Thursday, November 28, 2013

Life With and Without Family

All right, I'll say it: one of the reasons why I was so happy during my two years in Indiana was that I was living a thousand miles away from my family. I still came home to see them all the time, of course: fall break, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Gregory's recital, spring break, Mother's Day, the whole summer. When there were problems to be dealt with, I did my best to deal with them at a distance. But "at a distance" is so different from "all day, every day."

In Indiana, I had no meowing cat begging for breakfast at 4 a.m. I had nobody asking, "What's for dinner?" I had nobody caring where I went or what I did. I went out every evening to talks, concerts, book group meetings, without a particle of guilt. I did whatever I wanted to do whenever I wanted to do it. I lived in a tiny rented house my first year, and a tiny rented room in a rented house my second year, both furnished with the belongings of other professors off on sabbatical. All I had brought with me from Colorado fit easily in my Chevy Aveo, and most of that was just books for work. I was so light and unencumbered. I was so free.

Today, Thanksgiving morning, I'm also waking up in a small house (1500 square feet). But I'm not waking up alone. In this small house live me,  Snickers-the-cat, my former/current husband, my older son and his wife, now pregnant with their baby due in March, and her little dog, Tank. My younger son is home from college for the break. So there are five humans, two other non-human animals, and the last two ants who are still alive in my ant farm. I've already been dragged out of bed to feed Snickers her breakfast. I have a fridge stuffed full of food to feed everyone else.

We're having a Thanksgiving brunch today and the big feast tomorrow, as today Christopher and Ashley are going down to her uncle's mid-day for a huge family gathering. So I'm producing not one but two big holiday meals this year. I'm back to trying to make sure that other people are having fun. I'm back to trying to make sure that other people are happy.

Right now I'm happy, too. Happy and grateful.

I'm grateful that I had two whole years without my family.

Now I'm grateful that I have my family back again.

I'm grateful that it's good to be alone.

I'm grateful that it's good to be in close connection with others.

One of my favorite lines of poetry ever is from Ezra Pound: "Thank you, whatever comes."  Aloneness or togetherness, freedom or commitment, peaceful quiet or joyous hustle-and-bustle, English muffin and jam for dinner all by myself in Indiana, or crowded table groaning under a Thanksgiving celebration here in Colorado.

Thank you.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

What Was the Last Time You Had a True Vacation?

This weekend begins Thanksgiving break for me, and for many. Some friends from church are in Hawaii for the week, posting beautiful pictures on Facebook of themselves festooned with leis smiling in front of a backdrop of sea and sunset. My sister is just heading home from a week with her husband in Disney World, with photos of luscious breakfasts, lunches, and dinners displayed on Facebook as well. A colleague and his wife are off to Paris. Another friend is back from a trek to Thailand and Myanmar.

Me? I'm staying right here.

I'm trying to remember the last time I had a true vacation. What counts as a vacation can be disputed, of course, but I'm thinking of a trip, just for the sake of a trip, taken with friends or family, where the point of the whole thing is adventure, relaxation, or just plain fun. I think my last vacation, defined in that way, may have been a trip we took as a family to Vienna during Thanksgiving week of 2006; we had Thanksgiving dinner on a day outing to Bratislava, Slovakia. I also had a long weekend in New York City four years ago with Christopher and his then-girlfriend to celebrate his 21st birthday, as he decided he needed to have his first legal drink at the Waldorf Astoria sitting next to Cole Porter's piano, and so that's what we did.

I've had tons of other trips, of course. I took Gregory and his then-girlfriend to California to look at colleges. I taught a children's literature course for a week in Taiwan in 2009. I attended a children's literature conference summer before last in China, with plenty of sightseeing included. I fly nearly once a month somewhere or other. This fall I did a school visit in Missouri and a whole week of school visits in Fairfax County, Virginia, where I also caught up with dear friends from my University of Maryland days. I have upcoming conference trips to Chicago and San Diego. I get around.

But all my trips involve work as well as play. They are trips with a purpose, not trips just because. I'm trying to decide if this is bad or good. On the one hand, there is something to be said for turning off the work part of our selves once in a while; that's why God commands us to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. A true vacation turns off the work part of our selves for weeks at a time. But there's also something to be said for integrating work with the rest of our lives. A trip has an extra little fillip of excitement for me if I can also give a talk, or do some book research, or even just stop into a bookstore and see if they have my books. In the end, I think I prefer mixing work and play.

This is good, as my upcoming retirement from my university position means that I'll have a lot less money for pure play. Work AND play will have to be the order of the day. Right this minute, I think that's okay.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Happy Thoughts In La Junta

I'm writing this from my motel room in La Junta, Colorado, where I'm spending the day doing four assemblies for grades three through six at La Junta Intermediary School. When I eagerly accepted the invitation I didn't realize quite how far away La Junta is from Boulder: a three-and-a-half hour drive south and east across the plains. But the drive last night was lovely. I do adore seeing signs that warn drivers that there are no services at all for the next seventy-five miles! For all that I am such a gregarious extrovert, something in me comes alive when I drive through such open expanses of land.

The school promised me a fixed sum of payment for honorarium and expenses, out of which I would make my own travel arrangements. So I had every incentive to economize on where I would say. I could have booked a room at the Hampton Inn outside of town. I stay often in Hampton Inns; their beds are divinely comfortable, and a hot breakfast is included in the price. But the price for a room at the Hampton Inn, even in La Junta, was $109 for the night, plus tax. So I booked instead at the Travel Inn, for $45 plus tax.

The night before I left I began to feel a tad uneasy about my choice. While some reader reviews praised the friendly management, one of the reviews made an accusation of bed bugs! I do draw the line at bed bugs! But that customer seemed to have an axe to grind, angry that the management had taken him to task for rowdiness in his room that bothered other customers: I'm on the side of management there. So I decided to believe the management when they replied indignantly and emphatically to this online complaint: "No bug in hotel!"

I arrived here last night a bit past six. The folks at the desk were every bit as friendly and welcoming as promised, eager to give me a dinner suggestion for a cheery Mexican restaurant a mile or so away. While all the pricier hotels are on a commercial strip just outside of town, mine is right downtown, directly across from the railroad station, around the corner from the main downtown street. The room has cinder block construction and unpretentious decor (well, no decor, really), but it is clean and comfortable, with nary a bed bug in sight.

No breakfast was included, but that meant I could walk a block to the Copper Kitchen Cafe for hot chocolate with whipped cream, one egg over easy, and half an order of french toast with syrup. The glass-covered tablecloth on my table was patterned with teapots and curlicue handwriting reading "Cup of kindness."

Including the cost of the breakfast, plus tip, I still came out fifty dollars ahead of staying in the Hampton Inn, plus had the fun of being right downtown, plus had that delicious french toast.

Faith over fear! It works almost every time.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Sometimes I Love My Job

Perhaps the single most fun thing I do at my job as a professor at the University of Colorado is to serve as a judge of the Graduate Teaching Excellence Award. Most of our graduate students have an opportunity to teach as they proceed toward earning their doctorates, first as TAs (Teaching Assistants) leading a discussion or lab session of a large lecture course taught by a professor, and then as GPTIs (Graduate Part-Time Instructors) teaching their own course on a par with the faculty. Each department is invited to nominate its top graduate student teachers (maximum of two each year) for a campus-wide teaching award. The judges, drawn from many different disciplines and departments, then drop in to observe the nominated classes in order to cast their vote for the winners.

So as one of the judges I get the pleasure of sitting in on classes in all kinds of subjects taught by some of the best teachers anywhere.

I always sign up for observation slots early, so I can get the classes that look most luscious. This fall I observed two classes from Theater and Dance, one from Political Science, one from Education, and one from Linguistics. My only regret is that there weren't any nominees this season from French, as I do adore brushing up on those tenses!

I loved all five classes. In a class on the history of musical theater, I learned about the "concept musical," musicals such as Caberet, Chicago, and The Scottsboro Boys, which tie the musical numbers to the advancement of some underlying theme - e..g, in Chicago, cynical commentary on the American criminal justice system. In a class on dance narrative movies, I learned how to analyze film scenes in terms of composition, cinematography, film editing, and art direction: oh, how I wish I could write the assigned paper now - I am so ready! The political science class brought this pitiful non-consumer of news media up to speed on drone strikes in Pakistan and the civil war in Syria. The class on school and society showed me how a brilliant teacher can elicit remarkably candid sharing from diverse students about their own K-12 educational experiences. And in the linguistics class, I learned about the 841 languages (!) of Papua New Guinea, the most linguistically diverse country in the world.

It was a joy to be a student again, scribbling notes. It was all I could do not to raise my hand to ask questions and give my own thoughts in response to provocative queries. I learned so much in the course of the five hours I spent doing these observations. And I even got paid for doing it.

Now comes the un-fun part, of course: having to choose the winners. I so want everybody to win. But that won't happen until the spring, and we can give up to ten awards, and other judges will be weighing in, too, so I won't have to make this agonizing decision all alone.

I'll miss judging this award more than any other single thing when I leave my CU job at the end of this academic year. But you know what? I seem to remember that another retired professor continued to serve on the committee for years after his date of official termination. And I can also be a senior auditor, taking advantage of the chance to sit in on fascinating classes like this not for just one hour, but for an entire semester. The single most delicious part of my job can still continue.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Wasted Day?

Yesterday was a day I'd looked forward to for a long time: a whole day at home with nothing to do but write. I teach at the university MWF and try to keep Tuesday/Thursday free for writing, but it's hard enough to protect Tuesday/Thursday as days I don't trek into my office for talks or meetings, let alone days that don't fill up with LTs (Loathsome Tasks) that simply have to be done. But yesterday stretched ahead before me "like a land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new."

And then I proceeded to waste most of it.

Well, first I went for a walk with my friend Rowan, which is hardly a waste of time. Exercise and friendship are important, and exercise in conjunction with friendship is a delight. But afterward I faced just a few LTs, associated with my position as president of the scholarly Children's Literature Association. It was a thrill to be asked to preside for a year over such a wonderful organization, one I love so much, but once I said yes, that meant that my life could never again, for this year, be an entirely LT-free zone.

A few LTs crossed off my list, I meant to settle down to write, but first I indulged my sudoku addiction for just a little while, to clear my palette. By now it was time for lunch. Then after lunch I did try to write and managed a couple of dreadful pages, but their dreadfulness got me discouraged. Checking my email every few minutes, I saw that I had gotten a couple of work-related messages that left me still more discouraged, so I did some more sudoku to cheer myself up. By five o'clock the flaming ruins of my wasted day were such a depressing sight that I could hardly force myself to get up off the couch to go finish up some leftover Halloween candy for dinner. All that was left to complete the "darkling plain" of my day that had "neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain" was a few hours more of sudoku, and then it was time for bed.

Oh, what a tragic waste of so many of life's precious hours!

But this morning, guilt-stricken and determined to do better, I leaped from bed at 5:00, made myself my Swiss Miss hot chocolate, and turned to finishing chapter two of draft one of the Nora ant farm book. I read over what I had written yesterday. Those pages weren't so terrible, after all. I resumed my scribbling. More pages appeared, stronger, funnier than yesterday's pages. One wise friend likes to say that in order to get the clear water to flow from the tap, you have to release the brown water first. Today's water was clear, no tinge of brown at all. Now I'm on fire to write this thing. Now the magic is starting to happen.

So maybe yesterday wasn't a totally worthless day. Maybe it was a necessary brown water day.

A brown water day with about nine hours too much of sudoku in it.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

National HALF Novel Writing Month

Lately some of my Facebook friends are posting cryptic numbers as their status update. 2578. 2319. Or: "2765 plus shiny stove." 

What can this mean?

Because they are fellow writers, I know it means that they are participating in National Novel Writing Month, abbreviated NaNoWriMo, a program where folks commit themselves to write an entire 50,000 word novel from start to finish in the month of November - a month, I might add, that has only 30 days, including Thanksgiving, at that. It's a wonderfully liberating exercise: the 50,000 words don't have to be good, they just have to be written down and toted up. So it's the perfect antidote to the paralysis of perfectionism. Yet, as often as not, people who sign up for NaNoWriMo find that their 50,000 frantically dashed off, carelessly crafted words end up being pretty darned good, after all. (And a lot of kitchens get cleaned as people try to postpone the toil of meeting their daily word quota.)

I have never participated in NaNoWriMo, although I've been sorely tempted. But this year I have my own alternative writing commitment for the month of November: writing the first book for my new chapter book series, The Nora Notebooks, the book tentatively titled The Trouble with Ants. (This is the series about the serious, scientific girl who has an ant farm.) My contract specifies that the book is to have 25,000 words, or about 125 manuscript pages. It's due December 15, which means I have to write it in November so that I can revise it during the first half of December. As of this moment, 10:00 a.m. on Thursday, November 7, I haven't really started. All I have is the synopsis and first chapter that I submitted to Knopf/Random House months ago to get the contract

But, hey, 25,000 words is only HALF as much as my fellow writers are churning out for NaNoWriMo. So I'd be fine even if I started on November 15, right? But I'm not going to start on November 15. I'm going to start today, as soon as I click PUBLISH for this blog post.

So if you're a Facebook friend of mine, and you see strange numbers appearing in my posts, now you'll know why. It will mean that I've written that many words today about a girl and her ant farm.

Ready, set, write!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Wages of Niceness

I spent all day yesterday as one of six volunteer judges for the regional Ethical Bowl competition held at the University of Colorado, under the auspices of the CU philosophy department. Ethics Bowl, according to the website of its sponsor, the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, is a program in which "teams argue and defend their moral assessment of some of the most troubling and complex ethical issues facing society today. Questions address a wide array of topics in business and professional ethics, in personal relationships, and in social and political affairs."

The students receive the fifteen competition cases in advance and over a period of several weeks analyze them together. Some of the cases for yesterday's regional competition included: should it be a criminal offense not to disclose one's HIV-infection to a potential sexual partner? is it hypocritical for devoted pet owners to eat meat, thereby favoring one sentient species over another? is it permissible for a middle school to cancel its graduation over objections to prayer at the ceremony, rather than simply removing the prayer? is it morally justifiable to air advertisements stigmatizing childhood obesity with the intention of pressuring parents of obese children to seek treatment for them? The competition is not structured as a "for-or-against" situation, where one team defends a "yes" answer to each question while the other team defends a "no." Instead, both teams are judged on the depth, clarity, thoroughness, and insightfulness of their analysis of the ethical issues involved.

So, because I think Ethics Bowl is a terrific program, and because I was so involved with it during my two years at DePauw (our DePauw team was the national champion last year, an amazing achievement for a small college competing against dozens and dozens of other schools of all sizes nationwide), I agreed to serve as a judge this time around.  I also just want to be a nice person, and nice people help when they can, where they are needed.

Then I found out that I'd have to be there at 8 in the morning on a Saturday and have to judge five rounds, ending at almost 6. There went half my weekend!

I complained to one friend: "Isn't there any way to be a nice person without actually having to spend your precious time doing nice things?"

I already knew the answer: no.

So off I went bright and early yesterday morning. As soon as I arrived at the Ethics Bowl venue, it all came back to me, everything I love so much about Ethics Bowl. The students arrived, from University of Nebraska (two teams), Fort Lewis College, Colorado State, and our own team from CU. Two of the teams had driven seven hours to get there. The students had worked so hard to prepare their cases, on top of all their other coursework. They were all dressed up to show themselves at their best. They were ready to talk ethics!

I loved every minute of hearing their thoughts on each case. I loved formulating my questions to ask them in response (one role for the judges). The lunch, a Mexican make-your-own-burrito buffet, was delicious. I was dismissed early, as fewer judges were needed for the final round, and the University of Colorado team was one of the finalists, so it would have been inappropriate (unethical?) for me to judge my own school, if this could be avoided. I came home sooner than I had expected, exhilarated, more in love with Ethics Bowl than ever.

So it turns out that the reward for being a nice person, at least some of the time, just is that you get to do the nice thing itself. And isn't that nice?

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Ant Farm Blues

Here is a very crooked photo of my very new ant farm.

Why, you may ask, have I acquired an ant farm? And why do so many of the ants in it look dead?

Let me explain.

Last May I went to NYC to visit my sister, Cheryl, and her bookseller husband, Carey, and to go with them to the book-lovers extravaganza that is Book Expo America, held at the Javits Convention Center on the West Side of Manhattan. I figured that while I was there I should try to meet up with my agent and editors, so I set up a breakfast with Nancy Hinkel of Knopf/Random House, a lunch with Margaret Ferguson of FSG, and a chat with my agent Stephen Fraser, where we spent most of our time talking about George MacDonald's Victorian children's novel At the Back of the North Wind, the topic of the master's thesis he wrote for his graduate program in children's literature at Simmons College some years ago (I love having an agent who adores Victorian children's literature as much as I do).

At my breakfast with Nancy Hinkel, we tossed about possible ideas for my next book for Random House, and she said that she'd be interested in seeing what I could do with my character Nora, who appears in my three Mason Dixon books. In contrast to ever-pessimistic Mason and ever-optimistic Brody, Nora is the calm, clear-eyed, serious, sensible scientist who is always thinking of new experiments to do with her ant farm.  "I could use a book about a girl with an ant farm," Nancy told me.

That was all I needed to hear. I worked up a proposal for a three-book series, The Nora Notebooks. I wrote the sample chapter for the first book, The Trouble with Ants, while I was up in Silverthorne last August on retreat with my writing group. During our flood of the century here in Boulder last September, I got word that Nancy loved the proposal. While I was away doing a week of school visits in October, I got word that the formal offer for the series had come through, with very tight deadlines: all three 25,000 word books to be done by this coming June, the first due December 15.

It was time to get serious about writing. Step one was to get serious about setting myself up as an ant farmer. I ordered Uncle Milton's ant farm online, and it arrived on Thursday, a worrisome day, as it was quite cold, and live arrival of the ants was not guaranteed in temperatures below 40 degrees. But I saw them scurrying around quite lively in their little tube.

With the help of my son Christopher and my daughter-in-law, Ashley, the ant farm was set up. Sand was poured in and moistened with water. The instructions called for a quarter cup of water, which seemed like an awful lot, so I put in less; in retrospect that was a mistake. The ants -  the brochure that came with them warned that they are stinging ants - were transferred with great fear and trembling into their abode to get to work doing fascinating ant activities.

Yesterday morning they were alive. But yesterday afternoon, their first try at a tunnel collapsed. Was the sand too dry? I added more water, hoping I wouldn't drown them. My husband reassured me that in nature, after all, ants do experience sudden downpours.

This morning, however, I have to report that most of them appear to be non-living.

I can order replacement ants. But it's definitely a disheartening beginning. Of course, a true scientist like Nora wouldn't be daunted at all. She'd be eager to order more ants, alter the variables, test for the most favorable conditions, graph the number of living and dead ants under each configuration. I need to channel Nora!

But first I may need to have an ant funeral.