Monday, July 31, 2006

On hiatus

Who uses it: Network television executives
What it means: Suspending production of a TV show for some period of time. "Indefinite hiatus" usually means a show will be cancelled.
How you can use it: See you in September.

It's the last day of July, and the last day of the "Terms of Art" blog. This version of the blog has been less successful than "You Talking to Me?", I think, for a couple of reasons: I didn't feel as inspired by the theme, and I lost my best audience halfway through. But thanks to everybody for hanging in there with me, and thanks especially to all the people I don't even know personally who have checked in here over the past 11 months.

My pal Scott Phillips applauded when I said the blog might not come back in September, because he says blogging is a waste of time for serious writers. He's probably right about that; it is far from clear, however, that I am a serious writer. I am a serious reader, which I think is an underrated skill, and I am useful to several serious writers, which pleases me. It remains to be seen whether I have anything of my own to say, but that's one of the things I'll be spending August on.

I'm not going to discontinue the blog, though, because it provides some welcome structure in a life that doesn't have much. I might not post daily, but in the interest of that structure, I will try to keep to a predictable schedule. We'll see how things look in September.

The next incarnation of the blog, when it returns on September 1, will be Answers. People ask me all kinds of questions every day, both personal and professional -- everything from, "How long did it take to travel from Virginia to California in 1849?" to "Is that what you're wearing?" (The latter question came last week from five-year-old Grace Lechner, as I was about to go out shopping with her mother. I was mortified, but it turned out that she just objects to the color pink, which I wear a lot of.)

Anyway, every day I'll post a question I got the day before, with the answer. Feel free to send in questions of your own. I will not be answering questions that are too personal or hurtful (e.g., "Why aren't you married?" "Why did you date that guy?" "Don't you think X is a jerk?")

I'm in Freeport with Grace this morning, and will probably be posting to the Lechner family blog later this week, after we visit the Desert of Maine. I might post a reading list or two here between now and September 1, but other than that, I'm outta here.

Happy August.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Heat index

Who uses it: Meteorologists
What it means: The "real temperature" we feel, a combination of heat and humidity -- the summertime equivalent of the windchill factor.
How you can use it: When staying indoors.

The temperature here, right now, is 91 degrees (33 degrees Celsius, for those of you reading in Europe). The good news is that it's not terribly humid, so the heat index is only 94F (34C). I'm not sure that three degrees makes a big difference. Either way, it's too darn hot.

I'm going to the movies... but first, I might take a nap. The drawback to taking a nap is that I will need another shower when I get up, and I've already taken two today.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Off the grid

Who uses it: Survivalists
What it means: Living in an area that does not receive electrical power from a utility company; more broadly, living outside the legal and civic infrastructure.
How you can use it: Move about 50 miles north of me.

It's another very hot day, and Dizzy and I saw utility workers in a cherry picker at a transformer box first thing this morning. I am sitting in front of a window fan set to "high," in shorts and a t-shirt, and if we lose power, I'm driving up to the Bragdons' and spending the rest of the day at the lake. The temperature's supposed to hit 90, and we are not equipped for that here in Maine.

Happy birthday to my cousin Sheila Cameron -- send her birthday wishes on the Free Katie message board, where the fun (and the horror) never stops.

My big project this week was a comprehensive manuscript edit, and that always interferes with my ability to read published books. It's like looking at a mansion and only seeing the brickwork; I get too analytical, and can't lose myself in the narrative flow.

The three books I did read all took some big risks, which I always admire.

What I Read This Week

Adam Fawer, Improbable. This thriller of ideas is a very impressive first novel. David Caine is a mathematician and compulsive gambler who is losing his academic career to uncontrollable epilepsy. In debt to Russian mobsters and desperate for relief, he agrees to participate in the testing of a new drug -- which seems give him a window into the collective unconscious, in which an infinite number of parallel selves live out an infinite number of possible choices, all resolving into this universe, this world, this time. I've said before that this is my own favorite daydream, and Fawer uses it to terrific effect here. If he decides to write a sequel, Caine could be a superhero for our time.

Julia Spencer-Fleming, All Mortal Flesh. The author (and her husband) sent me an advance copy of this book, which comes out in October. Julia's last book, To Darkness and to Death, left her main characters -- Episcopalian priest Clare Ferguson and small-town police chief Russ Van Alstyne -- on the brink of ruining their own lives and each other's. Things get much worse for them in All Mortal Flesh, which was inevitable -- but to say more than that would give away too many of the shocks in this book, which start in the first chapter and continue to the very last page.

Duane Swierczynski, The Blonde. A man meets a beautiful woman in a hotel bar. She flirts with him, then tells him that she's poisoned his drink -- and that she herself will die unless he stays within 10 feet of her at all times. The story zooms from there, as Jack Eisley tries to save himself without killing The Blonde, and a hitman from the Department of Homeland Security hunts them both. Original, recklessly paced, and great fun. Strap in and enjoy the ride.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Non compos

Who uses it: Lawyers
What it means: Short for non compos mentis, not of sound mind; suffering a mental impairment (due to age, illness, injury, substance abuse or some other reason) that renders someone incapable of making his own decisions.
How you can use it: On any crazy day.

In Freeport this morning, hanging out with the Lechners before Jen and Steve leave for Ethiopia. I will have Grace for four days while they're gone -- the Bragdons, Grace's grandmother and I are sharing child care duties -- and am planning a full slate of activities, including the Desert of Maine, Old Orchard Beach, and the Topsham Fair.

The Topsham Fair has a pig scramble for five-year-olds... but Grace's mother says she cannot bring a pig home, and what's the point of a pig scramble if you don't get to keep the pig? Jen has also said that I cannot buy Grace a puppy or give her Barbies punk-rock makeovers. Sheesh.

One of my neighbors said to me a month or two ago, "You don't really like small children, do you?" This comment seemed to come from nowhere; I might have been saying something critical about another neighbor's decision to buy his four-year-old a fully-functional miniature motorbike, but that was not because I don't want this four-year-old to have any fun.

Anyway, there's no good response to a comment like that, which I can't help but hear as, "You're a cranky bitch, aren't you?" Anything I'd say would just sound feeble and defensive, or even sinister; I'm a single woman of a certain age who lives alone, and I'm moving quickly into Weird Old Lady territory.

But the truth is that I'd much rather have a conversation with the average five-year-old than with the average 40-year-old. Five-year-olds are engaged, curious, fairly ego-free, and not usually anxious; they like stories, novelty, bright colors, weird noises, and pretty things.

Not like small children? I am a small child. I just have a driver's license.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


Who uses it: Veterinary pathologists
What it means: An examination of an animal to determine the cause of death.
How you can use it: When your chicken's underdone.

"Autopsy" and "necropsy" are synonyms, but for some reason people generally use "autopsy" to refer to humans and "necropsy" to refer to animals, or to examinations of tissue that's less than an entire human body.

Anyway, this word came up yesterday, when Anna told me about a sperm whale that had beached itself in the Florida Keys. The idea of suicidal whales seems totally plausible to me; I have always thought of whales as being lonely creatures, though I'm not sure why.

Every night for the past three nights, a skunk has decided to stroll past my apartment building and leave his scent behind. The first night I thought a skunk must have been run over, but three different skunks could not have been run over at the same spot on Water Street three nights in a row. It's more likely that this skunk has found something he or she likes on my block, so decided to come back. Perhaps, like Pepe LePew, the skunk has taken a liking to one of my neighbors' cats. (Speaking of lonely creatures...)

Five random songs off the iPod this morning:

“Michael Caine,” Madness. This song includes a repeated sample of Sir Michael saying, “My name is Michael Caine,” and it cracks me up every time. I will watch Michael Caine in anything.

“Old Devil Moon,” Frank Sinatra. You know what Maine doesn't have enough of? Martini bars.

“She’s a Baby,” Van Morrison. Not a very memorable song -- I can't remember if this one's off Back on Top or Enlightenment.

“Heaven,” Talking Heads. “The bands in heaven, they play our favorite song/Play it one more time/Play it all night long… Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” Rock and roll is not supposed to be heavily philosophical, but really – listen to the lyrics of this song a few times and tell me if it doesn’t make you see things differently.

“Long Ago and Far Away,” Chet Baker. This was the song for my parents’ first dance, at their wedding reception. Thirty-four years later, my sister Peggy and her husband, Scott, used another Chet Baker song, “Time After Time,” for their wedding song.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


Who uses it: Autistic people and autism therapists
What it means: Short for "self-stimulation," a repetitive behavior that an autistic person uses to soothe him or herself and feel more in control of a situation. Common examples are rocking, dry handwashing, and leg jiggling.
How you can use it: When beating your head against a wall. It's not self-destructive behavior, it's just stim.

A lot to do today, and I'm not operating at top speed -- my sleep cycle is still not what it should be, and I don't know what to do about it. It would be good to get a yoga class in this week, but it's not going to happen today -- too many overdue projects to plow through.

My client Theresa Schwegel's Edgar-winning novel, Officer Down, has just been nominated for this year's Anthony Award for Best First Novel. Congratulations, Theresa!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Money review

Who uses it: Theatrical producers
What it means: An apparently negative review that winds up encouraging people to see the show -- a classic example would be a review of a teen comedy that said, "Stupid and mindless, only for people who like their humor crude and obnoxious." I'm lining right up for that movie, aren't you?
How you can use it: When criticism will wind up working to your benefit.

First, a note to the person who found this blog by searching for "pop song about someone stolen by the fairies": the song you're thinking of is "The Stolen Child," by the Waterboys. It sets the W.B. Yeats poem of the same name to music, and closes the Fisherman's Blues album.

Now for today's term, which occurred to me yesterday as I was reading the New York Times Book Review. I don't spend as much time on the NYTBR as I used to, and didn't know why until my friend Susan said last weekend that she doesn't, either: "I don't like the new format," she said. I guess that's it, I don't like it either. I don't want the longer pieces, I think the NYTBR no longer does a very good job of matching up reviewers with books, and the editors seem so concerned with being taken seriously that they don't pay appropriate attention to mainstream fiction.

All of which helps explain yesterday's truly annoying review of Joe Finder's latest novel, KILLER INSTINCT. Now, Joe is a client and a friend, so I'm not impartial here, but yesterday's review was just bizarre.

To start with, it appeared ten weeks after the book's publication date, and eight weeks after the book appeared on the Times bestseller list. The reviewer was the editor of a literary magazine, whose works I'm not familiar with, and he spent most of the review griping about the conventions of the genre and whining about how this book dared to be entertaining enough to take him away from his customary viewing of "Cops."


I don't believe that book reviews should always be positive, and in fact I wish book reviewers would do a better job of calling out writers and publishers who cut corners and insult their readers. It's not a book reviewer's job to be a cheerleader for the publishing industry, for particular authors, or even for specific books. Nor are book reviewers literary critics; I actually do read literary criticism when I feel like it, but book reviews aren't the place to discuss semiotics.

It's a book reviewer's job to discern an author's goal and report whether the author met those goals. Does the book entertain? Does the book sustain the reader's interest? Is the book credible, well-plotted, insightful, sharp, funny? Does it try to be those things and fail? I couldn't care less about a reviewer's usual reading habits, theories of popular culture, or impertinent insights into the author's psychology.

Nevertheless, yesterday's sloppy, self-indulgent temper tantrum against genre fiction and pop culture was a money review. Boiling the review to its essence, what Mr. Rose said was, "This book was better than 'Cops.' I despise myself."

So if you haven't already read KILLER INSTINCT, what are you waiting for? Come on, folks, it's more fun than "Cops!"

Saturday, July 22, 2006


Who uses it: Cooks, particularly sauce-makers
What it means: To collect the browned bits and drippings from the bottom of a pan by adding a liquid (usually broth or wine) and stirring. It's usually the first step in making a gravy.
How you can use it: When getting the last bit of good out of something. The word is pronounced "day-GLAHZ," in the French way, although you don't usually hear it said that way on the Food Network.

Headed down to Freeport (and then to Yarmouth) later this afternoon, but first I need to do some baking for Jen's baby shower, tomorrow. I am making toffee bars, an old standby, and a recipe for lemon bars that is new to me, and requires me to make my own lemon curd. I've never done that before, so we'll see how it works out. I'm also making finger sandwiches (cucumber, turkey & chutney, and peanut butter and jelly for the kids -- no fish, because I do not like fish, and since I'm the cook I get to say).

Lest you think that tomorrow's event will be all elegant and hoity-toity, I should mention that I will also be bringing two two-liter bottles of Diet Coke and a packet of Mentos, so we can all see the Diet Coke/Mentos phenomenon for ourselves. I saw it at a 4th of July cookout, and it is just as spectacular as the Internet video suggests.

No, you can't take me anywhere...

Friday, July 21, 2006

Due process

Who uses it: Lawyers
What it means: The fact that, under American law, all citizens and legal residents retain all of their rights throughout any legal transaction; no state or federal government is allowed to say that some rights apply to certain groups of people, but not to others.
How you can use it: When doing the right thing.

Today is the anniversary of the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868 to guarantee all the rights of citizenship to freed slaves and naturalized immigrants. It's humbling that it took almost another 100 years for the country to get clear about what "equal protection under law" actually means, and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It's frustrating that some people still don't get what should be a simple concept.

Trying to figure out how to get my work done today, and still get down to Jen's for the beginning of the Yarmouth Clam Festival. I may not be able to get there this evening, but that's definitely what I'll be doing tomorrow.

I only managed to finish one book this week, but that may have been because this book's message struck a little too close to home.

What I Read This Week

John Connolly, The Book of Lost Things. I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of this book -- the American edition won't be out until November, though the UK version comes out in September -- but I wasn't sure I'd actually be able to read it. The first chapter describes the illness, death and burial of the main character's mother, and felt so similar to my own mother's story that I could hardly get through it.

David, a 12-year-old English boy in the early years of the Second World War, retreats into a world of books and superstitious rituals. His father remarries, and his stepmother has a new baby almost immediately. The family moves to the country, where David's only companions are books.

The books begin to talk to David, and when a German bomber hits the back garden of his new home, a door opens to a new world -- a world where the stories in David's books are alive, although not exactly as the books had told them. What follows is scary and sad, laugh-out-loud funny at one point (the Seven Dwarfs are radical trade unionists, and Snow White is not the movie version), wise and loving and deeply twisted. Predatory females and wolf-men hybrids abound, and the moral of the story is that if you abandon your own life for the sake of books, you’ll regret it.

The Book of Lost Things is simply extraordinary; it is a permanent work of art, strange and wonderful indeed. Everyone on my Christmas list will be getting a copy, but you'll want to buy your own, so you have one to keep and at least one to lend.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Rag content

Who uses it: Papermakers and printers
What it means: The percentage of paper that consists of cloth fibers (cotton, linen) rather than wood pulp. The higher the rag content, the stiffer and thicker the paper tends to be.
How you can use it: When describing purity.

Long-time readers of this blog may remember a story my hairdresser told me a year or so ago, about the use of mummy wrappings in Gardiner's paper mills during the Civil War. I looked around the Internet for evidence to support the story, but everything I found said the story was possible, but unlikely.

It just goes to show how flawed the Internet is as a research tool. Last night I managed to hear most of a lecture to the Kennebec Historical Society by historian Susan Wolfe called, "I. Augustus Stanwood had a Paper Mill in Maine: The Enduring Story of Mummy Paper." According to contemporary reports, as many as four paper mills in Gardiner used mummy wrappings as source material for paper slurry between the late 1850s and the mid-1860s. The shortage of fabric and cotton fibers available for papermaking eventually led Stanwood to pioneer the process of making paper from wood, but not before he'd shipped in thousands of tons of linen from Egypt.

The remains inside the mummies probably didn't make the trip, although some may have. Ms. Wolfe described the brutal process of "unwrapping" the mummies, which consisted of splitting the mummy down the center with an axe and dumping out the contents. Those contents -- not just human, but cat, bird, and crocodile as well -- became fuel for the railroads and bone-meal fertilizer for Egyptian farmers. No one thought of the mummies as people; Islam forbids mummification, and Westerners weren't necessarily respectful of live Egyptians, much less dead ones.

So the mummy wrappings came to Maine, often still holding their original shape, to ragpicking women and children who sorted through them for papermaking. One contemporary account blamed a cholera outbreak on the mummy wrapping, but that's unlikely; cholera is a water-borne illness, and these rags were full of sand, not water. Because of the herbs and oils used in mummification, mummy rags made a dark paper that might have been used as newsprint, wrapping paper or butcher paper. It would be surprising if any survived to this day, and even if it did, Ms. Wolfe explained, it would be almost impossible to prove that the paper had been manufactured from mummy wrappings.

Still, it fires my imagination. In the gray light of a Maine winter, women sorted through rags that were thousands of years old, representing the wealth of a great lost society. People said the rags smelled terrible, which I don't want to imagine.

But I do wonder whether anyone in Gardiner has a blue scarab beetle or some other amulet in a desk drawer somewhere, a hand-me-down from Grandma, who found it in a pile of smelly old rags.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Who uses it: Sailors
What it means: Someone who's crossed the Equator in a boat. Those who haven't are called Pollywogs. Boats that carry first-timers across the Equator usually make a big ceremony out of the crossing, subjecting the first-timers to all sorts of initiation rituals and awarding them elaborate certificates with Davy Jones' signature. My father's certificate is as large as his college diploma, and hangs framed on his office wall.
How you can use it: To describe a world traveler.

For as much time as I've spent on the road, I often feel that I haven't been anywhere. Yes, I've seen a good chunk of the United States, but there's a big section (Montana, the Dakotas, Minnesota) that I've never seen. I've never been to the southern Hemisphere, I've never been to Asia, I've never seen Paris or the Northern Lights.

But today, home again and not feeling particularly well, I don't care if I never go anywhere again. I am very, very tired, so much so that I wonder whether I picked up some bug along the way yesterday.

"When's your next trip?" someone asked me a few days ago, and I said, "Not for a while" -- but then I added, "But I always say that, and then I always wind up going somewhere." I have promised to go back to Washington, DC in about a month, will be back in Westchester and Litchfield Counties in mid-September, and am supposed to go to Bouchercon (in Madison, Wisconsin) at the end of September. And sometime between now and the end of the year, I was hoping to get back to Los Angeles for more than a long weekend.

Right now, though, I'm just glad to be back online, with all my phone lines working and my faithful dog asleep behind the couch. The heat wave's broken, at least, and I may take a nap in an hour or two.

First five random songs off the iPod this morning:

“The Old Apartment,” Barenaked Ladies. Except for the house on Nebraska Avenue in Washington, where my old housemate Megan still lives, I’ve never returned to a house or an apartment I used to live in, and I doubt I would. I think it would upset me, which is what this song is about.

“Skyway,” The Replacements. Minneapolis is one of the few major American cities I haven’t visited (the airport doesn’t count). I’d like to go, one of these days.

“Buffalo Soldier,” Bob Marley. If you went to college in the 1980s and have never owned Legend in some format, I'm not sure we can be friends.

“Chocolate Jesus,” Tom Waits. No idea what this song is about, though I like the banjo. I gave Our Chris a glow-in-the-dark Jesus nightlight for Christmas last year, and think about buying one for myself every time I’m in Reny’s.

“Everything is Good for You,” Crowded House. After I mentioned that my music collection included nothing from the Finn brothers, my brother-in-law Scott hooked me right up. Thanks, Scott!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Collateral damage

Who uses it: Military analysts and soldiers
What it means: People, buildings and other things destroyed unintentionally in attacks on military targets.
How you can use it: Be more careful.

Out of sorts this morning, for several reasons. The book I finished yesterday stirred my brain with a big stick, pulling up memories and lines of thought I'd buried 30 years ago or more; I woke at 4:00 this morning from a nightmare I hadn't had in at least 25 years, which was just as fresh as if I'd thought it up yesterday.

In other news, my laptop has literally fallen apart. The hinges between its halves have broken, and the screen comes away from the keyboard unless I handle the machine very, very carefully. I will have to replace this computer immediately when I get home, tomorrow or Wednesday (I still don't know which).

The front page of the New York Times shows the devastation of Beirut, and all the news in today's paper seems to be bad. Also, I still don't have a cell phone signal, and I miss my dog.

Other than that, things could be worse. It's a beautifully sunny day, and Susan is pouring espresso from a carafe. On Saturday night we went to a political fundraiser for Ned Lamont, who is challenging Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary for Connecticut's Senate seat; it was heartening to see how much some people still care about the political process and the country's direction.

A cup of coffee and a little toast and jam might improve my spirits. Later.

Saturday, July 15, 2006


Who uses it: Writers and aficionados of fictional TV, movie and book characters
What it means: Non-professional fiction ("fan fiction") that uses characters created and copyrighted by others, in which the characters often do things their creators never imagined.
How you can use it: To describe an unoriginal elaboration on someone else's work.

"Fanfic" is a good example of a Term of Art because it's a term I hear writers use all the time, identifying a subculture that most people are entirely unaware of. Author Lee Goldberg, who writes authorized tie-in novels for the Diagnosis Murder and Monk series, campaigns against fan fiction on his blog, and until I started reading his blog, I had no idea of how passionate (not to say obsessed) the authors of fan fiction can be.

My first fiction efforts, in childhood, were attempts to write my own sequels to books I particularly loved: The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Johnny Tremain, A Little Princess. It was also obvious to me that Nancy Drew's and Trixie Belden's adventures followed predictable patterns, which I could probably imitate if I really wanted to. I never got very far with these efforts, but they taught me the first rule of storytelling: something has to happen. It's not enough just to describe the characters.

What happens in a lot of fan fiction, unfortunately, is pretty awful: fantasies of rape and physical assault, unlikely romantic pairings, deviant sexual behavior and more. These stories say much more about the dark, sad fantasies of their authors than about any innate attributes of the character...

So in that much, at least, they're just the same as mainstream fiction.

Friday, July 14, 2006


Who uses it: Australians
What it means: A sanctimonious killjoy
How you can use it: When someone's harshing your mellow, man.

Greetings from Bridgewater, Connecticut, where I'm having some communications challenges. I left my wireless Internet card in Washington (I think), so am using my friend Susan's Apple laptop to get online. For some reason, Safari is not allowing me access to my primary e-mail account, so if I owe you a reply, I'm sorry. On top of that, I left my cell phone charger on my kitchen table, so my phone's not working at the moment. Freud says there are no mistakes, so perhaps my Id needed to cut myself off for a day or two -- but my Ego and Superego are finding it VERY annoying.

Safari is not showing me Blogger's usual toolbar, so I can't use boldface or italics or any of my usual formatting. Later today I'll go to a Staples, and see if I can get myself back up to speed.

What I Read This Week

Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust. Although Brideshead Revisited is one of my favorite books of all time, I'd never read this novel, a bitter, exceptionally black comedy about the failure of a marriage and the death of the old British way of life. Tony and Brenda Last live on his ancestral estate, in the British countryside. Their life seems perfect, until a cad comes to visit and Brenda decides she's in love with him. A random tragedy puts an end to the Lasts' life together, and Tony seeks comfort in a life of adventure and exploration -- which does not go as planned. The title is a quotation from T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," and at the end of this book, I wanted several very large drinks.

Robert Littell, Legends. A phenomenal spy novel about Martin Odum, a retired CIA agent who cannot remember which of his "legends" -- his undercover identities -- is the "true" one. Working as a private detective in Brooklyn, he agrees to pursue a missing husband who turns out to be a pivotal character from Odum's own past -- but which past?

Minette Walters, The Devil's Feather. War correspondent Connie Burns suspects that a mercenary she encounters in Sierra Leone and Iraq may be responsible for a series of brutal murders. On her way out of Iraq, she is kidnapped, then released after three days. She refuses to say anything about her time in captivity, but takes refuge under a false name in the British countryside -- where she finds that danger can be close to home as well as abroad. A terrific psychological thriller that shows how violence and cruelty are always personal, regardless of context. I read an advance copy; the book comes out next month.

Alice McDermott, After This. Alice McDermott signed my advance copy of this book at BookExpo America, and I thanked her for showing me how interesting my own family's stories could be; "It never occurred to me that my own family had such drama," I said, and she said, "I know, that's what I thought too." Reading this book, about an Irish Catholic family on Long Island in the 1950s and '60s, made me miss my mother so much I felt like howling. John and Mary Keane meet in their thirties, and have four children: Jacob, Michael, Annie and Clare, who grow up and go to their destinies, which are all heartbreaking in their own ways. The last few chapters of this book felt underdeveloped, but Alice McDermott on a bad day is still better than almost anyone else.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Throwing a shrimp

Who uses it: Hipsters and foot fetishists
What it means: Having a little toe hanging out of the front part of a sandal, because the sandal fits poorly.
How you can use it: To tell someone to put a sock on that thing.

Got up at 3:00 a.m. yesterday to catch a bus from Portland to Boston, and from there the train to New York City. Despite the early hour, that's the way to go; I read two books on the train and got a short nap in, as well.

I wore sneakers to travel in, thinking I'd change to my more fashionable black sandals when I got to the city. Unfortunately, just as I started walking to my lunch appointment (with the always-enlightening Sarah Weinman), it started to rain, and few things are grosser than clammy sandals. So I kept the sneakers on all day, which I admit was not very fashionable of me.

It poured rain later on, and I got soaked on my way to drinks and dinner (with MWA Executive Vice President Reed Farrel Coleman, award-winning author of The James Deans). I might as well have taken a shower with my clothes on; Reed, who thinks of me as a frizzy-haired blonde, almost didn't recognize me because my hair was dark with water and flattened to my skull. Attractive. At least my Invisible Pedestrian outfit (black t-shirt, black jeans) looked just as dark, wet or dry.

Today I'm off to Western Connecticut, for a few days with Susan Kinsolving. Since I didn't post these yesterday, here are the first five random songs off my iPod Shuffle this morning:

"America Is," the Violent Femmes. Seeing Gordon Gano in concert convinced me that short men can be just as attractive as tall ones. I'm so glad these guys are still performing.

"Luka," Suzanne Vega. An intensely pretty song about child abuse, and I can never listen to it without thinking of the high school parody I heard when it came out: "My name is Puke-a, I live on the bathroom floor..." One of these days I really ought to grow up.

"Bizarre Love Triangle," New Order. I defy anyone to listen to this song without feeling an immediate shot of romantic optimism.

"God Knows (You Gotta Give to Get)," El Perro del Mar. One of the best things I got for Christmas last year was a subscription to The Believer magazine. The June issue came with a CD of cutting-edge music, including this song, which I like a lot -- lush, strings-laden pop. I need to find these guys' CD.

"Talkin' Bout a Revolution," Tracy Chapman. Some records are like time travel; this album (Tracy Chapman), and this song in particular, catapults me back to the fall of 1988, a time of tremendous upheaval in my own life.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Peer review

Who uses it: Academics and editors of academic journals
What it means: Circulating an article to a group of experts who can evaluate it for accuracy and importance
How you can use it: When checking yourself.

Waiting to hear whether I am, in fact, going back to New York tomorrow -- it depends, it depends -- and whipping away on a couple of overdue deadlines.

We're expecting "strong, scattered thunderstorms" starting in another hour or two, so I'm staying away from open windows and pondering the wisdom of holding a piece of electronic equipment on my lap when lightning is striking.

Monday, July 10, 2006


Who uses it: Parents and pediatricians
What it means: Using the techniques of Dr. Richard Ferber to train your baby to go to sleep at night.
How you can use it: When changing your own nighttime routines.

Thanks to Jen Lechner for suggesting this term.

One of the drawbacks of living alone and working for oneself is that the day has no natural end. No one else turns off the television and says, "I'm going to bed now." No one else turns off the bedroom light, and there's rarely the motivation of the early-morning alarm.

It's lucky for me, then, that my internal clock sends me to bed at midnight -- except when I'm reading something I don't want to put down. The book I was finishing last night was so compelling, and so surprising, that I kept reading, and stayed up until sometime after 2:00. This morning I didn't get out of bed until around 8:30, and now my whole day's schedule is askew. Plus, I may need a nap. I feel like a cranky child. Where's my nanny, dammit?

It's nice to be home again, though. All the mail waiting for me today was good: packages, invitations, an issue of Entertainment Weekly, and a notice that my credit card company had raised my limit. Postmaster Jerry said, "You came back early! Walking your dog today?" "Yep, he's outside," I said. I feel reassured -- and only a little freaked out -- that my neighbors pay such close attention.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


Who uses it: Religious historians and theologians
What it means: A man or woman (anchoress) who withdraws from the world in order to pursue a higher level of religious contemplation. In medieval times, anchorites who couldn't make it out to the wilderness would sometimes be walled into small cells within a church or monastery, with only small windows to let the anchorite watch the Mass and receive food.
How you can use it: When retreating to solitude.

I'm back in Maine this morning, just for a couple of days. I'd originally planned to stay in New York until later this week, but what's the point of being single at 40 if you can't please yourself? My friends were busy, and having a car in New York is inconvenient and expensive, as the totally bogus $115 parking ticket I got yesterday proves. So I hopped in the car, turned it north, and got home a little before 11:00 last night.

Twenty-four hours was enough for a true New York experience, though. Carla, Carla's son James, Eileen and I caught a Mets game at Shea Stadium, which was great, even though the Mets lost. We walked along the Brooklyn Heights promenade by night and by day, had bagels and pizza, and even had the sonic delight of the midnight car alarm.

I'll be back in the city on Wednesday afternoon for some business commitments, but will leave the car in a suburb and take the train in.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Paper pregnancy

Who uses it: Adoptive parents
What it means: The time between filing paperwork and getting a referral for adoption
How you can use it: When expecting something to bear fruit.

I'm headed to New York City this morning for a reunion with two of my best friends from college, Eileen Consey-Heywood and Carla Forbes-Kelly. (I feel a little underdressed since I don't have a hyphenated last name, but I suppose I could hyphenate my two first names, the way Mary-Chapin Carpenter does.) The weather is gorgeous, and we're supposed to go to a baseball game tonight (Yankees? Mets? I'd better figure it out before I get there).

Anna called this morning to report a rare celebrity-sighting in central Maine, so check out her blog for details. Today's term is courtesy of her, since both the Bragdons and the Lechners are currently having paper pregnancies.

What I Read This Week

Joseph Wambaugh, Hollywood Station. I read this book in manuscript; Amazon says it'll be available in late November, but Sarah Weinman said she thought it wasn't due until January of next year. It's a massive, episodic look at the post-reform era Los Angeles Police Department, and should be another big bestseller.

Christopher Fowler, Ten-Second Staircase. Detectives Bryant and May, the old men who run London's Peculiar Crimes Unit, investigate a series of murders that seem to have been committed by a ghostly highwayman. This fourth entry is just as much fun as the first, and I feel rewarded for sticking with the series.

Keith Donahue, The Stolen Child. Even Amazon's shipping boxes have ads for this book, but for once, the book is just as good as promised. Eight-year-old Henry Day runs away to the woods, where a band of fairies seizes him. Their leader changes places with him and returns to Henry's family to live out his own stolen life, while Henry, now called Aniday, remains trapped in a permanent childhood. This is a beautiful, sad book about identity, aging and love.

Susan Kandel, Sam Spade in the Green Room. Susan Kandel really hits her stride with the third book in her Cece Caruso series. Cece is a biographer of crime writers, and each book's mystery models itself roughly on the subject of the book Cece's writing. This time around, she's serving as consultant to a movie based on her biography of Dashiell Hammett, and becomes involved in a mystery that includes murder, stolen identities, blackmail, and long-kept secrets. Cece is a wisecracking heroine, but I never feel that Kandel treats the crimes in her books too lightly.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Chevron doctrine

Who uses it: Constitutional lawyers
What it means: A principle established by the Supreme Court's 1984 decision in Chevron USA, Inc v. NRDC (467 US 837), which says that courts should generally defer to an executive agency's interpretation of its own enabling statute.
How you can use it: When asserting your own higher authority.

I stopped by my old employers' office today -- it is not my old office, because they've moved since I worked there -- and found my former colleagues busy assembling materials for a case on this issue before the Supreme Court, to be heard sometime this fall.

The federal agencies love the Chevron doctrine, because it makes life much easier for them; courts are unwilling to hear routine challenges of agency policies. But the idea that an enforcement agency is its own best judge of what it's allowed to do is contrary to the fundamental principle of checks and balances. It's good that the Supreme Court is willing to revisit these questions once in a while.

Today's lunch plans hit a snag when I discovered that one of my favorite restaurants, the Szechuan Pavilion, has closed. It had been a fixture on K Street for more than 20 years, and their chicken chunks in garlic sauce were something to dream about. Instead, Ashton, Chris and I went to Aroma, where the service really isn't as good as it used to be. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


Who uses it: Museum curators and librarians
What it means: Formal removal of an item from a collection
How you can use it: When getting rid of things.

I'm staying with my friend and former housemate, Megan, in the house we used to share. When I moved to Los Angeles in 1999, I left a lot of things here I thought I'd never want again -- old books, a set of crystal beer mugs, miscellaneous kitchen items, and some furniture.

Seven years later, many of those things are still here, since Megan found them useful (or at least not inconvenient to have around). It's a little disconcerting to encounter them again. I've felt mildly nostalgic about a couple of them -- the massive Family Medicine book I used to consult during bouts of hypochondria, or the box of Old Bay seasoning that is surely no good anymore -- but in all honesty, I haven't missed any of these things. Leaving things behind is almost always the right decision.

First five songs off the iPod Shuffle this morning:

"Release Me," Esther Phillips. I think this version (1962) predates Ray Charles'. It has that 1950s orchestral arrangement, with a full backing choir, horns and strings.

"All I Could Do Was Cry," Etta James. Take it from me and Etta: don't go to your old boyfriend's wedding.

"Stood Up," John Hiatt. John Hiatt's declaration of his knighthood of faith, standing up for love even when it kicks your butt. We should all be so brave.

"Water Ban," The Pernice Brothers. A wistful, lovely pop song off a great album (Yours, Mine, Ours).

"Ants Marching," Dave Matthews Band. Have you seen the previews for that new animated movie Ant Bully? It looks dreadful. I may have to revise my longstanding policy of seeing Paul Giamatti in anything.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Bottle rocket

Who uses it: Teenagers, mostly, but also pyrotechnicians
What it means: A small firecracker attached to a foot-long stick, which shoots straight up when lit, making a whistling noise. I'm pretty sure they get their name from the fact that it's safest (relatively speaking) to light them when you set the stick in a bottle before you light the fuse. They're generally illegal, so don't try this at home.
How you can use it: To describe something cheap and flashy.

Most of Washington took the day off yesterday, and so did I. Claire and I went downtown for lunch with the Eraths, and I managed to find a parking space in the middle of George Washington University, something that never happens on weekdays.

Last night the Hills family invited me along to the annual Independence Day cookout at the Chevy Chase Country Club. I am not exactly country club material, and always feel like an impostor at those things -- but it was a beautiful evening, and the fireworks were spectacular.

Megan's nephews, aged 14 and 10, are a riot. They played Crossword Dice with their uncle and cousin, keeping score on an old index card that had been packed away with the dice.

"Who the heck is Psycho Sam?" asked the 10-year-old, reading the players' names from an earlier game.

"Uncle Sam's evil twin," said the 14-year-old.

Uncle Sam's evil twin seems to be a little too busy these days to be playing Crossword Dice -- but the United States is still a dream of freedom and hope, and I'm always grateful to be an American. Happy 4th of July, everybody; happy birthday to my old friend John Erath; and happy anniversary to Eileen and Tony, who got married in Yorkshire eight years ago today.

Monday, July 03, 2006


Who uses it: Comic book authors and fans
What it means: "Retroactive continuity," the reinvention of a character's history to explain how they could have survived a previously fatal attack, how they have brand-new siblings or children, and how they don't age.
How you can use it: When revising your resume, or revealing a long-kept secret.

A week or two ago, a friend sent me an e-mail saying that although he read the blog, it told him only the minutiae of my life, not the big things. It's true; this blog has left out almost all of the biggest news of my life over the past couple of years, with the exception of my move and my mother's death. I suppose that if I'd gotten married, I'd have mentioned that, and if I'd taken on a full-time job, I'd probably have mentioned that, too.

But I haven't gotten married, I haven't been arrested, I haven't gone back to a full-time job, and all the rest of it is my business, thank you very much.

It's not that I'm deliberately secretive or obscure (although some friends would say that I am). It's that the blog is a public digest, and most of its visitors on any given day are strangers. I don't feel like sharing details of my personal life with strangers, and the details are often so complicated and marvelous that the blog couldn't do them justice for my friends and family.

For the last year or so, I've been mentioning "Chris" and "Claire" in this blog without saying who they are. Chris and Claire are my adult children, and if you're a friend of mine who didn't know I had adult children, I apologize. It's an amazing and wonderful story, but completely unsuitable for the format of the blog, and therefore I'm not going to tell it here.

So let's call it ret-con, and move on.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Silly Season

Who uses it: Newspaper reporters and editors
What it means: The period (usually late summer) when no real news happens, requiring journalists to report things that wouldn't ordinarily be news, and columnists to get worked up over trivia.
How you can use it: Let the important stuff go for a few days.

It took Claire and me four and a half hours to drive from southern Alexandria to Richmond yesterday, and only part of that was because of my wrong turn. Traffic was simply miserable, for no reason other than the number of cars on the road.

Fortunately, Matthew and Henry's birthday party was still in full swing when we arrived, with plenty of fried chicken and cake left over. The boys could start their own Thomas the Tank Engine boutique with their birthday presents, and my dad capped the weekend by bringing in a small electric train set (complete with tracks laid out on a large board) this morning.

This afternoon we're back in Washington, because Claire had a paintball tournament (she promises to report back, so I can prepare for Bouchercon), and I'm meeting up with my brother Ed, who's returned to D.C. just for the weekend. The weather is cooperating, sort of, with temperatures and humidity in the mid-90s. It's good to visit summer once in a while.