Feel the music, smell the smiles, enjoy the rest

He stood very still. The children, unable to be still, watched him open the thick binder and feel the pages.

He was in charge of them for only half an hour, their eight-year-old selves in his care. When the bell finally rang (after the incessantly loud second hand on the clock ticked 1800 times), the dreaded six-year-olds would come with their sticky fingers, sniffles, and utter inability to whisper. Their teacher, Mrs. Browning, newly married and very nervous, would hover in the hall, instead of running for a coffee and a chance to pee. He knew the children would watch her as she peeked at him and them through the window in the door. She was never quiet. If little Freddie, who smelled like peanut butter and sweat, so much as wiggled in his chair, Browning would tap twice on the door and give him a look. But for now, since their teacher had already fled, he was the sole protector of the eight-year-olds.

He knew all their names. He’d taught them songs for three years now, and knew where they sat (alphabetically), who could hold a tune (not many), and who needed to be afraid and who did not.

It interested him that some of the children feared him (but clearly, not all). He thought about it often, wondering if there was something in his face or manner that looked monstrous. He tried to smile, but it’s hard to smile when no one smiles back. He knew what a smile sounded like. His mother used to smile at him all the time and her voice sounded just like honey tastes, and just like a warm breeze feels on your face. There was rarely honey or soft wind in an elementary school chorus room with a tired old blind man in charge.

He tapped twice on the metal music stand and thought “F sharp. It always sounds like F sharp.” He heard his own voice sing, “Shoulders back. Chins up. Deep breath. Ready, children?”

“Yes, Mr. Andrews,” they sang back to him. Jolie kind of screeched it at him. Maybe he could rearrange the aisles and increase their number by one seat. That would put her in the back of the first row instead of the first seat in the second row. On second thought, it would move greasy Glenn (of the fifth grade set) to the front of the last row by the window, and, though only ten, that boy smelled unmistakably of tobacco. Best to keep the stinker in the back after lunch and try to ignore screechy Jolie.

“Please count off to the tune of Old McDonald and his. . . what animal. . . Kelly?”

Kelly whispered, “Pig,” and roll call began.



“Three,” and so it went up to 26, at which point their little voices sang the rest of the verse: “Old McDonald had a farm, e I e I o.”

“Now listen,” he sang, “and follow my beat.” His pencil struck the music stand: Rap, tap, rap-a-tap. “Pencils, please!”

The children drummed the end of their pencils on their desks: Rap, tap, rap-a-tap.

He struck his stand again, same pattern and sang, “Toes, please.”

The children tapped the floor with one toe.

“Good! Now listen to this one and drum it back to me with two hands.” His pencil drummed “Rap-a-tappity, rap, tap.

Dozens of little fingers drummed away. He felt his face smile and was sure some of them were smiling, too.

“Ok, at ease.” Some giggling. “Today I’d like to introduce the idea of resting in music. Does anyone know about resting?”


“Ah, no, that’s not what I mean. You should not be resting. You should be thinking. Does anyone take piano lessons?”

Silence. Almost. Something was happening.

“I think someone’s hand is raised. Please knock once on your desk if your hand is raised.”

From the back of the fourth row a knuckle knocked on a desk. A boy’s knuckle. Fifth seat. “Bobby?” he asked.

Laughter. Then Bobby’s voice, “How do you do that?”

“I’m a good guesser. Tell us about resting, Bobby.”

“Sorry, Mr. Andrews. I don’t know anything about resting. I just like watching you guess.” He didn’t sound mean. Mr. Andrews knew the tone of mean. This boy sounded impressed and respectful, a nice surprise from an eight-year-old.

“That’s all right. I’ll show you a simple beat, you play it back, and then we can talk about rests. Ready?”

“Yes, sir.” The children were silent. Watching. Listening. The blind man clapped his hands while he nodded his head to a slow beat.

Nod. Clap.

Nod. Clap.

Nod. Clap.


Nod. Clap.

Nod. Clap.

Nod. Clap.


“Everyone watch him. You do it, Bobby.” The boy shuffled in his seat.

Clap. Clap. Clap. Pause. Clap. Clap. Clap. Pause. “How’s that?”

“I’ll tell you in a second. Children, did Bobby move his head while he clapped?”

They giggled and all yelled, “Yes!” and Mr. Andrews felt a breeze on a sunny day and smelled honey. “The nod without a clap? That was a rest. Bobby, you did a nice job.”

“Thanks. Can I pick the first song?”


They sang Row Your Boat and Kumbaya in rounds, with Mr. Andrews singing around and through their young voices in a clear and happy tenor, until the second hand clicked around a bunch of times and the bell rang.

On their way out, each child tapped once on his music stand with their pencil. He counted to twenty six and the room was emptied of sounds and smells for almost two hundred clicks on the clock before the six-year-olds shuffled in single file, lips together and eyes wide, while Mr. Andrews hummed “I’m just a little black rain cloud” from Winnie the Pooh, and Mrs. Browning cleared her throat and snapped her fingers a dozen times before the door clicked closed.




Author, open to queries

Read this if you wrote a book.

After the first draft (which took multiple passes of adding layers on layers, printing, reordering, ideas coming at you in the car, on the train, in the shower, at work, at dinner, on a run) was completed and sat in a drawer for a month or two like bread dough rising in a covered bowl, you revised it.

You rewrote the whole thing (more than once).

Shared it with a group.

Revised it again. Shared it with more writers. Revised it again.

Hired a professional editor. Revised it again.

How long did that take? I’m estimating ~2 years.

If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to want milk to go with it. If a writer spends 2 years crafting an incredible story (one that she didn’t know existed in her heart or mind until it spilled onto the page), she’ll want readers to go with it. Writers want to share with readers who love stories and characters and getting wrapped up in a really good one…those are the humans writers all hunt for.

Which kind of writer are you? Do you want to quit your job and become a bestselling author, or do you have an inexplicable need to share your story with readers? Either way, you have to publish your book. It’s time to make a decision. Will you publish it yourself? Or will you (attempt to) publish it the traditional way?

One huge factor to consider is timing. Here are some estimates for each process.

Traditional publishing requires

1. Writing, revising and polishing a query letter (2-4 weeks)

2. Writing, revising, and polishing a plot synopsis (2-4 weeks)

3. Researching and reading and finding agents (1-3 months)

4. Submission of query letters in batches (2-24 months)

5. Receiving rejections (minutes that feel like weeks in hell–they stepped on your baby’s neck–side effects may include insomnia and eye twitching)

6. Receiving requests for partial and full manuscripts (hope like rainbow bubbles)

7. Receiving rejections (popped bubbles get soap in your eye, but you won’t cry)

8. Receiving Revise and Resubmit requests (sour hope, but only the fringe of the rug is left so grab it quickly)

9. Waiting waiting waiting (oh. my. god. the interminable waiting)

[All of the above can take about 2 years and you MUST have incredibly thick skin and perseverance.]

If the two years result in signing with an agent, the following is likely to occur:

10. Revisions with agent (1 year)

11. Submissions to editors at publishing companies (0.5-1 year)

If the revisions and submissions result in a publishing contract, the following has to happen:

12. Revisions with editor, cover design, marketing, book tours, wait wait wait (Estimated range from 0.5-3 years–agents/editors/famous authors? feel free to correct me here)

Overall, from the moment you conceived the idea for your story to the day your first reader plucks it from the pile to read will be ~4.5 years (if the first agent loves the story, submits right away, and the first editor picks it up and does only line edits) to ~9 years (more likely).

NINE years?! All of that work and effort and waiting and hoping and work and work and work and it could take NINE years?

Take a step back and think about this. It is not logical for writers to voluntarily put themselves through this slow process (designed before the digital era) and somehow do it with grace, patience, and no typos, always bowing and grinning to those with the power to rip the rug out from under us, when the rug wouldn’t even be there if we didn’t write the book in the first place. Is the process outdated, battered, slow, perhaps backwards?

Think about this too: why do you want to publish anyway? For the career or to share your art? (Your craft!) Your gift of twining words into stories for others to read and feel and know your characters who came out of your brain in a process that is so incredible that you can’t even adequately describe it despite your gift with words? Is that you? Are you an artist? A storyteller? Do you write because you MUST and you cannot stop? Then, maybe the agonizing process of traditional publishing is not for you.

Don’t feel bad. You can still get your story to your readers.

It’s called independent publishing and it is a wee bit faster than traditional publishing (divide by 3?). Where traditional publishing can take up to NINE years to complete, independent publishing skips almost ALL of the steps above and should take ~ 3 (THREE!) years from conception, through revisions and all editing, to publication.

Nine years vs THREE years. Think of all the stories you could write in the six years you’ll save. But before you leap to the other side of the fence, be sure to consider reality like this:

You’ll likely not be a bestselling author. Ever.

You’ll likely not be branded (so you can remain yourself–whew!) or forced to write your next novel based on someone else’s idea of what will sell. You may remain a writer of stories that sometimes suddenly appear in your mind, and compel you to bring them to life.

You’ll just be a writer and your work will be out there for readers to choose to read. Or not. But if you don’t put it out there, nobody will read it but you. Consider this option to share your craft with the world–it will let you get back to work writing your next book.

You’re a writer. Be a writer.

i wish you a not-too-unhappy new year

If you yearn for your younger days, old times, all the fun you had, you might remember being happy in the past.

If you plan for tomorrow, next year, the weekend, you can anticipate happy times that might happen in your future.

If you look around you right now and find something to smile about–the smell of coffee, the grace of a leafless tree in the sunrise, a pile of snow that the sun will melt, a goofy dog, a kid on a sled, chocolate, the dishes you will not wash because the couch feels so good–you can be happy now.

While driving, instead of hurrying and feeling late, sing along with the radio or listen to the news. Don’t ride the bumper of the car ahead. Get your hand off that horn. Don’t be the cause of someone else’s unhappiness. That’ll never really give you happiness. And anyway, the flow of time is not under our control. Being on time will not improve your life. Relax and just get there when you can. (You, too, my students. Sneak in the back of the huge lecture hall and I’ll just be glad you made it.)

Nostalgia and anticipation help round out your life, but try to pay attention to today. Right now, if you aren’t sick, feel healthy. If you aren’t sad, feel happy-ish. If it is noisy, listen. If it is quiet, relax. Change what you can. Complain only to vent and reduce your own blood pressure, but not in public, and never to hurt someone. Blame no one for your choices. If the people in your life make you feel bad, sad, or guilty about being yourself, shed them (or minimize contact) and find new people. Maybe get a dog. If you evaluate your life and find no happiness, do something to fix it.

Instead of wishing a happy new year, I hope we can all find a way to minimize the heaps of unhappiness in our own lives and all around us. Be nice. Nap. Read. Walk alone. Turn off the news for an hour and have a cup of tea under a blanket. Give blood. Smile. Do a favor. Call a friend. Fix what you can.





Wrapping up another semester: I think we need a bigger bow

Some days I start a blog post not knowing where I’m going or why I feel the irresistible urge to write. Perhaps I am lonely and hope someone will listen. Perhaps I am tired and hope someone will listen. Always we want someone to listen. But who can listen when nobody even makes eye contact anymore? The only way to reach deep into another human these days is to worm your way into their phone.

Hi. It’s me. In your phone.

Am I lonely? I don’t think so. Am I sad and tired? Yes. Absolutely. (Am I caffeinated, shopping, cleaning, decorating, wrapping, baking? Not yet, but I’m the mom, so that’s coming.)

It’s that time of year when the end of semester stress feels too steep to climb, when watching my students so sad and exhausted and stressed all seems too mean to be somehow linked to me, when I know the end is close, but I can’t see it because of the mile-high wall of work in the way. It’s that time of year when I’m impressed by all the science my hundreds of students have learned in fourteen weeks, and glad I was there to help them, all while I fight the urge to defend myself by insisting I’m just the messenger–I didn’t invent chemistry.

Really, I didn’t. It was here before humans. I just love it and want to share it. If I stood at the BiLo professing about nucleophilic attack or enol tautomerization, solubility rules and hydrogen bonding,  no one would listen, even if I swung a little bell and stood by a red bucket. But in college I have a captive audience and they even pay me (a little) to talk about what I love so much. So while I’m so happy with my job doing what I love, my students are struggling, just like all of us did when we were in college.

The pattern of a college semester is the same whether you are studying or teaching. There is an incessant pace to keep, much like being chased by a train, where slowing down is not an option and sleeping seems like a good way to get run over, so it’s avoided. There’s way too much to do in too little time, and thank God for football or none of us would ever stop working. My own stress is manageable because I’m stupendous at time management and organizing my days. My students’ stress is another animal. Some have never felt academic pressure. Some don’t study or pace themselves or plan their time or even think about next week until they crash into it. Others study constantly and never rest. They forget to eat and live on coffee. If each of my 350 students dumped a mole of their stress on me, I’d crumble or drown or ionize completely, depending on the weak intermolecular forces holding me together.

Here’s what’s coming: Long extra office hours that are never enough, snuck in while I try to meet my deadlines. Writing, proofreading, timing, copying exams and quizzes. Grading hundreds of quizzes. Review session. Two exams on a 13-hour day. About 15 hours of grading 2000 questions about mechanisms and organic reactions while teaching. Then, writing final exams while holding office hours and still teaching. Proctoring and grading final exams. Calculating and posting quiz averages and final grades. Then dozens of requests for a personal meeting to seek a higher (unearned) grade from dedicated students who think it “doesn’t hurt to ask” while each time I enforce my own syllabus and say “No” a little part of my soul disintegrates, and it does hurt.

The end is near, so I’ll take a moment (before planning the next semester) to remember the rosy beginning. The best life is an intelligent life. Never stop learning.

we are small, but lucky

We are small and riding on a tiny world that spins in a little galaxy swirling in a huge universe.

We feel large, significant, important. We step on ants and spiders. We pull weeds. Our own needs and feelings feel paramount and relevant. We hold our opinions and attitudes like a shield, and wear our biases like armor. Then we look at the stars and know we are small.

We are lucky that the earth, a world that we do not own, supports our life form. The earth does not need us. Without it we could not live. The earth supplies every atom within us, and we’ll give back every atom when we cease to live. We are small.

If we live 100 years (a miniscule span of time repeated 40 million times since life began here) we are lucky, but still small.

If we truly support one leader in our lifetimes, we are unique and lucky, pompous and arrogant. We feel powerful, but we are still small.

If we consider carefully, even obsess, under microscopic scrutiny, the decisions and behaviors of others, were are forgetting to live our own lives and merely meddling in theirs.

If we judge each other by the beliefs in our hearts, by the level of melanin in our skin, or out of jealousy or greed, we are missing out on the best of human emotion; we are forgetting to laugh, to love, to see the incredible beauty of nature. We are wasting our lives.

We won’t get a mulligan, a do-over, a my bad, when we leave this life. So live your best life, be your best self, on this go around.