Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Off to Cheer For the Game of Thrones Guy

Well, here I am, dusting off my passport. Tomorrow I leave for England and the Badminton Horse Trials. This is a bucket-list item for me. Last summer, when some friends from Scotland were visiting, we discovered that they'd always wanted to see Badminton too (by which I'm pretty sure I mean, Lesley always wanted to see Badminton, and Calum, like Bart, is willing to go along). So we made plans. Pretty soon they morphed into absolutely excellent plans, as we're staying at an Airbnb in Bath, a city I've always wanted to explore (hello, Jane Austen!) and afterwards heading up to Leeds so the boys can golf. Lesley got tickets for a history of clothing museum, something that's right up my alley, and we're planning to eat and drink spectacularly well.

It's nuts to do two amazing trips like this back-to-back, but that's how it worked out: the golf invitation had a certain time attached to it, and of course Badminton is always the first weekend in May.

OK. I'll back it up for the majority of you who don't know what the heck I'm talking about. Badminton is the grandmother of all three-day events, the biggest and hardest competition of my lovely esoteric sport. It takes place at Badminton, the estate of the Duke of Beaufort. From pretty much every measure it's the most difficult event in the world, this is its 70th year, and cross country day attracts something like 250,000 spectators, because in England the sport and this event are big deals. Badminton accepts entries based in part on how important you are--they run 89 pairs, and keep a ranked wait list. Last week the entries closed. One rider, Ingrid Klimke, dropped out, and another took her place, and now the field is set. There are exactly two Americans, neither of whom I know at all, which is odd because our sport is so small that I really do know a lot of the top American athletes. Tamra Smith is based in California, and Jenny Caras is currently based in England, and I've never met either of them. I wish them well, of course, but from a personal level I'll be rooting for Mark Todd, the King of All Eventing, and also for Jim Newsham, better know as the Game of Thrones guy.

I've read several of the Game of Thrones books but not watched one minute of the HBO series. However, last summer I found myself in a part of Northern Ireland where chunks of the series were filmed. My daughter met the man who directs the sword fighting, and got to see several of the named swords--she swung one around, which made the man nervous. (Understand that this wasn't some official GofT event. We happened to be walking around this ruin, and two guys happened to be practicing mock sword fighting. My daughter stopped to watch, and things progressed from there.) Anyway, the day after that, my husband went to golf, and my daughter and I went to ride. There was a stable in the town that offered two-hour rides through a lovely forest, only to adults who were competent riders.

Now, you need to understand something about the Irish. They lived under English oppression for so long that they're genetically compelled to take the wind out of anyone who tries to impress them. Tell an Irishman you can ride any horse at all, and he will set out to find one that you can't, even if you're paying him for the honor. Don't brag to Irishmen is a cardinal rule.

On the other hand, there are a lot of ignorant tourists in the world, who truly believe that because they once sat an ancient placid nag in a paddock they know how to ride. So it's a fine line, explaining that you really do know how to handle a horse without bragging on yourself. I usually let my well-worn paddock boots do the talking. Show up in gear that has seen a couple of years of use, and I look as though I know one end of a horse from the other.

So it was. We pulled up and parked in a small yard with a typical Irish set of stables--a low row of tin-roofed stone buildings cobbled together higgledy-piggledy. No apparent pastures--those turned out to be about a block away. A woman a bit older than me walked over, looked me up and down, sighed, and said, "You do ride, don't you?" I nodded. "I'll just get some other horses," she said.

"What's that?" asked my daughter, getting out of the car.
"We qualified for an upgrade," I said.

While the woman and her husband brushed off a different, presumably less nag-like, set of horses I had a peek inside the buildings. Several contained stalls with large, study cobs--exactly the sort of horses I'd expect to take on a two-hour hack through a forest. Then I stepped inside another building, and gasped. There was a prince among horses--a tall, gleaming, bay Irish Thoroughbred, well-muscled, excellent bone, up on his toes. Stunning. He was as like the other horses as a Ferrari is to my minivan.

We started off, the woman, my daughter, and I. Turns out that the horses the woman and my daughter were riding had both been used in Game of Thrones. The forest we rode through was used in a big chunk of filming, and the woman's son, she told us, was a stunt rider for the series.

My daughter told her that we were eventers. She smiled, and said her son was an eventer, too. "Rather a good one," she said. "He rode at Badminton last year."

So that was the gorgeous bay--a Badminton horse.

I told her that I was planning a trip to Badminton. "I hope some of my friends will compete," I said, "if not I'll cheer for your son."

"If he goes next year," she said. In horses nothing is certain.  It's bad form to pretend otherwise.

We went on to have a perfectly lovely ride. Like me the woman had been a pony club DC. She and my daughter traded pony club and eventing stories as we rode. (Eventing stories are like fishing stories, except that they're usually true. You can't make this sh*t up.)

Anyhow, her son is Jim Newsham. His lovely horse is Magennis. Join me in wishing them well.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

France. Golf. Notre Dame.

I'm home. I'm staring at my novel manuscript willing it to turn into something more cohesive. I'm listening to the robins in the budding trees outside. (The barn swallows are back! Our last marker of spring. I love the barn swallows so much. I always feel bereft when they leave in the fall.)

I was in France, and it was fantastic. I studied and studied the Chateau de Chenonceau, which will be the setting for an upcoming book. I bought a large stack of research books at Shakespeare and Company, the English-language bookstore on the left bank in Paris. Shakespeare and Company is British run, with primarily British books and a heavy emphasis on French history and culture. It was at Shakespeare and Company, two years ago, that I purchased the book that has saved us a whole bunch of money in France ever since: the one that taught me the magic words, "un carafe d'eau." You see, in France the restaurants don't just hand out drinking water. They ask you, usually in perfect English, whether you prefer plain or sparkling water. You can try to say, "plain plain," or "not in a bottle," or whatever else you like, but their English never extends far enough to understand. They bring you a sealed bottle of plain water and charge you six bucks for it. And you're thirsty, and there's nothing you can do. We've tried asking for jugs of water. Pitchers of water. Nope. Then I read the book. "Un carafe d'eau, s'il vous plait." It's wonderful. You get a container of plain water for which you are not charged. Sounds like a small thing, I admit, but those six dollar bottles add up.

Anyway. Clearly, I digress. On Friday, our only day actually spent in Paris, I required my husband to go immediately to Shakespeare and Company so I could bookshop, even though I knew I'd be buying more books than I would want to carry around all day, and even though we had dinner reservations at a restaurant a block away from the bookstore. We went to the left bank, bought books, returned them to our hotel, went out for more exploring, and then, later, went right back to the same part of the left bank for dinner. It would have been infinitely more efficient to buy books on the way to dinner, but it would have made me anxious. What if I didn't have browsing time enough? Thankfully, my husband knows who he married. He even helped carry the books.

Meanwhile, the day before, we had a glorious sun-soaked day--the first good weather day of our trip--on my husband's favorite golf course in the world, a little place not far outside Paris. My husband and son have played there a number of times, but this time I went along, because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and also because this particular trip was so important to him. He's had a lot of complications surrounding the knee replacement surgery he had in November. Recovery's been hard, and painful, and for months now his motivation and goal was to walk this golf course on this day in France. We played with a French doctor who's my husband's friend, a lovely man. Back when they were planning the day, Jacques offered to reserve a golf cart for my husband. (The course has a few, but people hardly ever use them.) My husband said, "You will not." He was going to walk the course, as he always does, as he loves to do, every hole. And he did.

It's a funny little gem, a gorgeous rural course, the very essence of golf without snobbery or upmanship. We were on the second or third hole when Jacques took a deep breath, smiled, and said, "My grandparents played here so I've been coming ever since I was a little boy. And still every time I'm here I feel blessed." At one point Jacques smacked a shot over a green onto another, where two French women gave him side-eye as he apologized profusely. When he came back I asked him if there were many woman members. He told me there always had been. "Everyone," he said, with emphasis, "has always been welcome here."

Sounds a little bit like heaven, doesn't it? Meanwhile the cathedral of Notre Dame held. I don't know how--the photographs, the night of the fire, were so awful--we were farther south then, not in Paris. I kept updating my internet feed but my husband got to the point where he could not long look. We are Catholic--sure, if you've read this blog, you know that--and have been to Mass at Notre Dame several times, the first on our honeymoon, most recently Easter Sunday two years ago. I love Notre Dame as a place of worship, but even more as a monument to human imagination, hope, and love. Nearly a thousand years ago hundreds of people set out to build one of the greatest structures of the age. They had to invent technology--they had to rethink architecture. And they knew, all of them, that the building would never be finished in their lifetimes. Craftsmen did the best work of which they were capable for a project they would not see complete. Over and over, for two hundred years. And it stands. Still.

Shakespeare and Company is right across the Seine from Notre Dame. Right now, immediately after the fire, it's about as close as you can get to the cathedral--the bridges and roads are closed all around. I took a photo of my husband on Friday morning, right after I bought all my books, with Notre Dame in the background--a big crane already set up in her forecourt, her roof and spire gone but all the buttresses and most of the stained glass still in place. The day before, on the golf course, my husband walked 28,000 steps. He's healing. Notre Dame will too.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Where Have I Been?


Yesterday, as I do most Thursdays, I met my husband for lunch. I sat down at the table across from him and said, "I remembered to take the trash down this morning!"

"Congratulations!" he said, with true, non-ironic sincerity. Then he said, "Wait, what day is it? Is it Thursday?"

(Please note that Thursday has been Trash Day and Lunch Date Day for at least the last 15 years.)

Then yesterday evening we went out to our front porch with glasses of wine. "Oh!" I said, grabbing my iPad to check, "I think one of my friends had a book birthday today. You know how new books always come out on Tuesdays."

"Kim," my husband said, "it's not Tuesday."

We're a little upside down, the both of us.

Half an hour ago I hit "Send" on the latest draft of my latest book, due today, so please note I'm a few hours early. I had to work like crazy to meet this deadline, and I'm really happy with the work I've done, and I've got lots more stuff coming up really quickly. Tomorrow I leave for Indiana and my final school visit of the year (I have family in Indiana I'll be visiting on Sunday), which will be Monday. Tuesday I fly back from Indiana. Wednesday I leave for France. That's a research trip. (Pro tip: so far as possible, arrange to do research in exotic locales.) In theory, I'll return to my editor's notes on the draft I just submitted, and, again in theory, I'll get another revision completed before May 1st--which is the day I leave for England.

Last week I was in Dallas for two days of school visits, which were lovely.

I had a very quiet winter. It seems like a long time ago.

Meanwhile, we are just about to order the last round of student books for the first year of Appalachian Literacy Initiative. It's gone so very well. In preparation for setting the list of books for next year's classes, I asked our enrolled teachers how well this year's books suited their students.

From St. Clair Elementary, Bulls Gap, TN: "I honestly loved the book selection. From a personal stand point I found the students were more interested in the less popular books. It seemed the books that are not advertised so highly at book fairs and things of that nature were more interesting to the students. It also opened up a chance to read books our library did not have."

From Ketron Elementary, Kingsport, TN: " I have a deaf student this year and El Deafo was especially relatable for him."

From Chamberlain Elementary, Charleston, WV: "Let me tell you what a wonderful experience this has been for my students and myself.  They have such pride in their books and they have read every single one of them.  They were so excited when they found out the books were theirs to keep in their own personal library.  The books ended up meetings the needs of my students, all of them, no matter what reading level they were on this year. 

Overall, the students liked all the titles and I was surprised of some of their choices when choosing a book.  My students really loved the graphic novels.  They even shared them among the group."

I know I talk a lot about ALI on this blog. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that I'm passion about increasing children's access to books. Another is that I'm very proud of our program. But a third, to be perfectly frank, is that we don't have quite enough in our bank account right now to pay for the last set of books. I'm confident we'll work it out. We've done pretty damn good so far. At our first board meeting I floated the idea of enrolling 20 classrooms in our first year, and I still remember the skeptical looks I got--I was really reaching. And then we got so many applications that in the end we accepted 28 classrooms, with absolutely no idea how we were going to fund our year. We hoped our 501(c)3 status would come through quickly enough that we would be eligible for some grants--it didn't. (We do have that status now, and are applying for anything we can find for next year). But hey--we've paid for 2566 gorgeous new books so far. It's been a wonderful year.

If you’d like to support the work that we’re doing, you can mail a check to Appalachian Literacy Initiative at PO Box 3283, Bristol, TN 37625, or click here to purchase books on our wishlist from Parnassus Books, our preferred bookstore. You’ll receive 10% off with the code GIVEREADING, and Parnassus will ship the books to us free of charge. You can also purchase books from our Amazon wishlist by clicking here