Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Notre Dame Commencement

My son graduated this weekend from the University of Notre Dame. We had lots of family there to celebrate, and we got to spend time with some of my son's friends and their families, and it was lovely and meaningful and excellent. We are so proud of him. We are proud of all of them.

After the commencement exercises and the diploma ceremonies, my son and a bunch of his friends gathered near the library for photographs. One of the University photographers happened by, and took this shot:

 May 21, 2017; Commencement 2017. (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

My son is the third from the right.

On Friday night we held a party at the house my son's been renting. Most of the guys in the photo came, many with their families.

On the day my son moved into his dorm at Notre Dame, at the start of freshman orientation, one of the first people he met was this skinny guy from Puerto Rico. On Friday, that student's grandpa and my son's grandpa spent a hour sitting on the same couch, deep in conversation. I loved that.

I loved all of it. I love my son's adventurous spirit, and I love his empathy and compassion. I'm impressed by how much he's learned in the last four years.

Over 3000 students graduated Notre Dame last Sunday. It was a great weekend for them all.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

This Happened Yesterday

So yesterday I was the Visiting Author at the Catholic school attached to my home parish, the same school both my children attended from preschool through 8th grade. It's a lovely school and I had a lovely day. The students were well-prepared--they always are, this school does an author visit every year, recently hosting, among others, Ashley Bryan and Jerry Pinkney, who are much, much bigger deals than me. (Though at St. Anne's I have the advantage of also being the basketball coach's wife.)

The evening before, at the traditional author reception, the fourth-grade teacher, who taught both of my children, and who is universally adored, told me that she'd just finished reading TWTSML out loud to her class. She said they'd adored it as no other book. "The ending had them screaming," she said. She told me she was sorry that the sequel wasn't coming out until October because she would have loved to share it with this particular class.

Mid-morning I spoke to the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders. Afterward I had a little break before lunch, so I went upstairs and knocked on the 4th-grade classroom door. The teacher waved me in. I handed her an ARC of The War I Finally Won.

She shrieked.

And now I know what it feels like to be the pitcher who throws the winning pitch in the World Series, because the entire class rushed to throw their arms around me. It's lucky they came at me from all sides or they would have knocked me down.

The teacher waved the book in the air. "Come on!" she said. "We've got a whole hour before lunch!"

The kids whooped and cheered and abandoned me to run toward the square of carpet at the back of the room.

If there's a better way to be abandoned than that, I've never heard of it.

I went down to lunch. At the start of my afternoon presentation, a group of giggling fourth-graders thrust their heads into the library. "CHAPTER EIGHT!" they shouted, and ran off.

What a teacher. What a day.

P.S. I am delighted to report that for winning the Golden Cowbell Award I will be receiving an actual cowbell. I will of course post photographs.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Things I Have Done This Morning Rather Than Work On My Novel

1. Attempt to call the appliance repairman, due to arrive today between "8 and 5" (note: last week he arrived at 5:45. then needed to order a part, thus managing to screw up two entire days), to find out if he could be a touch more specific.

2. Leave a voicemail for the appliance repairman, asking him to be a touch more specific, as I really, really, really, want to go to the 8:30 yoga class.

3. Email, author portal, various web trawling while watching phone remain silent and clock tick by until 8:31. Sigh.

4. Write a book review I really wish I didn't have to write. GET IT RIGHT, PEOPLE. YOU GET BAD REVIEWS BECAUSE YOU WRITE BAD BOOKS. (sorry)

5. Figure out how to install my stamps.com scale, download the software, find my username, print postage on labels for a few of my ARCs that are going out. (Thanks, Mike! They look great!)

6. Order more labels for said ARCs. Contemplate buying them at Wal-Mart later today vs. online. Realize I can only go to Wal-Mart after the appliance man both arrives and then leaves.

7. Order labels online.

8. Correspond via Facebook Messenger with excited Romanian teen who wonders if I'm aware that TWTSML is published in Romanian? And sends me a photo of the cover to prove it. (Yes, I'm aware. They have to tell me when they publish my book in other languages. Unless it's in Persian. Iranians can't break copyright laws because they have no copyright laws.) (Not making that up.)

9. Get into a discussion on Facebook with a British friend of a friend who wants to know the difference between American biscuits (as opposed to British biscuits, which are cookies) and scones. I explain that biscuits are round and scones triangular.

10. He says that scones are round, and backs it up with photos.

11. I respond with photos of triangular fruit-filled American scones, and round American biscuits smothered in sausage gravy.

12. He is confirmed in his belief that Americans are culinary infidels.

13. However, he's British. Everyone knows their food is lousy. Well, except for the scones.

14. Especially piping hot with homemade strawberry jam and clotted cream.

15. Make a pot of tea. Mourn lack of authentic British scones, strawberry jam, clotted cream.

16. Write blog post. Gotcha.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Donna, Lily and Dunkin, and Transgender Teens

I've actually got a great blog post ready to go (great, she says, modestly). But today I'm going to share with you a post by my friend Donna Gephart, about her lovely and important novel Lily and Dunkin.
The Lily of the title is a transgender teen; Dunkin is bipolar.

I'm so glad we're able to talk more about gender identity and mental health issues in this country now, but we still have a long way to go. Here's part of Donna's essay:

"Since Lily and Dunkin came out, it’s received starred reviews and landed on many “Best of” lists, including NPR, the NY Public Library and Amazon’s Top 20 Children’s Books of the Year.  I’ve heard from parents, teachers, counselors, librarians and young people about how the book cracked open their hearts and let light seep in.
This email, shared with permission, is from the mother of a 6th grader:
“My son is both transgender and has bipolar disorder.  Thank you for writing a book that will help others understand him and be more understanding of him.”
At an event, a young reader hugged me, then whispered in my ear.  “I’m both Lily and Dunkin. Thank you for writing this book.”
During a recent book festival, a mother shyly approached my autograph table.  “Our son, er, daughter just came out as transgender.  It’s been hard.  I don’t mean to hold up your line, but . . . may I show you a photo of her?”
The stories keep coming.
A transgender author I was on a panel with at a conference said, “I wish your book were available when I was younger.  Knowing the things in it would have saved me from so much suffering.”
This week, I learned about a twelve-year-old transgender girl who was a self-proclaimed non-reader.  Since a caring teacher put a copy of Lily and Dunkin into her hands, she hasn’t let go of the book and is telling everyone she knows about it.  I’m excited to send the girl her own personally autographed copy.
Gavin Grimm, the young transgender man whose case about equality in bathroom access was supposed to go before the Supreme Court, wrote to tell me how much Lily and Dunkin means to him.  He said it’s absolutely vital to have positive representation in literature.  And he said Lily and Dunkin is one of the few books he feels handles representation of transgender people and those with bipolar disorder well.
But one thing I keep hearing troubles me.  “I love your book, but it doesn’t apply to the students in my class.”
My reply?  “That you’re aware of.”
One in ten children have a diagnosable mental illness and one in five adults.  If a student doesn’t experience mental illness personally, they probably know someone who does.
It’s reported that one in five hundred people are transgender.  (I suspect the number is higher.)  It’s likely there will be at least one transgender person at a school (whether they’ve come out or not) and more who a student knows outside of school."

You can read the rest here. I hope you will. I live in the rural South, not exactly a bastion of openness when it comes to LGBTQ issues, and yet I know so many good people who are dealing with them. And guess what? You do, too.


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Okay The Catacombs. And Amy.

Saturday would have been Amy Krouse Rosenthal's 52nd birthday. I'm really affected by her death, because I liked her writing so much and because she was barely any older than me. I strongly wish to remain alive. I suspect that she did, too.

Meanwhile, two weeks ago, while I was in France, I took a tour of the Catacombs. It was not entirely what I expected. Actually it wasn't at all what I expected. I knew the bare bones of the story: that Paris has vast underground caverns left over from hundreds of years of limestone quarrying--the Left Bank is essentially a honeycomb. (These caverns feature in the plot of a book I like very much.) Also, a long time ago they started storing peoples' bones in some of the caverns.

Now what I really wanted to see was some of the empty caverns. What I did see--what the public is allowed to see--is mostly bones. Human bones. Six or seven million people who once walked the earth.

If you should wish to tour the Catacombs--no one else in my family did--please believe me and sign up in advance for a guided tour. For safety reasons they can only let a certain number of people down into the catacombs at any one time--once they've reached that number, which I imagine happens quickly, they only let people down in them as people exit the other side (you exit a few kilometers away from the entrance). On the day I was there, the line of random tourists stretched around the block--several hundred people, probably a wait time, I was told, of five or six hours. Meanwhile I was part of the 1 pm tour--oops, here's twenty people cutting in line, sorry guys. Only not sorry. Also the guided tours get to see some extra bits.

Paris has been around a very long time, enough so that the cemeteries, even back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, were beyond full. Remains were stacked in layers; they polluted the city water supply. So over the course of nearly a hundred years, Parisians excavated each cemetery (there are now none within the city limits) and piled the bones inside the Catacombs. They did it systematically. Each cemetery has its own section, marked by a plaque. The workmen made walls of human thigh bones, neatly stacked, divided by lines of skulls face-out and even occasional decorations--a heart or cross of bones. Then all the remaining bones--arms, pelvises, fingers, toes--were thrown behind the wall of femurs.

In some places the backfill stretches 50 feet.

You walk and you walk and you walk, and all the time you walk between bones. You start to count, staring at the tips of the femurs--one, two, that's one person; one, two, that's two--but it's not hundreds or thousands, it's millions. They estimate that 3 times the current population of Paris lies beneath it in the Catacombs.

Robespierre is down there. No one knows where. A whole bunch of guillotined revolutionaries are. "We know they're here," our guide said, "but--" Everyone looks alike when they're down to their bones.

It's sobering because it's all of us. "Nothing more is promised," Lin-Manual said in his Tony acceptance speech sonnet. "Not one day."

I visited my sister's family in Charlotte this weekend. In celebration of Amy Krouse Rosenthal's birthday, and shimmering, too-brief life, I took my small nephews to the local bookstore and bought all of Amy's books I could lay my hands on. One for me (Textbook) and three for them. I cuddled the boys in my sister's big chair and I read them Uni The Unicorn, and Exclamation Mark, and That's Me Loving You.

And now I'm sitting down to my new novel. It's a consolation we writers have--if we are very lucky, our words live longer than we do.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Catacombs, Meritaten, and Green Bean Soup

I forgot about one stop I made while flaning around Paris: late afternoon, I sat down at a cafe wanting a small bite of something. I ordered, in French, a glass of dry white wine, a glass of water, and some soup.

"Soupe?" the waitress asked in amazement. I was not sure if her attitude meant, I didn't even know we had soup on the menu or who the hell orders soup at four o'clock in the afternoon? I pointed to the board, which said "Soupe de legumes" which translates to "green bean soup." I sort of hoped it really meant pea soup, even though that would be "soupe de pois," and it was, in fact, green bean soup--pretty much green beans run through a blender, then lightly cooked in broth. Much better than it sounds, however. Most French food is like that. At one point in this trip I actually ordered, on purpose, something that translated to sweetbreads. Sweetbreads can be either calves' thymus glands or calves' pancreas, and I'm not sure which I ate, but it was tasty with a surprisingly interesting texture. There you are.

I've written already about how my husband and I love French art galleries. The same day we saw the Picasso, we were walking a long way toward dinner--that's how we stumbled across Shakespeare & Co--and saw an antiquities shop with a large golden bust--like a funeral mask, only not quite--of an Egyptian pharaoh. It looked rather like Hatchepshut. We went inside and I examined at the back of the bust--it was carved painted wood, quite old but not from the actual time of the pharaohs. (Only a thousand years old? Pish!) The rest of the shop was full of glass cases with amazing real artifacts, mostly ancient. Then I saw the stone carving--a slab about the size and shape of a notebook. "Meritaten!" I said, in amazement. "That's actually Meritaten!"

Meritaten was the wife of Ankenaten, the heretic pharaoh who preceded Tutankhamun and was likely his father. (Meritaten may or may not have been Tut's mother.) I recognized her because Ankenaten, Meritaten, and their daughters are all portrayed differently than all other pharaohs--it may be because Ankenaten had some sort of physical anomaly, but it's more likely because he had radically different ideas about everything. This carving showed Meritaten holding out her hands, either offering or receiving something. It was so beautiful.

Of course it's an odd thing to have in a shop. It should be in a museum--probably in Egypt. But I digress.

I asked how much the carving cost. The proprietor told me in rapid French, and my husband and I disagree on whether he said it cost 150,000 Euros or 160,000 Euros. Not that it mattered.

Okay, I still haven't gotten to the Catacombs. I'll save them for tomorrow. This is long enough, and I need to go write my novel now. 

I Become a Flaneur

So, back to Paris, over a week ago now. On the day my husband and son played golf, my husband left our hotel at 9 in the morning. I met him, our son, and our friends at a restaurant at 8 pm. That meant I had 11 hours on my own in the city. I had booked a tour of the catacombs at 1, and I had a pocketful of Metro tickets, and I could do whatever I liked.

Later that day I would spend time inside Shakespeare & Co, the delightful ancient warren-like British bookstore on the left bank, just across the Seine from Notre Dame. I would find (among other treasures) a book called Paris Revealed by Stephen Clarke, a Brit who lives in Paris and writes about it with classic British deadpan humor. According to Clarke, the French have a word, flaneur, (there should be a carrot accent mark above the a) that means an artist who wanders the city streets in search of inspiration.

Ah. It made so much sense. Because while I am content to walk in just about any city, in Paris I actively wander. I have Citymapper on my iPhone and I more or less know how to use it, I understand the Metro, and I have a feel for the major tourist sites and landmarks. And yet, I am quite often not entirely sure where I am going, much less where I am. And I don't care. Because whatever is around me is fascinating.

On that day, I set out walking toward the Place Bastille, where the prison once was, on my way to an open-air market called Aligre. I am fascinated by open-air markets. It was a really, really long walk, and eventually I popped into the Metro for a few stops, and then I realized I was completely out of energy, so I stopped at a cafe and had a coffee, sitting out on the street. Revitalized, I pushed on, past the Place Bastille, which is mostly just a roundabout, and then toward the market. I went under an old train viaduct that had been turned into a city park, high above everyone's heads. At the market I admired the asparagus and the fresh fish. I bought strawberries, and some cheese, and I found a boulangerie and bought a demi-baguette and another coffee,  and sat outside with my picnic lunch.

Then I had to hurry to get to the catacombs--that's a whole nother post--afterward I wandered some more, first figuring out where exactly I was (you ascend from the catacombs several kilometers away from where you descend into them). Then I went to Shakespeare & Co, which I'd found by accident the day before, walking with my husband, but hadn't really investigated, because that takes a whole bunch of time.

The upper floor of the bookstore is two small rooms full of old books, not for sale, and comfortable chairs. They're reading rooms--you're welcome to sit up there and peruse the old books at your leisure. The rest of the store is just absolutely crammed with books, all British editions. I was cheeky enough to hand them my card and ask why they didn't stock The War That Saved My Life (there is a UK edition). The clerk looked me up and told me solemnly that of course they usually carried my book, they were just temporarily sold out. (There's no record of what he muttered once my back was turned.)

After that I wandered back across the Seine and found myself in the area around Les Halles, which was once a huge market but is now an underground shopping center. Seriously. I went down there by accident, looking for the Metro. The side streets around Les Halles are fantastic; I did rather more shopping than I intended to, including buying a 3-pound can of duck legs confit. Between that and the books it's no wonder my luggage weighed so much more coming home.

The sun was still bright and the afternoon seemed endless, but I glanced at my watch and saw to my surprise that it was well past six. I found a Metro and negotiated myself back to my hotel, freshened up, dressed for dinner, and re-Metroed myself to our dinner reservation. Despite all the times I'd taken the Metro, I'd walked more than 10 miles that day. I don't usually go around thinking of myself as an artist, but I am one, and I'm starting to cast around for the idea that will become my next book. It was the perfect time to be in Paris, in search of inspiration.

P.S. I'm pretty sure I found my next book. But it's years away, and I can't talk about it yet.