And so it begins…

The Spring 2020 semester starts tomorrow. I just got back yesterday from 11 days in Belgium and Netherlands with my students. I have finished two out of three syllabi. And, those two are for the same class (2 sections). The third one, my class on Russian politics, is not in the online learning management system yet. The last time I taught it was before we got this new system. So, that will take some time to input all the modules and info for them. Fun.

On the “I’m grateful for…” side of things, I’m grateful I teach Tuesdays and Thursdays so I have tomorrow to work on getting everything uploaded and semi-functioning. I can spend the day working on that so that on Tuesday it’s all ready and looks like I’m totally organized. Ha!

On the WTF?! side of things, we have our first big meeting of the semester tomorrow as well. Oh, joy. I started seeing the emails for several meetings last week, but since I was busy doing pedagogically sound activities with students I was able to totally ignore most of them.

Continued: Monday Jan. 13.

The semester started today. I’m grateful that my schedule is Tuesday/Thursday this semester. We did have a meeting this afternoon, but at least I didn’t have to teach today. Tomorrow is three classes back-to-back. Oh, joy. More and more I think that work puts a real crimp in the work I really want to do.

You might have noticed that I’m doing a weekly writing prompt exercise over at More Odds Than Ends. I’ve posted them here. Last week’s was “Old Keys.” I had fun writing it and I’m very much looking forward to continuing this exercise in the foreseeable future. Waiting to see what the next one will be. In the meantime, I greatly appreciate your reading them and I’ve love to read any comments you might have.

OK. I’m off to bed. Long day tomorrow. Here’s to a good, and less stressful Spring 2020 semester.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Old keys

The Week 2 of Odd prompts found me sorting through a coffee can of old keys. I’m traveling with my students and this has been a welcome change.

******

Old Keys

I pulled the can off of the top shelf in the garage. The left side of the two-car garage had been my dad’s workshop/home appliance repair area. He’d spent hours and days puttering around out here, in all kinds of weather, at almost all hours of the day. If mom hadn’t insisted he get some sleep, and preferably in their bed, I truly believe he would have slept out here as well. Now I was cleaning it out along with the rest of the house so it could be sold.

The can was heavy and there was a metallic rattle when it shifted. Probably a bunch of screws and nails. All saved “just in case.” Dad never threw anything away because, according to him, you never knew when you might need it. He wasn’t really a hoarder, except when it came to screws, nuts, bolts, washers, and nails. I’d already found about 10 coffee cans full of all of those. This was probably one more.

I peered into the rusted Folger’s coffee can. Holy crap. It was filled with keys. Keys! Not just a couple dozen or so (something I would expect to find in a house that had been lived in for almost 50 years), but almost a full coffee can’s worth. Did any of these work on the current locks? Knowing dad, they probably worked on the original locks for the house.

“Michael! Where are you?” My wife’s voice came through the door that went into the house from the garage.

“Out here, in the garage. You gotta see this!” I yelled back, staring into the Folger’s can.

Jenna appeared in the doorway. “What did you find?”

I simply handed over the coffee can. “What am I supposed to do with these?”

“Wow. That’s a hella lot of keys. Can’t you just throw them out?” Jenna looked up at me.

“I suppose. But…something tells me I have to go through them just to be sure. Who knows what dad put in there. Besides, some of them might go to the current locks in the house. I’d feel better knowing we accounted for them all.”

I took the can back and followed Jenna back into the house and went through to the kitchen. I unceremoniously dumped the keys out on the kitchen table.

Jenna started sorting through them. “A lot of these look the same. Why don’t we start there? Find your keys to the house. We can compare them and see if any of these are house keys.” She pulled out a chair and got to work sorting keys.

Thank God for my wife. If I’d been alone, I would have simply stared at the pile on the table. I had mostly made it through the weeks after my parent’s deaths because of her. She took care of all the practical stuff and just told me where to go. And I went. The police to deal with the aftermath of the accident, the hospital to see them and be there when the machines were unplugged, the funeral home. Everything. She handled it all and pointed me in the right direction. Now she was helping me do something as mundane as sort keys. How did I get so lucky?

“Michael. What could this possibly go to?” Jenna was holding up an antique key with a fanciful design on the handle end.

I stared at the key. “That looks like it might actually open that bottom drawer in the old dresser in their bedroom. I have no idea what could be in there, but why don’t we try it?” I took the key from her and headed into the master bedroom.

I had to stop at the door and take a deep breath. I hadn’t touched this room yet. I couldn’t bring myself to go through their clothes, my mother’s jewelry, anything. In this room, their room, they were still alive. I pushed down a sob and felt Jenna’s hand on the small of my back.

She gave me a hug. “I know. Let’s just see if the key fits and then go back to the kitchen. It’s probably something your dad found and couldn’t throw away. It is a beautiful key.”

I nodded and moved into the room toward the dresser that sat next to the window. I don’t know that it would qualify as an antique, but it was old. And damn if it didn’t look like the key was made for that bottom drawer.

I knelt down in front of the dresser, put the key in the keyhole, and slowly turned it. A soft click and a small release of pressure told me it did indeed unlock the drawer. I glanced over at Jenna who had knelt on the floor next to me. She smiled at me and made a “go on” gesture with her hand. I pulled open the drawer not knowing what to expect.

“Holy shit!”

“Oh, my God!”

Jenna and I yelled simultaneously. The drawer was filled, filled, top to bottom, front to back, side to side with $100 bills. There had to be close to a million dollars or more in that dresser drawer. In cash.

“Michael, look!” Jenna’s hand was shaking as she pointed to a white envelope sitting in the middle on top of all the cash. She picked up the envelope, glanced at it and handed it to me. Her eyes were wide.

The envelope was addressed to me. I tore it open and pulled out the single sheet of paper inside.

Seeing my father’s crabbed handwriting made me tear up again.

Dear Michael,

Congratulations. You found the key and figured out where it fit. This is your real inheritance. I didn’t want to put it in with the other investments even though it might have made more that way. Do with this as you see fit, although I wouldn’t spend it all in one place. That makes the IRS suspicious and you know how I feel about them.

I had to laugh. My father’s dislike of the IRS was a legend in the extended family.

There’s $1,750,000 in here. It’s all yours, son. I love you.

Dad

P.S. Your mother says she loves you too.

Water dripped onto the paper. I took the Kleenex offered by Jenna and wiped off my tears.

“Well, Dad. You finally did it. I’m speechless.” I looked up to the heavens and laughed.

******

This was actually kinda fun to write. My father was not like this in terms of fixer upper coffee cans full of screws, and he didn’t have a workshop in the garage. But for some reason he was front and center while I was writing this.

Writing prompt and traveling

Writing prompt from More Odds than Ends: octopus ink and cuttlefish quills from Cedar Sanderson.

******

“Dammit.” Jonathon shook the small bottle. Nothing.

“Edwards!”

“Yes, sir?” the almost sibilant response came from his immediate left. He jumped. “Dammit! don’t DO that! You’re lucky I’m out of ink. If I’d spilled it on this document I would be extremely unhappy with you!”

“Yes, sir. I apologize.”

“Damn straight. I need more ink and a new cuttlefish quill. Now.” Jonathon tamped down his rising impatience. He knew that it would take a few minutes for Edwards to produce enough ink to refill the bottle. The octopod did not like to be observed when producing ink. It could be an annoying habit, but one Jonathon was willing to put up with in light of Edwards’ other talents.

******

I’m traveling with my students this week, so I think my next prompt will be inspired by that.

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

New year, new decade

The second decade of the 21st century is ending (yes, I’m aware of the whole 19 vs. 20, 9 vs. 0 thing. I go with 0 is the lowest number, therefore 9 is the last of the decade). As we enter this third decade I am looking forward to a number of changes both big and small. I will start my full-time writing career this year. I will leave academia this year. We will move to a different place this year. Those are the big changes. And, they are quite big. And stressful. But, full of adventure and potential!

I have spent a fair amount of time this past year assessing and evaluating my life, my attitude, and my desires. Discovering that not only can I write fiction, but that I like to write it, and I’m actually pretty good at it has been eye-opening and mind-blowing. I have loved this kind of story as long as I can remember. I’m the kid who went through the children’s section of the library faster than the librarians could keep up. I discovered all those color fairy tale books…Red Fairy Tale Book, Yellow Fairy Tale Book, etc. I headed for the YA section as an elementary school kid. I ate up the science fiction, swords and sorcery, urban fantasy, etc. I loved thinking about how one would create such worlds, what kind of stories would happen in those worlds. I never thought I had enough ideas and creativity to actually create and write stories in those worlds.

Now, in middle age (OK, fine. Late middle age. Whatever), I am creating not one, but several different worlds, and dreaming up stories in those worlds. This is loads of fun! I wish I’d known about this before. But, then, I would not have taken the path that I have, and I know for certain that I would not have had the courage to let anybody read anything, never mind submit something for publication. I know now this is what I want to do and that I can do it and that I will be successful. I’m a much stronger person now then I was even a decade ago.

Heading into this new decade, I’m feeling almost like I’m a new person. I no longer care about the criticisms of people who are not close to me and not supportive of anything I do, unless that something is on a path or trajectory they approve of. I’ve removed several toxic people from my life. I’m publicly taking stands on things and some of those stands are not popular with a number of people who probably now consider me a “former friend.” Whatever. I prefer friends with whom I can vehemently disagree, discuss issues, and then go and have a wonderful time at dinner. I’m making sure that the people who are in my life are people I know have my back and I have theirs.

I’m starting my new year by traveling with students. If that doesn’t test strength I don’t know what will! I hope everybody has a great new year’s eve, and a strong start to the new year and the new decade!

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Strange days indeed

Strange in a good way, I should add. I was taking care of a couple of things when I realized that I was not as stressed out as I should be. I mean, I’m putting together two syllabi for three classes, I’m reading about EU sanctions on Iran and Russia, I’m leaving on Wednesday for Belgium with students. We’ll be there for 10 days. We get back on a Saturday and classes start on Monday. I should be completely stressed and racing around like the proverbial headless chicken. But…I’m not. I’m weirdly calm. I mean I like it, but it’s weird. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way at this time of year before. Friends always say, “Gee, must be nice to have four weeks off between semesters. Wish I got that.” What they don’t realize is that in that four weeks I have to grade and finish all the previous classes, write the syllabi and prep all the classes for the spring, deal with committee work (yes, that continues through the break), and in my case, lose a week to 10 days shepherding students around Europe. Oh, and my own research.

So, it’s not really a “vacation” in the sense that I get to sit around, read fiction, binge watch whatever, and take nice long walks. I do those things every now and then, but after I’ve done about 6+ hours of research/prep/committee stuff. I’m not complaining, just pointing out that it’s not all bonbons and soap operas. So, why am I so relaxed this year compared to other years? What’s going on? I had to think about this.

I am not doing research. At least not political or work-related research. I am doing research for a book I want to write. But, I’m not doing my usual political parties in Serbia research. I’m not worried about getting something out, past the reviewers, and hopefully in a journal by the end of 2020. And, doing all that so I can show it to my colleagues and have them nod and smile. I really am over this. I still like to know what’s going on in the Balkan corner of the world. I just don’t want my world to be required to revolve around it.

Starting next week you will see responses to prompts here. I’m participating in a group to create and respond to writing prompts in order to hone the craft and maybe get ideas. At the least, to make sure I’m stretching that creative muscle on a somewhat regular basis.

I’m enjoying my busy, but less-stressed-than-expected last few days of 2019. I hope everybody has a good end to 2019 and is looking forward to an adventurous and fun-filled 2020.

Image by 1980supra from Pixabay

Merry Christmas!

The photo for this entry is Max the (reluctant) Christmas cat. He’s not exactly thrilled about things draped around him and on his head, but he’s a generally good sport. He’s not a tree climber either which is a pleasant surprise. He did trample through the wrapping debris earlier, but mostly in a desire to see what was floating around. Now, he’s sleeping on the blanket I keep on the sofa just for him. One of my New Year’s resolutions will be to learn to nap like a cat; in other words, become a professional napper!

We went to a friend’s house for Christmas dinner. It’s become a tradition for the years we spend Christmas in Philly. It’s always a fun mixed crowd and tonight was no exception. Lots of good food, good company, and good natured fights over music. Only one guy was a bit full of himself and wanted to make sure we all knew our history, and could conduct his form of political analysis. I did go after him a bit, but not much. Told him I don’t like getting cut off. He said he wanted to talk more, I said no, thanks. I knew how it was going to go and I wasn’t interested in rehashing straw arguments. His witty comeback “Oh, yes. You know me so well” in what was meant to be biting sarcasm. I said, no, I don’t have to. I know your type and I’m not interested in dealing with it on Christmas day. He apologized for making me feel “devalued.” I just laughed and kept piling food up on my plate. He then tried to make nice and act like nothing happened. So, I went along. I think he was disconcerted that I refused to get upset by his attempt to show how morally superior he was. Also that I got backing from some of the others in the room. Who he knows pretty well. Kinda funny.

That little contretemps made me realize that I can actually have these arguments, that I can stand up without having an emotional meltdown or even a partial one, and that I no longer get upset with myself. I do think I won that round and I’m good with that. The rest of the evening was fun and I enjoyed seeing several people I hadn’t seen in a while.

Altogether a good Christmas. Tomorrow, I start back in on syllabi and trip planning stuff. Yay. Oh, well. It has to happen and if I do it now, I will be much happier when I get back with only one day before classes begin. And, I need to do some of my own writing. This cold has knocked me out and made it difficult for my brain to function. I guess I really needed the down time. I did manage to do some reading and pay attention to pacing etc. while i was reading, so I got that going for me…

Anyway, back to a schedule (of my own choosing) tomorrow. I hope everybody (pick your holiday): 1) had a good Christmas, 2) is having an enjoyable Hanukkah, and 3) will have a happy Kwanza.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…

The semester is over. I only have three more papers to read. Grades are due at noon on Tuesday. This is my list of things that *have* to happen. Writing for my own benefit will come in between for the next couple days and then I will do it in between working on the syllabi for the spring semester classes. I really am not good at winding completely different jobs together. But then, the day job is annoying the ever-loving crap out of me, so that will be the primary reason for my procrastination this week. Of course, the grade deadline is a hard deadline, so yes, I will get that done. Fortunately, the two syllabi are for classes I’ve taught before, so they just need to be updated. That won’t take that long.

We wandered around the city quite a bit today buying a couple of Christmas gifts and looking at the lights and decorations and then hitting up the Christmas Village in Love Park. Went through our neighborhood which has changed (for the better) dramatically over the 15 years we’ve lived here. It’s a lot of fun to walk around and realize that there are busy restaurants and cool stores where there used to be abandoned buildings or empty lots. Today was also the Army-Navy game so there were and are tons of visitors in town for the game. It’s also the day of the ever-popular Santa Stumble. Lots of people wearing Santa or elf costumes/outfits and wandering from bar to bar. Put them together with the Army/Navy fans and the regular Philly denizens and you get a very interesting mix.

It did give me a couple of story ideas, so I’m going to scribble up some outlines and see where they take me. I also realized that I have to go back to Book #2 and create an outline for that. I am stuck and trying to figure out where this is going. Same thing for Book #3. Also gotta work on this short story I want to submit and which is due in February. And, then, we have to address and mail Christmas cards. So much for a break between semesters!

OK, off to work and making dinner. Take care of yourselves and do your best to keep those stress levels low as we move toward the height of the holiday season.

Stay sane inside insanity!

A leap of faith

I am a total procrastinator. I can find a TON of things to do before those things I’m supposed to do. There’s a reason it took me three years to finish my dissertation (well, procrastination and an evil committee chair). But, you get my point. I like fiction writing, but now I’m finding that I’m engaging in the same procrastination behaviors. And, I think I’ve figured out why (so far, it’s not the cat keeping me pinned…that should be helping). I think it’s because moving to writing full time is a freaking huge leap. A leap of faith. And, those are extremely difficult to make. So, I make the excuse that I have to make sure none of my students have turned something in within the last five minutes, or that I need to check the department’s Facebook page just to make sure that announcement got posted…and then I spend an hour wandering around FB.

So, why do I do this? Again, this gigantic, scary, life-altering leap of faith. If I actually complete my current short story, that means I have to submit it. And, strangers will read it. And some of them won’t like it. And, and, and…. It’s not that I haven’t published stuff before. I have. But that was research stuff. Stuff that could be backed up, supported etc. Not stuff that was just straight out of my imagination. Not things that other people might find weird, or uninteresting (OK, so research is only interesting to a small pool of people, but that’s the pool I was writing to). I know the pool I’m writing to now, and it’s much, much bigger.

So, here I am with a cat trying to pin me to the sofa, writing this blog, and avoiding working on the short story and on Book #2 in the series. I even went for a walk this morning which always makes me feel better. Luckily for my procrastination proclivities, somebody just went down to the basement and put in a load of laundry. That means, I can’t use laundry as an excuse to not write. At least not now. Guess I’ll just have to write. I will admit that writing this does help get me in the right mindset for writing.

The semester is effectively over. The papers for my largest class are not due until Wednesday night at midnight. I’m already planning on going in to the office on Thursday to take care of grading those and hopefully getting the senior research projects taken care of as well. Grades are due next Tuesday, so I’ll turn those in Monday evening (cuts down on the constant whinging and grubbing for better grades). Thus, I have no excuse for not writing (didn’t I say that already?) Plus, it’s raining. Stay in and write.

OK, I’m off to write. I really am going to do this. I keep telling myself I’m taking this life-changing direction. That I’m leaving academia. That I’m going to write for a living. So, I’d better actually take that leap of faith.

Here I go!

Feeling thankful

Yeah, I know. Yet another post about being thankful. They do crop up this time of year. But, I’m taking it a little differently this year (at least I think I am). For over a year now, at the end of the day, I’ve been writing down 10 things I’m grateful for that day. It’s been everything from my husband (every minute of every day), my family, a fan-freaking-tastic parking spot out front, my cats (we lost three this year and one moved in with us, so it’s been an interesting year in terms of felines), my students, my colleagues, the sunny day, getting out to walk, whatever. I started doing this because I read several different pieces that discussed the creation of well-being and positive attitude that comes with deliberate recognition of what you’re grateful for. You know, beyond the yadda yadda of course I’m grateful for my husband. The idea here is to recognize and think about all the little things that crossed your path that day that did indeed make it a little better, or brighter even if only for that moment. The small child who smiles at you and waves, the dog who is so happy you scritched her ears, the chance encounter with your neighbors, that sort of thing.

So, this Thanksgiving week, I’m grateful for all the usual things, friends, family, my health, etc. But looking back on what I’ve written down for the last year plus, I’m very grateful I started consciously thinking about all those small, daily occurrences that make the moment or the day just thatmuch nicer and brighter.

To illustrate: I just got back from picking up our turkey at Whole Foods. I waffled between walking and driving. I’m lucky enough that the store is an easy 15-20 minute walk. But, I’d be bringing back a 15 lb. turkey. And, we don’t have one of those granny carts. So, I decided to drive. My initial thoughts were, OK, this isn’t as bad as I expected, even with all the set up for the Thanksgiving Day parade (oh, yeah, we’re in detour central for that thing). Those initial thoughts were very quickly trampled. I quick ducked off the street I was on and meandered my way back down towards the store. Grateful I know the sneaky routes. Success! After dealing with some twat who was blocking the parking garage entrance (grateful for the patience levels I’ve achieved), I got into the store. Got my turkey. Grateful for the nice woman who’s job it was today to deal with that. Got my cider. Grateful for the funny woman at the checkout. Got back home easily, and yes, grateful for the kick-ass parking spot. And, finally, grateful I do not have to go back out into the chaos that is Philadelphia today. If I do, I will walk and I’m grateful that walking is an option. I’m also grateful that the current, and sole remaining cat, Max, is happy that I’m sitting next to him on the couch writing this post.

I’m also grateful that we can host and have our friends over for our “orphans Thanksgiving.” And, last but never least, I’m grateful I have five days off of work, lots of time for writing, and only one week left in the semester. Whoo-hoo!

What are you grateful for today?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay

Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!

Lions, tigers, and bears all seem to appear at this time of year. The metaphors, at least. Work and its associated stresses, time sinks, and general all-around malaise (nothing screams malaise quite like students and faculty at the end of the semester. Everybody just wants it to END NOW!) make for a large pride of lions; each on stalking you and creating at best worry, at worst fear. The general stresses of the holiday season, combined with less than mild world news (looking at Hong Kong) become that tiger stalking in the jungle; you never know when something is going to jump out from its hiding place and attack. Finally, not writing enough for my own satisfaction, never mind keeping up with NaNoWriMo, is the hibernating bear (my muse and brain cells are apparently on extended holiday); can’t quite seem to wake up and not sure you want to.

I am REALLY looking forward to the end of the semester, even though there are a whole host of other things waiting for me at the end. But, those things/plans/events are things that I want to deal with and work on. Even the trip to Europe with my students. We have plane tickets and a place to stay for the first 2/3 of the trip. The rest is easily taken care of, so I can simply look forward to watching my students explore and experience the simulation, catch up with well-respected and liked colleagues, and enjoy good beer and food.

Writing? Well, yesterday I read a whole new book. Which is OK, because it’s in the urban fantasy genre and it’s a renewal of a series I really like. Got some interesting ideas and learned more about pacing, scene writing, and character arcs. So, that does count as work. Today, we tackle yard work (leaves from the neighbor’s tree are finally all down), and some other pre-Thanksgiving chores and then it’s supposed to rain. That’s when I will go back to the writing. I owe a short-story by mid-February and I have to keep going on book #2 in my series. I also have to gently poke my beta readers for book #1 so that I can get that out.

Also in the line of work, I’m figuring out how to license images and covers, the ins and outs of converting to a Kindle Unlimited format and all those details. I’ve created covers for all three books already since that makes me feel like the books exist and I just have to fill in the space in between the front and back covers. I’ve found that this is similar to my process of writing academic articles. There, I just blast in and write out the whole thing, dumping in notes for citations, place holders for data tables etc. For me, even if I end up dumping 10 of 25 pages and writing an additional 15 pages, that’s OK because it’s editing, not original writing. Psychologically, there’s a world of difference between writing and editing. Writing is facing a blank page and trying to organize your thoughts and ideas into something comprehensible and (in the case of fiction) entertaining. Editing is looking at a finished product and tweaking things so it smooths out. Yes, it’s more complex than that, but that imagery is what I use and it works to keep me moving forward.

I did mean to write yesterday. I had all intentions of doing so. But, I think the meeting I had on campus at 8:00 a.m. kind of ripped it all out of me. Not really an excuse, but an explanation (OK, so I feel better telling myself that). But, I did read and did make note of interesting structural bits in the book. Like I said, that does count and I’m not just saying that for an excuse. If you don’t read, you can’t know what makes one story work and another one bomb.

So, I’m off to rake leaves, run errands, and then write. The cat will really enjoy the writing bits as I tend to sit on the couch and he sleeps beside me, keeping an eye on my work and whereabouts.

Enjoy the weekend!

Image by Michael Siebert from Pixabay