Wednesday, December 16, 2020

A Vast Anti-Misogynistic Conspiracy

 Dear Wall Street Journal Opinion Page Editor Paul A. Gigot,

Or, should I say, Babycakes?  After all, the new article (behind a payway, here's a NYT article about it) you wrote defending the article that Joseph Epstein wrote, and you published, says that Epstein's use of the word 'Kiddo' to describe Dr. Jill Biden, an educator and a grandmother, is acceptable because that's what her husband sometimes calls her.

My husband doesn't call me Babycakes. He calls me Sweetheart sometimes. That doesn't give you, or Epstein, permission to do so. Please take a note of it.

You claim that the outrage sparked by Epstein's essay (that link is behind a paywall, but if you look around the internet, you can read it for free) is a Democratic conspiracy meant to somehow stifle free speech, and that the people expressing it were playing "the race or gender card to stifle controversy." You remind us that Dr. Biden's position as incipient First Lady means she's not off-limits to this sort of criticism.

You. Don't. Get. It.

People are not angry because they're Democrats or Republicans. They're angry because Epstein's misogyny, which you considered worth publishing and defending, trivialized not only an impressive accomplishment but also every woman who attempts such things. They're angry because yet another old white man told a woman to sit down, shut up, and find her fulfillment in the shadow of her connection to a powerful man.

The line that really makes me furious isn't being talked about much. Epstein rattles on about the how doctorates aren't worth as much any more, how even honorary doctorates have been diminished these days, and then--this is the part that really torqued me--that they decreased in prestige proportionally to how often they'd been given to Black women. Yep. It's not just these women who want to be called "doctor" that infuriate Epstein. It's these uppity Black women with advanced degrees.

How dare he? How dare you? Is it remotely possible that you don't understand how insulting you're being? How is it possible you think people are angry as a stunt, instead of being angry because you, the pair of you, gave them sufficient reason to feel that way?

I'm not a doctor of any sort. My friend Sarah is (Doctor of divinity from Harvard, therefore Reverend Doctor to you), as is my other friend Sarah (veterinarian), and her sister Kelly (biologist, head of a university department). As is the female obstetrician who delivered my daughter. As was the other female obstetrician who delivered my son. But none of that is the actual point here. The point is that this man went out of his way to trivialize a woman's accomplishments. He even demeaned the title of her doctoral thesis. He's small-minded and petty, and you found his insults worthy of being given a national stage, not to expose them, but because you agreed. And we're angry. Not because we're Democrats. Not because we're women. Because the pair of you are assholes, and you piss us off.

Friday, December 11, 2020

A Spot of Morning Chaos

 Half an hour ago I took my second cup of coffee into my office and sat down at my desk. My dog hopped into my lap and curled herself around me as she usually does (and as she is again now), butt on my left leg, head on the right arm of my chair. I'd started up the computer and was happily contemplating my morning's work--I got some particularly good news yesterday, which, while I'm not ready to make it public, certainly made the morning and the idea of work quite pleasant--when I heard a soft but definite thunk thunk.

I decanted the dog, leapt to my feet, looked out the window, and, my daughter later told me, squawked loud enough that she heard it upstairs.

My large grey mare, Sarah, looked back at me. Through my office window. Across a very large front lawn from anywhere she was supposed to be. 

Pal, our very ancient Quarter horse, stood beside her.

Boots on, jacket, hat, dog leash stuffed in pocket, out I went. Pal was now standing under the birch tree in the side yard, looking mournful. He's like a kid who can't bear to be left behind, but he regrets the consequences. I looped the leash around his neck. "C'mon, old man, where's Sarah?"

I could see the barn now. I could see the wide-open gate beside it--snow, my fault then, I went through it last and clearly didn't properly latch it. Sarah was all the way back to the barn--she must have run. My daughter's horse Merlin was milling around near the parked truck and trailer. T, my rental horse, was standing in the field in front of the open gate, looking scandalized. T is Lawful Good and doesn't break rules. (My daughter thinks he's a vampire: can only cross thresholds if specifically invited.)

Pal puffed and huffed and dragged his feet. This was a lot of work for him, something he should have considered before he followed Sarah.

Merlin looked up, saw us, and dashed back into the field. It's not because he cares about breaking rules. It's because he's greedy for his breakfast, and wants to be the first into the barn. He went to stand by his stall door.

I got everyone into the field. Gate properly latched. Portioned out the breakfasts, dumped them into the feed bins in each stall. Went through the end stall, Pal's, into the field, letting it swing shut behind me. Opened Merlin's stall, let him in. Turned around to see that Sarah had flung Pal's unlatched door open and gone in to eat Pal's food. Happily she was still wearing her grazing muzzle. She pounded it into the feed bucket in frustration.

I grabbed her, took her out. T stood outside, looking appalled and slightly petulant. I opened his stall door with one hand and kept hold of Sarah with the other. "Good morning, T, here you go," I said. Properly invited, he stepped inside.

I took Sarah into her stall and removed her muzzle. Shut her in and went back outside, where Pal was very slowly making his way to his stall, because, by crikey, it's already been quite a day.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Finding Joy

 Hello, friends. It's been four months since I've written a blog post. I've never gone that long between posts before, but then, nothing about this year is usual.

Last week I put gas in my car for the first time since June. My usual hermit tendencies have only increased with Covid; sometimes days go by when I don't leave the farm. Happily, I like it here. 

In my family we have a phrase--how do we make this suck less? Because sometimes we all have to put up with things that well and truly suck. You can't make them enjoyable--but sometimes you can still add a bit of joy. So we got ice cream cones on our way out of the children's hospital. Borrowed a really good audiobook for the stultifying car ride. Played cards while waiting in a long line. Once my daughter and I got pedicures at an airport when a flight was (horrendously, with maddening consequences) delayed. 

In this pandemic, my husband is decorating the house for Christmas on a scale eclipsing his previous very impressive years. Yesterday he went to Lowe's for ornament hooks and a 6' hose (for me, for the pony paddock). He returned with ornament hooks, a 6' hose, 6 boxes of LED Christmas lights, 2 poinsettas and a rosemary tree. He spent most of the day making the house beautiful. Meanwhile my daughter, who's working at a library, has used interlibrary loan to borrow a six-volume very interesting series about dragons.

Lately on my list of things that are helpful: borrowing electronic versions of trashy novels from my local library; hot baths; a knitalong Advent calendar, where every day brings another small packet of yarn to add to a project. I know, it's only December 1. But I started it the day after Thanksgiving. When you are trying to create joy, you don't need to follow every rule.

What's working these days for you?

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Wizard Merlin

A week from today my new novel Fighting Words debuts. It's a tough story about a tough kid in a bad situation, how she's shielded and strengthened by her sister's love, and how she learns to thrive.

Originally my publisher planned to send me on tour, which would mean, among other things, repeatedly talking about my book to people who'd not had a chance to read it. For months I'd planned to end my presentation with a photo of Merlin, my daughter's horse. The tour's going to be entirely online now, and I may or may not be able to show photos, but, especially after this weekend, I want to talk about Merlin.

If this horse can overcome his past, there's hope for all of us.

We don't know how old Merlin is (by his teeth, somewhere between 10 and 15). We don't know what breed or breeds he is (he might be part Thoroughbred, but his pinto markings mean he can't be full; his size means he's likely part draft; other possibilities include Standardbred and Dutch; we call him an "American warmblood" as a joke). We don't have any idea where he was born. He could be a Canadian PMU foal--but since Canada has horse slaughterhouses we're not sure how he would have ended up in east Tennessee. He looks like something the Amish might breed, but he's sound, and the Amish don't send sound horses to slaughter.

What we know is that at some point he was sold for slaughter, somewhere. There are no longer horse slaughterhouses in the United States, which means that meat horses are shipped to either Mexico or Canada in enormous double-deck stock trailers holding up to 40 animals at a time. Merlin was in horrible physical shape, which turned out to be lucky, because haulers are fined if they show up at the plants with dead animals aboard. So when Merlin collapsed on the trailer, they stopped it, dragged his prone body out with ropes, and left him in a field to die.

I'm not making that up. I'm not exaggerating.

He didn't die. He lived in that field untouched for five years.

Then he had 30 days' training and then a woman rode him, mostly on trails, for a few years, and then she moved away and could only see him every few months or so. He lived on the side of a mountain in a big field with other horses.

My daughter was home for four weeks last summer between college classes. Her beloved horse Mickey had died and there was nothing for her to ride on our farm except my mare, whom I was riding. My daughter put the word out in our community that she was looking for a horse to work with for free for just those few weeks.

Enter Merlin.

It took her 45 minutes to get him down from his field. She'd take a few steps, he'd spook and run into her, she'd stop and back him. He'd take a few steps with her, spook and run into her, she'd stop and back him. All the way down the hill. He jumped straight onto our horse trailer, then panicked--we slammed the doors shut as fast as possible and started down the road. We threw him into one of our fields by himself overnight.

"He's pretty," my husband said. (He is.)

The next morning I sat down to write. My daughter headed out to the barn. She told me she was going to do some rope work with Merlin--teach him things from the ground before getting on his back. "Be careful," I said. "Wear your helmet, in case he kicks. If you need help, call."

Thirty minutes later my phone rang. My daughter said, "Could you please come out here?"

I headed out, expecting disaster. My daughter and Merlin were in our small sand ring. She flicked the rope at him, and he backed away from her, calmly, head down, ears pricked intently but the rest of his body relaxed. She signaled him to go left. He walked left. She asked him to swing his hips away from her. He did. She told him to go right. He went. She told him to trot. He trotted. She asked him to face her again. He did. She called him to her, and he walked forward, slowly, head down, licking his lips.

By this point I had tears running down my face. I said, "Who put this horse on a kill truck?" My daughter, wordless, shook her head.

That night my husband said, "We're keeping him." My daughter replied, "We are not." She would be gone most of the summer and then for her senior year of college, and after that probably grad school. "I do not need a horse," she said. My husband pointed out that we had plenty of room on the farm. My daughter said that the horse did not need to stand in our fields.

He knew very little. He didn't steer for beans. He couldn't balance himself enough to canter inside our arena. He appeared not to have a left lead canter at all. He didn't know much about jumps. He was afraid to walk into the barn, let alone into a stall, and he clearly worried all the time about monsters coming up behind him. He was so afraid of clippers that he full-out panicked when I clipped my mare in front of him. He'd never worn shoes and didn't like having his feet picked out.

He was astonished to be fed grain. In a bucket! Every day! Every day, a bucket! Eventually we moved the buckets into the barn, into a stall, and stalls became acceptable. And horse cookies! Cookies! Treats! He couldn't believe he was getting treats. He nosed my daughter's hands. He licked her arms. He came running when she called.

We only had four weeks, but we made the most of them. Two weeks in we took him and my mare to our coach, Cathy Wieschhoff, up in Lexington, Kentucky. Cathy'd sounded skeptical about Merlin on the phone. My daughter rode Merlin into Cathy's big covered arena, filled with bright show jumps, and Merlin trotted around calmly, interested and unafraid. Twenty minutes later Cathy said, "I agree with your dad. Buy him."

We did. My daughter went back to school. Sometimes I rode Merlin, sometimes he just hung out with my mare. Whenever my daughter came home Merlin whickered when he saw her. He liked me, and he was easy to be around, but I wasn't his person.

In March my daughter came home for spring break just as the pandemic shut the country down. She finished her senior thesis and coursework in her childhood bedroom. Merlin became her emotional anchor, riding him the bright spot in every day. She thought about what he needed to learn, then worked out how to teach him, step by step.

A week and a half ago she took him to his first competition. I already wrote about that. He had to stay in a strange stall and cope with golf carts and unfamiliar horses and good Lord dressage was inside a building, and that was the easy part. Our sport, eventing, is a riding triathlon--the third phase, cross country, involves the horse and rider setting out by themselves on a course the horse has never seen before. Even at the lowest levels it's a mile or so long, on uneven terrain, over solid jumps that can't fall down. Some horses love cross country. Horses who don't tend to refuse to do it at all.

There are a thousand ways to be eliminated in eventing. Your horse can jump the low fence around the dressage ring. Refuse to enter the ring. Refuse more than two show jumps. Refuse more than three cross-country jumps. Dump you into the water jump. Once you're done, you're done--you can't start the next phase. Often, finishing is victory.

When competitions resumed this summer, my daughter and I had picked out two, back to back, that we thought we could get to despite the virus: Virginia and River Glen. (From here out, showing looks to be shutting down again.) On Cathy's advice Katie took a chance, and moved Merlin up at River Glen to the first nationally recognized division. It was a substantially harder course than what he'd done just the week before.

He was so lovely. He took in the golf carts and commotion and strange stalls. He didn't spook in dressage. In show jumping he refused one fence when my daughter got discombobulated, but he jumped it willingly on the second try.

He understood the idea of going cross country. He stopped to take a look at the first fence--my daughter circled and he cleared it--and then he went on, up and down hills, across ditches, ramps and tables and cabins--a second refusal at the top of a hill, when he simply couldn't get his legs sorted in time to jump. Down the hill, brave and bold, through the water jump. And then my daughter was singing to him, "Three more, baby! Two more! Just one more, one more fence--you did it, Merlin! Good Boy! GOOD BOY!"

And then my daughter burst into tears.

Merlin strutted. Friends of mine standing near the finish told me they overheard another competitor say, "Have you heard that horse's story? Can you believe what he's done?"

My daughter fed him cookies, untacked him, rinsed him. They walked through the crowded stabling area back to his stall, entirely relaxed, his ears floppy, his head by her knee.

Even before this show I was going to show his photo on my book tour. I was going to say, Look at this horse's heart. He had reason to never trust another human ever. Instead he never stops trying.

If he can overcome the demons in his past, there is hope for us all.

He's done more than overcome. He thrives.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

In Virginia

My daughter and I went to a horse show last week. It was an odd thing to do, in this Covid time, and correspondingly it was an odd show--staggered mid-week instead of taking place on a weekend, temperature checks on entering the facility, competitors spread out in the barns, so that our aisle of 80 stalls held 10 horses, everyone wearing masks except while physically riding. I was pleased with all the precautions because they were the only reason I was willing to attend.

I've lost a lot this year. I haven't seen my extended family since September. I have a nephew I've never even met, and he already has a tooth. Since July Fourth I've been missing them more intensely, because that's when my family often gathers on our farm for a big weekend of fireworks, horse and tractor rides, baseball and water fights.  I know how incredibly lucky and privileged I am. My family's all healthy, we're all able to work, we're doing fine. But I have too many breathing problems not to be afraid of this virus. Also my husband sees 60 patients a day. He takes every precaution he can, but he's an ophthalmologist, which means he examines people with his face right up near theirs. He wears a mask, always, and so do his patients; he comes home and immediately puts his clothes in the wash, and showers. But he could catch Covid, and therefore so could I. I'm trying to both not catch it and not give to it anyone else, and so I'm not doing much. I don't hang out with friends or go to book club or yoga. I don't eat out. I order groceries delivered and I check out library books online and I pretty much stay away from everyone.

But we went to a horse show.

It was my daughter's horse Merlin's first show. Someday I'll tell Merlin's story; so far I haven't figured out how. He's a gelding of unknown breeding, age, or origin--we can trace him to the slaughterhouse trailer he collapsed on, but no farther. We didn't actually plan on buying my daughter another horse after her beloved Mickey died, but Merlin fell into our lives, and we're grateful. Training him has been for my daughter the brightest part of a difficult year. Before last week, the last time she'd been to a horse show had been fall of her senior year in high school, nearly 5 years ago--so taking Merlin, challenging him, being able to measure their progress--that was a big thing to her.

It was big for me to riding, too. This May my mare, Sarah, ripped her knee open on a drainpipe in our field. (I wrote a blog post about it, but never published it--my daughter declared it too gruesome.) At first it seemed to be healing quickly, but then her leg swelled and the wound reopened. She's healing, but we don't know how far she'll come.

A month ago, a friend of mine, Nicolette Merle-Smith, put a few of her horses up for lease, and one of them caught my eye. T Minus Three is a Thoroughbred former race horse, seventeen hands high, or 5'8" at the shoulder, four inches taller than me. Sounds like a terrible idea for me to rent a huge fast horse--but T's a gentle, honest soul, and I trusted him immediately. I've rented him until the end of September to ride while Sarah heals.

I know. The world's on fire, and I'm renting a horse.

He brings me joy.

Nearly four years ago, I took an easy fall off Sarah that resulted in a traumatic brain injury. (Yes, I was wearing a helmet.) Healing took a long time. At the same time The War That Saved My Life became a bestseller, and appeared on 46 state award lists, and suddenly I was speaking and travelling a lot more--both for business and for fun, because my husband and I love adventures. And so with one thing and another I hadn't ridden a cross-country course in four years.

So we were thrilled and anxious, my daughter and I. We drove to the Virginia Horse Center, in Lexington, VA, early on Thursday morning.

We've been there so many times. Our regional pony club rallies were held there, as well as some of the East Coast championships. We went to eventing camp there five summers in a row. The Virginia Horse Trials, spring and fall--once we went and stayed two nights in a hotel just to volunteer. I'm used to pulling into the place with a truck crammed with children and a trailer full of ponies; used to shepherding kids into the Sleep Inn and requesting extra towels and a roll-away bed. I'm used to two booths full of sleepy competitors at 6 am at the Waffle House, and our favorite waitress, April, pouring me coffee with cream when she sees me walk in the door.

We walked the cross-country course with the ghosts of our former horses and our former selves. There was the hill I learned to gallop down on Gully--the water where a former coach yelled, "What's the matter, Kim? Are you AFRAID?" and I was afraid, but I gritted my teeth and kicked, and Gully leaped forward and splashed the coach from head to toe, and we both roared with laughter. It felt so long ago, and so immediate and real.

This week my daughter's horse found courage and confidence, getting better and better across the three phases. T did beautifully too. He hasn't learned to gallop down hills yet--it's a specific skill--and he was a little concerned about the sheer number of fences (there were several courses set up, for different levels of competition), so we trotted the first half of the course. He was happy I understood his issues, and I was happy to be on a sweet calm horse who jumped everything I asked.

It wasn't an important show, but it felt important. It felt like a piece of me had been missing, and returned.

Trans Lives Matter.

Sometimes you learn something new about people, and it changes how you feel about them forever.
Back when I was in high school, I would have told you I didn't know any gay people. I did, of course, I just didn't know they were gay. At that time, and in that place, it was very difficult, if not unsafe, to be out as a gay person. I wish that weren't true, but it was.

When I was a freshman in college, a woman I was in the process of becoming friends with told me she was dating another woman. She started to cry as she told me, because she was afraid that admitting it would be the end of our friendship.

On one level I was shocked--an actual gay person! On another, much more important level, I didn't care. At all. I opened my mouth and the truth came out. You are who you've always been, and--I probably didn't say 'I love you,' which is what I'd say now, because I'm willing to go on record as loving more people now. I probably said something like, I'm glad we're friends.

As I recall, I didn't address the part where she thought I'd probably be homophobic. At that point in my life, I probably thought I'd be homophobic, too. But at least I was learning.

I don't know what it's like to be gay, or bisexual, or transgender. I've always been straight and cisgender. I've never had a gay, nonbinary, or trans person explain to me that, really, I probably was just confused--I was letting all those straight cis people influence me. All the gay and trans people I know have always accepted me for who I am. They've never tried to change me.

I will always do the same for them. I can't step inside their skin. I don't know how life is for them.

Which is why I'm so disappointed in J. K. Rowling. First she sends out ridiculous tweets mocking the phrase, "people who menstruate," used in an essay, because in her mind that should be changed to "women." Word choice can be important to writers, but I don't understand Rowling's insistence here. I'm a woman, and I haven't menstruated in several years. But whatever. People called her out, online, pointing out that trans people, like cis people, may or may not menstruate and that menstruation isn't a defining part of their gender identity. At which point, someone trying to be an ally would have a chance to say, "Whoops, sorry. I didn't think about that. I stand corrected." and move on. At that point it's all pretty small.

But Rowling followed up with more tweets expanding her original one, to make it clear she really is transphobic, and then she published a very long essay on her website defending her point of view, which is, as far as I can tell, that she has been a victim of sexual violence (which, though sad, has nothing to do with the topic), and that she feels people, particularly autistic people, are being tricked into calling themselves trans and that it's some sort of phase they'll grow out of, except that they might have their genitals mutilated first.

There's absolutely no evidence that anyone is being tricked into changing genders, or, especially, into having surgery. Very few trans people transition back. Regardless, Rowling's feelings here have no actual relevance to the lives of trans people, except, of course, for being deeply insulting. Rowling's essay also seems entirely unrelated to her tweets, except as a convoluted justification of her transphobia.

Here's what really gets me, though. Rowling understands that she has a platform. She had fourteen million twitter followers. She understands media; she knows what she's tweeting. She tweeted that IF trans people were experiencing discrimination, she'd march for their rights--and then she carefully wrote and posted a highly discriminatory essay. She should be marching in protest against herself, though I doubt we'll see that happen.

J. K. Rowling, I know more about you now. I'm so disappointed.

N and C and B and A and B and all the other trans and nonbinary people I know--and all of you I don't know--you don't need my validation any more than you need J. K. Rowling's. Continue to live your lives of honesty and valour. I see you. I love you.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Black lives matter.

Black lives matter.

Yesterday a POC writer friend of mine spoke out on social media about how angry she felt toward white writers who'd written books featuring black characters yet remained silent now.  I wrote Jefferson's Sons, so this included me.

I replied with this: I’ve given financial support to bond funds and POC, especially black authors, but I’ve done so privately. I’ve reposted and retweeted posts from black people. Right now I’m trying to keep my mouth shut and my mind, ears, and heart open. No one needs my narrative right now. Perhaps, though, I do need to affirm: BLACK LIVES MATTER.

The writer friend responded that she thought I did need to affirm it. That while I didn't need to center any story on myself, I needed to stand up for black people. So I put it up on her post, and on twitter, and I'm saying it here.

Black lives matter.

Do not come at me with All lives matter. 'All lives matter' is a way of silencing protest, of saying that these black people don't get to stand out, a way of implying that it's no worse, no harder, to be black in America than it is to be white, when patently that isn't true.

Do not tell me you don't see color. All that says is that you're so accustomed to your white privilege you don't see how your whiteness benefits you.

Black lives matter.

A white childhood friend of mine just posted the story of how, when she was in high school, she tried to pay for something at a store with a counterfeit bill. The clerk noticed and called police, who questioned my friend--now sobbing--then let her go, because they believed her when she said she didn't know the bill was fake and didn't know who'd passed it to her.

George Floyd was murdered for paying for something with a counterfeit bill.

I don't have any idea whether or not he knew it was counterfeit. I don't remotely care. 

Murdered. Over a counterfeit twenty.

Black lives matter.

I watched part of the video of his murder one time. I'll never watch it again. It was filmed by a 17-year-old black girl. Can you imagine being that child? Being that brave, doing something that awful? 

Black lives matter.

In many, perhaps most, of the protests taking place around the country, black people are protesting peacefully; the violence and looting come from white people. If it had been my husband who had a man kneel on his neck for nearly nine minutes, while he died, I might not be protesting peacefully. If it had been my son. I've never needed to worry about that. My family is white. It wouldn't happen to a white man in my country.

Black lives matter.

One of my relatives in the generation above mine said to me, the other day, "I realized I have no idea what it means to be a black man in this country."

Black lives matter.

Once when my children were small, both still in car seats, I was driving them home from school and blew right past another elementary school without slowing down. I was going 35 mph, not 80, but the speed limit there is 10, and there are always police supervising. I saw the blue lights flashing behind me and knew immediately what I'd done. I pulled to the side of the road. My children, frightened, began to cry. I reassured them that while I'd done something wrong, I wouldn't be arrested. I would be given a ticket and I'd have to pay a fine. "The worst thing that's going to happen," I said, "Is that Mrs. B--- [our neighbor] is going to drive past us in a minute, and honk and laugh and wave."

That's exactly what happened. That's all that happened. And I knew that's how it would be. There's a definition of white privilege, if you're still looking for one.

Black lives matter.

I have spent a few days where all I did online was retweet and repost statements made by my black friends. It's taken me a long time to learn that sometimes I need to shut up, listen, and learn, but I'm pretty sure the last few days have been one of those times. This morning a local friend, white, asked me if I wanted to join her white reading and accountability group--biweekly zoom meetings devoted to learning how to be actively anti-racist without requiring black people to do the work of teaching us right now. I'm all in. 

I've ordered books: Waking Up White, The Hidden Rules of Race, Choke Hold, The Color of Law. I've also ordered a trio of YA debut novels by black women that publish tomorrow: You Should See Me in a Crown, A Song Below Water, and A Song of Wraiths and Ruin. I looked them up; they all got terrific reviews, and sound fantastic.

I donated a bit of money to the bail funds of Chicago and Philadelphia, two cities important to my family. Cash bail is a social injustice--you can read about why--and protesters get held for bail as a way of discouraging them. I'm not protesting myself--I'm still protecting my fragile lungs in strict isolation--but this is my way of supporting those who do.

Black lives matter.

I hope that every white person reading this will take some concrete anti-racist action. I hope that every white person reading this will shut up, listen, and learn. And then do something.

Because black lives matter. The end.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Letter to a Beginning Writer

I received a letter from a seventeen-year-old writer interested in publishing books. She asked me some specific questions. I usually don't reply to reader mail in this sort of detail, but I got on a roll here, and then I thought that this might be useful to other writers at the start of their careers. So I reprinted it here, with some identifiers removed.

Dear Writer,

Being a writer and being published are really two separate things. Writing is a combination of craft and talent; anyone can do it, but not that many people learn to do it well, and learning to do it well takes a long time. Most people write for several years before they're published.

Being published means you've created a product for sale. As you already know, there are two ways, traditional and self-publishing. I don't know much about self-publishing. I started writing for publication, first in magazines, in 1987. The entire industry was different then. Self-publishing was much more limited and uncommon. I do know--this held true then and still does now, no matter what the self-publishing industry might tell you--very, very few self-published books earn back the money spent to produce them. As a self-published writer your income will be less than zero. You will pay money to create a book that in all probability won't sell. In many cases this doesn't matter to the writer, who has other reasons for choosing this path. But the only reliable way to have a career as a writer is to be paid for your work, and in nearly all cases, if you write books, as opposed to articles, that means traditional publishing. 

In traditional publishing many books also don't earn back the money spent to produce them, but the publisher bears the costs and takes the loss, not the author. The author still gets paid something. 

Most successful, published authors still have other jobs. Most don't earn enough from their writing to support themselves. There are exceptions, but it's probably important to understand this going in.

Honestly, career coaches and start-up companies aren't useful for traditional publishing. What is useful: learn the basic rules of the industry (easy to do: there are books about it) and write something a publishing company wants to sell. Writing something worthwhile is the hardest and most important part. 

Query Tracker probably isn't the way I'd find an agent, but, again, Query Tracker didn't exist when I started. I've had the same agent for the last twenty years. I just looked her up on Query Tracker, and she probably wouldn't stand out to you at all there, because her listing isn't prominent--but she's one of the best agents in the field, with an excellent reputation among publishers.  Whatever you do to find an agent, do NOT pay them to read your book or offer critiques. Real agents don't do that--but plenty of scammers do. Please understand that finding an agent can be almost as difficult as finding a publisher, because real agents only make money when they sell your manuscript.

You're seventeen--I wouldn't rush into publishing yet. I'd decide if becoming a writer was really important to me, and I'd work on that part. I'd write. I'd read, critically and copiously. I'd try to figure out why the books I liked were good--what about the technical aspects of them appealed to me. I'd get familiar with the Writer's Market 2020--you can find that at your library--and read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and Stephen King's On Writing. If you're interested in writing for children, I'd join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, which I did at age 19. I'd search for a story worth telling, and I'd work hard to learn how to tell it. 

I had talent at your age. By the time I got to college I also had ambition. I earned rare As in my college writing intensives. I started being published in magazines. I wrote a novel-length manuscript before I graduated, and it earned me a job ghost writing for a popular series. I also worked as a research chemist for nearly five years, because no one was going to pay me enough to write full-time; when I quit that job, it was because my husband was finished with his schooling and making a salary, and we didn't need mine as much. It took nine years from the first time I submitted a manuscript to a publisher to when I had a book come out--and that book got five starred reviews, and earned out its advance, and won some awards, and still I only didn't have to have another job because my husband had a good one. Then I published 14 books in 10 years--still not earning a living wage--then I took four years to write Jefferson's Sons (which also got 5 starred reviews), which taught me enough about writing that my next book, The War That Saved My Life (which got 3 starred reviews--reviews aren't everything), won all sorts of things, became a #1 NYT bestseller, earned a bunch of money, and made me an overnight success--due to luck and timing and most of all perseverance and craft as well as skill.  I wrote six full drafts of TWTSML, and over 12 drafts of the first chapter alone. I had to learn to work that hard.

I tell you all this because I think that the hard work is the important part. It won't come from career coaches or any other external factors. It comes from you. Only you can decide if you're going to be a writer. If you want to be one, start writing and never stop.

My very best,

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

"I'm Not A Racist"

"I'm not a racist. I did not mean to harm that man in any way."

Pro tip: when a white person starts out any statement with, "I'm not a racist," they either just got caught saying, or are about to say, something racist.

I'm sorry that this is true. 

No one wants to be called a racist, but not nearly enough white people are doing the work to not be racist--to be, in fact, anti-racist. 

The above quote comes from Amy Cooper, a white woman caught on camera by a black man, Christian Cooper (they're not related), making a false 911 call that he was threatening her. 

The facts undisputed by both sides:
--Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper were both in a part of Central Park called the Ramble.
--Amy Cooper was exercising her dog. Christian Cooper was looking for birds. He's a birder--a person who keeps track of which species of birds he sees.
--Dogs in the Ramble must be on a leash. Amy Cooper's dog was not. Christian Cooper asked her to put the dog back on its leash. She refused.

At some point in the dispute, Christian Cooper took out his phone and started videoing. Here's what happened next, according to CNN:

 The video begins with Amy Cooper pulling her dog by the collar and telling Christian Cooper to stop recording.
"Please don't come close to me," Christian Cooper says, as she approaches.
"Sir, I'm asking you to stop recording me," Amy Cooper says.
He asks her again not to come close. That's when Amy Cooper says she's going to call the police.
"I'm going to tell them there's an African American man threatening my life," she says.
"Please tell them whatever you like," Christian Cooper says.
The video shows Amy Cooper on her phone.
"There's a man, African American, he has a bicycle helmet," she says. "He is recording me and threatening me and my dog."
While she's on the phone, her dog appears to be straining and trying to get free while she tries to restrain it.
"I'm being threatened by a man in the Ramble," she continues in an audibly distraught voice . "Please send the cops immediately!"
The video ends with Christian Cooper saying "Thank You."
Please note her threat: 'I'm going to tell them there's an African-American man and he's threatening my life." There's no evidence whatsoever that Christian Cooper was threatening Amy Cooper. He stays at a distance; she approaches him. She's letting him know what she'll say to the cops if he doesn't do what she wants. If she were truly in danger, she wouldn't threaten to make the phone call--she'd make it immediately.
Please also note the intentional weaponization of the phrase African-American. Amy Cooper could have said large, frightening, scary-looking, crazy, unhinged, angry--any of a vast number of words to describe why she found a man threatening. She chose African-American. Not once but several times. 
Please note--you have to watch the video there in the link to do this--how her voice changes during the phone call. The first two statements she makes sound matter-of-fact. The last one switches to "audibly distraught" even though Amy Cooper is far away from Christian Cooper, he's not coming closer to her, and whatever threat she feels can not plausibly have increased. 
Black men die in situations like this. Amy Cooper deliberately endangered Christian Cooper's life because she didn't want to leash her dog. If that's not racist, what is?

Thursday, May 7, 2020

On Giving Tuesday, We Gave Thanks. And Books

Judging from the number of emails from various organizations I received asking me to donate, last Tuesday was Giving Tuesday.  At first I thought it was some sort of every-six-months thing, equidistant from the Giving Tuesday right after Thanksgiving, but come to find out it was a Coronavirus thing, because a lot of people need help right now.

My state, Tennessee, has opened back up, though I don't know why as we don't meet any of the suggested federal guidelines. I myself am still quarantining. Back at that start of this mess, in mid-March, I was still coughing hard from the damage wrought by my trip to India, which had ended six weeks previously. Please understand that this isn't really India's fault--no one else on our boat, including all the rest of the tourists and all the staff, got sick from the air pollution, except my husband, who's also asthmatic, and he did much better than me. I wore an N-99 mask most of the time in India, and even then was in really bad shape. I'm a lot better now--no coughing, and I'm exercising again--but the last damn thing I need is the Coronavirus.

So Tuesday, when I went to the post office, I wore my mask again. I had about 200 pounds of books boxed and ready to go out to our Appalachian Literacy Initiative teachers. I print the postage for them here at home, but since ALI ships media mail the post office won't pick it up at my house. (Sometimes I add a first-class package to the mix, and then they do. But also, my postal worker drives a small car, and making her haul 200 pounds of books from my porch to the road and then find room for them among her other mail is not nice.) So all I had to do was dump the boxes inside the post office, which isn't far from my house. Still it was an Outing--I really barely leave the farm these days. These particular books went to teachers in Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina, who have all developed ways of getting them to their students.

I'm so grateful for those teachers. I'm even more grateful to the amazing people who've donated to Appalachian Literacy Initiative these last two years. Thank you, all of you. I stack these brand-new books into boxes and I ship them. The teachers deliver them. You all paid for them. Your work paid for them. I look at our donor list, and I'm astonished, really, that so many people believe in the value of the work we're doing. Students absolutely need access to books, no matter what their family's economic status. I know that to be true. You're giving them that access.

So Tuesday afternoon, when I'd cottoned onto this Giving Tuesday stuff, I thought about writing an appeal. But honestly, times are hard for a lot of people for a lot of reasons right now. We promise to always be good stewards of the money our donors entrust to us. But on Tuesday, sending out those books, and today, two days later, I really didn't feel like asking for more. I just wanted to say thank you.

Thank you. All of you. Somewhere, a child is reading because of you.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Hey, Mickey

Mickey was an off-the-track Thoroughbred; he raced four years and won over $46,000, which is both a lot and hardly anything in the weird world of racing. He was quite small, 15.1 hands, which translates to just over five foot at the shoulder. (Horses are always measured to the top of the shoulder as it's the highest fixed point in their anatomy.) His registered name was Modest Man, which cracked us the hell up, because a more immodest horse would have been hard to find. He knew he was spectacular. When he stopped racing he was bought and retrained for eventing by a teenager who worked for an international rider named Dorothy Crowell. She renamed him Hey Mickey, and rode him for several years, competing him up through preliminary level, which contrary to the name is the fourth of six levels. Problem was, he could only jump prelim cross country jumps if he came into them absolutely perfectly--they're big enough that they hit the limits of what he could jump, leaving no room for error. If he couldn't clear the jump, he refused to try, which was smart of him, but meant he wasn't really suited to his rider's goals. You could see it in his record--flawless cross-country rounds at every level until prelim, then a stop or two, then they'd bump him down a level and he'd be perfect, then back up and he'd have a stop. He just couldn't quite do prelim. 

He was a quirky little guy. He was high-strung and nervous and opinionated. He was also wholly brave and reliable. Katie's old horse, Pal (still with us at 33 years old!) had taken her to the first level of recognized eventing, but Pal was already elderly and was starting to lose soundness. A young friend of mine, barely out of her teens at the time--now herself an international level rider--took me aside and said, "Buy her a beginner novice/novice horse, NOT a training/prelim one." I already understood this, but it's worth repeating because so few people follow it--you want your kid on the horse he or she is ready for right at that time, not the horse they might be ready for sometime in the hypothetical future.

Mickey didn't suit many kids, and he'd been for sale for over a year, but when we started looking, online, he popped up over and over again. I'd go to some horses-for-sale site, enter my basic criteria (already evented, not a pony, middle-aged, middle-priced) and start scrolling through candidates. "Oh, here's one that looks good," I'd say to my daughter. "Oh wait--it's still Mickey." Mickey, Mickey, Mickey. The universe was clearly trying to tell us something. 

It happens that one of my trainers, Cathy Wieschhoff, lives fairly near and is a longtime friend of Dorothy Crowell. Cathy gave me Dorothy's number, and I asked Dorothy, mom-to-mom, about the horse. Dorothy said that if her own daughter wanted to event she'd buy Mickey for her. We went and tried him, and he was calm and happy and rideable. With his owner he could move under saddle quite well; with my daughter, who didn't have the same level of skill at the time, he poked his nose out and trotted happy and loose. He vetted sound. We bought him.

Then my daughter had a great big adjustment, going from a phlegmatic square elderly Quarterhorse to a lively nippy Thoroughbred. We'd planned, however, on a long period of transition--we bought him in the fall knowing she wouldn't compete him until late spring. She had time to learn to quit kicking him in mid-air over every jump, which had been necessary if you wanted Pal to land cantering, but caused Mickey to leap into a gallop. She learned that if he was tense he sometimes needed less control, not more; she learned to let him blow off steam with a nice gallop around a field. She also learned when to say, "Mickey, it just sucks to be you," and cheerfully ignore the temper-tantrums caused, say, by a new martingale.  

Right from the start they understood each other. Very early in his time with us, he was on the crossties in our barn when I walked through with a long piece of hose. Mickey spooked. My daughter pressed her palms against him. "It's not a snake," she said.

Mickey said, "That is too a snake."

My daughter: "Relax. Shh. It's not a snake."

Mickey: "Snake, snake, SNAKE!"

My daughter (still talking out loud, still with her palms on his shoulder): I'm right here. You're okay. You're safe.

Mickey (calming somewhat): okay. Okay. But it's still a snake.

My daughter: Not a snake.

Mickey: long exhale. Leans his head briefly against my daughter's.

My daughter: Mom? Move the snake.

Sometimes at competitions he would get so worked up, inside his stall, that steam would roll off his sweating body. But when Katie rode him into the start box he was perfectly calm. At their first event he was clearly delighted to be competing again, and he bopped around cross country like a Thewell pony. At the second event, he remembered that he used to run prelim, where the speeds are much higher, and he burst out of the box like he was jet-fueled. In the center of the vast field I laughed so hard I could barely watch. "I could still steer him," my daughter said later, "and I knew he would jump everything." However, a low levels, cross country courses have speed limits--for safety's sake riders are fined for going too fast. After a few fences my daughter realized they were going Mach Six. She sat up and trotted an enormous circle. Then they resumed jumping. Mickey picked up speed again, so my daughter added a second huge trot circle. She trotted the last two fences, and trotted the hill going home (after the last fence you're not allowed to go slower than a trot, to prevent riders from avoid speed faults by standing still), and missed getting speed faults by one second. It was a pony club event, and Muffin Pantaze, one of of the technical directors, followed her over the finish line in a golf cart and chewed her out for the next fifteen minutes. When I caught up to them I was still laughing. 

She learned control. They were best-conditioned and highest-placed in several of our local rallies. They were fourth in their division at the pony club national championship. Before my daughter went to college they competed up to training level. They never had a cross-country fault in all their years together.

Mickey died unexpectedly between Thanksgiving and Christmas of my daughter's junior year. He was the same age as my daughter, so getting older for a horse, but still lively in every sense of the word. When my daughter left for college we could have sold him--but I knew it would be hard to find a kid that matched his personality. He'd been wonderful for my child, and I owed him, so I told him he was home. He still is; we buried him beside my daughter's first pony. She rides a new horse now. Sometimes we both find ourselves saying, to the new guy, "Hey, Micks, knock it off." Then we tear up a little. Then we smile.

Hey Mickey. You were so, so fine.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Baby Yo-don't

My sister is expecting her fourth child very soon--she has a c-section planned for April 13th. It's a little colossally nerve-wracking to be having a baby right now, not to mention being very strictly quarantined, and trying to work from home, alongside your already-working-from-home husband, your suddenly-homeschooling first-grader, and your five- and two-year olds. It's a lot of chaos. The happy bits are that 1) my sister's in-laws live right down the street from them, and have also strictly quarantined, so they can jump in to take some of the kids (AND visit the new baby, which makes the rest of us, who are so much farther away and not supposed to travel, nor would we still be under strict enough quarantine to be near the newborn if we did, jealous) and 2) my sister deals with chaos enormously well.

She made a onesie for the baby that says, "I was born during a pandemic."

I made the baby a lovely crocheted baby blanket that's five ombre shades of cyclamen. The yarn is this gorgeous washable merino, soft and warm, which I was saving a special project. My husband suggested that before sending the New Baby something quite so sensationally pink, I wait to see if my sister had a boy or a girl (she doesn't know). He thought I should make a different colored blanket if it was a boy.

I mailed it. If she has a boy, that'll be four boys. If a pink blanket actually tamps down some of the testosterone in her house it would probably be a good thing.

Anyway, I immediately looked for something else to knit for her. I went on Ravelry, and found the best--oh, the best--little Baby Yoda sweater pattern. My sister's family are huge Star Wars fans. I consulted my extensive yarn stash, and found bulky (the right weight) yarn in exactly the right colors, left over from Christmas stockings I knit years ago.

I set about knitting. First I made a cunning little green hood, appropriately slouchy. Kitchener-stitched the top seam, and usually I struggle with Kitchener stitch (I know, I KNOW,  it's not that difficult. We all have our weaknesses) but it came out perfect. Next I made a Right Ear and a Left Ear, to be eventually sewn to the sides of the hood. They, too, were perfect, and they made me laugh.

That was it for the green yarn. I started in on the main body of the sweater. Got to the armpits, set that aside, and made two sleeves, also to the armpits. Then I knit the sleeves onto the body of the sweater, and that's when everything fell apart.

First, I screwed up the sleeve placement, but that's an easy, though annoying (can't you count to fifteen, Kim?) fix. No, the real problem came next, when I picked up the remains of the skein of yarn for the body, and realized that lo, it was almost gone.

I set the little not-finished sweater down. I read through the rest of the pattern. I looked at the shoulder shaping and the neckband and the number of rows still left to knit. If I'd wanted to get fancy I could have weighed the remaining yarn, and the partially-finished sweater, and done some math and figured out exactly how much yarn I had left, but it didn't really matter because the non-mathematical answer was: not enough. Not even close. Not even maybe-you-can-knit-the-neckband-out-of-the-green-yarn close.

I went back to my stash and rummaged through it looking for more of the yarn I knew I didn't have, because I remembered buying it in the first place, and making those Christmas stockings, and I knew there weren't extra whole skeins lying around. I found a different yarn in the same color, lightweight (but maybe I could double it) and oh so much softer. I contemplated a sweater that went along in bulky, hairy, somewhat scratchy wool until just after the armpits, when it switched to softer, lighter, finer stuff. I thought, well, it would be good that the neckband was softer. A neckband of that other stuff would really be irritating to a sweet little baby.

Then I realized that I was making an entire sweater for a sweet new petal-skinned baby out of yarn that I, a confirmed wool lover, would find intolerably scratchy even if worn over a long-sleeved shirt.

I thought, well, my sister could bundle the baby way up. Several layers and the baby would probably be fine. Except, of course, that it would be so hot it would be miserable. Plus it was pretty stupid to imagine a newborn wearing a cap beneath a hood, so that the hood wouldn't scratch its little head.

Then I happened to be walking down my own hallway, and noticed the framed newborn photograph of my sister's second son--wearing a Yoda sweater. In short, she already has one.

That was the nail in the knitterly coffin. My scratchy half-finished sweater is now destined for the frog pond, which is what knitters say when they plan to frog something, which is what knitters say when they're going to rip-it, rip-it. The yarn will return to the stash, and maybe I'll use it for another Christmas stocking or something else that won't be worn against the most delicate possible skin.

Sorry, sis. In the meantime, I'll get busy on something else.

P.S. He's here. He's perfect.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Weird Stuff for Weird Times

So here we are in the Weird Times. It's hard and scary and none of us knows how long it will last. I've been writing cheerful animal blog posts in part because I have so many of them--low-hanging fruit, from a writerly perspective--and also because they're my equivalent of cute puppy videos. I'm a word person, I don't do much with pictures.

A lot of my author friends are doing videos right now of themselves reading their books, or talking to students, and I appreciate them but I don't plan to emulate them. I'm a much, much better speaker in person than in front of a camera. I don't like being in videos. I had to record a few yesterday at my publisher's behest, and my daughter and I knew to put the dog on my lap for them, because if I'm not touching a dog or a horse (or possibly other animals--these are the only two I've tried) my upper lip becomes paralyzed and I look into the video camera in the manner of the condemned facing their executioners.

And I'm actually quite good at school visits, or speeches. So I don't think releasing a lot of hopelessly bad videos of myself is in my best interests so far as attracting (or at least not repelling) future work.

That said, I want to do something. So, when I received not one, but three emails this morning from a young reader who also helpfully included the email addresses of two friends, so that I could reply to all of them, I wrote the following. And then I thought, why not, let's share. Here are some weird things off the top of my head. Please tell me weird things off the top of yours.

Dear P, J, and R,

I'm really happy that you all love my books. Thanks, P, for writing, and for including your friends. Since we're all stuck together apart, because of this quarantine, I thought I'd send you some things about me you probably won't find on my blog.

One: I have ridden an ostrich. It's the Weird Face I pull out whenever anyone wants a Weird Fact about me, but it's also true, and it was hilarious.

Ostriches are really just 300-pound chickens. Their brains are smaller than their eyeballs, and it shows. You don't really "ride" an ostrich so much as you hang on by the wingpits while the ostrich careens wherever it chooses, until you slide off the back of it because you're laughing so hard.

That was in South Africa, one of my favorite places on earth. I've traveled a lot. Ireland, South Africa, and Paris are places I could happily live. (Though probably not full time in Paris. I'm not really a city person. But I'd love it for a month or two, or maybe even three. I love walking in Paris, just wandering and wandering. Sometimes when I'm there I walk 20 miles in a day, not to get places, just to walk.)

OK, that leads me to Two (I'm kind of making this up as I go): underneath Paris are miles and miles of caverns. Paris is built on top of limestone, and most of the city buildings, especially the old ones, are built of rock quarried from beneath them. Imagine Paris as a city with a hidden basement. There are places where you can go down and explore, and some people have parties down there. I've never been to a party, but I have been to the only part that's open to the public--that's the catacombs, and it's extremely weird. In the eighteenth century Paris's cemeteries were getting far too full, so they dug up all the old bones and put them into a section of these underground rooms, and you walk and walk through them. My family thought it was strange that I even wanted to go--they didn't--well, it is--but I found it interesting.

Three. I'm working on a book right now that involves World War II, a famous French castle called Chenonceau, Jewish children fleeing Nazis, and the ghost of Catherine de Medici. I've never written a ghost before, and it's fun. This isn't my next book--that's called Fighting Words, it comes out in August--but I hope it will be the one after that. (Things don't always go as planned.)

If you're planning your own homeschooling right now, I think you should look up Ireland, South Africa, and France on a globe. Then look up the Paris catacombs, Chenonceau, and Catherine de Medici online. That'd knock out geography and history in one go. If you want further reading, investigate the history of apartheid in South Africa, and the heroism of a man named Nelson Mandela. 

That's good for my end. What should I know about you?


Thursday, April 2, 2020

Appalachian Literacy Initiative: Books In a Time of Coronavirus

Life gets stranger every day under the quarantine. I'm fortunate in many ways, the largest of which is that all of my family, near and close, is currently symptom-free. My sister in Wisconsin is expecting a baby in two weeks, and she's never far from my mind. My two children are back living at home. My son does his job remotely from a desk in our living room; he normally lives in Chicago. My daughter is completing her senior year of college online from her childhood bedroom; she's normally in Philadelphia. My husband's ophthalmic surgery center is closed; he and his partners are restricted to seeing emergency patients.

I'm writing, after a fashion. I've got books to review and research to complete.

Tuesday, I spent the entire day sorting, packing and shipping 22 boxes of books to teachers enrolled in ALI.

The schools are closed everywhere. Think about what that means for the low-income children we serve. Sixty-one percent of low-income kids don't have any age-appropriate books in their homes. Their school and classroom libraries aren't currently accessible to them. Public libraries, even if normally within reach, are closed. The rural areas we serve don't typically have bookstores, and if they did, they'd be closed too--and none of these families, in a time of financial uncertainty, are going to be buying books from Amazon.

There's distance learning, of course. They're trying to implement it in Bristol. A lot of the kids don't have wifi or devices to access the internet. That's true everywhere Appalachian Literacy Initiative serves. It's also true that for most of the kids we serve, two of their meals each day were provided by  their school. (In three of Bristol's elementary schools, over 98% of the students get free breakfast and lunch.)

Happily these students have amazing teachers who recognize the obstacles they face. As soon as the schools closed down, teachers and school systems started figuring out ways to get food to the children who depended on it. Then they tackled the problems of learning remotely. ALI is in five states this year, and the solutions each school has come up with vary. I spent a fair amount of time in the last few weeks contacting all the teachers enrolled in our program, figuring out ways to get the books to their kids. In some cases we're still working on it. In others, I sent books to the school, where they'll be given out with lunch. In still others I sent to the teachers at their homes--the teachers are making arrangements to deliver them.

Here's what some of the teachers had to say:

"I could make a Google survey so my kids could choose their books. I will call those who don't have internet. I don't have access to my classroom at this time... If you ship the books to me I will try to deliver them out to the kids." (Bulls Gap, TN)

"We are delivering student work by bus.  This will be a great surprise for them in their folders." (Elk Park, NC)

"Our school is providing breakfast and lunch 2 days per week.  I am seeing several though that.  We also have a bus we are taking food, books, packets, and school supplies to our families who don't have transportation to our school.  I could distribute the books in the third order to families pretty easily." (Fall Branch, TN)

"I can definitely get the books to my students, but you will have to ship them to my home address instead of our school." (Charleston, WV)

"This program has built so much enthusiasm and excitement for my students about reading. Thank you so much for providing such a wonderful thing for our class." (Limestone, TN)

I continue to be acutely aware of the trust the people who've donated to ALI put in me and in the program Tracy and I built. When I look at the boxes of books I see the work it took to create the money that bought them. I also see the good the books are doing in the lives of the children who receive them.

"Hey," one boy said to another, as they were walking out of one of our free-book fairs this year, "let's get together after school, and read."

They can't get together. But thanks to their teachers, and to all the supporters of ALI, they have books at home to read.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Horse who Loves Trick-or-Treat

It's kind of a glum day here. Cloudy and wet, and of course there's the coronavirus. Yesterday morning I spent with my vet (for the record, she's canceled all her routine care. Her farm is also 10 minutes from mine, which is super handy) pulling the third left-hand molar of our venerable Quarter horse, Pal. Pal's 33 years old, and no, horses don't normally live that long, but he looks remarkably good. In some ways old age has improved him--I used to describe his conformation as "a shoebox with legs" but now his spine has sunk a little and he actually has withers. Pal's teeth have aged remarkably well also, in that he still has all of them, and the sucker we needed to remove yesterday still had roots over an inch long. (Horses' teeth, like rabbits, descend as they age, and are worn down by their chewing.) Sarah, my vet (my mare is also named Sarah; yes, it causes confusion) had to work pretty hard to pull it out, but once it came we were rewarded by some really nasty gunk coming out with it--Pal had developed an infection beneath the tooth. There aren't too many veterinary procedures I'd put a 33-year-old horse though, but this one seemed reasonable.

My daughter was there helping. I said, "I should tell a Pal story on the blog." She said, "Which one? There are so many..."

Pal came to us when my daughter was 8, my son was 11, and Pal was 19. He never actually went up for sale, because I'd told his former owner, who was heading to college, that I'd buy him whenever she was ready to sell. My daughter was ready to do more than her small previously-foundered free-to-us pony was capable of. She rode Pal until she was 13; they competed a recognized event together when Pal was 24. He had started to get a little stiff by then, and Katie wanted to keep going. We loaned Pal to a friend for her young daughter to enjoy, and then, after a few more years, loaned him to another friend who used him to teach adult beginners how to ride. Three ago he came back to our farm. His jobs now are to eat grass and be happy. He has done all his jobs well.

Pal is not particularly athletic. He was never fast or nimble or beautiful.

He was good. He was patient and honest and kind.

On our watch he competed in pony club rallies in games, dressage, show jumping and eventing. He did pole bending and barrel racing and competitive trail. My daughter took him on mountain trails and to a high profile event camp, and other than once laying down with her in the water jump (it was such a hot day; the water was so nice and cold) his behavior was, at all times, exemplary.

One starter trials (a non-recognized event with small jumps) in North Carolina inexplicably ran up and down a very large hill. Rider after rider went up the hill and then rocketed down, out of control, gaining speed, missing jumps, falling off. No one was hurt but lots of people were panicking.

Then my daughter set out on Pal. He went up the hill, carefully jumping each jump. Then he came down the hill. My daughter, who had learned how to canter down steep hills, told him to keep moving, and he listened, but in the slowest, most deliberate canter on earth. He carefully jumped the jumps. He carefully came down the hill. By the end of the round everyone was beaming at him, and I could have sold him to anyone there.

But where Pal really excelled was in costume class. Our pony club ran a fun show each year near the end of October. Turns out, if you present Pal with a strange, possibly scary, piece of costume, and at the same time feed him a cookie, he will immediately grasp that the costume means COOKIES, and be all in.

The year my daughter was in fifth grade, she had to dress up as a saint for All Saints' Day, and chose Joan of Arc. I was also dragging her with me to a horse trial over Halloween weekend, and promised that she'd still be able to celebrate Halloween. We combined these with the pony club costume class and went all out.

At Wal-Mart I found a bolt of shiny metallic silver fabric for $2 a yard. I found a large plastic silver sword, a piece of foam board, and some glue. I cut the foam board into the shape of a shield and covered it with the fabric. Then I made my daughter a long tunic, a helmet cover, and some half-chaps, all in silver. I made Pal a silver blanket like medieval armor. I took an old fly mask and covered it with fabric (cutting out holes for his eyes) for a chaffron.

At home we gave the full costume a trial ride in the field, to make sure Pal really didn't mind being decked out in fluttery stuff that caught the sunlight. At the sight of him, our boarder, Syd, spooked wildly in the adjoining field, getting so upset that his pasturemate, my daughter's old pony, Shakespeare, came running. Shakespeare stared at Pal in all his finery, then rolled his eyes at Syd. "Duh," said Shakespeare, "Costume class," and went back to grazing.

My daughter and Pal won the costume class against stiff competition (it was always popular). Without her horse my daughter wore her part of the costume to the All Saints' Day Mass. In between was perhaps Pal's greatest triumph: Halloween.

This was before my daughter was eventing, even at starter trials, but I took Pal with us and my horse to the show. The fall Virginia Horse Trials is a huge affair--up to 400 people competing--and eventers occupy most of the barns at the Virginia Horse Center. My coach, Cathy, brought along her young son and his pony, too.

It happened that the day was packed and it was full dark before we could dress the children. We'd promised them trick-or-treating, knowing that horse people in general, and event riders in particular, are well-stocked with food. So off we went--Cathy and me and our two mounted and costumed children. (Cathy's son was a headless horseman.)

Since my daughter had her hands full with reins, the sword, and the shield, we'd tied her treat bucket around Pal's neck. We went into one of the barns. "Trick or treat!" my daughter and Cathy's son said to the first people they saw.

Much excitement! Adults thrilled at small children riding. Candy in the buckets. Carrots for the pony and for Pal. That went well. On to the next group of people. "Trick or treat!" Candy in the buckets. Carrots for the equines.

Well. Pal learned fast. This was perhaps the best night of his life. My daughter no longer needed her reins. Pal went from person to person, stopping square in front of them, nose out, ears perked. "Trick or treat!" Carrots! "Trick of treat!" Carrots!

There are eight barns at the horse park, around 200 stalls in each. We only let the children go to four of them before we made them put the horses away and packed them off to dinner at Waffle House. They had enough candy to make themselves sick. Ask us how we know.

Meanwhile, I am pretty sure that if I went up to Pal in the field right now and said "Trick or treat!" he'd poke his nose out hopefully, and smile.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Under Dog, Or, Why I was Never Mother of the Year

My son--who's now 25 and normally lives in Chicago, but who's home now because working from our farm where he can use the fitness equipment in the basement and has room to walk outside is marginally better than working from a one-room apartment in a city that's been entirely shut down, came into my office a few minutes ago to say good morning.

(I was actually watching this video that Colby Sharp put up this morning. Oh, my. And I swear I didn't pay him to say all that.)

Anyhow, my son asked what I was going to do, and I said--because my life is closer to normal than most people's now--I was going to write my book, and also probably write a blog post. I told him I'd enjoyed writing about Hazel. "So I thought I might write about Under Dog."

He grinned. "What story would you tell?"

I said, "Maybe how he loved riding in your car with you. He loved cars and he loved you, and being in your car was the best of all possible worlds."

My son said, "Remember how when I came home from college he'd curl himself up on whatever clothes I left on the couch?" (I do. I have a photograph of that--the last photo ever taken of Under Dog. He was very old at the time.)

I said, "Or how he used to curl up inside your big duffel bag?"

My son said, "He knew I was going to take my stuff back with me. He figured that way I'd take him, too."

But then I thought of the best story to tell.

Under Dog was a random small wire-haired terrier with oddly long legs and a Mohawk. We used to call him a CVS terrier, because we found him in the parking lot of a CVS, and it amused the snot out of us when people heard that, nodded sagely, and said, "Yes, of course, I've heard of that breed," or--even better--"So was he imported?"

He was never a smart dog, but he was sweet and loving and loyal. He tended toward anxiety and is the reason I still take my current dog out on a leash to do her business--because he would run down the hill and out onto the road and into traffic every chance he got. He was the first of several dogs I brought home and imposed upon my husband, when the children were just five and two years old. We named him Under, and taught the children to sing the Under Dog theme song even though they'd never seen the cartoon.

That first summer with him, he wasn't quite full grown. He wasn't particularly house trained, never having been asked to be before. It happened that I was under a strenuous deadline for a novel--I'm guessing it was Halfway to the Sky, because the timing would be about right, and because I had to write about a million versions of the ending before I came up with something decent--anyhow, it was summer. My son no longer napped, but my daughter did, right after lunch, and so I told my son that he would need to play by himself for one hour every day while his sister napped and I wrote.

We lived in a raised ranch, a peculiar house. My son's bedroom, the large family room, and a bathroom were all on the lower floor, the rest of the bedrooms, the kitchen, and two other rooms upstairs. The other rooms would have been a dining room and living room, except that we used them as a random play room and my office.

On the first day of summer, after lunch, I read to them both and put my daughter down in her crib. I took my son downstairs, showed him the time on his digital clock, and explained when he could come back upstairs. I said, "I don't want to see you unless you're bleeding or the house is on fire. Got it?" This now strikes me as a fairly horrible thing to say to a five-year-old, but I was feeling pretty fierce about my book and also about Being A Writer. For a long time, that seemed like something I had to fight for, instead of something I just was.

I sat down at my desk in the corner, opened up my manuscript, and heard a small noise behind me. I turned around. Across the room, in the open doorway, stood my small son, actually wringing his hands with anxiety.

I had been alone for two minutes. It was the first day of summer. I barked--and this is probably why I was never nominated for Mother of the Year--"Are you bleeding, or is the house on fire?"

And my poor boy said, "Under Dog just pooped on my train."

I took a deep breath and said, "That counts." We went downstairs together, where I discovered that my son had been in the process of building a very elaborate track with his wooden train set. And there, right exactly on top of a section of track, was a large steaming still-warm turd.

Under looked sorry. But then, he usually did.

When I reminded my now-grown son of the story, just now, he laughed. "It was amazing," my son said. "It wasn't train-adjacent. It wasn't something I could work around. He actually pooped right on top of my train set."

He was a grand dog. With excellent aim.