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.