Friday, May 30, 2014

"Softly, As I Leave You"

I was in Girls' Chorus in high school. I don't have a good voice, but I do like to sing, and back then everybody was in some musical ensemble, whether we were talented or not. The selection of songs performed by Girls' Chorus ran heavily to romantic standards of the day: "April Love," "More" ("More than the greatest love the world has known, this is the love I give to you alone"), "Softly, as I Leave You." I always imagined myself singing these songs to, for, or about Dick Thistle, the boy on whom I had my hopeless crush for many years.

 I woke up this morning hearing "Softly, as I Leave You" (sung softly, of course) in my head. Today is the day I say farewell forever to my life as a professor of philosophy at CU.

Yesterday I taught my final class in my Maymester Intro to Ethics course. In the concentrated time frame of Maymester, there wasn't time for me to assign Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych to start the course, so I couldn't end the course by asking them which of the books we read together they'd choose to give to the young Ivan Ilych to help his life go better. Instead, I just asked them which of the books we read together had resonated most deeply with them, which book they would draw on in the future to help their own lives go better. For the only time ever, my own personal favorite, Epictetus, came out ahead. I first read Epictetus in high school. He is the reason I majored in philosophy and became a professor of philosophy. So it was a sweet moment when my students voted him their favorite yesterday.

Yesterday was the last time I took the Skip to work. It's been a joy of my life that I can take the bus to work, using my university-sponsored Ecopass which allows me to ride for free. The Skip comes by my house every 6-10 minutes during rush hour and has frequent stops along the way to downtown Boulder. So I have a practice of walking for a mile or so before I get on the Skip and ride the rest of the way to the university. Yesterday I did that for the last time. (The bitterest pang of retirement has been occasioned by the prospect of surrendering my Ecopass.)

Today I'm driving to work because I need my car to haul home the one big box of files I'm saving. I'm going to take down the quilt from my wall. I'm going to give my Maymester final exam this morning, grade it this afternoon, and turn in the grades by this evening. I'm turning in my keys, too. Kyle-in-the-office told me there was no rush about the keys. I told him I'm ready for closure. He said, "I'm getting that." And then I'll walk away. Softly, but forever.

"For one more hour, for one more day, after all these years, I can't bear the tears to fall, so softly, I will leave you now...."

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Cleaing the Decks/Desk

I have to confess that I spent most of last week moping and wishing that Maymester were over and that my new life was BEGINNING RIGHT NOW.

It doesn't help that I'm teaching in a dreary basement room (five days a week, three hours a day), and that half the class is international students, many of whom are chemical engineering majors in need of some humanities credits. While this does add valuable diversity to the class, several have such severe language issues that the work is heartbreakingly difficult for them in a way that, even on the eve of my retirement, I still don't know how to handle. How much accommodation can I make for almost unreadable papers, given that I do judge the other students on the clarity of their writing? Shy about their language skills, these students are so quiet in class that  most of the three hours is spent in my lecturing. The other night, when baby Kataleya was fussing, I gave her my best lecture on Kant's distinction between hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives, and it put her to sleep right away. So you can imagine how my students react.

Each day last week I came home from Maymester and sprawled on the couch, resorting to my old vice of Sudoku, searching the Internet for new reviews of Annika Riz, Math Whiz, and counting the days left till the 31st on my fingers in hopes that I'd discover I had miscounted and there were actually fewer days than I thought.

Then Friday afternoon, with two weeks of Maymester behind me, I decided to go through the file cabinets in my home office to make room for the files I'd be bringing home from the university (chiefly teaching notes in case I teach these courses again somewhere and offprints of my published articles). Once I began, a switch clicked in my brain. Listless and lethargic no longer, I was a woman possessed. I moved from file cabinet, to stack of stuff next to my desk, to the attic, where I opened boxes of papers I had never once opened since I moved from Maryland to Colorado 22 years ago.

Some of what I tossed (i.e., took to the recycling center):
1. An market guide to what children's book publishers are looking for - from 1984.
2. A duplicate copy of all the minutes I took as recording secretary of the Children's Book Guild of Washington, DC, that same year.
3. Four unpublished (and multiply rejected) novels: part of me wanted to re-read them for a window into the writer I was then, but I thought they'd make me cringe. I'm not really interested in the writer I was then; I'm interested in the writer I'm going to be now.
4. My notebooks and papers from library school
5. Folders of bills and credit card statements to support tax returns from 2007, 2008, 2009....
6. Photocopies of scholarly articles that are now easily available online.
7. Extra copies of the Fairview High School student newspaper with Gregory's articles in them (I did save one of each, now in a properly labeled folder now filed neatly in my file cabinet)
8) And enough more to fill two enormous cartons, now carried away forever.

Oh, it felt so good, so good, so good! Now there is room in my office and in my heart for all the wondrous things that are about to come.

I hadn't felt as restless and fidgety as I did last week since those last weeks of my first pregnancy, waiting for the birth of my first baby. Come, baby, come!

Now I'm waiting for the birth of my own new self.

I realized what I was doing all day yesterday. I was nesting: clearing out the debris from last year's nest (actually, debris from the last three decades of nest) to get ready to hatch me some EGGS!

The due date for my new life: this coming Saturday.Come, new self, come!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Marching through Maymester

As my LAST last hurrah as a professor of philosophy, I'm in the midst of teaching Intro to Ethics in Maymester: a whole academic semester crammed into 14 intense days (three weeks, five days a week, three hours a day, with a most welcome day off on Memorial Day).

This is my fourth or fifth time teaching this course in Maymester. It works surprisingly well. The students are on average exceptionally motivated, as they would have to be to sign up for Maymester; most of them do so because they are tackling double or triple majors or extremely demanding degrees and need to fit in extra credits where they can. (This time I have quite a few chemical engineering majors). They actually do the fiendishly difficult reading I assign! They come to class ready to learn.

I do make a couple of concessions to the shorter time frame. I can't start off by assigning Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilych. As every day of class is equivalent to a week of the regular semester, I have to immerse them in Aristotle on day one. I don't do review sessions for the exams - there is little need to review, as we've covered the material just hours before. But I cover all the same philosophers in the same depth. With one week behind us, we've already done Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and the Discourses of Epictetus and made good progress on Kant.

I can't deny that I'm a teensy bit tired. On one afternoon last week, I raced away after a full morning teaching to an afternoon school visit at Shelton Elementary in Golden; on another, I raced away to meet with three fifth grades in Niwot. One evening I spoke on a panel of middle grade authors at the Tattered Cover down in Denver. On Friday I met with 13 of my 24 students to go over drafts of their first paper, due on Monday. And then, of course, the grading will begin.

But in two weeks - TWO WEEKS! - it will all be done. Every day when I come home on the Skip, I carry in my backpack a few more of the books that were too precious for me to give away: my worn copy of Rawls's A Theory of Justice from my freshman year at Wellesley (the green cover of the original edition held together with Scotch tape, the price on it $3.95), Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia from the same year, novellas from the little one-credit course I taught once on Miguel de Unamuno, who wrote one of my best loved books ever, The Tragic Sense of Life. The bookshelves in my office are 90 percent empty, most of my books donated to fill the previously bare shelves in the grad students' basement office. Soon I'll take down the quilt that has hung on the wall above my now quite worn and shabby couch for the last two decades.

It's all poignant, but not sad - not even bittersweet. I loved writing Kant's categorical imperative on the chalkboard for the last time on Friday: "So act that you could will the maxim of your act to be a universal law." It's engraved on my heart, from writing it so many times for so many students over so many years. And yes, I'm keeping my copy of Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Kant isn't going anywhere.

But I am.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Fifty Books, Today

Today is the birthday of my 50th book child, Annika Riz, Math Whiz, the younger sister book of Kelsey Green, Reading Queen.

For those of us who aren't J. K. Rowling, with thousands of midnight costumed launch parties celebrated in every time zone of the globe, the actual pub date of a book isn't all that significant. I already have read many reviews of Annika, so she's made her way into the world even in utero. I held the first bound copy in my hands weeks ago. So today is really just another day in my author life.

Except that this is book number fifty. That feels pretty huge and significant to me, even though my husband tells me that I only think that way because we happen to use base-10 math rather than all the other conceivable systems of counting we might have developed. But we do use base-10. And fifty is a big round number. (These thoughts seem especially fitting today as Annika is my math-loving girl who would enjoy thinking them herself.)

The series illustrator, the enormously gifted Rob Shepperson, is always sending me delightful little extra pieces of book-related art for no reason at all except for sheer fun. This is the drawing he sent me this week, of the three Franklin School friends celebrating the arrival of Annika's book and anticipating the arrival next year of Izzy Barr, Running Star.

I love this so much.

Thanks, Rob, for your perfect illustrations, and for reminding me to share the enthusiasm you've allowed my characters to show.

Thanks, Margaret Ferguson, for being the editor who midwifed the book, and the series, with countless stunning insights throughout.

Thanks most of all, dearest sister, Cheryl Mills, to whom this book is dedicated, my own personal math whiz who taught me to do Sudoku so that I could teach Annika how to do it, who has straightened out accounting messes for me for decades, and who radiates her own love of math as she "solves for x" every day in every way.

Today is a sweet and happy day.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

My Love Letter to Philosophy

Yesterday was commencement at the University of Colorado. I love commencement so much. It might even be my favorite thing about my entire career as a professor of philosophy. I love the pageantry, the centuries-old ritual reenacted yet again. I love donning my regalia and seeing my colleagues in theirs. It's so jolly and comradely to be there in the corridor of Hellems Hall fluffing each others' hoods and trying to remember which side the tassel on our caps should go. I never fail to get teary as "Pomp and Circumstance" plays and the graduates file in. I love meeting their parents afterward and telling them, truthfully, how wonderful their children are.

I love every single thing about it.

The university still holds big mob-scene commencement ceremonies in the stadium, but it's the departmental graduation ceremonies that are most meaningful. The Philosophy Department is just the right size so that our ceremonies fill up a lecture hall that seats 150 or 200; we have 50 or 60 undergraduates and 8 or 10 graduate students, and their friends and families. We hire a violinist and classical guitarist to play for us; flowers adorn the front of the room; and we have a commencement speaker of our own each year as well.

This year the commencement speaker was me.

The usual task of the commencement speaker is to reassure the anxious parents that a degree in philosophy is a most useful career-boosting credential. So speakers sing the praises of philosophy for training students in critical thinking skills that will prove handy in a wide range of professions, as well as fitting them for engaged citizenry and more generally for life as a thoughtful, reflective person.

I did some of that, but then I said that the real reason we were all here in this room on this day was that, at some point in time, all of us fell in love.

In preparation for my talk, I interviewed all of my colleagues to find out where and when and how they fell in love with philosophy. It was fascinating to me to collect their stories. Three of them fell in love with the work of Bertrand Russell. Several had their first love end up being their ultimate academic specialty: the man who first fell in love with St. Augustine has published many books on medieval philosophy; the man who broke a promise to his father that he'd never take a philosophy course in college fell in love with puzzles about the existence of God and now teaches philosophy of religion. One colleague fell in love with philosophy as he knelt by the window as an eleven-year-old wondering where the universe ended, and what was on the other side of it when it did end.

As for me, I picked up a Modern Library edition of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers at a Walden Books sale table when I was in high school and read this line from Epictetus: "What say you, fellow? Chain me? My leg you will chain, yes. But my will? Not even Zeus can conquer that."


“Go then and act your tragedy, but I will not do so. You ask me, 'Why?' I answer, 'Because you count yourself to be but an ordinary thread in the tunic.' What follows then? You ought to think how you can be like other men, just as one thread does not wish to have something special to distinguish it from the rest: but I want to be the purple, that touch of brilliance which gives distinction and beauty to the rest. Why then do you say to me, 'Make yourself like unto the many?' If I do that, I shall no longer be the purple.”

I was slain.

So in my talk I said that for me the point of philosophy isn't so much to develop critical thinking, but to develop appreciative thinking. My goal when I teach is to get my own students to fall in love with the texts and thinkers I love most.

I closed the talk with these words:

What I hope, and believe, our students have received during their time with us is learning how to love better: to learn what is most worth loving, and what risks are worth taking on behalf of what they love. To love truth, and the search for truth; to love the beauty of exhilarating, infuriating ideas; to love a life lived with an open mind and a questing heart.

So graduates: I wish for all of you that you spend the rest of your lives loving fiercely and freely, searching for what is worth loving and holding fast to it when you find it. To you who were brave enough to devote years of your lives to the study of philosophy, I say to you, there are lots of ordinary threads in the tunic. You will find, as you go on in life, if you haven't found out already, that there is no shortage of ordinary threads. We came to philosophy because we thought it was the purple.

Go, and be the purple. And love the purple. 

That was my little valentine to the discipline to which I have given the last forty years of my life, and to the colleagues with whom I've spent the last twenty years.

And now I teach Maymester until the official date of my departure on May 31, when the rest of my life beckons.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Retreat to Advance

This past year I made a new writer friend named Jeannie Mobley, who consistently has the best ideas of anyone I've ever met for strengthening community among writers (so I've forgiven her for beating me out for the Colorado Book Award with her stunning debut novel Katerina's Wish). The best idea of all: whenever her husband is out of town for a weekend, she invites half a dozen women writer friends for a writing retreat. I attended one of of these retreats last January; I attended a second one this past weekend.

Everything about this idea is appealing.

1. It's extremely simple. We don't have to drive very far to get to Jeannie's house. There is no need for complicated advanced planning: some come for the whole time; others drift in and out; it's all good. Jeannie stocks up on some breakfast offerings (fruit, yogurt, bagels, cereal) and lunch fixings for sandwiches. We bring snacks to add, if so desired. We make no advance plans for dinner. The first time we ended up wanting to dine only on leftover lunch fixings (supplemented by Jeannie's divine black forest cake, and a couple of bottles of wine). This time we went out to a local barbecue joint and sat on a wooden picnic table beneath the generous shade of a cottonwood tree on a warm May evening.

2. It costs next to nothing. We chip in for the cost of the food, but that's it.

3. Jeannie's circle of literary friends is large enough that we get to meet new people, which is enormously stimulating. Even where we already know one another, most of us don't get together on a regular basis so this a chance to catch up on everyone's work-in-progress and have wonderful conversations about writing. E.g., over lunch we discussed such topics as "How do you create a really compelling villain?" and "How important is it to title your books to create an author 'brand'?" and "Is is true that kids don't read historical fiction for pleasure?" (Of course, we argued that the answer to the last one is no.)

4. We write, and write, and write, and write! As the title of this blog suggests, my usual writing process is to write for an hour a day. Period. That's it. But at Jeannie's retreat, I wrote all morning, for around three hours, and then wrote for another three hours that afternoon - my usual productivity times six. At the first retreat I stayed the night, and then wrote for three hours the next morning, too, coming away with not one, not two, but three completed chapters of the second Nora book. This time I could stay only for the Saturday portion of the retreat, but I came away with a plan for the third Nora book and a draft of the first chapter, which has serious problems, and a plan for fixing those problems, generated by sharing those problems with Jeannie and Tara and getting their suggestions. Whew!

So in just one day, I launched a new project, fostered new friendships, and came home with new energy and enthusiasm to move forward in this career and life that I love. Thank you, dearest Jeannie!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Closing in on Closure

So many "lasts" this week....

I gave the last lecture in my Intro to Ethics class yesterday; now all they have is recitations with my T.A. on Friday and their exam on Saturday, which he'll administer. We start the course by reading Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. As he lies dying, Ivan is haunted above all by the question of whether he has lived his life as he ought; he continually reassures himself that the answer must be yes, as he lived just as everyone else did. Only hours before his death does he admit to himself that the answer is no, that it was "all wrong." I then present the readings for the course - Aristotle, Epictetus, Kant, Mill, Nietzsche, Sartre, and the neo-Buddhist Shambhala - as "advice manuals" for living a better life than poor Ivan lived, centered as his was on money, social position, marital discord, and card games.

On the final day of the course, I have the students take a vote: if they could go back in time (and cross the divide from reality into fiction), which of our seven texts would they give to the twenty-year-old Ivan to guide his life from that point on? As happens so often, Aristotle came out the decisive winner, a text written two and a half millennia ago. In a near tie for second place: Sartre and Shambhala. My beloved Epictetus came in last, with only one vote - that was a blow!

This is the last time I'll ever ask that question to a class of students. I'm teaching Intro to Ethics again in Maymester (an entire semester crammed into thirteen intense days), but there the time is so cramped and compressed that we have to bypass Ivan Ilyich and leap in right away with Aristotle. So I asked the question yesterday with tears in my eyes.

I had the last meeting with my one-credit, once-a-week, little fairy tale class yesterday, too. The class, taught through the Norlin Scholars program, has just nine absolutely terrific students in it, and we meet in a small charming room tucked under the eaves on the four-and-a-half floor of Norlin Library. The focus of the course was fairy tale transformations. Yesterday students presented their final projects for the course. One boy wrote a moving poem prologue to Bluebeard. One girl had sewed a quilt for Donkeyskin. Another girl framed shards of a shattered mirror in a black storybook wooden box from Michael's craft store, representing a feminist shattering of the patriarchal voice in Snow White's mirror.

I was teary-eyed at the end of that class, too.

Hearing these stories, a family member asked me last night, "Aren't you sad to be leaving?"

I am. But I'm sad in the way I was sad on my graduation day from North Plainfield High School, a place I loved so much that I have never missed a reunion - or on my graduation day from Wellesley, as a proud member of their centennial class - or when I left my beloved job at Four Winds Press in NYC to take up the job I held for ten years at the University of Maryland (where I met Rich and gave birth to my boys), or when I left that job (and our sweet little house in Takoma Park, Maryland) to come to the University of Colorado in beautiful Boulder where I taught for 22 most happy years.

Just because you're sad to be leaving doesn't mean you want to stay. It only means that you love where you've been. It doesn't mean you aren't ready to start loving wherever you're heading next.