Thursday, April 30, 2020

Why I Like the Last Day of the Month

I have shouted far and wide that I love the first day of the month. On the first day of every month I start a whole NEW LIFE! This is my chance for a new beginning! A fresh start! A do-over on my entire existence!

Then, of course, after a few days of astonishing myself with progress on every conceivable front, I slip back into the old life again. After all, who can sustain a whole new life forever?

So as the end of each month draws near, I can't help but notice a gap between what I thought the month would be and what it turned out being.

Here is where I remember the wisdom of my therapist from many decades ago. One month, say it was April, I had a session with her on, say it was the 28th, where I bemoaned that I was stalled yet again in the LaBrea Tar Pits of my life, with all my month's goals left undone. "So much for April," I said, with a weary sigh.

And then she spoke the words I've never forgotten: "There's still two more days."


The last day of the month is now a day I cherish. It is my last chance to do something to salvage the month that is about to end.

During my teaching years, there would always be some student who had started strong, but then drifted away, who left for spring break and never came back again. He'd slink into my office as finals loomed, distraught at what had become of his semester, and I could never resist saying to him, "Let's see how much of it we can salvage."

Today I'm going to see what I can salvage of April. I know that for many of us this particular April, this April of coronavirus quarantine, has been a month for sheer survival, where nobody has any interest whatsoever in salvaging anything. I get that. But I am still irresistibly drawn to salvaging what I can.

Today I know I can't possibly DO this one academic project that I should have done back in January, but just . . .  didn't. What I CAN do is drag it out and look at it. Just look at it. Then when May's new life begins tomorrow, I'll be that much more ready to leap into tackling it. My sister, who posts a wonderful quote from some famous person each day on Facebook, has shared this one from Joseph Conrad: "Facing it - always facing it - that's the way to get through."

So: on this last day of April, I'm at least going to face that overdue abstract for my contribution to the Cambridge History of Children's Literature in English. How glad I will be tomorrow that I did that today! I'm also going to catch up on the week's work for the online children's lit class I'm teaching for the University of Denver. My future self will thank me for that, too. I'll spend one blissful hour on my verse-novel-in-progress so I can cast an admiring glance on a few more pages. A few more pages is so much better than no more pages.

Today I am going to salvage April, at least a little bit, as best I can.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Some Things Really Can Be Fixed

I have always been terrible at fixing things.

Computer woes, garage door malfunctions, leaky faucets, funny noises made by my car - I can't fix any of them. Instead I get Somebody Else to come do it, occasionally as a favor, usually for a fee.

I've come to notice a certain feature shared by all these people who, unlike me, can fix things.
They take as their starting point the belief that the thing CAN be fixed. This is connected to their belief that if something doesn't work, there is a REASON it doesn't work, and if they can locate that reason, they can address that reason, and then do something about it to improve the situation.

Instead I start from the assumption (to slightly alter the words of the bumper sticker) that "STUFF HAPPENS." It just happens, randomly, inexplicably, through some bizarre quirk of the space-time continuum that comes into play most prominently when I am around. (For example, even other people's computers stop working if I'm in close enough proximity to them.)

Sometimes things work. Other times they don't. Who can understand the innermost secrets of the universe?

But lately the universe's malfunctions have been disturbing enough that I've tried to adopt the stance of the fixers. And let me tell you, it is AMAZING how many things can be fixed when I do.

So: thanks to the coronavirus quarantine, now we all live much of our lives online. I bought a new laptop, one that actually has a camera and microphone in it, so I could record lectures for my classes and participate in the non-stop ZOOM sessions that are how we are currently spending our days. But something kept going wrong with ZOOM for me. My face, never my best feature, would be blindingly bright, a white-hot hole in the middle of the screen. Then it would finally go into focus - and then out of focus - and then into focus. Plus, I looked so ghoulish that although I had never spent a minute of my life caring about my appearance before, I wanted to sob after every ZOOM session.

Oh, well, I thought. I guess ZOOM works for everyone else, but it doesn't work for me.

But then, during a ZOOM session, I wailed about my ZOOM despair to one of those People Who Can Fix Things. He mentioned that the problem might be with my computer camera; I might do better if I got a separate webcam (whatever that was). Another friend who was part of this ZOOM session sent me a picture of his webcam. I ordered it. It arrived. My son and I tried to install it, and of course - OF COURSE! - we couldn't make it work. But then we Googled "How do you make this thing work?" and it turns out you have to download software on your computer first. Who knew? Well, now we did.

I LOVE MY NEW LITTLE WEBCAM! I LOVE IT, I LOVE IT, I LOVE IT! Oh, little webcam, I love you so! My face is in focus now! It looks like a normal human face! It even looks (sort of) like a pretty human face!

Dear ones, some things really CAN be fixed. While we all know we have to accept those things we cannot change, some things actually CAN be changed.

I learned this ditty as a child:

For every evil under the sun
There is a remedy or there is none.
If there be one, seek till you find it.
If there be none, never mind it.

In the future I'm going to do at least a little bit of seeking first before I throw up my hands in surrender to the universe. There just might be a new little webcam out there somewhere, waiting for me.

Monday, April 20, 2020

The Only Way I Have Ever Gotten a Book Idea

The most common question authors are asked is: "Where do you get your ideas?"

The most common answer authors give to this question is: "Everywhere!"

If I feel bound to elaborate on this answer, I'll share examples of books of mine inspired by my own childhood memories, or by events that transpired as my boys were growing up, or (as I love to write school stories) by fabulous activities and projects I see on school visits.

But the true answer is that the only way I've ever gotten a book idea has been by sitting down with a pad of paper and a pen, and writing the word IDEAS at the top of the page. Then I start making a list of everything that pops into my head. Nothing - as in, nothing - ever pops into my head of its own accord. All popping happens only when I am staring down at that blank page and clutching that Pilot Razor Point fine-tipped black marker pen.

After a few dogged hour-a-day stints, for some reason one of these ideas will give me a hopeful tingle, and I'll mark it with a star. I'll start scribbling down some companion ideas to go along with it, and then a few more... In this way, a book starts to take shape.

It's been a long time since I've had a book idea. The last few years have been so hard for me and my family. During hard times I'm still able to chug along cheerfully on projects already in progress; a very smart person once said that objects in motion tend to stay in motion. But he also said that it's not an easy task to budge an object at rest.

I decided today was the day to rouse this writer-at-rest and turn her back into a writer-in-motion.

I gathered my writing materials, made myself a cup of tea, settled myself on the couch, and turned over my hourglass. At the top of the blank page on my favorite narrow-ruled pad I wrote IDEAS.

Shyly they began to creep out from the dark places where they had concealed themselves.

I didn't give a star to any of today's ideas, but I know that if I just sit there for enough hourglass-timed hours, sooner rather than later a star-worthy idea will come.

Oh, and the flowers were sent to me by a dear friend to thank me for talking to her students about writing. Aren't they beautiful? And a good reminder that if I'm going to be talking to other people about the joy I find in writing, maybe it's time for me to start finding that joy again.

Monday, April 13, 2020

What My Favorite Philosopher Would Say About How Much I Hate Online Teaching

The coronavirus quarantine is affecting all of us in different ways. That is to say: we all have different things we hate most about it.

Lately what I'm hating most is having to teach online, meet online, do author events online, to do everything in my life online. Why do I hate it so? Not because I cherish face-to-face encounters with other human beings (well, that too!), but because I AM ABSOLUTELY TERRIBLE AT TECHNOLOGY. I AM THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD FOR ANYTHING HAVING TO DO WITH COMPUTERS.

I will skip my LONG list of things I can't do on computers and give just one example (well, maybe two). A librarian asked me to record a short video sharing one of my books with his students. "Sure!" I said. "But if I ever figure out how to record this short video, how on earth will I send it to you? Videos are too big to send over email." "Oh, just send it via Google Drive," he said. "Umm," I said, "what is Google Drive?" "Don't worry," he said, "I'll send you a video that tells you all about it." Fast forward through two weeks of paralyzing despair about even having to look at a video about Google Drive. Then finally I Googled "What is Google Drive and how do I do it?" Thank goodness we can Google to get information about how to do Google! In the end I made and sent the video. But only after a fortnight of excruciating dread and terror.

Then, for the two courses I suddenly found myself teaching online, I also somehow recorded videos of my lectures and managed to post them on the University of Colorado's instructional platform (only losing two of them into cyberspace in the process and having to record them all over again). When I watched my own lectures, I thought they were good. I was charming, in fact! And witty! And wise! All the good things! I posted them on the course website early because I was on a lecture-making roll. I could do this online thing after all! Lectures on Nietzsche! Lectures on Sartre! Then one student sent a timid query about when I was going to post the lectures. "I posted them ages ago!" I shrieked, via email. But apparently what was visible to me wasn't visible to them. There was this itty-bitty, teeny-weeny button I had to click to publish the darned things.

Okay, that is my rant. But now here is what Epictetus-the-Stoic, my most beloved of philosophers, would say in reply.

Epictetus has much advice about how we should behave toward tyrants, all relevant to my current woes. If the tyrant commands me to hold his chamber pot, I can either comply or refuse. If I hold the chamber pot, I will have submitted to his tyranny; if I refuse, I will get a beating and lose my dinner. The choice is mine. It's clear that Epictetus himself would not hold the tyrant's chamber pot, even if it meant being beheaded for his failure to do so. Epictetus didn't think being beheaded was all that terrible. If the tyrant threatened, "I will behead you!" he would be quick with a snappy retort, "Did I ever tell you that I alone had a head that cannot be cut off?" But the choice - to hold the chamber pot or not - is yours.

He gives less extreme examples, too. If you are invited to feast with a boring conversationalist, you have to decide whether you'd rather have a yummy meal while being bored out of your gourd, or skip the tedium and settle for mediocre fare at home: "Further, there are some morose and fastidious people who say, 'I cannot dine with such a fellow, and bear with his daily accounts of how he fought in Mysia: 'I told you, my friend, how I climbed the ridge - I will start again with the siege.' But another says, 'I had rather get a dinner, and hear him prate as much as he pleases.' And it is for you to compare the value of these things, and judge for yourself; but do not do anything as one who is burdened and afflicted and suppose himself to be in a bad way, for no one compels you to that."

Ahh, that's the crux of it. Do it, and get this; or don't do it, and get that. But either way: STOP COMPLAINING! When someone came to Epictetus and moaned, "My nose is running!" (this is an actual example from his Discourses), he replied, "What do you have hands for, but to wipe it with?!" And when the sniffler went on to ask why the world should have such things as mucus in it, Epictetus told him, "How much better it would be for you to wipe it away than complain!"

Okay, so what does this have to do with how much I hate learning about Google Drive? Or struggling with Canvas for my classes?

If I want to continue getting paid to teach in an increasingly online environment (and the current coronavirus crisis is only exacerbating the already ongoing computerization of everything), I'm going to have to get better at doing things on the computer. If I don't want to get better at doing things on the computer, it's time for me to retire. Ditto for making videos to promote my books. If I want to continue being an author in the world-as-it-is in 2020, I'm going to have to learn what Google Drive is. If I don't want to learn about Google Drive (and actually, it did turn out to be the easiest thing in the world), then I can put myself out to pasture.

Either way, it's better for me to wipe my nose than to whine about how terrible it is that my nose is running.

My tentative conclusion for myself is that I am indeed going to call it quits for almost all teaching at the end of this challenging semester and learn to live on less income each month. But I'm also going to work harder to keep up with the technology needed to continue as an author.

For now, I'm going to "Suck it up, buttercup" (which is NOT a quotation from Epictetus, but could have been.) I'm lucky I have a job generating needed income. I'm lucky I have a way of sharing my books via videos with young readers.

I'm lucky I have hands to wipe my runny nose.