Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Two Lives/One Life

For my entire career, I have had two distinct professional lives: as a children's book author and as a philosophy professor. I started out in graduate school in a doctoral program in philosophy at Princeton. Then I dropped out and went to work in children's book publishing in New York City, as a secretary and editorial assistant at Four Winds Press/Scholastic, where I had my first children's book accepted for publication.

I thought I was done with philosophy forever, but one late December day, on a whim, I drifted over to the APA (American Philosophical Assocation) annual conference, held that year at the Sheraton, and bumped into a dear former college professor, Henry Shue, who was helping to found a little think tank at the University of Maryland called the Center for Philosophy and Public Policy. They were looking to hire an editor and director of publications, Henry told me - someone who had maybe gone to graduate school in philosophy but hadn't finished her dissertation, someone who had maybe worked in publishing in New York for a while. . . . I ended up taking the job and worked at the University of Maryland for a full decade, writing and publishing a children's book a year as I also created and produced a quarterly journal/newsletter and edited a scholarly book series, and finally, finished my long-unfinished Princeton Ph.D. In 1992 I started teaching philosophy at the University of Colorado and I've been there ever since, still writing and publishing a children's book a year.

I have always loved having two lives. Neither life ever gets boring. Each life gives me an excuse for why I'm not more successful in the other one. Sure, I've never won the Newbery Medal, but how many other children's book authors are also tenured professors of philosophy? Sure, I've never written any big important philosophical tome, but how many other philosophy professors have published over 40 children's books? When I go to philosophy gatherings, everyone wants to ask me about my children's books. When I go to children's book gatherings, everyone wants to talk to me about philosophy. I never run out of topics of conversation.

But as the years have gone by, I've become just a tiny bit weary of the strain of maintaining two entire lives. Even one life can seem so daunting! So lately I've been seeking out ways to bring my two lives into greater harmony with each other. Thus, this morning I submitted an abstract for an article for a proposed collection on philosophy and children's literature - what could be more up my alley than this? My piece would be a Nietzschean reading of Marcus Pfister's best-selling picture book The Rainbow Fish, showing how the Rainbow Fish renounces master morality for slave morality and trades his exceptional and distinctive beauty for "the universal green meadow happiness of the herd." And I was just asked to write an essay for a collection on romanticism and the child, showing how certain themes in the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau manifest themselves in recent children's literature. I spent yesterday at the library happily digging for texts to use for this project and think I have the perfect ones - more on this later!

So: maybe it's time to move toward one life, not two, a single life enriched by both my love of philosophy and my love of children's literature.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Going Extinct

I read this in the Writer's Almanac this morning:

"It was on this day in 2003 that Marja Sergina, the last known speaker of the Akkala Sami language, died. Akkala Sami was spoken in villages on Russia's Kola Peninsula inhabited by the Sami (sometimes referred to as Laplanders), an ethnic group from Northern Europe who are best known as reindeer herders.
There are more than 6,000 languages spoken in the world, and on average, one goes extinct about every two weeks. Researchers estimate that from 50 to 90 percent of those languages will be extinct in 100 years. "

I am trying to figure out why this is making me so sad. When I was in elementary school, I was so excited when I first read in the Golden Book Encyclopedia (those wonderful, fascinating volumes that my parents brought home once a week from the grocery store) about Esperanto: the universal language. It seemed like such a hopeful dream, that all human beings would one day speak in a single tongue. I remember wanting to study Esperanto when I went off to college. Claudia Mills, Esperanto major!

Now I wonder why I ever thought the loss of linguistic diversity would be a good thing rather than a sad thing. Now I want to sign up to learn, not Esperanto, but Akkala Sami, to bring it back to life again. But of course, I can't do this, and you can't, either. It still wouldn't be a living, breathing language, even if I diligently tried to master its grammar and vocabulary. It's not only the language that has vanished forever, but a whole way of life.

Of course, ways of life disappear all the time. Look how much has changed just in my lifetime, and perhaps in yours as well. Not all ways of life have to endure forever; it's only natural, and to be expected, that we all change how we live because of technology, cultural exchange, the inexorable forces of globalization.

And yet. And yet, today I'm sad for languages that are no more, and for all the words that will never again be spoken in those languages. Words are so precious. The loss of any of them should be mourned by all of us.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Blue Castle

As one of my Christmas gifts, I received The Blue Castle, by Lucy Maud Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables), the only novel she wrote for an adult audience. I spent Christmas evening reading it in one great, grateful gulp.

It's wonderful.

Imagine that you are a 29-year-old spinster - past your prime, unlovely, unloved, living at home with your domineering mother, who controls every minute of your day, the timing of every meal, your posture ("Sit up straight, Doss,"), your every bite ("Doss, you haven't eaten your crusts"), what you are allowed to read (no novels), what you are allowed to feel ("It is not ladylike to have feelings"), even whether or not you sneeze ("'You can always repress a sneeze by pressing your finger on your upper lip,' said Mrs. Frederick rebukingly"). Now imagine that you receive a doctor's diagnosis of your chest pains: you have a very dangerous and fatal form of heart disease, and if you're lucky, you might live a year.

What would you start doing differently?

This is Valancy Stirling's life ("Doss" is a hated nickname); and what Valancy does next makes for riveting and inspiring reading. She comes to believe the truth that "Fear is the original sin" and learns that "It was so easy to defy once you got started. The first step was the only one that really counted."

The plot has some preposterous coincidences, and some readers might find Valancy's complete and utter transformation unbelievable. I believed all of it. I loved every word. Because once you decide to give up fear, once you resolve to defy everything that keeps you from living your life to the fullest, well, then, anything is possible. Everything is possible.

This book makes me want to start NOW.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Always a Star

Back when I was in high school, taking part in our United Methodist youth group, the young assistant pastor informed us that the Christmas story was a fabrication, dreamed up centuries after the actual birth of Jesus, a late accretion to the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus to add a little glitz and glamour to it all.

I don't remember being all that devastated. Because I didn't really believe him. Of course there was a decree that went out from Ceasar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. Of course Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born in a manger because there was no room for him at the inn. Of course the angels announced his birth to the shepherds. And of course the wise men followed his star to find him there.

Decades later, I still believe this. My belief doesn't have much to do with the historical record, or what Biblical scholars say, or what theologians argue about.

There was a star. There is a star. There has to be a star. There will always be a star.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a Christmas pageant for our church, a musical called "Starry Night," book and lyrics by me, music by another St. Paul's parent, Suzanne Polacek. This was the closing number:

Look up! Look up, oh tired travelers!
There will always be a star,
As you wander worn and weary,
As you journey near and far.

Hidden now behind the clouds,
Still it glows so clear and bright.
Through the dark and through the storm,
Still it shines its steady light.

Let it lead you ever onward,
Seek as far as you are able,
Let its starlight guide you forward,
Till at last you reach the stable.

Lost no more, but safely home.
You have come so very far.
Look up! Look up! Oh, tired travelers,
There will always be a star.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Advice from Real Live Kids

Although I have been a member of a critique group for almost my whole writing career, first in Maryland (my "Soup Group") and now, for the past 17 years, here in Boulder, I've never made a a serious effort to solicit critical feedback on my manuscripts from their actual intended audience: kids. I did make a couple of fitful attempts and found the feedback from young readers unhelpful. Either they liked everything willy-nilly, or their criticisms were too trivial ("You said that Gus lives on Maple Street. I think he should live on Pine Street") or not criticisms of THIS manuscript as much as expressions of a wish for a different manuscript altogether ("You show Gus learning to ride a bike without training wheels. But what if instead he got captured by space aliens?").

But I've heard authors who are much more successful than I am say that they depend on pre-publication critique from kids, so I decided to give it one more try. I hired my friend Kate Simpson's two sons, J.P. (sixth grader) and Jack (fourth grader), to read the manuscript of my new chapter book, instructing them to mark places they liked, places that were confusing, places they didn't like, and anything else they thought would be useful for me to know.

I met with my two young editorial consultants yesterday. It was a wonderful afternoon. I loved finding out which parts they thought were "halarious" and which parts they flagged with question marks. Jack thought I had too much underlining of various bits of text: "This shudent be under lined." J.P. was very good at noting places where Mason's behavior was just "weird" or "not what I would do." He also ruthlessly crossed out lines where I was talking over the reader's head, taking more of an adult perspective. He had good suggestions for two other plot twists that would increase dramatic tension and interest toward the end of the book. I'm still trying to decide if I'll take the suggestions or not - but I bet if I do, I'll have a book kids will enjoy reading more. And of course, it was SO gratifying to have Jack write at the end of the book "I love the book" and J.P. write "Amazing loved it very emotional super job." Well, it's going to be more amazing, emotional, and super because of their help.

Thanks, Jack and J.P.!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sticking to My Story

I have a cold. My throat is sore, and my nose is stuffy.

My question is: how can I reconcile this sad-but-true fact with my longstanding claim that I never get sick? I'm fond of bragging in a most egregiously cocky and conceited way about this. I invite sick people to sit next to me, because, after all, I never get sick. When we were asked at CU to arrange for possible swine flu buddies to cover our classes in case we were stricken, I didn't bother, because I never get sick.

And now I'm sick.

I could slightly revise my boast to be: I hardly ever get sick. (Like the song from H.M.S. Pinafore, with its refrain, "What, never? No, never! What, never? Hardly EVER!") And when I do sick, I don't get VERY sick. And it doesn't slow me down much. And I get well right away.

But I think I'm going to just forget this little episode and stick with the claim in its original version. There is something so powerful about the stories we tell ourselves. My writer friend Stephanie Tolan has a wonderful essay/talk called, "Change Your Story, Change Your Life," in which she heralds the transformative power of stories, and in particular, of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

I don't get sick.
I don't get sick.
I never get sick.
I. Don't. Get. Sick.

A Holiday Tradition

One of our holiday traditions is that the boys and I go down to visit Grandpa, and then we all go to Echter's, a huge and wonderful nursery and garden store on Garrison Street in Arvada. Whatever the season of the year, it's MORE that season at Echter's - bursting with daffodils and tulips in the spring, stuffed full of every kind of flower and vegetable imaginable in the summer, a sea of chrysanthymums in the fall, and a magical realm of lighted Christmas trees and glowing pointsettias at Christmastime. I always let each boy pick out one ornament to buy to put on our tree.

Traditions evolve as kids grow up and grownups age. Yesterday, Gregory didn't come with us because he was at a party with Sierra, but Christopher brought Samantha to share Echter's with us for the first time. Grandpa, who turns 99 in another ten days, chose to stay at home, which worked out well, as what he wanted for Christmas was some African violets, which I was able to buy without him there. But we still got ornaments: a matched pair of Raggedy Ann for Samantha and Raggedy Andy for Christopher.

I was reminded of the Christmas shopping chapter in my favorite book in the whole world, the book I consider to be the finest novel in the English language, Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace. Each year Betsy, Tacy, and Tib have their own tradition of holiday shopping; this year for the first time they expand it to take Winona with them. But the shopping itself proceeds as it always has. The girls visit every single shop downtown, making imaginary purchases at each one: books, dolls, perfume, even a horseless carriage at the hardware store. But then it comes time for them to make one real purchase, with their dimes:

"'Nothing,'" Tacy tried to explain, 'is so much like Christmas as a Christmas tree ornament.' . . . Betsy at last chose a large red ball. Tacy chose an angel. Tib chose a rosy Santa Claus. Winona chose a silver trumpet."

And then they leave to call on Betsy's father, who owns Ray's Shoe Store, so that he can take them to Heinz's Restaurant for ice cream, "smiling, holding Christmas in their hands."

Friday, December 18, 2009

Happy News for Me

I got an email yesterday telling me that How Oliver Olson Changed the World is on the Bulletin for the Center for Children's Books Blue Ribbon list for 2009. From all three imprints under the Macmillan Children's Publishing Group umbrella (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Holt, and Roaring Brook), it was one of only five books to make this list, and one of the others was a National Book Award winner and one a National Book Award finalist.

What makes me happiest is not even that I got this pleasing email (well, maybe that IS what makes me happiest), but that a book of this KIND was recognized. So often recognition goes to BIG books, books that cry out, "I am a major book on an important topic!" or "I am a dark, harrowing book that will sear your very soul!" My book is not a dark, harrowing book that will sear your very soul. And I don't think it's a major book on an important topic.

Except that, in a way, it is. Because whether Oliver Olson will be able to convince his over-protective parents to let him attend the third-grade space sleepover is important to Oliver. Whether Oliver can convince them that he is able, without their hovering help, to make his own solar system diorama (which turns out to be a protest diorama on behalf of Pluto) is important to Oliver. I've sometimes thought that to be a children's book author is by definition to care about problems that the rest of the world doesn't think are very important.

One year I had a book nominated for a bunch of state readers' choice awards, always in competition against the amazing work of genius, Holes, and my son Gregory, meaning to be sympathetic, said, "It's not fair to put a little book like yours on the same list as a big book like Holes."

But sometimes little books do okay. Sometimes they do.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Around the Table

I have been a member of my Boulder writing group for seventeen years, ever since I moved to Colorado in 1992 to begin my job teaching in the philosophy department at CU. Last night we had our annual holiday dinner, at Annie's house. When I joined, the group had eight members; I was the eighth. Over the years three have left the group - one retired from writing, one decided to express her creativity in other ways, and one has developed a different writing process that doesn't involve soliciting biweekly critiques of her work. But we reunite each year for the holiday dinner.

First we watch Annie cook the main dish for the dinner (the rest of us bring salad, dessert, appetizers, wine). By our request, she makes the same thing every year: an incredibly delicious stir-fry that is the single most tasty thing I have ever eaten. She cooks it right in front of us, which makes us think that maybe we could try to copy what she does and make it at home, and it would be equally delicious, but the truth is that we can't. Only Annie can make it.

Then we gather at Annie's beautiful table, with her golden reindeer candle-holders leading the way across her red tablecloth, and the red napkins in the Santa napkin rings. And we hold hands around the table. We have different religious faiths, but we thank God/the universe/each other that we are together once again. We have shared so many of each others' stories, published and unpublished, written and unwritten. It's a powerful way to forge a friendship, through the sharing of stories: it takes such vulnerability and openness on the part of the writer, and such responsibility and sensitivity on part of the reader. Some of our stories have been better than others; some of our critiques have hit the mark and made the manuscript stronger; others have not. But through the years, we have done our best.

And last night, we came together again, to hold hands around Annie's table.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Show, Don't Tell

I spent the day yesterday at Prospect Valley Elementary School in Jefferson County. With school budgets so constrained these days, it was a treat to have the opportunity to do a school visit. I've noticed that schools are wanting more substantive presentations these days, writing workshops rather than just author "glamour" presentations, so I gave two traditional assemblies in the morning, one for K-2 and one for grades 3-6, and then in the afternoon I did two writing workshops, one with fifth graders and one with sixth graders.

My workshop focused on the fundamental writing principle, "Show, Don't Tell." "Telling" is when the author simply informs the reader about the character's emotions or personality traits: "Tori was sad," "Jack was mad," "Gemma was curious," "Sean was smart and snobby." "Showing" is when the author gives the reader actual evidence, based on facial expressions, body language, actions, diologue, inner thoughts, which allows the reader to draw her own conclusions. With showing, the reader gets to be the detective, as the author provides the clues.

This can be a hard distinction for young writers to grasp. When asked to show "Tori was sad" rather than simply tell it, some kids will suggest, "Tori was depressed" or "Tori was miserable" - which is an example of more sophisticated or descriptive telling, a bigger and better vocabulary for telling, but is not yet showing. Even when they do come up with an action, e.g.,"Tori dropped down on the bench," they tend to want to add, "sadly." But they also came up with lots of great ways to reveal emotion without this kind of overt labeling: Tori blinked back tears, Tori's shoulders slumped, Tori let the ball drop and didn't bother picking it up again. I found it helpful to call some brave volunteer forward to role-play the emotion in question. Even though it can be hard to come up with words to express how our bodies give clues to our inner state, when asked to act in an angry way, students did so automatically. "Be angry!" Arms crossed, forehead creased in a scowl, feet stomping away. Our bodies know these things. The trick is letting our minds in on the secret.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Wild Things Christmas

At my church I am part of a four-person team that leads a 9:15 family worship service called (with apologies to Maurice Sendak) "Where the Wild Things Worship." The other three members of the team are amazingly creative people, so it's a joy to work with them every week on this program. I made a list a few months ago of things in my life I would give up if I only had six months left to live versus things that I would keep on doing, and Where the Wild Things Worship got listed in the second category; it's that much fun. We do a lot with puppets, and I have come to realize that one of the great joys in life is dressing up puppets and making their voices.

Today we did a mini Christmas pageant in big people church. Our child worshippers/wild things are all very young and fairly shy, so we let the puppets do the embarrassing things like wear costumes, and all the children had to do was move them from one location to another, as grownups read aloud the familiar and beautiful story. The cast list for the production included Ruby the Jackrabbit as Mary, Dmitri the Deer as Joseph, Trevor the Turtle as Baby Jesus, and Chloe the Bobcat as the Angel. Although Ruby has always been my favorite of the puppets, I have to admit that Chloe stole the show, wearing wings and halo, and lowered from behind a banner on a guide wire at the crucial moment. Chloe actually made two appearances, first in a visitation to Mary to tell her of the forthcoming birth of Jesus, and then to the shepherds watching over their flocks. Oh, I think the congregation also especially liked the innkeeper, played by a huge alligator as large as the child who was handling him.

I hated having to take off Chloe's halo and wings at the end of the service, but I think she still has a holy aura to her. After this morning, we all do.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Face Painting

I was at Barnes & Noble in Boulder today, signing books as part of the Whittier Elementary book fair. Even after all these years, I always forget certain facts about bookstore events, such as:

1) The store will have ordered hardly any of my books, because they will have expected me to sell very few.
2) The store will turn out to have been right.
3) It is very hard for an author to compete with other simultaneous attractions, such as (in the past) a visit in the flesh from Santa Claus or a chance for kids to decorate and eat Christmas cookies (memories of the year I did a lot of book signings for the release of Gus and Grandpa and the Christmas Cookies ) - or this time, a very talented mom doing face painting. Kids would simply rather have their faces painted than chat with an author. It's past ten o'clock at night now as I write this, and that mom is probably still sitting there, painting away, with a long line of kids waiting their turn.

But I decided today that rather than sulk about this, I would try to reflect on the situation in a constructive way. So here are some Lessons an Author Can Learn from a Face-Painting Mom:

1) There is really nothing that can compare with getting to be somebody else for a little while. Readers love to take on an entirely different identity as they read. I remember hearing, re Harry Potter, that kids don't want to buy bed sheets that have pictures of Harry Potter on them: they want to buy Harry Potter's bed sheets. They want to BE Harry Potter. Have I created characters that readers truly want to BE?

2) The kids seemed to love best getting to pick from the catalogs of possible face-paintings the mom had available for their perusal: they loved the different possibilities laid out in front of them for the choosing. Do my books offer enough different possibilities for my readers? Are there enough different ways that each story can unfold?

2) Suspense is powerful. The face-painting mom refused to let the kids see themselves in the mirror until the face painting was done. As an author, do I give away too much too soon?

I did sign 6 books - not yet the blissful land of double digits, but better than nothing at all. The wonderful Whittier mom who organized the event had a little gift for me waiting on my table: a package of my beloved Swiss Miss hot chocolate that I had told the kids about when I visited Whittier to do a day of author presentations a week ago. During the book fair today I got to hear the Whittier fourth and fifth grade chorus sing "Twist and Shout" - what is more fun than that? And I picked up some tips on writing from watching a face-painting mom.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Last Day

This is the last day of the semester, so I'm in a festive, party mood. I didn't have a party for my big lecture class, which finished up on Wednesday, but I did give them a good last class. I always close this course, Intro to Ethics, in the same way. We begin the semester by reading Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, the story of a life gone wrong. This sets the structure for the class, in which we read seven great works of philosophy on how to make one's life go right: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, the Discourses of Epictetus, Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Mill's Utilitarianism, Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, Sartre's "Existentialism and Humanism" plus snippets from Being and Nothingness, and then, to add a little nonwestern element to the course, Trungpa's Shambhala, or the Sacred Path of the Warrior. On the last day, I ask the students, "If you could take just one of these books and give it to Ivan Ilych, not as he lies dying, but when he's your age, studying at the university, which would it be?" And then we vote. In the big lecture class this term, Shambhala was the winner, with Mill in second place; in my small version of the same course, taught in the Farrand resident hall, Shambhala and Sartre tied; when I taught the course in Maymester, Aristotle won. Poor Kant always gets the fewest votes - none in the Farrand class this time, and only one in the big lecture, and that from one of my graduate student T.A.s. I'm always fascinated to count the votes and see which philosopher will be declared the semester's winner in the best-advice-on-how-to-live-your-life category. I also got my students in the big lecture to clap for me at the end of the class, by making a little speech thanking them for a great semester - a surefire way to garner their applause in return.

I gave my Farrand class a cupcake party on Wednesday; I carried two dozen gorgeous and delicious cupcakes on the Skip with me from Boulder Baked, along with a gallon of milk (which had lumps of ice in it when I went to pour it - that's how cold it's been this week!). Today I gave my Ethical Theory class a pizza party. I was afraid that I had ordered too many pizzas - six extra-large! But not to worry: every slice was devoured. Tonight is the philosophy department non-holiday non-party (university policy doesn't permit university funding for holiday events or parties). Yay for non-holidays! and non-parties! And festive last days of student applause (however transparently solicited) and wise advice on how to go forward to live the rest of our lives.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Still Cold

This is the longest and coldest cold spell that I can remember. It was -7 yesterday morning. Today right now it's +7, which is an improvement, but not a BIG improvement.

Last night I curled up and re-read for the twentieth time These Happy Golden Years, the final volume in the Little House series. Poor Laura, at age fifteen, is teaching school for the first time and boarding away from home for the first time in the miserable, slovenly, hostile shack of the Brewsters. Almanzo Wilder brings his matched horses, Prince and Lady, to drive her home every weekend, but one weekend he almost doesn't come, because it's so cold that the mercury in the thermometer froze when it reached forty below zero. But he does, and oh, the coldness of that twelve-mile ride across the bleak, bare, wind-scoured prairie, where Almanzo has to keep shaking Laura's shoulder so that she doesn't fall asleep and freeze to death.

Then finally, Laura is safely home again, and the cold snap ends. Almanzo takes Laura out sleigh riding on Sunday afternoon: "The wind was blowing, but not too hard, and everyone was so happy and gay because it was only twenty degrees below zero and the sun shone."

So I can be happy because it's seven ABOVE zero. And I think the sun is going to shine here today, too.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Lesson from Epictetus

It is cold here in Boulder. Cold, as in 4 degrees yesterday morning, and 5 degrees right now. I just checked the weather forecast online, and for today there is a 100 percent chance of snow - how can there ever be a 100 percent chance of anything? This might be our third snowfall in the past week, or maybe the fourth; I've lost count. Now, many people who don't live in Colorado think it's always cold and snowy here. Not so. Here in the Front Range where I live, it's usually mild and almost always sunny - kids wear shorts to school in January, and I see my students sunning themselves on the grass even in the middle of the winter.

One of my students in my big intro to ethics class yesterday, as I was chatting with them before class, asked me, "So are you willing that it snow?"
The question was meant to invoke my favorite of all philosophers, the Stoic Epictetus, whom we had studied together earlier in the semester. Epictetus gave this definition of freedom: A man is free for whom all things happen according to his will. According to Epictetus, we have no control over what happens in the world: that is not "up to us." But we have complete control over our own wills: "My will? Not even Zeus can conquer that." So the way to be free, to have all things happen according to our will, is simply to will that things happen as they do.

If there was one thing Epictetus hated, it was complaining. "My nose is running!" one person sniffled to him. "Well, wipe it, slave!" Epictetus shot back. "I have to be beheaded, and all by myself!" another one whimpered. "Would you have the rest of the world lose their heads for your consolation?" Epictetus retorted.

All right. It's cold. It's snowy. The weather is not up to me. "For Zeus has not made you dispenser of the winds, but Aeolus." The only thing that is up to me is my will. So, yes, I might as well will that it snow today. I'm not quite ready to accept being beheaded, but I can accept that it's going to snow. Again. I can make myself hot chocolate. I can wrap myself in a blanket. I can bake a pan of apple crisp. I can cuddle with my cat, Snickers. I can even steal some time from grading to do some writing.

Let it snow!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Tingly Possibilities

I heard last week that my scholarly paper on the inverted moral code in Eleanor Estes's book The Witch Family, the paper I revised for the second time, appropriately, on Halloween, has been accepted for publication in the children's literature journal The Lion and the Unicorn. Of course, I'm thrilled. I worked very hard on the paper, and it's satisfying to have my efforts bear fruit.

But now when I turn on my email to check if I have any new messages, I can't turn it on in tingly anticipation that I might hear from The Lion and the Unicorn about my Witch Family paper. I COULD hear an encouraging response from my editor at FSG about my revisions to the sequel to 7 x 9 = Trouble!, which I sent off to her before Thanksgiving. So that is one little tingly possibility. And there are standing tingly possibilities: I might get an email saying that How Oliver Olson Change the World is on some end-of-year best books list, or that Being Teddy Roosevelt is on some state readers' choice award reading list, or that some school somewhere wants me to come for a school visit. All of those could happen. But with the Witch Family paper, I knew that sooner or later I HAD to hear from the editor, and after two rounds of revision, I was pretty confident that it would be good news when I did. Whereas I might get no email at all showering accolades on Oliver, or nominating Teddy for a prize, or offering to pay me a lot of money to spend glorious days talking to school kids about writing.

I need more tingly possibilities! So I guess I'd better write another article and send it out somewhere, or do something else that puts me in the position to have a GOOD chance of turning on my email and getting some little delicious tidbit of news. Though I'll go turn it on now, anyway, to see if Margaret has emailed me about the sequel, or if some school wants me for a school visit, or if anybody has somehow felt in the mood for giving me a prize for something, anything.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


I just received an email from an adult student who is doing a paper on my Gus and Grandpa books for a children's literature course she is taking at Nassau Community College. She had a number of questions to ask me to assist her in writing the essay, and of course I felt enormously honored and flattered by the whole experience.

One of her questions was whether any of my books had been the subject of controversy. My answer was: not really, though one review of Gus and Grandpa complained that Grandpa receives a book on wine as a birthday present, and one review of Gus and Grandpa and the Christmas Cookies was upset that Grandpa lets Gus eat raw cookie dough. But I don't think that amounts to full-blown controversy. To my knowledge I have never had a book that was banned, let alone burned.

I feel sort of guilty about this. I remember a poem I loved in high school, called "No Enemies?" that begins, "You have no enemies, you say? Alas, my friend, the boast is poor." The poet says, of enemies, "If you have none, small is the work that you have done."

And yet . . . okay, I didn't use the word "scrotum" anywhere in the Gus and Grandpa books, but does that mean that small is the work that I have done? And there is no sex, or scandal, in the Gus and Grandpa books, but it wasn't as if I left them out because I was afraid of the wrath of the censor. They just didn't fit into the stories I was writing of the deep and enduring friendship between a seven-year-old boy and his beloved grandfather. There IS a Halloween book in the series, Gus and Grandpa and the Halloween Costume, and one kid in the book does dress up as a vampire, but there are no REAL witches, wizards, or vampires to attract the ire of conservative Christians - but again, it wasn't as if I left them out for that reason.

Oh, well. At least Gus did eat raw cookie dough!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Grandpa's Apple Pie

My father-in-law, the Grandpa of my Gus and Grandpa books, who will turn 99 (!) in another 27 days, still lives in his own home and still is a consummate baker, as depicted in Gus and Grandpa and the Christmas Cookies. He came to our house for Thanksgiving with one of his famous gooseberry pies to share, and here is the apple pie he baked yesterday.

Pretty amazingly beautiful, wouldn't you say?

Getting and Spending

Now that December is upon us, I'm beginning to look back on the year that was (okay, I know it's not over yet, but I'm in a taking-stock mood). One of my goals for the past year was financial: I've had a lot of money woes, and so I decided to make my finances a priority. So I framed the goal as "inviting and welcoming abundance into my life." I would begin with recognizing and affirming the abundance I already have, and then move to the next stage of announcing to the universe that I was ready to receive gratefully any further abundance that would be given me.

Things did not work out the way I planned.

I did attract heaps of abundance into my life, in financial terms. As soon as I announced this plan to the universe, opportunities to make more money kept appearing. I was invited to give more school talks, and more lucrative ones, than I had done in years; I was invited to guest-edit an issue of the Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly for the University of Maryland, for a generous stipend, and then invited to guest-edit a second issue. I taught an overload at CU both semesters, and taught Maymester as well. Every time I turned around, someone was paying me money to do something.

So, how did the plan not work out? Well, here's how. The more I earned, the more I spent. I had a delicious, decadent trip to California with Gregory and his girlfriend, Sierra - and a delicious, decadent trip to New York City with Christopher and his girlfriend, Samantha - and a third delicious, decadent trip to Minnesota with my sister. I bought a new (used) car: a 2003 Subaru, and bought a warranty to go with it, the warranty that somehow covered absolutely everything except for the one major repair I needed. Somehow I spent all the money I made and then some. I have more credit card debt now than I did before I decided to invite and welcome abundance into my life back in January.

This suggests to me that what happened was that, however beautifully I worded my goal in terms of "abundance" rather than cold cash, the universe knew that money was what I wanted, and so I had a year of getting and spending money. Heaps of it. I had a lot of fun spending it, but I got pretty worn out getting it. And in any case, it's all gone, though wonderful memories remain. This was the year of money, money, money.

But Wordsworth said that "getting and spending we lay waste our powers." So, while the getting was quite amazing, and the spending was most enjoyable, next year I think I'm going to focus my energies on something different. Maybe on work, maybe on love, maybe on both. But not, I don't think, on money. I'm probably not sorry I laid waste my powers in such a spectacular way in 2009. But I'm not going to do this again in 2010.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Five Episodes of Happiness

Thanksgiving break is over, and I'm back teaching, the intense home stretch of the semester with just two weeks of classes left (and with so many of those papers left to grade, all the ones I didn't get done last week), and then on to the stress of finals.

So it is time for me to resume my practice of scheduling five episodes of happiness for myself every day. I plan them out as I walk to get the Skip to work in the morning. I always insist on having five - not four, not six. I love lists that are in multiples of five!

Here is my list for today:
1) The walk to the Skip itself - the bus stops every few blocks, so I try to leave myself enough time in the morning to walk for a mile or so before I hop onboard, paying attention to the crisp, clear beauty of the morning.

2) A cup of tea when I get to my office - actually, I forgot to do this one! Oops! But after I type this blog entry I will go fix myself one (I'm in my office for my office hours right now).

3) Reconnecting with my sweet freshmen in my 1:00 class, the little class that I teach right in the Farrand dorm, as part of CU's residential academic program: all the students from the class live in the same dorm, and I walk over to the dorm to teach. This particular group is so bright and motivated; I can't wait to share with them the book we'll be focusing on for the final two weeks of the semester: Shambhala, or The Sacred Path of the Warrior.

4) Dinner at Dazzle, the jazz club in Denver, where Christopher is playing drums tonight with a combo sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Center for Musical Arts.

5) The concert at Dazzzle, watching Christopher doing something he loves so much, and hearing some great mellow jazz as well.

Those are my five for today. I haven't yet planned my full five for tomorrow, but I know one of them will be luxuriating in a free morning at home, with time to write and catch up on some of that grading, and another will be Christopher's concert with the symphonic band at Metro State, playing trombone this time. That means I have to come up with three more - ooh, maybe an early morning walk with my friend Rowan, and maybe baking a pan of apple crisp - and one more - what should it be??

And then five more on Wednesday, and five on Thursday, and . . . .

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Risks and Rewards of Self-Googling

Thanksgiving break meant time to write, time to read, time for family and friends - and, alas, time to spend at the computer Googling myself and my books to see what I could find. In the days before the Internet, I would anxiously await each of the half dozen or so published reviews that would follow the publication of each book to see what Horn Book, Booklist, School Library Journal, Kirkus, the Bulletin from the the Center for Children's Books, and Publishers Weekly had to say. But now I can check the Internet any time day or night to find out what various bloggers have to say - in fact, I have a Google blog alert set so that I will get an email telling me whenever I am mentioned in a blog. (Well, whenever "Claudia Mills" is mentioned in a blog, which might be me, but also might be the marine biologist Claudia Mills, or the fabric artist Claudia Mills, or the young British singer Claudia Mills). And I can also go to the fascinating website Goodreads to find out what real people, actual readers, are saying about my books.

Oh, this is a perilous thing to do!

For How Oliver Olson Changed the World, Goodreads gives 54 ratings of my book, with an average rating of 3.89 on a five-point scale, and 31 actual reader reviews. Some are wonderful: "Better than gold. Better than diamonds and jewels," says Elizabeth, who is Elizabeth Bird of the ultra-mega-major-prominent blog Fuse 8. Yay! But somebody called "The Library Lady" said: "Pretty ordinary story from a writer who does nice ordinary books for kids. Nothing here to rock my world or theirs." Ooh! I hate the Library Lady! I hate her! And "Lana" said: "What a perfect book for young middle-graders. The characters, the tone, the voice, the not-too-complex plot--Claudia Mills nailed each one." I love Lana! And then some guy named Eric, who is apparently a teacher, said that he hated the teacher in the book (who in my opinion is a WONDERFUL teacher who lets her students' passion for the planetary status of Pluto drive how she teaches the entire unit on the solar system); he hates her because she assigns spelling homework and has her students make dioramas! "Yuck!" says Eric. Well, Eric, I say: Yuck to you!

What value, if any, is there to reading these reader comments? Part of me thinks that there has to be some value: why on earth wouldn't a writer care about what her readers think? What kind of insulated, isolated, narcissistic creature would I have to be NOT to care? Isn't the whole point of writing - or at least a pretty significant point - to connect with readers? So gathering reader responses to my work, so helpfully collated on Goodreads, can help me grow as a writer. But of course all these responses have to be taken with a grain - nay, an entire shaker - of salt. Because, as my little sampling above just revealed, readers differ: what one loves, another hates; what moves one leaves another lukewarm and indifferent (with her world unrocked - oh, Library Lady!). It's a helpful exercise in perspective to Google other people's books as well - even authors I adore, where I cannot imagine any human being anywhere not adoring their books, get rankings less than 4 on the 5-point scale. Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years, one of my most favorite books EVER, got an average ranking on Goodreads of 3.64 - lower than Oliver Olson! This could make me want to throw up my hands and abandon the whole enterprise of self-Googling altogether.

But it doesn't. It makes me want to continue to do it, but sparingly - not too often, so I don't drive myself crazy - and with some perspective, as well. I have to confess that it also makes me want to write some book someday that WILL rock the Library Lady's world. And maybe that's a good thing.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


One time when my sister and I were home for Thanksgiving in New Jersey, we glanced at the Courier News for the day and were cracked up by the huge headline: "Central Jerseyans Thankful - Family, Friends, Top Grateful List." Breaking news! Extra, extra, read all about it!

But what other headline could there really be for Thanksgiving, this one day a year when we all do sit down and make our grateful lists? Family and friends top mine, of course. But I have to say that right behind them comes work: I am truly grateful that I have work that I love to do, work that gives my life meaning and purpose and tons of fun.

It's become a cliche to say that work can't compare to family and friends: "No one ever lay on his deathbed and said, 'I wish I had spent more time at the office.'" Fair enough. But I can well imagine somene saying, on her deathbed, "I wish I had written that novel I always wanted to write" or "I wish I had taken time in my busy days to scribble a poem or two or three" or "I wish I had followed my dreams and shared the stories I've yearned to tell."

I'm grateful above all for the family with whom I'll be eating our Thanksgiving feast, and for other family members, just as dear, who will celebrating thousands of miles away. But I'm also grateful for every hour I have spent chasing after my dreams. My grateful list is long, indeed.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

More Hours or More Days?

Thanksgiving break is bliss! I'm ahead on writing, ahead on my one-a-day extra little tasks, behind on grading my five papers a day - but the good thing about grading is that one way or another, it always does get done. I took not one but two glorious walks yesterday, with two different friends; I have a third friend lined up for a mountain walk this afternoon.

Of course, I wish that Thanksgiving break would last longer, and yet, I have to say that by evening yesterday, I felt that the day was seeming a bit, well, long. Write, write, grade a couple of papers, walk, read, read, walk, write, read, read, read. I really didn't feel like writing or reading any more that day, even as I could hardly wait to start writing and reading again tomorrow.

This made me think how often people say that they wish there were more hours in a day. I never wish this. Instead I wish that there were more days in a week. By suppertime, I'm tired; I don't want the day to go on and on and on. What I love best is that first hour of the early morning, full of hope and promise. I want more of THOSE - but you can't have two first hours of the day on the same day, two bursts of hope and promise. First hours, hours of hope and promise, are meant to come just once a day. So that is why I need not more hours, but more days.

Especially more days of Thanksgiving break.

Monday, November 23, 2009

First Draft Done

This morning, I got up around 5:00, awakened by the incessant meowing of the world's most insistent alarm clock, my cat, Snickers. I made myself my oversized mug of Swiss Miss hot chocolate. And I finished writing Chapter 10 of the first draft of the new chapter book, which means that the entire first draft is now done.

Some writers - most? - say that they hate to write first drafts, they just have to force themselves somehow to get through a first draft, and then they can settle down to the true joy of writing, which is rewriting, taking that half-baked, embarrassing thing and turning it into a slightly more baked, less embarrassing thing, watching the story strengthen, the characters deepen, before their very eyes.

Well, I do love revision. But secretly I love writing the first draft most. I love everything about it. I write my first drafts with a pen on paper; subsequent drafts I do on the computer - and I love best writing with a pen on paper. I love watching the pages mount up, line by line by line. I love finding out what happens, the same way the reader would find it out; I love hearing my characters say and do things I didn't ever plan for them to say and do. Subsequent drafts are always more deliberate, intentional - I think hard in subsequent drafts about what has to be added, subtracted, changed, to produce a more coherent, unified, suspenseful, funny story. But the first draft just . . . happens, just emerges on the page. For me, while subsequent drafts are where the true craftsmanship of writing shows, the first draft is where the magic is - it's where the elves miraculously appear in the night and do their fairy stitching.

Even as I say this, I do have to confess that in just about every single one of my books, my favorite scene ended up being a scene I added in the very last draft, after months and months of revision. So there is plenty of wonderment later on as well.

But there is still nothing like that first draft - that maiden voyage of discovery, when you just might set off for India and end up in a new and completely unexpected world.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Making a Plan

It's Thanksgiving break at the university, hooray, hooray! If I think about how much work I need to get done over the next nine days, I will feel overwhelmed with stress and misery, instead of lighthearted and merry. So I need to make a plan.

For example, if I consider the fact that I made the due date for the papers in BOTH classes be yesterday, so that I now have 22 papers to grade for one class and 47 (!) for the other, I will sit paralyzed with doubt that I can grade even one paper, let alone 69. But, if I tell myself, "Just do five papers each day," for eight days (not counting Thanksgiving), then I will have 40 of them done by the end of the break - and probably, thinking realistically, I don't have 69 papers, as probably I granted a bunch of extensions to people that I've already forgotten about. So maybe I have 60 papers: do 40 over the break, and then do 20 (at the same rate of 5 a day) the week after the break. Papers, done!

I often have lunch at one sandwich joint on the Hill where you order sandwiches, writing down your order on a brown paper bag, checking off your choice in half a dozen different categories: kind of roll (white or wheat), kind of protein, kind of mayonaise, kind of veggies, kind of condiments. That is how I am going to organize my eight days of Thanksgiving break. Each day I will choose from the following menu, one item from each category:

1. Grade five papers (any five from either class).
2. Write one page on my chapter book-in-progress for an hour OR spend one hour revising my sequel to 7 x 9 = Trouble! (now returned to me by my editor).
3. Do at least one thing from the following list: write up one last teaching observation, write one last recommendation letter, write any of the five book reviews I need to do for Children's Literature.
4. Take one long walk.
5. Have one episode of fun either with my mother, the boys, or a friend.

It's a plan!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Writing Anything

I like to write anything.

I think this is an important thing for people to remember who want desperately to write a big important book and publish it with a big fancy New York publisher. I want that, too, oh, yes, I do.

But I also like to write anything. And publish it anywhere.

This afternoon I'm going to interview a surpassingly delightful woman in my church for a little feature for our church newsletter called "Saint of the Month" in which we feature some member who has made wonderful contributions to our church community. As we have a relatively small church with an extremely active memberhip, this means that just about everybody is a "saint" in this way. So this afternoon I will go talk to Skippy and get some juicy details for my article. I already have one: this woman, who hails from Texas and speaks with a terrific Texas twang, and dresses in a different elegant outfit whenever you see her, wrote a master's thesis on the novels of Anthony Trollope!

Then, as soon as I finish interviewing Skippy, I'm heading off to the launch party for the new issue of a campus online literary magazine called sub-scribe, in which I have three poems included. The theme of this issue is "recovery," a topic on which I consider myself to be something of an expert. I have no idea how many people read sub-scribe. But I loved writing the poems, and I'm thrilled that sub-scribe is publishing them, and now I get to go read them at a launch party. How fun is that?

Write anything. Publish it anywhere.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

No Exit

Today is one of the most fun days of my semester. It's the day that my TAs and I perform a readers' theater version of Jean-Paul Sartre's famous play No Exit in my Intro to Ethics class as the conclusion of our unit on Sartre's existentialism. It's always a treat for me to be able to bring literature into a philosophy class. When I teach Rousseau we read the entire text of his VERY long epistolary novel, Julie, or the New Heloise (the best-selling novel of the 18th century). And when I teach Sartre, we perform No Exit. My first semester teaching Sartre, I tried to find a video version of the play and couldn't locate one; anyway, I'm terrible at technology. So: why not perform it ourselves?!

I always take the role of Estelle, explaining to my students that they're going to need to pretend that I'm thirty years younger. One TA takes the part of Inez, and another of Garcin. They are always good sports about it. When the script calls for a kiss, we don't kiss, of course; we just stand close and lean in toward each other. The play builds to the wonderful line delivered by Garcin: "Hell is - other people!" At the end we bow and accept the deafening applause (well, the polite scattered clapping) of the somewhat dumbfounded class. We're going to do two performances today: one for my large lecture at 9, and another for my smaller version of the same class (22 students) that I teach in a residential academic program in one of the CU dorms.

On their course evaluations at the end of the semester, students always write that this was their favorite part of the course. It's my favorite part of the course, as well.

And so, on with the show!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Last Third

It's been a month since I started my chapter book over again from scratch. Well, not entirely from scratch: I kept the characters and their traits and quirks. But they are now starring in an entirely new story. There isn't a scene - or a SENTENCE - that could be salvaged from the last draft. And now I have eight chapters done (of ten) and plan to write chapter 9 today. I could have a full first draft done by this weekend.

This made me remember a quote I read in the wonderful little book of meditations for writers, Walking on Alligators, by Susan Shaughnessy. Every page begins with a quote on the writing process or the writing life - or life itself - followed by Susan's ruminations about it. The quotes alone are worth the price of the book. Here is the one I just looked up to include in today's blog:

"The last third of the book only takes about 10 percent of the time. I don't know whether that's due to confidence or because the alternatives have been narrowed down." - Joseph Heller

I don't know, either, but I do know that it's true, at least for me, that as I write the last third of a book I have the same momentum that readers have as they read the last third of the book. As a reader would stay up all night to finish reading it, I want to stay up all night to finish writing it (except that I would never stay up all night! I'd want to, but the pen would fall out of my hand at 8:30. But still.) I feel the inexorability of what is going to unfold; the die of destiny has been cast for my characters; what is to be is what must be, given who they are, and everything they have said and done thus far. And yet there is endless fascination in seeing exactly how it is going to unfold.

And so my hand moves faster across the page. Faster! Faster!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"I Could Have Written That"

On Saturday, I headed out in the snow to teach an all-day advanced children's book writing workshop for Lifelong Learning, the continuing education program of Boulder Valley Public Schools. There were six students in the class. The class was structured entirely as a critique group; we spent the full five hours of class time in an in-depth critique of each student's manuscript, with a lovely break for lunch, all of us together, at a nearby Chinese restaurant.

The manuscripts were amazing - and one of them was even by a sixteen-year-old high school girl, whose mother had to petition to get special permission for her to take the class. I was supposed to be the teacher, but at least three of the students, although unpublished, had manuscripts, in my view, as worthy of publication as my own.

Now, a lot of beginning writers get interested in writing by looking at published work that doesn't impress them all that much and thinking, "Hey, I could have written that." As a spur to creativity, this is probably a good thing. But often, these writers don't get very far in developing their craft. I think we get a lot farther not when we look at other writers' work with disdain, but when we behold it with admiration and awe.

When I read my students' manuscripts on Saturday, I thought, "I'm going to have to work VERY VERY HARD to continue to get published in a world where not-yet-published writers have work this good." Instead of wondering how it can be that I keep on not winning the Newbery, I need to wonder how I can keep on getting published at all. The standards are high. They are getting higher. If I am going to continue to be a published author, I had better do some honing of my craft; I had better push myself harder, force myself to go deeper. I am going to have to stretch and grow if I am going to equal, let alone exceed, the work of the students whom I was privileged to "teach" yesterday.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Inside the Box

One of the best things about working on a college campus is that I can attend stimulating talks, lectures, and performances almost hourly - well, except that then I wouldn't get any of my own work done. But still: I can sneak away with some regularity to expand my intellectual and emotional horizons. Last week I heard a wonderful talk on "Evil in Macbeth" by English Department Professor Emeritus Doug Burger. And I try to attend all of the Performance Fridays hosted by the Center for the Humanities and the Arts (CHA). Luckily I'm currently a CHA board member so I don't even have to feel guilty when I attend the Performance Fridays: enjoying their free light lunch before the performance, and then watching an amazing 45-minute production of music, theater, or dance, is actually what I'm SUPPOSED to be doing - it's what the University of Colorado is paying me to do.

Yesterday's Performance Friday featured CU's astonishing new assistant professor Tamara Meneghini in a series of monologues using the technique of "RasaBoxes." The stage was marked out with eight different boxes, each one representing a different zone of emotional energy, identified with a Sanskrit name, including wonder/awe, love, disgust, laughter, and rage. First, some of Tammy's students moved from box to box "warming up the RasaBoxes," using their bodies and wordless voices to portray the emotions in each one. Then Tammy took the stage, delivering a series of beautifully crafted, powerful sketches: a young child's boundless enthusiasm tempered by her grief for missing her absent mother, an aging country-western singer trying too hard to laugh at her own decline, a homeless woman picking invisible lice off herself as she rages against the passersby. Wow.

I'm wondering if the RasaBox technique might work for writers as well as actors. Certainly I came away from Tammy's performance with some thoughts about how what I saw in that powerful hour could help my own work as an author. Here is some of what I'm distilling for myself:

1) Go deep into whatever emotion your character is experiencing. Be as filled with awe, love, laughter, disgust, or rage as you can possibly be. Don't hold anything back: you ARE awe! you ARE love! you ARE rage!

2) It can help to "warm up" the emotion with some other exercises that generate that feeling.

3) Clear boundaries are good: start the scene, end the scene, enter into your box, and then at the end, depart from it - each scene is a perfect little unit enclosed within its own defined limits.

And I even got a free light lunch, too!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fantasies of the Writing Life

I've always had fantasies about creating a life for myself where I would best thrive and grow as a writer.

Sometimes the fantasies have involved renting out a room in an old-fashioned farmhouse, as Judy does in Daddy Long-Legs. I'd be far away from the bustle and toil of the city, writing away at my big wooden desk facing out the open window to the rolling fields; sometimes the farmer's wife would call upstairs to let me know that she was taking fresh-baked pies out of the oven, and I'd skip downstairs to have a thick wedge of applie pie, together with a glass of her foamy new milk just brought in from Bossy the cow.

Sometimes the fantasies have involved spending time at a writers' colony, like the famed McDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Oh, to live in my own little rustic cabin, where lunch is brought to me every day in a covered basket and left outside my door, as if by unseen elves! (I don't know if the McDowell Colony is the one that leaves the little lunch basket, but one of the famous writers' colonies does). I'd write all day, and then, at dinner, all the writers, and artists and musicians and filmmakers, would gather for dinner: wine, and fine food, and witty, erudite conversation.

My latest fantasy, which I've been nursing ever since Christopher's 21st birthday bash in New York City, involves my own teensy-weensy studio apartment either in Brooklyn or on the upper Upper West Side (Broadway above 100th). In New York, every other apartment has a writer in it, and the other one has an actor, and we'd all be feeling the pulse of a city fueled by creativity and fulfilled and unfulfilled dreams. I'd go to readings at the 92nd Street Y. I'd hang out with children's book lovers at the Bank Street College of Education. I would write my masterpiece!

Last night I went to see the Fairview High School production of the musical 42nd Street, and this did NOT lessen the pull of this fantasy! Wouldn't I be a better writer if I fell asleep every night listening to the "lullabye of Broadway"?

But maybe some other writer somewhere has the fantasy of the small house in Boulder, Colorado, right up against the Rocky Mountains, where she gets up early to write for an hour before her family awakes, and then wanders in to the University of Colorado, where she teaches a couple of classes in the philosophy department, and then in the late afternoon goes for a long walk on the glorious trails up the mountain canyons. . .

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Joy and Grief

I got some nice news yesterday: How Oliver Olson Changed the World has been selected by the New York Public Library as one of their "100 Titles for Reading and Sharing" for 2009. Oh, how I love turning on email and having some tidbit of good news. I can feast on this for weeks!

This made me think of Emily Dickinson's poem that begins:

I can wade grief,
Whole pools of it, -
I'm used to that.
But the least push of joy
Breaks up my feet,
And I tip - drunken.

I definitely feel a bit tipsy with happiness today.

I didn't use to be so good at wading whole pools of grief. It used to be that, even as the least push of joy made me tipsy, the least push of grief made me weep. Any amount of either one overwhelmed me. But in the last few years, I have had a lot more experience than I ever expected to have with wading pools of grief, and you know, you really do get used to it. You trudge on through. You do what you have to do.

I don't know if it's just that I haven't had enough joy in my life to get used to it - though I really have had a very happy life - or if joy is something you never get used to, that it's always Emily's "new liquor" to made us drunken and delighted. In any case, I'm drunken and delighted today.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Bad Times = Good Writing

Of course, we all know that one of the main reasons to be a writer is to be able to take the hardest, most painful parts of our lives - as well as all the minor and major irritations that confront us daily - and find some sort of redemption in them, and through them: "At least I can write about it." One of my favorite hymns, putting this in a spiritual context, says:

"Something beautiful, something good,
All my confusion, He understood.
All I had to offer Him was brokenness and strife,
But He made something beautiful of my life."

Writing also always us to take our brokenness and strife and turn it into something beautiful. Or at least something bearable.

Lately I've been turning bad times into good writing in another way. I've had a Bad Week at work. I was already having a Bad Day one day last week when I got an annoying email from a graduate student and sent an Inappropriate Reply. Oh, why did I do that? Why didn't I just hit delete? Isn't this exactly what the delete button is for? I already get a torrent of philosophy department emails in my inbox every day, and most of them used to be about how bad some of my colleagues are - but now, in the wake of my Inappropriate Reply, most of them are about me! and how bad I am! And yes, I'm sorry. I told the student I'm sorry. Very sorry! And I wish all these emails would stop coming!

But here's the good part. This is giving me reason not to read my email. And to keep a low profile in the philosophy department for a while. For, knowing the way the world of academia works, it will only be a matter of days until somebody else does the Next Bad Thing that occasions the next flood of angry emails and public reprimands. So in the meantime, I can throw my energies into writing my book. And you know, even when the angry, accusatory emails start to be about Other People once again, I may just skip reading them. I'm already on Chapter 5 of my book - this is the one that wasn't working, and wasn't working, and then I started all over again, and now, I think it's brilliant. I love every line of it. I laugh out loud as I'm writing. I wipe away tears. My writing system has always been to write a page a day. Well, yesterday I wrote two entire chapters, pouring out of me in ecstatic relief that I was writing rather than reading philosophy department emails.

So, in the words, not of the United Methodist Hymnal, but of Carly Simon, right now I haven't got time for the pain. What I have time for is writing.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Mandatory vs. Optional

I have too much to do. I'm willing to bet that you do, too.

Here's the problem. The things that I have to do fall into two categories: mandatory and optional. I can't give up the mandatory things - things I'm contractually obligated to do as a result of my job, like teach my classes, serve on university committees, write recommendation letters for students (oh, so many right now! and each one has to be a little eloquent masterpiece!). Among the other mandatory things are probably things I need to do for my health, like walk and floss my teeth (every single day???). So that means I need to give up some of the optional things. But the trouble is that they are the things that make my life worth living: writing my books, engaging in fun writing-related activities (like the annual poetry retreat I attend every year back East), reading books just because I want to (not the books that I've ageed each month to review: those are mandatory).

I don't want to give up the optional things - after all, they are what I am opting to do. I want to give up the mandatory things. But I can't. That is what "mandatory" means.

Is there a way out of this dilemma? Here are some ideas for me that may apply to you, too.

1) Revisit the category of the mandatory. ARE all these things TRULY mandatory? For example, as a teacher I have to assign my students papers and exams - that truly is mandatory. But do I have to assign three papers? Could I assign two? Could I assign shorter papers? Would a five-page paper be just as good as a seven-page paper? Could I force myself to hire a grader as just about all my colleagues do?

2) Are there any currently mandatory things that I can move out of the mandatory category altogether? Along these lines, I just sent an email, at 5 o'clock this morning, resigning as Boulder events coordinator for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators - just like that, one mandatory activity is no longer mandatory. But I did want to do it . . . so it was sort of optional AND mandatory. No. What I want is to ATTEND these events. I can still do that. But that knife in the gut, guilty feeling I had every time I thought about all the events I was supposed to be organizing but wasn't organizing shows that this is a good one to give up.

3) Can I find ways to combine optional and mandatory? I do this now when I walk every day with my friend Rowan: exercise is mandatory, seeing a friend feels more optional, but I can opt to do my walk with a friend, and so mandatory and optional fuse. If I have to do something anyway, why not do it in a way that feeds my spirit?

Blogging is probably more optional than mandatory. But I can blog about what is optional and mandatory, which helps!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Some Thoughts About Rules

One day when I was in high school, it was raining; the teacher was out of the classroom for a few minutes, so I climbed out the second-story window onto the roof of the adjoining one-story part of the high school, to dance in the rain. The boys shut the window and wouldn't let me back in, so I was caught by the teacher when she returned and I had to go the principal's office. (So far, this was the inspiration for the opening scene of Dynamite Dinah.) When I got there, the principal said (and this is the part I didn't put in the book), "You think the rules don't apply to you because you're smarter than everybody else." Well, I probably did think just exactly that. I expected him then to say, "But the rules apply to everybody, however smart they art." Instead he said, "But I've looked up your IQ, and it's just average"!!! Can you imagine any school administrator saying such a thing today??

The strange part is that, as a writer, I love rules. I adore rules. I make them up all the time for myself. In my novels each chapter has to be 10 pages long. In a chapter book, each chapter has to be 5 pages long. If it's 4, I add something; if it's 6, I cut something. A picture book cannot be over 1000 words - most of mine have come in with a word count in the 990-range. I teach workshops on rules about point-of-view, presenting it as being the end of the world if these rules are broken. You simply cannot have an entire novel written in the point of view of one character and then switch out of that point of view for one scene only simply because it's convenient for you as a novelist to do this. This flagrant violation of the rules for point of view simply cannot be allowed to be.

Then I took an online writing course last year from writing guru Dennis Foley. He said there is only one rule for writing - one rule only.

Here it is: "Don't bore the reader."

That's it. The only rule, according to Dennis.

So now I'm working on a chapter book and - gasp - I have a 7-page first chapter - and a 7-page second chapter - and then a 5-page third chapter. But I don't think any of them are boring. I think they're all funny and lively. I don't see anything I want to cut from the first two chapters or anything I want to add to the third.

And yet it feels wrong.

Or is it just right?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Boiling Roses

As part of my last round (I hope) of revisions on my Witch Family paper, the blind reviewer for the journal asked if I could "put [Eleanor] Estes in the context of other writers on the moral imagination," in particular, George MacDonald, author of the incredibly beautiful fairy story,
The Princess and the Goblin, among other enduringly popular tales. So that meant that I had to go out and read MacDonald's (apparently) classic essay (which I had never heard of before), "The Fantastic Imagination."

It was wonderful, proving that sometimes work you don't want to do can yield unexpected treats and treasures.

Here is how MacDonald expresses his unwillingness to spell out the meaning of his stories: "I say again, if I cannot draw a horse, I will not write THIS IS A HORSE under what I foolishly meant for one." Don't you love that?

And then he writes, "To ask me to explain, is to say, 'Roses! Boil them, or we won't have them!' My tales may not be roses but I will not boil them."

This made me cringe a bit, remembering books where I now think I underlined "the message" too baldly, labeling my poorly drawn quadraped-ish creature with "THIS IS A HORSE." I think I may have boiled too many of my roses.

New writing resolution: no more labeled horses! No more boiled roses!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Witch Family

I spent Halloween in the most Halloweenish possible way: not dressing up, not giving out candy to trick-or-treaters (I had the candy, but no trick-or-treaters came to collect it - not one!). I spent it working on revisions for the scholarly essay I've written on one of my most favorite ever children's books: The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes. In the book, a little girl named Amy decides to "banquish" Mean Old Wicked Old Witch to a glass hill in punishment for all her past wickedness; she and her best friend, Clarissa, then create a whole witch family to keep Old Witch company - Little Witch Girl arrives first, and then her baby sister, Weeny Witchie. Throughout the book it's hard to tell whether what's happening is "real" or just invented by Amy and Clarissa - or somehow both. So the book is both a wonderful, scary, funny story about witches and also a wonderful tribute to the creative power of imagination. And it all builds to its climax on Halloween, when Little Witch Girl arrives on her broomstick to go trick-or-treating on Amy's streeet and Amy takes her place, disguised in her witch costume, in Little Witch Girl's world.

I used to read the book to Gregory every Halloween - well, in the weeks leading up to Halloween, as it's a full-length novel. Toward the end of the years in which I read it to him, he'd tell me how dumb he thought it was - but still ask me to read it.

So I spent yesterday on final (I hope!) revisions on my essay. The essay focuses on how morality is handled in the story, for the witch world is portrayed as having a moral code diametrically opposed to ours: "The better the witch, from the witch point of view, the worse she is from our point of view." And vice versa. Old Witch is told by Amy that she has to learn "to be good, not good in the way witches enjoy being good - that is in casting spells and eating up little rabbits whenever they have the chance - but good in the way that real regular people ae good - that is in not casting spells and not eating up little rabbits every minute." My paper argues that Estes ends up showing that even witch morality shares certain key features with human morality, with any prescriptive system that can be called morality at all: "Estes's story reveals that even socially constructed morality operates within certain externally given constraints, just as the storyteller's imagination operates within constraints generated by the very nature of story."

I finished the revisions and sent it off. Now I have to wait to see: trick or treat?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Lesson Relearned

In books, a character has her epiphany moment in the last chapter, learns some important truth about the nature of the universe that will help her live her life in a whole new way, and the book ends there.

In life, we keep learning the same lesson over and over and over again.

Here is the lesson I learned for the 500,000th time this morning: I am happier when I write.

Now, I knew this. I like to talk about my "four pillars of happiness," the four corners of the sturdy foundation on which I can build a happy life: writing, reading, walking, friends. A day with those four things in it is a good day. All four are within my control. I need not wait for the approval or kindness of the fates. I can just write, read, walk, and pick up the phone.

And yet I spent most of yesterday, a glorious snow day, depressed as I slogged through extremely frustrating work trying to locate art for my University of Maryland publication (not just FIND art, but find art for which I could obtain permission to publish - there are TONS of images all over the Internet with no publication credits whatsover! - and then I had to figure out how to GET the permission and then actually GET it - but enough of this horror story!).

Why didn't I take just ONE hour of that day, preferably the first hour, and write just one page of my book? I did that this morning, just finished doing it - and oh, the difference it makes! Now I'm ready to climb mountains, swim seas, deal with my car repair woes, tie up the last onerous details on this publication. That's all it took: writing one page.

Lesson to self: You are happier when you write.
Lesson to self: Don't forget this! You are happier when you write.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Yesterday was a series of one terrible thing after another. First, those car repair woes I blogged about yesterday. Staggering under the weight of that suffocating sadness, I turned on my email, thinking maybe the universe would decide that this was the day to send one tidbit of good news to Claudia. And - wait - there in my inbox was an email from the editor of a journal to which I'd sent a children's literature article last spring - I had gotten one reviewer's comments, did a major revision, sent it in - and just enough time had gone by that this email should be the editor sending me my acceptance!! But - no!!!!! It was the editor saying that there had been a "mixup" and I was supposed to have gotten a set of comments from a SECOND reviewer, and he had just found them, and here they were. As in: time to start the revision process all over again. And THEN, when I checked my email later in the day, in desperate search for even the teensiest scrap of something to make my life worth living, there was an email from the University of Maryland, politely inquiring when I was going to FedEx them the proofs for the quarterly publication I'm guest-editing: the proofs that I had already Fed-Exed them last Thursday! And were apparently lost, to be laboriously done all over again, because of course I hadn't made a copy, as Fed-Ex never loses anything.

This was, to quote Judith Viorst, a "no terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day."

But today, inexplicably, everything is better. The car repair place swears up and down that after hours of exhaustive checking (for which they did NOT charge me), they are POSITIVE that my head gasket is not leaking, and the previous appearance of leakage was just caused by "residue" from the earlier repair. The editor of the journal emailed me to assure me that he wasn't expecting a major overhaul of the article, just a tweak or two: I can do tweaks! I verified that my Fed-Ex package had indeed been delivered to the University of Maryland on Friday; the production guy there found it and already make the changes and emailed the new proofs to me.

And it is snowing!!! Ten to eighteen inches forecast, and probably ten on the ground already. Gregory didn't have school; I did, but my classes were all in festive snow-day mode, and the university closed early. All my brownies and Jello from yesterday's attempt at self-comfort are long since eaten - so maybe now some celebratory apple crisp?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Activity Is the Antidote

The news about my car is very bad. That engine check light? The one I hoped was nothing because it DID come on for the first time only after I had failed to screw the gas cap on until it clicked? It isn't nothing. It means the catalytic converter needs to be replaced, a repair that MIGHT cost me $1200 if all goes well, but could cost double that if all doesn't go well - and which scenario do you think is more likely? Oh, and this is the ONE thing that isn't covered by my warranty that was sold to me on the promise that it covers absolutely everything. Moreover, while the mechanics at the Subaru dealer were investigating the engine check light, they also discovered that the head gaskets are leaking oil. Badly. Fixing this problem was the repair that I just had done on the car a couple of weeks ago, at the dealership where I bought the car in the first place, the dealership across the street from the Subaru dealer. Apparently the repair needs to be done over again. And it has to be done by the same shop that screwed it up before, as this repair WAS paid for by the warranty, and the warranty people aren't going to want to pay for it twice. And I don't feel like paying for it, either, as it was another $1000+ repair. But I also have a BAD FEELING about having the repair done over again by the same people that screwed it up the first time.

I am just the teeniest bit crabby! Just the teeniest bit tilting toward hideous, soul-crushing despair!

A couple of years ago I heard a fabulous talk at an SCBWI conference (Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators), by local author Laura Deal. I've never forgotten it. Talking about the vicissitudes of the writing life, she shared her belief that "Activity is the Antidote to Anxiety." Keep writing. Keep submitting. Keep doing SOMETHING.

So last night, overcome with my misery, I graded all the midterms for my little freshman class: done! I finished reading the last of the five books I have to review this month for Children's Literature. This morning I paid bills, did a big wash, caught up on email, made Jello, baked a pan of brownies. Now I'm blogging. Then I'll try to write a page on my chapter.

My car is falling apart; repair bills are staggering; battles with the bad repair place await me. But at least right now I have clean clothes. Midterms all graded. And Jello.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Good at Loving

I'm home from my delicious three days at the feminist philosophy conference at the University of Washington. The conference was stimulating and inspiring, especially a paper by my favorite contemporary philosopher in the English-speaking world, Cheshire Calhoun. Cheshire Calhoun writes on the most interesting possible topics in the sub-area of philosophy known as moral psychology. She has a fabulous essay on forgiveness, called "Changing One's Heart" - and one on integrity, called "Standing for Something." She's written on civility and decency - such wonderful topics! Her paper for this conference was on boredom. Nothing could be less boring than a paper by Cheshire Calhoun on boredom. What does it say about human beings that we have a capacity for boredom? Why does boredom lead to "normative delinqency" (all that bad behavior that we do when we're bored: drinking and eating too much, throwing spitballs at the ceiling)? Why does repetition of a familiar pastime generate boredom rather than contentment? Cheshire had fascinating speculations on all of these.
I love Cheshire Calhoun so much that at one time I was the founder and president of the Cheshire Calhoun fan club. The club had other officers and members, too, so I wasn't the only one. We had meetings, and minutes from the meetings, and we even had letterhead, with the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland on it. I have to admit that we haven't had a meeting in a while. But maybe it's time for another one.
When I was a judge of the National Book Award in 2005, in the category of Young People's Literature, people would sometimes ask me what my qualifications were for the post - and wasn't I nervous being entrusted with the responsibility of conferring such a major award? But all I had to do as a judge was read a few hundred books and find the one I loved best. And I've always been excellent at loving. Loving is one of the things I do best.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Balancing My Checkbook

As part of my massive, get-my-whole-life-in-order preparations for my little three-day trip to the University of Washington, I balanced my checkbook last night.

I love balancing my checkbook. If there is anything that makes me think that my whole life is in order, it is getting out my calculator and figuring out exactly how much money I have in my checking account, right down to the penny.

But the problem is that so often it doesn't balance! I keep such careful records in my checkbook register, and yet almost NEVER does the bank come up with the same amount that I come up with. I go back and double-check the amount of every single check, deposit, ATM withdrawal; I recalculate every addition and subtraction; and the numbers still don't match. I subtract the bank's number from my number (and always, it's the bank's number that's smaller), and the number I get is never some nice round number like $50.00, where I can go back and look for a $50.00 error somewhere. It's always something like $183.47. I try to search some more - but what more can I do other than check every single figure recorded in my checkbook register and every single calculation? So then I give up and write a correction line: CORRECTION $183.47. And I mark it with a frowny face.

This has been going on for months. But then last night, o miracle, the checkbook balanced! My number was the same as the bank's number! This has to mean that every single correction I made for every single one of the last ten months or so was the correct number. It implies a staggeringly huge series of correct calculations, well, at least correct calculations as to the amount of my previously incorrect calculations. I marked this with a VERY big smiley face.

My checkbook is balanced! My life is in order! I can now leave on my trip!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Day Before a Trip

I leave tomorrow for a delicious three days at a feminist philosophy conference at the University of Washington in Seattle, a conference organized to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia. The papers and panels promise to be excellent; the whole conference will be a huge, memorable "happening"; and best of all, I'll be staying with a most-favorite-ever former graduate student and reconnecting with several other most-favorite-ever former graduate students.

But there is so much to do between now and then! For some reason, when I'm about to leave for a trip, I feel that I need to do everything possible before I go to put my affairs in order, clear my desk, leave with a light heart and a clear conscience. This is fairly ridiculous, as I'm only going for three days! And during those three days I probably wouldn't have accomplished all that much even if I had been at home. Everything I'm trying to get done today could wait until I return. There is no reason why it HAS to be done today.

And yet - it would be so lovely to get on the plane tomorrow with the proofs processed and sent back for the University of Maryland publication I'm guest-editing . . . and those recommendation letters in the mail . . . and the cheesecake purchased and in the freezer for Gregory's birthday . . . and another chapter done of my book. Wouldn't it?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Macaroni on the Fridge

I start every day by reading Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, which comes to me over email. You can subscribe to it for free, and I'd recommend it most highly. Each installment comes with a poem, and it's always an accessible, readable poem, not one of those poems where you have no idea what it even means. And then you get a few little tidbits about literary anniversaries, memorable quotes, glimpses into famous and not-so-famous writers' lives.

Today I particularly liked this quote from poet and essayist Robert Pinsky: "Whatever makes a child want to glue macaroni on a paper plate and paint the assemblage and see it on the refrigerator — that has always been strong in me."

Yes! I love how this speaks both to the creative impulse in all of us - the desire to mess around with gluing and painting that macaroni - but also the equally strong desire to share what we have made for the appreciation of others: look at what I made!

Last night my writing group met and I shared the new beginning of the new book, the one that I already knew they would like because I had emailed it to Leslie as soon as I wrote it and she had given me her praise and encouragement. So I could settle in and savor the pleasure of having them like it. One of the best things about our writing group is Marie's laugh. Sometimes I think my only goal as a writer is to make Marie laugh, because Marie's laugh is such a wonderful thing. And last night she did laugh during my chapter, not once but several times.

She loved my glued and painted macaroni. She did!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pondering the Planets

I was thrilled to get this photo of kids at the San Pedro Park Library in San Antonio, Texas, who have been reading my book How Oliver Olson Changed the World and making their own model of the solar system to go with it. In the book, Oliver and his classmate Crystal make a "protest diorama" on behalf of poor ex-planet Pluto. While Pluto doesn't seem to have made it into this solar system model (I count only eight planets there), I've been assured on good authority that the kids did spend time arguing the pros and cons of Pluto's status as a planet - and after all, Oliver and Crystal do end up changing their mind about Pluto before the book is over. I particularly like the bright orange ring around Saturn. Oh, and the TWO copies of my book. And of course, most of all,those smiles.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


So here's the puzzle. In the evening, before I go to sleep, all I can think about is how eager I am to leap out of bed the first thing the next morning, fix myself my Swiss Miss chocolate, and sit down to WRITE! And yet, when the next morning comes, all desire to do this has suddenly disappeared. How can this be?

As so often happens, my beloved Barbara Sher has an explanation. In Live the Life you Love, she calls this "resistance." She says it's in our genes, a holdover from our Cave People days: "If there was one thing Stone Age people didn't like, it was adventures into the unknown." She says we're genetically programmed to stay inside the cave, safe and fat. Resistance gets nervous when we dare to take creative risks, follow our dreams, creep out of the cave toward the light.

But Sher says we can trick resistance. The only thing stronger than fear, Sher says, is love. So our trick has to be to "find the smallest unit" of this thing that we love, "a unit of activity so modest that it doesn't trigger resistance." If you're a runner, this means putting on your running shoes and just walking around the block. If you're a writer, this means reading over what you wrote yesterday and writing just one more sentence. Then, love for this "smallest unit" will "pull you right out of your inertia dream." You'll remember: but wait, I love running! I love writing! And the next thing you know, you'll be three miles into your jog, halfway through a new chapter.

Of course, then you have to do the whole game of cheating resistance the next day, and the day after that. But it does get easier each day, I think. At least a little bit easier.

Writing this blog entry this morning has been my "smallest unit." Now I remember: oh, I do love to write! Now I'm going to go read over that chapter I wrote last week, the one that was a whole new direction on my failed manuscript, and I'm going to think up some hilariously funny things that can happen in chapter two. No, too scary! Okay, I'm going to spend just thirty minutes thinking of anything at all that can happen in chapter two. Sher says that the goal is just to "sit by the side of the lake and dangle your feet in the water for a while." And then, she promises, "At some point that delicious little bit of water around your feet might make you want to swim more than you want to be warm."

Off to dangle....

Thursday, October 15, 2009

One Wonderful Day

There are many kinds of days that can be called wonderful. Here is the kind of wonderful day I had today.

It started off with my finding out, yesterday evening, that the one obligation I had in the middle of the day was cancelled. This was to have been a lovely fun time mentoring an aspiring children's book writer, so a day with that in it would also have been a wonderful day. But sometimes I have found myself thinking that there is nothing in my life that is so much fun that it wouldn't be even more fun to have it cancelled.

So I had a whole entire day to be at home and work, puttering at my desk. I kept my nightgown on until 4:00. During the morning as I worked I ate a Pepperidge Farm apple turnover, hot from the oven, and a glass of milk. During the afternoon as I worked I ate little bowls of the lentil soup I had simmering in the Crockpot, one bowl every couple of hours.

I got so much acomplished! I finished writing the talk I'm going to give next week at a feminist philosophy conference at the University of Washington in Seattle: a talk on what exactly is wrong about parents' favoring one child over another, for a panel on ethical issues in everyday mothering. I even sort of liked the paper when I finished writing it. It had some beautiful little bits in it about the difference between two kinds of love: being loved-for-reasons and being loved-without-reasons. I wrote not one, not two, but THREE recommendation letters for graduate students going out on the job market. I sent off two poems to a campus literary magazine. I sent off a blurb for a talk I'm giving at the Undergraduate Ethics Symposium at DePauw University in Indiana next April, called "Divine Love and Moral Arbitrariness." It's about love, too, God's love this time. I even got into my bed for a while in the afternoon and didn't EXACTLY take a nap but thought about how good it felt to be in a warm bed in a chilly room - and to be there at three in the afternoon.

Parental love, divine love, an apple turnover, lentil soup, and a quasi-nap. What is not to like about such a day?