Monday, August 31, 2009

The Last Hurrah

Tomorrow being September 1, I’m planning to start another New Life, this time focusing on getting my finances under control. I will bring my lunch to work (much healthier, anyway), religiously take the bus instead of drive (much more environmental), rein in impulse purchases.

The problem is that the day before I begin a New Life, I always feel like having a last hurrah of my old bad ways. The day before a New Life focused on healthful eating, I want to eat a whole box of Little Debbie snack cakes. And the day before a New Life focused on fiscal responsibility, I want to make just a FEW last major purchases: a new laptop? A gas insert for my fireplace? A plane ticket somewhere exciting? Which means that I’ll start the New Life that much fatter and deeper in debt.

I’ve always been this way. I remember one family trip years ago, which I billed to the boys and to myself as the last hurrah before another period of belt-tightening and living within a budget. On the trip we were going to buy one last hurrah Beanie Baby – and then no more, ever again! I remember that Gregory would say to me, as we were out sightseeing and shopping, “Is this the day we’re going to get the Hurrah?” Of course we ended up having many more trips and many more Beanie Babies in the years to come, but that particular Beanie Baby acquired the name from us of Last Hurrah.

I guess it could be my name as well.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Don't Envy, Emulate

Envy used to be my besetting sin (well, envy, and anger, and sloth). I even tried to give up envy once for Lent and found that I couldn’t do it. By day three of Lent I had that old knife-in-the-gut stabbing sensation when I contemplated all the manifold blessings of Other People.

But then I had a breakthrough. I started keeping a little list in my list-making notebook of people whose whole lives I truly envied so that I could have a reference point for what it is that I want to achieve in my own life. The people I envied could become my role models, my templates, my guiding stars.

One thing I found when I began keeping the list is that the people who had the most wonderful lives (in my appraisal) weren’t the people with the most money, or the most successful children, or the biggest houses; they were people who most filled their lives with creative joy. I have two writer friends with amazing, enviable lives, and neither one is even published, except in little, non-prestigious, non-lucrative ways. But they write every day and make their writing the center of their days; they write in interesting and beautiful places; they honor their creative efforts and celebrate them.

Wait – I could do that.

I really could.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Ginger Snaps

My signature cookie is ginger snaps, made from a recipe given to me on a little recipe card from a philosophy graduate student when I was in my first year of teaching at CU. They are so soft and comforting, with just the right amount of ginger and cinnamon and molasses.

I baked a double batch last night, enough to take to a church bake sale AND to have for us to eat at home – and they didn’t turn out! Inexplicably, the first batch burned; the second spread and oozed all over the pan; the third batch was tolerable, but all in all the evening was a terrible disappointment.

It’s awful when the universe lets us down FOR NO REASON AT ALL. Same recipe, same oven, same baking pans, same cook, same timer – different (and disastrous) results. I know, some of you are going to say that there has to be some explanation having to do with the laws of chemistry or physics, but last night was proof that those laws do have exceptions.

The same is true for me with my writing. I write all my books with the same process: same pad of white-lined, narrow-ruled paper; same Pilot Razor Point fine-tipped black marker pen; same quality of critique from the same writers in the same writing group; same desire on my part to make the book the best that I possibly can. Yet some books turn out worse than others; luckily, some turn out better. Some get bad reviews, others get starred reviews; some don’t sell through their advance, others sell thousands of copies year after year.

Maybe next time I make ginger snaps the laws of chemistry will decide to work in my favor.

Domestic Bliss

I spent all day yesterday at home, getting caught up at my desk, puttering around the house, and in general getting my entire life in order to launch the new semester, which actually launched on Monday, but now, five days in, I’m finally READY for it to launch.

For me, the best life-launching activity is laundry. I’ll be lying on the couch, utterly paralyzed by all that I have to do, hardly knowing where to begin, and then I’ll remember: laundry!

I love gathering it up, and sorting it, and then putting the first load in. From idea to inception takes less than five minutes, and then all of a sudden, something is actually being accomplished, progress is actually being made. I can even go back to lying on the couch, and STILL progress will continue to be made, all on its own, with no work or worry on my part. But I usually don’t go back to the couch, for now I have momentum, now I can see that it would only take another ten minutes to pay a few bills – and another few minutes to post something on my blog!

When the wash comes out of the dryer (and I know, I need to get a clothesline, and I’m going to), I also love folding it, imposing order on that heap of tangled fabric. Because I have a counting fetish, I tell myself, “Now I’m going to fold ten things.” And I count each one as I fold it. “Now I’m going to fold ten more.” If I’m feeling VERY overwhelmed, I only fold FIVE things, and then another five, and another five. Either way, the job gets done.

Clean clothes! Folded and put away! Maybe I CAN make a go of this life, after all.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Money Woes

Lately it seems that I can’t stop spending money. I half-remembered a wonderful discussion on this very issue in Great Expectations and just located it in Chapter 34.

“My dear Herbert,” Pip tells his friend, “we are getting on badly.”

His friend replies that those words were on his very lips.

“Then, Herbert,” Pip responds, “let us look into our affairs.”

The two aspiring gentlemen sit themselves down and make a sober reckoning of their debts. To bring home the seriousness of their situation, they deliberately over-estimate the amounts owed. Pip calls this “leaving a Margin. For example, supposing Herbert’s debts to be one hundred and sixty-four pounds four-and-twopence, I would say, ‘Leave a margin, and put them down at two hundred. Or, supposing my own to be four times as much, I would leave a margin, and put them down at seven hundred.’”

Alas, this plan sadly backfires: “For, we always ran into new debt immediately, to the full extent of the margin, and sometimes, in the sense of freedom and solvency it imparted, got pretty far on into another margin.”

This is exactly what I have been doing! Pip and me, both!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Remembrance of Things Past

I’ve had my dear friend Kim visiting for the past four days from New Jersey. Kim and I have been friends since West End School in North Plainfield, when she was a private in the third grade army that I commanded as General Mills. Of course we spent a great deal of time over the weekend recalling junior high hijinks and heartbreaks, and I unearthed the memoir I wrote in eighth grade, T Is for Tarzan, which documents all of them.

In one chapter I’m trying to find a boy to go with me to the girls-ask-boys sock hop.

First try: I sent a note to blue-eyed heart throb Bob Senz. He laughed when he read it but made no further reply.

“Leslie!” I screamed, bursting into the room. “My life is ruined!” Everybody in the room looked up in surprise and interest. I gasped out the whole story in a lower voice.
“Oh, Claudia,” Leslie said sympathetically. “Anything but a note. Never write notes.”

Second try: I asked Bob Ohgren, this time in person. I told him, “I have something to ask you, and you know what it is, so just say yes or no.”

He told me he’d let me know eighth period.

“Oh, Bob, you know now, don’t you? What’s there to think over?”
“I’ll let you know eighth period,” he repeated.
Eighth period came and went with no significance. But Wednesday morning in French I was anxious to be finished with my second attempt, for better or worse. I had some more prospects lined up, and if Ohgren refused me I needed time to work on them
“Well?” was all I said as I came up him as we were walking to science and band respectively.
He hesitated, and I continued. “There are three choices: A) You’d die before you’d go with me. B) You’re not going at all for some reason or other. C) You’ll go with me.”
“I don’t think I’m going.”

I can’t believe I wrote all of this down and saved it for forty years! Stay tuned to see the results of attempt number three, when I pursue the “very interesting rumor that no one had asked Jim Burnett.”

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Keep Flexible

For my whole life, I’ve written early in the morning. I loved to get up while the rest of the world was sleeping (such a virtuous feeling) and write in my bed, my mug of hot chocolate beside me. But as I grow older, I have to admit that it’s getting harder. It’s so lovely to luxuriate in the bed, snuggling under the covers as the room is finally cool enough for comfortable sleeping. So I’m exploring the possibility of – gasp! – writing at other times of day than dawn.

In her 1938 classic, If You Want to Write, the inimitable Brenda Ueland is scornful of writers who insist that they can only write at a certain appointed hour. Confessing that she used to be someone who thought she could not “work in the afternoon or evening at all, because I was absolutely certain I would not be bright then,” she dismisses such thoughts briskly: “All fear and conceit.”

As I child I read dozens of times Elizabeth Yates’s beautiful book, Someday You’ll Write, in which she also recommends that writers develop flexibility: “Keep flexible. Use a pencil when you write, and sometimes use a pen. Learn how to use a typewriter; then try composing on it to see if you catch your thoughts more quickly. . . Be able to write anywhere with any kind of equipment. The more you do it, the more adept you will become in creating around you your own area of quiet, and this is all you really need.”

While I’m not yet ready to try writing with a pencil (can it even be done?), and I insist on still writing all my children’s book manuscripts by hand, with my favorite Pilot Razor Point fine-tipped black marker pens, on my favorite white, narrow-ruled pads, I did astonish myself the day before yesterday by writing my daily page AFTER LUNCH. And then yesterday I astonished myself even more by writing my daily page in a busy lounge at a local college while my son Christopher was taking care of some administrative tasks for his fall semester. It was a good page, too.

No more fear and conceit for me!

New Fantasy

New Fantasy

I just heard about a lighthouse on the coast of Washington State where you can stay for a week and pretend to be a lighthouse keeper. No, make that: you can actually be a lighthouse keeper.

At New Dungeness Lighthouse, groups of up to seven people can sign on to be lighthouse keepers for a week. I don’t think the duties include anything to do with tending the light itself, but you give tours to the curious, water the lawn, and raise and lower the flag using proper flag etiquette. (Also, clean the bathrooms, but that isn’t part of the fantasy, so let’s skip that part.) And just live there as the keeper of the light.

I’ve wanted to do this ever since I read The Saturdays, by Elizabeth Enright, which ends with the four Melendy children heading off to spend the summer in their wealthy friend Mrs. Oliphant’s lighthouse. I love the idea of having all that time with nothing to do but write (it won’t take all that long to raise and lower the flag, will it?). As a landlocked Coloradan, I also feel the lure of the faraway sea. But I also want to be a guardian angel for wayfarers, the one who keeps them from dashing themselves upon the rocks, or who at least hollers out to let them know when they’re getting a bit too close for comfort. Which I guess is something writers and poets do as well.

Who wants to come with me?

New Life: Day Two

Of course, it’s not really the new life if you spend all day reveling in birthday emails and birthday Facebook posts, with time off for eating birthday cake. The REAL new life begins today.

But yesterday did have two genuine triumphs in it. I wrote the first page of chapter three of my new book, which was important because I wrote chapters one and two quite a while ago and then didn’t want to proceed any further until I had the blessing of my writing group, which couldn’t happen until I shared the manuscript with them on the auspicious occasion of our annual retreat, which was last weekend. (I could have shared it with them sooner, at one of our regular every-other-Monday-evening meetings, but I’m superstitious about sharing the beginning of a new project only at our retreat.) Would they like it? Yes, they did! Heartened as I was, it was still hard getting back into it. I remember the line I heard once from Madeleine L’Engle: “If you leave your work for one day, it leaves you for two.” And I had left mine for several WEEKS. So: hooray for a good page written yesterday, in anticipation of another good page written today.

Other triumph: for a year now I’ve wished I had a cat door, so Snickers could go in and out without meowing piteously and plaintively (and annoyingly) for us to open the door, close the door, open the door, close the door. Then I had a breakthrough: I could make there be a cat door! I could BUY a cat door and hire a handyman to INSTALL the cat door! And then there would BE a cat door!

And yesterday I did!

Friday, August 21, 2009

The New Life

Today is my birthday. That means that today I begin THE NEW LIFE!

I begin a new life with some frequency. Always on my birthday, of course, and on New Year’s Day, and on the first day of school. Often on the first day of a new month. Sometimes on a Monday. Or just when I simply cannot bear the old life a day longer and need to usher in a new one.

A new life means getting up at five o’clock in the morning to write. It means healthful eating, regular exercise, daily flossing, the reading of classic literature, no more postponing of LTs (Loathsome Tasks), an attitude adjustment regarding difficult people and unpleasant situations. Oh, and driving less, recycling more faithfully, and not using my credit card. Right now I’m going to go put a little sticker on my mine that says DO NOT USE.

How I love a new life!

Ah, but will the new life last, you ask cynically? If it does, why the need for so MANY new lives? No, the new life will not last. No new life ever has – though maybe THIS one will? This time it will?

Still, to the new life I owe whatever I have accomplished in my (whole) life. All the pages I’ve written I’ve written in a new life. The new life is the reason I’m not fatter, poorer, more ignorant, and more irritated and irritating. The planet itself has reason to be grateful for my new life.

Here’s to a new life!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Great Encouragement

Yesterday was Poetry Wednesday for me, and I shared my poem for the day on this blog. My poetry partner, Clara, also emailed her poem to me, a lovely poem filled with powerful dream images.

Sometimes we send each other the tiniest morsel of criticism on our poems, pointing out a line that was confusing, or redundant. Usually we just send each other praise. Praise is so cheering! I think of the wonderful line from the poet John Masefield, which I quote often: “Great art does not proceed from great criticism but from great encouragement.”

Here’s what Clara wrote me about my little poem yesterday: “What I love about Alarm Clock is the progressive move from one sleeper to the next, a sort of moving backward toward eternity instead of the opposite way around. And I love the last question, which continues the ripple back to the unknown source of all awakening. The great old one as Einstein dubbed it.”

Her comments made me feel so wise! So deep! I think Clara’s comments were much better than the poem itself, but then again, she wouldn’t have written them if I hadn’t written the poem first.

Today I’m going to walk around all day whispering to myself, “The unknown source of all awakening.” Isn’t that one of the most beautiful lines you’ve ever heard? “The unknown source of all awakening. . . .”

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Poetry on Wednesday

Every Wednesday, by agreement, I write a poem to send to my poetry buddy, author Clara Gillow Clark, and she writes a poem to send to me. Here's my poem for today, which just happens to be my son Gregory's first day of his senior year of high school.

Alarm Clocks

At 6:30 I will open the door
to the boys’ rooms. “Good morning,
Gregory! Good morning, Christopher!”
For a moment I feel guilty that
I still do this. Don’t they have
cell phones that can be programmed
somehow to beep at the appointed hour?
They’re 17 and 20!

But then again, I’m 54, and I wait
each morning for Snickers to come
meowing piteously around the bed,
switching her tail against my face.

And who wakes Snickers?
The birds beginning to sing
outside the open window?

And who wakes the birds?
Who roused them to be
the heralds of morning?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What If You 'Won the Lottery?

My favorite creativity coach, Cynthia Morris, sent out a little round-up of inspirational tidbits about her life over email today in her post Latest from the Magic Treetop Studio. She talked about the life she would want to have if she won the lottery and concluded that it was pretty much the life she has already.

That set me to thinking about my life. If I could create my ideal dream day, what would it look like? This is an exercise that Barbara Sher recommends in her wonderful book Wishcraft, which my sister and I have practically memorized. You envision your ideal day, in the present tense, starting from when you wake up in the morning until when you go to bed at night, putting in all kinds of delicious details about what you eat, where you eat it – everything! It’s not supposed to be an ideal vacation day, but an ideal day of regular, ordinary life – not a day of getting away from your life, but a day of fully living it.

I used to think my ideal day would involve writing all day long, but then I had a chance to do that when I spent two weeks as a writer-in-residence at Hollins University. There I discovered that even when I had a whole gloriously empty day to write, I actually preferred writing for just an hour or so and then filling the rest of my day with other stimulating activities.

So my ideal day would go like this: I wake up in my sweet little house two blocks from where the Rocky Mountains begin. My cat Snickers is purring next to me. I make myself a cup of Swiss Miss hot chocolate and write for an hour on a new book. Then I head into the university for a day filled with teaching, meetings with students, maybe attend a top-notch talk, have lunch with a smart, interesting graduate student, tea in the afternoon with a friend. In the evening, I reconnect with my boys over dinner and go for a long evening hike on the mountain trails with my friend Rowan; back home again, I curl up with a book and read until I fall asleep.

Wait: that is my life! I need to remind myself more often how much I love the life I already have.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Back from Paradise

Oh, it was bliss to spend a weekend at Lake Dillon with four dear writer friends. All I want to do now is write, write, write! Well, maybe also to read, read, read!

On Friday evening we discussed this year’s Newbery Award winner, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. As I predicted, it ended up scoring in the bottom third of the Newbery Award books we’ve read together over the past seventeen years. Three of us reported that we had found it difficult to force ourselves to continue reading it, but two of us enjoyed its action and adventure. So on that we differed. We also spent time pondering whether it was fair to discount the book because it was so clearly a retelling of Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Why should this be a problem? Don’t authors give us fresh presentations of classic works all the time? Why, in this case, should we have felt tempted to shout at Gaiman, “Write your own blankety-blank book!” We decided (or I think we did – the discussion was lively, and I’m not sure consensus was reached) that part of the problem was that every time we found some problematic element in The Graveyard Book (that whole long extraneous bit with the ghouls), we then realized (well, realized because Marie pointed it out to us) that the scene was there to mirror a similar scene of Kipling’s. That’s when a story moves from inspired homage to slavish imitation.

As we always do, we read aloud the Newbery Acceptance speech, printed each year in the July/August issue of the Horn Book. The speech did have some good lines in it: “You are almost never cool to your children” and “I was, and still am, on the side of books you love.” And of course, how could any children’s book writer not cheer at the line “Children’s fiction is the most important fiction of all”?

But we had a hard time getting past the colossal display of ego in the speech. Breaking with Newbery tradition, Gaiman thanked nobody: not the ALA committee, not his editor, nobody. Rather than congratulating his fellow honorees, named as Newbery Honor Books, he all but sneered at those who had won Newbery Honors, noting that when he received The Phone Call, he thought “Oh, Newbery. Right. Cool. I may be an honor book or something” – but then realized that the committee wouldn’t have sounded so excited if it had only been an honor book. He reported, almost wearily, how often readers approach him to tell him that his books have changed their lives, that they have even had his words tattooed on their bodies “as monuments or memorials to moments that were so important to them that they needed to take them with them everywhere.” When these things happen, Gaiman sighed, “as they have, over and over,” his tendency is to be polite – but to remember that he didn’t write his books for his readers, he wrote them for himself.

Oh, and he commented that he had been surprised to win a Newbery, not because he thought it was such an amazing and important honor of which he was unworthy, but because “I had assumed that awards like the Newbery tend to be used to shine a light onto books that needed help, and . . The Graveyard Book had not needed help.” Thus devaluing all previous winners as pitiful charity cases. Ohh!

To cheer ourselves up, we then read aloud the Caldecott Award acceptance speech by Beth Krommes, for The House in the Night. What a difference! She called the other honorees “my heroes, my role models, and my inspiration.” She thanked everybody under the sun. She shared her creative process and creative journey. She made us proud to be part of the community of those who make and love children’s books.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Off to Retreat

I leave today for what is always one of the most restorative and rejuvenating events of my year: my writing group’s annual retreat up in the Colorado high country, in a house overlooking Lake Dillon.

I have been a member of the same writing group since I moved to Colorado in 1992. Originally there were eight of us (when I joined, I became number eight); now there are five, but the other three remain dear friends who join us at our annual holiday dinner (and one was almost lured back to join us at this year at the retreat). We began as a group of children’s book writers, some published, some unpublished. Over the course of the years, every single member has become published, and we’ve grown from our original focus on children’s books to encompass all kinds of writing: adult mysteries, mainstream women’s fiction, science fiction, juvenile and adult nonfiction, picture books, chapter books, middle-grade novels. In our seventeen years together, we have collectively published over 100 books.

We’ve been going off on retreat together almost as long as we’ve been in our group together. Our retreats have now found a format that we all love and cherish:

Friday night: we discuss the year’s Newbery Award novel (this year, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman). We read aloud the author’s Newbery Acceptance speech from the Horn Book, passing my copy of the Horn Book around the room so that we each can read a page in turn. We then engage in an elaborate ranking exercise, where we compare this year’s winner to all the others we’ve read together to come up with our master list of favorites and duds. The two perennial favorites remain The Giver by Lois Lowry and Holes by Louis Sachar. Will they be toppled this year? (My prediction: no!)

Saturday morning: we luxuriate in a glorious daytime critique session. I usually launch my new book for the year at the retreat and in fact have the first two chapters of a brand-new book, and a book proposal, with me to share tomorrow.

Saturday afternoon : free time! Often we walk (partway) around the lake. One year we rented canoes. This year we might go see Julie and Julia at the local theater.

Saturday evening: we share little tidbits of writing inspiration or read aloud from favorite books. This year we’re going to perform a melodrama written by one of our members, complete with props, costumes, and signs saying HISS and BOO.

Sunday morning: go home, renewed, restored, and ready for another wonderful year of writing together.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Jump Starting a Car

When I woke up this morning, my son Christopher told me that the battery on his car was inexplicably dead. So he and I had to figure out how to jump start it. We had both seen this operation performed by others. But now we had to perform it by ourselves, by our not very clever selves.

I printed out something from the Internet on how to do it, from a website on how to be manly (!). First you hook the RED end of the jumper cable (POSITIVE) to the positive thingie on the battery of the good car. (Let it be noted that the good car in our family is invariably my 1991 Corolla with 190,000 miles on it). Luckily, one side of my battery had a red cover on it: surely that must be the side for the positive thingie. It would outrageously deceptive if they put a red cover on the side of the negative thingie, don’t you think? Then you hook the other RED end of the jumper cable to the positive thingie on the sick and ailing battery of the other car: also in our case identified (we hoped) by the red cover on it. So far, so good. Then put the NEGATIVE end of the jumper cable on the NEGATIVE thingie on the battery of the good car. We could do that. It was the next step that was our undoing. You don’t hook the other negative end of the jumper cable to the other negative thingie, which would make the most sense. No. You have to hook it onto some clean, unpainted, metal surface somewhere on the bad car.

We did it and tried to start up the cars: no luck. Hooked it up to something else, tried again: no luck. Now what? Just accept that sometimes the universe is aligned against us no matter what we do?

Instead I called a friend’s husband and he talked us through the operation one more time. We decided that the bolt we had hooked the final cable to was not indeed a clean, unpainted, metal surface, but a clean, PAINTED, metal surface. We tried hooking it onto a bit of the engine block – and it worked! The car started!

I feel so . . . manly.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


I was procrastinating on writing my blog today when I read Cheryl Richardson’s newsletter on the topic of – yes, procrastination. She is so right when she says that dreading a job takes so much more energy than actually doing it. Read the article: it’s one of her best.

I wasn’t really procrastinating on my blog today – that was my idea for a clever lead-in. What I was really procrastinating on was helping my older son to get organized to take a few classes this fall. We both got into summer drifting mode, and then the whole thing started to seem so daunting. But this morning he and I got up at 6 and left for Denver at 7 and were at the Metro State advising office when it opened at 8. And then, well, it WAS daunting. The lines were long, and we kept on being in the wrong one, and by the end of our morning all we had accomplished was that he took the needed math/English assessment tests to find out where he placed for coursework and we made an appointment with a music department advisor for Thursday morning, which means getting up on Thursday and doing the whole thing over again.

Well, not the WHOLE thing. Even though today felt a little bit like one step forward and two steps back, it really was two steps forward: 1) taking the needed assessment tests; 2) scheduling the correct advising appointment. Maybe even three steps forward if you count finding out that he needed to take the assessment tests in the first place. Does it feel better than waking up every morning with a knot of guilt in my stomach? You bet it does.

Now I’m just procrastinating on reading a dissertation for a defense next week, and reviewing the five books I need to review for Children’s Literature, and making my syllabi for the three courses I’m teaching this fall.

Off to read dissertation chapter one!

Monday, August 10, 2009

To-Do List for Fun

I love to make lists, as you know. I make extremely long and detailed to-do lists – maybe with as many as 120 things on them, everything from “Spend one hour trying to think up a new book idea” to “Pick up prescription” and “Give receipts to Maureen.” Because I also love crossing things off on the lists I so love to make, I usually end up accomplishing just about everything I write down to do, sooner or later.

But life is not all work and no play, so I make sure that on my massive to-do list I also write things like: “Go to the pool with Rowan,” “See Grandpa,” and “Have lunch with Kate.” I want to make my list mania contribute toward filling my life with EVERYTHING that is good and wonderful.

Today I’m going to cross off, “Have fun with M.” M is my mother. We’re going to drive up to Rocky Mountain National Park and have a picnic, probably a simple picnic of peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches, cherries, E.L.Fudge cookies – I didn’t put on my list “Plan and shop for elaborate picnic,” so it’s pretty much going to be materials on hand. But we’ll have a wonderful drive, and a chance to be together sharing the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. Then when I come home, I’ll cross it off my list; this evening I’ll head out on the Bear Canyon trail by my house so I can cross off “Hike with Rowan.” And that will be my perfectly happy and highly successful day.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Doing a Good Job

On Friday, I did a singularly bad job (in my opinion) giving public commentary on a philosophy paper at the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress at CU; yesterday, I did a singularly good job (in everybody’s opinion!) introducing our keynote speaker, Judith Jarvis Thomson, who had been my teacher when I was in college. I still had the notebook from the class I took from her 34 years ago and could share delightful insights into her formidable presence in the classroom, pithy advice on writing our papers, and even mentoring advice about how to balance work and love. The large lecture hall in which I spoke rocked with laughter at my funny lines; some people told me afterward they got tingles up their spines at my poignant lines; Prof. Thomson told me that it was the nicest thing anyone had ever said about her in her life.

Oh, it is so much better to do a good job than a bad job! I want to do a good job all the time! I never want to do a bad job ever again!

There is a danger in this attitude, of course. People who try too hard to protect themselves from ever doing a bad job may fail to take risks that would help them learn and grow. People who never leave their comfort zone will never enlarge their comfort zone. Adages like “Winners lose more than losers lose” remind us that highly successful people have spectacular failures throughout their careers – such failures are almost a precondition of their spectacular achievements. I have taped to my desk at home these lines that I clipped from somewhere decades ago: “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that our aim is too low and we reach it.”

But still. My failure on Friday didn’t come because I took some exciting creative risk. It happened because I took on an assignment at which I was pretty much guaranteed to disappoint myself and everyone else; I took on a project that played to my weaknesses, not to my strengths, and I persisted in it doggedly and joylessly even when it was clear that it was going to turn out exactly as it did. Winners may lose more than losers lose, but they don’t set themselves up to lose.

From now on, I’m going to set myself up to have at least a decent chance to win.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Doing a Bad Job

At the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress (RoME) so far, most of the papers have been terrific, and the assigned commentary following each paper has been even more terrific. One notable exception: mine. Now, I am not falsely modest. I know when I do a wonderful job at something, and I leave the podium (invisibly) hugging myself. Yesterday I left the podium ready to wear a bag over my head for the rest of my life. I was giving comments on a paper that just wasn’t “my kind of paper” – it was extremely dense and theoretical, studded with zillions of long footnotes in teensy-weensy type. In retrospect, I should have contacted the conference organizers and asked them to re-assign me a paper that would be a better match for my talents and proclivities, but I didn’t want to cause them further work and hassle. So I ended up doing a bad job. In public. In front of colleagues, strangers, and friends.

Oh, it’s awful to do a bad job at something. But it happens. What to do now?

First, I’m going to make a never-again resolution. Next year, when I review papers submitted for the conference, I’m going to hand-pick a few I’m eager to comment on and insist on getting one of those. This time I was so concerned to be Miss Nice and Agreeable that I ended up being Miss Unfair to the Poor Philosopher Whose Paper I Commented On.

Second, instead of racing in this morning to hear the first two terrific papers on the program for today, I’m going to stay at home and do some things that make me feel good about myself. I’m going to post on my blog, work for an hour on revisions for a paper of my own, and prepare a first-rate introduction for Judith Jarvis Thomson, my former teacher, whom I’ll be introducing as the keynote speaker this afternoon.

And I’ll take a long walk.

And lick my wounds a bit.

And move on.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Time to Think, Time to Dream

Today and tomorrow and the day after that I’ll be attending the second annual Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress (RoME), hosted by my own University of Colorado Philosophy Department, a splendid conference crammed full of papers and poster sessions and keynote talks by famous moral theorists.

I know in advance from years of conference-going that some papers will be riveting and some deadly dull, both in content and in delivery. I plan on enjoying both. For some reason, I find it very stimulating to sit in a boring talk, letting the speaker’s words wash over me without actually listening to them, as I make notes ostensibly on the talk but really on book ideas, blog ideas, things I’m looking forward to, bits of money I’m expecting, schemes for becoming more famous, lines that may find their way into a poem.

It’s sometimes hard to tell in advance, to I’ll just go to talks that friends and colleagues are attending and see what I get. So from 4-5:15 today, my choices are “The Deep Problem with Voluntaristic Theories of Political Obligation,” “A Defense of the Doctrine of Doing and Allowing,” “The Metaphysics of Axiology and the Welfare of Animals,” and “The Best and Most Irrefutable Ethical Internalism.” Will I spend my time in rapt philosophical attention or in thinking my own pleasant little thoughts, which sometimes straggle forth shyly, in the illusion of safety, while they think I’m listening to something else?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Choosing a College

The purpose of our trip to California was to tour colleges, as Gregory enters his senior year of high school. We visited USC, Claremont McKenna, and UCLA, giving Gregory and his girlfriend, Sierra, the chance to experience three very different college options: large private university, small liberal arts college, and huge state university. All three sounded amazingly wonderful, according to their admissions representatives and student tour guides, offering a dazzling array of opportunities to their fortunate undergraduates, the elite who survive an admissions process in which only 20 percent of applicants are accepted.

Gregory asked me at one point, “How much difference does it really make to your life, which college you attend?”

I thought about that a bit. The answer is very different for each of my careers. For my philosophy career, it has made a great deal of difference. Because I attended Wellesley as an undergraduate, I was taught by Henry Shue, who has had a long and distinguished career in ethics and political philosophy; he ended up giving me my first philosophy-related job, as editor for the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland. Also because I attended Wellesley, I had the rare good fortune to be able to take classes with the incomparably brilliant Judith Jarvis Thomson at MIT; I’m sure that Prof. Thomson’s recommendation letter for me was a crucial factor in securing my admission to graduate study at Princeton. And because I ultimately earned my Ph.D. at Princeton, I was able to enter a highly competitive academic job market and receive a tenure-track offer from a top-ranked philosophy department, at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

In my other career, as a children’s book writer, I’d say that the colleges and universities I attended made no difference at all. None whatsoever. Editors accept manuscripts on the strength of the manuscript alone; a bunch of hifalutin’ degrees can’t turn a mediocre story into a riveting one. I noticed when I worked for Four Winds Press/Scholastic, thirty years ago, that almost none of the highly acclaimed authors we published had educational credentials as impressive as mine. But they wrote wonderful books, books that were better than anything I could write, maybe better than anything I’ve even now written. Some children’s book authors nowadays are enrolling in MFA programs at places like Vermont College and Hollins, and their course of study does help them to hone their craft and make career-enhancing connections. But in the end, it’s the story, and only the story, that counts.

I think the biggest way in which my educational background made a difference to my career is that when I dropped out of graduate school at Princeton, halfway through the Ph.D. program (which I ended up then finishing a dozen years later), Princeton was close enough to NYC that I could commute into the city by bus for my job at Four Winds Press, which is where I launched my life as a children’s book writer. Maybe one should choose the college that offers the most promising location for its dropouts to end up doing something else altogether.

So my answer to Gregory is “It depends.” Or maybe, “I don’t know.”

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

For Love of the Ordinary

We’re home from California now; the whole trip was wonderful, so I don’t know why I posted earlier that I want to be a stay-at-home. I want to travel, travel, travel!

One of the highlights of the trip was our day at the Getty Center, the stunning array of buildings and gardens displaying J. Paul Getty’s equally stunning art collection. And one of the highlights of the collection, for me, was discovering the photography of Jo Ann Callis. For starters, she was a mom who came late to the life of an artist. Maybe that’s what taught her to see the beauty in the humblest objects. I especially loved her black-and-white photographs of a change purse, a deflated balloon, a shoehorn – as well as her downright decadent, even prurient, color photographs of French desserts posed against satin bed covers. I remembered the line from John Updike: “My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me – to give the mundane its beautiful due.”

This is what I try to do in my own work as a children’s book author: to focus careful, loving attention on the small moments of a child’s life. The questions the kids in my books struggle with are small, but hardly unimportant. Is Wilson going to get the ice cream cone promised to third graders who learn all their times tables by the class deadline? Will Oliver be allowed to attend the third-grade space sleepover?

To give the mundane its beautiful due.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Woman with a Mission

I've discovered on this trip to Southern California that sightseeing is more fun if I create some kind of mission for myself. My mission yesterday was to see all the Frank Gehry architectural sites that I could find in Santa Monica and Venice Beach. Part of the fun of the mission is the satisfaction (which appeals only to a certain sort of sensibility) of crossing things off a list. If there's anything I love, it's making a list and then checking things off on it. The other part of the fun of the mission is going places you wouldn't have gone otherwise, which Magellan and Vasco da Gama and Balboa certainly understood.

In my early morning walk down to Venice Beach, while Gregory and Sierra were still sleeping, I found the Venice Beach House, unmarked, at 2509 Ocean Front Walk, appropriately designed to look like a lifeguard stand. Then, once my sleepers were roused and we had set off in the rental car, we drove to the Gehry house at the corner of Washington and 22nd in Santa Monica (my Internet source said Washington and 20th, but the house at 22nd HAD to be it). The final stop was the Chiat Day Building, at 340 Main Street in Venice, the famous one with the big black binoculars in front: also unmarked, and somewhat dilapidated and dreary looking, but hey, I found it. Check! Check! Check!