Thursday, March 23, 2017

You Can't Tell Me Who I Am

I grew up Catholic in a part of the Midwest where Catholics were a majority religion; all the non-Catholics I knew knew lots of Catholics themselves, and seemed to consider us pretty mainstream. Now I live where Catholics are rare, and fundamentalist evangelical Christians much more prevalent. Quite a few people around here have odd and incorrect ideas about Catholics and Catholicism. I've gotten used to people, for instance, telling me that I worship the virgin Mary.

I do not. I explain that no, I don't, and neither do any Catholics: it's against doctrine. But once when my husband was saying so, the person to whom he was speaking insisted that yes, Catholics absolutely worshipped Mary. My husband said no, he had been raised Catholic, and never once in his life had he worshipped Mary. The person said, yes, I know you do. At which point my husband said, astonished, You have no way of knowing what I do and don't believe.

I would like to take this a step farther. You do not know better than I do who I am. And also You do not know better than I do how God made me to be.

I've been feeling this rant come on for awhile now. I have some transgender friends. (Honestly? You probably do too.) I was sharing a meal with one of those friends the other day, and said friend told me that a member of their extended family (yes, it's a plural pronoun, but it's also a neutral one) had been telling them that God made them to be the gender they were assigned at birth.

Which is, no matter how you look at it, crazy.

My friend Donna Gephart just put this up on her Facebook page, a link to an article about a bus some people are driving around the United States in an effort to convince us all that transgender people are not actually transgender. The bus features an outline of a girl stamped "XX" and a boy stamped "XY," which tells you all you need to know about the scientific accuracy of those driving this bus, since plenty of people are something other than just "XX" and "XY," and there are also endocrine disorders such as androgen insensitivity syndrome and if you don't already understand all that you can google it. What I find astonishing is the lengths that people are currently going to to proclaim something that does not in any way affect them at all. Honestly, if you feel your gender was correctly assigned to you, great! But it doesn't mean you can tell me mine was, or that either of us can speak to anyone else. You, frankly, have no idea about anyone but you.

Here's why it matters: because making people feel that God does not or can not love them is a sin. Because making people feel that they are somehow sinful because of the very essence of their being, the very way that God in infinite love and complexity created them, is a sin.

Here's why else it matters: the legalization of gay marriage caused gay teen suicide rates to drop. Why? Because, as is also true for transgender people, (here is a good link), rejection and lack of social support increases suicide rates; acceptance decreases them. Actual lives of actual people are at stake here. The people driving the bus risk nothing of themselves, but pose a real risk to society.

Forty percent of transgender people have attempted suicide.

Let us acknowledge that the only way accepting gay and transgender people increases their numbers, is that it causes fewer of them to kill themselves. I don't know about you, but I don't want "helped drive someone to suicide" on my immortal soul.

I can't make you gay, or transgender, by allowing you to be gay, any more than I can prevent you from being gay, or transgender, by denying your reality.

Neither can you make me worship Mary. It's just not who I am.

Lemon Delight in Big Stone Gap

Yesterday I had the honor of speaking at the 41st Annual John Fox Jr. Literary Festival in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. John Fox Jr. was a turn-of-the-century (last one before this one) bestselling author; his best-remembered novels are The Kentuckians and Trail of the Lonesome Pine. I googled John this morning and learned that while he was born in Kentucky, he was the son of wealthy mine owners, and he not only graduated from Harvard but fought with Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders before settling down in Big Stone Gap to write.

Big Stone Gap is also the title of Adriana Trigiani's first novel, set there where she grew up. So it's got a pretty good writing history for a small Appalachian town stuck deep in the middle of nowhere. (One of the women at the festival told me, "No one goes to Big Stone Gap by accident.")

It was a pretty drive from Bristol, though it would be even lovelier if the trees on the mountains had leaves. I left home early, mostly because I was ready to go and didn't know what else to do with myself, and that turned out to be a good thing: I forgot how on these curvy mountain state highways the speed limits are along the lines of double-dog dares. It saves money policing when everyone who exceeds the speed limit just flies right off the edge of the road.

The festival was fun. My talk went well and I enjoyed the people I met. Afterwards the organizers and some of the writing contest winners and I had lunch in the John Fox Jr. House, where John Fox Jr. wrote. It's now a museum that reminded me very much of the Gene Stratton Porter house in Indiana, which I visited when I was small. (Leave a comment with your favorite GSP book, if you have one.) A group of museum volunteers cooked and served lunch, which was a fancy chicken breast with spinach and bacon, seven-layer salad, and homemade rolls, plus strawberries over angel food cake for dessert. I haven't had a good seven-layer salad in a long time, and I don't know what the secret women from this part of the country have about rolls--I've tried and tried to make good homemade rolls and I never can, but every mountain cook above a certain age is ace at it.

I sincerely complimented the food, while eating all of it, and told the others at my table that while I enjoyed cooking I felt that lately I'd fallen into a recipe rut,  an "if this is Thursday it must be pork chops," kind of thing. The conference organizer immediately made me a present of the cookbook put out by the ladies of the John Fox Jr. House--it's a lovely volume. I was thumbing through it, quite pleased, and one of the museum ladies was pointing out the chicken with spinach and bacon recipe, when I stumbled across another recipe, and gasped.

"Lemon delight!" I said. I scanned the ingredients and directions. The very same.

"Yes," the conference organizer said. "It's wonderful. I nearly ordered it for our lunch today."

"My mother makes it," I said. "When I was little it was her go-to dessert for bridge night." A layer of nutty shortbread, baked in the oven. After that a layer of slightly sweetened cream cheese. Then thick lemon pudding, then whipped cream. The day after bridge night I ate a piece of the leftovers for breakfast. I always did it in layers, first skimming off the whipped cream, trying to remove as much of it as I could without dipping into the lemon layer. Then the lemon layer, again trying not to nick the layer of cream cheese. Then I ate the bottom layers together.

I don't think I've had lemon delight for thirty years. When my mother makes dessert for family occasions she goes with carrot cake or apple pie, the favorites of my husband and children.

I did not expect it, yesterday, to be sitting in an old cabin in the Appalachian mountains and feel so entirely as though I were back in my childhood home.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

What Inspires Me?

Usually I don't write on Saturdays; weekends are for my family. After all, my husband doesn't operate on Saturdays, unless he's on call and there's some kind of horrible crisis (punched drunk, firework to the eye, and a nasty incident involving a potato chip bag come to mind). However this is not a typical Saturday--I'm at the beach, the weather's looking dreary, and the boys are golfing early in order to be home in time for Notre Dame's basketball game, which starts at noon. I slept in a bit--not much--finished the latest book I'm reading--I'm on a Maisie Dobbs craze, I think I just finished #9--I have #10 right here with me, though, with the miracle of Kindle, books are never far away--and I'm sitting here at my computer staring at the mess that was yesterday's work, and contemplating the mess I might create today.

When I do classroom visits, one of the first questions children ask me is, "What inspired you to write--whatever book?" I have come to really dislike this question. First of all, I suspect it's a good-student question, ie., not what the children most want to know, but what they think sounds good to their teacher. "Ah, good question!" the teacher thinks, and smiles approvingly. Second, by the time we get to audience questions I've usually told them all about what inspired whatever book we're discussing, and now I've got to say it over again, only more precisely. But mostly this question irritates me because I. Am. Never. Inspired.

Okay. Once in awhile. Once in a very, very great while. Jamie's cat Bovril, for example--he showed up in a dream, and so did the sidesaddle, and both of those were answers to problems I didn't consciously know my novel had--but I will submit that I knew them unconsciously, and that's why I dreamed solutions.

Writing a novel is like putting together a puzzle whose pieces keep changing. I don't think it all up in a white heat of glorious creative passion. I work it out, page by page, day by day. Writing is my job. It's my work, and it is work. I love it; I'm grateful every day that I get to do this with my life. But I'm not inspired. I'm working. On a day like today, when I've got a mess of seven pages staring at me, this is very good news. I don't need to fix them. I just need to keep working.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Not Really Sure Where I Am

So to some extent right now I have no idea where I am. I mean, physcially, I'm in south Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, sitting inside an oceanfront condominium that we rented cheap at the last minute when my son got a few of his job interview/spring break issues sorted. I know that it's Friday, mostly because I spent yesterday watching the NCAA basketball tournament with my son--Notre Dame won an ugly game by one point, that was not fun--but better than losing--and I'm pretty sure it's mid-March, though I couldn't swear to the date.

My son and I arrived here on Wednesday and played the tackiest mini-golf we could find, which was actually astonishingly tacky. We went grocery shopping and walked the very very cold beach. Yesterday it was warmer--we walked twice, between tournament rounds--and today it's warmer still. My husband drove down to join us late last night and he and my son are golfing somewhere as I type this. That's really the whole point of Myrtle Beach--two golf courses they want to play. And otherwise I don't really see a point to it--it's like an ocean version of Pigeon Forge, lots of inexpensive accommodations, bungee jumping, and cheap pancake houses, but not much in terms interesting restaurants, riding, hiking, museums, historical sites, bookstores, any of the stuff I usually do when my spouse is at a golf course when we're on vacation.

I'm writing. That's really where I don't know where I am. I'm at last, finally, finally, here with mostly only the Egypt book to work on, and I've started it several times, and still don't know exactly where it begins. I have an idea of what the first several pages need to accomplish, and it's a lot, and I know mostly where I'm going, but not entirely--of course--and I've done enough research for now, and I just wrote seven pages which is probably all I can do today, and probably messing with them any further right now will not make them better, but that's okay, I have a beach to walk and a whole lot of books to read.

In other news:
I really am opening my calendar for school visits April first. I will have very limited availability this year, mostly in the second semester, as the first semester I'm already doing lots of stuff, including a national book tour to celebrate the release of The War I Finally Won. (At some point I'll be posting details about all that.) If you think you want a classroom visit, sign up early. You can email me for details.

I will not be doing any classroom Skype visits for the first semester, again because of  my already-packed schedule. I *may* do some second semester; I'll probably open the calendar for those, if I do them, in January.

I will be doing a book trailer design contest for students. Details to come.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Out of My Control

I just finished the last niggling issue with the copyedits for The War I Finally Won. I'll see the story again once it's been typeset, but at that point we'll pretty much only be checking for typos. We actually expect ARCs by the end of the week. (I plan on doing a contest or two with the ARCs, for fun. More on that later.) This is the start of a really never-wracking time for me: the book is now out of my control.

I've been grappling with the realization that I am not quite 100% over my concussion, though I edge closer all the time. This frustrates me, because once I'm symptom free I can start the clock toward riding again--three months after being symptom free is what's recommended by my sport's governing agency. I hate that my recovery is not within my control.

Then I read Amy Krouse Rosenthal's heartbreaking essay, "You May Want to Marry My Husband." (It's all over the internet; you can find it if you want to.) I don't know Amy personally, but I know her work--she's a children's book author. Her children, like mine, have all recently left home; she and her husband, like me and mine, were looking forward to travel and adventure. Instead Amy's dying of ovarian cancer. It's outside her control, as is one of my close friend's serious illnesses, as is nearly everything about my now adult children (when they were tiny I controlled so much of their lives: what they ate, what they wore, where they went and with whom. I couldn't control whether or not they napped but I could certainly shut them into their bedrooms.).

It's Lent, a time to increase self-awareness. On Sunday a visiting priest at our parish (Bristol folks: I attended at my other parish, near our house in North Carolina. I am not making stuff up.) preached a sermon about Jesus' temptation in the desert, and about idolatry. I've been thinking ever since about the idolatry of control. How trusting in God's care means letting go of striving to be God yourself, able to fix everything. I go back to a lesser-known line from Lin Miranda's spectacular Tony Awards sonnet: "and nothing else is promised, not one day." This is crummy but it's also liberating.

Meanwhile, this week fell spectacularly out of my control, for good reasons, when my daughter qualified for the NCAA Regional championships in fencing. Those are this Saturday, the second weekend of my daughter's spring break, and we'd made lots of plans for break that had to be really quickly modified. She heads back to school tomorrow for some more training, and Saturday my husband and son and I are all going to watch her poke people with the sharp end of a stick. It'll be awesome.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

An Age of Wonder

I have to tell you, we are living in a time of miracles. I am working on some new projects right now, and I can not believe the wealth of information at my fingertips, in ways I never dreamed of.

I'm working hard right now to regain and improve my French. I'm travelling to France twice in the next year, so I'll have opportunity to use it, and also I've always been somewhat ashamed of my essentially monoglot status. I met a 20-year-old tour guide in South Africa who was fluent in twelve languages. Sheesh. The least I can do is manage a very basic conversation in a language I studied for four years (in high school, but still.) Anyhow, I'm taking a multi-disciplinary approarch. I've got these fabulous flashcards set up on Anki, which is simply an online flashcard learning system. You create flash cards--there was a tutorial online that explained how to add images (through tinyurl.basicimages) and expert pronounciation (through forvo.com) to the cards. Therefore the card could show you, say, a photo of a sheep, and ask, "What is this?" and you would say, "le mouton." OR the card would say "How do you spell--and then a voice would say in perfect French, 'mouton'? Anki sets the cards up so that if you answer correctly, the card moves back in the pack, and if you answer incorrectly, it moves forward. Once you know a card you get asked it increasingly less often, just long enough to tweak your brain into remembering. It's genius.

Then I ordered a set of ear-training flashcards in French, online, and put them into my Anki setup. They're designed to be close auditory pairs, bague vs. bag, say, or hausse vs. os, things non-French speakers have trouble distinguishing between. The card says one of the pairs out loud while asking which I heard. You'd be amazed how you can learn to hear differences your brain simply ignored before.

Then I thought to myself, I wonder what books I could order in French. Of course I thought of amazon.fr, as I'm already a steady customer of amazon.co.uk for all books British. But--Kindle! Of course!

Now, you may not have known it, but amazon has a new Kindle subscription service--$9.99 per month all you can download. Are you kidding me? I'm going to be saving some serious cash. Then it turned out that not only can I download books in French to my Kindle, essentially for very little money, but they have books designed for language learners with audio files attached. Not only that, the audio files come in two speeds: regular speech and slow. So I can look at a short story on my Kindle while a voice in French reads along, fast or slow depending on how quickly I can listen.

That's astonishing, but even more so: I downloaded the first Harry Potter book in French. Now this is a huge step, vocabularu and word-tense wise, but I already know the story very well and I thought it would be fun. And it is. Reading each sentence is a little labor of love. Also, you'd be surprised what you can learn in context. "Owl" and "cloak." But there are some vocab words I simply don't know, and can't puzzle from the rest of the sentence, and here's where the miracle came in: struggling, I put my finger down on a troublesome word, trying to work it out from the rest of the words around it, and lo, the troublesome word highlighted itself and a dictionary definition popped up on the screen. Perhaps you advanced Kindle users already know this trick. (In my defense, I rarely need the definitions of words in English). The definition was of course in French, but I could understand it. Oh, fabulous.

All this milling around in another language is fascinating, but I have real work to do. I'm happy to report for the 30th time that I'm working on my Egypt book, only this time I think it will stick, because I'm out of other options. Now I've got a British family travelling to Egypt in 1922, and of course they'd have a Baedeker, a red-bound travel guide of the sort that were ubiquitous among British travels abroad in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Baedekers are almost a stereotype. So I thought, a Baedeker guide to Egypt from the right time period would be invaluable. It would tell me a lot about the attitudes of Europeans toward Egyptians, and it would also list, say, all the European doctors practicing in Luxor, or all the bookstores, or what I could expect from the hotels. It would explain the currency of the time far better than anything written now. I thought, lo, the magic internet. I bet I can buy an old Baedeker.

Nope. Even better. I can download a 1914 edition of the Baedeker Guide to Egypt onto my Kindle, included in the 10 dollars per month that already brought me French stories read out loud and a dictionary-enhanced French language Harry Potter.

It's the simple truth. We live in an age of miracles.