Friday, March 30, 2012

Grab Bag Friday: Great Blue Heron Webcam

Great Blue Heron Webcam
The novel I'm writing has a blue heron in it, so I couldn't believe my luck when the Cornell Lab of Ornithology announced (yes, I get their email newsletter because I am a total nerd) that their new webcam  focuses on the nest of a Great Blue Heron!

It is amazing to see the nest up close, and two camera angles allow you to focus both on the bird and the tiny blue egg that was laid on Wednesday. At least one more egg will likely be laid in the next day or so, and then in 25-30 days, they'll start to hatch. I predict that my productivity level is going to take a serious dive toward the end of April. I can only imagine I'll be glued to the screen 7-8 weeks later as the young ones learn how to fly.

One amazing thing that you can't really get a sense of from the webcam is the size of the nest. According to the website:
"In 2009, the herons brought in the first few twigs that would become the first known Great Blue Heron nest in the history of Sapsucker Woods. Early in the spring of 2012 we installed two cameras to bring the hidden world of their nesting habits into full view. The nest itself is nearly four feet across and a foot deep, and wraps almost entirely around the trunk of the tree. The birds have slowly built up the nest over the last three years."
 Happy bird watching!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Playing Hooky with the Great Books Club or, The Importance of Being Taken Seriously

Last week, my mother sent me an article from my hometown paper. It described a scholarship fund for my high school, set up in the memory of Carol Yahr who died in a car accident in 2009. I read the article three times through, and I haven't been able to put it out of my mind.

Back in the early 90's when I was in high school way up in the breathtaking boondocks of Northern Wisconsin, our English program was less than serious. In "College Bound English" (the highest level senior English course you could take, designed for those few seniors who might consider going to college), we read books like Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity, Louis Lamour's western novel Last of the Breed, and (because Shakespeare was state mandated) Hamlet. The latter was delivered in both a "modern English" version ("Hey, Hamlet!") and a cartoon version where mice dressed as Hamlet and Ophelia explained the plot of the play. I searched for an image, and the best I could find was this odd taxidermy vignette, which gets the point across just fine.

The expectation was that high school kids wouldn't and in fact couldn't understand anything more complicated than plot-driven suspense novels and watered-down sum-ups. Nor would we want to.

Most of my classmates loved our English teacher, but I was an odd kid. I read Chaucer and Beowulf over the summer. I refused to read the cartoon Hamlet and brought my own version of the original Shakespearean to class. On one visit to the local library, I saw a flyer for a weekly Great Books Discussion held in the mornings, and I petitioned the school to let me and a couple friends attend.

Each week, my friends and I left school to sit around a table in the basement of the Demmer Library with eight or nine retirees holding cheesy-looking volumes filled with selections from the greats. Chekov, Aristotle, Kant. Writers I'd never be expected to read in school. We discussed each selection for an hour, and probably nobody said anything spectacular. But here's the thing: every week, the adults in that room took us seriously. They had fifty and sixty years on us, yet they listened as if a sixteen year old kid actually had something valuable to bring to the conversation. In school, I wasn't expected to do anything but show up. These people not only expected me to think about literature, they expected my thoughts to matter.

Eventually, I lost permission to attend Great Books. I can't remember the reason. Probably I was missing an important gym unit on bowling. All I remember is that I didn't care whether I had permission or not. I kept going. The Great Books club had given me permission to take myself seriously. Some kids play hooky to go to the movies or skip class or smoke. I snuck out of school to talk about books.

So. The scholarship. I met Carol Yahr in that room. When I graduated, she sent me yearly Christmas cards wishing me good luck in my studies, congratulating me on my accomplishments, encouraging me to be the person I wanted to become. When I came home the summer before graduate school to work as the curator of the local historical museum, she and her husband Warren would come to visit and chat. Warren had written a book, Smokechaser, and it was the first time I'd read a book written by someone I know. It was exhilarating to see firsthand that real people write books. Even people who come from the middle-of-nowhere Wisconsin. People like me. When I got married, Warren gave us six leaves he'd carved out of wood, each labeled with the type of leaf and the type of wood it was made out of. They are among of my favorite possessions and I keep them on the windowsill of my writing room for inspiration.

I know Carol would be so proud of the scholarship that Warren established in her honor. She cared deeply about students, about literature, about learning. Believe me, when you are a rural kid from way Up North, it can be easy to feel like your options and opportunities are limited. Like your voice is too small to matter. Like you couldn't even be expected to try. But even the smallest encouragement, the smallest light in a dim, musty library basement can change all that.

I guess all I want to say is this:

To Carol, and Warren, and all the adults out there who take kids seriously, thank you.

postscript: I'm glad to say that eventually, the school approved the Great Books program and allowed a few students to participate each year. I believe the library is still sponsoring the program, and I hope there are students out there who are participating and enjoying it as much as I did.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Grab Bag Friday: The Banking Game

My friend Kirk has been busy creating a fun new advertising campaign for Maine Savings Bank that is a bit of an homage to The Dating Game. I love the vintage set and costumes. This particular "behind the scenes" spot is my favorite. Nice work, Kirk!

Interesting side note: Kevin's dad was once on The Dating Game back in the late 60s, but no one in the family has ever seen the episode. I need to figure out a way to get my hands on that tape!

The Banking Game: Mr. Maine Savings

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Songs of the Civil War Era Grant!

Thanks to a generous grant from the Senter Fund, I'll be returning to the Brunswick School District this spring! I'm looking forward to teaching my Songs of the Civil War Era workshop to a whole new batch of 5th graders. I'll give four school performances, teach a workshop on songwriting, and participate in a Civil War Reenactment run by the fifth grade class.

Last year, the Brunswick students wrote "class verses" to two popular Civil War songs. We recorded the verses and created an 1800's style broadside (click on the image below to see a larger image, or check it out at the Songwriting for Kids website). I'm so excited to be back in the classroom again this year!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Edna St. Vincent Millay: Wild Swans

A couple years ago, I signed up for the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day email list. Thinking, of course, that it would introduce me to interesting new poets, remind me of old favorites, and most importantly, help me infuse each day with poetry. Instead, the emails piled up, cluttered my inbox, and made me feel like I was falling behind on one more thing. This is not how poetry should make you feel.

Kevin, as usual, was the hero in this situation. "Why don't you set up an email filter?" he asked. (And a light shone down from heaven, and the angel choir began to sing.) My filter now automatically redirects every Poem-a-Day email (as well as a few other newsletters) to a folder titled Poetry. The result? I have a (relatively) uncluttered inbox, and when I have some down time, I can open up my Poetry folder and leisurely catch up on all the poems I've missed. True, it's not the daily infusion of poetry that I imagined, but it's one of those tiny adjustments that makes life feel a bit more sane.

Which brings me to the wild swans. I've been struggling like crazy with the new novel I've been writing, and turned to my Poem-a-Day folder for solace. What I love about poetry is that it can hit you differently every time you read it. I've read "Wild Swans" by Edna St. Vincent Millay before, but this time it seemed to speak directly to the creative process. So often, I feel like what I've put on the page is "nothing to match the flight of wild birds flying." That is to say, the words seem dead and dull on the page. And so I go for a walk in the woods. When I've stepped away, let go of the tiresome heart (or mind), and simply experienced something tangible, wild, and real, then I feel I might be able to write again.

Wild Swans
Edna St. Vincent Millay

I looked in my heart while the wild swans went over.
And what did I see I had not seen before?
Only a question less or a question more;
Nothing to match the flight of wild birds flying.
Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,
House without air, I leave you and lock your door.
Wild swans, come over the town, come over
The town again, trailing your legs and crying!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Julie Lee and the Baby Daddies

My friend Paul tipped me off to the fact that Julie Lee has a new album out this month. Hooray!

Kevin and I first saw Julie Lee a few years back at a club in Nashville. She knocked us off our feet with her old-timey, genuine style and sweet, clear voice. What I really remember about the evening, though, are the "kitchen instruments."

During one song, she handed vintage kitchen gadgets to the audience so that we could be her rhythm section. There were flour sifters and wooden spoons. I had one of those old strainers you make applesauce out of, and Kevin had a glass mason jar to tap on. The effect was this rough, metallic, clanky, and energetic rhythm section that was undeniably cool.

Until Kevin broke his instrument. Yep, smashed the mason jar to pieces. The boy doesn't know his own strength! (Don't worry, no one was hurt, Ms. Lee was very gracious, and after a bit of clean up, the rollicking concert continued on without a hitch.)

To celebrate the new album, here are two videos, one old and one new:

Julie Lee: Born to Pine and Sigh (2008)

Julie Lee and the Baby Daddies Promo Video (2012)

Monday, March 12, 2012

Battle of the Kids' Books Begins Tomorrow

Are you ready? Check out the great Round One line up of contenders for the 2012 Battle of the Kid's Books. Plus, celebrity judges like Jeff Kinney (of Wimpy Kid fame, in case you live under a rock and had to be told), and Matt Phelan (one of my favorite contemporary illustrators), and SO MANY more!

Didn't I tell you this was going to be exciting?

Round One:
Match 1 (March 13, Judge Matt Phelan) Amelia Lost vs Anya's Ghost

Match 2 (March 14, Judge Gayle Forman) Between Shades of Gray vs Bootleg

Match 3 (March 15, Judge Sy Montgomery) The Cheshire Cheese Cat vs Chime

Match 4 (March 16, Judge Sara Zarr) Daughter of Smoke and Bone vs Dead End in Norvelt

Match 5 (March 19, Judge Barbara O'Connor) Drawing from Memory vs The Grand Plan to Fix Everything

Match 6 (March 20, Judge Sarah Weeks) Heart and Soul vs Inside Out and Back Again

Match 7 (March 21, Judge Lauren Myracle) Life: An Exploded Diagram vs A Monster Calls

Match 8 (March 22, Judge Jeff Kinney) Okay for Now vs Wonderstruck

Friday, March 9, 2012

Grab Bag Friday: Downton Abbey

Since I'm suffering the symptoms of serious Downton Abbey withdrawal, here is a hilarious spoof of the first episode of season one. (If you still don't know what we're all talking about, I would recommend updating your Netflix cue, stat!)

Uptown Downstairs Abbey Part One: Red Nose Day 2011

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Andrew Bird: Danse Carribe

If you have six minutes to spare for something beautiful today, here is what you need to see. And yes, perhaps I'm doubly biased because of my deep admiration for Andrew Bird and my nostalgia for the Northern Midwest landscape, but still. This is stunning.

Andrew Bird: Danse Carribe
From the new album, Break It Yourself (released today!), via Pitchfork TV.

Monday, March 5, 2012

March Madness: Battle of the Kid's Books

When people throw around the term "brackets" in March, I am aware that some of them may in fact be referring to basketball. But for bookish sorts like me, there's a much more exciting version of March Madness just around the corner.

Next week, School Library Journal's 2012 Battle of the Kid's Books begins! Which means you have only seven days left to make an impact on the final round.

The Undead Voting Vault will be open until March 11th, and your vote could help your favorite book make it to the final round. (Even if it lost in a previous round! The excitement! The intrigue!) Here's how:
"The Contender that receives the highest vote count among the 14 previously eliminated titles will be unearthed and dusted for presentation in front of The Big Kahuna.  Our final judge, Jonathan Stroud, will read it along with the final pair of books. You have one vote.  Consider it carefully.  Give your favorite underdog a fighting chance to win the 2012 BoB Title!"
In case you want to be influenced, my vote went to Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt. To me, it's a story about how art can change your world. I love that.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Grab Bag Friday: Great Maine Outdoor Weekend

Did you know that it's Great Maine Outdoor Weekend? When I heard about this last week, I admit I looked out at the bare lawn, shrugged my shoulders and went on with my day. Honestly, this has been the lamest Maine winter yet. If it's going to be cold, bring on the fluffy white stuff so I can get out and enjoy it! (My Los Angeles-bred husband may have a different opinion.)

But today? Well, that's a different story. We actually have SNOW! At least for the next 24 hours anyway. So quick, before it rains and all the snow turns to ice, head over to the Great Maine Outdoor Weekend website and find something fun to do outside. There are more than 70 events going on state-wide, and you can search by location, date, or activity.

If you're not lucky enough to be in Maine this weekend, jump on the bandwagon anyway. Get outside! Take an expedition, visit a national park, go bird watching, hiking, or kayaking. Enjoy the beautiful day!