Monday, August 21, 2017

Totality

It's eclipse day, but before that I need to do laundry. Also buy new tires, ride my horse, return my overdue library books, buy feed, and--oh yeah--write my novel.

My husband is an eye surgeon. He wishes the eclipse were not happening. He has been fielding what he considers Stupid Eclipse Questions for the past few weeks, and here's his answer, put concisely:

Don't look at it.
He says, watch it on TV, which I find ludicrous. Thing is, I've hung out in a partial eclipse before, and it was really interesting. The light got thinner. It wasn't like sunset at all. And if I recall, it was about a 70% eclipse, whereas today, on my farm, it will be 96%.

I wouldn't have to go far to experience totality--the other side of Knoxville, or down to Greenville, SC--about 2 1/2 hours driving, so five hours round trip. I've been balancing the idea of five hours solo in a car with 4% more eclipse--staying home won. I'll sit on my porch and enjoy the eclipse without looking at the sun, which is the important part--not to look at the sun. I didn't buy eclipse glasses and given my husband's attitude probably wouldn't risk them anyhow. And no, I have it on very good authority that regular sunglasses are not the same.

Meanwhile I've got to go fetch my truck, which is getting 6 new tires, hitch my trailer to it, and take the trailer in for 4 new tires. That's a lot of tires, and the old ones still have plenty of tread. However, they also have dry rot. The truck is 16 years old, the trailer 15, and this will be the third set of tires for both.

Also my novel. It's such a hot mess, and the first draft is due September 27th. I spent the last few days doing needed research--I usually write, figure out what I need to research, research, rewrite, on an infinite loop--and taking notes on 3 x 5 index cards. I just arranged those cards chronologically so that now I have a plan, more or less, for the entire scope of the book. But some of the cards are less useful than others. One says, "October." That's it. October. I have no idea what I was thinking there.

In the paper this morning there was a letter to the editor saying that the eclipse was a warning from God. The writer pointed out that in a few years, the next eclipse will run across the country diagonally the other direction, thus marking the United States with a great big X for God to aim at. It would be a more interesting idea if the eclipses hadn't been able to be predicted long in advance, so that everyone knows when they're happening. It's a lot like calling the vernal equinox or even the sunset a warning from God: might be, but then, so might sunshine or rain or dry rot on my tires. I have always believed that religion and science comfortably co-exist.

My first index card for the Egypt book, the one on the top of my story pile, reads, "What is art but freedom of expression?" That's not from any book I read. It's from my trip to Egypt, when one of our tour guides was showing us a small statue from a long-opened tomb. It showed a baker, kneading bread, with a thoroughly exasperated look on his face. The statues of the pharaohs (except Ankhenatun, the heretic) and those of the ancient Egyptian gods all conform to certain ritual forms and proportions, but the statue of the baker was fully intransigently human. It was perhaps my favorite thing in all of Egypt: what is art but the freedom to tell the truth?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

After Charlottesville: What White People Can Do

So, wow, that mess in Charlottesville this weekend, where white supremacists from around the nation converged on a fairly liberal Southern town, ostensibly to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from public land to a museum. Many of them came armed with assault rifles, dressed as militia. Many of them carried Nazi flags or wore swastikas on their clothing. They were nearly all men--it goes without saying that they were all white. One of them rammed a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters with his car. A woman died and 5 are critically injured.

I'm white. I've been thinking hard about what I can do to fight against racism. I would welcome anyone's thoughts and comments. Here's what I've come up with so far.

Step one: acknowledging racism and white privilege. Realizing that all humans have natural inclination toward bias, that these biases damage our society, and that we must be award of them and take action against them.

If you don't believe in white privilege, google "charlottesville militia." Take a look at some of the videos. Note the police response (or lack thereof). Now imagine what the police response would be if the marchers, equally armed, were all black.

Plenty of other things are also white privilege, but that's a start.

Step two: educate yourself. The way to do this is not by pestering those friends you have who are black. Your education is not someone else's responsibility, unless you are still a child (more on that later). Books are my go-to; I recommend Between The World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, and The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. You can also learn a lot from the Southern Poverty Law Center (splcenter.org).

Step three: educate children. Those men screaming hate slogans in Charlottesville were not born that way. Again, books are my go-to, but I've got backup here--there's a growing body of evidence that says reading books increases children's empathy, their ability to relate to others. So--Jacqueline Woodson (from kindergarten with Each Kindness up to YA), Ashley Bryan, Kadir Nelson, Carole Boston Weatherford, Jason Reynolds, Shannon Draper, Marilyn Nelson. Angela Thomas is rocking the world with The Hate U Give, which everyone older than 14 should read. If you're an educator, Southern Poverty Law has a whole lot of downloadable classroom plans.

Step four: go further. What's your comfort zone? Step outside it. Can you make your own world more diverse? What books do you chose? Restaurants? Churches? Where can you expand your own horizons? I recently signed up for an Ally Backpack from Safety Pin Box. I'll report back on what I learn from that.

I know I've got an awful lot to learn. I'm going to do the work. I hope you'll join me.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Fun With Louie and Fred

Two years ago my sister followed her job from Wisconsin to Charlotte, North Carolina. My sister works for the Professional Golfers' Association; she's been part of the women's and men's PGA Championships that took place in Wisconsin, and then she went to Charlotte to be part of the PGA Championship there, which, after two years of on-the-ground preparation, is happening as I type. (Kevin Kisner is in the lead; looks like the cut is going to end up around four over par.) As you can imagine, my sister's putting in rather lengthy hours this week. Her husband, also a golf professional, is working at the tournament instead of from home as he usually does, and her two boys, who I call on this blog Louie and Fred, are 2 1/2 and 4 1/2. Long ago my mother agreed to come for the whole tournament, to help out, and then I did, too, and so did my daughter, and this morning my dad flew in. I also brought our dog, because hey, why not. You'd think this would be a recipe for chaos, and I haven't actually asked my sister how's she felt--mostly because she keeps coming home from the tournament after I'm asleep, and leaving before I wake up--and I'm sleeping on the couch in her living room so it's not like I'm sneaking to bed before everyone else--anyhow, strictly from my point-of-view it's been a lovely time.

Here's the thing: my parents, sister, brother-in-law, and incidentally also husband and son (but they couldn't make it this week) very much love the game of golf. I don't. I was raised by golfers and live among golfers, and I like golf well enough. I don't play it, but I'll happily watch it either in person or on tv. I've been to tournaments before just for fun, and I had fun, but my husband has also been to the Kentucky Rolex Three-Day Event several times and enjoyed himself without actually loving horses or wanting to ride at all, and I think that's pretty much how golf is for me and my daughter. We aren't here for the tournament. We're here to take some pressure off the rest of my family during the tournament.

The boys really need to see their Mommy, so each day we pack them up and take them to the course. We've all got tickets, and we've got parking passes that let us park at the Catholic high school near the tournament, instead of way out at Carowinds like most people. We take shuttle buses from there to the course. Then we walk to the parking lot near my sister's office and retrieve the stroller, put the boys inside it until we come to a colossal set of stairs, take them out, all go down the stairs, put them back, go to the next set of stairs, repeat, and head out to the course, runing through all the misting fans on the way. Then my mom checks to see where the good golfers are--this is what we did for Wednesday's practice round, for Thursday, and for today except today my dad was with us--and the boys decide that they're hungry. Which makes sense, because by then it's lunchtime.

We get food. We watch a little golf. Then my daughter and I take the boys back home, stopping first to let them hug their mom--and today they also got to wave to their dad, who was a walking scorer. My mom, and today my dad, stay and watch golf. They love golf. We take the bus back to the Catholic school and sing Disney songs as we drive home from there, and then the boys nap, and the dogs cuddle up next to my daughter and I, and it's lovely.

Fred, the two-and-a-half-year old, has decided he doesn't like hot dogs. He doesn't like hamburgers. He likes buns. Yesterday he refined this: he didn't want a hot dog bun, he wanted a "bun sandwich." This worked out great, because Louie wanted "chicken fries," and I was able to get a fried chicken breast sandwich, plain, without the sauce, lettuce, bacon or pickled okra it normally comes with, and a side of fries. I took the chicken out of the bun, gave it to Louie, and handed Fred the empty bun, a proper bun sandwich. All was well. They also each ate an apple.

Today Louie wanted a hot dog and an apple, but first he had to use the bathroom. Fred, who flirts with the idea of being toilet-trained, insisted that he also had to use the bathroom. So I told my parents and daughter to get their own food, I'd handle the boys, and I took them out of the stroller and down some more stairs to the toilets, and Fred took one look at the funky toilet and refused to use it, which was fine, except that by the time we'd gotten back up the stairs he was hungry and hot and cranky. "Bun sandwich!' he said. Yes, I assured him. And did he want an apple? NO. He'd eaten his apple with such enthusiasm the day before that I didn't believe him; I asked him several more times. Fred, look at me. I know bun sandwich. Do you also want an apple?

NO NO APPLE.

Where we were was a sort of food court with different stations. The hot dogs and hamburgers were at a different place than the chicken sandwiches and the apples. So I got a hot dog first, handed it to Louie, and asked the counter for a plain bun for Fred.

It was a hot dog bun.

NO, he wailed, BUN SANDWICH.

I had agreed to a bun sandwich all along and I understood precisely what he meant. I found my parents and daughter, who'd commandeered a table and chairs in some shade, set both the boys down, gave Louie his hot dog, and promised to returned with an apple and a proper bun sandwich. Got the apple. Got the chicken sandwich plain as I had the day before. Went back to the table, gave Fred the plain bun sandwich, popped the chicken breast inside the hot dog bun, and starting eating that myself (it was delicious.) Fred looked at Louie wide-eyed, and said, through a mouthful of bun sandwich, "HEY. I WANTED AN APPLE.

Fred Michael, I said, Holy Mother of God. How many times did I ask you if you wanted an apple?

Fred looked at me. He held up his hand, five chubby fingers splayed. Then he folded his fingers, and spread them out again. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty. Then he laughed and laughed.

So did I. So did all of us.

Louie gave him half the apple, and we called it good.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Making Art From Each Day

I heard earlier today that a friend of mine's health has taken a sudden and mostly irreversible turn for the worst. The friend in question is not someone I see often but has been someone I care about for years and years--she rides, and her son competed alongside my children, and for awhile the two of us owned the two oldest ponies in the county. She's always been someone I could entirely trust, and also always been someone who knew how to have fun. We would be the only two moms trying to beat all the little kids --and each other--at pole-bending or barrel racing at the annual pony club horse show. No matter which of us won we would laugh and laugh.

She let me ride her pony sidesaddle, which is how Ada learned how to do it.

Earlier this week I was reading The Art of Living, a new book by Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh. In it, he reminded me of the scientific truth that neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed: it can only be transformed. He offered this as a spiritual truth as well.

At the time I found that wise and true and I suppose it still is. Between my own traumatic head injury and lots of things that have happened to my family and friends, this whole year has been a lesson in the art of living. Nothing more is promised, not one day. So laugh. Teach children, love them, gallop your ponies, and laugh.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

In Which My Beloved Is Stuck On A Boat

We--my husband, daughter, and I--just got back from a trip to France, mostly Normandy. People keep asking how it was, and, well, I loved a lot of the things we did, and the places we saw, and I love France, and I think I would give people legitimate cause to hate me if I ever complained about a trip there, and I'm not complaining. I had a great trip. My daughter had a great trip. But my poor husband spent most of it stuck on a boat.

Let me explain.

Fifteen years ago, when the kids were still quite small, we took a summer vacation where we spent a few days in Boston and a few days in Maine. One day in Maine we decided to go whale-watching. It was a nice big boat and a clear warm day, and the ocean that day looked like a sheet of glass--except of course that the ocean is constantly moving, so the smooth, waveless surface went up and down in gentle swells.

We started out on the open top deck because I was very excited about seeing whales. Not very long after that, at my request, we moved downstairs, inside, and about five minutes later my young son and I were slumped on the bench at the outside rear of the boat, the one reserved for people so motion-sick they were likely to puke over the rail.

We found whales. The whales did amazing things. They breeched, which is that very showy maneuver where they leap wholly out of the water, then fall onto their side with an enormous splash, like whale cannonballs. They swam beside the boat. There were lots of them. And while I saw the whales, and I sort of non-emotionally appreciated the whales, I no longer really cared about the whales at all. All I cared about was getting off that damn boat.

My husband flew to France sick with bacterial bronchitis, on an antibiotic, just not the right one. The antibiotic did a number on his intestinal flora without actually treating the bronchitis. Our first day in France involved an emergency stop at the US Embassy in Paris--more on that some other time--and he was completely wiped out, and then he didn't get better. Between his lungs and his intestines my he had a doozy of a week. Eventually we found a nice French family doctor, who was quite pleased to see us since he'd been carefully learning medical English every Monday from a teacher in Paris, via Skype, and we gave him a chance to practice. ("You have hay fever?" he asked my husband, and my daughter said, "What's hay fever?") The doctor prescribed a useful antibiotic, and when that proved even more of a scourge to my husband's digestive system I found another pharmacy with a very large probiotic section, and used my very limited medical French and excellent sign language to get the pharmacist to help me choose the best one.

And he was still on the damn boat for awhile. The last night we had a special meal planned at a little Left Bank bistro we love, and I was ready to cancel it, because I was not up for another meal that ended with me saying to the waiter, "My husband is sick. I need the check right now, and a cork for this half-finished wine," especially when we were several subway stops away from the hotel and the public toilet situation in Paris is limited. However, my husband felt that the tide had turned. His boat docked, and he stepped off it, a little shaky but determined to go and have an excellent time. So we did.

And if you ever want to know how to lose six pounds while vacationing in France, just ask him. He knows.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Now We Are Fifty

Long ago, when my son was a baby and we lived in Indianapolis, we went over to a friend's house on the summer day that was her daughter's fourth birthday. When we came up the walk the little girl was sitting on the porch steps, next to her cousin who lived down the street. I wished her happy birthday. She beamed, and her cousin slung his arm around her shoulders and said to me, solemnly, "Now we are both four."

I'm a few weeks older than my husband. Today is his birthday, and now we are both fifty.

I had a lovely birthday. My parents came to spend the weekend, and we were in our house in the North Carolina mountains, which I love, and I went to the farmer's market in Boone, which I love. That week I had lunch with some of my girlfriends and they gave me birthday cards that referenced leg hair and wine--I was among my people--and really, even the weather cooperated on my birthday.

I'm sorry to say that my husband is having a substantially worse day. For one thing, he's quite sick. He was feeling a little off on Sunday, then yesterday felt bad enough to stay home from work (this is a man who only missed two days of work when he ruptured his Achilles tendon). This morning he's still not wholly well but he got up early and heaved himself off to the office, where he's got a full day including surgery; we were going to go out to dinner but he's not sure he'll be up for it. Meanwhile his beloved wife, who was sleeping in the guest room to avoid contagion, accidentally set her alarm for PM instead of AM, consequently overslept and didn't see him off or wish him happy birthday in person, let alone make him breakfast or do anything nice for him.

Though I do have presents for later.

Anyway, we are fifty. I expected I'd feel older. Perhaps he does; I'll have to ask.

Fifty has a nice solid heft to it. A half century. A reasonable length of time. The world can change a lot in fifty years, and ours has, in mostly good ways, and for all that I love history I prefer living now. We've had a couple of sharp wake-up calls this year--my head trauma, some life-changing events in family and friends--and it's made us think hard, what do we really want to do with whatever time we have left? We both hope it's lots of time--I think living to be 100 sounds great--but of course that's not our call. Very little is our call, except how we chose to react to our situations, how we spend each small portion of our time. We were walking through Grant Park in Chicago on Saturday and my husband slipped his hand into mine, and I thought, I've been married 28 years to a man who still wants to hold my hand. 

Now we are both fifty. Let the second act begin.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Perfect Day in The City of Big Shoulders

We went to Chicago this weekend to see our son. Saturday was a sort of perfect day, one that began and ended in loveliness (except for the final score of the Cubs game). It was clear sunshine, low-70s, the kind of weather I can't ever remember from my own Midwestern summers (usually 90, high humidity). We, my husband, daughter, and I, met our son for breakfast at a diner near our hotel called Hash Browns, because that is what they specialize in. Our son got there before we did and was sitting outside at a sidewalk table wearing his Javier Baez jersey with a baseball cap on backward, and he grinned when he saw us and that was the start of a very good day.

We walked downtown--we were on the near north side, it was a bit over a mile--through pleasant, tree-lined streets and then the bustle of the main shopping area. First we went to Maggie Daley park, a wide new public space on the lakefront. It had climbing walls and a dedicated area for roller skating, but what attracted us was the mini golf, because in our family we love mini golf. And I came in second of us four, and I had a hole-in-one, and I won a free game. That's all true.

Then we walked straight south to the adjoining Grant Park, home this weekend to Taste of Chicago, one of Chicago's best festivals. Something like 100 food booths and food trucks, selling full-sized or small "taste" portions. We headed right for the pierogis and split two full portions between the four of us. I'd been eager to try the Philly cheesesteak pierogi, and they were good, but nothing actually tops your traditional potato pierogi.

Washed that down with local Chicago beer. Moved on to a taste of a banana dumpling, which was a mistake, as it was spicy greasy meat with no trace of banana at all. Something got lost in translation there. Then we sampled truffle fries, then I tried cucumber gazpacho, my husband had a bbq chicken slider, my son ate shrimp and my daughter went with a taste of a fancy grilled cheese sandwich and an enormous pickle. Ice cream and fruit ices for dessert.

By then Grant Park was getting overwhelmed with people. We walked back up to the shopping district, stopping off at an outdoor wine bar to play a hand of pinochle. (This was the only downside to the weekend: at every opportunity, my daughter and I got absolutely spanked in pinochle. It was karmic retribution for the way the two of us dominated the previous vacation.)

Then Niketown. My son needed another pair of pants to wear to work (he's with US Soccer, which has a contract with Nike, which means my son can't wear his UnderArmor khakis in the office. not kidding.).

Then we tried to take an Uber to the best ice cream store in Chicago but it turned out to be a branch that wasn't opened yet, so we walked from there to a grocery store to stock my son's cupboards (in a big city it helps to have four people to carry the groceries home). Walked to my son's apartment. (I ended up with 24,000 steps for the day). Brief nap. Walk to second attempt at best ice cream in Chicago, and it was amazing. I had a summertime special flavor that was a Nashville craft beer with rosemary bar nuts made into ice cream, which sounds like a mistake but wasn't.

From there took the train to Wrigley field.

I've realized as my children have grown into adulthood that there are places where, when I return, I will see their ghosts. Wrigley was one of those places. My children have actually been there several times without me--the last time I was at a Cubs game it was with them when they were very small. That had been a day game in the spring--warm but not hot--and we had box seats behind home plate. An usher brought them coloring books and crayons. I remember my daughter's happiness as she sat on the ground using her open seat as a table while she colored. I remember the amazement on my son's face at the thought that anyone might think he would be interested in coloring during a baseball game, let alone his very first Cubs game at Wrigley.

These small children hang out with us, wedged invisibly in the seats with their now adult counterparts, my beautiful, snarky, whip-smart children. They make me very happy.

The game was fabulous, too. It was a wonderful evening to be at a ballgame--perfect temperature, great seats, a pretty good game but for that last score. We stayed until the very last out, then headed back to our hotel on a packed train.

You don't get perfect days that often. It's best if you have the sense to cherish them.

"City of big shoulders" comes from Carl Sandburg's poem Chicago. It's in the public domain, so here it is:

Chicago

        Hog Butcher for the World,
        Tool maker, Stacker of Wheat,
        Player with Railroads and the Nation’s 
             Freight Handler;
        Stormy, husky, brawling,
        City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
            Bareheaded,
            Shoveling,
            Wrecking,
            Planning,
            Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,
             Laughing!
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.