Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Into the Reeds

I've been wrestling with my Egypt book for some time. With the completion (halleluia) of TWIFW, I have no choice, really, but to work on something new, and also I've now got an actual deadline, and I take deadlines seriously whenever possible, which it usually is.

So I'd written some stuff I liked pretty well, for a first draft, and then I hit a wall. At first it felt like a describe-Cairo kind of wall, like I would have to figure out how my POV character would experience Cairo in the 1920s. That looked like research, but of the sort that can trip writers up--you can disappear down the Cairo rabbit hole when no one actually cares about Cairo at all.

I was contemplating this when my schedule hit the fan. My son graduated, we took a lovely but oddly-timed vacation (because that was the only time we could take a vacation), and then I spoke at a conference and then I helped my son move to Chicago, and on top of all that I spent last weekend in Kentucky learning how to fall off a horse without concussing my head. So I've not done much writing beyond routine work of book reviews and conference speeches. But I had a lot of down time, travel time or what have you, to think, and what I ended up thinking was not no one actually cares about Cairo at all--though that's true, at least in the context of my hatching novel--but what's the big thing you're missing?

I thought about what I'd written so far, and I realized that one specific word leaped out at me, annoyed me each and every time I typed it, which was often. I realized I'd tried to find ways around using this particular word, but couldn't. I'm not going to tell you the word, but I realized that I'd learned a few things from the nine drafts of TWIFW, one of which is, if you don't like the emotions arising out of a situation, change the situation. Preferably before the fifth draft.

So I changed the situation to make the word I didn't like go away, and lo, there's the book. It's still a huge chunk of research and it's still not going to be easy, but it's also all good. I've spent the morning scribbling with a pencil onto paper---first my little note cards, which I love, and then, when I needed a wider space, an old cheap spiral-bound notebook. and we're all there.

Hooray, hooray, hooray.

I was in the weeds, but now I'm in the reeds: Aaru, the ancient Egyptian version of paradise as a set of small islands covered with reeds and rushes, surrounded by the life-giving Nile.

If you need me you know where to find me. I'll be here for some time.

Friday, June 16, 2017

In Which My Son and I Get Things Done

So I flew up to Chicago on Friday morning--a week ago now, time's flying. I took an Uber to my son's new apartment. He'd driven to Chicago the night before, picked up his key first thing that morning, and, by the time I arrived mid-morning, had unpacked the entire contents of his car and organized an impressive amount of his belongings. If my superpower is packing, his is unpacking.

First we had lunch. Then we went searching for the city clerk's office, so that he could buy a sticker that would let him legally park on the city streets near his apartment. It's a complicated system but the woman who helped us was cheerful and friendly.

After that we went to IKEA. Now, until this spring I had never stepped foot into an IKEA store. I'd heard rumors that one could buy basically anything legal at IKEA, and that it was the go-to place for cheap set-up-an-apartment furnishings. My sister in Charlotte kindly took me to the IKEA near her house so that I could see for myself, and yes, it is true--you can buy damn near everything there. So that's what we planned to do.

My son's apartment, as measured by our pacing (he's used to pacing distances for golf, I'm used to it for show jumping, so we're good at it), is 380 square feet, all one room except for closet and bath. The longest uninterrupted wall is about 13 feet long. We knew he didn't need much and we were careful not to buy anything we weren't certain he'd need, but we got a bed, mattress, couch, coffee table, tiny tv stand, and a little bistro-type folding table and chairs, for when he wants to eat at a proper table. Also plates, forks, that sort of thing. We arranged to have all the furniture delivered the next morning. We carried all the small items up to his apartment and we went out to dinner pleased with ourselves, arguing over whether or not we'd have time for a Cubs game Sunday afternoon and what the odds were of winning the Hamilton ticket lottery.

Ha. That was very nice. In the morning we woke up, ate breakfast at the hotel, went to the apartment, couldn't find street parking anywhere because half the streets in the neighborhood were closed off for a street fair, parked in a highly expensive garage, attempted and failed to get TV set up, or internet, and unpacked the plates and put them away. Then we waited for the delivery truck.

And waited. At quarter to twelve they called to say they would be there at 12:18. And then they didn't come. We called them around one--shit, the guy said, the truck broke. He was sitting in the broken truck. It was his first week on the job and he didn't know what to do.

My son and I went to lunch. We were hungry. Afterward I tried to call the delivery guy for an update, and he didn't answer the phone. I called IKEA customer service. They were absolutely staggeringly unhelpful to a degree that still astounds me. My furniture, they said, was on a truck, and the truck was broken, and the earliest they could deliver my stuff was Monday.

Nope, I said. I'd be flying home and my son would be starting his job on Monday. This was early afternoon Saturday. We needed to get his apartment set up.

Suck it, they said.

I told them to cancel the order. They told me they didn't have the authorization to cancel the order, but if I wanted to wait on the phone they could get me to someone who would accept the cancellation, only the hold time was over 30 minutes.

I hung up and said some choice words--my son and I had a very creative vocabulary from this point in the weekend on--and we walked to Best Buy so I could cool off and my son could buy an internet router and feel he'd accomplished something. The Best Buy was very far away; I'd forgotten how my son measures walking distances. He walks everywhere. But it worked--by the time we were done with Best Buy, we were calm and had a plan.

We rented a U-Haul cargo van, and headed back to IKEA. One handy side effect of pulling a horse trailer with a big-ass dually pickup truck is that driving a cargo van in crazy city traffic is just not that difficult. We bought all the same stuff over again. We cancelled the delivery order--the in-person IKEA people were helpful, not obstructionists--heaved all the stuff into the cargo van, drove back through nightmare highway congestion (how people survive in cities I just don't know), then unloaded the van and carried all the stuff up to the apartment, which sounds so, so much easier than it actually was. The mattress was very nearly the end of me.

It was by this time 8:45 at night. The UHaul had been due back at 8. I drove it to the garage where my son's car was, he hit the UHaul address on my phone GPS so I could find the UHaul place, and then I drove off; he was going to retrieve the car and follow me.

Only. First, as I was a quarter-mile away from my destination, my phone died entirely. I'd forgotten my charger and we'd been using it as a GPS for hours. Second, it was the wrong UHaul place--a little storefront instead of a massive place for trucks and cargo vans.

I sat in the street with my hazards blinking. Eventually, sure enough, here came my son. His phone had enough battery that we could find the correct UHaul place, where they were entirely unfazed by the fact that I was bringing it back an hour past their closing time. Some guys were still working in the lot and they waved at me to just leave it where I pulled it in.

So. We were dying for supper. While I wasparking the UHaul my son ordered Chinese food online, to be delivered to his apartment. Genius. We drove back, and just across the street from his apartment building, like a miracle, was a very small open parking space. He attempted to park in it. I got out to help him. Turns out the spot was just a few inches too small--I was bent over, telling my son through the open car window that we'd have to find somewhere different--and I looked up, and suddenly the entire street was full of bicycles. Ridden by people who weren't wearing clothes.

It was Chicago's Naked Bike Parade, and we were trapped in it. We couldm't leave the car as it won't fit into the space. We couldn't pull out without mowing down a dozen cyclists. We had no option but to sit in the car while naked people of every variation cycled past us. For the next 25 minutes.

I could not possibly be making this up.

Eventually we found a parking place and our Chinese food was delivered, and we ate it and then put the IKEA bed together so my son would have a place to sleep. We finished all that around 12:30 at night.

The next day we put together all the rest of the furniture, cleaned everything up, hung pictures, and shopped for groceries and for things like shower curtains and waste baskets and beer. We didn't get to see the Cubs or Hamilton, but we finished with pizza at a nice neighbor joint, knowing that, against formidable odds, we'd done well. 

Friday, June 9, 2017

Ridiculously sentimental but there you are,

I'm sitting at a little cafe in the Atlanta airport (you can find damn near anything in the Atlanta airport) wondering why it's taking the waiter so long to bring me my coffee. It's very, very early--I left Bristol on the 6 am flight--but I've already walked an impressive amount today, mostly because I walked from my previous terminal to this cafe, realized I'd left my iPad on the plane, walked back to fetch it, and returned. I'm typing this on my iPad now. It's all good,

When I was walking down D terminal, the first time, I saw a young family, mom, dad, and tiny floppy baby in mom's arms. The dad leaned forward and gave the baby a kiss, and the baby responded with a sloppy toothless grin. And memory hit me like a sucker punch.

My darling baby boy smiled like that, just exactly like that, the very first time he smiled at me. And then, only a few weeks after his first smile, his dad and I took him on an airplane for the first time, to visit my friend in San Francisco. We flew from Indianapolis with a layover at Chicago's O'Hare.

It's O'Hare I'm headed to today, to help my now-adult son get settled into his first post-college apartment. He drove himself and all his belongings, crammed into his Civic, there yesterday, while I was speaking at the TTU IRA conference in Cookeville, TN. Cookeville is about 3 1/2 hours' drive from my home, 4 if you hit Knoxville at rush hour, which I did, When I got home it was quite late and my daughter, home from her first year in college, had dinner waiting--barbecue chicken on baked potatoes. She'd picked blueberries from my neglected garden and we ate them with the last of the shortcake I'd made for company dinner on Tuesday.

It seems like such a short time ago that I walked through O'Hare with my baby in my arms. I was so happy then--I'd wanted very much to be a mother. I'm so happy now. These children have been my joy.


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.