Saturday, December 31, 2011

Farewell to 2011

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

I always read these lines from Tennyson aloud on New Year's Eve, as I say farewell to the year that was. And I always do a review of the year that was in my trusty little notebook. My reviews are always positive. All I list are my "nice things and accomplishments," not my heartbreaks and failures. Every month as the year progresses, I keep a running list of "nice things and accomplishments," and then I compile my master list for the year in its entirety, in the categories of creative writing, scholarly work and teaching, and personal successes for me and my family.

This year, three things stand out.

First, I wrote my longest and most ambitious novel, still untitled, though right now the working title (for me at least) is No Exceptions: the story of a seventh-grade honor student who brings her mother's lunch to school by mistake, a lunch that has in it a knife for cutting up her mother's apple; she turns it in immediately, but is now facing mandatory expulsion under her school's zero tolerance policies. Writing this book was a great joy for me. It was so long, and all-encompassing, that I wrote on it everywhere. I wrote while lying in bed in my hotel room at the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics conference in Cincinnati - I wrote while sitting in cafes in Santa Fe - I wrote while visiting a wonderful librarian who is also an amazing composer in the charming guestroom of her home in Missouri. Wherever I was, I wrote. This reminded me how much I love writing, especially when I am in the middle of a long, compelling project.

Second, I dealt with the painful and difficult task of readying not one, but two, ruined properties for sale. It took me YEARS to face the fact that I had to do this, and that in order to do it I was going to have to borrow tens of thousands of dollars on top of massive debt I already had - and I was going to have to toil without ceasing for weeks and months - and I was going to have to dwell in the land of heart-rending memories. But face it I did, and do it I did, and both properties sold and are now out of my life. Oh, my darlings: whatever you have to face, just go ahead and face it! Whatever you have to do, just go ahead and do it! You will be so glad and grateful and relieved that you did.

Finally, I had the adventure of moving (temporarily) to Indiana and starting a new life there in a whole new part of the country. I had never before even seen a field of soy beans! I discovered what it is like to teach at a small liberal arts college in a town of 10,000 people where I can walk everywhere (and where "walking everywhere" means walking three or four blocks to get everywhere). I learned how happy I am in a small, compact, manageable little world. Maybe some year hence I'll learn how happy I am in a huge, bustling, overwhelming city. But right now happiness for me is French toast and hot chocolate at the Blue Door Cafe in Greencastle, Indiana - where I'll return tomorrow evening on a 6:59 p.m. flight from Denver to Indianapolis.

So those were the three highlights of my year. I wonder what the three highlights of 2012 will be.

Friday, December 30, 2011


The holiday season is overlaid with special memories for my family. My mother's birthday was Christmas Day. Grandpa's birthday was December 30: today is the day he would have been celebrating his 101st. Both of them left this earth last year: 2010. So the season is filled with sweet memories of these two beloved ones.

The boys and I - with their girlfriends this year - baked my mother's butter cookies earlier in the month. On Christmas Day I served her yeast cinnamon rolls, made from her recipe. I even said to Gregory what she always said: "See, no raisins!" She altered the recipe years ago because Gregory dislikes raisins. So I pointed out to him their continuing absence, in a voice that wobbled a bit with remembered love.

Every year for the past many years we had a wonderful birthday party for Grandpa at his favorite restaurant, Dino's on Colfax in Lakewood. So today four women who loved Grandpa, and who through him came to love each other, are gathering there to have lunch and share stories, as well as updates on our current lives. It used to be that Grandpa was "news central" for all of us: he would tell me about Bonnie's stay at the Trappist monastery, about Billie's knitting class, about Kay's fishing expedition. Now we have to tell each other directly. And so that's what we'll do at 11:30 today, with hearts full of memories of this inimitable man who took such a vivid interest in all of us up until the last days of his long long life.

It is definitely the season for remembering.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

With MORE Love to My Writing Group

Many years ago, a fellow Boulder Montessori preschool mom told me that she was interested in writing children's books. Did I have any advice to give her on how to get published? Yes, I told her. Step one is to find yourself a writing group to critique your manuscripts before you start sending them out. She drew herself up, affronted. "I KNOW how to WRITE," she said icily.

Well, I know how to write, too, and I've been in a writing group for almost my entire career, learning how to write better. Another writer friend of mine, a Newbery medalist and mega-best-selling author, has been in a writing group for all of her career, learning how to write better. Perhaps needless to say, this mom who didn't need a writing group has never been published. And I still continue to meet with my beloved Boulder writing group, grateful for every suggestion that falls from their often-critical lips.

Right now I'm wrestling with what at first seemed two opposing sets of criticisms on my new book/series in progress. One friend loved the particular book manuscript but thought the series concept was "forced" and "weak." Another loved the series concept but thought the particular manuscript I had completed featured an unlikeable main character and was pitched at too high a reading level for the intended audience, with not enough lively action and too much quiet introspection.

At first I felt like shrieking and falling into a helpless faint on the floor.

But then I had tea with Phyllis, and together we figured out how to fix the series concept completely with two small, easy, but wonderful changes. This morning I'm having tea with Leslie to brainstorm how to deal with her worries about the story.

This project is going to be a thousand times better just from these two sets of comments, and I'm still awaiting comments from the rest of the brilliant insightful group.

I DO know how to write. And it's my writing group who taught me how to write. And who continue to teach me.

Monday, December 26, 2011

"A Book that Surprises Me"

In the wake of my ruminations about what to write next, I gave myself the Christmas present of ten sessions with amazing poet, essayist, and creativity coach Molly Fisk. I met Molly several years ago when she was the teacher/leader for the annual poetry-writing retreat I attend every January (coming up soon!). Her radiant creative presence turned me into however much of a poet I am. So I figured a few sessions with Molly couldn't hurt as I fumble toward a new book.

I had my first Molly coaching session over the phone on Christmas Eve morning. I told Molly my dilemma. I told her that I want to write something new, different, and wonderful, but if I write on the top of my note-gathering page, "Wonderful New Book," I find that heading a tad intimidating, in a counter-productive way. She asked me how I'd feel about writing instead, "A book that surprises me." Ooh!

I think that's exactly what I want in my next writing project: to write something that surprises me. Molly is going to work with me on leaving room for surprise in my writing, to open myself to the possibility of surprises in a welcoming, but non-desperate way.

Along these lines, I've just read an essay of Molly's on doing something backwards on purpose: "Whatever it is you always do, don't do it." Wear your watch on the other wrist. Move your desk to face a different wall. Habitual behavior dulls our senses and limits our possibilities. Molly writes, "When you get attached to the way you always do things, you are in big trouble. The universe arranges disasters for people like you." She suggests that we can avert disaster "just by wearing unmatched socks once in a while, mowing the lawn in figure eights, eating lemon meringue pie for breakfast, and taking an occasional overnight flight to Mallorca."

It sounds like a plan!

Friday, December 23, 2011

If You Do What You've Always Done

I spent much of my blissful snow day yesterday thinking about what I want to write next.

I have a dilemma.

On the one hand, I keep hearing in my head the disturbing thought: "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten." I sort of like what I've always gotten - I've had a charmed and very happy writer's life - but of course I would like to have a LEETLE bit more fame and fortune. Actually, what I'd really like is literary immortality, to write a book that children would be reading for generations. Maybe that's too much to ask of the writing gods. But why not dream big on this day-before-the-day-before Christmas?

On the other hand, I keep hearing voices, both disturbing and not disturbing, that incline me in the opposite direction. The disturbing voices of this sort these days talk about "branding": readers want to know what they're getting when they pick up, say, a Claudia Mills book. These voices say: remember "the new Coke" and why it was such an epic flop? The less-disturbing voices here say that we all have our own creative DNA: Jane Austen just isn't going to write War and Peace; Vermeer just isn't going to paint huge canvases of Napoleon's coronation.

And then there's a third group of voices, probably the wisest of all. These voices say that writers aren't supposed to be even thinking about the reception of their work; they're supposed to be thinking of writing the most beautiful, true, and powerful sentences that they can, one after another, and let the world make of those sentences what they will.

But still. I can write (well, try to write) beautiful, true, and powerful sentences about lots of different kinds of things. Right now I'm trying to decide whether to write them about the kind of things I've always written about - realistic school/family stories about middle-class kids struggling with relatively small problems like having to master the times tables - or about something else - something dark and dangerous? or haunting and strange? or - ??

Or - ????

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Let It Snow

Yesterday, on the Winter Solstice, I discovered what my son Gregory assures me that "everybody knows": if you go to Google and type in "let it snow," some pretty delightful things begin to happen on your computer screen. (And then I discovered something else that "everybody knows": fun things also happen if you go to Google and type in "do a barrel roll.")

In any case, no sooner had I Googled "let it snow" than it did indeed begin to snow: such thick heavy flakes that I had to put the car in the garage all covered with snow because it was snowing faster than I could brush it off. This morning there is at least a foot out there, and it's still snowing. The university is closed. My friend Carol and I decided to cancel our breakfast date at Lucile's, rescheduling it for next week.

The sudden joy I felt upon canceling the long-awaited, extremely fun breakfast date made me remember something I realized once years ago: there is nothing in my life that I'm looking forward to so much that I wouldn't prefer having it be canceled.

I wonder why this is, and what it means. Partly it's just that it's such a gift to be delivered an unexpected, unscheduled block of time: Here is this extra hour, here is this extra morning, make of it something magical. Part of it is that I might just be an over-scheduled person, and this is a signal to myself that I should restructure my life so that it has more down time in it, time for what Brenda Ueland (If You Want to Write) calls "moodling."

I still want to go to all the Christmas activities coming up at church, and one more Hanukkah party of the three I'm attending this season, plus the rescheduled Lucile's breakfast (yum!). But right now I'm loving sitting here puttering at my computer (though I am NOT going to spend this gift of a morning doing email!), and listening to laundry thumping around in the dryer - thinking about baking the yeast-rising cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning - thinking about maybe even making some notes for a new book - and just looking out my window watching the snow as it keeps falling.

Monday, December 19, 2011

With Love to My Writing Group

My writing group has its annual holiday dinner tonight. We have been in existence as a group, depending on how you measure its existence, for some nineteen years. The group had been in the process of formation when I attended my first meeting in the fall of 1992, the year I arrived in Colorado to assume my faculty position in the philosophy department at CU. And when I showed up, then we were fully formed: done!

There were eight of us then, including me. Over the years, two left the group (but didn't leave our hearts); another left only to come back again; and a new member, our first new member in eighteen years, joined us a year ago. I have no idea how many books we have collectively published in our almost two decades together. I would guess that it is close to a hundred.

It just occurred to me that my being a thousand miles away from my writing group this past semester might be one explanation for why I've been writing so little, and why what I have written hasn't yet been ready to be published. Duh! Without the expectation of having a chapter to share every two weeks at our every-other-Monday-night meeting, without the encouragement through fallow times, and the brisk, bracing critique of work-in-progress, I haven't been writing at the same level. I just haven't.

But now I've finished a first draft of a new possible chapter book, and I have it to hand out to the group tonight, for them to read at home over the next couple of weeks. Just knowing I had the deadline of the dinner tonight, at six o'clock sharp, with all of seated around the table holding hands, was enough to get me to move heaven and earth to finish it.

Oh, writing group, I love you, and I need you. Merry Christmas, darling writing group.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Home for Christmas

I'm back in Colorado, after my now-favorite 6:45 a.m. Frontier Airlines flight from Indianapolis to Denver, which puts me down on the ground at DIA at 7:30 a.m., with a whole wonderful day-of-being-home-at-last stretching ahead of me to start cramming in some of the mega amounts of holiday cheer awaiting.

Yesterday's holiday cheer: wrapping up and shipping off all of the Christmas presents for my sister and her husband (we send a LOT of presents to each other - most of what is under the tree every year is gifts from Cheryl and Carey) - then hiking with Rowan for two hours on the snowy trails of Boulder's winter wonderland - then the CU philosophy department's "non-holiday non-party" with "fancy" dress code: I wore the sparkly outfit I bought to attend the National Book Awards gala back when I was a judge in the category of Literature for Young People in 2005. It was fun to have an excuse to wear it again.

Today's holiday cheer will include a Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators holiday schmooze and a performance of the Christmas Revels at the downtown Boulder Theater, starring my philosophy department colleague Alastair Norcross and his wife, Diana. Tomorrow: children's pageant at church, open house at the parsonage, and caroling to shut-ins. Monday: breakfast at Lucille's with my colleague Carol and my critique group Christmas party. Tuesday: the first of the THREE Hanukkah parties I'll be attending this week.

But I still did write my page today on my book-in-progress. There is no joy like being in the middle of a book, where the project FINALLY has enough momentum that it practically writes itself. I wrote on the little couch in my upstairs office, with my mug of hot chocolate beside me, and best of all, Snickers purring against my chest. Now maybe I'll write just a bit more on the couch downstairs next to the Christmas tree.

Ding-dong merrily on high!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Where to Write

Maybe my favorite thing in the whole entire world is writing in different wonderful places. They don't have to be VERY different or VERY wonderful. I don't have to write in a cafe in Paris (though that would be lovely) or in a cottage by the sea (ditto). But it's so satisfying to have a day like the one I had yesterday, when I was in mega-writing mode.

I wrote chapter two of my book (these are short chapters) lying on the couch at the Blue Door Cafe, sipping my hot chocolate.

I wrote chapter three of my book lying on the couch by the fireplace in the Prindle Great Hall. One of the major accomplishments of my time at DePauw has been learning how to turn on the fireplace: where the secret key is hidden, and how to insert the secret key into the secret keyhole in just the right way to make the flames burst into brightness.

Where to write chapter four? I thought about this for a bit and decided to write it in an overstuffed armchair by the Christmas tree in the sitting room/lobby of the Inn at DePauw, right next door to my house.

With these three different delicious writing locations, yesterday might have been my best writing day ever.

Today I've already done my Blue Door Cafe writing. Now I'm at the Prindle, but I need to type up two chapters first, as I can't bear to let too much of the typing accumulate. So I'm not sure I'll do any writing by the fire today.

Tomorrow I fly home to Colorado for Christmas. Maybe I'll write on the plane, though even loving flying as I do, I can't say that I especially like writing on those little plastic tray tables. But once back in Boulder, I can try to think of possible options there. Even in my house, there are three lovely possibilities: the small couch in my office upstairs, the couch in the living room by the Christmas tree, or my bed with the wooden bed tray my father made for me many years ago. All good!

All very good indeed.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

From Burned Out to On Fire!

In the last twenty-four hours I have gone from thinking that my new possible book project is terrible, hopeless, boring, and bad to thinking that it is lively, fresh, and pretty terrific. What happened to make me change my mind about it? Here's what happened: I sat down and actually started WRITING IT.

What a difference actual writing makes!

I could hardly get myself out of bed this morning to write on something so unpromising, but I remembered my own blog post of just YESTERDAY about making luck by showing up, so I dragged myself over to the Blue Door Cafe, ordered my hot chocolate with whipped cream (lots of it) and chocolate shavings on top, and I started writing chapter two, following yesterday's lackluster, ho-hum chapter one. All of a sudden I started being funny. And I started having fun. By the time I ordered my French toast, an hour later, I knew that for better or worse, I'm going to finish this book. It may or not be published, or even publishable. The first chapter still is fairly dull. So what? I can go back and fix that later. I've already written chapter three. I think I'll write chapter four this afternoon, perhaps sitting by the Christmas tree at the Inn at DePauw next door to my little house.

Just write, just write, just write. That's all you have to do. Really. IT'S ALL YOU HAVE TO DO. Your Muse is tearing her hair out right now, because she has such wonderful gifts to offer you, but there you sit, a lump on a log, stubbornly doing SOMETHING ELSE when you could be writing. She can't make you write, poor thing. But she can make magical things happen when you finally pick up your pen.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


I read two interesting tidbits of thought about luck yesterday.

The first comes from Edwidge Danticat's very sad novel, The Farming of Bones. As two of the characters are in the process of fleeing from the horrors of an anti-Haitian massacre in the Dominican Republic, they meet up with a fellow refugee, who asks one of them a strange question:

"Do you have good luck?" Wilner asked Yves.
Yves laughed out loud. "Why do you want to know?" he asked.
"I like to know what kind of luck a man has had before I start on a journey with him," Wilner replied.

The second comes from a New York Times essay on Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who has won a sudden string of games despite not being particularly good at most of the central skills of quarterbacking. What he IS good at is getting his teammates to believe that they can win. Frank Bruni writes:

Some people have what can be described only as a gift for winning. . . .This gift usually involves hope, confidence, and a special composure, all of which keep a person in the game long enough, with enough energy and stability, so that a fickle entity known as luck might break his or her way.

This made me ask myself whether I am a lucky person. I think I am. When Lori asked me, on the way to the airport on Sunday, if I had checked the status of my flight, at first the question surprised me. No, I hadn't checked. I knew it would be on time. I fly constantly, at least once a month, and my flights are always on time. (Well, except when they aren't.) In the same way, I'm never sick (except when I am.) I've had a fairly charmed writing career, publishing 45 children's books in the course of some 30 years.

But lately I've felt a tad discouraged about my career. My most recent books haven't gotten many reviews - the reviews they got were lovely, but there were so few of them. Am I being ignored, as a new young generation of authors arrives on the scene? And I haven't even been writing much since I arrived at DePauw. Am I burned out? Washed up? Or whatever fiery or watery metaphor you want to employ?

Well, I'd better not be! Because that Frank Bruni quotation reminded me, that if 90 percent of success is showing up, so is 90 percent of luck. He practically defined success as just hanging in there long enough for luck to kick in.

So, hang in there, my lucky darlings. And here, of course, I'm talking both to you, and to myself.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Reconnecting with the Past

I'm back from my whirlwind trip this past weekend to Maryland to attend the party to honor Carroll Linkins, who just retired after serving for thirty years as the secretary and "den mother" for the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland.

"What brings you back here?" several people asked me at the party, knowing that I had moved twenty years ago to Colorado, and maybe also knowing that I'm now living in Indiana. They thought that I must have had a business trip of some kind to the Washington, D.C., area that coincided fortunately with the date of Carroll's celebration, which doubled as an Institute reunion.

"This party!" I told them. "This is why I came back: to go to the party!"

It was so wonderful to be there, seeing the people I had worked with in my decade as the Institute's editor and staff writer, from 1980-1990. We all exclaimed over how much we all looked just the same. But then we looked at the pictures in the Institute's treasured photo albums - pictures of Christmas parties, summer picnics, wedding showers, baby showers. Oh, we were young then, impossibly young. It was almost heartbreaking to see how young we were, especially for those of us who were pictured with people to whom we are no longer married, or holding babies who grew up to have sorrows of their own. And we took so many more photos that night, too, to be the final chapter in our time together, for we knew that this was the last time we would ever be together in this way. Carroll was the last person left at the Institute. The Institute itself, at least as a part of the University of Maryland, is no more.

On the plane home, I was reading The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat. She writes, "Father Romain always made much of our being from the same place, just as Sebastien did. Most people here did. It was a way of being joined to your old life through the presence of another person."

That's how I felt on Saturday night: joined to my old life through the presence of all these beloved people, and so joined more to my self. I felt more truly me, more truly who I am. Faulkner is often quoted as saying, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." It wasn't past for me this weekend, and yet it was - both eternally present and irrevocably vanished.

I'm so glad I flew a thousand miles to go to that one party. Why was I there? Because it was where I once belonged, and still belong, and will always belong.

Friday, December 9, 2011

One More Party

Before I throw myself into the frenzy of finals week, I have one last party to attend. Tomorrow morning I'm getting on a 6:30 a.m. flight to the Baltimore-Washington Airport to spend the day with two dear women friends. That evening I'll attend the retirement party of the woman who served for thirty years as the secretary for the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, where I worked as an editor/staff writer/director of publications for a decade (roughly the 1980s). Sunday morning I'll fly back to Indiana.

It was such an intensely young time of my life when I worked there, of all of our lives, and we were so intensely close with one another. One week I remember having dinner six nights in a row with Center people (back then, we were the Center for Philosophy and Public Policy; the promotion to "institute" occurred later). Many people came to the Center after having failed somewhere else: being denied tenure, or reappointment, or dropping out of a Ph.D. program (me). Every single person went on to have not only a good, but a brilliant career, publishing important books and changing the face of the field of applied ethics. And we also transformed our personal lives, as well. When we started there, we were all (or almost all) single (and if married, living apart from one's spouse in a commuter arrangement). We watched each other date, marry (David and Judy even married each other), and have children, children who are now well into their 20s and launching their own careers.

One by one, we all left the Institute for jobs elsewhere. Finally, the Institute itself left: it moved from the University of Maryland to George Mason University this past year. The only person left, the last "man" standing, was our beloved secretary, Carroll Linkins, who retires this month.

So this is the point of the party: to have a reunion of the Institute family, as we celebrate Carroll's service to the Institute for thirty years. And maybe in the room there will be the ghosts of our much younger selves, looking for love, for professional success, trying to make a difference in the world of philosophy, and in the world in which we all have to try to live together.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Finals Week Is Coming

Today was the final meeting of my Rousseau class. We toasted our now-beloved (I hope!) Jean-Jacques Rousseau by holding class at my little house, just steps away from the campus, where we discussed the final five "Walks" in his beautiful late-life collection of essays, Reveries of the Solitary Walker, as well as eating food mentioned in some of his books (crusty baguettes, creamy French cheeses, grapes presumably gathered during the grape harvest at Clarens in his novel Julie, and cherry turnovers to commemorate the cherry-picking idyll in The Confessions). We also played my favorite Rousseau-themed game: I taped names of various Rousseau characters to students' backs, and they had to guess who they were by asking yes/no questions of the others in the class. Some of these were very tricky, especially "Monsieur Dudding," which was the alias Rousseau assumed when he decided to pretend he was an Englishman on one of his travels.

So now finals week is practically upon us. Everywhere is evidence of serious study about to begin. Gobin United Methodist Church has a midnight breakfast for late-night studiers; the Blue Door Cafe has a special menu of "study snacks"; the Prindle has extended hours, and I believe that milk and cookies will be available.

I've decided that I'm going to play the role of bad student trying to salvage the semester. Readers of this blog know that I've spent my semester at DePauw having tons and tons of fun, and being (if I may say so) a wonderful citizen of the university and community, but getting very little work of my own done. I have been a party girl, and now it's time to become a grind.

I think I'm going to throw myself into my own finals week, trying to get done some of the projects I've neglected all term. I can fuel myself with the Gobin breakfast, the special Blue Door snacks, and the abundant milk and cookies on offer all over the campus. This will not help with the weight issues I've been writing about. But it may well help with the work issues. And, heck, finals week is not the week to think about losing weight, right?

Milk and cookies, here I come!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Meaning of Life

Today was the last meeting of the year for the Prindle Institute student interns; we gathered together to discuss a short essay on the meaning of life that drew heavily on philosopher Susan Wolf's latest book, Meaning in Life and Why It Matters. The claim by Susan Wolf that we were discussing was that a life that is meaningful requires both subjective attraction (you find something that you really care about) and objective attractiveness (you care about something that is indeed worth caring about). A life is less meaningful if one of these two conditions is unmet. You might devote your life to something that is clearly worth doing, such as feeding the hungry, but just not happen to be that "into" it yourself. Or you might devote yourself to a true passion, but a passion for something pointless, like playing tiddly-winks.

The student interns were asking what makes an activity pointless. It seems that we have some fairly obvious examples. A passion for shopping at the local mall seems not to be an objectively worthwhile activity. Another one that was mentioned was counting all the tiles in every ceiling. But the more we thought about it, the harder it was to come up with any reasoned way of drawing the meaningful/not meaningful line.

Rousseau spent his last years obsessed with botany. He writes, "I was determined not to leave a blade of grass without analyzing it." Is this pointless, to try to observe every blade of grass? Someone in our discussion suggested that it would be pointless to try to COUNT every blade of grass. Maybe. But what if while you counted it, you let yourself LOVE it? Is God wasting His time by numbering every beloved hair on our heads? I thought of the artist in the Denver Art Museum who paints exquisitely detailed close-up paintings of different clumps of grasses. Why not spend a lifetime observing blades of grass?

What makes this different from shopping? Maybe it's that we feel that the shopper doesn't really LOVE each item in each store in this kind of intense, attentive way. Or maybe we feel that the shopper could love shopping only if she were conditioned to do so by a consumerist culture. Or - ?? It does seem to me that all those blades of grass and hairs on our heads are worth loving in a way that all those i-pods and i-phones are not.

We didn't settle the question of the meaning of life this afternoon. I have Susan Wolf's book on my shelf in my Prindle office right now, waiting to be read, and maybe she'll settle it for me. But it was a good conversation on a gray December afternoon, by the fireplace.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

December Saturday in Greencastle

This is the first weekend in almost two months when I haven't been either away (Milwaukee, Chicago, two different trips back to Colorado) or entertaining house guests, with all the busy fun that involves. It's my weekend to do whatever I want to do all by myself all day long.

So yesterday I did laundry (long overdue), had breakfast at the Blue Door Cafe (veggie omelet for a change from French toast), and then went to a wonderful cookie sale at the Gobin Methodist church on the edge of campus: you pay for a decorated cookie tin (more of a coffee canister) and don a plastic glove and then wander past tray after tray of decorated cookies of every conceivable kind, making your selections.

After that I went to the Putnam County public library, two blocks from my house (about halfway between my house and the Blue Door) and read for my China conference paper, which is going to focus on the Henry Huggins and Ramona books of Beverly Cleary. I sat in the children's room and skim-read three Henry's in the morning and two Ramona's in the afternoon, after corn chowder at the Blue Door and a few of my cookie-sale cookies back at home for dessert. I could have checked out the books and read them at home; reading them there at the library made me feel like Betsy Ray off to Deep Valley's Carnegie Library (this is a Carnegie Library, too), to read all day in Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown.

After that I met with two students to help them with their Rousseau papers, and then had dinner with another first-year faculty member, Rachel from Conflict Studies: we both love "sides" rather than meals, so that's what we had. And then we went together to an incredible gospel service by the DePauw gospel choir, held at the beautifully decorated Gobin church. "This is not a concert," the young woman who welcomed us announced. "This is a praise and worship service! Prepare to get up on your feet and praise His holy name!" And wow, it was indeed impossible to sit still and remain unmoved by the music that followed and the passionate intensity with which it was offered.

And then I came home and put on my nightgown by 8 p.m. and read Janet Lambert's 1941 teen novel, Star-Spangled Summer: she was born and raised in Crawfordsville, Indiana, just north of here, and as you know, I now love all things connected in any way with my new state.

So that was my sweet December Saturday in Greencastle.

Friday, December 2, 2011

December Is Here

And this means that my new life for December has begun.

I'm loving seeing my beloved Greencastle decorated for the holidays. There are colored lights strung from the courthouse across the downtown courthouse square, and lights are twinkling on the Christmas tree in the Inn at DePauw next door to my little house, and there is a tiny tree (with appropriately chosen blue ornaments and blue garlands) perched on a small table at the Blue Door Cafe. This weekend I'm attending a Christmas gospel choir concert, and another Christmassy concert, both at Gobin United Methodist church, right on campus. I think I'm going to have a gingerbread-flavored steamer at the Blue Door this afternoon.

My work projects for the month include finishing up the semester in a blaze of glory - helping my Rousseau class students with their final papers and hosting a lovely Rousseau-themed party for them - and laying the groundwork for my Winter Term course on children's book writing and my spring course on feminism and the family, as well as my spring reading group on the philosophy of Cheshire Calhoun.

Most fun will be thinking what paper I'll be presenting at the symposium on "The Image of the Child in Chinese and American Children's Literature" that I've been invited to attend next June at Ocean University in Quingdao, CHINA!!! The abstract is due December 15, so I'm going to spend this weekend curled up planning out ideas.

And I do have to start writing a new children's book, I do, I do!! I have to take the only idea I have right now and just start WRITING IT.

Maybe while sipping a gingerbread-flavored steamer at the Blue Door Cafe?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Lovely Last Day of November

I said farewell to November with a near-perfect Greencastle day.

For starters, the sun came out, after seemingly endless days of rain and gloom. (To be fair to Indiana weather, apparently it was beautiful while I was away in Colorado for Thanksgiving.)

Before breakfast I faced a task I should have faced weeks ago: reading through a bunch of essays by the philosopher Cheshire Calhoun to choose which three I want to feature in the Cheshire Calhoun reading group I'm organizing at the Prindle next semester. Why on earth I put this off, I have no idea. The entire task involved reading and rereading exquisite essays by my favorite living philosopher: "Changing One's Heart" (on forgiveness), "Standing for Something" (on integrity), "The Virtue of Civility,""What Good Is Commitment?" and "Common Decency." What task could be more pleasant? But for some reason it stressed me to face it - how could I pick only three of the essays? Which three? But today I did it and chose the ones on forgiveness, civility, and commitment. Done!

I gave three talks to the three second grade classes at Ridpath Elementary just blocks from my house. I discovered last month that my Gus and Grandpa and the Two-Wheeled Bike is a selection in the Harcourt Story Town reader used in the Greencastle schools. I had known I was in some Harcourt textbook because a Harcourt photographer came to my house in Boulder years ago and spent hours on a very hot summer day photographing me standing next to a bicycle in my garage. But I had never actually seen the final product. It was so much fun to come to Ridpath as a Gus and Grandpa celebrity.

I spent a mellow afternoon at the Prindle Institute puttering at my desk and going to a delightful staff meeting. How many people have jobs where the staff meetings are a treat? I do!

I took myself to dinner at the Swizzle Stick bar downtown, admiring Christmas decorations as I walked there: a glass of Merlot and six potstickers, while I read a chapter of Patchen Markell's Bound by Recognition for the final meeting of its reading group on Friday. (See the degree to which I have now renounced procrastination, reading this a full two days ahead.)

Finally, I attended a gorgeous chamber music concert - Beethoven, Handel, Mozart, Mendelssohn - that featured one of my wonderful Rousseau class students on violin.

It would be hard to find a more satisfying way of bidding adieu to November.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Late Derrida

One of the five reading groups I'm in this semester at the Prindle Institute is a reading group on the late-life writings of French philosopher Jacques Derrida. It concluded with a festive fifth meeting yesterday evening.

My philosophical education in a department devoted to what is called "analytic" philosophy taught me to despise what is called "continental philosophy" - indeed, to despise it without ever having deigned to read it. Without ever reading it, I knew it to be unreadable. Jacques Derrida is a leading figure of contemporary continental philosophy. He is widely read by scholars in English departments - not by scholars in Anglo-American philosophy departments. But when I was asked by a DePauw colleague in the English department here to join the Derrida reading group he was organizing, I happily agreed. After all, I'm committed to saying yes to everything I'm asked to do at DePauw so that they will all love me and think I'm the best visiting professor ever. And I did think it was strange for an entire CONTINENT of philosophy to be dismissed so contemptuously.

Well, I have to say that the Derrida reading group did not convert me to the philosophy of Derrida. I did not take pleasure in reading sentences such as this one, from The Animal That Therefore I Am: "Would an ethics like that Levinas attempts be sufficient to recall the subject to its being-subject, to its being-host or -hostage, that is to say, to its being-subjected-to-the-other, to the Wholly Other or to every single other?" (In fairness, I could quote equally awful sentences from analytic philosophers, though they would feature a lot of math-y looking stuff.)

That said, I'm glad I was part of the reading group. While I didn't much like trying to read Derrida, I liked hearing smart people say interesting things about it.

I must confess that last night I hadn't actually gotten around to doing the reading for the evening. It would have taken me hours to force myself through it, hours that I decided would be better spent on other tasks on my to-do list. I almost didn't go because I didn't want to be "the bad student" who comes to class unprepared. But I did go, out of loyalty to the group, and I learned a lot from the conversation (and even got quite a bit of the reading done as we all stared down at these daunting pages together). I even managed to make one semi-interesting comment about Derrida myself!

So I guess the lessons I would distill for myself from this experience have to do with being willing to try something new, even if I don't decide to throw myself into it wholeheartedly. I would probably have gotten more out of the Derrida group if I had labored mightily on those dense and impenetrable chapters. But that "more" wouldn't have been worth the many many hours necessary to do it. I invested a little bit of time in the Derrida project and reaped a little bit of benefit, including getting to know some extremely bright colleagues in other departments around campus. That feels like a decent enough return for several evenings sitting by the Prindle Institute fireplace sipping good wine and eating lovely fruit and cheese.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Terrible Trivium

Every month I get sent five books to review for the online review site Children's Literature. The box arrives, I open it, I read whatever is in it, and then I write 150-250 words about each title. The most fun, of course, is opening the box. I hope it won't contain the second very long volume of some young adult fantasy trilogy; I hope it will contain fresh, funny chapter books. But I don't like to make too many specific requests of the team who send the books out to the reviewers. For one, it would make a difficult job even more difficult for them. But mainly it just seems unsporting.

This month the box had in it four picture books as well as the fiftieth anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I haven't read The Phantom Tollbooth since Mrs. Orenstein read it aloud to us in fifth grade. Back then I hadn't liked it all that much. Certainly not as much I had loved Johnny Tremain, which Mrs. Robertson read aloud to us in fourth grade, and which remains one of my all-time favorite books. Norton Juster's humor was so self-conscious; you could tell how funny he thought he was being. All right, it WAS sort of like Louis Carroll's humor, but I had never been a huge Alice fan, either, not the way I was a fan of Anne of Green Gables and A Little Princess.

But reading it this past week to submit my review, I found that the book started to grow on me. As I read the wonderful tributes to it included in this anniversary edition - by luminaries such as Maurice Sendak, Jeanne Birdsall, and Maria Nikolajeva - I began to feel ashamed that I hadn't loved it the first time around. The story of a world in which rhyme and reason have been banished does feel awfully timely, I must say.

My favorite bit on this reading, the one that most spoke to me, is Milo's encounter with "the Terrible Trivium," who occupies all his own time - and everybody else's as well - with endless pointless tasks. "What could be more important than doing unimportant things?" he asks. "If you stop to do enough of them, you'll never get to where you're going."

He continues, "If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you'll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won't have the time. For there's always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing."


I confess that my life lately has been ruled by the Terrible Trivium. When I try to think of what I've been doing for the last few months instead of writing, it's hard for me to come up with an answer. I do know that every single day has been very very busy, filled to bursting with - well, with whatever it is I've been doing instead of what I really should be doing.

Thank you, Norton Juster, for pointing this out! And congratulations on the fiftieth anniversary of this now-classic book.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Specificity of Gratitude

Today is the special day set apart for expressing our gratitude. One of my Facebook friends does this every day, posting a wonderfully detailed and specific list of five small, or not-so-small, things that she is grateful for. I think gratitude is most powerful when it's specific. Not: "I'm grateful for my family, my friends, my work, my health, and my cat." But more like this:

1. I'm grateful for the fact that when I woke up this morning the house already smelled like Thanksgiving, from the lingering aroma of the pumpkin pie that I baked yesterday.

2. I'm grateful that I baked the pie from the same recipe on the Libby canned pumpkin label that my mother used every year, leaving out the cloves the same way that she left out the cloves because our family doesn't like our pumpkin pie too spicy.

3. I'm grateful that Christopher put the pie in the oven for me because I had terrible sloshy visions of its ending up all over the floor, and his steady hands took care of it for me.

4. I'm grateful that Gregory came over from his apartment as the pie was baking and right away saw that the smoke detector in the hall was hanging open, missing its battery, and in five minutes he had a new battery installed.

5. I'm grateful that the crimped pie crust, which turned alarmingly brown after the first fifteen minutes of baking at 425 degrees, did NOT get any browner during the remainder of the baking time because of the protective strips of tin foil that Christopher helped me place around it.

So that is my list on this Thanksgiving morning.

A lot of you know that I have a strange family. We've been badly broken because some of our members have been badly broken. I've been badly broken myself. I love the line Chris Cleave gives his heroine in his novel Incendiary: "I am a woman built on the wreckage of myself." I think I have a family built on the wreckage of itself.

But despite that, we're still a family. Maybe even, because of that, especially a family.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thankgiving Week

This is the week for Americans to come together to be thankful. I'll teach my Rousseau class on Tuesday morning, give three talks at a Greencastle primary school on Tuesday afternoon, have dinner with my friend Deepa on Tuesday evening, and then fly home very early Wednesday morning. I've emailed Christopher the grocery shopping list so that I can leap into feast-preparation as soon as I hit Boulder.

Right now I'm sitting at the computer at my beautiful, peaceful office out at the Prindle Institute, looking out my window at a light November rain. Everything is so green here even as winter is approaching.

I have been invited to stay on for a second year at the Prindle, and I've accepted. This will NOT turn into a permanent appointment at DePauw: the Prindle has visiting lines only, and the Philosophy Department is already well stocked with brilliant people in my sub-area. But I'm so glad at the thought of another year here.

I'm going to get to teach children's literature in the English department in the fall! This is a lifelong dream of mine that will now come true. And I'm going to be organizing a major conference on Ethics and Children's Literature, also for fall 2012, which I can start planning now. I can continue building relationships with Greencastle public schools. I can find more covered bridges: indeed, yesterday, out for a Sunday drive around Putnam County country roads with a friend, I came upon the Cornstalk Bridge, one more for my list.

So this is a lot to be grateful for as I head home for Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Too Much Fun

I have decided that I have a strange problem in my life right now: I am having too much fun.

This is not a problem I expected to have during my year at DePauw. I expected that I would be having long days to do nothing but read, write, think, and grow as a children's book author and philosopher. What could there be to do at this small liberal arts college, where I'm teaching, yes, ONE COURSE a semester, to distract me from serious intellectual and creative toil? I envisioned leisurely hours out at the peaceful Prindle Institute where I would scribble/type away on philosophical articles, children's literature articles, children's books, and my brilliant memoir.

This hasn't happened.

Instead, every hour seems to be filled with the intense activities of this extraordinarily alive academic community. I am in five reading groups (one of which I'm leading). The Prindle Institute for Ethics alone has several events every week (there are even two competing events tonight). So far this week, I've attended a screening of the documentary Dark Days, about a community of the homeless living under the Amtrak tracks in New York City, a talk given by a Fulbright scholar who founded an NGO in El Salvador, and the meeting for my reading group on the ethics of life writing; tonight is a poetry reading by a Salvadoran poet; tomorrow is a talk on "Demystifying Cuba" as well as a reading group on Bound by Recognition by Patchen Markell. I'm getting involved as a speaker and writer-in-residence at Greencastle's three elementary schools. Bill Clinton is speaking on campus on Friday. I have tickets for La Boheme at Indiana University in Bloomington on Saturday. The theater department is staging Hedda Gabler this weekend, too.

All I do is have fun! And part of my job just IS to have fun. Part of what is required for there to be a thriving academic community is for faculty to support events by their attendance. Outreach to the community is part of my job, too. Can I help it if so many of my professional duties happen to be pleasurable?

But still. I can't sustain this pace indefinitely. Sooner or later I need to focus my thoughts on my next book, or on a major article, or something I can write down on my monthly list of accomplishments.

Right now, my main accomplishment for November is "I had fun." I did write one important book review and one short article; I did give a talk at Arts Fest here on campus and organize another Arts Fest event; and I did conclude my ethics-of-life writing reading group. And I taught my Rousseau class. But I mainly had fun. And that is good for a while. It's hard to argue with the claim that fun is good. So I'll have fun for a little while longer. But then I'm going to buckle down.

Really. I am.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

My Kind of Town

Chicago is!

Highlights of a wonderful weekend:
1) The kind and helpful concierge at the Palmer House Hotel, who really did seem to care about every detail of the happy days we were planning - "Come back and tell me how it went!"
2) The Chicago Architectural Foundation river tour: 90 minutes crammed full, every single second, of an incredibly fascinating lecture on some fifty buildings we were passing. It was VERY cold sitting on the upper deck of the boat, but I wasn't willing to slip downstairs for a warming break as I didn't want to miss a syllable or a glimpse of a single skyscraper's soaring spires. Best part: the very end, where we looked back at the array of famous building before us and reviewed all that we had learned: yes, there was a Beaux Arts building, and an Art Deco building, and a Mies Van der Rohe International style, and a postmodern contextualist building...
3) A pilgrimage to Hull House to pay homage to the community of brilliant, creative, politically engaged women mobilized by Jane Addams to improve the lives of Chicago's immigrant poor - incredibly moving and inspirational.
4) Drinks at the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Tower with sweeping views of Lake Michigan at sunset.
5) A theater production of a play about the Great Chicago Fire, performed by the Looking Glass Theater Company, which has its stage right in the old pumping station that was one of the only two public structures to survive the Great Chicago Fire.
6) The Tiffany dome at the Chicago Cultural Center, once the public library, and so filled with quotes about the importance of books and reading in many languages from luminaries through the centuries.
7) Millennium Park in the Saturday sunshine, where we joined the throngs of tourists taking the mandatory photo in the reflective surfaces of "the Bean."
8) Hours and hours at the Chicago Art Institute, especially the miniature Thorne Rooms with their incredible detail - I joined and now have a two-year membership, which I hope will motivate me to take many trips back!
9) Hours and hours and hours and hours talking with Robin!

Now I'm home, happy to be back in my sweet little Greencastle, even as I can close my eyes and see CHICAGO.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

City of the Big Shoulders

After I teach my Rousseau class tomorrow, I'm off for a long weekend in Chicago, visiting with my beloved friend Robin, a friend since my days of working at the University of Maryland almost thirty years ago. She's flying in from Maryland, and I'm driving to Indianapolis and taking the bus from there to Chicago (three hours and fifteen minutes each way), because I decided that a little Greencastle mouse wasn't going to be able to handle driving in such a great big city, a city "so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning."

Robin and I haven't made any plans yet except that we're staying in the grand old Palmer House Hotel. And we want to go to the Art Institute. And maybe do an architecture tour of some kind. And talk and talk and talk. I think maybe I'd also like to eat a cupcake. I read once in an inflight magazine that Chicago is known for its cupcakes.

That's it. We can figure out the rest as we go. For now, it's just teach (Emile, Book Three), and then get in the car and start driving, and get on the bus and start riding, and meet up with Robin and start hugging and talking. And find a cupcake and start eating it.

"Taking Emotion out of the Equation"

After my last post on chubbiness ("Something Else"), fellow author Brenda Ferber posted in reply that her solution to worrying about her weight has been to adopt a whole new way of eating, "taking emotion out of the equation," and simply listening to her body and eating when she was hungry and not eating when she wasn't hungry. When I replied, with an anguished wail, that I don't eat gumdrops because I'm HUNGRY but because I LOVE them, she wrote back, "So eat them. Eat one or two. The whole bag doesn't taste any different from the first one or two and eating the whole bag just makes you miserable." (I'm paraphrasing here, but that is basically what she said.)

Hmmm. This is definitely something to think about.

Brenda's advice made me remember my college days. I was an undergraduate at a women's college, Wellesley, and we ALL ate out of emotion ALL the time. Sometimes there would be ice cream for dessert at dinner, and you never saw such a frenzy. First there would be screams and shrieks of uncontrolled delight. Then there would be a mad rush over to the ice cream table, with lots of pushing and shoving. We would grab enormous soup bowls and cram them full of multiple scoops of ice cream and eat the whole entire bowl before eating anything else. This, although there was plenty for everybody and actually ice cream night was quite a frequent occurrence.

Then I went to Princeton for grad school, living in the Graduate College. Princeton at that time was almost all men. We had our first ice cream night at dinner. I screamed and shrieked and ran over to the ice cream table. Then I looked around. I was all alone. The men were just sitting there eating their dinner as if - as if there was plenty of ice cream for everyone and ice cream night was quite a frequent occurrence!

So I have now spent two days eating the Brenda Ferber way. It isn't quite a fair test yet - is two days ever a fair test of anything? - because I had my strep episode on day one. But still I have to admit that the results so far are intriguing. I have a bag of my MOST favorite candy EVER, Hershey cherry cordial kisses, and I've been having two or three a couple of times during the day, fully savoring each one. Last night, at my Prindle reading group, I surveyed the snacks I had put out - fancy cheeses, crackers, Pepperidge Farm cookies, wine, lemonade, water - and I asked myself, "What do you really WANT to eat? Because you can eat anything at all that you want, you know." I decided that I wanted a couple of crackers with cheese, and two orange Milanos, and a small glass of wine, and a larger glass of water. And that was what I ate.

I think I'm going to keep on trying this new plan, Miss Brenda!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


I'm never sick, so when I awoke yesterday with a terrible sore throat and lay freezing cold beneath a heap of blankets, unable to face any of the work-related tasks I had planned for the day, I wasn't sure quite what to make of my situation. If I wasn't sick, what could this be? Was I just MALINGERING?

I love this word: "malingering." I love that there is a word that means "to pretend or exaggerate illness, esp to avoid work." I love that so many people are tempted to do this that a word was coined just to describe this particular strategy of work avoidance.

I went to Kroger and bought a thermometer: a fairly disappointing one, I must say, as it promised to give me a result in 9 seconds and promised to have an actual alarm sound a warning if the temperature was over a certain point, and it did neither of these things. But it did say that my temperature was 101.4 That is not the temperature of a malingerer!

I made a doctor's appointment for later in the day, but when I got there, the thermometer there said I had no fever at all. How could this be? I have to say I doubted their thermometer more than I doubted mine. But the kindly physician did accept my self-diagnosis of strep without even ordering a throat culture. I felt so ill as I waited in line to get my antibiotics prescription filled that I thought I might faint away upon the floor.

It turns out that it was strep, or at least that within an hour of starting the antibiotics, all my symptoms were gone. I slept for 13 blissful hours and awoke ready to face a full and busy day of teaching, meetings, evening reading group. So I WAS sick, after all. Unless - would the symptoms have disappeared anyway, even without the medication? Could it be that all I needed was one day of . . . malingering?

Monday, November 7, 2011


Here's the bad system that I've fallen into regarding my writing.

I'll get an idea for a new book. I'll make some progress on this idea. Recently, I even got a contract for the idea. But then I'll turn against the idea. The idea seems so hopeless! So bad! So flawed from the get-go! Sometimes I have some smidgen of justification for turning against the idea: a passing expression of doubt on the part of an editor, an evening of tougher-than-usual critique from my writing group (no, from ONE PERSON in my writing group). I decide that I can't write this book. As my friend Ina says, "Just because you've begun a mistake, you're under no obligation to continue on in it." In the case of the recent book under contract, I even entertained the idea of canceling the contract and returning the advance. In the case of recent gropings toward a book series, I just put the idea away in my forget-about-it file.

But this is not a good system, at least for me. It really isn't. Here is what a good system would be.

Just keep on writing.

That's the system.

For the book under contract, I ended up doing this, and by page 50 I was in love with the book, and by page 150 I thought it might possibly be the best book I'd ever written.

So now for this new possible series idea, this morning I took it out of the forget-about-it file and read over what I have so far and discovered that it is not in fact bad. It is in fact good! Not great. But good. Flawed. But not irredeemably flawed.

And in any case, guess what, I don't have any other ideas right now that are any better. And I'm miserable when I'm not writing ("The Dread"). So I might as well write this as write nothing. And here's my prediction: I bet I'm going to be very glad that I did. So for now I'm just going to keep on truckin'.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sister Act

My sister, Cheryl, is here visiting me in Indiana. Hooray!

Cheryl just started working as a tax specialist for a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey that is a subsidiary of Eli Lilly, which happens to be the largest employer in the state of Indiana, so she is out here for a series of business meetings at the huge Eli Lilly campus in Indianapolis. But first we are playing together in Greencastle, which itself happens to boast the site of Eli Lilly's first little homely drugstore, situated on our courthouse square, where the little eatery Treasures on the Square is now located. Cheryl always throws herself with enormous enthusiasm into any new endeavor, so she was eager to make a pilgrimage to this historic spot. So we had breakfast at Treasures on the Square as soon as she arrived yesterday, and then I took her picture in front of its charming front door.

The rest of the day was filled with happy sightseeing, including a drive around the backroads of Parke County where we saw EIGHT covered bridges, my biggest haul yet! Her stuffed bear Taddy has made friends with my stuffed rabbit Ruby, and it's altogether a wonderful visit.

There is nothing like having a sister!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

"Something Else"

Once when one of my boys was in high school, he had a disappointing grade on a history exam, so I brought this up for discussion with his teacher during parent-teacher conferences. "Do you have any suggestions for what he should do to prepare for the next exam?" I asked.

"He should do something else!" she said.

"Something else?" I asked timidly.

"Yes, something else! Because whatever he's doing now isn't working!"


At the time I considered this to be exceptionally unhelpful advice from an uncooperative teacher. But I have to say that I've warmed to this advice as the years have gone on.

Take my weight for example, the creeping chubbiness on which I've posted before, and which, alas, has only gotten steadily worse since that post. What should I do about it? Well, SOMETHING ELSE! Because what I'm doing now - that is to say, eating every morsel of free food provided by DePauw University in general and the Prindle Institute in particular, supplemented by comforting feasts at the Blue Door Cafe, plus occasional lovely dinners, with free-flowing wine, at friends' houses - isn't working.

There is something about the clarity of this insight that is more helpful than I previously realized. Maybe I'll try something else, try NOT doing what I've been doing, and see what happens.

It just might work, after all.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Village Soothsayer

Yesterday contained one of the biggest treats of the semester for me: a class trip for my Rousseau course. We headed off to the Green Performing Arts Center across campus for a program focused on Rousseau's opera, Le Devin du Village (The Village Soothsayer).

Yes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, famous political philosopher (The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, The Social Contract) and educational theorist (Emile), who also happened to write the best-selling novel of the eighteenth century (Julie, or the New Heloise), was also a composer of some renown in his own time, who wrote not only the libretto but the score for an opera that was the toast of Paris upon its production in 1752. The king reportedly went around the palace singing the opening aria, "J'ai perdu mon serviteur," all day after the performance "in the vilest voice in the nation" and offered Rousseau a lifelong pension for its creation (an offer that Rousseau refused).

Yesterday my students and I, as well as other interested DePauw community members, had our opera extravaganza in the Thompson Recital Hall at the Green Center for the Performing Arts. I made some introductory remarks on Rousseau-as-musician; Misti Shaw of the Music Library presented a fascinating in-depth look at the war between French and Italian opera during the time period (Rousseau took the side of the Italians and was burned in effigy by the Paris Opera); Prof. Matthew Balensuela discussed Rousseau's influence on child prodigy Mozart, who wrote his own treatment of the opera (at age twelve, mind you!). And, biggest treat of all, Prof. Caroline Smith's voice students performed three of the arias for us, including the one that so pleased the king.

I think my students enjoyed it as much as I did. Who doesn't love a class trip? Thank you, colleagues and performers, for making this amazing outing possible.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

November New Life, Day Two

I had a little setback yesterday, on day one of my new life. I did have a lovely French toast and hot chocolate breakfast at the Blue Door Cafe, with just ONE piece of French toast because of the new slimming plan, and I did have a lovely walk up and down Seminary Street, as part of the same weight-loss project. But I just found myself consumed with a restless agitation, the vague feeling that despite all my brave new resolves my life was spinning out of control, with lots of pending decisions that need to be made and might be made wrongly, though as for that, whatever I decide isn't going to matter all that much either way for the rest of my life. But still.

I bumped into my friend Deepa as I was heading out to find some slimming food to eat for lunch, and told her what I was feeling, and she said, "Oh, I feel that sometimes, too. I call it 'the Dread.'"

I felt so much better once it was named, pinned down with a label. Oh, it's just the Dread. People are bound sometimes to be shadowed by the Dread. Life has so much flux and uncertainty in it, so much doubt about what to do next, and how to do it and why. Of course, this is going to lead to the Dread!

So now my November new life has to have some provisions for getting past the Dread. As I learned in a wonderful talk some years ago by writer Laura Deal, "activity is the antidote to anxiety." So I got up early and walked up to the Prindle. I'm going to write the book review on the stunning collaborative effort, Keywords for Children's Literature, edited by Philip Nel and Lissa Paul, which I've been assigned to do for the Children's Literature Association Quarterly. I may take a mid-day walk around the quarry rim - more slimming! And as the biggest source of the Dread in my life right now is not having a new book project that I feel good about, I'm going to take my little notebook and sit for a peaceful hour in the Bartlett Reflection Center, right next to the Prindle Institute, and just THINK.

Dread, begone! Claudia's new life is here!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Last Day of October

For some, the most salient thing about today is that it is HALLOWEEN! And its being Halloween does make me want to reread Harry Behn's wonderful poem that begins, "Tonight is the night when dead leaves fly/like witches on switches across the sky."

But for me the most salient thing about today is that it is the last day of the month of October. Tomorrow, November first, I will begin a NEW LIFE, as I do on the first day of each month: I will leap into new regimens of fitness, frugality, and productive work, regimens that will most likely (if the past is any predictor of the future) peter out in a few days, but will still leave me with all kinds of accomplishments I would never have had otherwise.

The last day of the month is significant for me, too. This is the last hurrah for October, the last chance to accomplish whatever I can of all that I meant to do when that new life began thirty days ago. October can still be salvaged! It is not too late!

So today I am going to:
1) Do the FINAL revisions on my paper on the teen novels of Rosamond Du Jardin and send it off to the Children's Literature Association Quarterly
2) Put finishing touches on the talk on "Truth and Children's Literature" that I'm giving this afternoon as part of DePauw's week-long Arts Fest, whose theme this year is "Art and Truth"
3) Make some notes for myself in the aftermath of my talk on artistic integrity at Marquette last Friday so that I can have another frantic burst of revision on the talk before I give it again in some other venue
4) Write up reviews of three children's picture books for the Children's Literature website
5) Deal with accumulated emails and otherwise clear my desk for tomorrow's NEW LIFE!

Saturday, October 29, 2011


I have wanted to go to Milwaukee ever since I read Betsy, Tacy, and Tib by Maud Hart Lovelace, as a little girl. In the book, Tib's Aunt Dolly is from Milwaukee, and the girls decide that Milwaukee has an evocative magic as an imagined destination. Betsy writes a poem that begins, "We're off to Milwaukee, Milwaukee. Milwaukee, Milwauk, MilewakEE." And then in one of the Betsy-Tacy high school books, Betsy in Spite of Herself, Tib's family has moved away to Milwaukee, and Betsy goes to visit Tib and her family in Milwaukee for Christmas. "It's practically a foreign city," Mr. Ray tells Betsy in preparation for her trip, which will immerse her in German-American culture of the turn of the last century.

And now here I am in Milwaukee!

The beauty of the city is taking my breath away. I'm staying with beloved former-grad-student Theresa, who lives ONE BLOCK off Lake Michigan in a charming old neighborhood; we're just back from a long stroll along tree-shaded streets with stunning lake views. As this trip is in part for me a Betsy-Tacy literary pilgrimage, I've requested that we have lunch at an old-time German restaurant, Karl Ratzsch's, and then we'll go to the Milwaukee Public Museum, which has a much-visited recreation of an old-time Milwaukee street scene from precisely the era of Betsy's Christmas visit to Tib.

My talk yesterday at the Marquette Philosophy Department went well, a talk on the concept of "artistic integrity": how best to define it, how to recognize when it has been compromised. The central feature of all my philosophy talks is that the thesis is false and the argumentation for it bad, but the questions explored are fascinating and I address them in an engaging, lively, and thought-provoking way. The falseness of the thesis and the badness of the argumentation invariably become glaringly apparent the moment the first person asks the first question in the Q&A period, the question that poses the inevitable counter-example that destroys the entire argument from start to finish. But everyone joins in helping me to make the paper better, and we all have a most intellectually jolly time.

And then last night I got the post-talk reward of a legendary Wisconsin FRIDAY FISH FRY for dinner, complete with polka dancing - followed by a tour of the Whitefish Bay pumpkin festival's display of hundreds of grinning jack o'lanterns. And now I get my Betsy-Tacy pilgrimage to boot. So it's worth giving a mildly embarrassing talk, with its grave but not utterly unredeemable philosophical flaws.

It's all part of getting to be off to Milwaukee, Milwaukee! Milwaukee, Milwauk - MilwaukEEEEEE!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Hooray for Grad Students

The single best thing about my job teaching philosophy at the University of Colorado - and I think all my colleagues would agree - is having grad students. Grad students are wonderful. They are amazingly smart, knowledgeable, motivated, funny, fascinating human beings. They are also extraordinarily generous and helpful to faculty.

Over the course of my twenty years at CU, I am indebted to graduate students for:

- teaching my son Gregory to ride a bike (Sara, of course)
- going with us to Lakeside Amusement Park so that I wouldn't have to be the one to ride the rollercoaster with my boys (Sara, of course)
- co-authoring a paper with me on environmental justice (thanks, Rob!)
- creating with me a summer philosophy camp for high school students (Sara AND Rob)
- driving my boys various places when I couldn't go
- providing catsitting employment for my boys over university breaks
- letting me have the privilege of reading some amazing dissertations
- serving as my research assistants on projects ranging from assembling a Rousseau bibliography to critiquing my book-in-progress on parenting ethics.
- serving as my TAs in class after class
- acting out the play No Exit with me in those classes
- and so much more!!

It's always heartbreaking when grad students "grow up" - get their Ph.D.s and go away to their grown-up tenure-track jobs. But then - and this is the point of my post today - they invite me to come places and give talks. Thanks to Sara, I've been invited to speak at the Philosophy Teaching and Learning Organization (PLATO) conference last summer in New York. Thanks to Jen and Rich, I was invited to speak at the Undergraduate Ethics Symposium at DePauw, which led to my being invited here for this magical visiting year.

And thanks to Theresa and Kevin, I'm heading to the airport momentarily to give a talk this afternoon at Marquette and spend the weekend playing with them in Milwaukee.

Oh, grad students, I owe you so much!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Getting It All Done

As we're heading into the busy, stressful portion of the semester, I thought I would write a post to remind myself of a few of my core time management principles that I seem to have temporarily forgotten. I'm feeling overwhelmed with all I have to do right now: prepare the talk on artistic integrity that I'm giving tomorrow (!) in Milwaukee, prepare the talk on truth and children's literature that I'm giving Monday (!) for the week-long Arts Fest extravaganza here at DePauw, do final revisions on my Rosamond du Jardin paper that was just accepted (hooray!) by the Children's Literature Association Quarterly, do a ton of planning for my winter session course on children's book writing, for my spring course on feminism and the family, for my spring reading group on the work of philosopher Cheshire Calhoun, for a spring event on the ethics of life writing. How can I possibly get it all done?

The first thing to remember is that I CAN'T get it all done. Trying to "get it all done" is the best way to ensure that I don't get any of it done. Facing a massive and endless to-do list is paralyzing, not empowering. What I need to figure out is how to get SOME of it done, preferably the things that need to be done sooner rather than later.

So my goal today (well, for what's left of today) is simply to focus on that paper I'm giving tomorrow at Marquette. I've located a previous draft of the paper that I had lying around, plus a bunch of very very helpful comments from various people that I saved from when I last gave the talk a year or two ago. I need to remind myself that the worst-case scenario, not even such a terrible scenario, is that I just give the talk the way it is. That IS a possible option. Having accepted that as an option, I can move forward knowing that anything I decide to do to the talk between now and tomorrow is likely to be at least a partial improvement.


I'm going to finish writing this blog post, then I'm going to go get a late lunch at the Blue Door Cafe while I read through my notes and make my revision plan. Then I'm going to go out to my peaceful serene office at the Prindle Institute and spend at least an hour making what changes I can. I may find some leftover wine from last night's reading group to assist in this process. And then I'll just give the talk tomorrow and hope for the best, comforting myself with the thought that my argument may be weak, my conclusion may be false, but at least the paper isn't boring. It really isn't.

On the plane tomorrow I'll start reading the two books I need to skim-read to do my final revisions on that children's literature paper. I don't need to worry about my truth and children's literature talk until Monday. Heck, the talk isn't until 4:15 on Monday, so I'll have all day to work on it, fortified by French toast and hot chocolate at the Blue Door.

The long-term planning can wait until Tuesday. Or maybe even Wednesday.

I don't have to get it ALL done today. Just some of it. And now I'm off to do it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Revise and Resubmit

I just got back the two reviewers' comments from Children's Literature in Education on my paper, "'Better Times Are Coming Now': Wartime Dreams and Disenchantment in Rufus M." The verdict? The paper has promise, but it needs to be MASSIVELY revised before it can be deemed publishable.

Why am I not surprised? This is the story of my life as a writer and a scholar. In fact, if I were to write an intellectual autobiography, Revise and Resubmit would be an excellent title for it.

It's always a TAD disappointing, of course, to read through the LENGTHY comments pointing out all that remains to be done. But I have to remind myself: this is my PROCESS. I always send off a paper too soon, before it is as good as it needs to be. And I always send it off too soon for a very good reason. Because on my own, unassisted, I don't know how to make it as good as it needs to be.

The suggestions I received this morning are invaluable. I now have a list of books to read, points to develop, arguments to expand. I have a plan! It will take a TON of work to do all of this, work that I may well need to defer until next summer, but it's all work that I know how to do and will enjoy doing. And then I'll have a vastly stronger paper. No: I will have the definitive scholarly paper on this book. A paper written by me, but with lots of help from two brilliant anonymous reviewers (well, one brilliant anonymous reviewer and one VERY brilliant not-really-anonymous reviewer, because I can always recognize the particular pattern of this scholar's brilliance).

So now I'm to write on my list of "Nice Things and Accomplishments" for October: "Revise and resubmit comments on Rufus M." Getting these IS a nice thing. And it's going to lead, in time, to one heck of an accomplishment.

Monday, October 24, 2011

From Home to Home

I got home to Greencastle, Indiana, last night, after a week of being home in Boulder, Colorado. I'm home from being home.

I don't remember ever feeling this way before in my life, as if I had two homes, both equally MY home, both dear familiar worlds with a house that is my house and a bed that is my bed and even with a stuffed animal that is my stuffed animal. (Though only Boulder has a cat that is my cat.)

This morning I had breakfast at the Blue Door Cafe, where Shelley and I squealed with happiness to see each other after our week of separation. I dallied over my beloved French toast and hot chocolate, and then walked my usual morning constitutional up and down Seminary Street, before heading out to my office at the Prindle Institute to exchange fall break stories with Linda and Nicki. Now I'm puttering at my computer here, getting geared up for my busy happy week back home, after my busy happy week away, or rather, my busy happy week back (at my other) home.

Two beloved homes, equally home, a thousand miles apart.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Brownie Hubris

Today, my last day home in Colorado for fall break, is the day of the church chile cookoff. The three categories for judging are chile, cornbread, and brownies. Christopher and I are three-time winners for our "Scrumptious Cream Cheese Brownies" in the brownie competition, the undefeated champions. Actually, the first year of the cookoff the brownies were not actually judged for a prize, but everyone agreed that if brownies HAD been judged, we would have won.

So a lot is at stake for us this year as we defend our title.

But then I fell prey to brownie hubris. I decided to submit, in addition to our award-winning cream cheese brownies, a new kind of brownie as well. I found a recipe online for s'mores brownies: graham cracker bottom crust, then brownies on top of that, then a marshmallow topping with little bits of broken graham crackers and broken Hershey bars sprinkled in.

I felt like Mary Lou Retton, who after scoring an unprecedented 10 in the first of her best-of-two-tries on her Olympic vault, ran back and did a completely unnecessary second try and scored a second 10. Would there be a two-way tie in the brownie category this year, between Claudia and . . . Claudia?

No. Hubris proved for me, as for so many others, a tragic flaw. When I put the s'mores brownies under the broiler for a minute or two so that the marshmallows could brown, instead, in a few SECONDS, the marshmallows burst into flame. My oven was engulfed with fire.

As my adoring audience stood gaping, I called 911 and the fire fighters arrived. By that time, the fire was out, the marshmallows just ashes. No permanent damage was done to my kitchen. But the s'mores brownies had to be removed from competition.

I'm off now to frost the cream cheese brownies, a wiser and humbler baker. And maybe this year it IS someone else's turn to win.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Quantifying Revisions

I was just talking to a writer who has participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for two years running, generating a 50,000-word novel each time during the month of November. I asked her if she was planning to do it again this year, and she said she's inclining toward spending that month this time around revising one of her previous novels. The only problem is that it's so motivating to be counting up words toward the 50,000 word NaNoWriMo total and there doesn't seem to be anything comparably satisfying along quantitative lines for revision.

So I started thinking about how I quantify revision for myself, as I'm also someone who adores meeting visible/tangible goals and crossing them off my to-do list.

For revision I have two quantitative ways I proceed. One is to quantify revision in terms of time spent. I tell myself that I have to revise this book for ten hours, say, and then cross off each one.

The other approach relies on my having comments given to me by my writing group or my editor. There I assemble a huge master manuscript made up of every page with writing group or editorial comments, removing every page with no comments. My revision task is then to go through the master manuscript and deal with 50 comments, or 30, or whatever. I usually keep track by removing the pages from the pile as I have dealt with the comments on that page.

In the beginning I can make amazing progress, as many of the comments are just marked typos or other tiny things. So on my first pass through the manuscript I might get rid of 50 pages. But then come the hard things: Does Sierra express too much anger toward Ms. Lin too soon? The three pages that have comments related to this one issue might take hours to revise.

But I do get to count. And counting definitely motivates, at least for me.

Friday, October 21, 2011

How to Sleep, How to Wake

Here is the best way to sleep:

1. Make sure the air in the room is very cool.
2. Make sure the blankets are very warm. It's best to have at least one big puffy comforter and at least one hand-sewn quilt.
3. Wear a Lanz of Salzburg flannel nightgown.
4. Position yourself in the bed with one leg straight and one leg bent.
5. Have Snickers the cat position herself in the crook of your bent leg.
6. Proceed with sleeping and purring.

This is guaranteed to give you the best sleep of your life.
Warning: it will make it VERY hard to wake up the next morning.

So here is the best way to wake:

1. Force yourself out of bed at six because you have a scheduled date to walk with Rowan.
2. Throw on your clothes.
3. Gulp down some Swiss Miss hot chocolate.
4. Force yourself to start walking in the pitch darkness at six-thirty.
5. Recognize Rowan walking toward you only by her yellow hat in the darkness.
6. Turn east and walk together toward the rosy brightness on the horizon.
7. Continue walking as the sun rises "a ribbon at a time" (Emily).
8. Continue walking until the sky is ablaze with pink and gold.
9. Continue walking until it's really truly morning.

So now you know how to do it!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What Next?

I just finished my massive revisions on my novel for FSG, the book about the perfect goody-goody girl who takes her mother's lunch to school by mistake, a lunch with a knife in it for cutting her mother's apple, and then finds herself facing mandatory expulsion under the school's zero tolerance policies for weapons. I emailed it off five minutes ago. The changes I made from Margaret's suggestions were so terrific! I cut out 30 pages, motivated Sierra's change from perfect girl to rebel much more effectively, fixed many tiny inconsistencies and other puzzling holes in the formerly sprawling story. Hooray!

But now, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I have no new book lined up to write after this one. I've groped toward some ideas, written huge chunks of one possibility that I'm not sure I like, written an entire chapter book that still isn't right but maybe could be made to be right. But I have no next contract right now, no definite "This is going to be my next book" plan.

I'm trying to feel excited rather than stressed about this. The writing world is wide open for me right now. Should I write the memoir I've been thinking about? Maybe now's the time? Or return to poetry? Or something completely different, utterly unlike anything I can now even imagine?

Watch this spot!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

My Soul Is All But Out of Me

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote this wonderful poem that I memorized as a child and can still quote by heart:

God's World

O WORLD, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart. Lord, I do fear
Thou'st made the world too beautiful this year.
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

This is what it feels like, being home this mid-October week in Boulder, at the peak of autumn brilliance, as I reconnect to the life and world I left behind two months ago to head to Indiana. Every day is so filled with emotional intensity. At church this morning dozens of people not only hugged me, but held on to me, as I held on to them. We stood there in the pews holding each other, close to tears. And that was only one hour of my visit home!

I've been so happy in Indiana - I had almost forgotten this, forgotten home - and now it's all come back to me, with a passion that is stretching me apart, my sweet life too beautiful for me to be able to bear it. I feel like Emily in Our Town, come back from the grave for one day, marveling at how earthly people are able to endure the intensity of each ordinary moment. “Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it -- every, every minute?”

Only I've come back not for one day, but for one whole week.

Friday, October 14, 2011


It's fall break at DePauw, starting today; I flew home to Colorado this morning, so here I am for an entire week of reconnecting with my old life.

So far: hike on the Shanahan Ridge trails with Rowan on a perfect crisp fall day. Tonight: Gregory's jazz band concert at CU. Tomorrow: farmers' market breakfast with Rowan and then a matinee of Swan Lake in Denver. Sunday: seeing dear friends at church as Christopher plays in the bell choir; walking around Viele Lake with Elizabeth; dinner with Diane.

Somewhere during this week I have to find time to revise a novel, grade papers, get my teeth cleaned at the dentist, check in with the philosophy department, and CUDDLE WITH SNICKERS. But it's all off to a good start so far.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Tempest and Me

This is the week that the Actors from the London Stage are here on campus to do their performance of The Tempest, as well as to work with student actors in a number of classes, including the interdisciplinary team-taught class on the play that I've been attending. There is an article about our class on the university website this week, and of course, who is prominently visible in the first photo for the article, but the oldest, stoutest, most awkward, but also most enthusiastic student: me. Here I am practicing courtly manners in a class exercise. Note the kindly amusement on the faces of my fellow students.

The performance by the Actors from the London Stage, which I saw Tuesday night, was distinguished by the fact that the entire play was performed uncut with only five actors playing multiple roles, sometimes in the same scene, a tour de force of getting instantly into character with only the most minimal of props and costumes as well. I might go see it a second time tonight just to figure out "How did they do it?"

But in case you wanted to know how I did it, you can see it here!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Only at DePauw

Here is my latest "only at DePauw" story that explains why I am so happy here.

Yesterday I was having lunch with a colleague in the English department over at the Two West restaurant at the Inn at DePauw, right on the edge of the campus. This is the restaurant that has the CAKE BALLS that I blogged about a few weeks ago. As I finished lunch, I saw other colleagues/friends eating there as well, members of the Janeites book group. And then at the table next to them sat the president of the university, Brian Casey.

Although he had only met me once before, at a new faculty orientation dinner at his home, he greeted me warmly and asked me how everything was going for me at DePauw. I did my usual gushing about the wonderfulness of the Prindle Institute and my happiness in the philosophy department.

Then he said, "Wait, you're the Blue Door Cafe person, aren't you?" This is the cafe I've come to love - oh, that hot chocolate! oh, that French toast! oh, the coziness of the couches! oh, the warmth and kindness of Shelley who presides there.

"Yes, I am," I told President Casey.

"Well, they love you there," he told me.

"Well, I love them!" I told him.

So I think it's pretty cool that the university president not only remembers a new faculty member so warmly but also keeps track of her love fest with the Blue Door Cafe. Don't you?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Scuffling through the Leaves

My first-ever job was a part-time job in the junior clothes department at Sears, back when I was in high school. To show you how long ago this was: THREE young women worked in that ONE department. One of us worked the cash register, one of us attended the dressing room, and one of us tidied up the clothes racks and made furtive runs over to the chocolate-and-cheese department to bring back provisions for the others (that was me). It was tons of fun working there, as I remember.

The customers were always interesting, like the teasing man who asked me in all apparent seriousness if we took "federal reserve notes" - I told him I had to go check with the manager to see. Or the man who wanted us to try on a bunch of different outfits so he could see which one would look best on his girlfriend. (Actually, forty years later that seems creepy to me, but at the time it made for a jolly evening of fashion show.) And we also spent an unconscionable amount of time on the Sears phone line talking to our boyfriends.

Still, when October came I wanted to quit my job, because it was cutting into the time I could have been spending scuffling through the autumn leaves. I yearned for the pleasures of that kind of aimless idleness, strolling along through ankle-deep heaps of maple and oak leaves. So quit the job I did.

Over the years "scuffling through the leaves" has become a sort of mantra for me, reminding me of the pleasures I don't want to crowd out of my busy workaday life.

Now it's autumn in Indiana, and fallen leaves are thick everywhere I go. I'm busy busy busy with my job, but luckily I can walk to work at the Prindle Institute through the DePauw Nature Park, and scuffle happily for a full half hour each direction. I get to keep my job and scuffle through the leaves, too. Which is how I like my life best.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Getting a Grip

It's the week before fall break here, and everyone is stressed, or has a right to be. Students are buried under the weight of all the papers they have to write; professors are buried under the weight of all the papers they have to grade. And when my students tell me all that they are doing in addition to writing midterm papers and taking midterm exams, I feel exhausted just listening: one student is playing the bass in the pit orchestra for the musical Urinetown AND spending two hours a day in Ethics Bowl practice; another is on DePauw's swim team; another is plowing through an enormous book for one of the Prindle reading groups in addition to the enormous books she's reading for class, and much much more.

Meanwhile, I'm thinking about the significant revisions I need to make on my longest-ever novel, the paper I need to submit for the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics conference, the paper I need to write for a Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO) volume, soon-due student recommendation letters. Plus the enormous books I'm plowing through for the FIVE Prindle reading groups I signed up for at the start of the semester when I really thought I'd have time here in my new life for EVERYTHING.

So we all need to get a grip. Here's how I'm doing it today.

Step one: get a good night's sleep - DONE!
Step two: get up and do at least an hour's work on the book revisions - DONE!
Step three: go to the Blue Door Cafe and spend an hour drinking hot chocolate, eating French toast, and reading the Sunday New York Times - DONE!
Step four: church - coming up next!
Step five: spend the afternoon at my peaceful Prindle office dealing with those recommendation letters and finishing the final chapter of one of the reading group books
Step six: attend the Prindle second-Sunday-of-the-month film series - today's film is a documentary called Deliver Us from Evil
Step seven: Ethics Bowl practice from 6:30-8:30
Step eight: home to get in bed and read a book I need to review
Step nine: go to sleep!

Will this make a dent in all I have to do? Yes, but only a dent. But a dent is still something. It is still so much better than no dent! I'll be able to cross at least a few things off my master list: the recommendation letters, that Prindle book, and most of all, the hardest thing on my list, "face those book revisions." And I got to have French toast, too!