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.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Randomly on the Third of July

We're having an odd sort of holiday this year. The Fourth is on a Tuesday, which may be the worst possible option, and my husband, an ophthalmologist, was on call for the weekend and still is for today. For the first year in a long, long time, we are not hosting a big family celebration. My sister's heavily pregnant, my brother's preparing to take his young family on vacation to South America, my parents were just here for my birthday, and my husband's dad is in the midst of moving houses. Also everyone has to be back at work early Wednesday morning, and many people, my husband included, are working today. (As am I, as far as that goes. But my schedule is very flexible.) So while the Fourth of July and surrounding days are usually all about fireworks, baseball, and my husband's famous firecracker ice cream--this year, we still have no idea how we're spending tomorrow. Some of that will depend on what happens with my husband's call. July Fourth is the worst possible holiday for ophthalmology call, because between fireworks, barbecues, and alcohol, there are so many opportunities to put out an eye.

All that is not to say that I'm not having a perfectly fine day. I've really enjoyed the farm this week. I'm back to riding, my mare got her hocks injected and is feeling spry, the weather's gorgeous and my daughter is home. I'm writing, and the early reviews of TWIFW are good.

Also we have peaches.

Nineteen years ago, when my husband and I first bought the open fields that would become our farm, we planted a fruit orchard. We really enjoyed gardening at the time and we had lovely homesteading ideas about life on a farm. Many things about the farm panned out as expected--the horses, the barn the hay fields--but the orchard turned out to be a bit of a miss. Orchards take a lot of work, and where we live, that work is quite often not rewarded--two or three years out of every five, late frosts zap our blossoming trees, and then there's no fruit. You're supposed to spray orchards on a regular schedule but we never get around to it--I like to call it organic farming, not neglect--and the plum trees caught some awful disease, and mostly if there's fruit at all the deer eat it. I don't really care. I usually have a whole host of things that need to be done and the orchard perpetually falls farther down the list than I get, and I've made peace with that. I grow some asparagus and some blueberries and I really really need to weed or till or something there, and I don't, and so far the world has not come to an end.

But this year, for the first time ever, our trees are packed with peaches. Large, healthy, luscious peaches. Hundreds of peaches. We're making forays into the orchard every few days to pick the peaches that are ready. I'm lining them up on the kitchen counter. We're making peach smoothies and peach clafoutis and I'm starting to contemplate peach jam. I made strawberry jam this summer, for the first time in a few years. (We long ago gave up trying to grow strawberries, mostly because there's a local farmer who grows gorgeous ones and sells them at a stand on the Volunteer Parkway, and his are so much better than anything I can grow. They're so much better than store-bought, too. Word spreads around town late every spring when the strawberry stand goes up, and I buy them every few days as long as they're on sale.)

Anyway, I'm rambling. I knew I would be rambling. It's a rambling sort of day.

Enjoy the fireworks, everyone, but wear your safety glasses. Trust me on that.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Put A Horse In It

Every so often you learn something new about yourself. I have known for a long time now that I am not particularly good in front of a video camera. I'm very comfortable in front of a live audience--I don't mind giving speeches, and I adore classroom visits--but when I'm faced with some sort of machinery I struggle. Some schools have morning news programs, student-run, and I'll be the visiting author who keeps staring at the monitor, not the camera or the kid who's interviewing me, with the result that the camera films me seemingly looking at the ceiling. Last year Dial sent a professional video crew to my house to film a promotional clip. They were lovely guys, and I even knew one of them slightly--he grew up in my hometown, and his brother is a cantor at our church. And he was kind and non-threatening, and he'd ask a question, and I'd answer, and he'd smile and say, "Okay, can you repeat that without the umms?"

Umm, no.

Then last year I had to do a brief video clip to be shown at the Newbery/Caldecott banquet. My daughter's very good with cameras, so she filmed it. It took forever. My face froze the moment she said, "go." My upper lip did this thing where it acts paralyzed, and I look frightened, and I stumble over my words, which I rarely do in real life. We tried over and over to make the stupid video and in the end sent something in where I still looked like a mannequin version of myself. Of course all the other awardees were stylish and polished, and some of them had clearly cleaned their offices. And my clip was played over and over on a screen ten feet high.

Now suddenly I'm doing a spate of small home-grown clips, mostly for things like state book award lists. We had one regrettable video shot by my husband, in my front yard, and it was clear that practice was not improving my performance. Then I had an idea.

My daughter had just gotten home from college, and I was just allowed back on my horse, post-concussion. Her idiot horse had thrown a shoe and couldn't be ridden, but as we were only planning to amble around the fields anyhow she decided to saddle up Pal, our 30-year-old trusty Quarterhorse who is in fact the emotional model for Butter, the pony in TWTSML. I'd saddled Sarah, my mare, and my daughter had Pal, and suddenly I had a great idea--I'd shoot the video with the horses, and our gorgeous mountains in the background.

Sarah is normally somewhat pig-headed and inclined to want attention, but she was so pleased that I was riding again that she posed in particularly mannerly fashion, like a little girl who wants her mother to notice she's being good. Pal, our farm's candidate for canonization, felt itchy--he nearly always feels itchy--and kept trying to step in front of my so I could scratch his withers for him. So, while talking, I had to keep moving Pal back.

And it went great. I said everything I wanted to say in a natural voice with a non-paralyzed upper lip. It was far and away the best and easiest video I've ever done.

My daughter said, "Clearly, the secret is to put a horse in it."

Clearly, that's true. I have no idea why. But last night we shot a video for the schoolchildren of Oklahoma. We stuck me in between Sarah and Pal, with the mountains in the background, and all went very well.

It's too bad I can't take horses with me on school visits. Imagine how awesome that would be.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Into the Reeds

I've been wrestling with my Egypt book for some time. With the completion (halleluia) of TWIFW, I have no choice, really, but to work on something new, and also I've now got an actual deadline, and I take deadlines seriously whenever possible, which it usually is.

So I'd written some stuff I liked pretty well, for a first draft, and then I hit a wall. At first it felt like a describe-Cairo kind of wall, like I would have to figure out how my POV character would experience Cairo in the 1920s. That looked like research, but of the sort that can trip writers up--you can disappear down the Cairo rabbit hole when no one actually cares about Cairo at all.

I was contemplating this when my schedule hit the fan. My son graduated, we took a lovely but oddly-timed vacation (because that was the only time we could take a vacation), and then I spoke at a conference and then I helped my son move to Chicago, and on top of all that I spent last weekend in Kentucky learning how to fall off a horse without concussing my head. So I've not done much writing beyond routine work of book reviews and conference speeches. But I had a lot of down time, travel time or what have you, to think, and what I ended up thinking was not no one actually cares about Cairo at all--though that's true, at least in the context of my hatching novel--but what's the big thing you're missing?

I thought about what I'd written so far, and I realized that one specific word leaped out at me, annoyed me each and every time I typed it, which was often. I realized I'd tried to find ways around using this particular word, but couldn't. I'm not going to tell you the word, but I realized that I'd learned a few things from the nine drafts of TWIFW, one of which is, if you don't like the emotions arising out of a situation, change the situation. Preferably before the fifth draft.

So I changed the situation to make the word I didn't like go away, and lo, there's the book. It's still a huge chunk of research and it's still not going to be easy, but it's also all good. I've spent the morning scribbling with a pencil onto paper---first my little note cards, which I love, and then, when I needed a wider space, an old cheap spiral-bound notebook. and we're all there.

Hooray, hooray, hooray.

I was in the weeds, but now I'm in the reeds: Aaru, the ancient Egyptian version of paradise as a set of small islands covered with reeds and rushes, surrounded by the life-giving Nile.

If you need me you know where to find me. I'll be here for some time.

Friday, June 16, 2017

In Which My Son and I Get Things Done

So I flew up to Chicago on Friday morning--a week ago now, time's flying. I took an Uber to my son's new apartment. He'd driven to Chicago the night before, picked up his key first thing that morning, and, by the time I arrived mid-morning, had unpacked the entire contents of his car and organized an impressive amount of his belongings. If my superpower is packing, his is unpacking.

First we had lunch. Then we went searching for the city clerk's office, so that he could buy a sticker that would let him legally park on the city streets near his apartment. It's a complicated system but the woman who helped us was cheerful and friendly.

After that we went to IKEA. Now, until this spring I had never stepped foot into an IKEA store. I'd heard rumors that one could buy basically anything legal at IKEA, and that it was the go-to place for cheap set-up-an-apartment furnishings. My sister in Charlotte kindly took me to the IKEA near her house so that I could see for myself, and yes, it is true--you can buy damn near everything there. So that's what we planned to do.

My son's apartment, as measured by our pacing (he's used to pacing distances for golf, I'm used to it for show jumping, so we're good at it), is 380 square feet, all one room except for closet and bath. The longest uninterrupted wall is about 13 feet long. We knew he didn't need much and we were careful not to buy anything we weren't certain he'd need, but we got a bed, mattress, couch, coffee table, tiny tv stand, and a little bistro-type folding table and chairs, for when he wants to eat at a proper table. Also plates, forks, that sort of thing. We arranged to have all the furniture delivered the next morning. We carried all the small items up to his apartment and we went out to dinner pleased with ourselves, arguing over whether or not we'd have time for a Cubs game Sunday afternoon and what the odds were of winning the Hamilton ticket lottery.

Ha. That was very nice. In the morning we woke up, ate breakfast at the hotel, went to the apartment, couldn't find street parking anywhere because half the streets in the neighborhood were closed off for a street fair, parked in a highly expensive garage, attempted and failed to get TV set up, or internet, and unpacked the plates and put them away. Then we waited for the delivery truck.

And waited. At quarter to twelve they called to say they would be there at 12:18. And then they didn't come. We called them around one--shit, the guy said, the truck broke. He was sitting in the broken truck. It was his first week on the job and he didn't know what to do.

My son and I went to lunch. We were hungry. Afterward I tried to call the delivery guy for an update, and he didn't answer the phone. I called IKEA customer service. They were absolutely staggeringly unhelpful to a degree that still astounds me. My furniture, they said, was on a truck, and the truck was broken, and the earliest they could deliver my stuff was Monday.

Nope, I said. I'd be flying home and my son would be starting his job on Monday. This was early afternoon Saturday. We needed to get his apartment set up.

Suck it, they said.

I told them to cancel the order. They told me they didn't have the authorization to cancel the order, but if I wanted to wait on the phone they could get me to someone who would accept the cancellation, only the hold time was over 30 minutes.

I hung up and said some choice words--my son and I had a very creative vocabulary from this point in the weekend on--and we walked to Best Buy so I could cool off and my son could buy an internet router and feel he'd accomplished something. The Best Buy was very far away; I'd forgotten how my son measures walking distances. He walks everywhere. But it worked--by the time we were done with Best Buy, we were calm and had a plan.

We rented a U-Haul cargo van, and headed back to IKEA. One handy side effect of pulling a horse trailer with a big-ass dually pickup truck is that driving a cargo van in crazy city traffic is just not that difficult. We bought all the same stuff over again. We cancelled the delivery order--the in-person IKEA people were helpful, not obstructionists--heaved all the stuff into the cargo van, drove back through nightmare highway congestion (how people survive in cities I just don't know), then unloaded the van and carried all the stuff up to the apartment, which sounds so, so much easier than it actually was. The mattress was very nearly the end of me.

It was by this time 8:45 at night. The UHaul had been due back at 8. I drove it to the garage where my son's car was, he hit the UHaul address on my phone GPS so I could find the UHaul place, and then I drove off; he was going to retrieve the car and follow me.

Only. First, as I was a quarter-mile away from my destination, my phone died entirely. I'd forgotten my charger and we'd been using it as a GPS for hours. Second, it was the wrong UHaul place--a little storefront instead of a massive place for trucks and cargo vans.

I sat in the street with my hazards blinking. Eventually, sure enough, here came my son. His phone had enough battery that we could find the correct UHaul place, where they were entirely unfazed by the fact that I was bringing it back an hour past their closing time. Some guys were still working in the lot and they waved at me to just leave it where I pulled it in.

So. We were dying for supper. While I wasparking the UHaul my son ordered Chinese food online, to be delivered to his apartment. Genius. We drove back, and just across the street from his apartment building, like a miracle, was a very small open parking space. He attempted to park in it. I got out to help him. Turns out the spot was just a few inches too small--I was bent over, telling my son through the open car window that we'd have to find somewhere different--and I looked up, and suddenly the entire street was full of bicycles. Ridden by people who weren't wearing clothes.

It was Chicago's Naked Bike Parade, and we were trapped in it. We couldm't leave the car as it won't fit into the space. We couldn't pull out without mowing down a dozen cyclists. We had no option but to sit in the car while naked people of every variation cycled past us. For the next 25 minutes.

I could not possibly be making this up.

Eventually we found a parking place and our Chinese food was delivered, and we ate it and then put the IKEA bed together so my son would have a place to sleep. We finished all that around 12:30 at night.

The next day we put together all the rest of the furniture, cleaned everything up, hung pictures, and shopped for groceries and for things like shower curtains and waste baskets and beer. We didn't get to see the Cubs or Hamilton, but we finished with pizza at a nice neighbor joint, knowing that, against formidable odds, we'd done well. 

Friday, June 9, 2017

Ridiculously sentimental but there you are,

I'm sitting at a little cafe in the Atlanta airport (you can find damn near anything in the Atlanta airport) wondering why it's taking the waiter so long to bring me my coffee. It's very, very early--I left Bristol on the 6 am flight--but I've already walked an impressive amount today, mostly because I walked from my previous terminal to this cafe, realized I'd left my iPad on the plane, walked back to fetch it, and returned. I'm typing this on my iPad now. It's all good,

When I was walking down D terminal, the first time, I saw a young family, mom, dad, and tiny floppy baby in mom's arms. The dad leaned forward and gave the baby a kiss, and the baby responded with a sloppy toothless grin. And memory hit me like a sucker punch.

My darling baby boy smiled like that, just exactly like that, the very first time he smiled at me. And then, only a few weeks after his first smile, his dad and I took him on an airplane for the first time, to visit my friend in San Francisco. We flew from Indianapolis with a layover at Chicago's O'Hare.

It's O'Hare I'm headed to today, to help my now-adult son get settled into his first post-college apartment. He drove himself and all his belongings, crammed into his Civic, there yesterday, while I was speaking at the TTU IRA conference in Cookeville, TN. Cookeville is about 3 1/2 hours' drive from my home, 4 if you hit Knoxville at rush hour, which I did, When I got home it was quite late and my daughter, home from her first year in college, had dinner waiting--barbecue chicken on baked potatoes. She'd picked blueberries from my neglected garden and we ate them with the last of the shortcake I'd made for company dinner on Tuesday.

It seems like such a short time ago that I walked through O'Hare with my baby in my arms. I was so happy then--I'd wanted very much to be a mother. I'm so happy now. These children have been my joy.