Thursday, September 14, 2017

Serendipity in Siricusa

So, this just happened. Really, it did. I’m typing this sitting on the floor near the front doors of Catania airport, in Sicily, because they won’t let us check our luggage until two hours before the scheduled flight time (the flight is already an hour late). And I’m so excited I got out my laptop. When I get wifi I’ll post this, and then I’ll really start writing.
I’m in Sicily, which is more or less insane. We scheduled this trip—which is actually a golf trip organized by the association for which my husband rates golf courses—way before I knew I’d have a book tour starting September 28th or that my Egypt manuscript due September 27th. Even knowing how full my September would be, my progress on the new book this summer was slow. I love summer and my girl was home, and I wanted to have fun. Also it was the first time in five years I was writing from a point-of-view other than my beloved Ada’s, and that was difficult. Also everything was a hot mess, as is usual with first drafts. Sometimes it’s hard to keep going when you know what you’ve written so far is shite.
So. Challenged by my friend Dan Gutman to make an audacious goal and achieve it, I joined the September Squad, with the goal of either 50,000 words or a finished draft by the end of the month (If I’ve got 50,000 words and I’m still not finished, the book is much more complex than I thought). I was plugging along happily until I hit this trip. I brought my laptop and my manuscript, but then I’d think—I could write today, or I could explore the Sicilian countryside on horseback, and I picked horseback, and learned what olive groves look like, young and old, and about wild fennel and wild thyme and the exact shade of the Mediterranean Sea, and then I bought a bikini and it’s not like I’m not taking the book seriously, it’s just that I’m not sure I’ll ever be in Sicily again. I’d be a shame to not pay attention.
Meanwhile, I’d hit a place in the Egypt book where I was really really pleased with a particular scene, and with its implications for the rest of the novel, but I was aware that I was lacking a crucial piece of background—that what I had happening needed an antecedent I couldn’t yet identify. So, that’s what first drafts are for. I kept on.
Mostly the itinerary for this trip is pre-arranged, but yesterday my husband and I looked hard at today’s proposed schedule, and thought it lacking, so we hared off on our own. Our hotel concierge suggested we would enjoy Siricusa, an ancient harbor. We arranged for a driver to take us there and then become our tour guide and show us the highlights. Unfortunately the driver we got didn’t speak any English and had never been to Siricusa at all. He got comprehensively lost in the ancient town, driving in circles the wrong way on streets designated pedestrian-only. He stopped several times to ask other Italians for directions. Finally he just stopped the van, threw us out, and told us he’d come back in four hours. By that time we whole-heartedly agreed. His meandering had shown us a basic layout of the town, and we immediately walked to the ancient piazza fronting the 7th century Byzantine cathedral which was a modification of a 5th-century-BC temple to Athena.
So that was cool. We looked at some other stuff. Then I saw a poster advertising a museum exhibit of Egyptian coffins dug up from Deir El-Bahari, which is to say the dig near Hatshepsut’s temple. So we paid five euros and went in. Turned out it was a traveling exhibition from a museum in Brussels.

Turned out it contained EXACTLY the information I needed. Two specific items. I’ve solved the plot issue and I’ve gotten a translation of an ancient source I was searching for, and it was brilliant, absolutely amazingly brilliant, and I have no idea on earth how I came to find this information about 20th dynasty papyri and ushabti in the middle of Siracusa where I hadn’t planned on visiting until yesterday. It’s all amazing. It’s beyond amazing.

So I’m ignoring the rest of my tour group to sit on the airport floor, laptop on my lap, and type this, and the others are sort of guessing that maybe I’m a writer after all. And it’s the icing on the cake, baby. The icing on the Italian cake.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Oh, Boy! We're Going to Call Him Red

So quite often on this blog I tell the truth but not the whole truth. Some things aren't public consumption. A few weeks ago, when I wrote about going to my sister's to help with her little boys while she worked 18-hour days the week of the PGA championship, I deliberately failed to mention that she was 8 months pregnant at the time. It just felt wrong. My sister is a warrior, and she was part of a good team, but it was still a potentially stressful situation and I decided to keep it private.

My sister and her husband had let everyone know that they were expecting a third boy, but they steadfastly refused to divulge his name. That's understandable, of course, but also of course I tried my best to find out early. When we got to Charlotte, my daughter and I cuddled up 2-year-old Fred, and said, "so, what's your new brother's name?"

"Filmore!" Said Fred. That's a character from her current favorite movie, Cars 3.

"Yeah," cut in four-year-old Louie, "but we're going to call him Red."

Baby Filmore was born this morning, healthy and beautiful, as is his momma. My siblings and I are seven for seven: seven pregnancies, seven children. Could anything be more blessed?

I'm off to meet him tomorrow, darling baby Red.


Monday, August 21, 2017

Totality

It's eclipse day, but before that I need to do laundry. Also buy new tires, ride my horse, return my overdue library books, buy feed, and--oh yeah--write my novel.

My husband is an eye surgeon. He wishes the eclipse were not happening. He has been fielding what he considers Stupid Eclipse Questions for the past few weeks, and here's his answer, put concisely:

Don't look at it.
He says, watch it on TV, which I find ludicrous. Thing is, I've hung out in a partial eclipse before, and it was really interesting. The light got thinner. It wasn't like sunset at all. And if I recall, it was about a 70% eclipse, whereas today, on my farm, it will be 96%.

I wouldn't have to go far to experience totality--the other side of Knoxville, or down to Greenville, SC--about 2 1/2 hours driving, so five hours round trip. I've been balancing the idea of five hours solo in a car with 4% more eclipse--staying home won. I'll sit on my porch and enjoy the eclipse without looking at the sun, which is the important part--not to look at the sun. I didn't buy eclipse glasses and given my husband's attitude probably wouldn't risk them anyhow. And no, I have it on very good authority that regular sunglasses are not the same.

Meanwhile I've got to go fetch my truck, which is getting 6 new tires, hitch my trailer to it, and take the trailer in for 4 new tires. That's a lot of tires, and the old ones still have plenty of tread. However, they also have dry rot. The truck is 16 years old, the trailer 15, and this will be the third set of tires for both.

Also my novel. It's such a hot mess, and the first draft is due September 27th. I spent the last few days doing needed research--I usually write, figure out what I need to research, research, rewrite, on an infinite loop--and taking notes on 3 x 5 index cards. I just arranged those cards chronologically so that now I have a plan, more or less, for the entire scope of the book. But some of the cards are less useful than others. One says, "October." That's it. October. I have no idea what I was thinking there.

In the paper this morning there was a letter to the editor saying that the eclipse was a warning from God. The writer pointed out that in a few years, the next eclipse will run across the country diagonally the other direction, thus marking the United States with a great big X for God to aim at. It would be a more interesting idea if the eclipses hadn't been able to be predicted long in advance, so that everyone knows when they're happening. It's a lot like calling the vernal equinox or even the sunset a warning from God: might be, but then, so might sunshine or rain or dry rot on my tires. I have always believed that religion and science comfortably co-exist.

My first index card for the Egypt book, the one on the top of my story pile, reads, "What is art but freedom of expression?" That's not from any book I read. It's from my trip to Egypt, when one of our tour guides was showing us a small statue from a long-opened tomb. It showed a baker, kneading bread, with a thoroughly exasperated look on his face. The statues of the pharaohs (except Ankhenatun, the heretic) and those of the ancient Egyptian gods all conform to certain ritual forms and proportions, but the statue of the baker was fully intransigently human. It was perhaps my favorite thing in all of Egypt: what is art but the freedom to tell the truth?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

After Charlottesville: What White People Can Do

So, wow, that mess in Charlottesville this weekend, where white supremacists from around the nation converged on a fairly liberal Southern town, ostensibly to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from public land to a museum. Many of them came armed with assault rifles, dressed as militia. Many of them carried Nazi flags or wore swastikas on their clothing. They were nearly all men--it goes without saying that they were all white. One of them rammed a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters with his car. A woman died and 5 are critically injured.

I'm white. I've been thinking hard about what I can do to fight against racism. I would welcome anyone's thoughts and comments. Here's what I've come up with so far.

Step one: acknowledging racism and white privilege. Realizing that all humans have natural inclination toward bias, that these biases damage our society, and that we must be award of them and take action against them.

If you don't believe in white privilege, google "charlottesville militia." Take a look at some of the videos. Note the police response (or lack thereof). Now imagine what the police response would be if the marchers, equally armed, were all black.

Plenty of other things are also white privilege, but that's a start.

Step two: educate yourself. The way to do this is not by pestering those friends you have who are black. Your education is not someone else's responsibility, unless you are still a child (more on that later). Books are my go-to; I recommend Between The World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, and The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. You can also learn a lot from the Southern Poverty Law Center (splcenter.org).

Step three: educate children. Those men screaming hate slogans in Charlottesville were not born that way. Again, books are my go-to, but I've got backup here--there's a growing body of evidence that says reading books increases children's empathy, their ability to relate to others. So--Jacqueline Woodson (from kindergarten with Each Kindness up to YA), Ashley Bryan, Kadir Nelson, Carole Boston Weatherford, Jason Reynolds, Shannon Draper, Marilyn Nelson. Angela Thomas is rocking the world with The Hate U Give, which everyone older than 14 should read. If you're an educator, Southern Poverty Law has a whole lot of downloadable classroom plans.

Step four: go further. What's your comfort zone? Step outside it. Can you make your own world more diverse? What books do you chose? Restaurants? Churches? Where can you expand your own horizons? I recently signed up for an Ally Backpack from Safety Pin Box. I'll report back on what I learn from that.

I know I've got an awful lot to learn. I'm going to do the work. I hope you'll join me.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Fun With Louie and Fred

Two years ago my sister followed her job from Wisconsin to Charlotte, North Carolina. My sister works for the Professional Golfers' Association; she's been part of the women's and men's PGA Championships that took place in Wisconsin, and then she went to Charlotte to be part of the PGA Championship there, which, after two years of on-the-ground preparation, is happening as I type. (Kevin Kisner is in the lead; looks like the cut is going to end up around four over par.) As you can imagine, my sister's putting in rather lengthy hours this week. Her husband, also a golf professional, is working at the tournament instead of from home as he usually does, and her two boys, who I call on this blog Louie and Fred, are 2 1/2 and 4 1/2. Long ago my mother agreed to come for the whole tournament, to help out, and then I did, too, and so did my daughter, and this morning my dad flew in. I also brought our dog, because hey, why not. You'd think this would be a recipe for chaos, and I haven't actually asked my sister how's she felt--mostly because she keeps coming home from the tournament after I'm asleep, and leaving before I wake up--and I'm sleeping on the couch in her living room so it's not like I'm sneaking to bed before everyone else--anyhow, strictly from my point-of-view it's been a lovely time.

Here's the thing: my parents, sister, brother-in-law, and incidentally also husband and son (but they couldn't make it this week) very much love the game of golf. I don't. I was raised by golfers and live among golfers, and I like golf well enough. I don't play it, but I'll happily watch it either in person or on tv. I've been to tournaments before just for fun, and I had fun, but my husband has also been to the Kentucky Rolex Three-Day Event several times and enjoyed himself without actually loving horses or wanting to ride at all, and I think that's pretty much how golf is for me and my daughter. We aren't here for the tournament. We're here to take some pressure off the rest of my family during the tournament.

The boys really need to see their Mommy, so each day we pack them up and take them to the course. We've all got tickets, and we've got parking passes that let us park at the Catholic high school near the tournament, instead of way out at Carowinds like most people. We take shuttle buses from there to the course. Then we walk to the parking lot near my sister's office and retrieve the stroller, put the boys inside it until we come to a colossal set of stairs, take them out, all go down the stairs, put them back, go to the next set of stairs, repeat, and head out to the course, runing through all the misting fans on the way. Then my mom checks to see where the good golfers are--this is what we did for Wednesday's practice round, for Thursday, and for today except today my dad was with us--and the boys decide that they're hungry. Which makes sense, because by then it's lunchtime.

We get food. We watch a little golf. Then my daughter and I take the boys back home, stopping first to let them hug their mom--and today they also got to wave to their dad, who was a walking scorer. My mom, and today my dad, stay and watch golf. They love golf. We take the bus back to the Catholic school and sing Disney songs as we drive home from there, and then the boys nap, and the dogs cuddle up next to my daughter and I, and it's lovely.

Fred, the two-and-a-half-year old, has decided he doesn't like hot dogs. He doesn't like hamburgers. He likes buns. Yesterday he refined this: he didn't want a hot dog bun, he wanted a "bun sandwich." This worked out great, because Louie wanted "chicken fries," and I was able to get a fried chicken breast sandwich, plain, without the sauce, lettuce, bacon or pickled okra it normally comes with, and a side of fries. I took the chicken out of the bun, gave it to Louie, and handed Fred the empty bun, a proper bun sandwich. All was well. They also each ate an apple.

Today Louie wanted a hot dog and an apple, but first he had to use the bathroom. Fred, who flirts with the idea of being toilet-trained, insisted that he also had to use the bathroom. So I told my parents and daughter to get their own food, I'd handle the boys, and I took them out of the stroller and down some more stairs to the toilets, and Fred took one look at the funky toilet and refused to use it, which was fine, except that by the time we'd gotten back up the stairs he was hungry and hot and cranky. "Bun sandwich!' he said. Yes, I assured him. And did he want an apple? NO. He'd eaten his apple with such enthusiasm the day before that I didn't believe him; I asked him several more times. Fred, look at me. I know bun sandwich. Do you also want an apple?

NO NO APPLE.

Where we were was a sort of food court with different stations. The hot dogs and hamburgers were at a different place than the chicken sandwiches and the apples. So I got a hot dog first, handed it to Louie, and asked the counter for a plain bun for Fred.

It was a hot dog bun.

NO, he wailed, BUN SANDWICH.

I had agreed to a bun sandwich all along and I understood precisely what he meant. I found my parents and daughter, who'd commandeered a table and chairs in some shade, set both the boys down, gave Louie his hot dog, and promised to returned with an apple and a proper bun sandwich. Got the apple. Got the chicken sandwich plain as I had the day before. Went back to the table, gave Fred the plain bun sandwich, popped the chicken breast inside the hot dog bun, and starting eating that myself (it was delicious.) Fred looked at Louie wide-eyed, and said, through a mouthful of bun sandwich, "HEY. I WANTED AN APPLE.

Fred Michael, I said, Holy Mother of God. How many times did I ask you if you wanted an apple?

Fred looked at me. He held up his hand, five chubby fingers splayed. Then he folded his fingers, and spread them out again. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty. Then he laughed and laughed.

So did I. So did all of us.

Louie gave him half the apple, and we called it good.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Making Art From Each Day

I heard earlier today that a friend of mine's health has taken a sudden and mostly irreversible turn for the worst. The friend in question is not someone I see often but has been someone I care about for years and years--she rides, and her son competed alongside my children, and for awhile the two of us owned the two oldest ponies in the county. She's always been someone I could entirely trust, and also always been someone who knew how to have fun. We would be the only two moms trying to beat all the little kids --and each other--at pole-bending or barrel racing at the annual pony club horse show. No matter which of us won we would laugh and laugh.

She let me ride her pony sidesaddle, which is how Ada learned how to do it.

Earlier this week I was reading The Art of Living, a new book by Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh. In it, he reminded me of the scientific truth that neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed: it can only be transformed. He offered this as a spiritual truth as well.

At the time I found that wise and true and I suppose it still is. Between my own traumatic head injury and lots of things that have happened to my family and friends, this whole year has been a lesson in the art of living. Nothing more is promised, not one day. So laugh. Teach children, love them, gallop your ponies, and laugh.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

In Which My Beloved Is Stuck On A Boat

We--my husband, daughter, and I--just got back from a trip to France, mostly Normandy. People keep asking how it was, and, well, I loved a lot of the things we did, and the places we saw, and I love France, and I think I would give people legitimate cause to hate me if I ever complained about a trip there, and I'm not complaining. I had a great trip. My daughter had a great trip. But my poor husband spent most of it stuck on a boat.

Let me explain.

Fifteen years ago, when the kids were still quite small, we took a summer vacation where we spent a few days in Boston and a few days in Maine. One day in Maine we decided to go whale-watching. It was a nice big boat and a clear warm day, and the ocean that day looked like a sheet of glass--except of course that the ocean is constantly moving, so the smooth, waveless surface went up and down in gentle swells.

We started out on the open top deck because I was very excited about seeing whales. Not very long after that, at my request, we moved downstairs, inside, and about five minutes later my young son and I were slumped on the bench at the outside rear of the boat, the one reserved for people so motion-sick they were likely to puke over the rail.

We found whales. The whales did amazing things. They breeched, which is that very showy maneuver where they leap wholly out of the water, then fall onto their side with an enormous splash, like whale cannonballs. They swam beside the boat. There were lots of them. And while I saw the whales, and I sort of non-emotionally appreciated the whales, I no longer really cared about the whales at all. All I cared about was getting off that damn boat.

My husband flew to France sick with bacterial bronchitis, on an antibiotic, just not the right one. The antibiotic did a number on his intestinal flora without actually treating the bronchitis. Our first day in France involved an emergency stop at the US Embassy in Paris--more on that some other time--and he was completely wiped out, and then he didn't get better. Between his lungs and his intestines my he had a doozy of a week. Eventually we found a nice French family doctor, who was quite pleased to see us since he'd been carefully learning medical English every Monday from a teacher in Paris, via Skype, and we gave him a chance to practice. ("You have hay fever?" he asked my husband, and my daughter said, "What's hay fever?") The doctor prescribed a useful antibiotic, and when that proved even more of a scourge to my husband's digestive system I found another pharmacy with a very large probiotic section, and used my very limited medical French and excellent sign language to get the pharmacist to help me choose the best one.

And he was still on the damn boat for awhile. The last night we had a special meal planned at a little Left Bank bistro we love, and I was ready to cancel it, because I was not up for another meal that ended with me saying to the waiter, "My husband is sick. I need the check right now, and a cork for this half-finished wine," especially when we were several subway stops away from the hotel and the public toilet situation in Paris is limited. However, my husband felt that the tide had turned. His boat docked, and he stepped off it, a little shaky but determined to go and have an excellent time. So we did.

And if you ever want to know how to lose six pounds while vacationing in France, just ask him. He knows.