Monday, September 19, 2016

Being My Whole Self - And on a Beach, Too

Definitely one of the best things about my former job as a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder was interacting with graduate students. I had the privilege of teaching and mentoring them. In return, they enriched my life in so many ways, from teaching my younger son to ride a bike to inviting me to visit them once they were "grown up" and settled in jobs of their own. I ended up teaching at DePauw because of two former grad students, Jen and Rich. Right this minute I'm in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina because of two former grad students, Renee and Dennis.

Today I'll be giving a talk on immigration ethics to philosophy students and ethics center fellow at noon. At 1:00 I'll be giving a guest lecture in an adolescent literature class. Later in the afternoon, after lunch with students and faculty, I'll be a guest speaker in a creative writing class, talking about my career as a children's book author. Tomorrow I'll spend the whole day as a visiting author at Renee and Dennis's fifth-grade daughter's elementary school.

I love when I get to be my whole self: philosopher, children's book scholar, children's book author.

And I love it best when I can be my whole self somewhere beautiful.

Yesterday Renee, Dennis, Amelia, and I had lunch at a restaurant overlooking the ocean.
As we ate - and gazed - I pumped Amelia for information her school robotics club - book research!

Then we were off to Brookgreen Gardens, almost 100,000 acres of beckoning paths, live oak trees draped in Spanish moss, lush greenery, riotously colored flowers, and serene fountains.

I'm so grateful to Renee for organizing this wonderful trip for me. I can't wait to talk to the students at Carolina Coastal University today and at Carolina Forest Elementary tomorrow. I have seashells to take home to Kataleya and Madilyne. And even though I've washed away the sand between my toes, I'll remember the soft feel of it beneath my feet for a long, long time.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Coming Back- Not as a Ghost

I'm back at DePauw University for two delicious days, attending the Young Philosophers Symposium hosted by the Prindle Institute for Ethics. I'm done now with my frequent gigs as a visiting professor here (six semesters over the course of the last five years), or at least I think I am, but I'm not done with loving DePauw, or the little town of Greencastle, or the farmland of western Indiana. It's so wonderful to be back.

But I didn't want to come back as a ghost. In Maud Hart Lovelace's wonderful novel Emily of Deep Valley, orphaned Emily has graduated from high school but isn't able to go away to college because of obligations to her aging, widowed grandfather. Lonely, as her friends depart to new adventures, she finds herself haunting the halls of Deep Valley High School. When she sees a flash of pity in a favorite teacher's eyes, she finally realizes: "She wasn't still a high school girl. And she couldn't keep on pretending to be one forever. She didn't belong here. She was a ghost."

I'm grateful that I didn't have to come back to DePauw as a ghost. Andy Cullison, the extraordinarily energetic and effervescent director of the Prindle Institute, invited me to serve as one of three outside blind reviewers for the Young Philosophers Symposium. We were charged with reading the forty or so submissions - full-length papers in a wide range of subfields of philosophy - and ranking each one on a 10-point scale. The four Young Philosopher competition winners - "young" meaning "early career scholars within six years of receiving the Ph.D." - were then invited to campus to present their work in a series of eight talks, each one giving both an introductory-level talk and a research-focused talk, over the course of a very full two days.

And - this is the best part - the three outside reviewers were invited, too. So here I am, not as a ghost but as a guest, staying right on campus in the lovely Inn at DePauw and attending stimulating talks with titles like: "The Power No One Should Even Have," "How Much Should You Believe in Your Friends?", "Achievement - What Is It and Why Does It Matter?" and "Who Owes What to War Refugees?" I've also had time for long, leisurely chats with many dear friends, a meeting of the Honor Scholar thesis committee of a beloved former student (I get to serve on her committee despite no longer being a current member of the DePauw faculty), early morning walks on the quiet streets of Greencastle, and hugs from multiple chance encounters with former colleagues.

I still belong! I have a contribution to make, a role to play, and all the intellectual and personal fun that comes from continuing to be a small but real part in a small but real way of this community I love.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Time Management: The Power of Five

I like to switch up my time management strategies occasionally. As one self-motivation tool starts to lose its efficacy, I try out a different one, hoping that its sheer novelty will do the trick of getting me back in a productive gear. If, after a month or two, or a week or two, or a day or two, it loses its ability to prod me into action, well, at least I had that month, or week, or day of getting something done.

My current favorite is one I read about somewhere recently, but alas, can't remember where (and couldn't find it through Googling). I'm calling it "The Power of Five." It's remarkably simple. Just put five things on your to-do list for the day. Then do them.

The beauty of the five-item list is that it's vastly less daunting than the usual hundred-item list that leads only to paralysis and despair. It's a fun early morning challenge to decide which five items make the list for each day. Obviously you'll want to start with the single most urgent and/or important task, the one that, if you managed to accomplish it, would in itself give you a glow of satisfaction for the rest of the day. But what should the other four be?

I like my list to have a mix of at-my-desk jobs and errand-type of jobs. Errands, of course, are terribly seductive, as you can get lovely little check marks with relatively little effort; errands can be accomplished somewhat mechanically. So beware of too many easy items on the list. But an errand or two can be a nice way to round out a day of desk sitting. Best of all, for me, is to have one little teensy thing that takes hardly any time at all and yet has been lurking in the corners of my mind for months or years and driving me quietly crazy.

So a couple of my recent lists:

1. Work for an hour groping toward the idea for my next book.
2. Work for an hour getting a rough draft done of a recommendation letter for a former grad student.
3. Write one promised guest blog post.
4. Go buy a surge protector at Home Depot that I've been meaning to get for ages.
5. Have a fun outing with my toddler grandchild.

1. Finally finish my overdue work on a certain task for the Phoenix Award Committee (this would have been in itself TOTALLY enough for one day, but why not strive for five?).
2. Organize my thoughts for an article I've been assigned to write on "birthdays in children's literature."
3. Go to the bank and get the money I need in order to make change for books I may sell (or fail to sell) at a children's literature festival in Denver this weekend.
4. Read at least one and preferably two of the birthday-themed books I had gotten from the library the previous day as one of that day's five tasks.
5. Mend the small tear in a blue top that has been waiting for my attention since last summer: as in summer of 2015.

The five-item list also has the power of getting me to make one extra push at the end of the day if an item on the list remains undone, staring at me reproachfully. After all, I only had to do five things today. Am I really going to wimp out after four? No!

Scrambling around to find one small, doable, but enormously satisfying item to serve as number five has led me, in the week now that I've been using this system, to have a surge protector I should have had five years ago and a newly mended top!

Yay for the Power of Five!

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Avoiding Work Panic!

My besetting work-related sin, and maybe yours, too, is panic - that sinking, suffocating feeling of being totally overwhelmed, staggering under a too-long to-do list as the too-fast clock ticks its frantic beat into my desperate ears.

I thought September was going to be the month when at last - AT LAST! - I would have time to tackle all my accumulating work projects. My darling little granddaughter will start preschool, attending three days a week, MWF, 8:30-2:30. All of a sudden I'll have 18 reliable hours a week just for me!!

But then I remembered: I'm actually going to be gone mid-month on a week-long trip, first to Indiana and then to give three talks in South Carolina, leaving a week from Wednesday, that is to say, a week from the day that preschool begins on September 7. So now I have not a whole month but one week to prepare all three talks, write a children's book article promised with a September 20th deadline (now a September 13th deadline, as I leave on the 14th), face my overdue work on the Children's Literature Association's Phoenix Award committee, and also try to work up a proposal for a new chapter book series in the wake of another rejection, a few weeks ago, of my latest project. If I don't do it soon, I'll have zero - that is to say, ZERO! - books in the pipeline, and my career will be over, and I'll never be a children's book author ever again.

That was my panic last night.

This is my talking-myself-off-the-ledge post this morning.

1. Take a deep breath. And then another. And then another.

2. Remind myself - well, actually, I have my husband handy to remind me of this - that I always feel this way about my work schedule, and I always get it all done, and it always turns out just fine.

3. Don't make things sound/seem worse than they really are. Those three talks? One is on the ethics of immigration policy, for which I can recycle a good bit of my lecture notes from teaching last spring at DePauw. One is a creative writing talk, talking about what I know best in the whole world, which really needs only an hour or two of preparation. One is my standard school visit presentation, which just needs some updating of my Power Point slides. Why did I feel the need to make it all sound so huge?

4. Don't make tasks bigger than they need to be. The children's book article that is now due in a week and half? The person who asked me to write it did so because he had heard a talk I gave on the subject. He isn't expecting me to rip up that talk and start anew, just to tweak and embellish. And, frankly, maybe I shouldn't say this, but I don't expect the article will be read by more than a few dozen people. I want to do a good job, but I don't have to turn this into a whole year-long research project. Especially because I don't have a whole year.

5. My Phoenix Committee work isn't actually overdue (see #3 above); it's just that others on the committee (well, two of the four others) have done lot more than I have so far. So I'm now officially in the slower half of the committee. So what? Stop comparing myself to others. Yes, two members have done more than I have. One hasn't. Last year I was the eager beaver. This year I can let that honor go to others. Do I always have to beat everyone else to the finish line? Um, no.

6. That said: it really will be a problem if I don't start working on that new chapter book series idea. It's true that it doesn't have to be done this month, or for that matter next month, or really ever. If I don't get it done, I've broken no promises to anyone else on earth. But it means a lot to me to keep on writing and to keep on being published. This task is less urgent than the others, but of all of them, it's the most important. At least, it's the most important to me. So I need to find an hour here, a half hour there, to keep plugging away on it. Here I have to remember two things: Prioritize what matters most. And: Enough little bits of time add up to a lot. But I have to keep those little bits coming.

There! Panic dispelled! And off to work....

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.