Thursday, April 29, 2021

Yet More Ish I Should Have Known

 I had a hard time falling asleep last night: my mind was disturbed. When I did sleep, I dreamed of the Tacky Postcard Contest my dear friend Sarah and embarked upon in college. Wherever either of us went we sought out the tackiest possible postcard and sent it to the other. It went on for a few years, with some remarkably tacky cards, until Sarah went to Florence and mailed me a postcard that was a closeup of the genitalia from Michaelangelo's masterpiece sculpture David, with "I came, I saw, I conquered!" written in Latin across it. We acclaimed this the winner, and the contest ended.

When I woke up I thought immediately of the thing that had made it so hard for me to fall asleep.

Lynching postcards.

I'm in an online writer's group with four Black women. We're diverse in age, experiences, and geography. I fully believe that it is not their responsibility to teach me about being Black in America, and yet, nearly every meeting, they do.

Last night one of the others was telling the group about her involved, beautiful idea for a novel that blended Ghanian folklore, American history, and magical realism. As she was talking, she mentioned 'lynching postcards' in passing. It was clear the other three understood what this meant. I did not. I said, "I'm really sorry--what is a lynching postcard?"

They told me, but in the interests of clarity and full detail I will quote this from Wikipedia, which I read this morning:

Spectators sold one another souvenirs including postcards.[7] Often the photographer was one of the killers.[8]

In a typical lynching postcard, the victim is displayed prominently at the center of the shot, while smiling spectators, often including children,[7] crowd the margins of the frame, posing for the camera to prove their presence. Facial expressions suggesting remorse, guilt, shame, or regret are rare.[8]

Some purchasers used lynching postcards as ordinary postcards, communicating unrelated events to friends and relatives. Others resold lynching postcards at a profit.[6] Still others collected them as historical objects or racist paraphernalia: their manufacture and continued distribution was part of white supremacist culture, and has been likened to "bigot pornography".[9]

Whatever their use, the cultural message embodied in most lynching postcards was one of racial superiority. Historian Amy Louise Wood argues:

Within specific localities, viewers did not disconnect the photographs from the actual lynchings they represented. Through that particularity, the images served as visual proof for the uncontested 'truth' of white civilized morality over and against supposed black bestiality and savagery. [9]

Viewed from an outsider's perspective, bereft of local context, the postcards symbolized white power more generally. White citizens were depicted as victorious over powerless dead black victims, and the pictures became part of secular iconography.

Richard Lacayo, writing for Time magazine, noted in 2000:

Even the Nazis did not stoop to selling souvenirs of Auschwitz, but lynching scenes became a burgeoning subdepartment of the postcard industry. By 1908, the trade had grown so large, and the practice of sending postcards featuring the victims of mob murderers had become so repugnant, that the U.S. Postmaster General banned the cards from the mails.[10]

As late as the 21st century, James Allen was able to acquire a collection of lynching postcards from dealers who offered them in whispered tones and clandestine marketplaces.


Obviously this is repugnant almost beyond belief. But here is what bothers me most, what kept me up at night: I didn't know.

I'm 53 years old, smart, very well educated, and over the past 15 years have tried to read and educate myself about race, particularly in America. When you're writing historical fiction, as I do, the biggest dangers are what you don't know you don't know--the things you never think to question, that you therefore don't bother to research, that therefore leave holes in your story.

I will never write a story about a lynching. But still, I should have known. Somewhere in my history lessons, while I was told about Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, and that Black and white people couldn't use the same drinking fountains, someone should have taught me that the Civil Rights movement was about more than that. Someone should have explained redlining, told me that the reason having Black people moving into a neighborhood would decrease property values (a fact I vaguely remember hearing from my childhood) wasn't because Black people were intrinsically less valuable, but because white people had rigged the housing market to make it so. Someone should have explained about penal servitude. Someone should have told me about the Tulsa race massacre. These should have been facts presented in my history, not just Dr. King's dream and subsequent assasination.

It is my teacher's fault and it is my fault. 

Now I know better. By reading this, so do you.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Beverly

 My husband and son and I were having dinner in California. We were uptight and anxious, because several thousand miles away my daughter's horse had developed a full-blown medical emergency that could well prove fatal; my daughter, and especially our friends Caroline and Bruce--especially you, Bruce, we won't forget it--were loading him into the trailer for a midnight haul to the veterinary school two hours away. (My daughter drives our truck and trailer well--after her horse recovered she picked him up by herself--but that late drive with the horse's life in danger was emotionally beyond her. Our friends stepped up large and got her through it when the rest of us were 3000 miles away.)

Anyhow, we were sitting outdoors, under a heat lamp, trying to have a lovely time at a real restaurant while our stomachs tied themselves in knots. I checked my phone, hoping for news from my daughter. "Oh, no!" I said. "Beverly Cleary died!"

"Oh, no," my husband said, softly. "I'm so sorry."

"What did she die of?" my son asked. 

I scanned the news item. "It doesn't say."

"How old was she?"

"A hundred and four."

Husband and son looked at me. Son began to grin. And okay, it wasn't a tragedy. One hundred and four--very nearly one hundred and five. And yet. For the next few days my internet feeds were filled with universal mourning. From Judy Blume to Victoria Jamieson to me, at least two generations of children's book authors were influenced by her work, and who knows how many children. Millions. My mom read Ramona The Pest to me when I was myself in kindergarten--I identified with every aspect of Ramona's perilous walk to school. Her pulling up that flowering beet--I loved her. 

The next day (the horse was better, survived the night without surgery, happier spirits all around. We love this horse, he's young and vibrant and quirky and smart, we can't bear the thought of losing him) I went with my husband and son while they played an old, beautiful, California golf course. One of the houses on the course had a Little Free Library near one of the teeboxes, so of course I went to have a look--and there, among the other books, was a copy of The Mouse and the Motorcycle, my favorite of all Beverly Cleary's books. 

I just looked it up. It was originally published in 1965. The edition in the LFL had been published in 2016. I read the first few pages--they're still good--and replaced the book for a child to find.

We all knew she wouldn't live forever, but there were many of us who loved knowing that Beverly Cleary was still in our world. We loved her for her quiet groundbreaking subversive ordinary characters. We loved her for her truth.

For awhile now my husband and I have been thinking of getting a second dog. Our young cavoodle, Cava, loves the company of other dogs. She sometimes finds my husband and I dull, well-loved but slightly insufficient as playmates. When she's around other dogs she lights up with joy.

And so this Saturday we acquired a schnoodle pup. Just as we hoped, Cava reacted with joy, and patience, and deep satisfaction. The puppy is all things puppy, affectionate and sweet.

My husband named her. He names most of our animals. He's very good at names.

I present to you: Beverly Cleary Bradley.



Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Only Racists See Race? Discussing Dr. Seuss

 Boy-howdee. 

I am trying to figure out what has so many white people so upset. There's all this talk of "cancel culture," but, as far as I can tell, everyone seems up in arms about the demise of  things already dead. Yesterday my internet feeds were blowing up because Dr. Seuss was being labelled racist. His books were being called racist! And some people were very upset.

I can't quite figure out why, except that of course many of them didn't know the facts of the matter, they'd simply seen clickbait titles like, "Dr. Seuss Banned!"

So let's start with the facts. Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the organization which owns the copyrights to the author's material, decided to cease publication of six books due to their racially insensitive words or illustrations.  Those books are: McElligot's Pool (published 1947), If I Ran The Zoo (1950), Scrambled Eggs Super (1953), On Beyond Zebra (1955), And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (1964), and The Cat's Quizzer (1976.) 

I'm 53 years old, and only one of those books was first published in my lifetime. Also, I'm really well-versed in the field of children's literature, and I've never even heard of four of the titles. Also, do you all imagine books stay in print forever? Very few do. I have published 18 books, the first in 1998. Nine of them are still in print--two of those as electronic versions only. This is likely slightly better than average. Dr. Seuss's books have had phenomenal runs. 

No one is suggesting that these books be banned, removed from libraries, or burnt in the public square. They're just not printing new copies.

Are those six books racist? Yep. They are.

You don't have to like it. You can excuse Theodor Giesel as being a man of his time. You can say that you've not noticed racism in your favorite Dr. Seuss books--but you can't look at the specific books in question and say they don't propagate harmful racial stereotypes. They do.

And. This is important: you don't get to decide what offends someone else.

Take, for example, the swastika. You might see it as an ancient Sanskrit symbol of well-being. But if you wear it as a tattoo people will consider you a neo-Nazi. You can call the Confederate flag a symbol of states' rights all you want--but you need to recognize that many people see it as a badge of white supremacy. When the only pictures of Black people in a book show them barefoot wearing grass skirts--well, that's equating Blackness with ignorance and savagery.  Maybe you don't see it this way, but many people do. When they say they're offended, you don't get to tell them they aren't.

This is also important: there is no good reason to continue to offend people here. McElligot's Pool is not a hill to die on. 

I get that many people have happy childhood memories of Dr. Seuss books. I do. The Sleep Book was my favorite, in part because it was so long, and in part because of one particular illustration I loved so much I could probably draw it for you even now,. The kids I babysit used to made me read Fox In Socks every time because they thought it was hilarious how the tongue twisters tripped me up. No one is "cancelling" this. No one takes those memories away--nor is anyone ceasing publication of Fox In Socks or Green Eggs And Ham.

Dr. Seuss may or may not have been racist himself. I have no idea. Most likely, neither do you. It's irrelevant to the conversation. The man has been dead for thirty years. My grandmother, who's been dead more than twenty years, was absolutely racist for at least most of her life. I loved her dearly, and have many fond memories of her. I also remember how, in her very last years, some of her opinions about Black people changed--she became less racist, in part because she had more genuine interactions with Black people. None of that matters, any more than Dr. Seuss's real beliefs matter. All we're doing now is no longer producing new copies of some racist books Seuss wrote.

I'd like everyone who's got their knickers in a twist to answer these questions honestly:

--when was the last time you read a Dr. Seuss book?

--when was the last time you read any of the six books going out of print?

--how many of those six books have you read?

--if you have read them, what's your honest opinion of them? How do they compare with other children's books you've recently read? If you were going to buy three books for any child of your acquaintance, out of all the books in the bookstore, would any of these make the cut?

Look, it's not much of a stretch to say that today's children are better served by books written less than sixty years ago. We're in a glorious golden age of children's literature right now. There are amazing books being written, and our kids deserve to enjoy them. Take a look next time you go to a bookstore. Browse through the children's section. Open up some of those picture books. You'll see.

As for the title of this blog post: it's something someone wrote yesterday on a thread about the Seuss news. Only racists see race. Which is, honestly, one of the stupidest things I've ever read. If you don't see my identity, including my race, you don't see me. It's nothing to do with prejudice. It's simple truth.


Wednesday, December 16, 2020

A Vast Anti-Misogynistic Conspiracy

 Dear Wall Street Journal Opinion Page Editor Paul A. Gigot,

Or, should I say, Babycakes?  After all, the new article (behind a payway, here's a NYT article about it) you wrote defending the article that Joseph Epstein wrote, and you published, says that Epstein's use of the word 'Kiddo' to describe Dr. Jill Biden, an educator and a grandmother, is acceptable because that's what her husband sometimes calls her.

My husband doesn't call me Babycakes. He calls me Sweetheart sometimes. That doesn't give you, or Epstein, permission to do so. Please take a note of it.

You claim that the outrage sparked by Epstein's essay (that link is behind a paywall, but if you look around the internet, you can read it for free) is a Democratic conspiracy meant to somehow stifle free speech, and that the people expressing it were playing "the race or gender card to stifle controversy." You remind us that Dr. Biden's position as incipient First Lady means she's not off-limits to this sort of criticism.

You. Don't. Get. It.

People are not angry because they're Democrats or Republicans. They're angry because Epstein's misogyny, which you considered worth publishing and defending, trivialized not only an impressive accomplishment but also every woman who attempts such things. They're angry because yet another old white man told a woman to sit down, shut up, and find her fulfillment in the shadow of her connection to a powerful man.

The line that really makes me furious isn't being talked about much. Epstein rattles on about the how doctorates aren't worth as much any more, how even honorary doctorates have been diminished these days, and then--this is the part that really torqued me--that they decreased in prestige proportionally to how often they'd been given to Black women. Yep. It's not just these women who want to be called "doctor" that infuriate Epstein. It's these uppity Black women with advanced degrees.

How dare he? How dare you? Is it remotely possible that you don't understand how insulting you're being? How is it possible you think people are angry as a stunt, instead of being angry because you, the pair of you, gave them sufficient reason to feel that way?

I'm not a doctor of any sort. My friend Sarah is (Doctor of divinity from Harvard, therefore Reverend Doctor to you), as is my other friend Sarah (veterinarian), and her sister Kelly (biologist, head of a university department). As is the female obstetrician who delivered my daughter. As was the other female obstetrician who delivered my son. But none of that is the actual point here. The point is that this man went out of his way to trivialize a woman's accomplishments. He even demeaned the title of her doctoral thesis. He's small-minded and petty, and you found his insults worthy of being given a national stage, not to expose them, but because you agreed. And we're angry. Not because we're Democrats. Not because we're women. Because the pair of you are assholes, and you piss us off.

Friday, December 11, 2020

A Spot of Morning Chaos

 Half an hour ago I took my second cup of coffee into my office and sat down at my desk. My dog hopped into my lap and curled herself around me as she usually does (and as she is again now), butt on my left leg, head on the right arm of my chair. I'd started up the computer and was happily contemplating my morning's work--I got some particularly good news yesterday, which, while I'm not ready to make it public, certainly made the morning and the idea of work quite pleasant--when I heard a soft but definite thunk thunk.

I decanted the dog, leapt to my feet, looked out the window, and, my daughter later told me, squawked loud enough that she heard it upstairs.

My large grey mare, Sarah, looked back at me. Through my office window. Across a very large front lawn from anywhere she was supposed to be. 

Pal, our very ancient Quarter horse, stood beside her.

Boots on, jacket, hat, dog leash stuffed in pocket, out I went. Pal was now standing under the birch tree in the side yard, looking mournful. He's like a kid who can't bear to be left behind, but he regrets the consequences. I looped the leash around his neck. "C'mon, old man, where's Sarah?"

I could see the barn now. I could see the wide-open gate beside it--snow, my fault then, I went through it last and clearly didn't properly latch it. Sarah was all the way back to the barn--she must have run. My daughter's horse Merlin was milling around near the parked truck and trailer. T, my rental horse, was standing in the field in front of the open gate, looking scandalized. T is Lawful Good and doesn't break rules. (My daughter thinks he's a vampire: can only cross thresholds if specifically invited.)

Pal puffed and huffed and dragged his feet. This was a lot of work for him, something he should have considered before he followed Sarah.

Merlin looked up, saw us, and dashed back into the field. It's not because he cares about breaking rules. It's because he's greedy for his breakfast, and wants to be the first into the barn. He went to stand by his stall door.

I got everyone into the field. Gate properly latched. Portioned out the breakfasts, dumped them into the feed bins in each stall. Went through the end stall, Pal's, into the field, letting it swing shut behind me. Opened Merlin's stall, let him in. Turned around to see that Sarah had flung Pal's unlatched door open and gone in to eat Pal's food. Happily she was still wearing her grazing muzzle. She pounded it into the feed bucket in frustration.

I grabbed her, took her out. T stood outside, looking appalled and slightly petulant. I opened his stall door with one hand and kept hold of Sarah with the other. "Good morning, T, here you go," I said. Properly invited, he stepped inside.

I took Sarah into her stall and removed her muzzle. Shut her in and went back outside, where Pal was very slowly making his way to his stall, because, by crikey, it's already been quite a day.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Finding Joy

 Hello, friends. It's been four months since I've written a blog post. I've never gone that long between posts before, but then, nothing about this year is usual.

Last week I put gas in my car for the first time since June. My usual hermit tendencies have only increased with Covid; sometimes days go by when I don't leave the farm. Happily, I like it here. 

In my family we have a phrase--how do we make this suck less? Because sometimes we all have to put up with things that well and truly suck. You can't make them enjoyable--but sometimes you can still add a bit of joy. So we got ice cream cones on our way out of the children's hospital. Borrowed a really good audiobook for the stultifying car ride. Played cards while waiting in a long line. Once my daughter and I got pedicures at an airport when a flight was (horrendously, with maddening consequences) delayed. 

In this pandemic, my husband is decorating the house for Christmas on a scale eclipsing his previous very impressive years. Yesterday he went to Lowe's for ornament hooks and a 6' hose (for me, for the pony paddock). He returned with ornament hooks, a 6' hose, 6 boxes of LED Christmas lights, 2 poinsettas and a rosemary tree. He spent most of the day making the house beautiful. Meanwhile my daughter, who's working at a library, has used interlibrary loan to borrow a six-volume very interesting series about dragons.

Lately on my list of things that are helpful: borrowing electronic versions of trashy novels from my local library; hot baths; a knitalong Advent calendar, where every day brings another small packet of yarn to add to a project. I know, it's only December 1. But I started it the day after Thanksgiving. When you are trying to create joy, you don't need to follow every rule.

What's working these days for you?

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Wizard Merlin

A week from today my new novel Fighting Words debuts. It's a tough story about a tough kid in a bad situation, how she's shielded and strengthened by her sister's love, and how she learns to thrive.

Originally my publisher planned to send me on tour, which would mean, among other things, repeatedly talking about my book to people who'd not had a chance to read it. For months I'd planned to end my presentation with a photo of Merlin, my daughter's horse. The tour's going to be entirely online now, and I may or may not be able to show photos, but, especially after this weekend, I want to talk about Merlin.

If this horse can overcome his past, there's hope for all of us.

We don't know how old Merlin is (by his teeth, somewhere between 10 and 15). We don't know what breed or breeds he is (he might be part Thoroughbred, but his pinto markings mean he can't be full; his size means he's likely part draft; other possibilities include Standardbred and Dutch; we call him an "American warmblood" as a joke). We don't have any idea where he was born. He could be a Canadian PMU foal--but since Canada has horse slaughterhouses we're not sure how he would have ended up in east Tennessee. He looks like something the Amish might breed, but he's sound, and the Amish don't send sound horses to slaughter.

What we know is that at some point he was sold for slaughter, somewhere. There are no longer horse slaughterhouses in the United States, which means that meat horses are shipped to either Mexico or Canada in enormous double-deck stock trailers holding up to 40 animals at a time. Merlin was in horrible physical shape, which turned out to be lucky, because haulers are fined if they show up at the plants with dead animals aboard. So when Merlin collapsed on the trailer, they stopped it, dragged his prone body out with ropes, and left him in a field to die.

I'm not making that up. I'm not exaggerating.

He didn't die. He lived in that field untouched for five years.

Then he had 30 days' training and then a woman rode him, mostly on trails, for a few years, and then she moved away and could only see him every few months or so. He lived on the side of a mountain in a big field with other horses.

My daughter was home for four weeks last summer between college classes. Her beloved horse Mickey had died and there was nothing for her to ride on our farm except my mare, whom I was riding. My daughter put the word out in our community that she was looking for a horse to work with for free for just those few weeks.

Enter Merlin.

It took her 45 minutes to get him down from his field. She'd take a few steps, he'd spook and run into her, she'd stop and back him. He'd take a few steps with her, spook and run into her, she'd stop and back him. All the way down the hill. He jumped straight onto our horse trailer, then panicked--we slammed the doors shut as fast as possible and started down the road. We threw him into one of our fields by himself overnight.

"He's pretty," my husband said. (He is.)

The next morning I sat down to write. My daughter headed out to the barn. She told me she was going to do some rope work with Merlin--teach him things from the ground before getting on his back. "Be careful," I said. "Wear your helmet, in case he kicks. If you need help, call."

Thirty minutes later my phone rang. My daughter said, "Could you please come out here?"

I headed out, expecting disaster. My daughter and Merlin were in our small sand ring. She flicked the rope at him, and he backed away from her, calmly, head down, ears pricked intently but the rest of his body relaxed. She signaled him to go left. He walked left. She asked him to swing his hips away from her. He did. She told him to go right. He went. She told him to trot. He trotted. She asked him to face her again. He did. She called him to her, and he walked forward, slowly, head down, licking his lips.

By this point I had tears running down my face. I said, "Who put this horse on a kill truck?" My daughter, wordless, shook her head.

That night my husband said, "We're keeping him." My daughter replied, "We are not." She would be gone most of the summer and then for her senior year of college, and after that probably grad school. "I do not need a horse," she said. My husband pointed out that we had plenty of room on the farm. My daughter said that the horse did not need to stand in our fields.

He knew very little. He didn't steer for beans. He couldn't balance himself enough to canter inside our arena. He appeared not to have a left lead canter at all. He didn't know much about jumps. He was afraid to walk into the barn, let alone into a stall, and he clearly worried all the time about monsters coming up behind him. He was so afraid of clippers that he full-out panicked when I clipped my mare in front of him. He'd never worn shoes and didn't like having his feet picked out.

He was astonished to be fed grain. In a bucket! Every day! Every day, a bucket! Eventually we moved the buckets into the barn, into a stall, and stalls became acceptable. And horse cookies! Cookies! Treats! He couldn't believe he was getting treats. He nosed my daughter's hands. He licked her arms. He came running when she called.

We only had four weeks, but we made the most of them. Two weeks in we took him and my mare to our coach, Cathy Wieschhoff, up in Lexington, Kentucky. Cathy'd sounded skeptical about Merlin on the phone. My daughter rode Merlin into Cathy's big covered arena, filled with bright show jumps, and Merlin trotted around calmly, interested and unafraid. Twenty minutes later Cathy said, "I agree with your dad. Buy him."

We did. My daughter went back to school. Sometimes I rode Merlin, sometimes he just hung out with my mare. Whenever my daughter came home Merlin whickered when he saw her. He liked me, and he was easy to be around, but I wasn't his person.

In March my daughter came home for spring break just as the pandemic shut the country down. She finished her senior thesis and coursework in her childhood bedroom. Merlin became her emotional anchor, riding him the bright spot in every day. She thought about what he needed to learn, then worked out how to teach him, step by step.

A week and a half ago she took him to his first competition. I already wrote about that. He had to stay in a strange stall and cope with golf carts and unfamiliar horses and good Lord dressage was inside a building, and that was the easy part. Our sport, eventing, is a riding triathlon--the third phase, cross country, involves the horse and rider setting out by themselves on a course the horse has never seen before. Even at the lowest levels it's a mile or so long, on uneven terrain, over solid jumps that can't fall down. Some horses love cross country. Horses who don't tend to refuse to do it at all.

There are a thousand ways to be eliminated in eventing. Your horse can jump the low fence around the dressage ring. Refuse to enter the ring. Refuse more than two show jumps. Refuse more than three cross-country jumps. Dump you into the water jump. Once you're done, you're done--you can't start the next phase. Often, finishing is victory.

When competitions resumed this summer, my daughter and I had picked out two, back to back, that we thought we could get to despite the virus: Virginia and River Glen. (From here out, showing looks to be shutting down again.) On Cathy's advice Katie took a chance, and moved Merlin up at River Glen to the first nationally recognized division. It was a substantially harder course than what he'd done just the week before.

He was so lovely. He took in the golf carts and commotion and strange stalls. He didn't spook in dressage. In show jumping he refused one fence when my daughter got discombobulated, but he jumped it willingly on the second try.

He understood the idea of going cross country. He stopped to take a look at the first fence--my daughter circled and he cleared it--and then he went on, up and down hills, across ditches, ramps and tables and cabins--a second refusal at the top of a hill, when he simply couldn't get his legs sorted in time to jump. Down the hill, brave and bold, through the water jump. And then my daughter was singing to him, "Three more, baby! Two more! Just one more, one more fence--you did it, Merlin! Good Boy! GOOD BOY!"

And then my daughter burst into tears.

Merlin strutted. Friends of mine standing near the finish told me they overheard another competitor say, "Have you heard that horse's story? Can you believe what he's done?"

My daughter fed him cookies, untacked him, rinsed him. They walked through the crowded stabling area back to his stall, entirely relaxed, his ears floppy, his head by her knee.

Even before this show I was going to show his photo on my book tour. I was going to say, Look at this horse's heart. He had reason to never trust another human ever. Instead he never stops trying.

If he can overcome the demons in his past, there is hope for us all.

He's done more than overcome. He thrives.