Thursday, April 17, 2014

Last Hurrah

Years ago, on a family trip to Washington, D.C., I told the boys that this trip was going to be the last hurrah of our practice of buying beanie babies on every vacation (and for every Christmas, birthday, Easter, and other occasion). We'd buy ONE more beanie baby in the nation's capitol, as our last hurrah of beanie-baby-buying. Every day on the trip the boys would ask me, "Is this the day we get the hurrah?" The day came when the answer was yes. That little bunny beanie baby was known for years as "the hurrah."

I just returned from my last hurrah as a professor of philosophy, attending my last-ever APA (conference of the American Philosophical Association). Actually, this year I had two last hurrahs, for I attended the Central Division APA in Chicago in February (where I also did a book signing at the Magic Tree Bookstores in Oak Park, reconnected with extended family, and took part in a hilarious trivia contest at the Oak Park Public Library as part of a team of Betsy-Tacy Society friends). This week is the Pacific Division meeting in San Diego. I flew out on an 8:00 am flight yesterday and flew back on an 8 am flight today. So the hurrah lasted just twenty-four hours. But they were a sweet twenty-four hours indeed.

I learned a long time ago that I have little tolerance for listening to papers with titles like "Why the Debate over Composition Is Factually Empty (Or Why There’s No Fact of the Matter Whether Anything Exists)" (an actual title from this year's program). I've always had only half my heart in philosophy, anyway. So as soon as I arrived in San Diego and checked into the lovely Westin Hotel in the Gas Lamp District, I wandered across the street to a French bakery/bistro and treated myself to an hour of writing on my Nora ant farm book revisions over croissants and chocolat. I do so love writing somewhere new.

I spent the afternoon in our APA session where three philosophers, including me, gave commentary on Jana Mohr Lone's wonderful book, The Philosophical Child, her argument for why we should encourage children's philosophical wondering. I loved the book, so I had little direct criticism to offer. My comments focused chiefly on Jana's thought that some of the approach she and other pioneers in the Philosophy-for-Children movement use with children could be illuminating to consider for undergraduate education as well: a focus on actually doing philosophy, living in the space of the questions for their own sake, rather than dutifully imparting knowledge of canonical texts. I shared her regret that so often we discourage our students from the joys of philosophical wondering - but also confessed my discomfort when a student tells me that rather than write his ethical theory paper on Mill or Kant or Aristotle, he wants to come up with his "own" theory.  No, no, no! The discussion that followed all three sets of comments was wonderful: wide-ranging, honest, real.

Of course afterward I had the last hurrah of drinks in the hotel bar with a bunch of people from our session: the San Diego Sea Breeze was my cocktail of choice. Then I wandered through the Gas Lamp District with beloved former grad student Sara (organizer of the afternoon's session) and her family (including her delightful children aged nine and five) for a last hurrah APA dinner.

Now, candor compels me to confess that we did buy other beanie babies after that trip to Washington, DC. The beanie baby bunny hurrah was joined by other hurrahs down the road and across the years. I may go to an APA again sometime. Or not. It's expensive to attend, with registration fees of $120, airfare, hotel tariff running to $200 for a single night. This time I got some support from the university for my expenses (though I was on my own for the San Diego Sea Breeze!). The APA is never held in Denver. So maybe this was the last hurrah, or maybe there are future hurrahs to come. I know enough "never to say never."

But if it was the last hurrah, well, I say hurrah for the last hurrah.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Too Much of a Good Thing

After today, I have exactly seven weeks left of my life as a University of Colorado philosophy professor: three weeks of classes for my three courses this semester, finals week, and then three weeks of teaching Maymester (where we cram an entire semester-long course into thirteen days).

In preparation for my new life as a full-time writer, I've been trying to line up book contracts so I'll have plenty to do come autumn, when the fall semester at CU will start without me. I've had unprecedented luck so far ("Leap, and the net will appear"). As of this moment, I have six books in my writing pipeline, in addition to the two already in production (Annika Riz, Math Whiz, due out next month, and Izzy Barr, Running Star, due out in spring of 2015).

That is my good news.

The bad news is that a full FOUR of them are supposed to be delivered to the publisher by early summer.

This means that I'm not going to be sitting outside at a little table in a cafe luxuriating in these projects in my blissful teaching-free new life come September. Instead, I need to be writing them this very minute, as I juggle all my end-of-term commitments to the university and the intensity of teaching Maymester.

Too much of a good thing? Or at least, too many good-things-under-contract-with-looming-deadlines that are all facing me RIGHT NOW?

I've decided it's all okay.

After all, I love writing books. I can always write for two hours a day rather than my trademark hour a day, if I have to. Of these four books, one already has an excellent first draft and just needs minor revisions; the second has a decent first draft. Of course, the third has yet to have even the first word written on it - but that just means I'll need to schedule a writing date with my friend Cat to go off somewhere special to write it, preferably mimosa in hand. And the fourth one is not even a speck in my eye right now: I have no idea, no story, no title, no anything. But I'm willing to bet I'll have at least the idea for it by tomorrow, or Sunday at the latest.

Part of me is toying with the idea of asking for an extension on some of my deadlines. After all, the whole point of lining up these projects was so that I'd be busy and happy come fall. I'm already busy and happy enough right now without four books to write.

But a bigger part of me believes that I should leap into the joyous writing of these books in faith that even more busy happiness/happy busyness is awaiting me in the future. I heard this writing advice once: writers should never hold back in their writing, withholding "good stuff" from the current project out of fear that they won't have enough "good stuff" for the next project and the project after that. The advice I heard was that writers should never hold back anything. Cram ALL your best stuff into every project, fill it all to overflowing, in trust that more good stuff is on its way.

So that's my plan. After all, there is also this famed advice from Mae West: "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful."

Sunday, April 6, 2014

NOT the Cruelest Month

T. S. Eliot famously pronounced April to be the "cruelest month." I've often thought that he must have had the academic calendar in mind, as it's by April that we're all burnt out, faculty and students alike, and yearning for the end of the second semester, which still seems impossibly distant. But other professions may have their own grievances against the month. I imagine that tax accountants are feeling weary as they approach April 15. Here in Colorado, even the weather can provoke charges of cruelty, for "springtime in the Rockies" can be marked by heavy, wet dumps of snow onto poor trees struggling to blossom and leaf.

In my own April this year I'm obsessed by the clock that is ticking away the days to my early retirement from CU and transition to my long-awaited career as a full-time writer. You might think this tick-tock is a cheerful sound, and by all rights it should be. I'm 100 percent happy with my decision and 100 percent willing and eager to go. But the trouble is that now that the decision has been made, I'm willing and eager to GO RIGHT NOW. I'm like a pregnant woman well past the end of her ninth month: come on, baby, come on, new life, it's time for you to POP!

All I want to do is count down the days, hours, and minutes to the birth of my new self. But that is a depressing way to spend an entire month. To quote T. S. Eliot again, I don't want to "measure out my life with coffee spoons." Besides, I have a LOT LOT LOT of work to do this month, both as the last hurrah of my old job and as the transition to my new future. So I can't fill my days with nothing but looking at my watch and crossing off each hour as it passes.

So I sat down last night with my trusty little notebook and made a plan.

Why should April be the cruelest month? Why not make it the happiest month? I started a list (my favorite activity of all): "Ways to Maximize Happiness." I wrote down thirty things to do to stuff the rest of the month full of joy. Some are huge. Some are tiny. Some were already going to happen. Some will happen now because I'm going to make them happen.

Here are a few of the items from the list, in random order:

1. Kataleya's baptism, scheduled for Palm Sunday, the same Sunday on which Christopher was baptized
2. Reading Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things, which I got for Christmas and have yet to open
3. Writing with my friend Cat
4. Going to Gregory's jazz ensemble concert this week, where they'll perform one of his original compositions
5. Eating jelly beans
6. Buying myself flowers
7. Calling my friend Robin on her April 20 birthday (last year we celebrated her birthday together in Chicago, when I was an Indiana person)
8. Seeing beloved former grad student Sara, the queen of all things fun, at the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association in San Diego the week after this one
9. Easter sunrise sevice
10. Buying myself the new CD from French songstress Carla Bruni ("J'Arrive a Toi" is my new favorite song).

I have TWENTY more items on my list. My goal: to do all of them. Or at least half of them. Or at least some of them. And to start them TODAY. Number sixteen on the list is: blog more (I love blogging). At 6:15 a.m., I've already made progress on that one. I might order the Carla Bruni CD right now. I can buy a bag of jelly beans on my way home from church. I can read the first chapter of The Signature of All Things this afternoon. Of course, the main thing on the list, the main thing on any list of ways to maximize happiness in my life, is to write for an hour a day. I'll do that, too.

Cruelest month? Not THIS April! Not for me.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Day Before April 2014

 Today is the day before April, the day for me to reprint my now-traditional day-before-April post.

My mother was an elementary school teacher as well as a writer of a few published stories for children. Her love of reading and writing is where I get my love of reading and writing. My sister and I were raised on poetry. One of our favorite collections was Silver Pennies, edited by Blanche Jennings Thompson ("A Collection of Modern Poems for Boys and Girls" - modern, meaning at that time, published in 1959). The preface to the book begins with the lines:

You must have a silver penny
To get into Fairyland.

The premise of the book was that poems themselves are these silver pennies.

Of all the silver pennies in the book, this poem was the one we loved best, by Mary Carolyn Davies:

The Day Before April

The day before April
Alone, alone,
I walked in the woods
And sat on a stone.

I sat on a broad stone
And sang to the birds.
The tune was God's making
But I made the words.

My mother, my sister, and I have long celebrated "the day before April" as a holiday, a Mills family holiday. Some years ago I hosted a "day before April" party, with my mother and my boys (who did think it was a somewhat strange party) as the only guests. I usually gave my mother flowers on that day.

I've dreamed of writing a book with the title The Day Before April. Maybe someday I will.

In honor of the day, I'm going to go buy some flowers - daffodils, probably. A few years ago, when I first wrote this post, I took daffodils to my mother, who was in a rehabilitation center after a fall that broke her hip and arm; she died two months later. My daffodils today are in memory of her.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Greetings from Michigan

Greetings from West Bloomfield, Michigan, where I've just finished up a wondrous week of school visits, taking advantage of the University of Colorado's spring break to be able to absent myself from campus for a five-day immersion in some of the most delightful schools in America. The amazing West Bloomfield Township Public Library, recipient of the National Medal for Museum and Library Service (the nation's highest honor for libraries), partners with the public schools for their Pine Tree reading program, which has been going on for over thirty years. The children read 20 titles from a selected list, with all kinds of delightful challenges and incentives to entice them to read all 20, and then there is a week-long Pine Tree celebration, all funded by the public library. And as part of this year's reading extravaganza, they invited me.

I love going to schools and talking to kids, Even more, I love just being in schools and seeing wonderful teachers at work - and maybe, just maybe, coming away with a few book ideas?

At one school, I had the chance to sit in on the dress rehearsal for the fourth grade choir concert and hear the kids singing a medley of patriotic tunes, as well as bopping along to the Beach Boys, "I Get Around." At another school I dropped in on the before-school knitting club, where the children were knitting and crocheting colorful yarn squares to stitch together into blankets for the homeless. I did two evening programs at the public library where I got to answer questions that went far above and beyond the usual "What is your favorite book?" and "How many books have you wrote?" Instead, I was asked questions like: "You told us that it's important to put vivid, sparkling details in your stories when you write them. But sometimes I think I'm putting too many details in mine. How do you know the right amount?" Oh, and one media specialist shaved his head to reward his students for meeting their Pine Tree challenge.

Then today I spent time at Sheiko Elementary, one of the most diverse schools I've ever visited, with students of  so many races and ethnicities. It was pajama day, so most of the kids were there in pj's, complete with fuzzy bathrobes and stuffed-animal slippers. (Some teachers, too!) After my two assemblies, Mrs. Claudette's Daniels's students invited me back to their class for their "salad bowl." I had no idea what this "salad bowl" was going to be. Of course I said yes.

When I reached the room, soft music was playing to encourage quiet reflection. While most students sat on traditional chairs, some sat on big hoppy balls, so that they could get their wiggles out in a non-disruptive way. The "salad bowl" itself involved students taking turns in sharing their writing, in a "share when the spirit moves you" format, a tossed salad of diverse ingredients, if you will: poems, persuasive essays/speeches, whatever the students chose to offer.

Mrs. Daniels went first, sharing a piece of her own about the different fathers she knew and loved as an adopted child. I don't think I've ever seen a teacher so willing to share her own writing with her class, willing to accept the inescapable vulnerability all authors feel when they allow others to see and hear their work. Some of the student pieces were ardent speeches making well-reasoned arguments for greater environmentalism and social justice. Some were modeled on template poems provided, such as "Life for Me Ain't Been No Crystal Stair" by Langston Hughes. Poems on homework and ice cream were hilarious; poems written in the voice of a mother sharing hard-won wisdom with her children were deeply moving.

And then, it was time for the actual edible salad bar, served in a corner of the classroom.  And time to sing a "birthday rap" to the birthday boy of the day, who stood on a table surrounded by his classmates who honored him with a birthday greeting set to the tune of "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang. (No, I did not recognize the tune myself, but the much younger media specialist who was my host for the day identified it for me).

What a gift to be in the company of such a gifted teacher. What a joy to be in the company of such motivated students.

Thank you, West Bloomfield Township Public Library, for a magical week. And don't be surprised if some future book of mine features pajama day, a salad bowl sharing of kids' funny and poignant poems, or a birthday rap....

Friday, March 21, 2014

Lucky (Despite Being Unlucky)

Yesterday I went to my first followup appointment with the orthopedist since I fell just over two weeks ago and broke my foot.

It's been a daunting and discouraging two weeks. I couldn't master -- well, actually, gave up on even attempting -- crutches; the knee-scooter I rented proved unwieldy and difficult (for me) to maneuver (but, oh, you should see Christopher zoom around my tiny house on it, and my ski-injured students zip around campus on them wonderfully). I had to go up and down stairs on my bottom. I had to ask my students to help me get in and out of doorways in my wheelchair. I had to ask my already stressed family to bring me my morning hot chocolate.

When I flew to the Children's Lit Festival in Warrensburg, Missouri, last week, I had the shock of discovering that although I was wheeled right to the plane in an airport wheelchair, the actual plane was one of those tiny ones out on the tarmac, with steps you had to climb up into it - and no way for a disabled person to climb them. So I gave up any pretense at dignity, ascended the (cold, metal, dirty) stairs on my now-practiced bottom, and hopped down the narrow aisle to my seat.

But then, at yesterday's appointment, the doctor examined my x-rays and probed my foot. Did it hurt? she asked. No, I answered honestly. In fact, that's been the hardest part about accepting my disability: forcing myself not to walk on a foot that didn't really hurt at all. The only pain, one of my friends at church said, was the "pain in the ass" of the massive disruption to my daily routine.

"Walk on it!" the doctor said, with a merry shrug.

I felt as the paralytic did when Jesus told him, "Get up, take your mat, and go home!"

Well, not quite. But almost.

The bliss of being able to walk from bed to bathroom! To walk from couch to desk! To go downstairs on feet, not bottom, and make myself my own hot chocolate at will!

"You're so lucky!" a friend told me when I called her at once with my good news. And she's right.

Then again, a truly lucky person wouldn't go out to get the mail, trip on nothing, and fracture her foot.

Lucky? Unlucky? Or both?

One of my favorite books is Alix Kates Shulman's memoir To Love What Is. (Thank you, Alison, for that book recommendation!) Her beloved husband falls nine feet from their sleeping loft and is permanently brain damaged as a result. Their marriage will never be the same. How could it be? And yet she dedicates the memoir to him, "To my darling."  Despite her friends' horror at her changed life, her husband himself keeps repeating the mantra, "Aren't we lucky?" Shulman writes, "Our shorthand for this tenacious optimism, which some consider temperament, others self-delusion or denial, and still others a gift, is the language of luck -- which we continually manufacture by our stubborn resistance to viewing our lives as other than blessed."

Sometimes it's harder than others to see our lives as blessed. Mine feels much more blessed now that I've been given permission to walk again than it did two days ago when I was in a rage of despair against the limitations imposed on me by my temporary disability. It's a heck of a lot easier to feel lucky today than it was on the day I got my diagnosis. I have loved ones dealing with things in their lives right now so tough that few could call them lucky outright.

In any case, I'm feeling lucky right this minute. I just walked downstairs and fed Snickers her breakfast. All by myself! That was me, walking right down the stairs like nobody's business.

Lucky, indeed.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

No Cows This Time

I'm off this morning to the airport to fly off to Missouri where I'll attend the Children's Literature Festival hosted by the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, which I've attended for at least fifteen years, maybe more. The festival brings over 30 authors to campus to speak to over 5000 children, who are bused in from all over the state, some traveling two hours each direction simply to come to the festival and share the joys of talking about books with the people who write them.

The festival is always the same. Many of the same authors return every year, so we cherish our once-a-year festival friendships, catching up on everything that has happened to us in the previous year. (I'm certainly bringing pictures of new grandbaby Kataleya). The authors go on a shoe-buying party to the old-timey shoe store in downtown Warrensburg where gentleman in suits measure our feet with that old-fashioned foot-measuring thing. Then we go across the street to Heroes, a cozy restaurant/bar where we order their signature drink, the Unknown Hero, and onion rings. We take a long walk on Sunday morning with the stated objective: "see cows."

This year I'm going to navigate both airports - Denver and Kansas City - in a wheelchair. I can still give my four talks a day to the children, perching on a table (as I've been teaching my classes) rather than striding back and forth in front of the room. I can still do the nightly gabfests. I will still buy a pair of shoes, though won't walk around the store to test how comfortable they are (all of their shoes are comfortable). I will definitely down an Unknown Hero (or two) and my share of onion rings.

But I won't go walk to see the cows.

That's a sad thought for me.

But not too sad. Sometimes in life there are years when you don't go see the cows. Then there are other years when you do. My broken foot will heal. A year from now I'll be leading the way to the cows. This year, I'll stay in my room, broken foot elevated, and work on the copy-edited manuscript for Izzy Barr, Running Star, and that will be satisfying, too.

No cows this year. But, God willing, cows next year. And cows the year after that.