Friday, December 18, 2009

Make-it Night

My favorite night of Hanukkah at our house is the self-instituted make-it night, where the gifts we give are the gifts we make. I LOVE crafts. I'm just not that good at making them, being too impatient for some of the finer details. Fortunately, I've never let that stop me.

Here are the things I made the kids this year:

Hopefully you can recognize these guys without a label. My kids, at least, knew who they were!!

This is a skirt made from fabric created by the amazing Heather Ross. I used this free Lazy Days Skirt Pattern, which allows even people like me to look as if they know what they're doing.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Hand Sanitizer: Everybody's Doing It

This week my daughter asked for the newest fashion trend at her elementary school. I almost WISH she'd asked for a pair of Nikes or Hello Kitty Headband or something like that. But nope, she wants HAND-SANITIZER. The kind you can hang from your backpack. "But MOM." she said. "Almost all of the girls have their own hand-sanitizer." And just like that, my holiday gift problems are solved. Thanks H1N1!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Movie toys

Who needs Happy Meal toys? We saw Wall-E this week and the kids came up with these little dudes the next day. Wall-E stands on two toilet paper rolls. He opens up so you can put trash inside him. The back is an orange crate. Eva is made out of paper and an old lemonade mix container. She has a flashlight arm "for blasting." I can't find the cockroach -- I think he's lost somewhere in my daughter's bed -- but he's made out of a film canister. I'll post him when I find him.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

5 minute moomin

Okay, these actually took more than 5 minutes to make, but they didn't take TOO long so I figured I'd share. Introducing the sock Moomins, as visualized by my own Moomin fans.

The inspiration:
These past few weeks, Washington's embassies have been host to the Kids Euro Festival. This is the second year they've held it. Last year we were too out of it to notice. This year we noticed late and by the time we did, we were too ensconced in soccer games to make it to most of the free (yes! free!) performances. BUT we made it to one, at the Finnish embassy, featuring "a musical landscape" inspired by Tove Jansson's Moomintroll Books. I loved these books as a kid, and when I read them to my kids last year, they loved them, too. There is something a little other worldly about them (duh: they're about MOOMINS), and magical, and sweet, and strange.

The Moomins look a little like hippos, except smaller. (Their ears are actually a little rounder than these, but my kids thought triangles would work best so that's what they cut out.) At the Finnish Embassy, the Moomins weren't small. They were mascot size. (Which sort of makes sense because in Finland, the Moomins seem to be as prevalent as Mickey Mouse. There's even a Moomin World.) In the U.S., the Moomins are ambassadors.

The event featured Snufkin, Moomintroll, Little My, and Sniff, dancing and singing. Snufkin, of course, was the host. He played a saw. And the whole performance was a little magical. And strange. It kind of reminded me of the first time I saw The Teletubbies (which means I did think once or twice: What were they smoking? But in a sweet, affectionate way.) The event was definitely geared for the preschool age, though the books are for older kids. Still, the other-worldliness of it made it tolerable for my guys, as did the freebies: Ginger cookies shaped like Moomintroll and Snufkin! Slap bracelets! Little pins in the shape of Moomintroll! The space was great, the architecture of the building was very cool, and what's not to love about a Finnish guy in a green hat playing a saw?

Went home from the event and immediately my kids wanted to make Moomins out of socks (while my husband wanted to book us on the next plane to Finland.) Buoyed by our recent success with Sock Hedwig, we put together our Sock Moomins fairly quickly, though I'm calling what we came up with a prototype because they can definitely be improved (i.e. next time we need to use NEW socks instead of socks that are a little brown at the heal! Next time we should go with black felt and white felt for the eyes instead of a magic marker.) But once again, we're all about immediate gratification here. An hour or so later we had two Moomins, which have been a hit, even if Moominmama did have to borrow Polly Pocket's purse.

Oh, and I just found a picture I loaded from last winter, when we made Moomins out of Sculpey. They're a bit battered here -- the ears being the most breakable. We built them a little house out of a yogurt container. And blueberry pancakes on plates. Hours of entertainment!

And we're definitely putting the festival on our calendar for next year. I was especially interested in some of the Romanian magic acts, but there were too many time conflicts. I think with better planning we can get more out of it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Working Theories

Lots on my mind after attending Kidlitcon 09 this weekend in Crystal City. While that all gels into what may become a blog post, I just wanted to invoke, for a moment, my lunch, purchased from perhaps the most generic deli ever built. I have two new food-related theories and they are as follows.
1. If it doesn't smell like salami, it's not a real deli.
2. If you visit a bagel shop that has a New York reference in the title (Manhattan Bagels, Brooklyn Bagels, Borough Bagels, etc.) and the bagel shop is NOT IN NEW YORK, chances are they're protesting way too much. Simply put: Your bagel is going to suck.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Five-minute Hedwig

My kids are all about immediate gratification. So when my son put on his Harry Potter robe last week in preparation for Halloween, he asked, right away, for a Hedwig.
"I didn't buy a Hedwig," I told him.
"Could we make one?"
"Sure," I said. "But it would take a while."
"We could make one now," he said. "We could use one of Daddy's socks, put some stuffing in it, then I could use marker for eyes, you could sew felt on for wings."
He paused.
"And talons."
I had all of the stuff he mentioned. He had the pattern in his head, so we tried it. In FIVE MINUTES we had Hedwig.
Not perfect, perhaps, and I may make a fluffier owl for Halloween (I'm not an expert sewer, but I'm competitive enough to want my kid to have more than a sock on his shoulder, especially if my friend Vicki goes trick-or-treating with us this year.) On the other hand, he's happy with it. And we have another use for mismatched socks.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Five Minute Phone Call and Another Use for Play-Doh

You know those friends you want to talk to, but you put off talking to because you know the conversation will be long and you just don't have time for long because it's late and you have to make dinner and your kids are screaming and even if they weren't screaming your brain is mush? A few years ago my husband instituted The Five Minute Phone Call. This is where you call a friend but you keep it short and just say: "AAACK. I can't believe the #&#& sox are out of the playoffs!" (him) or "So did you watch Glee?" (me). We don't do it nearly enough, but it's a fine way to make you feel like you're in real touch -- beyond a superficial Facebook update or a group e-mail, I mean.

I've been thinking that I should approach my blog the same way. Instead of not posting because I haven't formulated what I want to say in thoughtful, polished prose, I should just go for the five-minute post. So here's a stab at that, because I wanted to offer a bit of parenting advice, just in case you have to take your kids to a nursing home to see a relative. It's one of the best bits of parenting advice I figured out on my own, so, as the clock ticks, here's the grand advice:

Bring Play-Doh. Seriously.

I've always loved Play-Doh. When I was a kid I played with it and, okay, maybe tasted it once or twice. As an adult I kept it on my desk at work as a de-stresser. And over the past few years, I've packed it with me when I've had to make nursing home visits. It's great because it gives the kids something to do and it could even give the ailing adult something to do. But the main reason I bring it is because it's great for blocking the SMELLS that go along with nursing homes. Especially if you have a kid with a sensitive nose. Which I do. (Note that this works for parents as well as kids.) I usually go armed with three of those small, purse-sized containers. Okay, that's it. End of advice. End of post. Viva la Play Doh!

That is all.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

links and rain

So the rain this week hasn't let me do my very minor act of guerilla publicity, but I have tried to follow Darcy Pattison's lead and do the things she suggested on her site, which cannot be cancelled due to bad weather.

Day 1 was word of mouth day. Tell a friend about a book, Darcy said. I decided to tell my friend L about Sara Lewis Holmes' book Operation Yes. The book is about a class of military kids, always on the move with their families, and their very special teacher in Room 208. I'd mentioned it to L back before it was even called "Operation Yes." But I hadn't followed up because L and her kids had moved to Ohio with her military husband. I vowed to track her down, spent the morning looking for her email, didn't find it, and took my kids to their first day of school. And in the lobby I saw... L! She had just moved back to Virginia. So I told her about Sara's book in person. And later, when I got her new e-mail address, I sent her the link to Sara's website and blog.

Day 2 was Write a Review Day. The idea was to write for Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes and Noble, etc. I am normally not a fan of those reviews, in part because everyone seems to give reviews written by Joe and Jane Public the same weight they give reviews from magazines and blogs. Which goes back to my feelings about newspapers, and how people now feel like they can provide their own news better than reporters. Which goes back to my feelings about how people comment, rudely about newspaper articles, because they are allowed to be anonymous. Which goes back to my seething feelings about a certain representative from South Carolina, who feels he is entitled to make an already low bar for civility even lower by disrespecting both the president and his own office and chamber... Okay. I'm digressing seriously here. My original misgivings actually sort of underline the reason for writing a good review of a friend's book on a public site. So for that assignment I signed up for Barnes and Noble and now appear as MadgeVA. (Madge being a nickname given to me by my friend Tom Angleberger, aka Sam Riddleburger, who I hope one day will blog about how he picked his pen name. I reviewed my friend Moira's book, "Penny and the Punctuation Bee," which my kids adore. And, it goes without saying, so do I!

Day 3 is to link to a good book, to help it appear in searches and whatnot, and for this, I'm moving to an adult book, by my friend Jim Mathews. I wrote about this book in my holiday letter last year, but I haven't blogged about it. Now I'm here to tell you that this book is an amazing piece of war literature, given in bite-sized stories. It wraps tension and emotion with humor, the same way you might wrap a scallop with a piece of bacon. It's magical and real at the same time, and was the winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction.

We'll see what day 4 has in store!

I also wanted to make a quick note about an e-mail I received today from the state of Virginia, saying that the state's artist fellowships, usually given to help artists (and writers!) do their thing, have been cancelled for the year, due to budget cuts. I'd hoped to apply, as I am still in need of a new furnace. Anyway, it's another reason for those of us who aren't completely strapped to go out and support our friends by buying some books.

Monday, September 7, 2009

School's In

Back after a summer off from blogging and what better way to get back into it than by following Darcy Pattison's brilliant suggestion of performing Random Acts of Publicity. This is where you help friends who have written books (or even people you don't know but whose books you like) and find ways to promote them. Er, randomly. Darcy has a more official setup/plan of action, but as I've been plum out of it, I'm just going to be true to her idea and try various random acts this week. I'll likely focus on people whose books I haven't highlighted on these pages. Bits. Whatever.

School officially starts today, but I'm already thinking about break, so I want to start by welcoming a new book about Thanksgiving. My favorite way to welcome books, as you know, is with a little song.

The book is by Jacqueline Jules, the driving force behind my critique group. I've lost count of how many things she's published since I joined four years ago, but I'm pretty sure it's at least 10 (not counting poems).

Duck for Turkey Day is Jackie's latest. It's about Tuyet, a young girl who's embarrassed to tell her classmates that her Vietnamese American family won't be eating turkey for Thanksgiving. But when she finally admits what she really ate (Hint/Spoiler: It's in the title) she finds that everyone's traditions are a little different. But they're a little bit the same, too.

You can't release a Thanksgiving book ON THANKSGIVING, of course. That would be bad marketing, especially when the stores have been hocking their Halloween Merch since, what, July? So it seems entirely reasonable this is a September release.

Anyway: To the music!

We'll start with Cousin Emmy playing Turkey in the Straw... on her cheeks.

Since Tuyet's family is from Vietnam (where I tried all kinds of crazy things when I visited in '95, but sadly, no duck) I thought I'd link to one of the most touristy things I did during my visit, which was to attend a performance of Hanoi's traditional Vietnamese Water Puppets. I didn't take any video when I was there, but this person did.

And what is Thanksgiving without Thank You by Led Zeppelin? Sadly I couldn't find any live footage on youtube, so there's just the music...

I'm sending you on a bit of a duck chase for this last one. The song's called "Ducks in the Pond" by the late Henry Reed, an old-time fiddler from Giles County, Va. I wanted to highlight Reed's work, too, so I figured I'd send you to this collection at the Library of Congress. Click on the link to "sound recordings" and then go under "D" for duck!

I've planned a minor guerilla action for another book for Tuesday. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

school's out

Last day of school and we escaped before Swine Flu struck our wing. (The fifth graders were not so lucky...)

I wanted to kick off the summer with a quick reminder about area reading programs.

Barnes and Noble's program offers a great selection of books as a reward. Your child can pick one after reading eight.

The program at Arlington Public Library gives the kids a harmonica after they read 15 books (for younger kids) or 10 (for older kids). I'm sure your own local library has a good program as well.

Speaking of libraries, my friend Susan, a children's librarian at Arlington Central, is now blogging for PBS. This week's post features a bunch of tongue twisters -- a fun way to start the summer!

new books, new playlist

A mixed playlist this time, welcoming two new books to bookstores and libraries everywhere.

The first, Fritz Danced the Fandango, is by my friend Alicia Potter, one of the first people to make me love Boston, Mass. This is her first published kids book, though there are more in the pipe! It's about a lovely little goat, looking for a new herd because his old one doesn't like his clippety-clop.

The second, Itty Bitty, is by Cece Bell. (If you read this blog at all, you know her already.) Itty Bitty is a small dog trying to turn a big, cavernous bone into something that feels a little more comfortable. Small dog, big color.

And so, the playlist:

Fandango by the Steve Miller Band. (Okay, this is the only one I could find off the top of my head, aside from the ZZ Top album, which doesn't have a song by the same name. And apparently no one has created a youtube video with Steve Miller's Fandango in the background, so you'll just have to get a tiny snippet off of Amazon, or go raid your vinyl.)

Fandango by Herb Alpert. You know Herb from seeing Whipped Cream and Other Delights in thrift stores across America. This is earlier Herb.

Some authentic flamenco music from Camaron de la Isla

It's not the Fandango. It's "Hokey Pokey" by Dan Zanes and Father Goose (one of the "and friends" from Dan Zanes and Friends, but also an entity unto himself). You can find this tune on the Family Dance album.

She Bought a Dog by Southern Culture on the Skids. Argh, I wish I could find this on youtube so you could hear what a glorious song it is! It's on our family car jams, SCOTS at their finest and funniest, I think. From the Too Much Pork for Just One Fork album.

Rufus Thomas, Walking the Dog. (For a real treat, check out his version of Old MacDonald Had a Farm, the best version ever recorded. Bar none.

Hound Dog. But we'll go with Big Mama Thornton's version here. (Sorry, Elvis. I love ya, but...)

We are Monkees obsessed in our house this month (thank you, Netflix!) so here's "Gonna Buy Me a Dog."

(Trying to keep it happy and clean, so we'll stay away from Neil Young's "Old King" and Snoop's "Doggie Dog World".)


I promised Annie at Bookstogether that I would post a few pictures from this year's garden. I tend to do my gardening early, because by the time the heat and humidity and mosquitoes are out there, I usually let everything go to pot. (That doesn't mean I don't plant tomatoes and cukes: We LOVE tomatoes and cukes. It just means they don't get watered so well by the time we hit July.) Here are a few pics from June 1. I may update later in the season when the corn is higher, unless I am once again defeated by chipmunks. So far, they've gotten most of my squash.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Having Fun with Stonewall Hinkleman

Welcome to Day Three of the Stonewall Hinkleman Blog Tour. I love spending the day with co-authors Sam Riddleburger and Michael Hemphill whether we're hanging out on the Roanoke River or here on this blog.

Sam, Michael and I worked together back when we were all in newspapers full time. (You remember newspapers, right? Black and white? Used to be read all over?) Before I left the New River Valley, the three of us had conversations like the one you get to eavesdrop on. Only then our conversations were about town politics and how to get sources to call us back and whether we wanted to eat lunch at Triangle Lanes (now a Walgreens) or Dude's Drive In (still there!)

Today we're talking about war -- the Civil War -- as it comes alive in their new book Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run. Before we begin our conversation, I want to remind you that you are now eligible to win a FABULOUS PRIZE PACK featuring a signed copy of Stonewall. Details at the end of this post.

And now (cue bugle): Let the conversation began!

Me: In your story, Stonewall's parents drag him to war reenactments every weekend. What sorts of things did your parents drag you to when you were kids?

Sam: I sat through a lot of auctions and toured a lot of old houses where I wasn't allowed to touch anything. However, I enjoyed most of the Civil War places we visited, because my father had a lot of knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject -– in a good way.

Michael: My mom is this classical music lover, so we got dragged along to “cultural” events – symphony, ballet, etc. etc. Hated it then … appreciate it now.

Me: I'm one of those people who would, if I didn't already love you guys, be your toughest audience. I've never been a fan of Civil War history. I had a social studies teacher who was big into reenactments and wanted the South to rise again. I'm not sure that helped. Growing up in the South, it's so in-your face. Battlefield markers everywhere. Flags everywhere. Stickers on the backs of cars that say "Heritage, not hate." Could you guys talk a little about your feelings about the Civil War, before and after you finished this book? Did working on this book change your feelings about the war?

Sam: It's amazing how people assume that Stonewall Jackson was “bad” for fighting on the side of slavery, but gladly believe that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were “good.” It's a messy, messy area and we don't try to solve it all -– just explore it.

Michael: Even though I'm from Alabama, I was never a fan of Civil War history until moving to Virginia in the 1990s. The history is certainly in your face here, but it's sad that some folks tend to appreciate only part of the history while others tend to scorn it all. It's THE defining moment of American history.

Me: When you set out working on this book, did you think: I want to write historical fiction? Or did the characters come out first?

Michael: I wanted to write historical fiction, but the story didn't come alive in any sense of the word until Sam dreamed up Stonewall … Hinkleman, that is.

Me: I was happy to meet him. I especially liked the meetings between Stonewall and Tom. Historical fiction was never my favorite genre, but having just read March (for adults, also about the Civil War; I'm planning to write Geraldine Brooks a very long fan letter), followed by Hattie Big Sky, and STONEWALL HINKLEMAN, I am quickly changing my mind. (If you guys have any favorites in that genre that you want to mention, this is the place.)

Michael: I have become a big fan of Alan Furst's historical novels about Europe during the rise of Hitler and World War II. I find I've learned more history in those books than anything I've read in a textbook.

Sam: As far as kidlit goes, I'm a big fan of the Great Brain series, Queenie Peavey and, of course, Little House.

Me: The Great Brain and Little House! How could I forget them??? (Tangent alert: Did you know a Little House musical will begin touring this fall, with Melissa Gilbert playing Caroline? Could be scary but if it comes anywhere near here, I'm going anyway. The complete tour is supposed to be announced soon.)

Me Again: Is it true Stonewall had more of a potty mouth in an earlier version?
Sam: It was mostly Cyrus, I think, who had to get cleaned up. Michael decided to give him some Shakespearean curses instead of the &*#@ and )%*#.

Michael: Given Sam's proclivity for toilet humor (think Qwikpick) I credit him for the potty mouth. But we wanted to make sure the book got read in classrooms, so the damns became durns.

Me: When Stonewall first came into your mind, did he have ADD? Or was there a more conscious effort to create a character who was dealing with that challenge?

Sam: I do believe in ADD, but I'm skeptical about Stonewall Hinkleman's ADD. I think he was happy to get the diagnosis and use it as an excuse for his bad attitude and sloppy homework. Now Cyrus … he clearly has ADD.

Me: Tell me a little about how you guys collaborated on this story… the process, I mean.

Sam: Write a chapter. Email it off. The other guy writes a chapter and emails back. Repeat until book is done.

Michael: With some editing by the other guy in between. Sam really set the tone of the book. My writing style at the start of this project was more formal … academic. But I quickly realized that Sam's voice was going to make the book, so I tried to mimic what he had established. At some point early on we created an outline that we roughly followed … at least for the first draft.

Me: Any fights?

Michael: Rhetorical or with knives?

Sam: The best fight was in public at a library where we were doing some revisions on a laptop. Very heated. Since it was Michael's laptop, he threatened to change everything back when he got home.

Me: How do you think it would be different if just one of you wrote it?

If it were just Sam's version, for instance?

Sam: Wouldn't have made it.

If it were just Michael's version?

Michael: Would have been much better. (Ed. This is where my blog needs a laugh track.)

Me: I know Sam wrote a blog entry about how you improved on the time travel, hashing out the rules. Were there any other moments like that when either an editor or one or the other of you made a suggestion that set off a huge, manuscript-improving epiphany?

Sam: Michael wanted a female character in the book from early on. I kept saying no. I just couldn't see how she'd fit into the book. Much later – after we had sold the book to Dial – I finally saw the light. Now we have Ashby, who I think is a great character. She's got the bravery Stonewall lacks.

Michael: Sam's kind, but while I may have had some hazy notion of a female character in mind, Sam brought Ashby to light.

Me: Speaking of time travel: Could you talk about some of your time travel inspirations?

Sam: I have to say that Back to the Future was an inspiration and an Uninspiration. We worked very, very hard to make sure this book wasn't Back to The Future IV: The Civil War Years.

Me: Who do you hope to reach with this book?

Sam: The brotherhood of man.

Michael: And their sisters, too.

Me: What are your plans for escaping the toilet-bowl economy and convincing the world they need to buy this book? You may make your pitch now.

Michael: Well, we've got the 150th anniversary of the Civil War starting in 2011, and like I said earlier, I view the war as the pivotal event of American history. Everything before it (Revolutionary War, Declaration of Independence, Constitution, etc.) served as precursor, and everything since (including President Obama's election) has been a resolving of the war's aftermath. And yet it seems all that most kids know about it these days is that the North was “good” and the South was “bad.” I hope Stonewall inspires them to want to learn more.

Me: How much research went into this?

Michael: I knew a fair amount about the battle and have visited the Manassas (Bull Run) battlefield. I also co-own a Civil War battlefield tour company with friend and tour guide Robert Freis. He helped a lot with the background and research and historical personalities in the book.

Sam knew how to spell "Civil War."

Me: The end clearly leaves you wide open for Stonewall Hinkelman and the Battle of Antietam. Have you guys started work on such a thing?

Sam: What we've got in mind is a five-book series, with one book for each year of the war. One book will explain Tom. The final book would end at Appomattox, of course, and could feature Stonewall's dad and his re-enactor pals finally getting a chance to shine. We've also discussed the use of zombies.

(Me: It's working for Jane Austen.)

Michael: Or Stonewall ends up in 1955 playing “Johnny Be Good” with Michael J. Fox at the big high school dance.

Me: Oh: I want to give Michael a chance to talk a bit about his work with Civil War Journey.

Michael: We started the business in 2000 and offer customized Civil War battlefield tours to domestic and international clients. We also offer a schedule of weekend-long tours.

Me: Succinct. Factual. But this is supposed to be self PROMOTION. Try: Michael and Rob have put together a company that makes hearts thump! Clients say they vividly bring the Civil War to life! (Hey -- didn't I see something similar in a review of Stonewall?) You can visit them at

Me: Some final, scatter-shot questions for both of you:
Favorite battlefield?
Both: Antietam

Me: Favorite Civil War historic figure:
Sam: Turner Ashby
Michael: Joshua Chamberlain

Me: Favorite Civil War food
Sam: Goober peas
Michael: none of the above

Me: Favorite Civil War disease
Both: The vapors

Me: Favorite Civil War accessory
Both: The magic bugle, of course

Me: Thanks so much! And now, a little information about the prizes connected with the Stonewall blog tour:

One (1) lucky winner will receive a Stonewall Hinkleman Prize Pack containing a signed copy of Stonewall Hinkleman & The Battle of Bull Run, a t-shirt just like Stonewall wears on the cover AND advance copies of four other Dial Books for Young Readers titles! To enter, send an email to blogtour (at) and put "Stonewall Contest" in the subject line! That's all you have to do to be eligible.

If you've read this far, here's a tiny, extra incentive for bloggers willing to help me with a little guerilla marketing. (See "toilet-bowl economy" above; every bit of publicity helps.) The prize is a stamp of this dogwho shares a certain sentiment with Stonewall. To be eligible, just write "Stonewall slept here" and provide a link to blog hq from your own blog. Let me know either in comments or at madelynruth at hotmail (dot) com. I'll draw a name and send that person the stamp. But mostly I'll send the satisfaction of knowing you helped some really great folks.

Thanks to Sam and Michael, the authors. Thanks to you, the readers!

In case you missed them, you can go back in time and visit the other stops on Stonewall's blog tour -- no magic bugle necessary. (That's Internet time travel!!)

Monday, May 4 - Just Like the Nut

Tuesday, May 5 - Collecting Children’s Books

Wednesday, May 6 - Poop Deck (That's me.)

Thursday, May 7 - One True Believer

Friday, May 8 - Saints and Spinners

Saurday, May 9 — Little Blog of Stories

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Happy Release Day for Stonewall HInkleman

Just wishing Sam and Michael a happy release day for Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run.

What's the best way to celebrate a new book? With a musical playlist!!! Since I haven't actually gotten to preview the book (something I hope to rectify by this afternoon), my song choices are based on what Sam's told me about it. Maybe I'll update my picks after I've read it.

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (The Band).
Shenandoah (Tony Rice's version)
We've Gotta Get Out of this Place (The Animals)
Time Machine (Grand Funk Railroad)
Twilight (ELO) (Kind of appropriate, and I had to throw in an ELO song for Sam.)

Okay, and I just have to add this link to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down as performed by Joan Baez on the Muppet Show... I love the Band's version the best, but how can you deny Muppets?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

National Poetry Month interview with Mary Crockett Hill

In conjunction with National Poetry Month, I offer up this interview with Mary Crockett Hill, whose new book, A Theory of Everything, received the Autumn House Poetry Prize. Her collection was chosen by Naomi Shihab Nye, who calls it "deeply original, magical, and weird in a good way." Yup. That's our Mary.

Mary grew up in Salem, Va. She was a Henry Hoyns Fellow at the University of Virginia, and she received her MFA from that school in 1993. I first met Mary soon after that when a mutual friend asked us to conduct a writing workshop for teens at the YMCA in Salem. Mary was the poet; I was the aspiring fiction writer (emphasis on aspiring). There are only a few things I remember about that hazy semester. One was that it took a lot of work to convince our group that there were more colors on the spectrum than black. Another is that we had a student who had no scars to write about, no blemishes, no sunburn. No zits. Another is that way too many 16-year-olds smoked cigarettes. But they were writers (with the possible exception of the no-scars girl). Maybe that explains it. Anyway, the semester ended. My friendship with Mary did not, and so here she is, talking a little bit about A Theory of Everything, (now available at Amazon.)

Me: For starters, could you talk about where you got your title?

Mary: Well, first I should probably say that I don’t really know what the title means. The Theory of Everything is some idea from physics, and I pretty much respond to physics like a little kid responds to a light show—Oooh, look at the pretty colors!
But as I understand it (which is to say not at all), there’s this notion that all the various physical aspects of the world might be linked together under the umbrella of a single universal theory. And even though I don't have a clue what that truly means, I love thinking about what it might mean in my own pedestrian way.
My poetry is so full of the stuff of the world—the lawnchairs, and the worn rugs, and the need to feed crazy people soup—and I always want to figure out how one piece fits with the next. Thus, a theory of everything. Not the theory, mind you, just one attempt.
An attempt that’s bound to fail, of course. And I’m alright with that.

Me:You have a full-time job and three kids. So when, exactly, do you write?

Mary: As counter-intuitive as it sounds, getting a full-time job actually helped me find time to write.
After my twin sons were born, I decided to stay home to care for the babies and my daughter, who was two at the time. Up until then, I had just been taking my daughter with me to the museum where I worked. But I realized that wasn’t going to be possible with a toddler and two babies. I mean, no one has that many hands. So for about four years, I was working as a fulltime mother. It seemed at the time that I wasn’t getting any writing done, but I must have been doing it at some point—maybe while holding a baby on my lap, maybe while drifting to sleep. Then, when I went back to work, I discovered something I had never before fully appreciated: the lunch hour.
Before I had kids, the lunch hour was just a time to eat food. But after kids, it became sixty blissful minutes when no one had a right to expect absolutely anything from me. I realized that I’d gone about four years without having a single minute of uncluttered mental space. So this lunch hour—it was an unbelievable gift. I set aside that time each day to write and organize what I had written. And in about a month, I had a draft of the manuscript that eventually ended up as A Theory of Everything.
I’ve recently changed jobs, and I’m now teaching English at Roanoke College. And really, as hard as teaching college can be, I feel like I’m seriously getting away with something. It’s a great job. I love it. And because of it, I don’t have to squeeze my writing into this little slot between noon and 12:59. There are some weeks that are so busy I can’t even think about scribbling at a poem, but other times, I’m able to sneak it in during the most unexpected moments. Last semester, for example, I wrote a poem while I was proctoring an exam. A few weeks ago, I worked on a chapter while my writing students were doing peer review. I know this teaching gig won't last forever, but I'm really trying to make the most of it while I can.

Me:Do you think motherhood has changed your writing? And if so, how?

Mary: I think motherhood has changed everything about everything. I always tell my oldest that she wasn’t the only one born when she came out. I was too. Having babies altered who I am altogether, and it definitely altered my writing.
The biggest change for me wasn’t necessarily the themes or concerns that I address my writing—though those changed too. Rather it was the fact that I no longer had time to write. So the poems that ultimately got written had to really matter me or I just wouldn’t bother.
In a way, all the poems in this book were somehow necessary, if that makes sense. They were the unavoidable ones, the ones that wouldn’t be quiet. I guess they made more noise than the babies, so I went ahead and wrote them.

Me:How much of your poetry stems from place, from where you live in Southwest Virginia?

Mary: Lots. I’m a child of Southwest Virginia and the way I see the world has everything to do with the place where I stand to see it.

Me:Tell me a little about "Woodbridge." (I ask because there's a Woodbridge by me, and I'm certain there are many unique swaths of land that bear the same fate, which is to say, annihilation by faceless subdivision or strip mall. I was thinking you were referring to farmland in Christiansburg but I wasn't sure …)

Mary: Woodbridge is a development in my hometown, a little suburban slice of pie. And there was this wide and hilly cow pasture at the end of a cul-de-sac. I loved sneaking in there and roaming around and such. I remember one time being surrounded by cows. I guess they thought I’d brought them a treat, and they were all looking at me with these expectant eyes. I was scared, but oddly happy too. I liked hanging out with the cows. But of course when the cow farmer died, the land was sold and developed into street upon street of McMansions. I know people have to live somewhere, but it made me sad that it had to be there. So that poem mourns the passing of the cow pasture.
The Woodbridge of the poem isn’t the Christiansburg Woodbridge or the one in Northern Virginia; it’s just one of the many. One of those places where something natural (or close to natural) is covered up by asphalt and vinyl siding and slapped with some idyllic name—Pheasant Ridge or Willow Acres or Eagle Run.

Me:Explain, please, about your experience as a toilet seat hand model.

Mary: Oh that. Sounds so glamorous, doesn’t it? I worked as a model in New York for a summer when I was about 14, and the toilet seat was my first job. They had hammered a nail into the foamy seat of a toilet and I was supposed to place my index finger over the nail to show how cushy it was. I got paid some ridiculous amount for a milli-second of work, and I thought “How is it possible that people live like this?” There were other, even more glamorous jobs. Japanese eyewear. Fishnet hose. But I wasn’t very happy in New York, so when fall came, I went back home. I probably should have held out for the big bucks, though. Who knows, if I stuck it out, I could be modeling whole septic tanks by now.

Me:And speaking of toilet seats: It seems to me that people who don't read much poetry stereotype it as being about only love or pain. Yet you have a poem in here that Sam Riddleburger posted a few weeks ago about … farts.

Mary: Yep. That’s what happens when you let a girl from Southwest Virginia write poems.

Me:I'm from the school who believes that everything is autobiographical, even if it's fictional. You have a number of poems that seem, at least from my reading, to be about real people, such as family members. So my questions is: are they real people, or characters? And if they're real, than how do people, such as your family members, react to your poems?

Mary:A lot of the details are made-up, and I steal other people’s stories and pass them off as my own. Or as my brother’s, for that matter. (You should watch what you say around me; it might end up in a poem.) But yeah, a good bit of the stuff in A Theory of Everything is at least partially true. At least true as I see it. In some twisted universe kind of way. I used to write “persona” poems and la-la-la, but since having kids, I just didn’t have time for that. I mean, why bother?
Of course, now that I’ve made that big statement, I should say that about 95% of the poetry I’ve written since A Theory of Everything is totally imaginative. Nothing about it at all is real. I mean, it’s hardly even from the human perspective. Seriously out there. Oh well.
As for family members, I just try not to talk with them about the poems. If there’s something that’s excessively revealing about a named friend or family member in a poem, sometimes I’ll check it out with that person before I try to publish the poem. But for the most part, brer fox, she lay low.

Me:Does it take a certain amount of bravery to do that?

Mary: Bravery, no. Stupidity, probably so.

Me:I love Your Sister the Buddhist, who is mentioned in a couple of poems here.
Mary: Me too. She’s a real sweetheart. It cracks me up, though, to keep labeling her “My Sister the Buddhist.” It’s such a wiseacre little-sister thing to do.

Me:Likewise, the daily news seems to play a role. (As a journalist I am fortified by this.)

Mary: I hadn’t really thought of the connection with the daily news and this book, but you just made me remember: one of the very first poems I ever got published years and years ago was called “6:00 News.” I have no clue what it was about (I suppose the 6:00 news?) but I must be secretly obsessed with the news. I think it has something to do with having these intimate details from the lives of people you don’t even really know.

Me:Will the demise of newspapers (which I see too much evidence of, but which I hope will still somehow be avoidable) have an effect on your writing?

Mary: Yes.

Me:I know you do other kinds of writing. How do you decide what idea will become poem, what will become an essay, what will become a novel for teens?

Mary: The poems have everything to do with language. Sometimes when the idea in the poem is bigger than the language, it will turn into an essay. Ideas for teen novels only come to me when I’m in church about to take communion. It’s some kind of rule.
** Editors note: Mary is currently working on two such novels.

Me:Some of your poems can be quite disturbing, yet you come across as calm, well-adjusted, and, of course, funny. Is there a side we're missing?

Mary: Last year, when I asked my daughter why she was so well-behaved at school and so difficult at home, she wailed, “Where am I supposed to get my bad out?”
That’s pretty much how I feel about poetry. Gotta get my bad out somewhere.

Tangent Alert! Me: I'm going to take this opportunity to link to my friend Sarah Petruziello's art work. Sarah's another person who comes off as even-tempered and funny in person (because she is) but when you look at her art you get another picture entirely. Back to Mary:

Me:Do you have a favorite poem in here?
Mary: Is that a trick question? Isn’t this when King Solomon stands up and says, “She’s not the real poet, because any real poet would never let her poems be so divided!”
So, yeah, they’re all my babies. Even the bad ones.

Me:How did you decide what was a "collection?"

Mary: Hard question. Stupid answer: I tried to put things where they fit and take out what didn’t fit. That, and I had to have an even number of poems in each section.
I really try not to be compulsive, and for the most part I succeed.

Me: Can you remember the first poem you ever loved?

Mary: I remember loving e.e. cumming when I was pretty young. "anyone lived in a pretty how town" and "somewhere i have never travelled." I liked how those poems flew in the face of what I'd been taught poetry was supposed to be--which was basically those shape poems made up of adjectives in a triangle. I also remember reading from my dad's copy of Wallace Stevens a poem called "The Creations of Sound" that just blew me away. I didn't understand it, but the words had their own power, beyond understanding. It starts "If the poetry of X was music, / So that it came to him of its own, /Without understanding, out of the wall...." I mean, how can you not love something that starts like that? And this from a gal who generally doesn't care for ars poetica.

Me:Can you remember the first poem you ever wrote?

Mary: I probably wrote stuff before this, but the first poem I remember writing was this epic in rhymed couplets about a little girl named Amy who worked with the ants of the world to save everyone from a nuclear catastrophe of some sort. I think I was eight, and I remember working and working on that poem--I think it was called "Amy and the Ants"--but I don't think I ever actually finished it. It was just too dang big.

Me:Who are some of your favorite poets, contemporary or ... not?
Mary:There are so many. The old great ones are usually great for a reason. I love W.B. Yeats, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, John Donne, Shakespeare (how surprising!). Then there’s Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, Wislawa Szymborska, Anna Akhmatova, Dorianne Laux, Li-Young Lee, Albert Goldbarth, Lee Upton, Russell Edson, Bob Hicok…. I could go on forever. But I won’t, I promise. I will however, put in a plug for some friends with books: Melanie Almeder, Adrian Blevins, Carol Guerrero-Murphy, Katherine Soniat, Adrienne Su, Cynthia Atkins and Mary Szybist are all fantastic. And thanks to amazon, they’re just a click away….

(As is Mary's book, of course!)

Thanks to Mary for her time. Thanks to you for yours!

Friday, March 27, 2009

More from Mary

Oh, and what the heck. Here's one more.
"This is the World" first appeared in Juked before becoming a part of the Autumn House book, "a theory of everything."

This is the World

This is also the world
A small boy drops
a maple leaf down a well.
A girl, slightly larger, does likewise --
peering over the stone lip to guess
the leaf's curled and wayward descent.

Across the yard, behind a stardust bush,
the housecat is toying with something still alive.
It flits through the grass, now here now there,
delighting the cat with its antic struggle for flight.

I am in the world too, wondering:
Do I kill the bird for mercy? Do I take it inside?
What would Dickon from The Secret Garden do?
The book-animals loved him so, showing their mildest
bellies beneath satisfied, glinting eyes.

I might think we all want such love,
even from a half-dead bird -- except
my brother was once chased down a walking trail
by a man who'd just killed his first turkey
and to celebrate, downed three six-packs
and started firing at hikers. He hounded after
my brother, hollering for all the world
like Yosemite Sam, "I'm gonna get you, I'll get you!"

The man later told the police, "It seemed at the time
like the thing to do."

This is the world,
and where we spit,
where we stomp, where we fuck and crap,
and all that jack built, and whatever's next
and whether we forgive our father
or trust strangers to take zoloft,
and why the trees on one side of the hill
bud green before the others,
and if we make our way to Egypt,
and who there holds a broom, and who a gun,
and once we finally lie down at the end of the day
on our mattress or hammock or stone slab,
how the moon just keeps throbbing
so we sense loss too keenly,
and what finally is the thing to do --
and if we carry our children
inside our own bodies, and where
we plant our pumpkin seeds,
and why we fear caves
and dark
underwater places,
the dark under water,
the dark
-- someone please stop me,
I could go on forever, it is
after all, the world.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Poetry from Mary Crockett Hill

Mary Crockett Hill's A Theory of Everything was released this month by Autumn House Press. I'll post an interview with her next week in honor of National Poetry Month, but for now please allow this poem, which appeared in Pank before it became a part of the Autumn House collection, to serve as an introduction. (It's not exactly for the kids, so I'm not linking up with the Poetry Friday crew...)

Why I Gave Up on Astral Projection

My body, when was it
I realized you are so full
of shit? Literally. Shit.

The food and the churnings
-- all the blood-heavy
mass of you. The old binding

between us, now fixed.
There was a time I did not know
I even had a body.

I was all in my head,
nouns vibrating
like tiny harps.

It seemed inevitable to float
above those organs, that skin
so likely at any moment to slip

from my supine shell
and surge into the universe.
(I dreamed I could leave

then come back.
Will such faith also return?
The whiskered self

shaved clean again
by the cutting ache
for flight.) There is a blue cord

holding me back. And more --
the children, the child in me
who now knows what she eats,

my neighbor's dying lover, his rickety
lawn chair, the bend of my mouth saying no,
the waiting, the laundry, the need

to spoon and stir in a room
that will not be the moon
no matter, no matter how I worship it.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Thought for the day

It would be easier to be environmentally conscientious if all of my good ideas didn't come to me in the shower.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

more generics

Sorry, I'm still on a Harris Teeter kick:

Product: Harris Teeter Instant Oatmeal
Review: I can't tell the difference between this and Quaker. Will definitely buy again.

Harris Teeter Spaghetti Sauce: Leads me to the question: Why am I buying spaghetti sauce in a jar at all? Should I really be weighing this stuff against Ragu? No. I should be making my own. When my friend Heidi and I were visiting the Czech Republic too many years back, we made it just about every night (when we weren't making potatoes). Just some garlic, onion, tomato paste, salt, maybe a little cream. It took about five minutes, was way cheaper than jarred spaghetti sauce (which I'm not sure they even had) and tasted better.

Haven't used my credit card yet in 2009. Wonder how long I can keep that up?
I have a friend who's been keeping hers in the freezer. (She read this online or in the paper, I forget where.) You take your card, stick it in a small plastic container, and fill the bottom with water. Freeze. Your card is surrounded by a block of ice. If you really need to use it, thaw under water. The ice makes you think about it twice. I haven't tried this yet, but it may come to that.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


Just posting pictures I've promised some of you over the last couple of months of various food items.

Election Night Cuisine

Birthday Party, as seen in the book "Hello, Cupcake"

Birthday Party, as seen in my brain. They didn't come out quite as well as I'd hoped, as evidenced by the fact that they could have passed for either Yoda or Shrek. (For the record, I was going for Yoda.) The ears were made out of fruit rollups, so they were kind of droopy...

Friday, January 2, 2009

resolutions part ii

I just looked back over my list of resolutions from last year and I don't even want to tell you how many I didn't keep. I suppose I'll have to just keep trying. I also need to add a new resolution about facebook, the little addiction that seems to be keeping me from doing real work. I'm not quitting cold turkey -- just giving myself a little carrot-stick thing, where I have to earn my time by writing. Haven't quite figured out my quota yet, but I did keep it on Jan. 1. (On New Year's Day I like to do some of the things I plan to keep on doing during the year, just to set the tone. Thus, I exercise, speak softly, and WRITE.
For Hanukkah this year we brought back make-it night, where the gifts you give are gifts you make. I got a necklace from my daughter and a candle holder from my son. They got a skirt and a Darth Maul cape. The skirt follows this pattern and has been my first attempt at sewing anything that wasn't a Halloween costume. Fabric is brown corduroy with white horses.

My next project is some pillows featuring drawings by the kids. (My son has been doing this guy over and over whom he just calls "jazzy guy." I love jazzy guy. I need to see if I can get my son to paint him. Or is that too much back seat driving?)