Sunday, July 28, 2013

Again With The Champions

So, sports fans and friends, once again in the pre-dawn gloaming I have snuck into the Virginia Horse Center's Coliseum in search of a wifi called Vote For Obama.  It's the final day of pony club championships.

My daughter's event team is in the middle of the pack right now.  My daughter and one of her teammates went clear cross country, another teammate was eliminated, and the fourth had her second refusal on cross country dismissed when she successfully argued that, when her mare went sideways at the down bank, she crossed her right legs in front of her left legs, not behind.  Forty points-an entire middling dressage test-hinging on how a pony crossed its legs.  But such are the rules, and Katie's teammate knew them.

I wish you could have seen the barns this morning.  Horse show mornings are one of my favorite things in life.  I love the soft light, the horses murmuring for their breakfasts, the scent of hay and the slosh of emptying water buckets.  I love the anticipation.

Here, of course, I'm not allowed in the barns.  This morning I was one of a long line of pickup trucks pouring into the center, turning right, turning left, but only those lucky few with official passes going straight.  I stopped to let my daughter out and watched as she went into the barn, long-legged, square-shouldered, her hair in a bun at the nape of her neck, swinging her bag over her shoulder.  She looked insanely beautiful.  They all do.  Anyone who thinks horses are a waste of time or money should see these 500 teenagers gathered at championships.  See how hard they work, how dedicated they are.  How independent and strong.

Yesterday it rained most of the day.  I stood out on the cross country course draped in a Busch Gardens poncho, watching my daughter and her quirky little former racehorse.  Mickey wanted to run-he always wants to run-but my daughter held him in (you can get penalties for going too fast, as well as too slow).  He was brave to everything, even the Very Scary Bank.  When my daughter pulled him to a cautious trot in front of the Trakhener (yes, a Trakhener, which is to say a hanging log atop a ditch, on beginner novice) one of the women watching with me said surprised, "Is she worried about the Trakhener?"  Surprised because she had not looked worried about anything so far.  "No," I said, laughing.  I'd seen the slight flick of her wrist that meant my daughter had checked her watch.  "She's using up some time."

The lights area on in this quiet Coliseum.  The Games Organizers are chalking the lines onto the newly dragged arena.  Another woman, coffee in hand, is fiddling with the sound system.  In an hour I'll go watch my daughter jog her horse; after that I've got a volunteer briefing.  Then to watch the end of competition, then to take a nap.  It's a long drive home and we'll be leaving late.  It's been worth the trip.

Friday, July 26, 2013

10 Things to do Today at the USPC Championships Trade Fair

1.  Pick up your free t-shirt.
2.  Drop your Point-Two vest off for servicing, or buy a new one (30 percent off!).
3.  Have the fit of your Charles Owen helmet professionally checked.
4. Buy some bling:  belts, boot socks, browbands.
5.  Check out the books for sale at 20 percent off at the USPC bookstore.
6.  Gold glitter bell boots.  You know you want them.
7.  Get your horse's name engraved on a halter or bracelet.
8.  Find the piece of Alicia Daily pottery that most resembles your horses.
9.  Find out what type of Triple Crown feed is best for your hard keeper/air fern.
10.  Join the U.S. Polo Association.  Seriously.

This post is not sponsored by the United States Pony Clubs, Inc.  But it should have been.

Horses Give Hope

Horses give hope.  I've known this for a very long time.  They're domesticated, but not entirely-they can still live in the wild-and you can see this, if you've been around them enough, by the amount of instinctive non-verbal communication they still maintain.  For a long time, the Kentucky Horse Park had a small bronze statue of a running horse over by its Big Barn, on the way to the dressage arenas.  Something about the bronze horse's expression clearly said, "Run, the lions are coming!" to every live horse who saw it.  The statue spooked so many horses that the park finally moved it.

Similarly, horses respond to people's nonverbal communications.  The famed "horse whisperers" a very, very good at controlling every nuance of their body language, aware of how it affects the horse. But horses take in clear messages from us mortals, too.  They know when we're happy, fearful, sad.  They know when we're clueless.  How they respond to us depends on their personalities, history, and training, but they take everything in.

But horses don't care if people are beautiful by human standards.  They don't care if we're rich, smart, or thin.  They're really not interested in how much our jazzy new breeches cost, or whether our boots were custom-made or hand-me-downs.  Horses don't notice race, religion, sexual orientation, political affiliation or anything else humans tend to get riled up about nowadays.

Are you consistent?  Are you trustworthy?  Are you kind?  Are you a leader?  That's the sort of stuff horses care about.

Yesterday at Pony Club Championships, I met Jo Anne Miller, the head of Brook Hill Farm, a remarkable organization in Bedford County, VA.  Jo Anne started the place as an equine rescue and rehabilitation facility-if you go to the farm's website, Brook Hill Farm, you'll see the sort of transformations she and her volunteers effect.  Lots of horrible stories with happy endings.  But the remarkable part, to me at least, is that Jo Anne started to rehabilitate teenagers, too.  Specifically some who had been abused much worse than the horses.  The teens in her program, United Neigh, are often ordered into it through the juvenile court system.  Some of them face very bleak futures.  They go to the farm two days a week, are each given a rescue horse to care for, and are taught to ride.  If they follow the rules, they earn privileges.  Jo Anne enrolls the  students in 4H and Pony Club (Brook Hill is an accredited Pony club riding center) and if they do well in the program they get the chance to compete.

This June the team from Brook Hill, none of whom had ever ridden away from the center before, finished first in the Old Dominion Region show jumping rally.  One of their members is competing here at Championships this weekend.  I don't know any details about this child, except that horses might be the saving of her.

Of the kids who have completed the United Neigh program, 100 percent have graduated high school. One hundred percent have gone on to secondary education.  From my work at Faith in Action, I can tell you that graduating from high school cuts a Preston's chance of living in poverty in half.  This is HUGE.

Brook Hill can use donations of all sorts.  Now I know where my orphaned tall boots will be heading.  What a joy, to let them have a second life on the feet of a child who needs and is getting a second chance.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Notes from the first day of PonyClub Championships

I write this sitting not in the kitchen sink (bonus points if you get the reference) but in the Coliseum of the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington,VA.  I'm waiting for the start of the Opening Ceremonies of the United States Pony Club East Coast Championships, in which my daughter will be marching.  I'm ambivalent about the Opening Ceremonies but I'm enjoying the free wifi, even if it is labelled Vote For Obama.  (I suspect that's due to the VHC's directors, the indomitable Brian and Penny Ross.  Ann Romney aside, you'd be surprised how many equestrians are democrats.

Today has passed in a blur of happy chaos, beneath blue skies, the shadow of House Mountain, and some of the best summer weather the state of Virginia can produce.  The riding doesn't start until tomorrow, so nobody minds a bit of confusion, and the organizers have direct senses of humor I'm enjoying.  "Parents.  Twelve o'clock is not a difficult concept.  Get your trailers away from the barns."  "Attention, show jumpers.  We gave up vacation time to put this event on for you.  Do not piss us off."

The two previous times my daughter competed in Championships, she competed in the horseless knowledge discipline, quiz.  Now that she's riding I won't see much of her.  We pulled up outside the barn at 11:15 am.  Her teammates hurried to help us unload, and that was it.  I wasn't allowed in the barn.  I went to a briefing, ate a salad, and made the acquaintance of a lovely woman I'm going to tell you all about tomorrow.  Because the PA has just started playing the Olympic theme song.  The athletes are entering the arena.  We're off.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


I'm home for three days.  Sunday night (11:30 pm, seven hours late) we got back from Ireland; Thursday morning (7:30 am) my daughter and I pull out the drive for the Pony Club East Coast Championships.  I arrived home to find one of our large beech trees--probably 250 years old, though we won't know for sure until we cut up the trunk--down in our yard, courtesy of some violent storms that hit Bristol while we were gone.  We also lost half a peach tree and some trees in the walnut patch.

I'm ambivalent over the loss of the beech tree.  On the one hand, it was a lovely tree, and I quite liked it.  On the other hand, it'll cut up nicely into three or four excellent cross country jumps, replacing all my old jumps (from a beech tree that fell ten years ago) which are decaying into little piles of sawdust.  They're still jumpable, but they're pretty wiener jumps now.  The new beech tree looks set to give us at least one solid Training level jump (3'3").

An astonishing number of things absolutely have to be accomplished in these three days, which is why I spent half an hour this morning online looking at the trailers for the movie Catching Fire.  Which comes out November 22nd.  You know, priorities.  I do plan to get busy really soon.  I've had a bunch of highly erudite, thoughtful, and socially meaningful blog posts running around in my head, with no time to type them down, but you won't be getting any of them today.  I did however find a really excellent link I wanted to share, which explains some of what I meant in my post about Trayvon Martin, better than I could explain it.  Here.  I strongly encourage you to read it.

I have a real job, too, despite all my recent gaity; it's sitting on my desk beneath the piles of bills, marked up in blue pencil, waiting.   I'm thinking about my book all the time, even though I'm not writing it.  Can't decide whether or not it would be worth taking it to Championships with me.  On the one hand, I'll have quite a lot of free time.  (They won't let me bring my horse to Championships, to mess around with.  I asked.)  On the other hand, I'll be at Championships.  Maybe I should just watch the children compete and remember how lucky I am to be able to watch them, how lucky I am in general.

Meanwhile my son starts college a month from yesterday, and my daughter starts her sophomore year in high school a week from tomorrow.  Summer has gone so fast.  I shouldn't be surprised, but I am.  I always am caught by surprise.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

In Which I Become Queen of Donegal

If I were to be tellin' you, now, that yesterday morning in Ireland I won a golf tournament while wearing shorts in the blazing summer sun, ye'd be after sayin' I'd kissed the Malarkey Stone.  If I were to add that I'd spent yesterday afternoon rescuing an actual Irish horse trapped in an actual Irish bog, ye'd be excused for thinking' I'd had a nip too much of the whiskey.

But no, I'm tellin' ye,  tis God's honest truth.  So 'tis.  Now the golf tournament may have only been a skins contest among me family on a 12-hole pitch and putt (12 was all they could fit between the driving range and the cows), and I may have been given a stroke per hole, on account of my traditional golfing ineptitude, and my subsequent triumph may have caused certain among me family members to mutter, "sandbagged," and swear never to be givin' me strokes again, but there you have it, a win is a win is what I say.

As for the horse-me not-so-wee daughter and I, along with a mum and two lasses from Belfast, were takin' a trek up the mountain behind Dunfaghy, when of a sudden our guide's horse went hock-deep in an unexpected hole in the bog.  We thought we were on a famine track, see, and yet here was this patch of quicksand.  The mare staggered and fell to her knees, thrashed in deep, went down on her side, and lay still.  And the poor guide, a University student named Katherine, looked at me with the big eyes and said, "what do I do?"  She bein' laid out in the bog herself, like, but fortunately unhurt.  And me daughter with her cool head (unexpected, that), says, "Mum.  Get OFF."  So I dismount my horse, name of Charlie, and give the reins over to my daughter, and stagger through the muck.  And right away I see as how the poor wee mare has her head tied down with the running martingale and all, so I takes that off, and pulls on the reins, and talks to her, encouragin' like, and she thrashes for a bit and then gets to her feet.  And then all that's left is to lead the other horses around the bog-hole, the worst of it, that is, so that my paddock boots will never be the same, may the good Lord have mercy.  And then to comfort the wee ones from Belfast, who were skairt.

But that was my day, and a good day it was, especially after the shower, and the revivin' glass in the hotel bar.  I figure I was Queen of Donegal, at least for the one day.

And if this doesn't convince you why I never write in dialect, then, by Saint Patrick and the angels, nothing will.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Naked to Mass

I  read in an Irish newspaper that as a result of The Weather, people were wearing substantially less clothing in ever more formal places: if The Weather keeps up, the writer predicted, we'd all be going naked to Mass.

The Weather is amazingly unIrish.  It's gorgeous over here.  I laid out on the beach.

Several things about Ireland have hit my notice this time around.

1) not only do they swear more in person, they swear more in print.  Yesterday's newspaper contained the f-word.  On the front page.  In a headline.

2). The posted speed limits are along the lines of double dog dares.  In the history of Ireland, No one has ever been caught speeding, because cars can't go that fast and stay on the roads.

3) No one gets up early.  We shock hotels much more by asking for breakfast at 7:30 than if we wanted in mid afternoon.

4) As a corollary, no one eats dinner early either.  We show up at 7 pm and are the first ones at any restaurant.

5) All the horses are good here.  Most are splendid.

6). Yesterday my daughter and I saw a crazy person and a 15-foot high mechanical cockroach attracting spectators in the town square.  When we enquired, we were told it was performance art.
 Like, dur.

7) No one uses top sheets here-it's all bottom sheets and duvets.  I used to think I'd like to try that, but it turns out I miss top sheets when I don't have them.

8) We saw our first chain restaurant on day 6 of the trip.  It was a Kentucky Fried Chicken.  We drove past it as fast as the car could go.

9). We still didn't come close to the speed limit.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Courage, Children!

Twenty-four years ago today, I married my high-school sweetheart.  We'd both graduated from college six weeks earlier.  If my children do this i will probably have some sort of stress-based illness becaus of it, but, as my mother told me later, it wasn't like she could have stopped me.  I was determined to be married.

We thought long and hard about where to go on our honeymoon.  Lots of people suggested Sandals resorts or things of that ilk, but beaches frankly bore my husband.  He's good for three hours of beach time per year, total, tops, and only one hour of that can be actual laying on the beach.  The rest must be walking on the beach, kicking a ball on the beach, or, ideally, playing golf in the same general neighborhood as a beach.  (They call such golf courses links.  He loves them.)   Now, I like a beach, but I was also very aware that this was the last vacation we'd get in a long time.  (We' d saved for it, and my new father-in-law very generously gave us plane tickets for a wedding gift, but my husband was heading to medical school when we returned.  There aren't vacations in medical school.). I wanted exotic.

So, no beaches, somewhere by plane--I'd been to England several years previously to visit family friends, and my husband had once been to Paris.  We both liked the sound of Italy, but neither of us spoke a lick of Italian, so that sounded daunting.  We'd taken high school French.  Paris, then.

A travel agent had found us an inexpensive but charming small hotel near the Left Bank.  When we staggered in at 8 am after an overnight flight, the proprietress gave us a stern look over the top of her glasses and said something imperious in French.  All ability to speak the language left me in an instant.  I gaped.

Her imperious look vanished.  Very kindly, she asked in English, "Where did you come from?"

I said, "Indiana."

With a flurry of sympathy, she explained that our bedroom, with its "marital bed," was not ready, but she would let us sleep in another room right noe.  Then we could have a shower and move into our real room.  At that point I might have slept on the lobby floor, except that there really wasn't room in it to stretch full out.

It didn't matter.  Madame took care of us.  She turned out to be the only person at the hotel who spoke a lick of English, which made for some interesting conversations when we tried to order breakfast each morning.  (I'm not sure why I found speaking French so daunting.  I'm a lot farther away from my high school classes now than I was then, and I speak French much better now.)  Paris was gripped by a massive heat wave while we were there--it hit 104 two days running--and there was no air conditioning anywhere.  The Louvre felt like a sauna.  We took to heading out early in the morning, then coming back for cold baths (the hotel didn't have showers) mid afternoon befor venturing forth again.  Madame would have  the front door propped open, in an attempt to catch a breeze, and every time we left she would shout down the cobblestones street after us: "Courage, children!"

Which is pretty good advice for a marriage.

Trayvon and My Son

I happen to be in Ireland today; it's 10:30 am Sunday here, so still 5:30 am at home.  I woke this morning to news of George Zimmerman's acquittal, and my family talked it over at breakfast.

A few nights ago we were in Charlotte with our friend Ed, a lawyer, and I asked him how he thought the verdict would go.  Ed winced.  Since everyone knew Zimmerman had shot and killed Martin, he said, the only question was one of self-defense or not.  In Ed's opinion, guilt beyond reasonable doubt was going to be tough to prove.  "Only two people know exactly what happened that night," he said, "and one of them is dead."  The other, of course, had a vested interest in not spending his life in jail.

My son is the same age as Trayvon would be, if Trayvon were still alive.  Like Trayvon, he's a big kid, over 6 feet tall.   He's sweet and goofy and impulsive.  I can't prove it, but I'm guessing that if  George Zimmerman had seen my son walking down the street at night in the rain, talking on his cell phone, his hoodie up, and Zimmerman had caught a glimpse of my son's face, Zimmerman would not have called to cops.  He would not have followed him, a handgun in his pocket.  He wouldn't have confronted my son, wouldn't have pulled out the gun.  Wouldn't have pulled the trigger.

I'm only guessing, but I feel Zimmerman wouldn't have felt threatened by my son the way he clearly felt threatened by Trayvon.  We white people don't want to admit the force racism still has in our society, but whether we want to admit it or not, the truth of this tragedy is that Trayvon Martin, seventeen years old, was shot because he was black.

Because he was black.

Because I don't believe George Zimmerman would have shot my white son.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Travelling Pants

I have a pair of Travelling Pants.  They are nothing like the pants immortalized in Ann Brashere's novel Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, which were a pair of blue jeans you may recall fit each of 4 very differently-shaped young women perfectly, in a sexy and shapely way.

I suspect you could not find four women in the universe who would look sexy in my Travelling Pants.  Shapely they are not, unless by shapely you mean makes a person look even more like a lollipop than usual.  They are faded, stained khaki, of threadbare Tencel, with a wildly unattractive elastic and drawstring waist.

They are at least fourteen years old.

The prime--some might say only--virtue of my Travelling Pants is that they are the closest thing to pajama pants that aren't actually pajamas.  They are comfortable.  Always, everywhere.  If you think that's not of primary importance when travelling, then you, gentle reader, have never flown coach class to Cape Town.

Last December, I wore the Travelling Pants for four straight days.  There was a little problem of our luggage remaining in Paris while we flew on to Cairo.  Sounds exotic, but the reality of three days touring in the hot desert then returning to dine in the upscale restaurant of the Four Seasons Hotel in the same pair of pants (not to mention shirt, socks and bra) was a trifling embarrassing.  By the time the bags showed up I was tempted to throw the Travelling Pants into the Nile.  But I didn't.  What would I have worn on the flight home?

Today marks day two of  the current run of Travelling Pants.  I should have woken up this morning at my favorite hotel in the world, Cashel House, in Connemara, Ireland.  Instead I woke up in Charlotte, NC, a city that had not been part of my itinerary at all.  We were fortunate in that we have a good friend in Charlotte who picked us up last night, stopped at the store for some wine, and gave us beds, showers, and a boffo breakfast.  Still I feel sorry for my husband.  It's his birthday, and he's spending it in airports, wearing for the second day his Travelling Pants.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Conversation with My Nephew

7:00 am.  I come downstairs to find my nephew Huey, aged 3 1/2, sitting at my kitchen table.  He says, "Hi, Aunt Kim.  I ate all your airplane cookies."

I say, "Are you up by yourself?"

He says, "Dewey (his brother) woke me up.  I've been up since 4:30!  Are you making coffee?"

A glance into the family room has revealed my sister-in-law wrapped in an afghan on the couch.  Coffee seems like the best option.

Huey says, "I love coffee!  I love coffee!  I want some coffee!  Aunt Kim, I want coffee!"

I say nothing.

Huey thinks for a moment, then says sweetly, "Aunt Kim, can  I please have some coffee?"

I say, "It's not done yet.  Also, it's not up to me whether or not you can have coffee.  You'll have to ask your Mom."

Huey runs into the family room, runs back.  He reports, "She said, 'Uh-uh.'  That means yes."

I say, "'Uh-uh means no.  Uh-huh means yes."

Huey runs into the family room, runs back.  He says, "She said, 'Uh-huh.'"

I say, "The coffee's not done.  Would you like something else?"

He says, "No.  I already ate all the airplane cookies."

I'm feeding the dogs when Huey yells, "The coffee's done!  It's done!  Done, Aunt Kim!  Coffee's ready!  I love COFFEE!"

My sister-in-law rolls her eyes and pulls the afghan over her face.  I take a mug and pour half an inch of coffee into it.  I fill the rest of the mug up with milk, and hand it to him.

He looks at it suspiciously.  "Is that whole milk?"

I say, "No.  We're out of whole milk."

"What kind of milk is that?"

"That's skim milk."

"Oh," he says, "I don't like skim milk."  And he puts the mug down and wanders away.

A Further (Very Happy) Update on Marian Randall

1.  She's out of ICU.  In fact, she's been transferred to a hospital that's both closer to her daughter's house and more setup for rehab.
2.  She's off the ventilator.  Breathing on her own, in the end without the very risky surgery to slide plates beneath her broken ribs.
3.  Her spinal fracture is healing with a brace and without surgery.  She can move all her fingers and toes.
4.  She's beginning to speak, and what she says makes sense in context.  (Sarah, I know you want her to talk more.  Don't worry.  She's still on lots of pain meds, and if you could see what those do to Bart you'd not be as concerned about your mom.)
5.  No infections so far, no complications so far, and the surgeries so far (repairs to femur, humerus, knee, and foot) have gone well.
6.  Thank you, God.  Thank you, everyone who held her in your hearts.  The day Marian's husband emailed me a photo of her car, post crash, was the day I broke down.  I can not believe anyone survived that.  But she has.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Huey and Dewey (No Louey this Time)

For the last three and a half years, I have been an Aunt.  I love being an Aunt.  My brother has two little boys and my sister one, and, for the purposes of this blog, I will call them Huey, Dewey, and Louey.

Louey turned nine months old today.  That's epic, but he's up in Wisconsin, where my parents are celebrating with him; a long way from where I am. 

Huey and Dewey are playing trains with my husband.  My brother and his wife came to spend the whole slam-dam Fourth of July weekend extravaganza with us, which was totally excellent.  Due to flight delays, they arrived after midnight on what was technically Thursday morning; my husband had to go into work at 7:30 am even on the Fourth (he's the ophthalmologist on call for our town this weekend), so he was sleeping, and my daughter crashed; my aunt and uncle, who were visiting, also headed to bed fairly early.  I "stayed up" by falling asleep on the couch, and my son stayed up for real.  So we played with our sweet nephews for a few moments in the middle of the night.

Yesterday the Fourth was a little funky.  At 8am the weather channel said, "100% chance of rain at 8 am," but the sun was shining.  We called off our barbeque based on the radar.  At noon, still based on the radar, we called it back on.  It stayed completely beautiful through the cookout and the wiffle ball games and the homemade ice cream, and then it started to rain.  When it slowed to a drizzle we lit off some of the fireworks.  Dewey, who's not quite two, hit his face in a blanket for the first few, and then howled.  Huey, who's 3 1/2, sat on his dad's (my brother's) lap until he decided his cousin and her friends were more fun.

Tonight my son is out with friends.  My aunt and uncle have left to visit their own friends.  My brother and his wife are out on a delayed anniversary dinner.  I rather expected Huey and especially Dewey to howl about being left along with us, but they didn't: Huey just kept scrubbing bubble solution into the flagstone patio with his heels, and Dewey threw a ball into a prickle bush.  My husband played baseball with them, if by playing baseball you mean tried to show them how to hit a thrown wiffle ball while preventing them from clobbering each other.  We ate leftovers for dinner.  Dewey sat staring at his uncle, then careful put his napkin in his lap, then scrubbed his face with it.  He tried to eat his bratwurst with a fork, which means he picked up a piece of bratwurst, held it in front of his lips, and then used his fork to push the piece into his mouth.

Now they're playing trains.  Their uncle built them a terrific track from our son's old wooden train set, and they're zooming through tunnels and over bridges.  "Choo, choo!" Dewey yelled.

It's awesome.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Hating in the Name of Jesus

I got a pretty awful comment on an older post yesterday.  The ironic thing is that was directly responsible for the highest number of hits I've ever had in one day.

Now, I don't mind negative comments.  I express my personal views on this blog and don't expect everyone to agree with me.  In fact, I'm pretty sure that nearly nearly everyone disagrees with me about something.  It's okay.

I was not sure, though, how to handle this particular comment, as it seemed pretty inflammatory.  I'm not  okay with name-calling.  I asked some friends how I should handle it, and in the end decided to let it stand, especially after one of my friends posted a strong rebuttal.

The thing that made me sad was not that the commentor--who I don't know, at least not under the alias used--disagreed with me.  It's not even that the comment was so hateful.  It's that the hate was justified as being a Christian response.  Hating in the name of Jesus.

So this is what I have to say:

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; you works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.  (Psalm 139:13-16)

"The most important [commandment]," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord our God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"  (Mark 12:29-31)

[Jesus said,] "Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with measure you use, it will be measured to you.  Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" (Matthew 7:2-3)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Paula Deen and the 'N' word

Yesterday the woman who cleans for me said, "Isn't that just awful what they're doing to poor Paula Deen?"

I replied, "Actually, I think she got what she had coming," which sort of shut down conversation for awhile.

I realize that a lot of people leaping to "poor Paula Dean"'s defense haven't read much about her situation, and think the only reason she's losing endorsements and her job with the Food Network is because she said the 'N' word once thirty years ago.  Unfortunately, she seems guilty of a whole lot more.  The "poor Paula Deen" conversation reflects badly on how most of us white people view racism in our society today--but Kristen Howerton, who blogs over at Rage Against the Minivan, discussed that in detail yesterday, quite a bit better than I can.  Here.  I encourage you to read it and think about it.

I'd like to talk about the N word.  It's a word I happen to have thought about a lot, mostly because I spent four years researching and writing a book called Jefferson's Sons, which is about the last 20 years of Thomas Jefferson's life as told through the eyes of his children with Sally Hemmings, a slave.  The book takes place between 1805 and 1826 and is absolutely as historically accurate as I can make it, with two exceptions:  I never attempt to write in dialect, and I don't use the N word.

I don't write in dialogue because I dislike reading dialect.  I also feel it's very difficult to do it well, and extremely difficult to use it in the sort of situation I had in Jefferson's Sons.  As my fellow writer John Rocco said when I described the book to him, "But these were real people.  How do you get away with that?"  If I'm using dialect, I'm forced to make all sorts of assumptions about how everyone spoke that I really don't know.  For instance, we do know that grammar was more fluid, especially in speech, in the colonial era--but when I tried to write accurate colonial dialogue in a previous, wholly fiction-based book, (Weaver's Daughter) my editor axed it on the grounds that we couldn't expect modern children to understand that this was probably how everyone spoke back then.  To modern children my characters sounded like illiterate hicks.  Thomas Jefferson was known to be an eloquent writer but a poor public speaker:  would he have sounded vastly more educated than Sally Hemmings, who was raised from earliest childhood inside his house, as the companion of his daughter?  Probably not.  Would Sally Hemmings, who primed her children from birth to understand that they would someday "pass" for white, have tolerated poor speech from them?  Probably not.  But who really knows?  Not me.  That whole "slave dialect" thing--was it real, or was it the product of Margaret Mitchell and her ilk? 

You can see why I left that alone. 

The N word is a whole nother kettle of fish.  It was absolutely historically accurate--it was used, along with several other offensive terms, to describe Jefferson's purported liason with Hemmings back as early as 1801.  (A hundred years later, in 1901, when Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to a private meal in the White House, the next day's New York Times headline was, "President Dines a Nigger."  The headline.  Look it up if you don't believe me.)  But I couldn't use it. 

I'm a white woman.  I find the word abhorrent. I write fiction for middle-schoolers.  The suggested reading range for Jefferson's Sons is grades 5-8.  If I put it into my book, even on a strictly historical basis, I would be in some sense condoning the use of the word.  Sure, I could say, this is strictly historical--but would the ten-year-old reading the story understand that?  Would the ten-year-old white boy realize that while it was common in 1805, it was completely unacceptable now?  Would the ten-year-old black girl feel marginalized? 

Would the school system teaching these 10-year-olds refuse to use the book?  Oh, yes.  Trust me on that one. 

It might be that if I were black I would have the nuanced understanding and the credentials to feel comfortable using the N word.  But I'm not.  The end.

One of the most interesting parts of the Rage Against the Minivan essay concerned white people complaining that black people got to use the N-word when white people didn't.  The response was, Do you want to use the N-word?  Why?  If not, why are you complaining?

Race is a complicated subject, but I don't feel sorry for Paula Deen.  She's not lost her freedom or her health or anything but money from companies who are looking at her and saying, you know, racists aren't really the best representatives for our products.  Bye.  With any luck, this will lead to less racists, or at least racists who think hard before organizing a "plantation" wedding featuring only black servers, or who allow their employees to be bullied based on race, or who ever use the N-word, even once, thirty years from now.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Peremptory and Proud-Minded: The Drama Days

Yesterday I got a sweet note from one of the kids I helped teach in a drama class--wait while I pause to do the math--oh, Lord--ten years ago.  Could it really be that long ago?  I'd gotten sort of sucked into the class.  I wanted to try my hand at adapting my novel Ruthie's Gift for the stage, but, before I could write anything, the middle school drama teacher asked if I could help throw something together for the first semester, first.  I suggested a few scenes from Shakespeare, along with modern translations.  She thought that sounded fun, so I spent a few hours picking out a couple of scenes from some plays, figuring I'd get the middle-schoolers to help write the modern translations.  At the time my own children were in second grade and kindergarten.  Middle-schoolers looked practically adult to me.  However, these middle-schoolers took one look at my Shakespeare pages and were horrified.  Absolutely gobsmacked.  "Don't worry," the regular drama teacher said, "Mrs. Bradley's going to help you."

So Mrs. Bradley stood in front of the class explaining what all the complicated old-fashioned words meant.  And then Mrs. Bradley helped craft the modern versions.  And then Mrs. Bradley helped cast the scenes.  I had a big advantage there--I didn't know one diddly thing about any of these students, except what they'd already revealed to me in class.  So that kid with the dark hair and the flashing eyes?  I thought intelligent instead of troublemaker.  I had no preconceptions.

The boy--man, now, he's a college graduate, headed to law school, but he was a boy then--who wrote me the note yesterday I cast as Petruchio from The Taming of the Shrew.  He shuffled up to me at the end of class, script in his hand, eyes on the floor.  "Mrs. Bradley," he whispered, "I can't do this."

I looked at the top of his head.  (He towers over me now.)  I didn't actually know whether he could do it or not.  I barely knew his name.  "Listen," I said, "I will make sure you understand what every word means.  I want you to try your hardest.  And if it turns out you really can't do it, I will change things until you can."

This was not the answer he hoped for.  He gulped and scuttled away, still looking at the ground.  And I, with a sigh, realized I'd just made a commitment to him.  To the class.  I was in.

Six weeks later the same boy jumped onto the wobbly stage we'd set up in the great room of the Presbyterian Church across the street from the school.  I can see him still in my mind's eye, as though it were yesterday, not a decade ago.  "Well, I'll tell you, father," he said, loud, clear, slow and bold, "I am as peremptory as she is proud-minded, and where two raging fires meet, they do consume the thing that feeds their fury.  So I am to her, and so she yields to me, for I am rough, and woo not like a babe."  And in the audience, I thought, "Yes!"

Sometimes it's better if you don't know what you are asking.  Speeches like:

“You lie, in faith; for you are call'd plain Kate,
And bonny Kate and sometimes Kate the curst;
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom
Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore, Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation."

really aren't that easy for a 12-year-old to pull off.    Let alone this exchange:
  • Katherina. Mov'd! in good time! Let him that mov'd you hither
    Remove you hence. I knew you at the first
    You were a moveable.
  • Petruchio. Thou hast hit it. Come, sit on me.
  • Katherina. Asses are made to bear, and so are you.
  • Petruchio. Women are made to bear, and so are you.
  • Katherina. No such jade as you, if me you mean.
  • Petruchio. Alas, good Kate, I will not burden thee!
    For, knowing thee to be but young and light-
  • Katherina. Too light for such a swain as you to catch;
    And yet as heavy as my weight should be.
  • Katherina. Well ta'en, and like a buzzard. 
  • Petruchio. O, slow-wing'd turtle, shall a buzzard take thee?
  • Katherina. Ay, for a turtle, as he takes a buzzard.
  • Petruchio. Come, come, you wasp; i' faith, you are too angry.
  • Katherina. If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
  • Petruchio. My remedy is then to pluck it out. 
  • Katherina. Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies.
  • Petruchio. Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting?
    In his tail.
  • Katherina. Yours, if you talk of tales; and so farewell. 
But I was lucky: my Kate was as talented as my Petruchio. (The next year "Kate" would have the starring role in Ruthie's Gift.) Not only did they remember the words, they made sense of them.  The scene was funny, as it was meant to be.

After the performance, one of the middle-school teachers came up to me.  "Who are you, and what did you do to that child?" she asked.  "I didn't do it," I said.  "He did."