Friday, August 29, 2014

Post of Shame: The Shoe Doctor Saga

Subtitle: How to be an Asshole Without Even Knowing It.

Ok, so back in July, a few days before I was to leave for Pony Club Festival in Kentucky, I broke the zipper slide on one of my tall riding boots. (Riding boots these days nearly all have long zippers in the back seam, to get them easily on and off). This was concerning, as I always and only ride in these boots, but it was a fairly minor problem--the little metal place on the slide that attaches to the tab you pull broke off, so you couldn't attach a tab, but otherwise the zipper still functioned.

I took the boot in to the Shoe Doctor, on Euclid Avenue in Bristol, VA. Now, I knew the place didn't have a very good reputation, but it was only a zipper slide. They said they'd have to order the correct size slide and it would take two weeks. I paid $18.75 in advance so they could order the slide.

I borrowed half chaps to get me through Festival. On my penultimate day there, I fell off my horse and was knocked unconscious, and was a little scattered for a week or so. I hold this up as my only possible excuse for what came later: not much, but all I've got.

I wasn't allowed to ride for 3 weeks, but about two weeks after Festival I went back to the Shoe Doctor to fetch my boot. The woman behind the counter couldn't find it. This was disconcerting, to say the least. She said no problem, her husband would know where the boot was and would call me. No one called me.

I went back a week later and this time the woman let me come into the workrooms and look myself. No boot. There were plenty of shoes--heaps and heaps, what a mess--but my boot wasn't there. The owner phoned. I told him if he couldn't find my boot he'd have to replace it, and he threatened to call the cops on me. The conversation kind of went downhill from there.

I came home full of righteous indignation and posted an inflammatory post on Facebook. Lots of friends chimed in with stories of the Shoe Doctor, so I felt justifiably aggrieved. These boots weren't anything special--five years old, straight off the rack, standard size, and, at about $250, pretty cheap for riding boots, which can easily cost $1000 or more. They were, as my son pointed out when he suggested I might calm down a tad, neither alive nor irreplaceable. They were, he said, just boots.

Yes, but how do you lose a boot? I went back, and this time the owner told me that my boot had been accidentally put in storage by some recently-fired employees, but that he would get it out of storage and personally call me in the morning. He didn't call, and his shop didn't open the next day, and I posted on Facebook again.

After careful consideration I decided that I was justified, possibly even virtuous, in taking this man to small claims court. Now, getting any money out of him was unlikely--right at the bottom of the Googled article "How to File A Small Claims Court" was a cautionary note that if people don't have the money to pay you it doesn't matter if you get a settlement or not. But this was about righteousness. He should not be allowed to lose peoples' boots.

As the first step, as suggested by the article above, I wrote a Demand Letter, laying out my case. I included a photocopy of my claim check and a catalog printout of the boots and how much replacements would cost. I noted that I still had the other boot in my possession (it had been in my mudroom the whole time). I sent it on Wednesday, August 27, knowing he would get it the next day and hoping it would prompt him to find my frigging boot before I went off to the Virginia Starter Trials Friday afternoon. I could buy replacement boots at the tack shop there, but would then face the unappetizing choice of showing in brand-new, unbroken-in boots, or poorly fitting half chaps.

On Thursday he called and told me he'd see me in court, which meant he still couldn't find my boot. Damn.

I went out to the barn and started packing for the horse trial. Since our previous outing had finished with a medical emergency and complete strangers had packed our stuff for us, my gear had gotten scattered all over the place--odd bits of it had been flung into my daughter's trunk or the back of the trailer or loose anywhere when it should have been in some kit or another. In the intervening weeks I'd mostly ignored the mess. Now I started sorting through it systematically.

And found my boot.

Let me repeat that: Found. My. Boot.

I stood staring. It couldn't be my boot--my surviving boot was in the mudroom at the house. And yet, it wasn't my daughter's boot. It wasn't my boarder's boot. It was, unmistakably, mine.

Still doubting the evidence of my own eyes, I took the boot back to the house. I put it next to the one in the mudroom. A perfect pair--and there was that damn broken zipper slide.

You ever feel all totally self-righteous and justified and badly used, and then in one stroke realize you've been entirely wrong? Because, yeah, the Shoe Doctor is beyond annoying, quick to threaten and not particularly honest,  and based on the number of friends who've had problems with him I don't recommend using him, BUT I was demanding all along that he produce a boot he didn't have. The man was not a magician--and he had to be feeling pretty desperate, about to owe me $250 for a boot he didn't lose.

I must have told them I'd bring the boot back when the slide came in. I honestly don't remember. I'd been so angry for so long, and I'd been so convinced of his fault that I never took a good look in my own barn to see if there was an alternate explanation. I hate that this is true, but the actual villain of this cautionary tale is me.

I phoned and apologized profusely. The woman was nicer to me that I deserved. She offered to fix the boot if I brought it in this morning, but you know, I just can't. What if I don't like the way they fix it? What if I drive all the way there and they're closed? What if I manage to look like an ass all over again? I think it best to let this one lie.

Meanwhile, after consulting the internet and examining my boot closely, I've managed to jerryrig the zipper with a safety pin. It won't last, but it may get me through this week. Lord have mercy on our souls.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

About Last Night

A few weeks ago I was talking to a fellow writer. He opined that detailed plot outlines were a waste of time, because you had to leave room "for the magic to happen." I completely agree. It's one of the Things about writing that makes my husband slightly uncomfortable, both because it sounds so woo-woo and because it goes so strongly against his own profession. When you're an eye surgeon you want to know everything in advance. You want your surgeries to go entirely to plan. When they don't, it's where the anxiety happens, not the magic. I get that.

The other Thing that bothers him is when I talk about the characters coming to life in my head, how they have all sorts of conversations that surprise me, and that sometimes they completely refuse to follow the basic plot I've proposed for them. It is indeed where the magic happens, and the idea I agree is odd. After all, I have one brain. We're accustomed to believe in linear thinking. Characters coming to life inside skulls sounds an awful lot like schizophrenia.


I've been working on a new novel. It's at the excruciating stage called The Beginning. So often people tell me that they don't understand how I (or any other writer) can write a whole novel, because they themselves don't feel Inspired All The Time. The truth is that writing is work. Sometimes it's work the way digging post holes is work. Sometimes it's work the way digging a post hole to China is work--sweaty, dirty, fruitless. Once in a very great while it's inspiration, but if you don't train yourself to do the work, you'll never profit from the inspiration.

I had a very lucky break early on in my career. I entered a novel manuscript in a contest for unpublished writers. It didn't win--nor was it ever published--but since it was about horses it got sent to an editor who supervised one of those horsey series for tween girls that were very popular 20 years ago. I was invited to work for the series.  The novels weren't put out under my name, thanks be to God, because they're still in print and I could name you a few that make me break out in hives, my writing is so bad. They were based on very stringent plot outlines--chapter one, always very short, introduced the characters and the main plot question, chapter eight contained the big turning point, etc. and on characters I didn't develop, and there was very little room in them for magic of any sort. But writing them gave me enough of a steady income that I could afford to stay home with my infant son (my husband was a poorly-paid medical resident) and also taught me how to put my butt into my writing chair. If my son had been up half the night but was now napping, I needed to get five pages written. If those five pages were scheduled to be funny, they needed to be funny, no matter what my personal attitude at the time. I wrote fourteen 125-page novels in 2 1/2 years; I once wrote an entire novel in 2 weeks, and while I'd prefer never to do that again, it's good to know I can.

So this week, I kept sitting down and writing. It was all dreck. I expected that. I've slogged down this crummy little path before. Once in awhile I would write a sentence that didn't completely suck, and it would shine from the page, so different from all the other sentences around it that it was still wholly useless. Another day, another effort. Fine.

Last night, worn out from not sleeping well due to being upset about the dog, I had come in from the barn, taken a bath, ordered dinner to be delivered and hunkered down on the couch in my pajamas by 6:30. I stayed downstairs until 9:30 only because I was waiting for the end of my husband's fantasy football draft, so I could say goodnight. He's got a bad cold and is sleeping in the guest room in quarantine. Then I went happily off to bed, expecting to fall asleep immediately, and then my book characters started throwing a big party--a wedding, in fact--inside my head, and my protagonist started arguing with her aunt, and it was six kinds of awesome. I figured out three or four very important things in the hours before midnight, and fell asleep sometime later very happy. The magic happened, and now we can begin.

I got up grumbling this morning to see my daughter off to school and then laid down on the couch with my dog and my blanket and slept another 2 hours. I don't feel bad about doing that. I was working hard late last night.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Old Dog is at Peace

The end when it came was faster than I expected. On Monday morning I found our ancient incontinent dog semiconscious in his crate. He'd clearly had a stroke or seizure or combination of the two overnight; he'd lost control of his bowels and then convulsed in an epic mess. When I spoke to him he opened his eyes, and when I propped him in the laundry sink (I had to wash him, he had poop in his ears) he was able to stand. I spared a moment to remember that that particular dog fits precisely into that particular sink because we had the dog before we built the house, and I measured the dog before I chose the sink, knowing I'd use it for bathing him--the faucet is also a pull-out nozzle. Anyway, I bathed him, wrapped him in a towel, and put him in his dog bed by the kitchen table, where he always liked to hang out while we ate breakfast.

He'd been abandoned as a puppy in the parking lot of a CVS pharmacy, in a snowstorm. Ever after we called him a "CVS terrier," and it always amused the snot out of us whenever someone nodded sagely and said, "Oh yes, I've heard of those." "Is he imported?" was the best. Question. Ever.

We none of us felt very happy about his chances. My husband offered to cancel his patients and come to the vet with me, but I didn't mind going alone. My daughter went off to school, stricken. I phoned my son.  Our vet saw him immediately and assured me that the dog didn't seem to be in pain. The vet--a man I've known for years, and trust completely--encouraged me to wait a day or two to see if Under recovered. He said that many dogs do come back pretty quickly from strokes. So I took him home.

We named him Under Dog after the cartoon character, and because the idea of calling a dog Under amused us. (You can see we are easily amused.) The children were 2 and 5; we taught them to sing the Under Dog theme song, which they did with gusto.

At first he drank water, but then he began to refuse it. He didn't eat. If I took him outside he would stand and pee, but on his own he didn't get up from his dog bed. On Tuesday morning I took him back to the vet's and said goodbye.

It was a mostly peaceful end for a mostly good dog, the dog of my children's childhood. He was part of our family for nearly 15 years. We miss him very much.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

I Raise You One Ice Bucket Challenge

On Sunday I had the exquisite pleasure of watching my daughter videotape my husband as he poured a bucket of ice water onto his head. Later that same night, I watched videos of both my brother and my brother-in-law doing the same. (You'll notice that the women in my family tend to be the ones behind the camera, not beneath the buckets.) I'm all for the ice bucket challenge: it's fun, it raises awareness, and it raises money to research treatments for ALS, a terrible disease.

But. ALS is small potatoes on a global scale. Around 5600 Americans will be diagnosed with the disease each year, which is similar to the number of Americans who will die from asthma attacks, and roughly a tenth as many who will be killed in car crashes. Globally, the number of people annually diagnosed with ALS is around half a million. Half a million sounds like a huge number, until you consider this: 2.5 billion people (5000 times as many) lack access to safe, clean drinking water. One child dies every 21 seconds due to diseases caused by unsafe water; lack of clean water is now the number one cause of death in children under age 5, and kills more children than the number 2, 3, 4, and 5-ranked causes of death combined. Around the world, unsafe water causes more deaths per year than all forms of violence, including war.

In developing countries, transporting water--walking to a well or stream, collecting water, and walking home--consumes approximately 200 million hours of time per year, time that could be spent growing crops, working, or going to school. When a community gets access to safe nearby drinking water, their productivity increases in many ways.

A few weeks ago my husband and I went to an event for Wine to Water, an international organization started right down the road from our home in Linville. I've been paying more attention to water issues ever since. Then yesterday, I finally got challenged. Not the Ice Bucket Challenge. Instead, my friend Cindy Holmes posted her I Raise You One Ice Bucket Challenge. She's found someone to donate matching funds to CharityWater, and she challenged me not just to give money, but to spread the word. Here you go, Cindy--much more fun than ice water on my head!

I'd like to help spread the word, too: so I challenge Sarah Randall, Julie Brubaker, Lauren Ries, and Glennon Doyle Melton to take up the cause. Oh, and if you'd like to donated to Wine to Water instead, or peruse their excellent website, go here.

Monday, August 25, 2014

What Sister Sarah Has to Say

This morning, my friends, gave new meaning to the phrase shitstorm, and while I will probably blog about it that won't be for at least a few days yet. So I'm posting a guest blog, sort of. Sarah Randall is one of my childhood best friends, one of my current best friends, and my daughter's godmother. She's also an Episcopal priest and an Episcopal nun. (For those of you who didn't think Episcopalians had nuns: sure they do. How else could Sarah be one?) Sarah is part of why I need to go to Haiti--she lived there for several years--but she's now living with her community in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and this is part of a sermon she preached yesterday in Quincy. It's partially based on my earlier post about the book Interrupted.

"n this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” After a variety of responses, he continues, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."

Now that is no small claim.  Simply claiming he was a true prophet would have already been making a stand. Prophets deserve respect and consideration, though that’s rarely what they get at the moment they’re speaking. But if Jesus is the Son of the living God, the stakes are suddenly much higher.

If we stake our faith on Jesus Christ in any way, shape, or form, it will have an impact on our lives. Christians may agree on very little these days, but all of us claim to be followers of Christ even when we live it out differently.[1]  What we believe makes a difference because it will impact the way we live and the choices we make.  Someone who believes Jesus is a great moral teacher will consult his words on ethics. Those of us who believe he is the Son of the Living God may suddenly realize that he’s not just someone to be consulted; he’s the one who calls us to follow him in giving our whole life to God. And that can mean we end up going in some unexpected directions. The path we’re following can take us to some unfamiliar places, into situations that make us uneasy, alongside people who make us uncomfortable. If we take Jesus seriously, we’re in for quite a ride.

A writer friend of mine recently put up a blog post after reading Jen Hatmaker’s newest book, Interrupted: An Adventure in Relearning the Essentials of Faith. She writes,
 I realized lately that I'm on the way to becoming an activist, and I can't tell you how much I hate that. It's a lot more comfortable on my farm, with my animals, thinking happy thoughts. I can even think nice religious thoughts, thanking God for the many blessings in my life. Except there's a flip side to both religion and happiness. There's a point where you start remembering the Bible verses on poverty or social justice, and you start getting pushed out of your comfortable little shell. It's not fun. But it's good. And while I pretty much hate all politicians--I'm a fiscal conservative with liberal social leanings and a woman with a brain in my head, which pretty much rules out liking any of them--I suddenly seem to care about social issues. I want a bigger minimum wage. Civil rights for LGBTQs. Racial justice. A global economy where my affluence didn't rest on the backs of developing-world laborers that make less than a dollar a day…
Jen's prayer, "Raise up in me a holy Passion," is honestly a bit hot for me. I'd like "raise up in me a moderate enthusiasm," perhaps, or, "Raise up in me the chance to do a bit of good and feel smug while returning to my comfortable life." I don't know, though. I'm afraid, especially after last week, that I might be stuck.[2]
Let’s not kid ourselves. Scripture is dangerous. The more you read it, lots of it, the more you get the larger picture of what God is up to, the more you realize that something has to change – and that you have to be part of it. I can’t speak for others, but I’m a cradle Episcopalian. A Midwesterner. My father is a priest and my mother a teacher. It’s a perfect storm in terms of confusing NICE with HOLY and POLITE with JUST.  When controversial topics arise, one should murmur something noncommittal.

That’s very nice.  

It’s not what God calls us to. 

The past couple of weeks, I’ve been in impassioned discussions about Ferguson with family and friends back in Indiana. Never thought I’d see the day. What a blessing. But not easy.  But how many more unarmed black men will die because we’ve been taught to fear each other? Something has to change. All of us need to do more. Those of us who are white need both to speak up where there is silence or indifference, and to be quiet and listen when there is someone of color sharing the story of what it’s really like in this country. I guarantee you it won’t be comfortable. And some days change doesn’t seem possible. But remember South Africa? No one thought anything could ever change there, and it did, in large part because of the sharing of terrible stories in their Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Desmond Tutu said, “True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking, but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”[3]  When we don’t know what else to do, we can always start by seeking out the stories of others and listening. In this way we begin to build that unity we pray for as we build relationships, real relationships built on the rock of truth rather than the sand of polite avoidance.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Make no mistake: that’s ALL of us. High time we started asking ourselves what exactly we’re binding up and what exactly we are loosing. What barriers do we not even see that need to be knocked down so that the kingdom of heaven might be a little more present on earth? What do we need to do so that we might truly gather in unity to praise God? Jesus came to set the oppressed free and to break every yoke… We’re supposed to be part of this work, too. Look at your hands. YOUR HANDS are the hands that are to be building the kingdom. YOUR HANDS are the hands that hold the power of God to set others free, to make life a little better for everyone. YOUR HANDS are the hands that hold the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Sisters and brothers, unlock that gate, open it wide, and let the light shine in. Amen."

Amen. Thanks, Sarah. Love you.

Friday, August 22, 2014

What My Son Has to Say

Yesterday my son told me I complained too much on my blog. He didn't mind me complaining about social issues, he said, but I complained too much about his dog. I will admit that I would prefer the dog stay alive and happy even if it means I have to keep cleaning up his messes. I know I have a nice life, dur. And when I'm complaining/whining, I recognize that I'm not usually looking at the proper flip side.

For example, my son is returning to college tomorrow. I will miss him and feel sad. But the converse would be my son not returning to college, and no matter how I think about it that would be worse. I  have friends whose kids are a bit confused right now about what to do with their time, and others who are struggling with their grades or health problems or money or other stuff that I'm not having to deal with, as my son drives off to his very nice, well-equipped, competitive university, where he did quite well as a freshman while minimizing his involvement in stupid stuff. Which I can't thank him enough for, really.

So. Poor me, I'm sad. Because of how excellent my life is. I'm sure you see the conundrum.

Also poor me, my schedule is so overcrowded with GOOD STUFF like having friends over to drink wine or riding my horse or writing future bestsellers that I haven't had time to do laundry and my children are growing up and leaving home because they're healthy and smart and doing well, and so I mostly do see my son's point. I know I don't see it all the time, particularly not when I leave my office door open for two minutes and the dog sneaks in and pees on my rug (*cough cough* yesterday *cough cough*). But yeah. I'll get there. With luck, my son will too.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

My Hips Do Lie

So it seems that the concussion I had at pony club Festival few weeks ago temporarily removed the filter that keeps me from saying whatever pops into my head. In the ER, when a young man in scrubs introduced himself as "Dr. So-and-so," I said, "Staff or resident?" "Uh, resident," he said. "Oh, NO!" I said. "I'm at an ER in JULY!!"

July is when hospitals get new residents, fresh from medical school. Dr. Howser was not amused, and it may have been why he stitched up the inside of my mouth without anesthesia.

At one point they carefully rolled me off the backboard they'd transported me on, and started pressing on my back to see if anything hurt. When they got to my lower back I yelled, "Ouch!" and then said, "Oh, don't worry about that, that's from the damn dressage."

That morning I'd had a 90-minute semiprivate dressage lesson with Susanne Winslade, an instructor and pony club National Examiner from New Hampshire. It rained hard during most of the lesson, which puzzled me a lot when I was in the hospital. "Why am I wet?" I asked my mother. "You were riding in the rain, and didn't have other clothes to change into." "When was I riding in the rain?" I'd ask. "This morning," she said. A few minutes would go by, and I'd pluck at my shirt and say, "Why am I wet?" until finally someone covered me with a blanket to shut me up. Concussed people are lots of fun.

The worst part about riding is that when the horse does something incorrectly it's usually the rider's fault. The best part about riding is that when the horse does something incorrectly it's usually the rider's fault. Because you, the rider, can fix it. But it sucks to have to do it.

I'd ridden in front of Susanne Winslade for maybe five minutes when she stopped me and told me I was doing it all wrong. "I'm going to make a simple change that is going to be very hard for you," she said. She had me put my thumb onto the crest of my hipbone, and my index finger on top of my hip joint. She showed me how my thumb was about an inch in front of my finger. "Now, I want you to move the top of your hip back so that your finger and thumb are directly over each other." I did. "Now, I want you to sit like that," she said. "Forever."

It was the weirdest feeling in the world. I can't even tell you how weird. Thirty years of riding and I'd never ridden with my hips correctly before. My whole stomach scrunched up and my abs started shrieking. I felt like a hunchback. "You need to sit like this all the time," Susanne said. "In the car, in your office, everywhere, until it becomes a new muscle memory."

Oh, my. After just one lesson I thought I was going to die. My hips were cursing me. I was cursing them. Just think about changing your entire posture--sure, it was only an inch, but it changed muscles from my shoulders to my heels.  Four weeks post-concussion, one week back in the saddle, I can tell you that this new position is still the most foreign thing in the world, and also it's painful all the time. My husband sees me grimace and immediately thinks 1) that I suffered permanent brain damage when I fell off, and am secretly seeing double and just not telling him, or 2) that he has done something wrong. There have been a lot of, "Kim, are you okay?" questions at our house.

No, I am not okay. I hurt. Even my usual Pilates routine is agony with the new hip thing. Riding in the car sucks. Sitting at my desk sucks.

Riding the horse, on the other hand, is awesome. Sarah loves the new hip thing. She reveres the new hip thing. She's suddenly so much more free under saddle, and she's happy. Yesterday I tried the new hip thing over very tiny fences, and I suddenly understand what my instructors have been trying to make me do for the past several years. This.

That wasn't even all I learned from Susanne Winslade, in one lesson, in the pouring rain. I'll write about the other Big Reveal soon. Warning: it hurts just as much as the first one.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Time to Work Like Crazy

I've had a lovely summer. We took a family trip to the Pacific Northwest. I got to go to event camp, and to watch my daughter compete at Pony Club Nationals. My daughter and I volunteered at a horse trial over Memorial Day weekend, and we'll compete at one over Labor Day weekend, which seems like nice bookends to the season. Over the Fourth of July we welcomed my parents, siblings, and their families to a wonderful few days on the farm, complete with fireworks, pony rides, and tractor rides. The ancient incontinent dog is still alive, and the 31-year-old pony, after months of slowing becoming skinnier, is now actually gaining weight on new feed. The farm is green and beautiful.

My daughter is back in school already. My son leaves Saturday for his second year of college, and I just got off the phone from a long conference call involving my Super Secret Project. Nose, meet grindstone. I've got a ferocious deadline on this one, though all parties agree that good writing is more important than deadlines (but they really want me to meet the deadlines); it's time, as my son joked, that I "work like a person with a real job."

I'll still keep blogging because it's a handy warm-up exercise for the day, and because I seem to have plenty of opinions to share. But I just got the green light to quit researching (as much) and start writing (a lot), and I'm thrilled. I wish I could tell you all about it. Someday I will be able to, just not yet. Hooray for fall, and for work worth doing.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Raise Up In Me a Moderate Enthusiasm, Oh God

The other day I sent out a Tweet--not something I do often: I seem to be becoming political. Dammit.

That's also the story of Jen Hatmaker's recently-revised book Interrupted. I follow her blog, though I can't remember exactly how I found it. There was a time when I was "looking" for my new book, the one that became The War That Saved My Life, and I read a lot of blogs, and hers was one that stuck with me, primarily because she's dead honest without a lot of woo-woo.  (Read her post on the end of the school year. Funniest. Post. Ever.)

Anyhow, you can tell it's Monday morning by the amount of digression. (Which, when you think of it, is yet another digression.) I realized lately that I'm on the way to becoming an activist, and I can't tell you how much I hate that. It's a lot more comfortable on my farm, with my animals, thinking happy thoughts. I can even think nice religious thoughts, thanking God for the many blessings in my life. Except there's a flip side to both religion and happiness. There's a point where you start remembering the Bible verses on poverty or social justice, and you start getting pushed out of your comfortable little shell. It's not fun. But it's good. And while I pretty much hate all politicians--I'm a fiscal conservative with liberal social leanings and a woman with a brain in my head, which pretty much rules out liking any of them--I suddenly seem to care about social issues. I want a bigger minimum wage. Civil rights for LGBTQs. Racial justice. A global economy where my affluence didn't rest on the backs of developing-world laborers that make less than a dollar a day. I buy free-trade organic chocolate now, and I could tell you why.

Jen's book Interrupted tells a similar, if much more life-altering story. Her husband was a pastor at one of those big mega-churches down in Texas, they had sweet children and a nice life, and suddenly God asked Jen just what she thought she was doing, "blessing the blessed" while every day thousands of children starved. It led to revolution.

Jen's prayer, "Raise up in me a holy Passion," is honestly a bit hot for me. I'd like "raise up in me a moderate enthusiasm," perhaps, or, "Raise up in me the chance to do a bit of good and feel smug while returning to my comfortable life." I don't know, though. I'm afraid, especially after last week, that I might be stuck.

Meanwhile. here's a link to a cool watercolor image of that quote. I'm also giving away a copy of Interrupted at random to a person who comments on this blog. Warning: it may mess you up. Or maybe God already has.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Bodice-Rippers, Yes, But Historically Correct.

I suck at selfies.

My husband and son came home from a trip last night laughing over my new profile photo. I told them it was the best I could do, that I'd taken five different photos and the one I used was by far the best. They seemed to think this made it even funnier.

Of course I'm not smiling. I was trying to be serious. But still. There are some things about the modern world that I just don't get, and selfies, it seems, are one of them.

Also tattoos, and those earrings that leave giant holes in your ears. Also Instagram. And after all this time, I still haven't gotten my head around Pintrest. Snapchats? My kids get those, but can't tell me why.

When I write historical fiction, which is often, I don't like to start writing until I understand the setting well enough that I can walk my character through a typical day without having to look stuff up. I want to know where she sleeps, how she wakes up (alarm clock? rooster? church bells?), what she wears, what she eats and who cooks it and how--all that. I don't want to sit and think about whether or not she wears underwear (only post 1830) or takes a school bus (hello, 1920s) or puts sugar in her tea. (Is there rationing? Is she rich? What century are we in?)  It makes me cross-eyed crazy when other writers get these details wrong. I've been known to throw novels across the room, and nobody but me enjoys my rants at book clubs. (It's gotten so that some of my friends look historical details up on Google before book club, just so they can argue back.) (Which is awesome.) There's a reason most of my novels are set in the past. I live more comfortably there.

I'm writing about a Very Serious Topic now. It's part of my Special Secret Project that I am still not under liberty to reveal. But it's hell to be researching a Very Serious Topic in the same week that Robin Williams and Michael Brown died. My heart's not in it, and my sleep is still suffering.

Yesterday I took matters into my own hands. When the Books-A-Million in Kingsport didn't have any of the Very Serious Books I needed for my research, I bought a volume called Vixen in Velvet instead. The police in Ferguson have undergone a change of personnel and heart, Times Square shut down, people are listening, and I am reading historically accurate smut. I feel better now.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Where I Stand

I've always believed in the importance of the truth, but as a writer I'm more aware than most how easy it is to make facts lie.

Consider the difference between these two sentences:

Community members gathered in silent vigil as the murder victim's body lay uncovered on the street.

Angry mobs threatened officers attempting to secure the police scene.

They both describe the same thing: that the body of 18-year-old Michael Brown was left in the street for more than four hours after he was shot to death, and that, during that time, a crowd gathered. But which sentence you read as the truth depends upon your point of view.

I gotta say, I'm with the gathering on this one. My heart bleeds for the people of Ferguson, and for the injustice and racism still alive in this country. If you want to know more about what's happening, #Ferguson is a good place to start. There's also this listing of blog posts and websites. Sarah Bessey has a few things to say, and Matt Stauffer urges us to become The Other White Person, "The one who, in the face of White apathy towards Black pain, acts counter to your culture and stands in solidarity with people whose neighborhoods might not look like yours."

I can't do much, but I can do this much, and I urge you to do the same. Take a photo of yourself with your hand in the air. Post it online. Show the world that whatever your skin color, you stand with the people of Ferguson, you stand with the victims of racial injustice, and you stand with Michael Brown.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Because I'm not finished yet: Robin Williams, Michael Brown, Matt Walsh

Let me start by saying, I'm pretty sure I hate Matt Walsh.

I'm called to forgiveness, as all Christians are. I'll get there on this one, I'm sure, since Matt Walsh isn't really relevant enough to continue hating, but just for today I've decided to hate him.

It started because my brother posted a comment to a blog MW linked to Facebook, so the blog showed up on my screen. I'm not totally sure I understand my brother's comment, so I'm going to leave that out. Matt Walsh was saying, basically, that suicide was a choice, a choice he condemned. He made obscure reference to his own past as being something he'd had to overcome, indicating that he felt justified in making a blanket statement about suicide as a whole, as it is faced by everyone.

That's trouble.  Anytime we start a sentence, "All ______ (suicides, depressed people, Christians, gays) are ________ " we need to shut up, have a good think, and try again.

Matt Walsh knows that at this point in his life suicide would be something he could choose or not choose. Matt Walsh knows nothing about the directions his life might go, the places he might find himself, the struggles he might someday have to endure. He has no idea what illnesses might fall upon his family.

More importantly, he has no idea what it's like inside my brain. Nor my brother's brain, my child's brain, Robin Williams' brain. He's speaking a confident "truth" based only on his own experiences, and that is, primarily, bullshit.

Just because I was feeling ornery, I scrolled down and read the previous post on Matt Walsh's blog. It's titled, "Police Officers Aren't the Ones Destroying The Black Community."  Hey, maybe not, but they are the ones shooting unarmed teenagers walking down the street. Walsh seems to think that the big picture in the Michael Brown story is that some of the protests after his death became destructive. Hello? A momma's child died. Walsh says, "two men allegedly assaulted an officer as he was getting out of his car," and while he notes that witnesses dispute that account, he leaves the strong impression that a cop was doing his job, clearing out some thugs who wantonly attacked him, while again, all evidence points to two young men walking peacefully down the street when a police officer challenged them. Because they were walking down the street. Nobody thought they were committing a crime. It was broad daylight. The officer started something that ended in tragedy by his own hand.

The horrid part is that people listen to idiots like Matt Walsh. They listen to FOX News analyst Shepard Smith calling Robin Williams a "coward," for killing himself in "a fit of depression," as though the disease were a sort of temporary temper-tantrum.  People listen to prejudice and hate expressed with confidence and verve, and they buy into it, but none of it is true. None of it is love. None of it, not one ounce, is Christian.

Robin Williams was a Christian. He was Episcopalian, which he famously described as, "Catholic lite-all the sacraments, half the guilt." He suffered from depression his entire adult life. He fought as hard as he could, and he was brave, and he died.

Suicide is not a sin. It's been centuries since the Catholic Church refused to bury suicide victims in consecrated grounds. Currently, suicide victims are treated as gently as all other people who die. "The church makes no judgment about the individual's relationship with God. We simply place all our trust in God's mercy and love for the one who has died, and for those terribly hurt by the death." (

Depression is not a sin.  Depression is a brain disorder. Many of our better Catholic Saints have suffered from it, including recently Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who never let her black nights prevent her from showing God's love. Neither suicide nor depression say anything about any person's inherent goodness or about how much that person is loved by God.

Unlike Matt Walsh, I would say that shooting teenagers dead for no reason is a sin. I would further suggest that a community protest about that death is not only not a sin, but is an admirable and reasonable response. Without the protest, who among us would have heard of the death of Michael Brown? If there's no protest, there's no media; without media coverage on this issue there is no possibility of change. Michael Brown wasn't the victim of random violence, drug bangers, gang members or thieves. He was deliberately shot by an officer of the law; when that can happen, something needs to change.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Sadness over Robin William, Outrage over Michael Brown

I didn't sleep last night. I tried, I really did, but it was past 3 am when I turned my back on the clock, and later than that when I finally fell asleep. I read about Robin Williams' suicide in the late evening and it sent my brain whirling into DEFCON 5 hyper-aware red alert, and so I made friends with my ceiling since I knew I'd be staring at it for a good long while.

I never attempted suicide, but once, roughly a decade ago, I got to the point where the idea seemed attractive. That was enough to finally push the rational part of my brain to get help--therapy, medicine, years of it. I still take anti-depressants and probably will for the rest of my life, since the one time I tried to stop them I relapsed. You'll look at my life, my lovely, lovely, life, with a good husband and wonderful children, a successful career, a safe healthy life--and all that was true ten years ago as well as now--and you, you who have never battled mental illness--you'll think, why are you depressed? Yet I've never heard anyone say, You have such a good life--why did you get cancer?

Depression is not sadness. Depression is an illness of the brain. We don't completely understand it, but there seems to be both a genetic component and a trauma component. We've learned that trauma can cause physical changes to the brain, especially during early childhood. Therapy is useful, but for me at least, less useful than medicine, and while I sometimes wish this weren't true I don't apologize for it. I take antihistamines, too; I notice no one seems to have a problem with them.

Here's what I know about suicide: if you're living in torment, it looks like peace. It's not about getting even or failing or even feeling that you're not worthwhile. It's about stopping the pain. I felt so sorry about Robin Williams because I understood him better than I'd like to. He was brilliant, gifted, compassionate--and he reached a point where he couldn't go on. The only good thing to come from his death might be that more people will talk about mental illness. Already I've seen on Facebook many of my friends saying that they or someone they love suffers, too. Maybe we can help each other more.

This morning I planned to only write about Robin Williams, until I saw on my computer a photo of the mother of Michael Brown. Michael Brown was the unarmed 18-year-old who was shot dead by a policemen in Missouri last Saturday afternoon. The policeman says that there was a scuffle, that Michael reached for the policeman's gun. Michael's friend, who was with him, says that there was never a scuffle, and that Michael had put his hands in the air.

He was shot eight times. He was two days away from starting college.

What no one disputes, as far as I can tell, is what set the whole incident off. Michael and his friend, a black man of the same age, were walking down a street at two o'clock in the afternoon. The policeman drove by, rolled down his window, and told the boys to get off the street, to walk down the sidewalk instead. The boys said they were nearly at their destination, no problem, they'd be off the street in a minute.

That's the offense. They were walking down the street. While black, of course. They were black and they were young and they were walking down the street, and now Michael Brown is dead. His neighbors are rioting; of course they are. Can you imagine, just for a moment? They live in a neighborhood where their children could be killed for walking outside.  I think of my son and one of his friends, walking down the middle of a street in Bristol. Laughing, cracking jokes. I don't worry that he's going to be shot for doing that.

Michael Brown was killed for jaywalking.

While black.

Yeah, I could get pretty outraged about that. In fact, I am outraged.

I'd like to see more outrage among my fellow white people over this. I'd like whites, like me, to put our children in Michael Brown's shoes, to imagine for one moment that this could happen to someone with our color of skin. How would we feel? And how would we feel when this was one senseless murder on the heels of another, and another, all of them young black boys? I'd like to see the outpouring of grief and internet odes and there-but-for-the-grace-of-Gods that we're putting out for Robin Williams be put out also for Michael Brown.

I'd like to sleep tonight, but it I don't, while I'm staring at the ceiling I'll say prayers for the family of Michael Brown.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Women's Rights Are Human Rights

Women's Rights are Human Rights.

Apparently that statement, sent over the internet, was enough to ignite physical protests in some countries.

The 200 girls kidnapped from a Nigerian high school, by a group whose sole goal is to frighten parents into not educating their girls, are still missing.

Fewer than 5% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa finish high school.

Each year of primary school education in a developing country raises a girl's eventual wages by 10-20%. Each year of secondary school raises them 15-25%.

A girl from a developing country who stays in school 7 years marries 4 years later, has 2.2 fewer children, is less likely to be subject to forced sex and more likely to use contraception than girls who leave school early.

Two days ago, in Syria, a woman accused of adultery was stoned to death. The man with whom she committed adultery was not punished.

One in seven girls in the developing world is married before age 15.

Girls ages 10-14 are five times as likely to die in childbirth as women ages 20-24.

I have on a my desk a small photograph of a Afghani child bride. She wears elaborate makeup on her pre-pubescent face. She bites her lip; her eyes are full of sorrow.

Women's Rights are Human Rights. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

My Definition of "Rich"

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a message on Facebook. I was loose in SoHo, exploring, for about an hour, and I posted several things to Facebook because I didn't have anyone with me to share them. My favorite was a photo of Christopher Walken, with the caption, "walkens accepted," but the one that drew the most comments was as follows:

"I realize that I am wealthy even by the standards of this wealthy nation, and I love my husband above all things; however, I am still not buying him a $375 Oxford shirt."

As far as I can tell, the thing that surprised my friends was the line "I am wealthy." So I thought I'd talk about wealth for a minute. It's one of those things like race that middle-class white Americans don't like to discuss.

If this morning you thought to yourself, "which pair of shoes should I wear?" you are wealthy by the standards of the world. If you have a choice of what to make for dinner, you are wealthy by the standards of the world. Half the global population still exists on under $2 per day. One person in six lacks access to safe drinking water. The world is a wide big place, and in the United States not only do we sell shirts for $375 but we put clothes on our dogs.

Not all of us, of course. Today's my day at Faith in Action. We paid someone's $50 water bill. We helped someone else who normally does just fine on $800 a month.

When I speak at schools as a visiting author, almost inevitably I am asked if I'm rich. This makes teachers cringe, but I've come to understand that it's one way kids have of gauging how big of a celebrity I am. And they WANT me to be a celebrity; my visit is important to them.

I tell them that yes, I am rich. But then I explain what I mean by rich. I got this definition from a good friend several years ago, and I've used it ever since.

"I'm rich," she announced one day, over the phone.

"Oh, goody," I said. "What happened."

"I was in the grocery buying our food for the week. I put three gallons of milk in the cart and I suddenly realized I didn't know what milk cost. When I was first married I always knew. Now I go to the store and I pick out whatever my family wants to eat and I want to cook, and I buy it, and I don't even think about it anymore. I'm rich. I didn't even realize it."

That was when I realized it, too, because I do the same thing. I buy whatever food I want. Heck, I sometimes I buy organic blueberries. In winter. I love blueberries.

Thing is, when I say this in schools, the students get it. It's not a sexy definition of wealth. It's doesn't keep up with the Joneses. But as a measure of security, of freedom from want, I find it serves awfully well.

Would you buy a $375 shirt, even if you could? 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Elderly Incontinent Dog Still Lives

In the battle between me and the elderly incontinent dog, the elderly incontinent dog is winning.

Yesterday, flush with happiness about a particularly nice three-hour stretch of writing, I stepped out of my office straight into a cold puddle of pee. I then tried to hop one-footed the length of the hallway to the bathroom, to rinse my foot, thence to the laundry for cleaning supplies, by which point the dog had vanished.

He'd peed just outside my office door because I'd banished him from my office. I'd banished him from my office because he keeps peeing on my rug. He pees now whenever he gets the least bit excited, and he gets the least bit excited any time any vehicle comes up the driveway, and he likes to sit on my office window seat, just above the good rug, to watch for vehicles coming up the driveway. You can see how this might be a problem.

A year ago I was praying, actually on-my-knees praying, that the elderly incontinent dog would not die immediately after my son left for college. My son and that dog love each other, and I dreaded having to call my son when he was still homesick in a foreign place (Indiana) and tell him his dog was dead. It seemed at the time a very real possibility. The dog has a frightfully enlarged heart and congestive heart failure; one afternoon late last summer he leaped off the couch, had a sort of seizure, then wholly lost consciousness on the floor. We all thought he was dead. We carried him sobbing to the vet's office, where, no joke, they gave him a shot and five minutes later he was merrily peeing half a gallon onto the vet's floor.

I've always wanted that to happen when I brought an elderly or critically ill pet to the vet--not the peeing part, but the a miracle injection followed by instant restoration of life. Bummer that it only ever happened to the elderly incontinent dog.

He's deaf as a stone. He understands my sign language, but pretends not to. I took him outside today for a nice walk and he gobbled up some dried piece of grass clots or manure or roadkill, which he will likely barf at the time and place most inconvenient to me.

I estimate I've done 100 loads of laundry in the last year solely because of him.

A few weeks ago, I had to take him back to the vet. For a rabies booster.  The vet and I laughed for half an hour. A rabies booster, because that son of a bitch still lives.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Dead Birds and Body Armor

The other day my daughter found a dead bird in one of the horses' water troughs. (Sometimes small critters drown in water troughs; for years, we've called the daily inspection of all out troughs, even though we know they should have enough of water from yesterday, the "dead squirrel check.") My daughter reported the incident to me when she came back to the house.

"So, what'd you do?" I asked her.

She'd removed the dead bird with a pitchfork, buried it in the manure pile, emptied the trough, scrubbed it thoroughly, and refilled it. Duh.

This is the kind of girl I'm glad I'm raising.

I've thought that over and over this summer, as I watched my daughter drive a pickup truck full of teenage girls and power tools across our fields, doing what they called "ghetto repair" to the jumps. As I watched my friend's much younger daughter clean the loose dirt out of a post hole with her hands, say, "Oh, look--a worm," and carefully put it back. As I saw a third girl pull a knife out of her shorts pocket that would gut a deer and say with a grin, "Military grade. It'll slice through body armor."

These are the girls I want--tough, practical, and unafraid to get messy. The world's not an easy place. It's better if we give them weapons, and let them know we think they're strong.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Bats In The Belfry, Skunks In The Barn

This morning I struggled to wake at something like a reasonable time, only because I had a pony club activity to get to. I stumbled downstairs and typed into Google, "Is it normal to sleep this much after a concussion?"

Because whileI have always been a pretty strong sleeper, this right here is becoming ridiculous. I slept 9 1/2 hours the first night in New York, 8 the second (only because I had to be up at 5:30; I slept more on the plane). Then in Linville it was a whole marathon of not getting up before lunch, though also I did very little from a physical standpoint--a bit of tennis, and a short stint on the lake on a stand-up paddleboard, and that was all. Since then I've been sleeping in like I'm being paid to do it, sleeping from 10 at night to 8 or 9 in the morning, repetitively, and being tired during the day, and yesterday I was just cashed. I slept most of the afternoon. Then all night. Then woke tired.

According to Google, yes, this is completely normal after a concussion such as I had. I just need to sleep. So, okay. This morning our pony club walked hounds with the local hunt. We walked about 2 miles, nothing you could call strenuous, and it wore me out. So I took a nap. I'm wondering how long this will go on. Last time I had a concussion--a much milder one--I think I remember it took 2 weeks before I felt completely normal. I don't remember sleeping this much, but there you are.

Meanwhile, some sort of critter has been getting into the barn at night. In summer we bring Syd and Shakespeare in during the day, and put them out at night (the others are on full turnout). Shakespeare is our 31-year-old pony. He's lost weight due to not having any back teeth anymore, so for the last several weeks we've been feeding him a pellet mush in addition to his usual hay mush. The pellets are a mix of Senior horse feed, Omega-3 fat pellets, and rice bran pellets, with some salt thrown in; they look like dog food. I mix them up in a bucket and had been leaving the bucket, plus another bucket full of a mix of alfalfa cubes and chopped hay, outside Shakey's stall every night. Mike or Logan, who own Syd, bring the horses in each morning, and they pour water onto Shakey's feed to soften it and give it to him.

We'd been noticing some spills in the aisle, and also some spills in the stall if Shakey didn't finish everything. Mike thought we perhaps had a fox visiting. We've seen foxes on the farm before. The back door of the barn is normally shut only with a metal gate, so that the cats can go in and out. It would be a thin coyote who could make it through the bars, but a fox would have no trouble.

The farrier was here Wednesday and he figured our night visitor was a raccoon. He offered to trap the raccoon and take him back to his ridge. I said, what, so you can eat it? and he said he was not redneck enough to eat coon. Squirrel, yes. Coon, no. Also no to groundhog and possum.

We decided to put Shakey's buckets in the locked tack room to discourage whatever it was. I don't like coons, and I really don't even want to feed foxes.

Last night my son took a girl out to eat, and afterwards she wanted to come meet the horses. They opened the barn door and flipped on the main light.

A half dozen skunks ran for cover. Many of them chose as cover Shakespeare's stall.

The good news is that none of them felt harassed enough to spray. The bad news? I've been fattening half a dozen skunks, y'all. And I never heard tell of a person redneck enough to eat them.