Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Twenty-One Years Ago Today....

...I was asleep. I was also in labor.

I'd woke at three in the morning with contractions 4 minutes apart. My husband got up and made us pancakes, and sliced some Mixon's oranges (the same grower whose oranges we have in our refrigerator right now). We headed to the hospital while it was still dark on an Indiana morning sparkling with cold.

My obstetrician was on a ski vacation. At the hospital some other physician examined me and said I'd just started dilating. My contractions were coming closer together. I sat in a bed hooked to a monitor until just before noon, when a nurse came in and told me the physician told me to go home.

 I didn't think I should go home. I explained to the nurse that was my first pregnancy, and that I'd been told to go to the hospital if my contractions were closer than five minutes apart.

"So now my contractions are two minutes apart, right?" I said, checking the monitor.

"Right," she said.

"And they're real contractions, right?" I said.

"Oh yes," she said.

"Then if I go home, how am I supposed to know when to come back?"

The nurse leaned forward and whispered, "At five o'clock, when the shifts change."

This was totally honest advice. My husband and I went out for cheeseburgers--what can I say? I was hungry--and then went home, and I was so tired I fell asleep. When my husband called my name I jumped awake, startled, in the middle of a contraction, and fell out of bed. It wasn't very pleasant feeling but it made me laugh.

I called my obstetrican's office at 5:01 and spoke to a wholly different physician. I explained the whole story. She sighed. "Get back here now," she said.

I went back, but it was still another dozen hours before my beautiful son was born. He came on New Year's Eve, which from a financial point of view is WAY better than being born on New Year's Day. You get an entire year's tax deduction out of it--our tax refund paid the hospital bill.

Tomorrow, or, I suppose, midnight tonight, he turns twenty-one. Adult. Hard to imagine.

When he was born he had a whole head of dark brown hair. It fell out, and what grew back was absolutely blond. He was a towheaded, skinny toddler. Now he's tall and grown up and his hair is dark again.

It happened so fast. It's been so much fun.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Where to Begin

On this back-to-work Monday, I slightly envy my husband his job. I don't envy the hours he works, or the skills he had to learn. I don't envy him dealing with cranky people far more than I ever have to, and I don't envy him getting up earlier than I did this morning. But I envy the fact that when he arrives at the office or operating room, the work he has to do is laid out ready for him. The patients arrive, and he cares for them. "What next?" is always one examining room away. ("What do I do next?" is a far more complicated question, of course. I'm not saying his job is easy.)

Today I have to figure out what my next work is. In terms of the big picture that's easy. Today, having finished a book review and a guest blog post for the Mental Health in YA Fiction board, I now need to finish this blog post, then start my revisions. The ones for the sequel to The War That Saved My Life.

I have until the end of January--enough time to finish, but not so much I can spend any squirreling around. The trick is knowing where to start. At the beginning, duh--but where's the beginning to this story? Is it in the scene I currently have at the start? Or is the true beginning, the beginning of the novel, sometime later? (It can't be earlier in this case, or it would have happened in the first book.)

See, novels aren't really all the scenes you've written. They're all the scenes you ever wrote, including ones you wrote and discarded, and they're also all the scenes you chose not to write. You don't cover every moment of every day, unless, of course, you're writing a book that does that--even then, you don't say everything. You pick and chose your details. You focus your attention. You put a scene in dialogue, or you don't; you describe a landscape, or not. Many people have commented to me that I very rarely describe what my point-of-view character looks like; that's a deliberate choice I make, because I like readers to imagine the character the way they choose. Let's face it: just because I don't describe the character as wearing underwear, doesn't mean she isn't wearing any. She's probably got a nose, too, and whether I describe its shape or not really doesn't matter to the story.

That's where we are right now with this sequel. Not wondering whether the characters have noses. Wondering what matters most to the story.

"I really like some of my early scenes," I said to my editor.

"Yeah," she agreed. "Some of them are really good. And they're going to have to hit the cutting room floor."

Really good and hitting the cutting room floor. Both true. What's the best way to tell this story? (Seriously--I could have stayed in medical school.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Best and Worst: Christmas Music Edition

So, ever since the day after Thanksgiving, and not one minute before, I've been listening to one of the Christmas music channels on my car radio. I think there are 3 channels--one is primarily Bing Crosby, one is primarily the Chipmunks, and I listen to the other one. By now I have lots of opinions on Christmas music.

These are the songs that will make me turn the radio off:

1. I don't even know what it's called, but it's awful. Some lisping child's voice singing about Santa Claus being stuck inside their chimney--in different verses, for a day, a week, a year. Awful.

2. "Home for the Holidays," especially as sung by Karen Carpenter. I don't know why this one grates so. Schmaltzy--but so are so many others.

3. "Santa Baby," especially as sung by Madonna. Let's take a jolly old mythical character and sing smut about him. That's the spirit.

4. "My Favorite Things." I have no problem at all with this song in its proper context, which is the first act of The Sound of Music. It is Not. Christmas. Music. And there's a version by Rod Stewart, which truly defies belief.

5. Dominic the Christmas Donkey. You don't hear this one much, thankfully. The chorus is "Eee--oin! Eee-oin!"

And then with these I'm guaranteed to sing along:

1. O Holy Night. My favorite Christmas carol, always, even though I don't have a hope of hitting the high notes. Josh Groban can.

2. "Baby, It's Cold Outside." You'd think I wouldn't like it, but I do--especially the Rod Stewart version. Go figure.

3. "Mary, Did You Know?" by Pentatonix. OK, this is also not a Christmas song, and it also comes from a musical (Godspell). But at least it's about baby Jesus, not whiskers on kittens. I would probably listen to Pentatonix sing their way through the phone book. Or even "Home for the Holidays."

4. Everything by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, but especially The Mad Russian. You can't really sing, since it's instrumental. However, you can hum all the Nutcracker bits, and you can air-conduct.

5. The entire Barry Manilow Christmas album. Yes, I blush to admit it--but man, he can sing, and he sounds so happy about it. Happy Holidays! HAPPY Holidays!

What about the rest of you? Loves? Hates?

Monday, December 21, 2015

Strong In My Practice

I absolutely could have slept in this morning. Both my children are visiting friends and my husband had to leave the house especially early, and, honestly, I could still be asleep right now. I love sleep. I love naps and I love sleeping in.

But I also love myself. I practice yoga, and on Mondays that means an 8:30 class with Marcy. I could do other classes or I could spread my mat out in my own house at the hour of my choosing--I could sleep in AND practice yoga--but it wouldn't be with Marcy, whom I love. I'm going to be crap at the asanas today. I strained several important muscles in a more-strenuous-that-usual fox hunt on Saturday--not making that up, though we chased coyotes instead, foxes being thin on the ground--and no, we don't kill things, what would we chase next week if we did?--anyhow, I'm going to be crap at the poses, but I've learned that that doesn't make me crap at yoga. I'm supposed to be listening to my body. If my hips hurt today, it's okay to let them be.

I started taking yoga seriously about a year ago. One December Monday, when I was still really struggling to flow from one pose to another, but was starting to be able to link the movements with my breath, Marcy gave me a solemn look of approval after class. "You were strong in your practice today," she said.

I remember that because the truth of it stayed with me. I wasn't necessarily good at yoga. But I was strong in my practice, which was the part I could control, and the part that mattered.

I thought of all this today because I'm also heading into big changes, changes I didn't anticipate, with the sequel to TWTSML. My brilliant editor suggested last week that we talk, because she had a idea she wanted to bounce off me in person. Her idea is reasonably radical; however, it's also possibly very good. She really did just want to tell me her idea, and let me decide whether or not to act upon it, which I appreciate; I also appreciate her ability to separate what the manuscript currently is from what it might be. Unfortunately her idea means that a lot of pages of very good writing--really excellent writing, some scenes and dialogue I'm proud of--will have to be cut, forever.

And that struck me as a little bit like yoga. I have a writing practice. I am strong in my practice, which means I've got to come at my work with the best I have each day, on that day. As another of my instructors says, "No judgement, no agenda." Just the best story.

I checked out Elizabeth Gilbert's book Big Magic from the library, because I didn't anticipate liking it so much that I'd want my own copy. Then I found myself dog-ear-ing pages.  (Sorry, library!) "Nobody ever died because I got a bad review in The New York Times. The polar ice caps will not melt any slower or faster because I couldn't figure out how to write a convincing ending to my novel."

It's not the fate of the world, but it's my practice. I could sleep in. Instead I get up, I do yoga, and then I sit down and write.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Super. Man.

"Superman!" my husband yells. "Run Superman!" The group of middle-school boys look up at him, then, tentatively, form a square on the end of the basketball court. (Please let them form a square.) The boy throwing the ball inbounds smacks it, and half the kids jump sideways. Or so they should. They don't always. They're mostly only 10 years old.

My husband is coaching middle-school basketball for the first time in four years, at the small Catholic school both our children attended. He coached when our son was in 7th and 8th grades, and then again the following year after his replacement was seriously injured in a car crash.

He coaches for love of the game, and for love of the players. He coaches because, like me, he understands that sports gives kids discipline, toughness, and pride. He coaches because, like me, he's had coaches who became mentors, who helped him through rough spots in his life. He coaches because he knows he's got a gift to give these players--in many ways, coaching is a vocation.

It's not easy. The time commitment is enormous. Last week: 2 games, 3 practices. This week: 3 games, 2 practices. That's a lot for a surgeon without children on the team. His players right now are mostly small, inexperienced, and young. They'll grow, but not by next week. "Run Superman!" my husband yells, and some of them look confused. They have playbooks. They practice plays. Superman--I could run it, I've been to practices enough.

Sometimes you catch the magic happening. In yesterday's game one boy caught a pass, pivoted, and threw the ball to a teammate who had just come open. It was almost nothing, and yet that boy had never managed it before--the catch, the pivot (no traveling!) the throw (no jump ball!)--and the other boy, too, was where he was supposed to be when he was supposed to be there. They did it right for the very first time. It was fabulous.

Over the years I've seen kids who thought of themselves as clumsy, slow, weak, gradually become stronger, faster, more graceful. I've seen how it changes how they carry themselves. I've seen how they become better versions of themselves under my husband's guidance.

Yesterday in the stands one of the teachers reminisced about a boy who once played for my husband that she called the most disruptive, impossible student she ever had at the school. I remembered the child very well, because he would have walked through fire for my husband. I remember my husband saying to that boy, "I love you," and I remember that boy saying, "Coach, I love you too."

This team, this new team, won't run through fire yet. But I think they're starting to understand that they can. After last night's game, after some fabulously good plays and some not-so-go ones, the team gave my husband a Christmas gift. He opened it when he got home, and I heard him laugh. "They gave me a shirt," he said.

"A St. Anne's shirt?" I asked.

"No." He held it up. Royal blue, with a big red S outlined in yellow on the chest. You've seen it before. Superman.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

We Are All Uncles Here

I have four lovely nephews: Huey, Dewey, Louie, and Fred. They currently range in age from six to one, and so, as you might imagine, we are all having a blast.

Fred is starting to talk. He calls my daughter, "T!" (you can hear the exclamation point. T! T!). For the rest of us, when he was visiting for Thanksgiving, he just grinned. He grins well.

When I last saw Dewey, which was several months ago, he'd started calling me Aunt Kimmy. Now, very few people on earth ever got permission to call me Kimmy, and most of them are now dead. You're probably not one of them. Dewey's dad warned him that I might not like being called Aunt Kimmy, and Dewey gave his dad--my brother--a long look and said, "Well, I'll just ask Aunt Kimmy."

I really like this kid. He can call me Aunt Kimmy.

Last year, when I stayed a week at Louie and Fred's house, right after Fred was born, Louie, just turned two, called me Auntkim, all one word, usually said very fast "Auntkim, auntkim!", often while launching himself at me. But then Louie got a little older, and he started to realize that "Aunt" was separate from "Kim." He figured out that he had a certain class of acquaintances--four sets total--that went by "Aunt" and "Uncle," and somehow these were mostly equivalent, which made using two titles superfluous.  So he ditched "Aunt" altogether. I became Uncle Kim. We had Uncle Kim and Uncle Bart, and Uncle Dewey's Dad and Uncle Dewey's Mom.

Well, I could see his logic, and I was willing to answer to Uncle Kim. But then at Thanksgiving my children presented a problem. They were clearly pretty much grown-ups, in Dewey's eyes. They must be Uncles too! He started calling my daughter Uncle T.

"She's not your uncle," I said. "She's your cousin. Like Huey and Dewey. You just call her T."

Louie actually has six cousins. Four are right around his age, and the others are my children. My daughter's only 17 but she's 5'10". Louie wasn't buying any of this cousin nonsense, not for someone who was clearly part of the family but also clearly a grownup. "Uncle T," he insisted. And so she remains.

We are all uncles here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Another Reason Not to Start The Egypt Book

So I thought I was finally, finally ready to start writing the Egypt book. Not today--today I have this brief morning interlude between seeing my daughter off to school and going to yoga, and from there I proceed directly to Faith In Action (my yoga studios has a shower, thank the Lord) and then it's barn chores and book club and the Survivor finale. This, right here, is my writing for Wednesday.

However, I was ready to go at it with gusto tomorrow. Mentally ready, physically ready, ready, ready, ready--or not, as the case turns out to be. Yesterday, a day spent mostly in budget meetings for Faith in Action and body-clipping my mare, two things of relatively equal enjoyment, I flipped open my email and very nearly missed it--a note from my editor, tra la, I've been getting a lot of little emails from her lately, mostly telling me things I already know, such as that The War That Saved My Life was in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday. (My friend Nancy called me to tell me that on Saturday at 8 am. My mother called to tell me at 8:30. My editor didn't tell me until yesterday morning.) (It's not a humble brag: it's a full-on brag. I was in the Wall Street Journal!!)

Yesterday afternoon's email was a big email. It was a don't-even-think-you're-finished-with-the-book-you-sent-in-before-Thanksgiving email. A we'd-like-the-next-draft-before-February email, a here-are-the-things-you're-doing-wrong-now email.

A whole nother draft. I'd really thought hoped we were headed for copyediting after the last one. I mean, sure, I added a whole new section of plot, and yes, that does usually take awhile to settle, but I'm a good writer, right? I can do it the first time, right?

Wrong. Writers almost never get it right the first time. I hate this like heck, but my feelings don't alter its essential truth. Probably this is why I get SO ANNOYED every time an acquaintance asks me, "Are you still writing?" Of COURSE I am still writing. I am ALWAYS still writing. Partially because writing is my job, not some funky little hobby, and partially because the books are. Never. Done.

This is also, by the way, the best argument in the world against self-publishing. Left strictly to my own devices, I wouldn't push myself nearly this hard. I'd settle for less than my absolute best. Fortunately, my talented and forcible editor never lets me. So. Back to work, yes, but not to Egypt yet.

P.S. Has anyone ever asked my husband if he was, "Still performing surgery?" No. No they have not. (Though I may pay someone to do it sometime, just to see the look on his face.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

In Which I Achieve 87% of a Handstand

I've never been able to do handstands. Gymnastics in general--not my forte. That's pretty much okay with me; we all have our weaknesses, and heaven knows there are still gobs of activities I haven't even tried. It turns out I'm not very good at pottery, either--though my husband is brilliant at it--but when I took a three-day class in watercolor painting last summer I was surprised at how much it made sense to me. Chemistry? Easy. Physics? impossible. I can play the piano but can't make noise come out of a trumpet. As for yoga, I can sit in Cobbler's Pose with my knees on the floor all day long, and I've achieved Crow, to my infinite delight, but Wheel remains way out of reach. And so it was with handstands.

Last Friday (Power Yoga with Adriel) we spent a few minutes working on handstands in the traditional manner: put your mat alongside the wall, put your hands on the floor, kick your legs up so that they go past the vertical--over your head--and rest against the wall. The problem is, you've got to believe that you've developed enough shoulder strength to carry it off. Because if you turn out not to be quite ready for this pose, your arms might buckle and you'd be diving head-first into a concrete block wall, probably breaking both elbows on the way. You can see how this could happen, and, if you're me, it keeps you from being able to fling yourself into the pose. Sometimes fear is our brain's way of letting our bodies know that we're about to do something really, really stupid.

You can put yourself into down-dog and sort of hop your feet up, but the truth is you won't get to handstand without enthusiasm. In horseback riding we say, "Throw your heart over the fence, and the horse will follow." I could not throw my heart into a handstand.

This had been true for awhile. I don't like being afraid. I've long recognized that many of the best things in my life have come about when I was willing to blindly hurl myself into new experiences. (Writing novels--learning to ride--travelling to Africa--) Hard to know what could come from a handstand, but my perpetual hesitancy was beginning to grate.

Yesterday (Warm Vinyasa) our instructor, Marcy, said we were going to play with something fun. "Mats against the walls!" she said. Then she led us through a series--first Down Dog against the wall, so that our heels were propped on the baseboards, and our toes on the mat. (Hands are on the mat, head down, hips raised, if you don't know what I mean by Down Dog). Then we put blocks against the wall, and did Down Dog with our toes on the blocks, our heels on the wall. Then we moved one leg up the wall.

Then we took a break, because this makes your wrists ache after awhile. Also shoulders. But all of a sudden I got where Marcy was going with it. Down Dog with feet on blocks, against the wall, and then both feet walking up the wall, and then there we were, in handstands, with our toes still gently against the wall, climbing into the pose from the opposite direction, never having had to make that scary jump.

I took one leg off the wall and held it straight in the air. I couldn't quite do the other. I figure it was 87% of a handstand, which is at least 37% percent closer than I've ever been before. My feeling of accomplishment is out of all proportion to the actual endeavor, and I don't care. Yesterday morning I was a yoga rock star.

Today I woke to an email from Marcy reminding me to set my intentions for the coming new year. Here ya go, Marcy: I'm going to do 100% of a handstand before I turn 49 years old. And also, thanks.

Monday, December 14, 2015

First or Third? Reflections on the Egypt Book

Yesterday I was discussing my new book, currently titled "My Egypt Book" (this is how good I am at titles), with my family. (Digression: The War That Saved My Life was originally titled "The England Book;" Leap of Faith was "Kim's Next Book, Which Needs a Title;" (not making that up), and Halfway to the Sky got all the way to copyediting under the title The Geography of Hope, which I still love but Marketing despised.)

What's the timeline? my daughter asked.

The timeline's a bit problematic, I said, because they discover King Tut's tomb so close to the start of the last year of digging. Pacing the book is going to be tricky. It finished after Lord Canarvon dies.

Why are you still researching, not writing?

I keep finding little things. I opened a book I acquired last week--a recent translation in to English of something written by the director of antiquities in Cairo--and found not only the name but a photograph of the Arabic boy who's going to be a man character. I hadn't seen his name before.

Are you going to use his real name?

Yes. It's Hassan.

(Doesn't it get a bit dicey making up fictional characters based on real people? Yes. Yes, it does. You have to 1) tread carefully; 2) be sure readers know what bits you're making up; 3) only do it with big historical stuff. So that I'll use Hassan's name, but I fictionalized the names of Suzanne David's friends in For Freedom, even though she and I knew the actual names of her friends. They could still be alive, they were bit players in her story, and we had no easy way of contacting them.)

Is he the protagonist?

No. The protagonist--the point-of-view character--is a wholly fictional British boy. This gives me a lot more control over the novel.

What's his name?

Probably Elliot.

First person or third? my husband asked.

That's a game time decision, I said. (Note to family: I used a sports metaphor! Appropriately!)

That doesn't make sense, he said.

Sure it does, I said. Either first or third will be right for the voice, and I won't know which until I find the voice. And that might take awhile.

For the record: Jefferson's Sons--the whole, complete first draft--was originally in first person. My editor suggested I try it in third. This is not as easy as it sounds, and it doesn't sound easy. But she was right, it was better. The half-dozen false starts of The War That Saved My Life went back and forth, first person, third, first, third. We ended up with first, which now that I've finished the book seems like the only possible choice, since half the narrative tension is the difference between what Ada experiences and what she thinks about the things she experiences. But there you are: six false starts and six full drafts later, it all looks like I planned it that way.

Friday, December 11, 2015

A Year of The War That Saved My Life

I sat down to the blog this morning planning to write about Christmas songs. I get satellite radio in my car, and this time of year they have designated Christmas-music songs. I find I have lots of opinions about Christmas music, but, coming to the computer, wondered if I'd shared them all before. So I looked up the blog posts from last December, and what I found was a lot about the imminent publication of my tenth novel, 16th book, The War That Saved My Life.

It was published in January of this year, eleven months ago. Yesterday it showed up on Wall Street Journal's Best Books of the Year list, to go with Kirkus, Amazon, Publisher's Weekly, and the Horn Book's best books of the year lists.

Guys. A Horn Book best book of the year.

Last year I was holding my breath waiting to see how people reacted to this book. It's the book of my heart, the book that took every bit of skill I have as a writer. If there is something better than doing your best work and having people find it to be good, I don't know what that is.

Here's the thing: this book was born in the most painful, hidden places of my soul. Things I wished never had happened to me turned out to be essential--without my past, I couldn't have written this book. I've come to love the things I most wish hadn't happened. Which is sort of the moral to my next book, the one I'm nearly finished writing. It's what I learned, from the book that changed my life.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Another "Oh, Crap, It's Thurs" day

I can't figure out how to make today work. I'm sure it will work--it's not that complicated of a day--but my schedule's off-kilter, and I prefer a really organized, streamlined schedule. I like to know what is going on, and in what order I should tackle everything.

Here is what I know:
--I'm working a bit at Faith in Action today, subbing in for some people who are sick or attending funerals. It's not clear exactly how long I'll be working, but I need to be there promptly at 9:45, because I'm interviewing. On Wednesdays, when I do data entry, I can wander in pretty much at will, which usually means after yoga and a shower and possibly a few errands on the way.

--Because of FIA, and because Thursday yoga is at 9 instead of 8:30, I can't go to yoga today. (There are night classes, which I don't do. On Thursdays the afternoon class is for children and there isn't a noon class. So, no yoga.)

--Because of not going to yoga, I showered before breakfast.

Now. I need to find and buy a child's size Virginia Tech sweatshirt before Sunday. I need to buy mushrooms, razor blades, and Chai tea sometime today. I'm making something for dinner that requires six hours' prep time with an ingredient that's arriving today in the mail--you can see a possible conflict here--and I'm expecting company for dinner, so I need to do a spot of intensive housecleaning. Or maybe just dim the lights. The dog is nearly out of dog food, and of course eats a special brand which she probably doesn't need (it was really for our late dog, who had severe diarrhea whenever he ate anything else. Nothing makes you willing to drive across town for special dog food like severe dog diarrhea.) but which she's used to. The dog's looking melacholy these days--she might have a touch of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or perhaps the mess in my office, her preferred room, appalls her.

Oh, I have to buy four large classy gift bags immediately. Nearly forgot that.

I'm going to try to have lunch with my husband, because we always try to have lunch on Thursdays.

Part of my trouble is that today is Thursday. All day yesterday I thought it was Thursday, even though I was clearly on a Wednesday schedule (yoga/shower/FIA) which means that my mind wants today to be Friday. Here is the thing about Thursday: it is take-down-the-trash day. I absolutely hate it when I miss that.

So. Take down the trash. Go shopping. Buy mushrooms, dog food, gift bags. Go to BFIA. Eat lunch. Start dinner. Clean (a bit). Research the new book, about the discovery of King Tut. Eat, Drink, be Merry. Sounds like quite a day.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

That Time 10,000 Beetles Hatched Out of My Christmas Tree

So I sort of keep wanting to rant about Donald Trump, but I figure y'all are over that by now. I will say that jihadists and terrorists are Muslim the way Westboro Baptist church members are Christian, but that's all. No, it's not. Yesterday I went to yoga. It was mostly women I already knew, and before class we were muttering about Donald Trump. A new woman came in and spread her mat next to mine. I said, "I don't care what your political beliefs are except that I hope you won't vote for Donald Trump." She said, "I'm Muslim, so no worries." Because yes, we have Muslims, right here in River City Bristol. And we all remain more likely to get killed in a car wreck headed to Food City than by terrorists.

Anyhow. This morning my friend Mary lamented the death of two of her major household appliances. I feel for her--such a pain in the rear--so in solidarity told her that one year 10,000 beetles hatched out of my Christmas tree. She said, "And now you laugh about it, RIGHT? RIGHT?"

I'll leave it to you to decide.

I think my son was eight years old, which would have made it our second Christmas in this house. We've lived in Bristol for 18 years, and we always get our tree and wreaths from the same tree sellers, who set up on Volunteer Parkway right down from our old house. (I don't blame them for the beetles.) Back then we liked white pines for our Christmas tree--long, lush, soft branches. Kind of hard to hang ornaments on, but really pretty with lights.

We buy our Christmas tree on the Saturday of Thanksgiving week and decorate it on Sunday. I won't allow it to go up any earlier, and my husband loves Christmas decorations (really, I should hire the man out. He's fantastic at Christmas decorations. Every year I get complemented on the centerpiece on my dining room table and have to confess I don't have a damn thing to do with it.) So the tree had been up, and it wasn't all that close to Christmas yet because my daughter was still at school, and my son was sick with a fever and home on the couch, listless. I was just getting him to turn off SportsCenter and take a nap--it was right around midday--and I looked up to click off the tv and saw the Christmas tree enveloped in a black cloud.

At first I thought it was smoke. I honestly thought the tree was on fire. This actually happened once in my family--when my father was small, one of my great-uncles flicked a cigar ash onto the tree and the whole house burnt down. So my first instinct was to panic, grab my boy, and get out.

Then I saw that the cloud was settling. That it was seething. That it was, in fact, alive--a cloud made up of very small black insects. When I say 10,000 of them I am not exaggerating. I am not making that number up (I wish I were making that number up!). Later--much later--being of a scientific mind, I counted the number of small black insects that died all over my handmade embroidered sequined and felted Christmas tree skirt--just before I threw that sucker, unsalvageable, into the trash--and it was over 1,000.

Not. Making. That. Up.

We put our tree up in the corner of the family room, near the wall of windows. To get it there we have to pull the couch and loveseat and end tables out of the way, which meant that to get that tree and all those insects out of my house, I had to move the furniture first. I've never moved so fast. I grabbed the tree--a huge tree, of course it was--and hoisted, and spilled the water from the tree stand all over creation--drowning insects, soaking already-wrapped gifts (yeah, I don't put gifts out that early anymore, either), heaving, tripping, probably cussing, until the tree was on the front lawn.

Still fully decorated. Trailing lights and a river of tree sap.

Meanwhile, the family room was full of small black insects dying in puddles of tree sap. Great mounds of tree sap, inordinate amounts, blobbed along the floor, making a trail to show where I'd dragged the tree, and every mound, as well as the non-sapped bits of floor in between, covered with bugs. Dying bugs, thank God--I still shudder to think of all those insects flying free inside my home--but yet bugs. Unmistakably. Ten thousand of them.

I got the vacuum. And the mop. My feverish son watched from the couch--this was better than SportsCenter. I cleaned and muttered and soaked up the spilled water and moved the sopping gifts to the porch--in addition to being wet they were covered in sap and dead insects--I got my coat and went out to the tree and started stripping ornaments--they were covered in sap and dead insects--I started doing ornament triage. We had to save George Washington, one of my husband's childhood treasures, and he's made of felt, so that involved some fairly careful cleaning. Less important ornaments, including just about every one made of paper, were condemned. You have to go with what you can. I took the battle-stained tree skirt and hung it in the garage, planning to rehab it--that sucker took me months to make--but eventually recognized the job as hopeless. (My neighbor made me a quilted tree skirt to replace it. It's lovely. I like it much better than the old felted one.)

Finally I divested the tree of lights by knocking it over, grabbing onto the end of the light strand, and kicking the tree around the yard, unrolling lights as I went. I felt a little better then.

Back in the house, the magic internet gave me to understand that the insects were some sort of beetle, that the parent beetle lays eggs beneath the bark of the tree in the fall, and that the insects should have hatched in the spring, but because of the warmth of the house hatched early--too early, which is why they all immediately died. The sap came from the bark being burst open by ten thousand beetles hatching. They were entirely harmless, except, of course, that they were ten thousand beetles hatching out of the Christmas tree.

My family remembers this as a traumatic event not because of the beetles, but because it was the year Mom Made Us Buy An Artificial Tree. I did. We went to Wal-Mart that night and bought a perfectly acceptable Christmas tree, pre-lit, large, lovely, certified bug-free, and the rest of the family spent the remaining weeks of the holiday season moaning as though I'd personally murdered Santa Claus. The fake tree still sits in the corner of our basement storage. We've never used it again.

We did switch from white pine to Scotch fir--short, prickly needles, lots of good branches for hanging, and also, beetles don't lay eggs in them. So Beetle Death is not likely to happen again. Which is a good thing. It's sort of like having the fire department come to your house on Thanksgiving. It's a funny story so long as it never happens again.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Let Us Not Blame Muslims

Once I said something that made a person really, really angry. In fact it pretty much killed any chance we ever had, however slight, of developing a friendship. I'm pretty sure my comment caused her to actively avoid me for the rest of the four years our husbands did their medical training together. As such, it may have been the most efficient, economical use of snark I've ever managed in my life.

The woman in question had had her purse stolen, on a downtown city street, by a young Black man. Retelling the incident to a group of us--I'm guessing it was some sort of medical residents dinner, the type of thing drug companies would pay for, back in the day, but I really don't remember--anyway, in retelling her story she spouted a prolonged very racist comment, and when I looked shocked--I must have looked shocked--she turned to me, and said, "What? I don't want to be racist, but it was a BLACK man that mugged me."

"Ah," I said. "And how does your husband feel about you becoming a lesbian?"

This was twenty-five years ago. She looked horrified, and demanded to know what I meant.

"Well," I said, "you said it was a Black MAN that mugged you. So if you now hate all Black people, I figured you must hate all men, too."

As I said, the end of the possibility of our friendship. On both sides.

I thought of this yesterday when I read that Donald Trump now wants to keep all Muslims out of the United States. Yep, some Muslims are radicalized terrorists, including the 2 who just killed 14 people in San Bernadino. Of course, 1 in every 5 people is Muslim, worldwide, so it stands to reason that some of the however-many mass shootings we've had here in the United States would be done by Muslims. (The actual number of mass shootings is apparently one of those moving targets. Do you count gang warfare? Domestic violence, where a parent kills their spouse and several children? Or just shoot-up-a-movie-theater shootings?) Anyhow, yes, the San Bernadino killers were Muslim. The Sandy Hook killer professed to be a Christian. As did the guy that shot up the AME Church in Charleston. A Christian White guy, shooting up a Black Christian church. So do we hate all White people? Or do we just say all Christians are whack?

When I went to Egypt I was impressed by the level of education and openness shown by our tourist guides, all of whom happened to be Muslim. (As a country, Egypt is 10% Christian.) To become an Egyptologist, which all our tour guides were, you essentially need a PhD in ancient Egyptian history, plus the ability to speak at least two languages fluently--most tour guides we met spoke more. On our Nile cruise ship we had 4 tour guides, 2 who led English-language tours, 1 who led the Norwegians, and 1 who led the Swiss. (I'm still not sure what language the Swiss tours were in. The Swiss seemed to mostly speak a form of German, but I conversed with them in bad French--bad on my end. The Norwegians all spoke perfect unaccented English as well as Norwegian, which as usual left the Americans looking like monoglot morons.) At the temples and pyramids, you heard Egyptian guides speaking all sorts of languages, conversantly--once at the quarry in Aswan, site of the Unfinished Obelisk, we sent my children and another man from our group to go eavesdrop on a Spanish-language guide, because we wanted to know more about the obelisk. Seeing our interest, the guide switched briefly to English, for our sakes.

One afternoon on the boat, the one female tour guide, who I think was in charge of the Swiss tourists, stopped my husband and thanked him for bringing his children to Egypt. She said she wanted Americans to know that most Muslims were peaceful, normal people, trying to raise their families and worship God just as most people were worldwide. She was grateful that our children, my husband and mine, had an opportunity to realize that the next word after "Muslim" was not "terrorist."

I'm glad my children know that. I'm glad I know that. I'm seriously, seriously done with Donald Trump. Maybe the man needs to travel a little more, or maybe he needs to shut his mouth. Or, actually, maybe he needs to keep opening it--you never know when someone will say something that accidentally ends your relationship with them, even before it properly begins.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Time to Prepare

Because we built our house, and I had a chance to design my office myself, my desk is built into a corner of the end of an L-shaped space. I've got windows on each side of me, so that I get plenty of light, but they're too high for me to see out of them when I'm working, so that I can't be endlessly distracted by what the horses are doing in the pasture. Just now, as I write this, the sky outside the windows is gunmetal gray, a flat, dark color that as a child always thrilled me because I was safe inside.

Christmas candles flicker on both window ledges. They're electric, powered by an insane number of batteries. I don't know why its so pleasing to me that they flicker instead of shine steadily. People always seem to be attracted to candles, to fire.

We lit two candles on the advent wreath in church yesterday. I love the Catholic/Episcopal season of advent--I sort of think the other Christians are missing out. Some of them hurl themselves straight into Christmas the moment the calendar reads December. The Christmas play is next week, the Christmas concert a few days later--then Christmas itself comes and the whole party is over, whereas in my faith tradition Christmas is when the party is supposed to start.

In my faith we have time to prepare. This is a good thing, because I for one need it. I did an amazing amount of work in my office this weekend, with the result that I have clear desk-space for the first time in months, but the office floor looks like a toy store and a book store collided. (I am once again paying my daughter, and any of her friends who want to help, to wrap presents.) My husband, who loves loves loves to decorate, spent five hours on Saturday--literally, until dark--with our daughter, stringing lights on the trees and bushes outside. We have a lot of trees and bushes. The trick is to decorate as many as possible while NOT blowing fuses; the solution is LED lights, which don't pull as much electricity, and which my husband bought an astonishing number of last year, after Christmas, when they were on super-sale.

The house looks great. You should drive by. We're not ready for Christmas yet, but we're enjoying our preparations.

Facebook reminded me that today is the seven-year anniversary of my official Facebook-friendship with the man who is now my brother-in-law, Mike Ries. On Thanksgiving, when the turkey caught fire and the smoke detector was sounding and I couldn't get it to stop (but before the firemen showed up), and my husband was stalking around trying to figure out why the alarm wouldn't go off, and the babies were wailing and my sister was trying to comfort them, and I don't know what my mom was doing, probably laughing her ass off, Mike gave me a hug and asked if I was okay. I appreciate that. I appreciate that my sister had the profound good sense to marry a good man, and I enjoy his company very much.

Also, it's my mother's birthday. Thinking of you, Mom. Love you very much. Glad you got to see your oldest grandson yesterday--you made his day. (Hope you got that cookie tin back.)

Friday, December 4, 2015

Advent Snark: What are We Waiting For?

I woke up in a particularly grumpy mood this morning. Despite the internet, which is being as helpful as possible today, what with fifteen-things-for-when-the-world-is-shitty-and-terrifying/, an easy way to write all the senators who yesterday voted against sensible gun control, and this, once my family cruelly abandoned me to go to work and school, I snarked all over a complete stranger on a horse forum, and the stranger called me out. Which I deserved, but you know? Some days I want to snark at strangers.

Yesterday my son laughed at me for writing about gun control on my blog. "Make another choice!" he said. He thinks I'm better suited to snark and horses. Probably I am.

And yet.

Aren't we supposed to be worrying about All The Things?

Right now I know that this is part of the problem. My blood pressure is still too high and I haven't folded the laundry I did on Monday. I have too many books to read and yesterday I checked 12 out from the library. There are Christmas gifts piled all over my office. There are bills I should pay, books I should write, lots and lots of things I should do. We're out of cat food. The cats are not starving--they eat mice--but they're pissed.

Yesterday I got two messages from teachers who've read The War That Saved My Life to their students, telling me how much the students loved it. This is the best news I could possibly get. I want to win all the things, of course--Shiny Book Stickers for everyone!--but in the end I'd rather, really would rather, have children love my book than anything else. When I was a child, books were my life preserver. I held onto certain stories for years, reading them over and over, finding hope and compassion when I most needed it. And now I maybe get to pass that gift forward, give one child the book he or she needs to stay afloat in hard times. It's the greatest gift I could ask for. It trumps All The Things.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Something Needs to Change

Occasionally, in much less serious cases, my family goes with the theory that if you don't know what to do, change something. Anything. See if it works.  Just as the moment the only example I can bring to mind is when we were on a family trip in Paris, and our all-week Metro cards kept not working. Every time, I would have to go explain the situation, in my bad tourist French, to the bored Metro employee sitting in the little box in the station. It got really old. Finally we decided that we had to do something different--so we gave the cards, which I'd been keeping in a pocket of my purse, to my husband to hold. They worked correctly from then on. It turned out the magnet holding my purse shut was screwing up the cards.

I wish we had an easy answer to the shootings in America, but if we did, we'd have solved this problem long ago. All I know is, we have to do something different. There's been a mass shooting for every day of 2015. Kindergartners and now disabled people.

I'd like to hear from all of you: what could be changed? What might be different? My husband says it would take a wholesale realignment of our society. I've come to believe that even if the actions we take now only reduce violence ten years from now, we need to take those actions. Otherwise in ten years we'll be sitting in the same place, wondering how to fix this.

We need to fix this. Start with one thing, any one thing. Do it differently. Do something.


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Sick Day

I got sidelined by a rather vicious cold. It was clearly only a cold, yet Tuesday (yesterday) I did nothing. I mean I didn't even bother to move the sheets from the washer to the dryer. I laid on the couch. I slept. I answered the phone, and it was crummy news--a friend is moving away--and that made me wish I'd just let the answering machine pick up. I ate dinner--fried chicken my husband picked up on his way home from basketball practice--but I didn't scrape my plate.

I did text my children, trying to get them to feel sorry for me. They didn't. My son texted back a photograph of two extra-large blackboards filled with math equations from his corporate finance class. My daughter muttered about not wanting to catch my germs. My husband, bless him, came into the bedroom rather late at night, peering at his iPad, and said, "More bad news: you didn't win the Goodreads voting."

My heart had not been set on winning the Goodreads voting, but I was chuffed by his indignation on my behalf. He said, "You got 5902 votes. The winner got 43000. It's some book called "Magnus Chase" by some guy named Rick Riordan."

"Yeah," I said. "That's the book Katie made me go out and get for her on its publication date. It's kind of a big deal."

"Never heard  of it," my husband said. "Is it going to win the Newbery?"

"I doubt it," I said.

"That's good," he said, and went and slept in the guest room, to avoid my germs.

Today I'm not well, but I'm better. I woke to see my daughter off to school. Then I went back to sleep. Since waking a second time, I've accomplished several meaningful things:

--I showered.
--I made a brief run to the grocery, including getting some prescriptions filled.
--I emptied the dishwasher, filled it, and restarted it.
--I sent two emails.
--I made a phone call about a Christmas gift.
--I'm writing a mostly meaningless blog.

Now I'm going to take a nap, in hopes that when my daughter gets home, I'll have energy to help her with the barn chores. Then maybe--maybe--I'll cook dinner. It's looking up.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Fleeing Christmas

Yesterday at Mass, our celebrant (not the usual Father Kevin, but Archbishop Broglio, here in town visiting family for the holidays--yeah, we feel kinda cool, having an archbishop in the family and all that. Not my own personal family, but my church family. He's here a lot. Better still, he's Archbishop for Military Services USA, which means he's badass, too, in a holy reverent wearing-a-pink-hat kind of way) anyhow, clearly I digress--Archbishop Broglio (don't know why he's "Arch" bishop and not just plain bishop; no one's ever been able to explain that) said that advent calls us to do three things:

1) Flee.

2) Be silent.

3) Pray.

I am not really very good at homilies--sometimes my mind drifts off into writings of my own creation, so that the homily becomes more a chance for me to fix plot holes--but this one was the sort I liked, clear, simple, and easy to remember. Plus it seemed like such a good idea. Flee. Oh hell yes. I love Christmas but sometimes it seems to come packed with way too much stuff. Matching outfits (we don't actually do those anymore, now that the children--let alone my husband--refuse to wear coordinated pjs). Cookies (mostly I save those for Christmas Eve. We always make Christmas cookies on Christmas eve morning.). Cards? (Last year I skipped them. It was, honestly, awesome. I sort of feel bad about not sending everyone photos of my lovely children, a year older once again, but at the same time THIS IS WHY WE INVENTED THE INTERNET, PEOPLE.) Obligations which, the more you think about them, seem to have absolutely nothing to do with the birth of Christ.

Here is stuff I love: parties. From the all-day binge that is my friend's annual brunch to the pony club holiday party, to thawing out that leg of lamb for my husband's partners to eat. I've got a new dress with sparkles on it. Imagonna shine.

Ornaments. Long ago we started a tradition of buying Christmas ornaments on our family travels. This morning while I was watering the tree I noticed one painted with an image of the USS Constitution, the tall ship that stands in Boston Harbor. I was immediately transported back to a very hot day, a very interesting tour, and my 7-year-old son being crabby as all hell because we were refusing to spend $200 each for bleacher seats to see the RedSox/Yankees. (He's still bitter. I'm still glad we didn't do it.)

Music. All the music., but especially Pentatonix.

Buying gifts, sort of. Too much shopping makes me crazy. Shopping on Black Friday? Never. (Getting a bargain on the internet? Sure.) Deciding which local stores I love best and making a point to go there? absolutely! Buying the right book for someone? perhaps my favorite gift of all.

Speaking of, if you want signed copies of The War That Saved My Life, and you don't live close enough to swing by the house or drop them off at Faith in Action (I'm there every Wednesday), Parnassus Books in Nashville has them in stock, AND today only is offering 15% off every signed book in the store. Think about where you shop. Parnassus rocks.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Going to Mass with My Son

Sunday I flew up to Notre Dame, where my son is a junior, so that I could spend all of Monday driving a car back home. It's kind of a complicated story, but essentially my son had to drive himself back to school after fall break because the airline screwed up in large ways. He already had a car at school; he already also had plane tickets to fly home at Thanksgiving. AND he's coming home with his own car and all his stuff in it at Christmas, since he's going abroad next semester.

Fetching the extra car gave me a chance to have a really nice, relaxed day with my son. He picked me up at the airport. We had lunch together, then for dinner took a group of his friends to a local hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant that is simply several cuts above every other Chinese restaurant to which I have ever been. It's amazing food. Best of all is the old woman who must be the owner. She came to our table and said, "You want to order? Or you want me to surprise you?" Two of the students ordered; the rest of us--five people--said, "surprise." The food started coming--plate after plate after plate--and we passed it all the way around. Salt and pepper spareribs. Almond shrimp. Some sort of spicy fried fish. Chicken that I believe was called "Haha" chicken or maybe "Hot-hot" chicken but that instead of being spicy hot was slathered in sliced garlic. Oh my. When we had all stuffed ourselves there was a serving of fish left. The woman asked if we needed a box, and the students all agreed eagerly that yes, we did. I wondered aloud whether someone would actually eat leftover fish in a dorm room, and the student across the table from me leaned close and said, "The rule is, never throw away this woman's food." Which is of course entirely right.

Now that my son's at Notre Dame, every time I go there I'm struck with gratitude that the place exists, that it is the way it is, and that my husband and I got to send our son there. It's so clearly the right place for him. He worked on a paper on Sunday afternoon with his room door open and the NFL muted on the tv. People walked back and forth along the hall, some of them popping their head in to say hi. I met the ND quarterback who lives next door to my son--listened to the guy down the hall play his ukelele--read my son's paper--and then, at 10:30 at night (well past my usual bedtime) I got to go to Mass in my son's dorm.

I've been wanting to go to a Stanford Hall Sunday Mass since my son matriculated. I've actually been to several Masses in the chapel at Alumni Hall, my husband's old dorm, because Alumni always has a Mass either immediately after a Saturday day football game or immediately before a Saturday night one; it's packed to the gills with alumni and said by the aged rector who remembers my husband's student days not because my husband was brilliant nor because he won a prize for bidding and getting a grand slam in bridge but because my husband once fell headfirst out of his lofted bed. Stanford Hall doesn't do a football mass, and I'd never stayed at Notre Dame over a Sunday night.

My son loves his rector, Fr. Bill, as well as the other priest that lives in his dorm, Fr. Pete. Notre Dame puts both priests and chapels in every one of the student dorms. In addition to being rector Fr. Bill teaches at the law school. Fr. Pete is chaplain for the men's basketball team but also does something in administration, I think. I'm not sure if the current ND president, Fr. Jenkins, lives in a dorm-but until he needed assisted living care, the late president emeritus, Fr. Hesbergh, always did.

At 10:30 we joined a crowd of male and female students heading down the stairs (ND dorms are single-sex, but all Masses on campus are open to anyone, and students like to attend with their friends). About half the dorm showed up, by my rough count, which seemed pretty high considering that 1) many students aren't actually Catholic; 2) many Catholic students prefer to attend earlier Masses, especially the morning ones at the Basilica.  Two of my son's friends took turns playing the piano for the Stanford Mass, and a small number of students arranged themselves on one side of the room to be the choir.

I liked Fr. Pete's sermon--the Holy Cross priests are always intelligent and nearly always articulate. I liked the community passing of the peace, in which every student attempted to hug every other student there. I enjoyed the slight tensing of several students, including my son, when the "Holy, holy, holy," started on the piano, and the ripple of amusement that went through those same students when the piano player botched it (apparently this student always botches Holy, holy, holy). At the end of the Mass, singing the closing song, all the students slightly elevated their hymnals, and just as I was wondering what was going on, slammed them shut in unison on the final note.

My very favorite moment came on the crowded elevator going back to my son's room. "Man," said one student, a guy I'd never met, "'Taste and See' is the best hymn. It's like, the Joe Montana of Catholic hymns."

"Like the Tom Brady," another student said, in apparent agreement.

The first student frowned. "No, man. No. That's not it at all. 'Taste and See' is not Tom Brady."

I still have no idea what that meant. But I promise I'm putting it in a book someday.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The War That Saved My Life: The Rest of The Story

I read a Goodreads review of my novel The War That Saved My Life the other day that absolutely moved me to tears. I looked for it today, and can't find it--I'm sure I could if I really searched, but I'd rather not. Just trust me that the review said something like this..."Ada is 86 now. She walks. She has been walking for a long time, ever since Susan got her foot fixed early in the war..." It goes on to predict what happens to Ada, Jamie, and Susan.

I loved it because, doing the math myself, I realized that Ada is 86 now. She's the same age as the gregarious old man I spoke to in the museum at Rye, whose face went white and still when my daughter told him I was writing a book about WW2 evacuees. "I was an evacuee," he said.

"For how long?" I asked.
"Six years," he said, and turned and walked away.

Ada is 86. She walks. She has been walking for a long time, ever since Susan got her foot fixed early in the war.

She does become a teacher. You can see the seeds of that in the sequel I'm writing. Remembering always what it felt like to know nothing, Ada is a remarkably patient and able teacher. She delights--absolutely delights--in being loved by her students, and, later, her husband and children.

Jamie, who becomes like a son to the Ellstons as well as Susan (you'll meet the Ellstons in the sequel), grows up to be a farmer. You can see seeds of that in the sequel, too. After the war Susan becomes a teacher at a small girls' boarding school. I know that Ada and Jamie give her grandchildren to delight in. When she dies she's buried not beside Becky, but beside the grave of another woman who became the companion of her later years. I know that Butter dies of advanced old age, and is buried on the Thorton's farm. I know that Ada continues to ride--that after she's a wife and mother she buys a small bay cob and keeps him in the field behind their home, rides in the local hunt, teaches her daughters to ride. I know that after the war the Thortons don't continue to live in their grand estate, so empty except for memories--but I don't know exactly what they do with it. Lord and Lady Thorton move to London, to a small elegant flat that's easier for Lady Thorton to manage. Maggie does not go to finishing school, nor university. She takes a secretarial job for awhile, simply to have something to do, and has a few escapades with Ada on the Continent, but marries rather young and enjoys being a traditional stay-at-home mother.

Stephen White dies in the very last days of the war. Ada's grief is terrible.

 Ruth--a new character in the sequel--keeps up a correspondence with Ada throughout and after the war, awkward at first but eventually, as the age gap between them lessens, a very real source of pleasure to them both.

In the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin wall, Ruth and Ada travel to Dresden. They visit the ruins of the bombed Cathedral, frozen in time from the war (its ruins lay untouched until it is rebuilt with the exact same stones) and the site of the old Dresden synagogue. They look in vain for Ruth's former home. Ruth dies before the cathedral and synagogue are rebuilt, but Ada goes there again to see them, with a daughter and grandchild.

There's one other new character I could include here, but I won't, because I don't want to take away from the impact of the new book's ending. And there's a character I'm not mentioning. When I spoke to a lovely group of fifth-graders on my book tour, who actually cheered and high-fived each other when they found I was writing a sequel, a boy came up to me after my talk. "What happens to Mam in the sequel?" he asked.

I said, "I am not telling you that."

"Well, you know," he replied, very earnestly, "an awful lot of bombs fell on London during the war."

Ada is 86. Widowed now, she will get up this morning alone in her small home. She will make herself a cup of tea, let the dogs out, put on a cardigan against the cold. She will stand at her kitchen window and look across the paddock, at the horses standing there, the very old cob who is the last horse of her heart, and the pony, a treasure, that she found for her grandchildren and Jamie's grandchildren to ride. I should phone Jamie, she thinks. It's his birthday Saturday week. We should have lunch together, just the two of us.

And they do.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Refugees in the Family

Monday I got in a Facebook argument with someone I don't know in any way--it was all on a friend's post--and it didn't go well. I should know better. But I'm really disgusted by the knee-jerk reaction of closing our borders to Syrian refugees (thank you, Gov. Haslam, for including Tennessee among the xenophobic states of America) and sometimes I can't keep my mouth shut.

First of all, there's a lot of bs on the internet right now. I did get to read some things reposted by a friend who works with refugees. Since 9/11, no terrorist attack has been committed by someone who entered the country as a refugee. Refugees are well-vetted here (not quite so much in Europe, with its porous borders). Our terrorists come in on student or tourist visas. If you questions the veracity of something you find on the internet (please do!) check

I don't agree that we need to fix all the problems in this country before we attempt to help the world. That's like saying I need to have everything perfect in my own life before I lend you a hand. It's not gonna happen. There will always be people in need, here and everywhere. Maybe it's because I've walked through shantytowns in Africa, or watched my kids play soccer at a rural Costa Rican school--I can't care less about the suffering in Syria than I do about the suffering in Bristol. We are all made in the image of God. Also? If you really believe we need to help our own first, get off your ass and start helping. Understand the problem and try to be the solution. Any problem. Any solution. Do something. From where I sit, it's looking like the loudest people are the least active.

I think what bothered me most in the past few days was someone posting that in order to come to America, you should first be required to speak English. If that were the rule, I wouldn't be here. My great-grandfather came over from Poland at age 19, fleeing a famine. He found a job in the steel mills--hard labor, and dangerous (my mother knew someone whose father fell into a vat of molten steel), but it supported his family. He never learned English. I don't know whether or not he tried; don't know how hard it would have been for him. I remember climbing onto his lap when I was quite young. He ran his hand down the length of my hair and smiled at me--though not with his eyes, since he was blind--and said, "pretty." The only English word I ever heard him say. He died soon after.

His children grew up speaking Polish and English; two of the three went to high school. His grandchildren spoke English and went to college. One of his great-grandchildren had the luxury of not only graduating college but becoming an artist--working with words, not her hands. We used to call this the American Dream.

Unless you are Native American or Black (and your ancestors likely came here on a slave ship, by force) and you live in this country, you are descended from immigrants and refugees. You were born in America; even though your own life may have been difficult, you live in a country without war, without extreme violence, with a social safety net and with enough food for all. As Glennon Doyle Melton says, "Let's quit acting like we had something to do with the fact that we were born on third base while millions are dying outside the stadium." We need to move forward with love, not fear.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

On Being Ashamed of Being Unable to Breathe

I realized this weekend that I've spent over 40 years being ashamed of not being able to breathe.

I'm still processing the implications of that. I'm still trying to unpack the legacy shame handed me; still figuring out how it's going to feel to not be ashamed.

I have asthma. Most days I'm not affected by it, thanks to a modern drug I inhale every morning. But when it does flare, the flares can be severe, and they can be set off by just about everything--exercise, allergies, viruses, some chemicals, random perfumes, cigarette smoke, cold air. When I worked as a chemist I couldn't go down to the basement of our laboratory, where the chemical storeroom was. Something in the air there set off an asthma episode every single time. The basement was also our tornado shelter--this was in Indiana, where there are lots of tornadoes--and eventually my boss found me a carbon-filter gas mask to wear during tornado drills or bad storms.

I was ashamed of the mask.

When I was a child I could swim forever. I rode my bike to swim practice every morning, did the laps, rode home. Rode back when the pool opened and stayed there all day. At summer camp I won a bet by treading water for 45 minutes--I stopped only because it was time for dinner--and I was one of a handful of campers who swam all the way across the lake.

At swim meets I felt like I was drowning. I went off the blocks flat out, as hard and fast as I could. One-lap races weren't as bad--I didn't really need to breathe in one lap. But when I aged into 2-lap races I couldn't do it--couldn't breathe, needed to breathe, gulped for air. Flailed, swam, choked. Lost.

At the end of each and every swim meet my ribs would hurt from the effort it took to force air in and out of my lungs. This is actually end-stage asthma--the muscles between the ribs, the intercostals, can actually tire to the point of giving out. When your ribs hurt it's a very bad sign.

My family laughed at me. Such a terrible athlete. They didn't understand how I could be so bad. Maybe I should try a little harder? I was such a disappointment to them. Embarrassing to watch me, they said.

I've had three separate physicians tell me I was lucky not to have died after a swim meet. Lucky I didn't die in my sleep.

Sometimes I was afraid to go to sleep.

Over and over, my father bought me running shoes. He wanted me to go jogging with him. Sometimes I did. Afterward I wheezed for hours. I was in such bad shape, he said. I needed to go running every day. He really wanted me to go running every day.

I swam; I danced. I was fit. I couldn't breathe.

I hated running. Still do.

Asthma doesn't feel like being out of breath. It feels like a constrictive tightening inside the chest. Stiffening lungs send up mucus; I coughed and choked. When I played soccer for my house in college, we used to call time out so I could vomit on the field. Then I'd keep going. I wanted to be capable. Also I had no idea what was really wrong.

A sudden cold snap, a foxhunt on my green Thoroughbred mare. I felt panicked even though she was behaving well. Suddenly--too late--I realized I couldn't breathe. Couldn't talk to call for help--could no longer move air past my vocal cords.. I blacked out, toppled from the saddle. It took fifteen minutes for me to regain consciousness. Cell phones hadn't been invented yet and I was three miles from the nearest road. Members of the hunt helped me back onto my horse, walked me out to the closest trailer, took my horse back to her barn. I assured them I was fine. Fine.

So ashamed.

The blackout, and the six months of severe episodes that followed it, finally brought a diagnosis. I have asthma.

I'm always picked last in gym. I can't run. I'm not fast. I'm not coordinated. I can't catch a ball (nearsighted with no depth perception; I get glasses at age 17). I can't breathe through my nose at all (broken nose, sometime in early childhood, circumstances unknown, discovered and surgically corrected when I'm 19.) I'm an abuse survivor with a gift for dissociation, and I dissociate from all of it. The asthma doesn't feel as shaming when I ignore it.

I ignored it as much as I could.

When I started eventing my asthma flared during cross-country. I discussed it with my doctor, and for awhile had four different medicines that I took in the days leading up to a competition. I also had oral prednisone, for times when nothing else would work, only sometimes that wouldn't work either. I pulled out of an event one year in cross-country warm up, and waited for my coach, an Olympic athlete, to berate me. Unfit disappointing embarrassment to all.

She didn't berate me. I found her matter-of-fact sympathy harder to bear than the insults I expected.

Usually, if I had any trouble on course, I kicked on instead of pulling up. Several times I crossed the finish line in a state of near collapse. It made my family--not my birth family, my created family--angry. Why was a ribbon more important than my health?

I wasn't concerned about the ribbon. I was avoiding the shame. Power through, prove that I might not be such a disappointment after all. I would wheeze for the next month for letting a flare get out of hand--but at least I wasn't a weakling.

My husband has asthma. I've never been ashamed of him.
I'm not ashamed of my eyeglasses, either.

Two days ago I ran cross-country at 8:16 am. It was 27 degrees. I'd already had to use a rescue inhaler the night before, in the hotel, for reasons unknown. I could see trouble ahead. I dreaded failure. I hated, hated, hated, telling my coach I could see trouble ahead.

Lately I've been quite fit, thanks to my yoga practice. The last several times I've run cross-country, in reasonable weather, I've been delighted by how little I had to think about my breathing. Somewhere on course I'd realize I was breathing just fine, and I'd laugh, and it was great. But Sunday was so cold, and cold air usually shocks my lungs.

I walked the course in predawn shadows, fast over hilly ground, trying to push my lungs a little, and they were fine. I took my rescue inhaler ahead of time. I warmed up well--no coughing. Over the first fence--second--third--small tussle with the mare down the hill to the fourth, regarding who was in control of our ship--won--fine jump. Then the gallop to the fifth jump, a combination--and the sharpness in my chest, the constriction. Suddenly my concentration is all on breathing--I have to think about breathing in order to breathe. I'm not as forceful as I should be over fence 5A. I sit up and make 5B work out--but I'm less than a third of the way through the course and already riding less well. I can't do this to my mare. I pull up, one hand in the air, signalling to the fence judge that I'm retiring.

My coach walks over to me (it's a different coach). I wait for her to be ashamed.

She isn't.

And suddenly I understand that I shouldn't be, either. It's a new feeling. It leaves me shaky, not just from trying to breathe. I ride my mare back to her stall. My daughter strips off the mare's tack and takes the studs out of her shoes while I take off my safety vests and find my inhaler. Then my daughter walks my horse dry because I can't do it. I can't breathe well enough to walk at a normal pace. What on earth made me think I could have finished cross-country? I wouldn't have finished. I'd have risked blacking out again. Hurting myself, hurting my horse.

I can't help having asthma. I never could.

My current lack of shame makes me feel oddly vulnerable. I don't know what it means yet to say, "I can't do that. I can't breathe," and have someone say, "Don't worry. Try again once you can." I suppose I'll find out.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Pressure's Off


The novel is not done, but the third revision of the novel is. I spent a lot of last week making sure that would happen.

I had a tough week in other respects, too. I'm switching from one antidepressant to another in hopes that the high blood pressure I've developed is a side effect of the first antidepressant (we have reason to think this might be true), and, while I love antidepressants, coming off them even while starting another is tough. Last week was Weird Brain Week. I seem to be over the bulk of it. I certainly hope so.

This weekend I went to the last horse trial of the year, with my daughter. She was moving up a level, which is a big deal in eventing. Neither of us got a completion score--two long stories there that I'll probably tell later this week--but we failed in very positive ways. I'm proud of us. It was a lot of work getting ready for the competition, especially given Finishing The Book and Weird Brain Week, and I'm proud of how my daughter and I did that, too.

Now we settled into more quiet rhythms, winter rhythms. Everything I set aside in the last few weeks needs to be dealt with, but it will be, in its own time. I'm not under deadline now. On that note, I'm going to go read a book.

Friday, November 6, 2015

I Have An Anxiety Attack

I continue to get really interesting feedback about diversity and writing, and I've also got a major revision looking at me down its long, cold nose. There are a ton of things I could write about, and a ton of excuses to not blog today. What I want to tell you is this:

I had an anxiety attack last night.

No reason, at least none I've been able to uncover. I had a lovely evening--jumped my mare, took a shower, made a nice meal which I enjoyed with family and a friend. Curled up on the couch and watched tv with my beloved; drank some nice red wine but not too much, went to bed at a reasonable hour. Earlier the day's activities had included a good yoga class, lunch with my beloved, and a lot of writing. It was a really good day.

I went to bed, and it started. Muscle cramps running down the outside of my legs--that's the canary in my particular psychic coal mine, the first sign of trouble. Lately, however--for the past several months--I've been able to stop any anxiety right there with some calming self-talk and deliberate breathing. This time the anxiety rolled right over the self-talk and slow breaths. My skin started to feel too tight to contain my insides. (I know it sounds gory, that's just how it feels.) My brain began a sort of electric race--completely unfocused, because I was honestly not upset about any particular thing--I ran options through my mind. Was it the anniversary of some sort of trauma? Had my daughter hit the anniversary date of something traumatic in my own life? (you'd be surprised how powerful that can be--but no, my daughter's now old enough that she's outstripped my own particular traumatic time bombs) Was there a cause?

There was no cause. None.

Didn't matter.

My heart was racing now. I tried all my relaxation techniques. Didn't help. I got out of bed and fetched my heavy blanket, 25 pounds covered in flannel. It's fantastic. I smoothed it under my regular covers so that it weighted my body evenly on all sides.

Didn't help.

I'd been tossing for over an hour now. My husband slept peacefully beside me. I reminded my brain, over and over, that we could turn the alarm sirens off. I was safe. Entirely safe. But the sirens kept going.

Once when I was living in Indiana, a squirrel got into our town's main electrical plant and shorted some wires. It led to the entire city being without power for most of the day.

I had a squirrel loose in my brain, tripping circuits, firing them up instead of shutting them down.

Finally I went to the bathroom and took half an Ambien. It takes seven hours for the effects of that to wear off, and our alarm went in six. When it did I mumbled half the story to my darling husband. He kissed me and left me to sleep. I am so, so loved.

My doctors and I have been experimenting with lowering the dose of my antidepressant, since my antidepressant seems to be raising my blood pressure. Already we'd decided I needed a different course of action, a completely different medication; Monday I go to a specialist. Hooray.

Even before last night I didn't need convincing that I should stay on psych meds. Psych meds are life-saving, healing, fabulous tools. I don't feel badly about having an anxiety attack, either, any more than I'd feel guilty about a lupus flare or something setting off my asthma. My brain is fantastic. It's just wired a little funkily, and there's always the danger of a squirrel getting in. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Options for The Hired Girl and A Fine Dessert

People aren't really commenting publicly about my most recent post, on racism in some recent children's book, but they're commenting privately more than usual. It's an interesting and important discussion.

I'm sure the authors of these books have already thought of how they might have done things differently, but here are some options, just to show you that options exist.

For The Hired Girl: drop references to Indians, and to "playing Indians." In the first part, the paragraph can probably be cut, but if the character really needs some sort of comparison have it be to a fictional person, or perhaps to a Bible reference--like the ancient Egyptians in the Moses story. For "playing Indians," substitute playing wild bears in a forest--living in caves. Or perhaps cowboys out West, roping cattle.

For A Fine Dessert: if you want to really tackle slavery, have the enslaved mother/daughter not get to eat any of the dessert--have the illustrations show their disappointment. Or have them get caught eating the leftovers, and punished for it. Both of those, while accurate, are pretty harsh. Here's another idea: have the black family be the one shown in 1910--not enslaved. Or show a biracial family, or ones in which the races of the children and parents don't match. Or a same-sex-marriage family.

In fact, now that I think of it, instead of gingerly tipping one toe into the waters of diversity, this book could have been one big festival of different kinds of families. It could have gone whole-hog--every group different, every one celebrated, all tied to that simple dessert. After all, it shows technology changing throughout the centuries--why not families too? 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Do The Hard Work of Getting It Right

If you follow the children's literature blogosphere you'll know all about the recent debates on The Hired Girl and A Fine Dessert.

For those of you who don't, a quick recap: The Hired Girl, by Newbery medalist Laura Amy Schlitz, is the story of a young Catholic girl who becomes a servant in a Jewish household in Baltimore in 1910. It's primarily about the girl's growth and is notable for the way it addresses Catholicism and Judaism directly--something that's sadly rare in children's books. It also contains a few references to "Indians"--Native Americans. Joan, the protagonist, has limited and stereotypical views, quite in line with her background and education--and yet, the references are unnecessary to the story, which isn't about Native Americans at all. They're also unchallenged--Joan thinks and does stereotypical things and the stereotypes just sit there, to be read and absorbed by modern readers, including modern Native children.

It's a big lovely book, and the Indian language is a problem, and I'm betting Laura Amy Schlitz regrets it though I haven't seen any comments from her about it..

A Fine Dessert, text by Emily Jenkins and pictures by Sophie Blackwell, follows the making of blackberry fool through three centuries--four stories, set in 1710, 1810, 1910, and 2010. The utensils and circumstances change, but the sense of family and the glee over the fine dessert stay the same. Most White people look at this book and think it's lovely--but the 1810 part shows an enslaved mother and daughter making the dessert for their owners, then eating the scraps while hiding in a closet. A lot of people, myself included, wondered about this choice. Surely we could have had a free Black family? Or an 1810 family that didn't include slaves? The pictures and text are gentle--too gentle to be in an way truthful about slavery--and the slaves are smiling while they pick blackberries and whip cream.

I don't know what Sophie Blackwell thinks about the controversy. Emily Jenkins has publicly said that she tried to be inclusive, that she realizes she failed, she's sorry, and she'll do better next time. She's owning her words, which I think all of us appreciate.

I saw the musical Hamilton while I was in New York last week--more on that later. Then I read some online interviews with its brilliant creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. He talked about wanting to see Latino men, such as himself, in stories that didn't have to do with gang warfare, where everyone wasn't armed with knives.

In the same way, every historical story that features Blacks doesn't need to perpetuate the myth of Happy Slaves.

When I read the reviews of A Fine Dessert, I'm struck by how many White people love it, and how many Black people don't. In other words, White readers tend to be blind to the problems that are obvious, and painful, to Black readers.

One commentator, on all this controversy, said rather petulantly that the publishing industry can't have it both ways: you can't ask White people to include non-White populations and then jump all over them when they write stereotypical tropes. Well, that's not exactly what the commentator said. It's my interpretation. Because there's a third option: White writers pay very close attention to the privilege and nuance behind their words. White writers do their homework. White writers work harder than they're used to working and think thoughts they're not used to thinking, and consider how their words might look to children who are not White.

This is difficult, and necessary. I know how difficult it is, because I wrote Jefferson's Sons. It took me a very long time to get parts of that book right. I learned a great deal. If I can do it, so can everyone else. We are lucky to be able to write stories; it's on us to write good ones.

Monday, November 2, 2015

In Recovery

I am back from my book tour. It was a good book tour, although I acknowledge that, as it was my first, I don't really have anything to compare it to. I met a lot of passionate readers and librarians and teachers; I talked a lot about my books and about other books. I spent a week immersed in books in the company of other people.

It completely wore me out.

I am an introvert, which you might not guess if you met me on book tour. That's because I'm a chatty, apt-to-be-overenthusiastic introvert (one librarian, after having lunch with me, introduced me to her colleague by saying drily, "she's like you--no opinions at all."). But spending a week acting extroverted wore me completely out. I slept a good part of the weekend and would go back to sleep right this minute if I didn't have an appointment to get to. Also a novel to finish--deadline is 11 days from now--and some other stuff, like all the laundry.

My favorite bits of book tour: the Chatsworth Elementary kids who squealed and high-fived each other when I told them I was writing a sequel. The child who came up to me after that talk to ask what happened to Mam in the sequel, and when I said I wasn't going to tell him, offered suggestively, "You know, an awful lot of bombs fell on London."

The boy who wanted to know what else I'd written about wars (he left the library with For Freedom tucked under his arm). The class whose faces changed when I told them that in Kent, Ada got a pair of crutches--when they realized that something as simple as crutches could have changed her life in London. The girl who--oh, all of them, all the children who were engaged and caring and true, which was, honestly, most of them. These were great kids. I'm proud to have written something they cared about.

On Tuesday, when I had a few hours of free time, I finally met Karen Block Breen, my former boss at Kirkus, over tea and blueberry pie. Karen was exactly who I thought she'd be, and we had a great time, and I wish we could meet for pie every week.

On Wednesday, when I had a few hours of free time, I met an old college friend for wine and quesadillas. I hadn't seen her since college graduation, which is longer ago than either of us had been alive at the time, and yet we were back instantly to easy intimacy. I'd not realized how much I'd missed her.

On Thursday, when I had the evening to myself, only in Greenwich, CT, instead of Manhattan, I pulled the curtains, got into my pajamas, rolled out my yoga mat, and ordered dinner delivered to my room. The guy that brought it took one glance and said, "Long day?"

Long day. Long week. But oh, such a good one.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On not winning the (mock) Newbery

I'm  hanging out in my hotel room with a glass of white wine and Henry, my loaner companion fish. The SoHo Grand, charming and quirky hotel that it is, does not want me to be lonely during my stay, and has therefore installed Henry in my room.

He's not nearly as cuddly as my husband, but he makes some intriguing darts across his fishbowl.

Today's book tour featured a librarian who told me Echo won (I can't make the italics stop. I've given up trying) their Mock Newbery and a fifth-grader who told me he couldn't finish Echo, he did like my book, but he still hadn't read Circus Mirandus. It also featured blueberry pie a la mode with KBB1, which is to say my former boss and decades-long friend, whom I've never actually met before today, Karen Block Breen.

It was so good to be with her. I always felt that I would like her in person even more than I did when all I really knew about her was that she wrote snarky emails, and trusted my negative book reviews. I was somewhat surprised today to learn that reviewing for Kirkus is actually a difficult gig to get, since Karen accepted me at first go. We laughed today remembering my first email to her, which basically said, hey, my friend (actually my agent) says that I have so many opinions I might as well get paid for some of them.

Karen is a fierce and smart advocate of books. I adore her. She spent a bit of time today warning me that now that TWTSML is on all the Mock Newbery lists, I should not allow my heart to be broken if I don't win a damn thing. Sometimes the Committee goes with the book nobody despises. Sometimes librarians worldwide are left scratching their heads.

I already knew this--there are some winners that exceedingly puzzle me--but I appreciated the love with which it was said.

Today a child asked me if Ada couldn't have just as easily had a cleft palate as a club foot--wouldn't that have fulfilled the plot requirements just as well? A girl on full-time crutches told me TWTSHL was her new favorite book in the world. Three young girls, two White and one Black, came up to me after my presentation to ask, urgently, did Sally Hemmings love Thomas Jefferson? I could see that they'd grasped an essential aspect of the story--that it was less horrifying, more palatable, if Sally loved him.

It was a very good day. And if Echo wins the Real Newbery as well as a Mock Newbery, I can say as I did today, that Pam Munoz Ryan has always been a writer I very much admire, and, as I told KBB, no matter the outcome, being in the game is a whale of a lot of fun.

Then I came home to my goldfish and got some wine from the minibar. If Random Penguin thinks I'm extravagant they can stop it out of my pay. At least I'm not charging them for tomorrow's tickets to Hamilton.

Monday, October 26, 2015

In which I turn out to be a country girl after all

Lastweek, my sweet young publicist and I spoke on the phone to go over the details of this week's book tour, which is centered around New York City. My publicist seemed concerned about me coming all the way from Nowheresville, Appalachia, and carefully explained that I would have to switch planes in Charlotte.

I found that amusing, because of course I am a sophisticated traveler, as evidenced by tonight's dinner at a French restaurant cum local bar down the street, where I handed the waiter the closed menu and told him loftily that I wanted steak frites and a glass of red wine, thank you. And he brought it, and it was good.

However. I picked my suitcase up at LaGaurdia, started to walk away, and found my way blocked by a young woman who wanted to see my certification. I goggled at her, and she said, patiently, the way one speaks to a small child, "either your boarding pass or your luggage ticket." I showed her, then realized all the other passengers were walking away with their boarding passes held upright.

We don't do this in Bristol. No one steals other peoples' luggage in Bristol.

Then I didn't know whether or not I was supposed to tip my driver. I understand taxis. I've never had a driver before, not one I was in charge of. I emailed friends, but, not getting an answer in time, comprised by tipping him a pathetic amount.

I knew to hand Wesley, the doorman at my hotel, a dollar after he'd carried my tiny suitcase from the curb to the reception desk. (The suitcase is so small that no one bothered to suggest I needed help getting it to my room.) then I got in the elevator and the button for my floo r wouldn't work. The elevator went up a couple of floors, then stalled, while I repetively and vainly pushed the button for my floor.

A very chic looking young man got on. I said, "I'm trying to go up but the button won't work." He said, "you have to insert your room key." Then he said, "I had trouble with that my first time, too."

So kind. So perplexing. We don't even have elevators in upper East Tennessee.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Days Like This

I am having the strangest day here.

It started with the dog cowering under my breakfast chair.

This is not normal. Normally, the dog comes in from her walk with my daughter, runs to say good morning to me, then runs nonsensically around and around the table. We noticed she was quivering; when I picked her up, her heart was pounding. My daughter did a google check for normal small dog heartrate, then switched her phone to stopwatch mode and helped me find her pulse--140 bpm, quite likely indicating pain.

Meanwhile my husband had got down on the floor. The dog was sitting with her weight well forward, leaning her head on his lap. She groaned.

I went up and exchanged my yoga pants for blue jeans, and took the dog into the vet. It seems she has a spinal disc problem quite common to her breed. She's on pain pills and muscle relaxers, and she has to be confined to her crate for two full weeks. Immobility is what heals.

I went to make a double batch of Snickerdoodles--one to take to the BFIA annual meeting, and one to send home with my son--and we didn't have enough flour. I never run out of flour. I was completely taken aback.

Then I went to sew a button onto my husband's tweed jacket, that he very much wanted to wear out to dinner tonight, and I can't find the missing button. It's not in the coat pockets. It's not in my button box. It's not in anywhere I would put a button, or anywhere I think my husband would put a button, or anywhere else. I got online and ordered replacement buttons, but of course they won't be here in time for tonight. I'm sad about this because I've been promising to sew that button on since July, and if I'd ordered new buttons in July they would be here in time.

My new Oprah magazine has an article on muscle tenseness and how it can cascade through the body. The article suggests several stretches that can be done with yoga balls I already possess. I tried the glute stretch. Now my glutes are spasming.

This whole day is a pain in the butt.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Something's Got to Change, For Sure.

Last week the Richmond, VA, newspaper wrote a heartbreaking article about an elementary school whose students were all--100%--receiving free lunch, a marker for poverty, and whose teachers were moving mountains in their efforts to keep these children safe, fed, and able to learn.

The article described children who come to school in their pajamas, with their shoes on the wrong feet. Children who explain the previous day's absence by saying, "Momma had a needle in her arm." Children who are dirty, abused, and above all hungry. The school keeps a stash of extra clothes on hand. There's a washer and dryer in the teacher's lounge for laundering student clothing. The school feeds all its children breakfast and lunch; many students stay for an after-care program where they get another meal before they leave. On Fridays, some of the children leave with backpacks filled with still more food--donated by a local church--to get them through the weekend. These children suffer so much when they aren't at school that this year the school has made half of Christmas break, and a good chunk of summer break, optional. These kids would rather be at school. It's a safe good place.

The school passed all its federal testing benchmarks last year.

The school, Highland View Elementary, is in my hometown.

Two days ago my friend Jess sent me a link to a speech given by Neil Gaiman about the importance of reading. The bit that stuck in my head--that appalled me--was this: the number of prison cells any particular area will need in ten to fifteen years directly correlates with the number of fourth-graders from that area who aren't reading at grade level. You can closely estimate the size of future prison populations by looking at the number of kids who can't read. Good God. Children's lives are at stake.

Then yesterday Glennon Doyle over at Momastery wrote, "There are no such things as other people's children."

I don't know what I'm going to do with all of this year, but I know I've got to do something. I'll keep you posted. Maybe we can all do something--maybe books can change the world.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Cormoran Strikes Again!

Dear readers. Yesterday was at last October 20th, and at approximately 5:30 pm the latest Robert Galbraith mystery, actually written by JK Rowling and featuring detective Cormoran Strike, was delivered into my hands. And it is wonderful.

I haven't finished it yet--not for lack of trying--it's 492 pages long and I'm really past thinking all-nighters are a good idea. (I think my last was for Harry Potter 5.). For my money JK Rowling is our greatest living author, eclipsing even Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. There's something so effortless about the way she puts words together. I'm reminded of Dick Francis in his prime--not his final two novels, which were a bit forced, but the half-dozen or so immediately before it.

Writers have to be readers first. I tell any aspiring writer I meet to read everything that catches their fancy. Read, read, read. Lately, though, I realize I'm particularly drawn to two types of prose: the stylized, witty sentences of absolute masters like Jane Austen and Patrick O'Brian, where you're cackling over sheer subtlety, and the words-flowing-like-water streams of Rowling, Francis--maybe I'd add Patricia MacLachlan, who can say so much with so few words--hmm, poet Marilyn Nelson comes to mind too.

Here's 2 sentences I marked. (To my surprise I have lately become someone who marks up my books. I also dog-ear pages.)

He possessed a finely honed sense for the strange and the wicked. He had seen things all through his childhood that other people preferred to imagine happened only in films.

The spare elegance of those lines. The word choices: honed, wicked. "Preferred to image" not simply "imagine." The feeling of truth.

The older I get, the more I recognize that I became a writer far earlier than I thought. It wasn't with my first published book, or even my first byline. It wasn't when I sat in Patty MacLachlan's children's literature class at Smith. It wasn't when I quit medical school. It was when I was fourteen, the first time I finished a novel, stared at it in wonder and disbelief, then immediately began to reread it, to see if I could discover how exactly the author did that. 

(The book was A Wrinkle In Time.)