Friday, April 29, 2016

Holding Space at Malaprop's

"State Senator Buck Newton made the comment while concluding a speech at a rally on Monday and welcomed the idea of being considered a poster child for the law, dubbed HB 2.
The law made North Carolina the first state in the country to require transgender people to use restrooms in public buildings and schools that match the sex on their birth certificate rather than their gender identity.

"Go home, tell your friends and family who had to work today what this is all about and how hard we must fight to keep our state straight," he said to applause." --Reuters AP report
"To The Honorable Governor Pat McCrory and members of the North Carolina General Assembly,
As the owners and managers of independent bookstores, part of our mission is to provide that “third place”, an additional public space other than home or work where folks can gather to discuss issues important to our community. Ray Oldenburg, in his book, The Great Good Place, “argues that "third places… are the heart of a community's social vitality and the grassroots of democracy.” As independent bookstores providing that third place in communities across our state, we believe it is essential to be non­discriminatory, inclusive and tolerant, to promote freedom of speech and equality, and to guard against censorship and unfair treatment.
Another part of our mission is to be profitable; to allow ourselves and our employees to earn a respectable living. What both of these mission statements share is the need for people to visit our stores and become customers. Authors have already started to cancel appearances at North Carolina bookstores over what the ACLU describes as “the most extreme anti­LGBT measure in the country.” This can and will have a real negative impact on our businesses. It doesn’t make sense, financially or otherwise, to choose discrimination over inclusion. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what lawmakers have done by passing HB2.
Company after company is withdrawing from doing business in NC until this legislation is repealed. Retailers and others are already feeling the economic impact of this legislation and we are sure, because of the momentum behind more businesses, conferences, artists, rock stars, authors, and ordinary citizens choosing places other than North Carolina to spend their vacations, the worst financial impact is yet to come.
Small Business Majority’s polling found 67 percent of North Carolina’s entrepreneurs believe North Carolina should have a law prohibiting employment discrimination against LGBT people. Nationally, two­thirds of small businesses say business owners shouldn’t be able to deny goods or services to LGBT individuals. (more info on this polling is here.)
For North Carolina, the choice between small businesses and discrimination should be clear. We hope our lawmakers make the right decision and repeal HB2." --letter from 0ver 30 independent NC bookstores.
I have to be in Asheville, NC, today to record a promo piece for a CD being giving out at ALA in June. Since I was travelling there anyhow, I asked my Dial publicist to see if Malaprop's wanted me to swing by and sign stock. (It's more polite to have your publicist do this, as the bookstore would feel less awkward about telling the publicist no.)
Bruce Springsteen, author Sherman Alexie, and other notables have recently cancelled appearances in North Carolina to protest HB2, the bathroom bill. 
Here's my question: why was HB2 passed now? What problem prompted its creation? It's not as though transgender people have only just begun to exist. It's not as if they're increasing in numbers. It's not as if they haven't always used public restrooms. I'm pretty sure the law exists exactly because of the thinking of people such as Buck Newton, quoted above. Make the state so unfriendly for LGBT people that they all up and leave--oh, except for the ones born to straight, God-fearin', homo-hating North Carolina parents. Those children, well, they'll just have to suffer. Or die. Whichever. So long as the entire state is, you know, straight.
This breaks my heart . But I'm happy to see that, after a protest led by none other than Malaprop's, the Asheville bookstore where I'm signing today, and where Sherman Alexie canceled his appearance, more and more professional writers' organizations, including the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, are calling on authors to actively support independent bookstores because they are exactly what they claim to be, a "third place."
I've always loved Malaprop's. I don't go there often because my travels tend to take me to nearby Asheville much less often than farther-away Nashville, with its lovely bookstore Parnassus, but Malaprop's holds a very special place in my heart because of the time they held space for me.
'Holding space' is a term I've only recently come across. It means to accompany someone through a difficult time, supporting them, being aware of them, but not judging or fixing them. It's a hard and beautiful thing.
So many years ago now--eleven?--I was on the brink of a complete mental health breakdown. I refer to it as the time I fell to pieces. I could feel the storm gathering but had no way out. For no reason other than I hoped it would help me feel better, I decided to go to Asheville for the day, in the middle of the week, in February, alone. I drove my children to school, then went to Asheville, then came back in time to pick them up, which gave me about 4 hours to wander the creative heart of the city.
I thought I was keeping myself more or less together, but I must have looked off, because what I remember most about that day is how kind and gentle total strangers kept being to me. Over and over, without my saying anything to them, without my asking for help in any way. (This is the day that sparked the Loom of God--a long story I'll tell someday, a sort of miracle let me know I was going to survive.) Anyhow, I spent a long time browsing Malaprop's. I took the books I was buying to the checkout and slid them across the counter. I handed the clerk my credit card. He took it, put my purchases in a bag, then reached into a drawer, took out a card, and scribbled something on the back of it. "Here," he said, handing it to me. "Take this over to our cafe, and get yourself something to eat and drink. Whatever you want. It's on us."
For no reason, except that I guess I needed kindness, and he saw it. Malaprop's held space for me, on a day when I desperately needed that. I don't remember what I ate or drank. I remember I did both, unquestioning, sitting in their cafe, chewing something, sipping. I don't remember feeling hungry; I remember that the Malaprop's guy told me to eat and drink, so I did, for free. There's something holy there. 
I hope and believe Malaprop's holds space for everyone. I know for sure they aren't monitoring their toilets. I'll be there at 3 pm to sign some books, which anyone can buy in person or online. 
Think about why some people feel we need laws like HB2. Think about people like the clerk at Malaprop's. Think about which side you'd rather be on.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Missing Rolex

In Lexington, Kentucky, right now, one of my tribes has gathered. They're walking across the dew-drenched grass of the horse park in Dubarry boots, large cups of coffee clutched in their hands. They're setting up, getting ready, listening to volunteer instructors or grooming horses or watching riders warm up or fiddling with the electronics for the judging and the commentary. A few of them, a very lucky few, are getting their game faces on. They're riding today in the first part of a four-day competition, the biggest American event in my sport. It's officially the Kentucky Rolex Three-Day Event, but we just call it Rolex. Last year I wrote about being there with so many friends from our small, intensely-connected sport.

This year I'm spending the day with my novel. My daughter has a conference tennis match this afternoon; Saturday she's going to her Senior Prom. My daughter first went to Rolex when she was three months old. Last year she got to be the electronic scribe for one of the dressage judges. She only gets one prom, one final varsity tennis match, and so I'm glad we've stayed home, but part of my heart is at Rolex this morning.

It's an Olympic trials this year. Lauren Kieffer's riding Veronica. Hannie has William (Harbour Pilot). Ellie's on RF Eloquence again. Marilyn's got Demi. I care about all these tough young women; I care about their safety and I care about their success. Watching Lauren, in particular, grow up with the sport is something I've very much enjoyed. I told her before that I've dubbed myself her honorary great-aunt, removed from her day-to-day life but interested in her success. Two years ago, when she absolutely killed her Rolex dressage test to take the overnight lead, I told her just afterward, "I can say I knew you back before you were famous. This winter, in Florida, she congratulated me on my Newbery Honor, grinned, and said, "I knew you back before you were famous!"

I'm supposed to be home this year, but good golly, I hope she kills it again. I hope they all do.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Ten Things From This Weekend

 Ten Things from this weekend:

1) I, my husband, and my daughter had a terrific time in Charlotte visiting my sister, her husband, and her two sons.

2) I had been afraid that her sons, Louie and Fred, ages 3 1/2 and 1 1/2, would not remember me, since it's been a long time since they saw me and they are small.

3) Louie rushed into my arms, yelling, "Uncle Kim! Uncle Kim!" Fred doesn't attempt my name yet (Kim is hard for babies; Fred calls my husband "Bar-Bar" and my daughter "T!") but grinned and launched himself at me the moment he saw me. I think Fred reacts this way to everyone, but I'll pretend he just really missed me.

4) Charlotte has awesome shopping, which was excellent because my daughter has to have a white dress and matching shoes for a graduation ceremony.

5) I think that high schools which require girls to go purchase a specific type of dress for a graduation ceremony ought to rethink that. The graduates are not brides. My son's summer internship business described the corporate dress code to him as, "If you could wear it at a fancy golf course, you're fine." Tell the girls, "If you could wear it to a Baptist church, you're fine," and I think we'd be good.

6) That said, we did find her a very pretty dress.

7) It's now less than a week until my son comes home from his semester in London.

8) It's also less than a month until my daughter graduates from high school.

9) Time is simultaneously moving too quickly and too slow.

10) As I told my sister this weekend, you'll have that. Don't blink.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Friday Tea In The Cloud: Smith College

Question: what do the following women have in common: Madeleine L'Engle, Jane Yolen, Natalie Babbitt, Anne M. Martin, Cynthia Voigt, Elizabeth George Speare, and me?

Answer: We are all graduates of Smith College. Oh, and we're all also writers who have been honored by the children's department of the American Library Association, either with a Caldecott (Jane Yolen) or a Newbery or Newbery Honor (all the rest of us). I don't know if it's a record number of award winners from a particular institution, but it's certainly an amazingly high percentage. If you want to be a children's book author, go to Smith!

Smith was the first women's college in the country to give actually academic degrees. (Oberlin, co-ed, admitted women earlier; Mount Holyoke and other colleges began earlier as finishing-school type places and eventually became fully academic.) It was founded in 1871. It was, and I hope still is, a radically inclusive place, where an introverted midwestern Catholic could feel at home in a campus that tilted in a completely opposite direction. I had four marvelous years at Smith, and I treasure all I learned there.

Students at Smith live primarily on-campus for all four years, in houses that range in size from 16 to 90 students. When I was a student each house had its own dining room. That's no longer the case, but Friday house teas endure. On Friday afternoon, in the living room of each house, students would gather for tea and cookies, hang out, and enjoy the close to the week. It was a terrific tradition.

So now some of us are gathering online, to share our choice of beverage, our best of the week, and our worst of the week. My best of the week right now is that it's raining. My pastures desperately need rain, and after suffering a horrible drought several years ago I am pretty much happy each and every time it rains. My worst of the week is the amount of work I've got to do on that book of mine. I know it's better to take the time and effort to write the best book possible; I know I'm lucky to work as a writer; I know I can do the work. I know this book can be good. I just don't want to have to work that hard. There you are.

But I've got my sisters' examples: Elizabeth, Cynthia, Natalie, Anne. Madeleine L'Engle, who was the hero of my childhood, and who I got to have dinner with while at Smith. (Madeleine was coming to speak at an event sponsored by the college chapel. The Catholic Chaplain called me up and asked, "Have you ever heard of Madeleine L'Engle?" "Uh, yes," I stammered. [A Wrinkle in Time was the first book I ever finished and then immediately began reading again, because I wanted to know WHY I liked it so much. I mark this as the first step toward my becoming a writer]. "Well," said the chaplain, "would you mind very much accompanying her to dinner?" This, my young friends, is the sort of reward you get for attending Mass while at college.) Jane, who not only taught me the ins and outs of writing for publication but who would still kick my ass for complaining. So I won't complain. I'll sip my tea (coffee), think of my fellow Smithies, and smile.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

My Only Memory of Prince

I wasn't going to write a blog post today. I'm writing my book over again, and that's enough. But I just heard about Prince's death--the artist known as Prince--and it brought back one memory, which had nothing to do with his music, of which I knew very little about except the song "Purple Rain."

At the end of my sophomore year in college, I stayed on campus an extra week so I could attend graduation. In exchange for being allowed to stay in my dorm room I had to do a certain amount of room cleaning, because the dorms would all be used for alumnae attending reunions the weekend of graduation. Most rooms were empty except for dust bunnies and college-owned furniture. My dorm that year had big double-sided closets with sliding doors in all the rooms. When I went into one room, the closet door was open, one half slid behind the other. Just as an afterthought, as I was leaving the cleaned room, I slid the closet door closed.

Taped to the door, previously obscured but not revealed in all its glory, was a full-sized photographic poster of Prince, naked as the day he was born.

It wasn't all that impressive, if you want the truth. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Crazy Good

So my life has been crazy all year so far. I usually keep up a pretty fast-paced schedule, lots of travel, lots of family, horse stuff, all the books--but the start of 2016 has been extraordinary even by my standards. There was that whole Newbery Honor thing. The Josette Frank. A big trip during our daughter's spring break, to see our son, all that time I spent in Florida with my horse, and I've never even mentioned in this blog the weekend I took my husband off to New York for his Christmas present, which was tickets to Hamilton.

So before we could draw breath my husband and I went to Paris. This was nuts on many levels. We were going to be with our son, even though we just saw him 2 weeks ago and he'll be home in another 2 weeks. We went for only long weekend--flying out Wednesday night, so that we arrived in Paris late Thursday afternoon, and leaving for home very very early on Monday morning--not much of time for such a big effort. We had to leave our daughter home with my mother--though nobody could see that as a disadvantage, my daughter got to spend several days soaking up her grandmother's love and full attention, which I don't think has ever happened before, and which they both seemed to revel in.

But when my son was planning his semester in London, my husband and I asked him, if he could do anything with us while he was there, what would he chose? And he said he wanted to play golf in Paris again with his dad.

We took a family spring break vacation to Paris several years ago--I think five? maybe six--and, being golf fanatics, my husband and son played golf in Chantilly, Fontainbleau, and a course just outside Paris which is quite private and quiet and beautiful. They had a marvelous time, particularly in Paris. (Meanwhile, my daughter and I toured the chateaus and towns of Chantilly and Fontainbleau, and went on a private chocolate tour of Paris. It was win-win.) That round of golf was one of the highlights of my son's high school years.

So they did it again. My son took the train from London to Paris and met us for dinner Thursday night. Friday they played 36 holes of golf, while I walked the city, meandering through the markets and gardens and a couple of museums, stopping to drink champagne on a sidewalk cafe, and gleefully taking a photo of my book TWTSML on the shelves of the English-language bookstore on the Rue de Rivoli. Afterwards we had an amazing dinner together, then had ice cream back at our hotel.

Saturday we started by touring Sacre Coeur, the white church high on Paris's only big hill. My husband and I suggested we take the Metro, or at very least the funicular from the hill's base, but my son has gotten used to walking the length and breadth of Europe, and he said, "You'd seriously pay money to avoid walking up a hill?" so we did not. We went up the Arc de Triomphe and through the Opera House and up and down city streets until it was late at night and we were watching the light show on the Eiffel Tower, and then we found ice cream at a sidewalk cafe. We like ice cream.

Sunday we went to Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral, met friends for lunch, saw our darling boy off to the train station. I was ready for a nap then, but my husband wanted to see Sainte-Chappelle, and then there were some other things to see, and then another good restaurant, and then it was time to sleep for four hours and head home. It was crazy short and crazy to do and crazy good in all respects.

Years ago, when I first started recovering from a major bout of depression, I could feel that our family  was getting smaller, less adventurous, more guarded in response. My illness had been a very big deal so this was a natural reaction, but I didn't want us to live that way. It seemed to me, then and now, that we can either work to expand our personal worlds, or we can let them shrink. I took charge and planned a trip for all of us to the rainforest of the most remote part of Costa Rica. My children were frightened, my husband supportive but skeptical. It turned out to be a fabulous, healing adventure. Ever since my husband and I have tried consciously to expand our world. Paris wasn't new territory for us, but deciding to pack up and travel more when our lives were already spinning so fast was new. It was the right choice. Our son has another great memory, and so do his father and I.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

An Editor Like That

Fourteen years ago, I spoke at a writing conference in Los Angeles. On the morning the conference began, all of us speakers, who had flown in from the east coast the night before, woke up really, really early, due to the time change, and sat about in the hotel restaurant having coffee for awhile. We were all established, traditionally-published writers. I was the only person who wrote for children. At some point in the breakfast, I told a long story about my most recent novel, and how my editor had looked at one of the early drafts, told me that I was taking too much time and space to tell the story (it was a journey story), and that I needed to have all the same action take place in half the distance, half the time.

The group gave me a respectful moment of silence. Being writers, they all instantly grasped that I had to rewrite every single scene of my book. Then one woman said, "And so?"

I said, "It's much better now."

A collective sigh ran through the group. Another woman said, wistfully, "I wish I had an editor like that."

I recount this story to make myself feel a bit better. On Wednesday, sandwiched in between having a tooth pulled and leaving for a trip to Paris, I had a conversation with my editor about the sequel to The War That Saved My Life. I strongly suspect we should have had this conversation months ago, but the good news is, we've had it. The bad news is that I'm facing a really enormous rewrite.

The good news is that I'm facing a really enormous rewrite.

I like Jess very much as both an editor and a person. However, we are new to each other (my previous editor retired, though no fault of my own) and it has taken us a little while for us to learn to talk to each other. Based on last week's conversation, I suspect that what she thought she was saying and what I thought she was saying, as well as what she thought I was saying and what I thought I was saying, were all different things. One point of continued contention was my character Ada's emotional reaction (X) to a situation (Y). Jess kept hinting gently that she thought Ada's reaction should be Z. I refused to change it, because Ada's only honest reaction to Y, based on who she is and also based on how all traumatized children, every single one in history across time, behave, is X. I was absolutely unwilling to be dishonest to Ada, especially given all we've been through.

Jess didn't like X. X permeated the story. I could not change X. You see the problem. I kept writing new drafts. Jess hoped I would come to dislike X on my own. I would never, ever come to dislike X. X was Ada's truth. No way out. I wrote increasingly polished and competent drafts--some very good, strong, clear writing--that all centered around X.

Now, my previous editors, Liz and Lauri, with whom I've worked on several books (Liz is the one that retired. Lauri's president of the whole shebang now, so doesn't work on books directly. I can call on Lauri for help anytime if I needed it--heck, I can call on Liz, she's retired but she's not dead--but I never needed to, and I still don't) would have said, possibly a couple of drafts ago, "We need to get rid of X. Figure it out." I liken this to the moment in Hamilton when Alexander Hamilton wants Washington to stong-arm Hamilton's financial plan into being, but Washington insists Hamilton find a way to win Congressional approval. (I'm on a Hamilton kick. I liken everything to Hamilton. Amazing how well that works.) Anyhow, Lauri especially had a useful blunt way of saying, "This must be different. Figure it out." It took Jess and I longer to get to that level of communication, but we did get there.

"X is the truth," I said. (Stubbornly.)

"You're dealing with three kinds of truth here," Jess said. "You've got Ada's truth, historical truth, and the truth that this story needs. You have to satisfy all three."

Just there, I got the glimmering of an idea. I ran away to Paris for a long weekend (not kidding. What can I say? I went to see my son) and thought hard about it. The problem was not X. The problem was that X was the correct emotional reaction to Y. The problem, therefore, was actually Y.

Y is a plot point. Unlike emotional truths, plot points can be manipulated entirely at will. If I get rid of Y, I can get rid of X, with a clear conscience and a light heart. I can replace X with Z and feel I've done Ada no disservice. I can write the honest book Ada deserves.

Of course, I have absolutely no idea what Z will look like. Getting rid of Y means getting rid of a substantial part of the front of the book. I'll detonate a bomb and create a new picture from the fragments. The bad news is that this is going to take a smidgen of time. The book has been moved from spring of 2017 to fall of 2017, temporarily, until we see if that gives me time enough. The good news is that it will be a better book.

Everyone should be so lucky, to have an editor like that.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


A few weeks ago I felt deeply, truly sorry for myself because I had to have an emergency root canal. Yesterday's adventures featured an emergency tooth removal. I've gotten all the pity they're willing to give me from my family, who points out, one by one, that 1) they had teeth pulled for braces, plus braces for several years; 2) they had four wisdom teeth surgically removed at the same time; 3) they ruptured their Achilles tendon and had three separate operations on the same knee. To which I reply, tdigging for a bit more sympathy, yes, but I had a tooth removed today. I am miserable. 

Yet on the other hand, I am grateful. Because the whole reason the tooth removal was an emergency is that I'm hopping on a plane for France this afternoon, to go hang out with my son for an extended weekend. Two separate dentists moved their schedules around a lot so that I wouldn't suffer from my cracked molar while I was abroad. Which was pretty nice of them.

Still. It was my favorite tooth. It had a little notch on the inside that I liked to run my tongue over, and now I've got an enormous hole where it used to be, for the next 5 months until it all heals well enough for a crown. You can't see the hole when I smile, which is useful as it means I won't need to spend the next 5 months explaining how I lost a tooth. For the record, it was a piece of popcorn. Savage, superhuman popcorn. Either that or really wimpy teeth.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

More on the Toilet Thing

I was just going to let yesterday's post rest, and talk instead about the sparkly ball gown I bought to wear to the Newbery Awards dinner. Then I saw another person's comment online, "This [North Carolina] law is about bathrooms the way racial segregation was about water fountains," and I agreed with it so completely that hell, here I go again.

People behaving inappropriately in public facilities should face legal consequences. No doubt at all about that. I'm quite comfortable with separate male and female bathroom facilities. Always have been.

Here's the problem: the North Carolina law states that people must use the public facility that conforms with their biological birth gender. That's not only whack, it requires some people to either break the law or publicly disclose information that is quite frankly nobody's business.

I just finished reading a book by a fellow Smith alumna: Becoming Nicole: the Transformation of an American Family. It's nonfiction, the story of a middle-class couple from Maine who adopted identical  twin boys (born to an extended family member who was unable to raise them). One of the boys self-identified as a girl starting at age 2, strongly, clearly, and consistently. His twin referred to him as his sister, from an equally early age.

The parents, who had no other children, struggled with this, as I imagine most of us would. They put their child into therapy early; they educated themselves and they loved their children. In the end they allowed their child to change her name to a girl's name and present herself to the world as a girl. Nicole started puberty-suppressing drugs at an appropriate time, and, when she was old enough, had sex reassignment surgery. She's in college now. If you looked at her naked, you'd see a female.

For this family, the bathroom issue came up early. They moved to a new city when the twins were about to start high school. They discussed Nicole's gender identity with the new school's administration but Nicole did not want to be public about it--all she wanted to do was go to high school. What bathroom should she use? No worries that she'd be displaying her genitals--her genitals were something she very much wanted to disguise. Should she use the boys' bathroom at her new high school?

Should she use the men's restroom for the rest of her life?

Most doctors require transgender people to live for at least a year as the gender they're transitioning to before they undergo any type of surgery. Should they carry little cards with them: "I look like a man, I talk like a man, I'm becoming a man, but for now, and also forever, I'm using the ladies' room. It's okay, I promise."?

What do we do with babies born with the genotype XXY? Or the ones born with ambiguous genitalia, who are randomly assigned a best-guess gender at birth?

The current estimates are that 0.3 to 0.5% of the population in the United States is transgender. That's not a lot--but it's 3 or 4 people in my daughter's public high school. It's about 120 people in my smallish home town. These are real people with real histories, and they deserve to be treated with humanity, not discrimination.

Think you don't know anyone who's transgender? You're probably wrong. Thing is, it's really not any of your business.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Let's Discuss Public Toilets

Let's discuss public toilets.

On my recent trip to Italy and England I saw a lot of odd public toilets. I'm pretty sure this is because many of the buildings over there--all of them, in the case of Venice--are way older than their sanitation systems, which means that toilets had to be jerry-rigged into existing structures in ways that would not happen in the comparatively youthful United States. It's not at all unusual for the toilets in a restaurant or bar in Europe to be up or down extremely steep flights of stairs. The toilets might be single stalls with teeny-tiny sinks. They almost never have paper towels. Sometimes you're expected to put your used toilet tissue into a nearby wastebasket, because the sewer system can't handle it. If there are multiple stalls in a European public toilet, the doors usually go all the way down to the ground, so that each stall is like a little closet, completely sealed off.

The toilets are quite often unisex.

By this I don't mean that they are all single stalls. More than once on my last trip, I opened the main toilet door to a room lined with sinks on one side, and stalls on the other. Just like an American public toilet, with the exception that there was only one room: both genders used it at the same time. I'd step into a stall as a man was coming out of the stall next to mine.

Nobody seemed concerned.

Nobody seemed to think about it at all.

I mention this because of the new law in North Carolina, which states that public restrooms must be segregated by a person's birth gender, not their sexual identity. In other words, a transgender man who has lived as a man for decades is legally obligated to use the women's restroom in public.

Bruce Springsteen recently said he wouldn't perform in North Carolina until this law was repealed. The Author's Guild, and the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, two organizations of which I am a proud member, have asked writers not to appear at booksignings or public events (except for in schools and libraries) while this law remains in effect.

I think that with all the serious problems in this world we could find better things to legislate. I've run into a few--a very few, a sheltered few--people who honestly seem to think such laws provide necessary protection. As though people were dressing up as the opposite gender to attack other people in public restrooms all the time. As though this law would give license to predators. As though being transgender had anything to do with "dressing up" or sexual predation. As though it really deeply mattered what sort of genitals one has when one needs to use a public restroom.

I've used a lot of public restrooms. I've never once displayed my genitals to anyone in them. I've never once felt threatened by anyone in them. When I encountered a man in the public bathrooms in Europe I didn't ponder whether he was a transman or a cisman. I didn't ponder anything at all. I washed my hands and went back down the stairs to my family.

It wasn't an issue there. It shouldn't be an issue here.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

1066 etc.

We spent the last few days of our trip in Rye, a town I think of as in Kent even though it just slides over the border into East Sussex. Kent is the setting for much of TWTSML, and when I came to Kent for research, in spring of 2012, we stayed at the George in Rye. That's a hotel I've seen mentioned in more than one work of either historical fiction or once-contemporary fiction that became historical (because it was written so long ago), and it's also the bomb, very old and quaint while at the same time modernized, elegant, and comfortable. This trip, the George was inconveniently fully booked, so we stayed instead at the Mermaid. I'd been to the Mermaid for drinks before--its bar is rather famous both for being very old and for formerly being a hotbed of coastal smuggling. A sign outside the Mermaid says "rebuilt in 1420," but parts of the hotel are much older than that, including, by all appearances, the mattress on our bed. The floors tilted impressive amounts, none of the walls were plumb, the en suite included bathtubs but not showers, and I was the only member of our family who didn't have to continually duck to avoid smacking my head on the lintels. That said, the place is really charming, the bar excellent, the food fantastic, and although the bed did slope downhill and the mattress really was uncomfortable, I slept extremely well, soothed, no doubt, by the enormous pigeons roosting on the windowsills.

When we drove out of London Thursday night (my son very conveniently does not have classes on Friday) and reached the green hills and marshes of Kent, my husband said to me, "Your characters have come home." That was exactly how I felt. I myself feel more at home in Ireland, or South Africa, but Ada and Jamie are home in Kent, and always will be, and I feel them palpably there.

On Saturday we went to Dover Castle, a huge sprawling complex atop the cliffs, which contains the remains of a Roman lighthouse, a fully-functional tower from the time of Henry II, (he's the one married to Eleanor of Aquitane, but she wasn't imprisoned in this particular tower. I asked), and the command post from which the British navy ran Operation Dynamo, the rescue of troops from Dunkirk during World War II.  The gift shop for the WWII part of the castle had Goodnight Mr. Tom and Code Name Verity side-by-side; I hope someone will squish them over to make room for TWTSML, which is coming out in the UK on May 16th.

That was Saturday. Friday my husband and son played golf at Rye, a course they truly love. I cast about for something for my daughter and I to do--we could have amused ourselves quite well in Rye, which is a medieval hill town with an ancient tower and a very nice old church, and also an excellent bookstore--but I wanted to make sure we weren't missing anything very cool nearby, since unlike our last visit I didn't have a research agenda. And lo, only 20 miles away, Battle Abbey, the site of the Battle of Hastings, which was, you know, fought in 1066. William the Conqueror. The Bayeux tapestry recounts the battle. And if you really want to wind my daughter up, show her some medieval weapons and let her imagine battle plans. In the visitor center we started with a brief film describing the battle; when the narrator said, "The English broke ranks--" my daughter groaned. "Never break ranks," she said. "You idiots."

After the battle, the pope got a little salty with William the Conqueror, even though he'd previously sided with him in the fight, and directed him to do penance for killing King Harald by building an abbey on the battlefield site. Supposedly the altar marked the spot where Harald fell. The altar itself fell later, when the entire church was destroyed following the dissolution under Henry VIII, but big chunks of the abbey remain; parts became a country estate and are now a boarding school (the students were on Easter break.) Most of the actual battlefield is still an open, sloping field: no one ever built on it, or leveled it for sports fields, or anything, for the last 950 years. Astonishing to think about all that.

That was our trip. The highlights, anyhow. I'm back in Bristol now, where life is resuming its normal rhythms. I've ridden my horse, re-established my yoga practice, folded all the laundry and balanced the checkbook. Now I have to tackle something intimidating: the computer I used for writing, eight or perhaps nine years old, is breaking down. I've bought a new one. Today I have to take it out of the box.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Driving on the M4!

OK, so once we got there, our vacation was the bomb. First of all, our son looked fantastic. From the very first morning--well, late morning--when we set out through Venice's narrow maze of streets, I could see how he's grown in his semester abroad. He moves confidently. He tells me, "Mom, I hear five different languages every morning when I'm walking to class," and he also suggests that I should stop harassing the Italians by attempting to speak their language when I really don't. "They all speak English, Mom" he says. He cooks for himself in the narrow galley kitchen of the World's Smallest Seven-Person Flat, in which he lives, and he knows all the buskers in Trafalgar Square, including the odd proliferation of Yodas, whom he dislikes, with excellent reason as they're creepy.

His classroom building, in London, really is half a block off Trafalgar Square. I'd been told that, but I hadn't really realized how much it put him right into the heart of the city. His dormitory building was a former hospital, and the outside of it looked so much like the hospital I write about in Ada's sequel (now officially titled The War I Finally Won) that I felt I'd been there before. (His university, Notre Dame, owns both buildings. They send 140 students a semester to London, and are expanding the program to take more.)  I took a great photo of him next to the "Notre Dame in London" sign outside the classroom building, but he forbade me to put it on the internet. Nearly all the photos I took in London I've been forbidden to put on the internet, not because they are scandalous, but because my children disliked my taking them.

Anyhow. Way back, when we were first planning the trip, I'd gone online on a fluke and discovered that they had just opened the ticket sales for our week for Highclere Castle. Highclere is two things: it's Downton Abbey, and it's the seat of the Earls of Carnarvon, the fifth of whom plays a major role in my next book. So going there was both fandom and research, a lovely co-ordinance. My husband, learning that our son had a break on Wednesday long enough to have lunch with him, bailed on the trip to Highclere (Downton Abbey doesn't impress him, and he knows that hanging out with me on research trips, in which I tend to fall into a book trance, isn't all that fun), which meant it would just be my daughter and me. Now, it is possible to get to Highclere from London by train and taxi. I checked. It is, however, quite an enormous time-consuming pain in the arse, particularly given that we had a rental car (we didn't drive it around London--we're not nuts--but we needed it for the last days of our trip, which we spent on our favorite part of the English coast). However. I have said here before that I don't love highway driving. In fact, I used to hate it, with decent reason. To get to Highclere from London (about 50 miles) I would have to drive on the opposite side of the road from America AND I would have to handle London traffic AND I would have to drive on the M4.

M roads in London are interstate highways.

Now, I've done a fair bit of driving on the left. We've traveled several times to Ireland, Scotland, and England. The very first time I drove, when the children were tiny, I moved the car about 200 yards straight along a dirt road and called it quits, but later I grew substantially more brave. In 2012, when I was researching TWTSML, I drove our rental car all over the back roads of Kent, getting perfectly lost and finding Ada's spy hill by glorious accident. I refused, however, to drive on an M road. I wasn't going to do it.

Lately, though, I've been doing all the things. I drove my rig back and forth to Florida this year, coming home alone late at night through Sam's Gap. How much harder could the M4 to Downton be?
I was moderately terrified but ready to give it a whirl. Fortunately, I had my daughter as sidekick. She murmured soothing noises and helpful hints--"Stay to the left, Mom,"--"Let this guy pass you--he can honk if he wants to--careful, we need to turn--left side, left side--good! Look at you!" Before I knew it--well, not really, it took about an hour--we'd escaped the busy streets of London and I was DRIVING ON THE M4.

I was so happy with my accomplishment that I made up a song:
We are driving on the M4!
Driving on the M4!
Driving on the M4!

I sang several refrains of this. I felt glorious. I felt like I could do anything. Then we got to Downton  Highclere and I learned a few things that helped iron out the issues I was having with the start of my book, and my daughter and I ate tea and scones, and then I drove back to London where my husband was trying hard not to show how relieved he was that I'd survived and my son was eager for dinner, and we went out and had a fabulous family meal, and it was a great day, a perfectly wonderful day for the smallest of reasons, which was fine.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Slouching Toward Venice

Our son is studying in London this semester, and from the start we planned to use our daughter's high school spring break to visit him. When we realized that, due to Easter, our son had a four-day weekend that coincided with the start of our trip, we decided to have him meet us in Venice first. It was super--I loved hearing Easter Mass at the basilica San Marco--but getting there was another story.

We have a tiny airport in our neck of east Tennessee--Tri-Cities, shared jointly by the cities of Bristol, Kingsport, and Johnson City. From Tri-Cities you fly to either Atlanta or Charlotte, and from thence to the rest of the world. When Atlanta gets bolluxed, as happens frequently, they screw with the little airports first: cancellations and delays from Tri-Cities are rather more common than we'd like. We're seasoned travelers, however, and we prepared for this by scheduling ourselves a nice comfy three-hour layover in Atlanta. From there we'd take an overnight flight to Paris, and a quick morning hop to Venice, landing ten minutes before our son's flight from London, just in time for lunch in a piazza somewhere.

Except. First it was a broken seatbelt. A broken seatbelt on the incoming flight from Atlanta, which was also our outgoing flight to Atlanta. Said flight could not leave the ground with a faulty seatbelt. As time passed several of us volunteered to ride in a seat without a belt. Nope. Seasoned mechanics worked for a few hours before giving up and calling in another plane from a hanger far, far away. Meanwhile we played cards in Tri-Cities, and, as the hours passed, ate dinner there, and then, finally, got onto a plane. We landed with 30 minutes until our international flight. We ran.

We made it. We got on the plane, and we sat. No explanations--that's Atlanta. Eventually we did take off. We weren't particularly worried, because we had a two-and-a-half hour layover in Paris, and that should have been enough for anyone, and it would have been except that the plane somehow landed an hour late, and then the airport workers in Paris were on strike.

Parisians strike continuously. I've never been to the city when there hasn't been a strike of some kind.

So we had people completely new at security doing the screenings in hyper slow motion. It was amusing for a very short time. Then it was alarming, and then, as we stood in yet another line for passport control, it was too late. My husband checked the app on his phone and saw that our flight to Venice had just departed.

Everyone in Europe was travelling for Easter. The scab airport workers had no idea how to do rebookings. The man in line in front of me handed over twelve passports--he had TWELVE people who needed seats that didn't exist. I stood in the line; my daughter checked train schedules on her phone; my husband called Delta customer service on his. The airport employee who should have been helping me broke away several times to have loud arguments, in both French and English, with other disgruntled passengers. By the time I gained her attention, my husband had managed to get us rebooked on evening flights to Rome and then to Venice, and all she needed to do was print us boarding cards.

This took thirty minutes.

The Paris airport has Hermes and Gucci shops but only fast food dining options. We ate lunch. We texted our son, who had landed in the airport in Venice and had no idea how to get to the city. (Venice is a set of islands; the airport's on the mainland.) We texted directions to the vaporetto, the public water taxi. He stood in line for it for an hour, then sat on the boat for nearly two hours until it got to our hotel's stop.

He texted, "How do I get to the hotel?"

Me: "No idea. I planned to have us take a private water taxi that would dock there."

My son: "What's the hotel's address?"

Me: "Venice doesn't have addresses." (This is true. Venice has no cars, no trucks, no named streets.)

My son: "Okkkayy"

Me: "After you check in, find somewhere and buy your father and I a bottle of wine."

My husband slept stretched out on the airport floor. My daughter slept with her neck in an impossible position. I got a pedicure. (No restaurants at the airport, but a very nice salon!)  Eventually my daughter woke up and got a pedicure. We ate sandwiches.

Now it was time for our flight to Rome to leave, and we weren't leaving. The plane stood at the gate. It had a crew. Passengers queued.

The replacement workers could not seem to figure out how to get passengers onto the plane.

At this point it became obvious that I should have taken a nap. I became anxious, jet-lagged, and surly, all at once with a ferocity my family deplored.

People began to get onto the plane, very slowly. We got onto the plane. I fell sound asleep. This helped.

In Rome our plane parked out on the tarmac. All the passengers had to disembark and stuff themselves into busses, and then the buses waited while the crew did a sweep of the plane to make sure nobody had left anything behind. This was absolutely maddening because we were of course quite late and in danger of missing our next flight. On the other hand, the one thing the crew found on the plane was my daughter's very nice camera--oops. Camera in hand, we sprinted like fiends across a very confusing airport and lo! made it onto the next flight. We landed. We were in Venice, or at least across a small bit of water from Venice.

Our luggage, however, was not. My husband's golf clubs showed up, which was quaint as there's barely even any grass in Venice, let alone golf. (He needed them for later in the trip.) My bag showed up. My husband's and daughter's bags did not.

The twenty or so passengers with luggage issues formed a queue. We were last. The luggage issues department consisted of one slow, disinterested Italian man. The man in front of us in line had his luggage: his issue was that the airline had broken the handle of his suitcase. The two men commenced arguing over who would or would not pay for the broken handle, and whether or not it constituted reasonable wear, and quite a few other things, judging by the length of the conversation, not that I really know as it was all in Italian, which I mostly don't speak.

Luggage Man said that according to his computer, our luggage had arrived on an earlier flight. He grabbed some keys, and he and my husband went off in search of it. Unfortunately the computer was wrong. (We're not sure where the luggage was; it showed up at the hotel the following afternoon.) By now it was well past midnight and my husband was becoming increasingly anxious that we would be too late to get a water taxi. I told him, in my annoyed voice, that of course there would be water taxis. You could always get a taxi in New York; you ought to always be able to get a water taxi in Venice. Stood to reason.

We gathered up our existing luggage and followed a set of signs to the dock--a long, well-lit but desolate walk. We seemed to be the only humans left awake. Then we pulled up to a series of completely empty bays where water taxis would have parked if there were any water taxis at all. A disinterested Italian man came out of a security hut, puffed on his cigarette, and said, "You should have booked a boat."

"We should have gotten here before noon," I said.

He shrugged. "Last boat leaves in three minutes. End of the dock. Walk faster."

We walked faster. There were no water taxis. We climbed aboard the last vaporetto of the night, simultaneously annoyed and extremely relieved. Somehow my husband managed to call our son, who had had a lovely afternoon and evening wandering the city and was now in the hotel watching his college team play in the NCAA Elite Eight on his laptop. He gave us the following directions: "Turn left off the boat dock. Walk about a hundred yards. Turn into the alley where there's a sign. Follow that to another alley. The hotel's at the end of it."

The boat meandered among various islands. Eventually, nearly empty, it stopped at San Marco square. I expected some form of map or people or something, but no, all we had were decently-lit paths and my son's directions. Oddly enough, they worked.

It was 2 am Venice time. We'd been traveling for 31 hours. We hugged our son and caught the last ten minutes of the basketball game, which our son's team won, while drinking a very nice bottle of Italian wine.