Friday, August 30, 2013

A Story about a Time I was a Horrible Person

First I'm going to tell you the story of WHY I'm telling this story.  (Other than, it's a good story, one that doesn't tell well orally but should go down well on the page.)  A few weeks ago, Pope Francis shocked the world by commenting off-hand that if a homosexual priest was a good person, well, who was he to judge?  The idea of a Pope going along with that cast-the-first-stone message and not necessarily condemning 8% of the world's population was, well, a baby step in the right direction.  At least that's my Catholic opinion. 

I told my daughter about it, and she raised her fist and said, "Hey, gay people, guess what?  The Catholics aren't quite as afraid of you now!"

My daughter has never been afraid of gay people, or actually concerned about them in any way except as individuals.  But I still thought her comment hit the mark.  We condemn what we fear--and we fear what we don't know or don't understand.  It's fear--often wholly irrational--that causes prejudice, hatred, and a host of other sins.  This is a story about how I may have actually saved a man's life, but also about how I almost let him die, because I saw him as something to fear instead of as a human being.

Seven years ago, my family took a summer vacation to the Canadian Rockies.  On a glorious clear sunny afternoon, my young daughter and I took a trail ride up a mountain to a beautiful alpine lake and tea lodge.  It was absolutely perfect, except for one man on the ride who completely, utterly, creeped me out.

He was part of a group: himself, another dark-haired man in his 40s, and two beautiful dark-haired little girls.  I never found out what sort of relationship they all had--whether they were family or extended family or friends.  The girls were about my daughter's age, 8 or 10 years old, and they all played together while the ranch owner and the dark-haired man helped the creepy man onto a horse.

He was bald but probably not over 50, middle-height, average weight.  He walked with a lurch like the zombies in a low-budget horror film.  He spoke in random, staccato utterances--at first I thought he might have had Tourette's, except that the people I've known with Tourette's were capable of normal speech sometimes.  This man sagged and giggled and make noises like a tea kettle.  He clambered awkwardly onto a little draft pony that was as wide as it was tall, and thumped the pony on the neck, which the pony stoically endured.  Whhoooeee! he said, and giggled. 

He didn't leer at my daughter or make sexual gestures toward anyone, but even still the alarm bells in my head went to Defcon6.  Stayawaystayawaystayaway.  Very creepy man.  I know that the way I'm describing him makes him sound at worst a little odd and perhapsalso a terrible horseback rider; I don't actually have an excuse for the depths of my reaction to him except to say, he made my stomach churn.  I wanted to keep my daughter far, far away.  Truly, the man disgusted me.

There were probably ten of us on the ride.  My daughter rode ahead, chattering with the other little girls.  We went up the mountain through pine groves, grinning as we passed gasping sweat-drenched hikers.  Occasionally the trees would clear enough to give us a glimpse of some stunning mountain peak, still covered with snow in July.  We watered the horses at a lower lake and then climbed to the top, where we tethered the horses just below the little tea house.  There, on the shores of the prettiest lake I've ever seen, we ate cookies baked that morning and drank hot tea from heavy ceramic mugs.  And then, not unpredictably, my daughter and I needed a toilet.

The tea house could only be reached by foot, pack horse, or helicopter; of course there was no plumbing.  We were directed around a little stand of pines.  There we found a giant sort of staircase made from boulders that had tumbled down the slope--it was hard to say if they'd been shifted into position or just naturally fell that way.  We scrambled up using our hands as well as our feet.  At the top, well back from the edge, were two large outhouses.  My daughter was a little freaked out by them, so we went into one together.  When we came out, we saw in front of us, at the edge of the stones, the creepy man.

He looked even creepier than before.  He stood hunched with both hands raised to the level of his ears, gently swaying, his fingers waving as he talked to himself.  As I watched he shuffled one foot slightly forward, then back.  Forward, then back.  I grabbed my daughter to me.

And then I saw, with absolute clarity:  he was going to fall down the hill.

He was going to fall headfirst down that staircase of stone.

He was going to die.

"Stop!" I shouted, running forward. 

The man froze, instantly, completely, the way a small child would, and I saw by that that he too knew he was going to fall.

I scrambled down the edge of the rocks until I was beneath him.  I braced my legs and held up my forearm, ready to take his weight if I needed to.  "Grab my arm," I said.  "Both hands."  He did.  "Okay, now move your left foot down, just your left.  Put it right next to my foot.  Good.  Okay, now move your right foot down.  Okay, good.  Now wait--"  Still supporting him--he was leaning on me quite heavily--I repositioned my feet.  "Okay, now, left foot.   Good.  Again."

Bit by bit we carefully made our way down the rocks, my daughter following nimbly.  Midway we stopped for a breather.  We still had not spoken except for my instructions.  It was completely odd.  He was so fumbly and awkward.  He accepted my help without question or comment.  But then, he had to:  I understood that my brief vision had been true.  He would have fallen.  He would have died.

He grinned at me, a lurching, sideways grin.  I grinned back.  His creepiness had vanished--not surprisingly, since it had only existed in my mind.  "You had a head injury," I said.

"Whhhoooooeeeee!" he said.  "Whooee!  Did I ever!  I'm-I'm-I'm.  I'm speechandbalanceimpaired.  That's what.  Speechandbalanceimpaired."

We resumed our descent and had nearly reached the bottom when the not-so-creepy man's companion, the dark-haired guy, came around the stand of trees, no doubt in search of him.  I saw the dark-haired guy take in the tumbled stones, saw the look of horror on his face, saw it replaced by unutterable relief when he caught sight of the two of us at the bottom.  "He was going to fall," I said.

"Yes," the dark-haired man said.  "He was."

The other man, whom I could no longer call creepy, said, "Tell.  T-t-tell her."

So the dark-haired man related the story of how, only a few years previously, the two men had been on vacation bike riding in Scandinavia.  They were stopped at a red light when a truck hit the other man from behind, throwing him 30 feet into the air.  He had been wearing a helmet, but even so he lay in a coma in a foreign hospital for weeks.

The dark-haired man was a professor at Queens University in Ontario. 

They stood looking at me as though I was their new patron saint, which made me feel like the world's worst hypocrite.  "T-t-tell me your name," the brain-injured man said gently.  "I-I won't remember it, but tell me your name."

Thursday, August 29, 2013

I'm Back, but I Didn't Save the Deer

Sorry for the long absence.  Sorry in more ways than one--because of the idea, however faulty, that I may have inconvenienced those of my gentle readers (perhaps even both of you) who longed for something new to read these past two weeks, and sorrier still because it means I haven't been writing.  When I go too long  without writing the words start banging around inside my skull until I can't sleep because I'm too busy trying to get them all in order.

I'm aware this isn't a problem for most people.


I've been first to Fort Wayne, on a whirlwind 36-hour trip to see my friend Sarah before she heads back to her convent, and to see her mother, who's now in a rehab hospital.  It's amazing--I may say, miraculous--but she's healing from 50+ bone fractures, including to her C3 and C7 vertebrae and her skull, completely and without complications.  It will be a long time before she's well, but she, as a person, is entirely back.  She's herself, and she's not paralyzed, and she's not brain-damaged, nor is she blind (as she was for the first week after her accident).  I was there the day they first had clearance to allow her to bear some weight on her legs; the rehab staff rejoiced.  Thank you for all your prayers.

Then I was helping my son get ready to leave for college, which mostly involved buying stuff, and then I spent 5 days actually taking him to college, one each for the long drive there and back, and three for the student/parent orientation, which had the effect of making my son long for classes to begin.  For the students orientation was about moving in, meeting dormmates, getting IDs and student accounts and books, and learning all the new rules.  For the parents it was about two things: 1) please don't be a helicopter parent; and 2) please don't freak out if your child decides to major in anthropology.  One of the professors actually made all 4,000 freshman parents repeat in unison, "Anthropology!  Why, there's nothing you can't do with a major in Anthropology!"  (He was, of course, the chair of the anthropology department.)

Then I came home and caught the virus everyone else in my family already had, so spent a day inert on the couch.  Today, feeling much better, I drove my daughter down the driveway and encountered a deer.

A baby deer, off to the side of our driveway, just inside the fence, curled up the way its Mama taught it to lie curled in the bushes.  Only this one was right out in the open, which seemed odd.  At first it look like a large dog.  We stopped the van and stared at it.  "I think it's a deer," I said.

"If it's dead I don't want to look at it," my daughter said.

That may sound like a weird first reaction to you city folks, but we get dead animals sometimes in the country.  My dear good dog Xena once proudly brought home a deer head.  Our daily inspection of the water troughs is known as the "dead squirrel check," and I've encountered dead voles, groundhogs, mice, birds, skunks, rabbits, and snakes going about my daily business.  We get odd live animal encounters, too: for awhile I seemed to be breeding black widow spiders beneath one of the troughs, and once a 14-foot-long black snake stretched himself absolutely straight to sun himself on our driveway.  I know he was 14-foot-long because he perfectly fit on our 14-foot-wide drive.  It took me a few minutes of staring to realize he was fine, just basking, and I carefully drove through the grass to avoid him.  I love black snakes.

Anyway, the fawn raised its head to look at us, and perked its ears, which seemed reassuring, so we drove on.  "But where was Mama?" my daughter worried.  I worried about that, too; the fawn still had spots so wasn't old enough to be left on its own.  Perhaps Mama had been hit, I thought, and was lying in the ditch outside our fence.  It wouldn't be the first time.  When a deer dies, we call the county officials, who come and get it and throw it into a big walk-in freezer they keep, then eventually feed it to the wolves on exhibit on Bays Mountain.  I find this wholly reasonable.  But when I came home there was no evidence of Mama, dead or alive, and the fawn still lay curled on my lawn. 

I stopped the car and walked over to it.  It watched me unmoving.  I touched it, and it still didn't move.  It had been hurt, I saw:  there was some blood on its backside, and one leg was wounded.  It didn't look very damaged but there was something unnerving about the way the small creature let me roll it over and examine it without protest.

Now, I have sense enough to leave a wounded raccoon alone, and if I saw a wounded groundhog I'd probably take a pitchfork and move it just a little closer to the road, but Bambi was another thing entirely.  I went to the house and came back with a blanket.  The fawn struggled only once, feebly, as I carefully swaddled her; when I lifted her she felt as limp as a sleeping toddler.  I tucked her into the back of the van, hoping she wouldn't have a sudden resurgence of energy and fight her way loose while I was driving, and also hoping she wouldn't die on the way to the vet's.

I live in a small town and have a lot of animals, so when I staggered in carrying a blanket-wrapped bundle the vet's receptionist, Annina, said, "Oh, no--oh.  It's a deer."  Then she opened the door to the back and hollered, "Dr. Allen, Ms. Bradley's brought a deer," took my purse before I dropped it, and hustled me and the fawn into a room. 

Dr. Allen has been a friend for a long time.  He opened the blanket and carefully studied the little deer's wounds.  "Has to be internal injuries," he said.  "She's awfully out of it for no more damage than this."

"Coyotes?" I asked.  We've been having a coyote issue lately. 

He shook his head.  "They would have eaten her.  No, these are abrasions.  A car hit her."

I didn't think the fawn likely to survive, but I was still sorry.  Dr. Allen carried her off to put her down.  He didn't so much as put a note in my file, let along charge me, but this is the vet who refused to charge me to euthanize my dear good dog Xena on the grounds that I'd rescued her and given her a good life.  I didn't rescue the deer, as it turned out, but I did put an end to her suffering, and that's all the story I've got for today.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Habibi Family

My husband and I both had tramautic childhoods.  Yadda-yadda.  Whatever.  But then we got amazingly lucky.  We found each other early, and loved each other well.  (We also went to college 800 miles away from each other, which I've always thought was important--but that's another story.)  And we got married, and grew up (probably in that order), and were blessed with two fantastic children.  We have not had a trouble-free life, but we've had a very happy one.

A week from tomorrow we take our son to college.  I'm terrifically proud of and happy for him.  He worked hard all through high school with a goal in mind, and he achieved it; he's going somewhere I think will be perfect for him.  And yet.  It's so far, and we'll miss him, and none of us know what it will be like, to have one member of our little family somewhere else.  It's a big change. 

All the last month I've been thinking of funny stories about my son, from when he was 2, 7, 15--I can't write about any of themn, because he's asked me not to.  But I will say this.  When we were in Egypt last winter, our first tour guide, halfway through the first day, said, "I'm going to call you my Habibi Family."  All though Dendara and Alexandria he said, "Come now, habibi family, let me take your photo."  "Habibi family, these tombs have some of the finest stone carvings in Egypt."  "Habibi family, where would you like to eat lunch?" 

It was clear to us that habibi was a nice word, but he wouldn't translate it, not really.  So we asked our second tour guide what it meant.  "He called you that?" The man shook his head.  "Huh.  It means 'darling.'"

When my son was perhaps two weeks old, I told my mother over the phone, "I just wish he were a little older, so he could do something."  He was waking up a lot, and eating, and crying a little, but I wanted smiles or purposeful movement or some sense that he recognized me. 

"Don't say that," my mother said sharply.  "Don't ever wish that.  Time will go faster than you think.  He'll be grown before you know it."

She was right, of course, and so was our tour guide.  My sweet habibi family.  We have had so much fun.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Test-Driving the McDonald's Budget in Bristol

Recently McDonald's Corporation put up on their company website a helpful little pamphlet designed to help their millions of minimum-wage employees with household budgeting.  It's created a bit of a backlash, mostly because it was so startlingly unuseful  and out of touch with reality.  My guess is that the people who created that budget don't actually have to live on it. 

Now my personal budget, besides being none of your business, is not much like the McDonald's budget.  However, when we interview clients at Faith in Action we ask detailed questions about their monthly expenses.  So I've got a pretty good idea what the minimum you can get by on in Bristol is.  Therefore I thought I'd give the McDonald's budget a whirl--edited for the realities of my small town.

First off, for the purposes of the exercise, let's assume I'm a young adult, single, with no children and a high-school degree.  The McDonald's budget has me working two near-minimum-wage jobs, one for 35 and one for 30 hours per week.  In Bristol I don't think this would fly.  Your average fast-food restaurant hereabouts only hires for 25 hours a week--I assume so they don't accidentally over-schedule anyone into "full-time."  So let's give me 25 hours per week at one job, and say I get lucky and pick up 15 hours a week somewhere else.  This might be rare, but I'm a go-getter.  But I'm also new, so minimum wage.  That gives me $290 per week; $1256 per month.  Of course there will be some deductions taken out, but I'll be generous and give me $1250/month to work with.

McDonald's suggests "savings" as the first line item in monthly expenses.  Let's get real here and leave that for last.  Mortgage/rent--McDonald's puts down $600. In Bristol I know I can find substandard housing for $400/month, which I'll happily accept.

Car payment:  McDonald's lists $150.  That'd be a pretty lousy car by most standards, so it feels right.  We'll go with $150 too.  McDonald's has car and home insurance as $100/month.  I'm not going to bother with renter's insurance, but I will get car insurance, bare bones, for $60/month. 

McDonald's leaves off gasoline.  Guess the execs get it for free.  I'm not going to drive my beater very far, but I do have to get back and forth to both my jobs.  We'll go $80/month.

If my car breaks--and it will--I'll dip into the savings I haven't got yet for repair.

McDonald's lists health insurance as $20/month.  I'm honestly not sure what they're smoking here.  I just Googled it, and read that the IRS says that in 2016, the cheapest health insurance that would cover a family of four to the extent required by the new universal coverage law would cost $20,000 per year.  Extrapolated, that would cost my solo hypothetical person over $400/month.  Another post says that $20/month would only get me accident-only coverage.  I can find a student plan with a high deductible and capped coverage for $75/month.  I'll take that one.

McDonald's lists heating ($50) and electric ($90) as separate entities.  Here in the South, we usually heat with electric heat pumps, so I'll combine these two.  A monthly charge of $140 is probably low for my substandard apartment, but I'm feeling lucky so we'll go with that.  McDonald's says $50 for cable/phone/internet.  I can get basic cable, internet, and phone for $80/month in Bristol.  But things are starting to look a little tight in my hypothetical budget.  I'll skip cable, use the internet for free at the library, and get a basic cell phone (cheaper than a landline, because I don't have to pay startup costs) for $40/month.

How about water/sewer/trash pickup?  McDonald's skips that, but in my city it's sometimes included in the rent, sometimes not.  Water and sewer won't be less than $40/month.

Now to the big one that McDonald's leaves out:  food.  I can't decide if they're figuring anyone who works 65 hours a week at McDonald's will just eat most of their meals there (according to another quick Google survey, some McDonald's give a free meal per shift, others give meals for half-price) or if they just aren't thinking at all. 

I checked, and it turns out that at my income level I'm not eligible for food stamps in either Virginia or Tennessee (Bristol straddles the state line).  The absolute maximum food stamp benefit for a single person is $200/month, so let's assume I spend that much on food, plus an additional $20/month for non-food grocery items such as shampoo and toilet paper.

Clothing?  I guess I shop at Goodwill.  McDonald's doesn't have a line-item for this category, but a girl's got to wear something.  I'll give myself $5/month to go wild.  And, you know, I really do want to save something.  I'll stash $10/month under my mattress (I haven't got a bank account) for a rainy day, or for when my cheap car breaks, whichever comes first.  Oh, shoot, I forgot laundry.  I haven't got a washer and dryer, so I have to go to the laundromat.  One load per week, washing and drying, adds $10/month to my bill.

When McDonald's adds their hypothetical budget up, they list $100/month for "savings" and $100/month for "other."  Their 65-hour per week worker then gets a total of $750/month for "spending money."  Presumably this does include the items they left out:  food, gasoline, water, clothes.  Still, it's more than I've got left.  I'm down to $20/month, which, as the McDonald's calculator helpful points out, is a whopping sixty-six a day.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Because I Don't Let Myself Down

Enthusiasm is at a low ebb here today.  My muse, I think she's on vacation.  Somewhere exotic, like Australia.  Somewhere far, far away.

I have on my desk here two books.  One is a slightly entertaining romance novel I've already read.  The other is my novel in progress.  The slightly entertaining romance novel looks way better to me.

Here's the thing:  do you know what's stopping me from curling up on the couch with the good afghan and the SERN, to while away this grey Monday morning?  What's stopping me from taking a nap?

Not money.  Frankly, I don't make enough for that.
Not fame.  Got over that speed bump long ago.
Not love for my work.  Sorry.  Not feeling it today.
Not the particular brillance of my work.  Jury's still out on that one, and, this morning, the work in progress is looking especially bad.

What's stopping me?

I am.

This is what I do.  So I've got to do it, that's all.  Even at the expense of a slightly entertaining romance novel, and a warm and comforting couch.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Again Disturbing the Universe: Gallileo, Creationism, and Me.

I just wrote the start of a blog post, thought about it, and deleted it, mostly because I value my family's privacy over my writing.  I try like heck to not embarrass or offend them, or tell stories that are not mine.  Which is such a bummer, because as my son is about to leave for college I keep remembering every little funny story about his baby- and childhood, and he'd kill me for telling you.  I'll just have to work the stories into my fiction.

Yes, I do that.  But if you think you recognize yourself or someone else in my books, you're probably wrong.  I'm good at disguises.

Okay, so instead today I'm going to approach a mild topic.  Science vs. Religion.  Noncontroversial, right? 

Once upon a time, the Catholic church (which was, at that time, the only Christian church) got very upset with Gallileo, because he proved via science (astronomy and math) that the earth was not in fact the center of the universe.  Gallileo offered scientific proof that the earth and other planets revolved around the sun.

This made church leaders very afraid.  For centuries they'd taught that the earth was the center, the literal physical center, of God's creation.  If people quit believing that the earth was the literal physical center of the universe, the Church was afraid they would quit believing in God.  That's what was at stake.  So, entirely ignoring the logic and beauty of Gallileo's findings, the Church arrested him, excommunicated him, and eventually forced him to recant.  Forced him to say that his greatest discovery--one of the greatest scientific discoveries in history--was a lie. 

A few years back, the Catholic Church formally admitted that Gallileo had been right all along.  By that point the scientific argument had been over for so long that barely anyone remembered it; everyone knew the earth went around the sun.  They also still mostly believed in God, and if they didn't believe in God, it wasn't because of the sun's orbit.   Funny, that.

Now, as far as I can tell, we've got another similar problem:  creationism vs. evolution.  The age of the Earth.  Is it six billion or six thousand years old?  Does life on earth evolve?  (Please note, before you get all hippy in the comments:  whether life evolves is NOT the same thing as saying humans [I first accidentally typed "husbands," talk about your Freudian slips] descended from monkeys.  It really isn't.  If I have to I'll address that in a later post.  I hope I don't have to.)  Science says pretty emphatically that the earth is 4,540,000,000 years old, give or take 50,000,000 years.  Biblical literalists say it is 6,000 years old.  There's a difference there, and it's this:  biblical literalists think that if people quit believing the earth is only 6,000 years old, they will quit believing in God.

Which begs the question:  do biblical literalists still think the sun orbits the earth?

Here's what I think:  First Corinthians 13:12, "For now we see as though through a glass darkly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I am also known."  In other words, we're not supposed to understand everything on this earth.  It's okay if we haven't got it all figured out.  It's okay if the universe doesn't bend itself to our small human understanding.

Also, the more science you know, accept, believe, the cooler God's creation gets.  There's a reason most scientists believe in God.  This stuff's amazing.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Because I Dared Disturb the Universe

The very best thing about writing a letter to Jane Yolen, as I did last week, is that Jane Yolen wrote me back.  It's in the comments on the post, if you want proof.  It made me happy, and it made me laugh, and it made me think, particularly the part where she said she remembered me as, "afraid of my own shadow."

I wasn't afraid of my shadow.  I was afraid of my future.

Understand, I would become the first person in my direct linea to graduate from a four-year college.  On my father's side I had a grandmother who went to a two-year teacher's college; on my mother's side, a grandmother who was put to work after eighth grade so that her family could afford to keep her younger brothers in school.  My parents were very proud of my academic achievements, and very happy to make the sacrifices necessary to send me to a really good school.  And, in return, I was supposed to become a doctor.

Imagine how fantastic that would be!  A doctor in the family!  Sometimes it felt like the right choice for me--I loved science, chemistry at least, and I enjoyed being a candy-striper at the hospital--but my favorite candy-striping post was at the pharmacy, where the pharmacist taught me to read the latin abbreviations and type the prescription labels myself.  Perhaps that should have told me something.

I loved lab work, but I hated biology, particularly in college.  The fruit fly breeding experiment drove me bananas, and I nearly let a horseshoe crab bleed to death before I realized that the pale blue puddle spreading underneath it was its blood.  Anatomy and physiology was the only college class I actively despised, mostly because I would study and study and study with my friend Antoinette, and I would swear I knew the material as well as she did, and then we'd get our exams back and she'd have a 94% and I'd have an 82% and I was not used to trying hard and not doing well.  (Antoinette, by the way, is now a doctor.)

I hated studying for the MCAT, but I made myself do it, and I ended up doing pretty well.  Well enough to get into Indiana Medical School early decision, alongside my fiance.  I remember getting the acceptance letter on a day I was babysitting one of my chemistry professor's baby boys, and hugging little Kielin to me while I read the letter out loud.  "What do you think of that?" I asked him.  One of my friends walked by.  "Kim," she said, "you don't sound happy at all."

Happy was my writing classes, most of which were admission by application only.  Happy was writing a short story that contained a death, even though the professor had told us she didn't want to read short stories where people died,because no one our age could do it well, and having the whole class look at me with profound sympathy, afraid to critique my work at all, until I laughed and said, "This is fiction.  I made it up." and then having them all look really irritated, because they didn't think I could write like that unless I was writing about something that happened to me.

Happy was reading a revision of a picture book manuscript at the Hatfield meeting, and having Jane Yolen herself say, "Kimberly, you've fixed everything.  That's perfect."  It turned out not to be publishable, not quite, but it was perfect.  On the way home Barbara Goldin and Cornelia Cornelissum shot sideways glances at me.  One of them said, "Well, she certainly liked your stuff," and I giggled, because she did.

It was such a radical act, to think I could become a writer.  A person with no guaranteed income at all.  To think I could be published--who was I, to think that?  And yet I was reading a manuscript that met the proper form for a picture book, and I was revising it, and then I was sending it out to actual editors.  I was taking writing seriously.  It felt radical and defiant.  Also the only thing for me to do.

All my husband ever wanted to do was become an eye surgeon.  He's brilliant at it.  Medical school was his one true path and he followed it unerringly.

All I ever wanted to do was deserve my education.  Use my gifts.  And, in the end--this was the surprising part--be happy.

Just before I quit medical school, six weeks into my first semester, I said to my new husband, "I can stick this out.  I can manage four years."

He put his hand to my face and said, "And in four years, you still won't want to be a doctor, and you'll have wasted four years."

So I got a job to pay our bills, and in the evenings I wrote and wrote, and I never looked back, not once.  Also, I quit being afraid.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Sea Change

I swear I'm not being a slacker.

I've loved my summer, but for seven weeks now I've fretted about not working hard enough on my novel.  I've got a stack of revisions and, today, all the time in the world.  My daughter's at school, my husband's at work, and my son is upstairs sleeping through his last few weeks before college.

It's 8:11 am.  I'm done for the day.

Of course I can write a blog post, and I can work on my latest review for Kirkus.  There's also the breakfast dishes and an awesome pile of laundry.  Plenty of stuff to occupy my time.

I'm not being a slacker.  I worked from 7:14 am until 8:11 am, and in that time, something changed.  The novel shifted.  My editor had wanted some specific alterations in how I portrayed my main character, and when I first read her comments I didn't understand them.  I understood the comments, but I wasn't sure how to apply them.  I didn't quite get why she wanted the change.

Today I got it.  I got it all at once, like someone dumped a big bucket of Get-A-Clue over my head.  I got it, and it took my breath away.  My head is whirling now.  So I'm going to have to take it slow.  I'm at the start of Chapter Ten, and I can see I need to give this some thought.  Step away from the keyboard and think.

This is how I work.  I'm sure it's not how everyone works.  It's not how I work in first draft mode, where what I need to do is forge ahead, regardless.  But just now, in third draft mode--it's time to get the nuances right.

I can't wait to show this book to everyone.   I say this is my third draft, but the first chapter alone took about eight tries to get right.  I love my anxious, courageous Ada.  I love how she forges ahead.

Awhile back, I was asked by Grammarly if I would mention them in my next post about writing.  I wasn't familiar with them so I went online and had a look.  They're a grammar-correcting service, and honestly, they look pretty good.  I'm not anxious about my own grammar yet--I'll take care of that in the copyediting stage, down the road--but I could see Grammarly being pretty useful for college students or professional reports.  (Back when I was a chemist, I loved writing Quarterly Reports--they were so much easier for me than for the other chemists in my group that I got to be Queen for the Day, wandering around, finished with my work, correcting everyone else's.)  I'll show the website to my son, if he ever wakes up today.

This post was sponsored by Grammarly.  It's my first sponsored blog post.  Woo-hoo!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Dear Jane Yolen

Dear Jane,

I have loved you since I went down to the basement of the Hatfield, Massachusetts, public library as a wet-behind-the-ears college sophomore and you taught me that I could write.  It was the third-Thursday-night meetings of the Society of Children's Book Writers (not yet And Illustrators, this was 1987), which you led, and I was supposed to be headed to medical school.  The writing thing was growing in my soul but I couldn't tell the folks back home.

Do you remember me at all?  Barbara Diamond Goldin used to give me a ride from Northampton to Hatfield.  I babysat her kids sometimes, too.  Once when I offered her son--he was probably five years old--a glass of milk with his hot dog, he narrowed his eyes at me and asked, "Are you a Jew?"  I told him, no, sorry, but I understood Kosher and I got him some juice.

Anyway, Jane, lately you've been intimidating the shorts off of me, and I don't intimidate easy.  But your Facebook posts have all been, "Woke up and wrote five poems before breakfast.  Took a walk, revised six picture books, figured out what was wrong with the latest novel, fixed that, signed a contract, and then started thinking about lunch."

My latest novel--my 17th, as opposed to your what?  Two hundredth?  Three hundredth?  Seriously, I know we toasted your 100th book back before I graduated college--anyway, it came back for revisions the second night of pony club camp, mid-June, when I had 10 teenagers occupying my attention around the clock.  I actually flicked my fingers through my editor's notes and put them on the sideboard unread.

The notes were excellent, as always, but then it was time for a week in Kentucky, again with the pony club, and after that I had extended family staying the week of the Fourth of July, and then we went to Ireland, and then pony club championships, and then yesterday I had an appointment in Nashville.  That's a five-hour drive for me, each way, and it was dreadful.  At one point last night, when it started to rain, and my wipers weren't really working, and my daughter was sobbing her way through the last pages of  The Book Thief, I began to thinking that I was actually driving into the center of a black hole, that time was stretching out until each second became an eternity and we were never, ever, going to reach our destination.

And I can't tell you how much I longed for my novel. 

I've been messing with it.  I've done a bit more research for the stuff I'd missed, and I made up some notes, and I read my editor's notes and comments (blue pencil on the actual manuscript, so old-fashioned, I love it) and I started work.  And I can see now how the ending needs to be, can see it shimmering in the bomb dust above the sparkle of a hundred panes of shattered glass.  What I need now is to put my butt in my chair.

I've known, because you taught me, that writing is more work than inspiration.  I've known that stories can be stretched like Silly Putty, that new scenes and characters can be worked in and others worked out so that the reader will never know what a mess the first draft had been.  I take my work seriously.  But I take my children seriously, too.  I doubt I'll regret the hours I've spent hanging out with my son this last summer before he goes to college.  I doubt I'll wish I'd published one more book instead of watching my daughter ride at the East Coast Championships.  I know in the future I'll think this summer well-spent, but sometimes when I read your posts I felt like such a slacker for not writing more, and until yesterday I envied the heck out of your productivity, your work ethic, your seeming lack of distraction.  I didn't know how to reconcile what looked like your streamlined life with the messiness of mine.

Thank you for yesterday's post.  The one in which you spoke of how much you were missing your children and grandchildren; the one in which you noted that it would have been your late husband's birthday.  The one in which you said that holing up in Scotland was lonely sometimes, but amazingly productive.  You took away my self-imposed burden.  It's not so much that I think I'd be amazingly productive if I had a few solo months in Scotland.  It's that you reminded me of this verse from Ecclesiastes: "For everything there is a season."  We are in different seasons, you and I.

Today my daughter started school again (August 1!  It's blasphemy!).  I'm working later at Faith in Action, but this morning, before I so much as thought about this blog post, I sat down at my desk, shoved the bills to one side, ignored the whining dog (Ok, I took him out, but then I ignored him), and figured out what was wrong with Chapter Three of my novel.  And then I fixed it. 

And then I wrote this to say, Thank you, Jane Yolen.  No one in my family was ever an artist before me.  No one thought it was something one of us could be.  You took me seriously 26 years ago.  When I came to the Thursday meeting with the news that I'd published my first piece of writing, but downplayed it as only a small article in a horsey magazine, you pulled me up short with, "Did they send you a check?"

"Yes," I said.

"And did you cash it and use it to pay your light bill?"

"Actually," I said, "I used it to pay my phone bill."

"That counts," you said.  "You're a writer."

Even this summer, I still am.