Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Today I Feel Like An Author

When I was a kid, I felt like an author. I wrote book after book, stapling together pages from old invoice pads or receipt books that my dad would bring home from work. I illustrated my books. I gave them away as gifts. There was no doubt in my mind that I would always be an author. I would have a house filled with books and I would write all day.

And then somewhere along the way, doubts began to creep in. So I went to school for writing...who cares? Lots of people want to be authors...what made me think I could do it? What if I didn't have the chops? The drive? The stamina? Who could write a novel anyway? Even if I could do it, who would want to read it?

But today, as I sit in my house full of books, gearing up to work on a new revision of my novel, I have this picture hanging above my desk. My younger self, grinning at me, whispering "I know you can do it!"

Me, circa 1982ish:

Monday, June 28, 2010

Pablo Neruda: Book of Questions

Book of QuestionsI'm working on curriculum this week for my summer songwriting, fiction, and poetry workshops, so I've been thinking a lot about words and how we use them. The sounds of words, the definitions of words, the emotion of words. It's amazing that we can jumble letters together and convey so much.

I wrote a couple weeks back about The Dreamer, a middle-grade novel based on the life of Pablo Neruda, so here is an excerpt from Neruda's Book of Questions that plays with the concept of words and how we use them.

Do the o's of the locomotive
cast smoke, fire and steam?

In which language does rain fall
over tormented cities?

At dawn, which smooth syllables
does the ocean air repeat?

Is there a star more wide open
the the word poppy?

Are there two fangs sharper
than the syllables of jackal?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Summer Reruns: Goin Home Antonin Dvorak & William Arms Fisher

Another blog rerun...this one is the most popular post I've ever written with over 6000 viewers since it went up. It was originally posted as part of my American Songs Vol. 2 "Stories Behind the Songs" series...

Goin' Home: Antonin Dvorak & William Arms Fisher, originally posted October 7, 2007

So if you can believe it, here we are at the final story behind American Songs volume 2: Goin Home.
If you've missed the stories behind American Songs volume 2 in previous posts and would like to catch up, please use these links:

Story behind the song:
The melody for "Goin' Home" was written by the classical Czech composer Antonin Dvorak in 1893 as part of his Symphony no. 9: From the New World (a symphony loosely based on Longfellow's poem "Song of Hiawatha"). In the early 1890's, Dvorak was invited to teach for a four-year residency at the American Conservatory of Music in New York.

Dvorak was very interested in "peasant music" when he lived in Prague, and when he came to America, that interest transferred over to what he referred to as "negro melodies." His copy assistant Harry Burleigh (an African-American) played a large role in introducing him to these folk songs. Dvorak began to promote the controversial idea that African-American music would be the future of America. He incorporated these musical themes into his own music, and admitted talented African-American musicians into his classes free of charge.

Now this idea of Black music as the "future of America" was controversial in a number of ways. Some, as you would expect, felt he was tainting the fine art of classical music by incorporating such a "lowly" art form. Others felt that Dvorak's analysis wasn't authentic, but based solely on some of the popular affectations of "negro melodies" written by white men (like Stephen Foster, for example)...I found this interesting piece in a May 30, 1893 article in the South Carolina paper, "The State":

Had Dvorak, who is learned in music, been long in this country, he would know, as nearly everyone else knows, that none of the so called "negro melodies" is of negro origin..."The Swanee River," "Nellie Gray," "Massa's in the cold, cold, ground," and the other accepted melodies pertaining to Afro-Americanism are the creations of white men. Dr. Dvorak ought to spend a winter in Blake Township, Colleton County, or on Hilton Head Island. There he would hear genuine negro melodies. He can't hear them in the concert halls of the North.

Nevertheless, Dvorak's interest in African-American melodies (which did include spirituals like "Swing Low Sweet Chariot") affected many in the music world. One of his students, William Arms Fisher, took his message to heart and began collecting, arranging, and publishing hundreds of African-American spirituals. He also wrote words to the Largo movement of Symphony no. 9, which became known as "Goin' Home."

I chose "Goin' Home" for the last song of American Songs volume 2 because, despite the fact that it is not technically American music, but European, it was monumental in the way the world began to hear traditional American folk music. And thematically, all the songs on this new album have to do with traveling, moving, trying desperately to get to a place of hope, freedom, or love. How else could it possibly end?

Here is a very interesting article about Dvorak and the American landscape of the 1890's from University of Texas. (If you click on the gorgeous Bierstadt Indian Canoe oil painting, you can watch an analysis of "New World Symphony.")

Here's more on William Arms Fisher and his relationship with Dvorak. (Scroll down until you hit "Fisher.")

Here is a beautiful version of the 2nd movement played by the Dublin Philharmonic Orchestra:

(Click on the song title to listen to a sample):

Goin' Home, music by Antonin Dvorak, words by William Arms Fisher

Goin' home, goin' home,
I'm a-goin' home,
Quiet like some still day,
I'm jes' goin' home.

It's not far, jes' close by,
Through an open door,
Work all done, care laid by,
Gwine to fear no more.

Mother's there 'spectin' me,
Father's waitin' too,
Lot's o' folk gathered there,
All the friends I knew.

Home, home, I'm goin' home.
Nothin' lost, all's gain.
No more stumblin' on the way,
No more longin' for the day,
Gwine to roam no more.

Mornin' star lights the way,
Res'less dreams all done, all done,
Shadow's gone, break o' day,
Real life's jes' begun.

Dere's no break, ain't no end,
Jes' a-livin' on,
Wide awake with a smile,
Goin' on and on.

Goin' home, goin' home,
I'm jes goin' home,
It's not far, Jes' close by,
Through an open door,
I'm jes' goin home.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Summer Reruns: Marianne Moore What Are Years?

Over the summer, I'll be posting some blog reruns to save a few extra minutes of summertime. Since Kevin and I will be celebrating our TEN YEAR anniversary in a month or so, I thought this one was appropriate...

Marianne Moore: What Are Years? originally posted November 17, 2008

Ten years ago when my husband and I first met, before we were even dating, he made me a birthday card with a Marianne Moore poem handwritten on the back. With my birthday coming around this week, I've been thinking about this poem again.

Moore asserts that courage lies in accepting our mortality, and within those confines, managing to find (if not satisfaction) joy. At the time, I thought Kevin's card was sweet and thoughtful (he knew how much I admired Moore's poetry). But now, ten years later--I woke up this morning, we went through the confines of our daily routine (teeth, face, hair, coffee, work), and laughed about some little thing or another. On our drive to work, I watched the sun glancing off the last surviving leaves dangling from the trees and thought: How pure a thing is joy.

What Are Years?
by Marianne Moore

What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt, --
dumbly calling, deafly listening--that
in misfortune, even death,
encourages others
and in its defeat, stirs

the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.

So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Grab Bag Friday: Magnolias with Sunbow

This weekend, I'm attending my grandfather's memorial service, so I leave you with this gorgeous picture of magnolias from my cousin's photo feed. I love the sunbow arching over the flowers. We miss you, Papa.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Summer Reruns: I See The Moon

This summer, I plan to spend a bit more time offline, so I'll be posting a few summer blog reruns. This post about one of my favorite lullabies continues to get the most hits out of any music-related post I've written over the years (with the exception of one other popular song, which I'll put up sometime later this summer)...

Lullaby: I See The Moon, originally posted March 7, 2007

Photo by Jamelah.
On Monday night, driving home from the studio, the skies were completely clear, and there was the most beautiful, just-past-full moon. It got me humming one of my favorite lullabies, "I See the Moon."

This old song has gone through many variations, and transformations (including the well-known rhyme I see the moon and the moon sees me/God bless the moon and God bless me) but according to Mudcat, one of my favorite sources of information about traditional music, the closest to "original" goes like this:
I see the moon and the moon sees me
Down through the leaves of the old oak tree
Please let the light that shines on me
Shine on the one I love
I love this song, not only because of the melody (which is on one hand very pretty and sing-songy, and on the other hand, very melancholy), but also because of these lyrics. They're so simple and true. When we're far away from someone we love, we try to look for the little things that connect us. It's somehow comforting to remember that the same moon that's shining on me as I go to sleep will be shining on you when you go to sleep, even if you are hundreds of miles away.

Kids, especially, get this. I've used this song in some of my workshops for kids, and they immediately have a list of distant friends and relatives they want to sing this song to. It's relevant to their lives.

And that, of course, is the coolest thing about a song like this. It was written in a completely different century, and it is still immediate and relevant to our lives.

You can listen to or download a free mp3 of my version of "I See the Moon", and read the full lyrics in the Listening Room at

You can also click here to listen to the Stargazers hit musi-comedy version from the 1950's. This is the first version I ever heard of "I See the Moon," and it is certainly an experience. I came across this impassioned post from the blog Popular on where Tom Ewing reviews every #1 single ever to hit the UK pop charts (he's currently up to 1972). His word for the Stargazers version: excruciating. Well, let's see what you think...

Monday, June 14, 2010

Pam Munoz Ryan & Peter Sis: Dreamer

The DreamerI'm getting ready to teach my summer poetry workshop and to get in the zone, I picked up Pam Munoz Ryan's, The Dreamer, a middle grade novel based on the childhood of poet Pablo Neruda.

I don't know what I was expecting, but this book is so delicately and beautifully woven together, it took my breath away in parts. It chronicles Neftali's (Pablo Neruda's given name) coming of age. Specifically, his conflict with his father, who wants him to stop dreaming and make something of himself. But it's Neftali's dreaming that allows him to find beauty and wonder in everything he sees. In the raindrops, in the call of a bird, in the shape of a pine cone, or the beauty of a word.

Munoz Ryan adds a bit of magical realism to the story as Neftali's mind shifts between dream and reality. Zeroes from his homework laze about and drift off the page. The favorite words that he keeps hidden away in his drawer sometimes work their way out and arrange themselves in interesting combinations before his eyes. The reader cannot help but be caught up in the same wide-eyed wonder as Neftali himself.

The climax of the story is gripping, as Neftali is confronted with the cruelty of the world and the decision to strike out on his own path. The afterword about the author's research and the inclusion of the Neruda poems at the end are just what the book needs to bring things to a satisfying close. It's such a gift to read about specifics in Neftali's childhood and then see his daydreams come to fruition in Pablo Neruda's beautiful poems.

Of course, I can't write about this book without mentioning that the illustrations are by one of my picture book heroes: Peter Sis. Who better to portray the surreal images and daydreams of a young poet's mind?

Certainly a must-read for kids interested in writing. And I would even say a must-read for anyone who has ever been a dreamer, or worried about pleasing others, or wondered how to discover who they will become.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Grab Bag Friday: New Yorkers and Ghostbusters

I haven't posted a video from Improv Everwhere in a while and they have been busy creating hilarity as usual.

Their most recent prank, The Tourist Lane, is a riot. If you go to the webpage, be sure to scroll down and watch the actual news footage on the project.

And last month, I loved their reenactment of the New York Public Library Ghostbusters scene. The project was intended to raise awareness for the giant budget cuts (25%) facing the library. Once again, creative genius.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole: Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Last night, on the season finale of Glee (yes, I'm a fan, what can I say?) coach Will Schuster sang Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. It's a version that has exploded over the last decade and I suppose it's inclusion on Glee means that it has truly become ubiquitous.

Every time I hear the IZ version, I'm stunned that even a song so familiar can become fresh and new when you come at it with genuine creativity and honest emotion.

This video shows IZ playing the song and includes footage of the thousands of fans who came out to his memorial service in 1997.

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole: Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Monday, June 7, 2010

Summer Reruns: Ruby Bridges, Through My Eyes

It's summertime! Hurrah! To eke out just a little more time for gardening, writing, and other sunny day activities, I plan to post a blog "rerun" or two each week. Here's one from the wayback machine...February 2007...according to my blog statistics, this has been the #1 all-time most popular Please Come Flying post in the Books category to date:

Ruby Bridges: Through My Eyes
February 12, 2007

Most of us know the story of Ruby Bridges. The little girl in the Norman Rockwell painting who was the first black student in the all white elementary school in New Orleans. What you may not know is that in 1999, the grown-up Ruby Bridges wrote a stunning children's book about her experiences during the now-famous integration of that school.

I picked up Through My Eyes a few years ago and was completely swept up in the story told by the child who walked through so much hatred every day at 6 years old. Ruby Bridges takes you right back in history and in simple, eloquent text, lets you know what it felt like to be her. Not as an adult looking back, but as a child, right there in the middle of things, bewildered, hopeful, and sometimes scared. It's an absolutely fascinating book that will give any child or adult a fresh and very real perspective on an old story we've probably become too familiar and comfortable with.

To read more on Ruby Bridges and her efforts to promote diversity in her adult life, please visit the Ruby Bridges Foundation website. Ms. Bridges now works with elementary schools to fight intolorance and injustice in the schools. There are some great quotes from kids on the site, like this one from a 4th grade student in Los Angeles:
I used to be rude to people before being in the program. Now, I can start being nice to new people I meet. I also had some racist feelings toward a Latina who had hurt my feelings. When I was angry, the first thought I had was that I didn’t like her because she was Latina, not that she was just mean. Now, I think about not being racist, even when I’m angry.
Now that's real work!

On the Official Ruby Bridges Website you can:
  • View pictures from newspapers during the de-segregation in New Orleans
  • Read articles about Ruby Bridges
  • Get your school involved with Ruby Bridges' new book project!
  • Request school visits or speaking engagements
  • Download a Lori McKenna song about Ruby Bridges
View Norman Rockwell's painting The Problem We All Live With at Wikipedia

Friday, June 4, 2010

Grab Bag Friday: Monkey Bread

Okay, so this image has nothing to do with monkey bread. It's a glimpse of the cute fabrics you could win if you head over to my friend Amy Schimler's blog before Monday. Hurry, go! And when you finish entering the contest, then you should make some monkey bread!

A student recently gave me this recipe and my sister and I tried it out last weekend. We can report that it is super fun to make (anything that gets rolled into balls then coated in butter and sugar is right up my alley) and it tastes delicious. Imagine a sticky bun, only slightly less sweet.

We decided it's a great rainy day activity (especially good for kids to help with) and a perfect treat to bring to a potluck!

Tajuana's Monkey Bread

1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
3 cups flour
1 pkg yeast
1/3 cup raisins
1 egg
1 cup warm water
2 tsp butter
¼ cup butter
1 banana – diced
Finely chopped walnuts
Bundt pan
  1. Add sugar, brown sugar, and cinnamon in bowl. Mix together. Set aside until step 14.
  2. Place flour and yeast in bowl.
  3. Add raisins, walnuts, and banana. Stir in.
  4. Add egg to flour mix.
  5. Add water and 2 tsp butter. Stir until dough pulls from side of bowl.
  6. Put dough on floured surface.
  7. Shape into giant ball.
  8. Knead for 5 minutes or until smooth (if you add banana, it will still be sticky even after kneading.)
  9. Cover dough with bowl for 5 minutes.
  10. Grease pan while dough is rising (butter works best).
  11. Melt ¼ cup butter. Save until step 14.
  12. With knife, cut dough into 4 pieces. Cut each piece into 8 pieces. If you feel these are too large, you may want to cut them smaller.
  13. Form each piece into a ball.
  14. Dip in butter. Roll in sugar mix. Put in pan. Sprinkle any remaining sugar mixture on top.
  15. Cover dough with plastic wrap and cloth towel.
  16. Place pan in warm place and let dough rise for 30 minutes.
  17. Heat oven to 375.
  18. After 30 minutes, remove dough coverings.
  19. Bake bread for 25 minutes or until brown.
  20. Take out of oven. Immediately turn upside down onto serving plate. Serve warm or cool.
*If you put the plate on top of the pan and then flip them both over, there is less of a chance that it will fall apart.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Recess Monkey: Jet Pack

I've been working a bit this week on a story about a janitor, so maybe that's why I got such a kick out of the new video from Recess Monkey (thanks to my favorite kids music connoisseur Zooglobble for the link). If you're in the market for some fresh, funk-influenced, space-themed kids music, the new RM album, The Final Funktier (due out June 15th) seems like it's going to be pretty fab, by the way.

Recess Monkey: Jet Pack