Friday, May 31, 2013

A good dog.

At this exact moment, I'm very busy not helping my daughter pack.  She's going to the beach for a few days with a friend's family, and she copes with the stress of packing by not packing until the last possible moment, and I'm over it, so I'm sitting here not helping. 

Yesterday we had a full day out at the barn, in the sun and heat.  It hit 87 degrees, according to this morning's paper, which means my internal thermostat, which thought, "Hot, hot, hot," was correct.  In the very early morning my daughter and I wrestled those damn mats back into the trailer, becoming admirably filthy in the process.  This was unfortunate: I was wearing my white Holston Pony Club polo and what had been a clean pair of blue jeans, because I was running a pony club rating on my farm. 

For those of you who don't understand pony club, I won't go into tedious detail.  Just know that ratings are a type of riding, horse care, and horse knowledge examination.  They mean a lot to the children involved.  I'll be running another rating at the close of our pony club camp in a few weeks, but we had so many kids wanting to rate that I had to split them. 

"Running the rating" meant that I:
1) made sure the fields we needed were mowed;
2) made sure horses weren't turned out in those same fields;
3) set the requisite jump course;
4) opened the green barn, which we only use for pony club stuff;
5) cursed the men who, while making some repairs to the green barn, had filled the only functional wheelbarrow there with their Mountain Dew cans and fast food trash;
6) emptied the wheelbarrow in the trash can beside it;
7) found a replacement light bulb for the toilet  (The green barn has a flush toilet!  Such luxury!)
8) schooled the riders over the jumps, particularly the cross country ones, the night before;
9) stood beside my friend Lisa while she conducted the rating (this is called being the Impartial Observer; it's required); and
10) tried to keep my mouth shut.

We finished up around noon, right when it was starting to get really hot, and just when the farrier showed up to shoe the horses.  Horses' hooves are like fingernails, constantly growing and needing to be trimmed.  We've got 7 horses on the farm now, 6 of mine and 1 belonging to a friend.  A standard four-shoe horse takes about an hour for the farrier to do, but the only standard horse is my friend's thoroughbred, Syd.  My daughter's horse Mickey needed stud holes drilled and tapped into his shoes, so he can wear cleats for cross country.  My son's retired pony doesn't wear shoes at all and only needed his feet trimmed.  (I also cut his dreadlocks off with scissors, providing an excellent example of why you never cut a horse's mane with scissors.  He looks like that kid in kindergarten whose mother cut his hair the morning of Picture Day.)  Sarah, with her big honking draft horse feet, only wears front shoes, as does Gully since he's mostly retired, as does Shakespeare, my daughter's first pony, now 30 years old, as does Pal, my daughter's second horse.  Pal is 25 now and no longer up for the kind of riding Katie does, but he's still a very useful guy, and now that he's got new shoes with pads (Pal has very sensitive soles) he's going over to Lisa's barn to teach adult beginners how to ride.  He'll be very good at that, and he likes to be good at things.

I always stay at the barn while the farrier's there so that I can call 911 if one of the horses kicks him in the head.  Also, I like to see how the horses' feet are doing, and I usually have to reassure Mickey that the world is not going to end.  I spend most of the time cleaning tack or stalls.  Yesterday I spent most of the time sitting on an overturned bucket.  It was just that hot.  The tack room is a mess; it wants the sort of cleaning where everything in it comes out and is analyzed and put back in rational order.  Yesterday that wasn't going to happen.  If I ever played Angry Birds, yesterday would have been the time.

But at one point, moving things on the top of the tack room cabinet, I came across our old dog Xena.  Her cremains.  Xena died nearly four years ago, according to the date on the box--I had a hard time believing it was really that long ago, since I still miss her.  She was a Great Pyrenees, a big dog, and when we had to put her down due to the infirmities of very old age, my husband was afraid he wouldn't be able to dig a hole deep enough to bury her for good.  Out here in the country, something might have dug her back up.  So we cremated her, and of course I ended to bury the ashes, but somehow I stuck them on the tack room cabinet and--I don't know, Xena always loved the tack room.  She disliked thunderstorms, so whenever it was storming I opened the tack room door and let her hide under the rack of saddles.  She would lay there anxiously panting in a puddle of her own drool, but she never damaged a thing.  Xena only chewed things she recognized as her own, such as the deer head she brought back from the fields one day.

Some day, when it's cooler, I really will clean the tack room.  I don't know about burying Xena though.  I kind of like still having her around.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Ways I Am Not Like Ann Romney

When I wrote last week about acid-washing my horse trailer, a long-time friend commented that I did not sound much like Ann Romney.  Honestly, I never thought I had.

Ann Romney likes horses, so I'm told.  I assume she rides them.  She owned part of a horse named Rafalca that competed in the London Olympics, and I believe she also attended the London Olympics, as did I.  We are both women.  Both white.  But that's pretty much it.  Our paths never crossed at the Games, for one very important reason.  I am an eventer.  She does dressage.

When I tell you that eventing is a three-phase competition comprising dressage, cross-country jumping, and show jumping, it sounds like I have at least one more thing in common with Ann.  No.  Not really.  Top-level eventers will concede that dressage training improves their horses' abilities to jump, but mostly we all just get through it.  We call it "playing in the sandbox."  Or "dressidge," said with a fake snooty accent. 

My trainer Betty once sent me a Facebook post showing two portapotties.  The one on the left was a standard portapotty.  The one on the right was a deluxe, oversized portapotty with an added hand-washing station off to one side.  "Event on left," Betty wrote.  "Dressage show on right."

A food vendor sold me my standard bacon-on-white-bread sandwich early one cross-country morning with the comment, "We love eventers.  You people eat."  He added that the week before they'd worked a dressage show.  "We had to make them gazpacho."

There you have it.  Kim Bradley=sizzling hot bacon.  Ann Romney=cold tomato soup.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

These People Left Too Soon

I just came back from the World's Most Relaxing Weekend, in which I slept very nearly as many hours as I was awake, to discover that last week my daughter (and I, since I'm her transport) missed yet another orthodontist appointment. 

I feel like I should care more about this than I do.  She's been out of braces for a year, so this is just one of those last checks where they tell her whether or not she still has to wear a retainer.  I didn't miss appointments when my children were actually wearing braces.  Still, it's a complete pain for the office to have her not show up, and then have to reschedule her.  I completely get that.  I seem to be messing up appointments a lot more in the past year than in all the rest of my life.  I think it's because my children have their own agendas now.  They're quite likely to text me from school or their friend's house or wherever and tell me that their plans have completely changed, and in the effort to remember everything I forget most of it.

Anyway, this weekend I read two obituaries of women I never met, and wished I had.  One was my friend Anne Howard's mother, Alexsandra Howard.  Anne was a classmate at Smith; she was unusual (at least to me) in that she was very involved with horses, but not with the Smith barn.  She brought a young horse to school with her and wanted more turnout for him than the very limited turnout Smith's stable offered; also, she did some sort of riding--I didn't understand it at the time--that wasn't the hunt seat riding we did at Smith. 

I learned to ride in college, culmination of a life-long dream, and threw myself into horses the way you'd run down the pier and belly-flop into a cold lake.  I was in over my head most of the time, never cared, and learned about everything side-on and with great enthusiasm.  Which is also pretty much how I approached foxhunting, when I got the chance to do that, and later my wonderful sport, eventing. 

What I knew in college is that all my horsey friends had great respect for Anne and didn't seem offended that she wasn't on the riding team or keeping her horse at the school barn.  I'm pretty sure it was Anne about whom my horsey friends said, in hushed voices, "She's an A pony clubber," an A rating being a huge achievement.  Anne did social things with the Smith Riding Club; my sophomore year, when we went to the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden, she spent a good part of the day teaching me about canter leads.

Here's what I didn't know:  Anne's mother, Alexsandra, was a world-class rider.  She represented the United States twice at the world championships in dressage, and would have been on the Olympic team in 1980, the year we boycotted the games.  She also rode hunters, evented, and helped a group of women form a vaulting team called the "Flying Buttresses."  Her obituary described a woman brimming with adventure, enjoyment, and achievement; in Anne's words, she "wasn't ready to go."  I haven't seen Anne since our graduating 24 years ago, but we're in touch via Facebook.  I'm very sorry I never knew her mother.

Then on Mason-Dixon Knitting I read about the death of Kathreen Ricketson, a forty-year old craft artist and blogger from Australia.  She and her husband had taken their two young children out of school for a year-long adventure around Australia.  Both she and her husband drowned, in view of the children, while swimming in the ocean.  It's horrible.  I'd never heard of Kathreen, but a few dozen bloggers added their tributes to her on the mason-dixon page, and now I wish I'd known her, too. 

A long time ago, someone I knew died, and that person's death seemed to increase, not decrease, the happiness in the world.  It was actually beyond horrible, to contemplate that.  I have wanted ever since to make the world better by what I did while I was alive.  Alexsandra Howard and Kathreen Ricketson did.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Messy Thursday

So, Tuesday afternoon, after the fabulous BFIA board planning session, I went home and got completely badass on my horse trailer.  My daughter and I pulled out the three (heavy, filthy, unwieldy) rubber mats that cover the floor.  My son hooked up 100 feet of garden hose.  I swept the aluminum floor clean, then used muriatic acid to get rid of the corrosion spots.  For the record, that's just another name for concentrated hydrochloric acid, so yeah, there I was in a horse trailer in 80-degree heat, wearing nitrile gloves, rubber boots, my "sheep" jeans (so-called because I wore them shearing sheep, hence the jagged cuts in one leg), a t-shirt I planned to throw away, and a respirator.  Because the acid reacts with the corrosion to form chlorine gas. 

After that I semi-power-washed the whole outside of the trailer with some sort of anti-mold soap spray I found at Lowe's.  The trailer had been looking a little green in some places, and I figured green = mold.  Anyway, it looked so much better when I was finished--all sparkling in the sun.  I left it all open to dry out.  My plan was that once the inside of the trailer was completely dry, I'd spray the floor with sealant (it's mostly covered with sealant already, but in some places the sealant had chipped away, and that's where the corrosion was setting in), put the mats back, re-bed with fresh shavings, and rejoice in one lovely clean trailer.

And then it rained for the next three days.

This would not have mattered at all if I hadn't needed to ship my daughter's horse up to the middle of nowhere, Virginia, to an experienced eventing vet, on Thursday.   (I know you're thinking, "What is an experienced eventing vet doing in the middle of nowhere?" The answer is, people have stashed a whole lot of horses in that particular nowhere, unlike, say, the nowhere in which I live.)  Anyhow, I did the math, and decided that my daughter and I would need to be on the road by 9 am.  On Wednesday night, watching yet another thunderstorm, I decided that on Thursday morning I'd wake early, alongside my husband who had to get up before 6.  I'd toddle out to the barn, to the trailer which would surely have dried off by then, and spray the doggone floor.  It would dry by the time I finished breakfast, and I'd throw the mats back in and we'd be golden.

But then I overslept.  When my husband got up I mumbled something incoherent and rolled over.  I didn't worry much, because I knew he'd kiss me good-bye when he went downstairs, and I'd get up then.  Only he didn't.  So when I finally did wake up, it was past 7:30.  Also, it was raining.  Pouring.

I shook my daughter awake and explained the situation.  The lovely thing about raising girls on farms with horses is that they don't fuss over a little dirt.  Now that the mats were wet and slippery my daughter and I could barely manage them between us, but she heaved and shoved and pounded them into place.  Our shavings bin out back, tarped against the rain, stood in a thick sea of mud we couldn't imagine getting a wheelbarrow through, so my daughter shoveled unused shavings out of the corners of the horse stalls, and shoveled that into the trailer.  She put the horses into the barn, fed them, and put the shipping wraps onto the ones going with us.

Meanwhile, I was hitching the trailer.  It's a known fact that when hitching, you either get the ball lined up correctly the very first time, or you have to try one thousand times, until you're so blindingly frustrated you smack the trailer with your fists and it bounces sideways an inch and drops onto the ball.  Since it was pouring, and I was running late, you can guess how the hitching went.  Uh-huh.  I started to sweat inside my rain jacket to the extent that I fogged the truck windows, which didn't help my hitching at all.  I stripped the jacket off, pounded the trailer with my fists, attached the breakaway chains, and stalked into the barn, where my daughter was singing a made-up song to her horse to the tune of "My darling Clementine:"  "Oh my darling, oh my darling, oh my dar-ling idiot, you are driving me-e crazy, why can't you just stand still."

Then the horses (we took my mare up, too) didn't want to load.  Because, you know, it was raining, so it was a lot more fun to make the humans stand and get wet and wave their arms around.  But eventually they climbed in, onto the freshly-bedded mats on the floor, that I'll have to strip and wash and dry and seal whenever it does stop raining.  I took off my muck boots and put on my muck shoes, for the drive.  My daughter took off her hat and flung her wet hair over the back of the seat.  I turned on the truck.  I had no idea what time it was now--I wasn't wearing my watch, given the rain--but it felt like the morning so far had lasted three hours, maybe four, maybe seventy, and whatever else happened we were sure to be late.

The clock in the truck came on.  9:01 am.  My daughter and I laughed, high-fived, and hit the road.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Tornado Warnings

Yesterday at the start of our FIA board retreat, Tyler, our Executive Director, checked his cell phone for the latest death toll from Oklahoma.  One of the other board members shook his head.  "We're going to have to do something to make sure that never happens again," he said.

Do what? I wanted to ask.  At the risk of sounding insensitive, it's probably not possible and certainly not cost-effective, to make a school or any other building capable of withstanding a direct hit from an F5 tornado.  I grieve for those children, for all the tornado victims; we all do.  But, I think in part thanks to the internet, we're ending up with a skewed sense of risk these days.  Right now--this according to NOAA Weather Partners--the average number of deaths caused by tornadoes in the U.S. is around 0.1 per million of population.  That equates to roughly 31 a year.  It's a lot, but it pales in comparison to the rate for homicides among young black males (ages 10-24), of 558 per million.  Or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, 30 per million.  Or deaths by asthma, 11 per million.  You're one hundred times more likely to die from asthma than be killed by a tornado.  You're over a thousand times more likely to die from a car accident--and driving a car is two and a half times safer than it was back in the early 1970s, when I was rattling around loose in the back of a station wagon with my baby brother, the two of us happily unencumbered by seat belts or car seats.

The other day--before the Oklahoma tornadoes, for which he expressed profound sympathy--Pope Francis noted in a homily that in our media-driven world, the collapse of a bank is seen as a national tragedy, while the death of a homeless person too insignificant to mention.  That's not so much a skewed sense of risk as a skewed sense of priorities. 

I've been reading a lot about Haiti lately, in part deliberately, because my dear friend Sarah lives there, and in part because Haiti seems to keep popping up wherever I happen to read.  I follow a blog of a woman whose younger son was adopted from Haiti.  I sponsor two Haitian girls through Help One Now.  I know there are a ton of orphans in Haiti, due to the earthquake, the HIV epidemic, and parental abandonment from extreme poverty.  The most recent statistics say 440,000.  Five percent of Haiti's population: orphaned children.  I figured adoption was a pretty common solution, but I was wrong.  How many orphans adopted from Haiti per year?  About 200.  Which is to say, 439,800 weren't. 

If you want to get rid of the risk of tornadoes, you might be able to build a stronger school.  You might be able to build a school that was better designed.  You might be able to get better warning systems or a more efficient way of responding to them.  You probably can't eliminate the risk entirely, but, especially in an area prone to tornadoes, you might be able to substantially mitigate it, just the way that seat belts and air bags and antilock brakes have improved automobile safety.

What about the homeless?  Better mental health care--not nearly as easy as building a stronger building.  The orphans?  Better orphanages?  Maybe more adoption--but that becomes a slippery slope fast.  Orphan prevention, by addressing the causes of parental death and extreme poverty?  That's a very hard problem to solve.

I still think we should try.  You?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Summer Time

Here at the Bradley house, summer begins tomorrow at 11:40 am, when my daughter completes the last exam of her freshman year.  She's going to celebrate by joining me at Faith in Action for the last few hours of my usual Wednesday shift, something she actually thinks is fun.  She and my son both love the Wednesday crew at FIA.

We had a fantastic graduation weekend--a full house of family, a lovely graduate, three small lively nephews.  And I'd like to say one final time how very proud I am of my son.  Meanwhile, once all the family left, a sense of anti-climax--or was it exhaustion? crept in.  Yesterday morning, other than picking the old dog up from the kennel (he'd spent the weekend there so that he couldn't bite the babies), I could not think of one single thing I had to do.  Well, okay, laundry.  And the dishes.  But other than that?  Nope.  It was raining, which ruled out everything outdoors.  And I thought, nothing.  I want to do nothing.

So I did.  It was bliss.  I read a book about hoarding, and I ate crackers and bar cheese, and I napped.  And when I woke up I was amazed at the transformation.  First of all, I could think of several hundred things to do, and I did a half dozen of them immediately, with energy.

Second, I had slipped into summer.

Summer is our busybusy time.  We fill summer up, let it overflow.  My daughter has pony club camp and tennis and the regional pony club championships.  My son is going to the U.S. Open (golf) with friends, and to England with his Dad.  My husband is going to England with our son and to Atlanta to golf, and having friends come here.  I'm running the pony club camp (yikes) and competing my horse.  We'll take a family vacation in July and we're expecting lots of family for fireworks on the Fourth.  I wanted to take a few days to go visit Angelica, one of my fabulous horse trainers, but her schedule looks a lot like mine, except that our free days don't coincide.  We've had text conversations that have gone like this:  "The last week in May would work for me."  "No, I'm in Europe over Memorial Day weekend."  "Well, not Memorial Day weekend, I'm busy then, too.  How about the first week in June?"  "That might work!"  Later:  "No, sorry.  How about the week of June 24th?"  "No, sorry--I'm pretty much booked June 10 through August 5th."  "Okay.  How's September?"  Yesterday I tried to call her and her phone sounded funny, as though the ringing noise had changed to a busy signal.  A few minutes later she texted, "Can't talk--I'm at dinner."  It was 2 pm.  My time.  I thought for a moment.  She was already abroad.

Yesterday my son had had friends spend the night.  The friends arrived after my husband and I had gone to bed.  I tiptoed downstairs in the morning and was relieved to find the family room empty, since it's right next to the kitchen where those of us who hadn't just graduated high school were having breakfast at 6:30 am.  I was fiddling around--this was before I'd decided to do nothing, when I was still just aimlessly doing nothing--and one of my son's friends came downstairs, telling me sleepily that he had to get home so that the lady whose lawn he was supposed to mow could call and cancel, since it was raining.  "Okay," I said, "But first tell me, who is in this house and where are they sleeping?"

Friday, May 17, 2013

Driving John Rocco

Last week my children's former school, St. Anne Catholic in Bristol, VA, hosted John Rocco as their annual author.  St. Anne's hosts an author every year, which I think is absolutely a fabulous thing to do.  Kids get inspired to read and think about books when they meet at author; if the author's any good at presenting, they also learn a ton.

John Rocco was fantastic.  He's the same age as me, but came to writing through a circuitous route that involved, among other things, helping design rides at Walt Disney World and being an art director for the movie Shrek.  He won a Caldecott Honor last year for his book Blackout.  John was great at capturing the students' interest and taught them a surprising amount about how he uses colors to help carry emotion in his  stories.

I always help out for the author visit, in part because I'm such a nice person and in part because, living in the hinterlands as I do, it's a real treat for me to talk to another person in my field.  So on the second day of John Rocco's visit I volunteered to pick him up at the hotel, get him breakfast, and take him to the school.

You know how you become so totally used to something in your life, and then all of a sudden you can see it from an outsider's point-of-view?  Yeah.  That was my minivan when I was driving John Rocco.  I really am not bothered by my semi-derelict ten-year-old car.  I don't care much about cars.  The thing goes forward when I step on the accelerator, stops when I step on the gas, and doesn't leak when it rains; that about covers my needs.

But when John Rocco--who is completely friendly and very polite, and whom I did not suspect of making snap judgements about people based on the amount of grit in their cars--lest you think the problem was with him and not me--opened the door, I suddenly saw the hay, rubber orthodontics band, and used ballpoint pen sitting on the passenger's seat.  I swept those off, then reached down to move the 200-page manuscript out of the way of John Rocco's feet.  I opened the side door so he could put his bags in, implored him to move the tennis rackets out of the way, not to bother about those horse supplements, and, oh, right, those books can just be shoved farther in the back.  I couldn't put his bag in the very back because that space was filled with a lawn chair, several dirty saddle pads, and two trumpets in their cases.

Meanwhile the driver's side mirror sat on the little platform between the two front seats.  The space under the platform was home to a dressage girth, a broken piece of a bridle, a crushed box of Kleenexes, and the foreign language CDs I listen to when I'm trying to improve my mind.  And six pens.  And a novel or two.  Probably overdue from the library.

I hadn't dusted my dashboard in, oh, forever.  My daughter and her teammates had peeled off their name tags from quiz rally three months ago and plastered them onto the seats.  The cupholders held two hair bands, two bottles of eye drop samples, the keys to the tack room of the green barn, a pretty rock, and a handful of golf tees.  Also a granola bar.  Also my coffee cup, the one with the extremely vulgar statement about writing on it.  But that at least John Rocco understood.

So we drove off to breakfast and then to school.  And, on Mother's Day, my husband and children cleaned out my car.  Now I'm all set for next year's author.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Writers: You Are Blocked for a Reason

I had a bout of writer's block starting at the end of last week.  I'm working on a sequel to my as-yet-unpublished (but under contract, thank you very much), still-unnamed novel, which I call my "England book" and my editor calls my "Ada book."   (Ada is the main character's name.)  I would think the sequel should go along hummingly, since I've done most of the research, already know the characters very well, and have thought long and hard about my opening scene.

Alas.  It proceeded in fits and starts.  I would decide it sucked. (Of course it sucked, it's a first draft.  But there's a difference between ordinary-first-draft suckage and this-will-make-your-editor-rethink-her-whole-opinion-of-you suckage, and I was veering dangerously close to the latter.)  I would go back and think, nah, this is okay.  I'd write a few more pages and decide it sucked again.  I would ponder the existential meaning of this particular novel.  I'd stare at it.

Now, I will tell you now there isn't a true writer in the world who waits for her angel muse to light gently upon her shoulder before sitting down to work.  If I did that, I'd write one day a year, and at the end of the day have five pages of a first draft that sucked.  There's a reason half the world's population feels they'd love to write a book, they've got this great idea, but they never have the time, and it's this:  writing is work.  It's hard.  If you're a writer, it's your work, and you don't expect it to be easy.  You know you've got to put in the time.  I've published 15 books and I understand my work well, and yet, by the end of last week, I clearly had a real case of writer's block.

A long time ago, someone I can't clearly recall told me that writer's block, the real kind that's about not knowing what the heck to do with your story, always happens for a reason.  So I stepped back and tried to find the reason.  Struggled.  Failed.

Then my husband finished reading the new draft of my England book, the one that's the prequel to what I'm currently working on.  It was bedtime, so I told him I didn't want his comments yet, I just wanted to know if he thought it was better than the first draft.  This wasn't because I don't value his comments; I do.  It was because I wanted to be able to go to sleep without his comments rattling around in my head. 

He said, "It's better, but I still don't think the ending works."

Dammit.  That's a comment.  But of course I asked why not, and we had a wide-ranging conversation about the size of London train stations, the probable number of people traveling through them in 1940, and the amount of chaos likely caused by the very first day of the Blitz.  And then I went to sleep.  Sure I did.

The problem was that while I completely disagreed with my husband about certain of his assumptions, his overall opinion--that the ending didn't work--pretty much coincided with mine.  I wanted my ending to work.  I loved my ending.  But I'd made a technical error in the first draft; when I fixed it, in the second, I could see that I was forcing the ending:  you could see the scaffolding I was having to use to shore it up.  I hate it when I can see the scaffolding.

This had been bothering me in the dusty back corners of my mind for some time.  So I thought, what do I really need to happen here?  How could I do that?  And then, suddenly, I could see my way through--but in a way that changed everything.  Particularly the start of the sequel.

Just like that, no more writer's block.  And a big thank you to my husband.  Though I hope he waits until morning next time.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

My Son's Story

My son graduates from high school this weekend.  A little while ago I had a good idea for a blog post that, while not directly about my son, pertained to him and his friends and their last year in school.  Before I wrote it, I asked my son if it was okay with him that I do so, and he said no.  "Mom," he said, "that's not your story."

Writers swipe other people's stories all the time.  We take snippets and bits of conversations and people and actual things that happen to us, and things that didn't happen but could have, and we whirl it all together in a sort of blender in our brains, and what comes out, sometimes, is fiction, but if you know how to look at it--say, because you know the writer really well--you can sometimes see the individual bits and pieces.  Sometimes you know what story they come from.

Last summer I met a woman who's written two successful memoirs, and who also for a time wrote about her family in a magazine column.  I'm always thrilled to meet another writer, and I was especially looking forward to meeting this woman, whose work I admired.  But when I told her that I'd read nearly everything she wrote, she looked deeply uncomfortable.  "Oh," she said, "so you know all that."

Well, duh, lady.  Being on the New York Times Bestseller list means quite a lot of people know all that.  But I understand that as a writer, readers seem amorphous.  They exist somewhere (we hope) but we don't really see them.  This makes it easier for us to pour out our souls.

But not our children's souls.  Sometimes now when I read a blog where women happily write all about their young children, I wince.  Not because the stories are inappropriate, but because, at some point, these children might start to mind.  I could tell a hundred stories about my son:  funny stories, sad stories, wry, comical ones.  Stories that illustrate his integrity and grace.  The problem is, he would hate that.  He doesn't want me to tell his stories.    My stories about my son are really not mine any more.  They are his stories, and he will tell them on his own.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mother's Day Dilemma

I had a happy Mother's Day.  My family cleaned out the inside of my van as a gift; if you've seen my van, you know that was a pretty good gift.  (My father asked, "If you cleaned it, what's holding it together?")  They surrounded me with love and affection, and they took me out for sushi for dinner, which is my favorite, not theirs.  I talked to my own mother, who I'll see next week when she comes from Indiana for her grandson's high school graduation; she told me she loved the flowers I sent.  She really does love flowers.  I should send them to her more often, and not just for Mother's Day.

At Mass Father Kevin, our new priest who I barely know, had all the mothers stand at the end for a special Mother's Day blessing.  I hate that part.  I don't mind the blessing, but I hate the standing, the singling out.  After Mass I asked one of the church ladies if next year she couldn't prevail upon Father Kevin to tell everyone to stand, or sit, and then bless the mothers, because I thought it was really painful for some people when he did that.  Said church lady looked at me as though I suggested trading in the Communion wine for Coca-Cola.  "Well, if you're a godmother, you could stand because of that," she said.

Oh, right.  Because I know exactly how that would go down.  Nobody would think that otherwise childless woman was standing because she was a godmother.  They'd think she was standing because she was pregnant. 

Here's the truth:  Mother's Day is hard for a lot of women.  Very hard.  I have friends and family members who've battled infertility, who've had multiple miscarriages and expensive, painful medical procedures.  Some of them eventually became mothers.  Some of them did not.  Some of them feel the loss of those children-who-might-have-been every single day.

I have friends and family members who lost their own mothers far too soon.  Whose mothers were absent at their weddings.  Whose children will never have a grandma.  For them, Mother's Day is about the mother they miss, not the mother they are.

I have friends and family members estranged from their mothers, or embroiled in difficult relationships with them, relationships beyond redemption through no fault of their own.  Some people don't get Hallmark mothers.  Some people get crazy, abusive, or addicted mothers.  Those people mourn too.

I love my mother, and I love being a mother.  I have two fantastic children I'm crazy about.  But when I stand in the pew on Mother's Day, I'm aware that there are women in the church with broken hearts, and really, I'd rather sit beside them.

Friday, May 10, 2013

So it turns out it's not just me...

Still been a crazy week.  Today I didn't accomplish much other than visiting Bristol's Emergency Food Pantry.  I'd never been there before, even though the director is a friend of mine.  Some recent policy changes from the Department of Social Services mean that a lot more people are coming to Faith in Action for their food pantry vouchers, and I wanted to see how the whole system worked so I'd know if we needed to think about tweaking the voucher system we. 

Anyway, that's one thing I did.  Here's another: sleep in.  Not on purpose, either.

You should know that my husband is one of the most punctual people ever born.  Being late to anything causes him such anxiety that he is nearly always early.  Since I'm also normally very punctual, this suits me fine.

You should also know that my husband took two days off work, yesterday and today, to play in a local golf tournament.  He played golf all day yesterday and had a nice time.

You should further know that my husband is always in charge of setting the alarm clock.  The start of his work day varies depending on what he's doing, so he always makes sure we get up on time.  He sets the alarm.  When it goes off, he gets into the shower, and I go wake up the children.  They're in high school and could certainly be relied upon to wake themselves up, but I've always enjoyed giving them a hug and a kiss first thing, and so I've always woken them up.  Since we've had a child in high school the latest we ever wake on a school day is 6 am, so the high schoolers can be out the door by seven.  (We sit down and eat breakfast as a family.  It's another of those quaint things we do.)

This system has served my husband and I well for our entire married life.  Nearly 24 years.  Until this morning.

My daughter burst through our closed bedroom door, jolting me out of a very nice sleep.  "GUYS!" she said, "It's 6:37!!"

"Wake your brother," I told her.  She ran back into the hall and pounded on his door.  Meanwhile my husband fumbled with the alarm clock.  "Didn't you set it?" I asked him.

He laughed and laid back against the pillows.  "I set it for 7:00," he said.  "I lost track.  I thought today was Saturday."

"It's a miracle Katie woke up," I said.  He agreed, and we gave up on today's family breakfast, rolled over, and both fell back asleep.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

So Jesus Gave Me A Kick in the Pants....

If you read yesterday's blog post, or, heck, any number of preceding blog posts, first off, thank you.  Second, you know what an entitled first-world-problem sort of whiner I am.

I'm sorry about this.  Really I am.  I'm working on it.

Of course it's frustrating when my schedule falls apart and the children's activities are shifting and endless and the animals give me dirty looks and pee inappropriately.  Yep. 

Of course we could look at all those problems from the other end, and see that they're really not very problematic:

I had to wait with my husband for two hours at the doctor's office:
I have a husband.
Who wants me to go with him when he's having something stressful done.
Because he likes my company.
Also, I like his.
The problem he's having is completely treatable, and not life-threatening in any way.
We have easy access to excellent medical care.
We have insurance.
We can afford our co-pay.

I remember once being irritated because I had to give up writing time to console my daughter's horse while he got shoes put on.  (Despite wearing shoes for most of his life, the horse finds being shod so enormously stressful that if someone [me] isn't holding onto his head, singing to him, and occaisionally threatening to beat the living snot out of him, he tries to kick the farrier's head in.)  And then I thought how absolutely maniacally happy that sentence would have made me back in the day when I was first married, working at a job I didn't like, wildly hoping to someday have children and write books for a living.  And that I would get a daughter who liked horses, as I do?  Icing on the cake, man.  Icing on the cake.

This bout of retrospection and self-analysis comes to you courtesy of yesterday's difficult day at Faith in Action.  There are so many people who need our help.  There are so many really hard situations.  We nearly had a client go into insulin shock in our waiting room--someone whose Type I diabetes was undiagosed for so long that the person's entire body has beenr ravaged by the disease.  Someone who can't possibly work, who will probably die soon, who comes from a background of never having had resources like money or adequate medical care.  This client, who can die from undereating, had been down to one meal a day for the last several days. 

Then we had someone who on very limited income, carefully budgeted but nearly always inadequate, was pre-paying funeral expenses at a rate of $25 per month.  That client's parent had been buried in a potter's field, in an unmarked and unremembered grave.  That client wanted her children to be spared the pain of not knowing where their mother lay.

It lays heavy on my heart sometimes.  When a client's monthly income is taken up not by their child's medical expenses (covered under Medicaid), but by the gas money required to take the child to a specialist four hours away.  When one hundred dollars stands between a client and her family and eviction, and that client has absolutely no way of getting the money.

At the end of my tough day at Faith in Action, I go back to my comfortable house and pray.  Jesus kicks me in the pants some days.  Some days I need kickin'.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

All The Things I Haven't Done

Despite my previous anxiety over the week's schedule and how it all went south very early on Monday morning, there was a time yesterday when I thought I had everything licked.  I'd cancelled one appointment and swapped another, and called in some favors and did an anti-rain dance, and, other than the moment when one of the barn pigeons splodged my THS Tennis sweatshirt, all was well.

(What, you don't have barn pigeons?  I do, and I can't seem to get rid of them, despite near-heroic efforts by the barn cats, who would prefer I use the term squab.  Anyway, I'd left 5 extra minutes in my morning calculations, which meant I had time to go back to the house and wipe off the sweatshirt, which was how fully I was rocking the morning).

I left the house at 7 am (and again at 7:20, splodge-free) and didn't return until 7 pm, but by evening I'd successfully picked up Visiting Author John Rocco at his hotel in Bristol, got him breakfast, delivered him to St. Anne Catholic School, and hung around just long enough there to see that my friend Angie, the librarian, was on top of her own chaos.  Then I went to the high school, helped my friend Tracy lug in some soup for Teacher Appreciation Week, retrieved my daughter, and headed off to the rescheduled district tournament.

On the way there my daughter noticed that I'd gotten my autographed John Rocco books mixed up with my friend Maureen's autographed books, but Mo and I can fix that.

Then we had tennis, which took awhile, but it was pleasant, and it lasted long enough that I didn't have to feel guilty about not taking my daughter back to school.  I took her to Panera Bread and then a bookstore instead.  Then we met my husband, who'd finished work, at his orthopedist's office.  My husband needed his trick shoulder injected again, and wanted me to go with him.  We had to wait a long time.  I felt like complaining, but my husband suggested mildly that since he'd called his orthopedist at home the night before and asked to come in late in the day, perhaps I should just be grateful.  So I tried that.

Then we got pizza.  All was well.

Then we went home, and the horses were staring at me over the fence, appalled, because DINNER WAS LATE, and guess what?  There wasn't any dinner.  We were stone cold out of grain, which never happens, and I'd forgotten to get more, which is starting to feel like it happens all the time.

Now, the horses were turned out on the lushest pasture on earth, and have been eating so much luscious spring grass that two of them are wearing muzzles to limit their grazing.  On their best days they get 1 cup, 1 household measuring cup, of low-carb horse feed, combined with some vitamins and other stuff.  It's essentially like giving me 4 Cheerios and calling it breakfast.  But horses cling to their habits, and what this group knew most strongly, at 7 pm last night, is that they were being abused and deprived.  Reproachful looks all around.

Duly chastened, I returned to the house and opened some wine.  I had new books to read, and managed to read them even though I'd broken my only pair of bifocals the day before.   I stayed up later than my husband and my daughter, waiting for my son to come home (he'd watched his high school baseball team lose in the district finals, and then gone out for 60-cent wing night with a big group of friends.).   He came home, and we talked for awhile, and then I went to bed, sleeping soundly until 2 am.

At which time I woke up and remembered that my son had missed a doctor's appointment that afternoon.  One he didn't know about, because I didn't tell him. 

My brain hopped onto the hamster wheel of Things I Haven't Done or Have Recently Screwed Up, and whirled for the next hour.  That was fun.  Then I overslept.  Also fun.

Then I sat down at my computer.  I sent 17,000 emails about stuff I will be doing, soon.  Then, still feeling guilty about my many and various personal deficiencies, I typed the above title:  All the Things I Haven't Done.

And the first thought--the very first thought--to enter my head:  "Well, I haven't killed anyone yet."

Very good, I thought.  Carry on.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Eating Dirt

If you ride horses, you will come to recognize a point at which, while you haven't technically fallen off the horse yet, you are no longer capable of staying on.  You're in mid-air, destined for dirt, and there isn't a fool thing you can do about it.

That was how I felt this morning.  I'd crafted a schedule for the week that amazed even myself, but it had a tragic flaw--it was so hopeless intertwined that even one tiny screw-up would cause the whole thing to collapse.  And there was just no way to get through the week without a screw-up.  I really needed my daughter's tennis matches (high school district finals) to go off as scheduled today, because if they didn't go today they'd be pushed to tomorrow, and I had nowhere to move the stuff happening tomorrow.  Wednesday was full.  Also Thursday, etc. 

When we woke up it was raining, and they couldn't play tennis in the rain, but I decided to be forcibly optimistic.  I was going to control the weather with the power of my optimism.  I put on my THS Tennis sweatshirt, and then I picked out the absolute PERFECT pair of socks.

I knit socks.  I'd made this particular pair for myself several years ago, they fit beautifully, and I have always loved them.  The pattern is Lenore; the yarn Blue Moon Fiber Arts Socks That Rock lightweight.  I can't remember the name of the colorway, but it's the maroon one of their Raven series.  The Raven yarns were first dyed a base color or colors, and then overdyed black, so that only a hint of the original color came through.  Over years of washing my Lenore socks had faded so they are now a lovely marbled grey and maroon swirl--perfectly matching my daughter's high school colors.

Thus optimistically attired, I went downstairs to check the weather radar online.  I was still in midair, still fighting for my balance, grabbing for reins.  But the fall was already inevitable.  My daughter came down the stairs. "Match's cancelled," she said, on her way to the kitchen.  I went after her, falling, falling, my whole schedule with me, and as I turned from the computer suddenly felt my middle toe bare against the wood floor.

I'd punched a hole in my sock as I fell.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Jason Collins: Some Day Soon

On Tuesday night I got back from my school visits in time to meet my family, including one of my son's friends, for dinner at a local Mexican restaurant.  I asked the boys, who are seniors in high school and avid sports fans, what they thought of Jason Collins, the NBA player, coming out as gay.

My son's friend shrugged.  "Okay," he said, "so, everyone remembers Jackie Robinson.  But can you name the seventh black major league baseball player?  Nobody knows his name.  In another couple of weeks more players will come out, and it'll just be, like, over."

Appearances to the contrary, I am not old.  I don't feel old.  But boy howdy, how attitudes toward homosexuality have changed since I was my son's age.  I know we're not there yet.  I know there are still people insisting that being gay means being some sort of predator, that being gay is a choice, or that somehow the few words the Bible says that might be against homosexuality (I've read a lot of Biblical scholarship lately, and I'm pretty sure most people are reading the Sodom story wrong) are much more important that the Biblical prohibitions against tattoos, divorce, and eating bacon.

I don't remember ever talking about homosexuality in my high school.  If I thought about gay people at all, I maybe thought Liberace.  A clear odd-ball, an outlier--something so random that it simply didn't happen at all at Bishop Dwenger High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

It did.  Oh, of course, it did.  It was just so completely hidden.

Even in my own family.  My beloved great-uncle died of AIDS in 1978, except that AIDS was not recognized as a disease until 1980, which meant no one knew why my uncle died.  We grieved.  We loved him so.  I wonder now if the adults in the family--I was eleven in 1978--understood that he was gay.  Perhaps they did, but they never said so.  It was only later, piecing together the symptoms of illness, that we realized how he died and what that meant.  "But he was the nicest man," one of my relatives said, as though afraid I would love him less now that I understood he was gay.

My great-uncle spun me around in my red dress and told me I was beautiful.  He bought me a hideous gold plaster dog because I loved it.  He held my hand.  He listened to my stories.  He listened to all of us, and I will always regret that we never really listened to him.

I'm friends with lots of my high school classmates on Facebook now.  At dinner a few months ago I said to my husband, "Did you know So-and-So was gay?"

My husband said, "No, he's not."

"Yes, he is.  We're friends on Facebook now."

My husband frowned, remembering.  "No, I'm pretty sure he had a girlfriend in high school."

My son coughed into his hand: "Cover-up."  I ignored him.  "Well, he's got a boyfriend now," I said.  "Named Alex."

My husband said, "That could be short for Alexandria."

"Could be," I said, "but this Alexandria has a beard."

We looked at each other across the table for a moment.  I thought of this friend as I'd known him in high school, nearly always smiling.  I said, "Our school would not have been an easy place to known to be gay."

"No," my husband said. 

I know it's still not easy.  I know high school is still difficult for everyone, and anything that makes you an outlier makes it more so.  I know there are still slings and arrows and ignorance and hatred.  But pretty soon there will be a seventh gay pro basketball player, and no one will remember his name.  And some day, I hope some day soon, it''ll just be, like, over.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Random Links

I don't usually do links, but these are hilarious:

Dear Vague Facebook Poster

Worst Client Comments Turned into Posters

Real or Simulated Respect

I'm back from my 1.5 days of school talks, which became 1.3 when a substation in west Knoxville blew and the whole district, including Webb School, lost power.  School let out early.  I've never had that happen before.  Then at Robertsville Middle School, a student projectile-vomited all over the students in the row in front of her right in the middle of my talk.  I've never had that happen before, either.  (How did I respond, from my position at the podium?  I didn't.  When you see four teachers converging on a student, fast, you figure the situation is well in hand.  Plus, like that girl needed more people staring at her.)

Webb School was amazing.  It's a private K-12 school that costs over 15K for kindergarten, and it looks like the campus of a small, very tidy college.   Most of the students were in uniform, but a handful weren't, so I asked one of the girls about it.  "Oh," she said, "if it's your birthday you can wear whatever you want."

"Well, that wouldn't work for me," I said.  "My birthday's in the summer."  I may have said this with a degree of petulance.  I always wanted a chance to wear the Birthday Crown in elementary school, and hand out mini Snickers bars, and have everyone make a great big fuss over me, and I never got it.  Of course, I never had to go to school on my birthday either, but most of us find a way to be disappointed with our lot, one way or another.

"Then you'd get free dress on your half-birthday," the girl said.

"My half-birthday," I said, "is Christmas Eve."

The girl was amazingly patient.  "Then you could just pick any day you want," she said.

"Okay," I said, "I'll do that," before I remembered that we were having a hypothetical conversation.  About what I might be allowed to wear if I had to repeat seventh grade.

The Webb Book Club had all finished For Freedom, but were still amazed to find out it was based on the life of a real person.  This is because not a single one of them had read the Afterword.  Sometimes I think the only people that read the Afterwords are me and my editor.  Fortunately we both love Afterwords.

The motto at Robertsville Middle School, emblazoned on posters in every single hallway, is "Real or Simulated Respect."  I asked if that meant that the students didn't have to respect the adults, they just had to act as though they did.  Bingo.  Fake it 'til you make it, bro.

Talking about Jefferson's Sons to children is more challenging than talking about it to adults.   When I'm talking to adults I can say things like, "Before I started my research, I would have said that the only possible word that could describe a sexual relationship between a woman and a man who owned her was rape," but when I'm talking to middle schoolers I need to find substitutes for the words sexual and rape.  I want to be truthful to them, and I know they can handle hard stuff, but I don't want to bludgeon them with it.  Nor do I want their parents to be calling the school tomorrow asking, "Is it true your speaker told the fifth graders about rape?"

The Webb students wanted to know about passing for white.  Why could some of the Sally's children pass, but not others?  What did I know for sure, and what was I guessing?  What did it take to pass?  I wanted to tell them, look around your class.  Some of you are darker than others.  There are all sorts of variations on the human theme.  But I never want to label middle school students, either, or call attention to them individually (except for the girl who hung a clothespin off her nose.  I told her to knock it off.).  I don't know any of these students' stories.

At Robertsville I got a sudden insight into Sally Hemmings.  You'd think, after four years' intensive research, a lot of writing, and a lot of thinking, that I would be done with insights, but apparently I'm slower than average.  I told the students that one of the things that sparked my interest in the whole Hemmings/Jefferson story was that I'd learned Jefferson did not free Sally in his will.  He freed five slaves, but not her.  I asked the students why they thought that might be true.

A cheerful-looking black boy put up his hand.  "'Cause she was cheating on him!" he said.

"Are you kidding me?" I replied, without even stopping to think.  "This man holds her children's future in his hands.  He's got total control over the most important things in her life.  She's never going to cheat on him.  She can't afford to tick him off.  Not ever."

She can't afford to make him angry.  Not ever.

Imagine that.