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.