Sunday, May 29, 2011

A New Plan: Enter Hercules

Despite my cheerful little-red-hen work ethic, I have now discovered that some jobs cannot be done alone.

I actually discovered this previously, when (if memory serves me rightly), I was editor-in-chief for one issue of our high school newspaper. Bad at delegating, I wrote every article, edited every article, did all the layout, all the production work, and then quit exhausted. That probably isn't literally true - how could it be? - but I do remember biting off far more than I could chew, because I didn't know how to get anybody else to chew it for me (a fairly disgusting analogy, but you get the point).

I realized yesterday that I cannot do this house-cleaning-out project alone. I do not have the strength to clean the Augean stables all by myself. So this afternoon I sent out an email inviting philosophy grad students who would like to earn some extra money this summer to come join me. Within two hours, eight had replied. More may yet respond. I have my crew!

Eight philosophy graduate students plus one valiant and desperate professor may be equal to Hercules. Here's hoping!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

More than an Hour a Day

I named this blog "An Hour a Day" because almost everything that I have accomplished in my life professionally, I have accomplished by focusing my attention on it for just an hour a day. I wrote my dissertation in an hour a day. I published enough articles to earn tenure in an hour a day. And I wrote and published over forty books for children by writing for an hour a day.

But some jobs take more than an hour a day. When I was writing the Mason Dixon series last year under serious time constraints, trying to produce three 125-page manuscripts in less than six months, I had to write for two hours a day.

Now I am faced with the task of cleaning out a 3500-square-foot house filled with 20 years of accumulated clutter by an epic hoarder (not my house, fortunately!). I was trying to tackle it an hour a day: fill ten trash bags, haul them to the dumpster. But it isn't working. On that plan, the task will not get done in a decade, let alone by the time I leave for Indiana in August. Yesterday I worked on it for five hours, and no visible progress is discernible whatsoever. I am a wee bit discouraged.

But I still need to remember my time-tested life strategy principles. First of all, I DID make progress yesterday, however hideous the house still looks today. I filled an entire "six yard" dumpster to overflowing. That is a lot! It's true that many many more dumpsters will need to be filled, but I need to recognize and celebrate this first one. Whole (well, small) areas of garage floor are visible. That is something.

Today I am going to work at my desk at home for my needed hours of writing/working time until ten. And then I'll go face the Augean stables again. And if the five-hour-a-day plan becomes too onerous, well, I'll go out and hire a Hercules to divert Boulder Creek to pour through the house and wash all its contents away.

But for now, I'll go get my little notebook and make a page where I can record my daily progress. Entry number one: one dumpster filled and ready to haul away!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Walk the Walk

A few years ago there was a great outcry at the proposed closing of one of Boulder's branch libraries. I was all set to join with the others in writing an indignant letter to send to the newspaper, when the thought occurred to me: I had never actually BEEN to that branch; I had never used it even once in my then-fifteen years in Boulder.

Now, I'm not saying that you can or should protest only on behalf of causes that affect you directly. That would be to recommend a very insular and narcissistic view of what matters in the world.

But still: if this library was supposedly so important that I was ready to denounce those who would abandon it, why wasn't it important enough that I should actually GO there sometimes?

So my thought for today is: if we value something in our communities, we need to support them not only by our signatures on petitions to save them when they are threatened. We should support them by, well, supporting them when they still exist.

Yesterday, Kim and I supported two wonderful local treasures. I took Kim to my now-beloved Innisfree Poetry Bookstore and Cafe, and we didn't just browse the shelves and comment on how terrific it is that Boulder has one of three poetry-only bookstores in the entire USA. We bought three books. And then in the evening we went to a most delightful evening of jazz performed by CU faculty and students (including my own Gregory), as well as anyone else who wanted to drop in and jam with them. And we didn't just say how great it was, we had a most tasty light supper there and two most tasty glasses of wine.

And I must say that the poetry cafe was bustling, and the jazz evening was thronged. If all of us support what we love by making time and space to include it in our busy lives, maybe it will save us the sad effort of having to write letters protesting its cancellation.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Summer Fun

Despite two weeks - can it be? - of rain, and more predicted - despite its still being some days away from Memorial Day weekend, I'm pronouncing today to be the first day of summer here in Boulder. Because today is the day that my grade-school friend Kim arrives from New Jersey for several days of play. So far we haven't made any plans except for rest, relaxation, and what my sister, Cheryl, always calls "rebuilding our shattered health."

We may go to Caffe Sole tonight to hear their Monday night jazz, where my saxophonist son Gregory will be performing. Tomorrow night we have the meeting of my women's book group at my house, to discuss Jane Juska's hilarious and heart-rending memoir of the late-life search for love and sex, A Round-Heeled Woman. We'll do some hiking on the trails near my house, weather permitting. It is always a treat to take the bus to Denver, browse in the LoDo Tattered Cover bookstore, then take the free 16th shuttle across town and tour the Denver Art Museum, where right now paintings from the Italian Renaissance are on display, followed by lunch at darling Dozen's, tucked away in a charming old house. We'll stroll along Pearl Street, of course. And have a drink, or two, at the St. Julien hotel. And we'll talk, talk, talk, talk, and talk.

I think we may have enough fun to fill three days. Don't you think?

Friday, May 20, 2011

I Did It!

I gave - and survived - and enjoyed! - my first-ever poetry reading last night at the wonderful Innisfree Poetry Bookstore and Cafe here in Boulder.

Innisfree is one of only three poetry-only bookstores in the entire U.S. of A., and, amazingly, it has already almost tripled in size since its grand opening in January, expanding into the retail space next to it to extend its cafe and provide a lovely area for scheduled poetry readings and open mic nights. They host anybody who is brave enough to sign up to read, as well as poets of national reputation.

And last night they hosted me!

Five dear friends showed up to swell the audience, but the biggest surprise for me was that people showed up who didn't even know me. I'm so used to author events where nobody comes except my own hand-picked audience, and the kindly bookstore gentleman or lady. But strangers appeared! Poetry-loving strangers! And stayed for the whole reading! Just because they love poetry and want to support it!

I read for about 45 minutes, even sharing some of my juvenalia, my Dick Thistle love poems from junior high and high school, which I have to say aren't all that different in subject, voice, and level of poetic mastery from what I write now. I started out as a poet, took a forty-year break from it, and then returned to poetry four years ago, and it was like coming home to an old friend, or to my old self, or to my true self. The poems I read last night were confessional, filled with some heartbreak but also some humor. And yes, as promised, there were a few little erotic bits, too - that is the biggest difference between my recent poems and my high school efforts.

So I was brave, and I did it, and it was most satisfying. I'd do it again. Thank you, thank you, Innisfree!!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Back in the 1980s, I worked for a decade as an editor and staff writer for the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland. Our publications included a quarterly newsletter/journal (the same one I guest-edited last year), a book series, and a series of working papers that we published ourselves. To publish the working papers, we reproduced a single-spaced typed version of each one; to send the same papers off to the printer to appear in book or journal form, we needed a double-spaced version of the manuscript to facilitate editing. Our wonderful secretaries, Rachel and Robin, who remain two of my closest friends on this earth, would have to type each paper first in a single-spaced version and then again in a double-spaced version.

Now, of course, with computers, this intensive, wearying labor can be accomplished with the click of a key. And nowadays everyone writes papers directly onto the computer, so nobody ever has to type up someone else's handwritten script.

And yet, I still write my books long hand and love writing long hand, even though it means typing up my handwritten script - and squinting so hard at my tiny, scribbly writing (more of a shorthand than actual cursive) to try to figure out what I actually wrote down on the page. This is the writing process that I've had for the last three decades of being a published children's book author, and I'm not about to change it now. And it's what allows me to write anywhere - say, on a couch outdoors in Cabo, overlooking the sea - while others are chained to electrical outlets.

But this week I have to type EIGHTY pages of manuscript. Usually I write a chapter, type it up, write another, type it up. I don't have eight whole chapters to type in a row. Although I do some rethinking and editing as I go - the chapters do start to seem unnecessarily long, as I have to type every word of every one - it's basically sheer manual labor.

Once in the philosophy department, the chair asked me to take on some particularly dreary task, and I told him, "It just sounds like such drudgery." He said, "Oh, but you're so good at drudgery!"

I guess I am. I know enough to break it up - type half a chapter, eat an English muffin slathered with butter and orange marmalade - type the second half of the chapter, go for a walk with Rowan. Type a bit more, and then close my eyes and think of how happy I was writing these chapters by hand in Cabo.

And then type some more. And type some more....

Monday, May 16, 2011

Poetry Reading By Me

In this year of prioritizing poetry, I got carried away a couple of months ago and blithely signed up to give a poetry reading at the Innisfree Poetry Bookstore and Cafe in Boulder. The date was so comfortably far away - this was back in February, I think, and May seemed an eternity in the future. Well, now the poetry reading is THIS THURSDAY, May 19th, at 7 p.m.


At the time, I didn't feel too daunted. There was just this signup sheet, and anybody could scrawl his or her name upon it. So I scrawled mine. But now that I'm on the email list for events at the store, I see that they have had some major talent on offer there, real professional published poets with all kinds of impressive credits to their name. And now they're getting me.


And the poems themselves - they're so personal, all about doomed love (the result of my now-abandoned project of making this the year to find love). They were lovely to send as little gifts to a few select women friends. But to read aloud? In public? To strangers? I am starting to understand why Emily Dickinson never came out of her house!

Anyway, I'm still doing it, and if you want to come on Thursday night to this wonderful little poetry bookstore, one of only three poetry-only bookstores in the USA, there I will be: 1203 13th Street Suite A - just across the street from the Sink.

Final warning: the poems have some "adult" content . Oh, this is so scary!!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Slowly, Slowly

One of the novel things for me about my week in Cabo was living at such a slower pace. It wasn't only that the pace of life at a resort is slow, it's that my two comrades in adventure are also wired at a slower tempo than I am.

When we reached our room, it took me about one minute, two tops, to unpack my suitcase and backpack completely. It took each of them half an hour, or so it seemed. When we packed to go home, it took me about two minutes, three tops, to repack my suitcase and backpack; it took them the better part of two hours. Of course they had vastly more stuff than I had. Anyone has vastly more stuff than I do.

They eat so slowly! I had to force myself not to finish my entire meal before they had even sat down at the table. They could take a whole hour just eating breakfast! And another whole hour just eating lunch! We spent two hours each day eating dinner.

But it was lovely to catch my breath, savor each moment, actually put down my fork between bites. It was a good experiment in living.

One day, with my mania for planning, I outlined all we needed to do that afternoon: play on the Internet for a bit, put on our swimsuits, go down to the pool for our paddling, have our late afternoon glass of wine.... Nancy said, "We'd better get cracking!" It became our funny mantra for the trip. Each day as we contemplated our long, leisurely hours to be filled with writing, reading, heartfelt conversations over meals, strolling round and round in the pool, we'd say, "We'd better get cracking!"

Sometimes it's good to get cracking very very slowly.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Home from Cabo

I'm home from Cabo. Yes, this picture is exactly what it looked like.

Here is the schedule for my days:
1. Sleep ten hours.
2. Wake up and slip out to the little loveseat on the balcony and gaze at the Sea of Cortez for a while.
3. Breakfast in the suite with fellow writers Annie and Nancy: mango juice, Assam tea, toast with butter and marmelade, or vanilla yogurt with granola and half a banana.
4. Go to my "office." This was the best part of the entire wonderful day. I would take my clipboard, pad, and pen, and go outside and settle myself at a comfy couch in a shaded pavilion looking out over the pool and the sea, and write for two, three, or four hours, usually from 9 until 1, with occasional little breaks for daydreaming. (Annie and Nancy, working on their laptops, stayed in the room to have proximity to an electrical outlet - lucky me, to write longhand!).
5. Lunch back at the suite with Annie and Nancy: sandwiches and fruit.
6. Read a little bit, do a little bit of email, write a little bit more.
7. 3:00 - swimsuits on! Nancy would swim in the ocean (brave girl), while Annie and I lolled about by the pool. Then Nancy would collect us and we'd all walk around in the pool for an hour or so, and then go sit in the hot tub for a bit.
8. Freshen up in the room.
9. Dinner at one of the two stunningly beautiful and ultra-posh restaurants at the Hilton resort right next door.
10. Home by 8:30 at the latest to put on our nightgowns and pj's, and read aloud to each other and share/critique.
Then: nice early bedtime.

That's what we did for seven solid days. Two days we did make dinner in our suite, and one day we took a shuttle into the town of Cabo San Lucas to look around a bit and have dinner at Mi Casa. But all we really wanted to do was write, read, talk, and look at the ocean. And that's basically all we did. I wrote 80 pages. I read four books: Moon over Manifest (this year's Newbery Award winner), Room (mesmerizing), Incendiary (amazing voice), and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (perhaps the most exquisite collection of sentences I have ever read).

Now it's real regular life for a while. I returned from 80-degree temperatures and sunny skies to 40-degree temperatures and rain. I returned to heaps of email, unpaid bills, plus those 80 pages to type up. But all I have to do is close my eyes and I'm in my "office" again, scribbling away, with occasional glances out at the sunlight glinting on the sea.

Friday, May 6, 2011


Today was commencement at CU, always a favorite day of mine. I love everything about it. I love dressing up in my rented regalia, with my orange-and-black Princeton-colored hood, and then helping awkward colleagues don theirs (the hard part is getting the hood not to ride up in the front and getting it to pouf appropriately in the back). I love processing in for "Pomp and Circumstance," holding back happy tears for the solemnity of the moment. I love watching beloved students walk in, as their proud parents leap up with their cameras.

At CU each department has its own commencement ceremony, in addition to the big ceremony in the stadium, which hardly anybody attends any more. The departmental ceremonies have it all: music, costumes, and individual recognition of each student by name. Ours in Philosophy also has witty remarks by our chair - we always have witty chairs - and a commencement address, often by one of us. This year my colleague Robert Pasnau spoke about his sabbatical year in Morocco. And then, the awarding of the diplomas.

After the ceremony comes a champagne reception with lovely nibbles and a chance to tell the parents how wonderful their students are - and it's all TRUE. And then after that, a few of us have the tradition of taking the leftover champagne back to the Philosophy Department and spending the rest of the afternoon drinking it. Today as we drank we shared scandalous tales of the bad behavior of colleagues of the distant past. It's important to preserve this oral history, right?

Now I'm home, and doing laundry, and packing for Cabo. I'll be picked up to go the airport at 6:15 tomorrow morning. But I feel as if I'm on vacation already.

My New Nest for the Coming Year

I've settled on my apartment for my year away at the Prindle Institute of Ethics at DePauw University next year. So I'm one step closer to this exciting new chapter in my life.

The University generously offered to make available to me one of the apartments that they own and manage, and I took a look at it when I was at DePauw in April. It was perfectly nice, and yet - it was so big, and so bleak and bare. It was furnished with bed, couch, table, chairs, dresser, bookcase, but the bookcase was empty as were the walls. I realized with a sinking heart that I would have to drag a whole lot of stuff with me to Indiana to fill up those bookcases and cover those walls. It was going to be a lot of work to have to generate this whole new life for myself.

I have a constitutional aversion to dragging stuff with me. I've gone to France, and to Austria, and to Taiwan, for two weeks with nothing but a carryon suitcase so small and light that it doesn't even have wheels on it, and I carry it easily from terminal to terminal in the airport. I was never that mom with the huge overstuffed diaper bag. Of course, this means that I was the mom who borrowed shamelessly from the moms with the huge overstuffed diaper bags. I still have the pair of green socks Lisa gave me on our Taiwan trip, when I didn't even have a pair of socks in my scanty luggage. So I admit that I travel so lightly through life partly by being a parasite on my more heavily laden friends. But I'm a cheerful and appreciative parasite.

So the place I've found in DePauw sounds just right. It's small and cozy. It is filled with someone else's stuff - in particular, the bookcases are crammed full of someone else's books. I love poking through other people's books! I'll bring some of my own, of course, to fill the empty shelves in the gorgeous office I'm to have over at the Prindle Institute, but in my little tiny house, I can look at the spines of someone else's books and gaze at someone else's pictures on the walls. I can effortlessly inhabit someone else's space, which I'm so good at doing.

I'm all set now!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Home Stretch

We're in finals week now at CU. I'm still grading the last set of papers from my Major Social Theories class, which I received last week, planning to hand them back to the students at the exam on Wednesday evening, and then I'll have their exams to grade, but I'm going to turn in all my grades on Friday, by hook or by crook (no, by dint of sustained, patient, plodding toil), and then on Friday I'll don my regalia and attend the festive fun of commencement. And then on Saturday, I'm heading off to Cabo with two writer friends for my first-ever sojourn in Mexico (well, the part of Mexico that has Walmart, Costco, and Sam's Club) and my first-ever stay at a posh resort. The plan for how to spend our time in Cabo? What do you think it is? Yes, write! We're going to look out at the sun sparkling on the water and write.

But first there is all that grading. And yesterday I found the SECOND plagiarized paper this semester from this same class, despite an explicit statement in writing on every paper assignment that "all sources consulted in the writing of this paper must be fully acknowledged," on pain of receiving a failing grade not only on the paper, but for the entire course. A lesser penalty - failing the student only on the plagiarized assignment - would be tantamount to treating a plagiarized paper on a par with a missing paper, and surely it is worse to steal a paper than simply to fail to turn one in.

Whenever I find a plagiarized paper, the process is always the same. First I see a sentence, or two, or three, that simply could not be the work on an undergraduate student, even a brilliant undergraduate student: the sentence is simply too intellectually confident, making claims beyond anything we discussed together in class. I Google the sentence, or key phrases in it: it comes right up. Now I'm hot on the trail, making sentence-for-sentence matches with other sources. Sometimes the student takes the pains to paraphrase a bit, but the similarity, sentence by sentence, is too marked to be a coincidence. There is a certain exhilaration at this stage in the process.

Then I email the student with a stern, blunt message that the paper has been found to be plagiarized, and the student will now fail the course.

Then I wait for the student's response. And now, it all turns from weirdly exhilarating to just plain sickening: oh, the waste, the tragic stupid waste, of all this student's work for the semester! I feel like relenting, giving a second chance somehow. And yet - this wasn't just a clumsy error in knowing the difference between word-for-word quotations and paraphrasing. This was wholesale intellectual dishonesty.

The previous student who plagiarized this semester responded in a way that I've never had a student respond in my almost twenty years of teaching. He wrote that all he asked was to meet with me one last time, not to beg me to change my sanction, but to apologize to me in person for what he had done, so that my last impression of him wouldn't be his wrongdoing but his attempt to take responsibility for what he had done. Wow. He sure did change my impression of him. I think that young man has a hopeful future ahead of him.

This one emailed me that he thinks he should be allowed to add the missing citations now, retroactively, the citations he COULD have added in the first place if he hadn't been trying to pass off someone else's ideas as his own. He claims that this is common practice at the university. Is it? I've just emailed my colleagues to see what they think. Maybe I'm just too old, too much of a fuddy-duddy. And, oh, I do believe in second chances and getting to salvage a situation and turn wrong to right. But I think the way to do this is the way of that first student, not in this way.

Boy, Cabo is looking SO good right now.