Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Frequent Flyer

During the first ten weeks of 2014 I’ve made four different journeys; three lasted five days and one lasted eight.  This meant I spent about a third of my time away from home.  I traveled by plane and during January, February, and March we had ongoing intense winter conditions.  For me, air travel plus weather, equals worry. 
My worries were well-grounded.  First trip, Pittsburgh to New York, we had several inches of new snow on the ground as did my daughter whom I planned to visit.  I had an afternoon flight, so woke early to check status.  The morning flights were all cancelled, but beginning with the noonish ones, the schedules reported on time.  I didn’t know if that meant the planes would really fly, or just that the airline hadn’t yet gotten around to cancelling my flight.  Still, I trudged out to the airport, ready to turn around and return home if needed.  But a midday flight actually posted as boarding, so I took that as an omen for my own takeoff, two hours later.  In fact, the only small delay I encountered was a brief stop at the de-icing machine, not something to complain about in such weather.  The return trip was similarly iffy, but I indeed took off and landed on time.  The parkway was wet but clear when I returned to Pittsburgh; my only tricky driving happened at the very end of the trip—the last three miles of afternoon driving through city streets were icy, slushy, slow.

Two weeks later, I visited my other daughter in Los Angeles.  That trip included a six AM departure, thus leaving the house at four in the morning.  Again, the weather gods were dumping on us, and while I wasn’t particularly worried about snow in either LA or my stopover in Phoenix, I did worry about what if my flight got delayed or cancelled?  Would I make it at all? Would I get stuck somewhere?  So travel plus weather plus connecting flights equals more worry equals insomnia.  And there’s not a whole lot of night available to the sleeper who must leave home at four in the morning. 

LA also brought the question of clothing.  New York and Pittsburgh share similar climates, similar weather patterns.  Mostly, Monday's weather in Pittsburgh is Tuesday's in New York,  highly predictable.  But while I could wear my sheepskin boots and puffy down coat eastward, no way would I need those in California.  So I compromised, stashing heavy winter gear in my car so I’d have it for the ride home.  A good plan, as the clouds flung a wintry mix at western Pennsylvania just as I flew home.  A midnight ride home on a clear parkway, but again, muck as I neared my house.  This was getting old.

A conference in Seattle too required an early departure, changing planes, varieties of clothing, insomnia the night before.  By the third trip, I viewed the stop at the de-icing station as just a normal stage in travel.  Likewise, having snow in the ground before takeoff didn’t even seem worth a comment.  That trip routed me through Dulles airport, where the snow was deeper on the ground and thicker in the air than at home.  Why did I have to head east in order to travel west?  It seemed to invite chaos.  But in fact, I was traveling on a frequent flyer award ticket, in first class of all things.  They offer you wine if you’d like it, at six in the morning.  No thanks.  But they also got us to our destination on time with minimal hassle, both westward and eastward.  As in the two previous trips, my last three miles home were slick and slippery, but I felt grateful to be home and safe and on the ground.

In all of my winter’s travel, only one trip included a delay, a family vacation to Colorado.  This trip required no connections, no what ifs?  If we arrived late, we’d have a late dinner, no problem.  Ironically, that trip left late in the day on a sunny afternoon.  No nasty weather to deal with at all.  Instead, as we lined up to board, the pilot entered the terminal and reported mechanical issues.  So they sat us all back down and delayed boarding for an hour.  This trip occurred, just as news was breaking via a TV at the airport gate about a plane that had gone missing enroute to China.  So I was very grateful to the pilot for discovering the mechanical glitch and to the technicians who quickly repaired the problem.  In spite of the mechanical issue, this flight was the least worrisome of all.  Departures and landings happened in warm, dry weather and they served interesting snack packages on board for once. 

On each of my long flights I worked on student papers, alternating with recreational reading.  And each flight got me where I wanted to go without serious incidents.  So now I’m back on the ground, and for the next ten weeks, I’m staying put.  I’ve been a frequent flyer, but I’ve decided something.  My next several trips will be short, local, and primarily on foot.  I have those things, attached to my body—feet.  The wings were borrowed.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Polar What???

This polar vortex thing is really bothering me.  As  writer, I pay close attention to words.  I choose them carefully in my own work and I try to respond appropriately to them in my reading.  So all these predictions of another polar vortex, or a named winter storm, they make me grumble and shiver.  Earlier in my life we had these things called cold spells.  It meant that the thermometer would plunge for several days and we should wear  lots of warm clothing.  Stir up some hot chocolate.  Every winter we had a spell of frigid weather, and if we were lucky, it would coincide with he arrival of spring planting catalogs, which offered a vision of warm days, bright sunshine, fresh garden tomatoes.

Cold weather has not just been recently invented.  The planet has even endured ice ages and glaciers.  For those of us who live in the north, ponds do freeze.  Snow does fall.  But also, spring will arrive.  If you believe in Punxatawney Phil, the Western Pennsylvania amazing marmot, spring will in fact arrive soon this year, as today, February 2 (aka Groundhoug Day) was gray and cloudy.  Not a furry shadow in sight.  But don't put away your mittens just yet...

As a younger woman in graduate school, I once bemoaned the terrible cold of a Boston winter's day.

"Well look at you," one of my classmates said.  "Of course you're cold.  Light jacket, no scarf, no hat, thin gloves.  You need to layer up.  Get some warm stuff."

I stared at her.  She wore a sheepskin coat, thick boots, what appeared to be hand-knitted hat and scarf and mittens.  Her cheeks were ruddy but she also wore a smile.

I followed her advice and learned to dress for that slimy Boston winter weather, snow-changing-to-rain.  I stopped complaining and began to enjoy winter--snowshoes and cross country skis and hikes along frozen rivers.  When time permitted, I even left Boston behind for the colder weather of Maine.  Enjoyed it.

These days I feel like a missionary of sorts, encouraging others to also enjoy this dramatic season.    But naming winter storms as if they're hurricanes, or calling a cold snap a polar vortex doesn't help.  It just encourages people to complain.  And complaining involves mostly hot air, not hot chocolate.  Not nearly so delicious.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Long Time No Blog

Sometimes life gets in the way.  For the past year and a half, I've been AWOL, no news, no blog.  That's not quite right.  In fact there's been too much going on, so I've been preoccupied, mostly by family concerns.  But as they say on some TV show or another, sheee's baaack!  And just as bad news seems to clump up and overwhelm us from time to time, just now I have lots of good news to share.  So I'm starting the New Year off right, with good news times five.   
First, and most exciting, Bear Season has just been released by Autumn House Press.  It's my first book of nonfiction for adults, a series of braided essays about the American black bear.  Why?  I've had a number of bear encounters, some of them fairly close-up and exciting.  And the book is for adults, as some of the content is X-rated.  Yes, bears do get up to mischief, but sadly, we've behaved badly toward them as well, not such good reading for children.  I've had a couple of reading events and will be promoting the book at the AWP Conference (Associated Writing Programs) in Seattle in late February.
My second bit of news is that an old friend has returned.  Family Tree, my first book, is back in print after being out of print for some time.  The current edition, available on Amazon in both print and electronic versions, has a new cover with my young friend Claire as model and my old friend Susan Abrams as illustrator.  The story has been revised only slightly.  In the first version, Tyler, the main character, discovers and plays some music tapes.  In the newer edition, those tapes have morphed into CDs.  Not a lot of change, but it should feel more up to date for today's readers.

Another book has a new face.  In a few days, Up, Down, and Around will be released by Candlewick Press in a brand new, Spanish Language edition.  This story has traveled widely in English, and now gets to venture forth to Spanish readers as Arriba, Abajo y Alrededor.  Fortunately for the book and for readers, the wonderful illustrations by Nadine Bernard Westcott remain the same.

For people who know me well, the next bit of news won't come as a surprise.  I do like to tell people what to do.  Some folks might label that as bossiness.  I prefer to think of it as sharing knowledge, which I do on a regular basis as professor of writing.  Now, two articles of professional advice and writing technique will appear in the 2014  collection produced by The Institute for Children's Literature:  "Secret Weapons in Character Development," and "Avoiding the Passive Voice."

All of these projects have been underway for some time, but it's fun when so many lovely things happen at once.    Sometimes, the good news doesn't even come from one's own efforts, as is the case with the last bit of news.  I now have a new title, a new job description--I'm a Great Aunt.  I hope I've been a great aunt for some time now, or at least a good one, with nephews ranging in age from early thirties down to mid-teens.  But with the arrival of the newest member of the Ayres family, it's official.  I'm a Great Aunt--and he's a little sweetie.  Nothing like a new baby to make the New Year truly joyous.  I hope your year is lovely too.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Is Grandma Disgusting?

Christmas morning. We have mostly opened our gifts and are sitting back, relaxing. From somewhere a word emerges: disgusting. My three-year-old granddaughter repeats the word, a new one for her.
As my older daughter shakes her head, trying to fend off trouble, my younger daughter, wicked gleam in her eye, asks, “Is Grandma disgusting?”
This scientist daughter is the chief contender for the Rascally Aunt position in the family. Not long ago she gave the little one a chicken that squawks. Before that, she gave our son’s children small stuffed toys in the exact anatomical shapes of e coli and halitosis, the bacteria that cause intestinal distress and bad breath, respectively.
Of course the little voice repeats, “Is Grandma disgusting?” Emphasis on the –gust.
I crack up and so does her mother, which makes it difficult to redirect the conversation.
I can’t get too grumpy about this accusation though, even if it weren’t so funny. I’ve studied child development and I know the task of threes: to generate language. To this end, they ask the endless whys, even about things to which they already know the answers. They are driven by curious minds to provoke us adults into spewing forth a gush of words, in the hopes that some interesting ones will emerge—words that sound fun and energetic. Like disgusting—three bouncy syllables, several different consonant and vowel sounds, altogether pleasing to play with.
The room is mostly in laughter at this point. I have tears pouring down my cheeks.
Our son-in-law, sweet man that he is, gathers his daughter into his lap. He will fix this. “Grandma is not disgusting,” he explains. “Grandma loves you. She plays with you and reads you books. That is not disgusting.”
If he stops there, I might recover, but no.
“Disgusting is like when the cat got sick,” he continues. “When she threw up on the rug, that was disgusting.”
I am now completely gone, lost, out of control, belly aching with endless laughter. Those sick cat images… in direct juxtaposition with Grandma. I know this small mind will forever link the two. It’s too much.
And I can’t blame the little one. She is just living up to her potential. Rascally genes run strong in the women in our family. As does the love of words; we all devour books. I am a fiction writer and teacher of writing. Her mother is a teacher and freelances as an editor. Her aunt writes crisp and lucid nonfiction. So of course she will hear and repeat and snare all interesting words in her vicinity. It is her birthright, her heritage. Disgusting? Anything but.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Veggies and More

I was recently interviewed by an online book shop, Little Ones Books, about my picture book Up, Down, and Around. They asked some fun questions, so here's the interview---

Q: What is the main message you want children to get out of your book Up, Down, and Around?

Ayres: Help! No messages! Books are to enjoy. I hope children will get excited about seeing those giant carrots, and oh my goodness, how many ants are there on the pages, and look there's a worm under the ground. The sense of wonder is one of the most precious gifts of childhood and I'm hoping my books appeal to that sense.

Q: What was the most fun aspect of creating and writing UP, Down, and Around?

Ayres: Seeing the art! You write a picture book text and sort of imagine how it might turn out, but once I saw some of Nadine Westcott's sketches I got very excited. The writing wasn't too hard, as there aren't too many words in this book. I did fiddle around with the verbs--climb, vine, twine, wind. That was fun.

Q: What is YOUR favorite vegetable?

Ayres: Tomatoes, hands down. But I had a sort-of rule---I had to like every veggie in the book. When I was a small child I was a very picky eater, so corn and tomatoes and potatoes were about my only veggies, but these days, I love lots of them. You didn't ask about a least favorite veggie. I'll answer that anyway---brussels sprouts---bleah! But they're my dad's favorite. All our tongues get to make up their own minds about what tastes good.

Q: Do you personally have a garden?

Ayres: I love to play in the dirt. I grow mostly flowers and flowering shrubs. We have two houses, so I'm not in one place all summer at the present time. If I planted veggies in Massachusetts, by the time they ripened, I'd be back in Pittsburgh. So the bunnies and the deer and the bears would eat them all. I do plant herbs in a big pot by the back door. That's it for now. Oh, and my smallest granddaughter likes to eat my begonias. Does that count?

Q: What has been the most rewarding experience you've had of a child with this book?

Ayres: I love it when kids dance to the story. Probably the most amazing moment came while on tour for the Pennsylvania One Book (Every Young Child) when an entire library full of kindergarten children (300 of them) sang my story to me. Wow!

Q: Is there anything you would change about Up, Down, and Around now that its been out for awhile?

Ayres: No. To me, it's yummy, just as it is.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Foxy Thoughts

Some say you can’t go home again—that any attempt to recreate a beloved moment in the past is doomed to fail. I agree and at the same time, disagree. Last summer I took a group of students on a travel course to the Maritime Provinces of Canada, an extraordinary two weeks. My only regret was that I hadn’t somehow made the trip with my husband, as one or two particular spots seemed to have his name inscribed on them.

This summer, we took that chance and repeated a section of the journey—traveling The Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. In my husband’s words the night we arrived, “…there’s something about Cape Breton. It makes you relax whether you want to or not.” I was relieved then, and even more so as the days passed and he kept remarking on the natural beauty of the island, the politeness and friendliness of the people. Oh, and we had to eat fresh-off-the-boat-seafood every night. We both loved every minute—I had guessed right.

The key to returning is not to attempt a re-creation, but rather to design a brand new experience. Yes, you might revisit some much-admired locales but add others as well. While we retraced my previous summer’s steps along the Skyline and Middle Head Trails, we added a round of golf. (Great scenery, lousy golf scores, but who cared?) We experienced the same mild, sunny weather, but also added a new destination to the trip, so that I too would have fresh sights and novel experiences. The fortress at Louisbourg allowed us to visit, at least in the imagination, an eighteenth century French military community, and even eat lunch from a menu that might have existed in that time. (We had oversized napkins tied about our necks and were only given a spoon—forks were for the fancy folk back then.) And while we saw moose on the Skyline Trail as I had the summer before (the same large rack of antlers—the same moose?) we did not go searching for whales. Instead , we discovered a fox, waiting for us at the Louisbourg Lighthouse (or she discovered us). Now my husband wants to return yet again—there’s much of Nova Scotia that we haven’t yet seen…

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Whose Tree?

About two weeks ago, a massive storm hit the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Six trees went down in our yard that night, including one spectacular white pine nearly a hundred feet tall that stood sentinel at the edge between yard and wetland. Some called the wind a micro-burst; some called it a tornado. I call it terrifying when the winds reach a speed that produces a high pitched, singing sound. I wanted to hide.

The next morning I surveyed the damage and took pictures, which I then sent to various family and friends. My older daughter was first to reply: “That’s Rob’s tree isn’t it? He’ll be so sad.” Rob is a painter and has painted landscapes, which include that tree, so yes, he has a claim. In my reply, however, I mentioned that I thought it was my husband’s tree, as he was the one who climbed up with a ladder to remove dead branches and stubs, to give the tree its particularly graceful shape. My younger daughter then weighed in: “That was our tree. The tree we were looking at when we got married. And now it’s gone!” I reminded her that she has the painting made of that tree during the week of the wedding. I also mentioned that it is now a unique wedding, as nobody else can ever be married in front of that tree again. She’s a botanist, a plantswoman who understands the cycle of growth and decay. She laughed.

A couple of days later I had the occasion to speak with the previous owner of our house and with her daughter. They were both sorry to see the big old tree down, and the daughter shook her head. “That was the tree-house tree.” So even before our family grew attached to the old white pine, another family had claimed and loved it.

About a week after the storm, our son and his family came to visit. The youngest grandson was very excited to see such an enormous tree lying on the ground; its root-ball rose more than twenty feet into the air which is pretty tall for a six-year-old. It wasn’t exactly lying on the ground, however. It was lying on (squashing) one of my favorite gardens. My daughter-in-law took one look and said, “Oh no! It fell on our garden!” And indeed it had, for that garden was planted by the women and children in the family several years ago.

So yes, we’re all sorry to see such a majestic tree come to the end of its life. And a part of me worries what we’ll find when the trunk is lifted off—how much of the garden will survive? But I can’t worry too much. No people, no buildings, no cars were harmed in the treefall. And plants have strong roots. They can sustain injury and re-grow.

So whose tree was it really? It belonged to all of us. And now, as the slow process of decay begins, as it is hauled off to be ground into mulch, it will return to the earth from which it sprung. A good long life, for a beautiful tree.