Friday, August 26, 2016

Back to School - But Not for Me

This is the first week of school for the University of Colorado, where I taught for 22 years as a tenured professor in the Philosophy Department. It's the first week of school for DePauw University, where I taught as a visiting professor for six blissful semesters over the course of the last five years. It's the first full week of the new school year at Boulder Valley Public Schools, where both of my boys were educated from kindergarten to high school graduation. My two-and-a-half-year old granddaughter, Kataleya, had her first day at Sunflower Preschool yesterday (and our feverishly undertaken potty training held up under the stress!).

But it's not the first week of school for me.

Instead I've spent the week savoring every minute of a visit from a high school friend from New Jersey - actually, a friend from first grade on. In third grade, when I acquired the inevitable cereal-company-inspired nickname of General Mills, I founded an army to chase the boys at recess. Kim was the army's only other member, my reluctant but obliging private. For the last decade or so, we've enjoyed annual visits, me returning to New Jersey to connect with her when I was there for various writing-related events, she flying to Colorado for time in the mountains. On this visit, we spent one day at the Denver Botanic Gardens, one day at the "Women of Abstract Expressionism" and "Rhythm and Roots" exhibits at the Denver Art Museum (both excellent), and one day, the best day, up in Rocky Mountain National Park. What could be more fun than that?

And yet . . . it feels strange not to be going back to school myself, to be playing while others are working, wandering past paintings and waterfalls while others are finalizing syllabi and welcoming students. Maybe I really truly am retired now?

No. My own "back-to-school" frenzy will be observed the week after Labor Day, which is actually when school should begin, the way it always did when I was growing up in New Jersey (and where it still does, I believe, on most of the East Coast). That will the week of Kataleya's official start to preschool. That will be the week I leap into productivity as a full-time writer.

I will work hard on my new chapter book series idea, my THIRD this year, rebounding energetically and enthusiastically from my publisher's rejection of ideas number one and number two. I will revise and expand several scholarly children's literature articles and ready at least one and preferably two to submit for publication. I will read up a storm as a member of the Children's Literature Association's Phoenix Award Committee, which gives an award for a children's book published 20 years ago that did not receive a major award in its year of original publication but deserves one now.

So I am definitely going back to school, or at least back to work, on the day after Labor Day. There is still time for me to buy myself some new school supplies! There is still time to put on a red plaid jumper! And to sharpen pencils, and organize notebooks, and make "new school year" goals. Summer is lasting a bit longer for me this year than for my friends and neighbors, but in two more weeks, I'll be ready for the best school year ever.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress 2016

The University of Colorado Philosophy Department just finished hosting its 9th annual huge, amazing summer ethics conference, the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress, known as RoME (to the confusion of the uninitiated, who marvel that so many of us seem to be talking about heading off to spend part of August in the Eternal City). Even though I'm now an emerita (retired) member of the department, I still help review submissions for it, volunteer to serve as a commentator for some paper in my area of expertise, and attend as much of it as I can. Many of our former graduate students return for RoME, so it feels like a grand, glorious reunion.

This year I attended a bunch of terrific papers. One was on "effective altruism": are we morally required to do as much good in the world as we can, even if this means, for example, "earning to give" - i.e., choosing a career with the highest possible salary so that we can make the largest possible charitable contributions to the most proven life-saving charities? Another was on the ethics of "disability passing": is it ethically problematic if disabled people hide, or at least avoid openly disclosing, their disability (one question raised: should an amputee disclose this fact on an online dating website?).

The paper I commented on, by Rebecca Chan, was on what she called "The Problem of Self-Transformation." The central question she posed was: From the standpoint of self-interest, is it rational for me to prefer to become someone who will be radically different from my current self - though happier - rather than a less happy person who feels connected to who I currently am? It was a lovely paper that raised all kinds of fascinating thought-experiments: e.g., should Jon, who suffered childhood trauma, now wish he hadn't been brutalized in that way, even though the trauma made him who is today?

I love thinking about questions like this as I reflect on my own life and its many transformations. Over the course of the last six decades, I've changed my political and religious views radically (sometimes back-and-forth and then back again). I've become a wife, mother, grandmother. I've left philosophy, come back to it, left it, come back to it, perpetually ambivalent about how much it defines my identity, how much it is part of who I am.

At RoME, I always feel glad that I've come back to philosophy yet again. When I heard Rebecca's paper, I thought, THIS is why I DO like philosophy, I do, I do!

The closing keynote, by the brilliant Nomy Arpaly of Brown University, titled 'In Defense of Benevolence," looked at this puzzle: does love require that I commit myself to advancing the beloved's most central goals and aims? what if these are at odds with her well-being understood as something distinct from mere goal advancement? She used as a central example of a goal we might not support wholeheartedly the building of the world's largest ball of twine.

Well, as it happens, it was exactly a year ago that I departed from the final session of the RoME conference to head off on a road trip to Branson, Missouri, with a writer friend who was researching a novel whose events transpire on a girlfriend road trip. We spent our first night in Cawker City, Kansas, home of, yes, the world's largest ball of twine.

Yay for philosophy! Yay for girlfriend road trips! Yay for very big balls of twine! Yay for all of it that has made me the happy person that I am today.

Friday, August 12, 2016

One Thing Leading to Another

What I love about life is how we sometimes find ourselves wandering farther and farther along on fascinating paths we never intended to trod.

Last spring, during my semester of teaching as a visiting professor of philosophy at DePauw, I volunteered to teach a course on a crucial, urgent, timely topic: the ethics of immigration policy. I knew it would be a fiendishly difficult class to teach, given both my staggering level of initial ignorance of the subject and its potential for intense controversy. But I chose to do it, anyway, believing that students, and citizens, need to know more about immigration policy in light of the heartbreaking refugee crisis in Syria and the incendiary anti-immigration election rhetoric here at home.

I taught the class. It was hard - often exhausting, and frustrating, and tense. But I learned a ton teaching it, and I think my students learned a ton, too.

Whew! I thought I was done thinking and talking about the ethics of immigration policy for a while.

I wasn't.

When I returned home to Boulder, the worship committee at my church asked me to preach a sermon for Peace and Justice Sunday, focused on immigration.

I was asked to give a reprise of that sermon at a worship service our church hosts twice a month at a local retirement community.

A friend asked me if I'd have lunch with him and his middle-school son, an extremely bright and thoughtful boy who happens to be interested in . . . immigration policy. That's what I did today, and I can report that Ben would have easily earned an A in my undergraduate course.

This fall I'm going to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, at the invitation of a former graduate student, now a faculty member at Carolina Coastal University. She arranged a multi-tiered visit where I'll speak to her daughter's elementary school and to university creative writing students, as well as to philosophy students and fellows in the university's ethics program. What topic did they want me to present in the ethics talk? Yes, they thought the students would be most interested in hearing something about . . . immigration.

Last, but certainly not least, I'll be a more informed voter in November, a better citizen than I was a year ago when I first had the idea of seeing if I could prepare to teach this course.

So next time I have a challenge I'm not sure about, I'm going to say yes. And then I'll follow that path where it leads.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Trouble with Babies

This is how bad of a "book mother" I am to my own "book children." I didn't even realize that today was the pub date of my newest title, The Trouble with Babies, the second book in the Nora Notebooks series, until my agent sent me a congratulatory email about it this morning. I had the vague idea it was coming out some time in September. In any case, this is my 55th book, and I guess I've become a bit lackadaisical about "pub dates." Unless you are J. K. Rowling with the whole world waiting for a midnight release party for the latest Harry Potter, the actual date of a book's publication matters very little.

But, oh, Nora, I do feel guilty for forgetting all about you! Once I got my agent's email, I hastened to post the cover on Facebook, and friends have been generously clicking "like" for it all morning. And now I'll give this new book its own small shout-out here. 

Kirkus Reviews had this to say about The Trouble with Babies

With a new baby at home and an incompatible science-fair partner at school, fourth-grader Nora Alpers has trouble everywhere. Ant-observer Nora is not so sure about becoming an aunt herself. The budding scientist's older sister's new baby has disrupted the household and seems to cry constantly. She'd love to be able to experiment on niece Nellie for the science fair, but her family and her partner, Emma Averill, both nix that. What Emma wants is for Nora to have a baby-viewing party for her classmates, but Nora can't even bring herself to ask her mother and sister if that's OK. On top of that, she has to write diary entries about an imaginary westward trip in which she is happily married to Dunk, the classmate she dislikes most. The third-person narrative sticks to Nora's perspective as she comes to terms with the changes in her family and solves her school issues in ways that satisfyingly reflect her own quirky self. Along the way, she provides dozens of interesting notebook entries about babies. "Most Caucasian babies have grayish blue eyes, and the color often changes by the fifth or sixth month." Like Nellie, Nora and most of the other characters appear to be white. This charming second title in the Nora Notebooks series is a fine place for middle-grade readers to be introduced to Nora's engaging curiosity about the world. (Fiction. 7-10)

And The Bulletin from the Center for Children's Books (who have consistently given me the most thoughtful reviews of my career) wrote: 

Fourth-grader Nora (from The Trouble with Ants, BCCB 10/15) should be overjoyed: it’s the season of the science fair, which she loves, and her older sister is about to have a baby, making Nora an aunt. Unfortunately, on the school front, she’s been partnered up for the science fair with classmate Emma, who loves cats, the color pink, and, especially, her own way. On the home front, super-competent Nora is completely thrown by baby Nellie, uncertain of how to interact with her and startled by her scientist parents’ and sister’s descent into baby-craziness. Mills deploys her usual sympathetic yet keen insight into her characters as Nora negotiates these challenges. The book is particularly thoughtful in exploring the implications of personality; Emma proves there’s more to her than Nora had credited, and Nora both gets over her discomfort with the baby and adjusts her view of herself. As in the last book, segments from Nora’s scientific journal are interspersed, this time containing her research and observations about babies. Kath’s monochromatic line and watercolor art is scribbly without being cartoonish, conveying energy and also respect for the kids. The problems are standard middle-grade challenges that will ring true to readers, while the thought-provoking reflections on personality and growth add insight and discussability.

So, welcome to the world, my sweet little book. I'm a forgetful, neglectful mama, but I do love you, I do!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016


I've been continuing to struggle with the same work/life balance issue ever since I returned home from Indiana two months ago: how do I find any time at all for my early morning writing and walking while living with a beloved little girl who tends to wake up VERY VERY EARLY - while one of her parents has left for work well before dawn and the other is zonked out exhausted after a night of sleep interrupted from bouts of nursing? 

I still have no good solution except to note that the earlier I get up, the better the day goes. Plus, sometimes willful toddlers don't get their own way and have a good ol' tantrum about it, and that's okay. And sometimes, I learned recently, I don't get my own way - and the results can quite wonderful.

The other day Kataleya got up just as I was about to leave at 5:30 a.m. for my cherished hour-long walk with poor little Tanky the dog who lives for our outings. (In houses with new babies, older siblings aren't the only ones temporarily dethroned). But there Kat was, doing what she always does whenever I prepare to leave the house: running to get her shoes, as if they were some magical talisman to ensure that she can come, too. "Shoes on! Shoes on!" she wailed inconsolably. 

Oh, well. Often I come up with some excuse she will accept: Mimsie has to go to work, Mimsie has to go to that mysterious thing called "a meeting." This time, I sighed, loaded child and dog into the car, and drove down to Viele Lake. Because this time, I had something splendid to share with her: goats!!!

The city of Boulder has decided to control noxious weeds on public lands not with environmentally toxic herbicides but with a traveling herd of goats accompanied by a guard llama. They are currently down by the lake in the park where I walk, behind an electric fence just a foot or so away from the yellow-net fence beside the path for cyclists, pedestrians, and their companion animals,

What a magical half hour the three of us had, in that crisp, cool dawn air, so close to two dozen goats that we could practically reach out to touch them.

I didn't get a proper walk that day.  I missed getting it desperately. Those of us with Fitbits hate sacrificing any chance for steps!! But I shared sweet companionship with an enthralled toddler. (And don't you love the purse?)

Before she became an acclaimed novelist, Elizabeth Berg was a frequenter contributor of personal essays to the women's magazines I love to read. I still remember one from decades ago. She wrote about attending an elementary school music program and looking at her watch to make sure she wouldn't be trapped there for too long. Then she had a revelation: if she didn't have time to hear little children playing Mozart, what more important thing did she have time for? Her answer: nothing.

Ditto for spending the first, best hour of the day with a two-year-old and a flock of hungry goats.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Baptism Day

Today was the baptism of my second grandbaby, Madilyne Jane Wahl, who will be two months old tomorrow.

I love the rite of baptism so much, the welcoming of a child - or an adult - or anybody - into the family of faith. Today I knew I would cry as the pastor held Madi and touched her sleeping little head with holy water, baptizing her in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. To make the day even more emotional, her daddy, my son Christopher, played the piano for the worship service, and he chose the hymns, including this one that always makes me bawl uncontrollably:

It begins:
I was there to hear your borning cry,
I'll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized,
to see your life unfold.

It then proceeds through all the stages of human life, from birth to death, celebrating God's presence in all of them.
In the middle ages of your life,
not too old, no longer young,
I'll be there to guide you through the night,
complete what I've begun.
When the evening gently closes in,
and you shut your weary eyes,
I'll be there as I have always been
with just one more surprise.

Unfortunately, the pictures that are right-side-up on my phone, and right-side-up when saved onto my computer, and right-side-up when I emailed them to friends, are (well, some of them) at the wrong angle here. So you'll have to tilt your head to see them. But when I tilt my own head to see them, I view them through a film of happy, grateful tears.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Santa Fe Surprise

A few months ago I got an email from the Rocky Mountain Division of the American Society for Aesthetics asking if I would give a keynote address at their summer conference in Santa Fe.

Well, I love giving talks, and I love Santa Fe. There was only one problem: I don't really know anything about aesthetics, or the philosophy of art. My area of specialization is ethics. I assumed that they had invited me by mistake, confusing me with some other better-qualified philosopher, and I wrote back to tell them so. They replied that they had indeed intended to invite me, hoping I could give them a "creative artist" talk on philosophy and children's literature. And I said, why, yes, that is exactly the kind of thing I could do!

The conference was this past weekend. Santa Fe is only a 6 1/2 hour drive from Boulder, so I invited my husband to come with me, and he accepted that invitation as well. But then I became consumed with doubt and guilt about how I would manage all my competing obligations: 1) give a good talk at the conference; 2) attend other sessions of the conference; 3) see an old friend friend from graduate school, a photographer/blacksmith/art historian who lives near Taos; 4) develop a new friendship with the wonderful, kindred-spirit philosopher who had invited me; and 5) make this a little holiday for me and my husband as well.

I really think I ended up doing all of those things. My talk was well received. I heard ten other talks and came away fired up to do more reading and maybe some writing as well on topics presented at the conference. I stole time for a leisurely lunch with the artist friend and had late night one-on-one heart-to-heart conversations with two other friends. I had dinner with my husband every night, and we also had a lovely drive up to Los Alamos to ponder the fascinating, tragic chapter of our national history that was the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II; he and I also savored the gorgeous scenery through the most gorgeous stretches of scenery in Colorado and New Mexico.

Sometimes it's a mistake to try to cram too much into too few days. Sometimes it's a mistake in life to try too hard to have it all. But this past weekend, I loved being able to combine work and play, professional development with deep, meaningful connections with friends old and new, plus family fun, too. I did have twinges of guilt for missing some conference sessions, but everybody misses a few. I did have a few pangs for abandoning my husband during most of each day, but we had more quality time together on the trip than we would have had at home. Best of all, I had long, quiet walks early each morning, all alone, past the art galleries on Canyon Road, time just for me. I had time, that is to say, for everything.