Saturday, May 27, 2017

Light at the End of a Graduation

Last week I went to my nephew's high school graduation. The school was in York, Pennsylvania and it seemed like a very nice school. Example: when my husband and I parked in an overflow lot and began our long trek toward the building, a woman holding a baking pan and a spatula welcomed us to the school and offered us a brownie. I mean, come on, homemade brownies in the parking lot? How lovely is that?

I get teary at graduations. The band playing Pomp and Circumstance. The kids lining up in their caps and gowns. Their young faces are radiant. You can practically see the emotions scrolling across their features, a mix of excitement and hope, anxiety and fear, but mostly, it's joy. (Okay, I used to be a high school English teacher, so I know that some of that joy is related to them thinking: Woo Hoo! Thank God I am finally finished with high school!!)

My husband and I high-fived our nephew as he walked past and then settled in for the program. Introductions by the principal. Speeches by select students. This is the time, I confess, when I typically tune out and peruse the graduation program, reading the names of the students and seeing what honors and awards they've received, the plans they have for after high school.

The president of the student council stepped up to the microphone and gave the first speech. It was the usual speech you hear at these things. A rundown of fun stuff the class had experienced together over the years, how hard they'd worked, how ready they were to move on to the next chapter in their lives and make the world a better place.

I love the optimism of teens, the sense that the future is bright and their generation won't muck things up like the previous ones have. I want to believe them.

But I am struggling.

The night before the graduation the man running for Congress in Montana physically assaulted a reporter who asked him a question about healthcare. At the same time, over in Europe, our president who was attending a NATO conference, pushed the leader of Montenegro out of his way. I am trying to imagine any other president we have ever had in our country doing this--physically laying his hands on another world leader and pushing him. Obama, Bush, Clinton, the other Bush, Reagan... I can't visualize it.

Something is different. We've taken a dark turn as a country.

My son, who graduated from college last year with a double major in history and computer science, argues with me on this point. Our country has never been perfect, he reminds me, and this particular time is no darker than any other. We went to war with each other once, for example. We've chosen despicable leaders before. In 1856 a congressman from South Carolina beat a Massachusetts congressman on the head with a walking cane.

So yeah, I guess we are somewhat more civilized now.

In the small town of York, Pennsylvania, the leaders of the class were still making their speeches. One by one. The vice president of the student council. The valedictorian. The salutatorian. The class president. The vice president. They were all teen girls.

The valedictorian told a story about switching schools, moving from the city school district to the suburban. Apparently, there is a large income disparity between the two districts, even though the high schools are only two miles away from each other. She talked about how the city kids have art and music classes in a hallway because there isn't enough classroom space, how they have fewer sports and honors classes than their counterparts here, at York Suburban. It's time to acknowledge the unfairness, she said, as members of the audience squirmed uncomfortably, and resolve as a community to do better.

The salutatorian had just came back from a science competition in Los Angeles. She spoke of the amazing projects she'd seen, the many talented scientists she'd met. As a person of color, she was inspired she said, to meet such a diverse group of people from all over the country and the world, already playing a part in tackling the challenges we face.

The class president spoke passionately about a book she'd recently read called Chop Wood Carry Water about the long, arduous, behind-the-scenes and often thankless process that must take place if we want to become experts in our fields. Trust the process, she told us. In the end we will achieve greatness.

Speeches over, the students filed up to receive their diplomas.

The next day, that man running for congress in Montana was charged with assault. He also won his election. The American president practiced his bizarre grippy-tug handshake on the president of France. Meanwhile, in the suburban district of York, Pennsylvania, the newly graduated students woke up to the first day of the rest of their lives, defiantly hopeful.

Remember these names. You will hear them in the future:

Parker Faircloth-Henise
Elizabeth Kuree Huh
Alexandra Jane Babinchak







Thursday, May 18, 2017

Displanted

The day before Mother's Day my daughter left home to head back to school, a nine-hour drive, alone, one she's done several times before, but still sets my mom-nerves on edge. I dug around in my garden to keep my mind busy, poking green bean seeds in the ground and transplanting seedlings, every hour or so, my husband calling out updates of our daughter's progress.

He's got some tracking thingy on his phone, and yeah, I know, there's a creepy/stalker-y element to this, but we can't help it. We want to picture our child in the driver's seat, coasting along on her journey, the closest we will get to being in the car with her

she's crossing the bridge in Cincinnati 
she's approaching Louisville
she's an hour outside Mammoth Cave

I go back to my digging and poking and mulching, relieved for the moment that she's safe and that much nearer to her destination. For the last few years I've been planning my garden ahead of time, drawing the plots out on graph paper, no longer content to randomly throw things in the ground.



There's a weird comfort in setting the borders, arranging the plants. Each year my plans are more elaborate, more structured. One large bed grown into two, and then grown into four. And now I've got side beds filled with herbs, a rock garden, corners stuffed with potted plants. In winter I checked out a stack of garden design books from the library and read them like they were novels.

Something cool I learned: my four square garden pattern can be traced all the way back to monastery gardens in Medieval times. What is it about this particular structure, about any structure--

she's nearing the Tennessee border
she's on the other side of Nashville

Something sad I learned: My daughter has been away at school for two years now, and even though I am fully adjusted to empty-nester life, each time she comes back and then leaves again, it's a fresh loss.

I draw a line in the dirt for my marigolds, trying to envision them blooming like a flowery fence in front of my tomato plants.

she's outside the city
she's there, she's home

The dog trots out to bask in the sun as I nudge the seeds into the ground. I know how it goes. Mid summer and these bare beds will be dense with plants, the reality different, despite all of my planning, from what I can imagine today. Plants tangled up with other plants, some overgrown, some drooping. Weeds working there way through despite all of my mulching.

A pumpkin (did I even plant a pumpkin?) poking up in an unexpected place, hopping over the perfectly drawn border into the grass beyond.  





Friday, May 5, 2017

Dispatches from a Reluctant Activist

The hardest part is the drive downtown, the navigating of interstate changes, the search for a parking garage.

Confession: I live 12 minutes from downtown Columbus. As far as city traffic goes, it's on the light side. But I am such a baby when it comes to driving places, going places, I should say. Last month my husband's car was out of commission and he took mine to work for a week and I didn't even notice. I spend my days in one room for the most part, changing out of my pajamas and robe only to walk the dog.


And lately, to drive downtown to protest or to attend meetings or to speak to my state Rep or to my Congressperson or to pass out flyers. Ever since I marched in the Women's March in Washington DC, I made a resolution to Do Something each week.

Last week, for example, I wheedled my husband into marching with me in the Science March. Talk about reluctant activists. This march was a gazillion miles out of the man's comfort zone.

Also, I made it worse by giving him a sign to hold:



People came up to him, strangers. They said it was their first march too. They slapped him on the shoulder and thanked him for coming out. They asked him if they could take his picture.

It was excruciating for me to watch his discomfort, and finally, I offered to hold the sign, and people stopped me instead and my husband would squirm and say, "Actually, that's my sign."

But anyway, back to why I was driving downtown. It was for an Advocacy Day organized by Freedom of Choice Ohio. When I signed up to go, I had no idea what it was-- some all day meeting?

Turned out, it was a education session of sorts, where different groups spoke about issues affecting women and children and families in Ohio and the impact that legislation would have on them in the coming year. After we had the information, we would march over to the Ohio Statehouse and pair up with a buddy, and meet two-on-one with an Ohio representative to share our personal stories.

The day was alternately inspiring and crappy.

Inspiring, because the speakers were so smart and caring and dedicated and I believe in this cause, that women have the right to make their own medical choices without politicians interfering, that we have the right to plan our families, deciding if and when we will have children, that even the poorest among us have the right to our own bodily autonomy--

and crappy, because it all feels like such a long slog and who knew the democratic wheels turned so slowly, with so many layers and hoops to jump through.

I walked with my buddy, an older woman who seemed very quiet and reserved and stereotypically grandmother-ish, but oh wow, she surprised me when we met with our representative, how knowledgeable she was, and how passionate.

The rep himself, was a very nice guy-- thank you, Steven Arndt for taking time out of your day to listen to us, for sharing your own story and for hearing ours -- My story, for the record, boils down to Me, age fifteen, walking up to the Planned Parenthood in my neighborhood (yes, I really had a PP in my neighborhood-- a ten minute walk away) where I went for medical advice and to obtain birth control, because, oh my God, I was fifteen and sexually active, which is crazy to me now, what a messed up mix of contradictions I was back then-- an honors student at a private Catholic high school, a damaged girl clinging to a doofball boyfriend, scared enough to know that I did not want to get pregnant-- like the girl in my class who was publicly shamed for doing the "right thing" by having her baby.

That girl almost died of pre-eclampsia during her labor. I don't know what happened to her after, what kind of life she's led.

But I know what happened to me. I had opportunities-- college, graduate school and upper middle class life. Eventually, children, who were planned, wanted, loved. Still, I can't forget the poor sad girl I knew and the poor sad girl I was and how different circumstances could've been for me, and how lucky I was to be aware that there was a place I could go, somewhere safe and welcoming and non-judgmental.

All this I told Mr. Arndt and he nodded politely, but who knows how he will vote in the future on these issues, if it was worth his time or mine to have our conversation, if it changed anything.

I didn't know it yet, but the very next day, the Republicans in the House of Representatives would vote to take away healthcare from 24 million Americans. Part of their cruel proposal restricts the right of poor women to choose where they go to receive medical care.

Done for the day, and my new buddy and I walked back to our cars and paid for our parking. (another area of stress for me. How do I get the damn parking ticket to go properly into the slot?!)

We exchanged business cards and smiled at each other. Maybe we'll meet up at another of these things, my new friend said.

Most definitely.















Sunday, April 30, 2017

Things I Did This Weekend Instead of Writing a Blog

Goal this weekend: Write a blog

(side note, I write four blogs a month. It's a goal I set for myself a few years ago and for the most part I do it. It's a weird goal because I mean, who cares? I don't get paid for these blogs. Nothing bad will happen if I don't post one, but still... it bugs me like a little itch when the end of the month sneaks up on me and I haven't yet written my fourth blog.)

Instead of writing a blog, I did this:

*Made a turtle out of clay

with my friend Natalie at this pottery place where we were supposed to play around with clay and make cups or bowls and decorate them in a whimsical way, and I started getting panicky/perfectionist-y, how I always do when it comes to arts and crafts, but I kept playing with the clay, joking that I'd let it speak to me and tell me what it wanted to be, and weirdly this worked. 

It wanted to be a turtle. 



*Caught the tail end of Mindy McGinnis signing her fifth book




at Cover to Cover Book Store and got my book signed and talked to the owner, Sally Oddi, about how she is going to retire and sell her bookstore!!! --something that is killing me because Cover to Cover is an awesome bookstore (one of the oldest, continuously operated, children's bookstores in country-- 37 years!!) If you want to buy it, please call Sally. 

I'm serious. (614) 263-1624

*Went out to dinner with Natalie because we realized it was our three year Friend-a-versary, and if that is not a thing, it should be.

*Read most of the book Dreamland by Sam Quinones


which is a really horrifying examination of the opioid epidemic and how Big Pharma pushing pain meds and misleading doctors about how addictive these drugs are was happening around the same time a group of men in Mexico started selling black tar heroin in small towns across America.  

*Helped my neighbor paint some trim on his house


Because last summer he helped my husband and me paint our back porch, and I was like, No problem, I can totally climb up onto your roof and paint that small stretch of trim. This was scary but I inched up and down the roof on my butt and fell into a zen-like place of painting and thought about the time when I was nineteen and got hired on by my boyfriend's painting crew to paint the trim of all of the McDonald's in the Central Connecticut area. 

*Tore a hole in my shorts from inching up and down the roof on my butt.

*Mulched my flowerbeds


*Helped my husband lay a brick patio


 Oh. And I guess I wrote a blog. 

The end. 



Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Battling the Yips


For the past few weeks I've been slogging through my day's writing work-- NO, I DO NOT HAVE writer's block, maybe more like writer's cube if that is a thing. Anyway, each day, as a reward for completing my goals, I've been listening to the Fresh Air podcast.

I love tuning in to hear interviewer Terry Gross talk to actors, artists, directors and authors. The app is cool because you can skip around and choose the episodes you want to listen to. 

I almost skipped today's episode: The 'Phenomenon' That Changed MLB Pitcher Rick Ankiel's Life because I never heard of Rick Ankiel and I'm not much of a baseball fan. But before I could turn it off and switch to another episode, the interview started. Rick Ankiel, apparently, used to be this awesome pitcher and now he's got a new book out, a memoir called Phenomenon. 

When he was only twenty years old, people were raving about how good he was and he knew it. He skipped past college and signed a million dollar contract to pitch in the major leagues. It looked like he was on the road to having a great career, but suddenly, during a playoffs game, he threw the ball and it didn't feel right. 

He had this nightmare game, unable to control his pitches, the ball shooting off in random directions, and all of this happening on live TV, with announcers commenting about it and the crowd booing him. When the game was over, he told himself it was a fluke thing and figured that with a rest, he'd be back to normal. 

But he wasn't. 

He couldn't seem to throw the way he had before. He tried everything he could think of to fix the problem. Going back to the mechanics, he called it. Practicing. Watching what other pitchers were doing and trying to copy them. Resting. He couldn't tell if this was a real physical issue, he said, or maybe it was the yips. 

(the yips?? This was me, listening to podcast and wondering what the heck the yips were. A pause here, while I looked it up:

The yips is the loss of fine motor skills in athletes. The condition occurs suddenly and without apparent explanation usually in mature athletes with years of experience.)

Back to poor Rick Ankiel... 

The yips were destroying his life.

He lost his place in the majors and was dropped back down to the lower levels, whatever they're called in baseball, until he finally ended up on some rookie team, all the while his anxiety about his inability to pitch building and building. He'd drive around watching little kids play baseball and think about how easy they made it look and wondered why he couldn't do it anymore.

Baseball, he said, had been his thing. He'd grown up in a messed up family, his father abusing his mother and eventually going to jail. Baseball was the one thing he really did well. It was his refuge. His escape.

And now here he was hitting this weird psychological wall.

On the farm team, he performed okay. No TV spotlight. No one commenting on his performance for the most part, but he was unhappy. Whatever joy he'd once gotten from baseball seemed gone, and after awhile he decided to quit the game. 

Which is when a funny thing happened.

His agent suggested he start playing again in another position. This (I guess?) is not the typical career path of a baseball pitcher? but Rick Ankiel thought about it and said he could envision himself hitting a home run and just the thought of that made him feel excited again. 

He became an outfielder and a good one. He hit 47 home runs before retiring to spend more time with his family and write his memoir. 


So, anyway, this is why I decided today that I am going to quit writing.

Nah. I'm just joking with you. I don't have the yips

I don't have the yips

I don't have the yips.


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Ode to the IKEA Catalog

In this world
everything is sleek surfaced and brightly lit,
an array of welcoming rooms
where women dance in kitchens
and children lick wooden spoons
and a man tells us to embrace what's wrong
as he garnishes the clams with garlic
and lemon.

In this world everything has its place.

The children put away their toys
and your friends come to dinner early
and always always help you
bake the meatballs.

They say we can make things better.
They say the days of "have to" are over.
They say that playtime can happen anywhere.

And we want to believe them.

We do.

So we set the sofa in the center of the living space.
We move our backyard inside.

We arrange and arrange and arrange, finding beauty
in a tealight holder
in a bed canopy
in a plant pot
in a clear lacquered bamboo knife tray.








Tuesday, April 11, 2017

An Interview with Mindy McGinnis


I’m thrilled to have award-winning YA writer Mindy McGinnis On the Verge this week. Mindy, if you haven’t read her yet, (and if you haven’t, I’m not sure why!) is the prolific genre-bending author of the dystopian Not a Drop to Drink, the gothic historical A Madness So Discreet (which won the Edgar Award), and the dark contemporary The Female of the Species, (hands down, one of the best books I read last year).


And now she’s got a new book out, the fantasy Given to the Sea. Last weekend Mindy and I caught up at the Ohioana Book Festival and I had the chance to ask her all of my burning questions.

----------------------------------------------------


Jody: On a recent panel you talked about where your ideas come from. Not a Drop to Drink you had an image of a girl holding a gun and A Madness So Discreet started with your interest in the old insane asylum in Athens, Ohio. I’m curious about your new book—which is the first fantasy you’ve written—about the inhabitants of a dying island world.

Mindy: In a lot of ways Given to the Sea is a montage of many different thoughts that have come to me over a period of fifteen or twenty years.

The first scene that ever occurred to me was a star-crossed lovers type of situation, with an Ivanhoe-esque turn with the female refusing to cave to her own desires to be with the male, to the point that she's willing to pitch herself from a window to save her pride. That scene doesn't actually exist in the book now, but it planted the seed that told me I wanted to write a fantasy.

A combination of many things came together for everything else: an interest in Huntington's disease (also called the "dancing sickness"), the idea of genetic memory, and rising sea levels.

Jody: It just occurred to me that the rising sea level idea is the flip side of your first book. Not A Drop to Drink was a world with no water, and here, with this new book, you’ve got a world with too much water… Was the process for writing these books the same?

Mindy: My process is always the same. I sit down and write the book.

Jody: You make it sound easy.

Mindy. Not easy, but you just do it. With this book I thought I had all kinds of freedom because I was building a fantasy world.

Jody: So, you're thinking anything goes...

Mindy: Except it doesn’t. You have to keep track of your own rules that you're making, because you made them in the first place.

Jody: And sometimes you write yourself into a corner. What do you do when that happens? Any tricks you can share?

Mindy: I think a lot while I'm driving. I live in the middle of nowhere so if I'm on my way to an event I've usually got at least an hour each way, and the drive might give me some room to sort things out.

Jody: You've recently started writing full time. Has that changed how you write?

Mindy: It's harder to make myself write. Before I was on a very tight timetable. If I had twenty free minutes, then I needed to crack out some words. Now, I've got all day... and I know it. I'm learning how to budget my time better, which is weirdly harder when you have more of it.

Jody: What kinds of scenes or stories do love writing most and least? 

Mindy: I love writing biting dialogue, insults, stuff like that. Least, action scenes. Writing a battle scene and trying to keep it as "realistic" as possible while still making it thrilling and fun is challenging.

Jody: You write in different genres... from dystopian to gothic historical fiction to contemp, and now fantasy-- what makes a Mindy McGinnis book a Mindy McGinnis book—besides the fact that at least one of the characters is probably going to die?

Mindy: That, and a definite layer of grit and realism overlying everything. That's my approach with any genre. If this WERE going to happen, how would it unfold? No drama. No fuss. Just, give this thing some room and see what happens. Usually nothing good, because it's a McGinnis. :)

Jody: This is on a totally different note, but I know you've launched a podcast recently. What got you interested in that?

Mindy: I started listening to podcasts while I was running, and I started on the high end of production value - Serial, This American Life, Cracked, etc. I burned through those and started listening to others that were suggested to me and, most of the time, was not impressed. I thought to myself, "I could do better than that." Then I thought I should put my money where my mouth was.

So I did, literally. It's a time investment for me, since one of my biggest complaints about other podcasts was that they needed heavy editing (lots of filler, dead space, inside jokes, side rants).

Jody: And your podcast doesn’t--

Mindy: I don't make my listeners listen to anything I wouldn't want to hear.

Jody: I'm guessing there's some money involved. 

Mindy:  For hosting and distribution. I'm hoping to at least break even with it, if not make it financially productive, by the end of one year (I paid for one year of hosting up front). If it's not lifting its own weight by then, I'll have to pull the plug. At the moment I spend more time on the podcast than I do on my writing, which economically makes zero sense.

Jody: True. But hey, what does make sense in this business?

*(Check out one of Mindy's podcasts Here)

Okay, time for the lightning round. What kinds of things do you do for fun?

Mindy: Oh, God. I'm such a geek. Genealogy. Seriously. I found an ancestor (female) that I'd been looking for for ten years a few weeks ago and I almost cried. I also love old cemeteries and will just stop the car and go visit one if I see one that looks interesting to me.

Jody: Last good book you've read?

Mindy: Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray

Jody: TV show you've binged?

Mindy: Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I'm catching up!

Jody: What's up next for you?

Mindy: Given to the Sea will have a sequel (it's a duology) in the Spring of 2018, titled Given to the Earth. I have another contemporary, This Darkness Mine coming October 10th of 2017 from Katherine Tegen Books.

Right now I'm working on a story I'm mentally referring to as "Drunk Hatchet With A Girl," about a teen lost in the Appalachian region.

I'm sure marketing will retitle that.

Jody: Probably. But wouldn't it be awesome if they didn't? Hey Mindy, thanks so much for chatting with me today! And dear readers, if you'd like to know more about the dark and brilliant mind of Mindy McGinnis, see below:

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Mindy McGinnis is an Edgar Award-winning author and assistant teen librarian who lives in Ohio. She graduated from Otterbein University with a degree in English Literature and Religion, and sees nothing wrong with owning nine cats. Two dogs balance things out nicely.

Where to find her: 

Where to find her books: