Thursday, January 31, 2013

Letting Them Fail

Today on Facebook one of my friends posted this.  It's an article about the importance of letting your children fail, about how, in trying to cushion them, you actually weaken them.

I've been an advocate of failure for a long time.  In fact, just a few weeks ago, at the first parents' meeting of Holston Pony Club, I found myself saying to a few new parents, "The great thing about Pony Club is that it will let your child fail," and hoping like heck that they agreed that was a good thing.

Pony Club is an international youth riding organization; it's like 4-H, but without pigs or knitting.  Just horses (or ponies.  You're not required to ride a pony, which is useful since my daughter is 5'9".)  In pony club competitions, kids compete in teams.  They're judged on riding, but also on horse management, which is how well they take care of their mounts and equipment and how prepared they are for competition.  And--this is the super duper best thing--parents are not allowed anywhere near their children.  Literally.  Once competition begins, parents have to stay out of the barns.  They may not shout advice to their children.  They may not approach their children in warmup or on the way to the cross country course.  They may not debrief their children until the dog-end of the day, when the barns are closed and the children are too tired to listen to anything parents have to say.

This is awesome sauce.  Your child succeeds or fails.  Without you.  Starting, if you're my child, at age five or six.

You'd think failure would have some sort of crushing effect, but I'm here to tell you it doesn't seem to.  When my daughter's team notoriously finished 17th out of 17 teams in both overall score and horse management at a showjumping rally a couple of years ago, they shrugged it off with the same insouciance that they'd shrugged off a truly staggering number of formal inspection penalty points.  "Horse was dirty, tack was dirty, boots were dirty," my daughter said, waving her hand.  "Whatever."

They were the youngest team at the rally, shorthanded and inexperienced.  Our club had a second team, which was stacked with all our older members who were trying to qualify for the national championships.  In the spirit of solidarity, the older team made, so they told me later, periodic trips to their younger members' stalls, extolling them to clean things, straighten their tack room, pick the stalls, do something.  "And they just sat there," one of the older girls said, "eating crackers."

Yep.  So there they were with their 17th-place ribbons.  Whatever.  Nobody shamed them.  They didn't sob.  "We were tired and we were little," my daughter said.  "Also Ian had a broken foot.  And we were arguing about who was supposed to do what." 

Our club didn't stage an intervention for them.  We didn't tell them they'd disgraced our good name.  The big girls swept the awards and rode at nationals. 

The next year at rally, my daughter's horse, saddle, and boots were clean.  A teammate remembered to wear her pinney to formals.  Another teammate drew up a feed chart before the rally began.  They asked if the club could buy a set of plastic shelves, to make organizing the tack room easier. 

Last year at dressage rally, my daughter's team was first in horse management.  Over the course of the weekend they didn't receive a single penalty point.

My level of involvement?  Zero.  Except, perhaps, a willingness to let them fail.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Alpha Mares and Mountain Lions

An African lion, not a mountain lion.  But whatever.

Yesterday's gorgeous weather was the perfect opportunity to get my horse Sarah and my daughter's horse Mickey spruced up for their forthcoming trip to Florida.  Or so I thought.

I'd body-clipped Sarah a few weeks ago; all I had left to do was pull her mane.  I'd tried to body-clip Mickey at the same time, but the experience had proved so traumatic for both of us that I'd given up until I could go to the vet's and get some tranquilizers.  For the horse.  Really.

Of course the day got away from me--what day doesn't?--with unexpected child-shuffling, dentist visits, etc., but I still had quite a bit of daylight left when I got out to the barn.  It had been so warm the evening before that I'd taken Sarah and Mickey's turnout blankets off, and though they'd both been perfectly clean when I zipped down the driveway that morning (on an errand of mercy to the high school--my daughter's jeans had ripped in place where you don't want holes), they'd celebrated my lateness by having a few afternoon rolls in the mud.

Ok.  Baths.  After that, my daughter put Mickey in his stall to dry off, and I put Sarah on the crossties in the aisle.  Sarah grows a lot of hair, and I'd left her mane alone all winter, so it flopped to both sides of her neck in a crimpy tangled mess.  You trim and thin horse's manes by yanking the hair out, not by cutting it (unless you want your horse to look like that poor kindergartener whose mom decided to cut his hair herself, the night before Picture Day).  This doesn't hurt, because, unlike humans, horses don't have nerves in the roots of their hair.  Or so I've been told.  Some horses resent having their manes pulled anyhow; Sarah, a paragon of obedience in most things, certainly does.

Sarah is 5 1/2 years old, a baby in horse terms.  Her grandpa was a Belgian draft horse, and she's a big girl, with a fine broad rump and massive ears.  She loves to put her head lightly against my chest, so that I can rub all over her neck and play with her ears.  She's like a 1200-pound housecat in some respects, and if I don't cuddle her enough she sulks and refuses to leave her stall until I do.  

Ninety-nine percent of the time Sarah goes along with everything I ask.  The remaining one percent she's a 1200-pound toddler throwing a tantrum in a grocery store.  Horses have very defined social orders; in any herd, there's an alpha mare who bosses the rest.  In my barn, I'm the alpha mare.  Yesterday Sarah made a bid for my crown.

I stood on a stool and began to comb out her mane.  She pushed herself sideways, knocking me off.

This sounds small, but it isn't:  in the wild, a lesser horse wouldn't slam into a socially superior horse's space.  Not only that, but horses are trained from the start not to go into any human's space.  Humans squish easily.  Sarah's got lovely ground manners.  Her deliberate action amounted to a gauntlet thrown down.

I yelled and elbowed her and got back onto my stool.  She shoved me off.  I jabbed her with my metal comb.  She did it again.  I went to the tack room, came back with my dressage whip, climbed on my stool, and when she started to move sideways belted her until she backed off.

I could belt someone's bare backside with my dressage whip and not raise a welt.  It isn't painful.  It's punishment.

She moved sideways; I smacked her.  Back and forth a few times, and she gave up, muttering, and let me work on her mane.

Eventually I got tired of pulling her mane with a dressage whip stuffed in my armpit, so I let the whip drop.  Immediately--immediately--the horse knocked me off my stool.  I fetched the whip and work resumed.

Then it was Mickey's.  No whacking about with dressage whips here.  Micks has an unholy fear of being body-clipped, to the point where he has a nervous breakdown if he's nearby when I turn the clippers on.  I don't know where this comes from--we've only had him a year, and before this season I'd never needed to clip him--but if you beat a horse because it's afraid, all you'll do is evoke every single prey-animal instinct the horse ever had.  You will cease to be the loving human that feeds the horse daily.  You will become a mountain lion.  And the horse will do whatever it takes to escape your clutches and stay alive.

So I tranquilized Mickey.  My daughter held his head and sang hymns to him.  I pressed my body close against his--both to comfort him and because he can't kick me as hard that way--and I held the body of the buzzing clippers against him until he stopped trembling, and then, very slowly, I began to work.

One long strip of winter hair fell to the floor, followed by a second.  But not a third.  Yes. Right then, when we had the horse stoned, held, sung to, comforted--the clipper blades gave out.  Too dull to cut hair, they fluffed it instead.

I didn't have any more sharpened blades.  There was nothing we could do.  My daughter and I turned the horses out to pasture, where both Sarah and Mickey rolled in the thick, sloppy mud before settling down to graze.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Saying a Lot When I Don't Know What to Say

The photos don't have anything to do with the post.  I just like them.  They're taken in Botswana.

There's so much going on in my head that if anything makes it to the page in coherent fashion it will be some class of miracle.

I've been having a lot of conversations with God lately.  Or rather, the same conversation, repeatedly.  I say, "Ok, God, what next?"  And God says, "Eh, just wait."  Nothing urgent.  Be patient.

I hate being patient.

I read a lot of blogs while I'm waiting.  My friend Kristi, who was in my writer's group years ago, wrote a post whose pain haunts my dreams.  Kristi and her husband adopted a son from Lesotho last year.  As their little boy learned English, he told them over and over about his best friend from the orphanage, the one who shared his sleeping mat, who didn't have his own mommy and daddy yet.  Kristi began to believe God was calling them to adopt the friend.  She prayed.  She contacted the orphanage.

On Christmas day, their son's friend died.

It's hard to imagine a world where six-year-olds die in Third-World orphanages.  Kristi is left with a load of grief and guilt--should she have reached a decision sooner?  Or was this child never supposed to be hers?

Meanwhile, Steph over at the Yarn Harlot is wrestling with guilt.  She has so much, others so little, that she hesitates to admit she's going on a vacation she paid for with money she earned.  She points out that others who work much harder than she does don't get paid as much.  True.  Should she feel guilty?

Sarah Bessey confesses to being shamed in church because she wasn't a virgin on her wedding day; it's well known that Jesus can forgive every sin except that one. 

And--I can't remember who posted this, because I found it through a long circuitous route--a young African-American preacher talks about someone signing off as "Jesus" sending him hate-filled, racist emails, over and over, until he finally prayed to the real Jesus to get rid of the emailing Jesus, only to hear the real Jesus say, "This is how you treat the gays in your community."  The shock hit his heart; his planned sermon on homosexuality made an abrupt U-turn.  He opened it with the words, "I'm sorry."

Another poster points out that justice and mercy are not physical things, ie., they don't exist.

Except that they do.  Like love, like God, they exist in the spaces in between us sorry mortals.

Are we called to be shame-ridden, hidden, guilt-stricken, empty?

Or are we called to something better?

"Love your neighbor as yourself."  Mark 12:31, but it's all over the Bible really, including the Old Testament. 

Which means--this is the tricky part--not only are we supposed to love all those "other" people--the ones who look different from us, or sound different, or believe different, love different, heaven forbid worship different--all those people who are Not Like Us--and yet we're supposed to love ourselves, too.

“There is someone that I love even though I don’t approve of what he does. There is someone I accept though some of his thoughts and actions revolt me. There is someone I forgive though he hurts the people I love the most. That person is……me.”  C.S. Lewis.

It's no wonder my head feels like it's going to burst.  This is an awful lot to think about on a cloudy winter day.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

How to Write a Novel in Two Easy Steps

1.  Write a page.
2.  Repeat until finished.

A few days ago, the always-amazing Maggie Stiefvater posted a link to an old blog post of hers about how to write a novel.  (Here.)  (Oooh, that worked!)  It got me thinking about how I write.  The Still Unnamed war book will be my 10th published novel, but, of course, I have a few practice novels stashed away.  When I'm asked if I've ever written anything that hasn't been published, and I say yes, people often titter, as though my response might make me feel slightly ashamed.  It doesn't.

I wrote my first-ever novel the summer between my junior and senior years at Smith.  I was working eight hours a day in the chemistry labs, and staying rent-free with my best friend in an apartment one of the chemistry professors had vacated for the summer.  The apartment didn't have air conditioning, and it was an exceptionally hot summer.  In the morning I would drive to Smith and park at the stables (everyone on the riding team always parked at the stables; campus parking spaces were expensive and rare).  I would saddle a horse and ride for forty minutes, while it was still cool.  (My roommate would get in an extra hour of work, as they'd let her do that; I could only be paid for eight hours a day, so that's how much I worked.)  I'd walk to the lab, work all day, walk back to the barn with my roomie.  Tuesday and Thursday evenings I retrained a horse for a local therapeutic riding center.  When we got home, we'd eat something cheap and starchy.  Then my roommate would lay flat in front of our big box fan, reading a book, and I'd belly up to the electric typewriter I'd borrowed for the summer, that sat on our kitchen table the entire time.  I'd write my novel.  Whenever I finished a page I'd pull it out of the typewriter and sail it down to my roommate, who would read it without comment and add it to the growing pile.

The apartment had a television.  We never once turned it on.

I finished the novel, revised it over Christmas break, and sent it out something like 14 times.  I got some quite nice rejection letters, and some crummy photocopied ones; ultimately, a kind editor pointed out that one of my characters at one point acted completely inconsistently, and that if I ironed out the inconsistency, I lost my plot.

I agreed this was a problem.  The more I thought about it, the more insolvable it seemed, until I finally put the manuscript in my bottom desk drawer.  I think I still have it, somewhere.

I didn't feel very disappointed.  I felt sorry that I'd created a plot that hinged on a flaw, that I wasn't yet the writer I hoped to be, but I wasn't sorry that I'd written the novel or that it wasn't going to be published.  I'd put a great deal of work into it, and I'd learned a great deal in exchange, learned things I could never have learned without sitting in that hot kitchen all those summer nights, typing out one page at a time.  Until I'd written a novel I didn't have the first clue how novels were written, much less how I personally needed to go about doing it.  It seemed a fair exchange.   (I was also egotistical enough that I didn't want my first novel to get bad reviews.)

My first published novel was supposed to have been a picture book, but it got out of hand.  When I read the rough draft, after it had been accepted, I was appalled.  I wrote to my editors, "You must have amazing faith in my powers of revision, because really, this sucks."  They wrote back that most of their authors weren't quite so forthright.

I wrote my second published novel from an outline, which taught me to never do that again.  Plenty of writers do, successfully; I don't.  I wrote my third published novel with only one scene, the climax, in my head--I knew that if, when I got there, the reader could understand the points-of-view of everyone in it, the book would be a success.

I wrote my fourth published novel on a dare, and my fifth because my husband said I had to. 

I wrote my second unpublished novel in my spare time, between working as a research chemist and trying to retrain an off-the-track Thoroughbred mare.  It wasn't quite good enough, but it lead to a ghostwriting job that, in time, meant I could chuck chemistry and stay at home with my newborn.  I couldn't be unhappy about how that one worked out, either.

My third unpublished full-length novel saved me thousands in therapy.  My fourth unpublished novel healed a broken friendship whose loss I'd mourned for more than twenty years..

There may be 27 ways to look at a blackbird, but there are thousands of ways to write a novel.  Not all of them lead to publication, but most of them are good.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Distressing Disguise

Yesterday was Wednesday, which means it was my day to work at Faith in Action, and it was one of those days I wanted to bang my head against the wall.

Faith in Action, so you know, is a social justice center in Bristol, supported by 69 members churches of all denominations.  We offer financial help toward rent and utilities, as well as food, diapers, and personal supplies.

Anyway, the point of FIA is, of course, that it serving those in need we are serving Christ himself.  "What you do to the less of your brethern, that you've done unto me."  Etc.  Only sometimes the Jesus that walks through the door is such a freakin' liar.  Sometimes Jesus slams the phone in my ear.  Sometimes Jesus is obviously addicted to meth; sometimes Jesus has had way too many children with way too many men.

Of course these particular faces of Jesus may not be all that bright.  They mostly didn't graduate from high school.  Despite their efforts, they are chronically under-employed.  They may have lived lives so filled with abuse, stress, and dysfunction that getting up in the morning is about all they can do.   I know all this, in my head.

Problem is, I'm supposed to know it in my heart.

Recently a client came in (and I will tell you right now that despite the fact that I'm writing this, we protect client confidentially pretty fiercely over at FIA.  Just assume everything I write about FIA is a composite--fictional and yet still true.  Because it is.  Okay?)  anyhow, this man came in, and I interviewed him, and two things struck me about him.  The second was his pride.  He'd gotten a job--a really crappy 20-hour-a-week minimum-wage job, which is just about all you can find in Bristol right now.  Do the math:  $600 a month.  And he was delighted.  He figured he was going to be just fine on $600/month, and I could see that he was, because other than rent and food he didn't have expenses--no family, no car, no cable TV.  He'd gotten his first paycheck for his first week of work, and he'd promptly spent most of it on his back rent and a little bit of food.  The back rent was, of course, why I was interviewing him--we were going to help him some with that.

His pride, genuine pride that he'd landed a job and was going to be okay, was the second thing I noticed.  The first was his body odor.  He stank.  Good ol' Christian that I am, I didn't hesitate to sit near him, talk nicely to him, fill out the forms in my hand, even while I was reeling from the tangible fug that came off his body in waves.  But I thought to myself, couldn't he have bathed?

Then the man lowered his voice.  Did we happen to have, he asked, any shampoo?  Or--ah--deodorant?  I looked at his face, and saw he was ashamed.

He couldn't afford to buy shampoo with his first paycheck.  Not if he wanted to stay in his apartment, and eat.  As I handed him one of our personal care packs I felt a rush of pity for him.  Not because of his crummy job.  Not because of his B.O.  Because he had come to us in search of Jesus, and all he got was crummy, righteous, judgmental me.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Downton Abbey meets King Tut!

Inspired by our trip to Egypt, I'm enmeshed right now in research on the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb.  I'm also pretty captivated by Downton Abbey--I'm nearly finished with Season One.  But here's the really cool part:  they are the same story.

Highclere Castle plays, if you will, the role of Downton Abbey in the series.  It's the big, beautiful, otherworldly-to-North-American-eyes home of the fictional Crawley family and the Earl of Grantham.  But Highclere also remains the real home of the Earls of Carnarvon: the 8th Earl and his wife live there now.

The 5th Earl and Howard Carter discovered King Tut's tomb.

Carter was not a gentleman at a time when that mattered greatly.  The eleventh child of a painter, he first went to Egypt at age 17.  The 5th Earl was a reckless man who'd married a wealthy American in order to shore up the family fortune (sound familiar?).  After he was badly injured in a car accident and his health permanently affected, the 5th Earl took to spending winters in Egypt, where the climate suited his condition.  Eventually, for lack of anything better to do, he became interested in Egyptology, which was at the time all the rage.

Meanwhile, Howard Carter had become well-known for his archeological skills.  He'd also become convinced (the reasons why would be too long to explain here) that the Valley of the Kings still contained one possibly untouched Pharonic grave:  King Tut's.  He convinced Lord Carnarvon to purchase the right to excavate in the Valley of the Kings and to finance the digging.

They searched for six years and found nothing.

Lord Carnarvon was done, and said so.

Now picture Howard Carter, hat in hand, on the steps of Downton Abbey.  Picture him in the Earl's vast beautiful library, unrolling a map of the Valley of Kings, pointing to one spot, one last spot, where he wanted to dig.

When Howard Carter found the entrance to the tomb, still sealed, he covered it over and wired England.  Lord Carnarvon left Highclere and sailed for Egypt immediately.  Two weeks later the two men walked by candlelight through the glorious splendor of the only intact Pharoh's tomb ever found.

Unfortunately Lord Carnarvon had a fresh cut on his cheek, where he'd nicked a mosquito bite with his razor.  And, unlike all the other tombs, which had been open to the dry desert air since antiquity, King Tut's tomb, sealed while its plaster walls were still damp, was covered with fungus.   Lord Carnarvon's cheek became infected.  Within a week he'd been taken to Aswan for medical care; with six weeks he was dead.  He only saw King Tut's treasures once.

Lady Almina sold most of Carnarvon's Egyptian artifacts, collected prior to the discovery of Tut's tomb, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, in order to pay death taxes.  Other items are still on display at Highclere.  Carter and a team of experts spent ten years cataloging and restoring the artifacts from Tut's tomb.  Nearly all of them are on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
You can't take photos of King Tut's tomb (or any of the other tombs) or inside the Egyptian Museum.  This is the Temple of Hathor; the Valley of the Kings is over that mountain to the right.  The topography looks the same.

You understand the full meaning of all of this, don't you? When I'm watching Downton Abbey, I'm actually doing research.  Sweet.

Friday, January 18, 2013

How to Have a Downton Abbey Marathon on a Snow Day in Fourteen Easy Steps

1) Find the Downton Abbey DVDs you received for Christmas.
2) Figure out which machine is the DVD player.
3) Insert disc 1 into the DVD player.
4) Attempt to make DVD player communicate with television.  Mess with 3 different remotes.  Succeed in making television screen turn different colors. 
5) Call teenage son, interrupting his "snow football" game.  Son explains basic concept of DVD players and televisions; also explains that a fourth remote is required.
6) Following son's explicit directions, succeed in making Downton Abbey disc 1 menu appear on TV screen, along with snippet of audio that becomes annoying by its fifteenth repetition, as you try unsuccessfully, for several minutes, using all 4 remotes plus the face of the DVD player itself, to select "play."
7) Call teenage daughter, interrupting her building of a snowman.
8) Teenage daughter demonstrates the pressing of a button on the 4th remote which is not the button marked 'Play' nor any of the arrow buttons, but which does indeed make the DVD play.
9) Answer ringing telephone.  Press 'pause.' Discover that this does make the DVD pause. Spend 30 seconds discussing new book with editor, then ten minutes dishing with editor on Downton Abbey.  Editor reveals how she once ordered a man to get out of her lane at a NYC pool where she was swimming laps, only to discover that he was a highly attractive Downton Abbey cast member.
10) Ponder how those sorts of encounters never seem to happen in Bristol ,Tennessee.
11) Resume DVD.  Pick up knitting.  Fail to find pattern needed in any of several knitting bags.
12) Press 'pause.' Ransack office, remaining knitting bags, but fail to find pattern.  Go online and reprint necessary pages of pattern.  Attempt to resume DVD.  Having forgotten which is the magic unmarked 'play' button, hit each button on 4th remote in succession until succeeding.  Wonder why the internet is so simple to use, DVD players so impossibly hard.
13) Resume DVD.  Get text from friend suggesting that the only thing that would improve an afternoon of Downton Abbey and knitting would be a glass of wine.
14) Wholeheartedly agree.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Paradise that is Parnassus

Yesterday I got to spend a delightful hour at my little local independent bookstore, Parnassus Books.  It's in Nashville, across from Green Hills mall, tucked into a strip of stores right behind that crazy donut place with the neon signs.

Parnassus was started by Nashville writer Ann Patchett, whom I also love (if you haven't read her books, I suggest you start with Bel Canto, then her latest, State of Wonder, and then browse among her backlist.  Though perhaps my favorite is her nonfiction account of her friendship with Lucy Greeley, Truth and Beauty.) because, once the big, beautiful Davis Kidd bookstore closed, and then Borders collapsed, Nashville, a city of over half a million people, had no bookstore at all.  Into this appalling void came Parnassus, a tiny, perfect gem.  It has books stacked to the top of high ceilings, and wooden ladders on rails to reach them, and a wonderful, knowledgeable staff, and a perfect cozy children's section.  It has so many good books, and so few bad ones, that I have to be very, very picky when I go there, and even then I leave with a great big bag.  Which is fine, because I'm supporting my local independent bookstore.

Did I mention I live 300 miles away?  Yeah.  Tennessee's a long state.  That's probably a good thing, really.  I'd hate to think what might happen if I could visit Parnassus every week.

Did I mention they carry my books?  The very first time I went there, I gave them an ARC of Jefferson's Sons.  I told them I lived in east Tennessee and would be honored if they would carry it.

The next time I was there, they had Jefferson's Sons propped up on a little shelf all its own, face out.

Yesterday, that very same shelf carried the paperback edition, which has been for sale for less than a week.

I so love Parnassus.

I took a photo of my book on its shelf, with my phone, and I can't figure out how to get that photo into this blog.  I'm sure there is a way.  Just close your eyes and visualize, a book, a small shelf, face out, kid-eye-level high.

So here's what I bought at Parnassus yesterday:  (keep in mind: the list of books I didn't buy is much longer.  Much.)

The Three Questions, written and illustrated by John Muth.  This is the lovely man who brought us Zen Shorts.  Three Questions, based on a story by Leo Tolstoy, is another gorgeous picture book that's deeply philosophical while still child-centered.  Love it.

The Island, by Marlie and Ronald Tolman.  I don't even begin to understand this one.  It's a wordless picture book that is so visually stunning I had to take it home.  I may give it to my nephews.  I may not.

Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell.  OK, my husband's going to disapprove of this one, for the same reason he disapproved of my reading, enjoying, and trying to tell him about the book of all the ways people have died in the Grand Canyon.  This is about all the places where Presidents have been shot.  It looks fascinating.

Magical Journey, by Katrina Kenison (signed copy).  The latest of her personal memoirs, which I think are written with honesty and grace.

The All of It, by Jeannette Haien.  The guy behind the desk at Parnassus talked me into this one.  It's a reissue of a long-forgotten Irish novel.  The guy said, "It'll take you three hours to read, and you'll wish it had gone on forever."  Something about a priest and a deathbed confession; since it's Irish, it's probably funny.

The Dark Safari: overland from Cairo to Cape Town, by Paul Theroux.  I've been to Cairo, I've been to Cape Town, and I love memoirs.  'Nuff said.

Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough: the Medical Lives of Famous Writers, by John J. Ross, M.D.  Combines science, literature, speculation, and gossip: what's not to like?

Fortune's Children: the Fall of the House of Vanderbilt, by Arthur T. Vanderbilt II.  The Guy Behind the Desk said, "Oooh, that looks interesting."  It is: I started reading it this morning.

Then, as a special bonus book, because I have no idea how it got into my bag (I never even picked it up at the store.  I never even saw it.  I'm thinking it must have been at the checkout next to my pile?):  A Dangerous Age, by Ellen Gilchrist.  I think I read an Ellen Gilchrist novel in college.  I can't remember if I liked it.  But there you are.  Perhaps I'll like this one.

Parnassus's website is  Not .com.  They ship signed first editions, if you're into that sort of thing.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Above the Fold

This morning when my son dropped the newspaper onto the breakfast table he said, with a laugh and a wink, "Must have been a slow news day."  Because there was my photograph, above the fold.

It's an odd photograph.  I suspect I really do look like that, waving my hands around as I speak.  I'm not particularly dressed up in it, because, well, I was fighting off six kinds of cold viruses last week, and wondering when I was going to find time to take down our Christmas decorations, and while I was happy to sit for the interview I didn't want to get too carried away.

That, and I rarely dress up for anything.  If I'm wearing makeup in my casket no one will recognize me.

Overall the article--one in a series on local women for the Bristol Herald-Courier--is pretty good.  It doesn't make me sound racist, which I always feel is a bonus, and it doesn't quote me saying anything I never would have said.  In a little box to one side, it says, "Maxim: 'Ninety percent of writing is the application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair,'--Mark Twain."  I don't remember quoting that during the interview but I've certainly quoted it 10,000 times in my life before.

I'd like to correct two inaccuracies.  First, it says that my daughter and I compete our horses in "dressage and eventing" competitions.  The idea of me competing in true dressage competitions will make stuff come out my friends' noses while they laugh themselves into a coma.  I suffer dressage for the same reason most eventers suffer dressage: because they won't let us jump until we do.  And that goes double for my daughter, and triple for my mare.

Second, it says that my daughter and I went to "all the equestrian events" at the London Olympics.  Ah, no.  That would have made us luckier in the ticket lottery than Princess Kate, who, we noted, seemed to have gotten very lucky indeed, front row seats at all the big venues.  No, my daughter and I went to "all the eventing," which is to say, four days for the full competition, which still made us very very lucky for non-royals in the lottery.  (Before round 3 of the lottery, in which I scored the coveted Cross Country Day tickets, I'd tried appealing to the President of the United States Equestrian Federation, and also to Great Britain's famed equestrian Mary King.  It didn't work.  Mary King thought I'd gotten jolly lucky to get any event tickets at all.  David just cocked his eyebrow and shook his head.)  After the eventing my daughter and I saw a smidgen each of archery, fencing, diving, and badminton, and it was lovely, every moment of that trip was lovely, and I'll write about it soon.

Karen O'Connor for Team USA rides Mr. Medicott over the final cross country fence.  Clear!

Also--back to the newspaper article--in terms of my meticulous research (believe me, 'meticulous' is wholly true) the article suggests that when I went to Kent, for my new novel, Kent looked just like Bristol.  No, Kent looked like Kent. 

This is Kent.  An old tower in Rye, as seen from the church tower.
Does that look like Bristol to you?

Still, in all fairness, it was a decent article for a slow news day.  I've heard that all publicity is good publicity, but I've never been convinced it was true.Above the Fold

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Talk Like an Egyptian

As my friend Rosie warned me before I left, look an Egyptian man in the eye, and he'll try to sell you something.

Now, this is not universally true.  For example, this man

the one in the back, with the water buffalo, neither minded being in our photos, nor expected to be paid.  He was a farmer; to him, we were whatever.

However, around the historic sites, it's a whole 'nother story.  I felt some compassion for what our guides called "Friends of the Tourists"--tourism in Egypt is down about 85% since the revolution two years ago, so hawking Chinese-made souvenirs in Giza doesn't provide the living it used to.  But, as guide Hazem warned me sternly after the giving-a-dollar-to-the-pony-girl episode, "You think, one dollar, it's not much, you're happy to give it away.  But then instead of one person you've got two thousand people around you, and they all want a dollar.  And then you're in trouble."

So I learned to walk through the bazaars without focusing my eyes on either the souvenirs or the vendors.  I learned just enough Arabic--"La, shakron.  La.  La."  (No, thank you--) to shake them off.  Guide Abdu taught us an Arabic word, emshee, that he guaranteed would make any vendor back down, but since he refused to translate it for us we were all afraid to use it. ( My husband suggested it, "began with F and ended with Off," but Abdu said that wasn't it.)   We joked about it, as in, "Did you see the guy with the camel?  I nearly had to drop an emshee on him," but we never used it in public.

My husband, being a much nicer person than me, had a hard time brushing off the vendors, especially the children.  Whenever a little girl approached him he would smile his big gorgeous smile, and say, "No thank you, I'm so sorry," at which point the child would decide he was an easy mark and follow him for a quarter mile, shrieking, "Mister!  Mister, please!"

But at the pyramids, he had an inspiration.  When one of the vendors approached him, saying, "American?" he turned and blandly replied, "Je suis Francais."  (I am French.)

"Bon!" the man replied.  "Je parle Francais!"  (Great!  I speak French!)

Caught, he tried diversionary tactics.  "Yo quiero Taco Bell."

"Habla Espanol!" the vendor cried.

As my husband walked away, laughing, the man, also laughing, said (in English), "How about Turkish, eh?  You speak some Turkish?" and rattled off a string of what was, presumably, Turkish.  Because these vendors are so uneducated, you know, compared to the monoglot Americans.

Only much later did I realize I should have tried my Polish on the man.  I still know how to say, 'go to bed!" in Polish, and also, um, 'emshee.'

My husband by the smallest of the three Giza pyramids.  Yep, they're really that big.  Note the smooth facing stones at the bottom.  Most of the facing stones fell off the pyramids in an earthquake.  In 1300 A.D.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Adventures at the Food Pantry

Wednesdays are the day I work at Bristol Faith in Action, a local cooperative social justice center.  We primarily offer financial assistance, but we also, depending on the donations we receive, give out personal care kits (shampoo, toilet paper, etc.), baby supply kits, diapers, and food.  (A lot of people are surprised to hear that you can not buy diapers, toilet paper, tampons, or personal hygiene items with food stamps.)  Bristol has a large, well-run food pantry, and we at FIA give out vouchers for it, but we also keep our own small pantry, not in competition with them, but to serve our clients who for one reason or another can't use the town's main one.  We usually let our clients go back to our pantry and pick out what they and their families would like to eat.

Our little pantry is filled entirely though donations.  Today I took a break from my normal computer duties to unpack and sort several boxes of food given by one of our member churches.  We're very lucky right now, immediately post-Christmas:  our shelves are stacked. 

All donations are equal, but some are more equal than others.  Some of the really strange stuff--capers, anyone? buffalo hot wing seasoning?--goes straight into a box in the waiting room, for clients to help themselves.  Today I noticed that while we've got tons of some items, we have very little of others.  I bet your local pantry is the same.

We could really use more:
--peanut butter
--crackers (we can't store bread, so we give out saltines with the peanut butter)
--jelly (goes with the peanut butter and crackers!)
--canned fruit
--canned stews, or other canned "meals" with meat
--dried pasta that's not mac-n-cheese
--canned or dried potatoes

We are very well stocked on:
--canned vegetables, especially green beans and corn (these are really popular, we've just got a lot)
--beans of all sorts, canned, dried, in sauce, out of sauce
--mac-n-cheese (another highly popular item)
--tomato products

If you're looking to give something to a pantry, I encourage donating anything you can't imagine being without.  Tampons, perhaps.  Sanitary pads.  Deodorant.  Baby wipes.  Or maybe dog or cat food?  A lot of the people going to food pantries these days have never had to before.  It's hard for me to imagine getting rid of a beloved pet because you lost your job.


Bless you!

No, that's not right?  Okay, how about, um, "Thank you!"

No?  Okay, let's try, "Please go away!"

Yeah, that doesn't seem to work, either.  Okay.  How about, "May I have some toilet paper, please?"

In Egypt, it seems, there is no such thing as a free public toilet.  Well, okay, maybe for Arabic men--for all I know, maybe even for Arabic women who are bright enough to carry some tissues in their pocket, as I assume most Arabic women would be.  But for the non-Arabic tourist, not a chance.  The toilets themselves are nominally free, I usually do carry tissues, and I possess a reasonable amount of chutzpah, yet I found myself meekly handing over one Egyptian pound (1 L.E., about 16 cents) to the Guardian of the Toilets everywhere we went.  In exchange, the Guardian, who, one assumes, had previously stolen all the toilet paper out of the stalls, would solemnly unroll a strip and hand it to me.  I could then use the (filthy) public toilet in peace.  Afterward, there might be soap by the sinks, and it might be soap I would dare to use, and there might or might not be a Guardian of the Soap wanting another coin, but there sure as shooting was hand sanitizer in my purse, so all was well.

Tipping for small services in Egypt is called baksheesh.  It's culture-wide, fully accepted.  You tip your driver, you tip people who handle your luggage (whether you truly wanted it handled or not), you tip anyone who helps you.  For tourists, though, baksheesh becomes a sort of sport.  You want a photo of that guy on a camel?  Baksheesh.  A nice man offers to take a photo of you and your family by the pyramids, and now you want your camera back?  Baksheesh.  Everywhere you go in Egypt, helpful people will be willing to take away some of your money.  At every historic site, vendors descend upon tourists, selling t-shirts, plastic pyramids, plaster cats, postcards.  Diet Cokes.  If you want to buy--and sometimes, heaven help you, you might--you're in for some serious negotiating.  Even for the Diet Cokes.  My husband went off to get us some once.  He came back with 4 Diet Cokes and a large blue scarab.  The vendor threw the scarab in for free, which means my husband probably overpaid for the beverages.  (But what's the appropriate price for a Diet Coke outside the temple of Karnak?  Outside the Vatican I once paid $9 each for two--$18--and then $12 for a bottle of wine.  At the same place.)

These were not for sale to tourists.  This was actually a marketplace for Egyptians.
 Our first guide, Hazem, told us very sternly at the start of our first day that we were not to hand money to anyone without his say-so.  He also gave us a handful of 1-pound coins for what he called the Temples of Relief.  In theory Egyptian pounds are divided into 100 piastres apiece, and there are 50, 25, 10, 5, and 1 piastre coins, but I only ever saw a 50-piastre coin, and that was only once.  Most merchants round to the nearest pound or 5 pounds, and if you ask them to change a 5-pound bill into 1-pound coins (so that you have some toilet money) they will say no, whether or not they actually can.  Egyptians all have each other's backs.  The waiters would love for you to have to give the Toilet Guardians 5 pounds.  Our tour guides were always stuck in the middle in these situations--on the one hand, they were clearly expected to uphold Egyptian rights; on the other, they felt duty-bound to be fair to us.  In Alexandria, when Bart and I expressed a wish for fresh local seafood for lunch, Hazem disappeared into a non-tourist restaurant and negotiated an enormous meal--salads--which in Egypt means fresh bread with baba gannoush, eggplant, tahini, and maybe some lettuce-- seafood chowder, "fish rice," falafel, and lovely fresh fish, for 100 L.E. per person.  There were six of us that day, my family plus Hazem and the driver.  When it came time to pay, however, the restaurant owner argued that 100 L.E. was the price for Egyptians, and that Americans should pay $20 US apiece.  (Egypt is the only foreign country I've ever been to where you can actually pay with most things using American currency.)  They argued, but since it was in Arabic we had no idea what they were saying.  Hazem prevailed; not only that, he wouldn't let us leave much of a tip, and he came back to the van shaking his head.  "That was just bulls--," he said.  "One hundred twenty pounds extra for being American.  No way."

The fish restaurant was on our second day touring.  On our first day, Hazem took us to what he called, "a tourist restaurant, but a good one."  It was a lovely open-air place with a courtyard and some women baking fresh Egyptian bread.  There weren't any menus, at least not in English, but Hazem waved his hands and said something, and pretty soon we had an assortment of salads, lots of hot fresh pita bread, rice (white, not "fish rice," which was brown), french fries, and then, set right onto our table, a brazier with sizzling grilled chicken and sausage.  It was lovely.  (Egypt, being 90% Muslim, has no pork.  Not anywhere.  Heaven knows what the sausages were made of.  But I liked them.)  While we ate, children ran about the courtyard, bouncing on a trampoline there and running up to the horse, camel, and pony that were being paraded in hopes that a tourist might want a ride.

The horse, though clean and well-groomed, was the worst spavined sway-back unfortunate creature I'd ever seen.  Katie and I debated whether he was lame or just congenitally awkward.  The pony, on the other hand, was adorable.
Note the American saddle.  It's a Wintec.

At the end of the meal I asked the pony girl if I could take her photo.  She immediately posed, with a sweet smile.  I held out 1 L.E.  She took it, looked at it, and giggled, as if I was so silly not to know better.  "No," she said, "Five."

Well.  I didn't have five pounds.  I had one other coin, which I was hoarding for the next time I needed a Temple of Relief, and the next smallest thing I had was 50 Egyptian pounds.  No way was I giving her that.  But then I had an idea.  From my pocket I pulled out a crumpled US dollar.  The girl took it, unfolded it, and beamed at me.  "Ok, fine," she said.  "Thank you."

Hazem laughed pretty hard.  "She asks for five pounds, you give her seven," he said.  "What an excellent bargainer you are!"  Then he let me off the hook.  "It's the cute pony," he said.  "The pony gets them every time."

Trust me.  You don't want to buy anything from these men.
 (A note on the child's costume: it was clearly for tourism photo ops.  Both men and women often wear the galebeya in Egypt (we'd call them nightgowns--more on them later) but children rarely do, and while most women chose to wear a veil (it does seem to be a choice in Egypt, not a requirement), they never wear one before puberty.  Unless they're trying to charm Americans, of course.)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Flight into Egypt

Technically, we've been back from our trip to Egypt for three days.  But since I was struck down on our last day there by the mother of all head colds (sore throat, congestion, lethargy), and then traveled 26+ hours on Saturday, to get from our Cairo hotel to the airport to Paris to Atlanta, there to spend the night in a hotel located 3 feet off the airport's busiest runway, and then came home to Bristol on Sunday afternoon, and then spent all Monday on the couch or in bed, feeling like a dog, today seems like my first day home.  I've started laundry.  I've done the dishes.  I've begun, slowly, to put Christmas decorations away.

I've got a lot to say about Egypt but it's difficult to summarize.  What was it like?  Filthy.  Chaotic.  Peaceful.  Serene.  Beautiful.  Ugly.  Awe-inspiring.  Disorganized.  Friendly.  Aloof.  All of these, plus a million details of a splendid ancient civilization, more hieroglyphics and temple carvings than I would have thought possible, and a thousand ways to interpret every one.

Here is where we went: Cairo.  Memphis.  Saqqara.  Alexandria.  Luxor (Thebes).  Dendera.  Aswan. The Valley of the Kings.  The Temples of Luxor, Karnak, Dendera, Hatshepsut, Kom Ombo, Philae.  We saw the Colossi of Memnon and an unfinished obelisk. We cruised the Nile.  We walked near the oldest pyramid ever built, and the Great Pyramids, and the Sphinx; we sang in the ruins of a Roman amphitheater. 

On my son's eighteenth birthday the ship's company serenaded him in English, the Swiss dialect of German, and Arabic.  A new-found Australian friend, noting that my son would now be a legal drinker in Australia, bought him a gin and tonic, and I decided not to care.

Our plans to go to Egypt caused angst among family and friends, who felt we were putting ourselves at risk, unnecessarily.  "Why not wait for a better time?" one friend asked me.

I answered, "What if there is no better time?"

Why Egypt?  I would laugh and say, because we couldn't afford New Zealand.  But also, it's where the pyramids are.  It's unique.

But also, it's where the Muslims are.

This part really doesn't make sense to a lot of our friends.  Everyone knows the word that comes after "Muslim" is "terrorist."  Right?  And Egypt had a revolution, only two years ago, and their government was all over the news, just before we left, and things from an American perspective looked really bad.

My husband felt the American journalistic perspective was skewed; after a bit of research (oh, how I love research), I agreed.  The U.S. Department of State currently lists some 60 countries they officially advise Americans to avoid, due to political unrest or other dangers.  The list includes Mexico.  (If we'd planned a trip to Cancun I doubut any of our friends would have flinched.)  Also Haiti.  (One of my best friends lives there.)  But not Egypt.  We signed up for Unrest Alerts through the American Embassy in Cairo, and got advice such as, "Don't go to Alexandria on Friday, they're planning a big demonstration then.  Go on Saturday instead."


Several years ago, I was in charge of planning a family vacation not long after I'd come out of my first serious bout of depression.  Our family had shrunk a little, during my illness, circled around me protectively and lovingly, but also a little fearfully.  I didn't want us living smaller lives, not for me or any other reason.  So I planned a trip to a very nice Ecolodge that happened to be in the most remote part of Costa Rica.  This freaked my children out entirely--was I aware that Costa Rica was a third world country?  My son remarked bitterly that when Dad planned the vacation we didn't need special vaccinations.  We went anyway, and we were a little afraid, and then we hiked through the rainforest and learned to use our eyes and ears, and kayaked in mangroves, and my children played soccer with barefoot village children, and at the end of the trip, my son said, "Really, we are just like them.  We're all the same."

And that's why we went to Egypt.  Because there are an awful lot of Muslims in the world, and most of them, like most Christians, most Hindis, most Jews, want the same things: a secure, happy life for their families.  Bart and I knew people of all faiths and backgrounds when we were in college, but we grew up in a homogenous small town, as our children are doing.  Now our children know Muhammed, who shepherded us through chaos at the Cairo airport; Hazem, who made us pose for 3000 family photos; Abdu, who tried to explain not only the art of the Egyptian Museum but the concept of art in general; and Wael, whose patience our little group tested 3 times a day.  The children know that really, we are just like them.

That, and the pyramids were awesome.