Thursday, July 31, 2014

When Someone Else's Kid is Big-Time (In) Trouble

While I was writing my previous post about kids getting into trouble, I remembered two stories.

The first occurred the summer before college, when I babysat two brothers named Daniel and Marky. Daniel, age 8, was pretty good at fit-throwing and manipulating adults, but I intended to have as stress-free of a summer as possible, so for about 2 weeks I went to war and then he capitulated, quit throwing fits, listened when I spoke, and was generally a very pleasant intelligent boy. However, he had a friend from down the street who liked to come over and do whatever he'd been expressly forbidden to do (play in the attic, throw balls inside the house, etc.) and when I told them to knock it off would say to Daniel, "She's not your mother. You don't have to listen to her." Daniel's mother was actually inept at discipline; if she came home while I was attempting to impose basic rules she'd say things like, "Well, I don't like you playing in the attic--you know you're not supposed to--but maybe okay once," or, "Boys, if you want to throw a football in the house make sure you don't break anything." This drove me crazy. Daniel I could handle, fine, but the neighbor boy was too much. So, without consulting Daniel's wimpy mother, I told him, "You're not allowed to play inside here any more when Daniel's mom isn't home." I didn't tell him I thought he was the spawn of Satan. I didn't forbid him or Daniel from being part of the large outdoor neighborhood games. I just kept him out of the house. It worked out fine. It was even useful for Daniel, who could come inside whenever he wanted a break from the kid.

That's one story. The second happened several years ago, in Bristol. The bare facts are that a surly, overweight, low-achieving 14-year-old middle-school girl hauled off and punched her smart, bright, middle-class classmate, was suspended for it, and very nearly went to jail, as the punched girl's parents pressed charges every way possible.

The more elaborate facts are that the surly, overweight, low-achieving girl had been removed into foster care years previously because of severe abuse. She'd been shuttled among several homes and had finally ended up in a group home when no other foster parents would take her. She was smart but no one ever expected her to achieve anything. I knew her because when I brought books into her group home she would loom over the bookshelves, silently, angrily, and watch me. When I gave her a gift certificate for a book of her own, any title, she told me instantly what book she wanted--it was a novel about a girl conquering abuse that she'd already read several times. Eventually she started to speak to me more often. Once when I brought pizza to the house and stayed for dinner, one of the girls told me I should write about them. I made up a story on the spot. I told this large sullen broken child that she was actually a superhero, that she could survive anything, that in my book she would have a superhero's cape and be able to fly. "Yeah," she said, nodding, serious.

The smart bright classmate who got punched--punched hard, I believe there were damages--had spent the semester sneering at her fat unattractive poorly-dressed classmate. She called her Fatty. She said things like, "Where'd you get those clothes--Wal-Mart?" (That was where all the girls in the group home got their clothes.) Finally one day she said, "You know what--nobody likes you. Nobody cares about you--" and that's when she got punched.

The tragedy is that the girl who got punched never understood. In her mind, in her parents' mind, she was slugged by a psycho fat girl who probably shouldn't have been allowed in public school in the first place. The girl who got punched didn't see how harmful she'd been, couldn't fathom all the other girl had already had to endure.

Because of that punch, the other girl was expelled from the group home. I don't know where she went; I never saw or heard from her again. Some day, though, I'm going to write a book about her. I'll give her a superhero cape, I swear I will.

Which is why I think that sometimes, when another child is trouble, the answer is to pull them closer, if you dare. A thousand things go wrong in the darkness of children's lives. You may never know what they are, but sometimes you can pull a blanket around them, wrap them in a superhero's cape, and help them heal.

When Someone Else's Kid Throws Your Kid Under The Bus

So I suddenly remembered I was going to revisit the topic of intervening for your children. If you'll remember, I talked before about the witchy nun who'd falsely accused me of cheating, for the entirety of my sixth grade year, and how though at the time I'd begged my mom to let me handle it, as an adult I think she should have stepped in.  And I talked about some times that I'd intervened on my own children's behalf.

I received some interesting responses (not all of them public). One friend raised the question, "What do you do when one of your child's friends throws him under the bus?" You know, the I-didn't-want-to-take-that-candy-bar-but-Teddy-made-me or the she-hit-me-first.

I'm not an expert, but the first thing I think important is to realize that all kids lie. Even your precious darlings that you've brought up from birth to know right from wrong. All kids lie. It's actually developmental more than anything--read the book Nutureshock--anyhow, it's something to keep in mind, because first of all, if your kid lies it doesn't automatically make you a bad parent, and second of all, if they other kid lied it doesn't make them a bad kid, and third of all,  it's always possible that your kid got thrown under the bus because he or she deserved to be thrown there.

In my daughter's middle school years, there were some mean girls who bullied her a fair amount. Eventually, on a day when my daughter happened to be home sick, another classmate paid them back in a fairly dramatic fashion. When my daughter heard, she said, "You know it wasn't me, mom, but if I'd thought of that I would have done it. That's hilarious." Point being: they're always angels until they aren't.

So. It might be that you're the only person who thinks your kid is blameless. But, it's at least equally probable, at least on paper, that your kid has been framed. What to do?

Don't engage with someone else's kid directly. That's no-win; even if you're right, you look like an ass.  Get authorities--teachers, troop leaders--involved. Ask them directly what they know happened, and listen even if they're saying some negative things about your child. Gather what actual evidence exists. Take a deep breath. Put everything in perspective--how much will this matter in ten years? Punish your child for whatever they did wrong, err slightly but not absolutely on their side, and love them no matter what. I mean, chances are that even if your kid did invite the whole neighborhood to watch porn on your iPad, he's still not a sociopath, and you're still not a bad parent. It's up to you to slap Net Nanny on all available electronics, but beyond that--they'll make mistakes. We all do. Help them learn that mistakes need to be corrected, if possible, but aren't the end of the world. And if their friend Susie is regularly at the center of the storm, help them to stay away from Susie. Or-if you've got the time and energy, and you think Susie's having a hard time--spend more time with Susie.

I can tell with that last sentence that I'm opening up either a whole nother can of worms or a whole nother blog post, or both, but let me finish this one first:

The other day I was in a bad mood and let out a complete public snark to someone who didn't deserve it. I'm glad to say she called me out--and by the time she did I'd gotten my act together enough to realize I'd been wholly inappropriate. I apologized sincerely, she accepted it gracefully, and we've both moved on. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty good example for my children.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Stuck in a Hard Place

One thing about my Super Special Secret Project (I promise, I'll reveal all the moment I am allowed to do so; it's not up to me) is that it comes equipped with a very tight deadline. Tight enough that when my husband asked whether I'd be taking my usual Florida riding trip this winter my answer was not, "Of course!" but "ah, we'll see." Tight enough that my son observed wryly, "You're going to have to work like a person with a real job."

Yes. I am. This doesn't bother me; I've done it before. I once wrote a series novel start to finish in 2 1/2 weeks, and that was while taking care of an infant in my spare time. The day after we moved into our uncompleted farmhouse, my editor Fedexed the page proofs for a novel-length manuscript, due the following week. I once made a production deadline by 20 minutes. I've worked hard and long before and I don't mind doing it.

However, there's hard, and then there's hard. I earned this gig through my ability to tell the truth about very difficult subjects (slavery, sexual exploitation) in such a way that it can be read by fifth-graders, without overly traumatizing them. I'll be doing that again now with a whole different topic, and after two days (yesterday and this morning) on Google I can tell it's going to be tough. When I wrote Jefferson's Sons I had the luxury of taking my time. When something was particularly hard--when, for instance, I learned that the real-life James Fossett (as opposed to my fictional character James Fossett) had been sold away from his family at the age of eleven and thereafter disappeared from history forever--I could give myself time to grieve. I walked away from my desk that morning and didn't sit down to it again for two weeks. When I did, I wrote the worst scene in the history of human writing about James being sold, and I let it stand for months before I tried a different version. And then I let the new scene stand, even though I knew it was garbage, for awhile before I tried again. (I think it took about a dozen tries--I'm not making that up--before I could manage the scene that's in the book.) (I'm happy with the scene in the book.)

This time around I'm going to have to plunge into icy waters and stay there. Which is, now that I think about it, the only choice my main character has. So we'll keep each other company, she and I. But it's not going to be easy.

How do you cope with hard things?

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Amazing In-Box of Delight

Sometimes I have finished writing one book and had no idea what to write about next. I had to mount searches, quite literally, reading up on vague ideas, following others down little blind paths, until, finally, I found something I felt passionate about.

This is not one of those times.

Right now I have unwritten books lined up in my head like taxi cars at the curb of JFK. I have ideas under contract, so that not only do I know what's coming out in March, 2015 (The War That Saved My Life), I also know what's coming out in March, 2016 (no title yet) and also probably March 2017 (no title on that one yet, either) (I don't really do titles.) And as long as I keep writing at a sparking pace I've got a candidate for March, 2018, neatly plotted out and at least partially researched, waiting inside my head. Tapping its toe, impatiently. And those are just the novels. I've got picture books jostling for air time as well.

I have never been a patient person, to the extent that my agent once gave me a small figurine of a brooding woman with wings, entitled The Angel of Patience. I used to be very proud of the fact that I was publishing a novel a year, with picture books thrown in for extra. Then it took me four years to research, write, and revise Jefferson's Sons. And it will be a full three years between that and The War That Saved My Life.

It was hard on my pride to go so long between books, but here's the funny thing: it was good for my writing. Jefferson's Sons and The War That Saved My Life are without doubt the two finest books I've written, and they got that way by hard work, patience and lots of revision. Now I'm speeding up the clock again--I can't talk about my Special Secret Project yet, except I'll say that I have to write both well and quickly, and also I'm thrilled to be doing it.

What's really gotten weird are my dreams. I don't remember dreaming about a book before TWTSML. I've always been able to have conversations with my characters inside my head, but only when conscious. The characters in TWTSML showed up in dreams long before I had their story figured out. Little Jamie holding a monstrously ugly cat. "I'm keeping him," he announced.

"No," I said firmly, in my dream. "You are not. There are no cats in this story." Jamie slid his gaze sideways, avoiding mine. "His name's Bovril," he said. "I'm keeping him. He's mine." My dream mind said, "Bovril? What kind of name for a cat is that?"

He kept the cat. The dreams kept coming. And now it's getting worse--now they're all in there. Jamie in the sequel, keeping fire watch from the church tower, the light of bombs reflected in his face. Ada in a brown coat and somber hat, her gloved hands folded on her lap.  Four little girls playing with dolls beneath a spreading tree, and a bleak prison courtyard so reminiscent of Robben Island. The flickering light of torches off  painted tombstone walls, and a slight British child trying not to stammer when he speaks. "But sir, when you die they will weigh your heart against the feather of the truth--"  "Are you telling me I'm dying?" a harsh adult voice barks in reply.

This is how it goes now. All the time. I'm telling you, it's fantastic. It's beyond effing wonderful.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Linville Love

Yesterday I returned home from my whirlwind trip to New York, which had followed hard on the heels of my long trip to Lexington and also knocking myself senseless, so to say I was pretty tired would be to minimize things to the extreme.

My beloved husband had today off (he has alternate Fridays off; it's beautiful) so as soon as he got home from work last night we threw the dogs into the car and drove an hour to our own personal version of paradise, Linville, North Carolina.

If you were to drive to Linville, you would see a crossroads marked by a for-real traffic light, and at that crossroads would be a tiny post office, a cheap motel, a guy selling kettle corn out of a truck, and a fairly bad diner. There's also a really big sign pointing up the mountain, which is called Grandfather Mountain. The top half was a privately-owned tourist attraction (hiking, lovely views, animal habitats, a mile-high suspension bridge and the world's kitschiest gift store); it's now owned and run by the state of North Carolina. The bottom half is a resort, and our house is at the top of the bottom, so to speak. It's usually 5 to 10 degrees cooler at the bottom of Grandfather Mountain than it is at our home in Bristol. Driving to our house, you drop another 5 degrees. We keep the doors and windows open during our summer days here--no air conditioning. Our house is tucked into woods and has the best back porch in the world.

I sleep so profoundly well here that it's become a family joke. True to form, this morning, while my husband got up and took a golf lesson, I stretched out in bed and stayed there until lunch. Then, while the boys played golf, I took a drawing class. Life drawing, at the art loft, from 1 until 4.

When we first got our house here I took a lot of art classes. I loved them. Then somehow the kids got bigger and busier, and it was harder to get here during the week, or I didn't make time, or something, but today, reveling in a big white sheet of paper, a piece of charcoal, I remembered that I need art a little more often. The trick to drawing is to draw what you actually see, not what you know to be there. It requires an honesty that's a lot like writing fiction.

So here I am with my body rested and my head cleared. I'm off to shower, dress up a bit, and go drink wine at the clubhouse with some friends. It is, in fact, a wonderful world, and I hope your Friday has been every bit as satisfying, especially including my sister-in-law whose children started out the day by both wetting their beds. Cheers, Julie! Wish you were here!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Shoeless in Manhattan

I just looked at myself in the mirror, and it wasn't pretty. I look worn out. Of course it's 6:30 in the morning, and the mirror was in a public restroom at Newark airport, and that's probably not the best circumstances for anyone. Also, between pony club festival, getting knocked out, and this whirlwind trip to Manhattan, I've got reason to be tired. But mostly I blame my shoes.

I wanted to look spiffy on this New York trip. I told my daughter that I did not want to look like a hillbilly who drooled tobacco juice down her t shirt. Rather, I wanted to look professional.

My daughter pointed out that, technically, hookers were professionals. But I digress.

Anyway, for my important New York City meetings I packed a little black dress and a nice pair of heels. For my meetings on the second day I packed some nice black wool dress pants, hemmed to be worn with heels, and a chic crisp blouse. Then at the last minute I threw in another dress, a lightweight summer thing that doesn't wrinkle no matter what you do to it. I didn't bring much else, determined as I was to travel light.

And then-here's where things got stupid- because I was worried about flight delays, I wore my little black dress and heels onto the plane. This didn't seem stupid until I had to travel the length of Atlanta's airport-gates D42 to A5--in 20 minutes in order to catch my connecting flight. That's when I realized, with increasing horror, that my black heels were the only pair of shoes I had with me. High heels or nothing.

I am a walking kind of girl, and New York is a walking kind of town, but I pretty much reserve high heels for weddings, funerals, and Easter and Christmas Mass. I wear them 1.6 days out of the year, and then only for the shortest possible part of the day.

Nonetheless, I soldiered on. I checked into my hipster funky hotel, washed my face, and saw I had an hour until my first (lunch) meeting. I hit the streets. SoHo is a people-watching paradise. Unfortunately I get so busy watching people that I forget to watch pavement. You've never seen a person trip as many times as I can. In my high heels.

By lunchtime I was already miserable. I thought ruefully of the last time I'd been in Manhattan on business-a long time ago, maybe 10 years-I'd worn heels all the first day and woken up on the second to find skinny long blisters on the tops of every one of my toes. Apparently I'm a slow learner.

Jess, my editor, is not. After lunch we'd gotten only halfway to the Dial offices when she said, "Kim, you can't keep going in those shoes." She stopped at a Duane Reade pharmacy, and we rifled through a shopping cart of soon-to-be-discarded flip flops. I bought a nifty beaded pair for $9.

By the end of the second day, the flip flops had gotten pretty uncomfortable too. Which is one of the reasons I look so haggard here in the airport. At least on the plane I can take off my shoes.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The War That Saved My Life

So now I'm in NewYork. SoHo, to  be precise. I'm here mostly because of a Super Secret Special Project I'm completely thrilled to be part of, but since I get to New York so seldom I'm also spending time with my agent, Ginger, and my primary editor, Jessica.

Jessica and I had a lovely lunch today, and at the conclusion of it she gave me a gift: the brand-new bound galley of my forthcoming book The War That Saved My Life. Bound galleys, also known as ARCs (for advanced reader copies) are the first place where a manuscript starts to look like a physical book. We can still make changes at this point, but we're mostly hoping not to.

This is it, in all its glory:

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

#mindyourmelon USPC Festival Lawn Dart Ediiton

Well, what turned out to be my last day riding at the United States Pony Club Festival did not go as planned. After the thrill of championships competition, and a Saturday spent eating and sleeping, my daughter and I woke on Sunday raring to go learn stuff. Our horses were up for it, too--especially my mare Sarah, who was beginning to wonder just exactly why I'd stuck her in a box for six days.

Sunday morning we both got dressage instruction-mine a semi-private lesson with Susanne Winslade for 90 minutes, probably the best dressage instruction I've ever gotten, but unfortunately I now have to sit differently in the saddle for the rest of my life and also go back to taking Pilates. It rained during the lesson, and I didn't even notice, to the extent that later in the day I found myself wondering how exactly my shirt got so wet (and that was before I hit my head!)

My parents had come to watch my daughter and I ride, so I was tickled when my daughter and I got the same cross-country instructor for the afternoon. We were with Erika Adams, and our group had been assigned the water complex first. We tromped through the water, then jumped an easy jump a few strides from the water, then jumped a cross rail on the edge of the water, cantered through, and jumped a novice jump about 6 strides away.

The novice jump had been used going in the opposite direction for championships and so had a pony club banner on what was now the near side. My ordinarily fearless mare either spooked at the banner, or paused to read it, and I told her to jump it, and she did, only bigger than usual, so that I got jumped out of the tack.

You've been there. We all have. That ohcrap moment when you realize you're coming off, followed by a remount, some ribbing from your companions, and a do over. Easy peasy. In fact, whereas I was furious with myself for my near-fall at O'Connor camp, I haven't been able to muster even a twinge of annoyance for myself or Sarah over this one. It was One Of Those Things. A bounce. Wishful thinking that you could have stuck it.

Except that I apparently landed first on my head. I don't know for sure, because I got knocked out, and that was followed by a rather confusing time in which my daughter, who'd galloped to my side, insisted firmly that I not try to get up, and some EMTs put me on a backboard, and eventually I got a nice ride in an ambulance, sirens and lights full bore, to the University of Kentucky Hospital's ER.

My mom went with me in the ambulance. I don't care how old you are, when you're hurt it's nice to have your mom nearby. My dad brought my daughter after they'd gotten the horses put away, and he made the nurses bring him a washcloth so he could wash the blood off my face. I cut the inside of my mouth way down in the crease between my gums and the bottom of my lip. It's anyone's guess how that happened. A lovely HM judge from Midsouth untacked and unstudded my mare (thank you!) and our wonderful partners in crime, the Campbell family, took care of all our gear and brought dinner and ice cream to our hotel room. And after a CT scan to prove I hadn't really messed with my head, I was dicharged with a concussion. No riding for 3 weeks. Goodbye, River Glen.

But hey. Good thing I was minding my melon, eh? The picture shows my helmet with the brim broken off. Wear your helmets, gentle readers. Accidents happen to us all, usually at the stupidest of times.

For my regular blog readers, #mindyourmelon is Eventing Nation's helmet awareness campaign tag. For my Eventing Nation readers, my regular blog is at

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Death By Pony Club

It's only been the first full day of pony club Championships--the eventers have finished dressage--and already I'm thinking this is going to kill me.

Monday: arrive Lexington 3 pm. Depart from horse park 7 pm. Dinner. Bed by 9:30.
Tuesday: wake 5 am. Work all day. Bed by 10:30 only because I insisted.
Wednesday: wake 4:20 am. Barns close 6 pm.

I've got my mare Sarah here with me, and her layover stall is in the tetrathlon barn. Both yesterday and today I stretched out across my tack trunk and a bale of hay, my head cushioned on a dirty saddle pad, and slept. Slept like the dead. If funky photos of me turn up on the internet, blame the tet kids.

One of the tet kids was acting too tired to tack up today. I threatened to put his photo on Eventing Nation. It's wonderful having this kind of power.

By afternoon, the tet kids were in an uproar over some aspect or aspects of the horse management judging. Three girls were discussing the judges' perfidy in loud voices while stabbing at the floor with their brooms. Stab, stab. The sole male member of their team came back from handwalking his horse. "Take another lap," one of the girls snapped at him. "We're having Angry Sweeping and Rant Time." He took another lap.

My daughter's team wasn't mad at the horse management judges. They were mad at the dressage judges. They're eventers, after all. When I was allowed to check on them, mid-afternoon, they were composing a song reflecting their hatred of dressage.

Seriously? I'm here until next Monday? Provided, of course, that I live that long.

All The Hats At Championships

So I'm hanging out at the USPC Championships and today what struck me as most remarkable was how many different hats I'm wearing here. I mean that metaphorically: other than my riding helmet, I've only got one actual hat here. It's a pale green ball cap reading BOSS MARE, and I've been complemented on it many times.

Anyway, I don't know the name of the metaphorical hat that one wears when the alarm goes off at 4:20 am, but whatever it was, I was wearing it. Then, after I dropped my daughter off at the eventing barn, I got to wear my Rider hat for awhile. I bought my mare with me so that we could take part in the educational workshops that follow Championships, since I try to never pass up a chance for good lessons. I fed Sarah, cleaned her stall, then, in the rising dawn, spent an hour in the saddle.

Next came the Mom hat: watching my daughter ride a very nice test. Eventing's a small world: though we'd never met the woman we'd hired third-hand to coach my daughter here, that woman knew my daughter's horse from its former owner. She understood Mickey's quirks, which made my daughter really happy. Their score puts them in the middle of their division.

Next I put on my Coach hat, along with my official Coach name tag and ribbon (which grants me permission to get near the warmup ring) and coached one of my pony club members who's here competing in dressage. I don't usually coach and I found I really enjoyed it, though my highly useful comments were pretty much limited to, "don't stare at your horse's mane," "quit staring at your horse's mane," and "breathe."

That brought us up to mid morning. I briefly put on my Volunteer hat, but it turned out that they didn't need me. I retired to Sarah's stall, removed all hats, stretched out on my tack trunk and a bale of hay, and slept for 90 minutes. Seriously. I can sleep just about anywhere.

From there I put on my Friend hat to go have lunch, only to snatch it off again and replace it with DC. That's District Commissioner, which is ponyclub speak for troop leader. I was supposed to go to the DC Lunch, and nearly forgot about it.

Rushed from lunch back to Coaching Dressage. Finished Coaching, went back to Rider, taking Sarah out for some rope work, refilling hay and water, picking her stall. Then Mom got to go into the barns to check on daughter and her team, who were busy cleaning tack and creating new lyrics to "Let It Go:" "dressage never bothered me anyway."

It's getting late, it's a bit chilly, and there's a nice little bar here. Time to find my sweater and see if I don't have a hat that says, Just Chill.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

When Champs and Camps Collide...

I'm typing this one-fingered on my phone while I sit in the Alltech Arena at the Kentucky Horse Park waiting for the opening ceremony of the 2014 USPC National Championships. I don't generally like ceremonies of this type, and I'm feeing hot, cynical, and tired. But I wanted to share this photo with you.

It's my daughter and her horse at the first jog this afternoon. They're competing on a novice event team. You can barely tell, because of her pinney, but the shirt she's wearing is actually part of the official uniform from the 1998 World Equestrian Games. It was formerly owned and worn by an eventer you may have heard of, one David O'Connor. (Okay, maybe since you're my friend you haven't heard of him. He's the USA's only individual gold medalist at my sport, eventing, and he's currently the USA Team Coach.)

Every year at O'Connor Camp we have a team Jeopardy competition. I'm usually damn good at it, as it draws upon both my native competitiveness and my ability to retain arcane bits of information.
Alas. My daughter is even more competitive and arcane then I. And this year the prizes were really awesome: she won that shirt.

She wears it well.

Monday, July 14, 2014

25 Things About 25 Years Ago

It's 9:17 pm as I start this, on Monday, July 14, 2014. In just under 3 hours it will be my 25th wedding anniversary. I'm in Lexington, Kentucky, with my daughter; my husband is in Scotland with our son. (Over there it's already our anniversary.) I'm wanting to write a real essay about how many things have surprised me in our marriage--most of them good--and about how grateful I am to have walked through the last quarter-century with the same good man beside me, but honestly, I've had a long day, and I'm beat. And my alarm clock is set for 5 am. So I'm going to make a list. Here are 25 things about my wedding, my marriage, and the love of my life:

1. On the morning of our wedding my husband-to-be played golf. My girlfriends and I went out to Bob Evans.

2. After scarfing down an omelet, I couldn't eat another thing all day. After the champagne toast at our reception, our best man made one of the waitresses bring me a cup of coffee.

3. We went to Paris on our honeymoon. We stayed at a tiny hotel on the west bank, and every morning as we left the proprietress would shout down the street after us, "Courage, children!"

4. We were children. The thought of my son or daughter getting married at just-barely-22 appalls me.

5. As my mother points out, it's not like she could have stopped me.

6. After marrying, we both started medical school. I lasted six weeks. The only person not surprised when I quit was my new husband; he wasn't sure I should have started.

7. I sometimes wonder if I would have had the courage to quit without him on my side.

8. I've never regretted quitting medical school, not once, not for the smallest amount of time.

9. The happiest I've ever seen my husband look was on the two mornings our children were born. The second happiest was when he shot par at Ballybunion.

10. I don't think he really shot par, I just can't remember the specific score. I do know that it was raining torrentially, that my daughter and I cancelled our outdoor plans and spent the morning playing cards in Ballybunion's women's locker room, and that I still wish I could have snapped a picture of the way my husband looked when he came in from his round.

11. I will never forget the way he looked that day.

12. I never thought we'd leave Indiana, until we went on vacation to the Smoky Mountains when our son was a baby.

13. My husband worked really really hard in medical school, and did really really well. He's an absolutely fantastic surgeon, and it irks me when people underestimate how good he is or how hard he worked to get there.

14. Most of the elderly women in Bristol do not underestimate him. I know, because they talk about him to me all the time.

15. Sometimes they tell me what he says about me, and it's all good.

16. One of the greatest joys in our life has been the travelling we've done with our children.

17. I can't tell you how much our travels have enriched my life, too. Eating lunch at a shabeen in Soweto, walking through Monet's garden, standing in a mosque in Cairo--all these things will make it into my books someday, but they've already made it into my life.

18. My husband is the most fun person to be around. He's curious and interesting and he loves to explore. Once I made him drive a crazy amount of miles across this little Irish island following hand-lettered signs that read "Tetrapod tracks." When we got to them, we found out that they were some of the oldest fossilized rock in the entire earth, and were actually the footprints of the first type of fish that began to live on land. It was incredibly cool, and I loved that he took the road because I asked him to, and I love that he thought the tracks were as fabulous as I did.

19. He puts up with all my obsessions: the books, the yarn, the sudden announcement that I am going to write a book about X and thus need to do a bunch of research that--surprise!--involves travel.

20. He also has put up with, to date: one insane mare we bought with his med school prize money, three more horses for me, two ponies, a couple horses for my daughter, two dogs, four cats, three sheep, and two goats.

21. The dogs were, oddly enough, the hardest for him to accept.

22. He drew the line at chickens, and I don't blame him.

23. When we were dating, he used to flip over the paper placemat when we went out to eat and draw a little house where we'd live someday, with trees and a basketball hoop. When I started riding, which was after we started dating, he added pasture fence with horses inside.

24. He would have added children, but I never would let him. It felt like tempting fate. He'd say, "I think we should have a boy, and then about three years later a girl," and it would make me angry, because while I thought it sounded perfect I also thought life didn't work that way.

25. Turns out it did.

Happy anniversary to the star in my sky. Michael Barton Bradley, I love you more now than on the day I said, "I do." I do.  

Thursday, July 10, 2014

O'Connor Event Camp: What Happened on Thursday

So I've been back from O'Connor Event Camp for two weeks and I still haven't written about that Thursday.

Thursday is cross-country day. It's far and away my favorite day at camp. This year I made a big mistake and very nearly hurt my horse, and also myself, and I was angry with myself for a long time. That didn't have anything to do with the camp or the instructors; it had everything to do with me and my riding. I own it. I just didn't know how to write about it. Yesterday my daughter and I schooled our cross-country jumps at home, for the first time since camp, and I think I understand now not so much what I did wrong--I knew that right from the start--but why, and what I need to do to fix it, besides, of course, not ride like such an ass.

That all sounds perhaps more dramatic than it should. I'll go back to camp. On Thursday morning the instructors--in this case Cathy Wieschhoff--worked horses with specific issues over cross-country fences online. The first year I went to camp, my horse Gully had a water issue--until David sent him out on line. Gully batted his sweet eyelashes at David and begged to know how David would like him to enter the water: walk, trot, or canter? Over a jump first? Out over a jump? It took about five minutes for Gully to do everything possible in, out, and through the water complex, and I was steaming, except that I was also really glad. We never had trouble at water again.

This year Cathy worked several horses over ditches, one up and down a bank, and two through water. Educational and entertaining. Then we all got into our gear and headed back out to the course to ride. Ditches, banks, water--our groups rotated through. Cathy and Karen O'Connor used showjumps to create small complexes--the ditch, for example, became a coffin.

My mare Sarah was all that and a bag of chips, as usual, but we weren't quite together. This puzzled me; we'd always felt more together before. With her injury and subsequent rehab I'd barely jumped her since Florida, but in Florida, back in February, we'd felt really fine. Some of my best cross-country ever. On Thursday at camp, right from the start, this wasn't true. It wasn't awful, but it wasn't right.

Then we went to the bank. After a few simple up and downs, Karen asked us to jump a cabin, four strides to a small (maybe 2') upbank, one stride to a larger (2'9"?) upbank, down a ramp and away yonder to a keyhole, and that's where I screwed up. Coming up to the cabin, I pulled Sarah in at the last moment. She jumped, but without energy. I sort-of kicked, she scrambled up the first bank, lurched forward, got her front legs onto the second bank, and slammed her stifles onto the edge of it, hyperextending both legs. Somehow, because she's strong and sturdy and doesn't panic, she managed to pull her hind legs up beneath her. We found a canter and lurched over the keyhole jump.

It was beyond ugly; it was frightening. It wouldn't have taken much for Sarah to have slid backward off that bank. Karen went ballistic, but I can't remember a single thing she said; I was too busy screaming at myself inside my head.

Eventually we tried again and were better, but not great. Then we went down to the water and I finally pulled my head out of the fog and rode, and all that went well.

Back at the barn, my fellow campers surrounded me with help, affection, and the cold hard truth. They gave Sarah arnica and bute; they gave me a glass of cold white wine. "Wow," they said, "you really screwed up. That was entirely your fault." The staff at Sandy River gave me ice for Sarah's legs, and let me turn her out overnight. All night I dreaded finding a lame horse in the morning, but I didn't. She was completely, jauntily, fine.

As I said, yesterday I finally understood. I knew I'd gone wrong by taking back too much and way too late; what I didn't know was why I'd felt like I needed to do that. Turns out that now that Sarah is both sound and fit, her throttle has a wider range of motion. I say go, and she goes faster than she used to; I say whoa, she slows up more than before. It doesn't excuse my bad riding but it helps me understand it; I need to practice making more subtle cues. My daughter also thinks I'm waiting until too close to the fence to balance Sarah--I need to get that done earlier so I can ride her forward the last several strides. I think that's also true; luckily, I have lots of jumps at home for practice.

Luckier still, I've got a good horse, still sound and happy despite her rider. This isn't much about OCET camp, I know, but it's what happened at camp, what happened to me.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Future Chickens

I have been on a search for chickens.

Not the live kind, you understand. The killed, cleaned, plucked, and frozen kind like the one I bought a few months ago at the Abingdon Farmer's Market. The kind of chicken that made me understand, for the first time, what my grandmother was always moaning about.

"Oh," she'd said, every time she made homemade chicken soup, which was pretty much every time we came to visit, "you can't get chickens like you used to. These chickens, they're no good." She'd hold her fingers an inch apart and say, "I remember when the fat on the soup was that thick."

I did not want the fat on the soup to be that thick. I always thought she was making the chicken thing up. Then I bought the chicken at the Farmer's Market and my worldview changed.

I roasted it. I roast chicken pretty often, and let me tell you, this one was way better than ordinary. The skin crisped thin and golden. The meat cooked tender and succulent. The clear fat dripped onto the bottom of the roasting pan, and I could see why I might pour it off and save it for future cooking. (I didn't. Don't remember why.) It tasted miles better than any grocery store chicken I'd ever eaten, which was good since it cost about three times what a chicken would cost at the grocery store. But worth it. That chicken was why people used to eat roast chicken for Sunday dinner, back when Sunday dinner was the culinary highlight of the week.

I wanted to make soup from such a chicken. I wanted to consider frying one. But tennis season intervened, and with it all hope of my driving to Abingdon on Tuesday afternoons. Then the Bristol Farmer's Market (which is seasonal, unlike Abingdon, which is year-round) opened, so I went there one fine Saturday morning in search of a chicken.

Nothing doing. They had lots of nice vegetables (no tomatoes yet, and no corn, and I'd gone too late to get berries, but there were greens and beans and spring onions and squash) and some local beef and pork, but no chicken. I ran into a friend of mine, who's on the Bristol City Council. I told her I'd been searching for a chicken. "Oh," she said, "it's illegal to sell chickens at farmer's markets in Tennessee."

Well, who knew? Usually Tennessee is a pretty hands-off state in terms of legal intervention. Just look at the fireworks we get away with--you couldn't get within 50 miles of Indiana with them. I bought some grass-fed organic beef, and it was good, but it wasn't chicken.

So yesterday I made a special trip to Abingdon. (That's across the state line into Virginia--as is half of Bristol, but not the Farmer's Market.) The Market opened at 3, and I got there at 3:15, which my lawyer friend Janine points out you have to do if you don't want all the good stuff to be gone. I got early tomatoes and early corn, and a quart of local blueberries. I bought 2 lovely cantelopes and a big bag of half-runner beans. I bought a spinach-stuffed bread thingy from the Balkan Bakers, who were also selling baklava and strudel. I even bought myself a small cup of blackberry gelato.

I didn't buy a chicken. There were none. The meat vendor from whom I'd bought my chicken before explained that they'd gone out of the chicken business. Compared to cows and pigs, chickens were too labor-intensive. You don't have to pluck a pig. She steered me farther down the row, to a tall bearded man in solemn clothing (he could have been Amish, except for the belt) who stood behind a folding table embellished with small chicken figurines.

"Are you selling chicken?" I asked.

"I'm taking orders for chickens," he said.

"Excellent! When will they come in?"

He said October seventh.

He wasn't kidding. I paid a ten-dollar deposit each for four chickens, to be picked up October seventh, even though I already know I'll be in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, on October seventh, helping my sister with her new baby and her son. I'll send my daughter to pick up our chickens. Or maybe I'll resell the rights to mine, if demand continues to increase. You never know. There may be a future in chickens.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Write What You're Willing To Find Out

Yesterday I reviewed a book I disliked. I review for Kirkus, a national company whose slogan is, "the toughest critics on earth." I've blogged before about why I love them, and love writing for them: it's mostly because people, including very small libraries with limited budgets, deserve to know when a book is glorious (even if it's by someone you've never heard of) and when it's appalling (even if it's by John Grisham  someone famous). Yesterday's book, which will remain anonymous as all my reviews are, was a stunning example of exactly that: a really poor book by someone whose work I nearly always admire. I don't usually give my reviews a second thought once I've emailed them in (other than to check my version against the printed version, to see what changes my editor makes). I don't mind if I've been pretty scathing, because I always have what I feel are solid reasons behind my scath.

Once, years ago, I wrote a review so blistering it nearly melted the internet. I couldn't help it: the book was appallingly racist as well as being historically incorrect and poorly written. My editor read my review and emailed, "Really, Kim?" "Read it," I said. She read it. She printed my review as written, but only after personally calling the book's editor and asking them to rescind publication.

Anyway, yesterday's book wasn't that bad, but it was bad in a thousand small ways, in all sorts of blundering errors. The people who tell you to write what you know are dead wrong, I hope you understand that. If we only write about what we already know we'd all be pretty limited, and there'd be no hope for fantasy or science fiction or any of the glorious flights that started back before Shakespeare and Oberon.

What we need to do--and this is where, I think, yesterday's book fell to pieces--is write about what we care deeply for. We need to write about things that so engage us that we will pursue every small detail, so that in Elizabeth Gilbert's recent novel she can tell us about varieties of moss, among many other things. It's why I know how much a child would get paid picking potatoes in England in World War II; it's why Hogwarts is so vividly imagined that if you landed there you'd know immediately where you were. You've got to care enough to get the details right. Nothing chaps my hinny more than a writer who has an 18th-century girl get out of bed, remove her nightgown, change into fresh underwear, pull a clean dress over her head, and button it up, and if you don't know why it's because you don't know how girls dressed in the 18th century, which is fine so long as you're not writing a book set in the 18th century.

If you don't know about the background of your novel, for the love of all of us, find out before I do. Because you're not gonna like the review I write.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Getting My S(tuff) Together

The first thing I did this morning was log on to Facebook to find out where exactly my siblings are.

Usually one is in Wisconsin and one is in Indiana. Last night they were both on their way to me, and we had some three-way Facebook messaging going about the joys of travelling long distances with small children in cars. These days, of course, my children are apt to be the ones driving the car, but I have a long memory. Anyway, my sibs were going to make it as far South toward me as their eardrums and patience would allow. My brother and his wife gave it up in Lexington, Kentucky, as did my parents, travelling separately, but my dear nephew Louie fell asleep and my sis was putting the miles behind her.

She could be here honestly just about any time now. I'm not remotely prepared. I had actually planned today to write a follow-up blog to yesterday's post about intervening when your child needs you to--I got some interesting responses, some private, and I think there's room for lots more discussion--but oh, honey. I keep walking around seeing my house through Other People's Eyes. Not that my family are judgmental--they're not. My mother is a meticulous housekeeper and while visiting has been known to clean out my refrigerator, top to bottom, including the gunk in the drawers, but she manages to do this in a way that doesn't piss me off at all, just leaves me happy and grateful. That's an art form that doesn't get nearly enough international acclaim.

And it's not like I've been handling everything on my own this last week. I've long been a fan of Put Your Child To Work Day. On Monday I laid out a pretty impressive list that included Clean The Front Porch (it's wraparound, big); Weed Everything; Clean Up the Playroom, and Do All Your Own Laundry, Fold It, and Put It Away. With a deadline of yesterday. Not only did my lovelies meet the deadline, they exceeded it, doing things they knew would be necessary that I'd forgotten to list. The only query I got was from my daughter: "How do you work the powerwasher?"

Still. This morning I remembered to ask my husband, before he left for work, what ingredients he needed for his July Fourth homemade ice cream extravanganza. We had our annual math contest, in which we tried to calculate the number of cups in a gallon, and then he told me he needed one thousand eggs. I said he did not. Last year he claimed to need one thousand eggs and the leftover eggs took up valuable refrigerator space for months. He dropped it to 500 eggs. I will buy 200, and that will still be too many.  (Note: I am, actually, exaggerating. But the idea is true.)

I had promised back when to clean up the packing peanuts scattered all over the garage. Do you know how hard electrically-charged packing peanuts are to sweep up? I've had an easier time with mercury spills. Also I would prefer that the entire mudroom did not smell like the ancient incontinent dog. I would also prefer that the ancient incontinent dog did not smell like the ancient incontinent dog, but I'm solving that by shipping him to the kennel for the weekend. The combination of fireworks and my three small nephews will put him over the edge, and if any of the boys get bitten my sister/sisterinlaw will kill me.

There's laundry to do, and horses to ride, and a wash stall in the barn that we've got to turn into a horse stall to stuff a pony inside for the Fourth (we have one more horse than stalls; clearly bad planning on behalf of whoever built the barn) because horses don't like fireworks either.

Yet I know, in my heart of hearts, that all this scrambling is really Amazon's fault., which Tuesday night dropped off at my door, in the same package. the new J.K. Rowling mystery and Jil Paton Walsh's new Peter Wimsey mystery. The agony of that decision. I decided to read the Walsh first, on the grounds that Peter and I are old friends, while Cormoran Strike and I have only just met. It was a satisfying novel, but--sorry, Jil--nothing compared to the Rowling. Damn, that woman can write. I was on page three, reading each paragraph over, savoring the sound of the sentences, when I realized that really I had to get my shit together. I'm on page 171 now.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

When Should Parents Intervene on their Child's Behalf?

I had an interesting conversation with a friend this morning that was sort of about when to stand up for your child.

This has always been a hard call for me.

When I was eleven, in sixth grade, I transferred to a Catholic school. Our English and reading classes were taught by Sister Ruth, a thin, ascetic nun with watery eyes. I had always loved reading. Sister Ruth assigned book reports, I want to say once a month but perhaps more often, and the first month I quite happily wrote her the best book report I possibly could--though now I realize that I wrote more along the lines of a book review, not necessarily regurgitating the entire plot and certainly not giving away the ending.

You can imagine my shock when my report came back with a big red letter F at the top.

Sister Ruth then called me to her desk and began quizzing me about the book. To my increasing amazement and shame, I realized she didn't think I'd even read it, or certainly not finished it. I stumbled through my answers, blushing redder and redder. At the time, I hated more than anything to be singled out.

Finally Sister Ruth held my report out. "Who wrote this?" she demanded. "Your mother?"

I said the first thing that came to my head, which was the absolute truth.: "My mother doesn't write as well as me."

Sister Ruth's nostrils tightened until white lines appeared down the sides of her nose. "I know you didn't write it. Sixth-graders don't write like this. Who wrote it?"

"I wrote it," I said.

I made myself not cry, not in that new classroom, but it took all my effort. I'd never had a teacher call me a liar before.  At home I told my mother what had happened. "I'll go in and talk to her," my mother said, but I begged her not to. I'm still not sure why. Some part of me wanted to be believed on my own. I wanted Sister Ruth to recognize my exceptional writing skills, my one sure talent. I wanted her to understand that she had judged me wrong.

She never did. Reading class became a misery. Every month Sister Ruth would call me to the front of the classroom and grill me about whatever book I'd reported on. "At least you've read it," she'd say grudgingly. Every month my book report would come back without comments, only the red letter F. I'd crumple it into a ball, ostentatiously and loudly, and aim for the back corner wastebasket from my front-row desk. Our war ended in a stalemate, in June.

Now I see how easily it could have been avoided. All Sister needed to do was ask me to chose a book from her shelves that I'd already read, hand it to me in class, and ask me to write a book report right then and there. All modern teachers know to do this, because the internet makes it so easy for students to cheat. But Sister Ruth, of course, was convinced she was right. She had no reason to prove herself wrong.

Now, too, I think that my mother should have intervened. Every report card that year came with a B in reading--almost the only Bs of my entire grade school through high school career, in the subject I was best at.  The Bs represented my perfect grades in every other assignment averaged with zeros for the book reports. So my mom knew it was still going on, though she could not have known how miserable the class was for me, every day, and though I still begged her not to intervene.

I'm still angry about it. I'm sorry to admit that, because it doesn't reflect well on me. I get updates from the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart, because I send them money (not much), and sometimes they contain photos of Sister Ruth, now ancient and in a nursing home. Looking at her still makes my pulse race. I haven't gotten past being called a liar, so vehemently, so many times.

It created a strange dichotomy in me. On the one hand, I always want to intervene on my children's behalf before a situation gets too big for them to handle. On the other, I still recognize how I wanted to make things better on my own. It's further complicated by the fact that I'm a professional writer. The thought of some teacher sneering, "Who wrote this? Your mother?" at my children has always made me the most hands-off parent where homework was concerned, ever. My husband helped my children with their assignments. Me? Never.

Then we add to this mix--should I intervene for my child?--the fact that sometimes intervention makes things worse. I know this one first-hand, too. In middle school one of my children was repeatedly being called a name I found unacceptable--a name that would launch my children into deep trouble if they ever used it as a slur. So I told the teacher, who told off the offenders, who promptly increased their use of the word, but only when the teacher couldn't hear. My intervention made the situation worse.

Another time a different middle-school teacher came up with a nine-weeks-long assignment that one of my children found unacceptably personal and intrusive. Faced with the choice of either giving up too much personal information, or lying, my child opted to not do the assignment. I went it to the teacher to explain; her response was that the assignment had to be completed as given. My child got a C in the class--otherwise perfect work, zeros for a quarter-long project. I did not let my child complain about the grade, as it was legitimate. On the other hand, I also supported my child skipping the work, even after the teacher strongly suggested I intervene in that direction. To me, the compromise my child made was right for the child.

What do you think? When do you intervene on your child's behalf, and when do you step away?