Sunday, December 30, 2012

One Piece at a Time

For Christmas my younger son, Gregory, gave me a 2000-piece Ravensburger jigsaw puzzle of Cinque Terre, on the Italian Riviera.  I do love jigsaw puzzles, and the Ravensburger puzzles are the nicest of all, with beautifully constructed pieces that interlock with a satisfying tiny click each time one of them snaps into place.  And I love Italy and so loved the thought of spending Christmas break constructing a picture of such a beautiful place.

But 2000 pieces?  I have a VERY small house.  The card table was measured and pronounced too small for the task.  The only available surface was the kitchen/dining table, that is to say, we would have to eat all of our meals for the foreseeable future on our laps in the living room.  And did I mention that it had 2000 pieces? That is so many!  And so much of the puzzle was a rocky cliff, and even more of it was the endless blue sky and endless blue sea.  When I mentioned this to my sister, she said that the song lyric "Nothing but blue skies do I see" is NOT a happy prospect for jigsaw-puzzle-doers.

We got the border done on Christmas afternoon, and it took FOREVER.  We toiled for many hours more and assembled two or three of the most colorful houses (there were a few dozen of them, total).

"Gregory," I told him, "we aren't going to be able to do this.  It just isn't possible, given that we don't have a dedicated puzzle table, and we have only week before I go back to Indiana, and I have a few other things I have to do during that week, like live the rest of my life. I love my present, really I do, but we just aren't going to be able to do it."

"Aren't we even going to TRY?" he asked.

So we did.  We finished the houses, and the sky, and the shrubbery on the cliffs, and then we turned to the cliffs.  We told ourselves that maybe, once we finished every single interesting part of the puzzle, we'd call it done and just forget about the sea.  But then once the cliffs were done, we couldn't bear to see that gaping hole where the sea should be.  On we pressed. Sometimes, when the light was just right (late morning), I could put in five pieces in a row.  But more often it would take me five minutes to put in one piece. I put together puzzle pieces all night long, in my dreams.

But guess what?  This morning, at quarter to ten (when the light was PERFECT), I put in the last piece.  It took me five days to do a job that had seemed absolutely impossible when I began.

Of course, it is irresistible to draw a few brief life lessons at this point.
1) Some tasks that seem impossible don't turn out to be.
2) In fact, some "impossible" tasks can be done in just a few days of concerted effort.
3) It's easier to do daunting tasks when you have help, and more fun to do them when you have company.
4) Even a very big task can be completed by a diligent, patient, persistent series of very small tasks, executed one at a time.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Fears Dismissed as Groundless

Jerome K. Jerome's hilarious 1889 novel Three Men in a Boat prefaces each chapter, in the style of the period, with a brief preview of its contents, in this case, the next installment of the adventures of three young Englishmen, and their dog Montmorency, who head off on a boating holiday with various comic disasters along the way.  Chapter 2 opens with this list:

Plans discussed -  Pleasures of 'camping out' on fine nights - Ditto, wet nights - Compromise decided on - Montmorency, first impressions of - Fears that he is too good for this world, fears subsequently dismissed as groundless

In the chapter that follows, the narrator, J, tells us that if we were to look upon Montmorency we would "imagine that he was an angel sent upon the earth . . . in the shape of a small fox-terrier."  J tells us that he feared such an angelic being would not stop long in this world, but "when I had paid for about a dozen chickens that he had killed; and had dragged him growling and kicking, by the scruff of his neck, out of a hundred and fourteen street fights . .. then I began to think that maybe they'd let him remain on earth for a bit longer, after all."

This is my long-winded way of reminding us all, once again, how many of our fears can be dismissed as groundless.

In the past two days I've had two occasions to reflect on this fact. 1) I got the first bid for repairs on my town home.  It was definitely a lot of money - $11,000 - but vastly less than the "tens of thousands of dollars" friends had predicted: barely even ONE ten, let alone plural tens.  2) I went with a family member for a court date involving a vehicle driven without proof of insurance or up-to-date tags, with a four-point ticket and $500 fine threatened. I expected to spend the whole morning there and to have a tell a long, convoluted (but true) story as we threw ourselves upon the mercy of the court. Instead, we were done in ten minutes, once we produced proof that the car had indeed been insured at the time and the registration had been subsequently renewed.  All we had to pay was a $35 fine for the lapsed tags. Groundless fears in both cases!

I guess one good thing about groundless fears is the enormous relief one experiences when things turn out to be so much better than dreaded.  I would never have found $11,000 a cheering tab for home repairs if I hadn't had dire visions of $35,000.  But in the end, I don't think it's worth it to spend weeks wailing in darkness just to produce that one glad, glorious moment when the clouds are finally dispelled.

Mark Twain is frequently quoted as having said, "I have spent most of my life worrying about things that never happened."  Right now I'm planing on NOT spending any more of my life this way in the coming year.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

"The Only Practical Consolation"

The Spanish existentialist theologian/philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote in his masterwork The Tragic Sense of Life that work is "the only practical consolation for being born."  That is a stronger claim than I'm willing to defend here today, but I do think that work, any kind of work, any kind of activity at all, is a powerful consolation in the face of anxiety and dread.

Right now I'm consumed with anxiety and dread while awaiting the contractor's bid for the huge list of mandatory repairs I've been given from my overbearing HOA for my sweet little townhouse in Boulder. I know it will be bad, but I don't know how bad: ten thousand dollars? twenty thousand? more? Should I prepare to accept it with a sigh, or should I get more bids (well, I know I should do that, but oh, I hate this kind of thing so much!), or should I contact other homeowners to see if we can organize some kind of collective protest, or retain an attorney, or - ?? I want to do something, but I don't know what to do, and I might as well wait until I'm home for the holidays on Saturday, just two days away, right? It's hard enough to do anything at all about this hideous financial and logistical challenge; it's that much harder to do something when I'm a thousand miles away.

So I woke up this morning filled with misery, unable to face the rest of the day, or the week, or the month, or the year, or my life.

But then I remembered that I did have eight papers to grade from students who had turned in their papers early.  I had already read drafts of most of these and given lots of preliminary comments, so grading them would take hardly any time at all.

I could grade those papers!!! 

I made myself my usual mug of Swiss Miss hot chocolate, picked up my favorite Pilot Razor Point fine-tipped black marker pen, and started grading.

Now I have eight papers done, eight papers that I won't need to carry with me on the plane back to Colorado, eight papers that I can cross off my list, eight completed tasks I can show for myself today.

And this horrid HOA mess - in the end, it's only money, and I'm good at coming up with money if I have to.  I call it "willing money into being," and I can do it if I need to. I've done it before. I can do it again.

A woman with eight papers graded already this morning can do pretty much anything.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sudoku Addiction Solved Forever

I have written before about my unfortunate addiction to Sudoku, acquired last summer as I did research for my chapter book Annika Riz, Math Whiz, in which third-grader Annika enters a district-wide Sudoku contest. I felt that I should have the experience of playing Sudoku myself if I was going to write about it convincingly in the book. My sister, Cheryl, herself a math and puzzle whiz, taught me how to play it on my iPad. And then, almost instantly, I became addicted, as I had once been addicted, years ago, to solitaire.

Desperate to break free, I'd delete the free Sudoku app one minute, only to reinstall it the next. I made public vows to give it up only to break those vows hours later. I gave myself Disney princess stickers as a reward for each day spent without playing even one minute of Sudoku. That worked for part of a week.

But now I think I've solved the problem for once and for all - oh, I do think I have!

My addiction is - was! - luckily quite specific. It wasn't to Sudoku generally, but to Sudoku played on my iPad. I was almost ready to give up the iPad altogether to get away from that fatal app. But then I realized yesterday that I could simply do what parents do who don't want their children downloading problematic apps without parental permission: I could restrict access - my OWN access - to the Apple app store.

It was as easy as pie. I had my housemate Julia type in her secret password for the app restriction, a password unknown to me.  Now I can't do Sudoku on my iPad ever again.  If I should need access to the app store for some legitimate reason, I can always email Julia (who leaves for her sabbatical in Germany tomorrow) to retrieve it, but I'm not going to email her to get it just so that I can sink back into Sudoku addiction.

So what I have I learned from this? Some problems require structural solutions. You can try over and over again to fix yourself, OR you can fix your environment so that how you are isn't a problem any more. (This is a point that self-help guru Barbara Sher develops brilliantly in books such as Wishcraft and Live the Life you Love.)The first strategy required that I use all my strength in constant battles of will power against temptation. The second required, in this case, one minute of researching how to block the app and another minute of asking Julia to type her password onto my iPad to set up the restriction.

Now I have the rest of my life to fill with something other than Sudoku. It's lovely to wonder what it will be.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

My Best Party Ever

As readers of this blog know, I like to have a party on the last day of class, and I LOVE if I can have a party featuring themed food that connects with the content of the course. When I teach my Rousseau course, we feast upon crusty baguettes, French and Swiss cheeses, ripe cherries - all foods Jean-Jacques describes mouth-wateringly in his Confessions. For my Feminism and the Family class last spring, where we spent several weeks discussing various parenting practices and sharing stories from our own families of origin, I solicited from the students a list of their childhood favorite foods, which formed the basis for our party snacks.

This year for my Children's Literature course, I outdid myself, with my best and greatest end-of-class party ever. I provided a food offering for every single book we read together, paired with the appropriate quotation from that book.

From The Secret Garden:

The morning that Dickon – after they had been enjoying themselves
in the garden for about two hours – went behind a big rosebush
and brought forth two tin pails and revealed that one was full
of rich new milk with cream on the top of it, and that the other
held cottage-made currant buns folded in a clean blue and white
napkin, buns so carefully tucked in that they were still hot, there
was a riot of surprised joyfulness. What a wonderful thing for
Mrs. Sowerby to think of! What a kind, clever woman she must be!
How good the buns were! And what delicious new milk!

Behold the pails filled with milk and muffins catered from Almost Home. On the left you can see the stockings filled with candy sticks from Little House on the Prairie and the spread of tropical fruit for Morning Girl by Michael Dorris; behind, a glimpse of Bertie Bott's Every-Flavored Bean from Harry Potter. (Oh, the expression on one student's face as she ate the "earthworm"one!).

I was especially proud of how I presented the make-believe food from Peter Pan:

You never exactly knew whether there would be a real meal
or just a make-believe, it all depended on Peter’s whim. . .
Make-believe was so real to him that during a meal of it
you could see him getting rounder.

Some books required a close reading on my part to find anything I could offer at all, such as Monster, Watlter Dean Myers's young adult novel about an African-American young man enmeshed in the criminal justice system after allegedly casing the joint for a drugstore robbery that devolved into a felony murder. All I could come up with was:

I walked into a drug store to look for some mints,and then I walked out. What was wrong with that?I didn’t kill Mr. Nesbitt.  

This was paired with a couple of boxes of Tic-Tacs.

Here is the entire feast laid out for the students' delectation:

Oh, I hope that my students loved the party as much as I did. Perhaps at the end of their long and happy lives, they'll look back on it and say, "I remember this one party that my children's lit professor put on for our class. We had milk in a pail...."  

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Good of Success

I have read many an inspirational essay and heard many a motivational talk on the good of failure: failure frees us from the tyranny of the world's expectations, failure shows that we were willing to take creative risks in the past, failure makes us more willing to take creative risks in the future, failure helps us grow. Samuel Beckett is quoted as saying, "Fail. Fail again. Fail better."

Two days ago I heard a delightful lecture by rock music scholar Glen Gass of Indiana University, speaking on the 45th anniversary of the release of "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." It served as a powerful reminder about the good of success.

The Beatles came to this stage of their career riding a tidal wave of success.  They were rich and famous enough to stop touring, so they could devote months rather than days to the recording of this newest album. (Prof. Gass noted that the album itself in essence became the tour, as listeners felt themselves to be in the live audience for the tour of the fictitious Sergeant Pepper's band). The Beatles could wander the world in search of unusual sources of inspiration: sitar music for George, classical music for Paul. They could call upon the world's finest creative resources to amplify their own creative arsenal: Paul hit upon the idea of using the piccolo trumpet for the instrumental solo in "Penny Lane" (recorded during this same time period), after hearing a performance on the BBC of Bach's Second Brandenburg Concerto - and then the Beatles proceeded to hire the London Philharmonic's piccolo trumpet player to record that solo for them. For the Beatles, success became creative liberation.

Now, so far this post isn't very helpful to those of us who want to protest (as I do): "I'd love to be successful and reap all these creative rewards from it! The problem is that . . . I'm not."  So I want to draw some lessons for myself from this Beatles story about how I can reap some of these benefits of success even without success itself, even as decidedly less than a rock star.

Even in this less-than-stellar state of my career, I can;

1. Work to clear away distractions to give myself space to create on a deeper, richer scale.
2. Open myself to unusual sources of creative inspiration and be willing to bring a wealth of different creative traditions into dialogue in my work.
3. Spend as much time as I can surrounded by other stimulating creative people in a simulating creative environment.

I can do these things, even if I'm not a Beatle. I can! And maybe that will lead me to my own Sergeant Pepper breakthrough. It's worth a try.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Bad Day

I write often about my perfect days. But today I'm here to tell you that some of my days are decidedly imperfect. This is one of them.  I am having a Bad Day.  I wouldn't go so far as to say, as Judith Viorst's Alexander does, that it is a "terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day." But it's a bad, sad, irritating, annoying, soul-wearying day.

The reason I'm sad on this bad day is that I got the annual inspection email from my homeowners organization for my sweet little house in Boulder, and this is what it had on it - all listed as items that have to be dealt with by March 1:

Replace siding and trim on east and south facing walls inside patio;
replace garage door jamb and trim on left side of garage door;
replace fascia at top of south-facing wall in patio going up to firewall;
replace 1 x 2 trim at top of east-facing firewall;
replace north-facing siding on top of firewall and replace top of firewall;
replace east-facing lower sheet on firewall in front;
remove 4 x 6 window trim under north-facing windows and window to left of front door;
replace west-facing chimney siding and trim on chimney;
replace upper chimney siding on north-facing section;
replace beams above front door;
replace roof

My friend Julia thought it was a particularly nice touch to add "replace roof" almost as an afterthought, a postscript, a "by the way one more little thing" addendum to the list.

If I wanted I could write volumes about how much I hate living in a house governed by HOA covenants, especially ones that are enforced with such nitpicking pettiness. I could write about inconsistencies in the inspections. I could write about how hard it is going to be for me to deal with these things while living in Indiana.  I could write about what it's going to cost - oh, and all of this is in addition to the $1250 special assessment for the collective painting of our units, for which this lovely email is a preparation. But I won't write about those things here.

Instead I'm going to write about how to deal with a bad day. I did this once before in a post last June, entitled "Don't Make It Worse." (The title is largely self-explanatory). Today I tried to do some comforting things like teach my beloved class (but the room was unbearably hot because the outdoor temperature on this December day is in the 70s, and the heat was on in the room and couldn't be turned off) or eat bread pudding at the Blue Door Cafe (but when I walked over there it was closed for some kind of electricity malfunction). No comfort for me on this sad, bad day!

So what I'm doing about this particular bad day is just accepting that some days, such as this one, are going to be bad. "Mama told me there'd be days like this, there's be days like this, my mama said (Mama said, Mama said)" goes the song. Judith Viorst's famous picture book has Alexander fantasizing about moving to Australia to escape his woes and then realizing that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days can happen even there. It isn't some terrible plot against me on the part of the universe (or even of the homeowners organization) that led to this bad day. Well, maybe it IS a terrible plot against me on the part of the homeowners association.... But the fact is that life just has bad days in it sometimes.

I read a line from a neo-Buddhist spiritual guide a few years ago, which took off on the title of the 1970s best seller, I'm Okay, You're Okay. The neo-Buddhist version of this stock line was: You're not okay - but that's okay.

It's okay to have bad days sometimes. "Is it for one bad day that you accuse the universe?" my favorite Stoic philosopher Epictetus would say. How right you are, Epictetus. I don't need to accuse the universe because of a comically awful home inspection report from my HOA.

The universe is fine. I'm fine. And bad days, in their way, are okay, too.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

December Pleasures

This is the time of year when my heart is most torn between missing the Christmas pleasures of Colorado (the Anthem-Aires holiday program at church, a performance of Duke Ellington's jazzy Nutcracker Suite by my son Gregory's University of Colorado jazz band down at Dazzle) and savoring the Christmas pleasures of Indiana. I'm trying to do more of the latter than the former, as I'm working and living in Indiana for two more weeks before flying home to Colorado for winter break, and if I get a choice between feeling sad and feeling happy, I might as well go with feeling happy.

So here are my holiday pleasures so far this weekend. Well, not all of these are holiday pleasures; some are writing pleasures, or fun-with-friends pleasures. But they are all Indiana pleasures, and they are all pleasant indeed.

Yesterday morning I lolled around for a bit with my housemate Julia and her little boy Alex and then headed off to the annual cookie sale at Gobin church, on campus. For four dollars I purchased an empty small coffee can covered with Santa Claus wrapping paper and donned a plastic glove. Then I walked up and down the long table filled with dozens and dozens of different kinds of homemade Christmas cookies and filled my can to the brim.

Next I went on a writing research jaunt to check out the historic general store in the tiny town of Cataract, around 20 miles away. Julia and Alex came with me. I'm groping toward a book that is set in rural Indiana, with some scenes occurring in a general store in the past, so this was a trip I've been meaning to make for months. Plus, the store was for sale - might I want to buy it and begin a whole new life as an Indiana shopkeeper? I've pretty much decided against this career change, but did purchase an enormous pickle for fifty cents from an old-fashioned pickle barrel, as well as 24 candy sticks for my class party coming up this Friday (details to come!).

After that I was off to the Putnam County Museum for some more research, where I purchased two books, one a series of vignettes on Greencastle history and one a collection of period photographs. I spent the next couple of hours reading them at the Blue Door Cafe while eating a huge slab of their unbelievably good bread pudding.

Then it was time to meet my friend Rachel for dinner at Almost Home, where we were regaled by holiday carolers from the College of Music - then off to Gobin Church for the Exalt Gospel Choir concert/worship service, and then off to the Green Center for the Performing Arts for the campus Holiday Gala, where I heard the funniest-ever rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (complete with an increasingly strained thank you note read aloud for each unwelcome gift).

Today so far I've had pumpkin waffles for breakfast with Julia and Alex and two of Julia's history department colleagues, and worship for this first Sunday of Advent at Gobin Church, and shortly we'll head off to the children's museum in Terre Haute for the four-year-old birthday party of the beloved daughter of other dear friends.

So even as my heart is breaking over missing out on the sweet joys of Christmas in Colorado, it's full to bursting form the sweet joys of Christmas in Indiana. And in the end, I'll get to have plenty of both.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Making Grading Fun

Most college professors would say that the single worst part of our job is grading. I don't actually think this is true: the single worst part of our job is nasty, petty academic politics. That part of our job wouldn't exist at all in an ideal world, whereas even in an ideal world we would still need to evaluate the work of our students - though in an ideal world, I don't think we'd be GRADING their work, writing that fateful A or B+ or B/B- on the bottom of the page, but making constructive and encouraging comments to help our students learn. But even in an ideal world it might feel like a bit of a slog to be trudging through that stack of papers awaiting attention on our desks.

Here at DePauw teaching this children's literature class, I have finally found a way of making grading fun. Some of the conditions for this are not easily reproducible: teach subject matter that you love to a small class of highly motivated students who already come into the class loving the subject matter as much as you do.  I don't know if I'll ever in my life have these conditions as amply met as I have here.  But the other strategies I've found are strategies I could use almost anywhere.

First is to follow the best advice on grading I've ever received, from a former graduate student: "Assign papers that you yourself would enjoy reading." This means for me NOT assigning the identical paper topic to everyone with no latitude for individual choice and imagination. For this class I've let my students choose what to write about. For each paper they have a choice of three or four texts to analyze, and I give them for each text six or seven prompts to start their thinking - but they can also write on a text-related topic of their own or tailor my prompts to their individual interests. So I'll have a sociology student writing about social stratification in Harry Potter; I'll have an English major writing an elegant essay on the construction of the idea of home in Peter Pan; I'll have a football player (yes!) writing about the voice of the wicked queen's mirror as the voice of patriarchy in Snow White.  Each essay is different, so I read each one eagerly to see what I will find.

Second is to read drafts ahead of time so that the papers I get to grade are at a far higher level than they would be otherwise. I won't take drafts home with me to read: that would be like grading the papers twice - the horror! Instead, I offer generous office hours where I meet with students one on one to talk through paper ideas, outlines, and drafts. I am a fast reader, so in five minutes I can tell a student what she needs to do to frame her paper in such a way to answer the feared "So what?" question from the reader - how to state her thesis more clearly and crisply - which objections to her own position/reading she needs to consider. The downside of this is that the grades get too high, but I don't mind giving good grades to students who have written exquisite papers. And then when I sit down to grade I have the pleasure of writing in the margins, "Good point!" "Excellent analysis!" "Brilliant observation!"

The final strategy is to do the grading in a pleasant environment with a comforting beverage at hand. I got through quite a few papers in this last batch at the airport bar at DIA as I awaited my flight from Denver back to Indianapolis.  How I love sitting in an airport bar!  I did others sitting at home in the glow of the newly set up Christmas tree with a mug of my favorite Swiss Miss hot chocolate beside me.

So this semester I can honestly say I have enjoyed grading my students' papers. And a delicious set of final essays is still to come....

Sunday, November 25, 2012

In praise of work

The holiday season is the time I most often hear people say, "The only thing that matters in life is friends and family!" Or: "At the end of our lives, no one ever says, I wish I had spent more time at the office."

I am here to write in praise of work.

Yes, friends and family matter to me.  Perhaps they matter most.  But they are not ALL that matters, not by a long shot.  I took a walk with one of my friends the other day. Like me, like most of us, her Thanksgiving with her family had been decidedly "mixed": some good, some bad. In her case, the bad was overwhelming in her thoughts at the moment.  She wailed to me, "The only thing I ever wanted was a happy family, and I didn't get it!"

I wanted a happy family, too. Sometimes my family is happy, and sometimes we're not. But this is not the ONLY thing I ever wanted.

I also wanted to write. I love writing deeply and fiercely. I love writing because it is a a creative activity that brings me great joy, and it's also an activity that is completely under my control. I can't control how the world receives my writing - whether I get published or whether my books, once published, garner awards and sales. I can't even control the quality of my writing - I know I can't write a book as good as I'd like for my books to be.  But I can control the quantity of my writing, and the frequency, and I can learn all I can to make my books as good as I can possibly make them. I have truly loved every single hour over the last five decades that I've spent with pen in hand, putting words on paper.

At the end of my life, guess what?  I'm going to say that I wish I had written even more books, I wish I written even better books, I wish I had stuffed my life even more full of the creative joy of writing.

I'm going to hope my family and friends are beside me at that hour, too, and I'm going to tell them how much I love them, and how I wish I had been a better wife, parent, sister, friend.  I'm going to hope I meet them on the other side, in that bright and beautiful place.

But I hope that in Heaven, I'll be writing, too.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Five Books

A few years ago, I overheard two colleagues get into a bragging contest about who was busier.  The object of the contest was to determine who had the better excuse for not serving on some hideous, horrid university committee.

"I can't possibly do it," the first one said. "I have to finish writing my book."

"Well, I have to finish writing TWO books," said the other.

This memory popped into my head this morning when I realized that right now I have to finish writing five books. Admittedly the work on some of them is extremely minor. Still, five books makes quite a long list for the purposes of academic excuse-mongering.

Here are the five books, all in different stages of completion:

1. I have to read the second-pass page proofs on my novel Zero Tolerance, due out next June. The FSG editing team and I already read the first-pass proofs, but I still found so many tiny things we had missed. How I hate words repeated in close proximity! "His eyes on fell on her." "Her eyes lit up." Grotesque!

2. I have the edited manuscript of Annika Riz, Math Whiz to review and revise from editorial comments. This is the second editorially prompted revision on the manuscript, so this time around I mainly need to sort out a bunch of logistics for cookie baking, lemonade-stand sign making, and Sudoku puzzle timing.

3. I need to revise the rough draft of Izzy Barr, Running Star, which I completed last  month. This one needs a LOT of work, and I have until February to do it, but I'd like at least to have the first two chapters in decent shape to share with my Boulder writing group this weekend (there is no point in wasting their time critiquing things I can easily fix myself).

4. If I'm going to have a book in the pipeline after Zero Tolerance, Annika Riz, and Izzy Barr, I need to start writing one now.  I think I've hit upon an idea I love, and I've started to work my way through the handwritten first draft. I had a breakthrough re the plot when I was in Oregon, so now I'm wild to curl up to write, write, write.

5. The fifth book is not a book I'm writing, but editing - a collection of papers on ethics and children's literature, drawn from the conference I hosted in September, with a few other papers added, including one by me, which remains to be written, and an introduction by me, which also is not currently in existence but will need to be in existence sometime in the next few months, to send off to the publisher who is expecting it next summer. And along the way there will be nagging of contributors, reading of their manuscripts, offering of helpful editorial comments, more nagging for the subsequent revisions, and more.

So: five books. If anyone asks me to be on a hideous, horrible university committee, I have my excuse at the ready. But I'm never happier than when I have a book to write. And I'm five times happier having five.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Still Lucky

I've said before that I'm a lucky person. I'm never sick. My flights are always on time. When Plan A falls through, Plan B often works out even better. This doesn't mean that my life hasn't been marred by terrible tragedy. Luck is not the same thing as immunity to the human condition. But overall my luck has been pretty remarkable.

My travel plans yesterday were: fly from Eugene to Salt Lake City, fly from Salt Lake City to Indianapolis, get home around midnight (the time change flying west to east doesn't work in one's favor), sleep, get up, teach my beloved children's literature class, then go directly back to the airport to fly to Denver for Thanksgiving break with my family. I didn't even bother checking the flight status online before I left Lorena's house for the airport, because my flights are always on time. When I got to the airport, the monitor said my flight was on time. Of course it was, because my flights are always on time.

But as the scheduled moment for boarding drew near, it became apparent that something was wrong, and that this particular flight was NOT going to be on time. An announcement was made about "mechanical difficulties" that might take a while to fix. (We found out only later that the reason the repairs took so long was the mechanic had to be summoned from Portland!). An hour or two later, it became apparent that many if not most of us would miss our connecting flights. An announcement was made that we should start hoping very hard that our flight didn't get canceled altogether, because if it did, there were NO available seats on ANY flights by ANY airlines out of Eugene all week, because of the Thanksgiving holiday crush.

We all lined up to work on our respective Plan Bs. (I have to say that throughout the whole episode, the Delta staff at the gate couldn't have been more helpful and sympathetic). I learned that there was no way now that I could get any connecting flight from Salt Lake to Indy that would get me back to DePauw in time to teach my beloved students. WAHH!!!! Tearfully, I emailed them to cancel class.

But Plan B turned out to be not without its own charms. There now being no point whatsoever to my flying to Indy, I arranged to fly directly from Salt Lake to Denver. The flight from Eugene did indeed take off four hours late, to cheers from all of us. I spent the night as Delta's guest at a pleasant airport hotel by the Salt Lake City airport and had a most tasty sandwich at a restaurant that stayed open just to welcome our group of "distressed passengers."

Now I'm at the airport for my 6:50 a.m. flight to Denver, which will get me home hours and hours before I would have arrived on Plan A. I'm still heartbroken about missing my class (after all, I had been willing to fly all the way across the country at considerable expense just to teach it), but there is a strange relief that comes in that moment when one bows to what can't be otherwise. And a few extra hours of holiday time at home is sweet compensation.

So it's no longer true that my flights are always on time. What's true is that my flights are ALMOST always on time, and that when they aren't, the rest of my life turns out to be still a good life, anyway. And that's what I call being a lucky person.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Writing vs. Gymnastics

I spent yesterday at a junior gymnastics meet, the southern sectionals for the state of Oregon, in Coos Bay.

Well, much of the day wasn't spent at the meet itself. It was spend driving there, past fields of impossibly green grass nibbled by picturesque sheep, past blueberry farms, past forests of towering evergreens, past a lighthouse on Oregon's rocky coast (the coast kept discomfiting me by being on the RIGHT-hand side of the road as we drove south, unlike the New Jersey coast of my childhood). We also made stops at a little bookstore/cafe so I could see if they had any of my books (they did! so I am now three-for-three at Oregon bookstores - thank you, Oregon!), and at a huge candy store (Cranberry Sweets) to see if they had any fudge (they did! and amazing samples of everything,  best of all: chocolate-covered cranberry jellies - oh, my!). But the heart of the day was the gymnastics meet.

How these strong, graceful, and determined girls can do what they do is of course astonishing - where the hardest part of what they do is not even back flips off uneven parallel bars, but weathering inevitable disappointments with grace.  I came away from the day enormously impressed, but also enormously grateful that I am a writer instead of a gymnast.

Here are ten of the reasons why:

1. I can perfect my work at home in private before I ever have to show it to anybody in public.
2. When I do show it to people in public, it stays fixed in the form I gave to it in private.
3. There is no risk of physical injury (except for the time I broke my tooth while chewing on my pen).
4. There is no need to wear form-revealing clothing (a flannel nightgown does just fine).
5. No particular body type is preferred ("elegant lines" are written on the page, not displayed on a balance beam).
6. My fear of heights is never engaged (unless I choose to write a scene that engages it, which I now pledge never to do).
7. Scoring is much less precisely calibrated: no 8.95 or 6.94 to drive me crazy (though I guess some writers drive themselves crazy with their sales ranking - so I might need to withdraw this one....)
8. What scores I do get (such as rejections, reviews, or royalty statements), I see in my own home where I can cry alone in peace.
9. I can do the work that matters most at the time of day where I am freshest and best: in my case, at five o'clock in the morning,
10. There is no one single moment of my day that is ever a defining moment for the day, let alone for my career.

It's this last one that is most striking to me. It was so hard to watch girls who had trained so hard for so many months have it all come down to a vault that was over in a matter of seconds, or one wobble on that oh-so-narrow beam.

For writers there IS one moment that is decisive, and it is decisive every single day, but in a very different way. It's the simply the moment when we pick up the pen and actually begin writing.