Thursday, August 27, 2015

Moving Day

When you move to a new place, everything feels strange.

It takes a while to get your bearings. To find your way. Each time you walk out the front door, you have to think: How do I get where I want to go? 

A map helps. Where is the post office? The hair salon? The nearest grocery store? But a map can only take you so far. You may have to... gulp... introduce yourself to the next door neighbors. Ask strangers how the carpool line works at your kid's school. Who sells the best pizza. What night do we roll out the garbage bins. 

You knew all that in your old town. Ten years there and you had it all figured out. The short cuts to take during rush hour. The gas station where gas was 3 cents cheaper. The best park to hang out on Sunday afternoon with the kids. You were on auto-pilot in that place and it was nice.

Ah well. You know you'll figure it out in this new town too. As someone who's moved before, you know that leaving one world behind to settle in another, can be scary. But you can do it.

Anyway, it's not like you have a choice. Moves happen. You purposely seek a new place out. Or it seeks you out. Whether you see it coming or not, one day you may find yourself standing in your living room surrounded by moving boxes.

Just yesterday the carpet was covered with toys.

You were forever stepping on legos. Scooping up wooden blocks. Peering under the couch for microscopic polly pocket fashion accessories.

Your life was a baby crying in the middle of the night. Formula bottles and jars of mushy carrots. Diaper changes and pullups and potty accidents. Cartoons and sippy cups of chocolate milk. Endless chatter and tantrums and WHY WHY WHY.

Confession: sometimes you locked yourself in the bathroom to escape the whining and the noodle-y-os and the spit-up and the chewed up binkies. You dreamed of the day when you could stroll out of the house without a two ton diaper bag and a baby carrier.

But then you'd rally. Open the bathroom door and the day would go on. Scooby Doo and bath-times and story-times turned into homework and field trip forms and piano lessons. Carpools to soccer practices morphed into carpools to middle school dances.

Sleepovers. Birthday parties. Blaring music and screeching kids in the backseat of the mini van. Summer camp. College trips--

Until suddenly everything stopped.

The house wasn't for sale. But you realized you've moved. Everything is different in this place. You can't get your bearings. There is no map.

You wander around the quiet and stunningly clean rooms, not sure where you want to go, hoping you will find your way.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Interview with Marcia Thornton Jones on the story behind her amazing new novel WOODFORD BRAVE

I'm so excited to have long-time best-selling author Marcia Thornton Jones visiting today On the Verge. I've known Marcia for years-- since my Lexington, KY teaching gifted/talented students days, (Marcia used to be my boss in the G/T department!), and I am always happy to share her publishing news.

Side note for those who don't know Marcia: She's written over 130 books and developed several beloved series for younger and middle grade readers, including The Adventures of the Bailey School Kids with co-author Debbie Dadey, Ghostville Elementary and Barkley's School for Dogs. She's also written popular standalones Ratfink and Champ.

But this year she's turned to something different, historical fiction. Woodford Brave is set during WWII and features a boy named Cory Woodford who is determined to live up to his family legacy of bravery. But right and wrong and the meaning of bravery become much more complicated when Cory discovers a secret about his neighbor…and about his family.


Jody: I have to tell you: I started reading Woodford Brave last night and was completely drawn in. It's funny. A little spooky. And has a voice that I know will appeal to middle grade readers. Historical fiction, though, is not your usual genre...

Marcia: That's true. This book is a departure from the contemporary, light-hearted, chapter books for which I’m mostly known. Don’t get me wrong, Woodford Brave is packed with kid-adventure elements including super heroes, go-kart races, a spy hunt, and ghosts. But it also includes themes of bravery, prejudice, and friendship. Not only that, it's a novel full of personal meaning.

Jody: You didn't grow up during WWII--

Marcia: No. But I did grow up during Viet Nam. That war was not popular by the time my brother Randy turned 18 and was eligible for the draft. I remember my family anxiously waiting to learn Randy’s draft number. My brother didn’t get drafted. A neighbor, however, was not so lucky.

Jody: Jeez. What happened to him?

Marcia: One night he headed for the Canadian border. While some people called draft dodgers cowards, I couldn’t help but think of the courage it took to leave family, friends, and the only home he’d known. That’s when the seed for Woodford Brave’s theme was planted: courage and fear are two sides of the same coin.

Jody: And we see that now too, in wars fought today.

Marcia: Right. When conflicts erupted in the Middle East it occurred to me that while the languages of our country’s enemies may change, the central themes of conflict, bravery, and prejudice during times of war do not. I tested my ah-ha moment by reading about World War II. That’s when I found Cory’s story.

Cory and his world are made up, but as so often happens, a writer’s real life creeps into the writing. For example, the idea for the dogs that terrorize Cory and his friends came from two Irish Wolfhounds that terrorized my own walks to and from elementary school each and every day.

Jody: I'm curious about the research you had to do. What kind of resources did you look at to recreate Cory's 1940's world?

Marcia: Most information about life in that time was found through book and online research. My best source, however, was my mother who sat in her den and reminisced about being a young telephone operator when the war broke out. She told me how the switchboard lit up the day war was declared. How the telephone operators knew that something big had happened. They just had no idea how big. She told me about the boys who rushed to enlist and how everyday items like silk stockings became scarce due to rationing. My mother also told about meeting a sailor named Robert Thornton who was home on leave because his ship had been torpedoed.

Jody: Your father! Now there's a story, I bet.

Marcia: (laughing) Yes, but Woodford Brave is a work of fiction, although, woven throughout are threads of mom’s history, my personal experiences, and lessons I’ve learned about bravery, friendship, and prejudice.

Jody: Not to dismiss your other books, but writing this one seems to have a touched you in a way that maybe your previous books haven't?

Marcia: It does contain one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever written; a scene that involves a death. When I found myself crying over the scene I’d written, I knew I finally had it right!

Jody: Can you share a bit about your writing and revising process? I'm trying to imagine weaving all of your research and your mom's anecdotes into this story.

Marcia: I used multiple charts to keep track of characters, themes, and to keep the plot moving. I wrote many, many, many drafts. As I wrote and rewrote, I became very aware that the themes of friendship, bravery, and prejudice are as relevant today as they were in the 1960's and the 1940's. But most of all, Woodford Brave challenged me to honor my mother’s history…and my own.

Jody: Well, I can see that I'm going to have to break out the tissues as I dive back into it tonight.

Thank you, Marcia, so much, for telling me the story behind story of Woodford Brave.

Note to readers: Woodford Brave is available in bookstores everywhere August 25, 2015.

For more information about Marcia Thornton Jones, See here 

You can pre-order a copy of Woodford Brave on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or from your local indie.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Back to School with a Monogrammed Towel Set

Kids are heading back to school.

The signs are everywhere. Three for a dollar notebooks. Sales on scissors and index cards and crayons. Somehow this still adds up to 80 or a hundred bucks. It's the calculators that used to push me over the edge. And the teacher requests for expensive lotion-infused tissues. I don't buy that kind of tissues for my own home.

[side note: someone told me that teachers request lotion-y tissues because said tissue is better at cleaning whiteboards than the cheapo tissue. I don't know if this is true but it made me feel less resentful about springing for the multiple boxes on the school supply list--but not less resentful that parents have to purchase this stuff in the first place. In my day, schools didn't expect parents to buy packages of loose leaf paper and scissors and glue. In my day bluh bluh bluh. Yeah. I know. I sound like a crochety old fogie.]

Anyway, what was I talking about?

Oh. Right. Back to school.

So, for the first time in sixteen years I don't have a kid going back to school.

I have a son who's been away at college and a daughter about to go. She and I are not shopping for erasers and binders and pricey Kleenex. We are shopping for shower caddys and sheets and microwaves.

Fun fact: thirty years ago I was heading off to college.

I packed up a couple of suitcases and a trunk of winter clothes that I didn't end up digging into that much. Turned out that the Connecticut girl in Tennessee discovered little use for her winter coat and hat and mittens.

Before I moved into my dorm room, my mother and I went shopping. She bought me a small rug. A bedside lamp. A framed picture that I thought was artsy and sophisticated. A phone. (Which I used as much as my winter coat. It cost money to dial anywhere outside the college.)

My 18-year-old self was terrified and excited. Anxious and eager. Shy and confident.

The first week or two I was homesick. Not for home exactly. But for something--anything--familiar. I was a Northerner (people actually referred to me as a Yankee) at a Southern school. A poor girl surrounded by mostly wealthy kids. I was a fish out of water.

But I quickly morphed into a new fish, a new self. Maybe the self I was always meant to be. Going away turned out to be the best thing I ever did and set me off on a path I'd never have discovered if I hadn't had the courage--and privilege--to go.

I met my husband at that school. Twelve years later we had a baby girl.

Next week we'll pack up the car and take this darling girl to that same college. --I promise my husband and I did not pressure her!! -- She has tons more clothes than I ever did. She's smarter. Prettier. She's got a lovely set of monogrammed towels.

She is terrified and anxious and shy.

She is excited and eager and confident.

Me, on the other hand...


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Books on Vacation

All of my vacations are twined up with books. Plane rides with paperbacks splayed open on the seatback tray. Car trips with audio books.

Years later I can call up memories of the trips-- the sightseeing, the restaurants, the company-- scenes of the novels twirling around the edges. Rebecca at a motel pool. A Sarah Dessen novel on the flight home from Barcelona. A novel about the end of the world on a college search trip.

My honeymoon I picked up a copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany in the airport bookstore. I read the book on the plane and at stray moments at the beach. I remember the crazy heat of the Mayan ruins, the lobster cruise with hokey pirates, the surreal thought over and over that I was married, that this guy strolling along beside me through the outdoor markets haggling over a Mexican blanket was now my husband... and Owen Meany with his strange high voice. A freak accident at a baseball game.

I read Grapes of Wrath on a beach in Destin. My toddler son played in the sand at my feet and I sipped coke under an umbrella, worried about my son getting a sunburn, worried about the Joads starving to death during the Dust Bowl.

A Cape Cod trip when the kids were in elementary school. A weathered house on a rocky windy beach. Fried clams and bike rides and my daughter getting her ears pierced in Provincetown. The whole time I was sneak-reading The Witching Hour. The breathless prose. The evil lurking around plantations. I was having a hard time putting the damn book down. I started entertaining the kids with the g-rated sections of the story and they begged me to read more, shushing each other to be quiet so I could find out what happened next.

A 20-hour car trip with my husband going back to my hometown for a visit, listening to Flowers in the Attic, claustrophobic in the car, trapped in an attic with incestuous siblings, stopping for pizza in the boonies of Pennsylvania, feeling anxious about poisoned powdered donuts.

Flight Behavior on my California book tour.

Beach Music on a boat ride, water splashing the pages.

A car trip with my mother, cracking up over Will Grayson Will Grayson.  

Fangirl on a trip to Florida, my husband blinking tears, our daughter in the backseat, not listening, and then listening, asking us to play the first chapters again so she could hear what she missed.

Station Eleven two days ago on a flight to San Francisco and back. What might have been our last vacation as a family. Grown son working at Facebook. Daughter three weeks away from going off to college. A twenty-fifth anniversary trip for my husband and me.

We walk up and down the steepest hills I've ever seen. Spy sea lions and Mark Zuckerberg. Eat enormous burritos. A street poet types out a poem for our daughter. We snap pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge and search for elusive public restrooms.

Stuck on East Coast time, I wake earlier than everyone else. Drink my crappy hotel coffee in the dim light. Read my book. Fold over pages and read passages like this one:

"She was thinking about the way she'd always taken for granted that the world had certain people in it, either central to her days or unseen and infrequently thought of. How without these people the world is a subtly but unmistakably altered place."

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

On the Verge of the Verge

After a crazy whirlwind of high school graduation parties and book completions and house guests and weird monsoon rainstorms, this summer has suddenly turned quiet. 

My daughter's on the verge of heading off to college. And I'm on the verge of starting a new book after wringing myself out writing the last one. At the moment we're both in a holding pattern. Hovering between adventures. 

Quiet. But with different definitions of the word. 

For my daughter, it's a building, impatient kind of quiet. She's eager to get going on her adventure. Texting her new roommate a thousand times a day. Making up packing lists and perusing college course catalogs.

My version is the lazy, borderline boring kind of quiet. I'm doing stuff like vacuuming. Making squash balls. Posting goofy pictures of vegetables on Instagram. 

When I teach writing workshops, I like to talk about the Hero's Journey. If you're not familiar with it, the Hero's Journey is basically the narrative structure for nearly all stories. Our hero starts out in the ordinary world--either perfectly happy to park out there forever (see The Hobbit. Jaws, etc.) or itching to get the hell out of there (Wizard of Oz. Star Wars). 

Either way, something happens. 

The hero gets a Call to Adventure (Gandalf comes knocking on the door; a shark eats a swimmer, a tornado blows the farmhouse away, storm troopers murder the family) and off the Hero goes on the adventure. 

I'm greatly simplifying here --because sometimes the hero refuses the Call for a while or it may take a few attempts to get moving-- but most stories don't get cooking until the main character crosses the threshold and goes off-- finally!--on the adventure. 

Readers and moviegoers tend to get a bit antsy when the writer holds the hero in the Ordinary World for too long. We want to see the hero in some real action. Not smoking a pipe in the hobbit hole or ticketing cars on Amity Island or singing on a fence post in black and white Kansas or farming and fixing droids for Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. 

Maybe I am getting old. I know my next adventure's going to start soon enough. Meanwhile, I am content to kick back and wallow around for a few moments in my little wedge on the verge of it. 

Look! An eggplant!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Dispatches from the Dirt: Random thoughts from the garden (plus a bonus squash ball recipe)

It's that time of year when my neighbors pretend not to see me. Uh oh, here she comes, is what they are thinking. She's going to give us another bushel of green beans. Run away!! 

It's true. I have a lot of freaking green beans these days. Also, an overabundance of kale. Soon I will be up to my eyeballs in yellow squash, tomatoes, and green peppers. 

(Overabundance of kale)
Let's just say I have a tendency to over plant. It's a combination of not being able to imagine green stuff growing when I do my planting back in the cold crappy gray days of April and my inability to thin the little plants out when they do start to come in. 

It just feels wrong, you know? To kill them. 

Which is why I have more than forty green bean plants. 

Green beans are not easy to pick. They are hard to see. And hard to grasp. When the plants are all bunched up together, it's even harder. I MUST remember this next year and be brutal with the thinning. 

(Helpful green bean tip: Plant purple green beans.
They are much easier to see)

Other stuff I've learned from this year's garden. In no particular order:

It's good to have a plan. This spring I was bored with my usual throw a bunch of stuff in the ground and see what comes up. 

I saw a garden pattern in my Cooking Light magazine and decided to try it. 

Because I tend to go overboard in all things, I doubled the plan and planted four gardens instead of two. 
(Zooey can't imagine these patches of dirt
turning into anything green either)
But BOO YAH. They did:

The garden is lovely but it's had a few problems. Some obnoxious stealth critter ate all of my sunflowers and I had to replant them. The borage (not sure what this is exactly. A pretty flowery thing) grew much bigger than I realized it would and flopped all over the cucumbers. My eggplant got eaten alive by a weird yellow bug. 

A volunteer zucchini plant crowded out one corner of the garden and is now heading into the yard. 

(zucchini plant on steroids)

 A word here about "volunteers." Okay, I never knew what a volunteer was until my expert gardener mother-in-law told me. Volunteers are plants that sprout up from seeds you didn't plant. Maybe a squirrel dropped the seeds. Or they're left over from a plant from last year's garden. Every time I see a volunteer anything growing in my garden (or somewhere else in the yard), I am excited. Like a little surprise gift. Ooh, look, watermelon!! over here... by the gutter downspout. 

Real gardeners snap these suckers out as soon as they find them, but I can't bear to do that. (see above: Issues with Killing. I mean, thinning.) 

This damn zucchini volunteer though. So far, all it's caused me is trouble. Taking up space. And still no zucchinis.

But I digress. 

Let's chat about slugs for a moment, shall we? Because of the crazy amount of rain we've had this year in Ohio, my lovely garden is being besieged by slugs. My neighbor told me to spray pesticide, but I dunno, this seems to go against my whole point of having a garden in the first place. 

A more organic yet gruesome way to combat slugs is, apparently, beer. What you do is pour beer into shallow dishes and place at various points around the garden. The slugs are attracted to the sugar? The alcohol? The grain? Whatever. And they slither up to the dishes, fall into the beer, and... um, die. 

So, I tried this, and I am here to tell you that it works. I want to think that the slugs died happy. 

On that appetizing note, here's a recipe! 

Squash Balls (from

(Squash balls. Also, fried green tomatoes because
have I mentioned we have a crazy number of green tomatoes?)

5 medium-sized yellow squash **
¾ cup yellow cornmeal
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ a medium sweet onion, minced
½ a jalapeno
½ cup buttermilk
1 egg, lightly beaten
Vegetable oil
Chop squash. Steam for 12-15 minutes until tender. Mash. Add onion, jalapeno, buttermilk, and egg. Mix well. 
Combine cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper. 
Add squash mixture to cornmeal mixture and stir until blended.
Heat oil in a cast iron skillet.
Drop rounded tablespoonfuls into skillet and fry until golden brown on each side. (3 minutes per side) Drain on paper towels.

**(Be sure to pick all slugs from the squash before cooking.) 

Drink a glass of cold beer. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

How I Spent My 30th Birthday

The year I turned 29, I had something of an early mid-life crisis. From the outside I might've seemed put together. A stable contributing member of society. Wife. Mother. Homeowner. Teacher. 

But on the inside, I felt like a fraud. I liked teaching, but it was a pretend career, something I was doing "for now"-- until I figured out what I really wanted to do. I loved being a wife and mom, but those felt like playing dress up too. I had so few positive role models for wife-dom and mother-dom. Most days I was winging it, and then falling into bed and angstily analyzing all of my actions and choices. 

As my 29th birthday approached, I remember thinking: Yikes. I can't keep playing around. Time to get serious. Next year I WILL BE 30!!

But a funny thing happened the day I turned 30: I didn't think at all about turning 30.

I had too many other things on my mind. 

My husband's company had recently transferred him to another state. I'd stayed behind for a few weeks with our three year old son, to sell our house and wrap up my teaching job. I also got called up for jury duty.

Oh, did I mention I was eight months pregnant? 

We moved into our new house at the beginning of July and for the next few days I tore around like a manic unpacking (my husband teased me because I spent time arranging all of our books into the bookcase in alphabetical order. Just put them away, he said. To ME. A former bookstore employee. Ha ha)  

The only room I didn't touch was the nursery. I shoved the unpacked boxes into that room and told myself I'd get to it later. The baby wasn't due until the end of the month. 

The morning of the big Three-Oh, I slept. All of that racing around had finally caught up with me. I collapsed on the couch, waking only to pop another Scooby Doo video into the VCR for my three year old. 

Lunch was fun. I spent it in line at the DMV getting my driver's license renewed. Weight? the clerk asked, and I patted my engorged stomach miserably. It's okay, she said, just write down what you think you'll weigh after.

I still love that woman. 

And then it was back to the couch and Scooby Doo videos. 

My husband brought home dinner and I ate like I hadn't eaten in years. Half of a pepperoni pizza. A liter of coke. A quarter of a carrot cake. And I don't even like carrot cake. I was diabetic during my pregnancy. I wasn't supposed to be eating this way. But, whatever. 

I went into labor a few hours later. 

I called the only person I knew in the new city to come stay with our three year old son (a decision that still apparently haunts the poor kid. 18 years later). My husband had to get directions to the hospital from the OBGYN. Before we left, he dug around in boxes to try to find the sweet little dress we'd planned to have our daughter wear. 

All he could find was an old hand-me-down undershirt of our son's. 

The anesthesiologist laughed and laughed when I told her what I'd last eaten. Half of a pizza? Well, it's my birthday, I said. And it hit me. Who cared how old I was? Who cared if I ate half of a pizza every once in a while or if my kid watched six hours of Scooby Doo videos if the books weren't arranged perfectly in the bookshelf. 

This was one day in my one life. 

Our baby girl was born the next day. She looked darling in her undershirt.