Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Days of Nail-Biting and Jitters
Back-to-school jitters know no age limit.

I told this to a young friend of mine last week as she prepared to start a new school year in a new school, but when I shared this tidbit with her, my own back to school jitters hadn't kicked in yet. I was still a week away from meeting my students and jump starting the school year routine.

This week, it's my turn.

The night before last, sheer exhaustion took over. After falling asleep in front of the television, I succumbed to my heavy eyelids and went to bed an hour or more before my usual too-late bedtime. I fell asleep right away, and woke up ready to tackle yesterday's jitters, which proved to be unnecessary (as usual).

Last night was an entirely different matter. Once again, I went to bed earlier than usual, tired out by all of the excitement of my first day. But last night, I tossed and turned like a soldier headed for the trenches rather than a professor heading for a room full of freshmen.

Never mind that my class yesterday was wonderful. Technology that worked. Students who smiled and participated. An ease about the subject matter that I hadn't fully accomplished this time last year.

Today is another day. New day, new class. New subject matter. New (very new) students.

Freshmen. The one group of students likely to be more on edge than I am.

After spending twenty-seven years with amazing teachers who make everything look easy, I know I'm not alone. Every August, we commiserated at Inservice about the night-before-the-first-day nerves that stole sleep and peace of mind. It was a nervous excitement, as much joyful anticipation (about meeting the kids) as actual fear (about everything else), but it nudged sleep just out of reach as our brains spun through the lists of things we'd done and things that still awaited, particularly those things that were out of our hands.

I'm ready -- or at least I think I am. I also know that as soon as I meet those students and begin speaking, I will be fine. But, as I told a friend yesterday, anticipation is not my friend. It roils my stomach and rattles my nerves. It raises doubts that no number of to-do lists and no sets of plans can fully hold at bay.

I'm looking forward to meeting my new students today and delving into my new plans. And yes, putting those freshmen at ease, bringing their fears into alignment with my own and guiding them into a  harmonic decrescendo. That characteristic of a counselor cannot be excised. 

And tonight, I'm looking forward to getting some sleep.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Goodbye, Superwoman

At the end of last month, after a particularly stressful day, I sat in the armchair in my living room and had a little chat with myself. This retired life that was supposed to be a change of pace from what I'd done all my adult life was quickly turning into a new rat race, with me as the head rat. Once again, as in every decade of my adult life, I loved everything I was doing. The problem was, there were still only 24 hours in a day, and no matter how many decades I live, that is unlikely to change.

So I needed to initiate a change, and it needed to be more pervasive than simply eliminating something from my schedule. It needed to be something that would impact our daily lives. After a few moments of wallowing in stress and self-pity, the answer became very clear.
I needed to learn how to delegate. The only person who actually expected me to be Superwoman was
me, and so I needed to give myself permission to relinquish the role.

It was surprisingly easy, this decision to take off my Superwoman cape. I folded it neatly and set it aside, secure in the notion that I am not the only person in my house who can find things, cook things and launder things…or order them, schedule them and pick them up….you get the idea.

Sounds simple enough, this removal of an invisible cape, but the decision was momentous enough that my visual memory of sitting in that chair making that decision is every bit as clear as the truly momentous occasions in my life. I was making an adjustment that ran counter to both my personality and the way I've done things for as long as I can remember.

My husband and daughter are pretty self-sufficient, but in the two years since I retired, we've all gotten used to my being available to do things, and so the myth has intensified. Of the three of us, I have the most flexible schedule, so it only made sense for me to take on things that need to be accomplished during regular business hours. Add to that the myriad "oh, I can do that for you" things I took on -- sometimes unbidden, sometimes not -- and  my to-do list grew rather quickly.

That's all well and good when a person is really retired, but at the same time that my in-home to-do list was lengthening, so was my out-of-home list. Adult and community education classes that still left me with lots of time to tackle the in-home stuff quickly gave way to an adjunct position that looked great on paper but required large chunks of off-paper time. Then my book came out and I had to figure out how to factor book promotion into a schedule that included writing and planning and teaching (oh, my!), all of which had become part of my new and exciting second career.

Suddenly, my schedule had about as many openings as a doctor's office during flu season. And I was keeping about the same hours.

As I've said in so many posts like this, I'm not complaining. I'm extremely happy with the direction my life is taking. But if there's been a common thread in the past two years, it has been change. Every time I got used to my new position, someone yelled, "Rotate!" And with this last rotation (agreeing to take on a second class at the college), it became apparent that the phrase "my cup runneth over" can be both a good thing and a bad one.

It was time to make some changes. Again.

I didn't ask. I simply called a family meeting (funny how much of my parenting has been influenced by 70s sitcoms) after dinner one night and laid out the fall schedule. I told my family that things were going to look a little different (again) and that their help was required.

As I said, my family is pretty self-sufficient. In addition, both of them are good at pitching in. I'm just terrible at asking for help.

Now that I'm paying attention, I see that there have been openings all along. Like, for example, when my husband offers to help. For more than twenty years, I've been saying, "it's okay, I've got this." Um….why? Now I tell him what he can do -- at least some of the time.

And my daughter has been raised to be self-sufficient -- not that it always happens, mind you -- and so the "do for yourself" mindset is not a new one for her either. But if I don't ask her to do things, she's not likely to come up with the idea on her own.

A funny thing has happened between that day in the armchair and now. Once I got past the guilt of, ahem, "sharing the wealth," I discovered that I kinda liked delegating.

Actually, there was no "kinda" about it.

I definitely like delegating.

But I also know exactly where I put that Superwoman cape. Y'know -- just in case.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Friday Freebie: What I'm Reading in Ten Minutes or Less: "This Cute Shirt Could Make Your Child Smarter"

Want to know the best thing you can do to help your toddler develop language skills? Talk to him (or her). Answer his (or her) questions. Have one-sided conversations until he (or she) is old enough to hold up his (or her) end of the bargain.

Not surprisingly, kids who grow up in poverty participate in fewer conversations. Couple that with the lack of nutrition that is often a fact of life when families struggle to afford groceries and you've got a high probability of long-term deficits in language that will make learning and communicating difficult for a lifetime.

The folks at Too Small to Fail came up with a great solution for parents who want to reverse this trend, but don't always have the time, energy or wherewithal to engage their pre-verbal children in discussions  without a little nudge. A simple, non-threatening reminder that merely needs to be laundered in order to remain readily available throughout a child's toddler years, these visually appealing tee shirts are decorated their own topical conversation starters.

And it's not just tee shirts. It's billboards. Bus stop walls. Blankets and towels and onesies (oh my!) The baby items are distributed for free in a variety of locations in the Oakland, CA area, and are also available for sale at Talk Read Sing, where each purchase pays it forward in the form of a donation to a family in need.

Imagine that. Clothing that can build habits that last -- and impact -- a lifetime.

(To read the Huffington Post article that inspired this blog, click here).

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Word Count Wednesday

Word Count Wednesday

Last week: 1926 
(just "found" a few words in my trusty WCW notebook!)

This week: 2188
Moving in the right direction! 

In Defense of Amazon

I love Facebook. I really do. I spent much too much time on it this morning because I became captivated by the kids and teachers in their back-to-school finery. I was also delighted to find news of the publication of a friend’s book and “news” that a quiz revealed that another of my friends would be played by Meryl Streep if ever her life story became a movie. Lucky girl.

Notice a theme? These are all good things. Fun things. Amusing, if not entirely true, things. 

But I must say that I’m growing weary of all the bashing. Much as I hate to see sad news on my news feed, life and death and all that happens in between are largely unavoidable. But when did Facebook become the place to bash good intentions and offer one size fits all advice that really doesn’t fit everyone well or equally?

Examples? You know I’ve got ‘em. There were two that hit me this morning but I’m going to stick to just one for the purposes of this post which promises to be a long one: Amazon is the root of all evil.

Do I agree with all of Amazon’s business practices? I do not. But when authors tell readers not to buy books from Amazon, they aren’t hurting Amazon. They’re hurting other authors.
Let me tell you a story. Picture it: Pennsylvania, 2013. A newly retired educator signs a contract with a small publisher that will bring her manuscript out of the slush pile and into the hands of readers. Is the contract perfect? No. Are there bumps along the way? Absolutely. In fact, the book almost didn’t happen.

But it did, and so “almost” is water under the bridge. In January 2014, my first novel was published. And thus began my education in book sales.

I’d had two books published before, but they were in a niche market, and truly, the only place they were readily available was through the publisher. Though I eventually got copies into the local author section of a small indie bookstore and a chain store (Borders -- so you know how that ends), most copies were sold through my publisher. That worked for these titles, though, as most of the purchasers were buying them through school districts that issued purchase orders to the publishers.

But fiction is an entirely new story (no pun intended). My book is not self-published. It is available through a distributor, with discounts and return guarantees. That means a bookseller can order my book at less than the cover price and they can return it if it doesn’t sell.

And I still can’t get it into bookstores unless I’m willing to put it there on consignment. 

There have been a few exceptions. Thankfully, Barnes and Noble was one of them. But before my nearby B & N could stock my novel, the book had to pass muster at the corporate level. A stranger in an office somewhere who makes these decisions got to decide whether or not my book made it “into the system” and until it was there, no copies could be ordered for any Barnes and Noble store. In addition, during this time (when I was launching my book), I was ineligible to participate in Barnes and Noble’s author events. (I don’t get paid for author events at bookstores, by the way. I do them because they’re a necessary part of book promotion, and because when they’re done right, they’re a lot of fun).

Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, DE (close to where we vacation) was another notable exception. When I arrived for the book signing they so graciously  made possible for an unknown author, they had a whole stack of my books. They gave me a free beverage, placed me in a prime location and I had a wonderful time talking to everyone who came through the door. And I sold a lot of books. Not a lot by John Grisham or J. K. Rowling standards, but enough to make me very happy.

Not all indie bookstores operate like that, though. Others will gladly carry my book, provided I consign it. I do this on a limited basis for several reasons. I believe in my book, and I think people need to actually get it into their hands or, failing that, read a sample before they know whether or not they want to read it. I also understand that indie bookstores often operate on a shoestring budget and with limited space and that they simply don’t have the room to stock a lot of books by first-time authors who aren’t famous or connected to the store in some way. Finally, I like indie bookstores. I think they’re important and I want them to stick around.

But do you know how much money I make on a consigned book? Depending on the terms, it’s sometimes not enough to cover the cost of a chai at Starbucks. Or Sheetz. Or what it costs me in gas to  deliver the book to the store and drive home again.

My biggest disappointment in this game, however, was the Christian retailers -- the big guys, not my local indie store -- and since “retailers” truly is plural, they shall remain nameless. In order for them to consider my book at all (if I even get that far -- some don’t return e-mails), I must follow the process I described for Barnes and Noble above, but I must provide them with a copy of my book and, contrary to popular belief, author copies are not free. The store’s management can then accept or reject my book for their stores, but either way, they will not return my copy to me. They can acquire my book for their stores through a distributor at a discount. They can return it if it doesn’t sell. And yet they are unwilling to go through this process. Instead, they want a free copy of my book, which they are free to accept or reject, then discard.

Is it unwieldy for them to comb through the news of new releases for every new book by every unknown author to see which books would be a good addition to their inventory? Of course it is (though that’s pretty much what indie booksellers do on a typical day). 

But is it too much to expect that if I go to the local branch of a nationwide retailer, introduce myself and ask them to take a look at my book, that they consider it for the store located in my town where the people I know shop? I don’t believe that it is. 

Have I stopped doing business with that retailer? I have. Will I ask others to do so as well? 

I will not. Because when I do, I hurt every author whose work is sold in that store. And I have no right to do that.

When an author writes a book and gets it published, she wants people to read it. Amazon has made that possibility a reality for me more than almost anywhere else. They carry my book in e-book and softcover. They can deliver it to anyone anywhere. People can “look inside this book” to see if they like my characters and storyline enough to read more -- enough to decide in favor of a purchase or against it. Kindle purchases, like consignment purchases, don’t earn me enough for a Starbucks. But, like consignment purchases, they put the book into readers’ hands. Amazon has carried my book from the first day it was available.

Is Amazon making life miserable for other authors? Yes, it is. Should these other authors tell their readers where they can find their books? Absolutely. Does Amazon have a right not to carry books whose authors and publishers don’t follow their rules and jump through their hoops?

If you think that’s not the case, and if you think Amazon is alone in this practice, please re-read this column. But please, if you’re a reader or a writer, don’t toss out the baby with the bathwater.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Tuesday News: Sale!

I just got news last night that my publisher has decided to price Casting the First Stone at $1.99 for a few days. If you haven't read it, now's a great time to grab a copy on Amazon.

In addition, if you are interested in using Casting the First Stone as a book club selection, I'll be happy to send you a copy of my book club questions. You can contact me via e-mail or my Facebook page.

Happy Reading -- whatever book is in your hands!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Goldilocks Creates a Schedule

I spent two days last week trying to create a schedule for a class I'm teaching this semester, only to end up totally frustrated and unsatisfied. Okay, maybe not two full days -- but too big a chunk of those days to end up without the desired (by me) version of the product I'd set out to create.

The trouble was, I wasn't the one who desired the product, and while my endeavors yielded some benefits, the whole exercise once again provided validation of something I already knew.

My brain just doesn't work that way.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think creating the schedule (imperfect though it was) was a waste of time -- precisely because not everyone's brain works the same way. My students who are planners will like this resource -- many will need this resource. And to be honest, I got something out of the process, too. Creating the schedule helped me to sketch out plans for the first two or three units of the semester.

But that's where I got stuck. I was lacking no resource. I had samples and all the information I could possibly want about the subject matter, but I haven't met my students yet and so I haven't yet answered the Goldilocks question for this group of undergraduates: too easy, too hard or just right?

And it was the just right that led me to want to throw things and pull out my hair. And spend much too much time on what should have been a simple task.

In the end, I settled for as close to just right as I could get, with the disclaimer that all dates are approximate and subject to change. If my students "get" something right away, I don't want to drag it out for another  30 minutes just because the schedule says so. And if, on the other hand, they don't "get" something, I don't want to push forward just because the schedule says so.

Fortunately, no one expects me to do that. Over the course of the semester, I need to cover the material  and approximate schedule or no approximate schedule, I'm at liberty to change the dates, the assignments, the order of topics…all of it.

So why was this so hard?
Because without meaning to, I'd made it a matter of absolutes. For me, creating a schedule creates the illusion that certain items will be checked off at certain times. This topic will take ten minutes, that one twenty, and the one over there, well, that could take a day or two. When I hear "schedule," I think "itinerary."

Hmm. Could it possibly be that it took so long because I kept getting in my own way?

And so perhaps my first lesson for the semester was a lesson in empathy. Should I require my students to follow a path that's an uphill climb because the adults have mapped it out and determined it's the best way to go? Or should I encourage them to ignore the GPS and follow the path that makes sense to them, provided they arrive at the right destination? Isn't it only fair for them to expect that if they're going to put in the work, the eventual outcome will be of some benefit to them as well?

Yes, I know that all sounds ridiculously idealistic, but I'm not sure that's such a bad way to begin a semester. Reality will intrude for all of us soon enough as we check off the things we must accomplish, but for me, one of the things I want to teach my students is a love of learning. If I'm to do that, then I need to encourage them to create connections between themselves and the subject matter so that when an assignment requires divergent thinking, they truly believe they're not only allowed to flex that muscle but encouraged to do so. I can put the information into the semester's GPS, expecting -- and even encouraging -- a little "recalculating" along the way.

And for me the first step is unboxing the schedule.

Speaking of schedules…last week, I shifted into "semester mode" and completely forgot about Word Count Wednesday. Due to an unpredictable week which lacked sprints, stretches and pretty much all things writing-related that weren't also school-related, I not only didn't have much to report. I didn't realize until last night that I'd failed to report it.

Look for an update this Wednesday :-)