Tuesday, August 30, 2016

So Much for My Day Planner

So, we've ratcheted up the crazy another level here at Chez Bradley. BOTH my darling children are in college, which is frankly impossible, and yet exists as fact. They're doing well. My husband is off golfing--he seems concerned that this Won't Be Fine but it Is Fine. He's doing well. I am so busy I recently bought the first planner I've owned since the days when I was a research chemist and everyone in our company was required to use the damn things. It's been going splendidly. I make myself little notes of everything I need to do, and I'm being super-organized, and it's keeping the speeding train that is my life right now from coming off the rails.


It is nearly seven o'clock at night as I type this. I did get some very nice writing done this early this morning, and I've got a load of laundry in the washer, and I'm clean and fed myself, but other than that--looking down at my list, written in pen under today's date, I've accomplished nothing. Zilch. Zero. None of that. And yet, today was a very good day. Today I helped keep a lovely horse alive.

The horse in question belongs to a friend. He's lived on my farm for--shoot, something like ten years now. My friend zips in and out each morning and evening, caring for the horse, and my basic responsibility is to scratch the horse's head where he likes it and, sometimes, like when a blizzard has shut down Bristol, toss this horse hay along with my own.

Today one of the first things on my list was to ride in the company of another friend, a teenager who's recently taken over one of my horses. (That's a story in itself, and a good one. I'll tell it soon.) She and I plus her mother are heading to Kentucky for a horse trial, leaving tomorrow, and so we'd planned to practice our dressage tests today. We'd just gone into the barn when my young friend pointed to my other friend's horse and said, He doesn't look right.

I investigated. She was right. The horse looked quite wrong. I tried to measure his heart rate but I couldn't find my stethoscope, I'm crap at finding a pulse on a horse, and every time I did find it the horse shook his head and neck hard enough to dislodge my fingers. But he was breathing too hard, which is another indication that he was in pain, and he was pawing and biting his belly and in general it looked like colic, which is an equine emergency. I called my friend--didn't get him. Called his vet--left a message. Called my own vet, was told all vets were busy, got a touch snarky. Called my friend's dad, told him what was happening. Got the horse out of his stall and started walking him, in the grass not the driveway in case he went down.

He went down. We got him back up. I called another vet I know. She was in surgery, actually scrubbed in, but she's a friend and she talked to me on speaker phone, affirming that the horse was in trouble and that absent a vet there was not much to do. My friend's vet called back--he was on his way, but two hours away.

Walked the horse. Walked the horse.

Two hours later, the vet and my friend the horse's owner show up simultaneously, my friend in wool dress pants and a crisply ironed business shirt. We commenced medical treatment of various sorts, for a few hours, and for a long time it looked like things were going very poorly.

And then suddenly they looked better.

And then not as good. And then better again. And then we all started to breath a little bit easier.

"Hey," I said to my friend, "In the book I'm working on right now there's a scene where a horse colics. However this turns out I want you to know I wrote that scene before today, not after."

We still had no idea how it would turn out.

Eventually the vet left on another call, leaving us with some drugs and instructions on when to call him immediately. I hung out at the barn while my friend ran home to change out of his business attire.

A few hours later-now--and the horse is not only still alive, he looks good. He may have quite literally dodged a bullet.

I came back to the house in my filthy riding clothes, soaked in sweat, having not ridden at all. I showered and ate and drank a beer, and now I'm sitting at my desk, looking at my list, realizing that I did not accomplish one single thing that was written on it. And yet, I'm so happy with all we accomplished today.

Monday, August 22, 2016

My Last Night

Right at this very moment, my daughter is 95% packed for college.  She's off running a few last-minute errands and I'm taking some time to write. (Our son left for his school--his senior year!--very early yesterday morning. It's quiet here today.)

She's going to Haverford College, near Philadelphia. It's a small college not well-known to the people around here, and so for weeks now my daughter has been fielding the sort of questions people once asked me, when I was heading toward Smith College, in Massachusetts, from northeastern Indiana. Where are you going? Haverford. Have-a-what? Haverford. Where is that? outside Philadelphia. Huh. Never heard of it.  (obviously) It's a great school for her and I'm excited about the opportunities she'll have there.

We're leaving tonight, once my husband gets off work, so that we can get a few hours of the long drive out of the way. Last night when we went to sleep my husband said, "This is her last night in her own bed."

It wasn't, of course. In a few days our daughter will be sleeping in her own bed at college, and she'll come home for vacations and things and her own bed will be waiting, just like always, only perhaps a little more neatly made up than usual. But it was her last night Home Before College, and it made me remember my last night at home.

I remember it because of a book. Dicey's Song, by Cynthia Voigt. It won the Newbery Medal in 1983. I'd gone to the library one last time before I left, to return my books, and saw the paperback and checked it out, even though I'd be leaving the next day. I figured I'd read it on the trip to Massachusetts, then hand it back to my mother to return. I found the story compelling--I still do, it's excellent--and I stayed up late at night to finish it.

My room in my parent's old house was never quite in sync with the heating or air conditioning. In winter my room was cold; in summer it was hot. Always. The walls of my bedroom were painted peach, and the light from my bedside lamp shone rosily off them. My coverlet was white, but I'd peeled it back because I was so warm and lay on the peach sheets, reading, the whole room soft and orange.

I read past midnight. I finished the book. I'd never read anything by Cynthia Voigt before. On the very last page of the paperback edition was a one-paragraph biography. Cynthia Voigt, it said, was a graduate of Smith College.

Where I was heading.

Now it turns out Smith is chock-a-block with famous children's book authors, but I didn't know that at the time. I'd never heard of a writer who went to Smith before. I, of course, was going there to study science and eventually become a physician, even though I was still passionately and voraciously reading children's novels. (I did study science at Smith; I also ended up studying children's literature and writing and emerging with an ambition that had nothing at all to do with medicine and everything to do with being just like Cynthia Voigt someday.)

I stared at that bio page for a full minute before I put the book down. Then I reached to turn off my light. Maybe it's a good sign, I thought, and it was.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Hilpin Adventures

So we are finally starting to be at a really good place with The War I Finally Won, which is the sequel to The War That Saved My Life, which I fondly hoped some time ago would be published by now, but eh, at least it'll be worthwhile when it does come out. I'm still shifting scenes around, so yesterday I got out some blank paper and wrote out notes by hand, chapter by chapter. I felt like I'd made excellent progress, so you can imagine my dismay when I looked the notes over this morning and read:

Add hilpin. Or maybe hatpin. Or something.

I tried copying my own scrawl to see if the letters would somehow form real words if I tried to write them over, but no, I only got variations on hilpin. Or hatpin. For the record, the last time a hatpin featured in a plot was in the Borrowers series.

Anyway most of the rest of it makes some sense, and that's good, because all sorts of mechanical things are frankly falling apart right now. Last week I took some frozen bratwurst out of the freezer and they weren't. Weren't frozen. They were still cold, and since their package had been stuck on the freezer door they were the warmest thing in the freezer, which means I didn't lose a whole ton of frozen meat, but it was a close-run thing there. We have an auxiliary freezer in the basement and we moved everything down there fast. Then we monitored the refrigerator side--for a bit I thought it was still cooling, but nope. Emptied that. We have a dorm-room sized refrigerator ready for my daughter to take to college; right now it's keeping our milk and cheese from spoiling, while a refrigerator's worth of beer and pickles hangs out on the kitchen island, and has been since last Wednesday. The first day the repairman could come is tomorrow. I wish I were making that up.

Meanwhile there have been here a series of other small disasters, and a whole bunch of college preparation--not the academic kind, more the I-need-XL twin sheets-kind. I've got to tell you, the big superstores have turned this college thing into a giant marketing scheme. They've got flyers saying What You Need for Your Dorm Room and most of it is completely superfluous. Ironing board, iron, ironing board cover? Uh, right. Cause that's going to happen.

I felt like my mother was right about college: you need bedding, towels, and at least two weeks' worth of underwear.

My mother was right about a lot of things. She has always been very very good at not giving out extra parenting advice. She never tried to tell me how to discipline my children or feed them or when or how to put them to bed. She mostly loved them, played cards with them, and made them cookies. But very early onto my own journey into motherhood she spoke sharply to me about parenting for the only time. I was talking to her about my weeks-old son. "I can't wait for him to start smiling and reacting to me," I said. "I can't wait for him to get a little older."

"Don't say that," she said. "Never wish for your time with him to go faster. Enjoy every day. It will all go by too fast."

That's why, instead of worrying over what I meant by hilpin, I'm heading out to the barn with my daughter. Then I'm having lunch downtown with my son. Then I'm getting a massage.

Then I'm disinfecting the refrigerator. I mean, come on, life's still real.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Bliss. The Olympics.

Her middle name is Bliss. It's the best middle name ever; if I'd known her before I had children I might have borrowed Bliss for my daughter's middle name.

Lauren Bliss Kieffer. Olympic eventer.

 I promised not to blog about her until the Olympic eventing competition was finished. Lauren rode for the U.S. Team.

She was 17 when I first met her. She's 29 now, grown up entirely, with strength and poise and self-control. I was thrilled when she made the team for Rio. I wanted to blog about her right away, but my husband said, "She's superstitious, she won't like that." He and Lauren have never actually met, so I wasn't sure why he felt that way, but I asked Lauren and she agreed. Olympians in general and eventers in particular are a superstitious bunch. A thousand things can go wrong between being named to a team and finishing a competition, and often many of them do.  This year one of the horses had to be scratched because the day before the first horse inspection in Rio it cut its face on a pipe in the stabling, and the cut got infected. Horse flew all the way to Rio and got hurt there. Happens all the time.

Eventing is a triathlon: dressage, cross country, show jumping. Lauren and her horse Veronica had their dressage test on Sunday. It was solid. Monday was the real test: cross country, which separates eventing from every other sport. At yoga Monday morning I asked my class to set as their intention the safety of all the horses and riders. "It's the most dangerous day of the most dangerous sport in the Olympics," I said, which is true.

My daughter and I watched the first section of riders in our family room via the live internet feed. The course was considered hard, and it rode very hard: in the end, only 40% of the riders completed it without major jumping faults; only 70% completed it at all. Every team of four riders drops the lowest score. The first rider for the U.S., Boyd Martin, did well, but second rider Clark Montgomery's horse stopped at several fences and was eliminated.

Lauren was scheduled to ride at 12:27. My daughter had a doctor's appointment at 1:00 a half hour's drive from our house. She and I packed up her laptop and drove to a Panera Bread right next to the doctor's office, where we connected to wifi and ate soup, waiting.

Lauren's face at the start was calm and intense. Her horse was so eager that the tips of her ears, pricked forward, nearly touched. They began.

Eventing is a tiny sport in the US. I actually know several of our Olympians. Most people who event do. I've competed against Olympians. Boyd Martin complemented my mare in warm-up once, then trounced me on a very classy young horse of his own. Once at a horse trial that went very badly for me, I was stalking around the showgrounds trying to regain my temper when I ran into a Very Famous American Olympic Rider. "Hey, Kim, how's it going?" the VFAOR said.

"Terrible," I said. "I just got thrown over the first fence in showjumping." Hit the ground and you're eliminated. That's the rules.

The VFAOR laughed. "You asshole," she said, "that was really stupid."

I've given up telling this story to non-horse people, or even to people who are horsey but not eventers, because they get all horrified and feel indignant and sorry for me, that an icon of the sport would call me an asshole. Even the VFAOR worried for a microsecond that maybe I wouldn't take her words as she intended them--I saw a spasm of concern cross her face. She stammered and started to say something else. I held up my hand.

"That," I said, "is the only thing you could have said that wouldn't have made me more angry than I already am." Because at its bedrock eventing is a sport of honesty. Things go well, or poorly, but they go how they go. You don't make excuses. You say, wow, that sucked, and you move on.

So my daughter and I are in Panera, holding our breaths because Lauren's on course. She looks so, so good. Controlled and athletic and thinking hard. They're nearly halfway through, going the straight route through a difficult combination, and Veronica catches a hoof on a fence and falls. She lands on her knees, sliding. Lauren shoots off over Veronica's shoulder.

Neither one of them is much hurt, but just like that, they're done. Eliminated. The United States will have two riders in the top six after cross country day, Boyd and Philip Dutton, who rides last, and Philip will showjump brilliantly to win the individual bronze, but the US will not get a team score.

Lauren gets up. She goes to Veronica and untangles the reins from the horse's feet. Veronica stands. Lauren pats her, briefly, runs the stirrups up on the saddle and starts the long walk back to the stabling. In the Panera Bread in east Tennessee I put my head in my hands. My heart aches for her. I'm sure she's saying you asshole in her head--all eventers do--sure she's replaying over and over the last few strides before the fall.

Eventing is a tough sport. It is so, so hard to make it to the top, and even then sometimes things go badly no matter what you do. It sucks and we move on.

Lauren Bliss Kieffer still got to ride in the Olympics. She still represented us well.

Lauren Bliss Kieffer, Olympian. You can never take that title away.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Coyotes on Euclid

So I'm here at Bristol Faith in Action, as it's Wednesday, and it's another weird day. Our building is on Euclid Avenue, just down from the new Food City and across from the ball fields where our sub-A baseball team plays. We've got two big picture windows from the main office fronting the street. For the past half hour, we've been watching a large shaggy dog, collarless, skitter back and forth across Euclid, which is a busy four-lane road. The animal kept barely not getting hit, loping back and forth.

Eventually we in the office grew concerned. We are all friends of dogs in general. I went out to see if I couldn't grab the dog and bring him in to safety--we could at least shut him up in the storeroom, and then one of us (to my husband: probably not me) would take him home.

I went outside and for a moment didn't see the dog. A car was parked in front of our building windows down, with a dad and a small girl inside it. An older boy was standing on the sidewalk.

"Did you see where that dog went?" I asked the boy.

"Wasn't a dog," the boy said. "That's a coyote."

Just then the dog coyote trotted back across the street. The boy was right: it was a coyote. A pair of coyotes used to den two fields over from where I kept my horse in Indiana, and I saw them all the time. Now, I've never known coyotes to be aggressive, but I wasn't about to grab one by the neck and haul him into the office. I took myself back inside and called city animal control.

"There's a coyote--" I began.

"The one on Euclid?" the officer asked, sounding bored.

There are moments when my lesser angel tries to take over. I was this close to saying, "No, this is the one on State Street." But I didn't. I said, "Yep," and the animal control promised that someone was on the way.

I don't know what happened after that. It was a fine-looking coyote, as coyotes go. That's all I've got today.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Myself as Performance Art

I just got back from my yoga class and I'm sitting down to business. Real business. A quick blog post to get the juices flowing, and then it's onto the latest revision of the sequel to TWTSML, The War I Finally Won. (The only thing certain about the sequel--well, other than that Bovril and Butter don't die, I know my limits--is the title.)

The instructor for my yoga class today used to be full of woo but not very physical. Her classes involved the singing bowl, some good thoughts, a chant or two, and some nice relaxing stretchy poses. Then she went off to India for six weeks and came back a ninja yogi. Now her classes involve good thoughts, perhaps some chants or music, and instructions like, "Now hold a handstand, headstand, or shoulder stand for sixty seconds."

For the record: that's a long time. I put myself into my handstand, toes against the wall for balance, just to see how long I could hold it, and the answer today was, about twenty seconds. Which is pretty long. I came out of the pose when my shoulders couldn't do more, but then went immediately into a headstand for the rest of the time. It was only several minutes later, in shavasana, that I realized I'd never actually done a full headstand before today. I could get my head and hands right, and take my feet off the ground, but I'd never stretched my legs all the way vertical before. Today I didn't even think about it: I just did it.

Meanwhile my instructor says that for August her theme is Yoga as Art. She said a lot of stuff about artistic expression and yoga that all made good sense to me, but she said it while we were flowing in and out of one-legged planks and sweat got in my ears and apparently flooded my brain, because I can't bring her words back in coherent language right now. I only remember the sense of her words, which was that we have to be the best art we can.

Which is admittedly pretty woo. Sorry about that. But yesterday I had my long-awaited talk with my editor about my book, and I'm delighted to say that we are finally getting where we want to be. My story's not there yet, but it's getting there. So I'm going to keep my sweaty self here in my chair, sit down with the 9 pages of notes my editor emailed me (single-spaced, small font) and get to work. I'm making art. It's all good.

Monday, August 1, 2016

August Already

I have so many things I'd like to blog about but can't. Some are not my stories. Some are a little bit my stories but mostly belong to somebody else. Some are really good stories that I've agreed not to write about yet--I'll get to tell them eventually.

Then there's my novel. The War I Finally Won. I sent revisions in before I went to ALA, and in my imaginary perfect world I would have been working on the next draft for the last two weeks, while my children were both gone (a state I will soon be reconciled to, I'm sure), and I would have completed it in spectacular fashion, etc. Instead I have a loving email from my hard-working editor saying, tomorrow, maybe this afternoon, for her notes. I tore off a calendar page this morning. It is ALREADY AUGUST.

Also, I no longer have a student in high school. I knew this, of course--I did attend my daughter's graduation--but it's being brought home to me with force this morning, because on the Tennessee side of my hometown school begins again today. That's right. Summer's over. Now this is of course ridiculous. It should not be allowed. But here we are, and not for the first time--four years ago my daughter actually missed her first day of high school because we decided to go to London to watch the Olympics instead. Neither of us regret that decision--it was eight whole days of awesomeness--but then our flight was delayed coming home, and showing up for high school exhausted, jet-lagged, and one day behind everyone else, having come from a small parochial school and therefore knowing almost no one, was a bit tough for my daughter.

Still worth it.

I look at what a mess our country seems to be right now. I don't mean all this blather about Making Merica Great or what have you. I mean the politics and infighting and stupidity. I mean the short-sightedness, the fear of people who we can safely call Other.

No one is really Other. That's the secret we all need to learn.

When we were in Germany I had a sudden unexpected need for tampons. I went into a grocery store and could not find them, not anywhere, not by the shampoo or baby supplies or first aid or kleenex. I walked the small store in increasing perplexity. Finally I found a female shop clerk, my age, and asked for help. She spoke no English. I spoke no German. It is a little embarrassing to resort to gestures in a case like this, but I managed to explain myself, and the woman very helpfully let me to the dog food aisle, where the tampons were. I said, "Danke, danke," and she said, "Have a nice day!" and we both laughed.

Everyone in the United States, right now, should have to go ask for tampons somewhere no one speaks their language. They should have to go ask a Turkish Muslim for tampons. A Zulu woman. A tiny elderly person somewhere in China. They should have to go and feel foolish and look foolish (those gestures!) and be treated with compassion. The country would be a better place.

Meanwhile, what the hell happened to July? And how did my children age faster than me?