Adversity: The Source of Contentment

I have a good life. An amazing life. A wonderful husband, a son who has grown into a fine young man, friends, health, a nice house, a home gym. I’ve got it all. I even took the entire summer off work.  Not many people find themselves in my position. I am one of the luckiest people in the world. But for most of the summer if you had told me that, I would have said, “Yeah, but so what?”

A fundamental element was missing from my life: adversity. Not that it was all fun and games this summer – we lost 17 full grown trees from our yard, my son totaled my car, my dad ended up (briefly) in the hospital, and we had unexpected house guests for two weeks. But those were simply events that are normal parts of life. What was missing was adversity to give meaning to anything I did.

Adversity is important not for the suffering it causes but for the meaning it gives the choices made in its face. For instance, the choice made by a man to take a shower and get dressed in the morning is insignificant.  But put him deep in the throes of depression and that simple decision becomes an accomplishment. Or the college student who chooses to study for a test. Give her severe stomach cramps and her decision becomes a testament to her perseverance and commitment. The adversity doesn’t have to be earth-shattering or global.  But it must exist. Without it, the choices we make lack content and significance. Without it, nothing matters.

So I have examined those areas of my life in which adversity still exists – some are personal to me, and some pertaining to my writing career. I have a life where I could choose  to ignore those areas of adversity and go from day to day in a life of ease, but I choose not to. The decisions I make to face the adversity enrich my life, provide a sense of accomplishment and value, and I am grateful for that. So now, if you tell me I have a good life, I will simply smile and say, “Yes, I really do.”


Cows and Politics: The Deception of Words

When I first became a lawyer, I would tell my family about my cases. One evening over dinner, I told them about a farmer who sued stating that voltage running through his land was upsetting his cows. “Sucks to be him,” my husband sarcastically commented with no sympathy toward the plaintiff farmer. Exactly the response I had expected. A week later, I told him of another cow/voltage case over dinner. “Outrageous,” my husband exclaimed, stating that the farmer had better get a lot of money for his suffering or there is something wrong with the legal system. Again, exactly the response I expected. Completely different responses – but I had described the facts of the same case.

I did not lie in either description. All I did was use words that evoke different emotional responses. And it worked, even on my husband who is not an overly emotional guy. He was shocked once I told him, even though he could then see that, fact for fact, it was the same story.

That vignette illustrates the power of words, and it is not confined to a lawyer arguing his case. It happens to us every day – this unseen manipulation of our emotional response to good or bad, right or wrong. It is behind why you’ll plunk down $4.00 for a cup of Starbucks rather than make yourself coffee at home for just pennies. It’s why you’ll pay $12 for a candle from an upscale decorating shop when the same candle is in your grocery store aisle for a lot less.  And of course, it is pervasive in political campaigning.

I watched the presidential debate earlier this week, not for the debate itself (I have already voted), but to see the manipulation of people through word choice.  The purpose of the debates, the campaign rallies, and the campaign ads isn’t to change the minds of voters on the other side, or even to directly sway the undecided. Rather the purpose of these displays is to motivate the base of the “faithful” to make sure they vote and have them speak their views to their friends. The recommendation from a friend on any product is more effective than a thousand ads.

As I watched President Obama and Mr. Romney square off, I was struck that, to a great extent, they were giving the same answers to the questions – but using different words. At the same time, I watched my News Feed on Facebook explode with each “side” cheering their candidate and defiling the other over the exact same exchanges. And the acrimony has continued since the debate, with my Facebook friends slinging heavier and heavier insults, making statements, and sharing memes that would make the toughest playground bully seem like an angel in comparison. Things we would never say to each other in polite conversation, we are blasting out to the world over the internet, all over a debate where, to a great extent, the candidates did not disagree.  We are doing exactly what the campaign professionals intended for us to do.

It is human nature to assert your worldview as being correct. As a result, I suppose none of us can avoid being used as puppet mouthpieces, by telling us things using words that play into those worldviews. But it still gives me pause and just like in my novel, Foreseen, I have to ask: Is there a point where the manipulation has gone too far? And if so, have we reached that point?

I find it a difficult question to answer, but one I will continue to explore, even after this vocal election is over. But, in the meantime, did I tell you about the farmer and his cow?

Photo courtesy of Tina Philips,


A Trend Toward Good or Evil?

A couple months ago, my husband decided to fly the American flag outside out house without a great deal of thought about it.  The next day, he put the flag out again. And the day after.  Soon it was a habit, and the Red White & Blue has been outside our house on every sunny day since. Then the guy down the street decided to fly the flag at his house too. Then the family across the street from him. Then the woman the next court over.  Flags now fly all over our neighborhood everyday.

My husband hadn’t intended to start a trend, but his simple act, repeated a couple times, had a noticeable effect.  The flag flying is nice. Aside from the patriotism, it brightens up the neighborhood, and shows that people care about where they live. But what if he’d done something different? What if he’d left stopped mowing the lawn on a regular basis or if I didn’t weed the beds in the front of the house? Most of us have seen that happen, too. Then, we (speaking as the neighbors) take a break from working in our yards on a steamy summer day and think, “My yard doesn’t look too bad compared to Mark’s.” We call it quits, satisfied because we aren’t the worst yard in the neighborhood.  A new trend is started – one for the worse.

This same principle applies to all of our actions or inactions. Every deed and word from our mouths becomes a role model for others, whether we mean it to or not.

A woman setting up a seminar tried to get me to speak at it by claiming I had already agreed. She’d probably seen people lie to avoid a jam or get something they needed. So she did as well. I’m sure she didn’t think it would cause any harm, and she was probably under a lot of pressure from her company to line up speakers with good credentials. But the road to Hell is paved with good intentions and mapped out with shortcuts.  She and other people who have intentionally misspoken to get their way show us all that lying is acceptable.

It isn’t easy to do the right thing – to follow those rules we learned as children – when those around you are not and have no repercussions or even receive rewards for breaking the rules. All of us fail often, but still, each of us can start a trend with our own neighbors, colleagues, peers and friends simply by choosing to act truthfully, respectfully and with kindness.  People are watching you. So what kind of trend will you start? One that encourages positive acts? Or will you inspire more evil? The choice is yours.

The Angels of Summer

I didn’t think I was an unusual child. I had no perspective to realize that not everyone spent large portions of their lives talking to things other people couldn’t understand. Like the worm family that lived outside my back door, or the floating specks of dust in the air made visible by a ray of sunshine, or – the one I was reminded of on my morning walk – the angels of summer.

I would lie on my stomach. feet kicked up in the air, watching the stocky clover blooms march around the yard while above them, the angels wearing floral halos swayed gently in the breeze.  My brother would tell me to hunt for four-leaf clovers and, like a dutiful little sister, I did.  But I tired of it quickly.  Searching the ground seemed to miss the point. I didn’t need the luck my brother promised with the finding of a misformed clover. I had angels to talk to.

As the weeks passed, their halos shriveled and their pale green faces grew brown and dry in the sun. I would slide my fingers up their graceful stems, releasing the tiny brown seeds into the wind, sending them home.

I had forgotten about those angels until this morning as I kicked through a field near my house and there they were, waiting for someone to notice them. And I did, stopping to take a picture and remembering. My dad probably wondered why we had so many weeds in the yard when I was a kid or maybe he knew – they weren’t weeds to me.

He Left Us with Inspiration

Ray Bradbury passed away yesterday. I am saddened by the loss of one of my childhood heros, and my heart goes out to his family and friends. My earliest memories of being truly intrigued by a book came from him.  The book was  Something  Wicked This Way Comes. I was captured by the brooding recklessness of Jim Nightshade, perhaps because I was much more like Will Halloway. I thrilled to the words on those pages, and was astounded at how they left something, lingering behind.

I read every Bradbury work I could get my hands on after that. My favorites were The Martian Chronicles,  I Sing The Body Electric, A Sound of Thunder, and, well, many, many others.  If you have read only Fahrenheit 451 as required reading in school, I recommend you delve into some of his other works.  Often dark, often funny, always poignant. His imagination, his stories, and his imagery inspire me. And we are all fortunate that he has left those gifts for us to continue to enjoy.

Rest in peace, Mr. Bradbury.  And thank you for your enduring inspiration.

Though I am old and wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

~W.B. Yeats, The Wind Among the Reeds

Money is a Selfish Master

I’ve been thinking about the important connections in my life – those things and relationships I would willingly endure real sacrifices to maintain.  The list isn’t startling – my husband, my son, my family and close friends, one of my old bosses, my internet access (yes, it does rise to that level).

Money isn’t on that list – or even close to it.  So why is most of my time and nearly all of my energy consumed by the acquisition and maintenance of money?  Of course, I need money to survive in this world.  I must keep a roof over my head and food on the table and a number of other necessities of the modern world.  But all too often I have substituted money, itself, as the goal.  And what have I learned?  Money is a selfish master.

Money sets itself as a self-perpetuating goal.  For the first two or three years of our marriage, my husband and I lived below the poverty line.  We ate the surplus cheese distributed from the back a white box truck.  We cooked together.  Cleaned together.  Anything that broke, we fixed ourselves or did without. And we had fun. I’m not saying there weren’t downsides. Carefully calculating the cost of the food in the cart  to make sure we’d have enough money left to pay the rent was not “fun.” But we had time and energy to spend on the things we enjoyed.

We don’t do those things much anymore. We talk about them.  Often, by the end of the weekend, we tell ourselves we are going to go for walks together every day. We are going to do more cooking.  We are going to dig into the home repair projects.  And then on Monday, we go to work, our jobs consume us, and we find ourselves sitting at home, watching TV or staring at the computer, not talking, not moving, and not getting anything done.  So eventually, we pay someone to do those things we had planned to do ourselves.  We hire a handyman to fix the molding and paint the trim, and we go to restaurants where someone else will cook.  But those things cost money, so we must work harder to pay for those things.

Wait.  The things we enjoyed are the things we are now paying someone else do to because we’re too tired from working to pay for those people to do them? That doesn’t make much sense.  But, for me at least, it is the nature of pursuing money.  The goal keeps getting higher, remaining just out of reach, while forcing away life’s simple pleasures.

So I’ve decided to do something about it.  I am stepping away from the work world for a few months to readjust both my priorities and my budget.  This isn’t going to be a world-travel kind of sabbatical, although I imagine we will do some exploring.  I will continue my writing and plan to spend far more time on it. But some of the time I had spent in the pursuit of money will be used remembering how to live with less of it, and doing the things I’ve always enjoyed.

I am sure there will be ups and downs, some expected, some not.  Where will this lead?  What will happen?  I don’t know, and that is something new and exciting in my life. That, alone, is good.  Stay tuned.

So You’re Not Voldemort. So What?

Fiction has created some great characters as the embodiment of pure evil. Voldemort in the Harry Potter series, Sauron in Lord of the Rings, Evil (by definition) in Time Bandits, and perhaps the Baron Harkonnen in Dune are good examples. Real life rarely creates such clear examples of evil, although Adolf Hitler may be the exception to that rule. For the most part, however, this level of evil exists only in fiction. And yet, people seem to cling to it as proof that they are “good.” Even worse, they demand the happy endings they see in fiction.

Why do I say this? Because I see it frequently in my law practice. All of my clients are “good” people, in that they aren’t malicious. They are  honest, hard-working folk who hold some sort of professional license and have made mistakes. The nurse who, during a hectic shift, makes a medication error but the patient, fortunately, isn’t harmed. The pharmacist who, in the stressful mail-order prescription world, repeatedly mis-counts pills. The doctor who signs drug order forms completed by her staff without recognizing they are incorrect. These are mistakes and they happen. But about a third of my clients have difficulty accepting that they must endure consequences for their actions. They tell me that others have done worse, or that they didn’t intend to do anything wrong. And because of this, they firmly believe nothing should happen to them. Essentially, they are saying they aren’t evil, so there should be no consequences. But that isn’t how things work – in the real world or in fiction.

Consider Paul Atreides in Dune. He single-mindedly seeks revenge on his enemies for his father’s death, but at what cost? For him, the price is paid with the murder of his infant son, and perhaps, with his own sanity. Or think of Harry Potter. His relentless pursuit of Voldemort, disregarding the advice of those around him, costs his godfather his life. The protagonists in these novels are far from perfect, and their flaws and mistakes have serious consequences, even though they were well-intentioned.

Everyone makes mistakes and most should be given a second chance. But having a second chance is not the same as wiping the slate clean. Actions, whether intended or not, have consequences, and trust takes effort to restore. The consequences cannot be avoided.

In other words, you don’t get a free pass in life, simply because you aren’t Voldemort.



Breaking Out of the Box

I don’t like boxes.  They are a necessary part of intelligence and experiential learning – the ability to categorize objects, people, and ideas into groups that allow us to predict their actions and characteristics. It is how we know that something heavy for its surface area will drop like a stone, while something broad and light will gently float down like a feather.  It is also what draws people in to works of fiction.  They have experience with people sort of like the characters, or events the bear a resemblance, and so they build in their expectations and knowledge into the story. They relate.

But still, I don’t like boxes, because human beings use them far more than necessary to organize the world, forcing the world into preconceived categories and demanding it behave accordingly. In the past, I’ve found myself shoved unwillingly into a box that didn’t fit. For example, in the first hours I spent with my future in-laws, they informed me that I was subservient, smart, polite, and a distant second to my brother in the eyes of my mother. They stated these as indisputable facts based on one-half of my genetic heritage.  But the box didn’t really fit. And why put me in that box? Half of my genetics bear a different label. Why not put me there?  Why not into a box of people who don’t fit in boxes?

That latter question caught an entire room by surprise ten years ago. During a mandatory diversity training, we were doing the jelly bean exercise. You have several colors of jelly beans representing different races, and put the proper color bean into a cup for each question asked: the race of your doctor, your dentist, the person who does your hair, your best friend. When I had to select a color for my own race, I stared at the colorful candy, not knowing what to do. I raised my hand and asked.  To my embarrassment, a gasp went through the room at the question. That led to a lengthy discussion as to the correct single jelly bean for my cup.

I never understood why I couldn’t put in both. I was both. I am both.

I run into the same problem with my writing. I have to categorize my novels into preconceived boxes. I look at Foreseen, which comes out next month. It will be categorized as science fiction, but it could just as well be categorized as paranormal. It may be classified as action or adventure, but could easily be classified as romance. It doesn’t fit neatly into one box and not the others. It follows time-honored traditions of story composition, but that isn’t exclusive to one genre or another. In fact, a good story in any genre will follow the same rules. And yet, I must put it into the boxes to help people find it.  But when they do, I hope they don’t expect something that’s exactly the same as everything else in that genre, because Foreseen, like it’s author, doesn’t fit in a box.

She will dance again…

She dances in the moonlight, feet barely skimming the earth as she spins, arms spread to the heavens, beckoning the stars to her embrace. And they obey. Laughter at the sheer joy of every moment flows around her, draws others to her like honey – spiced with her wit and tongue. Her friends stand in awe, entranced by the life – by the living – that she shares with them so freely.

We could have lost that girl this weekend.  Taylor was in a car crash about three hours from here, leading to that feared 1 a.m. call.  But Taylor is fine other than cuts and bruises, and the weekend made points about connections.

  • Cell phones must be with you to connect immediately.  The call came to my son from the phone of a rural Indiana police officer.  Andrew’s was one of the only numbers Taylor could remember, and her phone had been ejected from the car as it flipped.  But we were all upstairs asleep, and his phone was in the kitchen.  No one answered.
  • Human connections are unaffected by distance.  Andrew woke up.  Perhaps some part of his subconscious heard the phone, but not likely given his ringtone and the fact that he’d left it downstairs.  It’s hard to hear from ten feet away.  Still, fifteen minutes after the call, Andrew awoke and decided to go to the kitchen for a drink of water.  While there, he checked his phone, got the message and called back.  At this point, Taylor had been taken to the hospital but was okay, and Andrew told the police officer we would come get her.
  • Cell phones still connect, even when lost.  As we hit I-70 West headed for Indiana, Andrew texted Taylor’s phone to tell her we were on our way.  He doesn’t know why, since we believed her phone was lost or broken. The black phone lay in the dark cornfield, ten feet from the car.  It lit up with the incoming text, and the police officer who’d remained at the scene retrieved it.
  • People connect with people.  If you’ve read Taylor’s post from this weekend, you already know this one.  People who could have passed by –  even a guy on crutches – trudged into the cornfield where the car came to rest to help a total stranger.

Lots of other things happened this weekend, too personal to share on this blog.  But I walk away from the weekend feeling good.  I’m reminded that as much as I love and depend on technology, it is valuable only as a tool to connect people.  This weekend strengthened many bonds in my circle of friends and family.  Some new bonds were formed that will be as enduring as the old ones. And we still have Taylor.

Once the soreness subsides, she will dance again in the moonlight… although in full disclosure, if Taylor ever danced as I’ve described, she would trip on a tree root!

Selflessness, Harry Potter, and Gen Z

Selfish versus selfless. Those were the stakes in Harry Potter. Sure you can call it good versus evil, but those are weighty and imprecise terms.

Selfish. Voldemort was selfish to the core. His motivations were self-promotion and self-preservation. He had no friends, and his followers were simply tools. Sounds like some people I know.

Selfless. Harry Potter was willing to sacrifice himself to give his friends, his fellow students, the rest of the wizarding world a chance to defeat Voldemort permanently. Harry was the ultimate hero for choosing a path where the satisfaction of helping others was the only reward, and one he was not likely to live to see.

An entire generation has grown up with Harry Potter. They’ve seen him as a boy walking into a magical world for the first time. As a preteen in agonizing grief as his new world rips apart just as he was creating the family he never had. As an awkward teen trying to figure out how to ask a girl out. And finally as a young man, facing the realization that the people around him have not always made the right decisions, but their imperfections don’t matter for his choices.

Perhaps Harry Potter has left a bit of a generation gap in its wake – a good one. My generation didn’t have lots of selfless heroes. Jaws – not really. Animal House – uh… no. Even Star Wars. The selfless act in Star Wars: A New Hope was by Han Solo, and he wasn’t the main character. Perhaps that’s a reflection or even the cause of my generation having a “what’s in it for me?” mentality. With Millennials and GenZ, I see more selflessness. Taylor will drop everything in a heartbeat to help a mangy kitten abandoned by the road or the kid down the hall whose computer just failed or someone who is just badly in need of some fresh baked brownies. Andrew spent the summer working for not one, but two non-profit organizations – assisting them in fulfilling their missions to improve inner-city life.

Sure, they’re still young. Very few people have abused or manipulated their generous natures. Those days, unfortunately, will come. But perhaps this generation learned something from Harry Potter: It doesn’t matter what other people do themselves or to you. It’s your choices that determine who you are: Harry or Voldemort. Be the hero.