Friday, August 16, 2019

Are We Allowed to Live Joyful Lives Even If the World Is Filled with Misery?

My ongoing project is to have a joyful life despite everything. I think I'm doing pretty well at it. Even through several years of horrifying health and legal crises for beloved family members, and nonstop hideousness for my country and the world, most of the time I chug along cheerfully. I take daily walks, giggle with friends, sing praise songs at church, write lots of books, articles, and blog posts, and ride with my two little granddaughters on the Carousel of Happiness in the nearby mountain town of Nederland.

But now I'm asking myself: SHOULD I be doing this? Is it permissible for me to whirl around on the Carousel of Happiness when so much of the world is submerged in the Sinkhole of Misery? What RIGHT do I have to be happy? How DARE I be happy?

I'm pretty sure the answer is yes, I'm allowed to be happy, and you are allowed to be happy, too. Indeed, some of the people I know who have the hardest and most heartbreaking lives are also the happiest people. The Declaration of Independence says that we are endowed by our Creator with an unalienable right to at least try to be happy. I believe more rather than fewer of us should dare to exercise this right.

And yet. . . . isn't this callous? and complacent? and unbearably self-centered?

Well, my claim that we're allowed to be happy even in a world filled with misery does NOT mean we are allowed to be indifferent to that misery, or willfully ignorant of it. We should work together to make the world a happier place for everyone.When it comes to our near and dear, those to whom we've made specific and heartfelt commitments of care, we should make heroic efforts to secure their happiness, even at considerable sacrifice to our own self-interest.

Here, however, writer Anne Lamott reminds that "Horribly, [happiness] is an . . . inside job for the few people you love most desperately in the world. We cannot arrange lasting safety or happiness for our most beloved people." We just can't. But, oh, we wish we could! And we do - and should do - our best to make them as happy as we can.

I'm doing my best in this regard right now.

 My husband is in a care home, totally incapacitated from advanced Parkinson's, unable even to squirm around enough in the bed to reach for the phone if it's inconveniently positioned. I visit him every single day, bring him favorite meals, do his laundry, keep him company.

One son is enmeshed in the criminal justice system. I've taken out a Home Equity Line of Credit, secured against my house, to pay the estimated $100,000 of his lawyer fees.

I support organizations that do good in the world: Oxfam America, Physicians without Borders, people working for justice for those imprisoned in cages at our southern border. I'm sure I should be doing much more on all these fronts.

But I don't think I owe my husband, or my son, or anyone ever, a duty to renounce all joy in my own life. Some people may simply be psychologically unable to have joy in such conditions (some days, some weeks, some months, that's totally me), but I don't think they - or I - have an obligation to live joylessly.

I could try to justify this claim by saying, which is true, that my being happy actually helps me help others more. Cheerful givers are preferable to sullen givers; the cheerfulness is itself another gift. Far from thinking we have a duty to be miserable, Robert Louis Stevenson even said, "There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy we sow anonymous benefits upon the world."

In giving ourselves permission to be happy, we thereby give others permission to be happy, too. I hope my example of being happy despite caring for my loved ones will give my children and grandchildren permission to be happy years hence when their turn comes to care for me. Isn't that what all of us want for our loved ones, even if we feel a nagging unease about wanting it for ourselves?

Rides on the Carousel of Happiness used to be $1 per ride. Now they're $2. It's still a huge bargain. The man who hand-carved the carousel's animals was a Vietnam vet who decided, after experiencing the horrors of that war, to spend the rest of his life just making people happy. I imagine that in the process he made himself pretty happy, too.

The motto of the Carousel of Happiness, which you can find on their T-shirts, is "Don't Delay Joy."

So: don't delay it.

It's okay to be happy. The world is a better place, for you, for me, for everyone, if it has more happiness in it.

Truly, it is.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Getting Excited about TURNING SIXTY-FIVE!

Five years ago this month I turned 60. With great jubilation I proclaimed that this was the start of Act III of my life. As everyone knows, Act III is the best act, when all the dramatic questions that have been put into play in the first two acts are answered in the long-awaited climax. As Chekhov famously reminds those engaged in playwriting, if you have a gun hanging over the fireplace in Act I, that gun needs to go off in Act III.


Now, five years later, all I can say is that Act III did not turned out as planned.

What happened instead was . . . life. Two little granddaughters born to parents who would almost immediately divorce with enormous hostility and bitterness. A husband who would be diagnosed with Parkinson's and end up, almost entirely immobile, in a nursing home. A son entangled in the unbelievably cruel and barbaric American criminal "justice" system.

And then me: puttering along writing my little books and giving motivational talks about how to find joy in your life despite everything. (Despite Everything is the working title for my memoir, if I ever write it.)

This month's birthday makes me officially a senior citizen (even if Denny's has already been giving me senior discounts for a decade now). I can officially count myself as a Wise Old Woman. Some women friends my age host "crone" ceremonies for themselves.

Maybe this is the REAL start to Act III of my life?

No. I can't just pretend that the last five years didn't happen. They did. They made me not only older and wiser, and older and sadder, but older and kinder, too.

But this IS the real start to something big and important - actually to lots of big and important things!

1. I can now get half-price tickets to ride on Boulder's fabulous buses. With yet another car wrecked this past week (this time, for the first time, in an accident that was NOT MY FAULT, unlike all the others), my plan is to reduce my amount of driving drastically. I will walk everywhere! I will take the bus when it's too far to walk! I will save money, sanity, and THE PLANET!

2. I have Medicare now, which is not a big deal for me as I already had excellent low-cost insurance through my former employer. But now I get. . . . Silver Sneakers!!! I've never gone to exercise classes, still haunted by the horror of high school P.E. But although I'm a faithful daily walker, my arms are feeble and flabby, and my balance and flexibility are poor. So I'm planning to trot myself into Boulder's fabulous rec centers to work on all of these things FOR FREE!

3. I'm going to become a vegetarian, which I should have done decades ago - actually, which I DID do decades ago but then lapsed, as I hate to be a Picky Eater. I seldom eat any meat even now, but I can't say I'm a vegetarian as I also seldom eat any vegetables. I'm more of an English-muffin-tarian. But I'm going to start finding ways to like eating vegetables - starting with shopping at Boulder's fabulous farmers' market. I bought myself a vegan cookbook and plan, terrible cook though I am, actually to COOK SOMETHING FROM IT!

4. I've become addicted to the Duolingo language-learning app, with the goal of reviving my many years of high-school and college French. Current plan: find myself a cheap airfare to Paris and go there ALL BY MYSELF (the best!) during some gray and gloomy month (my FAVORITE!), and spend a week eating baguettes slathered with butter and jam - and wandering the streets alone - and writing poetry in cafes while sipping hot chocolate. I AM GOING TO DO THIS!

And maybe  .  . . just maybe . . . Act III will start to develop its own strange and lovely momentum.


Saturday, July 27, 2019

Another Adventure in Newness, Coming Right Up

No sooner had I decided to restructure my Year of Newness ("The Year of the New, Halfway Through") than a great big newness challenge dropped conveniently into my waiting lap. I've noticed that enticing things drop into my lap more often when I sit myself down with my skirts spread wide, signaling to the universe my readiness to receive its treasures. The universe sends me more unexpected gifts when put on notice that I'm actively expecting the unexpected.

This past week I finished the edits on Lucy Lopez, Coding Star, the third title in my After-School Superstars chapter-book series, where each story takes place in a different month-long camp.

Book One: Nixie Ness, Cooking Star (cooking camp).

 Book Two: Vera Vance, Comics Star (comic book camp).

Book Three: Lucy Lopez, Coding Star (coding camp): Cover to come!

Now I had to figure out what the camp should be for Book Four.

As I did promotional events for Nixie's book, I solicited camp suggestions from each audience. Two weeks ago I sent the list to my editor, for her to share with her team at Holiday House. This past week I got their verdict, which just happens to coincide with my own secret yearnings.

Book Four will be set in.... drum roll... sign-language camp!

Just as I initially knew nothing - NOTHING AT ALL - about computer coding, I currently know nothing - NOTHING AT ALL - about sign language. But I learned from researching coding for Lucy's book that I actually like learning things. I especially value unearthing nuggets of wisdom from some specific area of study utterly new to me.

As I sat in on coding workshops and listened to coding teachers, I learned, for example, that "There is never just one solution to a problem" - ooh!! - and "If what you're doing isn't working, TRY SOMETHING ELSE" - another huge epiphany moment for me. I also learned that far from coding's being alien to who I am and how I think, it's actually extremely congenial. I love making lists! I love planning my life sequentially! I love trying to be crystal clear in my language about what I want done! Coding totally fits in with all of these things.

So now I'll have the adventure of learning about American Sign Language. I'm eager for any and all suggestions of how to begin. I can't wait to see what nuggets of wisdom it will offer - nuggets that I can then share with my characters - and my readers.

And myself.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Year of the New, Halfway Through

My overarching life/career goal for 2019 has been to make this The Year of the New. As I officially become a senior citizen, I wanted to prove to myself that I could still learn new tricks, take on new challenges, and have new adventures.

I settled on six main new things I was going to do, all career-related, as work does bring me such consistent joy:

1. Teaching my first-ever online course;
2. Writing my first book on a topic on which I initially knew absolutely nothing;
3. Making my first serious effort to promote my books;
4. Writing my first verse novel;
5. Making my first real attempt to publish my poetry;
6. Writing and submitting my first shorter-than-500-words picture book.

The year is now half over, so it's time to take stock on my progress-in-newness.

I taught the online course, a graduate course on the figure of the young female author from Little Women to The Poet X, for Hollins University in Roanoke - and I adored it! I had no idea online teaching could be so much fun. Admittedly I had a small class, just five students, and fabulous, brilliant, highly motivated, witty and wise students - but I bet I'd find students like that in future courses as well. So now I plan to do this again - and again!

I researched, wrote, and revised my third-grade-level chapter book set in an after-school coding camp: Lucy Lopez, Coding Star. That was also a joy, and I'm pleased with how the book came out. I still don't love doing coding myself, but I did love learning about it, especially once I hired a patient and encouraging eleven-year-old tutor to sit next to me at the computer.

I made special efforts to promote Nixie Ness, Cooking Star, including purchasing, and wearing, a chef costume. I'll post again the picture of me wearing it, because I need to get as much mileage out of this costume as possible!
Now I'm going to turn my creative efforts toward the verse novel, and I'm extremely excited about that.

But I'm NOT excited about trying to publish my poems, and I'm NOT excited about trying to write and submit a picture book. I'm just not.

So. . . . I'm not going to make myself do those two things.

Now, I do value keeping promises I make to myself. For 2017, I worked very hard to keep my promise to myself to submit something, somewhere, every single month. For 2018, I worked very hard to keep my promise to myself to log ten hours a month of creative joy.

But this year... well, the choice of exactly SIX new career things has started to feel so arbitrary to me. It lacks the simplicity of, say, deciding to do one new thing every single month. And even as I compiled the list back in January, rounding it out with the last two items, I felt no particular yearning to do those things. They felt like . . . chores. And one of my goal-setting rules is that my goals have to be DELICIOUS. I have to feel a tingle of happiness just thinking about them.

Instead I'm going to luxuriate in the writing of the verse novel. I'm going to take my time with it - itself something new for me, who usually trots along diligently at my hour-a-day, page-a-day pace to my destination.

I'm going to write the poems for the verse novel in lots of new places. When I turn 65 next month, I can purchase half-price bus tickets from RTD, so I'll take myself once a week to Denver and find charming cafes there that cry out to have poetry written in them.

Maybe I'll find new pastries to eat while I write! And new kinds of gelato!

I'm still committed to this being the Year of the New, but with the year halfway through, I'm going to try a more loosey-goosey approach to Newness.

And that in itself will be . . . new. 

Friday, July 12, 2019

Valentine to Grand Lake

I'm back from three days in Grand Lake, Colorado, the western gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. I took my boys there every summer when they were growing up, and we always did everything the exact same way.

First stop on the drive there from Boulder: the old-fashioned 5 & 10 in Estes Park to buy some little junky toy. Next stop: the Rainbow Curve overlook in Rocky Mountain National Park to greet (but not feed) the chipmunks. Next stop: the Alpine Visitor Center at the top of the world, in the bleak and beautiful tundra above tree line. Final stop: grilled cheese sandwiches at the Dairy King in Grand Lake. 

For the next few days, we would dig in the sand of the tiny public beach, and browse in shops along the wooden boardwalk in this small town, and eat at the few restaurants (NO chain restaurants at all in Grand Lake), and buy new Beanie Baby friends, as well as outfits that fit Beanie Babies (complete with tail holes!) at a little shop named Bunny and Clyde's, and sit on the porch at Grand Lake Lodge with its stunning views of Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Lake.

This week I was there again, now with my grown son and my two little granddaughters. We stopped at the 5 & 10 and this time bought junky dress-up shoes. There were no chipmunks at the overlook, but we did see one in Grand Lake (Kataleya named him Alvin). We didn't stop at the Alpine Visitor Center because we had already had a lengthy stop along Trail Ridge Road to marvel at a herd of elk extremely close to the car. And we loved the grilled cheese sandwiches at Dairy King so much that we ate there two days in a row.

We played in the lake, choosing to go there in the early morning when we had the beach to ourselves, and it was so quiet and serene.
We made sand castles.
Beanie Babies are out of fashion now, and Bunny and Clyde's is no more, but we bought rubber duckies at the Quacker Store with hundreds (or at least many dozens) to tempt us. 

And we sat on the porch at Grand Lake Lodge, looking down at Shadow Mountain Lake.
I accepted a few new developments in Grand Lake. There is now a wonderful playground in the town park, a true delight. We stayed at a new inn at the edge of town, where you can sit outside on the lovely deck, making s'mores at a blazing fire right at your table. And of course, now I'm there as a grandmother, with two beloved granddaughters fathered by the man who was once my little boy.

Some change is good. But oh, it's bliss to be in a town with no chain restaurants, where the grillled cheese sandwiches taste EXACTLY the same as they always did, where you can park right next to the one itty-bitty beach, and just dig in the sand to your heart's content. 

Maybe some day I'll go there with my great-grandchildren, too. 

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Your Book Won't Get Revised Unless You Revise It

This post is the sequel to my earlier post, "Your Book Won't Get Written Unless You Write It."

Three weeks ago I finished the full manuscript of my third-grade-level chapter book set in an after-school coding camp: Lucy Lopez, Coding Star. I am pleased to say I finished it by my deadline and promptly sent it off to my brilliant editor and brilliant writing group.

They gave me comments right away. Guess what? Just like every book I have ever written throughout my long career, this one NEEDS MORE WORK!!

The big surprise for me was that the part that is looking good is . . . almost all the bits about coding! The parts I was most worried about were pronounced clear and engaging. Whew!

The parts that aren't looking so good are . . . the character arcs for the protagonist and her sister (it's a sister story), and how they drive the plot. These are not small or inconsequential elements of a book.

At first I panicked. Well, first I sulked, then I panicked. Even though this will be my 60th published book for children, I had suddenly forgotten exactly how one goes about revising a book. The scenes that were already written seemed, well, the way it actually happened. How could I change them so things happened some other way? How on earth would I even begin?

Then it came back back to me. You begin. . . by beginning. As Arnold Bennett writes in his delightful 1910 self-help book, How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day: "Dear sir, you simply begin. There is no magic method of beginning. If a man standing on the edge of a swimming-bath and wanting to jump into the cold water should ask you, 'How do I begin to jump?' you would merely reply, 'Just jump. Take hold of your nerves, and jump.'"

So I took hold of my nerves and went through the page-by-page comments from my editor and writing group friends and inserted them into my master copy of the manuscript, adding them with ALL CAPS so they would stand out. I also added ALL CAPS notes of my own. There were all the things that needed to be addressed in the course of the revision.

Then I made seven handwritten pages of responses to these comments, starting with the question, "What IS Lucy's character arc?" and moving on to "How does the tension BUILD?" and "Other things to do. . . 1) Differentiate Mom and Dad more - how? 2) Foreshadow the end-of-book Coding Expo; 3) Clarify the teachers' role; 4) Simplify the camp logistics...."  and more... and more...

Then. . . I began. I just began. I changed a bunch of things in Chapter 1 that affected the shape of the rest of the story, and then I started to work on the rest of the story. Each time I sit down to work more on the revisions, I read over what I've already revised to gather confidence. Look how much better Chapter 1 is now! Look how much better Chapter 2 is, too! Surely I can find a way to deal with the problems in Chapter 3...

So, just as my book won't get written in the first place unless I write it, it won't get revised unless I revise it.

And the best way to revise it, dear sir, dear madam, dear anybody, is simply to begin.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

More Fun with Book Promotion

As many readers know, I am currently trying harder to promote my books. In fact, I'm trying harder to promote this brand-new sweet little book:
I'm not sure that any of my strategies are paying off, but I'm certainly having fun with them, and there is no downside to having fun.

I did my blog tour - fun!

I ordered bookmarks - fun!

I did an "Instagram takeover" arranged by my publisher, Holiday House, for Nixie's launch day- fun! My own favorite of my posts for the "takeover" was where I shared photos of my first failed attempt at making the homemade dog biscuits the kids make in the book, side by side with photos of the second, much more successful attempt.

I have worn my new CHEF COSTUME several times in public, including at a delightful launch party for the book at the delightful Denver children's bookstore, Second Star to the Right.
I looked mildly ridiculous, but undeniably jolly. I gave out starry prizes for my cooking-themed trivia questions and served extremely delicious cookies, including my signature ginger snaps. (And if you say you don't like ginger snaps, then you have never tasted mine.) So that was VERY FUN.

Finally, I had a chance to do an interview for the podcast Beyond the Trope, and it turns out that doing interviews is fun, too. I sound smarter and better than I thought I would, so I've listened to it several times today, thinking, ooh, this person sounds smarter and better than I thought she would! So here's a link to it, in case you want to hear me talking about the big, deep philosophical questions I explore in Nixie Ness, Cooking Star, and the forthcoming Vera Vance, Comics Star.

It was ALL fun. Maybe I'll sell three more copies of the book through all my efforts. I bet I will!

But in any case, I had fun.

And there is nothing more fun than having fun.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Better Half-Baked by the Deadline than Over-Baked Too Late

One of my tasks for this month was to complete a chapter I had been invited to contribute to an edited philosophy collection. This, of course, involved starting the chapter, writing the chapter, revising the chapter, and then submitting the chapter. As the deadline approached, I hadn't actually done ANY of these things. I had MEANT to do them, but of course that's not the same thing at all.

I had comforted myself with the thought that academic deadlines are often largely fictitious and fanciful. I know many academics who submit book chapters MONTHS past the deadline, with impunity. There are always stragglers. Maybe this time I would be one of them. I wouldn't miss the deadline by a huge amount, just a week or two. How terrible would that be? Not terrible at all, I told myself.

But then, a week before the deadline, I learned that it would indeed be VERY terrible. The co-editors were traveling to be together in person to meet and go over our chapters together, so they could send timely feedback to all of us, so we could revise in a timely way to meet the press's apparently NON-fictitious and NON-fanciful deadline.


Well, there would surely still be SOME stragglers, I told myself. Would this really be the first project in the history of academia with no stragglers at all? I started composing my heartfelt apology in my head. And believe me, I could put enough of my real-life hideous heartbreak and unbearable stress into the apology to cause any editor to weep on my behalf and excuse me from all deadlines, forever.

But then I thought . . . what if . . . what if instead . . .  I actually sat down and WROTE THE CHAPTER and sent it in on time???


I had indeed given the chapter plenty of thought. It was only supposed to be a maximum of 5000 words. That isn't SO long. The editors had encouraged us to write in a conversational and engaging style, and that's precisely what I'm good at doing. I still had a week, even though most of that week would be spent visiting my sister in Indiana before attending the annual conference of the Children's Literature Association, held this year in Indianapolis. But I love writing in other places.

So I started writing here at home at my desk. I kept on writing while sitting on the world's comfiest couch in the world's coziest living room at my sister's house. I allowed myself to miss one conference session each day to lie on my luxurious hotel-room bed, writing. And I sent the paper off by the deadline.

The editors responded within a day. They were "very happy" with it - and I'm sure they were extremely happy to have it on time rather than late. They noted the paucity of citations, which I had noticed as well, since I didn't have any of my books with me on my trip. If I wanted to add any, they'd be glad to give me another week to do so. And yes, indeed, I would!

Now, my tastes may differ from yours, but I much prefer under-baked cookies to over-baked ones and even prefer burnt cookies to no cookies at all. If I set the oven timer for less time than needed, I can always add more time, but if I set the timer for more time than needed, I end up scraping blackened cookie bits from the tray.

So now I'm off to add some citations to a paper submitted on time in an ALMOST-finished form rather than a perfect paper submitted too late. And then I may bake some slightly oozy, gooey cookies as a reward.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

An Unexpected Boon of My Book Promotion Efforts

My new publisher, Holiday House, is giving my books more love than I'm used to, with impressive publicity strategies on every front. One reason I'm trying harder than usual to promote my books these days is to match their heroic efforts by making (mildly) heroic efforts of my own.

So, thanks to Holiday House, I spent last weekend at the ginormous Pop Culture Con at the Colorado Convention Center: participating on three author panels, giving three presentations for kids and their families, and signing books provided by the famed Tattered Cover Bookstore.

Did I sign very many books? No. Was this my ticket to fame and fortune? No.

But there was considerable downtime for the featured authors in between our various speaking and signing obligations. And I love writing in unusual places. If what I have to write is at all daunting, it helps me to face the challenge in a new and even wacky environment. Then, ever after, I fondly remember exactly where I was when I wrote those scenes.

Here I am, writing Chapter 9 and Chapter 10 of Lucy Lopez, Coding Star in the company of the Big Blue Bear peering through the Colorado Convention Center's tall windows.

I sat cross-legged on the floor there for hours, scribbling away, happy as could be, while costumed convention attendees posed for photos in front of the bear; one of them kindly took this photo for me. By the end of my three days at the convention, I had solved previously insoluble plot problems and brought Lucy's central dilemma to a satisfying conclusion.

The book is slated for publication in Fall 2020. If you read it, when you get to those last two chapters, know that a Big Blue Bear gave them his blessing.

Book promotion is important, I'm sure. But most important of all is WRITING THE BOOKS: writing the best books we can, with the most joy in the process. And if we can do our best and most joyous writing while off at a huge promotion event, all the better.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Does Author Book Promotion Do Any Good?

My new year's goal for 2019 is to do a bunch of NEW THINGS. One of these NEW THINGS is to make my first serious effort to promote my books.

I haven't really bothered with book promotion before. Once upon a time (back when I first became an author), no authors did. We wrote the books; if we were lucky, they got published; if we were very lucky they got lovely reviews or end-of-the-year honors, and that was that. Once in a great while a publisher sent us to a librarians' or booksellers' convention. There were no book launch parties, no cover reveals, no social media boasting (there was no social media), no begging for Amazon or Goodreads reviews (there was no Amazon; there was no Goodreads).

It's tempting to think of these as the good old days. But that is how good old people tend to talk. If you want to sound old, this is an excellent way to do it.

I've also been skeptical, however, that author-generated book promotion really does any good. If you hand out bookmarks with your books, how much of a difference, in the end, does that make to sales? If you sell even fifty copies at a book launch, that's still only fifty copies. Ten online reviews that you bully your friends into writing are only ten reviews. Oh, what's the point?

But in Erin Entrada Kelly's Newbery-winning middle-grade novel, Hello Universe, one character, known for her wisdom, says this: "Of all the questions you ever ask yourself in life, never ask, 'What's the point?' It's the worst question in the world."

Besides... I mean . . . what's the point of ANYTHING? If you just lie on your bed surrendering to nihilism, you'll have a pretty dreary life, and a pretty short-lived career as a children's book author.

So this year I'm trying to promote my new book, Nixie Ness, Cooking Star.
My guiding strategy - and it is an excellent one - is to concentrate on doing things that are fun for me to do, anyway. Or just things that add little tiny bits of joy to the world.

I've never made bookmarks for my books before. But bookmarks are fun! People LIKE bookmarks People USE bookmarks. So now I have them! Come by one of my events and I'll hand one to you!

Writing is fun. Writing blog posts is fun. So I organized a little blog tour for myself which starts today. Here's the schedule:

Friday, May 31, 2019  Bluestocking Thinking

Monday, June 3, 2019 Pencil Tips Writing Workshop

Wednesday, June 5, 2019 Unleashing Readers

Friday, June 7, 2019  Cracking the Cover

Parties are fun. Giving talks is fun. Cookies are fun. So I organized two bookstore events for Nixie, where I'll talk about the book and cookies will be served.

The first is next week, on Tuesday June 4, 2 p.m., at  Second Star to the Right in Denver.
The second is this fall, on September 10, 6:30 pm, at Boulder Bookstore in Boulder.

SO: the point is . . . fun. And maybe I'll sell a few books. And I'll keep a new year's promise I made to myself.

That's enough for me, for now.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Your Book Won't Get Written Unless You Write It

I agreed to get the full manuscript of my long-delayed chapter book (set in an after-school coding camp) to my long-suffering editor by June 1.

There was only one problem.

I had written barely any of it because - and this is the sadly crucial part - I HAD NO IDEA WHAT TO WRITE.

Despite months of (admittedly somewhat slipshod) research, I still didn't have a firm grip on what kinds of things kids would do in a coding camp. Worse, I didn't have a firm grip on what my protagonist's character arc was going to be: how would she grow and change as a result of a month spent learning how to do coding? And what kinds of plot-generating events could transpire at the camp to make this happen?

These are very significant things not to know about a book one is supposed to be writing. And if I hadn't figured these out after months of fretting, moping, and whining, how on earth could I figure them out in a mere three weeks?

I am here to report that all is well. I figured out most of these things lickety-split.

How, you may ask?


Yes, I learned yet again a lesson I've learned many times before. Although many people praise the power of subconscious creativity and the benefit of gaining perspective on a project by stepping away from it for a period of time (say, for the period right up until three weeks before it is due), and the secretive toil of kindly nocturnal elves, I have found that the only way I have ever gotten a book written - the ONLY way - is by sitting down and starting to write it.

Even though I don't know what to write.

Even though I have no idea how to figure out what to write.

Even though I've forgotten how I ever figured out how to write anything.

If I sit down to write - and commit to writing for a whole entire hour every single day - timed with my trusty hourglass - words start to appear on the page - words written by me. Characters say and think witty things. They make choices that precipitate predicaments. They react to other people's choices and other people's predicaments.

All from just picking up a pen and moving it across the page.

Best, I can then type up the pages and share them with my brilliant writing group who offer insights beyond anything I could ever have generated all by my lonesome before the first word was written. I can leave my meeting with them energized and inspired.

I CAN write a book set in a coding camp! I can! I can!

Five days into serious hour-a-day writing, I'm loving my book. These five hours have given me the best of all gifts from the writing fairies: momentum. When my boys were little, I would ask them, "What does Mommy like?" and they could spout the correct answer: "Progress!" Progress is now being made simply because I am now making it

Oh, darlings, if there is something you need to write, or want to write, or vaguely feel like writing, just sit down and write it. I am here to tell you it really truly won't get written otherwise.

Take it from me, who has just completed a most pleasing revised draft of Chapter Three....

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Moment to Decide

As many of you know, my personal life these days lies in what I cheerfully describe as "flaming ruins."

Well, maybe this description isn't all that cheerful. 

Throughout all my recent Sturm and Drang, I've managed to stay a faithful and engaged professor for the students in my online class for Hollins University (on the figure of the emerging female writer from Little Women to The Poet X); I've continued to work closely with my three mentees through the fabulous mentorship program in our Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Rocky MountainsChapter.

It's relatively easy to do things that absolutely have to be done.

What I haven't managed to do is to make any real progress on my chapter book set in an after-school coding camp. There was no day on which I absolutely had to accomplish any writing, so basically I accomplished next to none. It didn't help that I remain paralyzed with dread at the thought of learning anything at all about computer coding, despite having attended numerous coding workshops and read (well, skimmed) numerous coding books. So I am now a teensy bit behind on delivering that manuscript to my editor; it was due April 1, and so far I've drafted three chapters of ten.

Two days ago she sent me a kindly worded email saying that she really did need to know when (if ever?) I would be able to send her the manuscript, as she needed to finalize her list for Fall 2020. 

Basically, I either have to send the manuscript to her sometime on the soon-ish side, or else my book will have to be postponed until 2021.

That feels like an awfully long time from now.

One of my favorite hymns begins, "Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide," with lyrics written in 1845 by poet and abolitionist James Russell Lowell. Well, once to every woman and writer also comes the moment to decide, and this was my mine.

In favor of postponing the book:
1. I have enough stress in my life right now. Do I need to add more?
2. This month I still have my Hollins course to finish up, and the three SCBWI mentorships. And promotional efforts for the first book in this series, Nixie Ness, Cooking Star, pub date June 4. And my friend Rachel's wedding to attend in Minneapolis on May 18. And a sermon to write and deliver for church. And a week-long visit from my grandchildren.
3. Plus, I'd like to do a good job on the book, not a hasty, half-baked one.

In favor of making a heroic effort to write the book RIGHT NOW:
1. 2021 is SO far away.
2. I'm happiest when I'm writing.
3. I'm happiest when I'm busy.
4. I'm happiest when I have something other to do than mourn and mope, grieve and grumble.
5. Any good job on any project has to begin with a hasty, half-baked one if it's going to begin at all.

So I emailed Margaret and said, "Can I make the Fall 2020 list if I get the manuscript to you by June 1?"

And she emailed back, "I think we can make that work."

This morning I got up, not at 5, but at 3:45, so I could be writing by 4. Because EVERY SINGLE MORNING, to every human being and certainly to every writer, comes the moment to decide. The big decision - do it! - has to be followed by many, many smaller decisions of the form: do at least something on this project right now.

I wrote three handwritten pages. They are not very good pages. But all writers know that not-very-good pages have to come first. I now have three more of them than I had two hours ago. 

I have decided!

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Time Spent Dreading versus Time Spent Doing

I have a new book coming out next month. Hooray!

Well, sort of hooray. It would be a bigger hooray if I weren't haunted by guilt at how little I've done to celebrate the arrival into the world of this new book child - when one of my major goals for 2019 was, for the first time, to make a serious effort to promote my books.

Partly it's because I really don't know how to promote a book effectively. I have a theory that nothing authors do in this regard really makes any difference whatsoever, at least compared to the difference made by writing a spectacularly good book.

But I did make a list - a fairly long list - of fairly simple things I ought to be doing:
1. Update my website, which hadn't been updated in . . . could it really be two YEARS?
2. Update my Amazon Author Page.
3. Update my Goodreads Author Page.
4. Reply to emails sent me by a local bookstore in reply to emails I had sent them, about possible events we could do together to publicize the book.
5. Research blogs I might reach out to for a little self-organized blog tour.
6. Contact those blogs.
7. Email my publisher to ask a few questions about how I could build upon their promotion efforts.

All of these were on a list I made on April 21. As of 8:00 this morning, I had done none of them.This meant I had spent two entire WEEKS dreading them.

So I decided this had to be do-or-die day for book promotion - or at least do-or-die morning.

By noon I had done all seven.

Here is a tally of how long each one took. Remember that they had been dreaded for fourteen days, or (not counting ten hours a night for sleeping - yes, I sleep a LOT) 196 hours.

1. Update my website: 1 hour, 45 minutes (105 minutes)
2. Update the Amazon page: 20 minutes
3. Update the Goodreads page: 10 minutes
4. Reply to the bookstore emails: 5 minutes
5. Research blogs: 15 minutes
6. Decide that I'd rather return to the publicists I used before (and adored) than organize a blog tour myself: 5 minutes - and another 5 minutes to email them
7. Email my publisher: 5 minutes

TOTAL 170 minutes - or just shy of 3 hours

196 hours for dreading! 3 hours for doing!

This is a sobering comparison.

It certainly suggests that I could improve my life considerably by cutting back on a few dozen hours of dreading in favor of a few minutes a day of doing.

There is one thing left on the list, which is deal with making bookmarks for the book. I put out an appeal on Facebook for recommendations for bookmark designers/printers and got many helpful suggestions. Now I have to do something about those suggestions. My guess is that, after days of dreading, this will take at most an hour or two.

Maybe, in fact, I should just go and do it right now (or, let's be realistic, first thing tomorrow morning), rather than dread it for another couple of weeks. What do you think?

Yeah, I think that, too.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Cover Reveal for NIXIE NESS and VERA VANCE

With all my life's sadness these past few months, I've sort of forgotten my new year's goal of making this The Year of the New. I was supposed to be doing six big new career-related things I've never done before: 1) teach my first-ever online class (for the graduate program in children's literature at Hollins University); 2) write my first book on a topic on which I know nothing (my coding-camp book); 3) make my first serious effort to promote my books; 4) write my first novel-in-verse; 5) write my first 500-word picture book; start submitting my poetry for publication.

Thus far I have neglected all but one of these. I LOVE my online course - I ADORE IT! - and of course teaching is one thing that absolutely cannot be ignored: thank goodness for that. But while I've chugged along - very slowly - on the coding book, I'm way behind where I thought I'd be. I've done nothing at all on any of the other four, including promoting my beloved little book, Nixie Ness, Cooking Star, which comes out on June 4,  a date now alarmingly near.

I am not a big fan of self-recrimination. I'm probably overly forgiving of my own lapses, all too ready to offer a cheering rationalization for any failure to achieve my own goals. But this time I don't even need to call on my reservoirs of self-satisfaction to excuse my delinquencies. My life has been hard. It's been very hard. It will continue to be hard for at least a few more months. If I was ever allowed to cut myself some slack, now is an an excellent time.

That said, I do feel a pang at neglecting poor Nixie! Oh, my sweet book child! I have done so little to prepare for your imminent birth, despite including "make my first serious effort to promote my books" as #3 on my "New Things" list for the no-longer-new year.

So today - or at least the first two hours of today - is devoted to making amends to Nixie. I've sent out some emails to line up guest blog posts for a little "blog tour" in her honor. I've emailed local bookstores to see if they want to make any fuss over me. And I'm doing the formal "cover reveal" for Nixie and her sister book, Vera Vance, Comics Star (due out next year).

Cover reveals have now become a thing. (One poet friend asked recently, when did "becoming a thing" become a thing?) Just as expectant parents now host parties where guests can watch them discover the gender of their soon-to-be-born child, authors now take over social media so the whole world can behold the finalized cover of their soon-to-be-born book. As soon as I finish sharing these two covers in this blog post, I'll dash off to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to continue in this task.

Universe: here are the covers for Nixie Ness, Cooking Star and Vera Vance, Comics Star, courtesy of brilliant illustrator Grace Zong (universe, thank you for partnering me with Grace on this series) and fabulous publisher Holiday House (universe, thank you for letting me find my publishing home here).

Drum roll!

Expectant pause!

And now:

Aren't they adorable? Yes, they are!!!!

Oh, universe, thank you for this!

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Best of It: Part II

We are advised that when life gives us lemons, we should make lemonade, and that when life gives us limes, we should make a gin and tonic.

But sometimes we're just so sad - so sad - so sad. It's hard to summon the strength - and the chirpy cheeriness - to do anything at all positive about the situation. The situation, in fact, is so terrible that we feel we would dishonor its tragedy by even trying to rouse ourselves to go forward.

We just want to lie amidst the ruins of what once was our life, cursing the universe and sobbing.

Some of this is good and right and necessary.

Especially the sobbing.

I've done my share of sobbing over the past couple of weeks, as my husband, diagnosed with advanced Parkinson's last year, has continued to decline in strength and mobility. A week ago, after several 911 calls in succession to pick him up off the floor after a fall, and his near-total inability to get off the couch at all without professional assistance, he ended up in the hospital. Now he's in a rehab center for a week? or two? or three? Seeing if he can regain the ability to function enough to move back home - or ??

What will the future be for him?

What will the future be for me?

What will the future be for us?

The rehab center is about half an hour's drive from home, and I go there every day, so this whole episode in our lives is not only heartbreaking, but time-consuming. This month I'm also teaching an online course for the graduate program in children's literature at Hollins University in Roanoke, and working with three aspiring writers through the mentoring program sponsored by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and writing a book of my own under contract (my most challenging title yet - the book set in a coding camp for kids, where I know - or at least initially knew - nothing whatsoever about coding).

I can't just give up on these projects. And I don't want to. This current heartbreaking situation is not one that is going away any time soon. This is not a sprint. It's not even a marathon. It's the way my life is going to be for the foreseeable future.

Somehow I HAVE to find a way to go on living - and working - and even (dare I say) being happy.

So the other day, I packed up a tote bag filled with all kinds of tantalizing and delicious work projects: a book to read for my class, my laptop so I could respond to my students' delightful posts on last week's reading, mentee manuscripts to review, my clipboard and pad of paper and favorite pen for scribbling notes for Chapter 3 of my book.

When my sister and I were growing up, one of our favorite ways to spend a day was with what we called "Personal Business." We each had a pegboard box: a rectangular box with a sliding wooden lid marked with holes where you could insert colored pegs. We had long lost the pegs, but the boxes remained. We'd fill them up with a book to read, a poem to write, homework to do, a potholder to weave with those little cloth loops on a little metal frame. Then we'd get into our beds, each with our Personal Business, and work side by side.

A few Christmases ago I opened my present from my sister, and somehow, on Ebay, or wherever, she had found . . . . matching  pegboard boxes for each of us! (Small teddy bear in the photo for scale):
This cherished pegboard box, alas, is too small to hold all my current work projects. But as I packed them up to take to the rehab center, I suddenly remembered the pegboard days. I would spend a morning doing Personal Business as I visited Rich at the Powerback rehab center!

And so I did. As Rich lay in bed, watching TV, dozing a bit, or was wheeled off to physical or occupational therapy, I sat curled up in a nearby armchair, sending emails, reading for my class, and making some notes for my book. Of course, we also chatted - and laughed at old jokes and memories - and just kept each other company.

My morning was productive - and cozy - and companionable - and comforting.

My morning was . . .  lovely.

I still don't know what the future holds for him, or for me. But maybe . . . just maybe . . . it will be okay - in not a Plan B way, but a Plan Q or R or S or P way - for both of us.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Best of It: Part I

My life in the past year has moved so far past optimal that I now consider myself somewhat a specialist in the domain of the sub-optimal. I'm not only learning to make my peace with Plan B, but Plan C, D, E, F, and G. (This recalls the conversation I had with a young reader of my books who told me blithely that poor grades at school never daunted her. "The worst they can give you is an F! It's not like they give you an X, Y, or Z!")

I'm slowly learning how to make the best of it, even if my favorite poet, Kay Ryan, gives a somewhat dim assessment of this project in one of my favorite of her poems (quoted in full in the New York Times review of her Pulitzer-winning collection also titled The Best of It.) Sometimes making the best of it turns out to be something beautiful.

First (tiny) case in point. (Bigger, sadder, bittersweeter case in point to follow in my next post.)

This past week I was scheduled to speak about my forthcoming book, Nixie Ness, Cooking Star, at the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association spring conference: I'd be one of twelve authors (including nine authors of "grownup" books) giving a five-minute pitch for my title at their "Author! Author"! dinner. I was thrilled that my publisher had arranged this opportunity for me.

The only problem was that on the day of the conference a "cyclone-bomb-blizzard" was predicted, with driving winds and accumulating snow.

I have mentioned before that after totaling my previous car on a slushy road two years ago, I do NOT drive in snow. Or like to be in the car when anyone else is driving in snow.

So: what to do?

To drive in a cyclone-bomb-blizzard was not an option.

Missing the conference was not an option, either.

Maybe the predicted snow would not materialize?

But maybe it would.


Then my writer friend Kim Tomsic, who was also speaking at the booksellers' dinner, and I made a plan - a most excellent plan indeed. We would book a room at the hotel for that night! A sleepover!!!!! And we'd drive down to the hotel hours and hours ahead of the storm! Time to chat! Time to work! Time to lie on our beds!!!!!

And so we did. The blizzard did turn out to be not so bad, so maybe we could have driven home that night. But wasn't it lovely not to have to worry about the weather at all? And to lie on those beds side by side, doing our own projects, while also exclaiming over how brilliant we were to have thought of such a splendid plan?

Our beautiful room in the lovely Origin Red Rocks Hotel had a little magnetic message board in it; the next morning I came out of the shower before our breakfast-by-the-fireplace to see that Kim had left me this message:
Well, I love Kim, too. And I loved having a sleepover together.

Sometimes making the best of it turns out to be best of all.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Kerlan Award 2019

I returned yesterday from one of the sweetest and proudest moments of my children's book writing career: accepting this year's Kerlan Award from the University of Minnesota Libraries.

The Kerlan Collection (quoting from its website) is "one of the world's great children's literature archives. The Kerlan Collection contains more than 100,000 children's books as well as original manuscripts, artwork, galleys, and color proofs, and other production materials for 1,700 authors and illustrators." And one of those 1,700 authors and illustrators is me! 

I've been sending my handwritten manuscripts - and detailed handwritten notes - and marked-up typescripts - and critique group comments - and editorial letters - to the Kerlan Collection for decades. It's a thrill to me to think of the humble beginnings of each of my 56 published books to date being preserved there in the company of works by so many children's authors I revere. 

I've delighted in the Kerlan Collection as scholar as well as author. In May of 2017 I spent a blissful week there doing archival research on Maud Hart Lovelace, author of the Betsy-Tacy books, which I love beyond all other books ever written in the history of the world.

So this week's trip was in every way a joy for me.

The University of Minnesota campus spans the mighty Mississippi River, so on the morning of my special day, I walked across the long bridge to savor the view.
I had the whole day to myself, up until the evening awards ceremony, so I also toured the Weisman Art Museum designed by architect Frank Gehry.
Of course I couldn't resist taking a picture of these gorgeous poppies by Georgia O'Keeffe.
The universe kindly arranged for the award ceremony to take place while the Kerlan's absolutely stunning exhibit, The ABC of It, was on display. First shown in New York, the exhibit, curated by Leonard S. Marcus, was adapted by the Kerlan to showcase its stunning collection of materials from the history of children's literature. 

So I wandered by this replica of the Great Green Room of Goodnight Moon.

Every object on display took my breath away, but the one that meant most to me personally was the opening page of the manuscript of Sydney Taylor's All-of-a-Kind Family. There it was!!
The trip was made even sweeter by the presence of one of my life's dearest friends, Rachel, and her soon-to-be-husband, Peter. They came to the awards event, and to the dinner the night before, and once the festivities were completed, we had time to play together in this beautiful city - visiting Minnehaha Falls (a site commemorated as well in the Betsy-Tacy series) and attending a fabulous production of one of my favorite plays, Cyrano de Bergerac, at the famed Guthrie Theater.
Best of all, on the trip I even wrote Chapter Two of my chapter-book-in-progress, set in a third-grade after-school coding camp. I adore writing chapters in Other Places, so that every time I read them over I can remember . . .oh, that's what I wrote at breakfast at the Marriott Courtyard by the University of Minnesota... that's what I wrote at Rachel and Peter's beautiful arts-and-crafts-style bungalow...

I'm home now. The doorbell just rang, and it was flowers  - for me! in celebration of my award! from my wonderful new publisher, Holiday House! I feel like a movie star! But mostly I just feel grateful: to the Kerlan for all it has contributed to the world of children's literature - and for an award given to me by an institution I so love and respect - and for a publisher who is so supportive - and for beloved friends who shared this moment with me this week.
Thank you, thank, you, thank you!

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Love Letter to Children's Literature Festivals

I spent most of this weekend at the second annual Children's Festival of Stories in Denver.

Every minute of it was wonderful.

Sometimes I wonder why I commit to attending events like this, where I spend hours and hours sitting at my little station, one of forty authors, all of us hoping to promote our books to the passersby. My featured book for the festival this year was my middle-grade novel Write This Down, targeted to ages eight to twelve; the average age of children attending such events is more like two to six. I knew I wouldn't sell very many books; I knew it wouldn't catapult me to fame and fortune.

But the minute I got there I remembered - oh!!! oh!!!! oh!!!! I go to festivals like this because they are so joyous - a huge, energizing, inspirational, beautiful celebration of books and readers, and all the people involved in bringing the two together: authors, illustrators, editors, teachers, librarians, parents, and booksellers.

I loved speaking on a panel to an audience of educators on Friday night, together with my brilliant fellow panelists Denise Vega, Laura Roettiger, Beth Anderson, Natasha Wing, and Abby Cooper. Here I am with Laura, both of us looking as smiley as can be.

I loved seeing writer friends from afar whom I had met at previous festivals: Donna Gephart and Kate Milford (who became my friend just because we were seated in alphabetical order last time).

I loved seeing beloved local writer friends like Jean Reidy, Kim Tomsic, and Melanie Crowder. Hugs, hugs, and more hugs!

I fell in love with the author sharing my table at the festival: Alidis Vincente, attending from New Jersey - a fellow Jersey girl!

I loved having children wander by my table and tell me they want to be writers, too. I loved their T-shirts, like the one that said "Bookmarks are for quitters." I loved having one of them tell me how much she had loved my book Kelsey Green, Reading Queen when she was younger.

I loved staying in a hotel! My own room! My own bed! That gleaming shower! And having breakfast in the hotel restaurant sitting by the fireplace!

Usually the part I do NOT love about festivals is seeing everyone else arrive with terrific displays for their table - or costumes! - or props! or adorable giveaways! or candy! - while I have none. I'm just so averse to self-promotion - and so averse to lugging stuff with me when I travel - just so averse to STUFF! So in the past, I'd look at THEIR huge amounts of stuff and get all, well, stuffy about it. Since when did writing become all about marketing, rather than simply making the best books possible? Count me out!

But this time, just as I was starting to get stuffy - and huffy - and starchy - and sniffy - I thought, hmm, maybe it would be FUN to bring stuff? After all, the children attending adore getting and making stuff. My own granddaughters would adore getting and making stuff. Maybe it was time to say: Count me in!

So I sat down at my bare little table (the flowers and bright yellow star and sign were provided by the festival, with not one speck of anything else provided by me). And I started to make a list of "swag" I could have next time.
I won't present the list here, but it's a long one. And a good one. Most swaggy, indeed.

I can do swag!! And next time I will! And come in costume, too! Just you wait and see!

So yay for festivals. Yay for everything about them. And yay for the chance to have even more fun at my swag-festooned booth at the next one.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Done with Self-Pity Forever!

Here are the headings for some recent entries in my trusty little notebook where I record all my troubles and seek guidance - from the little notebook, of course - in facing them.

March sadness - SO SAD, SO SAD

How can I survive this season of sadness?

I am still SO SAD - lost in sadness 

Sadness update - I am still sad


I am still so sad - and so stuck!

In reply, I filled two notebook pages with a list of all the ways that the problems in my life could be even worse. This left me strangely unconsoled.

I made a list of ten fun, spirit-lifting things to do. I didn't feel like doing any of them.

I made a list of twenty blessings - and I have to say it's a pretty staggering list. I might be the most fortunate person in the history of the world.

And yet . .  I was still spending every day doing Sudoku - my age-old vice - for hours on end, and pointless Internet searches for possible prizes I might have won that someone forgot to tell me about. Plus sleeping for eleven hours at night - why get up? Plus telling everybody who asked how listless and depressed I've been. Plus blogging about my blippettes, and their degrees of blippiness, making everyone else feel sorry for me, too.

Then this morning, I put the issue in its bluntest form to the little notebook:

I HAVE to change this! 

I quoted to myself my favorite line from one of the songs in Matilda: The Musical:

"But nobody else is going to put it right for me.
Nobody but me is going to change my story."

Then I wrote:


And. . . it did. Though this is also the time to say that last week the little notebook told me to resume the anti-depressant medication that I gave up several months ago thinking I no longer needed it. The little notebook sent me to renew the prescription, and I did, and for a 90-day supply of Effexor (or its generic substitute), the grand total was. . . .$1.59!!!! For less than two cents a day I could feel less hopeless about everything in my life. So, dear friends, while medication doesn't work for everyone, if it does work for you, don't deny yourself this help. Please don't. I think the little notebook was able to help me work through my season of sadness largely because it first sent me to the pharmacy to get what I desperately needed.

So here is what the little notebook told me this morning. And now I'm finally listening.

1. Start writing the book you need to be writing. MAKE THIS PRIORITY #1 IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW. START IT TODAY.

2. No Sudoku ever! Delete the app from the I-Pad right now!

3. Blog about something happy. (I guess this is something happy. And my next post will be purely happy, I promise.)

4. Allow yourself fun-filled outings, despite all the work you have. You do have time for this. In fact, you don't have time NOT to do this.

5. Stop telling yourself and everyone else how depressed you are. This isn't helping.

6. Review the blessing list daily. Commit it to memory.

7. Make a fierce, unshakable commitment to joy.

I made this list and in the next two hours these things happened. A coincidence? I think not.

After months of procrastination I sat down and wrote the first sentence - and then the first half of a page - for my new book. Nothing in my life has ever felt so good.

I opened a card that came in the mail yesterday, and it contained a stunningly generous gift from anonymous "writer friends" to serve as "blip balm" for my recent small misfortunes. I will never ever forget the kindness of these friends as long as I live.

A friend texted me to ask if I could join her for a funny play in Denver tonight - The Play That Goes Wrong - because her daughter can't use her ticket.

I changed the sheets on the bed and did laundry.

I opened the windows and let some warm spring sunshine waft its way into the room.

As of this minute, I'm done with self-pity. Maybe not done forever - let's not make promises we can't keep - but for now.

For now is enough.

For now is everything.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

De-Blippifying Blippettes

Last week was a bad week for me in the blippette department: 1) lost wallet; 2) precious package destroyed by the U.S. Post Office; 3) all my tax documents, en route to my tax-whiz sister, somehow sidetracked to a U.S. Post Office processing center in Palatine, Illinois, where they have languished for the past week; 4) water leaking from somewhere outside the house into the attic and down through the ceiling light fixture into the kitchen and dripping onto the kitchen table.

Too many blippettes!

But I am here to report that three out of these four blippettes turned out to be much less blippy than originally supposed.

1) It took me only three hours, all told, to replace the contents of the lost wallet. Lines at the DMV were remarkably short - indeed, there were no lines whatsoever. I walked right up to the counter and had my new license in fifteen minutes. And now I am set until 2024. Replacing my University of Colorado ID took longer, as it involved a walk across the sprawling campus, but hey, I like to walk. I was told I'd be charged $25 for the new ID, but instead I was charged just $5. Not so terrible!

2) I will mourn the loss of the precious package always. But there is a strange relief in realizing that nothing can be done about it, nothing at all, except to grieve.

3) Every single day for the past week I've gotten the same message from the tax-package tracking (with date and time altered for each one):
The Postal Service has identified a problem with the processing of this item at 4:07 pm on March 7, 2019 in PALATINE IL DISTRIBUTION CENTER. The local facility has been alerted and is taking steps to correct the problem.
But I have come to realize that the needed steps are not indeed being taken, because they are so ridiculously easy that if they had been taken the problem would have been solved instantly: either mail the package on to my sister or mail the package back to me. So instead I've taken steps to replace the needed documents, which also turned out to be not that huge of a hassle at all, once I realized I had to do it. I was reminded of this line from my writer friend Laura Deal: "Activity is the antidote to anxiety." Now I am mildly amused by the daily texts from the Postal Service, rather than consumed with sick dread and impotent rage.

4) The roofer who installed the roof came to look at the leak, and it's NOT the roof that's leaking, it's some other problem with the gutters, and the heating cable that was supposed to be melting the ice in them but has failed. He has been extremely helpful and jolly in diagnosing the problem and figuring out to fix it.

Oh, blippettes, you were, for the most part, so small after all, and yet I wasted so much time agonizing about you. Mark Twain is quoted as saying, "I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened." Well, my blippettes happened, but they turned out to be not so blippy, after all.

I created the word "blippette" for problems that were too small to qualify as blips, but maybe I need a new word for problems that don't even qualify as blippettes: maybe just "ettes" - though I don't see that catching on. So I'll stick with "blippettes," but try to keep them in perspective (and hope that no new ones come my way in the coming week).

Sunday, March 3, 2019

How Many Blippettes Add Up to a Blip?

Last week I lost my wallet. I decided to go on living, anyway. This was not even a blip, I declared. It was a mere blippette!

Since then, however, blippettes have proliferated in my life at an alarming rate.

I shipped a precious package, and its expensive and irreplaceable contents were lost in the mail; only the lid of the box was delivered, with a note from the U.S. Postal Service saying "WE CARE."

I mailed all my W-2 and 1099 tax forms to my math-whiz sister in Indiana, who does my taxes each year for me. The post office tracking information reports that they are now languishing somewhere in Illinois. There was no mention of whether or not the U.S. Postal Service cares.

This morning my granddaughter noticed a steady drip-drip-drip of water from the lamp fixture over the kitchen table. Lamps do not generally drip water. Alas, the new roof installed with a zillion-year guarantee just a few years ago is leaking water from roof to attic, and from attic to light fixture to kitchen table.


This is too many blippettes for one person in one week! Especially for a person, I might note, who also has her share of what anyone would say are real problems, too.

So here is what I'm trying to remind myself today.

Each of these annoyances, numerous as they have become, is nonetheless still a blippette.

That said, blippettes do add up. However, when they add up, they are still only blips.

Ahh, but don't blips themselves add up to something bigger? After all, enough trivial expenditures add up to a huge credit card bill; enough small savings deposits add up to a comfortable retirement.The whole premise of this blog - and of my entire writing career - is that a mere hour a day spent writing can add up to dozens of published books over the span of a lifetime.

Little things add up to big things. That is an indisputable fact.

But . . . this is another indisputable fact: while it is not up to me how much time these blippettes end up taking, or how much money they end up costing, it IS up to me how blippy I allow them to be. I can still decide to sigh and shrug and then remember that other people on this earth have also had packages go astray in the mail. I am not the only human being ever to have a leaky roof. In fact, billions of people on this planet don't even have a roof to leak. I can decide how much psychic energy to give to bewailing even FOUR BLIPPETTES IN A SINGLE WEEK.

This week my cumulative tally of blippettes has definitely amounted to a blip. But even a blip is not the end of the world, or even a reliable omen of the approaching end of the world. It's just a reason to eat a few extra handfuls of jelly beans and not one, not two, but three Russell Stover cream eggs, now on sale in the holiday aisle at King Soopers.

I'm off to have the strawberry cream one now.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Things Not to Complain About

I lost my wallet yesterday.

Somehow (but HOW??!!) between the time I paid for parking at the Denver Family Fest, where I was signing books at the Tattered Cover Bookstore booth, and the time the delighttful events coordinator for the store handed me my parking reimbursement, my wallet disappeared.

Could I possibly have left it on the seat in the car? Oh, please let it be on the seat of the car!

It wasn't.

I retraced my steps through the dirty slush from car to venue, twice, staring down at the ground.

No wallet.

I inquired at the Lost and Found. Yes, they had found a wallet! Hooray!

But it wasn't mine.

Slowly the truth dawned on me. The wallet was gone, and I wasn't going to get it back. I was going to have to replace driver's license, credit card, ATM card, King Soopers grocery card, King Soopers reloadable gift card, University of Colorado faculty ID (which serves as my university library card), Boulder Public Library card, membership cards for the Museum of Nature and Science, the Denver Art Museum, the Botanic Gardens, health insurance card, dental insurance card. . .. WAHHHH!!!

This was Just the Kind of Thing That Always Happens to Me.

This was an Omen That the Rest of Life Was Going to Be Ruined.

This was the Biggest Pain in the History of the World!

But now, the day after, I'm gradually putting this into perspective.

This is not the kind of thing that always happens to me. Instead, it's the kind of thing that happens to just about everybody who is lucky enough to have a wallet in the first place. It's an absolutely common irritation of modern living.

This is not an omen that the rest of my life is going to be ruined. In fact, it's not an omen of anything. Because there is NO SUCH THING AS OMENS!

And it's not the biggest pain in the history of the world. It is a very small pain. It's not even big enough to count as a blip; it's what I call a blippette.

I should not be railing against the universe because of a blippette.

So here is the list of things, for future reference, that I'm telling myself not to complain about:

1. Loss/damage for anything that is fully replaceable.
2. Loss/damage where replacement will cost less than $100.
3. Loss/damage where replacement will take less than 3-4 hours. Or even 6.
4. Loss/damage of anything that doesn't really matter.
5. Loss/damage of things that are commonly lost, where losing them is just a part of life and nothing the slightest bit remarkable.

That is a pretty good list. Losing my wallet is beneath the threshold for complaint on all five criteria.
It's a blippette. And just the word "blippette" makes me smile.

Good-bye, wallet! Hello, long line at the DMV to get a replacement license! (I'll take a book to read.)

And the rest of my life is going to be just fine.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Reading Across Borders

I've been in writing groups for my entire career, but I've never been in a long-running reading group, except during the several years when I teaching at DePauw University in Indiana, where I was a temporary member of the Janeites (which began each year with re-reading a beloved Jane Austen text).

Now, however, I surprised myself by becoming not only a member but the founder of a book group that is well into its second year. The idea for it popped into my head at the start of 2018, after a certain president was quoted as making a certain remark about U.S. immigration policy: that we didn't want people coming here from "sh-t hole countries." That week, in reply, someone posted on Facebook a link to an article providing a list of fabulous books by authors from just these denigrated countries. Ooh! I thought. I should read those books! Then: double-ooh! I thought. Why don't I put a post of my own on Facebook inviting other intrepid readers to join me?

Over a dozen people responded, from all different parts of my life - other children's book authors, former philosophy students, a friend from church, a friend whose daughters attended elementary school with my boys. Because most of the people in the group didn't know each other, except through me, we don't spend much time in our meetings on chit-chat. Instead we leap right in to talk about . . . the BOOK! Soon we outgrew the original "sh-t-hole-country" list and started nominating other titles, with the only proviso that we would focus our attention on other countries, other cultures, other viewpoints.

Here are the titles the New Voices Book Group has read thus far (many of these authors, listed here by their country of origin, now live and write in the U.S. or the U.K.).

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi of Kenya
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue of Cameroon
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (poetry collection), by Warsan Shire, of Somalia/Kenya
Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya of El Salvado (read in translation)
The Art of Dying by Edwidge Danticat of Haiti
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo of Zimbabwe
Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, by Native American poet Joy Harjo
The Original Dream by Nukila Amal of Indonesia (read in translation)
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy of India
Hunger by Lan Samantha Chang (whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from China)
Redefining Realness by Janet Mock (an African-American trans woman)
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (the American-born daughter of Nigerian parents)
Burnt Sugar: Contemporary Cuban poetry, edited by Lori Marie Carlson and Oscar Hijelos

Next up:
Ghachar Gochar by Vivek Shanbhag of India, translated from the Kannada language
Women without Men: A Novel of Modern Iran, by Shahrnush Parispur of Iran
Night School: A Reader for Adults, by Zsofia Ban of Hungary
Confessions of the Lioness but Mia Couto of Mozambique and Brazil

I haven't loved all these books - my least favorites were The Original Dream and Binti - but there hasn't been one I regretted reading and talking about with this little band of adventurous readers. My world is bigger now than it was a year ago, and for that I am grateful.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Too Much of a Good Thing

I love decluttering.

I love decluttering so much that I seldom even get the chance to do any, as I tend not to acquire clutter in the first place.

That said, even ardent declutterers can usually find SOMETHING more to get rid of. So in January (inspired in part by the Marie Kondo craze that was sweeping the country from her new Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo), I set myself the goal of ridding my house of 365 items for the coming year, one per day.

I ended up meeting the goal within the week, finally making myself part with some books I will truly never miss. Did I need a second - or THIRD - copy of certain childhood favorites? Did I need faded paperback copies of classic novels that are easily available in much more attractive editions from the public library? No, I did not.

But sometimes even I admit to the joy of owning something in reckless abundance. I can't make myself part with the two huge plastic tubs of Beanie Babies from the years when my two growing sons would each get a Beanie Baby in his Christmas stocking, in his Easter basket, for his birthday, and several as souvenirs on every family trip. I also couldn't make myself haul away a bunch of old pillows - though here I didn't particularly want to keep them, I just didn't want to send still useful pillows to the landfill (donation centers and recycling facilities won't accept them).

So when my two little granddaughters were here last week, and it snowed too hard for us to get out one day, I dragged down the Beanie Baby tubs from the attic.
It IS fun to have such a huge heap of them, no?

And the pillows served to make a roof for a playhouse, and a floor for a playhouse, as well as a door.
This final picture is not of my own stash of costume jewelry, but jewelry at the home of Kataleya's best friend, whose home contains more entertaining objects and overwhelmingly fun play opportunities for little girls, I'm convinced, than any other place on earth.
I remain a devotee of Marie Kondo, and I plan to revel in more decluttering in the future, but I'll give the closing words here to Mae West: "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful."