Monday, February 28, 2005

“And what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville.”

The Movie: On the Waterfront, 1954 (Budd Schulberg, screenwriter, based on articles by Malcolm Johnson; Elia Kazan, dir.)
Who says it: Marlon Brando as dockworker and ex-boxer Terry Malloy
The context: Terry reproaches his brother for persuading him to take a dive against a fighter who went on to success.
How to use it: To regret the road not taken, or whine about a missed opportunity.

This isn't the most famous line from the movie, but I'll get to that one between now and the end of July, I'm sure.

Yeah, I watched the Oscars last night. And I thought Chris Rock was pretty funny. I felt homesick for Los Angeles for the first time since I've left; the usual suspects were gathering at my cousins Sheila and Greg's, and I miss them.

I still haven't seen Million Dollar Baby -- I know, but it's showing in Waterville and I haven't had a car. But I was glad to see the screenwriting awards for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and especially for Sideways, which ought to be taught in classes from now on as an example of how you turn a hateful book into a loving movie. (Short answer: Virginia Madsen's monologue about pinot noir, which appears nowhere in the book.)

This afternoon I'm flying back to Maine, hoping to beat the snow. Then I'll be homesick for Mom and Dad, but that's another post for another day.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

“And love -- twoo love -- will fowwow you fowever…”

The Movie: The Princess Bride, 1987 (William Goldman, screenwriter, from his novel; Rob Reiner, dir.)
Who says it: Peter Cook as The Impressive Clergyman
The context: The Impressive Clergymen is performing a marriage ceremony for Buttercup (Robin Wright) and the evil Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon)
How to use it: Best wishes on a wedding or an anniversary.

Today is my parents' 40th wedding anniversary. Peggy and Susan put on an amazing dinner last night, and James and Scott put together a DVD of photographs.

Rather than post something new today, I'll just reprint the letter we kids put in the commemorative scrapbook Susan made for the occasion.

Dear Mom and Dad,

Happy Anniversary. Today, especially, we say what we ought to say every day: Thank you.

Thank you for taking the leap together that made all our lives possible.

Thank you for showing us that true love is more than a fairy tale.

Thank you for showing us that “love” is a verb, as well as a noun.

Thank you for showing us that it’s possible to love someone even if you have no idea what they’re talking about.

Thank you for showing us that knowledge is more important than possessions.

Thank you for showing us that doing the right thing is always worth it.

Thank you for never giving up on yourselves, on each other, or on any of us.

Congratulations on your 40th anniversary, and we hope that you share many more. We are glad that you’re our parents. We’re proud of you, and we hope that you will always be proud of us.

We love you.

Kathy, Clair, Peggy, Susan, Edward and James

Saturday, February 26, 2005

“You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star.”

The Movie: 42nd Street, 1933 (Rian James & James Seymour, screenwriters, from the novel by Bradford Ropes; Lloyd Bacon, dir.)
Who says it: Warner Baxter as theatre impresario Julian Marsh
The context: Marsh gives a last-minute pep talk to Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), a last-minute replacement for his show’s leading lady (Bebe Daniels)
How to use it: High-pressure encouragement.

My friend John Erath does a funny routine based on this exchange, the oldest of all show-business cliches:

"Do ya know the lines?"
"Do ya know the songs?"
"Do ya know the routines?"
"Yeah, but can ya do it?"
"I'll try!"

And this is the secret of life, I think. No matter how much book learning anyone has, the first time you actually do anything, you're always faking it. I learned to ride a bicycle when I pretended to a neighborhood bully that I already knew how.

Happy anniversary today to my sister Kathy and her husband Adam, celebrating their 18th. Today we're throwing a party for my parents' anniversary, which is tomorrow. All the siblings are here, except for our brother James, trapped in Florida for work. We'll miss you a lot, James.

Friday, February 25, 2005

“If you love a person, you can forgive anything.”

The Movie: The Letter, 1940 (Howard Koch, screenwriter, from the play by W. Somerset Maugham; William Wyler, dir.)
Who says it: Herbert Marshall as rubber plantation owner Robert Crosbie
The context: Crosbie has just learned that his wife, Leslie (Bette Davis) tried to seduce his colleague, killed the man when he refused her advances, and has now bankrupted her husband in order to escape a murder conviction.
How to use it: Love is blind.

Getting the car back wound up being more of a production than it should have been, but I did get it back -- and drove it from Cambridge to Gardiner -- and then drove it from Gardiner to Portland this morning, in a snowstorm. The snow made me miss my plane, but I did eventually make it to Virginia Beach, where I am now. All is well.

And I had lots of reading time in transit. This week's list includes two books I liked a lot, one book I thought was well-done but not my cup of tea, and one book I hated real hard. In reading order:

Joseph Finder, COMPANY MAN. This corporate thriller is well done, if a little humorless. Nick Conover, CEO of a large but struggling furniture manufacturer in Michigan, takes desperate measures to protect his family and save his company. Dogging his footsteps is Audrey Rhimes, an African-American homicide detective whose husband was one of the employees Nick laid off. I’m not the audience for this book; John Grisham fans will love it, especially those who find Mr. Grisham’s politics too liberal.

Rex Pickett, SIDEWAYS. I’m glad I saw the movie first. If I’d read the book first, I probably wouldn’t have seen the movie, and I loved the movie. The movie’s very faithful to the book’s plot; the difference is that Alexander Payne, Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church manage to do what Pickett can't, which is make the characters of Miles and Jack, having one last fling in wine country before Jack’s wedding, sympathetic. Also, some editor should have told Pickett that the best word for “said” is always “said.” Instead, Pickett’s characters implore, console, plead, smirk, advise, and at one point, even “decrescendo.” “Decrescendo”? And don’t even get me started on the profound misogyny at work here.

Olive Higgins Prouty, NOW, VOYAGER. I haven’t seen the movie; the book is a reprint by the “Women Write Pulp” imprint of the City University of New York’s Feminist Press. Charlotte Vale, recovering from a nervous breakdown, throws off the chains of society’s expectations and her mother’s disapproval. Extremely entertaining, and it feels modern even today.

Bill Fitzhugh, HIGHWAY 61 RESURFACED. Fitzhugh’s second Rick Shannon PI novel is – yes – a cat mystery! Of course, the cat’s a vicious, rheumatic kitten named Crusty Boogers… and the book is a loving tribute to the history of the blues, as Rick investigates two murders rooted in a 50-year-old crime. The Rick Shannon series, which started with last year’s RADIO ACTIVITY, is high-quality crime fiction, although neither book ever reaches the inspired levels of lunacy of Fitzhugh’s standalones.

Sideways and Now, Voyager are available in trade paperback; hardcovers of Company Man and Highway 61 Resurfaced are due out in April. Support your local independent bookseller!

Thursday, February 24, 2005

"Feed me, Seymour!"

The Movie: Little Shop of Horrors, 1960 and 1986 (Charles B. Griffith, screenwriter; Roger Corman and Frank Oz, dirs.)
Who says it: In the two different movies, Charles B. Griffith and Levi Stubbs as the voice of the carnivorous plant, Audrey Jr./Audrey II
The context: Seymour (Jonathan Haze/Rick Moranis) is reluctant to provide the meat Audrey really wants.
How to use it: To make an unreasonable demand.

I'm off to Cambridge this morning to pick up my car. Anna's taking me to Portland, where I'm catching the Concord Trailways bus to the South Station in Boston, then taking the Red Line to Harvard Square, where I catch the bus to Hi-Tech Auto Body. At least I'll get some reading done.

It is unreasonable to see the car as anything but an inanimate object... an inanimate object that I own, dammit... everybody just say a prayer to St. Christopher for me, okay? I don't care if the man is mythical.

Tomorrow's blog posting will be late, because I'm leaving for Virginia Beach before dawn. The good news: more reading time!

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

“Happy premise #3: Even though I feel like I might ignite, I probably won’t.”

The Movie: Bowfinger, 1999 (Steve Martin, screenwriter; Frank Oz, dir.)
Who says it: Eddie Murphy as neurotic movie star Kit Ramsey
The context: Kit is having a “therapy” session at the headquarters of Mindhead, his Scientology-like cult.
How to use it: To remain calm.

For better or worse, I was a highly suggestible child. (Okay, for better or worse, I'm still a highly suggestible adult.) I think I was 12 when the first Book of Lists came out, and I read most of it at a neighbor's house while I was babysitting -- parts of it were much too racy for me to read at home.

It was the supernatural stuff that fascinated me most: stories of hauntings, alien visitations, mysterious disappearances, and -- especially -- spontaneous human combustion. The fact that I've always been afraid of open flames just increased my fascination.

Spontaneous human combustion and reincarnation share a spot in my system of beliefs; they're things I can't believe in, but really, really wish were true. It's natural to want reincarnation to be true, but spontaneous human combustion would be real evidence that it's still a world of wonders.

Not that I need it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

“Your work is ingenious… there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.”

The Movie: Amadeus, 1984 (Peter Shaffer, screenwriter, from his play; Milos Forman, dir.)
Who says it: Jeffrey Jones as Emperor Joseph II of Austria
The context: The Emperor praises the work of his court composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce).
How to use it: When you’re criticizing something you know absolutely nothing about.

This line -- based on historical fact -- sums up the life of an editor. I often wonder whether I'm not just as big an ass as Emperor Joseph.

My clients fall into two broad categories. The first category are people who know what they want to say, but either don't know how to say it or don't have time to do it themselves. They hire me to perform a service, I do it, and emotions rarely come into the picture. I charge these clients my usual rates.

The second category are people who have poured their lifeblood into an artistic project, usually a novel or a screenplay, but suspect that this project is not yet ready to face the world. They come to me for help, but they also come to me for affirmation; they might say they want suggestions for changes, but their secret fantasy is that I'll say, "No, really. It's perfect just as it is. You're a genius."

This is where things get emotional. I can say, without reservation, that all of these clients are geniuses -- and this is not like all the children of Lake Wobegon being above average.

Someone defined genius as being able to do well something that ordinary people can't do at all... so maybe "hero," in this instance, is a better word than "genius." It takes passion, commitment, and courage to transfer a vision onto paper and actually finish something, especially if you suspect it's not as good as you want it to be. I myself am still wrestling with a novel I should have finished two years ago.

So what these clients are doing, when they hire me, is asking me to perform plastic surgery -- sometimes pretty radical plastic surgery -- on their babies. My role in this process is to be an advocate for the work, which is not always the same as being an advocate for the author. No matter how diplomatic I am, or how open-minded the author is, sometimes this process can't help becoming adversarial.

But it's also a privilege, which is why I usually wind up giving these clients pretty good discounts off my usual rates. And since this second category of client generally takes up a good bit more of my time and attention than the first category, the business model is totally unsustainable.

And that's one reason I live in central Maine instead of Los Angeles.

Monday, February 21, 2005

“Laughter. Tears. Curtain.”

The Movie: Topsy-Turvy, 1999 (Mike Leigh, screenwriter and director)
Who says it: Timothy Spall as actor Richard Temple, playing The Mikado
The context: Temple grieves over Gilbert’s decision to cut his big song, “A More Humane Mikado,” from the show. (Later, of course, the song – a classic – is restored.)
How to use it: To accept a reversal with equanimity -- or as a eulogy.

I don't know which of yesterday's three celebrity deaths shocked me most. Sandra Dee's, maybe, because I had no idea that she was still alive, or that she was still so (relatively) young. John Raitt had a good, productive life, and lived to a ripe old age. And Hunter S. Thompson's life had been an act of will for at least the last 40 years.

But I'm a little angry at Dr. Thompson, too, as I often am at suicides. He was done with all of us, and it didn't matter to him at all that we might not have been done with him. That pisses me off, though it speaks directly to the central theme of a project I'm currently working on: what is the obligation of the artist to his/her audience? None, says Raoul Duke with a bang. Catch you on the other side.

That said, his final column is as brilliant as anything he ever wrote... and makes me wonder whether his death was suicide, or some grotesque accident. (I say it all the time: I always worry that my last conscious thought will be, "Whoops.")

On that topic, it's snowing hard, and it's very cold. My feet shot out from under me this morning when Dizzy and I were walking around the block, and I whacked my head hard on the sidewalk. I have none of the WebMD symptoms of "serious head injury" -- in fact, all my symptoms fall under their description of "minor" -- but it's just as well that today's a holiday for most of my clients.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

“Well – er – that explains a lot.”

The Movie: Shrek, 2001 (Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman and Roger S.H. Schulman, screenwriters, from the novel by William Steig; Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, dirs.)
Who says it: Michael Myers as the voice of the ogre, Shrek
The context: Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) has revealed herself to be under a spell that makes her an ogre every night.
How to use it: When you understand a mystery.

Days are noticeably longer now, which means that Dizzy wakes up at 6:30. By afternoon the sun makes the temperature seem warmer than it really is, but the sun's not very strong at 6:30.

I'm not at my best at 6:30 in the morning -- who is? -- so yesterday, when I walked outside to the overwhelming smell of sour milk, I thought that my housekeeping really had reached bottom at last. But as we walked away from the front door, away from the building, and around the block, the smell didn't go away.

I wondered whether I'd spilled a carton of milk on my coat, maybe, and forgotten about it. I do occasionally sleepwalk, but that seemed extreme. And Dizzy didn't seem to notice anything.

"Ah," said Anna, when I mentioned it later in the morning. "That is a very Maine occurrence."

"What is it?" I asked.

"It's the smell of a paper plant," she said. When the air is particularly clear, and the wind is just right, she said, you can smell that odor anywhere in Maine -- even though many of the paper factories have closed. "If you go to Westbrook on the wrong day," she said, "you can't even breathe."

Saturday, February 19, 2005

“The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”

The Movie: Wall Street, 1987 (Stanley Weiser & Oliver Stone, screenwriters; Oliver Stone, dir.)
Who says it: Michael Douglas as investment banker/corporate pirate Gordon Gekko
The context: Gekko addresses the investors of a paper company he plans to take over.
How to use it: Ironically – please – to comment on financial activities.

Most people remember this line as just "Greed... is good." It's supposedly based on a real speech Ivan Boesky gave. I could make a compelling economic argument for the truth of this statement, but that wouldn't change the fact that the idea fills me with horror.

I'm going over to Tarren and Anna's this morning for a seminar on setting up a personal corporation. It probably makes sense for me to do this, but even listening to the explanations is going to cause me serious anxiety. 2005 needs to be the year I get over my money phobia.

I considered using another of Gekko's lines from this movie: "I create nothing. I own," because I was part of an exchange yesterday with a woman who collects books for their potential financial value. The Mystery Bookstore survives, at least in part, on its trade in rare and collectible volumes -- but I've never been comfortable with the idea of collecting for financial gain.

This is a little hypocritical, I admit, because I have a decent collection of first editions -- but these are books I bought because I liked reading them, not because I think they'll be valuable. When they're signed, they're generally signed to me, as a memento of a place and time -- and inscriptions make them worthless to the serious collector, unless I ever get famous in my own right.

What bothers me most about the secondary market in signed books -- or signed anything -- is that it's pure speculation, just like the Beanie Baby craze of ten years ago. The sellers add no value, but trade on the popularity of writers who may not derive any benefit (I'm thinking specifically of the spike in "value" after an author or a celebrity dies).

The great Cal Ripken has his own solution to this issue: he signs everything. There is no secondary market in Cal Ripken's signatures, because they're not scarce; he's signed thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of baseballs, bats, gloves, photographs, programs, anything a fan asks him to sign (okay, not personal checks). It's an extraordinary level of generosity to his fans, but it also short-circuits any parasite economy that might exploit his fans or him.

Man, I miss Cal Ripken... but that's another post for another day.

Friday, February 18, 2005

“Books can be misleading.”

The Movie: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, 2002 (Steven Kloves, screenplay, from the novel by J.K. Rowling)
Who says it: Kenneth Branagh as Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, self-promoting crusader against the dark arts
The context: Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) expect Professor Lockhart to be able to help them fight the evil in the Chamber of Secrets, because he wrote so many books about his encounters with vampires, hags, and other monsters.
How to use it: You can’t believe everything you read.

A dozen or so years ago, I broke up with someone (Anna and Sue, you remember him as The Iron Lung) -- or, I should say, he broke up with me -- and in that final, unforgivable conversation, he said, "You read too much."


More recently, I overheard a friend say, "We can't all be like Clair, arranging our lives around our reading schedules." I started to protest, until I realized it was true: I do arrange my life around my reading schedule. And I've even found ways to get paid to read, which was my fantasy from earliest childhood. (I blame the Virginia Beach Public Library system, which gave kids McDonald's gift certificates for reading the most books in their summer reading program; this set up a books = food cycle I'm still trying to break.)

This isn't a literary blog -- there are good ones out there, and this blog is something else entirely. But a couple of friends have asked for book recommendations recently, so I'm going to make Fridays "What I've Read This Week" Day.

This week's selection includes three books that fall into the "crime fiction" category -- showing just how broad that category is -- and two extraordinary books of poetry. In the order I read them, they are:

Ian Rankin, Fleshmarket Alley. It bugs me that the U.S. publishers felt the need to rename this book for American readers (it's Fleshmarket Close in the U.K.), but never mind. My friend Linda says she'd date John Rebus if a) he wasn't fictional, b) she weren't married, and c) Rebus didn't (fictionally) drink so much. In this outing, Rebus investigates the murder of a refugee in an Edinburgh housing project, while his partner, Siobhan, tracks a missing girl whose disappearance may be tied to the parole of a rapist. Fleshmarket Alley feels less sharp than most of Rankin's other novels; I always like spending time with Rebus & Co., but at points felt like I was just slogging through this book. I highly recommend the series, though, and if you can't start at the beginning (Knots & Crosses), start with Resurrection Men.

George Pelecanos, Hard Revolution. I don't know why I didn't read this when it came out last year; it would have made my 2004 Ten Best list, for sure. It's a beautiful, harrowing novel about the 1968 riots in Washington, D.C., told from the perspective of Pelecanos' series character, Derek Strange, who was a young District police officer at the time. Beyond that, though, it's a book about love and loyalty -- to family, to community, to city, to race. It blew me away.

Alexander McCall Smith, The Sunday Philosophy Club. I love McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe series, set in Botswana; this is the first in a new series, based in Edinburgh (a different Edinburgh from Ian Rankin's, to be sure). The slightest of plots is just an excuse for a character study of Isabel Dalhousie, a divorced woman in her early 40s who edits the Journal of Applied Philosophy. Whether you like the book depends on whether you like Isabel, and I did.

Susan Kinsolving, Dailies & Rushes and The White Eyelash. I spent most of last week with Susan and her husband, William; I had owned and read these books before I met her, but went back to them this week with new appreciation. (I love it when writers I admire turn out to be wonderful people. It happens more often than not, fortunately.) Susan's poems are clear-eyed, direct, sometimes funny, often heart-breaking. One of the poems in The White Eyelash, "The Obligation of Avoidance," addresses exactly what annoys me about so much of modern poetry, with a hilarious image of an octopus playing a piano.

All of these books are in print... support your local independent bookstore!

Thursday, February 17, 2005

“Love is the morning and the evening star.”

The Movie: Elmer Gantry, 1960 (Richard Brooks, director and screenwriter, from the novel by Sinclair Lewis)
Who says it: Burt Lancaster as salesman/con man/evangelist Elmer Gantry
The context: This is Elmer’s all-purpose seduction line, for both individuals and groups. It’s not till the end of the movie, though, that he understands what it really means.
How to use it: To acknowledge your own hopeless romanticism.

Today's quotation is a minor atonement for the Valentine's Day posting -- not that I take any of that back, but I acknowledge dissenting views. And I wish a very happy (belated) anniversary to Mary and Jerry Maschino, who celebrated their 42nd yesterday.

It seems to me -- speaking only as an observer, not as a player -- that "love" as a noun and "love" as a verb have at least two distinct meanings. The noun is that feeling of affection, pleasure in the person's company, wonder, appreciation, admiration. The verb means acting for the benefit of that beloved object, which is a great deal more difficult than just having the feeling, and a major undertaking over any extended period of time.

Freud said that human happiness lies in true love and useful work. I can't argue with this; it's my standard toast -- but the trick is recognizing them, because neither true love nor useful work ever takes quite the form you expect.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

“Don’t fight it, Miles, it’s no use. Sooner or later, you’ll have to go to sleep.”

The Movie: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956 (Daniel Mainwaring, screenwriter, from the novel by Jack Finney; Don Siegel, dir.)
Who says it: King Donovan as writer Jack Belicec
The context: Jack has been taken over by the pods, and urges his friend Miles Binnell (Kevin McCarthy) to give up, too.
How to use it: To predict inevitable defeat. It might also make a decent political slogan, for the right candidate.

I'm supposed to go to Cambridge today to pick up my car, but I'm going to have to postpone it. The sniffles I had in Florida have turned into a sinus infection, and there's just no way I can make a three-hour drive this afternoon. In fact, I may sleep for most of the rest of the day.

Dizzy was so glad to see me yesterday that he ran circles around the vet's lobby, and right into a boot-scraper that cut his nose. He seemed completely unbothered, but it's scary to see a dog bleeding. I'm not sure why it disturbs me so much more than seeing a human bleed, but it does.

It's an interesting phenomenon. Los Angeles is full of people who seem far more interested in animal welfare than in the welfare of their fellow human beings -- and I felt self-righteous about that, until I thought about it. I watch violent films and TV shows all the time; I've even been to a boxing match; but you'd have to put a gun to my head to make me watch a dogfight. I don't even like to watch those Serengeti documentaries, although I'm grateful for the food chain.

Maybe it's just because we assume that humans have the ability to make independent decisions about their welfare, and can defend themselves in most situations, and animals often can't. George Pelecanos' new novel, Drama City, explores this beautifully -- its main character is an animal control officer, and Pelecanos draws clear parallels between the ways bad men treat humans and the ways they treat their animals.

If I feel bad about an animal's injury, there's at least some hope that I'd be sympathetic to an injured human; if I ignore it, there's no hope for me at all.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

“So anyway, back to me.”

The Movie: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, 1994 (Stephan Elliott, director and screenwriter)
Who says it: Guy Pearce as Felicia Jollygoodfellow (aka Adam Whitely), a drag queen
The context: Felicia, Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) and Bernadette (Terrence Stamp) share confidences on their bus, Priscilla, as they travel to Alice Springs.
How to use it: To acknowledge your own narcissism.

It's been a while since I've seen this movie, but Felicia says this immediately after either Mitzi has revealed that he has a wife and child or Bernadette mourns the loss of her husband. The line is both mean and funny, and it's one of the reasons I love the movie.

Last week was the first real vacation I've taken in a very long time, and the longest I've been away from a computer in almost six years. I'm sure it was good for me, but I also think that I'm not really the kind of person who takes vacations. In many ways, my entire life is a vacation: I don't go to an office, I rarely have to sit through meetings, and I wear stockings only at weddings and black-tie functions. But I also work every day, at all hours of the day or night, as deadlines and my obsessive-but-lazy nature demand.

It's a lifestyle that feels natural. When I had an office job, I overslept almost every day; I dreaded the alarm clock, and was still perpetually late to work. Now I never set an alarm clock, but wake up on my own (or with Dizzy's help) much earlier than I used to get up in Washington.

This is why I can't get terribly worked up about the debate over Social Security, too. I don't expect to retire; why would I need to? I do worry about health care coverage, because I'm underinsured, and would be in serious trouble if I developed a chronic illness. But I can't imagine a time when I wouldn't be working, not just because I need to but because I want to. What else would I do with my time?

Monday, February 14, 2005

“The only love that lasts is unrequited love.”

The Movie: Shadows and Fog, 1992 (Woody Allen, screenwriter and director)
Who says it: Lily Tomlin as a prostitute
The context: The prostitute comforts a female sword swallower (Mia Farrow), who has just walked in on her husband (John Malkovich) having an affair with the strongman’s wife (Madonna).
How to use it: Happy Valentine’s Day.

Ah, the one day a year calculated to make everyone feel truly lousy about the relationship they're in, the relationship they're not in, and the ideal relationship they COULD be in if only that relationship did not require the participation of another actual live human being. And it's only appropriate, because it commemorates the death of a martyr who supposedly died for performing Christian marriages.

No, I'm not bitter; I just really do think Valentine's Day is ridiculous, even for people who are in happy relationships. Who could possibly meet the expectations for such a holiday?

A million thanks to Tom Ehrenfeld for filling in so ably during the past week, and happy birthday to a few people I missed while I've been traveling: the fabulous Linda Brown, on (I think) February 9; lobbyist extraordinaire Buz Gorman, on the 10th; my oldest friend, Adrienne Lakadat, whose birthday was February 12; and my always-and-forever baby brother James, whose birthday was yesterday. And happy birthday today to Eileen Consey-Heywood, in the wilds of Yorkshire.

I'm on my way back to Maine today, and although I've had a lovely week in the sun, I will be very, very glad to get back to Dizzy. For Dizzy, every day is Valentine's Day.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

“I shall stay until the wind changes.”

The movie: Mary Poppins, 1964 (Bill Walsh, screenwriter, from the book by P.L. Travers, Robert Stevenson, dir.)
Who says it: Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews,) the practically perfect person.
The context: Jane and Michael Banks ask her how long she’ll remain their nanny.
How to use it: to say that things are over when it is time for them to be over.

Thanks Clair, for letting me play in your yard this past week. But…hello, I must be going. (I’ll stay a week or two, I’ll stay the summer through, but I am telling you: I must be going.) This short time was a learning experience for me by the way:

First of all, I spend a lot of self-obsessed time about how overworked I am. Jeez. I remind me of med students in college, who, if they spent a bit more time working and a bit less grousing, would be about twice as effective, and have more free time to boot. Note to self: shut up already. (Second note to self: remember to use that line from Moonstruck next time around.) (Third note to self: some of us are getting confused with your wierd sentences and inconsistent narrative voice, and so am I.)

Second, I find that my concerns these days are more limited in number but deeper in commitment. Work, family, friends, movies. (Not to mention that pitchers and catchers report to spring training this week.) Yeah, there’s more, like poetry, Macs, Ginger my beloved Bulldog, etc…but I didn’t post about ‘em.

Making a commitment to post every day is daunting and a pain in the butt to actually do; but making it through a week without missing a day is a pretty good feeling. Not every post is great; sure. But tomorrow is, as they say, another day. I stopped posting on my own blog, bout six months ago. I guess I’ll have to resume over there….

I hope to return as a guest host in the future. In fact, Lucy already has a post in mind (I can’t give it away!) And I’ve still got, oh, a few more lines to share.

Thanks again, and welcome back Ellen. And if my time here has disappointed anyone, well, I can only cite the greatest closing movie line ever written (and hey, it can still be used in the future.)

Nobody’s perfect.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

“I’m funny, how? I mean, funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh?”

The movie: Goodfellas, 1990 (Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi, screenwriters, Martin Scorsese, dir.)
Who says it: Tommy Devito (Joey Pesci), one crazy gangster criminal whacko.
The context: During a raucous night out, Tommy suddenly turns this amusing query into an intimidating challenge to his friend Henry Hill (Ray Liotta.)
When to use it: to keep someone on their toes.

I’m reminded of this line—and movie since, last night, I read almost all of the new book On the Run by Gregg and Gina Hill—the children of Henry. (Goodfellas is based on his story.) I picked this book up once before and had trouble, since the first 30-40 pages read like a novelization of the movie Goodfellas. Having seen the movie once or twenty times, the book could never live up to the pictures in my head.

But then the kids start talking about what happens after the movie ends: how they tried to set up new lives in the witness protection program, but that in each place they went their past followed them. This was not simply a matter of the mobsters that Henry ratted out being so good at tracking them down. The book becomes compelling by showing how while everything changes nothing changes, that even after going into witness protection, Henry could not wash away his sins, could not rid himself of the violent, criminal, and dishonest ways. In several towns his behavior called such attention to the family that their cover was blown, or at least appeared to be. And so, to the kid’s dismay, the moment they felt that they at least blended into some foreign suburb they would have to leave, immediately.

Right now I’m at the point where they move to Redmond Washington around the early 90s. Here's a thought. There’s been more than a few movies about the witness protection program, none of which were particularly good, in my book. How about a movie in which a family gets moved to a town like Redmond, where the mom takes a job as a secretary in a 23-person company named Microsoft? Fast forward about 8 years (assuming of course that they haven’t blown their cover), and suddenly they got hundreds of millions of dollars—giving them the power to play straight, or to buy out their enemies, or what have you—the coins in their pocket to stop running, hiding, and needing the help of programs and such. And I like the idea of at least a few of the Microsoft millionaires having an interesting past.

Friday, February 11, 2005

"Those aren't pillows!"

The movie: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, 1987 (John Hughes, screenwriter, John Hughes, dir.)
Who says it: Neal Page (Steve Martin), a very uptight adman, to Del Griffith. In bed.
The context: After a series of disastrous travel mishaps, the two wake up sharing a bed, which they had planned. Del’s hand, which is nestled between Neal’s buttocks, was not. Hence the cry of alarm.
When to use it: either to comment on a trip that doesn’t play out as planned—or as a running gag with those who like the line.

One of the reasons I’m so frazzled is that I’m trying to complete a ton of work before Lucy Hayley and I go on vacation next Wednesday with a big big group: my father and his wife (my stepmother), my sister and her family, and the families of two of my step-sisters. Many children and grown-ups down in Florida. Okay, I’ll admit where: Club Med. There. I said it. I’d never choose such a place myself, but if invited I guess I’ll serve. And the thought of waking up in a warm, sunny, vacation place has its appeal.

But why do we have to arrive at the airport two hours early for a domestic flight? This means waking up at like 5 in the morning? I can see all kinds of ways this can play out.

And about this line. This movie is actually very very dark, and in many ways uncomfortable to watch. It’s also not consistently ‘funny.” Even the setup is pretty standard (ooh—these two straight guys wind up cuddling in their sleep.) But, and this is kind of the point, when it happens, it’s just funny. You can talk about funny, you can explain funny, but the great thing about really funny things is that they just are that. Funny.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

"And two hard-boiled eggs."

The movie: A Night At the Opera, 1935 (George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, screenwriters, Sam Wood, dir.)
Who says it: Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) to the ship steward, as he adds yet another item to a long food order
The context: each time Groucho finished ordering something we hear Fiorello (Chico), stowing away in Groucho’s stateroom with Tomasso (Harpo) and Ricardo (Allan Jones), adding two hard-boiled eggs to the order. And then Harpo honks his horn and Groucho says, "make that three."
How to use it: to indicate yet another couple items on an improbable list.

Late with this post—sorry Clair and faithful readers! (Reader?) My day has been one of those dozen hard-boiled eggs, what with multiple client projects nearing fruition and each one seeming to need mucho attention today. It’s a good thing, I suppose: I’m nearly finished editing a book that my client is publishing independently (not “self-published” please,) I am rolling up my sleeves to edit a book manuscript for a client that will be a big fall business book, and, well, there are all sorts of myriad other things. Then on top of that I had to quickly deal with accounting problems (don’t even ask!) that had to be resolved today.

And so it’s 8pm (8:30…) and I’m just posting. Ahh. But nota bene Ellen: I am not complaining about having to post. I loves the blog. It's an honor to add my two hard-boiled eggs. Tomorrow I'll see about having them for breakfast rather than dinner though.

It’s snowing here in Cambridge, a wet and heavy flurry that still feels more like a reminder than a real hassle. A couple of weeks ago we had the real thing, a storm so great I made a sledding hill in our front yard. We’ve had warm weather for the past few days, which has almost created enough space on our small city street to allow everyone to park. Now that we almost have parking spots again this wet snow conspires to cover them back up.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

"You don't sing, Georgia. You can't sing."

The movie: Georgia, 1995 (Barbara Turner, screenwriter, Ulu Grosbard, dir.)
Who says it: Georgia (played beautifully by Mare Winningham) to her sister Sadie (Jennifer Jason Leigh)
The context: Georgia, a famous and successful singer, releases years of pent-up jealously, resentment, and bitterness at her younger sister wanna-be, who craves Georgia’s approval more than anything else in the world.
How to use it: Hopefully, never. It’s the thing you say to someone when you mean to let the air out of their heart, to use a mixed metaphor.

Recently a handful of manuscripts have come my way from folks who want to write business books. Some are promising and some aren’t. Thank goodness I’m not an editor any more, since you spend so much time rejecting people. And it’s never fun. Sometimes when I read something that’s neither very good nor very bad I wonder whether it makes more sense to encourage the person to work really really hard on this not-so-thrilling idea; or to be overly discouraging so as to prevent them from working really hard only to end up with something that they still can’t sell, or which just isn’t great.

Of course there’s another dynamic here to consider. The person passing judgment always has something at stake. Mare Winningham as the movie’s title character Georgia is just devastating when she hits her sister with this assessment. It’s partly true—Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Sadie as a car wreck on stage, albeit one who takes the risks her safe yet Angel-voiced sister doesn’t. But at the same time, she hits Sadie with this charge because she’s tired and fed up and at some place in her heart jealous of her, and this simple assessment carries the weight of a blow.

We all have some kind of source for these judgement. I may have a few years of experience in this writing game, but hey, I’m just as eager for validation of a few projects I’ve got in the works. I try to read material with a careful eye towards what’s there on the paper—what can be plainly seen as working, and not-working. What the text promises, and how well it delivers. I try to avoid judgements (unless of course the work is fabuloso.) I wish for the same from readers of my stuff.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

"Stop playing your Chinese food mind games!"

The movie: Dude, Where's My Car?, 2000 (Philip Stark, screenwriter, Danny Leiner, dir.)
Who says it: Jesse (Ashton Kutcher), to the disembodied fuzzy-speaker Chinese women on the loudspeaker
The context: The heros of our movie cannot complete their takeout food order, as each time they say the last thing, the voice asks, "And then?"
How to use it: to drive my older daughter crazy. (Okay, or simply to have fun with an insanely stupid but lovable moment.)

Driving Lucy home the other day, we were listening to the Buffy musical in the car, and ended up singing the Xander/Anya number, each of us playing a part. Silly, yes, cheesy, perhaps, and absolutely a moment of joy for me. While there’s an element of “one of us/one of us” (see: Freaks entry) to this, I confess that being able to share that moment with Lucy marked a kind of initiation, a moment in time proving that she has yes gone through a stealth growth phase and become oh so much more a grown-up than I’ll ever want to admit. This moment of sitting together perfectly aligned in our pleasure, simply enjoying this without explaining it, marked a moment that could never be planned or commemorated but which nonetheless was a milestone.

It reinforced to me how powerful the secret language of families (in all their definitions) really are. Sure, Philip Larkin, misery may deepen like a coastal shelf, but, at the same time, so do these same tidal flows bring deep joy as well. And who else to share this with but an intimate circle of people, who, like you, get the same joke, who share at an upspoken and unprovable level a shared love.

In our family I like to think of it as a high-low love. The girls know their Shakespeare (at eight Hayley can recite the last Puck monologue from Midsummer's Night Dream,) but at the same time, they know their Spongebob too.

Monday, February 07, 2005

"He's got gnomes"

Movie: The Full Monty, 1997 (Simon Beaufoy, screenwriter, Peter Cattaneo, dir.)
Who says it: Dave (Mark Addy,) about the lawn ornament of his former boss Gerald (Tom Wilkinson)
The context: A bittersweet moment where Dave is both contemptuous and wistful about Gerald's bourgeois trinket, meant to show that he's fled a middle class life.
How to use it: to seek humor in the things we acquire and what they convey.

I've been wasting a bit of time on eBay lately. When Ellen visited several weeks ago (here's a good way to mark it on your calendar--around the day of her last auto mishap), she helped me pick out some useful mysteries from the basement. Hetchen worked at Kate's Mystery Books many years ago, and in fact that's where we met. So we have a bunch of old mysteries, not to mention some other clutter I've found (old Spy Magazines, Nancy Drew books, and other truck.)

But in the past few weeks I confess that I've spent as much time cruising around eBay, finding out what things sell for, discovering how "collectibles" attract so much currency, and thinking constantly about whether I really need to sell some of these items. In fact, the money would be useful, but this does dredge up very mixed feelings. Also, if I were to analyze how much I could actually be earning if I simply recovered the wasted time and used it for work I charge to clients, I'd probably break even...

Sunday, February 06, 2005

"Yeah, you blend"

The Movie: My Cousin Vinnie, 1992 (Dale Launer, screenwriter, Jonathon Lynn, director)
Who Says It: Marisa Tomei in her Oscar-winning performance as Mona Lisa Vito, the very Noo Yahk girlfriend of the title character played by Joe Pesci
The Context: Vinnie and Lisa have just arrived in the heart of Alabama from the heart of Brooklyn, and he tries to convince her that he fits in more than she does. Her response is a bit sarcastic.
How To Use It: To indicate when a person sticks out just a bit

If you haven't figured out by now, this is Tom writing as ersatz-Ellen, hoping desperately that I'll "blend." But I know that for one, the typos will be a certain giveaway. Otherwise, there's no difference!

Here in Cambridge everyone is preparing for the Super Bowl. For us, the allure of the day is having our French neighbors over to eat nachos, chile, onion dip, and pigs-and-blankets while waiting for the half-time show. It's kind of a special bonus that the locals are so darn good. I've already experienced sports fan bliss. I'm a lifelong Sox fan, and, well, need say no more. All winter long I've had people ask "So now how can you live in the world? You can't complain about the Sox curse anymore, can't define yourself as a perenially-suffering soul, can no longer wallow in that pain."

I'm not having all that much trouble, to tell the truth.

It is somewhat inspiring to see a team like the Patriots excel. They play beautifully as a team, and there's so much to be admired. When the Sox were losing (that is, before 2004), I would take some solace watching the great Celtics teams, cause you knew that they would ultimately find a way to win. But for me there's only one team that's ever mattered at a very deep level--the Red Sox.

I guess there's just certain categories of people. You're a baseball person or a football person. Dogs or cats (dogs for me.) Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard (Nantucket). n'Sync or Backstreet Boys. (Tell me why/ain't nothing but a heartache....)

Saturday, February 05, 2005

"I simply cannot do it alone."

The Movie: Chicago, 2002 (Bill Condon, screenwriter, from the musical by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb, from the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins; Rob Marshall, dir.)
Who says it: Catherine Zeta-Jones as murderous showgirl Velma Kelly
The context: Velma is trying to recruit fellow murderess Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) to become part of Velma's sister act.
How to use it: To get some assistance.

Even the Answer Girl needs a break once in a while. I'm traveling for the next week, combined work and vacation, and my Internet access will be unreliable. Therefore, with this posting, I'm turning things over to my old friend and colleague Tom Ehrenfeld. Tom is a business writer and consultant who is the godfather of this blog (see the earliest posting for details), and I trust him to bring you excellent quotations during the week ahead.

Tom and I have been friends since doing a production of The Diviners together in the winter of 1984; I played Norma, the fanatically religious shopkeeper, and he played Gus, the philosophical farmer. Tom's one of the very few people who call me both Ellen and Clair, which confuses everyone but us. He and his wife, Hetchen, and their kids, Lucy and Hayley, have helped make me feel welcome to New England.

So please return the favor, and make Tom feel welcome here -- and Tom, thanks, we'll add this favor to my tab.

Friday, February 04, 2005

“Is the atomic weight of cobalt 58.9?”

The Movie: Ghostbusters II, 1989 (Harold Ramis and Dan Ackroyd, screenwriters; Ivan Reitman, dir.)
Who says it: Harold Ramis as Dr. Egon Spengler
The context: Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Ackroyd) asks Egon whether he thinks the river of slime coursing through New York City has anything to do with the world-domination plans of Vigo the Carpathian.
How to use it: When the answer to a question is obviously “yes.”

So the other day I walked downtown and got my hair cut at The Crow's Nest, which is run by a very nice woman named Norma McDonough. Besides styling hair, Norma is a Maine humorist and gives psychic readings. (This collection of skills seems to affirm my lifelong philosophy: "If you can't change your life, change your hairstyle.")

Anyway, Norma knows Gardiner. She filled me in on the plans for developing the downtown area, and was able to answer a lot of my questions about the town and its history.

I've already mentioned that I live across the street from the old Gardiner Paperboard factory, which has been closed and vacant since 2001. Before it was Gardiner Paperboard, it was the Yorktowne Paper Mill; it seems that there's been some kind of paper factory on that site since the mid-1800s.

A local history buff told Norma that during the Civil War, when the paper factories could not get cotton from the South, the mill owner imported a shipment of Egyptian mummies, to use the wrappings as rag content for paper. According to the story, factory workers unwrapped the mummies, used the rags for paper pulp, and threw the human remains into the Cobbossee Stream, where they were swept into the Kennebec River and ultimately out to sea.

You can imagine how fascinated I am with this story. In my non-existent spare time over the past couple of days, I've tried to find out how much truth there is to it, if any -- and I'll keep looking, but it seems that this may be a vintage urban myth. Still, it's true that mummies were sold in wholesale quantities for all kinds of commercial purposes during the 19th century -- Mary Roach discusses this in a chapter of her excellent book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. So this story is plausible, though I can't imagine anyone would admit to it now, even if the records still exist somewhere.

It captures my imagination. During the Civil War, the able-bodied men went off to fight, so the factory workers would have been women, children, and old men. I love the idea of them unwrapping these mummies, discovering amulets and scarabs within the wrappings, trying to convince themselves that because these were old and Egyptian they weren't human beings just like themselves.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

“Who the hell cares! Let’s go shopping!”

The Movie: Dawn of the Dead, 1978 (George A. Romero, screenwriter and director)
Who says it: Ken Foree as Peter, a SWAT officer and refugee from zombie attack
The context: Peter and his partner Roger (Scott H. Reininger) have managed to get into the shopping mall besieged by zombies, but don’t know whether they’ll be able to get out.
How to use it: When you’re shirking your responsibilities to – uh – go shopping.

I'm on deadline today, but I'm also leaving for Florida on Saturday, so Anna and I are making a shopping run to Freeport and Portland. Too much to do, too little time, too short a blog posting today. Sorry, I'll make it up tomorrow. I have a really great story to pass on from the woman who cut my hair, and it's all about mummies.

You'll just have to check back tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

“I’ll give you a winter prediction: it’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be gray, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.”

The Movie: Groundhog Day, 1993 (Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, screenwriters; Harold Ramis, dir.)
Who says it: Bill Murray as TV weatherman Phil Connors
The context: Phil seems doomed to repeat the events of Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, PA, for eternity.
How to use it: Greetings of the season.

Today is the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox; it's also Groundhog Day, Candlemas, and the birthday of my pal Rachel Jacobson. Party on, Rachel.

In case you haven't already heard, Punxsutawney Phil did see his shadow today. Six more weeks of winter... although, as Prince says, sometimes it snows in April. But temperatures here got above freezing yesterday, and the bright sunshine makes me feel a little cocky about getting through the rest of the winter.

Candlemas is another one of those holidays that I could swear used to be a holy day of obligation, but isn't any more. Maybe it was just that the school I attended in first and second grade was run by the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, and this was a special feast day for them; but I vividly remember grumbling about having to go to church two days in a row, February 2 for Candlemas and February 3 to get our throats blessed.

My church here does the throat blessings, so I'll probably head over there tomorrow. My spiritual beliefs walk a fine line between faith and superstition.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

"Mr. Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.”

The Movie: Moonraker, 1979 (Christopher Wood, screenwriter, from a story by Ian Fleming; Lewis Gilbert, dir.)
Who says it: Michael Lonsdale as evil billionaire Hugo Drax
The context: James Bond (Roger Moore) has shown up, once again, to foil Drax’s plans.
How to use it: As a greeting.

Thanks for this quotation to my friend Dan Freedman, writer, performance artist, and chronicler of Dr. Who. Dan sent me an audio file of the line, but I don't know how to upload it to the blog.

I'd thought about saving this line for April 15, but it works equally well for the first day of February, a.k.a. The Month of Doom.

It might just be me -- it probably IS just me -- but doesn't it seem that the worst things always happen in February? Not to say that February doesn't have plenty of good things -- birthdays for my brother James and half a dozen of my friends, wedding anniversaries for my parents and my sister Kathy and her husband Adam.

But I associate February, unfortunately, with bad luck and misery. Terrible weather, short tempers, ridiculous holidays (Groundhog Day? "Presidents' Day"? and we won't even talk about the ulcer on human emotions scheduled for February 14).

I know that if I really plotted out the minor catastrophes of my life, February wouldn't have more than any other month. I just notice them more at this time of year, because I'm expecting them.