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.