Saturday, May 30, 2015

Last Sweet Greencastle Days

I fly home tonight to Boulder for two weeks, followed by five blissful days at the Children's Literature Association Conference held this year in Richmond, Virginia, then back to Greencastle to deal with a few things, and then the long drive home to return to my Boulder world for the summer.

Boulder's summer pleasures are unsurpassed: hiking on the trails up the Rocky Mountains just blocks from my door, the Colorado Music Festival at Chautauqua, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, writing days with my friend Jeannie, walks with our little dog, evenings at the park with Kataleya.

But Greencastle pleasures are sweet, too. Maybe all pleasures are sweetest when we are about to abandon them, at least temporarily.

Last night was a typical Greencastle evening:

Dinner with my friend Keith at Chief's, where the waitress knows that I always order a glass of Merlot and often my entire supper consists of one of their melt-in-your-mouth sweet potatoes, complete with butter and brown sugar. Sometimes they run out, but last night she greeted me with: "I just checked. We still have four!"  My meal of Merlot, sweet potato, veg o' day (yellow squash and zucchini), and extremely delicious bread pudding for dessert totaled $11.

Then, wandering a block over to a new gallery space on the courthouse square for a pioneering First Friday exhibit of art by Putnam County artists including my children's book author-illustrator friend Troy Cummings. The gathering was thronged with DePauw friends. The scrumptious lemon scones were provided by a colleague who is planning to open Kate's Bakery and Cafe on the square soon, a much-needed replacement for my dearly departed Blue Door Cafe.

Walking toward home later, on a perfect late May evening, I spied my friends Jen and Jeane outside at a little table on the patio of the Fluttering Duck, sipping their Chardonnay. I stopped to say hello. Would I care to join them? Well, indeed, I would. We sat there till dark, and past dark, talking, talking, talking, about everything from childrearing challenges (mainly concerning differing views on the Tooth Fairy) to how to live a life that balances appropriate outrage at the world's injustices with deep contentment at its wonders and marvels.

So that was my evening, one like all my others here, and one unlike any other, as it was the last-for-now. This is the life I love and the life I'll be leaving behind now, for another life I love, too, with a sad-and-happy heart.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Trepidations Untrepped

I'm back from two days of school visits near Williamsbug, Virginia, arranged by my dear librarian friend Noreen Bernstein, who retired last year as head of children's services at the Williamsburg Public Library. She and I met in a library school class at the University of Maryland in the 1980s. The professor took attendance on the first day, and when he got to my name, Noreen turned to me and said, "I have your books in my library!" We've been friends ever since. Her husband, Alan, who was also in library school with us, gives me wonderful book and film recommendations, such as Dear Committee Members and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. When I visit them, I always stay in the same room, with its cheery red trim, where various Danish exchange students have stayed over the years.

The visit had certain trepidations for me this time, all unfounded, as trepidations usually are. I decided that it was time for me to be like every other author in the universe and have a slide show for my presentation. Gregory helped me make a PowerPoint over spring break, with photos scanned by my sister and her husband: pictures of me as a child, pictures of the boys when they were little, covers of the books, and other standard fare. I was so nervous about dealing with technology after a whole lifetime of fearing and shunning it that I was almost hoping the schools wouldn't be able to find a way to hook up my computer to their projector. But they did, and the presentations were fine, and now I know that what children love best in an author presentation is pictures of the author's dog and cat.

Well, they are pretty cute.

On the way home, I had to change planes in LaGuardia, which I remembered as one of the least pleasant of all airports. I flew on a tiny plane from Richmond to New York, and when I got off the plane I had to walk down those little metal steps to the tarmac, clutching my suitcase with one hand and trying to keep my skirt from blowing up in the propellor-generated breeze with the other. I felt crabby. But then when I got inside, I learned: LaGuardia is nice now. It's hip! It's cool! It's trendy! I sat in a little eaterie called Crust where you order a glass of wine and a little personal pizza on an Ipad from your table. I felt as glamorous as Betsy in Betsy's Wedding when (in 1917) she goes out for lunch with Tib at "a cute new place. You telephone your order from the table." The plane took off an hour late, but I was done with being crabby, peering joyously out the window as we circled over Manhattan, with wonderful views of the crowded skyscrapers and the great green square of Central Park.

I was so happy that I wrote in the little notebook where I keep all my thoughts, "I AM ALIVE! I AM GLAD TO BE ALIVE! I AM ALIVE IN THE WORLD AND HAVING FUN!" Despite everything - and there is always an "everything" to be the subject of a "despite" - it's good to be alive.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Unleaving Philosophy

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote these famous lines: "Margaret, are you grieving/ over Goldengrove unleaving?" As the poem is titled "Spring and Fall," it's clear, or as clear as anything ever is in a poem, that Hopkins is referring to trees shedding their golden and crimson foliage in the autumn. But I've always thought of "unleaving" as undoing a leaving, reversing a departure, coming back again to what you thought you had left forever.

In my life, it's the academic field of philosophy that I've left, and unleft, and left, and unleft, and left, and am now once again on the brink of unleaving.

I tried to leave philosophy partway through my first year of graduate study at Princeton. I was overwhelmed, out of my depth, surrounded by the smartest people I had ever met in my life, people who had come to the Ph.D. program at Princeton with M.A. degrees from Berkeley and B. Phil degrees from Oxford already in hand. I returned all my books to the bookstore. I waited in line to tell the graduate adviser that I was withdrawing from the program. But the line outside her office that day was long - maybe many of us were having first-year terrors - so I wandered back to my room in the Grad College. And then I re-bought all my books from the bookstore and didn't leave philosophy after all.

Two years later, when I had just completed my "generals," comprehensive oral exams in the subject matter of my proposed dissertation - which in my case had to do with philosophy of time (!) and why the future is different from the past (!) - I happened to see in the Sunday New York Times an ad for an entry-level editorial secretary position at Four Winds Press/Scholastic. I applied for it, was offered the position, and withdrew from philosophy, this time more successfully. Or more successfully, for a while. Eighteen months later a chance encounter with an old philosophy professor from my undergraduate days led to my being offered, and accepting, a position editing philosophical publications at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland.

Several years into that position, I left philosophy again, deciding I wanted to try my luck as a full-time children's book writer. I quit my job with the plan of moving to the town of Opportunity, Washington, chosen only on the basis of its name. The Institute advertised for my replacement. But then the replacement turned out to be . . . me, unable to make good on my severance plan, after all. So back again in philosophy, I ended up finishing my Princeton dissertation, that is to say, starting an entirely new dissertation, this time on the much more (for me) manageable topic of a philosophical analysis of the concept of coercion. I finished the Ph.D. a few years later and ended up teaching philosophy for two decades at the University of Colorado.

There I almost left philosophy on the eve of my tenure decision. I just couldn't bear the process of being subjected to that kind of intense, scathing scrutiny by my colleagues. But I forced myself to continue. I was back in philosophy for good.

Until I took early retirement last May. I was so done with philosophy this time that I gave away 90 percent of my books, confident I would never need them again. I was going to be a full-time children's book writer at last! But a few months into "retirement," I came to DePauw for a visit, and fell in love with academia again, which also meant falling in love with philosophy again. I wangled myself another visiting position which had me teaching Rousseau this spring, greatly enjoying the Young Philosophers series organized by Prindle director Andy Cullison, and giving a philosophy talk this past week at the Poynter Center at Indiana University. The talk went so well, in my humble opinion, that I came home all aglow: "I do like philosophy, I do, I do!"

And now I'm negotiating an opportunity to teach at DePauw on a semi-regular basis, perhaps a semester each year, dividing my time between teaching philosophy, children's literature, and possible courses in the Honors Scholar program. I've unleft philosophy yet again.

Claudia, are you grieving over philosophy unleaving? No, I'm not. I may leave it again, and come back to it again, and then leave it, and then return, but that's all right. Life has its seasons, of leaving and unleaving. Right this minute that's fine with me.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Creative Tribe

I've had two huge "I heart DePauw" moments this week. Both of them involved events at which a creative tribe gathered to celebrate an achievement of one of their own - well, three, if you count my own launch party for Izzy Barr, Running Star, which I should.

On Wednesday night I attended a reading by writer Rick Bass, who is spending the semester at DePauw as their Mary Rogers Field Distinguished University Professor of Creative Writing. Lovely Peeler Auditorium was standing room only, or rather, sitting-on-the-floor room only, with students perched everywhere to hear him read two pieces: a personal essay connected with his environmental activism work, which was both a moving and funny account of his getting arrested during White House protests against the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, and a mesmerizing literary short story about, yes, about a fish. In his comments before and after the reading, he showed such appreciation for DePauw's committed faculty and engaged students, and such love of his craft. When asked by one colleague during the Q & A, "Man, how do you DO that?" he said, "Just be specific. That's all I can say. Be specific, and the reader will follow you anywhere."

Yesterday afternoon I went to a screening of the indie film Reparation, a psychological thriller just released this year and produced with heavy DePauw/Greencastle involvement. I recognized colleagues in the cast, including a colleague's young daughter in a wonderful supporting actress role. Filming was done in Putnam County, including shots of my beloved Dairy Castle, and the downtown courthouse square and farmers' market. On the soundtrack for the film I could hear music written and performed by Gus Moon - who played for my Izzy Barr launch party! I thought the film was terrific - intense, absorbing, beautifully acted and filmed from start to finish. The small theater - our only movie theater in town - was packed.

Afterward the audience drifted across the street to the Fluttering Duck and sat outside on the patio listening to music by Gus Moon, Ron Dye (father of the young actress), and others, on a perfect May evening. There we were: writers, musicians, actors, and plenty of people who wouldn't describe themselves as any of those things, but who had helped in various ways in the making of the film, from appearing as extras to driving cast and crew to filming locations, or (as in my case) who had just come to cheer on the rest.

What is better than when your creative tribe comes together  to celebrate the making of something beautiful (and extra points if it happens in a small rural county in western Indiana)? And I know the answer to that: nothing.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Happy Birthday, Izzy Barr

This week saw the publication of my newest children's book baby, Izzy Barr, Running Star, the third book in the Franklin School Friends series. For most of my career, the pub dates of my books came and went with no fuss or fanfare on my part, or on the part of anyone in the universe. But now launch parties for a book release have become a thing, so I hosted one for my sweet Izzy last night.

The party took place on the mezzanine of Eli's Books on the courthouse square in Greencastle, which doubles as the DePauw University Bookstore and the only bookstore in town. I hired a delightful local musician, Gus Moon, to play guitar and sing mellow tunes for us. (Does anything make a party more fun than live music?). I ordered a cake with the book cover on it, agonizing over what size to get. Too big would be tempting the universe to jeer and would result in huge, depressing quantities of leftovers. Too small might leave some cake-eaters disappointed and advertise my low expectations for the event. I went with too small. 
An activity for kids would be nice. The book's brilliant illustrator, Rob Shepperson, was willing to draw a picture of a running shoe for me, so that kids could decorate their own version of Izzy's new way-cool shoes. 

I sent out invites over Facebook and DePauw email, trying to strike the right balance between too much and too little. I think I hit on just right: one announcement and one day-of reminder. I invited my children's literature students and the fifth graders I work with in the Greencastle Intermediate School.

On the day of the event a number of people emailed me that they couldn't come. Good thing I ordered the smaller cake! I waited in the store, looking pitiful, the world's stickiest cake icing already somehow in my hair. Maybe nobody would come at all.

But then they did. Lots of people. Lots of people I loved: colleagues and their children, my students, my fifth graders, even the Gobin UMC pastor and his family. We ran out of cake, but just barely. We ran out of books, but that was all right, too. We didn't run out of music to lift our spirits, or crayons to color with, or fellowship and fun.

Here are two of the running shoes the kids designed:
 I think Izzy would like them. I liked them, too.