Monday, October 31, 2005

Hawthorne effect

Who uses it: Industrial psychologists
What it means: The increase in productivity caused by the fact that someone's watching.
How you can use it: To explain why people work harder in the boss's presence.

I was looking for a Halloween-related term to use today, but couldn't find anything that really captured my imagination. I did discover, however, that I can earn a Ph.D. in parapsychology for only $595 here. (You know, I've got a birthday coming up...)

Halloween is Dizzy's least favorite holiday -- well, Valentine's Day doesn't mean much to him either, but Halloween actively scares him. He's afraid of costumes and people in masks, and of course he doesn't get to eat chocolate, so the whole thing's a loss for him. We won't be trick-or-treating, and I have an ice-skating lesson tonight, so I might not even be around to give out candy. Hope my apartment doesn't get egged.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Day player

Who uses it: TV and movie actors, directors and producers
What it means: An actor who is hired for a single day's work on a film or show. Day players are one step up from extras, because sometimes day players have lines. Also, unless a day player is officially released at the end of the shooting day, he or she comes back the next day.
How to use it: To describe a temporary worker.

Ah, back to Standard Time. I love it, because I get an extra hour of sleep; I hate it, because it means that sun will set at 4:30 this afternoon. I have written before about the movement to put Maine on Atlantic Time, which would basically give us Daylight Savings all year round. I have mixed feelings about it, because I'd rather wake up to sunlight than have the extra hour at the end of the day -- but ask me again in about a week.

Deer hunting season started this weekend. I'm not a hunter, so the details of Maine hunting laws are beyond me, but I do know that the state bans hunting on Sunday.

"Are hunters allowed to bait deer?" I asked Anna a couple of weeks ago. One of the major issues on last year's ballot was the question of whether hunters could bait bears; they can, and voters upheld that permission. I asked about deer because the Agway store in Farmingdale was advertising a sale on deer feed.

"No," Anna said, "People actually feed the deer, through the winter."

"That is the stupidest thing I ever heard," I said.

Don't get me wrong; I am as sentimental about animals as anyone you know. (Okay, maybe not as sentimental as anyone you know.) But putting out feed for deer doesn't help them, in the long run; it merely encourages population growth, when the population already outstrips the food available in nature.

Nature is not a Disney park. It's harsh and ruthless, and humans should only interfere when we know we're doing some good.

Dizzy thinks I should do him some good by taking him down to the river, so we're off. I wonder what he'd do if he ever saw a deer in real life. Probably best not to make that experiment.

Saturday, October 29, 2005


Who uses it: Shark fishermen
What it means: Dropping or trailing chopped-up bait -- the bloodier the better -- in the water to attract sharks.
How you can use it: When someone's being deliberately provocative.

Of course, any right-thinking person will answer the question, "How do you fish for sharks?" with another: "Why would you want to?" But people do, and you can read all about it right here.

Chumming was the obvious metaphor yesterday afternoon, when Patrick Fitzgerald discussed the indictments against Scooter Libby. This isn't a political blog, and I'm not going to comment on any of that, except to say that this whole saga has been a case of the press missing the big story because they were so obsessed with the next hourly deadline.

The latest issue of Entertainment Weekly includes two full-page advertisements that I consider new signs of approaching Apocalypse. One, for the Palm Treo, reads: "We will talk less but say more. We will speak multimedia. We will send interesting memos." The other, in eye-catching hot pink, advertises "The world's first phone with iTunes."

I could rant about this, and tell you why these things are destructive to our basic humanity -- but if you don't already know, I'm not sure I can explain it.

Jen asked me yesterday what I wanted to do for my birthday. What I want for my birthday are some quiet dinners with friends -- one in New York, on November 17; one in Portland, the week of the 21st; and one in Montreal on my actual birthday, with the radiant Claire Bea. If anyone wants to show up for any of those, send me an e-mail and I'll give you details. No cell phones, Palm Pilots, or Blackberries will be allowed, and if I see you pull one out, you will be off my list of friends forever. I'm not kidding.

Friday, October 28, 2005


Who uses it: Readers and writers of crime fiction
What it means: A story that focuses on a single alienated character who is motivated -- and usually betrayed -- by desire.
How you can use it: To describe something moody and dark, where dreams are unlikely to come true.

Noir is a term that gets tossed around a lot, and too many people use it interchangeably with "bleak." Plenty of bleak and nasty crime fiction doesn't count as noir, and noir is not a synonym for "hard-boiled" -- though some hard-boiled detective novels are also noir. (The Maltese Falcon is a classic example, and I'd also put James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss in this category.)

Noir is less a subgenre than a mood, or maybe a set of conventions. The classic noir hero is a single man, usually an orphan (but not always -- think of The Grifters), who lives outside the mainstream for some reason. He's often just out of the military, or just out of prison, coming out of rigid order and repression into the chaos of freedom and desire. He tells himself he can't be fooled and he believes in nothing but himself, but he inevitably finds himself in a situation that rekindles his hopes for love, wealth, and a place in the world. These hopes almost always revolve around a woman who proves treacherous. The tone of noir is cynical, but cynicism is just love, disappointed.

By this definition, nothing I read this week really falls in the noir category, though three of the books offer wildly different takes on "hard-boiled."

What I Read This Week

Jasper Fforde, The Big Over Easy. Detective Inspector Jack Spratt and his Sergeant, Mary Mary, investigate the mysterious death of Humpty Dumpty. Fforde's comedy works because it's entirely straight-faced; this is a hard-boiled (ow) police procedural that just happens to be set in the Nursery Crimes division of the Reading (ow again) police department. You like this stuff, or you don't -- I absolutely love it, found The Big Over Easy ingenious. I like Fforde's Thursday Next series, but think it's bogged down under its own weight -- here's hoping we see much more of the Nursery Crimes Division.

Duane Swierczynski, Secret Dead Men. What sets this hard-boiled detective novel apart is that almost all the characters are dead -- including the protagonist, Del Farmer. Del had been a reporter in Las Vegas, until his investigation of an organized crime ring got him killed. At that point, a mysterious man named Robert "collected" his soul, and offered him the opportunity to continue his investigation. Over time, Del took over, and continued to collect souls to help his investigation -- housing them in a Brain Hotel of Del's own design. The plot, though clever, is just an excuse to explore the conceit of the Brain Hotel, which is one of the most original and enchanting literary constructs I've ever come across. It winds up being a pretty amazing metaphor for the dangers of staying too long in one's own head... Swierczynski's new novel, The Wheelman, is a stand-alone that's getting great reviews, but I hope he takes us back to the Brain Hotel soon.

Robert B. Parker, School Days. I say it all the time: do anything long enough and it becomes a parody of itself. Every time I think Spenser has slid off into self-parody, though, Parker turns around and brings him back in all his glory. The one-named detective investigates a school shooting that seems to be an open-and-shut case. The kids involved have confessed, and everyone wants to put the incident behind them. But Spenser, hired by the grandmother of one of the shooters, wants to find out why. School Days winds up being a serious and sobering look at modern teenagers, and the best Spenser novel in a long, long time.

Judy Clemens, Three Can Keep a Secret. Judy Clemens' first novel, Till the Cows Come Home, was one of the best surprises of my Anthony-nominee reading: a sharp, engaging first novel introducing dairy farmer and motorcycle rider Stella Crown, who was neither cute nor gimmicky. In this sequel, Stella is still coping with her losses from the first book, and hires Lucy, a Mennonite widow, as her new farmhand. Lucy's hiding something about her husband's death, though, and seems to be a target of hard feelings among her former in-laws. Meanwhile, Stella's friend Lenny, who runs the Biker Barn, is dealing with the return of his own long-buried past. This may be my favorite new series of the year, and I'm really looking forward to the next book.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


Who uses it: Investment bankers
What it means: A section of the income stream of a pool of loans or other assets that have been turned into securities. Simple tranches would be interest payments only or principal payments only; loans that share a maturity date; loans that share an interest rate. Tranches can be extremely complex.
How to use it: To describe a cross-section of a group that share a common characteristic.

A good rule of thumb for investing is that you shouldn't own anything you can't explain. If someone wants to sell you securities based on tranches of anything (the word is pronounced TRAHNch), you should probably decline, unless you yourself are an investment banker.

It's not a word that comes up much in Gardiner, though we have several bond questions on next week's ballot. The Kennebec Valley is poor -- just how poor, I'm still discovering.

Gardiner has two drug stores: a large, shiny, very well (if weirdly) stocked Rite-Aid, and a slightly smaller, slightly darker, slightly less well-stocked Brooks. Prices at Brooks tend to be lower than Rite-Aid's, so that's where I go.

Yesterday I brought a new prescription, for a month's supply of pills, to Brooks.

"Do you want all 30 of these?" the clerk asked.

It took me a minute to understand what she was asking. "Uh -- yeah," I said.

"I'm just asking, because these are pretty expensive," she said. "So I didn't want you to be surprised."

"No, it's fine," I said. "Thanks."

The prescription, with my insurance discount, cost about $66. When I lived in Washington, that was a night out. It wouldn't even have paid for a round of golf, except at Hains Point. It's not a negligible amount of money for me now, but it's certainly no hardship; it's sobering to think that many of my neighbors have to buy their pills one week at a time, or not at all.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Home Run

Who uses it: Drive-through window staff
What it means: When a customer drives away with an order, then comes back around because something is wrong.
How you can use it: When you, or anyone, comes back to the beginning.

I don't actually know whether all drive-through window staff use this phrase. They use it at In-n-Out Burger, which is where I heard it.

Drive-in window clerk is a job I've never had, and at this point in my life I hope it's a job I don't ever have to take, unless it's for some Barbara Ehrenreich or Elaine Viets-style research project. Too hard on the feet, and on days like this, too dang cold, even if the booth is heated.

Dizzy and I got home yesterday afternoon -- thanks to the Lechners for giving Dizzy a place to stay -- just as it was starting to sleet, on top of the rain, on top of the wind. Today the "wintry mix" will continue, and we might get visible snow.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Q Score

Who uses it: Media consultants, advertising executives
What it means: A measurement of how familiar the public is with someone and how they feel about them.
How to use it: To discuss someone's prominence and popularity.

It seems almost disrespectful to mention "Rosa Parks" and "Q Score" in the same posting, but she was certainly both well-known and well-loved -- and her loss hits hard, when we seem to have fewer and fewer heroes left to us. Twenty-four-hour TV news cheapens the idea of heroism, because real heroism takes time, and the TV reporters don't want to pay attention. We remember Rosa Parks because of one moment in her life, but the bus boycott lasted for months, and the civil rights struggle lasted for years. Can you imagine how CNN would have covered it? We would all have forgotten about it in three days, and Rosa Parks would have had her one afternoon on "Oprah," then faded away. It's disgusting.

Last night was a very literary evening, starting with Libby Hellmann's appearance at Kate's, which was also a Sisters in Crime meeting. (I just joined Sisters in Crime, but would probably not have gone to a meeting if I hadn't wound up at one by accident... I hate meetings, though last night's was entertaining and pain-free.)

Afterwards, I went over to the American Repertory Theatre for a reading by Chris Cooper and Marianne Leone to benefit PEN/New England. Joe Finder, who serves on the board, and his wife Michelle kindly invited me along. It was a pretty dazzling event. Tom Perotta introduced the actors, who read two selections from The Best American Short Stories of 2005: "Cousins" by Joyce Carol Oates, and Perotta's own "The Smile on Happy Chang's Face." I sat next to Sue Miller, who besides being a brilliant writer is funny, very tall, and so beautiful she should be hanging in the Tate Gallery.

It's pouring rain here, and very windy, so I'll dawdle a few hours before getting back on the road. It gives me time for coffee with Tom Ehrenfeld, Answer Girl's mastermind and henchman.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Five by five

Who uses it: Radio communicators, especially pilots
What it means: "Loud and clear," all communications channels open
How you can use it: When you're getting someone's message without any confusion.

Thanks to Paul Tomme for suggesting this term, which I believe was also the name of an episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" -- Susan, Tom, can you confirm this?

Rushing around this morning, because I'm on my way to Boston -- Libby Fischer Hellmann signs her latest novel, A Shot to Die For, at Kate's at 6:00 this evening.

Thoughts and prayers to everyone in Mexico, and in south Florida. I just heard a newscaster say that this is their 8th hurricane in 18 months. I have a feeling real estate values in the Blue Ridge Mountains will be booming this spring.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Plumb line

Who uses it: Carpenters
What it means: A string with a pointed lead weight on it (the plummet, so that's where "to plummet" comes from) that drops straight to the ground, in order to help determine whether something is level.
How you can use it: To judge whether something is straight. You can make your own plumb line with some basic office supplies, and pester your co-workers all day.

At the moment the rain is falling straight down, and I don't need a plumb line to tell me so. So much for field hockey. I took Dizzy out this morning, he visited his favorite bush, and then trotted over to the car so he could take the rest of his walk in comfort. I laughed, but didn't take the hint.

A book I'm reading -- more about this on Friday -- comments on the creativity of place names in Ohio, and it tied in randomly to something I was thinking about last weekend when I was watching the news. Why are there so many song titles that relate to Ohio, or places in Ohio? I gave no thought to this at all, and came up with this playlist of songs about Ohio, just from my own CD collection:

The Pretenders, "Back to Ohio"
Crosby Stills Nash & Young, "Ohio"
R.E.M., "Cuyahoga"
The Blue Nile, "Because of Toledo"
The Jayhawks, "Somewhere in Ohio"
The Presidents of the United States, "Cleveland Rocks" (yes, I know Ian Hunter wrote the song, but this is the version I have)
Too Much Joy, "Goodbye Ohio"

And because I don't own it, I'm not even mentioning Huey Lewis & The News' "Heart of Rock & Roll." Still beating. In Cleveland. Not that I would know this.

California probably has the most rock songs written for it, but does any other state have as many as Ohio? I'm thinking of my own home state, and all I can come up with is "Sweet Virginia Breeze," which was a local hit for the Robbin Thompson Band when I was in high school. And I can't think of any rock songs about Maine at all.

Can you? Chime in with your local anthems...

Saturday, October 22, 2005


Who uses it: Trainers and physical therapists
What it means: Delayed-onset muscle soreness; the aches you feel a day or two after unusual physical exertion. It may be caused by tiny tears in the muscle; stretching before and after exercise helps.
How you can use it: To make your weekend-warrior aches sound like something official.

Thursday was my first time back to field hockey in almost two months, but I feel just fine after it. We didn't have much time to play before the sun set, though, and it was cold enough that I had a hard time peeling my fingers off my stick by the end of practice. Tomorrow I'll remember my gloves.

"It could snow any time now," the clerk at the drugstore said yesterday. I was speechless; it's absolutely true. We had our first frost on Thursday night, and I think it was even colder last night. Dizzy went to graze this morning, and got a mouthful of grass-flavored icicles. He was momentarily startled, but kept chewing.

Today is the Hallowell Harvest Festival, with a big scarecrow contest. I'll go over this afternoon -- I may even walk, since the weather's so gorgeous -- but I'll leave Dizzy at home. He is afraid of clowns and people in costumes, so exposing him to scarecrows probably isn't a good idea.

Friday, October 21, 2005


Who uses it: Writers and readers of crime fiction
What it means: It usually describes the detective, but may describe the story or the setting as well; in every case, it means urban, gritty, corrupt but somehow untouchable.
How you can use it: To describe someone who is tough and untouched by the rotten things they see or deal with.

Raymond Chandler defined the hard-boiled detective, once and for all, in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder":
Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.... He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

Thanks to Pam LaMarca for suggesting this term; she and I both read a lot of hard-boiled fiction, and I'd put one of the books I read this week in that category. "Hard-boiled" is not at all the same as "noir," but we'll discuss that next week.

What I Read This Week

Sander A. Diamond, The Nazi Movement in the United States, 1924-1941. Watching the riots in Toledo begs the question: who are these people, and what could they possibly hope to achieve? Once upon a time in America, real Nazis lived among us; mostly recent immigrants, they had direct and indirect support from their home country, and the goal was to encourage mainstream American society to believe in the inevitability of the Third Reich. It all collapsed, though, because our American system is designed to break down overreaching, corruption, and totalitarian tendencies. Or at least it's supposed to be.

Mark Billingham, Lifeless. One of my more embarrassing fan-girl moments at this year’s Bouchercon was seeing the baffled expression on Mark Billingham’s face when I told him that his third book, Lazybones, was a brilliant satire on modern dating. In retrospect, however, I stand by that. It’s the nature of a work of art to include things even the artist doesn’t know are there. (Thomas Mann: “We work in the dark. We do what we can. The rest is the madness of art.”) Lifeless, in which Tom Thorne becomes one of the homeless and uncovers a 15-year-old Gulf War atrocity, is a compelling police procedural and a gripping psychological thriller, as we descend with Tom into his twilight existence. It’s also a meditation on the uniting and disconnecting powers of violence – very much in the same vein as David Cronenberg’s latest film, A History of Violence (which I saw last weekend). Billingham leaves Thorne, at the end of this book, wiser but no more stable than he was at the beginning, and perhaps no closer to the redemption he’d been seeking.

Kevin Wignall, Among the Dead. A group of five college students drive home after a night of drinking, and kill Emily Barratt, a fellow student who steps in front of their car. It was an accident -- she'd stepped in front of the car -- but the driver had been drinking, and the friends agree that no one will say anything about that night, ever. Ten years later, that night has made permanent changes in all of their lives -- and the people involved begin to die. Among the Dead is less a traditional mystery novel than a remarkably plausible ghost story, which shows us the haunting rather than the ghost itself. Among the Dead, shockingly, is not published in the United States, but you can order it from AmazonUK. (I scored my copy at the Crimespree magazine party at Bouchercon, and thanks again to Ruth & Jon Jordan.)

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Trading fours

Who uses it: Jazz musicians
What it means: Short solos -- "trading fours" is four bars apiece, but musicians can also trade twos or eights or whatever -- exchanged among musicians in a combo, often returning to the drummer in between.
How you can use it: To describe a conversation where everyone takes a turn.

Another sunny morning -- astonishing. Dizzy and I walked down to the landing, where they're pulling the floating docks out of the water today and tomorrow. One more sign of the changing seasons.

"That can't be ice," Anna said yesterday, looking at one of the bodies of water we passed on the way to Portland. It wasn't, of course; who knows what kind of chemical scum it might have been, stirred up by the weeks of rain. But Mount Washington got several inches of snow over the weekend, and heavy winds have already taken most of the leaves off the trees. We're supposed to play field hockey tonight, starting at 5:30, but I'm not sure how that will work. Sunset's at 5:49, and I don't think the field has lights.

My plans to start a pirate radio station and my own publishing imprint must hang fire a little longer, because I didn't win the Powerball last night. Rats. Back to work.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Hot top

Who uses it: Road pavers
What it means: The asphalt layer on top of a roadbed
How you can use it: To describe a finishing coat on something.

I found a website that tells do-it-yourself driveway pavers to use hot top only when the temperatures will be above 50 degrees, and they can expect three days of dry weather. If that's the case, it's no wonder they still haven't been able to pave the road between Gardiner and Hallowell; I'm not sure the temperature got above 50 all day yesterday.

It's 50 degrees now, though, and the sun is out for the first time in more than a week -- no exaggeration. Yesterday was a library day for me, and today will be another, as I'm headed down to Portland with Anna.

Short post, because I'm rushing, but I'll have more to say tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Who uses it: Emergency-room doctors and neurologists
What it means: An injury to opposite sides of the brain, caused by the double impact of a head hitting something, then being thrown forward to hit something else. Think of a car being hit from behind, then slamming into the car in front of it.
How you can use it: To describe something that provides a double effect.

I'm sorry that I know this word, because I learned it from my cousin Sheila, through her personal experience.

It popped immediately into my head last night, when I -- inevitably -- lost my balance, fell on my rear, and cracked the back of my head on the ice. I did not give myself a contrecoup injury, and I don't think I injured my brain at all -- just the back of my head, which now has a rather disgusting bump on it.

As for the fall, it happened while I was jumping on the ice, so I can't be too embarrassed about it. You have to be able to jump two feet on the ice in order to pass Level One of the Basic Skills class. Polly, my instructor, said, "Imagine you're a kid jumping off your parents' sofa," and I imagined it a little too vividly, cracked head and all.

At least, unlike my sister Peggy on a similar occasion (jumping off the sofa, not learning to skate), I did not put my front teeth through my upper lip.

I'll miss next week's class -- not because of last night's injury, but because I have to be in Boston -- so I need to get back to the rink sometime before this week ends.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Hot liquor back

Who uses it: Brewers
What it means: The kettle used to boil the water that starts the brewing process
How you can use it: You can pretend to be a brewmaster when you're making a simple cup of tea, but the phrase is such a colorful one that I trust you all to come up with your own uses.

Here's the thing about cow chip bingo: it's not that exciting. You buy one or more squares of a grid marked on a field, and wait for the cow to do what cows do. Yesterday was cold and rainy, and the cow wisely stood under a tent for about an hour, then sauntered out to relieve itself -- on a square not owned by me or the Lechners, dang it.

It was a good time for us anyway, because we stayed indoors, drank Halloween ale, and ate nachos and hamburgers. And the event raised a few thousand dollars for the Freeport football team, so it was all in a good cause.

This week the Powerball's up to $340 million, so I'll have another chance to win big, and no cows will be involved.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

"Pardon me while I have a strange interlude."

The Movie: Animal Crackers, 1930 (Morrie Ryskind, screenwriter, from the play by George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby; Victor Heerman, dir.)
Who says it: Groucho Marx as Captain Geoffrey Spaulding
The context: Captain Spaulding steps out of his flirtation with Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) and Mrs. Whitehead (Margaret Irving) to address the audience.
How you can use it: When you need a short break.

I got an e-mail yesterday from someone who said -- kindly -- that he doesn't find the new blog as entertaining as the old one. He is not the first person to have said this, and in fact, I don't always find it as entertaining, either. But everything becomes a parody of itself if you do it for too long, and I wanted to quit the movie quotes before I got tired of them. I like the Terms of Art, and am learning some cool things along the way, so I'm going to stick with it.

That said, my friend Gary suggested that I flash back to the occasional movie quotation, just to keep everyone on their toes. That sounded like fun, so I'll do that, at random intervals, whenever I feel like it.

"On one's toes" will be the theme of the day, because I'm heading down to Freeport for an afternoon of Cow Chip Bingo in the field behind Gritty McDuff's there. The Lechners and I will sit on the back deck, not down on the pasture, and wait for the cow to bless whatever squares we've bought.

It should be extremely entertaining, as long as the rain holds off, and I will bask in the company of four-year-old Grace, who told me last night that she thought I was funny and pretty. She can write my next personal ad.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Can of Corn

Who uses it: Baseball players
What it means: A ball that drops easily into the outfield, making it a cinch to catch. The opposite of a "can of corn" is a "circus catch."
How you can use it: To describe anything that's really easy.

Thanks to Jen Lechner for suggesting this phrase, which is particularly appropriate at this time of year.

It's not my way to whine about things that won't be changed -- okay, that's a lie -- BUT I still don't like the extended baseball playoffs. I'm still not used to the new divisions, and the idea of a wild card is contrary to the essential spirit of baseball, a game of angles and numbers.

The Red Sox are out of it, but if they weren't, guys would be playing baseball today in 50-degree temperatures -- if the game weren't rained out altogether, which would be more likely. (Central Maine is under a flood watch until 8:00 tonight.) It's fine for Californians and Texans to be playing baseball in mid-October, but up here in New England, it's just too cold.

Despite the bad weather, I may wander down to Portland later today. I need a little city time.

Friday, October 14, 2005


Who uses it: Mystery readers, writers and booksellers
What it means: A type of mystery novel that is non-violent, in which the crime or murder happens off-stage, and the detective is usually an amateur thrown into the investigation by circumstance.
How you can use it: To describe something that is not as taxing as it might be.

Some people in the crime fiction community (how's that for a phrase) have strong feelings about the word "cozy," and about the very idea of a murder mystery that is not violent and painful. Some authors aren't crazy about the term, and lots of mysteries -- Julia Spencer-Fleming's, for example -- are not particularly violent, and feature a non-professional detective, but hardly make light of serious crime. Discomfort with the "cozy" label caused The Mystery Bookstore to change the name of one of its subscription clubs from "Cozy" to "Delicate but Deadly."

A couple of the books on this week's reading list challenged my ideas about "cozy" mysteries, and about the nature of mysteries altogether. It was a good reading week -- insomnia has its compensations.

What I Read this Week

Jane Cleland, Consigned to Death. New Hampshire antiques dealer Josie Prescott discovers a potential client murdered, with all the evidence pointing toward her. I often find “cozy” mysteries unrealistic and inappropriately cavalier about murder – but Cleland, in her first novel, manages to spin a non-violent mystery that is entirely plausible and strikes just the right tone. The book doesn't come out until next April, though, so you'll have to wait to see for yourself.

Chuck Hogan, Prince of Thieves. Chuck Hogan knows more about bank robberies than I do – in fact, he knows more than anyone outside of law enforcement should know, and we can only hope he uses these powers for good. Prince of Thieves is an epic novel of last chances and lost chances, as criminal mastermind Doug MacRay tries to leave his past behind for the woman of his dreams – who is also the victim of his most recent crime. It won this year’s Dashiell Hammett Award for best literary crime novel, and it’s a great thriller, but it’s an even more powerful story of doomed love, and I was crying at the end.

Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One. This rambling memoir – more a series of essays than a sustained narrative – is astonishingly generous, even intimate. It feels like a long dinner over a bottle of wine with your oldest, smartest friend. Over 300 pages, Dylan offers us his insights into everything from the causes of Civil War to the evolution of rap music, with great humor, gratitude, and not the slightest hint of score-settling. At 64 (he’s exactly the same age as my mother, born in the same week), he still feels enthusiasm and wonder, and shares it with us. At the end of it, I wanted to write him a thank-you note.

Stephen King, The Colorado Kid. I discovered Stephen King and Bob Dylan in the same year, I think it was the summer of 1977. They’ve always been linked in my mind, and it’s not just because King quotes Dylan frequently – they seem to share a similar worldview, though I couldn’t explain exactly what that is. The Colorado Kid is a very short novel that challenges all our assumptions about what mystery novels are and should be. The characters tell us the story, rather than show us, and leave us without the resolution the genre demands – and yet, as I turned the last page, that felt okay, even right. An author I know prefers to call his books “mysteries” rather than “crime fiction,” because he likes the traditional sense of the word “mystery,” as something unexplained and only partly revealed to us. The Colorado Kid suggests that Stephen King feels that way, too.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Gaia hypothesis

Who uses it: Earth scientists
What it means: The theory that the planet itself is a self-regulating organism, and that climate changes and seismic activity are the earth's own efforts at correcting damage or improving its condition.
How you can use it: To discuss natural disasters.

Some weak form of the Gaia hypothesis is hard to argue with; for example, we now know that forests need periodic fires in order to regenerate and restore the balance of species. The strong form of the Gaia hypothesis -- the idea that the planet has some form of consciousness -- is a little too wacky for me, but forms the basis of many animist religions.

Either way, it's hard to look at this year's string of natural disasters without wondering what the planet might be trying to tell us.

I got a lucky break in the weather yesterday, as I drove from Montreal through Vermont, New Hampshire and western Maine, back to Gardiner. The leaves were gorgeous, and the views were dazzling.

Lots of my neighbors have decorated for Halloween, replacing the natural adornment of spring and summer flowers with pumpkins, scarecrows, toy ghosts and fake cobwebs. The fake cobwebs seem unnecessary, because the real spiders have been so active; I had one the size of a dime hanging out by my kitchen door for almost a week, until the rain washed her away. Spiders don't bother me, as long as they stay outside.

The change of seasons feels intense and mysterious in New England, as the fall reveals things hidden by the growth of summer, and the winter lays everything bare. It's a time and place for ghost stories.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Ponzi scheme

Who uses it: Con men and financiers
What it means: The original pyramid scheme, in which investors were promised a 40% return on their investment within 90 days. The creator, Charles Ponzi, paid off early investors with money from later investors, but the system fell apart when he ran out of new investors.
How to use it: To describe any plan that needs constant infusions of new cash to succeed.

Interestingly, searching for "Ponzi scheme" on my Britannica CD-ROM turns up no articles about Charles Ponzi, but several about Social Security.

Greetings from Montréal, which is très beau. Getting here took a little longer than I'd planned, because -- of course -- I got a little lost in western Maine. MapQuest is useless in Western Maine, where one must rely on Delorme's Gazetteer, a large blue book every Maine resident keeps in his or her car.

But I got here in time to have dinner with the radiant Claire Bea, and will have time for breakfast before turning back around. It was good to break in my new passport, and the border guard was nice enough not to laugh at the photo.

Happy birthday today to my old friend John Zimmerman, who's giving his own passport a workout these days. John, if you see this, drop a line just to say where you are, okay?

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


Who uses it: Hockey players
What it means: A pick-up game, in which no one plays a formal position except the goalie
How to use it: To describe an improvised approach, or a free-for-all.

The Kennebec Ice Arena hosts shinny games on Fridays at lunchtime, and advertises the fee as "all ages" -- I will need to go and see how this works.

It'll be a while before I'm skating well enough to play hockey, but it's not beyond the range of possibility -- which is pretty amazing.

Last night I went from tottering on the ice like a rehab patient after a stroke to actually skating a few strokes backwards, all in about 40 minutes. Polly, my instructor, is paid to be encouraging, so of course she said she was impressed -- but more important, I was impressed at how fast I picked it up.

Anyone who knows me knows that 1) I am not a natural athlete and 2) I am not - uh - particularly graceful. Years ago, I asked my mom why I'd never had ballet lessons as a child; she laughed and said, "Clair, you could barely walk." This isn't unkind, it's just true: I was badly pigeon-toed, and wore corrective shoes until I was about seven. So I never went through any of those usual girly fantasies about being a ballerina or a figure skater.

Last night, though, as I watched the other women in my class (who are all much more advanced than I) tracing edges around a circle on the ice, I could imagine myself doing it too -- gliding across the ice, picking up a skate and turning.

It wasn't on my original list of Things to Do Before I Turn 40, but it seems like a good thing to shoot for.

Monday, October 10, 2005

In the weeds

Who uses it: Cooks and bartenders
What it means: Overwhelmed, swamped (if you're swamped, you're "in the weeds" -- get it?)
How you can use it: When you have more work than you can handle.

We had close to six inches of rain over the weekend, so it's all pretty swampy here in central Maine. Staying in yesterday was a good call. This morning the rain has backed off into a light mist, which Dizzy likes -- I think it enhances his sense of smell.

I am not in the weeds myself at the moment, but I'm driving up to Montreal tomorrow, just there and back, which means losing most of two days of work. So, while today's a holiday for many here and in Canada (Happy Thanksgiving, eh?), I need to get a few things out the door.

Tonight's my first ice skating lesson. I have been on ice skates exactly once in my life, 15 or 16 years ago, on a date with an enthusiastic young man who drove a Porsche. The Porsche didn't impress me, and he couldn't understand why I preferred diners to "real" restaurants (in retrospect, I'm not sure I understand that, either), so the relationship never went anywhere. But I'm still grateful to him for taking me ice skating.

Sunday, October 09, 2005


Who uses it: Mountain climbers, firemen and window washers
What it means: A type of rope used for climbing and rappelling. "Kernmantle" comes from a German word that describes the rope's construction, a cover (mantel) around a core (kern). An ordinary rope will fray or break, if pulled too strongly around a sharp corner; kernmantles are designed not to.
How you can use it: When you don't trust the protection you have, and need something a little stronger.

It's raining hard here, and will be for the rest of the week. No field hockey this morning. Dizzy agreed to walk almost an entire block, but turned around before the corner: too windy, too wet, too miserable, and his best dog friend, Casey, who lives three doors up from us, was not coming out to play.

I had a bad moment yesterday afternoon in the parking lot of the Regal Theaters in Brunswick, where I met Jen and four small children to see the Wallace & Gromit movie (brilliant; I may see it again in a week or two, and I definitely need to own it). It had been pouring rain all day, and the parking lot was full of puddles; I drove through one, and suddenly found my car in about three inches of water. If it had been four inches, I'd have been swamped. As it was, my engine light came on, but I managed to drive through to higher ground.

It's been a lovely nine months or so without car trouble, and I hope to make it a lovely ten months... I'd like to go up to Waterville this afternoon, but it might be more prudent to stay home.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Occam's razor

Who uses it: Logicians
What it means: In any given situation, the solution with the fewest variables is usually the right one.
How you can use it: To cut off elaborate explanations.

If I wake up to find the ground wet, Occam's razor tells me that it rained overnight, not that the circus paraded through town and then the fire department had to come hose everything down.

In fact, it's still raining, but at least it held off yesterday. The Fryeburg Fair was a great time, one last blast of summer. We rode the Ferris wheel, ate fried dough, and looked at many cows and goats.

Because I played hooky for most of yesterday, today requires a little catching up -- it's just as well that it's raining. If I get my work done, I'll go see Wallace and Gromit this afternoon.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Signal to noise

Who uses it: Sound engineers
What it means: The ratio of meaningful information to background noise. Audio reproduction seeks the highest possible signal-to-noise ratio.
How you can use it: When you're filtering useful information from everything else.

Thanks to Tom Ehrenfeld for suggesting this phrase, which already has a fair amount of mainstream use. I first heard the term from my cousin-in-law Greg Cameron, a master of sound who was also the first person to convince me that wearing earplugs at a club isn't a sissy thing to do.

I feel like I ought to comment on the week's biggest celebrity news, but what can I say that wouldn't sound bitter and envious? Come on, people, they're totally in love. He's amazing.

Thank goodness my cousin Sheila is still on the case, looking out for that poor unborn baby Scientologist. Check out the latest at

I'm off to the Fryeburg Fair today, despite the crummy weather. Meanwhile, here's

What I Read this Week

Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys. Not so much a sequel to American Gods as a novel set in the same universe, like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Fat Charlie Nancy returns to Florida to bury his father, and discovers that he has a brother he never knew – a brother who inherited their father’s powers. Anansi Boys is, in some ways, a better novel than American Gods -- tighter, with more sharply-drawn characters, and a much cleaner ending – but American Gods changed the way its readers saw the world, and Anansi Boys doesn’t aim that high.

Alice McDermott, Child of My Heart. What was I saying last week about not reading sensitive books about people like me? I should shut up, already. Alice McDermott writes amazing books about people just like me, and she could scrawl out a shopping list and I’d call it brilliant. This small, quiet novel tells the story of the summer Theresa was 15, when she was “mother’s helper” to a famous artist’s toddler and protector of her fragile cousin, Daisy. McDermott is a novelist of details, and always shows us familiar things in ways that feel new.

Joseph Finder, Paranoia. Slacker Adam Cassidy stages what he thinks is a relatively minor stunt in his high-tech job, and winds up blackmailed into becoming a corporate spy against his company’s biggest competition. As he gets into the assignment, however, he discovers that he genuinely cares about the work he’s doing and the people he’s fooling – and he has no idea what’s really going on. Nothing is more satisfying than a good conspiracy thriller, and this is terrific. It’s so comforting to think that someone might actually be that smart, and have a handle on it all. I’d love to be manipulated… it would be so much easier than having to make my own decisions.

Ciara Considine, ed., Moments: Irish Women Writers in Aid of the Tsunami Victims. This short story collection, a benefit for tsunami relief, is available only in Ireland. I ordered a copy for curiosity value, because it includes a story called “The Cycle” by a previously-unpublished writer named Laura Froom. Miss Froom, some may know, is the title character of an award-nominated short story by John Connolly, and “Laura Froom” is Connolly himself, who agreed to submit a story at the editor’s request. “The Cycle” is a shaggy-dog horror story that would be funny and frightening, if written by a woman; written by a man, it's even funnier, and all the more horrifying, on a couple of different levels. The quality of Moments’ stories varies wildly, but contributions by Clare Boylan, Denise Deegan, and Karen Gillece are among the collection’s other highlights.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (HUP)

Who uses it: Quantum physicists
What it means: The more precisely you measure the position of something (specifically, a subatomic particle), the less precise your measurement of the object's momentum.
How you can use it: When you don't want to interfere with something by naming it or measuring it.

Someone first explained the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to me as the idea that measuring something changes it. This might be true, but it's not the Uncertainty Principle. I don't pretend to understand these things, but I think the Uncertainty Principle says that you can chart motion accurately, or you can measure position accurately, but you can't do both things at the same time.

The idea that we change things by measuring them, though, was very much in my mind last night, when Anna and I saw Grizzly Man. By weird coincidence, today -- or possibly yesterday -- is the second anniversary of the death of Timothy Treadwell, the movie's subject. Timothy Treadwell lived among bears in the Alaskan wilderness for 13 years, until one killed and ate him and his companion, Amie Huguenard.

Grizzly Man is a hard movie to watch. Much of it is Treadwell's own footage, which shows him living out a fantasy of himself as "kind warrior" and protector of the bears, who tolerated him but surely didn't need him. Watching him perform for the camera feels like watching a small child acting out an episode of "Batman." It's an uncomfortable combination of self-consciousness and yearning for significance. Treadwell, who seemed to have serious problems living in the human world, desperately wanted the bears to love him, and convinced himself that they were capable of that.

One of Werner Herzog's points, in this movie, seems to be that Treadwell differs from the rest of us -- and specifically, from Herzog himself -- only in degree. Herzog emphasizes the staginess of his live interview subjects, holding the camera shot long past the natural end point of an interview so that we see how the subjects themselves are posing, are presenting fantasy versions of themselves in their everyday lives. At times, it's downright brutal.

I want to argue with what seems to be Herzog's premise, that we're all just playing out our fantasies of heroism before an audience -- but what's this blog?

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Dead drop

Who uses it: Spies
What it means: A spot unconnected to either party, where one operative leaves a package or a note for another. Spies may leave items at a dead drop without knowing who the recipient will be.
How to use it: When leaving something for a friend to pick up.

Over the past several days, I've had a deluge of "comment spam" on this blog. I think I've managed to clean it all up now, but I hope no one has wasted their time on any links from comments like "Hi! I enjoy your blog, keep it up. Check out my work from home website." I just added word verification to the "comments" feature, and I hope that will stop the traffic. If you have any problems posting a comment with the new feature, send me an e-mail.

I'm not sure why this phrase popped into my head this morning. I'm meeting Anna at the Barnes & Noble in Augusta this evening, and we're going from there to see a movie in Waterville; maybe it was the idea of two people going to a third, unconnected place. This would only be a dead drop, however, if I left my corporal self in the parking lot for Anna to pick up, and my essential self went somewhere else... I guess that could happen, but it would take most of the fun out of going to the movies.

The view from my living room window is a neighbor's big beech tree, which has turned from green to yellow-orange in just the past two days. Colors will peak this weekend, I think; everybody come up and spend some money here.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Shana tova

Who uses it: Observant Jews
What it means: Happy New Year; literally, "good year"
How you can use it: To wish your friends a happy new year on Rosh Hashanah.

Catholicism has the 40 days of Lent, which serve a similar purpose, but I wish that we celebrated these Days of Awe, too. It makes sense to me that the year would begin in fall, instead of at the dead of winter, and everybody should start their year with ten days of introspection and atonement.

Anna and I met for lunch yesterday at the A-1, and she gave me a present from the Charleston Market: a handmade figurine of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes and desperate situations. Anna said she thought I could use it.

I'm glad to have it, but none of my own causes feels particularly lost at the moment. It would be tempting fate to say that I have everything I want -- but anything I want that I don't have just feels frivolous. As we used to say in Washington, pigs get fed and hogs get slaughtered.

Monday, October 03, 2005


Who uses it: Sociologists
What it means: Individuals who know people in many different, apparently unrelated fields, and make introductions across those lines. Stanley Milgram, in his "small world" experiment -- the one that first seemed to prove the theory of six degrees of separation -- called these people "stars." "Connectors," which has become the more popular term, is what Malcolm Gladwell calls them in his book The Tipping Point.
How to use it: To describe anyone you know who seems to know everyone.

Thanks to my cousin Moira for introducing me to this concept, and making me feel good about being a connector myself. (Unkind people, including my own Inner Critic, might prefer the word "dilettante," or -- on especially bad days -- "flake.")

"Six degrees of separation" is more than a theory; it's been proven, and applies to much more than human relationships. Scientists have used the principle to research everything from disease transmission to cellular reproduction.

It's fun to play with random people you meet, if they're willing. In my circles, it would be rare to get to six degrees; I'm pretty sure you can link every college-educated American between the ages of 25 and 40 in four steps, at most.

And much of what we consider coincidence isn't coincidence at all, if we look at it properly. A couple of years ago, I walked into a writing workshop at UCLA that had only 11 students. Two of us had attended the same small prep school, though a decade apart. Two of us had recently moved to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C., and it turned out that both I and a couple I didn't even know thought that one of my classmates might be a good match for the same guy. (That never materialized, but all parties have since paired off happily, so never mind.)

None of this was coincidence. It's only natural that people of similar backgrounds and interests gravitate to the same places, and that paths cross more than once over the course of an 80-year life. Whether these connections last, or slip away, seems to be a question of timing.

Happy birthday and a speedy recovery to my Uncle John... connections are easy when you start with a family as large as ours.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Coffee regular

Who uses it: New Yorkers
What it means: Coffee with cream (or milk) and sugar; "coffee white" is coffee with only cream or milk, "coffee black" is coffee without anything
How you can use it: When you want to sound like a New Yorker, and confuse anyone outside New York City.

Today's posting is in honor of my dad, a native New Yorker who celebrates his birthday today. (He takes his coffee black.) Happy birthday, Dad.

The Lechners and I spent yesterday afternoon at the Cumberland County Fair, eating things that were bad for us and admiring the livestock.

"It seems a little insensitive to eat a steak and cheese in the cow barn," I said to Jen, watching one of the exhibitors eat her lunch next to a stall.

"True," Jen said. "On the other hand, maybe it's very appropriate. People need to know where their food comes from."

Seeing the wisdom of this, we went to visit the pigs -- and a cleaner, happier group of pigs I've never seen. Those pigs seemed so contented that I almost expected one of them to offer me his side and a carving knife, like Norman Lindsay's Magic Pudding.

All the same, I skipped the bacon this morning.

It was good practice for the big event of the coming week: the Fryeburg Fair, which starts today. Anna promised she would go, even though carnival people scare her.

Oh, and we forgot to take any pictures of my new brown hair. Jen said she liked it, but what would she say? I'm washing it this morning, and expect that will lighten it up a little.

P.S. -- It was a weekend for fairs. My sisters Peggy and Susan went to the Virginia State Fair, and the pictures are here. I can't believe deep-fried macaroni & cheese hasn't made it to Maine yet. I feel seriously ripped off.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Trompe l'oeil

Who uses it: Painters
What it means: "Trick the eye," a style of painting that gives the illusion of three-dimensionalism, or photographic reality. See some good examples of it here.
How you can use it: To describe anything illusory. You pronounce "trompe" more or less as it looks (though the "o" is somewhere between "o" and "u"), and "l'oeil" is somewhere between "loy" and "lye," except in the back of your throat. Practice at home a few times.

Despite my alarm at the increasing rate of time's passing, I'm just as glad to be done with September. With a few notable exceptions, it was a rough month for almost everyone I know, and October is bound to be better. Isn't it?

It should shock no one to learn that I am not a natural blonde, and seeing my horrendous passport photo (I look like that artist's rendering of Marilyn Monroe in her sixties) made me think it was time to take the color down a notch. Rather than do the sensible thing, and leave it to a professional, I bought Number 116A on the Nice'n'Easy color palette, "Natural Light Golden Brown."

And now I'm a brunette again -- a much darker brunette than I'd planned or expected. I don't like it, and I'm going to have to change it back, not least because I'm going gray so fast that I'll have a vivid skunk stripe across the top of my head by the end of the month. Which is why I went blonde in the first place... it blends better.

Ack, vanity. I knew I'd regret starting to color my hair, because you can never quit, once you begin. At least I've learned my lesson now about trying to do it myself.

In the meantime, Sheila wanted me to post a photo. I don't have a digital camera, so this will have to do.