Archive for Family

Book Dedication: Blood Mountain

Today is our youngest child’s 18 birthday, which I guess makes it some kind of landmark in the annals of my long slog to old age and decrepitude.

But let’s not make it about me!

When it came to coming up with a dedication for my upcoming middle grade survival story, it was an easy decision to make. 

Thank you, Maggie, for the inspiration!

And from Blood Mountain (Fall, 2019) . . .

 

This book is dedicated to my daughter, Maggie —

because when I needed inspiration

for a girl character who was fierce,

determined, sensitive, and kind,

I only thought of you.

Daisy (2007-2018) and the Letter She Wrote as a Puppy to Obama

We feel it at the doorway, those occasions of coming and going. We arrive now and home has been transformed into something different — a less welcoming place. No one meets us in the hallway, front paws dancing. The house does not stir. She got old in a day, an instant, and was gone. Leaving the house also conveys her absence, our loss. No one anxiously watching as we assemble ourselves, coat and shoes and keys, hoping we’ll reach for the leash. Sorry, Daisy, we’d say, you stay and guard the house. Other times, it was let’s go for a ride –- and Daisy bouncing out the door for a walk amidst the trees, off leash. Our peaceful communion. These days we move in and out of the house like ghosts. Pale shadows, we come and go and it almost doesn’t matter anymore. We miss her so.


I am reminded of a letter that Daisy wrote, and I posted, years ago at a different time in America . . .

 

Dear President-Elect Obama:

It is with some difficulty that I type this, as I am a dog and not really a Mac person.

I’ll try to be brief. My name is Daisy. You probably receive thousands of letters each week from dignitaries, heads of state, and ordinary citizens. But, really, how many come from dogs?

Since you are likely curious, I’ll explain. I became a reader when I was a pup, confined to a small newspaper-covered quadrant of the kitchen. It was during this tense house-breaking period that I first sought solace in the written language of humans. Soon enough, I began to follow the Presidential election with great interest.

Hold on, I’ve got an itch behind my ear. Scritch-scratch, scratch scratch scratch SCRATCH, scratch scratch scratch, scratchy-scratch!

Ahhhh. Much better. I was recently chewing on a fuzzy, delicious tennis ball when I overheard a dinner conversation. I learned that your family will be getting a new dog when you enter the White House. I immediately went to the recycle bin to fetch the newspaper. I found the full text of your November 4 victory speech, and I quote:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

Blah, blah, blah. I’m skimming, skimming . . . ah, here it is (!):

Sasha and Malia, I love you both more than you can imagine, and you have earned the new puppy that’s coming with us to the White House.

Clearly, this is the first true test of your administration. The eyes of the canine world are upon you. Don’t blow it on a lunatic Irish Setter or Pomeranian. Clearly, an Alaskan Husky is out (unless you want to be post-ironic, which I don’t think is the best way to kick off an administration — just my opinion).

You can imagine my thrill when I learned you are considering adopting a goldendoodle. As I am myself a goldendoodle — and proud of it! — I felt compelled to type this message. (And if somebody would ever trim my nails, it would be a lot easier!)

Speaking for my brothers and sisters everywhere, I urge you to go with the goldendoodle. We don’t shed. We are hypoallergenic. We are gentle with children. And we certainly don’t yap-yap-yap like some breeds (I blame Bush’s skittish Scottish terriers, Barney and the odiously named “Miss Beazley,” for much of went wrong the past eight years).

And, though I am loathe to sound egotistical, we are undeniably cute.

Photo: Diamonddoodles.com.

But, yes, your every decision will be scrutinized. So in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit this up front: We might not look so great when soaking wet. But then, who does? Joe Biden? I think not.

True, we have our critics. Some sneer and call us “designer dogs.” Some say we lack backbone. To which I respond: It’s true. In times of danger, I’ll flop on my back and submit. We’re like Gandhi in that respect. Besides, You don’t need a junk yard dog. You already have that scary Rahm Emanuel . .

. . . .and those creepy Secret Service guys.

Here comes the most sensitive issue of all. We are not quote/unquote “a recognized breed” by the (snooty, unpatriotic) American Kennel Club. Not a recognized breed?! Pause a moment and let that sink in. Does it resonate, just a little bit? Not a recognized breed. Yes, sadly, it’s true, even in today’s America, when we had thought we had come so far. But it represents a bold new opportunity for your presidency. For isn’t this in keeping with your call for change, for new ideas? Let’s turn away from the old way of doing things! I quote again from your acceptance speech:

It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.

Make a statement, President-elect Obama, Sir. You are the bright, shining symbol for the disenfranchised everywhere. Open your arms wide! Embrace us! Go with the goldendoodle. Recognize us as a breed. Let us lay down by your feet.

I’m begging you, as only a dog can beg: Throw us a bone here, will you?

Speaking for doodles everywhere, we will love your daughters with all our doggy hearts.

Yes! We! Can!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a tail to chase.

Faithfully yours,

Daisy

My Nephew, Dan the River Man, in THE COURAGE TEST

0010arc 2

0017arc 2

 

I didn’t set out for a research trip. We were simply looking to have a family adventure whitewater rafting. We’re lucky, because my nephew, Dan Rice, works as a guide for the Adirondack Rafting Company. That’s Dan in a steel-gray helmet in the photos, steering us through the waters.

As I said, I didn’t intend to write a fictionalized account of that experience. But, absolutely, experience is a great foundation for any future writing. Once I had it in back pocket, it was something I knew I could use at a later date.

The opportunity presented itself when I began writing The Courage Test, which came out in paperback a few months ago ($7.99, cheap). I decided to have Will and his father go rafting on the Lochsa River. It made sense, since the Lewis & Clark Expedition navigated those same dangerous waters, and the book was conceived as a parallel journey. When it came time for me to describe the river guide, I didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

CourageTestFrontCvr

Finally, we gather around our boisterous river guide, who introduces himself as “Dan the River Man.” He’s a muscular, shaggy-haired, bearding outdoorsman, probably in his early thirties. He assures us that this is not his first rodeo. Our group includes six other adults in addition to my father and me, and we’re assigned a big orange inflatable raft. It looks bouncy and safe. We’re all dressed in rented wet suits and wear life vests and plastic helmets.

Before we even get into the water, Dan makes a few jokes to show us he’s a cool guy, and then shifts into a no-nonsense talk about river safety. We go over a list of dos and don’t — mostly don’t. Dan steps up and with a firm yank tightens each individual life vest. Next Dan drills us on paddle techniques. Some of it I already know, thanks to Ollie. We’re going to have to work hard and listen to his instructions, when to “dig in” and put our backs into it, when to shift our weight, and when to lie back. “We can’t possibly avoid every obstacle on the river. Let’s say, oh, we’re going to roll over a rock. I’ll shout out, ‘Bump!’ When that happens, you’ve all got to lean into the center of the boat. It’s critically important. We don’t want anybody falling over the side.” Dan scans the group, and his gaze lingers longest on me, maybe because I’m the youngest. “Mistakes can cost lives,” Dan reminds us. And he says to my father, “Make sure you two sit near me.”

Dan gives us a final inspection, and we put in at a quiet bend of the river. Soon the water carries us away. It doesn’t stay quiet for long.

The first hour is probably the most exciting sixty minutes I’ve had in my entire life. And then with a lurch the boat suddenly tips down, and there’s a bounce and a jostle, and Dan cries out, “Big bump! Lean in!” Before I can react, I’m popped backward into the air like a rag doll. My feet kick at the clouds. The paddle flies from my hands. 

I cry out something like, “Aaargggh!” or “Whaaaaazit!” But mostly it all unreels like a movie, a rapid-fire succession of flickering images across a screen. The only sound is the river’s unremitting roar.

I hit the water, and I’m instantly thrown into a frenzied, swirling liquid mass of pure force. I have no control over my body; I’m just tumbling and rolling in the helter-skelter of rapids. It’s like getting hit by a locomotive, then another one, then another one. I’m buried under for a horrifying ten seconds, gulping water in a panic, and then I’m thrown up into the light, lungs screaming for air. From the corner of my eye I see the raft ahead of me, shocked faces staring back, my father shouting wordlessly, arms waving, pointing. There’s Dan in his silver Ray-Bans, ever cool, standing at the back of the boat. He looks back at me over his shoulder, assessing the situation, while still navigating the course ahead. 

I am a bullet, shooting the rapids. 

I don’t want to spoil anything for future readers, so I’ll cut the scene here. I’m grateful to my nephew, the real Dan the River Man, who expertly took care of us on our happy, laugh-filled journey with the Adirondack Rafting Company. Good times, good times.

The lesson here? Hang out with writers at your peril. You just may find yourself in a book one day. 

SOME REVIEWS . . .

“Preller stirs doses of American history into a first-rate road trip.”Booklist, starred review.

“There is plenty of action . . . A middle grade winner to hand to fans of history, adventure, and family drama.”School Library Journal.

“Whatever young explorers look for on their literary road trips, they’ll find it here.”Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

INJURY REPORT: Everything Was Great Until I Got Hit in the Face with a Baseball


IMG_3351True story: I was having a wonderful time in Clearwater, Florida, playing for the Albany Capitals in a men’s 50-up hardball tournament. The team had rented condos on the beach, I had a great view from my balcony, the fields were pristine, I was playing reasonably okay.

I was the crafty lefty who could still get batters out with an array of slop. Hey, that’s not a terrible thing.

Down the right field line: The scene of my misadventure.

Down the right field line: The scene of my misadventure.

 

All smiles before the game. I had to get a photo of this teammate, who we called "ZZ" for obvious reasons.

All smiles before the game. I had to get a photo of this teammate, who we called “ZZ” for obvious reasons.

And then, while playing RF at beautiful Spectrum Field (home of the Phillies A-level minor league team), I ran a long way to field a fly ball on the line. I got there but lost the ball in the lights at the last moment. And wham, the ball hit me directly in the face. I was stunned and embarrassed and deeply concerned about my health. It reach for my nose; it was still there. I felt blood pooling in my mouth. The roof of my mouth seemed wholly altered. I checked for my teeth. And I did not wonder, not for one second, what happened to the baseball or the baserunners or the score of the game. I just wanted to be okay.

Minutes later, I was on the bench, spitting out huge amounts of blood, grateful that I still had my teeth. For the moment, at least. Next I took a trip to Urgent Care. One nurse looked at me, said, “Oh my gosh,” and sent me to the hospital. They insisted I spend the night. CT scans, and so on.

 

 

The game was at a "real" minor league field. Sweet dugouts with a tunnel that led to indoor batting cages and locker rooms. I took this photo a few minutes after sitting on the bench, spitting blood, dazed and down-hearted.

The game was at a “real” minor league field. Sweet dugouts with a tunnel that led to indoor batting cages and locker rooms. I took this photo a few minutes after sitting on the bench, spitting blood, dazed and down-hearted.

The next day, after an overnight in the hospital — fearing these Florida doctors, who didn’t seem to know anything — who kept talking about “pulling teeth” and “multiple fractures” and “possible bleeding in my brain” — I flew back home to NY for a hasty visit with an oral surgeon.

Goodbye Florida, three nights early. It was totally great until it suddenly so wasn’t.

Yesterday, with my wife at my side, the evaluation was far more optimistic than I’d been led to believe. Overall, no structural damage. My cheekbones, my jaw, good. My upper palate suffered some trauma but should heal itself. Some teeth might not make it, but maybe they will. Soft foods for next 10 days. We’ll wait and see how the body reacts.

View from my balcony, shared with 3 other teammates.

View from my balcony, shared with 3 other teammates.

I didn’t lose an eye. Whatever is broken can be repaired. I’m okay. Amazingly.

I caught a baseball with my face and I’m going to be perfectly fine.

So now I am left feeling sheepish, a little humiliated. The day before, I had pitched a solid game against a very good team, leaving in the 8th inning with a slim lead. The story in my head was a good one. I was 56 years old, having a great time in Florida, still competing, still a semi-athlete who can help his team win games. The next day I’m knocked down in the outfield, the ball is bouncing away, and I’m wondering what in the world I’m doing out here. Playing the outfield under the stupid lights. I hadn’t played a night game in over 17 years. I always play in natural light. My eyes are failing. I’m getting old and diminished. Who was I fooling?

I felt, right then, like an idiot. Ashamed. Never again, I thought to myself.

And yet 24 hours earlier, my story was completely different. Which one was true? Which image of myself was accurate?

I think in the end both narratives are true. Like Whitman said, I am large; I contain multitudes. I’m both things, the still-good player and the diminished fool with failing eyes and lost skills. I got injured and it was completely my fault. No one to blame but myself.

So now I’m home with a sore face and luscious, full lips. I might finally lose that last 5 pounds I’ve been unable to take off. I’ll work on Monday. And we’ll see how it goes.

Life turns on a dime, doesn’t it?

A quick snap back when everything was going great, glad to be exactly in that spot, preparing to play another ballgame.

A quick snap back when everything was going great, glad to be exactly in that spot, preparing to play another ballgame.

 

Memories of Growing Up: My Flat, Warm Soda

Coke6
I grew up in a household where my parents kept a supply of soda in a cupboard beneath the kitchen sink. I can picture a dozen cans or so — Coke, of course, but also RC and other cola varieties. On rare occasions, orange Fanta or Dr. Pepper. But usually it was Coke, never Pepsi, and it was always available for anyone with a thirst, though it was understood that we, the kids, shouldn’t go crazy over the stuff. It was a treat. Even in the 60s we understood that Coke wasn’t actually “it,” despite the advertising slogan. We knew soda wasn’t good for us — it would “rot your teeth” — though we hadn’t yet come to the place where we thought of soda and sugar as devil incarnates.
We had neighbors across the street, the Charles family who moved onto Adelphi Road in the early 70s with three boys: Jeffrey, David, and Eric. As I recall, and this seems astonishing to me now, they drank soda at the family dinner table. I was always a little awed by that. There were also wild rumors, recently substantiated, claiming the Charles boys were provided cans of Coke in their school lunchboxes. That was not the case in our house. We drank cow’s milk, purchased in school in those little cardboard containers that were so difficult to open. Sure, you pushed the cardboard back, carefully squeezed the edges, and the carton popped open to form a diamond-shaped spout for easy access. But other times the cardboard would get soggy and smushy and we’d require aid from a volunteer lunch monitor. Help us!
 –
d040b1f2c8e88a152e723577942a55b5
 
Or, embarrassed and frustrated, we’d give up entirely, tossing the whole sorry mess into the trash can. By digressing thus, I mean only to point out by comparison that my family, the statistically average Prellers, were not an extreme soda house. We were — I thought then, and still think today — pretty normal. Well within range of standard suburban deviations. But how I marveled at the Charles’s. Soda at dinner. Imagine that.
 
So, yes, cans of soda were always available at 1720 Adelphi Road when I was kid, kept under the sink alongside the standard cleaning fluids, the scrub brushes and the Spic and Span, Mr. Clean and the spare rolls of Brawny and everything else. Our soda, warmly waiting. We didn’t keep it refrigerated. Perhaps that was a function of available space. Seven children and one refrigerator, maybe there wasn’t room. But years later, half a century later, when my parents rattled around in a big house in Southampton — “Near the dump,” my mother often pointed out, just so you didn’t get the idea that the Prellers were getting fancy — they still kept their soda in a side cupboard. Old habits. If you wanted your soda cold, and of course you did, you added ice.
 –
By the Southampton days, a late-80s, post-retirement home built after all seven kids had finished school, my parents enjoyed the happy convenience of an ice maker. The periodic muffled clunk of freshly frozen cubes crashing into the ice container like so many fallen soldiers. Our freezer at work, forming a steady supply for our liquid-filled pleasures. Whereas ice in my younger days was a challenge. Even a few cubes required effort. We wrestled with metal ice trays, frozen and sticky to the touch, loudly banged them on counter tops, muttered and fumed. We yanked up the metal lever to crack the frozen ice and loosen the cubes from their metallic walls. The process never work perfectly, some cubes would fail to free themselves, stuck, unyielding. Others shattered and chipped, a different sort of defeat. We sought perfect cubes, not the chips and slivers and broken bits which melted too quickly. We learned the trick of running warm water over the tray to loosen the cubes. Then it was time for the refilling of the tray with tap water, the careful steady insertion back into the freezer. It would become ice tomorrow. The circle of life. When events ran properly, no sudden cocktail parties or makeshift lemonade stands, we enjoyed an efficient circulation of trays in various stages of newly filled, to “getting there,” to frozen solid.
ng_icecube2-1
 
Maybe because of all this effort, the pure hassle of it, I preferred my soda warm. And flat. Hot and syrupy and without bubbles. So I developed a strategy. This secret, unspoken thing I did. At a very young age, a time when I still liked crawling under things and into dark places, I would slyly remove a can of soda from the kitchen and take it under a corner desk in what we called the “play room.” I would open the can — was it a pop-up ring? or a feat accomplished with a can opener?, I can’t recall —  and hide the soda on a back shelf. A day would go by, or a week, and I’d return to my flat, hot soda in the secret dark. So good, such a private pleasure, sweetly delicious. Nobody knew.
 –
That was my soda world in late 1960s America. Each year when I look up anew, that world seems farther and farther away.