Sunday, May 27, 2012

Head Hurricanes

I've named each of my concussions, because if hurricanes can wreak destruction and still be named for their own identities then the storms to my head deserve the same, but maybe not so genteel.  I do, after all, have a good deal of resentment and malice towards them for upending my life.

The first was Social Mutant.  This one snuck on me, and took me awhile to know.  I had slipped on a boat ramp one icy morning in January, sliding down it to the beach at the end of my street.  I realize now I was knocked unconscious, though, being alone, I wasn't sure.  I thought I just fell and a man and a dog very quickly ran to my assistance, but since I later remembered them as far down the street when I took the turn to the beach, I think I was out for a minute or two because I was lying there, dazed, when the dog came and licked me.  I also thought for some reason that because I had on the hood of my coat I couldn't have hurt my head.  I believed this for quite some time, since denial of injury is my very special friend.  Months, in fact.  I ended up going to my doctor that spring and saying I had dementia because I couldn't recognize any of the staff coming to work with my son Billy every afternoon.

She didn't think I had dementia, bless her, but did send me to a neurologist, who did testing that August that my memory wasn't great but wasn't notably impaired either--it was borderline.  I said I was very suspicous of everyone because I was having such difficulties remembering details that I would also shake them:  "Are you sure?  Are you kidding around with me?  Did I really do that?  Did you?  Didn't I say that to you?  Why are you looking at me that way?"

So at first I became the Social Mutant (SM) because I couldn't recognize anybody I hadn't known at least a year, and seen at least a dozen times, I had this weird trick where if I "guessed" their name, even though I was sure I had never known them, I was right at least half the time.  So, my visual memory, rocky as it was, did link in some backhand way to my verbal memory.  In this way I got pretty good at greeting strangers like I knew them, though something was usually off and they looked at me odd.  Then I became the SM because I was paranoid, and shaking everyone I knew and loved with my suspicions and frustrations.  This lasted most of 2009, and then it faded away.  By Christmas, the cleanup from SM was nearly complete.

I had six good months, then I was kicked in the head at work during a floor restraint, and knocked back into the nurse's station, causing a concussive injury I call Brain Freeze (BF). Here, there was no delay as the symptoms roared forth, more each hour for days until I was nearly incapacitated with migraines, word-finding problems, insomnia, mood swings and memory deficits. What I also realized was that these problems were familiar, because I'd had them the year before without recognizing what they were.  I couldn't cook, I couldn't drive, I couldn't stand noise or light or smells. Still, denial was ever-present and I kept trying to move, to fix, to understand.  I went back and back to the doctor looking for meds for the migraines, meds to prevent the migraines, meds to help with the fogginess, treatments to fix what was wrong.

In the end all this running around looking for solutions probably extended the length and course of Brain Freeze.  For BF thrived on the chaos of my days--the hundreds of things I was trying to get done while I was out of work, the time I was trying to spend with my kids to make up (why?) for years of full-time work, the general hubbub of a household of a dozen people.  I got more and more frustrated, strained, impatient, angry, and impaired.  It wasn't until I was sent to a neurologist, who noted the steel tension of my neck and shoulders and sent me to physical therapy, where they listened through my half-hour sessions as I talked about my days while unknoting my muscles, that I realized how ridiculous I was being.  I needed to stop moving.  Once I did this, for about six weeks, I felt better.  I returned to work and, slowly, got back my functioning there and at home.

BF is still with me.  I don't think I've recovered my mind's former quickness, and I still get much more easily overwhelmed with a number of people talking than I ever did before.  My memory is still mediocre, and I have to write down everything I want to get done in a day or the effort of trying to remember such things uses the brain power I need to actually do such things.  I still get headaches, though the migraines are blessedly infrequent.  But my personality returned--where I'd turned into an anxious shrew, I'm back to...a more relaxed...person.  Maybe even more even-tempered than before, less demanding of myself and others, more grateful for good things, and eager to find more.  I started writing in earnest, something I enjoy even when it strains my brain, and I worked harder in my marriage to be a better wife because I could better see all my flaws, magnified.  I eventaully accepted the limitations that came with BF, and appreciated when they were only background noise rather than front-and-center problems.  I recovered, which isn't the same as returning to the same place I was before.  There is no standing still or going back, is there?

So when I had my third concussion last week, I was surprised that denial was still so close to hand.  Though on the very day it happened I lied flat on the couch in my office for hours, disoriented and largely unable to move, I did not tell anyone what was happening, nor did I go to the hospital.  With BF I had driven myself there, which is bad enough, but with Sea Sick (SS) I just drove home, and stayed in bed for another day, and then came back to work.

For while there are similarities between SS and the others, it has it's own qualities, and since some of these were different and unfamiliar, my quasi-logic told me the injury must be different too, not a concussion.  Or, I reasoned, my hitting my head on the floor was just re-triggering BF, an aftershock so to speak, and would go away in a day or two.  I can't explain otherwise why I went to work even though I couldn't steadily walk.  Or I waited two days to see a doctor.  Or until that point I was not honest about the symptoms I was having with myself or anyone else.

Once I did see the doctor, though, and stopped with the nonsense about how "I'm fine," I haven't resisted the head injury the way I did so vigorously in the past.  SS makes me nauseous when I move, and I have retched quite a bit, which I know can be indicative of an inner ear injury, and/or a more severe concussion and/or pressure on the brain, though my headaches are actually less than last time--just a constant, dull, waxing and waning ache in the back of my head rather than the soul-searing, skull-splitting migraines of BF.  I still have the mental fogginess, the memory problems, some blurred vision, insomnia, mood lability and irritability, inability to do something else while someone is talking to me.  And the no moving--this is new, and already quite a large problem.  I'm a girl who likes to move.

However, I am delighted to find that if I don't move (i.e. don't cook, or clean, or walk, or drive, or go out in the sun, or have the TV or radio on, and if the kids aren't fighting outside my bedroom door) I can write and read relatively well, though it has to be easy reading, and the writing can be no more than two hours, in the morning.  With BF I could not at all--I couldn't focus on the page, I couldn't remember how to type--so this if anything convinces me that SS is another concussion, with its own personality.

Since it lives through me, this means I have a different personality for now, also.  I am cautious and guarded, irritiable and suspicious, like an elder shut-in, but with a boozy side to me too, one that giggles over very stupid things and makes off-color and inappropriate comments, frequently.  I often wear a frown, I can feel it with my fingers, because somehoe the pressure from my head seems to force down my entire face.  I hate the smell of food and can stomach only the same, bland tastes--toast, tea, water, popcorn, chocolate, oatmeal, coffee, wine--okay, not always bland :).  Except sometimes, when I have a break in the storm, and I'm not nauseous and eat anything, ravenously.  So, no weight loss, sadly.

And while I never again was able to enjoy television again after BF, mostly because of the commercials but also because it couldn't hold my interest (with the exceptions of favorite movies, baseball games and up to 30 minutes of morning news, all of which I found to be soothing), I am now completely intolerant of anyone watching TV around me, and my poor husband is forced to watch shows on his nook with headphones.  Which he tells me is no sacrifice since he doesn't have to put up with my eye-rolling and sighing like he has to with the TV on.  Which is not a public comment on his TV show selection.  Truly.

What is also different this time is that I've quickly accepted that I'm impaired, and miserable, and that this will last some time, and that I might not be the same afterwards.  The destruction, like a hurricane, is heavy but I will, with time, recover.  I just have to wait for it.







Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Finger

I rode to work on Monday in my husband's truck, a hulky but normal-looking Ford pick-up.  I usually drive a hybrid Civic because I have an hour commute but my daughter Sheyanne won't drive the truck so when she is home doing errands for me she gets the car and I drive the truck as slowly as possible to avoid spending my paycheck on gas.

N.B.:  as slowly as possible.

So when on Monday the person in a Corolla started beeping whenever I came within 100 feet of her ahead of me I was curious.  Was I threatening to her?  Would 50 feet of space be adequate in pretty heavy traffic?  Apparently no, because what I thought (from my vantage point three or four car lengths back) was her enjoying the wind on her hand became, as we got off the same exit, a very clear message:  she was giving me the finger.

And beeping.

And I'm wondering how unpleasant it must be to be driving in the car with her, and enjoying the solitude of my truck, where no one is getting bent out of shape over having a pick-up behind them, or even having the finger thrust in their direction, repeatedly, with enthusiasm.

But since my mind tends to run on multiple tracks I'm also thinking:  why the hate?  Since I can guarantee you I did nothing other than drive a pickup a respectable distance behind her I figured she had some measure of free-floating fury that was unleashed in my direction almost at random, and that's in fact how road rage starts.  Someone who is completely out of control emotionally gets triggered by someone doing something this hate on the highway and they unload.  In this case, what I did was drive a big pick-up.  This woman did try to slow down so completely on the exit ramp that I nearly rammed her, but then we veered in separate directions when the exit split and I was so relieved.  Would she start screaming at me next?  Verbal abuse is so much more painful than nonverbal abuse.  The finger itself holds little sway over me.

Except this:  that was just the beginning of a day full of misguided anger towards me, and it ended badly.

Let me be the first to say that I sometimes totally deserve the anger I draw.  I can be snarky, and every time (every time) I'm sarcastic I immediately regret it, being so wrong about what I'm dissing that it's cruel.  My entire trip to Disney this year was tainted by my comment about a four-year old and his father--don't ask, I'm still too ashamed to openly discuss it.  My husband would say I'm slightly arrogant and self-involved but I would temper that and say I'm confident and self-nurturing, while still caring, day and night, for others.  Regardless, I'm imperfect and overly proud and deserve whatever honest set-downs come my way.

What I don't deserve is what happened to me on Monday at work.

I've mentioned elsewhere that I work in a psych hospital.  Things get hairy, just to be concise.  On Monday they went so far beyond that that I ended up with a concussion and here's how it happened. A young woman who was unhappy with her life in general (being locked into a psych hospital was just the latest in a string of unfortunate events) and with another young woman who coveted her apparent boyfriend and reflexively insulted her mother specifically, decided to take her rage out on the adults trying to soothe and help her.  No matter what we did (talk to her, joke with her, help her advocate for herself, call folks who might talk some sense into herself) she was infuriated with us for being involved with the "consequence" for her threatening and charging after that other girl, and was determined to make us pay for making her, at some level, feel bad in acting as her conscious and saying, however gently, that she shouldn't have threatened that girl.

There were punches thrown, as well as phones and everything else on the desk of the nurses' station.  She flipped me backwards when I was asking her to calm in the time out room when she suspected (rightly, as it turns out) that someone was in her room removing objects she couldn't have on assault precautions.  Her main problem, if I could be presumptuous enough to summarize, is that in our role as caregivers we set limits that she despised.

I am familiar with this concept.  I have a son who not only will argue with me until the sun burns out over any (any) limit I set on his behavior but also punish me for trying to do so with standoffs, verbal abuse, cruelty to his siblings and days-long hostility.  And from living with him for seventeen years now I know this:  unless I walk away and give him the face-saving last word I will have much more trouble on my hands than I desire for the simple reason that his anger, once unleashed, is unstoppable.  In order to give him the last word, I have to swallow whatever measure of pride I have (again, my husband and I disagree about what this is), and concede the floor to him, effectively stopping the argument by no longer being there for him to argue with.

And here's where the haves and have-nots come into play.  Those who do not have uncontrollable rage have the responsibility for keeping their cool in the face of those who do, to the very best of their ability.  Without it our lives would be spent brawling, and we'd all be walking around with head injuries which, I can assure you (from my perspective and that of my family), are gruesome to live with.  And, even when you do your best and keep your cool, sometimes those with powerful anger will victimize you.  It's the main side effect of rage--others are hurt--though the main effect is what it does to you to live with such rage.

Which is why I mostly feel luckier than the woman who gave me the finger, or the young woman who gave me the concussion.  Mostly, I say, because as far as I know they aren't sitting at home tamping down nausea and their own new-found problems with irritability and anger and befuddlement and balance while writing a blog over five days that typically takes them an hour and having to spell-check "mostly" because it doesn't look right.  Maybe it's fairer to say that rage in anyone sucks for everyone.







Sunday, May 13, 2012

My Labor Day is Today


I have many thoughts about my mother today, whom I love beyond all measure, but I think my love story with her is for another day.  Except for this:  when I was growing up I wanted nothing more than to do as she did--raise two children, go to work, love my husband--but it was the seventies and lots of things changed my mind.  In the end my husband and I decided for varying reasons to raise as many children as we thought we could competently manage, and then maybe one or two more.

Over the years I have have not been entirely honest, perpetuating a myth that raising a large family well is not so much different from raising two or three.  In some ways I know this to be true;  most parents are taking care of their family or home when they aren't sleeping or working so we're all at it for the same number of hours.  But in that time we have to do so much more that it's qualitatively different, as though walking on a high wire rather than a road but expected to go the same distance in the same time.  Sometimes nigh impossible.

I have underplayed this when asked what it was like out of embarrassment, or an effort to reassure the person asking, or because I couldn't put what I truly felt into words but today I will try.  Being a mother becomes exponentially more difficult with every child, and the effort of raising a large family is a lot like the labor of working a very large farm with just the two of you:  the demands of it, the back-breaking work, the constancy of it, the thanklessness, the anxieties, the fights, the tenuousness, and the rewards.  This reality speaks to me, and it says:  but who said life was supposed to be easy?  You, sweetheart, would be wasted on easy.  

So we had eight kids, four of our own making and four others made but couldn't raise, and it’s been incredibly hard.  Not just the organization—finding a system not only to track the sporting events, med refills, school conferences, camp deadlines and early dismissals but dozens of baby teeth, hundreds of parties, thousands of pictures and infinite rides—but even more the constant need, the exponential heartache.  

With a big family you are almost guaranteed as a parent to have at least one academic genius, entrepreneur, athletic star, household helper and social wonder.  Someone is going to make you proud every day.  You are also due at least one alcohol or drug intervention, high school suspension, car crash, bad breakup, explosive temperament, jarring financial crisis, teenaged pregnancy, legal problem and psychiatric crisis.   It’s just more of everything, good and bad, the joys and the troubles almost evenly matched, both walking in the front door and sitting on the couch, staying for the duration. 

The pleasures are of course easy to take but the troubles cause intense and life-defining conflicts between this thick web of connected people.  The strain involved in disentangling all these conflicts, or in maintaining self-control while watching them sort themselves out leaves you bereft, exhausted and confused.  Unless you are possessed with the kind of self-confidence that borders on arrogance, a sureness that one is on the right path at all times, it shakes your belief in yourself as a parent and leaves you feeling like your best is nowhere good enough.  Not only is it not in the ballpark, it’s not even in the parking lot or surrounding county.

My daughter, in a well-deserved pique against one brother last week threw at me:  “Can’t you at least control him?” and I had to say, sadly, no.  All this work and effort and still most of the outcomes, not only of a child but even just an evening, are almost completely beyond my control.  The most I can do is vaguely steer towards what I see as the best course, the safest shore, and pray. 

So why do this?  Some force pulls you to this big-family life, says if anyone can do this you can, and then you just swim hard and fast, staying barely afloat, living just above that break line between happiness and insanity, dipping below it occasionally but then fighting your way back and being ever-grateful for the gift of that fight.  For that’s the thing about hard and devoted work—it pays off with the sense of life lived fully, at the edge of one’s capacity, and one tiny part of that payoff is today.   Once a year I am absolutely flooded by the love of eight affectionate human pups, kissing and hugging and dropping presents at my feet and accepting all my nuzzles and smiles and winks and kisses in return.  On this one day, I bask. 

I know that it’s hard for them too.  As much as they enjoy the big gatherings and ready-made companions, being in a big family is like getting a perfect, hot pizza and then getting just one slice--the rationing is incessant.  Even everyday treats like a Happy Meal are a landmine of want and inequity when those not similarly treated feel ignored and neglected.  You may have nice parents and live in a big house but those parents and that house are shared by a host of other kids, teasing from first wake-up and jockeying for every inch of closet space, each minute of bathroom time.  It’s a hornet’s nest of activity and competition, with precious few hours in any week or even month of peace and solitude.  It’s almost not possible to grow up in such a space without the compulsion to get away for a while, live with the loneliness and the blissful appreciation of unshared bathwater. 

But when you do, whether parent or child, you carry with you the imprints, the shadows of everyone else, like slipping your feet into favorite sneakers and finding only one toe in the well-worn pads for ten.  I cannot go anywhere, literally, without thinking of who I left behind, still linked to them like we are all one set of appendages, my husband and I each a palm to their fingers.  I’m not sure when or if ever this will fade;  if you count some time I spent mothering my brother and cousin I’ve been at this for thirty years.  In my life the thoughts of them, the worries, the aggravation, the amusement, is still constant.  Though I seek solitude to write, walk, even cook, I also know I am happiest in their company,  flawed as we all may be together, and much as they tap from me.  We make a good life with each other.  

I wrote about reading romance novels last week because they appeal to my desire, my expectation, for a happy ending.  But I started writing adoption novels because trying to explain their complexity, and their richness, can’t be covered in a conversation or an essay, and the happy endings are muted, though in that way we're like most families.  Today I got to write because it’s Mother’s Day and they all know their greatest gift to me is some time to think.  Unerringly, my thoughts turn to them.  

Last week my son came to me for some conversation and reassurance, a little help and the slightest bit of ass-kicking and I realize that this is it:  the real payoff.  It’s the honor of knowing all these people in such fine-grained detail that I can do all these things well, and in good measure.  In return, they study me too, and know exactly who I am, my tribe, whom I protect and provide for and who are set to defend me even knowing all my flaws.  Being known and yet still loved like this is a lifelong guarantee of my worth in this world, which is itself utter relief—a life not wasted.  Not exactly a sentiment printed on one of my cards today, but imprinted outside my heart as a quick approval stamp, leaving the inside free to fill with love for them, and then to overflow.  

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Rating of Romance 1-2-3


Sometime last summer there was a romance book that I downloaded onto my nook either because it was Free Friday or because it was 99 cents.  I let my grown daughter Shey have the nook for the few days it took her to finish the book, and felt very generous.  She was happy, and told me that it was her favorite type of romance, historical and based in Britain.  It was Grace by Deanne Clark, and since Mark and I routinely tease her about her favorite books being smut, and I have long taken pride in finding the sex scenes in any of her racy Harlequins (slightly more than half way through, and then again at three-quarters), she let me know that this book was different because the sex scene wasn’t until the end.  I read it, I don’t remember it, but she amused me and so I bought her some romance books for our August vacation, sending them to the house we were staying at, thinking there would be extra if my daughter Cait or cousin Bridget or sister-in-law Kathy or brother's girlfriend Kelly wanted a beach or bed read. 

As it turned out, they didn’t,  and I didn’t want Shey to read alone (not sure why) so I joined in.  I had picked the books carefully on Amazon due to their good reviews and writing and plot so I was curious.  I was immensely stressed by this vacation due to many days of insomnia (yes, that came first) and the strains of running the house with 22 or 23 people in it each night and looking for relief from any corner.  After I finished the two library books I had brought and liked/loved (Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson and The Wild Rose by Jennifer Donnely), I dove in. 

Relationship articles had been suggesting reading passages aloud, and while I did try this, one disturbing time when my  husband Mark nearly laughed me out of bed, I was undaunted.  The Men's and Women's Health book on sex and relationships had listed Emma Wildes’ Seducing the Highlander as the hands-down best for this purpose, and since I was months-into the Outlander audiobooks and thus living with a Highlander for at least two hours of every work day during my commute, I ordered this one and read it first.  It was scorching hot, so much so that I hid it from Sheyanne and moved onto a more conventional romance, A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal by Meredith Duran.  Also hot, but an addictably fast read for other reasons as well.
 
First, historical fiction is my favorite genre as well, and I was in the midst of reading All Things British this year with dozens of books, hundreds of scenes and thousands of pages read so far by Bill Bryson, Diana Gabaldon, Charles Finch, CJ Sansone, Kate Morton, Agatha Christie and Mary Stewart.  The class system of British nobility was interesting, if slightly nauseating, and a ripe setting for love stories, farces and comedies, all of which are included in the typical romance book.  

That some of the romances go beyond this, into other countries, the underworld, the underclasses, is even better.  I’m interested in castles, and clans, and cultures, and most historical books teach me something, even if it’s just how to make soap.  Since few are set in America I can’t see remains of the ancient keeps and lochs and towers and cliffs;  somehow imagining them is much more interesting than seeing the  equivalent in this country (mansions and plantations). 

Second, the writing is good.  With the exception of some e-books (all of which are inferior but I have still bought and read them because they are cheap, accessible and also interesting, just under-edited) the authors I have read so far are mostly witty and fun, their pacing is fast and smooth, their characters are well-drawn, embroiled in gripping drama and embody universal struggles and desires.  Since there are so many romance novels and the authors need every edge possible in the market their creativity is immense:  twins, ghosts, murders, mysteries, secrets, kidnappings, brandings, jailings, brothels, bastards, theft and discovery are all crafted into distinct stories with social farce and miscommunications to rival Shakespeare.  There is some descriptive imagery, but much less than in most books, filling in all the space with thoughts, feelings and human behavior.  The love stories especially are typically between two troubled souls, flawed but likeable enough that we pull for them to heal themselves with the balm of each other from the start.  

I am, apparently, a goner for a love story, and am never tired by the struggles of relationships and culture clashes and marriage and children.  The darkness of many of the characters, their damage, their traumas, make the stakes for their domestic dramas higher;  they are jaded, with few tries left in them to risk heartbreak, or seek redemption.  All readers (from the reviews I see) get emotionally drawn into the story from the beginning, or at most after a couple of chapters, and sign on for the ride to the endings.  Which are, I say with relief, happy.  I do not ever seem to tire of happy endings, problem resolution, misunderstanding clarifications.  Deep tragedy, loss and loneliness have to be balanced by joy and shared with loved ones for survival’s sake, in life or fiction. 

Third, the heroines are cool.  They are typically brainy outsiders who have given up on conventional marriage and are ostracized for it.  Sometimes they are na├»ve or coddled but more often toughened by being orphaned, abandoned, disinherited or ruined.  They are survivors who do not need any man to complete them, but are drawn to one nevertheless, almost against their will, and out of love rather than need.  The heroes are flawed in myriad ways, arrogant or broke or embittered or awkward but redeemed by the love of their woman and shown the error of their ways, and vice versa.  In the words of Ever After, they save each other. 

And last but not least, the sex scenes are very passionate and stirring, as they are intended to be. I gave Mark the down-low over dinner at Cabo the other night on how to successfully bed a virgin in the world of romance, again largely against his will but he's very tolerant of my conversational tracks.  It is so much more bearable to read than anything contemporary where its treated like the scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High where Jennifer Jason Leigh meets a guy she’s flirted with at the mall at a baseball park and he painfully screws her in the dugout before leaving her numb.  Reality bites, but I also think that ugliness is overstated, since most girls do lose their virginity to boys and men they are in love with (or at least crushing on).  And the sex ongoing between a couple in love and in the early stages of their relationship, full of yearning and fear and insecurity and brashness is realistically bold and often beautiful.  

Since I can no longer stomach much violence in my fiction this is likely going to be the Main Event in terms of emotional apexes in the books I read.  To have it be guaranteed from the start, and early and often throughout the book in all kinds of iterations is truly fun, and a tremendous stress reliever—like baths and walks and massages and sex and bed and good meals this is a luscious sensory experience and we're not even (yet) talking about the erotic romances I've read.  I read a Diana Gabaldon blog where she mentioned she enjoyed the judging the competition for Best Erotic Scene undertaken annually at the Romance Writers annual convention.  They read them at midnight J  Who doesn’t enjoy this stuff, I want to know?  

There are of course things I don’t like about the books.  They are formulaic, and after a few weeks I could write the handbook on types characters, plots, settings and language (though I'm sure these are already written).  Heroines are usually between 20-30 years old, much younger than me, with the hero about five years older.    The guys are all incredibly handsome, which is a nice fantasy but not necessary;  since I’m not looking at them their thoughts, words and actions truly are the thing.  The behavior and dialogue is much more modern than the times and settings would demand, sometimes ludicrously so.  And some of the writing is repetitive, just in case the reader doesn’t pick up on the themes the first time they’re stated, or in less obvious ways. 

Still, I’m enjoying them at a blistering pace and it’s becoming a problem.  Most books I had read before took me 3-4 days, a pace which isn’t a problem because almost everything I read is a library book since I figured out how to do interlibrary loan state-wide and get any book I want.  The rest are free or “steals and deals” nook books, also convenient and cheap.  However, my type of romance book (not the tamer stuff) can only be bought, at 7.99 each, and they only last me a day or two.  At amazon.com they are get-4-for-3 but that’s still $24 for a week’s worth of books, even if I’m interspersing other reading (a lot of which pales, honestly, in emotional intensity).  I've tried used book stores and in general love to support them but it's hard to compile a series that way, and on websites they are still $4-6 with shipping, and the author gets no royalties.  

So I begin to itch as my supply fades, putting them into my cart online and pondering how to get the money for the next batch.  A minor addiction as far as they go but one for me like wine and chocolate and coffee and texting and popcorn and Disney and shopping and reading in general which makes me wonder about my level of self-control.  Though I’m not one for TV or facebook or visual porn or bar-hopping we all have our pleasures and they exert a certain amount of control over us whether we indulge in them or if they are available, or not. 

What makes a guilty pleasure?  The closest I have come in reading before are the “mystery cozies” that I have read, especially the Coffeehouse Mysteries by Cleo Coyle, which are really romances in a contemporary mystery package.  From reading those I know that they are immensely pleasureable to read, without anything typically learned, the equivalent of eating Cool Ranch Doritos for their intense and transient taste.  

Many of the literary books that I really enjoyed last the past year or so were both memorable and taught me something, lingering in my mind for months—The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, The Widower’s Tale by Julie Glass, Left Neglected by Lisa Genova,  The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman, Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo—they are distinct worlds.  But they are full of pain, and I wouldn’t want to live there.  In contrast, the series I have enjoyed (see Brit-focused series above) have a higher balance of pleasure and pain, more realistic in my experience, so I do enjoy being there, and I want to return. 

Romance books that connect characters are especially wonderful in this way, as are those with a long epilogue that links the story to the outcome of their marriage.  I’ll read connected romance books, even if they are sappy or mediocre, because the characters have become partially real to me and I want to know what happens to them.  The House of Rohan books by Anne Stuart center around a debauched practice, the Heavenly Host orgies, not my favorite plot but the characters become heroic as they distance themselves from the grind and looked to save each other.  Not exactly the Lord of the Rings trilogy but still full of danger and drama about brotherhood, rescue, honor and love.  Another easy world to get lost in and if I did struggle, with a good amount of effort, to remember the names of each of the main characters and the exact plots as I moved from one book to the next, well there is always another book ahead to bring the same feelings to the forefront for me, with pleasure.  

That is, the best authors will.  I have read 100 romance books in the last eight months and have developed a system of rating them as a 0 (could not finish), 1 (good), 2 (great) or 3 (favorite) that not only tells me whether to read them again at some later date, but also whether to read more from that author.   Again, these are only historical romance, not contemporary or erotic.  That's for another day.

I imagine I'll compile a list of the actual books at a later date but the guide is to pick a good author, figure out the order of the books in any series you are considering reading (not as easy as it sounds) and then read them in order, suspending disbelief as required for full enjoyment of a fantasy series.  

Best Authors (3's) typically have constant wit and humor, interesting and well-drawn characters, complex situations which are dire but not tragedies and palpable heat between the main characters from the start.  All authors do these things in different measures, but these authors do all well.  
  • Kate Noble (especially quirky couples, fun if you are looking for fresh plots and characters)
  • Emma Wildes (her books are almost sex manuals, but the characters are smart and interesting).
  • Jennifer Ashley (Shey can't read these books, the first one has an autistic hero but I love him)
  • Grace Burrowes (her eight-part first series follows one large family and the tenderness between them is, while perhaps a modern variation on familial love, is what makes me pre-order each new book;  the fifth was just released last week and I it made my weekend wholly better).  
  • Elizabeth Hoyt (probably the best themes for her series, all tightly entwined with a mystery or mission that unfolds throughout the volumes)
  • Julie Anne Long (her Pennyroyal Green series is similar to Burrowes, but with the added twist of having two big, loving and warring families, going back and forth between them with each volume.  This one could end up being far more than eight volumes with the side trips she's taking into extended family as well).  
  • Courtney Milan (I find her books consistently great, they seem truly labored over, the only author whose every book I have given a "3.")
Great Authors (2's) are enjoyable but lack the vibrancy of the above authors, at least most of the time; these authors too are more than capable of sublime moments in their stories.  They might be new and need more polish, or established and need new ideas, but the writing is a bit more prosaic, the characters less well defined and, mostly, there are fewer moments that make me stop reading to either laugh or roll over and kiss my husband--I just keep reading, which in their field is probably good.   
  • Meredith Duran  (I like her books, I pre-order them, they're great)
  • Karen Hawkins  (she writes about Scotland and about big, extended clans of men in need of good women.  It makes all the sense in the world to volunteer).
  • Suzanne Enoch (she has some mighty original plot lines--a monkey on a shoulder, anyone?--and witty, funny banter)
  • Caroline Linden  (she is the archetype for me of this rating, with every book she's written being a "2" for me.  I read every one with pleasure)
  • Anne Stuart (who authored what I think might be my favorite book of all, Devil's Waltz)
  • Loretta Chase (she's on the edge between Great and Favorite, I have a few more to read for tie-breakers)
  • Sabrina Jeffries (similarly just started her books, might move up)
Good Authors (1's) are usually quick reads, fluffy, or they might be more gripping but marred by typos (in e-books, extremely distracting) or too much pedantic dialogue about the politics of the time (sorry, Laurel) or in other ways distance their characters from my emotions.  I have not, for the purpose of not being mean, listed all the books I hated.  So, these are still books I liked.  In fact, in the case of Michelle Sinclair, I am waiting with bated breath for her next volume--it's just that my expectations are more for a fun plot than strong writing. 
  • Laurel McKee (I wanted to love her books on Ireland, why does it pale so to Scotland in Romance-Land?)
  • Michelle Sinclair (I think she might have self-published these as they were cheap e-books only but she has a lovely hook, one that's been ignored for the months or year she hasn't published as she moves from bargain-basement to mainstream publishing, thankfully since I'm hoping she now gets a good editor)
  • Maya Banks (wanted to love her, but it hasn't happened yet)
  • Cara Eliot (came from Yale, I think she'll get there but still, in the end, remain annoyed that I could read her dialogue to Mark pool-side at Disney and we'd both be falling over giggling for the cliches, especially during the sex scenes.  Also needs a stronger editor, I think).  
That's it.  Eighteen authors, one hundred books, countless hours of fun and pleasure.  I thank you.