violating a ton of copyright laws, so you’re going to have to settle for links if you can’t picture who I mean. 🙂

For the purposes of this post, I’m limiting myself to male actors, but the same is true of women, too. There’s a certain look that appeals to me. One day, I’ll do the female version of this post.

That’s not to say I don’t find a wide number of men and women attractive–I do! But I think somewhere along the line I imprinted on a certain type, and that’s the one that makes me do a double-take every time. Mostly, I fall in love with characters, and if the actor portraying them happens to hit my buttons, all the better. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell which comes first. More often, it’s the combination.

What started me thinking about this was a thread on Twitter the other day. You should check it out–the photos–and comments with them–are fantastic. My favorite one is the description posted with the corresponding images: God took a cigarette break after he made Robert Redford.

This prompted me to share on the thread my own standout celebrity crush from the 1970s–Richard Hatch. I’ve always been a big sci-fi fan, and I fell hard for Captain Apollo on Battlestar Galactica. There were the posters on the bedroom walls, there was the fanfic I wrote with my best friend (though we had no idea that’s what it was called). I read all the tie-in novels, and when the show was cancelled, watched anything and everything a cast member was even remotely involved with–including the excruciating Galactica 1980.

I was pleasantly surprised when at least 60 people liked my Tweet about Hatch–but was even more surprised when I woke up to my inbox exploding with notifications. At last count, over 300 people have liked the Tweet. Given some of the comments, I wasn’t the only middle-schooler who swooned over him.

It got me thinking about my celebrity crushes over time, and the type of hero (both in terms of the physical and personality) I like to create. I guess I’m not really about the bad boys when it comes down to it. I see the appeal, but I want someone who will respect me–and my heroine–in the end.

But Holy Hannah, I must have imprinted on a specific type early on. Was it David Cassidy who set the bar for me in The Partridge Family? I know I had my mom buy the albums… Definitely Richard Hatch in BSG–and it was years before I crushed on someone as hard as Captain Apollo again.

When I think about the actors who exemplify my type, they almost always have light eyes and dark, messy hair. Joe Flanigan from Stargate Atlantis. David Tennant from Doctor Who. Karl Urban from Almost Human and the new Star Trek movies. Hugh Jackman (especially from Real Steel). And yes, I see the recurring sci-fi theme as well.

That’s not to say I haven’t a thing for Chris Evans (c’mon, who doesn’t have a thing for Chris Evans?), but for the most part, the plethora of Chrises in Hollywood has me very appreciative without ringing any of my bells. And while I could add Sir Patrick Stewart, Idris Elba, and Alan Rickman to my list, they are more the exceptions than the rule.

This morning, as I lay in bed checking out my Twitter notifications, it dawned on me just how much my sleeping husband met my “type” criteria–to the point of seeing a marked resemblance to Richard Hatch. I pointed this out to him, and he’s been teasing me ever since. All I know is when I first saw him, I thought, “Wow, he’s cute!” And the rest is history.

So do you have a type? Can you look back at your crushes and see a pattern? Is it a certain look or more of a type of character played? I want to know! 

A Resolution I Must Keep

At this time of year, there are a lot of blog posts about getting fit, losing weight, joining a gym, etc. Especially after several solid weeks of overindulgence over the holidays, and the prospect of starting clean with the New Year, many of us formulate grandiose resolutions about reclaiming the bodies of our youth–even if we never had the ‘best’ body before. Even if we never share these resolutions out loud. It’s a promise we make to ourselves. This time, this year will be better than the last. And part of being better means looking our best, right?

For years I’ve been muttering about needing to clean up my diet. Yes, I need to lose some weight–my BMI has crept up into the ‘overweight’ category–but because that weight is evenly distributed and because I am a relatively active person, I didn’t give it much thought unless I needed to get into a swimsuit–and I could find lots of reasons to avoid doing that. Heartburn and digestive issues were annoyances that made me consider changing my eating habits more than once, but my hectic work schedule made it more important for me to to grab something fast and portable than to choose a more healthy meal. The critical thing was to keep going, keep moving. Work at the pace demanded of me.

I wasn’t going to give up an entire afternoon a week of my precious time toward meal prep. I’m a terribly picky eater, so meal services tend to be a waste of money for me. My weight wasn’t keeping me from doing the things I needed to do–in fact, most people looked askance at me when I said I needed to drop some weight, and so I kept putting off doing anything about my health and eating habits until my body said, “No more.”

First it was caffeine. I had to stop drinking any caffeinated drinks about 5 years ago. A cup of tea would send my BP through the roof. Now I’m at the point where I can’t even have a piece of chocolate without a corresponding rise in BP. Are you weeping in sympathy? Because giving up caffeine was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

Until I had to give up wine. Yep. One glass of my favorite red makes my BP skyrocket now. I said goodbye to all alcohol recently because it’s just not worth it: feeling as though the beast from Alien is going to burst through your chest at any moment for at least 24 hours after a single glass.

I’ve had workups out the whazoo–including a stress test I passed with flying colors. I’m on medication, and it was working at first. But now the BP is creeping up even on meds. I know that BP can be controlled with diet and exercise, as well as meditation and stress management–and I am working on those things. But I’m resistant to change when it comes to food.

Most of my research indicates that I’m not alone in my struggles with blood pressure–more than 33% of Americans over the age of 40 have hypertension. And though no one in my family has had a stroke or heart attack until they were in their late seventies or eighties, having hypertension definitely increases that risk for me.

I’m also suspicious I could be sliding toward metabolic syndrome. I don’t fit all the parameters, but some of them are there, and honestly, I think given the typical American diet, more of us are at risk than you’d think.

I’ve spent the last few weeks examining the salt content of most packaged foods, and it’s enough to curl your hair. Rice is pretty healthy, right? Salmon, kale, and rice–not a bad dinner by any means. Only that flavored rice packet my husband loves so much contains 45% of the daily recommended allowance of salt. And that whole grain oat cereal that’s gluten free, high in fiber, and comes in those tasty little “o” shapes? 6% of your RDA.8% if you add milk.

Many people believe that it is just as important to restrict sugar as salt when it comes to BP, and if you factor in insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, it makes sense.

Then there is stress. I figure my adrenal glands–which produce the “flight or fight” hormone cortisol–are probably the size of cantelopes right now. My work environment is incredibly stressful, and I’ve had a lot of personal loss over the past couple of years, so I recently made the decision to seek counseling. The first session was productive, if for no other reason than to have someone outside your family blink and say, “What the hell, man?” when they hear your story.

But all these measures have failed to maintain my BP in the normal range and my anxiety about it isn’t helping. So now it is time to finally get serious about changing my diet. No more grabbing cookies or donuts from the break room when the workload gets too hectic. No more fast food lunches. No more relying on prepacked meals or frozen pizza because I’m too damned tired to cook anything (and am a terrible cook to boot) when I get home at night. I’ve got to go clean, which means fresh, non-processed, made-from-scratch, low salt, low carb, low sugar.

I gotta tell you–when you’ve lost so much, when you’re dealing with chronic pain and high stress, you come to rely on your damned rewards. Snagging a cookie from the break room is a reward for surviving a bad encounter with a client or an energy boost to get you through the next five hours of work. A glass of wine when you finally get to sit down to watch some television is a pat on the head for a fulfilling another long day of responsibilities and very little credit for doing so. Popping a pizza in the oven that will present you with hot bread, melted cheese, and spicy sauce in less than 17 minutes is a lifesaver when you’ve hit maximum decision fatigue. Recently, I mentioned to my husband that giving up chocolate, wine, cookies, and bread wasn’t going to make me live longer. It would just seem like it.

At the time, I thought of this as a funny take on a crappy situation. “Oh look, she still has her sense of humor!”

The thing is, I’ve been resenting like hell having to make these changes. I think I’ve been taking the wrong attitude about this, though. The fact I can tell when my BP is up (even if I don’t know why) means I’m in tune with my body. That’s a good thing. I can use that to my advantage. Hypertension won’t be a silent killer in my case because I know it’s there and can take steps to manage it.

And I’m determined to do just that.

So relax–this blog won’t turn into a series of before and after images, with constant updates on my miraculous weight loss or stats on my progress. I probably will share my adventures in cooking because I really am a horrible cook–and I can use any advice or tips you guys see fit to offer. I’m seriously considering getting an Instant Pot, though I’m hesitant because I hear there is a learning curve. What I intend to post here is about baby steps into a healthier me.

Because part of loving who we are is accepting what we cannot change and changing what we can. There may be quite a few things in my life I can’t change right now, but my eating habits aren’t among them. That I can fix.