Wednesday, November 30, 2005


Who uses it: Biologists and natural scientists
What it means: Winter inactivity of cold-blooded creatures; warm-blooded creatures hibernate, but cold-blooded creatures (amphibians, reptiles) brumate.
How you can use it: I could take a cheap shot and say "Congress's winter recess," but I'm sure you can come up with your own example.

No one bashed Congress better than Mark Twain. Jen used another quotation from Mark Twain in the birthday card I got from her and Lek:
You can't reach old age by another man's road. My habits protect my life but they would assassinate you.

Jen thought I might take offense at that quotation -- or offense that she thought it applied so well to me -- but it's perfect. I have enjoyed, and do enjoy, my life a great deal, but it's not a life I'd recommend to many other people.

I like my solitude, but the truth is that it would sometimes be easier to have someone else around to walk the dog, make the coffee, or do the dishes once in a while. I love not working in an office, but Anthem is raising my insurance premiums to a frightening level after the first of the year, and I sometimes do miss the goofy interactions of life in an office. I miss paid vacations and dental benefits.

Not enough to go back to my old life, but it's a rainy day and it's my blog, and if I want to whine once in a while, I will, dammit.

Today I have to launch a serious apartment-cleaning offensive, because -- hurray, hurray -- Ashton's coming to visit for the weekend! Anna and I are picking him up in Portland on Friday afternoon, and he'll split his time between the Bragdons and me. Dizzy will be so excited to see him, he might rupture something.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Who uses it: The editors of Variety
What it means: A TV series
How you can use it: To describe a long story.

I see how you get the word "flick" for moving picture, because the image does flicker on the screen, but "skein" for series takes some imagination. I'm guessing the metaphor is of a spool of yarns, but does anyone know for sure?

Temperatures rose enough last night to make the trip to Portland easy, especially since I wasn't driving. The Bragdons and the Lechners officially closed my week of birthday celebrations by taking me to dinner at Restaurant Oolong, which I highly recommend. For the record, ginger is a good flavor for ice cream, and an even better flavor for creme brulee.

Here's a continuing puzzle, though: if Asian cuisine has beef (and they do -- we had an excellent Vietnamese beef-and-watercress dish, and I was sorry to skip over the Korean short ribs), why don't they use any milk? I get that temperatures are too high to allow them to store dairy products, but that's not true in the mountain regions, and parts of Japan and China and Korea have very cold climates. It's true that many Asians are lactose-intolerant, but which came first -- the lactose intolerance, or the fact that dairy isn't part of the Asian diet?

Unless, of course, you count crab rangoon, which Anna ordered last night after mocking it as a British colonial perversion of Asian cooking. The British haven't exactly made huge contributions to world cuisine, so I don't mind giving them crab rangoon, particularly since I myself don't eat it.

Monday, November 28, 2005


Who uses it: Heating and cooling technicians, engineers
What it means: Thermal Resistance Factor, a measure of a substance's ability to slow down the transfer of heat between one surface and another. The higher something's R-factor, the better insulator it is.
How you can use it: To describe your degree of protection from something.

Happy birthday, first of all, to the one and only Leigh Peele, who among other things has the world's most infectious laugh.

The world is covered in ice this morning. It's just warm enough -- about 30 degrees -- to let things start to thaw, but the air is cold enough that the melted water turns to glass almost immediately. My tutoring student just called to postpone this morning's session, because she lives in a hilly section of Augusta, and the roads are a mess; ice is much more dangerous than snow.

Dizzy and I went out for the usual walk this morning, but turned around almost immediately. Even Dizzy understood it was just too dangerous, after his back legs skidded out from under him before we'd even left our parking lot. He consoled himself by coming home and punishing his latest toy. The squeaker on this one has lasted a lot longer than they usually do; I'll have to figure out what the brand is, so I don't buy it again.

I'm supposed to go down to Portland tonight for one last birthday dinner with friends, but if the ice continues, we may have to put it off. Despite what I may have said in moments of reckless desire, I'm not really willing to die for a decent Asian meal.

Sunday, November 27, 2005


Who uses it: Windows users
What it means: "Blue Screen of Death," the screen that appears to announce that your operating system has crashed, perhaps fatally.
How you can use it: When something goes badly wrong.

My computer made some ominous noises this morning, and I've been having trouble with my Internet Explorer software. It's time to take it in for a thorough cleaning, but that's the trouble with living in central Maine; I don't really know where to go, and I can't live without it long enough to send it away. Suggestions, Anna or Jen?

Walking in snow again takes some getting used to, and this early snow is ice-laden and particularly treacherous. The combination of its being the first snow and a holiday weekend means that no one's been as conscientious as usual about clearing sidewalks. Dizzy doesn't seem to have trouble, but I do, especially going downhill.

On the drive south from Quebec, not far past the Vermont border, is a sign that marks the 45th parallel -- the midpoint between the Equator and the North Pole. Gardiner's slightly south of that -- at 44.3 degrees north -- so I suppose I can take comfort at the idea that I'm closer to the Equator here than to the North Pole.

Saturday, November 26, 2005


Who uses it: Psychiatrists
What it means: Seeing patterns or connections in otherwise meaningless groups of information. It occurs frequently in schizophrenia.
How you can use it: When someone's stretching too hard to look for meaning.

Apophenia is the opposite, in some sense, of synchronicity, which is Jung's word for meaningful coincidence. In synchronicity, the coincidence is real; in apophenia, it isn't. It's the difference between running into someone on a street corner, just when you want to see them, and happening to be in the same time zone.

It might be synchronicity, but it is more than a coincidence that five of my favorite human beings share today as a birthday: my sisters Peggy and Susan, my brother Ed, my dear friend Doyle Bartlett, and -- most important of all -- the astonishing Christopher Bea, who with his sister Claire is my heart's treasure. Happy birthday, everybody, and may it be the beginning of the best years ever.

Friday, November 25, 2005


Who uses it: Southern California drivers
What it means: Any traffic incident that ties up two or more lanes of highway traffic for at least two hours. The term comes from Loyd Sigmon, a southern California highway traffic reporter who first devised an electronic signal for authorities to alert the media about serious traffic tie-ups.
How you can use it: To describe a bad traffic jam.

Roads around Augusta were treacherous yesterday afternoon, but the snow had turned to rain by the time we got to Freeport. This morning the snow on the ground is mixed with enough ice to make it all sparkle, as if someone had scattered diamond dust on the surface.

The Lechners live just up the road from LL Bean, which is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Their Thanksgiving tradition is to go to LL Bean after dinner, so I tagged along, and bought my first-ever pair of ice skates.

Dizzy and I got home around 8:00. I gave Dizzy a glucosamine tablet and an aspirin, and he passed out until 9:00 this morning, a new record for him. I slept in too, despite having a great deal of work to do today.

One of the books I read this week took a great deal of my time and attention, and will take much more, because it's a book I'll go back to often. The other one... eh, not so much.

What I Read this Week

Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. Part literary criticism, part biography, part history of American Catholicism, this book examines the writing lives of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy, who were roughly contemporaries, read and admired each other's work, and in a couple of cases, became friends and allies. For each of these authors, writing was a way of examining their own beliefs, and reaching toward God. This book makes me long for a time when mainstream culture took serious ideas seriously, and The Seven Storey Mountain was a national bestseller.

Jerrilyn Farmer, The Flaming Luau of Death. I've liked previous books in this series, featuring L.A. events planner Madeline Bean, quite a lot; she's independent, competent, a little disorganized, a little anxious. I don't know what happened to her in this book, where she plans a bachelorette weekend in Hawaii for her assistant, and every practical and realistic element to her seems to disappear. The book is a great travel guide for anyone who wants to visit the big island of Hawaii, but the mystery -- which involves a stalker, a murder, and the difficulties of growing wasabi -- is far-fetched, and the resolution is inappropriately benign. Read the earlier books in the series instead.

Thursday, November 24, 2005


Who uses it: Cooks
What it means: Wrapping lean cuts of meat or poultry in bacon, as a means of adding fat and flavor
How you can use it: To make almost any food better.

My brother Ed has a whole riff about "Foods that Cannot be Improved by Bacon," which basically consists of two items: ice cream and beer. I don't know, though... bacon bits on vanilla ice cream might be a true taste adventure.

Let the amateurs rhapsodize about white Christmases. We have white Thanksgivings in my part of the world. Yesterday was only a dusting, but today we're supposed to get more snow, perhaps as much as four inches.

South of here, in Portland and Freeport, they had much less snow, or maybe it just melted faster. My friends the Eraths are in Biddeford for the holiday, so I met them in Portland last night. We had a beer at The Great Lost Bear, then dinner at Ri Ra, an Irish restaurant/bar on Commercial Street. It's so much fun to go to Portland for dinner, and then it's miserable to have to drive home after.

Today Dizzy and I are bringing creamed spinach and stuffing to the Lechners' Thanksgiving dinner, in Freeport. It's been a while since Dizzy got to go to a Thanksgiving dinner, so he'll be pretty excited once he figures out what's happening.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Bonne hiver

Who says it: French-Canadians
What it means: "Happy winter"
How you can use it: Greetings of the season. You pronounce it "bone ee-VAIR."

In a classic episode of "Northern Exposure," the residents of Cicely, Alaska use this as a greeting for the first snowfall. I haven't been able to find any evidence that this is a custom anywhere in real life, but I love the idea -- so bonne hiver to you all, because it's snowing hard here.

It started as single stray flakes, just as Dizzy and I were beginning our walk to the graveyard; by the time we got home, it was coming down hard, and starting to stick.

Dizzy is thrilled. I didn't know whether he'd remember snow, but he obviously does. He was as excited as a puppy, running around the cemetery attacking piles of leaves before they disappear.

I'm just hoping the Maine Department of Transportation doesn't skimp on sand, because I'm driving to Portland for dinner this evening. The Beetle's been through enough in the last ten days.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Pathetic fallacy

Who uses it: English teachers
What it means: Attributing emotion to inanimate natural objects ("the sky is crying," "the unforgiving mountain").
How to use it: Pathetic fallacies are neither pathetic nor fallacies. Discuss.

Well, it is raining, but I cannot take that as the natural world's commentary on anything, unless it's the anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. It is certainly no reflection on the fact that Tarren Bragdon turns 30 today, and a very happy birthday to him.

Home again, reunited with my faithful dog -- who barked at me when I pulled up in the Lechners' drive yesterday, until he realized who I was. Dizzy had a wonderful time at the Lechners', so much that he did not want to leave; he seemed to want me to stay, so we could be one big happy family in the great house that has a fireplace and a forest and a four-year-old who supplies biscuits on demand. We'll be going back on Thursday, so he'll just have to be patient.

I've figured out what the CDs were that I lost, and the list is dismaying. The good news is that I had TWO copies of London Calling, so that's taken care of. The other good news is that I didn't have the Pete Townshend CD with me after all -- I'd left it in my player at home. The bad news is that I'd jammed a couple of extra CDs in the folder, and one was in the player itself, so I lost 14 CDs, not just 12 -- and these really are pretty close to my list of all-time favorites:

David Bowie, Changes
Mary Chapin Carpenter, Party Doll and Other Favorites
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Imperial Bedroom
Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks (which I do have on cassette)
Electric Light Orchestra's Greatest Hits (do NOT mock me for this; this CD is better than Prozac)
Peter Gabriel, Us
John Hiatt, Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan
The Jayhawks, Smile
The Best of Van Morrison
Bruce Springsteen, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ
Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska
Too Much Joy, Live at Least
Suzanne Vega, Solitude Standing

Not exactly music to smash car windows by, is it?

Monday, November 21, 2005


Who uses it: Writers, particularly in television and advertising
What it means: Throwing out ideas until one strikes everyone as good. The metaphor is of shooting spitballs at a wall to see which ones stick.
How to use it: When improvising.

Heading back to Maine today, officially a year older than when I arrived. I don't feel much different, but there's nothing like hanging out with college students to make one aware of one's age. I was very pleased to discover that Claire's housemate, Jamie, is a fan of Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths and other staples of my own college-era record collection... and dismayed to realize that these are prominently featured at a local club's Retro Tuesday Nights.

It was a lovely weekend, even with the smash-and-grab, which at least gives me a good story to tell. (If I'm still telling it 15 years from now, though, Claire has my permission to smack me silent.) This week I have a daunting amount of work to catch up on, and just a little shopping to do for all the other birthdays coming up on Saturday.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

"Please do not throw confetti..."

The Song: "The Days of Our Lives," High, The Blue Nile, 2004
Composer: Paul Buchanan

It's my birthday, so I'm tossing in a song lyric. This song ends with the line, "An ordinary miracle is all we really need," and that describes me most days... though I've had my share of ordinary miracles, and yesterday was no exception. After the police were so annoyed with me, the Econo-Lodge's manager, Alain, could not have been kinder; he cleaned most of the broken glass out of my car, and found me a place that would repair the window that very day, for less than I probably would have paid in the United States. So now the car is fixed, and safely (I hope) parked in a lot that has a 24-hour attendant.

Friday night, Claire was saying that she embraced the Enlightenment ideals, though she knew it might be naive -- that she believes in people's essential goodness. "I'm more of a medievalist," I said, and Claire asked if that meant I was cynical -- "More fatalistic," I said.

Yesterday, vacuuming the last of the glass out of my car and trudging down to the money exchange bureau (in a light snowfall), I had time to think about what I'd actually meant by that, and what I really do think of human nature -- so I'll indulge myself, today, by waxing philosophical.

I don't believe that humans are essentially good or bad, by themselves. I believe that all of us are born with the capacity for the divine, if we choose to embrace it. It's hard to do, when we let ourselves get so distracted; it's something I don't do often enough, it's something I don't think about often enough or let myself feel often enough. And there's no excuse for that, since that desire to slow down long enough for the divine was one of the major reasons I have changed my lifestyle so dramatically in the past six years.

So that's my goal for the next 40 years.

Happy, happy birthday to my twin sister, Kathy, and a belated happy birthday to my friend Barb Biffle, who celebrated her birthday on Saturday. Thanks to Mom and Dad for getting us here, and letting us live so long.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Smash and grab

Who uses it: Robbers and cops
What it means: Breaking a window and stealing whatever's behind it.
How to use it: Self-explanatory.

My car, left on the street right outside my hotel room window, was the victim of a smash-and-grab sometime early this morning. The thieves got a small portable CD player; the adapter to make it play in my car stereo's cassette player, which does not work; and a folder that includes my 12 favorite CDs, specially selected for this trip. It's the loss of the CDs I'm particularly upset about. Blast them, they probably don't even like The Clash.

I wept -- to the contempt of the Montreal policemen, who told me that this had basically been my fault for leaving anything in my car and presuming to park on the street with a U.S. license plate -- but it's really no more than a big annoyance. I'm already getting the window replaced, and as one of the policemen told me, "It's just material, you weren't hurt."

I have much more to say about this whole experience, but it will have to wait, because I'm taking Our Claire to the movies. This is not going to wreck my birthday weekend.

Friday, November 18, 2005


Who uses it: Readers of the Harry Potter books
What it means: Someone born into a wizarding family who does not have magic powers himself.
How you can use it: To insult family members at your own holiday gatherings.

Going with "muggle" today would have been too obvious... and since you ask, yes, I plan to see the new Harry Potter movie this weekend. In Montreal, as a matter of fact, so maybe we could catch a version with French subtitles. That would be fun.

New York was great, as it always is. New York is the one place in the world where I don't get lost, ever; it helps that most of Manhattan is on a grid, but even so, I always know where I am in New York.

Last night I started out at Grand Central Station, then walked to Times Square, where I tortured myself in the Virgin Megastore for about 45 minutes. I didn't buy anything, because I was afraid that if I let myself buy one thing (the new Echo & the Bunnymen CD, for example, or the Born to Run box set), I wouldn't be able to stop myself, and the next thing I knew I'd have dropped hundreds of dollars.

Thanks to Maeve, Meredith, Deidre, Ruth and Caroline for a wonderful evening. This afternoon I'm off to Montreal; I hear they've had snow, so it might be a winter wonderland.

Oh, and I almost forgot... I've been so busy this week that I only finished two books. Next week I expect to have more reading time.

What I Read This Week

David Morrell, Creepers. A group of urban explorers work their way through an abandoned Asbury Park hotel, days before the hotel is scheduled for demolition; but not everyone in the group is who he or she claims to be, and not everyone is there for purely academic reasons. When the group suddenly realizes they're not alone in the hotel, things get almost unbearably suspenseful -- and Creepers becomes the best kind of literary thrill ride, so exciting that the piling-up of coincidences doesn't even matter. David Morrell is the best working writer of action sequences. Period.

Richard Hawke, Speak of the Devil. I think it's an open secret that Richard Hawke is the pseudonym of Tim Cockey, who writes a series of mysteries I love about Baltimore undertaker Hitchcock Sewell. (If I know about it, I figure everyone must know.) Speak of the Devil introduces New York PI Fritz Malone, the illegitimate but acknowledged son of a former NY police commissioner who disappeared one day. The current police commissioner, an old friend, recruits Fritz to track down a dangerous psychopath who is conducting his own terror campaign against the mayor. The plot's very complex, and has a few holes I'd have liked to see patched -- but Malone is a good character, very much in the Hitchcock Sewell vein, and Cockey deserves to prosper under any name.

Thursday, November 17, 2005


Who uses it: Monetary economists
What it means: The creation of value by printing money (or stamps, or other articles that store value). One definition is the difference between the cost of the raw materials of the coin and its face value, but seignorage is also the unspent value of currency, stamps, or things like Metro farecards.
How you can use it: To describe invisible value added.

Without going into details about this week's project, I've spent a lot of time handling old coins. I'm stupid about money, in any real sense, but I'm fascinated by the processes of it, and how necessary it is to governments.

A 1939 Reichspfennig is gold-colored, made of shiny brass; by 1941, they'd started making them out of zinc, because heavier metals were all going to war production. Many European coins in the years right after the First World War were made of aluminum, and they feel (and look) like play money. Modern Chinese coins might be aluminum, or they might even be some kind of plastic -- I can't tell just by touch.

I'm headed down to New York this afternoon, for a small dinner (a very small dinner, as it turns out, but quality trumps quantity) with friends. Back to Connecticut tonight, and on the road again tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Hot seat

Who uses it: Pilots and airplane maintenance technicians
What it means: The pilot's chair, when a jet returns and goes out again, with one pilot taking over from another without a full turn-around service.
How to use it: When you're switching command on the fly.

If I were better organized about these things, I'd save this term for a day when I'm turning the blog over to someone else... but my cousin Sarah's husband Will sent me the term, and I liked it, so here it is today. Thanks, Will.

Other than that, I have nothing interesting to say today. I'm distracted by several different projects, and the anxiety that goes along with each of them, and I don't seem to have any spare brain space for the usual pondering. (On that subject, though, I saw recently that Pinky and the Brain will soon be out on DVD. It's the perfect gift for the Answer Girl in your life. "Gee Brain, what are we going to do tonight?" "Same thing we do every night, Pinky -- TRY TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD!")

My other e-mail address -- the one that's not listed on this site -- seems to be bouncing messages back to people, though not always, so I have no idea what's getting through and what isn't. For the time being, it's safest to use the Gmail address that's linked to this page. If you've sent me something in the last week or two that I haven't responded to, chances are good that I didn't get it, so please re-send it to my Gmail account. Thanks!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Who uses it: Agricultural historians and organic farmers
What it means: Enriching farmland by adding marl, a calcium carbonate-rich type of earth (marl can be sand, silt or clay).
How to use it: When you're fertilizing with something that isn't manure.

I ran across this word in a manuscript recently, and had to look it up. That led me through several distracting articles about agricultural techniques throughout history, one of which casually mentioned that no one grew potatoes for sale in Europe until sometime after 1700 -- and that sent me searching for more fun facts about the history of the potato, because I'm extremely fond of potatoes, which I swear has nothing to do with my ethnic background.

And while we're threatening indignation over cultural stereotypes, here's a little fuel to the fire:
Nursing home keeps spirits up with own pub

DUBLIN (Reuters) - A nursing home in Ireland has hit on a cheering way to keep up the spirits of its elderly patients -- by providing its own pub.

St Mary's Hospital in County Monaghan, near the Irish border with Northern Ireland, believes ready access to a good pint may help its patients -- average age 85 -- actually live longer.

"We would say the whole social aspect of life does extend the years -- it means the patients aren't bored to death," Rose Mooney, assistant director of nursing told Reuters.

The pub, which opens at 11 a.m. and closes at 9 p.m. and charges normal bar prices, had also led to an increase in the number of visitors, she said.

Having its own bar made the hospital, which has around 140 patients, unique in Ireland, she added.

On the one hand, I'm wincing about this -- come on, does it have to be Ireland? On the other, I'm wondering whether I can already put my name down for admission in 2050.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Mercury retrograde

Who uses it: Astrologers
What it means: A period of time when the planet Mercury appears to be moving backwards through the constellations of the zodiac, due to the Earth's orbit. Astrologers associate Mercury retrograde with difficulties in communication, travel, and technology, but also with reunions and reconciliations.
How to use it: To explain complications during certain periods of time.

I have blogged about Mercury retrograde before -- my friend Gary, for example, believes in it wholeheartedly. I find it a handy shorthand excuse for a lot of things during these periods of time, but (naturally) don't really believe in it. In case you do, however, Mercury went retrograde today, and will not return to "direct" movement again until December 4. Bad news for Thanksgiving travel, for anyone who worries about these things.

Happy, happy birthday today to Carla Forbes-Kelly, who actually does embody many of the traditional Scorpio characteristics -- fierceness, loyalty, wisdom and mystery -- and belated birthday wishes to Lucy Ehrenfeld and William Kinsolving, who both celebrated birthdays on Saturday.

I'm in Bridgewater with the Kinsolvings until the end of the week, resuming work on a few different projects. As I mentioned earlier, the only way to get in touch with me this week is e-mail, which I'll check a few times a day. It's a relief to be relatively inaccessible for a while.

Sunday, November 13, 2005


Who uses it: Literary critics and writers
What it means: A genre that had its heyday in the early to mid-19th century, featuring young women in danger, long-buried family secrets, villains motivated by strong emotion, and (very frequently) a castle or large house with secrets of its own.
How you can use it: To describe something that is unnecessarily melodramatic.

I have no doubt that Lowell, Massachusetts has its own Gothic corners, but the Doubletree Hotel is not one of them.

"It looks like a hospital," said Julia Spencer-Fleming as we pulled up in front yesterday morning. I agreed. "They probably just took old plans for a hospital and adapted them," she said. Large organizations do this, we know; the persistent rumor, when I was in college, was that New South Dormitory had been built from plans for a minimum-security prison.

Unlike Bouchercon, which is more of a mix of authors and fans, the New England Crime Bake seems to be targeted more toward aspiring mystery writers. I'm not an aspiring mystery writer -- my own work-in-progress is not in any way a crime novel, though it has some Gothic elements -- so the value for me here is to be able to meet the other registrants.

Yesterday's highlight (uh -- besides, of course, Chuck Hogan's panel, on the off-chance that you see this, Chuck) was the Mystery Jeopardy game after the evening's banquet. Our team, the "Bellicosies" (I know, I know) came in a respectable second, thanks to to the competitive drive of Dana Cameron and the fact that Karen Olson remembered Columbo had a basset hound.

My client and friend Joe Finder's on a panel this morning, right after a professional skip tracer who's going to talk about how people can disappear. If you don't see another post after this one, you'll know I learned a little too much from that session...

Happy Anniversary to my sister Peggy and her husband, Scott, and happy birthday to my Uncle Gerry.

Saturday, November 12, 2005


Who uses it: Meditators, particularly Hindus and Buddhists
What it means: A simple prayer, often a single word repeated, that helps the meditator focus his or her spiritual intentions.
How you can use it: To describe anything you keep repeating.

Top three things Jen heard yesterday when we were at the skating rink, with all the kids who had the day off from school:

1. "I know how to skate."
2. "I'm not cold."
3. "I'm Spiderman."

"Actually, it works as a mantra, if you say those three things together," Jen said. I agreed, wobbling on the ice behind her.

Today I'm off to Lowell, Mass., for the New England Crime Bake. It's the beginning of a trip that will keep me on the road until the 21st, and the only reliable way to reach me during this time will be e-mail. I'll check in daily...

Friday, November 11, 2005

Flying change

Who uses it: Show riders
What it means: When a horse changes its leading foot in the middle of a canter.
How to use it: When you're making a quick change in tactics in midstream.

Years ago, my friend Nan tried to teach me the basics of posting, trotting, and cantering, but I never mastered the flying change. I liked riding, and maybe I'll take it up again one of these days, but never went through that horse passion so many girls do.

I liked the books, though: Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, and all the Misty of Chincoteague books. The student I'm working with through Literacy Volunteers is reading Black Beauty right now, and I had forgotten how intense and rather frightening parts of that book are. Victorians had much more faith in children's ability to process unpleasant ideas than we do.

This week's reading list includes some intense unpleasantness, too, as well as a little comic relief.

What I Read This Week

Michael Connelly, The Lincoln Lawyer. Mickey Haller has three Lincoln Continentals, two ex-wives, one daughter he doesn't see enough, and a new client who may be the fabled "franchise" -- the wealthy man who's willing to pursue a court fight to prove his innocence. But considering the possibility of this client's innocence leads to the revelation that another of Mickey's clients, a poor man forced into a plea bargain, really was innocent. Mickey has to figure out how to make it right, and how to forgive himself for what he considers conduct unbecoming to himself. This is Connelly's best book in years, with an energy and humor and righteous indignation we haven't seen in the Harry Bosch novels in a while. Longtime Connelly fans have figured out that Haller may be Bosch's half-brother (I won't explain that -- go back and read the books), so it would be great to see the two cross paths in later novels.

Julie Powell, Julie & Julia. Anna first told me about the Julie/Julia project while it was underway: over the course of a year, from 2002-2003, secretary Julie Powell cooked her way through all of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The book is a memoir of that year which draws on the blog, but is not merely a rehash; it's very entertaining, and particularly good when she's writing about the cooking process itself. Her description of Oeufs en Gelee is one of the grossest things I've read in my life.

Sean Doolittle, Rain Dogs. One of the several things I admire about Sean Doolittle as a writer is how different each of his books has been from the others; it's as if he's teaching himself something new with each book. Rain Dogs, coming out at the end of December, is a bleak midwestern thriller with little of the wicked humor that ran through his first two books, Dirt and Burn. That said, there's deep emotion here, and Doolittle takes new risks in this story of Tom Coleman, who inherits his grandfather's riverside campground and winds up drawn into a meth-factory deal gone bad. Rain Dogs is as moody and memorable as the Tom Waits album, though the book's title refers to something else altogether.

Martyn Waites, Mary's Prayer. If I taught a class on noir, this would be one of my textbooks, although it includes images and descriptions I'd like to be able to erase from my brain. Stephen Larkin returns to his hometown of Newcastle to cover a gangster's funeral. Almost immediately, he runs into his college girlfriend, Charlotte, who's now a high-powered lawyer, and hires him to investigate the apparent suicide of her friend, Mary. Stephen, who's cared about nothing since the murders of his own wife and son, finds himself caring too much about Mary's fate, and about the forces of evil at work in his hometown. Mary's Prayer includes graphic scenes of torture that are hard to justify, but the book itself is such a powerful story of doomed love and righteous anger that I was willing to keep reading.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Morton's toe

Who uses it: Podiatrists, shoemakers, runners
What it means: Having a second toe that is longer than one's big toe.
How to use it: To describe my feet.

Happy birthday today to my old friend Drew Schuler, down in Atlanta.

Textbooks and medical dictionaries describe Morton's Toe as a "foot disorder," but at least 50% of the U.S. population has it. In fact, I had no idea that everyone's feet didn't look like mine until I was well into high school.

What makes Morton's Toe a problem -- for more than just finding shoes that fit -- is that it goes along with over-pronation, which is putting too much weight on the insides of one's soles, so that the ankles fall in. Humans want to put weight on their big toes, and those of us with short big toes have to roll our feet toward each other in order to do that. This, in turn, can cause back problems and general ungainliness, as I can testify from personal experience. It also makes your arches hurt like a monster when you're doing something that requires the big toe's participation, like yoga or ice skating.

We had our first ice storm last night. I was planning to walk down to the brewpub, to get the latest news about what's going on with the abandoned Gardiner Paperboard factory. Yesterday, when Dizzy and I walked through there, we saw salvage workers cleaning up the interior, which suggests that someone has bought the place and plans to do something with it. I figured they'd have the scoop at Kennebec Brewing, which is right next door.

But when I opened the door, my deck was covered with star-shaped grains of ice. My need for gossip and Frank's Oktoberfest lager didn't seem as important as my need to keep my bones intact. This morning it's slightly warmer, and the ground is only damp, not glazed -- so maybe I'll try it again tonight.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


Who uses it: Kids (especially in South Park) and others involved in the game most of us call "Rock, Paper, Scissors."
What it means: The game I call "Rock, Paper, Scissors," in which two people settle an argument by making a hand gesture in the shape of one of those three items; rock breaks scissors, paper covers rock, scissors cut paper.
How you can use it: Basic decision-making in almost any situation.

Okay, it's a goofy Term of Art, but I'm throwing it in because I was not familiar with this name for the game, the first time I heard the "South Park" kids use it. Also, on South Park, whenever someone says, "I'll Roshambo you for it," and the other person says, "Okay," that person winds up getting kicked in the groin -- so at first I thought that might be the secret meaning of "Roshambo," until someone enlightened me.

But I invite all of you to do a little basic research about Rock-Paper-Scissors online. Start at the official home page of the World Rock Paper Scissors Society, which hosts tournaments all over the world -- and some of these tournaments award real money! I can't believe I haven't seen this on ESPN2 yet. It just goes to show how far you can take even the most minor of obsessions.

In other news, Maine defeated Question 1 by a handy margin, but Gardiner defeated it by only 49 votes. Forty-nine votes? I don't know how many people actually voted in Gardiner yesterday, but still -- 49 votes?

That's shameful. I want to be open-minded about divergent political views, but it was hard to walk around downtown this morning and not shoot imaginary death rays at neighbors I suspected of voting "Yes." I've never been very good at tolerance of the intolerant.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Who uses it: lawmakers and voters
What it means: A question put directly to a vote by the people of a country or district.
How you can use it: When calling for a group decision.

"Plebiscite" differs from "referendum," in that a referendum is a vote on a proposal or a law that the legislature has already considered, and a plebiscite is the first public action on an issue. The term has fallen out of use, because it's so closely associated with Nazi Germany's sham election that provided legal cover for the annexation of Austria.

The big issue in today's elections here is a referendum, not a plebiscite: Question 1, whether to reject Maine's law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The fact that this is even on the ballot is pretty hateful and horrifying. Dizzy and I went down to Gardiner City Hall first thing this morning, so I could cast my fervent NO vote.

Dizzy would have, too, if they'd let him register.

Monday, November 07, 2005


Who uses it: Astronomers and meteorologists. Also, Robert DeNiro in The Deer Hunter.
What it means: A pair of "false suns" on opposite sides of the real sun, caused by the refraction of the sun's rays through ice crystals. Sundogs almost always appear in pairs, because of the phenomenon that causes them, and they appear most often in winter, when the sun is low in the sky. The scientific name for sundogs is parhelia.
How you can use it: When you see wonders in the sky.

The sun's actually out today, but I didn't see sundogs this morning. I lived in Los Angeles long enough to get used to the idea that if the sun was shining, it would be warm. I've been here a year now, but it's a mistake I still make sometimes.

The song in my head this morning: Elvis Costello, "Every Day I Write the Book." It has my all-time favorite song lyric that makes no sense at all once you actually think about it: "Even in a perfect world, where everyone was equal/I'd still own the film rights and be working on the sequel." Would anyone like to explicate that? Feel free to leave your comments below.

I hit the road again at the end of this week, for ten days. Before I go, I need to finish a few projects, clean my apartment, and do something about the pile of books teetering next to my kitchen door. If I am honest with myself, I know I will never read half of these books -- none of the ones that feature ghosts or friendly witches as detectives, none of the ones in which animals solve the crime, and probably none of the ones set in small towns similar to my own. (I have these books because their publisher sent them to me for free, which makes me feel obligated at least to skim them.)

That feels prejudiced and judgmental, and I'm uncomfortable about that, but how can I read all of those books and still finish the 550-page spiritual biography of Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor and Dorothy Day that's been calling my name for a month? I'm reading as fast as I can, as it is...

I read once that Thomas Jefferson was the last person on the planet who had probably read everything that was available to be read, in every language he could read.

Sunday, November 06, 2005


Who uses it: the Amish
What it means: in Pennsylvania Dutch, it means "running around;" the period of time after teenagers turn 16, when they are sent out into the world to behave recklessly before choosing whether to embrace the Amish lifestyle as adults.
How you can use it: To describe a period of irresponsible behavior.

No rumspringa for me last night, although my friends and I turned around at The Great Lost Bear to see a table full of young men who could not possibly have been 21.

"That's the thing about getting older," I said, "Everybody looks like a baby to me."

"No, they look twelve," said Jen, who is several years younger than I am. "And she didn't even card them."

"That one boy has never shaved, ever in his whole life," I said, about an angelic-looking youth in the corner.

Today's a Morrissey kind of Sunday -- silent and gray, and too wet to play field hockey. It would be overstating it to say "How dearly I wish I was not here," but maybe I'll go to the movies this afternoon.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Coffin corner

Who uses it: Football players and coaches
What it means: The corners of the football field between the five-yard line and the goal line. Punters try to kick the ball there so that the other team has to take the ball near their own goal line.
How you can use it: When you're deliberately sending something to an inconvenient place.

Okay, today's term is a shout-out to the members of my family who will be glued to the television tonight for the Game of Games, the epic confrontation between the valiant, apple-fed youth of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the overrated, over-caffeinated, possibly criminal element from that nasty city at the bottom of Florida. I'm talking, of course, about Virginia Tech vs. Miami, tonight at 7:45 (on ESPN).

Maybe I shouldn't admit this, but I'm not sure I'll be able to watch most of it. I'm headed down to Portland this afternoon with the Lechners. Our original plan was to hit the Maine Brewers' Festival, but it sold out before we could get tickets, and the idea of trying to score tickets from scalpers outside the Portland Expo is too undignified even for me. We can just go to The Great Lost Bear, if we want to try a lot of different beers.

We'll also be going to Margarita's, because they sent me a $10 coupon for my birthday. I am not above corporate marketing ploys, if it means cheap Mexican food.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Standard deviation

Who uses it: Statisticians and mathematicians
What it means: A given range around the recognized mean -- the "mean of the mean," basically the extent of the "normal" range within a set
How you can use it: To pretend you know what you're talking about when looking at a pile of numbers.

Statistics is the one math-related course I wish I had taken, somewhere in my academic journey. Every so often, my work brings me into contact with pollsters or demographers, and it's a language I don't really understand.

I read like a forest fire this week, even for me -- because in addition to these four titles, I read two manuscripts of books that won't be out until next year (and I don't feel right about mentioning either, since it's possible that the final versions will look a bit different from the versions I read), and I'm halfway through another novel. It's not as if I don't have plenty of work to do, either. Returning to Standard Time must be good for me.

What I Read This Week

Lily Tuck, Siam, or The Woman Who Shot a Man. Claire comes to Thailand in 1967 as a new bride. Her husband, James, has some vague job with a military unit that is setting up the Thailand-based bombing of North Vietnam. Claire's first major social event is a dinner with the silk merchant Jim Thompson (a historical figure), who disappears soon afterward. She becomes obsessed with his disappearance, but unable to connect with anyone around her, and the book ends with the title event -- Claire shooting a man, for no real reason. I think Tuck was trying to say something about innocence abroad and Americans' inability to connect across cultural lines, but it fell flat for me. I never had any idea of what Claire wanted, and I didn't care. Reread The Quiet American instead.

Stuart Woods, Iron Orchid. The author was nice enough to send me a copy of this book; otherwise I probably wouldn't have read it, because I'm not crazy about this series, which features a tough ex-MP and former small-town police chief named Holly Barker, and Holly's genius Doberman, Daisy. But Woods' books are always entertaining, and Holly actually takes a back seat this time to the story's villain, Teddy Fay, a fugitive in New York City who's running his own vigilante campaign against suspected terrorists. Fay is a highly amusing character -- who actually shares several attributes with his creator -- and ought to have a series of his own.

Colin Bateman, Divorcing Jack. Now, this book is noir. Belfast columnist and drunk Dan Starkey kisses a young woman who is not his wife, and winds up thrown out of his house and into a deadly cover-up of an old terrorist bombing. I think this was Bateman's first novel -- the U.S. publication date is 1996 -- and he's still finding his voice here, but Starkey is such a great character that I'll definitely track down the rest of the series.

Carol O'Connell, Winter House. I don't know why I didn't read this book last year, because I usually jump on O'Connell's books as soon as they come out. I love this series, about the flawed genius/sociopath Kathy Mallory and her circle of friends, Detective Sergeant Riker and Dr. Charles Butler. This time around, Mallory and Riker are called to the scene of a homicide -- an apparent self-defense killing -- and discover that the woman who defended herself is the central figure in one of New York's most notorious unsolved crimes. The elaborate gothic plot may take one twist too many -- I got a little confused about the ultimate explanation -- but this book was as good as a vacation.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


Who uses it: Corporate lawyers
What it means: Non-disclosure agreement, a promise not to tell anyone what you're working on
How to use it: When you want to keep something a secret.

As much work as I do for as many diverse people and organizations, this week was the first time anyone asked me to sign a non-disclosure agreement. I don't discuss the specifics of my work on this blog, and I rarely even discuss it with my friends -- mainly because most of my projects sound boring to outsiders. It's funny how having to sign an NDA makes me, perversely, want to discuss this project, which is a fairly routine research assignment for a movie in the early stages of development.

The irony is that most of my work on this project is already done, turned in weeks ago. If I'd wanted to blog about it or sell my (boring) inside information to the tabloids, that would have happened already. This agreement is something I have to sign just so I can get paid. So this agreement will be ex post facto, another legal term for another day.

The song in my head since yesterday afternoon: the Neville Brothers, "Sister Rosa." It's on Yellow Moon, and a great live version's on Live on Planet Earth. Go listen to it, and let's all say thank you, Miss Rosa.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Duchenne smile

Who uses it: Psychologists and physiologists
What it means: A true smile, which engages the muscles around the eyes as well as the muscles around the mouth. Duchenne was the French physiologist who mapped the muscles of the face, and determined that genuine smiles involve two sets of muscles.
How to use it: To bust fake smiles.

And because it's in my head now, I have to quote a line from one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs: "In fourteen months, I only smiled once, and I didn't do it consciously." (The song is "Up to Me," and it could be my own life's theme song. It's only available on the Biograph box set.)

The man who took my picture for my Maine driver's license asked me to smile, and I did, but that picture looked so unlike my face in repose that he decided he couldn't use it. After all, it's unlikely that I would be smiling in most situations where I had to hand over my driver's license.

I read somewhere that dogs only "smile" at humans, that it's something we teach them to do. Dogs bare their teeth at each other as a sign of aggression, although a happy dog relaxes its upper lip, so that you see teeth when the dog rolls on its back.

Happy birthday today to my old friend Cynthia Rivera Hunt. Anna said to me yesterday, "I realized I'm not getting any younger," and I understood that she didn't mean it as a cliche. It was one of those "startle" moments, like the shock I had recently when I realized that someone I thought of as middle-aged -- geezery, even -- was only three years older than I am. The advantage of old friends is that we continue to see each other as we first knew each other; since we all age together, we can preserve the illusion that none of us are aging at all.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Who uses it: Celebrants of the Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican day of the dead
What it means: An ornamental skeleton, often just the skull (an example of synecdoche)
How you can use it: To impress friends with your cultural diversity, especially in Maine.

I didn't see any notices in the paper about Dia de los Muertos celebrations up here... if I wanted a sugar skull, I'd have to order it online.

My distant ancestors celebrated the new year on or about November 1 (they didn't use the Roman calendar, so dates of pagan festivals are always pretty arbitrary). It makes sense to me. I've said before that the fall always feels like the beginning of the year; whether that's because of the school year or because my birthday comes in late fall, I don't know, and it doesn't matter.

I need to get a couple of things out the door today, so I'm a little distracted -- I'm sure I'll be more interesting tomorrow. In the meantime, if you haven't read it, go order a copy of Kent Harrington's Dia de los Muertos, a very dark, wildly romantic crime novel that meets all the standards of classic noir.