Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Googling My Way Across Texas

First of all: Texas is BIG. The man at one of the gas station convenience stores where we stopped along the way corroborated this observation: he claimed that the drive across Texas at its widest point, from New Mexico to Louisiana, is longer than the drive from the northern border of Texas up to Canada, and the drive from Texas's southernmost to northernmost point is also longer than driving from Texas all the way to the U.S./Canada line.

So the drive was LONG, thirteen full hours plus the hour we lost from the time change plus the hour or more we stopped for breakfast, lunch, gas, and snacks.

It turned out, however, that I had a secret weapon in my possession for making the miles (well, sort of) fly by. Phone in hand, I Googled every "brown sign" attraction we passed, edifying myself and my fellow travelers by reading aloud the detailed Wikipedia description of each one. In southern Colorado we learned about the heartbreaking Ludlow Massacre of striking coal miners that shocked the nation's conscience and led to lasting reforms in labor law. In western New Mexico we learned about the Capulin Volcano National Monument, which last erupted perhaps 60,000 years ago (though we kept our phone cameras at the ready in case it should emit a whiff of sulphorous smoke as we sped past).

In Texas, I turned to the task of Googling every tiny or not-so-tiny town we crossed. Without fail, I found some tiny tidbit of fascinating information.

Dalhart, Texas, in the western Panhandle, is closer to SIX other state capitals than it is to its own capital of Austin: Santa Fe, Oklahoma City, Denver, Cheyenne, Topeka, and Lincoln are all closer than the 570 miles that separate Dalhart from Austin.

Childress, Texas, engaged in a heated dispute with nearby Henry, Texas, over which emerging town should have the honor of being named county seat (such disputes featured in the Wikipedia entries on just about every county seat we passed). Childress won the first election, which was subsequently challenged by the Henry-ites because Henry had the smoother terrain for erecting a railway depot (proximity to the railroad was significant to the founding of many Texas Panhandle towns). Solution: Henry was renamed Childress, and the folks from Childress-1 moved to Childress-2, and all was well.

Memphis, Texas, got its name in this way. For a long time the town was without a name, as federal postal authorities kept rejecting suggested names as too similar to names of towns already established. Finally, one of its founders, on a trip to Austin, "happened to see a letter addressed by accident to Memphis, Texas, rather than Tennessee, with the notation 'no such town in Texas.'" Ooh! A name that wasn't already taken! And that's how this no-name hamlet became Memphis, Texas.

Estelline, Texas (population 145 in the last census) was ranked by the National Motorists Association as #1 on their list of "Worst Speed Trap Cities in America": Estelline has a "one-person police force whose main purpose is to wait for speeders." We slowed down.

Nothing, however, could possibly top what I found for Dumas, Texas, which advertises itself as "home of the Ding Dong Daddy." What on earth could the Ding Dong Daddy be? I had hoped it might be a variant on the Hostess cream-filled chocolate cupcake: a sort of Texas-sized Ring Ding. Instead, I learned of Dumas's pride in the song "I'm A Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas." Of course, we had to listen to multiple versions of the song, one even recorded by jazz great Louis Armstrong. The lyrics are extensive, all detailing womanizing conquests, but here's a sample:

I'm a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas,
Your ought to see me do my stuff.
I'm a popcorn popper and a big apple knocker,
You ought to see me strut.

The tune is indeed catchy, as you can hear for yourself in this recording by Bob Wills.

Naturally we were thrilled when we passed the Window on the Plains Museum in Dumas and stopped to purchase our Ding Dong Daddy pins and refrigerator magnets.
Not a bad way to pass the time driving for hours, and hours, and hours, across western Texas. . . .

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Restfulness of Road Trips

Tomorrow I leave on a road trip with my nephew Terry and his son Zach, driving 13 hours from Denver to Dallas for a "Thanksmas" reunion of one branch of the extended Mills family clan. I'm looking forward to reconnecting with loved ones I haven't seen for a year, as well as engaging in hokey, happy family fun. As we did last year, we'll observe Thanksgiving on Thursday and Christmas on Saturday; on Friday we'll have a huge shopping trip to the poshest mall in Dallas (the Galeria), where we will ask total strangers to award prizes for our loud, proud Christmas sweaters.

It will be bliss when we get there, but tomorrow's long drive will be blissful in its own right: a day on which there is absolutely nothing I have to do except for drive, drive, drive, Actually, since Terry loves to drive and plans to do all of the driving, there is nothing I have to do except for ride, ride, ride. 

We'll leave a 4 a.m. - ooh! That is part of the fun of a road trip, to depart in the pre-dawn darkness.

We'll have snacks for the car - ooh! And rest stops along the way - ooh! 

We'll listen to music, and chat, and gaze out the window, recalling Emily Dickinson's lines about a different form of transportation, the railway: "I like to see it lap the Miles/ and lick the Valleys up..." But mostly we'll do nothing except move through 800 miles of landscape. 

Today my pre-trip to-do list has 29 items on it (admittedly most of them are teensy-weensy ones such as "send get-well card" and "put more cat food in the cat food jar"). Tomorrow it will have just one.

Many years ago we had a family raft trip on the Green River in Utah, with professional guides to row us on our way. On the second or third morning, I asked one of the guides what we'd be doing that day. She looked at me with mild astonishment that I needed to ask the question: "Why, go downstream," she said. That was another day with only one item on the to-do list.

Don't get me wrong. I ADORE making to-do lists for every month, every day, sometimes even for the coming hour. But once in a while, it's sweet to have a day with only one item on it, one I won't even bother to cross off with a bold red mark at the end of the day because for once, the list matters so little. 


Monday, November 21, 2016

Re-Reading Favorite Childhood Classics

This November has been a hard month for many of us, including me. My salvation during dark seasons of the soul has always been to revisit the books I loved as a child, loving them more deeply with each re-reading. I pull from my shelf one of the Betsy-Tacy books of Maud Hard Lovelace, or the Shoes books of Noel Streatfeild, or the Moffats books of Eleanor Estes. My friend Diane says (accusingly) that I retreat to my "Betsy-Tacy bubble." The charge is well founded. But sometimes the only way I can survive the reality of the present is to re-inhabit fictional worlds of the past.

Here's what I love most about these books: they are suffused with kindness. This isn't to say that their characters don't quarrel. Betsy and her sister Julia have a heated disagreement in Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill in which the whole town takes sides. Lala seeks to destroy her best friend's promising skating career in Skating Shoes. Estes's Newbery-Honor-Book The Hundred Dresses gives a portrayal of bystander complicity in bullying that is unsurpassed since its publication in 1944.

In all of these stories, however, those who act badly - as all of us do sometimes - are heartbroken at how they have hurt someone else. Those who do wrong - as all of us do sometimes - try to make it right. Sometimes they succeed; sometimes they fail. But always they try.

This from Betsy and Julia: "Then from the other side of the bed [Betsy] heard a sound. It was a sob, a perfectly gigantic sob. 'Betsy'! cried Julia, and she came rolling over and hugged Betsy tight. 'I'm sorry.' 'I'm sorry, too,' Betsy wept."

This from Lala: "I've been an awful beast, the nastiest beast that ever, ever was."

Finally, this from Maddie in The Hundred Dresses:

At last Maddie sat up in bed and pressed her forehead tight in her hands and really thought. This was the hardest thinking she had ever done. After a long, long time she reached an important conclusion.
            She was never going to stand by and say nothing again.
            If she ever heard anybody picking on someone because they were funny looking or because they had strange names, she’d speak up. Even if it meant losing Peggy’s friendship. She had no way of making things right with Wanda, but from now she would never make anybody else so unhappy again.

I spent the last two weeks massively revising a paper I wrote several years ago on Ginger Pye
and Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes. Last night, I gave it one final proofreading and sent it off as a submission to the Children's Literature Association Quarterly. Now it will undergo the arduous process of double-blind review, where two scholars in the field will read it, not knowing my identity as I will not know theirs, and send extremely challenging comments for still further revision, I won't hear back from them for perhaps three months. But at least it's off my desk and onto someone else's, and what a wonderful feeling that is.

Work has also always been for me an antidote to despair. How I love the adrenaline rush of pushing onward toward even a self-imposed deadline, and then the thrill of attaching a file to an email and pushing SEND. But this time what I loved best was the excuse to spend so many hours poring over every line of two of Estes's best-loved books. No one has ever understood what it is like to be a child better than Eleanor Estes. She gives children the gift of being truly seen, with loving eyes, for who they truly are.

I wish all of us that gift in this month of late autumn darkness, for today and always.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Teaching in a Prison

Over the past years, a number of my friends have taught classes in a prison setting. They've consistently reported this to be an enormously satisfying experience.

This morning, for the first time in my life, I joined them. 

It produced 90 of the most satisfying minutes I have ever spent.

Through the efforts of my DePauw University colleague Kelsey Kauffman, a tireless champion for prison reform, the university has formed ties with the nearby Indiana Women's Prison (IWP), America's oldest women's-only prison, founded in 1873. In one of Prof. Kauffman's history courses at the prison, some of her students embarked on an astonishingly ambitious research project: the history of this very prison, the first such history written by prisoners themselves. Their work, which challenges and complicates simple narratives about the benevolence of the prison's founding, has since achieved publication in academic history journals; you can read about it here

This semester another colleague, Professor Martha Rainbolt, is teaching a children's literature course at IWP with six incarcerated women. She invited me to guest-teach today's class, assigning the students my upper-middle-grade novel Zero Tolerance to ground our discussion. The book is based on a real-life case of a seventh-grade honor student who brings the wrong lunch to school by mistake, a lunch containing a knife to cut her mother's apple; both the real-life student and my fictional student turn the knife in to adult authorities immediately - and both find themselves facing mandatory expulsion under their school's zero tolerance policies as a result.

I have to admit I was nervous about the class. How would incarcerated woman, facing long sentences in a maximum security prison, view my story about an upper-middle-class, goody-goody girl anguished by the much less serious consequences confronting her? Would I be able to connect with them across our very different life experiences, especially given that I would have to do it via a Skype-style connection over the prison's electronic conferencing system? Would they find me glib and insensitive? Would I be glib and insensitive? 

All of my fears were unfounded. The students were WONDERFUL: so smart, engaged, insightful, and even reassuring to me when I expressed worries about the ways I had handled certain situations in the book. They had read the book closely. They had thought about it deeply. I had wondered if we would be able to fill a whole hour; instead we talked for over an hour and a half. They asked me hard questions - such as whether I have ever thought of writing from the point of view of someone from a different race from my own. Some of them want to write children's books themselves, particularly focused on the situation of children of incarcerated parents (some two million right now in our country). I have every confidence their books would be well worth reading.

Toward the very end of the class, into the lower edge of the computer monitor appeared a big, shaggy . . . dog! There he was, a seventh member of the class. The student in charge of him shared her experiences raising and training service dogs for disabled children and adults, right there in the prison, including a dog who went home ultimately with an autistic boy, becoming his bridge from inner isolation to wider community. I told her: you need to write that story!

Now I want to do this again. I want to meet again with these women and with other women prisoners. I want to help them write their stories, and publish their stories, and find readers for their stories.

I'm so grateful to Kelsey Kauffman for bringing this university-prison partnership into being. In a week that feels so dark and hopeless for so many in our nation and our world, I'm grateful for the steady, cheering light of this small but powerful candle.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

"Cows, Colleges, and Contentment"

Greetings from Northfield, Minnesota, where the town motto is - truly - "Cows, Colleges, and Contentment." And a fitting motto it is. I did indeed see cows on my ride from the Minneapolis airport; the colleges are the two liberal arts gems Carleton (host of my visit) and St. Olaf; and so far, four hours in to my two-day visit, I am thoroughly contented.

More than anything, I love when I can be my whole true self, so I'm grateful that my host, Prof. Daniel Groll of the Carleton Philosophy Department, went to the trouble to arrange so many different kinds of activities for me during my visit.

I'm staying at the charming Alumni Guest house on campus, and the photo on their website just happens to be a photo of my sweet room:
Of course, as soon as I saw it I was ready to stay here for the rest of my life.

I had barely chosen my bed (the one on the right) when it was time to head out for my first event, a talk and signing at the small independent bookstore downtown, Content Bookstore (pronounced CON-tent, and offering much great literary content, but also leaving customers con-TENT-ed).
I expected to have no audience at all, because after all that is the story of an author's life once she shows up in a town where she knows nobody and nobody knows her. So I was most agreeably surprised to have an audience of a couple dozen children, parents, and aspiring writers, and to leave feeling that I had made a new friend in owner Jessica Peterson White.

Tomorrow morning I guest-teach Prof. Groll's class, a first-year seminar entitled Family Values, where the students will have read two articles of mine. That afternoon I'll present a work-in-progress to the Philosophy Department. On Tuesday morning I'll visit two third grade classes at Greenvale Park Elementary School followed by a luncheon talk at the college.

Then I'll fly home, tired,  happy, and VERY glad for 48 hours of distraction from a certain election.
Right now I'm totally grateful for cows, colleges, and most of all, contentment.