Infinity Dollar Bill


My son, last night at bedtime, asked me if there was a such thing as an infinity dollar bill. I asked him what he meant.

“It looks like one dollar, and it is one dollar, but it keeps on being more. And then you’ll have all the money in the universe in your very own pocket.”

I told him, no, there wasn’t a such thing as an infinity dollar bill, though I rather like the thought of it – sort of a conceptual vertigo, like all of heaven dancing on the head of a pin, or an entire universe in the nucleus of a cell, or consciousness and art springing from the gooey carbon muck of our brains, and so forth.”It sounds like a pretty cool idea,” I told him.

He crawled under his covers. “When I grow up,” he said, “I’m going to invent an infinity dollar bill.”

“I’m not sure they’ll let you do that,” I said.

“Oh,” he explained. “No one will know. It will be electric.”

“Will you need to plug it in?”

“No, it will have solar powered chips in it. And when I invent it, it will only be one dollar. But when I give the dollar to someone else, it will become one hundred dollars. And when they give it to someone else it will turn into a thousand dollars. And when they give it to someone after that, it will turn into ten thousand dollars.”

His eyes were shining.

“So,” I asked for clarification, “if you keep it, nothing changes, right?”

“Right,” he said “I can’t wait to invent this thing.”

“But what if you spend it?”

“Nope,” he said. “The infinity dollar only works when you’re giving it to someone. It can only be a present.”


“Because I’m inventing it,” he said. “And presents are awesome.”

I’m pretty sure I just squashed the dreams (and possibly the souls) of a bunch of college students.

I just got back from a student/alumni networking event for Liberal Arts majors at my alma mater, St. Catherine University – a small, Catholic, all-lady college in Minnesota. I had agreed – foolishly, yes, I see that now – to sit down and chat with a bunch of current students about my career trajectory, my past experience, how my academic grounding prepared me for where I am today, and…..I don’t know. Some other stuff.

And I told them the truth.

And their faces fell.

And honestly, I’m not (entirely) sorry about framing the things I said the way I said them. No one really prepares college kids for the directionlessness of the post-college years. The uncertainty. The self-doubt. No one tells kids how much utter re-invention their life paths will require of them, how much they will have to rely on their creativity, their vision, their willingness to change paths, change thinking, change everything. And that’s okay – it’s just good to be prepared.

I told them that graduation really sucked for me. That I floated in a state of ennui for a couple of years, without direction, without spark, without a sense of the shape that I wanted my life to be.

I told them that they’ll never feel like a grownup. That they’ll always feel like a learner – and that’s actually good. If we feel like we’re one step behind where we want to be, it means we’re moving. Life requires motion, and action and response. We can coast when we’re dead.

I told them that they needed to be flexible and creative and innovative with their career choices, that they had to be willing to research and analyze, that they need to be able to apply their skills to one day do jobs that may not even exist now. And even more – that they’ll have to do that again and again and again. I told them that the world is dynamic and changeable and there was very little that they could count on, so they’d have to build a life with their own two hands.

I told them that my career – hell, my entire life -was built on a precarious structure of duct tape, string, popsicle sticks and gum. And fairy dust. And prayer. And a couple hocked loogies. And that was okay, because it is the life that I built, which means that I can claim it – even the wobbly bits and the annoying bits and the guess-what-kids-we’re-only-eating-ramen-noodles-this-week bits.

I told them to be prepared to work jobs that they hate, to take orders from people they despise, and to do it with a smile. I told them that they well may be fired one day for reasons totally outside of their control, that good jobs can go suddenly bad, and that things that seem like scraping the bottom of the barrel can turn into the opportunities that define their careers. I told them to take chances. And that self-employment is a terrifying, exhilarating, nail-biting and beautiful, beautiful thing.

I told them that being a writer required masochism, a thickness of skin bordering on delusional, a willingness to be simultaneously separated from the world and integrated into it. A willingness to go to a place of not me. When I’m writing, there is no me. There is only the book. Indeed, when someone reads my book, there is no me there either. The only thing that exists is this: characters, place, story, and the reader’s relationship with the three. Being a writer is both prestidigitation and vanishing – you see the thing I make, but I disappear.

But mostly, I told them to lose everything that they should be doing. Should is a word that has driven many a twenty-something (including myself, once upon a time) straight into the waiting arms of their therapists. Not to knock therapists, or anything, but it seems that we could all save ourselves a lot of trouble if we forget about shoulds and forget about the standards by which our eighteen year old selves judge our twenty-eight-year- old selves (or thirty-eight, or forty-eight) and simply focus on the paths that we’re on, and pouring our hearts and souls into each blessed (and sucky) day.

Once upon a time, I was a starry-eyed co-ed too. The life that I had assumed that I would have was radically different from the life that I had. And honestly, thank god. Because I was kind of an idiot in college. Much of the turns my life has taken, have been entirely accidental. I didn’t mean to fall in love, for example. And then parenthood kind of presented itself when I least expected it. These things dramatically altered my course – away from the shoulds of my college self into the doing the best I can of my adult self.

I didn’t mean to become a bartender. Or a homeless youth worker. Or a janitor. Or a park ranger. Or a receptionist. Or an activist. Or a journalist. Or any of the random jobs I’ve held in my life. Sometimes you get to seize opportunities, and sometimes you take what you can get. All the same I’m glad that I did the lot of them, because each step brought me to where I am now. Novelist. Mom. Teacher. It’s not a comfortable life by any means, and it’s fraught with uncertainty, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.

It’s a pretty good life, actually. And I’ll keep it.

Know what I love?

Sand animation.

And I think I need to take a few days forcing my eyes away from the things that make channel my inner Fury– and meditate instead on moments of beauty, moments of grace, and moments of the friggin cool.

This, for example:

Gorgeous. With that wicked sting at the end. I had to watch it several times in a row to catch that subtle and sly pull from image to image to image.

And this (because Spring eludes us still. And because I love Vivaldi – and yes, I know he’s pedestrian and overplayed, but don’t hate on the redheaded priest! I still like him. So sue me.)

And this:

And of course there’s this, which was one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen on Youtube:

Which means I must now thank Youtube for bringing me out of my funk yesterday and awaking my heart to art and beauty and sand.

Dear Youtube,
Stay solid.

In Which Kelly Barnhill Admits Everything

Some days I don’t know if I should become a flaming tower of righteous rage, or if I should just point and laugh.

Up til now, I’ve chosen the point-and-laugh strategy. Because I like laughing. And rage, to be perfectly frank, gives me the runs. After all, do you know who these crazy whack-jobs are? These nuts out there spouting  Birther nonsense? Well, it’s this guy: Joseph Farah, adviser to Donald Trump. (Hey! Buddy! Your fake mustache IS FREAKING ME OUT!)

I’m not surprised, honestly, that Mr. Trump would hire that used-car-salesman-turned-talking-head to run his sideshow of a campaign. This is Donald Trump we’re talking about. But that Mr. Trump-Loving-Mustache-Man, in the face of the down-dressing the media got from our president, would start making even more insinuations – that he was secretly adopted, that the date was wrong, and that maybe his dad wasn’t his dad? (And who was it, Joseph? This guy?), it’s too much. I mean seriously, if he told me that the sky was blue, I’d go and get my eyes checked out. There is absolutely nothing that guy could say, no manipulations in diction or synatx that would possibly make him seem like an informed individual. That ‘stache screams wingnut. Sorry, bro.

And then I learned that 1 in 4 Americans thought – before today – that Obama wasn’t a citizen. And then I despaired.

I think I can blame my current ennui and despair over the state of my country on my parents. It was my parents, after all, who taught me that human beings were brave and honest and noble and good. That the upstanding individual was the norm, and that anything else was a sad outlier in the human experience, and can be redeemed through love and tenderness and adequate food, shelter and education.

I believed this. I believe it still. Mostly. On a good day. Indeed this is what I’ve taught my own children. I need to believe it, you understand. But the rise of BirtherNation – its conspiracy theories nothing more than very thinly disguised racism – well, it has sent me into a friggin tailspin, I’ll tell you what.

The birther nonsense is racism. It’s not curiosity, it’s not holding our leaders responsible for their actions, and it certainly is not patriotic. It’s only racism. Also racist: the new assertions that he didn’t really go to Harvard. Or if he did go to Harvard he did poorly. Or if he did well, someone else was writing his papers for him (possibly terrorists). And he only got in because he was black. And the Nation of Islam – according to one commenter – paid for his education.

These assertions won’t go away, and they are repeatedly mentioned (with smug little grins to boot) by people who should know better. People who do know better. People who are cynically attempting to strip the presidency of its credibility so they can keep giving tax breaks to rich people.

And I’m sick of it.

And since I’m neither a mover or a shaker, and since I have no money nor clout nor status in the inner circles of power that run this country, I’ll do the only thing that I can do.

Make fun.

I started earlier today on my Twitter feed encouraging Mr. Obama to just stay ahead of the conspiracy theorists and start making up his own insinuations. He could start a rumor that he was having an affair with a Marylin Monroe-shaped robot for example. Or he could get a trending tweet going that he had simultaneous citizenship in every nation on earth, thus hastening his establishment of the One World Government. He could put himself on the terrorist watch list. Or start a rumor that he must devour the still-beating hearts of kittens in order to maintain his youth (he’s 198. Did you know?)

But really, that’s not enough. Because in the end, I think his decision today to put the matter to rest, share the stupid birth certificate, and fight insane racism with evidence and truth – well, it was a lawyer’s move, but I think it was the right one.

The only antidote to wingnut crazytalk is truth. And lots of it. So I think we should clog the internet with truth and facts and honesty and confessions – about ourselves, about one another, about the world. I think that we should have a good old fashioned TruthFest, and prove once and for all that truth is stronger than lies.

And so, in the spirit of Full Disclosure, I, Kelly Barnhill, have decided to come clean. I’ve decided to air all of my dirty laundry, and make some admissions that will probably lead you to believe that I am not fit for my job (as a housewife. Also, as a writer.). So here it goes:

1. Despite the fact that I call myself a vegetarian, I still have a bratwurst every year on Fourth Of July. It’s the It’s Fourth Of July And Nothing Counts Clause. You can look it up.

2. While I was a proud English Major and love everything about the classes I took and the books I read and the papers I wrote and the discussions I had – I came very close to not graduating, because I did so TERRIBLY in my senior seminar on John Keats. In my defense, I had fallen in love with a lovely young man from Princeton, which really killed the semester. And fortunately, my professor let me re-write my paper and shoved my starry-eyed self out of her class with a gentlemen’s B-. But really, I deserved an F.

3. Despite my history as a park ranger and a wildland firefighter and despite the fact that I take the children camping multiple times every year and despite the fact that I’m a committed environmentalist, I actually hate camping. Don’t tell my husband.

4. Once, one of the kids who was bullying me in grade school told me that if I jabbed a kid in the back with a pencil, she’d leave me alone for the rest of the day. And then I did it. I didn’t get in trouble because I told everyone that I had tripped and it was an accident – a thing that was universally believed because A.) I’d never hurt anyone before, and B.) I was and am the klutziest person on the face of the earth. On the bus ride home, the bully in question pulled my hair and pinched me – hard, and everywhere. And she wouldn’t stop. So much for my attempt at violence.

5. While I enjoy my job in housewifery and I really dig being a full-time household coordinator, I am really not suited for this work at all. I’m sloppy. I cut corners. And I’m crafting deficient. My proof: In seventh grade we had to take Home Economics, where, though I worked and slaved and sweated my brains out trying to do well in that stupid class, I only got a D. It was my only D of my life. (And it should have been an F)

6. I’ve only ever gotten one speeding ticket in my whole life. But I’ve deserved…..many. Prior to my speeding ticket, I had actually been pulled over for speeding nineteen times previous – in four different states. Each time, I burst into tears. Each time I was let off with a warning. Clearly I’m a lady who doesn’t heed warnings. Also: I can sense a sucker from a mile off. I’m not proud of either of these qualities.

7. When I watch television shows with my husband on Netflix, I ALWAYS read the plot summaries of the entire season before I begin. Ted has no idea. Don’t tell him.

8. I once wrote a query letter for a book that I hadn’t written, and had no intention of writing. I just wanted to know if I could write a good one. I got 27 emails back requesting the full manuscript. I never wrote back.

9. I once accidentally let my drivers license expire, and didn’t notice for two years. We travel by plane 3 and sometimes 4 times a year. No one – not the folks at the ticket counters, not the TSA folks at the checkpoints, not the people carding me at the liquor store – NO ONE noticed.

I think nine is a pretty good start. Anyone else want to unload their souls? Clear the air? Combat crazytalk and lie-mongering with a good old fashioned TruthSpeak? Let’s hear it, folks!

On Becoming a Billionaire

Today, for our Easter family activity, we strapped the canoe onto our car and drove up to the put-in spot on Minnehaha Creek at 54th Street and France avenue, with the intention of paddling all the way to our house, about a half mile above the falls. It was a perfect day for paddling – high, swift water, clear skies and bright sun without too much wind. And we nearly made it.


I ended up carrying two freezing cold, sopping wet, and very terrified children in my arms for a half-mile home.

But I’m not here to talk about our fiasco at a low bridge, where the combination of high water, low clearance and swift currents managed to fill our canoe with water, traumatize my children and nearly kill us all.

No, I’d like to talk about the conversation that happened about twenty minutes before our near-drowning.

About becoming a billionaire.

First, there was some discussion about the difference between one million and one billion, in which several metaphors were used by my eleven year old in her explanations to her six year old brother – particularly in her assertions that one billion was very, very different than infinity – though they are both, without a doubt, very very large.

After that, the conversation that my children had from their loungy spot at the bottom of the boat shifted to becoming a billionaire – and what they would do with their billions.

Ella, the oldest, thought about it for a while. “If I were a billionaire,” she said, “I’d live in a motor home. An Airstream. But I’d paint it purple. And then I’d use the rest of the money to build libraries all around the country.”

Cordelia, the middle child, said this. “I’d hate to live in a motor home. If I had a billion dollars, I’d buy a big house – not a mansion, but maybe kind of close to a mansion.  A big house without being mansiony. And I’d use the rest of the money (after buying food and paying taxes, of course) [AUTHOR’S NOTE- I love that my kid knows about paying taxes and assumes that it’s something that rich people ABSOLUTELY MUST do.] to save the sea turtles. Because somebody’s got to save the sea turtles.

Leo stared at his sisters incredulously. “I wouldn’t do any of those things,” he said.

“Really,” I said as I dipped my paddle into the creek. “What would you do if you became a billionaire?”

“That’s easy,” he said. “I’d pay to be president. Also, I’d buy a Lego Death Star set.”

And there you have it folks – the inverse nature of idealism in reference to birth order. And while I can’t prove that this is the case with all families, I figure that since Jean Piaget created an entire theory of cognitive development solely on his observations of his own children, I’m just going to do the same.

Oldest child: Idealist.

Youngest child: Realist.

And middle children find their place somewhere in the spectrum.

The other thing I learned: My son is – really and truly – obsessed with owning a lego death star. So much so that even if he had the option of owning any game, toy or trinket on this broad, green earth, he only wants one thing: A lego death star set. That and being president. And for some reason, the two things are, for him, related.

Two weeks to MECHANIQUE! Two weeks!

Ladies and Gentlemen! On May 5, 2011, Genevieve Valentine’s gorgeously glorious novel Mechanique, a Tale of the Circus Tresaulti will be available to anyone with a bookstore nearby – or, failing that, an internet connection and a credit card and a penchant for indie book sites. (Actually, you could get it from Amazon, too, but I prefer the indies, and so should you.)

Now, I’ve blogged about this book before, and will do so again, but just so you know that a WHOLE LOT OF PEOPLE are excited about this novel, here’s a bit from the good folks at Publisher’s Weekly (they gave it a star! A star!):

“This steampunk-flavored circus story begins with a disturbing undertone, like an out-of-tune calliope, and develops in hints and shadows. Touring a drained postwar world, the Mechanical Circus Tresaulti rarely visits a city twice in anyone’s lifetime; borders are lax, and lives are short. The circus’s performers have no time for training, instead undergoing terrible trials in the ringmaster’s workshop to gain their skills. Enter the “government man,” who dreams of bringing back the order and security of the old world and wants the ringmaster to help him. She shares many of his dreams but mistrusts his offers of alliance. The drama and climax come not from the rivalry between the two but their similarities as they decide how to use their powers and who will suffer the consequences. Fans of grim fantasy will love this menacing and fascinating debut.”
Publishers Weekly

If that’s not enough, then how about this. On May 6, the inimitable Ms. Valentine will be hosting a book launch party. A circus-themed book launch party. In a warehouse. With performers. AND IT IS GOING TO RULE.  Check this out:

Performers! Readings! Snacks! If I was living in NYC I’d wait outside the door for weeks and weeks just to make sure I could snag a book, get her to sign it, listen to a reading, hob-nob, and watch amazing artists to ridiculously amazing things with their bodies.

I’m so excited about this book, I can hardly tell you. And I’m so excited for you, dear readers, who will be attending this little shin dig.

Promise you’ll send me pictures.

On Michele Bachmann and Justin Bieber: Pan, meet Flash.

Over the years, I’ve had to make peace with Michele “Hot for God” Bachmann. It hasn’t been easy.  Back when she was spreading her own little vitriolic brand of HateMongeringCrazyTalk ™ at the State Capitol (when, she was convinced, for example, that “the lesbians are out to get me”, and then she did a little reconnaissance mission spying on a pro-gay-marriage rally by hiding in the bushes and playing peek-a-boo with the gays) (um….Michele…..metaphor much?). Anyway. And now, for some bizarre reason, the 6th district sent her to Washington for the sole purpose of utterly ignoring her both constituents and her job so she can spread her HateMongeringCrazyTalk to a nationwide audience.

All with a little (R-MN) under her name, thus sullying the fair name of my great State, and I for one have been SICK OF IT.

Here’s a little taste of what we’ve been suffering from, straight from the mouth of Michele “Not All Cultures Are Created Equal” Bachmann herself:

On the problem of THE GAYZ IN THE SCHOOLZ, she said: “This is a very serious matter, because it is our children who are the prize for this community, they are specifically targeting our children.” — Senator Michele Bachmann, appearing as guest on radio program “Prophetic Views Behind The News”, hosted by Jan Markell, KKMS 980-AM, March 20, 2004.

“And what a bizarre time we’re in, Jan, when a judge will say to little children that you can’t say the pledge of allegiance, but you must learn that homosexuality is normal and you should try it.” — Senator Michele Bachmann, appearing as guest on radio program “Prophetic Views Behind The News”, hosted by Jan Markell, KKMS 980-AM, March 6, 2004.

And on Americorps, she said: “It’s under the guise of — quote — volunteerism. But it’s not volunteers at all. It’s paying people to do work on behalf of government…. I believe that there is a very strong chance that we will see that young people will be put into mandatory service. And the real concerns is that there are provisions for what I would call re-education camps for young people, where young people have to go and get trained in a philosophy that the government puts forward and then they have to go to work in some of these politically correct forums.” – The MN Independent, 4/6/09

“If you’re involved in the gay and lesbian lifestyle, it’s bondage. It is personal bondage, personal despair and personal enslavement.” — Senator Michele Bachmann, speaking at EdWatch National Education Conference, November 6, 2004.

And then on Global climate change: “Carbon dioxide is portrayed as harmful. But there isn’t even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas.” –Rep. Michelle Bachmann, April, 2009

It’s enough to make a girl want to set her hair on fire.

And now, with the rumblings of presidential inclinations, I’ve had to force myself to make peace. Because I was getting ulcers. Because I was waking up at night. Because the thought – the possibility – of a person that crazy being anywhere near the White House makes me so terrified that I’m willing to sign my family up for the first wave of colonists on Mars. Hell, I’ll help them build the colony.

Now, I meditate. I have found calm. I have made peace.  I have mantras. “Donotlookaththecrazydonotlookatthecrazy” is one that works pretty well.  “Fighthatewithlove” is another. And that’s an important part. The list of people that Michele Bachmann hates? Well it’s long. She hates gay people, that’s pretty clear. She hates Muslim people. She hates Democrats. She really hates Barack Obama (“The first post-American president”? Really, Michele? Really?) She hates women’s clinics. She hates children, and apparently doesn’t want them to get health insurance. And she really, really, really hates poor people.

So I just need to love all of those people more.

And so do you.

Because when you love someone, when you really, really, really love them, you fight like hell to protect them. Ask a parent. We know.

But I’ve gotten off track. The reason why I’m writing this at all is because of Time Magazine’s recent list of the top 100 supposedly influential people – a list that included Michele “Cukoobananas” Bachman.

Really, Time? The Representative that has used her position to grandstand and media-whore instead of actually representing? That’s influence? The Rep who was shut out by her party’s own leadership? That’s influence? The Rep whose main legislative contributions includes limits on the individual’s right to sue a business that has harmed them and a guarantee that people can still purchase wrinkles-hiding incandescent light bulbs? The supposed “public servant” who has said publicly that global climate change is a hoax?

And so I sank into despair.

But then!

I read the rest of the list! And hope bubbled forth like a spring!  I saw that beautiful, magnificent, flash-in-the-pan name. The Already-Irrelevent-and-even-my-behind-the-curve-tween-daughters-know-that-his-star-has-dimmed-fizzled-and-fallen, Justin Bieber.

Justin “Please-Still-Love-Me-And-By-The-Way-I-Now-Have-My-Own-Line-Of-Nail-Polish” Bieber.

Justin “Kelly-Barnhill’s-Kids-Think-I-Have-Rabies” Bieber.

Justin Bieber Nail Polish Fashion Line

If that kid is on the list…….well, that changes everything.

And then I remembered: Space Junk.

When it hits the atmosphere, it flashes, ignites and burns. It casts a brilliant streak across the night sky. On the ground, we crane our heads and smile. We hold our children to the light and point our fingers to the heavens.

And then it is gone.

All that remains: cinders, ash, vapor, air.

And that’s what you are, Michele “I hate gay people” Bachmann. Go ahead and cast your short-lived-light upon the crazy hate-mongers of the world. We all know that the time is short. We all know that irrelevancy looms – and gets closer by the day – and that while you may get open-mouthed stares for now, that at the heart of it, your words are junk, and will reveal themselves as cinders, ash, dust, and will be gone.

And I, for one, can’t wait.

Farewell, Michele! Have fun on the way down!

Adendum to the Infinity Bottles of Beer on The Wall post

Thanks to the glorious time-wasting machine that is my internet router, I have discovered an entire movement in house and building design that I had never heard of before – one that is so exquisitely marvelous – an amalgamation of whimsy, innovative green design, uber-recycling, art, and beer-drinking – that it might actually change my life forever.

I am speaking, of course, about buildings built from beer bottles. Like this: a Buddhist temple built entirely out of beer bottles. The sheer scope of the amount of alcohol that was required to be consumed in order to build a thing of that size is truly, truly humbling. I mean, just off the top of my head, I’m assuming we’re looking at close to 400,000 gallons of beer, which means a minimum of 400,000 REALLY bad choices, approximately 90,000 fist-fights, 40,000 STD’s, 9,000 questionable choices of karaoke songs, and approximately 1000 babies.

Truly, a glorious, glorious structure, and I think I want to print out that picture and frame it. (here’s a relief made from bottle caps):

And it’s not just the Buddhists! Here’s a christian chapel:

Riverside Chapel by Martin Sanchez

and the Transcendentalists:

Bottle Jug House

And some Finnish immigrants in Michigan built their house out of beer bottles (which, I know, has nothing to do with worshiping anything or meditating on anything. But it’s still pretty cool.)

And all of this has gotten me thinking: I am married to a friggin architect. He built us our house with his own two hands (some other peoples hands as well – including mine – but it was mostly Ted because he doesn’t sit down. Or rest. And rarely sleeps. Fer serious you guys, I’m married to a Cylon.)  And he has had some plans along the way to turn our garage into a writing studio for me. Which would be lovely. Our garage borders a park and green space, and would provide me with views of trees and meadows and a creek and a foot bridge and a scruffy little wood.

Lovely, yes?

Of course. But wouldn’t it be lovelier if it was constructed out of beer bottles?

I’m starting to think it would.

Infinity Bottles of Beer on the Wall


My son, at six fifteen this morning, started signing a song:


Which, actually, I thought was rather impressive. Here he is, a young lad of six, who understands the mind-blowing nature of the infinite. If I hold nine marbles in my hand and someone takes one away from me, I no longer have nine marbles. Leo gets this. He has sisters. And they are constantly taking his stuff – which can be described in the equation below:

(my stuff) -1 = (less stuff that is now mine)


(my stuff) -x = tantrum, where x=anything greater than one

This is all common knowledge.

So for Leo, at six, to come to grips with the concept that the infinite is infinite, where 1+infinity= infinity and infinity-1=infinity – – I can honestly say that it took me well into my high school years to truly grasp that.

(Okay, fine, that was a total lie. I still haven’t grasped it.)

Anyway, there was Leo, in his room, ten minutes later IF ONE OF THOSE BOTTLES SHOULD HAPPEN TO FALL.

And then, later, at six forty-five: INFINITY BOTTLES OF BEER ON THE WALL.


And so forth.

Finally, at seven oh two, I’d had it. “LEO!” I roared. “You need to think of a new song.” He was already dressed for school, and was looking particularly angelic in his pile of legos as he gazed back up at me.

“You don’t like my song?” he said.

“No,” I said. “I really really don’t. I didn’t like it at six fifteen, and I didn’t like it a six thirty, and I don’t like it now. If you really need to sing, please think of something else.”

“Okay,” he said.

I nodded and sighed, spinning on my heel and going back into the hallway to my room. And somewhere between the moment when I found my pants (which were bizarrely shoved under the bed) and before I found my favorite tee-shirt, Leo was belting out a whole new song.


Stupid infinity.

Sometimes, the Weather Has Other Plans

I had every intention of going for an eleven mile run today, I really did. I was going to feel the rhythm of my body and breathe and ruminate on the book un-knot the tangled bits and re-think the wobbly bits and meditate on my two main characters, and I would come back refreshed, re-energized, and re-committed to the project. And what’s more, I would be a new woman, a new writer, a new everything.

But then, it snowed.

Blizzard in St. Paul: April, 1923

Blizzard in St. Paul: April, 1923
Courtesy the Minnesota Historical Society

And granted, it didn’t snow as much as it did on those guys, it still is too much for me to bear right now. I want some spring weather, damnit.  I deserve it. So I’m drinking tea instead, and meditating on my desperately-in-need-of-sweeping floor, and I’ll be a new woman all on my own. Because it is April 20, for god’s sake, and I am NOT RUNNING IN THE SNOW.

(She says)

(She grumbles)

(She stomps away)

(She puts on her running shoes anyway and heads out, cursing the skies)

Gendertranscendent Love Story

(or, how I talk about Steve Brezenoff’s new novel by first talking about my old job)

(This post is crossposted at The YA-5. Comment here or there.)

Love, when it comes down to it, is not defined by gender, nor is gender defined by love. Love, in my experience, resists definition. It is without boundary, without pretense, without externally-imposed rules. Love makes the rules. 

I once had a student – a long time ago – who told me that the term “trans” was too limiting in their particular experience. “Trans,” this kid told me, “assumes a person is transforming from one specific thing into another specific thing.” My student was young – maybe fifteen – with dark, wide-spaced eyes, a shorn head, a fine-boned face and an easy smile. Tattoos on the neck. Lean, ropy muscles. Long, tapered fingers. Painfully thin – a body made of reeds and sticks and dry grass. 

“Some of us,” my student said, “are transitioning from middle to middle. A sea of endless middles. And endless possibilities. Gender doesn’t define us. Only love does.”

And so my education began.

Back when I was pregnant with my third child, I got a job as a GED teacher at a drop-in center for homeless youth in Minneapolis. Now, it doesn’t take very much time trolling through Google – its deep undergrowth of studies and statistics and reports, its wide canopy of articles and profiles and sob stories – to know that the stats on homeless kids really, really suck. They’re at risk for HIV and Hep-C. They’re at risk for prostitution and sex trafficking. They’re at risk for overdoses. And violence. And pregnancy. And lifelong poverty. They’re at risk for everything.

Even more at risk? They gay and lesbian homeless kids. Of the estimated 1.6 million homeless kids in America, between 20 and 40 percent of those kids identify as GLBTQ

And even more at risk? The trans kids. A whopping one in five trans-identified children winds up homeless before the time they hit eighteen. And these kids are terribly at risk. 

As the teacher at the drop-in center, I saw the kids who chose to come downstairs to my windowless rooms, lit by the strange blue light of my glowing computer screens, to let me poke and prod at their brains, filling in the gaps left by too many self-imposed “vacations” from school, too many schools in general (one kid had been in seventeen schools between the ages of five and fourteen) and too many years when their brains were simply in survival-mode, which left precious little time for learning. 

But because they chose, because they wanted their degree – and the paths that lead away from that degree – the kids that I spent my time with were the kids who were poised to beat that statistic. I spent hours and hours with them in my basement domain, drilling them, foisting books on them, quizzing them, and generally annoying them to bits until they were ready to take the test.

Now, in my teaching life prior to that job, I had certainly taught a fair amount of gay and lesbian kids and certainly a LOT of kids who were questioning their sexuality, but I had never had a transgendered child in my classroom until I worked at the homeless center.

 And there – well I had many. Now, seven years later, I can call up the names and faces of fourteen different kids. There were probably more. 

These were kids who had been kicked out of their homes. These were kids who had been abandoned by their families. These were kids who had loved the people who were supposed to love them forever – and were betrayed.

loved those kids. I loved them with my guts. (It’s a mom thing, I think. The majority of your emotional energy goes naturally to the individual who needs it most. It’s like a homing beacon for Love Rays.)

 I loved that job. I really really did. 

 Anyway, once I had three kids, I couldn’t make the schedule work, so I had to leave the job, but I found my mind and my heart and my memory pulled back into that experience so viscerally, so completely recently, that I could almost smell the cheap cigarettes and the haven’t-been-washed-in-four-years black jeans and the yesterday’s liquor and Jolly Ranchers that I smelled on those kids every day.

And it was all because of a book.

Last week, I read Brooklyn, Burning, by Steve Brezenoff. And maybe it’s ridiculously cruel for me to brag that I got to read this marvelous, heartbreaking little novel in the first place. I got to read it early because I’m the very very lucky, and the rest of y’all are going to have to wait. Sorry about that.

But holy crap. This book was amazing. 

Brooklyn, Burning

It’s not due out until September, I think, so come fall, I’m sure I’ll be blowing horns and putting out signs and forcing all y’all to open up your wallets and spring for a copy. 

My point is this: there are other books that have come out recently – or that are making their way to the surface – that reflect a little part of the Trans experience in America (I AM J, for example. And Luna. And…..there was another one whose title I’m forgetting) (and, really, hallelujah, I say. We need more.) but none that I have read has achieved what Brezenoff has achieved in this lean, textured, lovely little book.

You guys. I loved this book so hard, I can hardly even express it.

Sometimes, you read a book that is larger, richer and more real than the elements that it contains.

This book, for example, has a main character in love with another character, neither of which is identified (nor do they seem to identify themselves) with a particular gender. But this is not a “trans book”, nor is it a “genderqueer book”. 

This book has a character in the throws of an addiction, but this is not an “addiction book”.

This book has a teen runaway, but this is not a “teen runaway book”.

This book is a love story……no. That’s not right. It is a love song. And while the love relationship between Kid and Scout defines the arc upon which the story is drawn, theirs is not the only love story being told. It is also a love song to youth. It is a love song to summer, and Brooklyn, and the ecstasy of music making. It is a love song to families – the ones in which we are born into, and the families that we choose. The families of our own making. It is a love song to teeming streets and hot, packed bars, and the songs that grab us by the guts and pull us away.

This is a beautiful book – big-hearted, and tough; clear-eyed and brave. The prose reads insistent as a song, breaking the heart again and again and agin. 

Brooklyn, Burning is the story of Kid – sixteen, kicked out of the house, homeless, aching and drunk (on booze, on youth, on music, on grief, on guilt). Despite the fact that Kid’s innocence has been shattered nine ways from Sunday – betrayal, abandonment, loving broken people and being broken in return – Kid is still primarily an innocent. Kid is tender, vulnerable, and despite the many, many flaws, ultimately lovable. And, well, I’m a mother – and my instinct as a reader was to gather that child in my arms and offer my protection and my love. I loved Kid. From the very first page. 

And what I most appreciated was the fact that Kid’s story brought me right back to that room in which I hung out with a bunch of teenagers who were just as fragile, just as broken, and just as brave as Kid. I appreciated having the opportunity to experience a love story that transcends gender. To see Kid as Kid sees Kid –  that is, without the pretense and limitations of the birth-gender construct – means that we can know that character in total. We understand Kid with no expectations, no assumptions, no baggage. Kid is just Kid – no more and no less, and that was an amazing experience. And what’s more, I was able to experience the miracle and audaciousness of love in the context of the world-view of my beloved students all those years ago. I was able to experience a story of redemption that explores the bright sea of middles between the hard limits of “male” and “female” – where gender does not – and cannot – define people. The only definition that matters is love – and it is boundless, uncontainable and wild. 

On Raising Beautiful, Butt-Kicking, Feminist Girls (or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Girl Scouts)

Before I launch into this post about my eleven-year-long quest – nay, struggle – to raise girls who trust themselves, and honor themselves – and more importantly who trust and honor the other girls in their lives-  and who wouldn’t think twice to kick a boy in the shins if he really, really deserved it, I need to take a moment to talk about the Girl Scouts.

And the lady who started the Girl Scouts. This classy dame here:

File:Juliette Gordon Low - National Portrait Gallery.JPG Juliette Gordon Lowe. Isn’t she lovely?

What I love about her story is that she took the classic trope of the Jilted-Wife-Done-Wrong-By-Her-Man and re-invented it into a Juliette-Goes-And-Gets-Some story. In a nutshell, Juliette’s no-good, boozing, philandering, and woman-degrading husband pestered her to no end for a divorce so he could shack up with his mistress in style. She refused, and his whoring continued until he died suddenly of a stroke or heart attack or “bad company” or however men of his ilk used to kick the bucket in those days.

Trouble was, he left his fortune to his mistress, leaving his wife high and dry.

So did Juliette lie down and take it? No ma’am, no she did not. She sued the jerk’s estate and came away 500 million richer – which was quite a lot in those days. And instead of sitting in the lap of luxury (or anyone else’s lap, for that matter) she used her extensive funds to start the Girl Scouts which, in addition to highly addictive cookie-hawking, has been the go-to place for sassy, uppity girls everywhere.

I love the Girl Scouts.

The thing is, that love has been long in coming. I was a Scout for two (or was it three?) rather miserable years in elementary school. As I believe I’ve blogged about before, I was a lonely kid in grade school – a bullied kid, a dorky kid, a broken kid and a painfully-awkward kid. I was in Girl Scouts, and the bullying and nasty behavior that I endured during the school day simply followed me to our meetings in the livingroom of one of the kids at school.

I didn’t learn to like myself in Girl Scouts. I learned nothing about Girl Power or consciousness-raising, or positive self-imaging or sticking with your girl friends no matter what. I just learned how to stay quiet, stay unnoticed. Disappear.

And then I forgot about the Girl Scouts.

But then. Lots and lots of years later, I had daughters. And then the Fear began.

We live in a culture that teaches girls to dismiss themselves. We live in a culture that teaches girls to hate their bodies. We live in a culture that teaches girls to define themselves by how well they can attract sexual partners, instead of how well they can keep a friend. And I held my little tiny girl-baby and I was afraid for her.


When Ella was in Kindergarten, she joined a Brownie troop. I was ambivalent, but the child was adamant. She joined, loved it, and she’s been with this same group of girls ever since. And while I’ve been around, and I know these girls very well, I’ve never had the opportunity to interact with them as Scouts, nor have I seen how they operate as a team of girl-powered friends until this weekend, when I went as a chaperon to their yearly encampment in the woods.

Ladies and gentlemen, you have never seen such a group of committed feminists.

You have never seen such a group of magnificent communicators.

You have never seen such a group of collaborative leaders – they assessed the needs of their situations. They asked for input. They delegated. They formed committees. They assessed their own results. They praised one another, and boosted each other up. They were clear, forthright, kind, honest and hard-working. They appreciated one another.

And they never once – not even once – talked about boys. Instead, they made fun of commercials and they badmouthed Twilight (they all agreed with Ella’s assessment that the book would have been vastly improved if Edward had died tragically in a fire) and they told scary stories in the dark.

And I realized that the wolves in our society – the ones that dress up in nighties and lurk in the dark – well, they’re still there, and I still worry about them, but the Girl Scouts have given my daughter a weapon that I had not counted upon. My daughter – though just as unsure, just as placeless as I was at eleven – not a kid, not a teenager, with no real place to fit in – is much more equipped to survive and thrive than I ever have been.

That child is powerful. And so are her friends.

Girl Power, the girls told me this weekend, could move the entire planet off its axis if we wanted to. We choose to let the world spin.

This was true, I told them. But they had more to say.

Girl power’s gonna change the world – and it needs changing. And girl friends can change your life.

Indeed, I said. They do it every day.

Feed the Beast

Whenever I have a lull in my writing production (and let me tell you, this happens a lot), I start reading a TON of books on writing, on the creative process, on living the life of an artist, and what have you. And these books, though they may give me the aura of the Artist Hard At Work – it is nothing short of poseurism. Because these books – for me – have been nothing short of useless.

And that’s okay. Sometimes we need to do useless things to fill the time between bouts of mad utility and unabashed production.

Still, with my head full of slogans like “filling the well” and whatever else they’ve told me to do over the years, I’ve discovered that my creative life bears no semblance to the secret groves or babbling brooks or tender thoughts alight on gossamer wings that I’ve read about in other people’s descriptions of their various creative journeys.

My creative life is not a journey. Nor is it a well. Nor is it a river. Nor is it a garden that I must love and tend and fuss over.

My creative life is animal.

It has teeth, and claws and sinew and bone. It has a wet nose and sensitive ears and breath reeking of old meat.  It is heavy-muscled, long-legged and agile. It is crafty, frightened, randy and fierce. It lopes, and stalks and pounces. It sniffs at the ground, howls at the moon, urinates on trees, scratches after it shits, and follows its prey for miles.

My creative life has mangy fur and yellow eyes and a gamey scent that can knock you out. It nuzzles my face in the morning, grabs me by the nape of my neck and tosses me out of bed. I can see its ribs. I can see its ligaments under its tight skin. It’s hungry. And it doesn’t want to wait.

So I feed the beast.

I don’t write every day – I’m not that kind of writer. I write when the beast is hungry. I write when the beast paces next to my desk. As I write, I sweat, I shiver, I weep. I write from my skin, my muscle, my empty stomach, my restless feet. I write as if I’m running. And maybe I am.

And when I write – when I write a lot – the beast begins to be satisfied. I read too, though not craft books. It hates those. I read fiction and nonfiction and poetry and memoir. I read across genre and time period. My brain is a smorgasbord for my hungry beast. I gather things from the natural world – artifacts from the book I’m working on. Right now, on my desk, there are three oval stones, a bit of bark with pale green lichen clinging to its grooves, five scraps of paper with five Nordic runes written crudely with my left hand. There is a crown made from wintered grass, tied with a ribbon.

I write to feed the beast. I write to make it happy. I write to put it to sleep. I write to feel its head on my lap, its dark breath on my skin, its ragged howl ringing in my own, open mouth. I write, so that one day, it will be sleek, fat and fine. I write to send it – howling, snarling, singing its name – into the wide, wide world.

And then I wait until the next time I’m woken in the night by a pair of yellow eyes, a hungry, hollow panting somewhere in the darkness of my house. And a new book begins.

Dear T.V. – Stop Sucking. Love, Kelly (Or, how I blithely and innocently watched “Life On Mars” and now my life is terrible.)

First, let me be clear. I’m gonna spoiler the hell out of this show. I’m going to tell you that after a promising (though rocky) start, this show failed so spectacularly, so prodigiously, and with such absolute and perfect authority, that it was almost like watching performance art. It was like watching a cautionary tale in health class, but instead of going insane on that demon dope, or getting pregnant the first time you get your knickers in a tangle, it was, “Be careful, young film makers and t.v. writers, because this kind of god-awful train wreck can HAPPEN AT ANY TIME.”

Mostly, I just don’t want you people to make the same mistake that I did. I don’t usually write about television, but I am making an exception with this one, just because I care about you, my dear readers, and I want to protect you.

(Granted, most people are much smarter than me, and have already pre-read the reviews on line – which are universally TERRIBLE. But I didn’t. And now I have to suffer the consequences FOREVER.)

Look, I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for a superfly seventies outfit. For me, it’s the meth of the fashion world  – the crack of clothes – and I honestly can’t get enough. And I am willing to give my visual entertainments all sorts of benefits of the doubt, if they have actors parading themselves in taupe suede fitted jackets with a sweet little subdued flare at the hip.

Even if the show sucks.

So sue me.

So this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I started watching “Life On Mars” – a show that went from promising to massively sucking, to OH MY EFFING GOD WHAT DID YOU JUST DO – so thoroughly, that I simply cannot accept that it wasn’t intentional.

Life on Mars

Now, Life on Mars – from its beginnings, in theory – should have had everything that I could ever want from a television show. Hints of sci-fi/reality-bending subplots? Check. Tough ladies?

These lovely ladies are ready for duty! Gretchen Mol is the latest femme fatale suiting up for a role, starring as a '70s-era cop on the hit new series, "Life on Mars." Check.

Gritty urban drama? Check. Emotionally distant, yet secretly vulnerable men? Check. Mysteries abounding – coming up like crocuses in April? Check. Vaguely nerdy and sissy-boy sidekicks? Check. Excessive drinking? Hooo, boy, check. Handlebar mustaches coupled with trucker sunglasses?

lifeonmars Life On Mars Is Dying OutCheck and check.

What more do I need? Apparently a lot. So the jist of this interesting-concept-turned-middle-school-fiction-assigment-penned-one-hour-before-it-was-due is this: Sam Tyler, uber-cop, is hit by a car while pursuing a superbad lady-killing rapist guy and is sent back in time to 1973. He has an apartment and a job – though he doesn’t know how he got either – and he’s expected to fight crime without all of the fancy tricks of a 2008 cop.

I know, right? What was I thinking. I should have quit right there – but THOSE OUTFITS!

mean seriously, give me a guy in cords and a hip-length leather jacket, and – I’m not kidding- you have me at hello. (Yes, I have neither dignity nor pride. WHAT?)


So Sam Tyler, right before the accident that sent him from his frumpy 2008 outfit into his superfly 1973 outfit, was very concerned about the safety of his girlfriend – also a cop (played in this show by one Lisa Bonet) and is very concerned that the big bad lady-killing rapist guy has her in his lady-killing clutches.

And that little subplot lasts about two episodes. And then there are strange voices on phones, and little robots that creep into his nose – oh, and RACE RIOTS (narrowly averted) and WOMEN’S LIB. And some other things.

The thing is, even though the dialogue was almost uniformly wooden and there were some scene transitions that were positively schlocky, I actually enjoyed watching it most of the time.

Loved the hair.

Loved the music.

Loved, loved, loved the clothes. And I honestly liked and cared about the characters. I was interested in what was happening to them, and was intrigued by their avoidant camaraderie, and the strange, mystic edginess of the story itself. Despite the problems, despite the plot holes, I was pulled in enough to keep watching.

And then. Right at the end……

Honestly, it hurts – it hurts I tell you! – to write it down.

You know in sixth grade, when your teacher made you write short stories, and the kids all had to share their stories with the class, and no matter what, you had to say something positive about the story that your classmate read, even though there might be absolutely nothing good about the story at all? Especially, if that story was just a bunch of t.v. scenes that the writer just threw together at random, and then had their main character just wake up at the end and discover that it had all been just a dream?

And remember how you hated that kid for writing such an awful story, and you hated him for wasting your time, and you hated him for being a total affront to literature, learning and Western Civilization?

Yeah. It was just like that.

Except instead of it just being all a dream, he was, apparently, in a state of sleep-stasis on a spaceship going to Mars (of course, after two years sleeping, they all woke up in their pods with short hair, short fingernails and no one had wet themselves – nor were they hungry or thirsty, but nevermind). And then there were some father issues. And also a bit about unrequited love – all in the last six and a half minutes.

And then they stepped out of the spaceship and were on Mars!


It was so bad it was almost beautiful.

I mean, I almost have to hand it to the writers. They successfully pulled off the equivalent of a T.V. heist. They stole from every cop show imaginable – they RUINED seventies fashion for me FOREVER – and they milked the system for advertising bucks for an ENTIRE SEASON. All using a steaming, reeking, oozing pile of poo. Amazing!

Still, the soundtrack was awesome, and has inspired a David Bowie song-fest in my house, which is always worth the price of admission.

The Wee Book of Pee

I was already pretty psyched about this weekend, what with the various shenanigans planned at the Walker Art Center, but I just got some pretty awesome news.

My book, The Wee Book of Pee

The Wee Book of Pee (Edge Books)

has a five star rating from Goodreads.

Five freaking stars.

Granted, it’s only one rating – on Goodreads, no less – but I don’t care. It matters to me because it is this book, in particular.

The Wee Book of Pee has given me a lot of mileage. This is one of the schools-and-libraries books that I did for Edge Books a while back, but it is by far my favorite one. Also, when I go into classrooms, I get UNBELIEVABLE street cred with the boys, simply because I happened to write a book called The Wee Book of Pee. They love me forever because of that book.

So, thank you, Wee Book of Pee Goodreads rater! I will do my best to offer more five-star-worthy tomes in the future!

And thanks for reminding me that even gross things can be turned into something silly, and that even side projects can make a person beloved by children everywhere.

Now, off to have an awesome weekend. Hope the lot of you enjoy yourselves!

Things I Saw On My Run Today

1. Wood ducks. Lots of them.

2. Four swans.

3. A snow-and-mud-soaked copy of Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury. The book had been ripped down the spine, and half of it was missing. Also a triangle of the front cover was torn off. It also had most of a phone number with two digits missing (probably in the missing triangle). Underneath the number – the name Jared. And a heart.

4. A child’s shoe. No laces.

5. A skateboard with one wheel.

6. Three beavers, two with ridiculously large branches in their mouths.

7. One loon. I called to it. It called back.

8. A guy riding a motorcycle in shorts and no shirt. Also barefoot.

9. An empty bag of extra-hot Doritos in the mouth of a very large crow sitting in an empty tree.

10. A willow tree with yellow-gold branches. Before it greens, it glows. And right now the entire world is in those moments before green. Everything living is thinking green thoughts and dreaming green dreams, and waiting for the moment when the world swells, uncurls, blossoms and grows.

That was my adventure. Or at least my real adventure. My other adventure was in my head and on the page, and I’m still reeling from it.

What did the rest of you do today?

On Farkle, Mathematics, and Ruling the World (or, the sinister side effects of childhood games)

The root of tyranny, I’ve discovered, can be traced to the toyboxes and game shelves of six-year-old children. Inside every evil overlord is a little kid winning at Candyland or Crazy Eights or Sorry.

(Risk and Mastermind, obviously, go without saying)

I taught my son to play the game Farkle last night (and for those of you who haven’t ever played that game, I simply must insist that you learn it instantly. It beats the pants off that stinkin’ Yatzee, I’ll tell you what), and the child is some kind of Farkle supergenius. He’s a Farkle wizard. He memorized the point structure, weighed options, assessed risk, and soundly kicked my sorry butt.

He was thrilled.

What amazed me was the fact that, though the points assessed for different rolls are valued in the hundreds and thousands, he did all the addition in his head and kept track of how many points he had and I had at any given moment. The kid is six years old and he adds quicker and faster than his mom. (Granted, this is not hard to do. I am math-deficient.)

But what was most amazing was simply watching my son – my wild man, my aspiring juvenile delinquent, my budding evil genius – as he became calm, sober and focused in his attention to his dice and the points he was receiving from his dice. His voice quieted; his movements gentled and slowed. He was wide-eyed, cherubic, lovely.

And then he beat me by 11,000 points.

At the end of the game he reached over to shake my hand.

“Good game,” he said seriously.

“I appreciate you shaking my hand,” I said.

He nodded. “My teacher says that you can only be a good sport if you’re showing someone else how to be a good sport.”

“Your teacher is very smart,” I said.

“But she doesn’t say that it’s more fun to be a good sport if you win.” His face was intense, as though the need to do a touchdown dance was knocking at the backs of his eyeballs and exploding his brain. “But it is. It’s way more fun.”

“I know, honey,” I said. “Thanks for being such a good sport. And for showing me how to be a good sport.”

“I like this game,” he said. “I like that it has math. Math is fun because it makes me win.”

“How so?”

“I add up my points,” he said. “And then I win. Math is the best. I’m going to do more math so I can keep winning.”

“Interesting plan,” I said.

“And then I’ll win so much that I’ll win the whole world. The. Whole. World.” His eyes were bright, wild, ferocious. He kept his hands at his sides, but they were balled into fists.  He wasn’t kidding.

He got up, and went to find a calculator and his sister’s math book. He can’t do it, mind (it’s Algebra), but he liked turning the pages and pretending to know what was going on in the book. He sat there for over an hour.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how tyrants are born. Those who aspire to a life bent towards world domination begin the early inklings of their master plans in their six-year-old bedrooms (painted to look like the surface of Mars. What were we thinking? My husband and I are fools! Fools, I say! We should have painted his room to look like a dentist’s office! Or a courtroom! Or even a construction site!). It begins with a simple game of Farkle, and it’s only logical end is the status of Overlord.

All I can say, folks, is brace yourselves.

Dear Sir (in the Speedo):

Sunbathing, while a worthwhile and noble endeavor, is not a thing that one typically does in Minnesota in April. Perhaps this is news to you, and perhaps you are a recent transplant from a land far, far away. Like Mars, for example. Should that be the case, let me get you up to speed. For example: Sunbathing? April? Minnesota? Not so much.

Moreover, it is not a thing that one typically does when the temperatures hover in the fifties.

And on that note, sunbathing is also an occupation that one does while laying next to a still-frozen lake.

But mostly, my dear, dear Sir, I must emphatically protest your choice of attire. Speedos, as a general rule, do not go over well around here during the summer, but in April, when the flesh is pasty and the light is unbroken by our un-leafed trees, a Speedo is an outright assault on the eye.

Please cover up.

Yours very sincerely,

Kelly Barnhill

On Beginnings

In a moment, I’m going to share the opening bit from the book I’m currently re-drafting, called Witless Ned and the Speaking Stones. But first I want to talk a bit about book beginnings –  that first rush of words that snatches us, binds us, pulls us, body and soul, into the beating, fleshy heart of an imaginary individual.

What makes us keep reading? What happens in those first few sentences to establish and identify the nature of the journey in which we are about to embark? What makes us engaged, arrested, invested and irrevocably tied to lives and choices of characters that we’ve never met – and never will meet?

Beginnings fascinate me.

I think I spend more time on my opening passages than I do on any other part of a story. It’s the section that I fuss over, reading out loud over and over again until I not only have it memorized, but I start whispering it in my sleep.

The thing about the beginning – and I’m speaking now more as a reader than as a writer – that the language needs to be constructed as a delight for both eye and ear. I’m attracted to books that astonish me in the first paragraph, books that establish the language environment in which I’ll be living for the next few days – and what’s more books that make me want to stay in that world of words. I like books with voices I can hear, language that is crisp and bright and sharp. I like books with language that makes me squint, bleed, wince, weep. I like books with language that feels like a whisper on my skin, a breath in my ear, a bit of tart sweetness in my mouth.


Greatest Novels of All Time - The Bridge Of San Luis Rey
The Bridge Of San Luis Rey

Well, every year or so, I re-read The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thorton Wilder, and his use of the word “precipitated” in describing five travelers falling to their deaths after a rope bridge over an Andean ravine snaps and breaks, gets me every time. There’s a lot to love in that novel – and for a story as slim and spare as that one, it is dense as hell. Each page contains universes upon universes, and every time I read that book, my experience is remarkably different. Still. What he does in that first page in terms of the establishment of that cadence,  incongruence and verisimilitude, is simply awesome.

gravity's rainbowAnd Pynchon’s brilliant opening to the even more brilliant Gravity’s Rainbow – “A screaming comes across the sky,” leaves me gasping every time.  It took me about twelve tries to finally finish that book, but some things are absolutely worth the effort.

Book Cover - Syme Mother Reads - Three JunesAnd then there’s Julia Glass and her gorgeous novel Three Junes: “Paul chose Greece for it’s predictable whiteness: the blanching heat by day, the rush of stars at night, the glint of lime-washed houses crowding its coast. Blinding, searing, somnolent, fossilized Greece.”

I mean, really, that’s just ridiculously pretty. Julia! You’re killing me with the pretties!

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No HorseAnd then there’s Louise Erdrich’s s0-awesome-it-made-me-start-writing-again-after-years-of-not-writing novel, Last Report of Miracles at Little No Horse: “The grass was white with frost on the shadowed sides of the reservation hills and ditches, but the morning air was almost warm, sweetened by a southern wind. Father Damien’s best hours were late at night, and just after rising, when all he’d had to break his fast was a cup of hot water. He was old, very old, but alert until he had to eat.” Louise Erdrich – for those of you who don’t know this – is my writing mom. This book arrived in my life at EXACTLY the right time, and my eyes and my ears and my heart haven’t been the same since.

I’ll never be able to write like any of these people. I can only write like me. But it’s important that I read what I can and learn what I can, and try my best.

As I re-draft (I’ve drafted this book twice longhand, and now am transcribing and rebuilding as I feed it into my computer) I’ll probably fuss at my beginning every day. That’s usually how I start my work day – I fuss at the beginning, then return to where I left off and continue the journey. It’s probably not the most efficient method, but it’s mine, so I’ll keep it. My kids are so sick of hearing me read it out loud, they now take off their stinky socks and throw them at me while I sit at my desk. I ignore them. I’ll get the language right eventually.

This section will probably change a thousand times before it ever returns to paper (assuming I ever sell it, which is obviously an open question), but I thought I’d share the current version with you now. The language environment in which I want this story to live isn’t where I want it to be. Not yet. But it’s on the right track. And one day, I’ll be happy with it.

The Twins

Once upon a time there were two brothers, as alike to one another as you are to your own reflection. They had the same eyes, the same hands, the same voice, the same insatiable curiosity. And though it was generally agreed that one was slightly quicker, slightly cleverer, slightly more wonderful than the other, no one could tell the boys apart. So which one was the quick one, the clever one, the wonderful one, was always a subject of some debate.

The boys were never apart. Where one went, the other was always nearby, which meant that with the combination of their intelligence, creativity, and willingness to annoy their elders, they were often in trouble.

One day, when the boys were still very small, they attempted to build a raft out of bits of rope and cast off pieces of broken furniture and sticks. They worked at it over the course of several days, hiding it well from their mother. Once they felt the vessel was seaworthy, the slid it into the Great River and climbed aboard, hoping to make it to the Sea.

They were mistaken.

The vessel was not seaworthy. Very quickly, the rushing currents pulled the raft apart, and the boys were thrown into the water, fighting for their lives.

Their father dove into the water – though he could barely swim – and struggled through the current towards his children.

A crowd gathered at the edge of the water. They were afraid of the river – afraid of drowning, afraid of the spirits that lived in the water who might snatch a man if he wasn’t careful, pull him towards a watery grave – and did not dive in to assist the man or his struggling children. Instead, they called out helpful comments to the terrified father.

“Mind you keep their heads above the water when you drag them back,” one woman yelled.

“And if you can only save one, make sure you save the right one,” a man added.

The current separated the boys. The father couldn’t save them both. He struggled and swore, but as he reached one boy – the closer boy – his twin had been swept far down the length of the river and out of sight. His body washed ashore later that day, swollen and aghast. The people gathered around the small, dead child and shook their heads.

“I knew he’d bungle it,” they said.

“He saved the wrong one. The wrong boy lived.”