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My Grandfather’s Shillelagh

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I’m still having fun raiding my mother’s former laptop for photos I never had copies of. She had this one of me and David framed and it’s always been one of my favorites. Now I have it in digital, too!

Yesterday I posted to the Contemporary Romance Cafe blog about The Rocky Road to Publication – which, naturally, included a riff on the Irish folksong. It amused a few people, but I think mostly no one knew what a shillelagh is, for example.

For those who did not grow up with a grandfather who took his blackthorn shillelagh on walks after dinner, it’s pronounced shi-LAY-lee. I know – Celtic spellings are weird. Speaking of which, please say Keltic, not Seltic. The Boston team is wrong. I don’t know how that came to be, but they’re just… WRONG.

At any rate, my grandfather, Pat McGee, boldly embraced the image of the Irishman – to the eye-rolling of some family members. He was born in Pottawatomie Indian Territory in 1906, a year before Oklahoma officially became a state. His parents, both also born in the US to Irish immigrant parents, named him Raymond Ivor, but he always went by “Pat.” Much more Irish – and not unlike the Paddy of the song, a standard nickname for any Irishman. Some of the family took his Irishness with a particular lump of salt because he used it, too, as a justification for drinking to excess. St. Patrick’s Day could get ugly. And Christmas. And, well, lots of occasions when my mother and her sisters were growing up.

Some of it was going on still when I was a girl, but I was largely oblivious. I loved my Papa to no end and those after-dinner walks in the golden light of evening loom large in my memory. To me, the fact that he had a blackthorn shillelagh and called it that, wasn’t a foible, but an emblem. I totally bought the schtick.

For me, it was real.

When he left my grandmother to live with the woman he’d been having an affair with all the years of their marriage – more Irish shenanigans – he took the shillelagh with him. Cirrhosis got him out in California. My grandmother held firm and refused his request to come home, so he died out there. I was a teenager at the time and respected how hard it all was on my mother, aunts and grandmother. Only years and years later, when I set out to write down my memories of him, did I wonder what happened to his shillelagh. Probably the girlfriend’s family disposed of it. She had died, too, by the time I tried to find out and no one seemed to know.

I think about it still. If I made my life a novel, it would be the thing I kept of his. I’d take it when I went for walks and remember that very flawed man who was a father to me after my own died. Who was probably a better father to me than he was to his daughters. Who instilled in me a love of books and Omar Khayyam and smooth Irish whiskey. Who taught me to pay attention to how a horse’s hoof really looks before I tried to draw it.

Who showed me that carrying a shillelagh can also be magic.

Meeting My Heroes and Fighting the Bitchee

BuDtaRTIcAA18InThis last weekend I attended Bubonicon for the first time. It’s a local, fan-run convention for sci-fi and fantasy. Apparently they started out46 years ago with six people and had worked their way up to something like 800 this year. They treated me very well and I’m glad I went.

The SFF community, however, is very different than the romance one. Having been at RWA the week before, I found the contrast marked. Never I found a more supportive, generous and non-competitive community than the romance writers. So much so, that I’d forgotten that not all writers are like this. Don’t get me wrong – the Bubonicon staff and fans were amazing. Some of the featured writers were, too. More of them were than weren’t. I got to sit and have a drink with SFWA president Steven Gould (author of Jumper) and his wife, Laura J Mixon, who also writes as MJ Locke. They made time to introduce me to their daughters and are really wonderful people. I hadn’t known Laura or her work before, but we were on a panel together and she’s so smart and amazing.

A couple of authors, however, were less generous and pulled serious attitude on me. I’m sorry to say they were older women, more established than I in fantasy writing and full of teh bitchee. One, sadly, is a writer I’ve been reading for a long time and I now regret having a bad experience with. They very much reminded me of being in grad school and the way the older women scientists singled me out. One, for example, gave my essay a C and my male classmate an A. I looked at his, to see what I missed. Not finding it, I asked her. She said that she graded me more stringently because women had to work harder to succeed in science. Seriously. She said this with a straight face.

That, however, was the 80s and I’d really thought we’d put that shit behind us.

*Deep Cleansing Breath*

┬áThe best part of the weekend, however, was meeting and listening to Stephen R. Donaldson, pictured above. I’ve always had a mixed relationship with his books. I hated the Thomas Covenant books (and I’m not alone in that, I know – possibly the most unlikable hero ever), but I loved the Mordant’s Need books. Even hating Thomas Covenant, I read anyway, recognizing the brilliance of the writing and storytelling. Those books were tremendously formative for me, especially finding in Mordant’s Need a heroine like Terisa at a time when the dense fantasies all seemed to feature male protagonists. I’d had no idea Stephen lives in Albuquerque and I was thrilled at the prospect of hearing what he had to say (on ending an epic series – right up my alley) and I was also nervous. As with above, sometimes meeting heroes can be more disappointing than anything.

You guys – he was amazing. So thoughtful. So genuine and not full of ego. I sat with writing buddy Darynda Jones, who is deep into her Charley Davidson series and was also blown away by what he had to say. I’m going to be a tease because I was so rapt that I didn’t take notes and I can’t quite reconstruct what hit me so profoundly. Except that he talked about how finishing a series left him hollow and in this state where he couldn’t even celebrate because he felt so removed from the world.

Exactly how I’ve felt. Remarkable for me to feel both that sense of connection with one of my writing heroes and that I might be doing things “right.”

I’m hoping to invite him to visit our local chapter and speak there. If he does, I promise to take notes this time!

The Time vs. Money Balancing Act

Rufous Hummingbird cropI haven’t had my fancy camera out as much lately – thank you convenient iPhone camera – but I set up the telephoto lens yesterday to capture a pic of this little guy. He’s a Rufous Hummingbird, who really shouldn’t show up until mid- to late-August, apparently. The pic is still a little blurry, but not bad considering I had to focus through a glass door and past a bird feeder and a hanging plant. I’ll try for a better one this weekend. He’s adopted our feeder and runs off the broad-tailed hummers, so I should have the opportunity.

Throughout my life, I’ve observed that a fundamental equation governs many of my decisions: time vs. money.

I first noticed this in graduate school, when I was truly off the parental teat and having to budget all of my expenses based on a fairly miserly Teaching Assistantship. Now, I don’t want to sound at all ungrateful. That assistantship paid my tuition and also gave me a stipend – I was lucky to have it. But still, it was hardly the life of Riley and I scraped by a great deal of the time. Despite a fairly heavy load of classes, teaching, research and tutoring, I found that it nearly always made more sense for me to do things myself, rather than pay for them.

This was mainly because I had no extra money, but I could usually make time. So, I made Christmas gifts instead of buying them. I figured out how to repair my own things. I cooked at home.

As I began to bring in more money, this equation gradually shifted. Fifteen years later, when I had a full-time career that had me traveling every two- to three-weeks, martial arts classes (taking and teaching) five- to six-times a week, stepkids and a writing career too new to call “budding,” I had *far* more money than time. I gradually discovered the joy of hiring work out. I paid someone to clean my house. At the advent of the least household repair – from plumbing to painting – I picked up the phone, happy to pay someone to take it off my To Do list. In fact, I often applied my hourly rate as a watermark – if paying someone cost less than what my time was worth, easy decision!

That lasted quite a long time. In fact, I got used to it.

Maybe a little TOO used to it, because the equation has shifted on me again. With my man retiring early to start a second career as a Doctor of Oriental Medicine and me making the transition into fewer hours in the corporate world and more sailing the choppy financial seas of writing as a source of income, I have less money to shell out than I did. I would say that I don’t really have more time, but – as in graduate school – I’m discovering that it’s easier for me to carve out the time than to find extra money lying about.

This hit me the other day when I inquired at my local computer place (Capitol Computer of Santa Fe – *love* them!) if they could take care of transferring all of my files, settings and software from my current laptop to a new one. I’ve been kind of dreading how much time this task will cost me. They quoted me a very reasonable price – one I would have happily paid, once upon a time. And I very nearly did.

Upon reflection, however, I realized that my equation had truly shifted back. I know how to do this transfer, so I should just spend the time doing it, rather than pay someone.

I’m sure this equation will shift back again someday. And there will be other factors – paying for expertise when technology has outstripped my skills, paying for youthful vigor and resilience when mine isn’t quite up to snuff.

Still, it’s interesting to watch this balance shift throughout my life. A kind of a marker.

Happy weekend everyone!