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.