Friday, March 31, 2006


Who uses it: Immigrants who cross the southern border of the United States illegally.
What it means: Guides who help run would-be immigrants across the border -- by foot, crammed into vans, packed into crates and car trunks, and worse. Coyotes charge exorbitant fees and treat their clients as anonymous and expendable human cargo.
How you can use it: When discussing immigration policy reform.

The mayor of Lewiston, Maine caused an international uproar in the fall of 2002, when he published a letter telling Somali leaders that the city could no longer accommodate new immigrants. Lewiston, a city of 36,000 that is no one's idea of a glamor spot, had taken in more than 1,000 Somali immigrants in the past 18 months. "The city is maxed-out financially, physically, and emotionally," the mayor wrote.

He was accused of racism, a situation that became much worse when a white supremacist group backed him -- with friends like that, who needs enemies? Today, the population of Lewiston, which is declining, is approximately 7% Somali. (Which is what I told the cab driver who took me to National Airport this week, when he asked, "They got any black people in Maine?") And Lewiston understands that assimilating its new immigrant population is essential to any hopes it might have for economic revival. Maine's population is aging and declining; where will growth come from, if not from immigration?

The current system is obviously not working. Demagoguery on both sides of the issue doesn't help. One of the books I read this week should be required for anyone who's making policy on these issues.

What I Read This Week

Peter Abrahams, Oblivion. A surprisingly moving thriller about a private investigator who suffers a brain trauma that causes short-term amnesia. He's lost three days of his life, and becomes convinced he can only save himself by solving the mystery of those three days. Beautifully written, ingeniously plotted, and deeply compassionate. Just terrific.

Susan Kandel, Not a Girl Detective. The second in Kandel's Cece Caruso series, about a biographer of crime writers. In this book, Cece and her two best friends get involved in a murder case that curiously mirrors the books of Cece's latest subject, Carolyn Keene, the pseudonymous creators of Nancy Drew. A fun read, with lots of great trivia about Nancy Drew's history.

Tim Dorsey, Torpedo Juice. The plots of Tim Dorsey's novels are almost irrelevant to the fun of them, which comes from the laugh-out-loud descriptions of southern Florida and the gonzo personality of Dorsey's main character, Serge A. Storms, a psychopathic Floridaphile. In his latest adventure, Serge decides to get married, and foils an evil real estate developer and a disgraced Enron-style executive along the way.

Luis Alberto Urrea, The Devil's Highway. In May 2001, 26 men -- really, 24 men and two boys -- walked into the Sonoran Desert, crossing the border with three coyotes who promised to lead them to Ajo, Arizona. Just a few days later, a Border Patrol officer found five of them near death, lost and dehydrated and cooked by the sun; ultimately, only 12 of the men made it out alive. The Sonoran Desert is stark and beautiful and inexorable, and so is this book -- which, in the chill of a Maine spring, made me reach for my bottle of water and thank God for the accident of my U.S. citizenship.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Ice going out

Who uses it: New Englanders
What it means: The day when the last of the ice disappears from a lake or river.
How you can use it: To celebrate spring.

Anna discusses this term (with pictures) at her blog; she and her husband live on China Lake, where the annual going-out of the ice is a big event.

Fishermen are out in force along the Kennebec River. A sign at Gardiner Landing reminds everyone that fishermen are limited to no more than two quarts of smelt a day between March 15 and June 15... I can't imagine what anyone would do with two quarts of smelt (a small fish like a sardine), so the limit doesn't change my lifestyle any.

I didn't wear The Coat at all yesterday, and it'll be even warmer today. It's weird, I feel kind of defenseless without it.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Umbral shadow

Who uses it: Astronomers
What it means: The shadow the moon casts on the earth during a solar eclipse, which blocks the sun.
How you can use it: Today, if you live anywhere from West Africa to Turkey.

Since umbra is the Latin word for shadow, this term strikes me as a little Pee-wee Hermanish -- "Mmm, shadowy!" -- but I am not an astronomer, so I bow to specialized knowledge.

We had a solar eclipse in northern Virginia when I was very young, and Mom told Kathy and me that we had to be inside by 3:00 in the afternoon. From that, I got the idea that the eclipse would frizzle us if we were outside, or that monsters might walk the streets in the unnatural darkness. (Even as a child, I was good at the worst-case scenario.)

Mom dismissed the idea of eclipse monsters, but said we might burn out our retinas if we were outside during the eclipse -- and so I replaced the idea of monsters with the idea of smoking black holes where my eyes used to be, because how was I supposed to know what a retina was? I was five. Or maybe six.

Anyway, Ashton's mother, Penny, is in Turkey today, seeing the eclipse, and I hope she is well protected from both eclipse monsters and retinal burns.

The Onion's A.V. Club seems to have discontinued its "Five Random Songs from Your iPod Shuffle" feature -- although this week's issue has an interview with the Beastie Boys, which fills me with joy, because they're older than I am. Since they've let me down, here were the first five songs on my Shuffle this morning.

Cat Stevens, “Sitting.” Come on, who doesn’t like Cat Stevens? Admit it. You know you do.

Bill Withers, “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Wow, it’s a ‘70s party this morning. One of the all-time great bad-love songs. “I know-I know-I know-I know-I knoooooow I ought to leave the young thing alone, but ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone…”

Big Head Todd & the Monsters, “Tower.” A lot of BHTM sounds alike to me, though it’s a sound I like. This song is a nice mix of alt-rock and funk.

Rosanne Cash, “Radio Operator.” Black Cadillac is the best album I’ve heard so far this year, and some of the songs are so powerful I can hardly listen to them.

The Connells, “Hey Wow.” A great, catchy, happy pop tune about (I think) being in a mental hospital. I love this song.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Cutting sign

Who uses it: Trackers and hunters
What it means: Identifying and following the signs that an animal or person has left behind on the way through a wilderness.
How you can use it: When you're lost.

Dizzy will never get lost, because he leaves a trail of hair and mud behind him. Jen and Grace and Dizzy picked me up at the Portland airport yesterday in Jen's Outback. Somehow, Dizzy had managed to get mud on the ceiling of the car; none of us could figure out how. He's tall, but not so tall that his paws hit the ceiling.

It'll take a few days to get back to our routine. Dizzy slept in this morning -- all the way to 7:15, which I was grateful for.

Monday, March 27, 2006


Who uses it: Flight attendants
What it means: Checking to see whether the emergency slides are functional on the doors of a passenger plane.
How you can use it: When double-checking your safety measures.

Home again, faithful dog at my side, plowing through my pile of work and wondering where all my mail is. Seriously... I had no first-class mail waiting for me, except for a Mass card for my mom from my cousin Deidre and her partner, Ruth. The Mass is being said at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on April 25, and it's barely possible I can be there in person -- if you will be in New York that day and have any interest in going, send me an e-mail and I'll give you the details.

Spring is here, and the weather is spectacular. The sun won't set until 6:00 tonight, and it'll be up again tomorrow at 5:30. It looks like most of us have made it through another winter.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Soft science

Who uses it: Physicists, geologists, chemists, and other "hard scientists"
What it means: A disparaging term for any academic discipline or experiment that has scientific aspects, but does not meet the scientific method's requirement that experiments have verifiable and reproducible results. Anthropology, economics and psychology would all be considered "soft sciences."
How you can use it: To criticize sloppy work.

My sister Susan was shelving magazines the other day at the bookstore where she works (at one point, four members of our family were working in bookstores), and came across the current issue of Fate magazine. Her inventory list told her to shelve it as "speculative science," next to that other notorious soft-science rag, National Geographic. In the world of Barnes & Noble's periodicals, the werewolves of England and the tigers of Siberia are roughly equivalent.

Thank God for places like St. John's College, where kids are still learning the process of critical thinking. My friend Megan and I went up there last night to meet the Beas and see Our Chris in a production of Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things. It's a perfect play for college students, in many ways, because it asks the fundamental questions: who are we really? Are we different in relationships than out of them, and if so, why? What are we willing to do to stay connected, and what is our moral obligation to the people we're connecting with? Finally, how much license does an artist have to create at the expense of others? Chris was great, playing somewhat against type (a careless, handsome frat boy -- he is handsome, of course, but neither careless nor the fraternity type).

It's a beautiful day here in Washington, and my back is much better. If I get enough work done, maybe I'll head up to the National Zoo to see the baby panda. I think they have a Siberian tiger, too. But no werewolves.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Blood-brain barrier

Who uses it: Neurologists and pharmacologists
What it means: A membrane that keeps most toxins in the bloodstream from reaching the brain. It is the major reason that most infections don't reach the brain.
When you can use it: When ingesting things that aren't good for you. In case you were wondering, alcohol has little trouble with the blood-brain barrier.

This term has no specific relevance to me this morning, because I didn't go out last night; my back hurt too much, and I had too much work to do. Joseph stayed in too, we ordered a pizza, and I finished writing The Mystery Bookstore's massive April newsletter, which is the second-longest of the year.

I meant to do nothing today but work, but my back is not cooperating, again; I need to loosen it up enough to go to Annapolis this evening, so have spent a while in some serious stretches. Growing old isn't much fun.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Choke artist

Who uses it: Sports fans and sportswriters
What it means: Players and teams who regularly lose important games; see Boston Red Sox, 1919-2004 and Chicago Cubs, 1908-present.
How you can use it: When your favorite team doesn't do as well as you expected.

Let's get it straight: Teams in the NCAA basketball tournament cannot be choke artists, at this point. They can blow games, they can disappoint expectations, but they cannot "choke." They've already won too many games, and how can anyone call getting to the Sweet Sixteen a failure?

I'm not in the best of moods this morning. I am panicked about my workload, my computer keeps shorting out, and I've thrown my back out again. Why do these things all seem to happen at once? I've had almost no time for reading anything that wasn't work-related, but one of those things was a very good book.

What I Read This Week

Lawrence Block, All the Flowers are Dying. Block's Matt Scudder books may have been the first "darker" detective novels I read, after plowing through all of Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham. Scudder has aged through the series, and must now be in his mid-60s; he's been sober for many years, and is happily married to Elaine, an ex-call girl. The books, however, remain as dark as ever, and this one is particularly disturbing. Scudder hunts a serial killer who tortured Elaine's best friend to death, and seems determined to wreak vengeance on Scudder himself. The book includes long passages narrated from the killer's point of view, which bothered me a great deal -- I know that was the point, but the almost-loving descriptions of rape, torture and murder are not what I read crime fiction for.

Merle Miller, Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman. Journalist Merle Miller conducted a series of interviews with former President Harry S. Truman, his friends and White House colleagues in preparation for a television series that never aired. Instead, Miller turned the interviews into this wonderful book. Harry Truman never worried about polls or politics. He cared about what was right, he did his research, and he had no desire for the perks of office. Public life never had many men like him, and now seems to have none at all. The Lechners love this book so much that they own two copies, and lent one to me.

Thursday, March 23, 2006


Who uses it: Filmmakers and sound technicians
What it means: Replacing live dialogue with dialogue recorded in a studio. The official name for this process is automated dialogue replacement (ADR). It may also be called "dubbing," but looping is replacing dialogue in the same language, and dubbing sometimes means replacing dialogue in a different language.
How you can use it: When you're not hearing what's being said.

The project I've just started involves recording and transcribing what will be hours of personal interviews. It's got me thinking a lot about the processes of listening and hearing.

I don't usually tape interviews. I am blessed with an exceptionally good memory (that's not bragging, because I did nothing to earn it and and do nothing to take care of it -- rather the reverse, in fact), and I've always found that my note-taking and my memory were accurate enough for anything I was doing. I do believe in allowing sources to approve their quotations, which is a controversial and objectionable practice among serious journalists. But I don't write exposes, and I think that adversarial journalism is often just as misleading as press releases can be.

Anyway, transcribing these tapes has shown me that my memory is not as good as I thought it was. When I listen to a live speaker, I fill in words that might be missing, and draw conclusions that the words themselves might not support. I don't know how dishonest that is; I don't know if I'm intuiting what the speaker actually means, or simply imposing what I think they should mean.

It's very interesting, and not a little humbling. I think I'll be taping a lot more of my interviews from now on.

Dad came up from Virginia Beach last night. Joseph and I met him at the train station, and we all had dinner at The Dubliner. Is it just me, or are there really only about a dozen Irish songs? I swear we heard three different versions of "The Wild Rover" last night. Not to be disloyal to my heritage, but one would have been enough for me.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Summary judgment

Who uses it: Judges and lawyers
What it means: A ruling that ends a trial by declaring that no facts remain to be established, and that the judge can make a decision without continuing.
How you can use it: To end an argument.

As I wrote to Claire yesterday, I might be getting a little old for this lifestyle. I was up at 4:15 yesterday morning, rushing around to finish a couple of things before leaving for Washington. I landed at Reagan National around 1:30, took the Metro into the city, and spent the next few hours talking on the phone, shooting off e-mails, and trying to finish some reading before a meeting this morning.

I had dozed on the plane, but never got a real nap, and then Joseph and I went to the 9:30 Club to see Stereolab. It was a good show -- I love watching electronic bands recreate their sound live, and any band with a female lead singer who also plays the trombone is aces with me -- but sometime around 11:00, I hit the wall. We left before the encores -- one of these days I'll rant about the practice of the automatic encore -- and walked back to Johnson Avenue in a light snowfall, which was mildly surreal. The cherry blossoms are already starting to pop, and the combination of snow and flowers in the middle of the city was breathtaking.

Anyway, all of this is to say that I'm feeling a little fragile this morning, and I still have a couple of things to do before my 9:30 appointment. Today promises to be another long day, so I'm about to have the first of many cups of coffee, and I'll be back tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

"Laugh while you can, Monkey Boy."

The Movie: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, 1984 (Earl Mac Rauch, screenwriter; W. D. Richter, director)
Who says it: John Lithgow as Dr. Emilio Lizardo, a mad scientist
The context: Dr. Lizardo warns the attendant at the mental hospital where he's confined.
How you can use it: When people aren't taking you seriously enough.

I'm rushing around this morning because I'm leaving for Washington, D.C. this morning, and Jen is coming to pick Dizzy and me up in about three hours.

Why, you ask, can I not drive myself to the Portland Jetport, dropping Dizzy off along the way? Ha, ha! Because it's been more than a year since my last major car trauma, and I was overdue.

Last Friday, driving up to Gardiner from Freeport, I noticed an ominous clunking sound from my engine. Jen was in the car with me, so we pulled off to the nearest gas station and added two quarts of oil to the engine -- which mystified me, because it hadn't been very long since my last oil change, and I hadn't seen any leaks.

The clunking sound improved, but didn't go away -- so I brought the car in yesterday morning, and discovered that the engine had actually slipped off one of its mounts, and was partially resting on the car's front axle. No wonder it was clunking. The mechanic's theory is that the engine mount had been loosened during one of the accident or repair adventures of 2004-05, and the recent crop of frost heaves knocked it off completely.

Remarkably, this will not be as expensive to repair as I'd feared; a week and $500 from now, my car will be as good as new. Again.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Vernal equinox

Who uses it: Meteorologists and astronomers
What it means: The date when the sun passes over the equator, traveling from south to north, and day and night in the Northern Hemisphere are roughly equal.
How you can use it: Happy first day of spring.

Day and night are not completely equal, up here in Maine; we're far enough north that it's already 12 hours and five minutes between sunrise and sunset today. And it's 14 degrees outside, but I believe that spring is here. I saw some baby birds the other day, and the trees are budding.

The sun rose at 5:45 this morning, which I know because Dizzy alerted me. For once, I was grateful, because I have a ridiculous amount of things to do before I leave for Washington again, tomorrow.

I'm 9-7 on my second round NCAA picks, which I don't care about, since Georgetown crushed Ohio State so handily. Last night's Sopranos episode was one of the best things I've ever seen on television, and yesterday's LVA fundraiser raised a few thousand dollars for the cause. I was relieved to see that most of the books for auction went for higher prices than the giant Whoopie Pie.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Functional illiteracy

Who uses it: Teachers, social workers, sociologists
What it means: Having basic reading, writing and math skills, but not being able to use those skills in everyday life.
How you can use it: Don't assume everyone can read what you're writing, and act accordingly.

The student I work with through Literacy Volunteers grew up speaking a language and using an alphabet other than English. Her English reading and writing skills are actually quite good, but business English is full of mysteries that need decoding, even for native speakers.

We spent one morning going through a newspaper's classified ads, which was a revelation to me. Classified ads aren't even written in English: F/T, P/T, EOE, exp. req.? People with low reading skills skip over the words they don't understand, and look for words they recognize -- which makes them particularly susceptible to scams and exploitation. Sometimes they pretend to be able to understand more than they do; sometimes they admit that they have to trust another person's explanation of the paper in front of them. Either way, they're vulnerable.

Literacy Volunteers of Augusta is holding its big annual fundraiser, a dessert party at the Senator Inn, this afternoon at 1:00 p.m. Tickets are $10.00; if you're in the neighborhood, drop by. If you're not, think about volunteering or making a donation to your local LVA chapter or adult education program.

Saturday, March 18, 2006


Who uses it: Sociologists
What it means: Any piece of information that gets transmitted from one person to another, helping build a cultural identity -- the word comes from the Greek mimeme, something that is imitated. Richard Dawkins coined the term in his book The Selfish Gene, which I need to reread.
How you can use it: To describe everything from urban legends to your school's fight song.

In Blogworld, memes are the kind of lists we used to record in our elementary school slam books -- three places you'd like to live, five people you'd like to banish from the face of the earth, ten things you'd do with a million dollars.

NCAA tournament picks are a meme, too, and I'm feeling a little cocky about my record so far: 23-9, including Bradley's stunning upset of Kansas. HA! All of my Elite Eight teams are still in it, too. Hurray for me.

In honor of today's term, let's start a meme. Post your own answers in the comment section, and forward this to anyone you think might want to play.

1. What's the last book you finished? All the Flowers are Dying, by Lawrence Block.
2. What's the first book you remember reading on your own? The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss.
3. Name one book you still have from your childhood. A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
4. Name one book you really, really wish you hadn't read. The Bridges of Madison County, by R. J. Waller.
5. Name one author, living or dead, you'd like to have dinner with. Dorothy Parker.

Oh, and if you're a Maine resident, please don't forget to sign our petition to Bring Trader Joe's to Maine. Thanks for your support.

Friday, March 17, 2006


Who uses it: Georgetown University (est. 1789, ad majorem Dei gloriam)
What it means: "What." Really. According to tradition, Georgetown's football team used to be called the Stonewalls. The students cheered them on with the chant "Hoya Saxa," which is the Greek word for "what" and the Latin word for "stones," or "rocks." Eventually, the team became the Hoya Saxas, and then just the Hoyas. Georgetown still uses the "Hoya Saxa" cheer, which is call and response -- so if someone (not me, of course) leans in your face and yells, "HOY-AH!" you yell, "SAX-A!"
How you can use it: See if you can get a round of "Hoya Saxa" going in your place of business, around 2:30 this afternoon Eastern time. It couldn't hurt.

Answer Girl's NCAA bracket picks: 10-6. Not bad, especially since I was looking like a genius for picking Xavier, for most of that game. It's turning out not to be such a great year for the Big East -- so far -- but we'll see how things go today.

Dizzy and I are in Freeport this morning, and getting ready for a busy weekend. This afternoon, Jen and I are going up to Gardiner to watch the Georgetown game at the Kennebec Brewing Company, where we will all partake of Frank's corned beef-and-cabbage feast (I skipped meat on Wednesday, in anticipation). Then we'll roll by the RV and Camper Show in Augusta -- I'm not kidding about this, Jen really wants to go (and I do too, for the anecdotal value), before returning to the pub for more basketball and beer.

Tomorrow I need to run some errands, including picking up a giant Whoopee Pie to be auctioned off at the Literacy Volunteers of Augusta's annual fundraiser on Sunday afternoon. It's a dessert party at the Senator Inn, and we'll be auctioning off signed first editions of books by Maine-based or Maine-affiliated authors, including John Connolly, Tess Gerritsen, Linda Greenlaw, and Julia Spencer-Fleming. Gerry Boyle will give a short talk, and it should be a grand time. Tickets are $10, available at the door.

What I Read This Week

Thomas Perry, Nightlife. It's been more than three years since Thomas Perry's last novel. On his website, he says he's spent the time "learning how to write a better book," which was hard to imagine, because his earlier books (Metzger's Dog and the Jane Whitefield series, among others) are terrific. But Nightlife was worth the wait. Charlene Bruckner reinvented herself as Tanya Starling, a woman any man would want, in order to get the life she wanted. When things don't work out with the man she'd chosen, she kills him -- and then has to kill again, and again, to keep herself safe. Pursuing her is homicide detective Catherine Hobbes, who's been on her own quest for safety. When these women finally meet, the ending feels both inevitable and abrupt -- but only because we've been so completely drawn into their world. Bravo.

David Prerau, Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time. I actually wish this book had been longer. It's a quick and fun history of the adoption of DST, or Summer Time, and includes some good anecdotes about the confusion of the 1950s and '60s, when every U.S. locality was allowed to make its own decision about changing the clocks. But because I am a nerd, I'd have loved to read more about the politics of it -- particularly the 1984 bill that was the last big national debate over it, and inspired a newspaper contest to see who could save the most daylight.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


Who uses it: Epidemiologists
What it means: A worldwide or nationwide outbreak of an infectious disease.
How you can use it: Wash your hands.

My friend Dan lives on a small farm in the west of England, and lost his chickens to a marauding fox last year. ("Losing one's chickens" sounds like a euphemism for something much worse, doesn't it?) The other day I asked whether he'd be getting more, now that spring is here.

He said he was going to wait until the outbreak of avian flu had passed -- which startled me, because I hadn't given any thought to avian flu since shrugging off the press hysteria last fall.

But yesterday, the federal banking agencies sent out their own Interagency Advisory on Influenza Pandemic Preparedness, part of a nationwide federal initiative to make people aware of the possibility of a flu outbreak, and take appropriate steps.

Curious, I clicked through a few links, and managed to scare myself silly. The federal government's set up an elaborate website at, with checklists to tell people what to do to prevent infection and keep from spreading the flu if they get sick.

It all boils down to three things: 1) Wash your hands a lot. 2) Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. 3) Stay home if you're sick, and stay away from sick people if you're not. The website also provides a list of things people should have on hand for an extended stay at home, but they're things we should all have on hand anyway: canned goods, extra pet food, batteries, etc.

I've been interested in the history of the Spanish flu outbreak in Maine, because the second wave of the pandemic in the United States started in Boston. It's been hard to find contemporary local accounts, because everything simply shut down during the epidemic, and government officials didn't want to panic people by releasing too much information.

Looking at yesterday, I wondered whether we have the opposite problem now: with so much information available, it's hard to know what really needs our attention.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

On spec

Who uses it: Writers, other creative types, entrepreneurs
What it means: Doing a job with no promise that anyone will pay you for it.
How you can use it: When you're taking a risk.

This week, among many other projects, I'm reading three spec scripts for a production company I do coverage for. Breaking into Hollywood is not as difficult as you might think... in the same way that getting your first novel published isn't that hard, either. All it takes is writing something excellent.

Hundreds of people like me read thousands of scripts every week, and speaking only for myself, three-quarters of them are absolute trash. Another fifteen percent of them have strengths but need work, or are movies that just aren't my cup of tea. About 10% of them are movies that I'd actually want to watch.

Of the scripts I'm reading this week, one is abysmal but will probably get made, because it's a marketer's dream. One is for an audience I will never be part of, and might already be too late to catch the pop culture wave it's trying to ride. One is excellent, and would make a great vehicle for any of several 30-something actresses, but will need luck and a strong advocate to make it to the screen.

This week's issue of the Onion A.V. Club is missing my favorite recurring feature, where they ask some random celebrity to name and explain the first five things that come up on their iPod's random shuffle. To remedy this absence, the first five songs that came up on mine this morning were "The Broad Majestic Shannon," by the Pogues; "Funny How Time Slips Away," by Al Green; Nina Simone, “My Baby Just Cares for Me;” Francine Reed, “I Want You to Love Me;" and Bruce Springsteen, “Spare Parts.” Contrary to what this list might suggest, I have bought new music since the turn of the century...

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


Who uses it: College basketball coaches, analysts and fans
What it means: The Ratings Percentage Index, used to help the NCAA Tournament selection committee choose teams and seedings. For men's basketball, the RPI is a combined numerical rating of the team's record, its strength of schedule, and its opponents' strength of schedule; the women's RPI includes a bonus factor based on the team's performance against top-ranked opponents.
How you can use it: When making your NCAA tournament picks.

Okay, let's get this out of the way first: betting on college sports is wrong. These are kids, not professionals or racing animals, and they are in no way responsible for the financial well-being of strangers.

That said, making predictions for bragging rights, or for some token reflection of those bragging rights (say, a pool that does not exceed some humble amount) doesn't really count as betting. How's that for a rationalization? (It's the same, in my mind, as saying that "Jesus, Mary and Joseph," is not taking the Lord's name in vain, it's a spontaneous prayer.)

So let's get down to it. My Final Four predictions: I think it's going to be a very, very good year for the Big East. I pick West Virginia, Pitt, UConn, and Villanova, with West Virginia and UConn in the final, and UConn winning it all. First round upset predictions: Iona, NC State, Penn, Bradley, Xavier -- yes, Xavier! -- South Alabama, Montana, Seton Hall, and George Mason. My beloved Hoyas will make it to the Round of Eight before losing -- again -- to Villanova. Only Scott Peeples will truly understand how that prediction pains me, but it's a rebuilding year.

Post your own predictions in the comments section...

Monday, March 13, 2006


Who uses it: Law enforcement officials
What it means: The unknown subject of an investigation.
How you can use it: When you don't know who's responsible for something.

If you watched last night's episode of "The Sopranos," you know exactly who's responsible for shooting... oh, wait. Did anyone out there not see it? I don't care about spoiling it for any American readers, but I'm not sure when this season will air in Germany or the UK... so maybe I won't say any more about it.

But I watched Don Imus this morning, and if I didn't already have plenty of reasons to loathe and despise Donald Trump, his admission that he doesn't really care about "The Sopranos" would have been the last nail in his coffin.

I will say this, though. David Chase and his writers are never willing to let us get too comfortable with these characters. Just when we've decided Tony is a jerk, they show us him cooking dinner for the uncle who tried to kill him. Just when we think we'll root for Carmela, we see that she is a nasty piece of work in her own right. And everything -- everything -- has consequences. It's the best thing on television, and I may have to watch this episode again before next week.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

A friend of ours

Who uses it: Mafiosi
What it means: A fully-sworn member of an Italian crime family.
How you can use it: To identify your own inner circle.

Forming emotional attachments to fictional characters is one hazard of living alone... but I am not ashamed to say I can't wait for tonight's premiere of "The Sopranos." It is the only reason I subscribe to premium cable. I even considered cancelling my dinner plans (with live human beings) for this evening -- until I remembered that I can catch the West Coast feed at midnight, if I'm not home before 9:00 p.m.

HBO has been rerunning the series from the beginning over the past few months, and I've managed to watch a lot of the episodes again -- particularly Season 4, which seemed kind of dull when it first aired, but now seems brilliant in its careful construction of characters and plots that paid off in Season 5.

I can think of only two other TV series that have managed to sustain such a high level of quality over such an extended period of time: "Homicide" and "The Simpsons." (And it's a new episode of "The Simpsons" tonight, too. Maybe I should rethink my dinner plans after all...)

Last night's dinner cabaret at Maple Hill was just swell, in the best tradition of "let's put on a show!" community theater. Anna said on Friday night that it was like watching a Hallowell talent show, and that's the fun of it; who knew the spokeswoman for the Maine Emergency Management Agency had such a fantastic voice?

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Mud season

Who uses it: New Englanders
What it means: The time after the snow melts before summer comes, when everything on the planet is covered in muck.
How you can use it: Right now.

We got three inches of snow on Thursday night, and today's temperature will be close to 50 degrees. The result is that everything -- everything -- is covered with an inch-deep layer of mud. That includes sidewalks, many streets, my parking lot, and Dizzy, who loves this time of year more than any other.

I no longer remember what color my car used to be. I haven't seen the color of its carpeting in months.

This morning I'm rushing out the door to Hallowell, because we have to move the set dressing, sound and lighting equipment from City Hall to Maple Hill Farm, the site of tonight's Gaslight Theater fundraiser. Anna, Tarren and Lek came with me to last night's performance, and a fine time it was. I'll post a longer review tomorrow.

Friday, March 10, 2006


Who uses it: Publishers and booksellers
What it means: Advance Readers' Copy, an uncorrected proof of a book distributed to booksellers, reviewers and librarians before publication.
How you can use it: When you get a sneak preview.

ARCs are the major perk of bookselling, a job that is otherwise pretty thankless. Although I no longer work inside a bookstore, my newsletter-writing for The Mystery Bookstore keeps me on the distribution list for advance copies, which means that the book storage situation in my apartment will never be under control, and my to-be-read pile will never be exhausted.

A friend with a similar problem told me not long ago that he would never again read anything he hadn't sought out for himself -- but he won't be able to keep that vow, and neither can I. If someone sends me a book for free, I feel obligated at least to look at it, and usually to read the first few chapters. Thank goodness, I no longer feel compelled to finish every book I start. Most of the ARCs I get don't merit more than fifteen minutes before I decide I don't want to read any more.

I live in terror that if I stop reading the ARCs, the publishers won't send me any more -- and then I'd miss out on the early copies of books I really do want to read, which include two of the titles in What I Read This Week.

Douglas Preston, Tyrannosaur Canyon. Doug Preston is a scholar and a gentleman who writes fascinating non-fiction and great escapist fiction, both alone and with his writing partner, Lincoln Child. His latest solo effort brings back two main characters from Codex, this time on the trail of a dinosaur fossil that could change the future, as well as our ideas about the past. As good as a vacation, and a perfect gift for any teenaged boys in your household who think reading is boring.

Harlan Coben, Promise Me. Like many of Mr. Coben's fans, I have been waiting six years for a new Myron Bolitar novel, and getting an advance copy of this one was just like Christmas. This book could be called "Myron Bolitar Grows Up," and finds the sports agent facing the issues of middle age: aging parents, the marriage of an old flame, and the adolescent perils of his friends' children. If I still ran a discussion group at the store, I'd love to have a group compare and contrast this book with Laura Lippman's To The Power of Three and Rochelle Krich's ...Now You See Me, which all explore similar issues.

Denise Hamilton, Prisoner of Memory. Seventeen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I sometimes get the feeling that people think of the Soviet system as rather quaint or benign, and the Cold War as a big waste of time. Denise Hamilton's latest Eve Diamond mystery does a terrific job of showing just how brutal the old regime was, and how much it cost people who suffer its effects to this day. L.A. Times reporter Eve Diamond discovers she has a long-lost Russian cousin on the same day that the teenage son of Russian emigres is killed in Griffith Park. Her personal and professional investigations lead to more violence, and the revelation of long-kept secrets. I've been recommending Denise's books for a long time to people who want to know what "the real Los Angeles" is like, but she takes a major step forward with this book.

Promise Me and Prisoner of Memory will both be in bookstores next month. Go buy them, so Putnam and Simon & Schuster will keep sending me ARCs.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Prisoner's dilemma

Who uses it: Mathematicians and logicians
What it means: A situation in which two adversaries try to gain benefits by betraying each other. In the prisoner's dilemma, A and B face the same set of charges. If both A and B remain silent, both go free. If A rats out B (while B stays silent), he goes free while B serves a full prison term. If B rats out A (while A is silent), he goes free while A serves the full term. If A and B rat out each other, both serve shorter prison terms. In game theory exercises, players generally start by betraying each other, but quickly learn to cooperate.
How you can use it: When you win by trusting your partner.

The U.N. Security Council meets today to discuss Iran's nuclear program, and I don't understand why the American press isn't paying more attention to this. Today's New York Times leads with Congressional opposition to the Dubai ports management deal; the Washington Post reports on its own poll about American perceptions of Islam; and Drudge is shrieking about National Guard troops at the Arizona border.

Have I lost my mind? Am I overreacting? Can I really be the only one who sees World War III about to start in earnest, or have I lost all touch with reality?

Even if I have lost all touch with reality (quite likely), this is more important than partisan grandstanding on Capitol Hill or Tom DeLay's primary victory, as horrifying as that might be. Yes, it's even more important than David Hasselhoff's domestic violence charges or Barry Bonds' shamelessness in spring training.

Since I do not rule the world and cannot protect myself against nuclear attack, ranting about it here is as much as I can do. I can also ask anyone who might be in the Augusta area this weekend to consider attending Gaslight Theater's winter fundraising event, "Omar Ricardo and His Many, Many Women," playing tomorrow night at 7:30 at Hallowell City Hall and as dinner theater on Saturday, at 6:30, at Maple Hill Farm. Thank you for your support. (Tomorrow's term: non sequitur...)

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Affective viscosity

Who uses it: Psychologists and behaviorists
What it means: The tendency to prolong contact with other people, and to talk repetitively and in excessive detail about a narrow range of subjects.
How you can use it: The next time you're cornered.

Did you know there was a name for this? It happens to everyone -- someone decides that they really, really need you to understand something, and isn't going to let you go until you do. Of course, it has nothing to do with your understanding; it's about their need to feel understood, which you have no control over. It's my worst nightmare -- not just being the recipient of this, but doing it to other people.

People who consistently behave this way, however, often suffer from some kind of temporal lobe disorder -- epilepsy, or a lesion, or a traumatic head injury of some kind. They might or might not be aware that they do this, and they're probably incapable of changing their behavior. Medication can help, but not always.

Years ago, I met an anthropologist who studied customs of parting. He said that Westerners are very bad at saying goodbye to each other; we're great at greetings, but we slip away from each other without acknowledging the departure. I've noticed this ever since, not least because I'm bad at goodbyes myself. For me, it's a matter of fear -- if I say goodbye, will that be the end?

And is becoming good at "goodbye" something we should aspire to?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Who uses it: Printers
What it means: A printer's mock-up of pages ready for printing, made from film on photo-sensitive paper; the last stage at which an editor can make changes before printing.
How you can use it: When you're looking at a final draft.

Digital printing has made bluelines nearly obsolete, for most printing jobs, and that's a mixed blessing. Our digital world has made proofreaders sloppy; I just finished reading another book that was full of misspellings and typographical errors.

On the other hand, technological improvements have ended printers' long tyranny. When I first started writing a weekly newsletter, in the early 1990s, I lived in terror of making changes at the blueline stage -- not only because it was expensive, but also because it annoyed my printer so much. But I know I was much more careful back then.

We're living in a virtual world. I went to a concert last night with my friend Matt, although he lives in New York, I live in Maine, and the concert was in Washington, D.C. Belle and Sebastian were playing at the 9:30 Club, streaming audio on National Public Radio; Matt and I were listening and chatting via Instant Message. Instead of standing in a smoky club with a plastic cup of wine in my hand, I was sitting on my living room sofa, sipping a mug of Theraflu (yes, I'm catching another cold). I am a complete geezer. Also, I need some real speakers for my laptop.

The crack about geezer-dom is a little too close to home this morning, after news of two deaths -- from natural causes -- of people who were roughly my contemporaries. Kirby Puckett is dead at 45, from a stroke, and Dana Reeve is gone at 44, from lung cancer. How does that happen? Terribly unfair, and sad beyond words.

Monday, March 06, 2006


Who uses it: Legislators and lobbyists
What it means: Agreeing to vote on a colleague's pet project in exchange for his or her vote on your pet project. This is how our deficit grows.
How you can use it: When making deals.

The Latin phrase for this is Manus manum lavat, "One hand washes the other." I haven't heard of logrolling among Oscar voters, but it wouldn't surprise me.

I watched most of the Oscars at the Lechners' last night. We agreed that Jon Stewart did well; we were shocked that Jessica Alba, who otherwise looked beautiful, was chewing gum on the red carpet; we wanted to arrange to kidnap Keira Knightley and force-feed her Whoopie Pies.

The show got a little too self-congratulatory at times -- I got very tired of hearing about Sony's "bravery" in producing Memoirs of a Geisha -- bravery? What was controversial about Memoirs of a Geisha, for heaven's sake? But I was delighted to see Wallace & Gromit win, and glad to see Crash take Best Picture. Not only is it a good movie, but -- in a nice example of logrolling -- the facade of The Mystery Bookstore appears briefly in one of its early scenes.

I am badly over-committed today, but have to get home by 8:00 p.m., for something really cool: NPR is simulcasting a concert from Washington's 9:30 Club featuring two of my favorite bands, Belle and Sebastian and The New Pornographers. Almost makes up for not being there.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Leisure society

Who uses it: Sociologists and historians of the post-industrial West
What it means: A society in which people spend more time at leisure than working.
How you can use it: To describe any retirement community.

The online retailer CafePress just issued a press release describing my cousin Sheila Cameron as an example of the new leisure society, because she works from home and has been able to turn her interests into a business. (If you don't feel like following those links, and don't remember who my cousin Sheila is, she's the founder of

It's extremely cool that CafePress thinks Sheila's worth applauding and/or imitating -- I could have told them that, years ago -- but I wouldn't want anyone to think that Sheila's not working hard. She doesn't receive pop culture passively; she's jumping all over it, processing it and making mental connections and figuring out what people are paying attention to. She's been doing it for so long that she may not even see it as work -- but it's a true talent, and I'd even go so far as to call it a genius.

I wonder whether the term "leisure society" is becoming outdated, as more and more people are working from home and working online. People like me, and many of my friends, don't go to an office -- but we're working all the time. I get e-mails from clients every day of the week, at all hours of day and night; one of my clients regularly sends me e-mails date-stamped before 6:00 a.m. Because my job is communicating, every bit of popular culture I absorb -- books, movies, magazines, music, TV -- helps me position my clients' work in a way that stands out from all the other information their readers or listeners receive. I couldn't explain how I do it, but I know that it's as important for me to read Entertainment Weekly as it is for me to watch C-SPAN.

Is that a leisure society? I don't know. I know that I slept all day yesterday, trying to catch up with myself after two weeks on the road and a few too many projects. Daily naps... now, that would be a leisure society. Maybe I should draft a new petition.

In the meantime, go check out Sheila's latest works of genius here.

Saturday, March 04, 2006


Who uses it: Advocates of legalized gambling
What it means: A race track that also offers casino games (usually slot machines).
How you can use it: When talking to Steve Lechner.

My friend Steve represents a group of Native American tribes that are trying to open a racino Down East -- you can read all about it here. I enjoy a day at the track, though I've never been to the harness races. Casinos aren't my idea of a good time, but I'll defend the tribes' right to make money in any way they see fit.

The Bragdons and I had dinner at the Lechners' last night, a fine time brought to us in part by the bounty of Trader Joe's. Ever since Jen discovered the glory of Trader Joe's, she's been determined that Maine should have one. She is circulating an online petition that I drafted, in an effort to convince TJ's management that we need a store here; if you are a resident of Maine, please join us in this effort by clicking here. Thanks for your support.

Friday, March 03, 2006


Who uses it: Politicians
What it means: Redrawing the borders of a political district in order to create a demographic profile that favors one political party. "Gerrymander" comes from Elbridge Gerry, Republican governor of Massachusetts in the early 19th-century, whose legislature redrew district boundaries to favor Republicans over the Federalist party. Ironically, Gerry himself had nothing to do with this, and privately opposed the plan.
How you can use it: When you're reorganizing for a purpose.

I moved while I was away. My apartment building is in the same place as it was, and so are all my things, but my street address changed on March 1.

I discovered this when I went to pick up my mail yesterday. "You know your address changed yesterday?" the postmistress said. "Uh -- no," I said. "We notified your landlord, he was supposed to tell you."

The new address is on the same street as the old, but the number is different by about 200 -- I'm not going to post it here, but I'll send it around to anyone who needs it. I use the P.O. Box for almost all of my mail, and that address hasn't changed. The postmistress couldn't give me an explanation for the change, and I can't help but wonder whether two blocks of my neighborhood disappeared into some black hole.

Anyway, here's What I Read This Week.

Tab Hunter and Eddie Muller, Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star. Eddie Muller is a charming guy and an excellent writer (one year I gave copies of his Dark City Dames to several friends for Christmas). This collaboration is a fascinating history of Old Hollywood, and Tab Hunter emerges as a nice guy with a great sense of humor about his adventures in the screen trade. Hunter takes no cheap shots and has no axes to grind, though some of his story -- his blighted romance with Anthony Perkins, for example -- is quite sad.

Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth. Armstrong packs a great deal into 120 pages -- enough, in fact, to make me wish this book had been about twice as long. Early in the book she asserts that humans are the only species that create myths, which made me wonder for days about what sort of myths Dizzy might come up with, if dogs were mythmakers. The point of this book is that Myth is so powerful in the human psyche that it resists all attempts to suppress it, and reinvents itself with each civilization.

Jane Smiley, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton: A Novel. Jane Smiley too is a wonderful writer, and I've been working my way through her Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel for some time now. I was completely enthralled with the first half of this book, about a young woman who marries a Massachusetts abolitionist and lights out for Kansas territory. I expected great things from the second half, and was sadly disappointed. Lidie takes risks and has adventures that not only end in failure, but seem to teach her nothing terribly profound. The book doesn't so much end as stop, and it left me feeling flat and empty, having learned nothing except that life in Kansas Territory was really, really hard. Really. Really. Hard.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Alford plea

Who uses it: Criminal defense lawyers
What it means: A plea that does not admit guilt, but acknowledges that the prosecution has enough evidence to convict the defendant. It differs from nolo contendere (no contest) pleas in that courts consider an Alford plea one type of guilty plea. A nolo plea is not a guilty plea -- so an Alford plea counts toward three-strikes laws, and a nolo plea doesn't. In many states, lawyers use the Alford plea as a procedural method of postponing a trial until charges are eventually dismissed.
How you can use it: When you're busted.

Has anyone been paying attention to this case in Ohio where the parents stand accused of keeping their 11 adopted children in cages? Their "mother" is pleading not guilty, on the grounds that the children asked to be kept in cages.

My friend Joseph's Boston terrier, Milo, actually does like to be in his crate -- but 1) he is a dog and 2) he is a little emotionally disturbed, due to an unpleasant experience in his early doghood that we don't like to talk about. So unless these children were left alone in an apartment with their dead first owners for some period of time (that's what happened to Milo), I'm not buying this argument.

But this was the most disturbing piece of information in the article I read:

Sharen Gravelle said she met her husband in 1986 at a dinner for a child sex abuse support group. She said she was attending because a relative had been molested. Michael Gravelle was there because he was accused of inappropriate touching, a charge he denies. The couple married two months later.

...and this wouldn't have come up in the adoption home study?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Fasting and abstinence

Who uses it: Roman Catholics
What it means: "Fasting" means eating one main meal during the day, though two small meals are also allowed. "Abstinence" means not eating meat or poultry. Since Vatican II, Catholics have fasted and abstained on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and on Fridays during Lent. Before Vatican II, they abstained on every Friday and all through Lent.
How you can use it: Today, on Friday, and when cheating on your diet.

This is a wonderful example of a "term of art," because what Catholics mean by fasting is not what doctors mean by fasting, or what hunger strikers mean by fasting. I looked up the details of the requirement, and learned that "abstinence" does not extend to meat broths and flavorings, which are allowed, or to gelatin, an animal product, "which no one considers meat." Since I don't eat fish, abstinence in my childhood meant peanut butter and jelly, or spaghetti with melted butter and Italian seasoning.

"Can I ask you a question?" said the guy behind the counter at Sparky's Espresso Cafe this morning. He leaned toward me and said in an undertone, "Do you know you have a blotch of something on your forehead?"

I laughed, relieved that he wasn't going to tell me my nonfat cafe au lait had had a bug in it. "It's Ash Wednesday," I said.

"Oh!" the coffee man said. "That's why... there was another guy in line before you, and he had a smudge on the same place -- I didn't know what was going on."

I'm in DC again this morning. The early Mass at St. Augustine's is the Mass for their schoolchildren, which was especially nice. I should have told the coffee man what the priest told us, which is that the ashes are supposed to remind us that 1) Life is a gift; 2) Life is temporary; and 3) Life is for others.

Dizzy and I head back to Maine this morning. Thanks to everyone for their hospitality along the way.