Tuesday, February 27, 2018

What We Get in Return

This morning my beloved husband came to breakfast with tears in his eyes. It's the night of the team banquet for the middle-school basketball team he's coached for three years, and he had printed off something he wanted to read to them, and was stuffing it into his gym bag. I teased him that if he couldn't get through breakfast without tears he would never, ever get through his speech without tears, but yeah, he's not even gonna try. The man wears his beautiful heart on his sleeve.

Then I went into my office and saw that he'd called up, on my computer, a blog post I wrote three years ago about his basketball team. I suspect he'll be reading some of that. And then I fell down a rabbit hole of my own creation, reading a bunch of old blog posts. Some were about my Egypt book, which I feel like I've still barely begun (despite finishing and discarding an entire first draft). What can I say? I've written books quickly and written them slowly, and the slow ones have always been better.

Meanwhile some teachers have been sharing their students' work with me online. One teacher posted a whole series of poems written in response to The War That Saved My Life. They were lovely. One said, "She has a pony. Butter. Like what she put on my bread." Now, of course I knew the pony was named Butter--I named him, after a horse poem I read years ago that contained the line, "his mane smells like butter in the sun"--and I also remember writing, "all she had, she said, but there was butter on the bread and sugar in the tea," the first meal my Ada eats in Miss Smith's house, when she's startled by the comparative luxury--but I swear I had never connected those two pieces, until this student did. The pony is a piece of softness, like the butter on the bread. That's really good.

In the same vein, only not really, a set of valentines made by another class. The ones the teacher shared made me laugh until I cackled. I really, really want to print them off and make them into t-shirts that I can wear when I'm feeling cranky. One says, "Ada, I've got a crutch on you." That's bad, and hilarious, but the absolute best, honestly, was a very fierce drawing of Mam--all big shoulders and scowls--and the caption, "For Valentine's Day, I'll let you out of the cabinet."

I'm dying. I can't even type that without laughing out loud. It's so perfectly perverse.

I love writing for kids.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Never Again

I last posted on Valentine's Day. Ten days ago--that's a pretty long hiatus for me. All sorts of things happened in those ten days. My truck broke down in an active lane of a Florida state highway with two horses in the trailer I was pulling. My eventing family rushed to my aid--if there's any better response to my first frantic phone call than, "I'll be there in ten," I don't know what it is. Friends got the horses to safety, a total stranger pulled my rig to the shoulder, and we carried on. Then my horse hurt herself--but we have access to pretty good vets down there, and so I learned pretty quickly that it was a mild injury that should resolve soon. At home a dear friend was horribly ill, but he got better, and my daughter was sick, and she got better too. The sexual harassment thing still upsets me a lot, but at least we're talking about it.

On Valentine's Day I wrote and posted my previous blog entry about sexual harassment. It was hard for me to write. I felt edgy all afternoon, because of the post, but then everyone at the barn went off to karaoke night and for awhile life was excellent. Wednesdays are always karaoke night at the Ocala Palms Golf Club restaurant, which is a fancy-sounding name for a short mediocre golf course run through a community of identical retirement villaminiums. The restaurant usually serves cheap wine and burgers. In honor of Valentine's Day they offered a choice of chicken marsala or steak. Every table got a long-stemmed rose. Since there were 12 at our table, and only one couple, we passed the rose from person to person, solemnly. I don't know who ended up with it. We sang. (This is the only place in the world that I'll sing karaoke.) We line-danced. Plenty of couples slow-danced.

Then Poppy, the old man who runs the karaoke machine, called for a moment of silence. He had to call several times, as the crowd was loud and rowdy and the people in the back weren't paying attention. "Five seconds," Poppy insisted. "We're going to have five seconds of silence." He told us there had been another school shooting that day.

He told us 17 people had died.

You're a mother and you imagine hearing that your children's school is on lockdown. You imagine rushing to the school, waiting outside with parents you've known since nursery school, waiting, praying your children walk out. Seeing injured children carried out, whisked into ambulances. You probably know them. Little league, soccer teams, school plays. You've seen these children grow.

Nothing will lessen the tragedy of that day. But I've been watching in awe as those students, the survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, rose up and spoke out. Seventeen-year-old Camerone Kasky, a junior, asked Florida senator Marco Rubio on live tv if he would refuse to continue accepting money from the NRA. (Rubio ducked the question.) Now there's a movement, NeverAgain, and a march on Washington on March 24th.

My hometown is planning a similar march on the same day. I wish I could be there. I'll be in Israel learning about Judaism, for a future novel. March 24th is Shabbat, the one Shabbat during my trip. I'll spend it in Jerusalem. It will be easy to remember what's happening in the United States on that day.

This is a complicated issue in so many ways. A friend of mine, who hunts, commented on one of the pro-gun-control Facebook pages I shared, "If only it were this easy." It's not easy. I know that. But, as with sexual harassment, I'm profoundly glad that things are starting to change.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Happy Valentine's Day! Let's Discuss Sexual Harrassment

Well, I spent last Sunday in a state of tension that melted into near-despair, from a situation I didn't anticipate. I'd been following some web reports of sexual harassment within the field of children's book publishing, and in the comments section of a School Library Journal people started naming their harassers. Who include some very big names in children's literature, one of whom, Matt de la Pena, I not only considered a friend, but vouched for to another author, who'd had bad experiences in the past. "He's one of the good guys," I said, based solely on my own experiences, which, according to several other women, were not the whole story, nor even close.

My friend--the woman in question--I'm so sorry.

Here's a good recap if you want to read further.

Publishing is like acting; it's very hard to break into the field, and lots of talented people want to. There's an innate power differential between bestselling authors and unpublished ones. This creates situations where power can be abused. It's incumbent upon all of us to be aware, to speak up, to believe accusers, and to distance ourselves from people who behave inappropriately.

One of the men accused, David Diaz, was a member of the board of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators when he was accused of inappropriate behavior several years ago. He was suspended from the board and underwent some sort of sexual harassment training. Then he was let back onto the board. That's the part I don't understand. We have so few people in an organization of over twelve thousand willing to serve on the board that we needed to put Diaz back on? Yeah. Didn't think so. (Subsequent to further issues, he's been removed not only from the board but from SCBWI.)

I'm a sexual assault survivor myself. I know to what extent harassment causes harm. I know how very much courage coming forward requires. I'm absolutely sick about all this. I'm grateful for the courage of those speaking up, because bringing this to light is the only way we can stop it.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Again With The Pesky Newbery

It's that interesting time of the year. This morning I finished an essay I'm writing for The Horn Book. I sent an email to one of the publicists at Penguin Random House about it, and got back an auto-reply, "I am at ALA Midwinter." Then I wrote a book review, submitted it, and then, before sitting down to the Egypt book, draft 3.1, clicked on School Library Journal's website, where people are making Newbery predictions. Some, bless them, mention The War I Finally Won.

Last week I wrote a blog post about riding and writing and meeting my goals. One of my friends emailed me for clarification. What were my writing goals? And if I say I've met them, am I done?

Ah, no. Writing is part of my identity. It's who I am. I have so many stories left to tell. I wish it didn't take me quite so long to tell them, but that's how I am. I've learned that I prefer writing good books to bad ones. I can write bad books quite quickly--my record is  2 1/2 weeks--but good ones take me years. What I need to do now is make every book meet my goals.

Of course I want to win the Newbery on Monday. Every writer who had an eligible book published in 2017 wants to win. Every. Single. One. And Lord God, do I love TWIFW being part of the public discussion.

Winning the Newbery is not, and never has been, one of my goals.

Goals are something we have some control over. Not perfect control, of course--life isn't predictable, anything can happen, usually does--but awards are something I have no control of whatsoever. What I can control is the story I tell, the words I pick, the meaning I find. All my life I wanted to write stories that were hard and honest and true--and I think I've learned to do that, and I'm glad.

On Tuesday the middle-school boys' basketball team my husband coaches had a phenomenal win. They beat their cross-town rivals in an upset. I was delighted, not because the results of any middle-school basketball game anywhere are actually significant, but because I could see the growth in the team. They ran plays. They snapped passes. They boxed out. They threw the ball to the man on the corner knowing the man on the corner would be there, and he was. They held their ground. They dug in. I've watched these boys for three years, and I love their increasing skill.

At one point they were set up to receive an in-bound pass. One of the boys looked up at the bleachers and happened to catch my eye. He broke into a wide grin. Hey, Mrs. Bradley. Isn't this fun?

Yes. Yes, it is. I am so grateful to be playing this game.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Swimming Free

I'm home for a week. I've entered the home-for-a-week, gone-for-a-week phase of my year. I've got three weeks of school visits and an amazing trip to Israel on the schedule for later this spring, and next week I'll be back in Florida, where my horse Sarah and my other horse Gully and Gully's young rider Caroline all still are. We'll come home together.

I let myself off the hook. I'm proud of myself for that. My main coach Cathy was gone from Florida for a few days, so Caroline and I took lessons with our awesome friend Hannah Sue Burnett. On Sunday we went to a horse trial. Caroline was fantastic and wonderful Gully went around like a top, very happily; they got a ribbon in a class won by a member of the Canadian Olympic team (Selena O'Hanlon, a super nice woman and lovely rider).

Sarah and I had a credible dressage test--really just about our best in terms of her basic movement. I rode well in showjumping, and she jumped well--and then we decided not to run cross country. That's the short version but it'll suffice. Sarah was nervous; she worked herself into quite a temper tantrum at one point, and she's brilliant at temper tantrums. It wasn't directed at me or what I was asking of her, but it was reflective of her general discomfort with the whole situation. I've owned and ridden Sarah for six years; she hasn't competed at all for the last two, and, until we went to Florida, hadn't been off our home farm since my accident 14 months ago. We schooled in a couple of places last week, and that went well, but the truth is that we weren't ready to run cross country. Some days it's best to pat your horse and move on. Cathy's riding Sarah this week and will be able to expose her to a few more new things, and then I'll be back, and we'll go to a show, and maybe we'll attempt all the phases, and maybe we won't. Whichever, it will be okay.

Sunday, withdrawing from cross country in the rain, while my horse whinnied and jigged, was a terrific day. My lovely husband tried to console me afterward. I didn't need consoling. I had learned several things, all of them good.

One was that Sarah and I just weren't quite ready to compete. It wasn't a fear thing or a shame thing; we simply hadn't been able to prepare enough.
The second thing was that I could recognize that we weren't ready, and so withdrawing was the correct choice, easy to make.
The third thing--this took me awhile to understand, but it came as a sort of revelation--in some part of my brain I must have known we weren't prepared enough, and I think that it was that, not the head injury, not the accident, that was causing me to feel uneasy last week.

We hadn't competed in two years. We hadn't competed since just after The War That Saved My Life won the Newbery Honor. I went down to Florida in the immediate afterglow of that phone call, as planned (the trip, not the phone call!), and then my life started changing in ways I never anticipated. TWTSML was my sixteenth published book. It won awards in California, Nebraska, New York City. It hit #1 on the New York Times. I traveled a lot more; I spoke at conferences nationwide.

I love having this new platform. This year I wrote a proposal for NCTE about a topic very important to me, and marshalled some friends to join me, and not only was it accepted but it went really well--a whole lot of teachers and librarians listened hard to what we had to say. That was fantastic. I have something to say, and opportunity to say it. What a blessing; what a gift.

In other words, the head injury was part of my riding story, but not the whole of it. I don't think I'd truly grasped that until Sunday. I still entirely love riding. Sarah makes me laugh every day. Eventing brings me joy. I'll learn a lot next week but then I have a busy spring--I won't compete again until June at the very very earliest. Perhaps that won't be feasible. Perhaps I won't be able to compete again this year; perhaps my books will keep me busier and busier, and I won't compete again. Every option will be fine. That's what I learned on Sunday. That's a pretty good lesson right there.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Fire and Fury and Why Word Choice Matters

Last week I checked the book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by Michael Wolff, out from the library.  I was curious about it but thought I probably didn't want to pay Wolff royalties, and turns out I was right.

I am not a fan of Donald Trump. I'm sure big parts of the book are true. But I'll never really know, because I stopped reading on p. 55, permanently, forever. I didn't mind the subject matter. I was terrifically annoyed by the writing.

Let me offer the following example. Here are some facts about a man.

1) He grew up attending Catholic schools in Richmond, Virginia.
2) He got a bachelor's degree from Virginia Tech.
3) He spent the next seven years of his life in the Navy, first on ship duty and later at the Pentagon.
4) He was a Naval lieutenant.
5) While still on active duty he obtained a master's degree from Georgetown.
6) After leaving the Navy he went to Harvard Business School and obtained his MBA.
7) He then spent four years working for Goldman Sachs as an investment banker, reaching a mid-level position there.

Now, I could write those facts in paragraph form like this:

After a childhood spent attending rigorous Catholic schools, he graduated from Virginia Tech, one of the best universities in his home state. He joined the navy as a lieutenant and spent seven years in service to his country. His performance on board ship earned the attention of his superiors, who transferred him to the Pentagon. There, while working full-time on active duty, he also earned a master's degree from prestigious Georgetown University. Honorably discharged at the end of his term of service, he continued to none other than Harvard Business School, where he received his MBA. He then worked four years as an investment banker at Golden Sachs, reaching a mid-level position in that short time.

Sounds pretty impressive, right?

Okay, here's another version. This is from Fire and Fury, page 55:

"Catholic school in Richmond, Virginia. Then a local college, Virginia Tech. Then seven years in the navel, a lieutenant on ship duty and then in the Pentagon. While on active duty, he got a master's degree at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, but then he washed out of his navel career. Then an MBA from Harvard Business School. Then four years as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs--his final two years focusing on the media industry in Los Angeles--but not rising above a mid-level position."

Doesn't sound as good, does it?  Our man may be a bit of a wastrel--"local college," "washed out of his naval career," "not rising above a mid-level position." But in that first paragraph we have "in service to his country," "prestigious," "reaching a mid-level position within that short time."

These two paragraphs slant the same set of facts diametrically different ways. I wrote the first, not out of any personal conviction, but just to show the opposite point of view. The problem is that all of Fire and Fury is slanted. Every bit. And after awhile--because I'm a writer, because I know how to control slant and how easily some readers are affected by it--after awhile it made me really angry.

The guy in question, by the way, is Steve Bannon. I don't like Steve Bannon. I would be interested in reading more about him, but not in the way I quote above. It's dishonest to suggest that seven years in the Navy and degrees from VT, Georgetown, and Harvard represent failure. You could say, despite all that, and give us some other facts, or quotes people said about him, or something--but if you're trying to skew every single fact you find, I'm not going to read your book. And I'm really glad I didn't pay you royalties.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Letting Myself Off the Hook

I'm in Florida with my horse again.

A year ago I was 6 weeks into my recovery from a head injury. I was still sleeping 14 hours out of every 24, by necessity, not choice. I had figured out how to change the monitor on my computer at home so that I could stand to use it, and I was working two to three hours a day--pretty much all I could manage--on The War I Finally Won. I couldn't do my usual work at Faith in Action--having to switch windows repeatedly on the database and refer to handwritten forms was too much for the visual processing part of my brain, which, along with the arousal portion (see: sleeping 14 hours a day) took the biggest hit from my injury.

Before last year, I'd come to Florida to ride for a week or two for eight years running. I am friends with some professional event riders who spent the winter in Ocala, and I took my horse down and rode with them. It was always wonderful fun. I immersed myself in the rhythms of barn life, of making horses a major focus of each day. At home I ride several times a week but I don't have lessons, let alone at gorgeous facilities with proper dressage arenas and a wide assortment of cross-country jumps, let alone with tremendously talented women who understand me and my horse and my goals very well.

Then last December my horse pulled a shoe cantering across a mown hay field, and tripped. I went over her shoulder--an easy, straight-forward fall with difficult and complicated consequences. I was wearing a new, properly-fitted, high-quality helmet. But I'd hit my head several times over the years, and my brain was over it.

I want to live a long life with my brain working well to the very end. I really don't want dementia. I want to be able to travel with my husband to all the places we still haven't seen--it's a huge list. I have so many stories left to write. I would rather lose large parts of my physical capabilities than lose the ability to write.

I'm aware it isn't all up to me. I don't have control over large portions of my life. But it's up to me whether or not I ride again, whether or not I jump, whether or not I compete. My sport, eventing, has a high rate of injury. I tend to minimize that, but I can't deny it. It's true that the worst falls tend to happen at upper levels I never dreamed of reaching--but it's also true that I fell last time cantering my horse on grass.

Obeying the protocol suggested by my sport's governing body--the fact that my sport has a detailed protocol accounting for frequency of head injuries and their severity should tell you something--I didn't ride for six months. My mare pouted. I couldn't explain. While I was still sleeping 14 hours a day I didn't miss riding, except in the abstract--barn chores were enough of an effort--but by about month three I ached to be back on my horse. I love riding. I love my sassy, quirky, emotional mare.

I did my homework. I took a two-day clinic on how to fall off safely. I bought a new very good helmet. I gave myself time to heal. I resigned from the hunt I rode with. I gave up the goal I'd always had of reaching the Preliminary level in eventing (despite the name, it's the fourth of six recognized levels, with the sixth being Olympic caliber). I decided that from now on, I'd stay at the lower two levels, where the jumps are smaller and the speeds slower.

One of my first times back in the saddle I galloped on a beach in Normandy with my daughter. The sand was firm and flat and went on for miles. It was glorious.

I was out of shape (no flow yoga for six months, either) and at home I started out slowly, hacking my fat mare. I paid a lot of attention to proper body position and correct movement, and our flatwork started to come together. It's better now than it ever was. Eventually I started jumping the small jumps in my fields. It was fun--but I also felt a little anxious.

There's good-anxious and bad-anxious, a kind you should pay attention to and a kind you should overcome. I wasn't sure which this was. I'm still not. I had to skip my trip to Florida last year and I was eager to go back this year--but what were my eventing goals, now that Preliminary was off the table? For a decade I've worked to make myself a better rider. Was I going to be happy striving for the title Queen of 2'6"?

It was an interesting dilemma from an intellectual standpoint. Why do we pursue what we do? Would I still write every day if I knew I would never reach my goals? (We'll never know, as I've mostly reached them.) Riding was something I loved, but it was never my vocation; I never yearned to be a professional or had remotely the discipline to reach the top. (Unlike writing.)

I filled out entry forms for two competitions down here in Florida, both at Beginner Novice, the lowest level. My husband said, "Please don't do this if you feel afraid." I spent a lot of January thinking about this, riding my horse on my farm in ugly weather.

Really, I thought too much. Overthinking is one of my character flaws. I started explaining how I felt to my daughter, at length, and eventually she interrupted me. "Mama," she said gently, "let yourself off the hook."

So I did. I came down here. I said to my coach and long-time good friend, "I'm not afraid on the flat, but over fences I'm a little afraid." That's all I said. She heard me. Yesterday, my first lesson in well over a year, she started me over a line of cavaletti and poles on the ground, and then eventually they were jumps at beginner novice height. I had a lovely time. Every so often my coach would yell, "Breathe!" and I would--I'm back to yoga now, I breathe like a champ when I remember to do it--and everything smoothed and softened.

It was a very easy lesson compared to what I've done in the past.

It was exactly what I needed.

I don't know yet what the answer is going to be. I don't know what new goals I'll come up with, or if I need goals to be happy, or if I want to keep competing or keep jumping at all. I'll find out, slowly. Meanwhile I woke early this morning, pulled on pants and boots and went out to bring my mare in from the field. Above the live oaks dripping Spanish moss the full moon shown in the lightening sky. My horse sighed and touched my shoulder, lightly, with her nose. We're glad to be here. I've let myself off the hook.