Saturday, June 30, 2007

Grab Bag Friday on Saturday: Lots of Thanks!

A should-be-Friday Grab Bag of thanks:

Thanks to Burton for the mention in his blog post "How Josephine Cameron Will Save My Soul". What a nice surprise to come across!

Thanks to Alert the Bear for the mention in "A Place to Grow Your Music" (this one was somewhat less surprising, since I happen to be married to "The Bear"...but nice, nonetheless).

Thanks to my Songwriting for Kids students who were great fun during our workshop this week. You can listen to the very sweet song they wrote, "I Wish," at But watch's *really* catchy. It's been in my head for days now, and I can't shake it!

Thanks to you readers for putting up with my slightly erratic posting schedule this week while I was teaching Songwriting for Kids. I should be back on a relatively regular schedule now!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Old Blue: Ramblin Jack Elliott

So the students in my workshop this week are singing the song "Old Blue," which was one of my favorites as a kid. You know the tune:

I had a dog and his name was Blue
I had a dog and his name was Blue
I had a dog and his name was Blue
Betcha' five dollars he's a good dog too

My students (5-8 years old) are now calling it the "happy happy sad" song. You think it's happy because the person singing had such a great dog. But the last verse (where poor Old Blue dies) is a real heartbreaker. We spent a fair amount of class time talking about all the great animals that have gone in and out of our lives, and how glad we are that we were able to spend some time with them.

Here's a great version of Old Blue sung by Ramblin Jack Elliott. It goes out to Trixie and Trout and Scooter and all the good dogs that have gone on to greener pastures. You can also check out a link to a rather nice YouTube version of the song (including a sleepy dog) in last month's Songwriting for Kids Club newsletter.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Kenneth Koch: Wishes, Lies, and Dreams

I'm teaching Songwriting for Kids Camp this week, and I guess I got caught up in all the excitement, because I completely forgot to do a blog post yesterday!

So here's a little Tuesday bonus for you. One of the books that my students and I have been enjoying greatly is Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry by Kenneth Koch. Poet John Matthias turned me on to this book, and it is definitely worth checking out.

In it, Koch discusses the methods he uses to teach elementary school children to write poetry. But mostly, the book is filled with student poems that are funny, touching, and often stunning. Here's one of my favorites:

Snowflakes are like shining diamonds
A breeze is like the sky coming to you
The sun is like golden bright earrings
Iris Torres, 4th grade

Friday, June 22, 2007

Grab Bag Friday: Creature Comforts

Have you seen the new show Creature Comforts? I'm quickly becoming a huge fan. Created by the same people who made the hilarious Wallace and Gromit shorts & features, Creature Comforts is a 1/2 hour claymation "reality show." The concept is brilliant. Aardman sent people all over the US, interviewing regular people about various topics (zoos, flying, self-image, relationships). Then, they took those "Voices of Your Fellow Americans", and created claymation animals to match them. The results are great fun: pigs who dream of flying, a hippo who complains about always being weighed by skinny girls, a penguin who complains of always being cold.

The idea is based on an original short film that Aardman created in 2003 (which you can watch online...see below). The TV show has been running in the UK for a couple seasons...this is the first time they've done an American version, with all new characters and interviews.

On the US website you can:

  • Watch the original short film (this is great!)
  • Read the animators' blog: Eyeballs and Fishlips (it's fun to see pictures of the *real* people behind the animal characters)

On the UK website you can click on the "Making Of" where you can learn all kinds of interesting tidbits:
  • The show is unscripted and unrehearsed
  • The interviewees do not know what animal they will be until the actual broadcast
  • The characters/animals are created to fit the voices (not the other way around)
  • The animators use between 10 and 20 different mouths for different emotions
  • The animators film between 3-5 seconds of material per day
  • It takes four days to film one 15 second shot!

UPDATE: Can you believe they took this off the air *already*????? This was one of the few really different, really engaging shows that I was enjoying! Sheesh. I should have known that meant it was doomed. :)

If you liked the show as much as I did, click here for a list of people at CBS to email with your comments. Boy, what a typical display of media mogul knuckleheadedness.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Carter Little: Dare to Be Small

My friend Carter arrived last night from Nashville, and we're getting ready to go into the studio to finish up my most recent project, American Songs vol. 2. It's an absolute luxury to have Carter on the project...his effortless skills on guitar and soaring, melancholy-tinged vocals add so much texture to these traditional songs. I can't wait for you to hear it!

In the meantime, if you'd like to check out Carter's impressive solo debut album, Dare to Be Small, it's available on Amazon and iTunes. I'm partial to the hauntingly pretty songs Delicate and Fall.

You can also listen to a streaming version of songs from the album (including Fall, plus some bonus songs and some songs from Saddlesong, Carter's 2002 collaboration with his brother), sign up for his mailing list, view pictures, watch videos, read lyrics, and all that cool jazz on his website:

In the press, Carter has been compared to Wilco, Elliot Smith, Damien Rice, Michael Stipe, Roy Orbison, and my very favorite: "John Mayer without the icky factor" (that brilliant line is from Better Propaganda).

Monday, June 18, 2007

Alice Munro: The Bear Came Over the Mountain

Away From Her, the film adaption of Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" is coming to our little arthouse theater soon. I love Alice Munro, so naturally I was poking around the internet to read some reviews, and I came across some very interesting things.

Most importantly:
You can read the entire story online for free at The New Yorker. For real. This is really phenomenal (thanks to The Kenyon Review for the link!) The Bear Came Over the Mountain is a story about an older, married couple dealing with Alzheimer's. Print it out and save it for a quiet morning with a cup of tea. As with most Alice Munro stories, multiple layers unfold slowly with extreme attention to detail, and even the smallest moments are both complex and very simple. It's beautiful.

A couple recent movie reviews in:
The Kenyon Review
The Chutry Experiment
The Virtual World
The Montreal Mirror

Filmmaker Sarah Polley on NPR's Fresh Air (audio)
Sarah Polley at Dark Horizons (blog)
Alice Munro in The Virginia Quarterly Review (on her most recent short story collection, The View from Castle Rock)

Friday, June 15, 2007

Grab Bag Friday: Microcosmos...bugs, bugs, bugs!

My friend Amy was just telling me about the gross, slimy, white grubs she found in her garden bed this week. With summer in full bloom, and insects everywhere, I couldn't help but come to my blog and recommend that you go out and rent Microcosmos for a fresh perspective on all those bugs that are now in your life.

I first saw Microcosmos on the big screen in the theater, and it is totally amazing. Made by the same team that created Winged Migration, this is an entirely wordless documentary about bugs. I know. It sounds about as fun as watching ants march across your driveway. But I loved this movie so much, I have actually watched it multiple times since I saw it in the theater.

Talk about a piece of art that engages your sense of wonder! Using specially adapted cameras, the filmmakers get up close and personal with the daily life of all kinds of different insects. We get to see, for all intents and purposes, what it's like to be the size of a bug...what happens when it rains, when it's windy, when a larger bug (or a bird) comes onto the scene. We get to see how beautiful (or very strange) some of these bugs truly are. Some of the footage is funny, some is actually poignant. As described on Alternative Movies (where you can apparently download the movie in parts for free...which is kind of cool, but frankly, getting it on Netflix seems a whole lot easier):
Microcosmos offers passionate kisses and kinky sex, swashbuckling duels and mass suicide, water bomb attacks and genocide, undercover operations and natural cooling systems. Nonetheless it's suitable for children, complete with an amazing candy factory and a black Sisyphus.
While I liked Winged Migration, I loved Microcosmos a whole lot more. Even though there are no words, there is somehow more to it. More times when I gasped in horror, or sat entranced, completely hushed by the fall of rain or the simple beauty of a moth spreading its wings.

I will say that if you have a severe aversion to insects, this may not be the movie for you. My husband made me fast forward a lot of the "gross" parts, and got very pale when the camera focused in on some wasp larvae. But I think a mild comfort level with bugs is all that is necessary. Besides, squealing and writhing in disgust is half the fun!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

How to Compost Interlude: The Napkin Change

Moisture Matters. I think one of the reasons it's taking so long for our compost is that it's been too dry. Remember when I wrote about how it's supposed to be as wet as a wrung out sponge, and I believe my exact words were:

Now, I highly doubt I will be reaching into the tumbler full of rotting garbage and squeezing it to test the water level.
Well, guess what I did yesterday? You bet. And even with all the rain we've had, our rotting garbage was not nearly as wet as a wrung out sponge. Dry dry dry. So I put some water in (hopefully not too much) and I'm hoping that will help.

The napkin change. So for the newest waste-reducing change in our house, we are finally putting some use to all the pretty cloth napkins that people gave us for our wedding, years ago.

We've been using (and throwing away) paper towels as napkins for years & years, and now we're going to switch to cloth. Toss them in the wash with the rest of the laundry and reuse them. Again, seems so simple that I'm a little embarrassed I haven't been doing it all along, but hey. I come around eventually.

Weed out the Weeds. Here's an interesting post over at Green Options about non-chemical ways to get rid of weeds. Warning: she does say that the best way is still to pull them by hand. But there are other helpful tips and suggestions as well.

Here is the complete How to Compost series in case you'd like to catch up or review:

Step 1: Make it a Priority
Step 2: Choose a System
Interlude: Nature Tried to Kill My Composter
Step 3: Collect Organic Material
Step 4: Mix the Materials
Step 5: Moisten the Mixture
Step 6: Wait
Interlude: The Lightbulb Change
Interlude: The Yogurt Change
Interlude: The Sponge Change
Interlude: The Leftover Change
Interlude: The Napkin Change
The Sort-of Sun-Mar 200 Review Part One
The Sort-of Sun-Mar 200 Review Part Two
Sun-Mar 200 Compost Update
Sun-Mar 200: Starting All Over Again

Step 7: Use Your Compost
Step 8: Sun Mar 200 Garden Composter Review

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Chet Baker: I Fall in Love Too Easily

It's another dark, rainy June day here in Maine. The kind of day that makes you want to curl up on the couch with a soft blanket and a cup of tea and stay in your pajamas all day. On this kind of day, I always reach for my Chet Baker albums.

I know a lot of people think of the trumpet when they think of Chet Baker, but what I love is when he sings. His voice is somehow both sad, melancholy and reassuring, even soothing. His open, understated tone (almost reminiscent of Betty Carter at times) is just right for rained-in or snowed-in days.

And I think my most-loved Chet Baker tunes is his version of I Fall in Love Too Easily.

This gorgeous song was written in 1945 by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne (boy, did those two write a lot of great songs), and a quick Wikipedia search tells me that it was first heard sung by Frank Sinatra in the movie Anchors Aweigh. This kind of surprised me, because what I remember is discovering "I Fall in Love" through Chet Baker's version, years ago. But the reality is that as a child, I must have watched Anchors Aweigh at least 25 times (that's probably a severe underestimate). So I must have been predisposed to the song long before I ever heard Chet Baker sing. Ah, Wikipedia. A modern tool for self-discovery.

I fall in love too easily
I fall in love too fast
I fall in love too terribly hard
For love to ever last

My heart should be well-schooled
'Cause I've been burned in the past
And still I fall in love too easily
I fall in love too fast

I fall in love too easily
I fall in love too fast
I fall in love too terribly hard
For love to ever last

Monday, June 11, 2007

Cynthia Lord: Rules

I know that I'm behind the times. It's been well over a year since Cynthia Lord's book Rules came out, and about six months since it received the American Library Association's prestigious Newbery Honor Award for her "distinguished contribution to American literature for children." My favorite kidlit bloggers published their thoughtful, insightful reviews ages ago. And I just read the book this weekend.

Rules, simply put, is a story of a young girl trying to find her place in family, friendships, and life, while also figuring out how to deal with her younger brother's autism and all the unusual pressure and demand that condition can put on a family. This may not sound like light reading, but Cynthia Lord's humor and honesty and real, three-dimensional characters make the chapters fly by and you hardly want to put the book down. (As evidenced by this Sunday morning when my husband said, "Let's make pancakes!"...which is usually enough to make me drop whatever I'm doing and immediately dash for the kitchen...and instead I mumbled absently, "Mmmm...maybe after I finish this chapter. Or the next.")

I don't want to say much because you really should just read it, but here is one of the details I loved most about this book:

Catherine, the main character, is constantly writing rules for her brother, David, so "at least he'll know how the world works, and I won't have to keep explaining." Some of Catherine's life rules include:

  • If someone says "hi," you say "hi" back.
  • Not everything worth keeping has to be useful.
  • No toys in the fish tank.
  • Pantless brothers are not my problem.
While some of these rules are written out of adolescent frustration, there are some rules that are incredibly poignant and show a real, deep love. For instance, David often has trouble finding words to express himself, so Catherine writes him these two rules:
  • If you don't have the words you need, borrow someone else's.
  • If you need to borrow words, Arnold Lobel wrote some good ones.
So throughout the book, Catherine and David, quote to each other from Andrew Lobel's Frog and Toad books, almost like a secret language between brother and sister.
"Dad's still coming," I say. "Late doesn't mean not coming."

But those words don't help. So I reach over, wipe away his tear with the side of my thumb, and say the only words I know will calm him: "'Frog, you are looking quite green.'"

David sniffles. "'But I always look green,' said Frog. 'I am a frog.'"
This is what makes the book so lovely. The relationships. The very real, honest quality of Catherine's interactions with her brother, her father, the new girl next door, the boy she meets in the waiting room of David's occupational therapy appointments. This is not a drama about how difficult it is to live with autism. This is a book about growing up. About families. And as Cynthia Lord (who lives in Maine!) wrote on her website (totally worth checking out) in answer to a 5th grader's question about why she chose to write about autism:
Life is long and challenges come into every family, even if you don’t start life with them. RULES is about accepting there is value in everything, even in imperfection. Sometimes things can’t be changed, but you can change your feelings about them.
According to Booklist, Rules is geared for grades 4-7, but I think there's something here for all ages. I think a younger child would enjoy having this read out loud, and obviously I enjoyed reading it as an adult. (I did eventually get to those pancakes, too!)

Friday, June 8, 2007

Grab Bag Friday: Chicken Soba Salad

This is a quick, easy, healthy, & delicious recipe I got from Cooking Light Magazine and modified a bit to my liking. It's a great summer meal because it's tasty hot or cold. The chicken only takes about 15 minutes to cook, but you can use rotisserie chicken if you're pressed for time (just don't get the kind with the seasoning). You can find soba noodles at your natural foods store, in the "World" section (or maybe the noodle section) of your grocery store, or at any Asian grocery. Enjoy!

Chicken Soba Salad

2 cups water
2 (6-oz) skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
4 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons rice vinegar (I've substituted with white wine vinegar, I'm sure others would work well, too)
4 tablespoons peanut oil (I've also used sesame oil, olive oil, and even canola with good results)
4 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce
2 teaspoons honey
1-2 garlic cloves (minced)
1-2 teaspoons of chopped jalepeno (Depending on how much zest you like. Use hot sauce if you don't have a pepper)
2 cups cooked soba noodles (about 4 oz. uncooked)
1 cup grated or chopped carrot
1/2-3/4 cup thinly sliced green onions
1/4-1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
4 teaspoons chopped unsalted peanuts (optional)

1. Combine first 4 ingredients in a medium saucepan; bring to a boil. Cover, remove from heat, and let stand 15 minutes or until chicken is done. Remove chicken from pan, and discard peppercorns, bay leaf, and cooking liquid. Shred chicken; place in a large bowl.

2. Cook soba noodles according to package directions.

3. Combine vinegar and next 5 ingredients (vinegar through jalepeno), stirring with a whisk. Pour over chicken; let stand 5 minutes. Add soba noodles and the next 4 ingredients (noodles through chopped basil) to chicken mixture and toss well. Sprinkle with peanuts. Garnish with lime wedges. Yield: 3-4 servings.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Ella Fitzgerald, Jo Stafford, Benny Goodman, Harry James, and Red Norvo!

Man, do I love YouTube! Check this out. According to some of the comments, this is a short clip from an hour long Texaco-sponsored show called "Swing into Spring" recorded in 1958. Lots of my favorite masters of melody...Benny Goodman on clarinet, Harry James on trumpet, Red Norvo on vibes, Ella Fitzgerald *and* Jo Stafford on vocals...all in one room! I've always wished I could go back in time to the big band/swing era...could you imagine seeing these guys live? Or even in real-time on your television? I'd even take that.

And to top it all off, Ella Fitzgerald starts off with one of my favorite songs, "I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues." (I'm partial to the Lena Horne can listen to it on iTunes here.)

Ella & Jo even sing together a little on "St. Louis Blues" for the finale. Very very cool.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Jon Scieszka: Guys Read

I'm teaching a fiction workshop for 4-6th graders this summer, and while trying to choose a balanced mix of books to use as examples, I came across a very cool website: Guys Read. (Thanks to Fuse #8 for pointing me in the right direction!)

Guys Read was created by author John Scieszka, perhaps best known for the Time Warp Trio Series and his wildly clever "fractured fairy tales" such as The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. According to Mr. Scieszka:

  • A lot of boys are having trouble reading.
  • The U.S. Department of Education reading tests for the last 30 years show boys scoring worse than girls in every age group, every year.
  • Eighth grade boys are 50 percent more likely to be held back than girls.
  • Two-thirds of Special Education Students in high school are boys.
Guys Read is a web-based literacy program for boys. At Guys Read, you can:
  • See book recommendations for guys of all age groups
  • Suggest your own book recommendations
  • Learn about how to start a Guys Read group in your home town
You can read an interview with Jon Scieszka about Guys Read on the popular blog, Bookslut. Here's a great clip:

What are some things that parents can do in order to get their kids to enjoy reading?

Two things they can do most readily and easily is to, one, accept a really broad range of reading, and when your kid is reading newspapers and magazines, encourage that as reading. Information books, computer textbooks, reading online -- that's all reading, and that's a good thing. And then the second thing, that I think is hugely important, is [providing] some kind of male role model. Dads and brothers just have to get involved, because I think that it does so much, in so many more positive ways than what we've done before. When I was teaching I found that, too.

I was in second grade, when I started teaching, and some of my boys just took off as readers. And it was nothing particularly special that I did, it was just being there. Because I think they thought, "Oh, you can be a reader if you're a guy; you're not going to turn into a girl." Which I think is some weird kind of subconscious fear of theirs.

I think, through our culture and society, we're giving (kids) this message that reading is more of a feminine activity, because when you look around, it's your mom who is reading to you early on, it's women in the elementary school, it's women librarians, or women in publishing, too. And I think guys just subconsciously sort of absorb that message and go, "Oh yeah, this isn't for me."

I should mention that Jon Scieszka's regular website is fun to explore, too. (Definitely play the "Official Jon Scieszka Pronunciation Guide" clip for a chuckle.)

Friday, June 1, 2007

Grab Bag Friday: Capt'n Eli's Strawberry Pop

I have been known to make my husband drive to 5 different grocery stores and gas stations looking for *deelicious* Maine-made Capt'n Eli's Root Beer, which is about as good as root beer gets. So last weekend when we went over to Bootleggers (a new beverage shop in the area) and they featured the new line of Capt'n Eli's Soda Pops, I simply had to bring some home.

We tried two kinds: lemon-lime, and strawberry. I originally set out to write this post telling you how absolutely tasty the Strawberry Pop is (and it *is* tasty). But in doing so, I went over to the Capt'n Eli's website (where you *can* order soda online) and was taken entirely by surprise. This is not your ordinary soda pop website.

Artist Jay Piscopo has created an entire online comic book universe called The Undersea Adventures of Capt'n Eli. Here's a blurb from the site:

This on-going story revives the spirit of the daily adventure comic strip by updating classic themes for a new audience. The stories bring back the feeling of childhood adventure when comics were a nickel, you could buy root beer floats at the neighborhood drug store, and your imagination could propel you anywhere.
The Undersea Adventures of Capt'n Eli is definitely in the style of old classic comics like Super Friends and Jonny Quest. Personally, these aren't my favorite kinds of comics to read, but the whole thing is pretty cool, and it makes me like Capt'n Eli's even more.

Other unexpected things you can do on the site:
  • Learn about how submarines work
  • Learn how to tie a bowline knot
  • Play Capt'n Eli online games (only most of the games don't least not on my computer)
Back to the soda pop:

BeverageNet has a recent review of Capt'n Eli's Blueberry Soda, which I was unfortunately too skeptical to try. I'll have to go pick some up this weekend since they gave it 4.5 stars!