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.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Now We Are Fifty

Long ago, when my son was a baby and we lived in Indianapolis, we went over to a friend's house on the summer day that was her daughter's fourth birthday. When we came up the walk the little girl was sitting on the porch steps, next to her cousin who lived down the street. I wished her happy birthday. She beamed, and her cousin slung his arm around her shoulders and said to me, solemnly, "Now we are both four."

I'm a few weeks older than my husband. Today is his birthday, and now we are both fifty.

I had a lovely birthday. My parents came to spend the weekend, and we were in our house in the North Carolina mountains, which I love, and I went to the farmer's market in Boone, which I love. That week I had lunch with some of my girlfriends and they gave me birthday cards that referenced leg hair and wine--I was among my people--and really, even the weather cooperated on my birthday.

I'm sorry to say that my husband is having a substantially worse day. For one thing, he's quite sick. He was feeling a little off on Sunday, then yesterday felt bad enough to stay home from work (this is a man who only missed two days of work when he ruptured his Achilles tendon). This morning he's still not wholly well but he got up early and heaved himself off to the office, where he's got a full day including surgery; we were going to go out to dinner but he's not sure he'll be up for it. Meanwhile his beloved wife, who was sleeping in the guest room to avoid contagion, accidentally set her alarm for PM instead of AM, consequently overslept and didn't see him off or wish him happy birthday in person, let alone make him breakfast or do anything nice for him.

Though I do have presents for later.

Anyway, we are fifty. I expected I'd feel older. Perhaps he does; I'll have to ask.

Fifty has a nice solid heft to it. A half century. A reasonable length of time. The world can change a lot in fifty years, and ours has, in mostly good ways, and for all that I love history I prefer living now. We've had a couple of sharp wake-up calls this year--my head trauma, some life-changing events in family and friends--and it's made us think hard, what do we really want to do with whatever time we have left? We both hope it's lots of time--I think living to be 100 sounds great--but of course that's not our call. Very little is our call, except how we chose to react to our situations, how we spend each small portion of our time. We were walking through Grant Park in Chicago on Saturday and my husband slipped his hand into mine, and I thought, I've been married 28 years to a man who still wants to hold my hand. 

Now we are both fifty. Let the second act begin.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Perfect Day in The City of Big Shoulders

We went to Chicago this weekend to see our son. Saturday was a sort of perfect day, one that began and ended in loveliness (except for the final score of the Cubs game). It was clear sunshine, low-70s, the kind of weather I can't ever remember from my own Midwestern summers (usually 90, high humidity). We, my husband, daughter, and I, met our son for breakfast at a diner near our hotel called Hash Browns, because that is what they specialize in. Our son got there before we did and was sitting outside at a sidewalk table wearing his Javier Baez jersey with a baseball cap on backward, and he grinned when he saw us and that was the start of a very good day.

We walked downtown--we were on the near north side, it was a bit over a mile--through pleasant, tree-lined streets and then the bustle of the main shopping area. First we went to Maggie Daley park, a wide new public space on the lakefront. It had climbing walls and a dedicated area for roller skating, but what attracted us was the mini golf, because in our family we love mini golf. And I came in second of us four, and I had a hole-in-one, and I won a free game. That's all true.

Then we walked straight south to the adjoining Grant Park, home this weekend to Taste of Chicago, one of Chicago's best festivals. Something like 100 food booths and food trucks, selling full-sized or small "taste" portions. We headed right for the pierogis and split two full portions between the four of us. I'd been eager to try the Philly cheesesteak pierogi, and they were good, but nothing actually tops your traditional potato pierogi.

Washed that down with local Chicago beer. Moved on to a taste of a banana dumpling, which was a mistake, as it was spicy greasy meat with no trace of banana at all. Something got lost in translation there. Then we sampled truffle fries, then I tried cucumber gazpacho, my husband had a bbq chicken slider, my son ate shrimp and my daughter went with a taste of a fancy grilled cheese sandwich and an enormous pickle. Ice cream and fruit ices for dessert.

By then Grant Park was getting overwhelmed with people. We walked back up to the shopping district, stopping off at an outdoor wine bar to play a hand of pinochle. (This was the only downside to the weekend: at every opportunity, my daughter and I got absolutely spanked in pinochle. It was karmic retribution for the way the two of us dominated the previous vacation.)

Then Niketown. My son needed another pair of pants to wear to work (he's with US Soccer, which has a contract with Nike, which means my son can't wear his UnderArmor khakis in the office. not kidding.).

Then we tried to take an Uber to the best ice cream store in Chicago but it turned out to be a branch that wasn't opened yet, so we walked from there to a grocery store to stock my son's cupboards (in a big city it helps to have four people to carry the groceries home). Walked to my son's apartment. (I ended up with 24,000 steps for the day). Brief nap. Walk to second attempt at best ice cream in Chicago, and it was amazing. I had a summertime special flavor that was a Nashville craft beer with rosemary bar nuts made into ice cream, which sounds like a mistake but wasn't.

From there took the train to Wrigley field.

I've realized as my children have grown into adulthood that there are places where, when I return, I will see their ghosts. Wrigley was one of those places. My children have actually been there several times without me--the last time I was at a Cubs game it was with them when they were very small. That had been a day game in the spring--warm but not hot--and we had box seats behind home plate. An usher brought them coloring books and crayons. I remember my daughter's happiness as she sat on the ground using her open seat as a table while she colored. I remember the amazement on my son's face at the thought that anyone might think he would be interested in coloring during a baseball game, let alone his very first Cubs game at Wrigley.

These small children hang out with us, wedged invisibly in the seats with their now adult counterparts, my beautiful, snarky, whip-smart children. They make me very happy.

The game was fabulous, too. It was a wonderful evening to be at a ballgame--perfect temperature, great seats, a pretty good game but for that last score. We stayed until the very last out, then headed back to our hotel on a packed train.

You don't get perfect days that often. It's best if you have the sense to cherish them.

"City of big shoulders" comes from Carl Sandburg's poem Chicago. It's in the public domain, so here it is:

Chicago

        Hog Butcher for the World,
        Tool maker, Stacker of Wheat,
        Player with Railroads and the Nation’s 
             Freight Handler;
        Stormy, husky, brawling,
        City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
            Bareheaded,
            Shoveling,
            Wrecking,
            Planning,
            Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,
             Laughing!
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Randomly on the Third of July

We're having an odd sort of holiday this year. The Fourth is on a Tuesday, which may be the worst possible option, and my husband, an ophthalmologist, was on call for the weekend and still is for today. For the first year in a long, long time, we are not hosting a big family celebration. My sister's heavily pregnant, my brother's preparing to take his young family on vacation to South America, my parents were just here for my birthday, and my husband's dad is in the midst of moving houses. Also everyone has to be back at work early Wednesday morning, and many people, my husband included, are working today. (As am I, as far as that goes. But my schedule is very flexible.) So while the Fourth of July and surrounding days are usually all about fireworks, baseball, and my husband's famous firecracker ice cream--this year, we still have no idea how we're spending tomorrow. Some of that will depend on what happens with my husband's call. July Fourth is the worst possible holiday for ophthalmology call, because between fireworks, barbecues, and alcohol, there are so many opportunities to put out an eye.

All that is not to say that I'm not having a perfectly fine day. I've really enjoyed the farm this week. I'm back to riding, my mare got her hocks injected and is feeling spry, the weather's gorgeous and my daughter is home. I'm writing, and the early reviews of TWIFW are good.

Also we have peaches.

Nineteen years ago, when my husband and I first bought the open fields that would become our farm, we planted a fruit orchard. We really enjoyed gardening at the time and we had lovely homesteading ideas about life on a farm. Many things about the farm panned out as expected--the horses, the barn the hay fields--but the orchard turned out to be a bit of a miss. Orchards take a lot of work, and where we live, that work is quite often not rewarded--two or three years out of every five, late frosts zap our blossoming trees, and then there's no fruit. You're supposed to spray orchards on a regular schedule but we never get around to it--I like to call it organic farming, not neglect--and the plum trees caught some awful disease, and mostly if there's fruit at all the deer eat it. I don't really care. I usually have a whole host of things that need to be done and the orchard perpetually falls farther down the list than I get, and I've made peace with that. I grow some asparagus and some blueberries and I really really need to weed or till or something there, and I don't, and so far the world has not come to an end.

But this year, for the first time ever, our trees are packed with peaches. Large, healthy, luscious peaches. Hundreds of peaches. We're making forays into the orchard every few days to pick the peaches that are ready. I'm lining them up on the kitchen counter. We're making peach smoothies and peach clafoutis and I'm starting to contemplate peach jam. I made strawberry jam this summer, for the first time in a few years. (We long ago gave up trying to grow strawberries, mostly because there's a local farmer who grows gorgeous ones and sells them at a stand on the Volunteer Parkway, and his are so much better than anything I can grow. They're so much better than store-bought, too. Word spreads around town late every spring when the strawberry stand goes up, and I buy them every few days as long as they're on sale.)

Anyway, I'm rambling. I knew I would be rambling. It's a rambling sort of day.

Enjoy the fireworks, everyone, but wear your safety glasses. Trust me on that.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Put A Horse In It

Every so often you learn something new about yourself. I have known for a long time now that I am not particularly good in front of a video camera. I'm very comfortable in front of a live audience--I don't mind giving speeches, and I adore classroom visits--but when I'm faced with some sort of machinery I struggle. Some schools have morning news programs, student-run, and I'll be the visiting author who keeps staring at the monitor, not the camera or the kid who's interviewing me, with the result that the camera films me seemingly looking at the ceiling. Last year Dial sent a professional video crew to my house to film a promotional clip. They were lovely guys, and I even knew one of them slightly--he grew up in my hometown, and his brother is a cantor at our church. And he was kind and non-threatening, and he'd ask a question, and I'd answer, and he'd smile and say, "Okay, can you repeat that without the umms?"

Umm, no.

Then last year I had to do a brief video clip to be shown at the Newbery/Caldecott banquet. My daughter's very good with cameras, so she filmed it. It took forever. My face froze the moment she said, "go." My upper lip did this thing where it acts paralyzed, and I look frightened, and I stumble over my words, which I rarely do in real life. We tried over and over to make the stupid video and in the end sent something in where I still looked like a mannequin version of myself. Of course all the other awardees were stylish and polished, and some of them had clearly cleaned their offices. And my clip was played over and over on a screen ten feet high.

Now suddenly I'm doing a spate of small home-grown clips, mostly for things like state book award lists. We had one regrettable video shot by my husband, in my front yard, and it was clear that practice was not improving my performance. Then I had an idea.

My daughter had just gotten home from college, and I was just allowed back on my horse, post-concussion. Her idiot horse had thrown a shoe and couldn't be ridden, but as we were only planning to amble around the fields anyhow she decided to saddle up Pal, our 30-year-old trusty Quarterhorse who is in fact the emotional model for Butter, the pony in TWTSML. I'd saddled Sarah, my mare, and my daughter had Pal, and suddenly I had a great idea--I'd shoot the video with the horses, and our gorgeous mountains in the background.

Sarah is normally somewhat pig-headed and inclined to want attention, but she was so pleased that I was riding again that she posed in particularly mannerly fashion, like a little girl who wants her mother to notice she's being good. Pal, our farm's candidate for canonization, felt itchy--he nearly always feels itchy--and kept trying to step in front of my so I could scratch his withers for him. So, while talking, I had to keep moving Pal back.

And it went great. I said everything I wanted to say in a natural voice with a non-paralyzed upper lip. It was far and away the best and easiest video I've ever done.

My daughter said, "Clearly, the secret is to put a horse in it."

Clearly, that's true. I have no idea why. But last night we shot a video for the schoolchildren of Oklahoma. We stuck me in between Sarah and Pal, with the mountains in the background, and all went very well.

It's too bad I can't take horses with me on school visits. Imagine how awesome that would be.

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.


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.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

TBT: How To Ride An Ostrich

Today I was checking Eventing Nation, the premier website for my sport of eventing, and found myself on the front page. Riding an ostrich. This was an article I wrote for them 5 years ago that they put up for their Throwback Thursday. So I copied it here. Hey, it was mine originally.

Each Thursday we take a trip down memory lane to a favorite EN post from over the years. This week's comes from Kim Bradley, a longtime EN friend and contributor, who wrote about her experience riding an ostrich. Wylie explains why it's one of her favorite EN posts of all time: "Not only is riding an ostrich a secret fantasy of mine, Kim's description is brilliantly hilarious. The first eight paragraphs of this story comparing horses and ostriches ... I can't even." Originally published on Feb. 17, 2011, we think it's as fun a read today as it was back then. Enjoy!
Photo courtesy of Kim Bradley.Photo courtesy of Kim Bradley.
The first thing to know is that riding an ostrich is nothing like riding a horse. But a quick side-by-side comparison, horse vs. ostrich, will show you why they are different.
Look into a horse’s eyes. You might see affection, indifference, loathing, fear–whatever it is, you’ll see something. You’ll sense that somewhere behind those eyes there’s a functioning brain, making decisions that might occasionally be described as rational.
Look into a ostrich’s eyes, and you’ll be able to check your hairdo. That’s about it. Gram for gram I don’t think ostriches’ brains are that much smaller than horses’, but ostriches clearly have a lot less neurons firing.
Look at the horse’s neck. Nice and sturdy, with all that handy mane to grab.
Look at the ostrich’s neck. If you have any doubts about its flimsiness, give it a little push. The neck will coil away from you like a large and hairy snake. Nothing to hang onto there.
Look at the horse’s legs. Four of ’em. One on each corner. Kind of comforting, really.
Ostrich, two legs. Not as good.
In fact, riding an ostrich is remarkably like riding a pencil-necked two-hundred-and-fifty pound chicken. For all that, I was very keen to give it a go.
We were in Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital of South Africa. Located inland from Mossel Bay near gently rolling mountains, the town was originally settled by–I was surprised at this, too–Latvian Jews. They all speak Afrikaans now. (The drugstore in Oudtshoorn, manned entirely by white people, was also the one place in all of South Africa where I absolutely could not make my English-speaking self understood.) Ostriches were farmed here starting in the late 1800s, because of the demand for ostrich feathers to decorate ladies’ hats. Before World War I and the invention of the automobile, prime ostrich feathers were worth their weight in gold.
Now, however, ostriches are prized for their meat and their skin, which makes a remarkably beautiful (and expensive)leather. The ostrich farms cater to tourists; at ours we began with a lovely meal of ostrich fillet (tastes like beef, not chicken) and red South African wine. We moved on to petting ostriches, admiring paddocks of foot-high baby ostriches, and learning about ostrich development in general. Next our hostess escorted our group to a small paddock, and that’s where the real fun began.
The ostriches aren’t trained to be ridden. There’s no saddle, no reins, no attempt at or semblance of control.
The farm staff turned a half dozen ostriches loose into the paddock, where they milled about randomly the way ostriches do. A staff member grabbed one and threw a cloth bag over its head. Apparently doing that confuses ostriches into temporary docility. The men pushed the bagged ostrich up against the board fence of the paddock, lifted the ostrich’s wings, and told me to climb aboard.
I won’t ride a horse without a helmet, pants, and sturdy leather shoes, but I rode my ostrich in capris and a sun hat.
The ostrich’s body was thinner and smaller than that of my daughter’s small pony. Its feathers were wonderfully soft, and for a moment I worried about crushing them. (The ones on the body aren’t the valuable ones–and anyway, the days of ostrich plumes are long past.) As instructed, I hooked my legs over the ostrich’s knees, which are right up by its body. (Think about the legs on a roast chicken. No, flip it over, legs pointing down. See? I tucked my feet right around the chicken thighs–only on the ostrich, of course.) I grabbed the wing pits. I leaned back.
The man yanked the bag off the ostrich’s head. The ostrich exploded. With only two legs, ostriches can’t buck, which was dead useful. My ostrich skittered instead, ping-ponging back and forth around the small paddock, scattering the other ostriches into a sort of cascading hysteria. It took considerable will to maintain my grip on the wingpits and not fasten my hands around its neck instead. After all, that’s where the mane should be. But I’m pretty sure that strangling the ostrich was not in my best interests just then.
I figure I managed eight seconds, like a bull rider. I didn’t fall off, but I didn’t actually dismount, either. With a lapful of wings, my only real option was to slide straight backward, into the supporting grasp of two of the staff members, who were laughing themselves silly at the screeching white woman on the bird.
It’s hard to call it riding. But I sat on the back of a galloping ostrich, and by golly I had fun.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

One Can Still Buy A Picasso

Ok, so we went to Paris for the weekend.

As one does.

I say that snorting with laughter, shaking my head at the absurdity of it all, because it's so nuts to do something like that, except that it was also outrageously fun. Truth is we went to Paris for a long weekend last spring, too, because our son was studying abroad and when we asked him what he would do if he had one choice while there, he said he'd go back with his dad and play the golf course outside of Paris they'd played years ago, and loved. So my husband arranged it, and we went--my son joining us by train--and it was crazy good.

This year my husband noticed that my son had a four-day weekend at Easter (one of the bonuses of his attending a Catholic college; my daughter had no vacation at all) and thought we should repeat the experience. He wrangled his way onto the golf course again (it's little known, and private) courtesy of some friends of ours who live in Paris. My husband and I flew out Wednesday night and landed Thursday morning. My son flew out from near his school on Thursday night, landed Friday morning, went straight to the golf course, played 27 holes of golf, then went straight to a fancy restaurant and had a late dinner with us and our friends, staying up until midnight, Paris time, which was 6 am where we come from, and he still thought it was awesome, one of his best days ever.

Thursday afternoon my husband and I amused ourselves by walking great swaths of the city window-shopping and ducking into art galleries and antiquity shops. Last year we did the same thing, and fell entirely in love with an immense wall tapestry--castle-sized, the colors still vibrant, the weaving impeccable. I'm a big fiber arts fan, so I took hold of the edge of the tapestry to examine its back side, which was probably not really kosher--I've been told off in museums before--and we enthused about the thing so genuinely that the shop attendants asked for our email address, which my husband promptly gave them, so they could send us proof of the tapestry's provenance. It had been woven for Louis XVI, one of a set of four, and the other three hung in a museum together.

The tapestry cost a quarter million dollars.

Or Euros. I forget which.

I was astonished you could still buy a tapestry woven for Louis XVI, anywhere, at any price, but was not exactly whipping out my checkbook, not that it would have mattered. Still,  this year we wanted to visit our tapestry again. We found the shop, but our tapestry was gone, which made us happy somehow--it's hanging somewhere, we hope loved.

After that we encountered another gallery which I remembered clearly because they have a mannequin of a security officer posed by the front door, and last year I politely said, "Bonjour, Monsieur," to it before I realized it was a statue. This year I was immediately taken by the movement and color and grace of a painting hanging near the front. Then I saw the signature. My command of French is very much a work in progress, but I was able to gasp, in French, "That's really a CHAGALL?"

Oui, Madame. A real one, not a print. Price on Request. I didn't.

Farther down was another art gallery we again remembered clearly, because last year they were hosting the opening of a special exhibit. We swanned in, back then, as though specially invited, were handed glasses of champagne, and made intelligent remarks about the bright, vibrant pictures, which we liked very much indeed, and which, honestly, we could actually see ourselves purchasing. By the standards of the street they were absolutely cheap. We didn't buy one last year, but this year perhaps--

Nope. Same art gallery, different art. It had reverted to high art, to very, very, very swanky art. Lovely stuff, in the same class as our pet tapestry. I stood in front of one painting admiring the greens and gorgeous, gorgeous blues. I would have claimed it in an heartbeat. I would have admired it every day, forever.

I still will. It was by Picasso--that Picasso, the real Picasso. I will keep it forever, hung on a bright wall inside my head, beside my pet tapestry, beside every other thing of beauty I have seen.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Not Windsurfing in Any Language

I'm working on my French. I took French for 3 1/2 years in high school then didn't take any foreign language in college, which is something I now regret as I'm ashamed to be yet another monoglot American. So. I've been listening to language CDs in the car while I run errands, and I have to say, they're just about useless.

From this morning: "Have you ever tried windsurfing? Please answer in French, 'yes, I have tried windsurfing.'"

Also, "I'm trying to reach the CEO, M. Albertine."
"I'm sorry, M. Albertine is on a conference call."

These are not the phrases I need to know in French.

I already know how to ask where the toilet is in several different ways. My favorite, "Ou se trouve le W.C.?" translates directly as "Where does the WC find itself?"

I can order wine, but I don't know how to ask for good wine.

I can usually order a meal, but once almost asked for kidneys by mistake.

Years ago I went to Normandie with my mother. We landed in Paris after an overnight flight, then took a train to Bayeux. The train was not complicated, and in fact served beer, but getting from the airport to the train station was an unholy mess. Later we were not sure why we didn't just get a taxi. Instead we did a complicated sort of Metro/train thing while dragging ridiculously heavy luggage. I was hauling my mother's suitcase up and down stairs that smelled like urine; I turned the corner at one point, encountered yet another flight of concrete steps, and said a very bad word very loudly, in English. I don't know if the man who overheard me understood the word or just the emotion behind it, but he grabbed my arm and pointed me to an elevator. It was kind of him, and at least I knew to say, "Merci."

Friday, April 7, 2017

Cover Reveal on the Nerdy Book Club!

nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2017/04/07/what-i-love-about-the-cover-for-the-war-i-finally-won-by-kimberly-brubaker-bradley/

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Our Slightly Better Future Selves

I love reading self-help books. Mostly I check them out from the library, because I read them indiscriminately and rarely, if ever, take their advice. But I love them. I love the multitude of suggestions they contain.

Last week I read a book (Start From Where You Are, or something like that) that had what I thought was a useful and creative idea: when faced with a choice, try to do whatever your slightly better future self would do. If your slightly better future self is more tolerant of your friends' foibles, perhaps the comments you make today on their online posts could be less sarcastic. If your slightly better future self is healthier, perhaps today you don't order cheddar rounds to go with your mid-morning Pal's iced tea. You align yourself with the slightly better version to hope to be soon.

Yesterday a huge storm came rolling toward our farm, and both my mundane current self and my slightly better future self kicked it into high gear. I got my work done at FIA, told the girl that's leasing Gully to get herself to the barn earlier than planned, and I cleaned the stalls and rebedded them and rinsed and filled water buckets and watched the girl and Gully run through their dressage test, twice, while giving what I hope were helpful hints about his free walk. Then I brought all the horses into their stalls and fed them while Gully's girl threw hay. We shut the pony in the wash stall. I closed all the half-doors and latched the back barn door, and then I drove my car into the barn so it wouldn't get hailed on. Then I took down all the trash, which is a job for Thursdays, but I was feeling ahead of the game.

I was sweaty and dirty but by golly everything on the farm was safe and battened down. Neither my current self nor my exceedingly fabulous far-into-the-future self could have done any better. We were ready.

Then the storm went south of us and the sun came out.

More storms were forecast, so I left everyone in the barn overnight. Those storms went south, too, and all we got was a bit of rain along with some crappy cold wind and general misery. This morning my slightly better future self, disgruntled, stayed in bed.

My mundane current self put on my heavy barn jacket, backed the car out of the barn, fed all the horses, and buckled winter blankets over most of them. Those would be the blankets I so wanted to wash and put away last week, when the weather was glorious, but my standing rule is never to wash a horse blanket until May, and today is why.

My other boarder, Syd's dad, showed up to put Syd and Pal out, and we said cheerful things to each other about how if there had been a storm we were very well prepared. The cats pestered Syd's dad for food, and he fed them, even though they don't normally get fed in the mornings, because he's a sucker for the cats. Then they mostly didn't eat, because they mostly weren't hungry. "Y'all were lying," Syd's dad said.

I said, "Those cats lie all the time."

"Not Scout," Syd's dad said. "Scout rarely lies. And Hazel, she pretty much doesn't lie, most of the time." We both looked down at Bucky, my daughter's cat. Syd's dad said, "That one lies all the time. That one lies just to lie."

"Be better, Bucky," I said, but he wasn't interested.

My slightly better future self would have gone to yoga, maybe, but she's still in bed. Meanwhile my everyday writer self can't wait to start work.

Monday, April 3, 2017

We Blame Sarah

It's a rule at my house that the more innocent my mare Sarah looks in any given moment, the more likely she is to be guilty of something nefarious. Sarah has broken stall doors (her own and others), both to let herself out of the barn when she didn't want to be in it, and to let herself into the barn when she didn't want to be outside. When breaking down the stall door didn't work she has attempted to jump out. She's jumped the pasture fence into the riding ring--could not explain why. She's moved herself from one field to another--either by jumping the gate or demolishing it. She's opened a large plastic jar of horse cookies with her teeth and carefully eaten up all the cookies without consuming any plastic shards, which might have been okay if the cookies hadn't belonged to one of my boarders.

She has not chased the pony up the loft stairs. That was Gully. But otherwise, when things go awry, we blame Sarah.

This winter has brought changes to our little herd. Our very dear, very old pony, Shakespeare, died. He had been Syd's turnout companion; now Pal, our very dear, very old (but still thriving) Quarterhorse fills that role. Then Silver came to live with us. She's a bright delicate Arabian mare, pasture-sound and low-maintenance. Until Silver arrived Sarah was the only mare on the farm, but I'd noticed that Sarah tends to love other mares (with the absolute exception of one pony mare in the hunt field) and I thought she'd enjoy Silver. I was right. The first few days after Silver arrived on the farm I shut her by herself in the front pasture, so she and Sarah and Gully and Mickey and Hot Wheels (the red pony) could all make acquaintances over the fence. Silver was agog to join the others.

"Hi!" she said, when I walked up to her. "I'm Silver! And you know what--this, I think this is a gate! You could open this gate! Would you?"

When I did, she yelled, "Thank you!" over her shoulder as she galloped to Sarah's side. They were instant BFFs, formed the Grey Mare Brigade, and set about winding the geldings up. Sarah taught Silver the brilliant game called Move the Pony. "When you're bored, just make the red pony go somewhere else. Then, when he moves where you tell him to, move him back to where he started. It's fun!"

A few weeks ago the grass turned green and sweet and started to grow, which meant that Gully and Hot Wheels had to be moved to the tiny threadbare pony paddock, because those two could easily, and I am not making this up, eat themselves to death. Hot Wheels could founder on an asphalt parking lot, and the two of them vie for the world record at removing grazing muzzles. So. They don't get grass.

That means poor Mickey, my daughter's horse, is alone with the girls. Yesterday, though, there'd been some sort of coup--when I went to feed it was obvious from the start that Mickey and Silver were in high dudgeon, united in feelings of outrage toward Sarah.

"What?" Sarah said. "WHAT??!!"

I walked into the pasture and the water trough, a 50-gallon tank I'd filled the day before, lay on its side in a sea of mud. Empty. Silver blew out her nostrils, aggrieved--I'd never seen her aggrieved before--and Mickey trotted toward me muttering, "Look. Look what she did."

"I didn't do anything!" Sarah protested. Which I might have believed--probably not, but maybe--except that her fetlocks were dripping. Sarah likes to play in troughs. She likes to wash her feet. I thought I'd nixed that by elevating the trough onto cinder blocks, but apparently Sarah was feeling extra acrobatic (or her feet were exceptionally dirty) yesterday.

I gave them all their dinners, set the tank upright on its blocks, and refilled it. When I let the horses back out first Silver, then Mickey, when straight to the tank and drank from it, giving Sarah the side-eye. Then the two of them walked off, together.

Sarah stood by me. "I didn't do it," she said.
"Yes, you did," I told her.
She sighed and lowered her head, and I rubbed her forehead like always. Then she walked down the hill, content. It's still a few months before I'm cleared to ride; at least my horse is good at keeping herself entertained.

PS I'm actually cleared to ride, according to the neurologist. I'm just not cleared to fall off. This makes horsepeople snort. "Ok, just don't fall off, then!" Or maybe I'll wait until June.

PPS If you're a blogger or librarian or bookseller, and you'd like to be considered for an ARC of The War I Finally Won, send me a message, fast.