A question about Twitter…

Still fielding questions from Twitter and this one comes from Suzy:

You seem very connected with people on Twitter. What do you like most about this form of social media?

I do love Twitter; it’s my favorite form of social medial although I did finally cave and open an Instagram account which is BLISS. (I follow very positive accounts there and Instagram is an immediate mood-boost for me.) But Twitter is where my people are. I chat with writer friends, readers, librarians, and bloggers. Here’s what I love best about it:

*It’s connection. Writing is an isolating business 95% of the time. I don’t have an office with other people; I don’t go out and see humans unless I make an effort. It’s easy to slip into hermit mode and live in your yoga pants or kimono. Twitter is a reminder that there are other people out there.

*It’s a hivemind full of experiences and knowledge greater than mine. I can log on anytime day or night and people I know are posting from around the world. I can dash off a quick tweet and invariably get a response–a very useful thing when I need to know something.

*It’s broadening. My Twitter feed is a bit of an echo chamber. I tend to follow people whose values coincide with mine, and seeing how those values play out in other countries under other systems of government is fascinating. I have also been inspired to do things I wouldn’t have done without the example of Twitter pals who are more politically active than I was. I have made donations of money and blood, signed petitions, called and emailed my representatives–all things I probably wouldn’t have bothered with before Twitter.

*It’s entertaining. I can always count on Twitter for a pithy cartoon or an otter gif.

*It’s informative. With so many of our media outlets more concerned with clicks and ad revenue than reporting facts, having people sharing their experiences from demonstrations, protests, sit-ins, and rallies is crucial. I’ve also been able to follow news feeds from media outlets in other countries which offer a perspective that is global rather than Americentric.

What I don’t love: it’s a time suck. Since I can pop in anytime, I DO, and that means that minutes slip by without me noticing I’ve done nothing truly constructive. Since I’ve just finished a rest period, that’s no problem, but now I’m moving into a time where I will be researching and writing my third Veronica book and my focus is shifting. I’ll be promoting A CURIOUS BEGINNING’s paperback release in July, but otherwise my tweeting will be a bit curtailed.

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Questions? We’ve got ’em!

This week I buckled down to writing Veronica #3 in earnest and have written two chapters in two days. (YAY!) It’s been such a good start that I completely forgot to write a post yesterday. So, belatedly, here you go:

Last week I thought I’d ask Twitter if they had questions–just general process type stuff. And goodness me! I got some great ones. Kicking us off is Carin who asked a deceptively simple question: “How do you name your characters?

The short answer is that there IS no answer. I have numerous tricks but no real method. I do know that if a name doesn’t suit a principal character, I have difficulty in “getting” them as a character. (This isn’t an issue with minor people. I’m more flexible with them.) Here are some random thoughts about naming:

*Each of my books has featured a name that is an homage to Agatha Christie. Pennyfeather, Lestrange, some of my favorite names I discovered in Christie’s books. Sometimes they are mentioned only once in passing; sometimes they are more prominent. I think of them as Easter eggs for diehard Christie fans.

*I scan the credits of British TV programs and films. There are some GEMS tucked away there. I never use a name in its entirety, but I will grab a surname from one spot and a given name from another.

*I Google major character names to make sure they’re not already in use by another author or belong to an actual human. It avoids awkwardness.

*I sometimes tuck jokes into names. Ryder White, the lead male character in A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS, is a professional big game hunter. He’s also lost his stomach for it and is shifting into conservation–the exact opposite of what the ‘great white hunter’ is supposed to do. It’s a tongue-in-cheek reference to the attitudes Ryder hates. Veronica Speedwell is a botanical joke because Speedwell is the common name of the plant called Veronica.

*I occasionally use a recognizable name as a springboard. I happened to be rereading COLD COMFORT FARM when I was preparing to write CITY OF JASMINE. Much as I would have loved to have used Starkadder, it was just too unique. I shortened it to Stark and used that for the name of my main female character.

*I lean towards feminine names for my heroines. Because I write historicals, I don’t have as much leeway as contemporary authors for curious or unisex names. Julia, Theodora, Evangeline, Delilah, Penelope (Poppy), Veronica–they are all period-appropriate but not nearly as common these days as Madison and Mackenzie and MacGyver or whatever people are calling their kids.

*I often choose simple last names. Grey, Stark, White, March. Since I enjoy longer given names, a short surname is essential.

*Occasionally, names are a clue to the character’s personality. Brisbane is Old French for “breaker of bones”. Appropriate.

*Sometimes I break all my own rules. Stoker, known properly as The Honourable Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, has the most gloriously lengthy name of any of my characters and it suits him. I keep a list of fabulous names that I add to continually. Some names never get used; some get used years after I hear them. I first heard Stoker’s nickname in a book by the Duchess of Devonshire–it was the nickname of her son, Peregrine.


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Making it rain–books!

A kindly tweep brought this to my attention on Twitter in order to give it a signal boost there, but I wanted to take it further. There is a library in Greenville, California, that needs help. It’s a combined library that serves a very small community that is desperately in need of books. The students who use this library haven’t even been able to check out books for almost a decade, and no new books have been purchased in about twenty years.

But it’s a new day in Greenville! Under new leadership they are trying to build a quality collection that will entertain and educate their young people, and we can help. The link at Throwing Chanclas will give you all the information about who they are and how to contribute. And it’s EASY. Send them books, send money, order books from your friendly neighborhood independent bookseller to be delivered–you don’t even have to get off the sofa!

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Because if you’re silent, you’re not an ally.

In the wake of the terrible shooting in Orlando, I want to make this completely clear: I stand with the LGBTQ community. This means I have zero tolerance for hate and judgment. This means I will happily share my bathroom with a transgender person. This means I have signed petitions calling for discriminatory and hateful legislation to be overturned. This means I have donated to causes that promote equality. This means I have made an appointment to donate blood to the Red Cross this week in the hope that it can be of some small help.This means I will continue to ask my LGBTQ friends what I can do to help and I will listen. And this means I am absolutely unwilling to stand by and be silent if you are on the wrong side of history. If you want to hang onto your bigotry, hold it tight. Because the world is changing and I have no problem leaving you behind.

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Big ’80s, baby!

I was an ’80s teen, and for some reason, whenever I think of that time, it’s always summer. And of course that’s ridiculous because it isn’t like I grew up in Westeros. But memories of my teen years are always drenched in sunlight and they have a very distinctive soundtrack. Say what you like about ’80s music, at least it was FUN. You could either dance to our music or sob your heart out to it. There was no middle ground.

With the FINAL coming of the sun–we’ve had intermittent rain for the past month–I compiled a Big ’80s playlist. There are glaring omissions (NO MICHAEL JACKSON?) and I don’t have any tracks from “Footloose” either, but for opposite reasons. I was never a huge Michael Jackson fan, and I listened to “Footloose” so many times I get a little queasy when I hear any of the songs now I am So. Over. It. The saving grace is that I think it’s the only album I’ve completely maxed on. I won’t add any Chicago or Air Supply because OH MY GOD, I cried enough to those when I was breaking my heart over something, and the tracks associated with John Hughes movies aren’t here either.

It’s a capricious thing, my list. But these are the songs I remember dancing to with my friends or belting out in my car when I got my driver’s license. I haven’t added any Whitney or Prince yet; I’ve so far neglected Joan Jett and Van Halen and Queen. Let’s call it a work in progress.

*Africa, Toto

*St. Elmo’s Fire, John Parr

*Take On Me, A-Ha

*Call Me, Blondie

*The Tide is High, Blondie

*Livin’ On A Prayer, Bon Jovi

*Tainted Love, Soft Cell

*I Want You To Want Me, Cheap Trick

*Missionary Man, Eurythmics

*Sweet Dreams, Eurythmics

*Hurts So Good, John Cougar Mellencamp

*Change, John Waite

*Carry On Wayward Son, Kansas

*Like A Prayer, Madonna

*Take the L, The Motels

*99 Luftballons, Nena

*Shadows of the Night, Pat Benatar

*Hit Me With Your Best Shot, Pat Benatar

*Since You Been Gone, Rainbow

*It’s Raining Again, Supertramp

*Holding Out for a Hero, Bonnie Tyler

*Play The Game Tonight, Kansas

*Heat of the Moment, Asia

*Wild Wild West, The Escape Club

*Alone, Heart

*Nothin’ At All, Heart

*These Dreams, Heart

*Gypsy, Fleetwood Mac

*Hold Me, Fleetwood Mac

*Vacation, The Go-Go’s

*Mickey, Toni Basil

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Today is creepy

When I was a fairly ghoulish child, I developed an interest in queens–notably the ones who were executed. I read voraciously about Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Mary, Queen of Scots, Lady Jane Grey, Marie Antoinette. I sorted them into categories: the innocent victim (Anne Boleyn); those I felt deserved their fate (Mary, Queen of Scots and Catherine Howard); and those who were hapless women completely outmatched by circumstance (Lady Jane Grey and Marie Antoinette). I scoured the details of their executions for clues to their character, believing that how you behave when death is imminent is deeply revealing. Marie Antoinette behaved with quiet dignity, Anne Boleyn with grace. Poor Jane Grey acted like a frightened schoolgirl–and who can blame her?–while the less said about Catherine Howard, the better. (Weirdly, I recently discovered that I am related by shared ancestry to each of them–VERY distantly to Marie Antoinette and closest to Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. Makes you wonder about why we choose the subjects we obsess about. Or are they chosen for us?)

Not only were each of these queens executed, they were all decapitated by various methods. Marie Antoinette was taken to the guillotine, Anne Boleyn was given a swordsman from Calais, and the rest faced the axe. Each has its merit and reason for being chosen. The guillotine was supposed to be swift and clinical, offering a merciful and speedy release in line with Enlightenment values. The axe was the kindest of the variations on a traitor’s death which could include disembowelment while still alive along with a bit of hanging and some gratuitous castration for male victims. In Anne Boleyn’s case the sword was a gruesome last gift from Henry VIII to his second wife. Her sentence had been to be burnt or beheaded at the king’s pleasure, and Anne was fortunate that he opted for the latter. He might have chosen an English headsman with the traditional axe, but the choice of sword was symbolic. It was the first execution of an English queen, and the event was carried out with due ceremony.

The drawback to death by sword is that it requires a bit more cooperation on the part of the victim. The axe asks only that you put your head on the block–a gesture Catherine Howard is said to have practiced the night before so she would get it right on the day. The guillotine is easier still; you are strapped to a tilting board (bascule) and held in the correct position by the curved lunette until the blade drops. But the sword requires the victim to kneel upright, waiting for the blow WITHOUT MOVING. Flinching would result in nasty complications, and it is said that Anne Boleyn’s executioner was able to strike off her head in one swift motion by employing the kind deceit of asking his assistant to walk in front of her and distract her while he crept up from behind, swinging the sword overhead to gain enough momentum to do the job. It’s easy to see how simple it would be to get this wrong–to misjudge the angle or fail to gather the proper momentum. And Mary, Queen of Scots’ botched execution is enough to make a firm case against the axe under any circumstances.

Decapitation was considered to be a quick and virtually painless death, particularly via guillotine. (Contrary to popular myth, it wasn’t invented by a doctor named Guillotin; he was merely the fellow who pushed for the adoption of a clean, merciful killing machine to eliminate the hideous and painful complications of hanging and other torturous methods.) It was soon observed, however, that the guillotine was perhaps TOO quick. Stories began to circulate about disembodied heads which still showed signs of life, of lips and eyelids that moved after death. Famously, the head of Charlotte Corday, the assassin of Marat, was said to have blushed furiously when the executioner struck her.

The phenomenon of living heads predates the guillotine. Mary, Queen of Scots’ head was said to have moved its eyelids and lips for a full quarter of an hour after her death. Sir Everard Digby, executed for his part in the Gunpowder Plot, apparently took offense at being called a traitor by his executioner because his head was alleged to have said, “Thou liest.” With the advent of the guillotine and the thousands who perished under its blade, the stories of living heads accumulated. Doctors assured the public that the phenomenon was simply due to the lingering impulses of the nervous system and that consciousness was not possible after the head was severed from the body.

As it happens, they were wrong. According to the latest findings, lucid decapitation is entirely possible. The best estimate is that conscious awareness of one’s surroundings can exist for up to twenty-nine seconds after decapitation. TWENTY-NINE SECONDS. Just imagine that. Your head is not attached to your body and you know it–for almost half a minute. Granted, it is rare. Decapitation has to occur at an angle that does not cause unconsciousness and there has to be sufficient blood in the brain to sustain awareness. (This is why the position of the head after it lands is significant. If the head is angled down and the blood doesn’t immediately drain out, there is a much greater chance for lucid decapitation. I warned you this post was creepy.)

Surprisingly, many physicians who have studied the phenomenon say it is most likely not painful. (Of course, physicians were also the ones who first said it was impossible, so perhaps a grain of salt here?) The reasoning goes that with the nervous system severed, there are no intact transmitters to conduct pain. There is only feeling and awareness, the ability to move the eyes and take in information, to process emotion. One doctor proposed the idea that next would come the dimming of vision, with stars in front of the eyes, then consciousness would fade to black–a rather peaceful-sounding end after a hideously traumatic beginning of the process.

If all this talk of heads has you interested in botched executions, check out Margaret de la Pole, Countess of Salisbury–who refused to kneel and made the executioner CHASE HER, or the Duke of Monmouth, the handsome bastard son of Charles II who led a rebellion against his uncle and paid with his life. After his death, it was discovered there was no proper painting of him, so his head was stitched back on for the portrait sitting…

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More books!

Like most writers, I am a tireless reader. I collect armfuls of books from the library each week, I browse bookstores, and I take note of recommendations from Twitter pals whose tastes align with mine. (If you want a peek at what I’m reading, I frequently post book pics on Instagram.) And when I find something I like, I’m NOT shy about sharing. Y’all will remember my unseemly enthusiasm about JANE STEELE last year…

My latest find is the enchanting Gower Street Detective series by M.R.C. Kasasian. I’ve only read the first–THE MANGLE STREET MURDERS–and I usually hesitate to recommend a series based on just a first book. Not this time. MANGLE was everything I ask of a book. It follows the sleuthing adventures of March Middleton, an enigmatic young woman, and her guardian, Sidney Grice, personal detective. (Don’t call him a private detective; he gets testy about that.)

Agatha Christie was a master at conjuring a setting in just a few words, and Kasasian is every bit as skilled. The series is firmly Victorian, but in a way that feels decidedly and appropriately modern. (People like to think of Victorians as swathing their piano legs in fabric to preserve their delicate sensibilities–nope. Kasasian does a splendid job of not falling into any of the ridiculous Victorian trope-piles.)

And the books are FUNNY. For me, the holy grail is a novel that is historically plausible and witty, and Kasasian delivers in spades. If you like Veronica, if you like Amelia Peabody and Flavia de Luce, you need to rush out instantly and get a copy of THE MANGLE STREET MURDERS. When you’re finished, you’ll be delighted to know that the fourth book in the series was JUST published this week.

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A linky round-up

Last day of May, chickens! I don’t know about y’all, but 2016 seems to be FLYING by around here. We’ve had an astonishing number of rainy days which has meant more time than usual puttering around inside the house and on the computer. Here are a few things I’ve found to amuse:

*Quiz: Which MASTERPIECE Detective Are You?

*10 Truly Bizarre Victorian Deaths. Not for the faint of heart! But interesting nonetheless.

*Queen Victoria Online Scrapbook. Created by the Royal Household as part of Queen Elizabeth II’s Jubilee celebrations in 2012, the scrapbook features an overview of Victoria’s reign with particular attention paid to her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. It has letters, photographs, even video clips from the Jubilee procession. Well worth a visit–although they ought to update the introduction. As of last September, Victoria is no longer the longest-reigning English monarch!

*Jo Beverley’s On Titles. Last week the romance community mourned the loss of Jo Beverley. I met her briefly when we did a panel discussion in Rome, and she was a lovely and gracious person. I thought it would be a nice tribute to her to post a link to a wonderful piece she wrote for her site on English titles of nobility in the 18th and 19th centuries. I’ve been ranting a little on Twitter lately about how many people get these things wrong and was toying with the idea of writing up a post myself, but Jo did it MUCH better than I would have.

Also, don’t forget that today is the day that “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies” comes out on DVD! Superb soundtrack, great cast, beautiful production values, and utter silliness–what more could you ask?

Finally, in order to combat the grey days, I’ve resorted to candles and my essential oil burner. A mix of 25 drops of grapefruit oil and 5 drops of rosemary is an excellent combination–citrussy, bright, herbal–all the things you need to elevate your mood on a gloomy day.

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Welcome back, sun!

For the past month, it’s been grey. Grey with cloud, grey with rain, grey with just more grey. But this week has seen the return of the sun and it’s glorious! Of course, the temperature has also shot up twenty degrees, but I’m not complaining. It’s just nice to see sunshine again. Summer is a-coming, and that brings a change in reading. Warm weather and sunny days send some people scurrying for thick family sagas or gritty adventure memoirs, but not me. I like lighter fare, the book equivalents of bias-cut dresses and fizzy cocktails and dancing on the veranda. Here are some of my perfect reads for lazy days:

*MURDER AT THE BRIGHTWELL. If you haven’t dug into Ashley Weaver’s series yet, grab this first installment. Set in a seaside resort with a glamorous sleuthing couple, it’s the perfect warm weather read. Like it? There’s a follow-up, DEATH WEARS A MASK, and the third book in the series is out in the fall.

*HAVING THE BUILDERS IN. Reay Tannahill’s medieval mystery doesn’t seem like an obvious summer choice, but trust me. It’s not a weighty, serious journey into the Middle Ages. It’s light and fun and thoroughly enjoyable. If you enjoy, there’s a sequel, HAVING THE DECORATORS IN.

*Anything by Mary Stewart. So many of her romantic suspense novels are set in the warm climates of the Mediterranean. THIS ROUGH MAGIC, THE MOON-SPINNERS, MY BROTHER MICHAEL–these three have Greek settings and are particularly good for summer reading.

*THE ROYAL WE. Newly out in paperback, this royal romp by the Fug Girls, Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, has been a HUGE hit. And with good reason. If you loved watching the courtship of Prince William and Kate Middleton, you need this book. Plus, the paperback edition has an exclusive extra scene.

*EVIL UNDER THE SUN. An Agatha Christie novel set in a seaside resort and featuring Hercule Poirot, it was adapted into a fabulous film in the 1980s. (Track it down if you get a rainy day. The script is great, and Diana Rigg and Maggie Smith are sublime.)

*Suzette A. Hill’s BONES series. Starting with A LOAD OF OLD BONES, this short series follows the exploits of an accidentally murderous vicar…how can you possibly resist that?



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Pondering play

Have you noticed lately that there seems to be a return to play? Adult coloring books are huge–I have two myself, and everyone I know seems to be collecting Funko Pop figures. (I might also have a few of those…I tried to resist but the Maleficents were just too cute. And then there was Wonder Woman.)

I think it’s a good thing. The world seems scarier and more violent these days. It’s not; that’s just our perception. By every possible measuring stick, we are doing better than at any other time in recorded history. We just have social media to broadcast hysteria about every damn thing that happens. And the message on mainstream media seems to default these days to BE AFRAID OF EVERYTHING. DID YOU KNOW YOUR HOUSEPET MIGHT KILL YOU? ALSO, YOU’LL DIE IF YOU SIT DOWN TOO LONG. YOU’LL ALSO DIE IF YOU SLEEP TOO LONG, BUT IF YOU DON’T GET ENOUGH REST, OH, GUESS WHAT? YOU’RE DEAD.

All that hand-wringing gets exhausting. So we turn to things that are simple and comforting instead, things that remind us of childhood. Creative play is consoling. It encourages mindfulness and serves creativity. There is no compelling reason NOT to do it. Well, there are always people who are sniffy about other folks having the wrong kind of fun, but we can ignore them. They don’t deserve another thought.

For Mother’s Day, my parents tucked a giant bubble wand into my gift bag. It’s silly and messy and I LOVE it. I blow bubbles for the dog who thinks I am made of magic, and that’s always fun. And conjuring those bubbles for him reminded me that it’s been FAR too long since I played for the sake of play. I started thinking about the kinds of things I did as a kid and compiled a play list, inspirations for the things I used to love and can love again. I plan to take at least a few minutes each day to do something silly just because I can, to do them without an inner critic commenting on how poorly I might do them or the fact that I might be doing something more productive with my time. That inner critic is just no fun and she needs a time-out.

So here’s my play list:

*Language lesson. Doesn’t sound much like play, but when I was a child, I was determined to teach myself French. I checked children’s books in French out of the library and pored over them, certain if I kept at it long enough I’d be able to decipher them. Yeah, it didn’t work. But I still get a thrill out of mastering the odd phrase in another language–and Italian seems like a frivolous language to learn. You can only really speak it in one country, so it’s impractical, decadent even! And the Duolingo app makes it seem like child’s play with their quirky little illustrations.

*Logic puzzle. Again, not the obvious choice. But I was in the gifted program, so my early school years were lousy with logic puzzles. I bought a book of Sherlock conundrums just to make it extra fun.

*Poetry. I loved poetry as a child, and skimming a classic poem takes me right back. The Poetry Foundation has a superb app that’s full of lovely things sorted by theme or age, so it’s easy to find children’s poems. I think they’re the best anyway…

*Drawing. I can’t draw. Like, at all. People always think I’m exaggerating when I say that even my snakes are a straight line, but NO. REALLY. I tried and tried throughout my childhood to draw anything better than a plain box house, but it never happened. I recently discovered Sachiko Umoto and I’m not looking back. Serious representational art is far too intimidating. Umoto’s illustrations are whimsical and fun–exactly the sort of drawing to appeal to a child. She breaks down her images into manageable lessons, and I can’t wait to start doodling. I managed a teacup the other day thanks to a quick lesson in Flow magazine, and IT LOOKED LIKE A TEACUP. It was five lines and some squiggles for steam, but it was the first recognizable thing I’ve ever drawn, and you would have thought it was the Mona Lisa for how proud I was of it. I have a feeling I’m going to be good at drawing chubby bear cubs…

*Collage. The refuge of the person who can’t draw. I have glued together magazine pictures for years to make collages for my novels, but once or twice I have done mixed media projects with a little watercolor paint and some glittery embellishments and they were beyond fun. I want to experiment with taking a classical image of a piece of art I love and zhuzhing it up.

*Needlecrafts. I’ve always played with needles, yarn, and fabric but I always put it down again because it seems like you should be making something USEFUL. Ugh. Why? The most fun I ever had with yarn was when I found a bright scarlet skein and crocheted 80 feet of chain stitch. It was perfectly useless, but I enjoyed it immensely.

*Coloring. I LOVED to color as a kid, and I loathed every teacher who criticized my color choices. (Holly Hobbie looked slamming in a black dress, Mrs. Cabla.) I have two coloring books I haven’t even opened yet. Time to break out the markers.

*Music lesson. I have never understood music. It’s mathematical and the assignment of notes to sounds seems so arbitrary. Here’s a real conversation I had with my piano teacher:

Her: This note is a C.

Me: How do you know?


But I’d still like to learn. So I might ferret out a kids’ music book and try to figure out the basics. (Pro tip: anything is more fun if you use a kids’ book to learn it. I studied endless knitting books and tutorials. I didn’t crack it until I found a book for children.)

*Sculpting. I’m talking PlayDoh style modeling here. I only ever sculpted snakes or snowmen as a kid, but a few weeks ago I was in an art supply store in New York and was utterly drawn to bricks of Roman clay. It was so SOLID, wrapped in Italian waxed paper. I just wanted to tear bits of it off an start MAKING something. Maybe a snake because my technique will certainly not have improved over the years, but I don’t care.

The key to all of these types of play is that I finally understand that there doesn’t have to be a point. I don’t need to pick up music with the goal of learning to play the cello. Hey, it could happen, but let’s be real: it won’t. And that’s fine. I don’t have to become fluent in Italian or learn to replicate the sketches of the Old Masters. I can just PUTTER with no goal except pleasure. Pleasure should be its own goal, its own justification for anything. The dog doesn’t expect anything out of the blown bubbles except to enjoy them. I need to take a page from his book.

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