Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Prioritized Productivity

In my beloved Betsy-Tacy books, Betsy's father, Mr. Ray, likes to say of February, "When the days begin to lengthen, then the cold begins to strengthen." That is proving true here in Greencastle. It is also true that "As the to-do-list begins to lengthen, the stress begins to strengthen." Betsy's family comes up with various strategies for defeating February, from hosting a thimble bee to trying to catch bluejays by putting molasses on the end of a stick. I have a new strategy for defeating to-do-list-triggered stress. I'm calling it "prioritized productivity."

It goes like this. I have my long, long list of things I have to do. I have a sense of what counts as a reasonable amount of work to expect from myself in a day. I know which projects are most urgent (need to be done soonest) and most important (matter most).

Each day I pick from my list a few things to do. Because I like to do things in multiples of five, I usually pick five. I make sure the list includes at least one or two of the top-priority tasks. Then I do them.

That's it.

That's really the whole thing.

Yesterday my five things were: 1) teach my children's lit class; 2) teach my Rousseau class; 3) shop for the snacks for the Prindle Institute reading group that I'm leading on Susan Wolf's book Meaning in Life and Why It Matters; 4) lead the book group; 5) read an eighty-page manuscript from one of the writers I'm mentoring through the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators mentoring program.

Today my five things are: 1) eat breakfast with a job candidate for our Schanen Scholar position; 2) attend the candidate's job talk; 3) type up all my extensive comments for my mentee (generated from yesterday's reading); 4) write my monthly blog post for the Smack Dab in the Middle authors' blog; and 5) lead the discussion at the Janeites book group tonight, a delicious collection of essays on the pleasures of reading called Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman.

I did all five yesterday. I'm going to do all five today. I was proud and happy yesterday. I'm going to be proud and happy today.

Note that my list includes things that I was already definitely going to do, list or no list, like teaching my classes. That's okay. I love giving myself credit for doing things I was going to do anyway. The lists for these particular two days don't include any writing on my own creative projects. That's okay, too.  Right now I am waiting on editorial comments on not one, not two, but THREE books, with no other project hanging over my head. If I did have writing to do, that would be the highest priority task of all. Pretty soon coming up with a new project will be the highest priority task of all. But that's not on my list for today.

The beauty of my system is that I do my five things, and I'm done, and I know the rest of my life will be fine, because my five things include a couple of the most important things for me to do right now. If I do five things every day on this system, everything I need to do will get done. Anything that is left undone is something of lower priority, anyway.

Here's the most crucial part: After I do my five things, I do NOT say, "But oh, my God, my to-do list is still endless! I still have a zillion things on it! I will never get them done! There aren't enough hours in a day! How will I get it all accomplished?!!!" Instead, I say, "Look how productive I was today. Look how I now have five things crossed off my list.And I can cross off five tomorrow, and five the next day, and five the day after that."

Prioritized productivity is defeating stress for me. Now maybe I'll find a stick and put some molasses on it....

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"Everything is made out of magic"

As a writer, I'm more of a plotter than a "pantser." Before I write the first line of chapter one, I usually have a good sense of how the story is going to be structured, how its central dramatic question will be answered, its central conflict resolved, its central theme illuminated. But there is still magic that assists in the writing of the story itself.

Right now I'm working on the fifth book in the Franklin School Friends series, this time starring struggling student Cody Harmon and featuring a plot involving a school-wide pet show. The previous books established Cody as a farm kid with an affinity for animals; e.g, he brings his pet pig, Mr. Piggins, to school to be kissed by the exuberant principal, Mr. Boone, as the culmination of the reading contest in Kelsey Green, Reading Queen. In this book-in-progress I planned to have Mr. Boone appear on the day of the pet show riding into school on an elephant. I knew the story would culminate in allowing Cody to have his turn to shine at the show. But would be the obstacles along the way to his day of glory?

When I sold the book idea to my publisher, I planned for Cody's problem to be that he has too many pets and so can't afford to enter them all in the pet show, with its ten dollar entrance fee for each one (to benefit the local Humane Society). There is no way Cody can afford ten dollars for each of nine pets! I knew the solution would involve a plan where Cody would let his classmates borrow some of his pets. And one of his classmates, Izzy, star of Izzy Barr, Running Star, would fall in love with Cody's badly behaved dog, Angus, and want to keep him.

So far, so good.

But as I started to write, another problem began to appear. Cody needed to have a best friend, although no best friend had been mentioned in the previous books. Okay: it would be Tobit, another kid who struggles with school as Cody does. But what would be Tobit's role in the story?

What if. . . . what if . .. what if Tobit engages in some behavior that is unkind to some animal? So that Cody doesn't want to lend a pet to Tobit - especially his most beloved dog, Rufus? How can Cody tell Tobit this? How do we ever call others on their bad behavior without feeling intolerably self-righteous? How can Cody balance his loyalty to his friend with his loyalty to his pets - and to himself?

Here is where the magic enters. Throughout the story, Mr. Boone keeps promising the kids that he'll bring an elephant to school on the day of the pet show. The kids scoff - but hope he means it. So I Googled how to find elephants to rent out for such events. What I found was not what I expected. What I found were pleas NOT to rent elephants, not to ride them for fun at kids' birthday parties, not so support an industry that treats such magnificent beasts with indifference to their animal needs and desires.


So much for Mr. Boone arriving at school astride an elephant.

But: what if . . . what if . . . Mr. Boone himself finds out what I just found out? And changes his pet show plans? And shares this with Cody and Tobit after their hallway shoving match? Yes! That's just what I needed to deal with how to resolve the Cody/Tobit standoff!

The book is still a long way from being published. I have no idea if these scenes - if any of this - will survive the revision and editing process and make its way into the final book. But right now, I'm feeling the magic of having one plot problem solved precisely by having another plot problem arise.

In The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett says this: : "Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden - in all the places.”

To this I add: "and on the page." And to this I say: "Amen."

Friday, February 6, 2015

Free Lunch (and Breakfast and Dinner)

I have never been to a place where there is as much free food as DePauw. This week alone I have had:

1) lovely wine and cheese and other nibbles at the Antigone reading group out at the Prindle Institute on Monday night.

2) soup and salad and brownies at a teaching roundtable lunch on Tuesday, focused on the topic "Are quiet students really a problem?"

2) lovely wine and cheese and other nibbles at the reading group I'm leading on Susan Wolf's book Meaning in Life and Why It Matters on Tuesday night; food included amazingly delicious and nutritious Boulder Bars made by our two Prindle graduate fellows who are also co-CEOs of the fledgling company C & J Foods.

4) another soup and salad lunch (different soup this time) on Wednesday for faculty who are planning proposals for Winter Term study abroad courses (I'm trying to plan one called "Protected Places and Enchanted Spaces: Children's Literature Sites in London, Oxford, and Paris").

5) extremely elegant wine and hors d'oeuvres reception that afternoon for Piper Kerman, author of the memoir Orange Is the New Black on which the hit TV series is based.

6) even more elegant dinner for Piper Kerman and some forty students and faculty that evening.

7) sumptuous lunch today at Gobin church after a worship service where the preacher was Dr. Otis Moss III, pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, with the sermon title: "#blacklivesmatter."

8) lavish breakfast AND lunch tomorrow for participants and judges (me) in the all-day high school Ethics Bowl hosted by Prindle.

And this is just one week!

Now of course the question arises: are these really FREE lunches, breakfasts, and dinners? For there is said to be no such thing. It's true that the "price" for these meals is attendance at these free and fabulous events. But that seems to me no price at all. And the "price" for getting to participate in all these free and fabulous events, for me, is being a visiting professor, which means teaching what I love to motivated students and pursuing scholarly and creative work of my own choosing.

Well, the cost is also creeping weight gain from the food and periodic exhaustion from the events. I've gained two pounds already, a combination of nonstop feasting and lack of exercise (because I'm devoting all the time I would have spent walking at all these reading groups, discussions, and lectures). I'm behind on the book I have due on February 15, which is barely more than a week away.

So I'm chubby but contented, exhausted but exhilarated. And that's okay. I might as well cram each day of my all-too-brief semester here as full as I can of intellectual stimulation - and cram my tummy full, too.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Casting Out Demons

When I'm in Greencastle, I attend Gobin Memorial United Methodist Church, right on the DePauw campus. Much is familiar to me at Gobin from my St. Paul's UMC worship experience in Boulder: same hymnal, same basic order of worship, same liberal theology. Some is different: Gobin is an older church, with beautiful stained glass windows, unlike our plainer sanctuary in Boulder, and our choir and organist in Greencastle are drawn from DePauw's excellent School of Music, so the voices are more operatic than the Boulder choir, which has more of a "Broadway show tune" kind of sound. The new pastor at Gobin is a generation younger than my Boulder pastor; he begins and ends worship by playing on the guitar, which I love. And at home in Boulder, I'm a total church lady - chair of the church council, Sunday School teacher, frequent guest preacher; here, as a short-term visitor, I'm more or less a cheerful parasite.

At Gobin, the back of the bulletin contains questions for reflection, to reinforce the Sunday worship experience through the week. Last Sunday's Scripture reading was from the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus casts out a demon. This is the kind of Bible story lots of Christians today struggle with understanding. After all, exorcisms are not currently our "thing" (although I know of one academic department that staged an exorcism upon the retirement of an especially disliked colleague!). Are these Biblical characters really possessed by demons, we ask ourselves, or just mentally ill? Or suffering from an epilectic fit? Is it stigmatizing of mental illness or epilepsy to read these stories in this way? How do we make sense of these Biblical passages? How can they guide our lives today?

Enter the reflection questions from last Sunday's service:

"What is the name of the demon, the spirit, the idolatry you carry? If you can think of this answer as many 'troubles,' try to find the root cause, a name to give to that which needs to be cast out. The question may take different forms throughout the week. You may also consider the same question with regard to your family and to this nation. What is the Holy One casting out today in your presence?"

Wow. Demons to be cast out in my life, my family, my nation, my world? Where do I even start?

Okay. Over the course of the last sixty years, I've suffered in one form or another from all seven deadly sins: anger, envy, pride, lust, gluttony, sloth, greed. Probably anger and envy have topped my "besetting sin" list. I tried to give up envy one year for Lent and failed by the second day. Over the decades, I've gotten better at all of these, I think. So what are my personal demons that need casting out today?

Worry (which is really another name for fear).
Complacency in the face of injustice in my community and world (particularly salient to me after DePauw's Day of Dialogue on campus racial issues last week).
Resentment at ways in which I'm called to serve others: why me? why now? can't somebody else do it?

Just as I decided that this week's number one demon-to-be-cast-out was the third one - a smouldering begrudging of the time and effort I devote to others - I was given a chance to help a sick friend. At first all I could think of was everything else I had planned for today. The book I need to write, revise, and submit to my publisher by the end of NEXT WEEK! The huge amount of reading I have to do for both classes (question to self: if it's too much reading for you to do, maybe it's too much for you to assign to your students?). The fascinating events I want to attend on campus. Why me?

Then I remembered. Oh. Demon. To be cast out. I called my friend and told her I was clearing my schedule for today, ready to help in any way. As so often happens, as things have turned out, I'm going to need to do a lot less than I thought I would. The tasks will be easy. The burden will be light. I'm going to exercise the privilege of helping out a loved one with a grateful rather than resentful heart. At least for today.

In the Bible, once demons are cast out, they are gone for good. In our lives, demon-casting seems to be a slow, uncertain, one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back affair. But it's helping me to think in these ancient terms: demon, begone! Get thee behind me, Satan!