It’s a Book! It’s a Miniseries! It’s…History!

The following was originally written for Open Books’ Read All About It blog, August 23, 2011. Re-posted with permission. Support literacy in Chicago by supporting Open Books.

Band of Brothers ~ The Book

Band of Brothers ~ The Book

One of our getting-to-know you questions we sometimes answer around the room during Open Books writing field trips is “What’s your favorite kind of book.” Depending on the age of the students, we’ll get an array of genres, titles, series, authors, etc.  “Scary books” and “funny books” are popular amongst the younger ones.  Harry Potter, Junie B. Jones, fiction, non-fiction, and adventure books are all cited.  When I’m feeling a little sassy and want to get a reaction, I’ll stray from the more conventional “literary fiction” and answer “World War II Memoirs.” Yeah, that’s my field trip trump card.

I blame Stephen Ambrose.  In 2006, I finally got around to watching the HBO-Spielberg-Hanks-produced 2001 Miniseries Band of Brothers based on Ambrose’s book, when I borrowed the DVDs from my brother.  A long time history fan, particularly that era that’s still (barely) within our grasp, I hunkered down in my and my partner Ernie’s house in South Bend, Indiana and followed the story of Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne. And sobbed. And became a little obsessed. And found fan sites and official sites.  Looked up all the actors on IMDd, found photos of the real guys, found out who was still alive and who wasn’t. Wanted more, more, MORE. I bought my own DVDs in 2009, and have re-watched it in its entirety every summer since. And I’m still a sobbing mess at the end of each episode.

The Real Band of Brothers

The Real Band of Brothers

Of course, it started the book. Actually, it started with Hitler and that whole reality of WWII thing. But it started with the book.  Which I finally read (my brother’s copy again) last year (and since picked up my own at the Open Books store) and retraced the story, getting a different perspective and more behind the scenes.  I’ve also read (SPOILER ALERT) books by Easy Company vets, Easy Company Soldier by Donald Malarkey and Parachute Infantry by David Kenyon Webster (published posthumously and a major source for Ambrose and the screenwriters). Again, different and deeper perspectives.

When Hanks and company produced last year’s follow up series, The Pacific (also very good, though I don’t yet have the DVDs), I rushed out to pick up its source books, E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed and Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow (with an eye out for their other books, both fairly prolific writers).  I recently picked up a book by Gene Garrison, a veteran of Patton’s Third Army, entitled Unless Victory Comes, which will give me another in to the Battle of the Bulge.  Band of Brothers as a whole has served as a sort of gate-way drug to further reading, just as Harry Potter and the Twilight series (or Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary depending on one’s age…) have gotten even more books into young readers’ hands.  And all that’s a good thing.

Band of Brothers ~ The Actors

Band of Brothers ~ The Actors

There are more books by and about other veterans of both series, which I’d like to eventually pick up. Band of Brothers has really launched an entire niche industry of publications, artwork, lectures, and official tours to Normandy and other sites. It’s inspired a whole legion of fans from history and military die-hards to younger fan girls and boys (not that these groups are exclusive…) who post animated photos on, write fan fiction portraying the “characters” in less than chaste situations, and edit film clips to rock and pop songs on YouTube. There is also an ongoing series of actor interviews that’s been celebrating the series’ 10 year anniversary since June of last year.  Their Jumping For Heroes event to raise money for a memorial in Normandy took place on August 21 of this year.

Thinking about this fandom is fascinating–there is a sort of falling in love with these guys—the real guys, their personas and relationships as filtered through art, the actors who played them, what they did.  There is borderline fetish, hero worship, pride, and gratitude.  There is a trying to make sense of our own lives through them.  It is a connection to our own family histories. With that, I feel in some ways I know more about these guys than I do either of my own grandfathers.  I didn’t have all the conversations about these things that grandfathers and grandsons should have before it’s too late. I’ve since been going through my dad’s dad’s Army photos and learning more through my grandmother, and just working with what I have.


My grandfather, Frank Van Kerckhove (kneeling, 2nd from right), with his own band of brothers. He trained for the Pacific, but remained States-side working the Signal Corp and weapons inspection.

My grandfather, Frank Van Kerckhove (kneeling, 2nd from right), with his own band of brothers. He trained for the Pacific, but remained States-side working the Signal Corp and weapons inspection.

During Ernie and my recent trip to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, one of the Band of Brothers actors was in attendance at the play his fiancé directed.  I happened to know he was going to be there because of his recent interview.  I saw him come in and sit in his seat. My heart pounded and I squealed inside like the fan boy that I am. But I was cool, yo.  And I didn’t end up talking to him, which I’m totally (I think ) at peace with.  But it’s like–You’re here, and despite all the other work you’ve done you are still Webster—Webster whose book I’ve read!  What would I say?  Maybe just a Thank you.  That would’ve been good.  But I remained calm….

In an essay of mine entitled Playing Guns where I tackle my youthful war games with brothers and friends, my family’s own military past, and my interest in war stories, I write: “Give me one soldier’s memoir over a dry shot-by-shot account.  While the places and triumphs and losses in each tug at me, I ultimately prefer legends over maps.”

Off The Rocks 14 Released!

NewTown Writers is proud to present the 14th volume in our on-going print anthology, Off The Rocks.  It also coordinates with  the group’s 30th anniversary this year.  This edition includes my piece, The PB Club, which I’ve previously presented to audiences of Solo Homo and Story Club.

For this time around, we’ve set up shop at to handle printing and world wide distribution. Seriously, we’re going to take over the world. 🙂  Copies will also be available at future NTW events.

Click HERE to order you copy!


Update of an Artist in November

Sticking it to 'em.

I suppose this post will also cover some of October to fill in all those gaps between cookie baking, Kathy Griffin, and Miley Cyrus.  I know your lives feel empty without knowing the scoop.

This photo here was taken on my pre-birthday road trip to Gebhard Woods State Park and the Illinois & Michigan Canal Trail in and around Morris, IL.  I had a window of good October weather and time off work.  ‘Twas a lovely quiet day of hiking and talking to myself and the voices in my head.  Lots of writerly conversation. 🙂  While only an hour away or so, it fulfilled my wanderlust in the tradition of past October trips to Vermont, Oregon, and Europe.  Took many photos, most but not all of which have been uploaded into my Flickr.  This was one of my favorite finds! All the naturey stuff was cool, but this find made my day.  As I say in the photo’s Flickr description, it’s not 100% accurate and fair to say that All Mormons Hate Us, but they sure as heck have been making a name for themselves lately. I’m feeling the pain of Maine (& etc.)  I definitely felt a kinship with the trail walker who came before me.  So, yay to whoever you are….

My birthday on the 25th was a good one.  Mellow, but wonderful.  Brunch, then later dinner and drinks with Ernie and friends.  Some time to myself in between.  I made a trip to the Art Institute. It had been a while, a few years.  I always love their photography gallery.  They’re currently showing a collection of Victorian photo collage works.  SO cool.  I also hadn’t been to the new Modern Art Wing.  Breath taking.  I dig all that stuff.  Had a moment with Picasso–it was his birthday too! I also enjoyed the student/journalist/etc. interviewing the gallery worker in the section with the clown abuse film, light installations, and other very contemporary work (sorry for the general terms here).  I wanted to hang out and listen more, but that would’ve been creepy. Like the clown.

NewTown Writers goings on are winding down for the year.  Our October NewPlay Readings event was a success.  I know the authors, actors, and audiences had a good experience.  I put my producer brain in overdrive, which was good for me, though I’ll tweak some things for next year.  I attended the final workshops of the year (and met a couple new writerly friends), my 2009 Artistic Director report has been written and sent out, and we have a Board meeting this weekend to talk 2010–the group’s 30th Anniversary.  Oh, and you can become a fan on Facebook, too. 🙂

I’ve attended a couple writerly events in the City in the past couple weeks.  As always, the amazingly fun 2nd Story had an event on the 8th at their home base, Webster’s Wine Bar.  My Solo Homo pals, Byron and Sara, read and directed respectively.  Last night, Essay Fiesta, a brand new series held its inaugural event at the Book CellarEssay Fiesta features personal essays and comedy.  It’s a free event, but with the opportunity to buy raffle tickets to benefit the Howard Brown Health Center.  They had an awesome turn out last night.  You should go to the next one in December.  It’s right around the Holidays, but if you’re around and inclined and want to hang out in the way cute Lincoln Square neighborhood, do it.  I’m looking to hopefully be involved in future editions.  And of course, 2nd Story’s December deadline approaches….

I’ve recently gotten in the habit of tracking my writerly activities on my private/Friends Only blog.  I call these entries “Writerlogged.” I jot down every day-ish what I’m doing, working on, attending, etc.  They’re keeping me in check.  And they’re things that don’t necessarily need to be posted in a public forum like this–jottings of works in progress, process, hopes and dreams I don’t want to jinx by announcing them to the world.  Etc.  When I feel like my life is being taken over by laundry and my restaurant job, I can be like Hey, this is what I did and this is what I need to focus on and stuff.    The posts also apply to reading and watching which feed the writerly stuff.  It’s good.

So I have been working on various things.  I’ve been giving some love to a handful of short stories that are in various stages of life.  Also working on a CNF/Essay/Solo piece.  I like going back and forth with this.  Sometimes I really don’t want to deal with myself and my own life.  So I write about others.  Beyond this, there are always photo, media, etc. projects that want love too….

Organized my reading list.  I wish I could read all the books and all the lit mags and all the blogs, but you know, I can’t.  Listed are things we have in house, things I need to acquire, things to finish.  In the middle of the Best American Short Stories 2008.  Realize the new one just came out.  Oh well.  Also, my Walt Whitman collection.  The latest issue of MAKE Magazine.  All in due time.  Recently finished Band of Brothers, the Ambrose book, that I borrowed from my brother.  Having my base of knowledge from the film was helpful, and I was able to fill in any gaps and experience the source material. Waiting in the wings is my copy of With the Old Breed, E.B. Sledge’s memoir which was used in HBO’s The Pacific, which can’t come soon enough.  Recently finished Richard Peck’s Past Perfect, Present Tense Young Adult story collection.  Cool to have a perspective from that genre.  I also received Kathy Griffin’s Official Book Club Selection for my birthday.  Started that because Kathy’s awesome.  I need to acquire and start the new John Irving soon, too.  I won’t bore you with the rest of the list, but know I’m reading stuff. 🙂

And writing too.  I’m not a speed writer, though this time of year many are.  While I’m not participating in NaNoWriMo this time around, I am with all my NaNo friends and others in spirit as I work to accomplish something writerly every day. Whether it’s updating my writerly site, or swooping the editing comb through a story, attending an event, or just walking through UnAbridged Bookstore to be surrounded by tried and true printed real books.  Etc. 🙂

With that, I’ll end this, but hope to post other bits soonly.  Happy Creating, Everyone.


Feeling the Heritage with Joe Frogger

cookies 017

On Labor Day, Ernie and I bussed it downtown to see Julie & Julia (and had to walk an extra few blocks due to Oprah’s blocking of Michigan Ave.)  The film, as you probably know, is in part based on Julie Powell’s book, which in turn is based on her blog (and by the way, she has a new one.  Cool.)  Ernie bought the book on CD, which served us well for travels to Detroit this summer. The CD, with Julie herself reading & living in the moment, was a wonderful way of experiencing the book.   And I’ll say here that some of the naysayers on Amazon are just mean.  The film of course is also in part based on the life/biography of Julia Child, who I mostly knew from glimpses on PBS and SNL reruns with Dan Ackroyd , etc.  Didn’t Phil Hartman do her too, or am I making that up?  We both loved the book and the movie, and now we have a steady supply of Rose’s Lime Juice for gimlet cravings (Julie should look into getting a cut of the increased Rose’s revenue, yo.)  After the movie, we had lunch outside at Bistro 110, who all through August definitely worked the Julia Child tie-in.  We were unapologetically dorky about it with our server.  We craved sauces loaded with butter and were not disappointed.

The experience of Julie Powell’s story has naturally lead to discussions of what kind of project can I do? I’m sure I’m not the only writer who has been inspired to commence on a project of a parallel nature, and dreamed of their blog/book/life being made into a film with Ethan Hawke starring as himself.  Right?  While a few ideas ranging from the tongue-in-cheek to the legit have bounced around in our brains, I’ll keep those to myself for now.

In the mean time, I can write an occasional post here detailing a cooking/baking experience that maybe someone out there in WordPress/Facebook/InterWeb Lands may care about.  So Hello.

While my mother did not own a copy of Julia Child’s cookbook, she did have her share, a few of which I’ve acquired since her passing in 2002.  Recently, in a final purge of things in the former family home basement before my brother sold it, I picked up Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book. Originally published in 1963, my copy is the sixteenth printing from 1974, my birth year (while quickly googling the book, I saw it was re-printed/re-published in 2002.)  It’s a beautiful specimen in all its vintage glory. (Did I just call something from the year of my birth vintage??)  The drawings and photography are quite simply–awesome.  The book wasn’t exactly and everyday staple for my mom, but it was handy to have.  As it will be handy for me to have.

Flipping through it, I was amused by the section on “Heritage Cookies.” Maybe “amused” isn’t the right word.  More like fascinated.  The intro blurb conjures images of pioneers harvesting maple and making their own sour cream while also addressing the, um,  modern 1960’s palate.  Made me want to take a trip to Greenfield Village. The first Heritage entry is a recipe for Joe Froggers, rich with Autumnal spices and molasses.  Every year, I set out to get into the kitchen with a couple personal traditions on or around the first day of Fall (High Holy Day!)  I thought some of these Froggers would make a fun addition to the mix.  So I set off….

I admit to not knowing the term Joe Frogger whether in or out of relation to what is a basic molasses ginger snap type cookie.  Call me Cooky Challenged.  So, there’s a person and a story behind the recipe–I like that.  The recipe shares a little info about the cookie’s origins, but I wanted more.  Somewhere between making and baking the dough, I looked up the name and found THIS ARTICLE from Marblehead Magazine. Cool.

Let me pause to say that I was slightly miffed to discover several recipes online include rum, while Betty Crocker’s does not. This makes me wonder if there was some sort of Prohibition type thing going on in the BC world of books.  Rum is not listed anywhere in the index. I smell a conspiracy theory.  Next time I make these, there will be rum.  Oh yes, there will be rum.

I read through the recipe Tuesday morning and realized a couple things: I had to refrigerate the dough.  Okay, no problem, will adjust my plans.  And also, I would need a rolling pin.  Did we even have one?  While talking to Ernie shortly after making this discovery, I was like, Hey is there a rolling pin anywhere in this house?  He thought maybe, but also thought it could’ve disappeared in our recent move and donations to his mother’s summer garage sale.  I know I owned/had access to one a one point–but it could’ve belonged to my old roommate, Sarah.  I looked.  Didn’t find one.  So to my list it was added.

Did a little seasonal shopping for this and other things.  I needed shortening.  Our last, half used and yellowing can of Crisco was pitched in the move. I hit up our local chain supermarket, picked up a few things, but was thwarted by the kitchen aisle: No rolling pin!  Whole Foods was next–it’s a beautiful and dangerous thing to have one in walking distance and so much more rejuvenating than the supermarket.  In the baking aisle, I had a flashback to helping a friend of mine reach for the molasses at the back of the top shelf a few weeks ago.  Whoa.

Following the recipe was a pretty basic experience accompanied by my Folk music mix on my iTunes.  Adding the water to the sugar-shortening-molasses mixture made for some inedible looking soup, though.  The recipe also called for me to “Measure flour by dipping method….”  I was referred to page 5 where I learned that this basically means to just dip the measuring cup into the flour and level off with a knife.  Okay.  But this implies  to me: A larger than life bag of flour; actually keeping the flour in a canister all old school; maybe scaling down to measuring one cup at a time.  With valuable cupboard and counter space at stake, we have a normal sized bag of flour and no canisters.  I used the “Pour the flour right into the measuring cup method”  which totally works for me.  Once everything was mixed together, it all made sense.  I wrapped it, and let it hang out in the refrigerator for the rest of the day and overnight so it could do all its scientific stuff.

I did make a special trip to get a new rolling pin that evening–a focused bus ride down to Bed, Bath & Beyond.  An accomplishment among many.  Rolling out the dough yesterday afternoon definitely took me back to the work days of Christmas cut-out cookies with my mother and her mother.  It’s amazing what rolling out cookie dough can do–and I wasn’t even planning on it.  All that inherent knowledge got me though it for sure as I rolled and cut out with my 3 inch circle cutter (from a set purchased at Whole Foods, bless them.)

Later in the afternoon, while stopping at the supermarket for dinner stuff, the kitchen aisle was full of rolling pins.  I swear they were not there the day before!  Oh well, the one I got is bigger, badder, and can do more damage.

I of course had to try one from the first batch, and it was delightful.  And tasted like our heritage.  In that I mean, from my taste buds, I felt a little stirring of patriotism–in the good sense of the word.  The real patriotism and not the haters twisting the word around and making me feel ashamed.  At the same time, I still had images of watching the highly offensive yet fascinating slavery-era film, Mandingo, bouncing around my head from my Tuesday film night with friends.  The story of Joe Frogger and his wife and the cookies is a story that seems to overcome the gross racial issues from our Revolutionary and Antebellum pasts.  Right…?

Yep, all that in a cookie in my 21st century kitchen in Chicago.

According to BC, “the cookies are as plump and dark as the little frogs that lived in the pond near Joe’s cottage.”   But I gotta say, they fit  more with lily pad comparisons I’ve read.  Good and soft, but not exactly plump.  Except for that last one, where I balled up the last of the dough and just flattened it with my hands. Its lumpy density and not as circular shape gave it the rightful name of Frogger.

They’ve had their time to cool and hang out on our counter.  But now it’s time to get them into the cookie jar. We may not have flour canisters, but we do have a corner reserved for the groovy ’70’s dark green mushroom cookie jar of my youth, and that seems to be a perfect place for them.  Luckily, I won’t have to climb up on a chair to get to them.

cookies 009

Update of an Artist in August

It’s almost the middle of August, and summer is definitely trucking along.  We had a delightfully cool July but are definitely feeling some dog days this month.  A hot summer makes the relief of Autumn even more special.  For those who know me, Autumn is high holy season around here.  It’s my first back in the city.  I’ll definitely miss Indiana for it’s Autumness, but will seek out the city’s delights–but that’s a nerdy post for later.

To follow up on my Band of Brothers Revisited post, shortly after I posted it, a fellow WordPresser lead me to Alan Sepinwall’s blog, What’s Alan Watching?  He’s the TV critic for the New Jersey Star-Ledger.  This summer, he did an amazing series on Band of Brothers. I recently finished going through his posts and many of the comments.  Had I known about it (we were watching it at the same time!), I would’ve definitely joined in the conversation.  Alas, he wrote his last post about the same time I wrote my own BoB post.  I still want to comment on his final entry.  The whole thing is a wonderful in depth conversation for BoB nerds everywhere!

I’ve spent part of the last month haunting neighborhood used book stores (plus my indie bookstore down the street) looking for Malarkey’s and other related books. I think I want to read at least Malarkey’s before I borrow my brother’s copy of the BoB book, which I still haven’t read.  I want to despite the gnawing voices of the Ambrose haters on Amazon (which does have everything I want…).  I should stop reading things like that.  Just upsets me. 😛  I’m also interested in reading E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed, which is one of the sources for the upcoming The Pacific film.  How exciting that Sidney Philips will be a character in the new project!

I’ll save my WWII reading for the Fall, as I’m trying to focus on other reading this summer. My “To Read” list is growing with older and newer books (like, I still need to get to Sarah Vowell’s latest!), recent acquisitions, and books on Ernie’s shelf.  I’ve taken a couple times to sit outside–even go to the lake–and read my Walt Whitman collection. Perfect for summer on a blanket on the grass with the lake’s breeze.  Definitely won’t finish it this summer, but it’s good to have at my side when I’m inspired.  I also have the Best American Short Stories 2008 collection at my side when a dose of short fiction is in order.  I finally finished the 3rd (with six more to go!) Sookie Stackhouse book, Club Dead, and totally loving the new season of True Blood!  My current non-fiction reading is Michael Davis’ Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street. What a joy!  And it had me in tears in the first paragraph of the prologue for real.  I’m three chapters in, which is a fascinating account of the history of children’s television in general.  The Captain Kangaroo stuff is cool.  I’m trying to make more time to read actual books.  Less sitting in front of this computer and more reading, yo!  But the computer is good too.

On the writerly front, I’ve been focusing on two short stories this past month or so.  I’ve also been working to organize all my works in progress.  I’ll always be adding ideas, but I’m trying to focus on further developing my most developed work so I can start taking it to the next level.  One story is inspired by my neighborhood in South Bend.  I really love this piece (which I started in November for my short story edition of NaNoWriMo) and am getting more and more into it.  It’s also been good to harness my Indiana experience creatively–something I want to continue.  Another story is more fantastical and quirky and inspired by an Indiana friend of mine.  That’s all I’ll say for now. 🙂  These stories are written in 1st and 3rd person respectively, and if I’m going to flip flop between strories, I like that variety.  On the CNF front, I made it through the first draft of a story about Truman’s bar in Indiana.  I’ve also rebounded from Playing Guns rejection and am preparing it for another submission–to a place that’s perhaps a better fit.

I’ve also typed out my grandfather’s journal like I said I wanted to.  Very cool.  With that, I’ve registered another WordPress site which will be more family oriented.  Not sure how public it will be, but it will definitely be a cool place for family and friends hopefully.

With all this Indiana talk, I did take the time to reflect on my time there.  Here’s an excerpt from my Friends Only blog:

It was this random, amazing, frustrating, weird, beautiful, creative, inspiring, annoying experience in our lives. While we can definitely tell our “Indiana stories” boiled down to some laughable cocktail party tales, I get a little Stockard Channing at the end of Six Degrees of Separation where she seeks to make sure her experience truly becomes a meaningful part of her life. I know I will continue to do this myself in my work–whether in short stories, solo pieces, journal entries, or what have you. Just like I try to do with everything else. I can’t deny the new perspective our time there offered.

All the wonderful people I met along the way–those I’m still in touch with and those I’m not–will not be forgotten. 🙂

Finally, in NewTown Writers news, after a successful Solo Homo 7, the Fall 2009 event is in the works.  We wanted to do some sort of short plays event, and it looks to be gearing toward a Reading event with some brand new works.  I’m currently working with a number of members on developing their pieces–and looking to include a few more.  I’m wearing my producer & director hats on this one so I can focus my writerly energies on other things.  We’re looking to go up mid-October.  Will post more later!  I’ve also started attending the bi-weekly literary meetings.  I’d never done that before, mostly because of my old work schedule and not living in the city for a few years.  It’s been fun–I’ve been able to workshop one of my current stories as well as hear some of the work in progress for the fall.  And now that meetings are looking to be at the Center on Halsted, that’s a bonus since I can walk there.  Awesome!

Upcoming fun things are in the works. Looking forward to them and to getting more work done.  Will tell  you all about it….