Category Archives: Writing

The $1500 Gooey Butter Cake: NICE!

IMG_1423I’m still in a bit of shock about this year’s fundraiser results. It’s not like I was unaware of the power of the cake, but when it went for $1000 more than the highest bid for indoor skydiving and only $500 less than two primo tickets to the finale of “Dancing with the Stars” I realized that there was more to this story than a box of cake mix, some eggs, a stick of butter, powdered sugar, and cream cheese.

Each year during my school’s annual benefit season, teachers are asked to donate their time and talent in experiences that are put up for auction and bid on the night of the gala. Last year when my initial offering of gooey butter cake appeared, it was bought straightaway for the suggested price of $200. (The $200 Gooey Butter Cake) It went so quickly that this year I knew it would be put up for auction without a ceiling.

A week before this year’s big event, when it was time to make my sales pitch at morning chapel for my “Teacher Experience” that wasn’t an experience at all, I knew I’d have to update my approach.  That meant just one thing. I had to come clean. The previous year I’d ended my presentation dramatically, reminding students that gooey butter cake was NOWHERE to be found in southern California and that their best chance of having it again was in asking their parents to bid on the one I’d bake for them, St. Louis-style.

As it turned out, this was not completely true.

‘In the interest of our school policy of honesty in all things and truth in advertising, I come before you today to set the record straight,’ I confessed as I stepped up to make my pitch. ‘A reliable source informs me that gooey butter cake can now be found in southern California!’

Stunned silence as the following picture appeared on the overhead screen:

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When the gasps of horror and giggles died down I explained that I’d done some investigative research and this is what I’d discovered.

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More gasps.

I compared and contrasted the two products, pointing out that despite its claim as the ‘Gateway to Flavor’ and the friendly price point of $1.49 or 2 for $2.50, the extensive list of ingredients on the Walgreens’ brand of gooey butter was nearly unpronounceable as compared to the simplicity of ingredients in my homemade cake. I tried to be as kind as I could about the inferior imposter and closed my pitch with this call-to-action plea:

‘I’m sure the folks at the NICE! company mean well, but wouldn’t YOU rather have a gooey butter cake baked just for you by a NICE teacher like ME?’

Apparently, that clinched the deal. The rest was gooey butter history.

In hindsight I’ve realized that along with the sheer power of the cake there were some basic sales principles at work here that, despite the fact that I nearly failed Econ 101 my freshman year of college, I have finally understood:

  1. Create a buzz. Because I use gooey butter cake as an example of my favorite dessert in class when I teach expository writing, students are inundated with knowledge about it, intrigued by its foreign Midwestern origins, and curious to sample it, which leads to…
  2. Don’t underestimate the role of the stomach in decision making. After we complete the writing unit I bring in samples of GBC for the students to taste. Their heightened anticipation from hearing all about it along with its pure deliciousness creates further buzz.
  3. Limit supply, increase demand. Now that gooey butter cake is a benefit item I no longer share the recipe with students and their families. Big deal, you might be thinking. Anyone can get the recipe in a hundred places on the internet. True, but not one baked just for them by their writing teacher. Which returns us once again to #1.

There’s one more principle that renders my list pretty much irrelevant because it’s the one that really matters. And that’s the generosity of the parents who purchased this St. Louis-born treat to help our school and make their daughter and her classmates happy.

Now THAT was really nice.

 

The Nap, Revisited

Long KdgI wasn’t always a big fan of the nap.

As my kindergarten report card attests, rest time was the first subject I ever failed in school. (Click on report card to enlarge if you don’t believe me.) I really didn’t see the point in lying quietly on a hard linoleum floor for fifteen minutes when there were so many interesting things to explore—the play kitchen for one. My lousy grade wasn’t the only price I paid for my restlessness though. All that long year I was never chosen to be the child who tiptoed around tapping nappers on the head with a sparkly silver-starred wand, granting permission to rise and stow away mats. Only the students who “relaxed” earned that privilege.

Before entering school I was a big-time nap resister as well. I am still mortified to reveal I slept in a crib until I was pushing four. Four! Later I always wondered: were my parents too chintzy to invest in a big girl bed for me during those years? Were they trying to keep me, the baby of the family, a baby? Or—and this is what I’ve decided was probably the case—was it my mother’s only hope of catching a break? I learned recently there’s a parenting syndrome called “third child fatigue.” I was the third child and I hated naps, so my mother must surely have been fatigued. Without those confining side rails there was no way I would’ve stayed put on my bed and given her the rest I’m sure she desperately needed.

What a difference a few decades make. I first discovered the joy of the afternoon nap as a college student, catching up on late hours spent studying and having fun. Then later, when I was pregnant with my son, I found myself answering the siren call of the snooze every afternoon around three. I realized after he was born that my body had been preparing me for his schedule all along. When he went down at three o’clock for his afternoon siesta, so did I. Our inner alarm clocks were in synch long before he made his appearance.

Today naps are a luxury I’m free to indulge in only during summertime and the occasional weekend. Nothing is lovelier than curling up with a book after lunch, feeling my eyes grow heavy, and floating away for a few minutes. Taking time out from my to-do list feels like the ultimate gift of self care. When I come back, I’m refreshed and ready to resume my day again.

Arianna Huffington discovered the importance of taking time out for rest in the middle of the work day herself after collapsing in exhaustion during her early days running the Huffington Post. She has since installed two nap rooms at HuffPo, where employees can sign up for one hour slots. They are always filled. Imagine–a workplace where a nap is not only tolerated, but encouraged!

I would love to go work there. In the meantime, perhaps I will install a George Costanza-like bunker under my desk at school and disappear during my prep times. I might even make a sparkly silver-starred wand and add a new and, no doubt, coveted position to our roster of classroom jobs. Teacher Waker!

Honoring the Heroic Human Spirit…

IMG_1155“I think that the human spirit—for all its dark side that I here portray—is in essence heroic.”                —Herman Wouk

I came up for air not long ago, after a two month immersion in the extended global conflict known as World War II. Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance—two volumes, 1,924 pages in all—were so compelling that if I could have put the rest of my life on hold, just to read, I would have.

I’d missed these best-sellers when they were first published in the ’70s and the subsequent mini-series of the ’80s. My history-loving son had read them as a freshman in high school and recommended them to me last summer. Having just spent a couple of years reading fiction and nonfiction around World War I, of which I’d previously known little, I was ready to move on. World War II seemed to me a more familiar subject. So many books and movies had covered the era that I wasn’t sure there was more to understand. I was wrong.

The brilliance of Wouk’s epic novels is in his ability to transport the reader into places and events around the world through the narrative of one American family and their circle of friends and loved ones. Wouk manages to make you care desperately about these characters, so much so that you find yourself willing to follow them anywhere. And follow them you will. The setting ricochets around the globe from Washington D.C. to Berlin, from Pensacola to Pearl Harbor, from London to Stalingrad, from the bowels of a submarine in the Pacific to the belly of a RAF bomber over Germany, from the Oval Office of the President to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Wouk manages to weave the fictional Henry family’s story into the historical narrative and the lives of actual historical figures believably, and the contrivance to place his characters in these key global hotspots is hardly felt because the story he tells is so engaging.

Harrowing, yet fascinating, the novels engendered in me a newfound appreciation of just what was at stake in this conflict that Wouk called “the worst world catastrophe” and how the geopolitical map changed because of it. One can’t help but wonder about the countless ‘what if’s’ as well. What if the British hadn’t been able to hold out against the Nazis as long as they did and England had succumbed to Hitler? What if Hitler hadn’t opened the eastern front in Russia? What if Germany had succeeded in developing the atomic bomb before the United States? And the big what if: What if the Allied nations had recognized the cancer that was metastasizing in Germany in the 1930s and intervened when Hitler invaded Austria and Czechoslovakia?

I can’t remember when I’ve read such an enthralling work of historical fiction, the kind that tells a character-driven story so well that you find yourself absorbing the history of the time almost as a by-product. The kind that makes you more appreciative than ever of all of the courageous men and women who served then and serve now.

Appendix: After writing this review, I came across this Atlantic article on Herman Wouk, who turned 100 this year. Despite winning the Pulitzer for The Caine Mutiny, Wouk has not received his critical due from the literary establishment. The issues are addressed here.

Trust Your Apathy

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“I am beginning to respect the apathetic days. Perhaps they are a necessary pause: better to give in to them than to fight them at your desk hopelessly; then you lose both the day and your self-respect. Treat them as physical phenomena–casually–and obey them.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, LOCKED ROOMS, OPEN DOORS, p. 276

 

I love this advice. It so goes against the unspoken rule in our culture to grit your teeth and slog on, no matter what.

Feeling tired, sad, or depressed? Get over it. Better yet, take Prozac. And then get over it. At all costs, keep busy, keep moving, keep achieving. Don’t slow down or you’ll never get where you want to be. And the guy behind you will overtake you and get ahead of you.

Who can deny we are an externally motivated culture, taught from early on to move away from the feelings that connect us to our spirituality and inner voice?

Anne struggled with apathy around writing her first book after the kidnapping and death of her son. Her family legacy and that of her husband, Charles, was to suppress pain through action. All of them dealt with difficult feelings by moving away from them. Her parents were wrapped up in public service, and Charles literally moved away from his own grief by taking to the air. Anne was encouraged from all sides to put the loss of her baby behind her by busying herself writing her book.

But she knew that was not the answer.

Anne’s lack of energy for writing, no doubt, was due to the loss of her child and her isolation in her grief. She couldn’t share her sadness with the people closest to her in any meaningful way, and so she worked her feelings out by writing in her diary and confiding in her closest friends.

During this period Anne learned that she had to pay attention to her inner rhythms. For her, learning to go with one’s internal energy flow was like sailing. You can’t force a boat to go further into the wind than it can without losing momentum and your bearings. The only thing to do is give it its head. It will swing and swing and suddenly catch the wind, bite into it and go. You may have to tack back to get on course, but ultimately you get there more quickly. For Anne, the road to writing her book was through her grief. She couldn’t step around it; she had to go through it.

I have often felt that if I lacked energy for doing something I needed or wanted to do that meant it would never be there. Whether it’s the energy for doing something as important to me as writing this book or something as trivial as trimming trees in my yard, any lull in motivation meant the energy would be gone forever; the thing would never happen. I have come to see that energy for any particular thing, like so much in life, simply ebbs and flows. There may be obvious reasons for it–as in one’s energy being tied up in grieving the loss of a loved one–or the reasons may be more mysterious. Maybe the time is just not right.

What is becoming clearer to me is that I can trust my internal inclinations. When I am impelled to do one thing and not another that may even appear to make more sense, I have learned to go with my impulse. When I do, I find, just as in Anne’s sailing metaphor, that while the path may be less direct, I get to my goal more quickly. And I avoid the wasted doldrums of guilt and self-chastisement and “I should be doing such and such.”

Recently I’d been sitting at my computer writing for four hours. I stopped for lunch and began to think about the things I needed to do in the afternoon: go to the bank, get the tires on the car rotated, exchange a scarf I needed for a wedding, stop at the grocery store. Yawn. I was exhausted from sitting and concentrating all morning and felt no desire to do all those things. Yet they needed to be done. I really wanted to get outside–it was a gorgeous, sunny eighty-degree day–and be in the water. And so I did. I went for a swim, dipped in the Jacuzzi, sunned for a while, and relaxed. Two hours later I was rested, showered, and able to do my errands easily. Had I pushed myself to do them first I would have felt tired, cranky, and put-upon. My little detour ended up being just the thing I needed to help me reach my goal.

A list of errands may be a small thing, but I find the principle holds true for the bigger things as well. When, like Anne, I “trust my apathy” and stop to consider what I really want and need in any moment, I hold life and life holds me much more graciously.

[Excerpt from Gifts from the Spirit: Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh]

The $200 Gooey Butter Cake

ImageWhat price gooey butter cake? I found out last month at my school’s annual benefit and fundraiser.

Every year teachers are invited to offer “experiences” to raise money for various programs at our independent school. Imaginative offerings run the gamut from after school Zumba classes to splashy high ticket items that are usually put up for bid at live auction. They have titles like “Disneyland with Your Teacher, 2 Friends, and All the Churros You Can Eat!” or “Limo Trip to the American Girl Doll Store for High Tea with Your Teacher and 3 Friends!”

What did I have to offer? I racked my brain for inspiration. I felt a bit like the little drummer boy without the frankincense, gold, or myrrh. I had no Disneyland season pass upon which to draw. And I’d raised a boy, so I didn’t know from the American Girl store.

What is it that students really want? I asked myself. And then the answer came to me. They want gooey butter cake.

Each fall when I teach my fifth grade students how to write the dreaded opinion essay, I draw them in by way of their stomachs. I model the classic five paragraph structure with my own topic, “My Favorite Dessert.” Once they write their essays, I bake a gooey butter cake and bring it to class for them to sample. They swoon. They rhapsodize. And they beg for more.

If you’re not from St. Louis, you may not be familiar with this simple, yet irresistible confection made from cake mix, eggs, butter, cream cheese, and powdered sugar. If you are from St. Louis, no explanation is required.

Two weeks before this year’s benefit, I donned my chef’s hat, took up my wooden spoon, and made my pitch during morning chapel. A dramatic PowerPoint presentation, “The Gooey Butter Cake Story,” recounted the legend of how it came to be–by accident of course, as all great discoveries seem to–during the Great Depression in St. Louis. I reminded my current and former students that this delectable treat could be found all over my hometown, but NOWHERE in southern California. That seemed to clinch it.

A parent reported to me afterward that her son predicted my gooey butter cake would “…go for thousands!” and urged her to get there early. 

The event organizers apparently weren’t clued in to the word on the street, so put it up for silent bidding with the option to purchase outright for $200. As instructed, my student’s mother got there early and snapped it up.

I wasn’t able to attend, but heard that there were quite a few disappointed people. The gooey butter cake was the talk of the evening. I was proud of my hometown. SoCal wants St. Louis gooey butter cake! Next year? Live auction!

Got Plot? A Handy Quick Check

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Recently I was sitting in on a picture book critique workshop, listening and reading along as a writer read from her work-in-progress, a story with no clear plot structure. I’d read many such meandering stories over the years as a writing teacher of children, until it occurred to me that the same simple strategy that my literature students use to summarize chapter and book plots could be used as a pre-writing task for storyboarding the main plot points in writing. What a difference! Using this method with my writing students has resulted in clearer plots and tighter stories that are much more satisfying to read.

While there certainly are more sophisticated and refined plotting techniques for writers of picture books to utilize, I find the following scaffold can quickly determine whether a story has a narrative structure.

Ready for this ‘handy’ trick? Open your hand and put out your thumb, then each subsequent finger for each bullet point.

  • Someone: Your main character
  • Wanted: What does your character want? This can be explicit or implicit and must carry though from story’s beginning to end.
  • But: What is the problem/obstruction that keeps your character from getting what he/she wants?
  • So: What does your character do to overcome the problem?
  • Then: The resolution. Does your character achieve what he/she wanted?

Someone wanted, but, so, then. A simple frame, but it’s enough to hang a story on. Try using it as a storyboard when planning your picture book or next chapter. Or use it as a diagnostic tool after you’ve written, to see whether your story has essential plot points. I’ve even introduced the frame as a discussion device in my book group, which has provoked some lively debates as we hammer out just what exactly our book was really about.

Simple, quick, and always handy, this tool is just an arm’s length away!

[This post was originally published at The Rhubarb Writers Group blog, July 2014]

Growth Underground

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(Excerpt from Gifts from the Spirit: Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 2002, 2014, copyright Kim Jocelyn Dickson)

 

“She said too what I have learned lately, that when one is ‘vegetating’ one is growing.”    Anne Morrow Lindbergh, LOCKED ROOMS AND OPEN DOORS, p. 374

Anne was visiting with an old family friend, Mrs. Neilson, the wife of William Allan Neilson, the president of Smith College. They discussed marriage, love, the importance of not separating the body and the spirit, having passion for work, and a German poet–Rainer Maria Rilke. It was a rich conversation for Anne who gleaned wisdom from Mrs. Neilson both in what she said and what she didn’t say.

And she confirmed Anne’s growing sense that even when she felt herself to be in a fallow period, she was still growing.

The past year had been difficult. The highly publicized trial of the man accused of kidnapping and murdering her child and the death of her sister, Elisabeth, rekindled Anne’s grief. She struggled to be hopeful about the future and to move forward. She was ready to begin her second book but found it hard to settle in to work.

But she had a feeling that even though she seemed to be in a state of dormancy, below the surface her creativity and energy simmered. She was learning, and in due time this would be apparent.

She was right. Not long after Anne’s conversation with Mrs. Neilson, she and Charles and their three-year-old son Jon moved to England. There she found relief from many pressures and painful reminders and settled in to a life of peace that enabled her to write her next book Listen! the Wind. It proved to be a richer, more complex book than her first. She had clearly grown.

Rainer Maria Rilke’s work became increasingly important to Anne, both validating and shaping her understanding of her life and herself as an artist. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke wrote in 1903 what Anne came to know for herself:

Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born; this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.[i]

Anne came to see that she could trust whatever stage she was in. That even during times when she didn’t feel herself to be flourishing and wasn’t outwardly productive, below the surface, deep in her unconscious, life was brewing.

I know this too. When I was a seminary student I discovered Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s work and became impassioned by it. I knew then that I wanted to write about her someday. I was far from ready to do it, but a deep desire was born then and continued to grow. Now, after a gestation period of nearly twenty years, I am writing a book I couldn’t have conceived much less written then.

As much as we’d like to, we can’t put our dreams on a schedule. “In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing.”[ii] Did it ever seem like I might never write my book? Many times. The curves that life throws you often seem like obstacles between you and what you desire. But the reality is they are opportunities to take you further into yourself, into that deeper place Rilke speaks of that is the genesis for all our creativity and passion. Like the tree ripening in the spring, he says, we can stand confidently in the storms, unafraid that summer may not come afterward. Summer does come.

If we pay attention to what’s happening in our inner lives and trust the wisdom that comes from there, fruit that we can see and touch will appear.

 

[i] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to A Young Poet, trans. by Stephen Mitchell (New York: Random House, 1984) p. 23-24.

[ii] Ibid.

 

Only connect…

imagesNot long ago, on break at a writers’ conference, I sat down with a sigh as I checked email on my phone. Discouraged that my manuscript for a children’s biography of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, which had won two prizes including “First Place Work-in-Progress Picture Book” at this same conference the year before, had not yet found a home (“You write beautifully, but you need to cut 1,000 words!” was a common refrain), my thoughts were beginning to spiral into the black hole of my-writing-efforts-are-for-naught.

Just one well-timed email later, the veil of self-doubt lifted, and I was reminded that this was not necessarily so. The subject header on the email was: “From Sue, Fellow Lindbergh Graduate.” Sue was a classmate I hadn’t known well growing up in St. Louis many years before, despite having shared close mutual friends in junior high. The gist of her surprisingly long email was that she wanted me to know her recent discovery of Gifts from the Spirit: Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh more than ten years after its publication and, subsequently, Anne’s own Gift from the Sea, had made a profound impact on her.

“Why did Anne’s book and your book resonate so much within me? Because I have struggled to ‘find myself,’ to stand up for my right to create space and time for myself without feeling guilty or selfish most of my life…(and) that this was essential, as you say, to happiness, inner peace, spirituality, to more rewarding relationships with others…” Sue had more to say. She shared quite openly with me, a virtual stranger despite our common hometown origins, about herself and how her choice to grow in self-awareness has affected every aspect of her life.

Deep calls to deep. My openness in sharing my own struggles in Gifts had elicited this beautiful and heartfelt outpouring of honest expression from her. Sue’s words were a gift to me in that moment, lifting me out of my dejection and reminding me that my writing effort does make a difference. Several emails later we met in St. Louis for lunch and nurtured the seeds of a growing friendship. In reaching out to me, Sue also became the catalyst for reconnecting me with mutual friends whom I’d lost touch with years before.

The gifts continue coming.

The chapter in Gifts titled “Reading to Know You’re Not Alone” could have a corollary: “Writing to Know You’re Not Alone.” As I look back over the years since its publication, I realize a theme is woven through my post-publication experience.

There have been other correspondents, not unlike Sue, who have touched me with their response to my book. And there have been occasions, like the afternoon I had the honor of delivering a keynote lecture at the Missouri History Museum, marking the 75th celebration of Charles Lindbergh’s epic flight, an experience that connected me with the hometown I loved and the museum that meant so much to me as a child. I have also been the guest of a dear friend on Captiva Island, where together we walked the same shell-strewn beach that inspired Anne’s Gift from the Sea.

One of my most cherished memories was the day I met Anne’s daughter Reeve Lindbergh for lunch in her hometown in Vermont. After our meal Reeve could have bade me farewell and sent me on my way, but she didn’t. Instead, she invited me to her farm to see the A-frame chalet that her husband had built on their property for Anne, where she spent her final days. Moments of connection like these are electric. I was reverberating for days after the experience of seeing Anne’s home, with the seashells she had scooped up on Captiva Island lining her mantelpiece. These are the moments that tell us we are fully alive.

A writer friend once gave me a card with an E.M. Forster quote on the cover that said, quite simply, “Only connect…” I keep these words close by, and it’s in this spirit that I am pleased to launch Gifts from the Spirit:Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh once again.