Monday, March 31, 2014

Temptations in the Wilderness

co-posted on Beauty From Chaos

During his 40 days in the wilderness, Satan tempted Jesus with 3 things: adulation, self-sufficiency, and immortality.

Jesus and I have this in common.

I was sick all last week, horizontal on the couch for much of it, and one thing I realized is how much I hate being in need. I like to be the caregiver; I like to think I can handle anything, alone. It's sinful, full stop; if we think we are beyond the need of our fellow humans, we're also believing ourselves beyond the need of God. Yet while I could certainly stagger to the refrigerator and fix myself lunch last week, despite my weakened condition, I can't assure my own salvation. I can't offer myself forgiveness of sins. How much better to be reminded of my neediness by accepting my family's care, by letting my husband bring me lunch and my daughter tuck a blanket around me.

How scary, to rely on other people. How imperative.

And for me, a novelist, adulation and immortality are in some way combined. Shakespeare's words live today, and Milton's, and Austen's--and wouldn't I love to be known like that? I would settle for a few days--weeks--at the top of the New York Times' Bestseller List. Or thousands of people could flock daily to my blog. Or Wal-Mart might carry my books--that would be pretty cool.

Me, me, me. The self-centered introspection that is the opposite of a journey through the wilderness.

I wrote a blog post at the tail end of last week. It was an angry post, because I was angry about some specific events that happened last week within the American Evangelical faith tradition. You could argue that as a Catholic I ought to leave the Evangelicals alone--but, at any rate, I didn't. That's fine except of course for my desire to be not only critical and angry, but also right. And justified. Perhaps even celebrated? For my wisdom and erudition, of course.

Fortunately I am still not alone. I can rely on the grace of others, even if it takes me some time to believe it. And so my friend Jess emailed me a link at the close of the week--no explanation given, just another blog post to read. The entire post is here, but the salient part reads, "love is without limits, every one of us is a part of the sacred, every one of us has worth and dignity, each of us is tied to the other in an infinite web of love and connection." In other words, quit exalting yourself, Kim Bradley. Remember to love as you are loved. Remember the temptations in this wilderness, and if you can, step aside.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Further Rants on Homosexuality: The World Vision Fiasco

I've been sick. It's my annual Very-Bad-Cold-That-Morphs-Into-A-Sinus-Infection, and I'm not sure why I always fight taking antibiotics, because truly they are a wonderful thing. Anyhow, excuse my absence.

While I was gone, half of my Twitterverse (for the record, my Twitterverse consists of religious blogs, yarn blogs, eventing Tweets, and John Green) blew up about the World Vision thing, which, if your Twitterverse doesn't look like mine, consisted of the following:

1. World Vision, a well-respected international social justice organization with employees in many countries and many U.S. states, announced that they would extend their U.S. hiring practices to include legally married gay couples. WV's current hiring policies require that employees be celibate or married--abstaining from unmarried sex. WV stated that they were not commenting on the morality of gay marriage, but merely recognizing that while they consider themselves Christian in a broad sense, their employees have always stemmed from a wide range of Christian denominations, including those--the American Episcopal Church and the  Lutheran Church, to name two--which recognize gay marriage, as do many U.S. States.

2. Evangelical Christians went berserk, writing impassioned blog posts about sin and exhorting Christians to drop their World Vision sponsorships of poor children living in the developing world.

3. Some of my favorite bloggers went nuts back, imploring Christians to quit focusing so much on sex and, above all, not punish children living in extreme poverty because of their hatred of gay people.

3a. I'm slightly oversimplifying for brevity, but not much.

4. Over 2000 people dropped the child they sponsored through World Vision in the first 24 hours.

5. World Vision rescinded their decision to hire married homosexuals.

I'm Catholic, as I said before. I don't come from an Evangelical background, so there are a lot of things I just don't get, including but not limited to young earth creationism, complementarism, and the whole idea that girls are responsible for dressing so as not to lead boys into sin (I think boys should be responsible for themselves.). This strident anti-homosexuality is wearing me down. I don't understand it. So, as I lay on the couch this week, I tried to. I tried to see the threat in it. After all, most Evangelicals don't believe in Transubstantiation, but they don't seem to be threatened by it. I've never had an Evangelical give me grief about Transubstantiation, even though I would say it's probably the biggest difference, doctrinally speaking, between my beliefs and theirs. (They get all hung up on Mary--and yet, I've never met an Evangelical who could accurately tell me what I believe about Mary.)

I finally figured it out, I think. Evangelicals believe that being gay is a sin, and they also believe that it's a choice. Therefore, if gay people become acceptable to society, pretty soon they'll be everywhere. I'm still not sure what the threat of that is. Catholics are also everywhere. Muslims, Hindus, they're everywhere too, and don't seem to be causing harm. In fact, while World Vision is a Christian organization, they do not spread religion, and they operate in many non-Christian parts of the world without proselytizing.

The Evangelical mindset toward homosexuality is causing grievious harm. (For the record, the official Catholic teaching--that being gay isn't sinful, but gay relationships are--also causes a lot of harm, and causes a lot of people to leave the church. But my limited experience is that many Catholic people disagree with the official Catholic teaching here, accept their gay brothers and sisters lovingly, and wish everyone could receive full acceptance into the Church.) If you're a child growing into the realization that you're gay, and all your life you hear that being gay is a sin, that God hates gays, that even though you personally love Jesus you should not be calling yourself a Christian--you'll turn your back on God. You'll be turned away by the very people who should be calling you towards Him. Many gay children attempt suicide in despair. Some of them succeed.

We are told we are made "in the image and likeness of God." (Genesis 1:27). All of us. And science now offers compelling evidence that people's sexual orientation is caused by an interplay of genetic factors and hormones present or absent in the womb. Gay people are born that way. Also, as far as anyone can tell, the percentage of gay people in the world has stayed the same not for centuries but for millenia.

If you don't believe in science--just because something's true doesn't mean you have to believe it--ask yourself this: when did you chose your sexual orientation? At what point in your life did you look around and make this choice? If it wasn't a choice for you, why would it be a choice for anyone else?

And why on earth does it matter? I'm sorry, I'm trying to understand. I'm trying hard to step inside Evangelical shoes, to comprehend all this as something other than hatred and malice. I haven't gotten very far.

Here is something I wish Evangelicals would understand: I read the Bible too. I read the same verses they read, and I disagree about what they mean. Not just the ones Evangelicals claim condemn homosexuality; many other verses, too. (Transubstantiation: "This is my Body." What could be more clear?) That isn't surprising. If the Bible could truly be taken literally and inerrantly, in every language and translation, we wouldn't have so many different versions of Christianity. We'd have one version. Which we don't. Which is good, because if the only available version of Christianity was Evangelicism, I regret to say I would be out the door.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Westboro Baptist, Fred Phelps, and Worshipping Hate

Whoo, boy. So. Last night, Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, died at age 84.  Westboro Baptist--which is not related to any other baptist or otherwise church in the country, and which boasts a membership of 20 people, predominently Fred, his wife, several of their 13 children, those children's spouses, and other family members--is the church famous for picketing, among other things, funerals of our military dead with signs saying that God wanted them to die. They have tested the limit of the First Amendment all the way up to the Supreme Court, and have become famous for their hate-mongering vitriol.

This morning a few of my friends on Facebook were celebrating Fred's demise, sort of a ding-dong, the witch is dead, posts. I felt a little badly about celebrating someone's death. I regretted the wretched waste of Fred Phelp's life. But Westboro wasn't too high on my radar, so, before I started this post, I Googled them.

Wow. To start with, their main church website is They have sister websites, among them Godhatestheworld, GodhatesIslam, Godhatesthemedia, Priestsrapeboys, JewskilledJesus, and BeastObama.

They post their picket schedule. Today is Midland Theater in Kansas City, where Lorde is performing. They don't have much to say about her; their diatribe ends, "blah, blah, barf." Tomorrow is another theater in Kansas City, to denounce "fag filth furthering" "potty mouth" Kathy Griffith. Then on Sunday, at what looks like right before the 9am Mass, they'll be picketing St. Patrick's Church in Osage City, Kansas, in an apparent protest against the Pope: "You love his sin-teaching false doctrine, because it justifies you in your rebellion against God. The catholic church is filthy from stem to stern, the anti-church, full of idols."

It goes on from there. The whole website goes on and on, more wretched and hate-filled than anything I've ever read. Including a "Numbers" list that tallies the number of soldiers "God has killed in Iraq," the number of people "God has cast into hell since you loaded this page" (622--I'm a slow reader, or God's pretty quick with the casting), and adds, "Zero--- nanoseconds of sleep that WBC members lose over your opinions and feeeeellllliiiiiings." Here's what they have to say about soldiers: "These turkeys are not heroes. They are lazy, incompetent idiots looking for jobs because they're not qualified for honest work."

I'm done. My feeeellllliiiiiings have changed. I'm glad he's dead. I'm relieved he's gone. Most cults fall apart with the death of their creator, and today I'll ask you to join me in prayer that Westboro Baptist becomes on of them.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

When I Was the Library Lady

Yesterday I had coffee with a friend who is a teacher. She told me a story I can't quit thinking about, but I also can't tell you, because it concerns a child and because I can't think of any way of adequately disguising it while also telling enough of the truth to make it worthwhile.

So I'm going to tell you about the Janie Hammitt girls instead. It's probably a long story, and it's a little weird at first. Bear with me.

I knew that the building up far from the road, after the train tracks but before the old Douglass school, was the Janie Hammitt Home, but I didn't have any real understanding of what that was. I knew there were girls living there, but not what girls, or how many, or why. I passed the building at least 4 times a day, on the way back and forth to take and pick up my children from school, and I never thought about it until one day, when I was driving, God said to me, very clearly, You need to put a library in the Janie Hammitt Home.

That's the weird part, God talking, etc. I promise, it's over. Except that it seemed so strange to me, and yet absolutely something I had to do. So I looked the number up in the phone book (this was years ago) and I called the JHH, and told them I needed to come in to talk to them about giving them a library. (I didn't tell them the God bit; I never mentioned that to anyone, except, probably, my husband.) (I'm still a little shy about talking about it, but it's true.)

They sort of said O-k-ayy. I came in carrying two books, both hardcovers, my own For Freedom and another I don't remember, except that it was probably something I'd bought and read on my own, but was YA. I handed the books to the woman in charge of the place, and she looked at them and said, "OH," in a way that made me realize she'd thought of children's books as picture books only. "Yes," I said. "Not bunny books. These."

She told me to go ahead.

The Janie Hammitt Home housed up to 18 girls between the ages of 13 and 18 who were unplaced in foster care. They'd been removed from their families but no one else would take them. Some of them stayed for days, until an appropriate placement came along; some stayed for years. Until I got there, all they had to read was 2 ancient hardbound copies of Reader's Digest Condensed Books and an encyclopedia from the 1980s. They couldn't use the public library, because our library requires anyone under 18 to have an adult sign the card, and no one working at the Home would sign for them for fear they would steal books.

I bought a bookcase and put it in the corner of their living room. I solicited donations, from my editors, the phenomenal woman from Kirkus, Karen Block Breen, from my friends, from my mother's book club (one does not charge for speaking at one's mother's book club; one can, however, beg for donations for the pet project of one's choice). I started out trying to put in a checkout system like a real library, but I gave that up; it was too much work. I stuck the books in the shelves. Sometimes I alphabetized them. The girls watched warily at first. I didn't explain, other that to say that they were books to read. I included some picture books, my favorites. I had YA drama and self-help books and later, at the girls' request, a lot of true crime.

Sometimes I took them pizza. Sometimes I handed out certificates worth a free book of their choice, and I was amazed by how quickly they would write down the name of the book they wanted, and hand it back to me. I told them my name, but they all called me Library Lady.

Sometimes they stole books. Actually, quite often they stole books. When I stopped by girls would tell me that such-and-such title was gone, could we get another copy? Usually this was right after someone had left the house for good. The managers were greatly distressed; they assured me that they searched the girls' luggage before they left, but in truth it was easy to slip some books into their high school or middle school lockers. Bristol, VA, has only one high and one middle school, so wherever the girls were living they'd stay in the same school. I could never convince the managers that I didn't care when books disappeared. If a girl needed a book she should have it. The books on the library shelves couldn't be bought at Wal-Mart, which was the only place these girls were ever taken to shop.

Once in the summer a girl who'd never spoken to me before looked up from the book she was reading and said, "You have no idea how much trouble you're keeping me out of. You have no idea." Once a girl promised me that nothing in any book could be overly traumatic for any girl at the JHH because, "whatever anybody can do, we've already had it done."

Once--my favorite moment ever--I got out of the car and before I'd rung the doorbell a girl came flying out, yelling, "Did you bring Harry Potter Seven?" It was a day or so after its release date, and I had the book in my hand. I held it out to her, and she ran back inside, waving it over her head and yelling, "She brought it! She brought it! DIBS!"

Many people take on foster children for altruistic reasons. Many others, particularly those willing to house difficult teenagers, do it for money. When the economy tanked and jobs in Bristol vanished, suddenly there were no girls unplaced in foster care. The Janie Hammitt Home closed. It remains closed. I don't know what happened to the books, but I like to think that the girls stole them all, cleaned out the shelves on their way out the door.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Buying Books at the National Archives

Once upon a time--it was probably several years into our marriage, because for the first biO I couldn't really afford to buy books, but once I could, all bets were off--my husband asked, "Do you ever think you'll have gotten enough books?"

I blinked. I'd really never considered the question. But I gave him an honest answer: "only if people quit writing new ones."

At my last school visit, a 6th grader asked me how many books I read. "Probably, um, five or six a week," I said. Another child raised her hand. "That's, like, practically one a day," she said.

"Yeah," I said. "That's about right."

I just spent the weekend in Washington, DC. This was a trip we'd promised our daughter for her fall break, only to have the government shut down. We'd moved it to the very few days in which her spring break overlapped with our college-age son's spring break, and did our best to hit the highlights. Saturday started out with the Air and Space Museum. We took a docent tour. I loved it because it was all stories; the rest of the family thought it a bit long-winded. We all took naps during the planetarium show--sorry--and then we capped the experience with a trip to the museum bookstore. Gift shop. Whatever.

I love museum bookstores. They rank right up with my very favorite independent bookstores (for the record: Parnassus in Nashville, Malaprop's in Asheville, and Kids Ink, Indianapolis) in terms of browsing potential. Museum bookstores have quirky history books you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else, and I never pass up a good opportunity to do research. Even when I was a kid I loved these bookstores--when I was eleven we came to Washington, and I bought books about Lincoln's assassination at the store in the Ford Theatre. I got on a serious Lincoln kick; if I'd have been older, I'd have written a book about him.

So. The Air and Space museum, in terms of books, was a bust. Sorry, but there you are.

After that we went in search of good ice cream, found it, then walked miles to the Jefferson Memorial, where they did not sell my book in the (very small) bookstore. Duh, said my husband. We were at Jefferson's shrine, not likely they wanted to mention his enslaved offspring. I noted they weren't selling Annette Gordon-Reed's book there, either.

The next morning we went to the National Archives. Honestly, you could take any old yellow smudged piece of parchment and call it the Declaration of Independence: the original is just not readable anymore. But still kind of cool. I could have spent hours in the Archives bookstore, which beckoned me like those sirens from the Odyssey, except that we ran out of time. We had to get back to the hotel, get our son's luggage, and get him onto a plane going back to his college. So I just ran in, for a quick peek, and there it was: my book, Jefferson's Sons, for sale.

It was completely cool. I took a photo and put it on Facebook. (You can't photograph the Constitution, but nobody seemed to mind my taking photos in the giftshop). If I'd have thought I'd have looked for one of my older books, The President's Daughter, but I didn't. I just left happy, thinking about the kid who'd stumble upon my book, while visiting DC for the first time, and maybe get on a Jefferson kick, and maybe grow up to write books, like me.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Once in the Wilderness, Look Around

In the wilderness, some people are invisible. They maybe made you a sandwich for lunch. Or they checked out the groceries you bought, or delivered your newspaper or carryout. They work but you don't see them; when the news mentions the "working poor" you wonder how the numbers can be so high. All your friends are middle class.
You don't see the school bus driver, or the crossing guard, much less the lunchroom ladies who don't get paid when school is closed. You don't notice the day-care aid, the nighttime janitorial staff, the ones who do the jobs someone has to do, for not much money. How many people do you see every day, but never ask their names?
The wilderness is full of people you never bothered to know.
A homeless woman raised her hand to speak to me in Washington, D.C. It was Sunday, early morning, in the snug well-manicured park between high-rent hotels and the actual White House. The woman, elderly, overweight, black, wore several layers of clothes topped by a green t-shirt, and pushed what appeared to be all her possessions in a small square grocery cart.
I smiled and said Good Morning. She grinned. "Happy St. Patrick's Day!" she said. "I'm glad to see you wearing green!"
"You too!" I said, walking on.
My husband wanted to know what she'd asked of me.
"Nothing," I said, but it wasn't the true. She'd asked me to see her, to confirm that she was visible inside the wilderness.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Homeless Child in Every Classroom

One of the books I plucked from the "new books" shelves at the library this week was "Educating Students in Poverty: Effective Practices for Leadership and Teaching," by Mark Y. Lineburg and Rex Gearheart. It's published by Eye on Education, an education-oriented small press out of Larchmont, New York.

To my surprise, most of the examples in the book came from my home town. I hadn't realized it, but Mark Lineburg is the superintendent of Bristol, Virginia, public schools. (Remember that my town straddles the state lines of Tennessee and Virginia. Because education is mostly state-funded, we necessarily have two public school systems. I live on the Tennessee side. But when you drive through our town you see one city, not two.) Now I knew that poverty was greater on the Virginia side (Some of this is due to state taxation laws, which tend to drive higher-income residents to chose to live in Tennessee.). I had read articles in our local paper about the growing problem of homeless students. I work at Faith in Action; I meet poverty every week.

I was still thrown off guard by the book. Not by the offered solutions, which were pragmatic and useful; not by the degree the authors seem to understand the topic. By the pervasiveness of the problem.

Sixty-two percent of the students of Bristol, Virginia, receive free or reduced school lunch.  Okay.

Five percent of the students of Bristol, Virginia, are homeless.

"Homeless" in this instance doesn't mean sleeping on the streets. It mostly means doubling up with family members or friends, or sleeping in a car. And at first I had the audacity to think, "Well, five percent, that's kind of small."

Except that in a classroom of 20 kids, it's one child. It's every classroom in the school system having one child who doesn't have a regular place to go to after school, to eat, to do homework, to sleep. One child in each room who's probably scared, confused, and whose parents are scared, confused, desperate.

Yesterday afternoon my daughter's high school tennis team played Bristol Virginia high. It was so pleasing to watch them--a nice multiracial group, all athletic and fierce, but also all good competitors. My daughter and her opponent congratulated each other on especially good shots. I thought of how much I love to see girls playing sports. Studies show that girl athletes are less likely to become pregnant as a teen and more likely to graduate high school, two things which greatly decrease the chances of someone ending up poor.

Then I thought of that homeless child in the classroom. Maybe she's athletic. Maybe she'd be great at tennis. For all I know she could give tennis a try in her freshman P.E. class, and the city has free courts she could practice on. I don't know where she'd get a racket or a regular supply of tennis balls, but let's give her those, too. The high school will give her a uniform if she makes the team.

But who's going to take her to practice?It's not going to be a priority for her family. Her family doesn't have a home. They may or may not have a car. If they have one, they won't have money to spend on gas for tennis practice. That car is for getting to work. Speaking of work, the odds are that her parent or parents are working, albeit at minimum wage, twenty-five hours a week. It's quite likely that they have to work strange shifts, three hours here, three hours there, and if there are younger siblings our girl has to be available to look after them, which will also rule out being on a team.

This morning I read this.

I wish I knew what to do for that homeless child. We keep fighting this at FIA. We fight and fight, but the problem is so large. The current federal poverty level is $23,850 for a family of four.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Catch-Up Day

Yesterday at book club, several friends asked me questions about the blog. So, answers:

Miriam Randall, my friend's mother who was terribly injured in that awful car crash last summer, is doing extraordinarily well. Her initial recovery was slowed a bit by emergency gall bladder surgery, but she's now home. A month ago her daughter sent me a photo of her and her husband at a concert. If you prayed for her back when, thank you. I don't think anyone thought she would make it.

Huey, Dewey, and Louie are in fact my nephews, but they are not named anything like Huey, Dewey, or Louie. I'm told to expect to become an aunt for the fourth time. I'm not sure what we'll call the troop after that. Huey, Dewey, Louie, and Bob?

Bristol Faith in Action is busier than ever. We've recently added 8 interviews per week, and we're still scheduling clients over a week after they call. We've never had a backlog like this before. If you'd like to know more about our work, stop by the building, any time Tuesday-Friday from 10 am until 2 pm.

My new novel, The War That Saved My Life, is scheduled for release in March 2015, which does in fact feel like a hundred years from now. I'm hard at work on the sequel, which doesn't have a title yet. (I'm not even really used to the first book having a title. In my head I still call it the English book.)

Now, a recap on my library books from a few weeks ago:

Snobs, by Julian Fellowes.  Yuck. I was right not to buy it. The man writes brilliantly, but this called to mind an editorial letter I once received: "This doesn't seem to have a plot. See if you can add one." Only, unlike me, he didn't.

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carols Ruiz Zafon. Very interesting. I renewed it as I'm not finished yet. It's nearly 500 pages long, and written in this lush, florid language, utterly unlike anything I've read before.

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, by Charles Montgomery. Sounded cool, and it was. Of course since I don't live in a city none of it applies much to me..

Love Wins for Teens, by Rob Bell. The problem with books like this is that when they say "For Teens" they usually mean they've dumbed-down the adult book and added a lot of hip cultural references. I gave it back and will look for the "For Adults" book in future.

A Surrey State of Mind, by Ceri Radford. Not even close to a smut book, nor remotely interesting. When the narrator bores you on page 3 the book is doomed.

The Butler, by Wil Haygood. The book must have been based on the movie, not the other way around. Interesting but very slight.

Extreme Couponing, by Joni Meyer-Crothers. Speaking of slight, this very small volume with very large type contained a "recap" of every chapter--basically, repeating everything in the chapter-so that it would be long enough that some fool would pay money for it. I got nothing from it.

Dog Songs, by Mary Oliver. Every single poem about a dog. I guess I should have guessed that.

Openly Straight, by Bill Konigsburg.  Fantastic. Really one of the better teen novels I've read.

Someone, by Alice Dermott. Didn't end up having the energy to tackle this alongside The Shadow of the Wind, so I returned it, but will check it out again.

Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan. Fascinating, very readable, really good. I just want to know what his reputation as a historian is, so I know how seriously to take him.

Rude Bitches Make Me Tired, by Celia Riverbank.  Funny, funny. I went to get more of her books out of the library only to find that one of my friends named Karen (I have an extraordinary number of friends named Karen) already checked it out.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Into The Wilderness

Today I need the wilderness.

I woke too early, with too little sleep, my eyes swollen nearly shut. I don’t know what set my allergies off again; it frustrates me. After breakfast I dozed on the couch until the senile dog set up a flurry of mad barking, at nothing, and I jumped up. Laundry. There’s always laundry to do on Mondays. I am tired of the dog and the laundry, of writing my novel and not writing my novel, of all the work I have to do, and of the fact that if I chose I could ignore it for another day. It’s hard to feel anything matters much, today.

Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights.

What happens in our wilderness? This weekend my husband watched a survival show, in which contestants were sent naked into the Panamanian rain forest for twenty-one days. He didn’t tell me why they did it. I assume there must have been a prize.

Our prize is the Resurrection. It’s a pretty big one. On days like today, my grumpy self has trouble even imagining it: the gates of Heaven flung open in welcome to sinners, to me and to everyone else. An atheist friend once asked me, curiously, “So, your God requires that you not eat meat on certain Fridays? And that you give up playing computer games until Easter?”

“It’s not required,” I replied. “It’s discipline.”

“Ah,” she said. “Why?”

Because, like me today, we tend to get caught up in ourselves, in our tiredness, our work, our laundry. We attach too much importance to things that don’t matter. If we can brave the wilderness, if we can strip our souls bare, we can begin to remember what we need to survive. Exactly what, and no more.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Wrap Your Arm in Bacon...

My husband and I went to Lowe's today. We'd just gotten into the checkout line when he remembered he wanted to get a key copied. While he did that, I was naturally drawn to the bookstand a few feet away from the checkout line.

Refinishing Your Bathroom didn't hold much attraction for me, but I picked up Complete Guide to Survival. I'm pro-survival. I opened the book at random to a page on what to do if a bot fly larvae embeds yourself in your arm. The book said that you should wrap several strips of uncooked bacon around your arm and leave them there for three days. During that time, the larva would leave your arm and nestle into the decaying bacon instead, and you'd be scot free.

Dude. You know I'm not making that up, because who could? But seriously. Any bot larva infestations I deal with in the future will involve a quick jab of lidocaine, a scapel, and a tweezers. Also a bottle of wine. I may live in East Tennessee, but I am no where near redneck enough to spend three days with raw bacon wrapped around my arm.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Thoodie Thursday

I was in the middle of titling this post, "Foodie Friday," when I remembered it was Thursday.

We're having a few friends over for dinner tonight. In a burst of enthusiasm I found a recipe for "Easy Authentic Canneloni" on the web.  "Prep time 5 minutes," it said. "Cook time 45 minutes." Excellent, I thought.

Unfortunately the recipe required ground veal, which I know I can't get at my local Food City. That was okay, though. My husband wanted to serve some authentic Italian cheese as well--something beyond Kraft mozzarella--and that gave me the excuse to drive to Johnson City to visit Earth Fare, the one trendy grocery in our area. I don't shop there often because every time I do I spend a million dollars on fair trade organic chocolate and imported cheese.

Turns out your organic localvore chichi groceries don't sell veal, either; the guy behind the meat counter at Earth Fare looked like I was accusing him of personally torturing sweet baby cows when I asked him. My bad. I settled for grass-fed antibiotic-free ground beef, and some ground pork that looked pretty much normal.  (The recipe already called for both of those as well.)

Then nobody sold canneloni tubes. The recipe told me how to substitute fresh pasta sheets, because, yeah, you can find those in the middle of upper east Tennessee. I grabbed a box of Jumbo Shells.  Close enough. I bought some fancy tomato sauce to make up for the fact that I was not, as the recipe suggested, going to make my own from scratch, from imported canned Italian plum tomatoes or possibly some I grew in my own organic garden in my backyard. This was when it began to dawn on me that "Prep time 5 minutes" might be a complete and total lie.

When I got home I discovered that having the recipe on my phone was a pain in the ass. Since my battery used to keep running out, my daughter reprogrammed my phone so that it shuts off every 10 seconds. "1 cup chopped onion," I read. I got out an onion. The phone was dark. I hit the two buttons to turn it on, entered my password, read, "1/2 cup chopped celery, 1/2 cup chopped carrot," went to the refrigerator, returned, and the phone was dark. You get the picture.

Perhaps "Prep time" was meant to refer to how long it would take you to get all the ingredients out of your pantry and fridge. It took me 5 minutes just to chop the onion, celery, carrots, and garlic, and I'm a fast chopper. I set those to saute, started some water boiling, then checked my phone.

I had a Facebook message from a friend: a photograph of the menu of a Peruvian restaurant, English translation included, that offered, among other things, fried guinea pig.

I asked him if he was going to try that. A moment later, thinking further, I wrote to ask if he was visiting Macchu Picchu. I've always wanted to go there. "No," he replied, "I'm in New Jersey!" Think about that. Someone in New Jersey is slaughtering guinea pigs. It's nearly as bad as baby cows.

OK. Next step, add meat, brown while stirring, add a whole bunch of other stuff, and "boil 15 minutes." We've now disrupted the space-time continuum. That, or the boiling part gets counted in the 45 minutes of cooking time. That and the sauteing.  So now we're at 30 minutes shopping, 130 minutes driving back and forth to shopping, 10 minutes prep, 25 minutes cooking.

Next I made a homemade white sauce with chopped fresh parsley and Parmesan cheese. I kid you not. I think I understand why Italian grandmothers are always so crabby. They're getting duped into cooking stuff with "Easy" in the title.

I let the meat boil mostly dry, let it cool (cooling time equals? Prep? Cooking? Doesn't matter. We're over the limit on both now), stirred in egg yolks, nearly had an egg white disaster, stirred in some other stuff, skipped over the "make your own tomato sauce," and discovered I was supposed to put the tomato sauce into a bowl and stir in some cream. By which point I was out of clean bowls, so I used the white sauce pan. Then I got to stuff all the little shells, and line them up like soldiers, and drown them in a mixture of chichi unauthentic tomato sauce and brilliantly authentic cream, and sprinkle more cheese on top.

It's waiting in the refrigerator now, before it goes into the oven for half an hour.  I've cleaned the kitchen and the dishwasher is running. All may be well--it may, in fact, be spectacular--but the proof is in the eating, and that's still hours away. Meanwhile I've remembered something that causes me concern: the day I spent 5 hours making a brilliantly authentic and entirely inedible Italian dessert, which we dubbed TiramiSoup.

Fingers crossed. The end.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Blue Box

Yesterday I did in fact walk away from the computer and paint. Well, first I dug around in my art supplies for a bit, looked through some blank canvases of different sizes, found my stash of decorative papers (ooh, I love them, I just don't know what to do with them. Wait. I JUST NOW had a great idea.), admired for a little while a piece of bulky, bright turquoise silk yarn (It's only a tiny bit, left over from a hat I made my sister-in-law this Christmas.  I so love that yarn. I can not tell you how much I love it. Even if it did dye my hands blue when I was knitting with it.), muttered to myself, adjusted my easel, got out my brushes. Before I knew it I was humming.

First I put up a canvas that I'd long ago painted pink all over, and then painted sky blue and cream and some darker blue and a bit of white on top, using a palette knife, so that little bits of the pink showed. I'd been very happy about it, when I first did that. So yesterday I mixed up a little of what was intended to be black paint (yes, I have a tube of "black," but I was told that black-from-the-tube paint looks flat, whereas hand-mixed black looks vibrant). It turned out more of a deep purple. I thinne it with medium, (that's stuff that looks like glue; you can also thin acrylics with water, but then they tend to drip and make your canvas wet; medium makes paint more transparent, rather than lighter in hue as it would if you mixed it with white paint) and then I sketched the Eiffel Tower in the center of my canvas.

It came out looking like the Eiffel Tower, which seemed remarkable.

Emboldened by this, I added the green bridge from Monet's garden on the right side, and some Gothic arches lightly on the left, with little smudges of royal blue meant to suggest cathedral stained glass.  I painted--again, all these were thinned with medium, so they were lightly put, with sketchy lines-- tulips across the bottom.  We spent nearly two weeks in Paris and surroundings, four years ago. One week planned and the other courtesy of a rail strike and an Icelandic volcano, that shut down all transportation entirely for five days. While we were there, spring bloomed. We especially loved the bold yellow tulips growing outside the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

I put in some soft bronze stars to remind myself of the ceilings in the Louvre, and some lilies beneath the bridge. 

It looks amazing. I can't believe it turned out this well.

Next I went online and ordered some prints of photos we took in France. My family, especially my daughter, are enthusiastic photographers, but our home printers are lousy. I'm going to decoupage the best of our photos to the canvas, and I'll have a really cool memento of our trip.

After that I took a blank canvas and splotched paint all over it, in preparation for putting another painting on top of that. Don't ask. It's how I roll.

Finally, I painted a wooden box. It's a small box, about the size of an old-fashioned cigar box, only square. It originally held very fancy truffle oil that friends gave us for Christmas. I loved the box immediately--I don't know what it is, some sort of magpie instinct,  ooh, boxes!  I could put things in them! Anyway Icovered the clasp and hinges with masking tape and painted the box cerulean blue.  This morning, instead of playing computer games, I gave the box another coat. I'm not sure what I'll do with it. I could decorate the outside, or just leave it blue. I could put my buttons in it--my current button box is nearly overflowing. I could put small toys in it and give it to one of my nephews. I could line the inside with velvet and let my daughter use it as a jewelry box.

Painting the box made me happy in a way that's difficult to explain. I felt unhurried, not aimless but the opposite of driven. As I went to wash my brushes I realized that while I was painting part of my brain, the story part, had sorted out the kinks in my new manuscript, and while I know that won't always happen, I need to remember that painting a box blue is not necessarily a waste of my time.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Mardi Gras Whack

I woke up cranky, for no reason at all. It's the sort of morning when I stop to admire the incredible beauty of the rising sun, the softly glowing magenta streaks behind the stark black branches of our beech tree, and all I can really see is how badly the windows need washing. It's like that.

I had a great idea for a blog post, which I can't remember. My daughter lost her car keys, and left for school late, in a huff. (Actually she left in one of our old minivans, since my husband could find the keys to it, but you know what I mean.) The odoriferous incontinent dog is coughing again--I'll have to take him to the vet. Again. Everything that was right and good in my life yesterday evening, when I was terrifically content, is still right and good, except that I seem to have misplaced my contentment in the same way my daughter misplaced her keys.

I should be writing my novel. I don't know what to write--yesterday I realized I'd taken a wrong turn, backed up a few pages, did some research, made some notes--anyway, I can't tell whether I truly do need to let it sit, or whether I'm just being lazy. I hate being lazy. On the other hand, a nap sounds nice. I could sit here all day and play computer games while convincing myself that computer games, since they involve sitting at the computer, are almost writing. I probably should give up computer games for lent.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. Today is Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras. Historically--way back in the day, when all forty days of Lent involved fasting from not only meat but every animal product, milk, butter, cheese--Mardi Gras was the day to eat up all these soon-to-be forbidden items, so that nothing went to waste. I don't need to worry about that, and I'm not really in the mood to snarfle up my weight in pastries, but I've decided to make this day a treat. I'm going to do art today.

I love art. I love drawing and painting. I always have. But I've always held it out as something I could do later, when I got all my important work done. In grade school "art" was mostly crafts; in my low-budget, overcrowded Catholic middle school it was taught by our homeroom teachers once a week, and so barely existed at all. My high school had a decent art department, I think, but I was busy taking all the honors courses and four years of foreign language and all the science in the world. (It didn't help that we had only six classes, one of them religion--Catholic school--one English, one math, and one some sort of history/P.E./government requirement. Add foreign language and science and you were done.) I never got to take art, though I always wanted to. In college I was a chemistry major fulfilling pre-med requirements, (yes, really!) sneaking in writing classes where I could. Second semester senior year, I let myself take Introduction to Drawing. My final exam, framed, hangs in my office today, right over the section of countertop that holds all my art supplies.

I have lots of art supplies. I sometimes take one- or two-day classes in the summer now. I have acrylic paints, and oils, and colored pencils, and blank canvases and lots of ideas. And I wait for when I feel I deserve to use them. Meanwhile, I play computer games.

Written down, doesn't this seem whack? Completely, utterly whack. Maybe I need to do art for Lent. Happy Mardi Gras, everyone. I'm off to make a mess in my office. I can feel contentment seeping back already.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Not Just Me and Annette

On the way to the airport, after my visit to the University of Maryland, my cab driver asked solicitously, "Are you taking anything for that cold?" I assured him that I was, and that I hoped it would kick in soon.

It didn't; I've been on the couch sick all weekend. Better now, but that's why I've been gone.

So I went to meet Annette Gordon-Reed, and it was fabulous.

Actually I went to participate in the Annette Gordon-Reed event, and so the very first thing I did was teach a creative writing class. The class is "Introduction to Creative Writing Through African-American Voices," (UMaryland has a fantastic selection of creative writing classes) and I was the only white girl in the room. I spoke about writing Jefferson's Sons, and how the topic influenced my approach to voice, narration (JS has three narrative characters), word choice, and characterization. I thought it went well; I hope it did.

Then I went to three separate Annette Gordon-Reed events: a lunch talk with history professors and grad students, a question-and-answer session with the ADVANCE faculty (this has something to do with women and minorities), and the main address, open to all. Then dinner with A G-R and a select few others, mostly deans, very late at night.

I knew I would like A G-R, and I did; I think tremendously highly of her intellect, scholarship, and grace. She spoke well all day long, even when fielding awkward questions from people who hadn't read her books. I loved listening to her, but, more than that, I loved spending the day in the company of so many bright, fierce, scholarly women, with their dangling earrings and untidy hair, strong opinions and pointed remarks. And their enthusiasm. How I loved their enthusiasm. One of the history professors, just a tad older than me, gave me a ride to dinner, and on the way outlined her research findings on the Stuart kings and their connection to the colonial slave trade, her words spilling out with the same eagerness I get when I'm talking about a topic I know well and love.

I don't get days like last Thursday very often. I had such a splendid time.