Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Despite being generally poor at math, I have my own strange fixation on counting things, usually in multiples of five.

As I take the Skip home from the university, I count the next five bus stops; if I drive, I count the next five traffic lights. I plan out five episodes of happiness for myself every day. In my head I chant lists of five things to look forward to, five things I'm worried about right now, and five possible nice things that could happen. As I fold laundry, I count the things I fold, five of this, five of that. When I'm very very tired, which is most nights before bedtime, I tell myself, "Just take off five things." And then the daunting task of getting undressed is almost done, and I'm ready to put on my nightgown and crawl into bed.

I am now into major countdown mode for the end of the semester and the end of my my teaching job at CU, though I can't quite fit it all into fives. I have two more teaching days in the semester: tomorrow and Friday. I have four  more classes total. Then there is a week of finals, and three weeks of teaching Maymester, which has thirteen days of classes, three hours a day. So I do have five more weeks total of my job, counting this week, which has the beginning nibbled off of it now, but still has most of it left. I have five more straggler papers left to grade from the last batch for my Ethical Theory class (the other 35 graded in multiples of five-a-day, of course).

Between now and the end of May, when my job ends, I also have an entire book to write, the third book in the Nora series. I'll make a plan soon for counting down the chapters, beginning at the writing retreat I'm attending this coming Saturday. I also have to write the commencement address I'm giving for the Philosophy Department graduation ceremonies a week from Friday and the sermon I'm giving in church on Mother's Day. Shall I try to come up with the five things I loved most about philosophy to celebrate as I'm leaving it? Or the five reasons why I find Mother's Day my least favorite holiday?

I have to make a list of all the fun things I'm going to do with my high school friend Kim, who is visiting from New Jersey for three days next week. Surely I can find at least five wonderful things for us to do: lunch at the little mountain town of Morrison (where I can also deliver some signed books from the school visit I did at Red Rocks Elementary last month); an outing to the Modern Masters exhibit at the Denver Art Museum; happy hour at the deliciously French Brasserie-Ten-Ten with Kim and Rowan; strolling through the Wednesday evening farmers' market and finding impromptu dinner options there; hiking on the trails by my house. There, that's five right there!

And so the countdown continues.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Last Hurrah

Years ago, on a family trip to Washington, D.C., I told the boys that this trip was going to be the last hurrah of our practice of buying beanie babies on every vacation (and for every Christmas, birthday, Easter, and other occasion). We'd buy ONE more beanie baby in the nation's capitol, as our last hurrah of beanie-baby-buying. Every day on the trip the boys would ask me, "Is this the day we get the hurrah?" The day came when the answer was yes. That little bunny beanie baby was known for years as "the hurrah."

I just returned from my last hurrah as a professor of philosophy, attending my last-ever APA (conference of the American Philosophical Association). Actually, this year I had two last hurrahs, for I attended the Central Division APA in Chicago in February (where I also did a book signing at the Magic Tree Bookstores in Oak Park, reconnected with extended family, and took part in a hilarious trivia contest at the Oak Park Public Library as part of a team of Betsy-Tacy Society friends). This week is the Pacific Division meeting in San Diego. I flew out on an 8:00 am flight yesterday and flew back on an 8 am flight today. So the hurrah lasted just twenty-four hours. But they were a sweet twenty-four hours indeed.

I learned a long time ago that I have little tolerance for listening to papers with titles like "Why the Debate over Composition Is Factually Empty (Or Why There’s No Fact of the Matter Whether Anything Exists)" (an actual title from this year's program). I've always had only half my heart in philosophy, anyway. So as soon as I arrived in San Diego and checked into the lovely Westin Hotel in the Gas Lamp District, I wandered across the street to a French bakery/bistro and treated myself to an hour of writing on my Nora ant farm book revisions over croissants and chocolat. I do so love writing somewhere new.

I spent the afternoon in our APA session where three philosophers, including me, gave commentary on Jana Mohr Lone's wonderful book, The Philosophical Child, her argument for why we should encourage children's philosophical wondering. I loved the book, so I had little direct criticism to offer. My comments focused chiefly on Jana's thought that some of the approach she and other pioneers in the Philosophy-for-Children movement use with children could be illuminating to consider for undergraduate education as well: a focus on actually doing philosophy, living in the space of the questions for their own sake, rather than dutifully imparting knowledge of canonical texts. I shared her regret that so often we discourage our students from the joys of philosophical wondering - but also confessed my discomfort when a student tells me that rather than write his ethical theory paper on Mill or Kant or Aristotle, he wants to come up with his "own" theory.  No, no, no! The discussion that followed all three sets of comments was wonderful: wide-ranging, honest, real.

Of course afterward I had the last hurrah of drinks in the hotel bar with a bunch of people from our session: the San Diego Sea Breeze was my cocktail of choice. Then I wandered through the Gas Lamp District with beloved former grad student Sara (organizer of the afternoon's session) and her family (including her delightful children aged nine and five) for a last hurrah APA dinner.

Now, candor compels me to confess that we did buy other beanie babies after that trip to Washington, DC. The beanie baby bunny hurrah was joined by other hurrahs down the road and across the years. I may go to an APA again sometime. Or not. It's expensive to attend, with registration fees of $120, airfare, hotel tariff running to $200 for a single night. This time I got some support from the university for my expenses (though I was on my own for the San Diego Sea Breeze!). The APA is never held in Denver. So maybe this was the last hurrah, or maybe there are future hurrahs to come. I know enough "never to say never."

But if it was the last hurrah, well, I say hurrah for the last hurrah.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Too Much of a Good Thing

After today, I have exactly seven weeks left of my life as a University of Colorado philosophy professor: three weeks of classes for my three courses this semester, finals week, and then three weeks of teaching Maymester (where we cram an entire semester-long course into thirteen days).

In preparation for my new life as a full-time writer, I've been trying to line up book contracts so I'll have plenty to do come autumn, when the fall semester at CU will start without me. I've had unprecedented luck so far ("Leap, and the net will appear"). As of this moment, I have six books in my writing pipeline, in addition to the two already in production (Annika Riz, Math Whiz, due out next month, and Izzy Barr, Running Star, due out in spring of 2015).

That is my good news.

The bad news is that a full FOUR of them are supposed to be delivered to the publisher by early summer.

This means that I'm not going to be sitting outside at a little table in a cafe luxuriating in these projects in my blissful teaching-free new life come September. Instead, I need to be writing them this very minute, as I juggle all my end-of-term commitments to the university and the intensity of teaching Maymester.

Too much of a good thing? Or at least, too many good-things-under-contract-with-looming-deadlines that are all facing me RIGHT NOW?

I've decided it's all okay.

After all, I love writing books. I can always write for two hours a day rather than my trademark hour a day, if I have to. Of these four books, one already has an excellent first draft and just needs minor revisions; the second has a decent first draft. Of course, the third has yet to have even the first word written on it - but that just means I'll need to schedule a writing date with my friend Cat to go off somewhere special to write it, preferably mimosa in hand. And the fourth one is not even a speck in my eye right now: I have no idea, no story, no title, no anything. But I'm willing to bet I'll have at least the idea for it by tomorrow, or Sunday at the latest.

Part of me is toying with the idea of asking for an extension on some of my deadlines. After all, the whole point of lining up these projects was so that I'd be busy and happy come fall. I'm already busy and happy enough right now without four books to write.

But a bigger part of me believes that I should leap into the joyous writing of these books in faith that even more busy happiness/happy busyness is awaiting me in the future. I heard this writing advice once: writers should never hold back in their writing, withholding "good stuff" from the current project out of fear that they won't have enough "good stuff" for the next project and the project after that. The advice I heard was that writers should never hold back anything. Cram ALL your best stuff into every project, fill it all to overflowing, in trust that more good stuff is on its way.

So that's my plan. After all, there is also this famed advice from Mae West: "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful."

Sunday, April 6, 2014

NOT the Cruelest Month

T. S. Eliot famously pronounced April to be the "cruelest month." I've often thought that he must have had the academic calendar in mind, as it's by April that we're all burnt out, faculty and students alike, and yearning for the end of the second semester, which still seems impossibly distant. But other professions may have their own grievances against the month. I imagine that tax accountants are feeling weary as they approach April 15. Here in Colorado, even the weather can provoke charges of cruelty, for "springtime in the Rockies" can be marked by heavy, wet dumps of snow onto poor trees struggling to blossom and leaf.

In my own April this year I'm obsessed by the clock that is ticking away the days to my early retirement from CU and transition to my long-awaited career as a full-time writer. You might think this tick-tock is a cheerful sound, and by all rights it should be. I'm 100 percent happy with my decision and 100 percent willing and eager to go. But the trouble is that now that the decision has been made, I'm willing and eager to GO RIGHT NOW. I'm like a pregnant woman well past the end of her ninth month: come on, baby, come on, new life, it's time for you to POP!

All I want to do is count down the days, hours, and minutes to the birth of my new self. But that is a depressing way to spend an entire month. To quote T. S. Eliot again, I don't want to "measure out my life with coffee spoons." Besides, I have a LOT LOT LOT of work to do this month, both as the last hurrah of my old job and as the transition to my new future. So I can't fill my days with nothing but looking at my watch and crossing off each hour as it passes.

So I sat down last night with my trusty little notebook and made a plan.

Why should April be the cruelest month? Why not make it the happiest month? I started a list (my favorite activity of all): "Ways to Maximize Happiness." I wrote down thirty things to do to stuff the rest of the month full of joy. Some are huge. Some are tiny. Some were already going to happen. Some will happen now because I'm going to make them happen.

Here are a few of the items from the list, in random order:

1. Kataleya's baptism, scheduled for Palm Sunday, the same Sunday on which Christopher was baptized
2. Reading Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things, which I got for Christmas and have yet to open
3. Writing with my friend Cat
4. Going to Gregory's jazz ensemble concert this week, where they'll perform one of his original compositions
5. Eating jelly beans
6. Buying myself flowers
7. Calling my friend Robin on her April 20 birthday (last year we celebrated her birthday together in Chicago, when I was an Indiana person)
8. Seeing beloved former grad student Sara, the queen of all things fun, at the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association in San Diego the week after this one
9. Easter sunrise sevice
10. Buying myself the new CD from French songstress Carla Bruni ("J'Arrive a Toi" is my new favorite song).

I have TWENTY more items on my list. My goal: to do all of them. Or at least half of them. Or at least some of them. And to start them TODAY. Number sixteen on the list is: blog more (I love blogging). At 6:15 a.m., I've already made progress on that one. I might order the Carla Bruni CD right now. I can buy a bag of jelly beans on my way home from church. I can read the first chapter of The Signature of All Things this afternoon. Of course, the main thing on the list, the main thing on any list of ways to maximize happiness in my life, is to write for an hour a day. I'll do that, too.

Cruelest month? Not THIS April! Not for me.