Saturday, December 29, 2018

One day,

one night really,

tucked between our visiting Christmas and New Year's guests, we found ourselves in the house alone, the four of us, my husband and I and our two home-for-the-holidays grown-up kids,

just like old times,

except, not exactly like old times because in old times we were the harried parents, and they were the babies, and then they were the non-stop talking children, and then they were the retreat-to-their-rooms teenagers.

We used to play a game at dinner called High/Low where each person said what the high point of their day was and the low point, but it got a little stale over the years because each person always said similar things about their days, stuff about what was going on at work, at school,

stuff I can't quite remember now, but back then was apparently repeating itself after a while, because one night my son suggested that we say each other's High/Lows, since we knew them so well, and we did that, thinking it was hilarious, and then the game petered out and somewhere along the way we stopped playing it.

The other night when we ate dinner together, we didn't play High/Low, but we did catch each other up on what's going on in our lives. We had a surprising amount to share.

This year will be a year of big changes. Graduation. New jobs and new residences. Not just for the kids but for us too.

It occurs to me that next year at this time, when we eat dinner just the four of us, if we eat a dinner just the four of us, (we might have some new additions at the table, wink wink), we will likely be sitting at a table in an unknown-to-us now place, sharing unknown-to-us-now news.  

This is kind of scary. 

Much easier to curl up on the couch together and watch old home movies. Because it was so lovely back then, when everyone was young and the kids were portable and living under our roof and we knew so well what everyone's day was like that we could recite it to each other. 

News flash: Only old people like this game. The kids think it is boring and silly. 

Did you ever notice that one of the signs of a stale, possibly dying friendship is how all you can do when you get together is reminisce about the fun times you had with each other in the past?

So, let's stop doing that, people.

Okay, okay. Wallow in the home movies one more time, linger on each other's young darling faces, remember the smell of your baby's hair after a bath and hum the lullabies you used to sing to him at bedtime.

But then, let that old game peter out.

Enjoy each other's company in the present and make new memories, such good ones that some day, far far into the future, even the grown-up kids will want to curl up on the couch together and linger there for a while.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Best Gifts

There was the typewriter, of course, the Christmas, I was thirteen.

This was a manual one, with ribbon you had to change and keys that stuck together if you typed too fast, but I loved it immediately, typing out stories and books and even my daily diary, two-fingered, until I took a typing class in high school and learned the proper method.

A stereo and albums I had my heart set on. Don't tell anyone but I was a huge Van Halen fan, once skipping school with a friend to stand out all night in line outside the Hartford, Connecticut Civic Center, a night so cold the radio DJs over the radio were making fun of us and joking about sending us hot chocolate so we wouldn't freeze to death. Side note: the concert was awesome, although I was mostly slack-jawed, watching the lead singer prance around in leather pants with the butt cheeks cut out. (google "David Lee Roth butt cheek pants" if you want a good laugh)

But I digress.

Mostly, I can't remember gifts, things I once longed for, the packages I tore into. What I always liked when I was a kid was the lead-up to Christmas, the anticipation, when time seemed to crawl and practically freeze, those first steps down the stairs and the peek into the room with the tree, the floor bare the night before, now magically piled with presents,

and then a seemingly endless day playing and eating and visiting relatives while Sing-Along-with-Mitch blasted from the record player.

This year my husband has been converting old home movies--the ones originally on videotape cassettes and then converted to dvds-- to computer files. A good 25 hours+ of movies, some we have never watched before, many of Christmases past,

our own children stepping downstairs and peeking into the room with the tree, the first surprised glimpse of the mound of presents. And then the obligatory million shots of unwrapping packages, the holding up of new clothes, the demonstration of longed for toys. A parade of Legoes and American girl dolls, motorized cars and Barbies, plastic food kitchens and sports equipment.

Here's something funny: my husband and I have been fast-forwarding through those bits and instead have found ourselves lingering over the smaller moments

our four-year-old son dancing through the kitchen while I baste the turkey, his baby sister toddling around eating cheerios. They were so little and darling and I want to believe that we saw it, we knew it at the time, but there I am in the videos, a blur at the edge of the screen, scooping up crumpled tossed wrapping paper because I was annoyed by the mess, my husband not shown at all (he was holding the video camera)

while our very best gifts were growing up fast right in front of us.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Holiday Book Giving Guide for the Kids in Your Life (and You)

Everyone who knows me knows that I am the lady who gives books. It's kind of a joke in my family. Hmm, I wonder what Auntie Jody will give us this year...

I read once (in a book) that we give the gifts we most like to receive. News flash: I like to receive books!!

Here are some of my favorites from the past year:

For a baby (or new parent): You can't go wrong with Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers. This was my go-to baby shower gift idea when I worked at the bookstore. Basically, a welcome to the planet earth written and illustrated by a new dad. This book is gorgeous with a kind message. And bonus points for being a fun read-aloud for kids nearer-to-age-three.

Pre-school: What Can a Citizen Do? by Dave Eggers. (The NY Times calls it "obligatory reading for future concerned citizens.") Also by the same author, my all-time favorite Her Right Foot, which tells the story of why the Statue of Liberty's foot is raised.

Early readers: Forget Dr. Seuss (okay, don't forget him, but if you are ready to branch out a little, try anything by Mo Willems in the Elephant & Piggie series. My favorite, of course, is We are in a Book. 

Early chapter books: ready to move beyond Ramona or Junie B. Jones? Try Jasmine Toguchi. She's sassy and smart, and delicious bonus, in the first book there's a recipe for mochi balls.

Middle Grade (8-12): Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed. Eye-opening, thought-provoking and ultimately inspiring story about a girl living in a small village in Pakistan, sent to work (against her will) as a servant in the home of a powerful, corrupt family.

Upper middle grade (10-up): Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds (and anything else written by this brilliant, beautiful human). This book is a gut punch-- one 60-second elevator ride down in the life of a boy intent on revenge.

Graphic novel: Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol. Russian immigrant kid in the suburbs, longing to fit in with her American friends, turns to summer camp as the solution. Unfortunately, this camp is not what she had envisioned. An absorbing mix of horrifying and hilarious.

Young Adult: Sadie by Courtney Summers. Riveting and viscerally moving story of Sadie, a girl on a quest to find her sister's killer, told in alternating segments with a podcast that's trying figure out why Sadie herself has gone missing.

Adult: Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott. Like all of Lamott's books this one is a surprising blend of funny, religious, outraged, amused and painfully human.

Spoiler alert: I am buying it for every woman I love this year.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

How to Write a Natalie D. Richards Book (part two)

The book is called What You Hide, but for me it will always be called The Library Book. Because it takes place in a library; specifically, the library where Natalie works as an executive assistant, but SHHHHH, don't tell anyone. Let's pretend it's any small-town library.

But the library is only one piece of this puzzle.

There's a thing that the author Sid Fleischman said-- that just as it takes two sticks to build a fire, it takes two ideas to spark a story. The other idea for Natalie was a poor girl who runs away from home and starts hanging out at her town's library. 

Add a rich boy who's sentenced to community service at the same library. 

And because this is a Natalie D. Richards' book, there's going to be a creepy, thriller twist:

There's someone (something?) else hiding out in that library... 

Side note: Let me tell you it is a fascinating thing to watch a person create a book in real time-- 

from the brainstorming ideas part (ooh, what if the girl hides in the restroom when the library closes? What if the boy finds a dead body in the stacks?) 

to the first-draft/narrative-crafting part (okay, I'm thinking that the boy has a secret he's hiding too, but I can't figure out what it is yet...)

to the revision/plot-hole-filling stage (ugh! the timeline's totally off! How am I going to get everyone back inside the library for the climax??!!)

to the cover reveal:

A lot of this is worked through during daily phone calls (did I mention that Natalie and I are critique partners?) and she calls me every morning on her way to work at the library so we can discuss things like 

character motivation 
and homelessness 
and upper middle class towns 
and the opioid epidemic 
and privileged teenagers 
and spousal abuse 
and libraries as sanctuaries 
and psychopaths 
and techniques for climbing the outside of a building. 

And now after more than a year, the book is out and on the bookstore shelves and IN THE LIBRARY!

Want to know more about the lovely Natalie D. Richards and her books?

Follow her on Facebook Author Natalie D. Richards
On Twitter: @NatdRichards 
On Instagram (where she shares fun pics of her enormous dogs)
Barnes & Noble
Cover to Cover-- For signed copies (and to support an awesome local bookstore)

Friday, November 30, 2018

It's quiet in the stacks

At least it is first thing in the morning. I'm here an hour before the library opens, searching for books that have been requested by customers. Every day at my branch there are several hundred of these, and the goal is to pull them all before noon.

Only a few weeks working at this library and I already have a pattern-- where I park the cart and how I stack the books so I can pull as many as I can in one load. I know the more popular, requested books by sight. The cookbooks and books on knitting, the testing prep books for the ACT or GRE, the latest bestsellers.

But every day there are a couple of oddball books that end up on my cart.

Like this one:

The title-- Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone-- sealed the deal and I pulled a second copy and creeped myself out over the next few days reading it on break. (side note: it's a kind of horror fairy tale about a group of kids growing up in a weird village somewhere in Germany. The story was unsettling, to say the least.)

Also, unsettling, was this one:

The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America is not fiction but a collection of thought-provoking and disturbing essays written by Sarah Kendzior, an expert on authoritarianism who lives in St. Louis. Each essay, which Kendzior wrote over the past several years and leading up to the 2016 election, centers around topics such as poverty and class and race.  

I have been thinking about some of these issues after my library training, which turns out, covered more than simply how to pull requested books and how to shelve them after they're returned. For example, I learned about how public libraries are pretty much the only places in our country open and welcoming to everyone.

Sometimes that means people checking out cookbooks and books on knitting and sometimes that means young children hanging out without a parent and sometimes that means a homeless person coming inside from the cold and sitting in a comfy chair to read the newspaper. 

It's not often that all of us are in the same room together.  

I pull books on baking Christmas cookies and how to start a new business and how to take care of your autistic child. Books of poems and books on dinosaurs and yoga and computer languages. I ponder baking bread and learning Japanese and worry about climate change. I stop to help a man log on to the library internet. I lead a woman to the books on grammar. I recommend a picture book on unicorns. 

I shelve books and pull books and organize books. I pass the teen section where I see my own book and think about how it is just another book, waiting for someone to check it out and return it so I can shelve it again. 

Sunday, November 25, 2018

This is the earliest we have ever put up our tree

We always get a freshly cut one and I don't like the needles falling off and ending up all over the floor. Plus, there's a rule I have of One Holiday at a Time. For example, I can't stand hearing Christmas music while I am shopping for my turkey and cranberries.

I can take this idea to the extreme. Last year, we didn't put the tree up until the weekend before Christmas. The needles fell of the branches and ended up on the floor anyway. Because none of the trees are freshly cut, my husband says. They probably cut them months ago, so who cares if we buy the thing in November.

He's right, I know. But it was weird last night tromping around the Christmas tree lot. It's been rainy lately. Warm. The ground was muddy. The place where we always go is run by a Boy Scout troop and the little boys helping us were wearing mud-spattered boots. Usually we spend more time choosing. Circling trees to examine them from every angle. Last night, our daughter, home from college for a few days, pointed at one, and we called it a night.

She teased me about not having any Christmas spirit. It's November, I tell her. Our fridge is full of Thanksgiving leftovers. We still need to rake the yard.

Mom, she says, rolling her eyes.

We haul the tubs of decorations up from the basement. Is it just me or was it only a few weeks ago I was packing up these tubs, putting them away? Where did the time go?

My grouchiness gives way to nostalgia. Picking out the tree with one child in our arms. And then with two. The years we drove out to a tree farm and cut our own tree. The homemade decorations, beaded gluey things and dried macaroni. The family pictures taken in front of the tree with someone inevitably breaking down and/or having a silly fit. The obligatory annual watching of It's a Wonderful Life.

But I don't want to spiral down that nostalgia tunnel. For one more day we've got our daughter home. It's sunny outside and the leaves need raking, but we'll worry about them next weekend.

Today, we're eating Thanksgiving leftovers and decorating the tree.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

We may never leave this building again (now that we have discovered Uber Eats)

Why didn't someone ever tell me about this?

Okay, my daughter told me about this. This, meaning Uber Eats. It's like ordering a pizza, except it's food from potentially every restaurant in the area. My college age daughter and her friends are huge fans. They say things like, Gotta Go, Mom, Uber Eats is here with my Panera broccoli cheese soup in a bread bowl.

I confess that I would roll my eyes. In my day we picked up food ourselves. In our cars. It was called Take-out, young lady. 

But now, consider me a convert. I am on a weekend writing retreat with my friend Natalie. We have gone on retreats before, productive and rejuvenating and sometimes haunted, but for this retreat we have changed things up. Instead of traveling off to a remote cabin in the woods or to a creepy air bnb in a quaint tourist town, we've settled on a high rise apartment in our own city. Fifteen minutes away from our homes, but it may as well be a million miles.

We have goals.

Natalie has signed up to do NaNoWriMo and she wants to write 10,000 words on a middle grade novel. I want to finish the damn scene that I've been treading water through for a week and break into the next scene.

I know. Natalie's goal is a bit loftier than mine.

But first, we order Uber Eats. A pizza-- I guess we could've just ordered out for a pizza? The difference here is they show you who is driving the food toward you and where his little car is on google maps and no money actually changes hands. It's all done ahead of time and it is so easy that we are already planning our next meal.

Tacos and chips and guac.

Which we eat as Natalie hammers out 5000 words and I write a page that finishes up my scene! Then we stay up late reading each other what we wrote and brainstorming next scenes and snarfing down the rest of the chips and guac.

Morning, I realize that I have no idea how to start my next scene and Natalie is gearing up to write 5000 more words and we're both jonesing for coffee.

Too bad they don't have Uber coffee, Natalie says, and lightbulbs spark in our heads and we both hop up excitedly to look at our phones. Within twenty minutes we are drinking our coffee and eating full blown breakfasts of potato hash and toast and eggs made to order.

Natalie pounds out her 5000 words. I write my way into the next scene.

Thanks, Uber Eats!

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Most people aren't home

or they're pretending they aren't. My husband holds the map and charts our course, while I knock on doors. That's the deal we struck, although one of the days we go out canvassing together, when it looks like it's going to rain, he darts across the street and hits the odd numbered houses on the list while I do the even.

I can hear him knocking, talking enthusiastically about how much he loves the candidate we're canvassing for, how he's met her five times. I laugh when we're back in the car, safe out of the downpour. What was that all about, I say. You've never met that candidate.

My husband shrugs. I got caught up in the moment, he says.

Here's the thing about canvassing, at least how it's done in our part of Ohio: you're not knocking on every door. You're not knocking on most doors. You're only knocking on the doors of likely supporters. The point is to energize these people to go out and vote.

But I wonder about the houses we skip. Not the obvious ones with Republican candidate signs in the yards. But the others. Houses with bikes thrown on the lawn. Carved pumpkins on the stoop. Leaf piles. Maybe they're not registered in either party. Maybe they keep their views private, their right, of course. Or maybe they don't vote.

I knock on a door and the man inside scolds me. I'm tired of you people coming here all day, he says. You're going to wake my baby.

Flustered, I tell him I'm sorry.

But my husband, down at the curb, is furious. You should have asked him why he has a front door, he said. You should have asked him if he's okay with his baby sleeping in a cage at the border.

Ah well, I say. I check the box for non-supporter. I cross the house address off the list.

Something I remember from history class is that in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War only 40% of the colonists supported fighting the British. Twenty percent supported the British, the presumed MABA crowd (Make America British Again).

Everyone else was neutral.

I mean, I get it. We're all busy. Going to work. Taking care of the kids. Making meals. But how do you not have an opinion one way or another? How do you not take a stand?

And I wonder, Did the neutral ones stay neutral throughout the war, or was there a line for them, a moment when a light bulb went off and they thought, Hmm. Okay, that's it. Now I care.

At the house where we meet for canvassing duty, volunteers are bustling around. Checking in address packets. Signing out the next shift of volunteers. Leading a brief training for the newbies. Someone's in the kitchen setting out sandwiches and a bowl of candy.

It reminds me of my PTA days, the same core group of volunteers, the people behind the scenes making sure that the teachers had the supplies they needed and that all the fun programs went on without a hitch.

Day three, canvassing, I go out with a friend.

A woman out raking her leaves says, Oh good! I need one of these sample ballots to take in with me when I vote. A man says, I'm a Republican, and when I start to turn away, he laughs and says, I'm joking!

But most of the people are not home or are pretending not to be. We hang a sample ballot on the doorknob. Head to the next house on the list.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The moment I walk in I am calmer

It's the smell, I think. Books, specifically, library books, all smell the same to me. Something familiar and comforting. Paper and dust motes. My ten-year-old self with the bed covers thrown over my head.


As a kid I liked to wander the aisles, trace my fingers along the book spines. I still like to do this. I don't know why it's taken me so long to work in this place. 

And how fitting to be the person who gets to shelve the books. I start each day with a cart, everything quickly and perfectly organized by the alpha numeric label. 

There's a whole system going on behind the scenes that I never thought about. All of those books being checked out and checked back in. All of the carts that need to be shelved, and shelved, and shelved. Am I too fast and maybe making a mistake? Am I too slow, struggling to see those teeny tiny numbers? 

Those labels are what I'm focusing on when I shelve, but still, I can't help glancing at a cover here and there, thumbing through pages. A book of essays I heard about on NPR. A true crime story. That novel I've been meaning to read. And other books that snag my interest as I fit them into their proper place on the shelf. 

Books on photography and printmaking. Biographies of obscure people. Holiday decorating. I want to check out all of them. And I can. 

Different from when I was a child and restricted by what I could carry in my arms for a mile. My mom and little brothers and I walked to the library back then. Actually, it was only that one year when we didn't have a car. The walk took forever. A hilly trek through a park. A rounding of the corner. And then, the wall along the front of the library. My brothers and I would climb on it, pretend we were walking at the edge of a high building, arms out. 

A few months ago I went back with one of them. We stopped in the park and walked from there. It was a gray chilly day. The town where we'd grown up was exactly the same and totally different from when we were kids. 

We came upon the wall and I said, do you remember--

at the same time my brother hopped up onto it, walked the edge, arms out. He read as much as I did when we were little. Now he reads ten times more. 

Although, now that I am working at a library, maybe I will catch up. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

I was locked in a weird battle once

It happened a long time ago when I was living in another city.

I had never interacted with anyone like this woman before, someone so lovely and intelligent and charming that most of us who came in contact with her immediately loved her. But at the same time, there were other people who came to an entirely different conclusion. She was a liar. Manipulative. Pitting people against each other. Actively working in her own self-interest.

But I didn't believe any of that. I was one of the woman's biggest cheerleaders,

until one day, she threw me under the bus. She made up a story about me and informed our boss, who reprimanded me. I was stunned, but able to defend myself (the story wasn't true and not really hard, ultimately, to prove) and the woman was able to wriggle out of getting into trouble herself, telling the guy she'd made a mistake and then turned on someone else, and everyone moved on

but I couldn't.

I was consumed with outrage, suddenly able to see the woman for who she was, as if a veil had been lifted and every rumor I'd heard was so glaringly and obviously true. And yet, there were still so many other people who loved her and sang her praises.

When I tried to tell them what she'd done to me, I could see the skeptical look in their eyes, their discomfort at hearing my story, which even to me, sounded sort of shrill and defensive.

I kept pushing though-- I was RIGHT and she was WRONG and all of this was unfair and she shouldn't be allowed to wreak all of this havoc and then

she got me again.

I can't even remember the details now, but at the time, this new fresh outrage sent me over the edge. I ranted and raved to another coworker, pleading my case, wanting her to SEE what this woman had done, readying myself to prepare, anew, for battle-- I'd go to other coworkers, the boss-- and then pausing, finally, to hear my coworker's advice.

It was not what I expected.

She believed me. She'd had her own crazy encounters with the woman. But she didn't think I should do anything at all. And as I sputtered out Whys and Buts and NO! she nodded and calmly said,

You're never going to beat her because she doesn't follow the rules. If you keep fighting, she's going to drag you down to her level. This is a game to her, but you don't have to play.

Long story short, I took the advice. It helped that we moved out of state shortly after, but in the meantime, there was a surprising freedom and peace in stepping out of the fray. (And oh yes, there was fray. Even now, a decade later, I will occasionally get a tearful, outraged call from a stranger, someone who is locked in their own battle with this woman and who wants to share their story.)

It's bizarre to me even now how a person like this can keep going like some energizer bunny/tasmanian devil, leaving behind so much damage in her path. Much much later I read the book The Sociopath Next Door and the final pieces of the puzzle clicked into place, but the lesson I've learned from the experience is not that people like this exist (lord knows most Americans have been fully aware of that since 2016)

but that we have a choice in how we react.

When you find yourself on the path with a person like this tearing toward you, please believe me when I tell you,

it is okay to step aside.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

On sleeping for a year and waking up in a storm

We're probably meant to feel horrified. A girl, who seemingly has everything, decides to escape from the world by sleeping for a year.

But I have to admit that I was strangely drawn to the main character's quest in Ottessa Moshfegh's My Year of Rest and Relaxation. It's the biting language of the book, the dark humor, the thoroughly unlikeable, and yet, somehow sympathetic narrator, and the blurb on the flap that promises one of "the worst psychiatrists in the annals of literature." 

I read the book in one day, curled on my own couch, laughing at times at the absurdity of the situation (can you really go to sleep for a year?) and wondering too, how to sign myself up, because really, who doesn't want to occasionally throw on Netflix and binge-watch a season of something while drifting in and out of reality? 

In the case of our narrator it's not Netflix, but a trusty VCR and an unending supply of movies to binge-watch. The year is 2000. She's just out of college, living in New York City, working at a pretentious job, basically playing the role of a bored snotty beautiful receptionist at a surreally weird art gallery. Her on again/off again boyfriend is an asshole but she keeps going back for more. Her best friend is an easy person to push around, over-the-top desperate and pathetic, but probably the only person in our narrator's life who genuinely cares about her since both of her parents died.

Oh, and there's that awful psychiatrist, eager to prescribe any and all medications to ensure this girl gets her sleep. 

I won't tell you the rest, but please, someone else read this so we can talk about it!

Warning about the next book:

There's a dog in it, that dies. I knew this going in, which is why the book sat on my bedside table for two years. I have a thing about dogs in books, specifically, dogs dying. The book in question won the National Book Award though, and I typically like to read those. The author Jesmyn Ward won a second National Book Award last year, so I couldn't deny the pull of the book any longer. 

An hour after closing Moshfegh's book, I jumped into Ward's. It's called Salvage the Bones, and oh my God. The writing. This is, I don't know what to call it exactly, Faulknerian? Luscious metaphorical language and description, a story and characters that grab you on the first page. 

It's twelve days before Hurricane Katrina hits and our main character is an African American girl, fifteen, newly pregnant, poor, living in the deep backwoods of Mississippi with her alcoholic father, her brothers, one of whom raises pitbulls to fight. The dog, Jesus God the beautiful dog, and these kids- the intense loyalty they have for each other, their determination to grow up, to survive, and all the while, 

there's this storm coming. 

After I read the book, practically shaking at the end when I knew what was going to happen but praying I was wrong, when I closed the book, wondering how I could feel not despair but somehow hope, and how in the world did Jesmyn Ward DO THIS? I looked up everything I could about her, 

listened to an interview she did after she won her second National Book Award for Sing, Unburied, Sing, which I can assure you will not sit unread for long on my bedside table. She's made me question everything I thought I knew about our country, taking me by the hand gently and then slapping me upside the head,

waking me up from my privileged binge-watching reality into a world I didn't know existed but know now has always been here.


Sunday, October 7, 2018

The girl annoyed the heck out of me

Sometimes I fell into these battles with a student.

The boy who always skipped class. The girl who cheated on tests. The boy who cast a spell on my unborn child. We'd butt heads, with me using whatever meager authority I had as a teacher to win-- writing detentions, scolding, pestering. I am not proud to say that sometimes when a kid got on my last nerve, I humiliated him.

Most of these battles ebbed and flowed, lasting a few weeks, maybe a month, but not with this girl. She came late to class nearly every day, always with a note from the attendance principal.

The man was smart, a rule stickler (a good trait for an attendance principal) but there were warning signs. Once he physically assaulted a kid in the hallway for wearing a baseball hat.

But nothing came of it. Because, I don't know why. It was the 1990's.

He had a group of girls working for him, including my student. She sauntered around the school smiling with her hall pass. She was failing my class. No surprise, since she missed so much of it. One day, when she traipsed in at the end of the period, I lost it and snatched the pass out of her hand. I made a big dramatic show of stomping over to my desk and grabbing an envelope. I stuffed the pass inside and said, Here's where I'm keeping these, so when you fail, we'll all know why.

The envelope was bulging when the story broke that the assistant principal had been sexually abusing girls at the school. Including my student. He preyed on troubled girls. He made them feel special. In return, he let them help in the office. Wrote them passes to get them out of class.

One afternoon the girl and her mother came to my classroom. The girl's head was bowed when her mom said, My daughter told me you saved all of his hall passes... is that true?

She wasn't the only one who wanted to know. The school security guard, a friend of the attendance principal, (who was on leave pending an investigation) told me to give him the hall passes. I lied and said that stuff was at home. Then I rushed down to the office and made copies of everything. Later, two people from the district attorney's office pulled me out of class and took my deposition in the hallway. Turns out the hall passes and my attendance book were corroborating evidence.

At this point it was a media circus at our school. Reporters were camped out in front of the building, interviewing students. Some kids, as a joke, started a campaign to free the principal. They printed up T-shirts. What the man did to the girls became a subplot. A joke. Hardly anyone defended them. They were troubled girls. Girls with failing grades who came late to class.

At the end of the school year, I quit in exhaustion and disgust. Took a job at a private school. Moved out of state a year later. I shared my new address with the district attorney's office in case they needed me for a trial. No one ever contacted me.

The guy got away with it. The girls... well, what do you think?

But this was back in the 90's. I'm sure nothing like this would happen today.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Not a Lamp Post (or, why I am voting for Rick Neal)

The first time I met the guy, I was at the library.

My husband and I were attending a presentation about climate change put on by a professor from Ohio State University. Before the presentation started, the moderator mentioned that Rick Neal, a candidate for Congress in Ohio District 15, was in the audience.

My husband leaned over and whispered. Do you know anything about him?

I whispered back, No. And I don't care. He could be a lamp post and I'd still vote for him.

a lamp post is NOT running for Congress in Ohio District 15

I was joking. (kinda)

Of course I was still mad because the guy presently holding the seat had called me and several hundred others of his constituents paid agitators. He called us that because we all went to a town hall to find out why he was voting to take away affordable healthcare, and he didn't show up. And instead of being a good leader and decent human being, and maybe saying, "Hey, I know that not everyone agrees with my position, but here's what it is,"

he mocked us.

Mocking is a thing he has done more than once. 

Also, he said that healthcare is not a right. He took money from payday loan companies, and is fighting to bring those companies back into the state even though he is a veteran and knows that payday loan companies prey on veterans and their families. He voted for a huge tax cut for the wealthiest Americans, and now that the deficit is ballooning, he wants to cut Medicare and Social Security. 

Honestly, a lamp post would do a much better job representing the district. At the very least, a lamp post would not hurt anyone.

I went up to talk to Rick Neal after the library presentation. Without thinking about it, I blurted out that he could be a lamp post and I would still vote for him. Rick Neal laughed.

So, he has a sense of humor.

Also, he's a former Peace Corp volunteer, an international healthcare worker who helped in Africa during the Ebola crisis. A dad of two little girls. A guy who believes that healthcare is a right and that people deserve a living wage. He doesn't take any money from payday loan companies or from ANY corporations, and he would not cut Medicare and Social Security.

At the moment he's on a listening tour, meeting with as many constituents as he can in our district, from town halls to regular people's living rooms. I have bumped into him myself at least five times. The last time he told me that he had challenged the present congressman to five debates. After several weeks thinking about it, the present congressman agreed to two.

Something unfortunate: This is a gerrymandered district, which means that the boundaries are manipulated to favor the present congressman. It's why he doesn't need to show up at town halls or listen to his constituents, why he doesn't even worry about mocking some of us.

Last time he ran in an election, 66 percent of the people in the district voted for him.

But here is something he may not know: I was one of the 66 percent! And now I would rather vote for a lamp post!

Thank goodness, there is a much much better choice.

Rick Neal, for Congress, Ohio District 15

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Riding in cars with boys

I was sixteen. I don't remember the day, or even the time of the year. But I can tell you what I was wearing. My school uniform.

I can tell you I was walking home from school, out early because I didn't have class the last period of the day and I hated school and would rather walk two miles home than stay for an extra period and wait for the bus. 

The boy who picked me up was someone I'd known since freshman year. He was in my homeroom. I was friends with his girlfriend, but that girl and I had had a falling out. Did I want a ride? Sure! Thanks!

I don't remember what we talked about on the ride to my house, but I do remember the boy pulling over suddenly and lunging on top of me. It was weird how calm he was, how insistent. This was what he wanted and it was going to happen. My mind was racing. He was a big guy. There didn't seem to be a way to physically fight him off, so I tried reasoning with him, talking about his girlfriend and how she would feel. Talking about my boyfriend, who I said was waiting for me right this minute and would wonder where I was-- not true--  but thankfully, it broke the spell. 

The guy let me go and I stumbled out of his car. We saw each other in school, of course, the next day and the next. He never acknowledged what he tried to do. I ran into him a few other times over the years and it was the same. Maybe he didn't remember. 

For the record, even though this happened thirty-five years ago, I know who the guy is. I mean, really, do you honestly think I would forget?

I don't tell this story to elicit sympathy. It's just a thing that happened. There were other things that happened, when I was younger, when I was older, things that were far worse. I wonder if that is why I wasn't entirely surprised when the boy jumped on top of me. I wasn't terrified. I wasn't angry. If I had a feeling at all, it was weariness.

Age sixteen, I had already learned that some boys do this sort of thing. Grab a girl because that is what they want to do. No point making a fuss about it.

Thirty-five years later I've changed my mind. Now, don't worry. I'm not going to out the man. Although, I admit I feel a twinge of satisfaction imagining him reading this and stressing about it. I almost feel sorry for him.

Without much warning the world he ruled is shifting. He wonders: Maybe I'm not allowed to grab girls anymore?

Although a case can be made that he can still get away with it. Some men (and some women too) will rush in to defend him, throw out the same tired lines. Boys will be boys. It didn't really happen. Or if it did happen, it was a long time ago. It wasn't a big deal.

But it might be enough to make him pause. He can feel it, the hold he has on the world loosening, even as he scrabbles to cling tighter. He has to work harder to defend himself these days, yell louder. It's almost as if he knows, deep down, his time is nearly up.

The ride, it's over.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

On Kindness, Friendship, and Rage: Three Books I Love This Week

Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse, by Marcy Campbell, illustrated by Corinna Luyken. 

Adrian Simcox tells everyone who will listen about his beautiful horse, but classmate Chloe knows that he's lying and she sets out to logically prove it, only to realize that she's hurt Adrian in the process and that he may have a horse after all...

This book reminds me of the old classic The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, which depicts a similar dynamic-- a poor, imaginative girl trying to fit in with her disapproving, mean-girl classmates. I read that one over and over as a kid, feeling the sting each time when the girls learn the truth and are rightfully ashamed. 

Something nice about the ending of this one: the shame is softened by the possibility of a friendship. 

Friendship is at the heart of Kat Yea's The Way to Bea; specifically, it's the loss of friendship and all of the confusion and heartbreak that go along with that familiar rite of middle school passage. Seventh grader Beatrix copes by writing haikus, listening to her playlists, and reluctantly (at first) joining the school newspaper. There she meets a quirky boy obsessed with mazes.

Lots going on in this one about the awkwardness of growing up and growing apart, some hints at parental neglect (Bea's parents are preoccupied with work and expecting a new baby), the power of words and books, and a fun (and somewhat scary) side plot about getting lost in a maze. 

(Don't worry, it all works out) 
It does not all work out in Courtney Summers' new novel Sadie.

This book pretty much killed me. I read it in two nights, filled with growing feelings of rage and grief. The book begins with a podcast about a dead girl and her missing sister, Sadie. What follows is the story of Sadie's quest to find her sister's killer, alternating with updating segments of the podcast. 

I have to admit that I was skeptical at first that this structure would work, fearing that the podcast would interrupt the flow of the narrative. 

I was wrong. Sadie's story builds with such a ferocity, I found that the podcast gave me a chance to catch my breath. 

And you need to catch your breath with this one. You know how there's this thing lately in the news where suddenly, as a society, we are arguing over whether or not to believe women?

Well, guess what, I do believe women, and I am enraged that we are still even having this discussion. If you are one of those skeptical people who wonders what all the fuss is about, read Sadie. 

And then get back to me. 

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The roof is higher than it was the last time

I was up here. I have a thing about ladders. Going up isn't so bad, throwing your leg up and over. It's the climbing down that gets me. I have to brace myself. Look straight ahead. Imagine myself already on the ground.

In the meantime I stay low, inch my way up to the roof peak and down the other side, keeping in the narrow strip of shade. Did I mention we've picked the hottest weekend of the year to paint the house? Why did we decide to do this again? my husband asks.

(Because we never hire people to do things we can do ourselves)
(Because we're cheap)
(Because we're idiots)

I like this paint color. Brownish gray. Once I get over my initial terror on the roof, I settle into a rhythm. Dip the brush into the can, scrape off the excess, smear it onto the house. I can see all of my drippy mistakes from the last time I was up here ten years ago,

when we'd only recently moved here and the house was royal blue. We went for a more muted tan color, priding ourselves on wrapping up the entire project over Labor Day weekend. This year, I can already tell we won't hit that goal. Ten years from now...

yeah. We're probably going to hire out.

I can see my garden from up here. The asparagus plants I planted on a drizzly cold spring day, my son watching from the porch, laughing when I told him that it might be seven years before we'd have a good crop of asparagus. But I'll be in college by then, he said. I don't know about him, but I couldn't imagine that. Now

he's been through college and out. He lives on the opposite side of the country, not here to eat the asparagus, which truth be told, never took root or spread how it was supposed to. I planted sixteen plants and today there's only two left.

Recently, I cut one perfect stalk and ate it standing right where I'd plucked it. Stretched out around me were the raised beds planted with food that grows way better than asparagus. Lettuce, for example, which is set in rows, now hiding the spot where my daughter once practiced hitting a tetherball.

The spring I planted the asparagus she was obsessed, wanting to master the game the kids at her new school were playing. But it was a brief obsession. By fall, when she started middle school, my husband took down the tetherball pole and built the raised garden beds. I do this a lot

flip back and forth in time

see myself digging asparagus holes in raw drizzle, hear my son's laugh and my daughter's smack of a ball, and me, on a roof, painting over the past, bracing myself for the climb down.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Battling through Writer's Block

I hate to use the word battle. 

I want to be the kind of writer who takes joy in the process and approaches the day's writing as Play. The Julia Cameron Artist's Way writer who pampers my Artist-Child Within by taking myself on solo dates to museums and collecting pretty stones and making collages of exotic travel destinations and  setting up altars to my Dreams and decorating my work space with objects that bring me happiness.

(For the record I have done all of those things.)

And it makes sense on some level that treating your work as play can quiet the editorial voice in your head and counteract your innate perfectionism, 

the perfectionism that ends with you writing and rewriting the same sentence over and over, treading water in the same scene for weeks, unable to move on because it's not RIGHT and what if you can't finish this revision and what if you can't write anymore period and who cares anyway, and

what is the point of this story again? 

But all of this nonsense was leading me into the same dead end place that it's always led me. Exhaustion. Crankiness. Self-pity. Plus, it's boring. 

So, after a while, I realize again what I always realize, which is that I write because that is what I do and sometimes thinking about it as Play (and palm tree collages and glossy stones and coconut scented candles in the office) is just not going to cut it. 

No. Some days it is a battle. It is a War of Art.  It is you sitting down for your day's work. No excuses. No whining. No fiddling or procrastinating. No striving toward perfection. 

And not getting up until the work is done. 

(For the record: I have reworked 20 pages of my manuscript this week. And today I will rework 5 more.) 

Friday, August 24, 2018

Last week I drove my daughter to college

well, okay, she did all of the driving. It was her car and I had an awful head cold, basically plunked in the seat beside her and blowing my nose through an entire box of kleenex.

It's a nine-hour drive to Memphis where she goes to school, and where I went to school once, and I was feeling foggy and discombobulated about the trip, wanting to be there for my daughter as she moved into her dorm her senior year, but also reeling a little, to be honest, at how fast the time had flown by since my husband and I had driven her down to start college, at how fast time had flown by

since she'd started high school
and middle school
and elementary school
and preschool for crying out loud,

and if we're being honest here, since before she was born, because I'd spent the nine months of my pregnancy with her in Memphis, and I have vivid memories of myself waddling around downtown when some random guy walked up and asked if I was about to give birth any moment because it was painful to look at me.

Sorry, random guy for being pregnant and out in public. But I digress. My point is that the passage of time was hitting me, possibly compounded by my head cold, but I was trying to rally, keenly aware of the precious time ticking away, those hours, in the car, chatting with my daughter

about her plans for the upcoming school year and her friends and her boyfriend, all the while blowing my nose, my daughter's playlist playing in the background, an interesting blend of music I'd never heard in my life interspersed with songs I loved when I was in college thirty years ago.

That night my daughter and I uncharacteristically indulged ourselves by staying at a touristy overpriced hotel downtown, the Peabody, an institution in Memphis, a place I'd been many times for parties and to do the touristy thing there, which is to see The Ducks. (These are real ducks that live on the roof of the hotel, and every morning they come down the elevator and march up a red carpet and swim around in the fancy fountain in the hotel lobby.)

Twelve years living in Memphis and I had seen the ducks march and swim many times, but I had never before stayed the night in the hotel or sat in the lobby and had an over-priced drink. But that is exactly what my daughter and I did on the night before she started school, me, with a clump of kleenex in my hand and her, just-turned-21 and suddenly so grown-up.

We perused the menu and ordered frou frou drinks and feeling loopy on cold meds, I asked the waitress to throw in an order of a two-dollar plastic duck, which was served, looking very adorable, on a nest of bar snacks.

The next day, I helped my daughter move into her dorm and it was pretty clear she didn't really need me there. She and her roommate knew how they wanted to arrange things, and later when we went grocery shopping and to Target, I ambled along beside her, a strange feeling coming over me that some kind of transformation had occurred in our relationship,

still mother and daughter, because we will always be that, but what is it when your child becomes an adult in the blink of an eye, and in the next blink becomes

a friend?

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

I wrote a book about Elvis once

It was the second book I tried to write.

I wrote it how I used to write short stories when I was in college. Take something true and twist it. In this case the true thing was my father died and I spent a lot of my childhood and teen years trying to understand why. I was seven when he died and he was thirty-four. He was sick my mother told me, and for some reason, I heard the words Heart Attack.

How Elvis came into it was a weird coincidence. He died on the same date three years later. This was big news even in Connecticut where I grew up. The cause of death was said to be heart failure.

I didn't find out the truth until I was older, that Elvis died of a drug overdose in his bathroom and my father died of an overdose in our living room. I don't know about Elvis, but my father's death was deliberate. That was the thing I was trying to understand. I was mad at him for a long time. And then I was sad. After a while it was a confusing mix of both. I didn't like telling people. I didn't like watching them struggle to come up with an I'm sorry.

Anyway, I wasn't grieving for my father. I didn't know him. If I was grieving, I was grieving for the loss of a father in my life. I had a stepfather, but that's another story. I just wanted to move on from it, but then the date would come around again and there'd be stuff on the news about Elvis dying and I'd end up thinking about my father and wondering why all over again.

This got more annoying when I lived in Memphis. Every year in that city there's a big lead-up to the day. A whole week called Elvis Week, culminating in a candlelight vigil at Graceland where mourners light candles and file past Elvis's grave. The people in Memphis jokingly call the week Death Week.

Somewhere along the way I started thinking there was a potential book in all of this. A girl whose father died the same day as Elvis, set against the backdrop of Death Week. Of course the climax would take place at the candlelight vigil.

The book morphed into something more than I'd envisioned when I started it, as books tend to do. Turns out the dead father had been an Elvis impersonator. No one could explain why he killed himself and the girl spends a lot of time dragging her best friend around to talk to her father's family and friends (conveniently at Elvis Week locations around the city) and with each conversation she comes away with new, conflicting information about why he did it.

It's a big quest for the Truth, but with a sad twist, because with the girl's obsession of figuring out her father death, she misses all of the signals her struggling best friend is sending. The night of the vigil, the friend attempts suicide.

It seemed like a very big important book at the time I was writing it, and I was pretty much consumed with it for three or four years, writing multiple drafts, doing research about Elvis, including attending a candlelight vigil (an interesting experience to say the least), but it all ultimately came to nothing. In the sense that the book was never published.

Sometimes I wonder what the point is of a project like this.

But I already know the answer. It was this book that taught me how to write a book. My first experience with editorial feedback and rejection. My first disappointment at putting a book away and knowing it would stay tucked away, forever unread.

But also my first glimpse of how the creative process works. How you can take pieces of your life,  the dark things you don't understand, the questions that can't really be answered, all of the emotions at the core-- that confusion and anger and grief-- and push through until something new comes out on the other end.

A story.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Dude, where's my car?

I am going to blame it on the heat, a busier than usual weekend, house guests? But Saturday, I lost my car and get this...

I didn't know I'd lost it until Monday.

Hear me out. So, Saturday I drove to work at the bookstore. I don't usually work on Saturdays but a friend of mine,  Dr. Kevin Cordi -- writer, professional story-teller, OSU professor--was leading story-time and I didn't want to miss it. (Side note: he was amazing) and then some other author friends, Kristina McBride, Mindee Arnett, Lorie Langdon, and Natalie D. Richards showed up for their YA panel and book signing,

but first we all trooped next door for lunch, chatted about books and writing projects and the dark hole that is the publishing industry and foods we are allergic to and Natalie's daughter who might or might not be winning a ribbon at the Ohio State Fair because it seemed like she'd gotten a cruddy impatient judge, but Natalie wouldn't know for sure until later in the afternoon...

and back to the bookstore where the group did their panel and book signing and then it was only Natalie in the store, and she was heading directly to the state fair and could I please please please come with her, and of course I wanted to support her daughter and see her possibly win a ribbon and I had never been to the state fair

so off we went, in Natalie's car, to the fair where her daughter DID win a ribbon and then a quick swing through the crowded fairgrounds, sweating it out in the heat, past booths selling every-kind-of-fried food and barns filled with farm animals and quilts, and one exhibit depicting the movie A Christmas Story sculpted in butter

and then to my house for dinner

and the next day, which was busier than the one before because my daughter's boyfriend was in town for a visit and for some reason we'd all gotten it into our heads to drive up to Mansfield to tour the The Ohio State Reformatory (a former state prison and the site of the Shawshank Redemption movie and now supposedly haunted)

which we did (in my daughter's car) and I must say, the place was creepy, but not haunted as far as I could tell and I know haunted places,

then a drive back home, a quick dinner, and out, again, this time to see the latest Mission Impossible movie, which was only meh, although the meh-ish-ness of the movie may have been exacerbated by the fact that the air conditioning in the theater had broken down and we were all dying sitting there in pools of our own sweat.

Home late

and the next morning seeing off my daughter's boyfriend and then getting ready for work when I went into the garage to find my car missing,

and for a full three minutes, I literally had no idea why it wasn't there or where it could be until my daughter played the Where Did You Last See It game and I remembered.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

How to Write a Chapter in Six Weeks OR what to do after you get a seven-page editorial letter

1. Fiddle with the original first chapter for a while, holding on tight, allowing only for a shift of a sentence or two, a shuffling up of a paragraph,

because you spent so much time working and reworking those scenes and if you let them go, then what? A whole new chapter from scratch? no. way.

Set a goal to revise the chapter in a week.

(Maybe you can't do this anymore. Maybe the book's no good at the core. Maybe you should write a different book and forget this one.)

2. Realize you've got to let go of the first chapter. The first three chapters, I mean,

because when you set all of that up, you were writing a different book from the one this story has morphed into. Also, since we're being honest here, most of it is backstory anyway, stuff you had to figure out about your character, the things that made her who she is, never mind all of the other characters, the place, the voice.

Set a goal to write a new chapter in a week.

(Maybe you can't write this book. Maybe you don't want to write this book. Maybe books are pointless in this world.)

3. Complain to your critique partner, to your writing group, to David Levithan at a publishing dinner party. Nod along as they all basically tell you the same thing. Stop overthinking it. Just write. Play around for a while. Trust the process. (Although David Levithan admits that he has never received a seven-page editorial letter.

Thanks, David Levithan)

Set a goal to play around with the first chapter for a week.

4. Imagine an alternate reality for yourself where you quit writing. It involves selling other people's books and walking the dog three times a day and marching against injustice.

5. Imagine the reality where you keep writing this book because that is what you do who are we kidding here

6. Set a goal to write one terrible paragraph. In pencil. In ten minutes.

7. Write another paragraph

and another
and another
and another
and another
and another

until you finish Chapter One.

8. Take a breath. Time to begin Chapter Two.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

News Detoxing

I've always been a news junkie. Even as a kid I pored over the local paper-- the comics, Dear Abby, the editorials. As a teen, I wrote letters to the editor, once getting into a dueling editorial argument with my history teacher over the Equal Rights Amendment.

(I said we should pass the ERA because women should be treated equally under the law. She said that the ERA would lead to unisex bathrooms, murdered babies, and female firefighters who wouldn't be strong enough to lift her out of a burning building.)

In college I quit reading the newspaper. No time, I guess. And the paper in the commons room was usually missing. Anyway, what was going on outside in the world seemed removed from what was happening in my little campus bubble. But after I graduated, I was back to paying attention. By then 24-hour news and CNN had become a thing. I was glued to the TV during the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings and the OJ Simpson-white-bronco-driving-down-the-freeway show and the subsequent trial.

That craziness burned me out for a while, although I still read the newspapers. But I was yanked back into TV news on 9/11.

A friend called to tell me what was happening and I watched the Twin Towers fall in real time, fully aware and sickened by the realization that I had just witnessed the deaths of thousands of people. In the months that followed I was addicted to the TV. Hearing the survivors' stories. Watching the firefighters digging through what they called The Pile. Freaking out over the anthrax attacks.

Until two things happened that woke me up.

One, my three-year-old child and I were outside playing in the front yard and a plane flew overhead and she asked me if it was going to fly into our house.

Two, I watched an interview on CNN where a reporter interviewed a dream interpreter about Bin Laden. I have no idea why a dream interpreter would be seriously interviewed on TV and I think even the reporter had that realization because she actually started laughing.

And that was when I knew that I had crossed some kind of line with the News and it was no longer about receiving information that might be helpful to me as a citizen,

it was now something absurd, something tragic and sad, a source of anxiety and hopelessness, nevermind, a huge time suck, and by watching, I was participating, the equivalent of every moment slowing down to rubberneck at a car in flames on the side of the road.

So I quit watching and I never went back.

But it's hit me again, recently, that I have reached the same point, but now, in a different form. Social media. Online articles. Screaming matches in the comments. Political memes. Whatever. Some days I feel like I am watching the Twin Towers falling over and over again.

But worse, because I am losing my capacity to feel shock, horror, empathy, and grief at the sight.

Children taken from their parents at the border. The president paying off porn stars (that's stars. With an S) Americans seriously arguing that it's okay for police to shoot someone because the person didn't obey orders quickly enough. A foreign country attacking our election. And it's only Wednesday.

Of course I do want to know what is going on in the world so I can be an informed citizen. I belong to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood and Mothers Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and those organizations send periodic emails about upcoming legislation and action that I, personally, can take.

Such as calling my representatives. Protesting. Voting.

But for my own sanity, I think it's time to pull my head inside the car as I drive down the highway strewn with burning cars-- (by turning off news notifications. Blocking political sites from my laptop. Removing myself from Twitter... ) and pay attention to the road.

I suspect it's going to be a long, bumpy ride.