Friday, September 30, 2005


Who uses it: Civil engineers
What it means: A roughly-built sustaining wall of stones or concrete, alongside or under a river or stream, designed to prevent erosion
How to use it: To describe something that's just jumbled together, but still effective.

Dizzy and I start our walks most mornings behind the Standard Distributors warehouse, where you can follow a rocky path to a riprap wall by the Cobbossee Stream. It's getting late in the season to climb the rocks, which are already slick with moss and falling leaves. Soon they'll be icy, and we'll have to change our route.

I got a lot of work done earlier this week, and am now reading manuscripts for friends, so my reading list is not yet back up to its usual length. Maybe next week.

Anna, starting yet another trip last week, e-mailed me a list of the books she was taking along, a nice collection of midlist literary novels. "Why don't you ever read books like that?" she asked. I felt reproached.

But writing newsletters for two mystery bookstores has turned a general preference into an obligation, to some extent; I like to read crime fiction, but I also feel I need to read most of the books I'm writing about, even if I'm just writing short blurbs. Through this work I've been lucky enough to meet many authors who are very nice people, and I want to read books written by people I like. Finally, people pay me to read books, either as movie coverage or for research projects.

That leaves me with very little time to read sensitive, well-written books about middle-class people going through ordinary life crises. Frankly, if I want to read sensitive, well-written stuff about middle-class people going through ordinary life crises, I can just go back and read my journals from the 1990s. (Ooh, that sounds bad! I don't care, I'm not taking it back.) I'd rather read about things I'll never do and people I'll never meet... so here's my list of

What I Read This Week

Juris Jurjevics, The Trudeau Vector. Clunky prose and a couple of really dreadful sex scenes did not interfere with my thorough enjoyment of this Arctic thriller. Dr. Jessica Hanley, an epidemiologist, goes to a polar research station in the middle of winter to investigate the deaths of three scientists who appear to have frozen to death from the inside out. Hanley's inclined to rule out an infectious agent, but discovers that an entire submarine of Russian sailors has died from the same cause -- and then two more scientists in the research station die. I'm always fascinated with tales of polar exploration, and the descriptions of the Arctic night are terrific.

Robert Griffin, Affectionately, Wallace: The Life and Work of W.W. Gilchrist. I was unfamiliar with the work of this Maine artist, a student of Winslow Homer's whose work resembles both Homer's and John Singer Sargent's. This is a lovely book written by the artist's grandson, who was nice enough to send me a copy; it's a fine introduction to a gifted painter.

Neil Gaiman, American Gods. I first read this book in the strange, sad summer of 2002, when we were all still processing the events of September 11, and it felt like a long dream, or a recovered memory. I wanted to reread it before I read the sequel, Anansi Boys -- partly to refresh my memory of the book's plot, but mostly to see whether it was as good as I remembered. If anything, it's better. Gaiman imagines a United States inhabited by all the gods, demigods and demons its immigrant settlers carried with them; but as many of Gaiman's characters note, this is a bad country for gods, and only an apocalyptic battle will save them. This book is fantasy, travelogue, survey course of the world's religions, and the best meditation on the American character since de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. If you haven't already read it, buy it this weekend.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Nunc pro tunc

Who uses it: Lawyers
What it means: "Now for then," when you're filing something late but back-dating it to meet a deadline that has passed.
How to use it: "Better late than never," which is actually one of the few things I remember how to say in Russian: "Luchi pozhna, tchem nikagda."

Thanks to Pam LaMarca and Paul Tomme for this phrase, which is endlessly useful for procrastinators like me.

This morning I had breakfast with Colette Mooney, Deputy Superintendent of the Maine Bureau of Financial Institutions and someone I have known, in a work capacity, for almost 20 years. I should have called Colette when I first got here, nearly a year ago... but nunc pro tunc. (See how easy it is?)

Walking down to the A-1, I saw my first fuzzy caterpillar of the season. They say you can tell how severe the winter will be by how fuzzy the caterpillars are; but how fuzzy is fuzzy? I can't remember how fuzzy last year's caterpillars were, or even if I saw any. Saving one of this year's caterpillars so I can compare it to next year's is a little too Hannibal Lecterish to contemplate.

Colette gave me another good story about the abandoned paper factory across the street from me. Back in the days when bank examinations were all on paper (now they're entirely electronic), the Bureau used to discard confidential examination reports by putting them into the paper factory's pulp vats. It's a great idea for a crime story: a resourceful factory worker who managed to retrieve a copy of a confidential examination report on a bank could use it for all kinds of blackmail. Of course, that could never have happened in real life, mainly because most of the information in examination reports is boring and incomprehensible to laymen. But I still like the idea.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005


Who uses it: Sailors
What it means: The side-slippage of a boat downwind (leeward). Leeway happens because water and wind push rudders, keels and centerboards; you can turn the rudder to point the boat the way you want to go, but you have to adjust for leeway. Different boats have different, but predictable, amounts of leeway.
How to use it: To excuse deviation from your intended course.

Thanks to my dad for suggesting this term, which has become a common expression even though most people have no idea what it refers to. (Other sailing terms in daily use: taking a different tack, sailing too close to the wind, jury rig... you'll see a lot of these over the next 11 months.)

People use "leeway" to give themselves some slack (another sailing term), but if you're serious about plotting your course, you include a specific amount of leeway in your calculations. In the days before LORAN and GPS, even a single degree's miscalculation could send a boat miles off course, so you needed to know exactly how much leeway you had.

Now, of course, even cars have GPS, which takes a little adventure out of life. Assuming you know how to use the GPS, that is. My Uncle Ziggy has a brand-new handheld GPS he was using this past weekend, and when he and my Aunt Debbie arrived late to dinner, the rest of us made some ungenerous and probably unfair remarks about the new toy. Sorry about that... you know we're all just jealous.

Another summer has come and gone, and I never did get out on the water this year, except briefly in a kayak off Martha's Vineyard last month. This morning Dizzy and I walked down to Gardiner Landing, where they'll be taking the floating docks in soon. Maybe next year I'll get a boat of my own.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Reaction formation

Who uses it: Psychiatrists and psychologists
What it means: Behavior or emotion that is the polar opposite of the way someone is or should be feeling, because the authentic emotion is too frightening to deal with.
How you can use it: To explain your otherwise inexplicable behavior.

Reaction formation explains the Stockholm Syndrome, where kidnap victims ally themselves with their captors. It's why abused children often seem more attached to their abusive parent. It's also why I apologize profusely to total strangers who want to know why I have not yet done them massive favors other people have promised on my behalf. Hmm.

It may also explain why, when I found my brand-new passport in yesterday's Tub of Mail (Postmaster Jerry asked: "How long have you been away?"), I immediately suggested to my friend Dan that I hop a plane across the Atlantic to spend this weekend on the Welsh border, harassing him and teasing his chickens (no, that's not a naughty metaphor; he really does keep chickens). Dan, bless his heart, was game, but I couldn't find a decent fare, and in the time it took me to click through Expedia, Travelocity, and American Airlines, I realized that I had simply lost whatever was left of my mind.

I need not to go anywhere for a while. I need to stay home and clean my apartment and put away my window fans and vacuum all the dog hair out of my car. I need to go to Curves and start my ice-skating lessons and not be rushing around like someone on the run from the law.

I want to stay home for a while. Really.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Fortress of Solitude

Who uses it: Superman
What it means: A secret underground retreat, 130 miles south of the geographic North Pole, that serves as a memorial to the planet Krypton and a place for Superman to conduct research and escape the demands of the world. Only Superman's dog, Krypto, gets to come with him to the Fortress of Solitude, though Supergirl has her own annex.
How to use it: When you're pretending to be Superman and need to get away.

Home. I could sleep for about 48 hours, but have a lot to do today: mail, tutoring, general catching-up with myself.

What I have learned from this trip is that five destinations and six projects are too much for one three-week period. Five destinations and two projects might be okay; six projects and no destinations would be fine. But I will not do this to myself again, especially since I dropped the ball badly on one of those projects and was less than satisfied with my work on another.

I need to practice saying the words "I can't." Someone said those words to me recently, and although I didn't want to hear them, their absolute simplicity and effectiveness are undeniable. "I can't" needs no explanation and requires no apology. It's just a statement of fact; no reasonable person could argue with it or take offense.

Superman might never say, "I can't," but Superman and I don't have much in common. Even though Gardiner is pretty far north.

My brother-in-law Scott has posted new photos of the Lavinder clan on their family blog, including a photo of my first meeting with Baby Meg. I don't seem to be able to post the photos here, so click here and here to see us.

Sunday, September 25, 2005


Who uses it: Winemakers
What it means: The amount of sugar in wine that's fermenting
How you can use it: As a snooty way to refer to the sweetness of anything. "Tasty, but its Brix is too high."

Thanks to my cousin Rich for this word. He makes his own wine, which is not for sale; we drank a bit of it last night at my Uncle Eddie's and Aunt Marie's, and it was excellent. The label on the bottle -- courtesy of Rich's wife Diane -- says "Agnello," and if you don't know what that means, you can darn well go and look it up. I'm pretty sure the answer is somewhere on this page, and if it's not, it's on my profile page. We like name puns in this family, which is the only possible explanation for my own name.

The past couple of days have been a blur. Friday was a day that deserves its own rant at a later time, as I learned that "Use of the Library of Congress is a privilege extended to the public by the Congress of the United States," which 1) was not Mr. Jefferson's intent and 2) has the effect of turning what used to be a working library into a book museum. I also want to say that the Kinko's/FedEx store at Eastern Market is the worst, most under-staffed, dirtiest, most poorly-equipped Kinko's I've ever been in, and a disgrace to a company that used to be known for excellence.

I managed to redeem the day with a trip to Annapolis, meeting Keith and Vikki Bea to see Our Chris in a production of Othello at St. John's. Chris, as Gratiano, was only in the last couple of scenes, but since Gratiano (spoiler alert...) winds up with all of Othello's riches at the end of the play, Chris pointed out that one could make an argument that the entire sequence of events is an elaborate conspiracy between Gratiano and Michael Cassio (who winds up Governor of Cyprus). (Okay, if that wrecks the plot of Othello for anybody, too bad, and you shouldn't admit that to anyone.)

Yesterday afternoon was the 100th birthday celebration for my great-aunt, Agnes Colloton, the only surviving member of my grandfather Lamb's generation. Aunt Agnes and Grandpa were part of a family of 8 or 9 (Dad?), and yesterday I felt a little overwhelmed by all the first cousins once removed and second cousins I'd never met before. Identifying myself as "Jimmy's daughter," or even as "Ed's granddaughter," didn't help, either, since most of the men in this family seem to be named either James or Edward. My own Uncle Eddie and my aunt's husband, Ziggy, said that the next time we have an event like this, there will be a big blank family tree at the door, and everyone will sign in and get a number identifying their position on the tree. That's a good plan, but it'll be a while before the next person in the family turns 100.

It's startling to think that Aunt Agnes was my age in 1945. She's very deaf, but otherwise of sound mind, though she tires easily. She remembers events of years ago as if they were yesterday; when I sat down to say hello to her, she asked me, "What happened with the marriage?" She was asking about the engagement I broke 16 years ago. Time looks completely different from a perspective of 100 years.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

stay tuned...

On the road early today. I'll post late this afternoon, if I get a chance.

Friday, September 23, 2005


Who uses it: Gastroenterologists
What it means: The waves of involuntary contractions that move food through the digestive tract. One byproduct of peristalsis is borborygmy, which is stomach rumbling... thanks to Dr. Rebekah Bartsch for that word, which is going into my active vocabulary immediately.
How you can use it: To describe an inexorable process that you just have to wait out.

I use the word "peristalsis" fairly often -- more in writing than in reading -- because I like the metaphor.

Work and travel are really starting to interfere with my reading time, not to mention my attention span. I'm halfway through three different books that I've had to put down, not because they're bad but because I can't give them the attention they deserve. Thank goodness I'll be home again next week.

What I Read This Week

Peter Spiegelman, Black Maps. John March, the black sheep of a family of investment bankers, investigates a case of blackmail against a lender who had had dealings with a BCCI-style bank more than 10 years earlier. It doesn't take March long to track down the blackmailer, but Spiegelman's strength is in his characters, and in his acute observations about the ways people behave around large sums of money. He also writes beautifully. This book won the Shamus Award for best first novel, and if the postal service has cooperated, the sequel, Death's Little Helpers, will be waiting for me when I get home.

Robert C. Gallagher, Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express. What do you say about a 23-year-old football hero who died? That he was brave; that he worked hard; that he loved his family and friends; that he was a gift to everyone who ever knew him. This slim biography of the first black Heisman trophy winner (Syracuse, class of 1962) is a fine introduction to a story that seems to have been forgotten, but I'd love to see someone take a broader view of Davis's achievements.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Hang Time

Who uses it: Ball players
What it means: In football and baseball, the amount of time a ball is in the air before it reaches its destination; in basketball, the amount of time a player is in the air during a jump shot.
How you can use it: To describe a period of time before you fall back to earth.

It's not that I think anyone who reads this blog won't know what "hang time" is; it's just a concept I really like, and it came up last night.

Joseph and I pretended to be club kids and walked around the corner (I'm in D.C.) to The Black Cat, where The Notwist and themselves were playing together as 13 & God.

We'd had a couple of beers; we were far from the oldest people there; and the opening band, Boy in Static, was terrific, moody electronic rock with a kind of percussion machine I'd never seen before.

Joseph smiled at me and said, "It's hang time," and it was. For about three hours, we just stood and moved to the music, forgetting about all the turmoil in our own lives and the world at large. It's the power of live music, and I don't see enough of it.

I did stop in Richmond yesterday to meet Baby Meg, who is even better-looking than her photos suggest. Scott took a picture to commemorate the event; if he sends it to me, I'll post it here.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Who uses it: Booksellers
What it means: A paperback book with its cover ripped off, declared as "destroyed" to the publisher or distributor. Paperbacks are so cheap to produce that it's not worth it for publishers to reimburse booksellers for shipping them back, so bookstores just return the front covers to prove they've destroyed the book.
How to use it: To describe something that's not pretty or salable, but still serves its main purpose. My first car, a 1981 Mercury Lynx that I bought for $500 from a Foreign Service Officer who was leaving the country, was a stripper, at least until it started belching black smoke. (That's a long story, actually, for another time.)

Working at a bookstore does not pay particularly well, but how many jobs let you answer the question, "What did you do today?" with a casual, "Oh, I did strippers"? (Only slightly-related digression: the highlight of my day, about a month ago, was walking into the Augusta Sam Goody's and asking for the latest by The New Pornographers. Which, by the way, is excellent.)

Anyway, it causes me physical pain to throw a book away. Strippers just kill me, even if most of them are crummy books (and yes, I'll say it: most books published ARE crummy books. Do the math). On my shelves are a paperback copy of East of Eden whose front and back covers are duct-taped to the spine; a paperback of Gone with the Wind missing half its last page, with a replacement last page from another edition folded inside the back cover; and the copy of Johnny Tremain I bought used with my own money when I was 11, which fell into swimming pools and kitchen sinks more than once, and whose pages stick together at certain key junctures because of whatever I was eating while I read it.

I'll throw clothes away, and shoes; broken appliances, scratched-up Tupperware, threadbare linens; but not books, not if there's any alternative.

I do give books away, periodically. I brought several bags back to The Mystery Bookstore before I left L.A., thinking they could go back into circulation. I gave at least one back to Out of the Closet, and I distributed a few to friends and relatives. Still, more than 30 boxes of books made the trip across country... and even (I whisper it) a couple of strippers.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Chill Mark

Who uses it: Glassblowers
What it means: An area on a piece of blown or fire-shaped glass that is cracked on the surface, as a result of over-exposure to steel
How you can use it: To describe an unexpected edge or brittleness in an otherwise kind, gentle person. Handy when discussing Southern women.

Glassblowing is something else I'd like to try one of these days, although it's probably best that I stay away from something that combines open flames with extreme fragility.

I am deep in several projects today and have nothing interesting to say about anything that's not work-related, but I want to acknowledge the passing of Simon Wiesenthal. Our attention span is so short, these days -- the death of the last Holocaust survivors cannot be the end of our collective memories of those horrors, even as new horrors demand our response.

People are capable of really terrible things. Ordinary people become monsters when they turn away, when they separate themselves from the suffering and pretend that the disadvantaged are something other, or less valuable. It happens every day in countless, subtle ways, when we walk past a homeless person or we ignore a mother shoving her crying toddler or we tell ourselves that people deserve what happens to them.

Speaking only for myself, it would be a damn scary world if we got what we deserved.

Monday, September 19, 2005


Who uses it: Competitive handgun and airgun users
What it is: A type of ammunition with a flat or nearly flat front, designed to make perfectly round holes in paper targets. Wadcutter ammunition isn't very aerodynamic, fires at low velocity, and is suitable for use only in revolvers, certain semi-automatic handguns, and airguns.
How to use it: To describe someone who's all show, but not particularly effective.

I don't pretend to know anything about firearms. This word is in Cormac McCarthy's latest novel, and caught my imagination.

Firing a handgun is on my list of things to do before I turn 40 -- along with going up in a hot-air balloon, visiting Paris, finishing a novel, and learning to ride a motorcycle. It's barely possible that I might get to fire a handgun sometime in the next two months. The other things are probably going to have to move to a list of things to do before I turn 50.

Today's destination is the brand new Bayside branch of the Virginia Beach Public Library, a building so great-looking that I almost forgive it for replacing the library of my childhood.

What I can't forgive -- or understand -- is the fact that this new building has a drive-up window. How the heck does that work? You drive up and order one copy of the latest Harry Potter and one Danielle Steele novel to go? I will investigate this, and report back.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Straw Boss

Who uses it: Workers, foremen, business professors
What it means: A crew member who takes over as supervisor, often -- as my brother James points out -- by self-appointment.
How to use it: When someone's taken too much on himself.

It's fun to imagine what I would do if I ran the world, or if I won a really large sum of money -- not some measly million dollars, but a serious Powerball amount, like $80 million or $100 million. I had this conversation at Bouchercon -- in a bar, of course -- with the author Simon Kernick (read his books), and he scoffed at the idea of it. "Thirty million, forty million" -- he thinks in pounds -- "that's just silly money. What is anyone going to do with that much money?"

"Buy a radio station," I said. "I'd have my own radio station that would only play music I like, and I'd hire all my friends." Simon seemed suitably impressed with this, and asked whether he could have his own show to play really bad songs he liked anyway. That sounded like a good idea to me; I'll be in touch as soon as I have the $100 million.

But then my friend Tara pointed me to this article, and I realized that I just don't have the imagination necessary for true world domination:

(AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, Sept. 7) Turkmenistan's President-for-life, Saparmurat Niyazov, has ordered a zoo be built for 300 species of birds and animals, including penguins, in the Central Asian republic's Kara Kum desert, state television announced on Tuesday.

The decision comes a year after the 65-year-old strongman announced construction of an ice palace capable of holding 1 000 people.

A Turkish firm is expected to complete construction of the 40ha park within a year, the TV report said.

"The zoo will be situated north of Ashkhabad where the Kara Kum desert begins. The animals will live there in conditions close to those of their natural habitat and the zoo will cost several million dollars," said an official at the Turkmen environment ministry, which will select the animals.

"We are examining the possibility of acquiring animals from the four corners of the planet, such as penguins from the north," the source said.

The zoo is the latest in a series of grandiose projects ordered by the man who styles himself "Turkmenbashi", the leader of all Turkmen, whose gas-rich country of five million is dotted with statues of himself and his mother.

In August last year, he ordered that a giant ice palace be built in mountains north of the capital, but doubts were raised about whether it could be sustained in a desert country that receives just 100mm to 250mm of precipitation a year.

Temperatures average minus one degree Celsius in winter and range up to 30 degrees Celsius in summer.

Leaving aside the existential futility of trying to obtain penguins from the north, I can't help but admire the scope of the man's vision. It would be funny if it weren't true.

Saturday, September 17, 2005


Who uses it: Highway planners and mapmakers
What it means: According to the Virginia Department of Transportation, a byway is a secondary road "containing aesthetic or cultural value near areas of historical, natural or recreational significance." States designate byways in order to draw traffic and tourist dollars to towns that might otherwise be neglected.
How you can use it: As a metaphor for any road less traveled.

Late posting today, because I spent the night with friends in Arlington -- thanks, John, Tara, Jack & Kate -- and drove down to Virginia Beach this morning. Dizzy did not want to get back in the car, after the eight hours we spent on the road yesterday (overturned tractor-trailer on the NJ Turnpike). I don't blame him. I'm so tired myself that my eyes are crossing, and Dizzy is currently passed out on the floor of my parents' family room, with his paws in the air.

Today's term refers to the route I took -- Highway 17 from Fredericksburg to Yorktown, also known as the Tidewater Trail and the Historyland Highway. It's my favorite drive, one I've been making for more than 20 years now. It still feels like the way home, though I haven't lived in Virginia Beach since 1982.

Route 17 passes through Port Royal, Tappahannock, Kilmarnock and Gloucester, through old forests and farmland and across the James River. I had the air conditioner blasting and Pete Townshend in the CD player, and it was a beautiful day, despite the heat. It's 92 degrees here... Dizzy isn't used to this kind of heat any more, and neither am I.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Safety & Soundness

Who uses it: Bank examiners
What it means: The financial condition of any institution (bank, credit union, savings association) that takes money from the public. Bank regulation and supervision fall into the two main categories of "Safety & Soundness" -- underlying financial health -- and "Compliance" -- things like consumer protection.
How you can use it: When discussing whether someone or something is trustworthy. "He's entertaining, but don't go looking for safety and soundness there."

Many financial terms lend themselves to everyday conversation. Warren Zevon turned a bunch of them -- though not this one -- into a lovely ballad called "Nobody's in Love this Year," which closes the idiosyncratic Transverse City album. All the times I saw him in concert, he never sang this song -- maybe it was just too sad, although I did see him do "Accidentally Like a Martyr" at least once, and that has to be the saddest rock song ever written.

I'm a little distracted, can you tell? What day is this? What town am I in? It's Friday, this is Albany, and I'm about to head south.

The New York State Library dwarfs the Maine State Library, as you might imagine. A huge storm system swept through Albany yesterday, and I had no idea, until I walked outside at lunchtime and was nearly swept away. I took refuge with several homeless people in a small McDonald's downhill from the Empire State Plaza, and one of the gentlemen offered to go "take care of" anyone who might make me unhappy, at any time. It was the best offer I'd had in a long time, and it made me smile.

I've had almost no time for casual reading this week, so it was good that the one novel I did read was terrific, and the non-fiction book I read was pretty amusing, too.

Chuck Hogan, The Blood Artists. I was reading this book, a horrifying thriller about infectious disease, at the aforementioned inner-city McDonald's -- and looked up to see one of the food workers chewing on her fake fingernail, then using that hand -- that nail -- to open a paper bag for french fries. I'm not sure it's something I would have paid any attention to, before; now, after reading this book, I am never eating McDonald's french fries again. NEVER. (And that's a good thing for many reasons.) Anyway, this book is set in the near future, when fear of infection changes the way we all live. Doctors Stephen Pearse and Peter Maryk are researchers who respond to an outbreak of a new, deadly hemorrhagic virus in Africa. They think they've contained it -- when everyone has died -- but Pearse's misguided act of compassion sets the virus free in the world, in a most insidious way. To say much more about how the virus operates in the world would give the plot away, so I will just say this is one of the most original, plausible, frightening thrillers I've read in a long time. Reviewers compared it to The Stand and The Hot Zone, but it reminded me even more of the epic Victorian adventure novels of H. Rider Haggard, and even Joseph Conrad. Great stuff, not for the squeamish.

Stephen R. Datz, TOP DOLLAR PAID! The Complete Guide to Selling Your Stamps. Don't worry, I read this for work... I am not taking up stamp collecting. In fact, based on this book, my advice to everyone is not to take up stamp collecting, unless those little colored pieces of paper fill your soul with joy. If that's the case, you won't mind taking such good care of them -- handling them with tongs -- laying them between sheets of acid-free paper -- and spending all your free time with other people who share your passion. Speaking only for myself, I have a few other things to do. This book is excellent -- short, to the point, and funny -- but it needs to be updated for the post-Ebay world.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Lingua Franca

Who uses it: Anthropologists and linguists
What it means: Latin, "the language of the Franks;" any third language that two people who do not speak each other's language can use to communicate. English has become the lingua franca of business in most of the world; the Wall Street Journal ran a great article several years ago about the English spoken in a Japanese-owned factory in Eastern Europe.
How you can use it: As a metaphor for any common ground. "My eyes glazed over when he talked about work, but the new television season provided a kind of lingua franca."

Strange I should use that example, actually, because while I'm aware that the new television season is starting, I seem to have stopped watching network TV. At home, I watch nothing but the news and the movie channels; when I'm traveling, I've all but stopped turning the television on. I don't know whether this is self-preservation from over-stimulation, or some deeper manifestation of growing eccentricity. Both, probably, as those two things must be related.

I'm in Albany today, looking forward to spending the day in the newspaper archives of the New York State Library. Dizzy was not thrilled to leave the Kinsolvings' yesterday, but he's a good sport about all the traveling. The one drawback of traveling with a dog is that he can't navigate; the good side is that he never asks, "Are we lost?" or "Are you sure this is the right way?"

Because I often get lost, and I did get lost -- a little -- yesterday. I'm resigned to it, it's my nature, and I've decided that it's even part of my process, on a cosmic scale. If you know exactly how to get from A to B, you never really notice anything in between. You learn a lot more if you let yourself get lost once in a while.

It's that kind of attitude, of course, that turns a four-hour library visit into an eight-hour one. I need to be a little more disciplined about that today, since Dizzy will be alone at the Econo-Lodge. He doesn't watch network TV, either; I leave "Animal Planet" on for him. Don't tease me about this.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


Who uses it: Computer programmers
What it means: Short for "quick and dirty," a patch to fix a small error in a computer process. My Aunt Debbie explains: "Sometimes a computer process might get screwed up (due to a bad feed or a program change error). The main program itself gets fixed, but another 'one time' program has to be written to fix the broken database. The 'q&d' is the one-time program."
How you can use it: In any situation where you don't want something elaborate, you just want something that works. "I don't need the whole story, just give me the Q&D." "Do you really have to replace the whole machine? What's the Q&D?"

I'm looking over the past several days' entries, and see that I've revealed Answer Girl's best-kept secret: I don't actually know much. I just have an enormous family, and they all know about different things, so whatever comes up, I can just ask a relative. Handy.

And speaking of big families, today we celebrate the addition of Margaret Adele to the Lavinder family. Her brothers already call her "Baby Meg," and we can only hope that she will outgrow that sometime before her 50th birthday. Welcome to the world, Meg.

Today Dizzy and I are headed to Albany, for more research on yet another project. It'll be a relief to be back in cell phone range, though the isolation's been nice.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Who uses it: Whalers
What it means: Stripping the blubber or skin from a whale
How you can use it: When you too need to cut away the fat. "Let's take another look at this budget, and see if we can flense it a little more," or, "If this kundalini yoga class doesn't work on my upper arms, it's time to consult a flenser."

I may be a little farther behind the ball than usual this morning, but why is this news? And why would the editors of my online service classify the story as "Other Entertainment"?

TOKYO (AP) - A public junior high school in Japan's northern port town of Kushiro had a new item on the menu for its students Monday - rice topped with whale curry.

The meat is from minke whales the local whalers had caught just off the coast of Kushiro on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido, Kyodo News agency reported.

Whale meat returned to public school lunches in Kushiro, the former whaling hub about 560 miles northeast of Tokyo, last year for the first time in 38 years as part of the city-sponsored campaign to promote whale meat.

Whale meat dishes, however, are not on the menu every day.

The whale curry will be served at elementary schools in town on Tuesday, and whale meat croquettes are planned in January, Kyodo said.

Lord knows, I don't want to eat whale meat... but Japanese schoolchildren probably don't want to eat Velveeta, and I seriously doubt that Japanese newspapers run stories about how interesting and quaint it is that Americans eat something called "pasteurized processed cheese food."

Oh, yes, I'm a little cranky this morning... the e-mail at the top of my in-box today was a newsletter from an online diet program, reassuring its subscribers that a minor setback like Katrina doesn't have to disrupt their dieting goals. Silly me! Why didn't I see that being a refugee is actually a golden opportunity for serious weight loss? Next week's issue: "Chemotherapy: Your partner in the struggle against overeating."

Monday, September 12, 2005


Who uses it: Stamp collectors
What it means: "Cinderellas" are things that look like stamps but were never used for postage -- examples include revenue stamps, Easter Seals, and souvenir labels. Collectors call them "Cinderellas," because they're not part of the official catalogs -- they're not invited to the collectors' ball, no matter how pretty they might be.
How you can use it: To refer to anything you're excluding from a group or leaving behind. "I'll take these three apples, but that bruised one's a Cinderella."

Happy birthday today to Frau Susanne Schulz, the belle of every ball.

Late yesterday afternoon, my friend Susan and I were driving around the Bridgewater area, which is an interesting mix of old farms and spectacularly wealthy estates. We passed a weekend farm with two large catapults in the front field. Susan told me that they're for the owners' annual Pumpkin Chunking event, when they invite the whole town over for a picnic and a pumpkin-catapulting contest.

What could be more satisfying than hurling a pumpkin a great distance? Catapults -- or trebuchets -- satisfy something deep in the human heart, or at least in mine. For more on this subject, I strongly recommend Jim Paul's book, Catapult: Harry and I Build a Siege Weapon. And if you build your own, invite me over. I'll bring the pumpkins.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Res Ipsa Loquitur

Who uses it: Lawyers
What it means: Latin, "The thing speaks for itself." The common law of torts uses this phrase to describe accidents that were obviously the result of negligence, although it's not necessarily clear whose negligence.
How to use it: When you don't need to explain something. My friend Jen gave me this example: "I come in the living room. Grace (her four-year-old) is the only person in the living room and a picture is knocked over. Even though I don’t know exactly how it happened, it clearly happened. Res ipsa loquitur."

Negligence in preparations for and responses to Katrina? Res ipsa loquitur. The line for resignations should be forming on the right, starting at ground level and reaching high, high up into Washington -- but later, not now. Right now, everybody just needs to keep working at this, until the families are reunited, the bodies are recovered, and the toxic waste is removed from the shores of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

I don't dare turn the Sunday morning TV shows on, because I'll put a shoe through the screen, and I'm a guest here. I have a hard-earned reputation for being a good houseguest, and Michael Chernoff is not going to wreck that for me.

One thing that has been really great is seeing the families of the 9/11 victims and survivors rallying to the needs of Katrina's victims. It's a precarious universe, and everything can change, through no fault of our own, in the space of a minute or an hour or a day. If I thought too much about that, I wouldn't be able to leave my apartment.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Area Under Curve (AUC)

Who uses it: Pharmacists and doctors
What it means: The time that a drug has biological effects after administration. My brother Ed says, "This is a particularly cool and useful metric for determining dosing and potential drug-drug interactions. A drug can have a very high useful biological effect but short AUC (e.g., most insulins) or a fairly low useful biological effect over a long period (e.g., most chemo and osteoporosis drugs)." Thanks, Ed!
How you can use it: When choosing your evening's intoxicant. "I'd take a Valium, but find that bourbon has a higher AUC for me," is really just another way of saying, "Nembutal/Numbs it all/But I prefer/Alcohol..."

Greetings from the wilds of western Connecticut, where I'm working on some projects with my friend Susan Kinsolving. It's the beginning of my first New England fall, so I should not be surprised to discover that I have hay fever.

Some part of me doesn't want to believe in allergies, even though my sister Kathy and I had years of allergy shots as children. I feel that I ought to be able to ignore them or overcome them by sheer force of will, as if a running nose and swollen eyes are things that I'm just faking. Yesterday I wore my glasses instead of my contacts, thinking that might help, but it didn't; my contacts might even offer a little protection from whatever's in the air. In the meantime, I'm popping Benadryl like candy.

A most exceptionally happy birthday today to Sarah Reinhardt, whose party I'm sad to be missing -- hope it's the beginning of a fabulous new decade for you, Sarah, with all the best yet to come.

Friday, September 09, 2005


Who uses it: Musicians
What it means: A secondary independent melody that complements the primary melody; together, the melodies form a type of music known as polyphony.
How you can use it: To describe a conversation where people are not quite disagreeing.

We're used to thinking of "counterpoint" as meaning "rebuttal," because of the "Point/Counterpoint" feature on 60 Minutes (and vintage Saturday Night Live). In music, though, the counterpoint melody actually picks up key components of the main melody, throwing the main melody into high relief. One example of counterpoint in popular music is Simon & Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair/Canticle," where the "Canticle" melody runs along underneath the main tune.

Another example is the instrumental tracks on the Beach Boys' song "God Only Knows," which may be the greatest pop song ever written -- and is a highlight of one of the books I read this week.

What I Read This Week

Wallace Stroby, The Barbed-Wire Kiss. After three people recommended this to me at Bouchercon last weekend, I had to buy a copy -- and what an impressive first novel it is. Harry Rane is a widower and former state trooper who's retired after being shot; feeling himself sink into a dangerous depression, he agrees to help out an old friend who owes a lot of money to a minor-league crime boss. What Harry doesn't know is that this crime boss is married to Harry's first love, a woman he hasn't seen in almost 20 years. Great, moody crime fiction, and it reminded me a lot of David Corbett's equally excellent The Devil's Redhead.

Jim Fusilli, The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. This small paperback is an extended, heavily autobiographical essay about the Beach Boys' greatest album, and is one of the best things I've read this year. It wrecked a whole morning of work for me, because I couldn't put the book down -- and then I had to listen to the whole album, beginning to end, reliving the spring of 1979, when I heard it for the first time. Even if you don't like the Beach Boys, you should read this book, which has so much to say about music's power to comfort us and give our lives shape.

Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods. You like Bill Bryson's brand of smart-ass humor, or you don't; I do, and greatly enjoyed this account of his journeys along the Appalachian Trail. He's a little harsh on Southerners, but has kind things to say about Virginia, so I'll let it slide. Hiking the Appalachian Trail is something I've thought about doing for years, but this book makes it clear that it's no project for dilettantes.

Tod Goldberg, Simplify. Tod's a pal of mine, an excellent writing instructor, and keeps a hilarious blog. It's easy to forget what an amazing writer he is. This collection of short stories gives us a rogue's gallery of men (most of the stories are narrated in first-person, present tense) who are coming to grips with crises, stumbling wounded through life. The stories are bitingly funny, horribly sad, and profoundly wise, sometimes all at once. All of them, ultimately, come down to the last lines of "Comeback Special," about an Elvis portrait that mysteriously starts to bleed:

Some of the simplest questions are the hardest, I think. Where are you going? How are you doing? Who do you love? What makes you happy?

When are you coming back?

Thursday, September 08, 2005


Who uses it: Financiers and commodities brokers
What it means: interchangeable; of equal value, without distinguishing features. "Fungible" means it's worth the same whichever one you have, whether it's dollar bills, herds of cattle, or boy bands.
How you can use it: To destroy anyone's delusions of uniqueness.

"Fungible" is my favorite word. It's hard for me to say, because of my lateral lisp, but I love the way it feels in my mouth, from the lip-biting "f" to the final tongue roll of the "le." Say it with me -- FUN-ji-bil.

Someone I know well -- who does not read this blog, but I'll keep this person's name out of it all the same -- recently sent me an e-mail photo of a new puppy, a yellow Lab named Fred. This dog succeeds this person's last dog, who was also a yellow Lab named Fred... who succeeded the dog before that, another yellow Lab named Fred. The puppy in the photo is at least the 8th or 9th dog this person has owned, most of them yellow Labs, all of them named Fred.

Am I wrong to find this horrifying? I understand loyalty to a particular breed of dog; I think I will always own pointer mixes, because they're such noble goofballs. But Dizzy has his own unique place in my heart, and any dogs I have in the future will have to find their own places. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, there are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


Who uses it: Poets, professors of rhetoric, English teachers
What it means: Using an attribute or connected item to describe a larger entity -- for example, "the Crown" to mean the British monarchy, or "the bounding main" to describe the ocean. Similar to synecdoche, which means to describe something by mentioning a single part of the whole ("to lend a hand").
How to use it: To criticize indirect speaking, and make people think you're a poet or a literary critic. Sportscasters, for instance, tend to be a little too fond of metonymy, so you could spout this one during a Monday Night Football broadcast.

I'm a little scattered this morning, trying to collect myself and get a few last things done before leaving again for a trip that will keep Dizzy and me on the road until September 25.

And it seems a little silly, but I did want to mention the passing of Bob Denver, who will live forever in reruns of "Gilligan's Island" all over the planet.

Any random group of people, anywhere in the world, can discuss "Gilligan's Island." My 33rd birthday dinner was at Lucy's El Adobe in Hollywood, and my friends and I spent the evening talking about the idea that each of the characters in "Gilligan's Island" is supposed to represent one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

It's great discussion fodder -- especially after a few margaritas -- because it doesn't quite work, but it's so close. Gilligan is Sloth, of course. Mr. Howell is Greed, The Professor is Pride, Ginger is Lust, and Mary Ann is Envy. But is The Skipper Anger or Gluttony? And what does that leave for Lovey? Somewhere in there is a terrific idea for an undergraduate semiotics course.

The bright and shining Gregg Hurwitz signs Troubleshooter tonight at 7:00 at Kate's Mystery Books, in Cambridge. I'll be there, and it's possible that Dizzy will be with me, depending on how late I'm running.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Conversion Reaction

Who uses it: Psychiatrists and psychologists
What it means: The physical manifestation of a deep, unresolved emotional problem, such as hysterical blindness or the sudden inability to speak after a trauma. One school of thought ascribes most chronic back pain to conversion reaction.
How you can use it: To describe unexpected, inappropriate behavior or attributes after someone's been through something terrible.

Almost 20 years after I left school, the day after Labor Day still feels like the beginning of a new year. I set the alarm this morning, because I have so much to do before Dizzy and I hit the road again tomorrow, and woke up in the dark. The CD in the machine was The Jayhawks' Smile, deliberately chosen for the first track:

Wake up
Put your shoes on
Take a breath of the northern air
And rub those eyes
Genuflect beneath the starry skies...

Except that it wasn't starry when we went out, it was overcast and foggy, and steam was rising off the Cobbosseecontee. We stepped high and light all the same.

Running errands all over Gardiner and Augusta yesterday, I was pleased to see how many of the stores were collecting for Katrina relief. You might not think that leaving an extra dollar at the grocery store makes much difference, but it does, if everyone does it. My five dollars is nothing, but if 100 people leave five dollars apiece, that's real money. That's a month's rent in Mississippi, or a month's groceries for a family of four.

I'm a little overwhelmed by everything I need to do today, particularly because the most important thing -- laundry -- requires US Airways to get my luggage back to me sometime today. I know they're busy, I know there are many, many more pressing needs to be served... but I need my sneakers.

A big welcome to this new world to John Patrick Gorman, who made his first appearance yesterday morning. Congratulations to Buz and Kathy, but it's J.P. who won the parent lottery jackpot.

Monday, September 05, 2005


Who uses it: Geographers, hydrologists, and naturalists
What it means: An area of land in which all the water above and below drains into the same place, combining several eco-systems into a larger, more complex one that may be entirely different from all those that feed into it.
How you can use it: To describe a set of events that changes everything into what comes after.

"Watershed moment" is one of those cliches that politicians and newscasters throw around, without much thought to what the phrase really means. I wanted to use the term today because I'd love to restore the power of this metaphor. I grew up in the vast watershed of the Chesapeake Bay, and got to see it more dramatically than someone who grew up in, say, Muscatine, Iowa -- but as the EPA website points out, every area is a watershed, once you know what you're looking for.

In years to come, I think Americans will remember this period of time as one of those dividing lines, between How It Was Before and How it Was After. 2005 may wind up being that way for the whole world, the way I think of 1989 as a watershed year, the way 1848 was. My brother James is currently in Sasebo, Japan, which is preparing for a direct hit from a major typhoon -- recently downgraded to Category 4, still potentially devastating.

A plaque and a beautiful little park on the riverfront in downtown Chicago commemorate the re-routing of the Illinois River as one of the major engineering achievements of the 20th century. We let ourselves get so proud of these feats, and we wilfully forget that one way or another, water follows its own course. About the best we can do is to figure out how to ride on it, and how to eat from it. (My bad luck not to care for seafood.)

Dizzy and I got home around 11:00 last night, after a long day that included getting lost in New Hampshire (I always get lost in New Hampshire), paying $3.30/gallon for gas, and the disappearance of my luggage somewhere between Philadelphia and Manchester. I'm supposed to play field hockey tonight, but the soles of my feet are a mass of blisters, the result of bad shoe choices in Chicago and the idiotic decision to get a pedicure the day before leaving for Bouchercon. Next time I'll remember, calluses form for a reason.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Angle of Repose

Who uses it: Geologists and engineers
What it means: The angle of repose is the point at which gravel or loose material on a slope is stable, so that engineers can build on it. At the angle of repose, if anyone dumps more dirt or debris on the slope, it slides down and realigns itself, making the slope unstable.
How you can use it: To describe a state of equilibrium that may be precarious. (Actually, any state of equilibrium is precarious, but that's a post for another day.)

Up early this morning to head out to Glen Ellyn, to see my uncle Gerry McLaughlin and his family. Last night's Anthony Awards banquet was an excellent time. The Academy Awards might consider inviting Harlan Coben, last night's toastmaster, to host next year's show; I doubt the awards presentations took more than half an hour, though they didn't feel rushed. The winners:

Best Non-Fiction Book: Max Allan Collins, Men's Adventure Magazines
Best Paperback Original: Jason Starr, Twisted City
Best First Novel: Harley Jane Kozak, Dating Dead Men
Best Short Story: Elaine Viets, "Wedding Knife"
Best Cover Art: Brooklyn Noir
Best Novel: William Kent Krueger, Blood Hollow

So ends my very first Bouchercon, and it was a rocking good time. I made some new friends and fervently hope I didn't alienate any old ones. God willing, next year in Madison.

Saturday, September 03, 2005


Who uses it: Gangsters
What it means: The guy who picks up and delivers payoffs in an organized crime ring.
How you can use it: To describe anyone who’s soliciting contributions for a questionable cause.

This term may seem a little obvious to some regular readers of the blog. Despite my passion for crime fiction, though, I'd never heard the term until about ten years ago. A colleague described a political aide we knew as "Congressman X's bagman," and I had to ask her what she meant by that. A native of Chicago, she rolled her eyes and explained.

The term and the story seem relevant this morning because of last night's Shamus Awards Dinner, at a place called Tommy Gun's Garage on Chicago's Southside. Tommy Gun's Garage is a recreated speakeasy, with a cabaret show about life in Prohibition-era Chicago. Years ago, when the association I worked for was planning a board meeting in Chicago, we were supposed to have a dinner at this very place; but the same colleague who explained the definition of "bagman" protested. She said it was wrong to romanticize Chicago's bloody history, pointing out that no one would ever want to go to a Los Angeles restaurant that recreated the Watts riots, or an Irish restaurant that offered a cabaret about the Potato Famine.

But romanticizing crime -- in the classic sense of that word, turning crime into stories that have beginnings, middles, and ends, with characters motivated by strong emotion -- is what the Private Eye Writers of America is all about. Last night's dinner was great fun, and became even more fun when Ed Wright won the Best Novel award for his second John Ray Horn mystery, While I Disappear. Ed and his wife, Cathy, let me tag along with them to the dinner, and I have to say that any skepticism one might have about artistic awards goes right out the window when you're sitting with the winner. While I Disappear is just out in paperback, so everyone should read it, if they haven't already.

Sara Paretsky won the group's lifetime achievement award. It was an honor just to hear her speak; she's graceful and gorgeous, in addition to being a titan among crime writers, and it felt like being in the presence of a superhero.

Friday, September 02, 2005


Who uses it: meteorologists and civil engineers
What it means: SLOSH is an acronym for Sea, Lake, and Overland Surges from Hurricanes, and meteorologists use it to predict the height of storm surges. It takes into account the storm’s pressure, size, forward speed, track, and winds.
How to use it: To estimate potential damage from any bad decision or radical change.

The circumstances of my nephew Patrick's birthday, today, are pretty crummy. His family's in a motel in Jacksonville, waiting for the Navy to tell them where to go and what to do. Although their house, just north of Pascagoula, is reportedly intact, they have no idea how much damage it might have suffered, and no idea when they'll be able to go home to salvage their belongings. They don't know where their mail is going, and any presents that were already on their way to Patrick are adrift in some postal limbo. My nephew George's college may be gone altogether, and the base closings commission can take Pascagoula Naval Station off its list; God took care of it already.

But happy birthday anyway, Patrick, and know that we're all just so glad that you're safe and dry and clean and fed. Things can only get better from here.

Yesterday was a long, long day, and by the end of it I was a cranky baby on the verge of meltdown. For the safety of myself and others, I sent myself to bed early, and feel much better this morning.

I've read too much over the past three weeks, and didn't care for several of the books I read, so today I'll just list a few I particularly liked.

Elizabeth Benedict, Almost. Sophy Chase is just starting to enjoy her life as a newly-single woman in New York City when she learns that her estranged husband, who lives on an island similar to Martha's Vineyard, has died. He may be a suicide; Sophy must bear some responsibility for his despair, since she was the one who decided to end their marriage. Sophy returns to the island to sort out the life she left behind, and face some truths about the new life she hoped to create. By turns funny and heartbreaking, Almost ends hopefully, reminding us that peace is always possible, even if "closure" is a myth.

Mark Billingham, The Burning Girl. Detective Tom Thorne lives as miserable a life as any character in crime fiction, and in this book, things get much, much worse. His investigation of a gang war crosses paths with a colleague's investigation of the decades-old murder of a schoolgirl, whose killer set her on fire. Tom's own bad decisions lead to more death and destruction, leaving him in danger of losing his job and his sanity. The next in this series, Lifeless, is not yet out in the U.S., but I've ordered it from England because I can't stand to leave the man like this.

Jason Starr, Twisted City. The misery of David's life seems fairly routine: a mediocre job as a financial reporter, a club-kid girlfriend who lives off his credit cards and probably cheats on him, and unresolved grief over his sister's recent death from a brain tumor. But then someone steals David's wallet, which begins an elaborate scam that leads to blackmail and murder -- and some truly shocking revelations about David's girlfriend, and David himself. Brutal, sharp, viciously funny, deeply twisted and very memorable.

Jess Walter, Citizen Vince. Each of Walter's novels, set in Spokane, has been radically different from the others, and every one of them has been better than the last. In the days immediately before the 1980 elections, Vince Camden runs a donut shop and runs a credit card scam on the side. He feels like a ghost, and we soon learn that he really is one: a creature of the Witness Protection Program, he used to be a small-time hood named Marty Hagen. When someone from his past shows up to kill him, Vince returns to the life he left behind to see what he can reclaim. As he prepares himself to vote for the very first time, he begins to understand the true requirements of being a member of society. Citizen Vince is a stunning book that paints political awakening as a form of spiritual enlightenment; it should be required reading for all high school government classes.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Magic hour

Who uses it: Filmmakers
What it means: That period of time when light remains in the sky, though the sun itself is not visible; usually, the time immediately after sunset, though it can also mean the time immediately before sunrise. Filmmakers consider magic hour the best time for filming, because the sky's changing effects are so dramatic, and the light is extremely flattering to actors' faces. With typical Hollywood hyperbole, "magic hour" lasts only about 30 minutes.
How you can use it: To describe a perfect moment, or the beneficial effects of lighting or vision impairment on someone's features.

Greetings from Chicago, where the World Mystery Convention (aka Bouchercon) begins this morning. We're sharing the hotel with a meeting of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which seems entirely too appropriate. (Seriously, they're part of the disaster relief for Hurricane Katrina, and they do the Lord's work. If you can help, click here.)

I'm juggling a few too many things this morning, but I'm delighted to be blogging again. I feel like I'm clutching a beloved teddy bear that had gone missing: "My blog! You're back!" Please send me your suggestions for catchphrases and pieces of jargon you use in your own work, because I will need a lot of help with this project. Happy September, everybody, and let the magic hour begin.