Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Yay for Cats and Dogs

I know the secret of happiness. Well, at least the secret of happiness for me:

1) Get up early and write on the couch with my mug of Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate beside me.
2) Go for a long walk in the beautiful mountains by my house.

Every day that I do this is a good day.

Every day that I do not do this is not a good day.

It is completely within my power to do both of these things, barring the occasional broken foot or other looming emergency.

So why do I ever not do them? Why do I look at the clock at 5:00 or 5:30, and say, oh, I can write later? Then tell myself, when I finally do roll out of bed at the ridiculously late hour of 6:30 or 7, I can take my walk later, too? The whole day drifts by in an unproductive stupor, filled with who-knows-what, and then at the end of it, no page has been written, no walk has been taken. Oh, the sad shame of it!

Luckily, such days are rare for two reasons:

1) Snickers the cat

2) Tank the dog

It's Snickers who meows to be fed breakfast at 5:30 a.m. It's Tank who writhes with joy at the sight of the leash in my hand at 7:00. Once I force myself out of bed to feed Snickers, I might as well fix myself some hot chocolate and settle down to write. After an hour of writing, I don't feel like leaving my cozy couch to walk, but I can hear Tank waiting hopefully at the bottom of the stairs.

So I write, and I walk, and life is good.

Yay for cats and dogs!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Queen for a Week

I'm writing this in the Houston airport, after an exhausting, exhilarating week of author visits to ten schools in the book-crazed Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District. I'm astonished yet again by the wonderfulness of librarians who can generate so much excitement in second and third graders about books and the lucky people who write them.

I feel like a queen right now - a very tired and happy queen.

This is what it's like to arrive at Bang Elementary:

This is what it's like to enter the library at Kirk Elementary (I think it was Kirk - after such a full week, the magic all starts to blur together).

In case I didn't already feel like visiting royalty, I was crowned Reading Queen (no doubt inspired by my Kelsey Green, Reading Queen) at Sampson Elementary:

And, as if my head weren't puffed up enough already, here is Ashlyn, at Millsap Elementary, in the shirt she designed and wore for the occasion:

Now I still have to WRITE the books. I did write one page a day each morning in my lovely Hampton Inn, forcing myself out of the world's most comfortable bed to do so. It was easy, with this as my reward. Thank you, Cy-Fair librarians, for a week I'll remember always.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Wealth from Frugality

I'm in Houston for a week of school visits in the Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District: ten schools in five days, focusing mainly on connecting with the second and third graders who are just right as readers for my Franklin School Friends series (Kelsey Green, Reading Queen; Annika Riz, Math Whiz; Izzy Barr, Running Star).

I was invited to come many months ago and told to make my own travel arrangements, to be reimbursed by the school district. When I searched for flights online, they were all sickeningly expensive, more than $500 round trip, with one exception: cut-rate Spirit Airlines, which charges passengers for EVERYTHING (carrying on a bag, getting a seat assignment, getting a cup of water on the plane) and whose Denver-Houston flight left at an ungodly early hour (6:15 a.m., which meant getting a 3:18 bus to the airport, which meant getting up at 2:45, which doesn't even count as early morning, but as middle-of-the-night).

I decided to buy the Spirit Airlines ticket. Even though I wasn't paying for it, somebody was, and even with all those extra fees, I still was able to fly round trip for $171.48. How could I in good conscience spend $350 more just to get a tray table on the plane, seat-back pouch to stow my reading material, and two or three extra hours of sleep?

So I did the frugal thing.

And here was my reward.

Because I arrived so very early, my host librarian, Debbie Hall, and her mega-knowledgeable first-grade-teacher colleague, Carmela, met me at the airport and whisked me off to the Montrose neighborhood to Katz's kosher deli for breakfast ("Katz's Never Kloses"),  with its old-timey tiled floors and tin ceilings. I had blueberry blintzes.

Next stop: Houston's fountain-filled museum district, near Rice University. There we spent about two hours at the stunning Museum of Natural Science, dividing our time between a breathtaking exhibit of Faberge eggs and other exquisitely detailed jeweled items (I decided I wanted the ink well, to help me write my books) and the truly amazing Morian Hall of Paleontology, which offered its own exquisitely detailed gems such as meticulously excavated tiny fossils and jewel-like petrified wood, as well as the usual parade of looming dinosaurs here staged in dramatic predator-prey interactions.

We had meant to go next to Houston's Greek festival, but by that point we were tired and decided on a late lunch at a bustling Greek eatery instead, Niko Niko's, with groaning platters of Greek specialties finished off with honey-drenched baklava.

I checked in to my Hampton Inn by 3, promptly crawled into the world's most comfortable bed, and indulged in a four-hour nap. Why not? This early frugal bird had already caught hours of dazzling pleasures by the time the more expensive flights would have touched down. So I concluded my frugal day with the second most wonderful nap of my life (Cheryl:  you know what the first-most wonderful one was). Yay for frugality!


Thursday, October 2, 2014


After a month of what other people have been calling my "retirement" and I have been calling my transition to life as a full-time writer, I just made the decision to un-retire. I've accepted an offer to return to my visiting professorship at DePauw University for the spring semester.

When I set foot in Greencastle last week, I fell back in love, so hard, so fast. I kept thinking of the Dolly Parton song I used to listen to back when I had a complicated love life, many decades ago: "Here you come again, looking better than a body has a right to. And shaking me up so, that all I really know, is here you come again - and here I go...." The little town of Greencastle (pop. 10,000), the idyllic campus of DePauw (even under construction), the walk through the Nature Park to the pristine and peaceful Prindle Institute, hugs from colleagues, late night talks with my former housemate Julia. . . . it all looked better than any place on earth has a right to. It shook me up so, the intensity of the longing to be there again.

It all happened so fast. I went so quickly from "Gee, it's great to be back here," to "Wow, I really would like to teach here again some time," to "Do you think you might ever have a use for me in the future?" to "Next spring? Let me think for a second or two. . . why, YES!"

I'll be teaching children's literature in the English department, Rousseau in the philosophy department, and throwing myself once again into all Prindle Institute for Ethics activities. I'll reside with Julia and her darling kindergartner, Alex. And I'll be living in the same state as my sister for the first time since our childhood.

I already have pangs at the thought of leaving my sweet Boulder life yet again - my family, my friends, my church, my world. But I'll come back for Kataleya's first birthday in February, for spring break in March, for Gregory's graduation in May.

And I have to admit that so far I haven't liked being a full-time writer as much as I thought I would. A lifelong pattern of writing for only an hour a day (a pattern which allowed me to write and publish 50 books) is hard to break. I thought I might be able to make myself write at least two hours a day, but I just didn't seem to be able to. I wasn't completing any more pages than when I worked full time. And while I did fill the rest of my days with considerable fun, I had just as much fun before. It turns out that I'm happier when I'm busy.

Maybe a month wasn't a fair try of my new life. That's hardly time to get the opening scenes of Act III to be playing out as they should. In any case, I've said yes to DePauw, and I feel excited. I'll still need to figure out the full-time writing life someday, but I'll tackle that later.

For now, my new mantra for myself is: "Do not go gentle into that good pasture." With this decision to return to teaching for one last (?) semester, I'm feeling my oats.

I'm feeling downright frisky.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Love Song to Indiana

Five days in to my week in Indiana, I've fallen back in love, as hopelessly as I did the first time.

But who couldn't love a place that offered these assorted joys?

1. Residence with my beloved former housemate Julia and her five-year-old son Alex, who now speaks only in fluent German at home. It was fun for me to try to pick out a word or phrase from tmy two years of college German many decades ago. When I came back to Julia's house one afternoon, letting myself in with the key Julia had loaned me, he came running to the door to see who it was and then announced cheerfully, "Nur Claudia." I remembered, "nur" is "only." So that was one word of German salvaged from all that intensive study. I loved that Alex considers me part of his world again, not a visitor, but a familiar fixture in his home and family.

2. Early morning walks along the Nature Park trails to the Prindle Institute, situated in beautiful woods by an abandoned quarry that is now a refuge for animals and humans alike.

3. Breakfast in the Prindle kitchen with Assistant Director Linda Clute, perched on the counters as we did in days of yore. Linda warned this year's two graduate fellows not to be surprised to see us sitting there. Apparently, counter-perching had fallen out of fashion. But I was pleased that by the end of the week, the graduate fellows were perching there, too. One day Linda brought a moist, rich cucumber cake (like zucchini cake but even better) in my honor; another day one of the fellows brought apple streusel muffins.

4. A lunchtime talk by brilliant sociology professor Mona Bhan on her research on women, sexuality, and national identity in the India/Pakistan border region.

5. A talk by ME on female friendships in children's literature, given as part of the 10th anniversary celebration of the Women's Center. To my great surprise, although I had expected the audience to be only my old friends, actual students arrived to hear what I had to say.

6. Lunch at Dairy Castle, finished off by black raspberry ice cream for me and persimmon ice cream for my friend Keith.

7. Joining with the crowd of parents picking up kindergartners from Ridpath Elementary. And then seeing those same children, a day later, pulling little red wagons full of donated canned goods to the Greencastle homeless shelter, the brainchild of one kind, determined first grader, Lilly Welch. Oh, and there was a police escort to accompany the children's bighearted parade, exactly what a police force is for.

8. A drive down to Bloomington on a perfect late September afternoon with Linda for a reunion with our former graduate fellow Nicki, who perched with us on the Prindle kitchen counters for two years and is now a second year law student at Indiana University.

9. A meeting with the Janeites book group to discuss Jane Austen's unfinished novel Sanditon; as always, champagne and scrumptious dessert (lemon bars) were served.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Off to Indiana

I leave today for a week in my beloved Indiana. I'll spend four nights in Greencastle, staying with my former housemate Julia and her darling little boy Alex (who used to be three and in preschool but is now FIVE and a big, savvy kindergartner!). Then I'll spend three nights in Greenwood with my sister and her husband, who moved to Indiana last fall for Cheryl's job in the tax department at Eli Lilly.

I'm going to sink back in to the life I loved so much during my two years at DePauw. I'll write by the fireplace at the beautiful Prindle Institute for Ethics where I had my office.

Or else I'll write in the Bartlett Reflection Center overlooking the abandoned quarry that is now a nature park.

I'll have breakfast with the Prindle's Assistant Director, Linda, perched on the counters in the Prindle kitchen. I'll take breaks to walk the rim trail around the quarry. I'll attend a luncheon talk by Mona Bhan of Sociology, I'll give a talk myself during the week-long tenth anniversary celebration of the Women's Center, I'll meet with the the Prindle's new director to see  if there is anything useful I might do for the Prindle in the future. I'll sit my favorite chair in the philosophy department lounge in Asbury Hall. I'll see as many friends as humanly possible, including driving down to Bloomington for dinner with our former graduate fellow who is now a law student at Indiana University.

Then: sister fun with Cheryl! Actually, the main sister fun I'm longing for is to help Cheryl finish organizing her enormous library in the new house on her 25 floor-to-ceiling bookcases crammed full of books and bears. That is the sort of project I adore. I want to see her new house, explore her new town, and check out the dairy she's told me about where you can see the friendly cows getting ready to produce the milk to made the home-made ice cream.

So that is my plan. I like my plan. And then I'll return home to figure out how to keep that Indiana joy here in my life every day.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Ten Times Better than Anything"

Last weekend I was up in Silverthorne for my annual writing group retreat. Our group has been meeting together for 22 years. I joined when I moved to Colorado in 1992, when Gregory was just turning 1; next month he will be 23.

We go away on a retreat together every summer. This year we chose a weekend in early fall, as for the first time ever I had the luxury of not having to teach during the autumn semester. So this year, for the first time ever, we were there as the aspen were beginning to turn.

The house we rented had some flaws. It wasn't the one we had signed up to get; there was some confusion over a last-minute switcheroo. The couches weren't comfy, and there were no coffee tables on which we writers could rest our piles of manuscripts, books to share, and abundant snacks and glasses of wine. But resourceful as we are, we re-purposed a couple of our coolers as coffee tables, topping them with extra pillowcases from the linen closet for a lovely effect. And the lack of coffee tables was more than made up for by an extra-relaxing hot hub, stunning views of Lake Dillon, and proximity to dozens of hiking trails. Leslie, pictured here with me, declared our first glimpse of the trails to be "ten times better than anything," and that became our unofficial slogan for the retreat. (Official slogan, chosen ahead of time during our retreat planning: "Break Through to Bliss.")

The heart of the retreat is having unstructured time to write and then sharing what we've written. I try to bring something extra significant each year: the first chapter of a new book or the concluding chapter of a book long in the making. This year, despite my supposedly having all this new free time to write, I had been scrambling before I left to finish up revisions on the second book in the Nora Notebooks series and to deal with the proofs and index for my edited collection, Ethics and Children's Literature. But during the retreat I did get something written on Friday to share on Saturday: chapter 2 of the third and final book in the Nora series. It was sweet to remember that I had shared chapter one of book one at the retreat last year.

We also eat, heaps and heaps and heaps of lovingly prepared food. This is becoming more of a challenge as nowadays everyone has so many special diets. There is always someone who doesn't eat gluten, or soy, or shellfish, or nightshade vegetables, or all of the above. It's hard to break bread together when everyone (except me, it seems!) is swearing off carbs. But once we sit down at the table together, none of this matters. We laugh, we cry, we talk and talk and talk and talk. We remember the years we've shared, toast recent joys, commiserate with ongoing concerns, dream of the future.

Being in a writing group like this one is ten times better than anything.