Thursday, October 30, 2014

I can't read books like a normal person.

I wish I could. The other day, worn out and mentally tired,  I fired up my Kindle and bought a book called The American Duke. I like a slutty book about British nobles as much as anyone. However.

In the very first paragraph Lady Whatever wakes and decides to go for a walk in the ducal garden at dawn. She flings her cloak over her nightdress. I wince, Maybe they had nightdresses in 1812 for duke's daughters, (most women at that time would have slept in their shift, which was basically the bottom layer of what they wore during the day) but it's very hard to believe in a duke's daughter who go outside in one. She'd have absolutely nothing on beneath it. Okay. I move on. Lady Whatever slides her feet into her boots, and I wince again. What boots are these? No Wellies back then. Tall leather boots wouldn't slip. Most footwear she'd either need help to get into, or she would ruin by walking in the garden.

I've gotten to the second sentence and can barely stand to continue.

Lady W goes down to the garden dressed like a slutty farmhand and encounters her father, dead. She runs to the stables for help, and sits down on a hay bale.

Maybe it was possible to bale hay then. I don't know. But it would have been really rare, particularly in England where even now they don't really put hay up in the square bales common in America. Haystacks, people. Haylofts. Not hay bales. Sheesh.

Inside the house, Lady W's sister asks, if Papa is dead, who will be the next duke?

It's hard for me to express how wrong this is. Everyone knew who the heir would be. Everyone, all the time. In on of Jil Paton Walsh's Lord Peter Wimsey books, the Duke of Denver, Lord Peter's brother, drops dead of a heart attack. Lord Peter rushes over, and, as he's examining the body, a family retainer comes up to him and says, "Your Grace--" which is how you address a duke, because, now that his brother is dead, Lord Peter has become Duke of Denver, and everyone knows it immediately.

I realize the author just wanted a way to explain that this crummy American relative would inherit, but it didn't need to be done with inane dialogue spoken by incredible characters. '"Oh, no!" cried Lady Whosis, "now we're at the mercy of the dreadful heir!" It was true. Since the death of her second brother, her father's second cousin's child had become the heir. No one knew a thing about him.' See how easy that was?

I sigh deeply and try to persevere. But the next bit of what is still the first chapter explains how, since their family's descent into poverty, they've had very little to eat. Bullpucky. They live on a landed estate. Gowns, jewels, carriages, anything that has to be bought with cash, they well may not afford, but they've got plenty of food. If anyone in the area has enough to eat it's them.

I'm done. It's awful. I paid for the book and it's stuck on my Kindle; I can't give it away. I can't stand reading it. I know most people aren't like me, but I'm stuck with my neurotic attention to history and I simply can not go on.

(Fortunately, the next book I picked up was Sarah Waters' The Paying Guests. Now that's how to write historical fiction!)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


I've been overthinking things with my new novel. I tend to overthink things, anyhow. My husband hates going to movies with me because I dissect them in detail on the drive home. Sometimes--often, actually--when I'm taking a riding lesson and stop to ask a complex question, my instructor says, "Kim. Shut up and ride." With novel-writing I'm even worse because 1) I have only myself to talk to; and 2) all first drafts are lousy.

I know this. I know that the first rule of writing is to get the crap on the page. I know that the magic mostly happens in revision. This will be my 17th book, for heaven's sake. I'm not new at the game.

And yet. I'm piddling, agonizing. What is this book About? Where's the Plot? As if I could ever answer those questions in a first draft. Get on with it, darling.

Yesterday I finished Katherine Paterson's new semi-autobiography, Stories of my Life. I adore Katherine Paterson. I still remember reading The Great Gilly Hopkins when I was quite young, and getting to the part where Gilly, a brat of a foster child, has given a handmade card to her African-American teacher. The front of the card reads, "They're saying 'black is beautiful,' but near as I can figure is that everyone who's saying it looks mighty like a-" and then the inside says, "person with a vested interest in maintaining that point of view." That line made me howl with laughter, probably 35 years ago, and it makes me howl now, but it also--way back when--it showed me a glimpse of how writing works, how you can manipulate words with fascinating results. I met Katherine Paterson once. I wanted to kneel and kiss her ring. I love her so, have always loved her so. So you can imagine my relief when I learned, in this last book, that the time between when she started writing seriously, and when her first book came out, was the same as mine: nine years. Oddly enough that nine-year figure crops up again and again in writer's biographies. It's almost as though it takes nine years to become any class of writer.

The book I'm working on now is the sequel to The War That Saved My Life. It's the first true sequel I've ever written. It's a bit easier to write a sequel, because I already know the characters and the setting, and I've done a lot of the research. But--I realize how self-aggrandizing this sounds--I keep getting good reviews for TWTSML, and they sort of paralyze me with regard to the current book. What if it sucks?

The answer is: of course it sucks. Keep writing.

For my last several books I haven't waited to finish a first draft before I sent it to my publisher. I've mailed off the first 70 pages or so, and mostly they've responded with enthusiasm and contracts. When I sent the first pages of the first draft of TWTSML, I got a concerned phone call from my editor, asking, "Is this really going to be your next book?" Translation: ain't nobody gonna publish that.

I sighed. "Yes, it is my next book," I said, "only, obviously, not quite in this form." I dumped the 70 pages into the trash and started again. And again. And again. Six drafts later, I finally found the main character's voice. From there it wasn't quite smooth sailing, but it was at least open water seas.

That's what I need to think about: the work, not the reviews. The story, and the work, and the inherent lousiness of every single first draft in the world.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Our Neighbor as Ourselves

Some day soon I'm going to write about this year's pony club horse show, which was amazing. But right after I got home from the horse show, Saturday night, I read another Post of Self-Loathing on Facebook. Now, I wish my friends wouldn't post these things. But more than that, I wish they wouldn't feel these things. The post was all:
I look terrible in this photo (posted to the internet)
I'm so fat
I'm so ugly 
I can't do anything right
I feel awful.
I feel ashamed.

I felt awful, too. Because there's no way to respond to a friend who's mired in her own self-loathing. All your reassurances sound false. I don't know why this is true. But I also wish we could all overcome these puddles of shame. We are loved. We are all loved.

At church on Sunday the gospel reading was about the two greatest Commandments, "love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself." Now, this verse is sort of like "money is the root of all evil," in that it gets slightly misinterpreted. (It's actually, "the love of money is the root of all evil.") We're not called to love our neighbors as we love our own selves. Thank God. We're called to love our neighbors as we ourselves want to be loved.

What a difference.

It can be really hard for some of us to believe that we are loved. I get that. But we are, and if we are that loved, if we could feel ourselves wrapped in that constant love, wouldn't we be less self-disparaging? If we treated ourselves as deeply, wholly loved--if we even treated ourselves as kindly as we would our own dear friends--we'd cut ourselves some slack without letting ourselves off the hook.

Maybe we can offer ourselves some kindness. Maybe we can see the beauty instead of the ugliness.

If not, we can always put the ugly to work. At the YA Lit conference I went to recently, a bunch of us writers had gathered for dinner at the hotel (read: gathered at the bar, stayed there, and ate bar food for dinner). I was talking with a small group of women. Talk veered to trauma and I related some of mine. The writer next to me gave me a long sympathetic look. "Why don't you use that?" she asked. I told her what my upcoming book was about--a clubfoot evacuee from the slums of London. "Ah," she said, nodding, "you have." Damn straight. Writers do that. But the rest of you had better learn to love. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

I Have Trolled the Internet So You Don't Have To

I've been sitting down at my computer for 15 minutes so far. I've checked my email, sent off a couple of short replies, and looked at Facebook and Twitter.  (I hope I'm saying all that correctly. According to my children, and to all the teenagers with whom they've regaled this story, my phrase, "the cloud," as in, "I'm saving my new novel on the cloud," is so dorky and old-fashioned that I might as well be wearing a corset and bloomers. I'm just hilarious, or so they say.)

Anyway, in my 11 minutes of random internet perusal (subtracting 4 minutes spent on email), I have learned the following:

1. Smelling farts can prevent cancer. This is because sulfur compounds help preserve mitochondria.
2. If that's true, I'm like a little angel of life, and my family should appreciate me more.
3. A snarkier post says that smelling farts does not prevent cancer, geez, people oversimplify science.
4. Hitler was apparently a prodigious farter, so much so that it was widely known in the Reich that you should never stand directly behind him. Also, his confidants nicknamed him "Gas Mustard Breath."
5. No, I am not making #4 up. Nor am I making up that in an attempt to improve his digestive health he apparently ate the feces of strapping healthy German soldiers, which the more you think about it is so weird it couldn't be invented, at least not by me.
6. Also, Hitler was addicted to both heroin and crystal meth. Apparently crystal meth was quite the thing in Germany during WW2.
7. People who publish books can also be maniacally weird. There's an essay going around in which a writer describes in astonishing detail how she stalked a woman who dared to give hernovel a bad review. On Amazon.
8. Another essay about that essay says, "There's no industry that combines ego and economics like book publishing."
9. If so, Governor Andrew Cuomo's ego has taken a bit of a beating. In its first week out, his book has reportedly sold 948 copies. Honestly, I do better than that. However, he reportedly got an advance of $700,000, which I do worse than, so he's probably just fine about it. Except of course that Hilary Clinton's first week book sales were 85,000. Copies, not dollars.
10. It is possible, according to a You Tube video, to fill the ice dispenser of your refrigerator with candy, so that it dispenses candy instead of ice. I don't know why you'd do this. It seems easier to put the candy in a bowl. Plus, then you'd also have ice cubes.
11. My friend Jenn posts the worst jokes in the world.
12. I have several friends named Jenn. (Jennifer/Jenn/Jenny was a very popular name from my birth year.) If you're a Jenn and you're wondering if I mean you, I don't. She knows who she is.

13. And finally, my friend C sent me a link of 10 Things Food Banks Need and Won't Ask For. It's quite good. So, here they are:

Feminine Products
Canned Meats or Jerky
Crackers and Tortillas
Baby Toiletries
Soup Packets
Canned Fruit (besides pineapple)

14. Of those, I'll explain that tortillas and crackers are like bread but have a stable shelf-life. Fruit is something we almost never get, but people actually like.  (Unlike, say, canned peas.) Chocolate is because EVERYONE needs chocolate sometimes. And my number 1 favorite donation is actually feminine hygiene products. I've beat this drum before, but I'll do it again: you can't buy tampons with food stamps. Can you imagine not being able to afford them?

15. Lack of feminine hygiene products is also a huge problem in the developing world--in fact, it's the leading reason why teenage girls miss school: they're menstruating and have to stay home where they can drip. If you're moved to do something about this, I suggest looking into AFRIpads, Diva cup, or Softcup, all of which are good options.

16. My guess is that very few blog posts start with farts and end with menstruation. You're welcome. Have a nice day.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Exquisite Pleasure of Making New Friends

I've never been a person who took friendships for granted. I still remember the cold-water-shock of graduating from college, where I knew everyone and liked at least half, to entering medical school, where a person I thought might turn into a friend greeted news of my departure with, "Great, that's one less person I have to beat," to the work life, where, since it was a chemistry research lab, my choices were limited to mostly men mostly much older than myself. That was difficult.

Then I quit to write full-time while caring for a newborn with a husband in medical residency, living in the sort of condo association where you could go decades without ever meeting the person living beside you. People drove out of their garages in the morning and back into them at night, and never, ever, stepped outside

That was a little lonely.

Then we moved to Bristol and put down roots. Some of my friends here have walked with me the paths of babies-toddlers-grade school-high school-college. We'll be watching each other's children marry next, and then gathering for lunch to brag about our grandchildren. Bristol's the type of Southern small town where the grocery clerk notices when I come in on Tuesday instead of Monday and wants to know what my next book will be about. I once got a phone message from the library: "The book you put on hold is in. We'll keep it for you for two days, so, honey, you can just pick it up on Wednesday on your way to Faith in Action." I kid you not.

(It's a fabulous place to raise kids. Everyone in town keeps an eye on them. and will let you know the moment yours crosses a line.)

Still, new friends are such a treasure. I've had two really happy moments in the last few weeks, when I've realized that people I'd really like to get to know better want to get to know me better, too. I'm not going to blab the details all over the web. I'm just happy about it, and I thought I'd share.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Golden Celebration

The year I was married, my parents celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary and my maternal grandparents celebrated their 50th. Now I'm at 25, and, last Friday, my parents hit 50.

It's a pretty cool milestone. They didn't divorce and they didn't die. Five decades after they committed to each other in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, they're still waking up in a shared bed. I'm terrifically happy for them.

My grandparents' 50th wedding party was a Mass followed by a meal in a nice restaurant. My mom had a cake made with their wedding photo on it, but she dropped the cake box putting it into the car trunk so it looked a little rough. For years I had a photo of my grandparents on that day--heads together, not quite smiling. They were of a generation that didn't necessarily smile for photographs. I remember that they seemed pretty old and frail. My grandfather was the cardiac poster child for the state of Indiana, having inexplicably survived one of the very first open-heart surgeries and then gone on to live for 30 more years, but he was never very active. I think he'd been told to guard against exertion in the same way that he was told to only eat margarine, never olive oil or butter. In their younger days my grandparents had been adventuresome travelers, but by their 50th anniversary their world had shrunk. It would continue to do so.

My parents at the same milestone are, if anything, increasing their speed. Now that my dad has a new knee he's been able to start exercising again. My mom has one of those Fitbits to track how many steps she takes each day, and she loves looking up her progress on her phone. This is good, because for their 50th anniversary they took a 2-week trip to Europe, primarily Italy. I haven't gotten to hear all the stories yet, but I can't wait. So far my Dad's told me about the Venetian glass factory they toured, founded in 1480, and the slightly older vineyard where they ate lunch, and the eeriness of the Roman catacombs. My Mom's described the marvelous restaurant they found by getting lost.

I am grateful for these parents, for their dedication to their marriage, and for their wanderlust. Love you, Mom and Dad.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Homosexuality and the Catholic Church

I love being Catholic. I always have. I love the Mass and Eucharist. I love the concern for social justice, I love most of the teachings. But there are a few areas I flat-out ignore, and others I openly rebel against. Most of those areas have to do with sex.

For instance, I'm a fan of contraceptives. Always have been, as have most--not quite all, but close--of the Catholic women I know. I once pointed out to a priest friend of mine that if our parish church really wanted people to follow the Church-approved rhythm method, they should find someone to teach the class who hadn't had five children in eight years. He said, "But all of those children were planned."

"That may well be," I said, "but to the rest of us, it doesn't look like the method works. Most of us couldn't procreate that quickly if we tried."

The thing about contraception, though, is that it's a very private issue. Most of us don't go around openly pro- or anti-contraception. You can't tell by looking at me whether or not I use birth control; unless you're my husband, it's really none of your concern.

Homosexuality, and heterosexuality, are intrinsic parts of a person's being, and I've long grieved over my Church's official position on gays. My priest friend above tried to tell me that gay people were "Intrinsically disordered,"--a phrase borrowed from Pope Benedict, alas--"like being born blind," he said.

I said that I thought being born without a uterus, or with undescended testicles, would be like being born blind, but that being born gay was part of the normal variance of God's creation.

I don't know what my priest friend really thought about that. He's good at discussing doctrine, but not himself.

Anyway, the point of all this is that on Friday, sitting down at a Starbucks at the University of Notre Dame while my son went to class, I opened up the South Bend Tribune and got a pleasant surprise. Indiana law had just changed to recognizing same-sex marriage. Notre Dame immediately sent out an email to its employees to say that anyone affected by this change should contact human resources to change their benefits. "Notre Dame is a Catholic university and endorses a Catholic view of marriage. However, it will follow the relevant civil law and begin to implement this change immediately." 

Part of the reason this is awesome is that they could have wiggled out of it--there's a loophole for religious institutions; many faith-based colleges are using it.  (Notre Dame also makes it very clear that LGBT students are welcome on campus. I'm glad about that, too.)

Then yesterday word came out of the synod of bishops currently underway in Rome that the official church is getting a little more open, too. Remarkably, at least to me, the Church--the big one--sent out requests for all Catholics, everywhere, to fill out an online survey before this synod. They asked us what we thought instead of telling us what we should. That was unprecedented. Apparently, much of the world thinks the church needs to become more accepting of gays. The first words out of the synod were that homosexuals had "gifts and qualities to offer." It doesn't sound like much, but, like Pope Francis' earlier comment, "Who am I to judge?" it's a start, and I rejoice in it.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Staying With Bekah

Yesterday I left my sister's charming home and family and came back to Notre Dame to spend a few more days with my son before I went home. Now, at Notre Dame, women are not permitted to spend the night in men's dorms, not even if they are someone's mother. I'm not saying I would have stayed in my son's dorm--that would have been awkward, especially for his roommate--but I am saying that I can't. Several weeks ago my husband realized with something approaching horror that he'd never reserved a hotel room for me for this weekend. On Football Weekends the hotels around here fill fast for exorbitant sums: we were going to be shelling out well over a thousand dollars for my stay.

"I know," I said, "I'll stay with Bekah."

My husband said I couldn't just invite myself to stay with someone. I said I could, because it was Bekah. And I did, and I am, and it's all very good.

Bekah is my friend now that we are all in our forties, but back when I first knew her she was my dear friend Sarah's baby sister. There are three Randall girls, Sarah, Lizzie, and Bekah. Sarah and Lizzie are only two years apart, and I fit squarely in the middle of them. I was Sarah's friend first, but not for long. Bekah was nine years old, a pig-tailed string-bean child who did no-handed cartwheels down the middle of the road when we all walked to Atz's for ice cream. She was funny and quirky and brilliant, just like her sisters, but she was in third grade and we were in high school.

I felt as at home at Sarah's house as I did at my own. We would stay up half the night talking, then bake a carrot cake at three am, then spend part of the next morning struggling to stay awake in the front pew while Sarah's dad said Mass. Sarah and Lizzie shared a bedroom; more than once I fell asleep amidst the pile of books on Lizzie's bed; when Lizzie came in, in the dark, she pulled back the covers, said, "Oh, sorry, Kim," and went to sleep with Bekah.

When Sarah, Lizzie, and I were in college, Bekah moved with Sarah's parents to San Diego. She went to high school there. I saw her at Sarah's graduation from Yale, and at Lizzie's wedding a few years later, and then not again until Sarah's ordination weekend over twenty years later. It didn't matter. I knew Bekah--know Bekah--the way I know my own family. And so I feel asleep comfortably on her air mattress last night, at home with one of the Randalls yet again.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Hanging Out with Louie and Fred

In the past five years, I have been blessed with becoming an aunt four times over, most recently to a darling boy I will call Fred. (Note: his parents do not call him Fred.) He was born 16 days ago, and his older brother Louie just turned 2, and so I'm visiting and attempting to be useful by cooking, changing diapers, wiping countertops and noses, and gazing lovingly into Fred's tiny quizzical face. Just now my sister's taken Fred in for one of his baby checkups, but she forgot something and momentarily came back, which put poor Louie into a tailspin caused mostly by his being up a large part of the night. I picked Louie up and kissed him and carried him to his bed, where he protested loudly for exactly five seconds and is now, according to the baby monitor, sound asleep. The dog is blissful. All is well.

I miss cuddling small babies. I miss the smell of their hair and that sweet spot on the back of their necks. I miss toddler enthusiasm--how eating grapes can be a cause for clapping and celebration. My children are mostly grownups now. I really enjoy them the way they are now, I wouldn't want them to still be babies, but I'm also really enjoying this brief retreat to a stage I left a long time ago.

On the other hand, I got called Grandma at the pediatrician's earlier this week. Please note, dear universe and especially my own children--I am not nearly ready for that.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Little Boys Throwing Footballs

I spent last weekend on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, where my son is a sophomore. Usually the first weekend in October is spectacular there-the multicolored leaves glow against the backdrop of a crisp blue autumnal sky. This year we got clouds, and rain; at kickoff time on Saturday it was 39 degrees and raining with a 33 mph wind. Miserable weather, but I still had a lovely time.

Notre Dame has expanded considerably since my husband went there 25 years ago. The new buildings are gorgeous, but retain a certain Gothic feel so that they fit in quite in nicely with the old. It's a beautiful place, and an excellent school. I feel very fortunate to have a child studying there.

On football weekends, even ones with horrible weather, the place is packed. All sorts of people wander the campus. This week alumni band members joined the regular band on the field-hundreds of them-and I heard one old man say in passing to another, "remember, back in '54, when you were here as a freshman--" and his companion cut in, "you mean the first time I was a freshman?" Men and women wearing blue and gold packed tn Basilica for 8 am Sunday Mass. You see all sorts, but what gets me are the little boys throwing footballs.

They race across the lawns, weaving in and out of trees, running imaginary pass routes, ducking imaginary defenders. "Dad, dad!" they yell, arms outstretched, reaching for the blue-and-gold Nerf footballs sold by the hundreds in the campus bookstore. Maybe they come to one game a year, each individual boy, the way my own son did, but every game you will see these boys. I want to grab their parents, show them my grown-up son, say, careful with that football, you could be starting something. Make them feel like they belong here, and maybe they'll push themselves all the way through high school. Maybe you'll never have to tell them to do their homework, or study, because they've got the reflection of the Golden Dome in their sights, they know what they want and they'll work to come back here. To walk the sidewalks every day, not just on game day, and watch the children throwing footballs and think, I used to be that kid.

Maybe. If you're very lucky, that could happen to you, to your own boy or girl.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Lovely All Over Again

Once upon a time, I went to college, intent on becoming a biochemisty major and then going to medical school. It seemed like a really good plan, until I turned out to hate my first-semester biology class and love my first-semester chemistry. Fine, then. I would be a chemistry major and go to medical school.

I had four classes per semester, and I tried to use the one that wasn't part of my major or pre-med requirements to have some fun. Freshman year first semester: biology, chemistry, calculus, and an English class on T.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. Second semester: biology, chemisty, calculus, and child psychology. Sophomore year was physics, organic chemistry, and a qualitative chemisty class--four labs a week. So you can imagine that when my roommate suggested that we both also take an education department class on Children's Literature, which met only once a week in the evenings, I was all over it.

I had never quit loving children's books. At some point in my teens I moved myself to the adult's section of the library, but never entirely--I browsed the children's new books section and read the books of the kids I babysat for. But I'd never met anyone who wrote for a living, much less wrote books; I'd never considered children's literature as a genre; I loved to write, but never thought of it as something someone could do as a job.

That semester, the Children's Literature course at Smith College was taught by a local woman named Patricia MacLachlan. The semester happened to start about 3 days after she won the 1986 Newbery award for her book Sarah, Plain and Tall. Ms. MacLachlan was relaxed, grey-haired, and gave off an artsy vibe I adored. Her class looked systematically at every type of children's books, nursery rhymes one week, picture books, animal books, all the way up to YA fiction. We quite often had guest lecturers who were also published authors.

I loved having middle-grades novels as my assigned reading. I loved getting to know so many stories I'd somehow missed. I loved researching one book inside-out for my paper for the end of the year.

Then, one afternoon in early spring, I wrote my first real piece of fiction. For some reason a friend took a photograph of me that day--I was sitting on the couch in my dorm's family room, feet tucked up, a notepad in my hand. Waiting for someone, but I don't remember who.

I typed the handwritten manuscript and printed it out, to see if it fit what I now understood to be the parameters of a picture book. Then I balked. It wasn't a "real" story. I wasn't a real writer. I was a future physician, in fact, and I'd recently declared myself a chemistry major. (I loved chemistry.)

My roommate took me by the elbow. She told me firmly that the only way to guarantee I stayed unpublished forever was to never ever let anyone read my book. And she marched me to Professor MacLachlan's office, where I stuffed the manuscript under her door.

At the end of the next class, she called me up to her podium. Looking at me over the tops of her glasses, she asked sternly, "Are you serious about writing?"

To my astonishment I found myself saying, "Yes."

"Okay," she said. "You need to join the Hatfield section of the Society of Children's Book Writers. They meet next Thursday night. Do you have a car? Okay, then call Barbara Diamond Goldin-" she scribbled down a number "--and tell her I said she has to give you a ride. And then this weekend there's a conference at UMass. You need to go to that. Registration's closed but call Masha-" another scribbled number "--and tell her I said to let you in. And tell Barbara you need a ride to that, too."

Then she handed me my manuscript. She'd written one word across the top. The word was "Lovely."

It took me another 12 years before my first novel was published under my own name. I went to the Hatfield SCBW(later I) group that Thursday, and the conference that weekend. I learned and read and wrote and learned. I babysat Barbara Diamond Goldin's kids (now we have the same agent). I graduated with an honors degree in chemistry and I got into medical school and I went.

For six weeks.

Meanwhile I wrote and submitted all sorts of bad manuscripts. I got rejected a zillion times. Everyone does. Meanwhile, that one word--lovely--sustained me. I published magazine articles and did some freelance editing; I ghost-wrote 14 series books.  My first novel won a Publisher's Weekly Flying Start award, and I sent it to Patty, as I now called my former teacher, with great pride.

Yesterday my publisher sent me the final jacket copy of my latest novel, my 16th, The War That Saved My Life. I hadn't known this, but they'd asked Patty for a quote. "A moving story with an authentic voice," she wrote. "Beautifully told."

Thank you, Patricia MacLachlan. Thank you for every single thing. I still have the manuscript you returned to me.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Death of a Minivan

I expected cancer, not a massive heart attack.

The van, when it died, would die by inches.In fact, it had long ago started a slow decay. The CD player didn't work anymore. The light behind the clock had burnt out, so that you could only tell time in the daylight. The left back vent window, if accidentally opened, might stay open for days, before mysteriously agreeing to shut again. I didn't mind. I liked my 2004 minivan.

Years ago I read an article about prioritizing spending. You could divide everything you spent money on in two ways: truly necessary (food, clothing, shelter, transportation, insurance) and frills (travel, horses, books, yarn, golf--for my husband, golf). You could also divide everything two other ways: those that bring you joy (food, shelter, horses, books, yarn) and those that don't (clothing except really cool shoes, transportation, insurance). Everyone's lists will be different. Then the trick is to totally ignore frills that don't bring you joy (for me, I don't know--flat screen TVs? Netflix? scuba diving?) and minimize how much you spend on necessities that don't bring you joy (transportation) so that you can maximize how much you spend on frills that do bring you joy. Which is why, two years ago, I bought a new horse instead of a new car.

I don't love cars. I love having transportation, but pretty much for me it ends there. A friend of mine recently bought a luxury auto in a bright cherry red; she adores it, and I'm pleased for her, but I would never buy such a thing. I'd be thinking all along, "Heck--for that money you could get a reasonable car AND a trip to Italy," and I'd be in Italy, baby, buying shoes. And food.Yet my horse, Sarah, cost about as much as a reasonable car, and to me she's worth every stinkin' dime, even after yesterday's little tussle over the liverpool.

I loved the minivan because it had lots of room. Because the children each had their own seat, and couldn't shove each other. (Ok, they could, but their boundaries at least had strict definitions.) Because I could take five pony clubbers and another grownup to quiz rally, even with all our luggage and snacks and study material. Because for ten years, when I got in it and stepped on the gas, it went. And while it got old and dilapidated and was never sexy, it was reliable and cheap, which was all I ever wanted.

When I parked at my husband's golf club it was usually the worst car in the parking lot, including those owned by the wait staff and cart boys. I didn't care. I had exactly zero ego points assigned to that car. I plan to have exactly zero ego points assigned to my next one.

Because the minivan, rest in peace, is truly dead.

Yesterday I drove to Faith In Action without incident. When I was finished working, I drove to the bank. The van seemed a little funky, but I have to drive very slowly there past an elementary school, so I didn't think much about it. After the bank I had to drive uphill, and at first the van simply wouldn't. I pressed the accelerator and the engine raced, but the wheels themselves barely moved. Eventually I got to flatter roads and was able to achieve speeds of nearly 20 mph. Something was certainly very wrong. As I pondered my options (Did I attempt to continue to the library?) the ENGINE DYING light came on. I'd never had that happen before. So I put on my blinkers and limped to the Honda station. Attempts to resuscitate failed. I held health care power of attorney for the minivan, so that when they informed me that the transmission had broken (cost of repair much greater than value of minivan) I pulled the plug.

I'm going to the dealer today to get all my CDs, books, and horse stuff out of the old van, and to find out what my options are for burial. Meanwhile, I'm in the market for a car--something low-key, probably used. That new car smell costs a couple thousand dollars, and I can go ride in Florida for two weeks for that.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

We Lost September

The first time I sit down to my desk every morning, the first thing I do is tear off the top sheet of my Dilbert-A-Day calendar. (My husband has given me Dilbert-A-Day calendars for at least the last 12 years. I will be very sorry if they ever stop making them.) Anyway, today, when I changed my calendar, I was horrified to discover two things:

It is Wednesday.

It is October.

While I was in Chicago, the two to-do lists I left on my desk procreated. I now have an URGENT list, full of marks like this: !!!!! That is stuff I have to do before, um, two pm tomorrow, when I am leaving town for ten days.

I'm going to see my beautiful son at Notre Dame. Then I'm going to spend the week with my sister and her family, including the very newest member, darling Fred, and then I'm going back to South Bend for another weekend with my boy, and it'll all be fabulous except it's starting tomorrow. Also, what happened to September? Usually that month has 30 days, but this year it had 10. I know it can't be October yet.

It's supposed to be cold in South Bend this weekend. At Notre Dame you typically get one football weekend that's blistering hot, one that's cold, relentless rain, and at least one that's snowing. I thought that a game the first weekend of October had a chance to be the Glorious Game, the weekend that is perfect fall, crisp blue sky, lovely flaming leaves. Maybe that'll be my second weekend there. For the first we're heading for relentless rain.

Okay, sorry, short post. I'm headed off to do battle with the lists.