Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Antigone, Forty Years Later

In my senior year at North Plainfield High School, our "accelerated" English class was taught by the formidable Miss O'Brien. She gave us a "Great Books" curriculum: it was there that I first read John Stuart Mill's On Liberty and knew I wanted to major in philosophy in college. She taught us how to write the five-paragraph essay with the thesis statement in the last sentence of the first paragraph. She drilled us in rules of grammar. The one I still chant to myself is "One, of phrase, relative pronoun, plural agreement."

In one class, I don't remember the particular topic, I made an impassioned speech against compromise (these were the politically turbulent early 70s): I would never compromise on anything I believed in, ever, ever, EVER! As a result, Miss O'Brien gave me Sophocles' tragedy Antigone to read, in the adaptation by Jean Anouilh. In the play, Antigone, the daughter of deposed King Oedipus, defies her royal uncle Creon's edict to leave her dead brother Polynices unburied. Antigone refuses to compromise. Creon refuses to compromise. By the end of the play many characters, including Antigone herself, are dead.

I loved the play, though it did not make me any more inclined to compromise. Instead, at age seventeen, it made me yearn to be a tragic heroine. Even more than loving the play itself, I loved that Miss O'Brien gave it to me, that a teacher would think an ancient tragedy could be relevant to a 20th-century schoolgirl's life and way of being in the world.

At DePauw this spring, I'm in a reading group on Antigone. The Prindle Institute for Ethics sponsors a number of reading groups each semester. Some faculty member proposes a book on which he or she would like to lead a discussion. The Prindle purchases the books and the lovely snacks. Then the group members meet together for a period or weeks or months to discuss the book, over wine and cheese, by the Prindle fireplace. I just finished leading my own group on philosopher Susan Wolf's book Meaning in Life and Why It Matters. Now I'm in the group on Antigone, led by Keith Nightenhelser, who also happens to be my dearest friend from graduate school.

This group is erudite and intellectual beyond anything my youthful self every could have imagined. We've read Judith Butler's book Antigone's Claim: Kinship between Life and Death. Now we're on to Bonnie Honig's fabulous book Antigone, Interrupted. Both authors continue what I now know is a long tradition of thinking that the play is relevant to our way of being in the world. Hegel's famous reading of the play is as a dialogue between the opposing claims of sovereignty (Creon) and kinship (Antigone), the state and the family, the public and the private. Butler complicates this view considerably: Antigone, as the child of an incestuous union (her father, after all, was Oedipus, who unwittingly killed his own father and married his own mother), is hardly positioned to defend traditional family values. Honig focuses on "interruptions" in the play: which characters interrupt other characters, and why, and what does this say about the balance of power among them? She interprets Antigone not as crazed with lamentation for her dead brother, but as a political actor, committed as strongly to life as to death.

At my second meeting with the group last night, I loved thinking how happy Miss O'Brien would have been to have eavesdropped on our discussion. Oh, and how happy she would be that I could spot the error in the first sentence of Honig's first chapter: "I am one of those people who finishes other people's sentences." NO! One, of phrase, relative pronoun, plural agreement: "I am one of those people who finish other people's sentences." And how happy she would be that now I compromise all the time, probably too much, a result of all that has happened to me over the intervening forty-three years: wonderful things, terrible things, transformative things, things that make me much less willing to stake my life on any absolute.

The reading of Antigone has been a beautiful gift to me, then and now.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

"All Right, So Far"

As a child I liked the following little ditty. In fact, I liked it so much, I wrote it on a postcard sent home to my friends on my honeymoon:

The optimist fell ten stories
And at each window bar
He shouted to his friends,
"All right, so far!"

I think of this whenever I have a busy, fraught schedule. Right now my busy fraughtness is around a series of trips. I'm toward the beginning of six straight weekends of travel.

Last weekend: Costa Mesa, California, for the annual conference of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics. Conference highlight below:

This weekend: home in Colorado for Kataleya's first birthday. Weekend highlight below:

Next weekend: speaking at a children's literature festival in Tampa.
The following weekend: speaking at the children's lit festival I attend every year in Warrensburg, Missouri, the one where we all buy shoes at the old-timey shoe store downtown.
The following two weekends: to Colorado for spring break and back to Indiana again.

That is a lot of travel, especially in this snowy winter, especially when two of the trips involve connecting flights. I added up all the flights: 14. The odds become very good there will be a snafu for at least one of them, wouldn't you say?

I now have five of the flights done: two from Indy to California, two back to Indy from California, and one home to Colorado. I had one minor snafu. The Indy-Chicago leg of my trip out to California was delayed for some kind of "VIP hold" on incoming flights (the president?), so I missed the last flight of the day to Santa Ana (Orange County), but luckily I was able to fly to Los Angeles that evening instead, and take an hour-long-shuttle to the hotel, so all I really missed was two hours of sleep and didn't miss any fun at all.

So I can say, of my intense travel schedule this spring: "All right, so far!" I'm hoping the travel gods will think that the delay on the Indy-Chicago flight counts for my mandatory snafu, even though it was barely a hiccup. If not, here's to handling all future travel travails with the optimist's cheer.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Prioritized Productivity

In my beloved Betsy-Tacy books, Betsy's father, Mr. Ray, likes to say of February, "When the days begin to lengthen, then the cold begins to strengthen." That is proving true here in Greencastle. It is also true that "As the to-do-list begins to lengthen, the stress begins to strengthen." Betsy's family comes up with various strategies for defeating February, from hosting a thimble bee to trying to catch bluejays by putting molasses on the end of a stick. I have a new strategy for defeating to-do-list-triggered stress. I'm calling it "prioritized productivity."

It goes like this. I have my long, long list of things I have to do. I have a sense of what counts as a reasonable amount of work to expect from myself in a day. I know which projects are most urgent (need to be done soonest) and most important (matter most).

Each day I pick from my list a few things to do. Because I like to do things in multiples of five, I usually pick five. I make sure the list includes at least one or two of the top-priority tasks. Then I do them.

That's it.

That's really the whole thing.

Yesterday my five things were: 1) teach my children's lit class; 2) teach my Rousseau class; 3) shop for the snacks for the Prindle Institute reading group that I'm leading on Susan Wolf's book Meaning in Life and Why It Matters; 4) lead the book group; 5) read an eighty-page manuscript from one of the writers I'm mentoring through the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators mentoring program.

Today my five things are: 1) eat breakfast with a job candidate for our Schanen Scholar position; 2) attend the candidate's job talk; 3) type up all my extensive comments for my mentee (generated from yesterday's reading); 4) write my monthly blog post for the Smack Dab in the Middle authors' blog; and 5) lead the discussion at the Janeites book group tonight, a delicious collection of essays on the pleasures of reading called Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman.

I did all five yesterday. I'm going to do all five today. I was proud and happy yesterday. I'm going to be proud and happy today.

Note that my list includes things that I was already definitely going to do, list or no list, like teaching my classes. That's okay. I love giving myself credit for doing things I was going to do anyway. The lists for these particular two days don't include any writing on my own creative projects. That's okay, too.  Right now I am waiting on editorial comments on not one, not two, but THREE books, with no other project hanging over my head. If I did have writing to do, that would be the highest priority task of all. Pretty soon coming up with a new project will be the highest priority task of all. But that's not on my list for today.

The beauty of my system is that I do my five things, and I'm done, and I know the rest of my life will be fine, because my five things include a couple of the most important things for me to do right now. If I do five things every day on this system, everything I need to do will get done. Anything that is left undone is something of lower priority, anyway.

Here's the most crucial part: After I do my five things, I do NOT say, "But oh, my God, my to-do list is still endless! I still have a zillion things on it! I will never get them done! There aren't enough hours in a day! How will I get it all accomplished?!!!" Instead, I say, "Look how productive I was today. Look how I now have five things crossed off my list.And I can cross off five tomorrow, and five the next day, and five the day after that."

Prioritized productivity is defeating stress for me. Now maybe I'll find a stick and put some molasses on it....

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"Everything is made out of magic"

As a writer, I'm more of a plotter than a "pantser." Before I write the first line of chapter one, I usually have a good sense of how the story is going to be structured, how its central dramatic question will be answered, its central conflict resolved, its central theme illuminated. But there is still magic that assists in the writing of the story itself.

Right now I'm working on the fifth book in the Franklin School Friends series, this time starring struggling student Cody Harmon and featuring a plot involving a school-wide pet show. The previous books established Cody as a farm kid with an affinity for animals; e.g, he brings his pet pig, Mr. Piggins, to school to be kissed by the exuberant principal, Mr. Boone, as the culmination of the reading contest in Kelsey Green, Reading Queen. In this book-in-progress I planned to have Mr. Boone appear on the day of the pet show riding into school on an elephant. I knew the story would culminate in allowing Cody to have his turn to shine at the show. But would be the obstacles along the way to his day of glory?

When I sold the book idea to my publisher, I planned for Cody's problem to be that he has too many pets and so can't afford to enter them all in the pet show, with its ten dollar entrance fee for each one (to benefit the local Humane Society). There is no way Cody can afford ten dollars for each of nine pets! I knew the solution would involve a plan where Cody would let his classmates borrow some of his pets. And one of his classmates, Izzy, star of Izzy Barr, Running Star, would fall in love with Cody's badly behaved dog, Angus, and want to keep him.

So far, so good.

But as I started to write, another problem began to appear. Cody needed to have a best friend, although no best friend had been mentioned in the previous books. Okay: it would be Tobit, another kid who struggles with school as Cody does. But what would be Tobit's role in the story?

What if. . . . what if . .. what if Tobit engages in some behavior that is unkind to some animal? So that Cody doesn't want to lend a pet to Tobit - especially his most beloved dog, Rufus? How can Cody tell Tobit this? How do we ever call others on their bad behavior without feeling intolerably self-righteous? How can Cody balance his loyalty to his friend with his loyalty to his pets - and to himself?

Here is where the magic enters. Throughout the story, Mr. Boone keeps promising the kids that he'll bring an elephant to school on the day of the pet show. The kids scoff - but hope he means it. So I Googled how to find elephants to rent out for such events. What I found was not what I expected. What I found were pleas NOT to rent elephants, not to ride them for fun at kids' birthday parties, not so support an industry that treats such magnificent beasts with indifference to their animal needs and desires.


So much for Mr. Boone arriving at school astride an elephant.

But: what if . . . what if . . . Mr. Boone himself finds out what I just found out? And changes his pet show plans? And shares this with Cody and Tobit after their hallway shoving match? Yes! That's just what I needed to deal with how to resolve the Cody/Tobit standoff!

The book is still a long way from being published. I have no idea if these scenes - if any of this - will survive the revision and editing process and make its way into the final book. But right now, I'm feeling the magic of having one plot problem solved precisely by having another plot problem arise.

In The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett says this: : "Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden - in all the places.”

To this I add: "and on the page." And to this I say: "Amen."

Friday, February 6, 2015

Free Lunch (and Breakfast and Dinner)

I have never been to a place where there is as much free food as DePauw. This week alone I have had:

1) lovely wine and cheese and other nibbles at the Antigone reading group out at the Prindle Institute on Monday night.

2) soup and salad and brownies at a teaching roundtable lunch on Tuesday, focused on the topic "Are quiet students really a problem?"

2) lovely wine and cheese and other nibbles at the reading group I'm leading on Susan Wolf's book Meaning in Life and Why It Matters on Tuesday night; food included amazingly delicious and nutritious Boulder Bars made by our two Prindle graduate fellows who are also co-CEOs of the fledgling company C & J Foods.

4) another soup and salad lunch (different soup this time) on Wednesday for faculty who are planning proposals for Winter Term study abroad courses (I'm trying to plan one called "Protected Places and Enchanted Spaces: Children's Literature Sites in London, Oxford, and Paris").

5) extremely elegant wine and hors d'oeuvres reception that afternoon for Piper Kerman, author of the memoir Orange Is the New Black on which the hit TV series is based.

6) even more elegant dinner for Piper Kerman and some forty students and faculty that evening.

7) sumptuous lunch today at Gobin church after a worship service where the preacher was Dr. Otis Moss III, pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, with the sermon title: "#blacklivesmatter."

8) lavish breakfast AND lunch tomorrow for participants and judges (me) in the all-day high school Ethics Bowl hosted by Prindle.

And this is just one week!

Now of course the question arises: are these really FREE lunches, breakfasts, and dinners? For there is said to be no such thing. It's true that the "price" for these meals is attendance at these free and fabulous events. But that seems to me no price at all. And the "price" for getting to participate in all these free and fabulous events, for me, is being a visiting professor, which means teaching what I love to motivated students and pursuing scholarly and creative work of my own choosing.

Well, the cost is also creeping weight gain from the food and periodic exhaustion from the events. I've gained two pounds already, a combination of nonstop feasting and lack of exercise (because I'm devoting all the time I would have spent walking at all these reading groups, discussions, and lectures). I'm behind on the book I have due on February 15, which is barely more than a week away.

So I'm chubby but contented, exhausted but exhilarated. And that's okay. I might as well cram each day of my all-too-brief semester here as full as I can of intellectual stimulation - and cram my tummy full, too.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Casting Out Demons

When I'm in Greencastle, I attend Gobin Memorial United Methodist Church, right on the DePauw campus. Much is familiar to me at Gobin from my St. Paul's UMC worship experience in Boulder: same hymnal, same basic order of worship, same liberal theology. Some is different: Gobin is an older church, with beautiful stained glass windows, unlike our plainer sanctuary in Boulder, and our choir and organist in Greencastle are drawn from DePauw's excellent School of Music, so the voices are more operatic than the Boulder choir, which has more of a "Broadway show tune" kind of sound. The new pastor at Gobin is a generation younger than my Boulder pastor; he begins and ends worship by playing on the guitar, which I love. And at home in Boulder, I'm a total church lady - chair of the church council, Sunday School teacher, frequent guest preacher; here, as a short-term visitor, I'm more or less a cheerful parasite.

At Gobin, the back of the bulletin contains questions for reflection, to reinforce the Sunday worship experience through the week. Last Sunday's Scripture reading was from the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus casts out a demon. This is the kind of Bible story lots of Christians today struggle with understanding. After all, exorcisms are not currently our "thing" (although I know of one academic department that staged an exorcism upon the retirement of an especially disliked colleague!). Are these Biblical characters really possessed by demons, we ask ourselves, or just mentally ill? Or suffering from an epilectic fit? Is it stigmatizing of mental illness or epilepsy to read these stories in this way? How do we make sense of these Biblical passages? How can they guide our lives today?

Enter the reflection questions from last Sunday's service:

"What is the name of the demon, the spirit, the idolatry you carry? If you can think of this answer as many 'troubles,' try to find the root cause, a name to give to that which needs to be cast out. The question may take different forms throughout the week. You may also consider the same question with regard to your family and to this nation. What is the Holy One casting out today in your presence?"

Wow. Demons to be cast out in my life, my family, my nation, my world? Where do I even start?

Okay. Over the course of the last sixty years, I've suffered in one form or another from all seven deadly sins: anger, envy, pride, lust, gluttony, sloth, greed. Probably anger and envy have topped my "besetting sin" list. I tried to give up envy one year for Lent and failed by the second day. Over the decades, I've gotten better at all of these, I think. So what are my personal demons that need casting out today?

Worry (which is really another name for fear).
Complacency in the face of injustice in my community and world (particularly salient to me after DePauw's Day of Dialogue on campus racial issues last week).
Resentment at ways in which I'm called to serve others: why me? why now? can't somebody else do it?

Just as I decided that this week's number one demon-to-be-cast-out was the third one - a smouldering begrudging of the time and effort I devote to others - I was given a chance to help a sick friend. At first all I could think of was everything else I had planned for today. The book I need to write, revise, and submit to my publisher by the end of NEXT WEEK! The huge amount of reading I have to do for both classes (question to self: if it's too much reading for you to do, maybe it's too much for you to assign to your students?). The fascinating events I want to attend on campus. Why me?

Then I remembered. Oh. Demon. To be cast out. I called my friend and told her I was clearing my schedule for today, ready to help in any way. As so often happens, as things have turned out, I'm going to need to do a lot less than I thought I would. The tasks will be easy. The burden will be light. I'm going to exercise the privilege of helping out a loved one with a grateful rather than resentful heart. At least for today.

In the Bible, once demons are cast out, they are gone for good. In our lives, demon-casting seems to be a slow, uncertain, one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back affair. But it's helping me to think in these ancient terms: demon, begone! Get thee behind me, Satan!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Home Again in Greencastle

So here I am, home again in Greencastle, as happy a Hoosier as I was before. I'm living again with my friend Julia, and her six-year-old son Alex, in her cozy home on Anderson Street, a few blocks from the campus. (Ignore my thumb at the top of the photo. I'm still new to taking pictures with my phone.)

I'm teaching two courses: Children's Literature for the English department (28 students - 25 girls and 3 boys!), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau for Philosophy (9 students who fit comfortably into our tiny classroom tucked under the eaves on the third floor of Asbury Hall). The picture below is the walk from my house down Anderson Street to campus. (Any better quality photo on this blog is one I didn't take.)

 I spend Tuesday/Thursday on campus, and MWF out at my office at the peaceful, pristine Prindle Institute for Ethics situated in the DePauw Nature Park on the site of a reclaimed quarry.


The strangest thing about my happiness here is that I don't have as many of my four "pillars of happiness" as I do at home. Writing, reading, walking, and being with friends are my four most reliable sources of everyday joy. Here I walk vastly less than I do at home, without my little dog Tank and best friend Rowan as faithful walking partners, and without Colorado's winter warmth and sun. I've been writing less, as I'm so busy, filling every day with DePauw-related activities and conversations, and reading less for the same reason. I do have lots of delightful catching up to do with DePauw friends, but I have even more dear friends back home in Boulder.

So why do I feel so fully alive here? Maybe it's the strong sense of community, similar to what I find with my church. On this campus, even as we're struggling with some painful issues of racial discrimination and exclusion, we work so hard together as a community to try to make things better. So maybe a strong sense of community is more important to me than I realized. I also love living in a small town - perhaps for the same reason? Or just because I like a certain scale to my life. I like having hardly any stuff, walking everywhere, residing in a town where the public library is steps away from the post office, which is steps away from the campus, which is steps away from the courthouse square. I've always loved small spaces.

And yet my life here doesn't feel small. It feels big, stuffed full of intellectual challenge through constant talks and reading groups, concerts and conversations. I feel so fully alive, what Rousseau calls the "sentiment of existence." Or maybe I just like being constantly busy. I've always been the kind of person who likes having a long to-do list and then crossing things off, one by one.That, too, makes me feel like I'm living more intensely.

I just found out yesterday that I lost a new friend to a tragic car accident. She was someone who lived with extravagant generous fullness, as writer, mother, friend. So whatever we can find to make ourselves feel the wonder of our existence most keenly, that's what we need to do. Today and always.