Wednesday, December 31, 2008

I do not know why I saw that bunny the other night.

I crossed the Maine border a little after 9:00 on Monday night, and as I drove up 95 past Saco, I was startled by a white blur jumping at the side of the road. It was a small hare -- I know it was a hare and not a rabbit because it was white, and rabbits don't change color in winter -- and it moved fast back into the forest along the highway.

This sighting baffled me for a couple of reasons. I'd always assumed that rabbits and hares hibernate, and I also hadn't thought they were truly nocturnal. You tend to see them at dawn and dusk.

So I looked it up, and it turns out that rabbits and hares don't hibernate, although they do slow down in winter. And hares, particularly, are nocturnal.

"It's good luck to see a rabbit," my friend MaryAnn said, when I told my pub trivia team about it last night. We're not sure whether that extends to hare sightings, but I'm assuming it does; I need the luck.

It feels like a good way to end an extraordinary year. It hasn't been a bad year for me, as it has been for so many people I know, but it's had tremendous challenges and more than my fair share of opportunities. I have many reasons to feel optimistic about 2009, and I hope that you do, too. Happy new year.

Five Random Songs

"In the Still of the Night," The Neville Brothers. A cover of the Cole Porter classic, from the collection Red, Hot + Blue.

"Motel Blues," Loudon Wainwright III. Modern alt-country from a Yep Roc sampler.

"The End of My Pirate Days," Mary Chapin Carpenter. "And those who need adventure, they can sail the seven seas/And those who search for treasure, they must live on grander dreams..." Too sad for me today. Next.

"God Bless the Kid," The Blue Nile. From Peace at Last, the Blue Nile album I listen to least. No reason for that; I just prefer High and A Walk Across the Rooftops.

"Hugo!", Too Much Joy. A song of praise to Gang of Four drummer Hugo Burnham. "Hugo, Hugo/Hugo doesn't have these faults/Hugo, Hugo/He is pure and he is good."

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

I don't understand the urge to publish fiction as memoir.

Yet another "memoir" has been pulled off the shelves and pulped, after the author admitted that he had fabricated the core of the story -- that he and his wife had met on opposite sides of a concentration camp fence, where she had brought him apples. People familiar with the layout of the Buchenwald subcamp where Herman Rosenblat was imprisoned said it couldn't have happened that way; Rosenblat ultimately admitted that he'd made up that part of the story.

It's a sad thing for Herman Rosenblat and his wife, Roma, who are Holocaust survivors and whose real story is compelling enough without embellishments. It's a financial upset for his publishers, Berkley Books, which had expected the book to be a bestseller. It's a public humiliation for the agent and editors, and renews questions about the vetting process for anything presented as memoir.

My question, though, is why are these stories so much more attractive as memoir than as fiction? What makes people more willing to spend money on a story if they think it actually happened? What difference does it make?

I like memoirs as much as the next person. In the past couple of months I've read memoirs by Julie Andrews and Lillian Hellman, and one of the best things I got for Christmas was a copy of Ralph Steadman's memoir of Hunter S. Thompson. I expect a memoir to be a good-faith effort to remember things as they happened, but I also understand how unreliable memory can be. In creating a narrative, we remember things out of order. We assign meaning and causality in retrospect, making connections and assigning motives that probably didn't exist at the time. The memoirist also, inevitably, betrays confidences, makes judgments and lays blame, and the stress of doing that (or the joy of revenge) carries its own distortions.

This being the case, I don't know how anyone can claim to publish a memoir as nonfiction, and maybe we need to stop thinking of memoir in those terms.

A good novel carries its own truth, regardless of whether its characters or plot are based on actual events. I wish it could be enough for publishers and readers to accept that, and not pretend that good stories are more valuable because they're nonfiction.

As any good mystic knows, many things are true even if they never happened.

Monday, December 29, 2008

I don't know what those words are at the end of "Pretty in Pink."

Back on the road this morning, after I get a couple of things done. The weather's supposed to be good and I'm hoping most people aren't traveling today, so with luck I'll get home at a reasonable hour, and be back at work full force tomorrow morning.

I've exhausted my supply of audiobooks for the journey, so it's back to the iPod, which is fine. Once again I'm surprised by how many versions I have of certain songs -- for instance, I have three different versions of the Psychedelic Furs' "Pretty in Pink": one from the movie soundtrack, one from the Furs' greatest hits collection, and one from a collection of songs produced by legendary maniac Martin Hannett. (It's worth mentioning, in case you don't know, that the plot of the movie has nothing to do with the words of the song, which is a bitter tribute to a tragic party girl.)

The movie version is shorter than the other two (which seem to be the same, although one is 3:59 and one is 4:00), and omits the playout at the end, in which you can barely hear Richard Butler muttering something under the music.



The part that's missing from the movie starts around 3:23. Do me a favor and listen, and please tell me -- if you can -- what is he saying?

This is an enduring mystery from my youth. Every so often I try to find the answer online, but have never been able to. If you can figure it out, you will have my eternal admiration. Thanks.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Favorite Books of 2008, Part 2

Hard to believe it's already Saturday. I head to D.C. this afternoon, before going back to Maine on Monday. If I'm up early enough, I'll post on Monday before I hit the road.

In the meantime, here's the second half of my top ten books of 2008 -- again, not necessarily published this year, but read this year. (The first half of the list is here.)

Lauren Groff, THE MONSTERS OF TEMPLETON. A dazzling first novel, in which the plot is not nearly as important as the powerful setting and back story.

Steve Martin, BORN STANDING UP. The only audiobook on this list, but it would be on the list no matter what medium I found it in. The author's reading of his own work adds a level of understated emotion to this story of the discipline, determination and loneliness required by his stand-up career.

Ammon Shea, READING THE OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. A too-short memoir of the year Shea spent reading the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. I don't know what I admire more, that he did it or that he got someone to pay him for it; either way, it's essential reading for anyone who gets drunk on words.

Willy Vlautin, NORTHLINE. A short, spare novel about earning redemption one day at a time, as Allison Johnson learns that running away from her bad choices is only the first step. The edition I read came with a CD of original music that was equally moody and beautiful.

Marianne Wiggins, THE SHADOW CATCHER. Two books in one, as Wiggins tells parallel stories about iconic photographer Edward S. Curtis and her fictional self's search for the secrets about Curtis's life. Not many writers could pull off what Wiggins does here -- a fascinating book that is about the act of its own writing as much as it is about its subject.

On any given day, this list might have included any of these books, too: John Connolly, THE REAPERS; Tana French, IN THE WOODS; Ron Hansen, EXILES; Declan Hughes, THE PRICE OF BLOOD; Laura Lippman, HARDLY KNEW HER; Jack O'Connell, THE RESURRECTIONIST; Douglas Preston, BLASPHEMY; Nina Revoyr, THE AGE OF DREAMING; Jenny Siler, THE PRINCE OF BAGRAM PRISON; and Olen Steinhauer, THE TOURIST, which won't be published until March 2009.

Friday, December 26, 2008

I don't know why dreams are more vivid in the daytime.

A most excellent Christmas and Boxing Day, and among the excellent things was the chance to take a nap this afternoon -- a nap during which I had a strange and powerful dream about living in a dilapidated house that backed onto a river, with underwater caves that served as the basement of the house.

In the dream an old friend showed up and sat in on a family conference, in which I talked about my hopes and plans for restoring the house, and I woke up feeling unusually cheerful and pleased.

The underlying meanings of this dream are pretty obvious, and not especially interesting to me; what I am interested in is the fact that I woke up remembering these details so clearly, when I hardly ever remember the dreams I have overnight.

I could look this up -- the reasons probably have to do with how we roll through the sleep cycles at night -- but I've given myself the day off, and therefore am looking nothing up today.

Oh, except for Bill Pullman. I fell asleep this afternoon to a screening of The Serpent and the Rainbow (so much worse a movie than I remember it being), and woke up needing to know where he is now. Next stop, IMDb.

What I Read This Week

This week's list is about half-and-half reading and audiobooks, since I did a lot of driving. I also abandoned The Gathering by Anne Enright, last year's Man Booker winner; I rarely mention books I put down, but felt so enraged and appalled by this heap of whiny, hateful, self-indulgent tripe that I was seriously tempted to throw it into the Beas' fireplace, and did not only because it belongs to the Gardiner Public Library. I warn you about it here as a public service. No need to thank me.

Lillian Hellman, AN UNFINISHED WOMAN. Among my birthday presents was a new copy of Herman Wouk's Youngblood Hawke, one of my all-time favorite novels; it is a panoramic epic about publishing in the mid-20th century, including scenes set in Hollywood and before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Realizing I knew less than I should about the facts of this period, I picked up this first of Hellman's memoirs. Mary McCarthy famously said, "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the,'" and some of this memoir is obviously self-serving. Whether or not the facts are precisely accurate, the woman herself comes through in a way that is equally admirable and alarming; along the way she ditches a husband, has at least one abortion and one miscarriage, and works with titans of American theater on historic productions, but we hear almost nothing about any of those things. She sounds weirdly disengaged from much of her life, and I need to read a biography now to get some sense of why.

P. G. Wodehouse, LAUGHING GAS. A magical spoof of Hollywood in the '30s; the Earl of Havershot goes to Los Angeles to try to save his wastrel cousin from a misalliance, and winds up swapping bodies with a child star. Either Kevin Wignall or my cousin Kathleen recommended this to me, and either or both of them said they couldn't understand why it hadn't been made into a movie. I don't understand it, either.

Bill Bryson, SHAKESPEARE: THE WORLD AS STAGE. A short biography that spends most of its time detailing what we don't know about Shakespeare, and why we don't know it. Instead, Bryson puts this mysterious figure into the context of his time, and discusses popular and exotic theories about where he was, when, and why. He is particularly good on the subject of all the various people others have claimed wrote Shakespeare's work, dismissing them with sharp humor.

Michael Connelly, THE BRASS VERDICT. I'm embarrassed that I didn't get around to this book until the last week of the year. It's a sequel to The Lincoln Lawyer, and one of Connelly's best. Criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller, still recovering from the events of the last book, inherits the caseload of a murdered colleague, including a high-profile murder trial. Connelly's other series character, Harry Bosch, is the homicide detective in search of the lawyer's murderer, and Connelly weaves his characters together seamlessly.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

I do not know how to read a bass clef.

Santa came early, in the form of my dear friend Gary, through the good offices of the folks at Music & Moore in Topsham.

Santa brought me an electronic keyboard -- a big, fancy one -- and I am absolutely thrilled. Years ago, when I housesat for Gary for a long stretch, I tried (without success) to teach myself piano. This year I will take some lessons, and one of my goals for 2009 will be learning to play a keyboard (yes, SpyScribbler, I understand this is not a piano).

I still have plenty of music from my guitar-playing days, and I read music well enough to be able to pick out a tune -- but only if it's in a treble clef. Guitar music's written only in treble, and I sing alto, which is also written on the treble clef, so have never had any reason or need to learn the bass clef.

Just looking at a score and trying to pick it out, it feels like trying to learn to write left-handed. Which it kind of is, since you play the bass notes with your left hand.

Hope Santa is equally good to all of you. Dizzy and I are headed south, and the blog schedule will be iffy until at least Friday. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 22, 2008

I don't know how much snow we got this weekend.


We got a lot of snow yesterday, on top of snow that fell on Friday. Late last night, the National Weather Service reported that 25" had fallen in Randolph, just across the river; this morning that estimate has been revised downward, to about 16", but it's still a lot of snow.



Dizzy and I need to get out of here tomorrow, before another storm hits on Wednesday. I might post something short tomorrow morning, or I might just check in from the road. Safe journeys, everyone.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Favorite Books of 2008, Part 1

At Kate's Christmas party a couple of weeks ago, Chris Mooney asked, "Have you read anything this year that's really blown you away?" I couldn't think of anything, and neither could he.

We both came up with several books we'd admired or enjoyed; I just couldn't think of anything that I wanted to push on everyone, the way in past years I've wanted everyone to read A.S. Byatt's POSSESSION, or Irwin Yalom's WHEN NIETZSCHE WEPT, or Kazuo Ishiguro's NEVER LET ME GO.

In putting together this list I did remember one book that stunned me like that, a most unlikely one: WORLD WAR Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks. It's not a zombie novel, really; it's a story about the collapse of civilization, and what it takes to restore order and preserve our sense of ourselves as something more than animals. It's brilliantly imagined, beautifully written, and everyone with any interest in public policy needs to read it. Thanks to Chris for lending me his copy, and insisting that I read it.

And here's the rest of the first half of my "Favorite Reads of 2008" list. These weren't all published this year -- I just read them this year. For my list of favorite mysteries published in 2008, click here.

Laura Benedict, CALLING MR. LONELY HEARTS. A sophisticated horror novel that is also tremendously insightful about women's friendships, and the lies we tell ourselves. I read this months ago, and am still thinking about it.

Daniel Mark Epstein, SISTER AIMEE. A fascinating biography of a fascinating woman, the faith healer and religious leader Aimee Semple McPherson. Epstein does not take her at face value, but he doesn't discount the possibility that she was who she claimed to be, and he gives her her place in the context of her times. (Kathie Lee Gifford, the subject of the musical I stage-managed, has written her own musical about Sister Aimee. I didn't know that when I read this book, which was months before I signed onto She Can't Believe She Said That. Convergences like this interest me.)

Tana French, THE LIKENESS. This follow-up to French's Edgar winner IN THE WOODS is at least 50 pages too long, but that is part of what makes it feel so timeless -- it's a throwback to the novels of the Bronte sisters, or even Dickens. Long-buried secrets and wild coincidences fuel this story of Cassie Maddox, who impersonates a murdered girl in order to find out what happened to her.

Victor Gischler, GO-GO GIRLS OF THE APOCALYPSE. I'm not sure what it says that two of the best things I read this year were novels about the end of civilization. This one has all the humor that's missing from WORLD WAR Z (which is deadly serious), and suggests that buying a case or two of whiskey might be the smartest investment you could make in these troubled times.

Friday, December 19, 2008

I don't know how to draw.

Take a few minutes, first, to listen to this song from the brilliant [title of show] (NOT safe for work).



That verse about how you tried to draw Tippy the Turtle, but your fourth grade teacher said "You can't draw"? That was me, except it was third grade, and my drawing was of an Indian princess on a cliff at sunset, and my teacher said, "Clair, squint your eyes. That looks like a chicken!" (F--- you, Mrs. English. Why didn't you show me how to draw a headdress that didn't look like tailfeathers?)

Anyway, on my list of "Things I Might Try Next Year" is taking a drawing class. I have an image in my mind for a poster for Bell, Book & Candle, but no idea of how to put it on paper, and I'm not good at putting visual images into words.

What childhood talents of yours were squelched by discouragement from adults?

The one new book I read this week was FLASHBACK by Jenny Siler, a thriller about a young woman with retrograde amnesia who has some dangerous skills she doesn't remember learning. Good stuff.

I'll post the first half of my "best of 2008" reading list tomorrow...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I don't know how to write a rejection letter.

The good news was that Gaslight had a fantastic turnout for auditions for Bell, Book & Candle, the first show of our 2009 season (which I am directing).

The bad news is that Bell, Book & Candle has only five roles.

So this morning I've been sending out emails to all the talented people I didn't choose for this production, and there's no way to do this without feeling like a jerk. I cast an ensemble, a group of people I thought would work well with each other, and whom I thought would work well with me. As individual actors, they might be better or worse than any of the other 20 people who auditioned, but at bottom it's an arbitrary decision based on my own personal tastes.

And that's the problem. It may surprise those of you who think of me as opinionated (shut up, I know you do), but I have a hard time making choices, sometimes to the point of paralysis. Every choice sacrifices certain possibilities, and I have a terrible time letting those possibilities go.

I hate to say "no" worse than almost anything -- worse than throwing up, even, which I really, really hate. How do you get good at saying, "No, thank you"?

Five Random Songs

"Something's Gotta Give," Ella Fitzgerald. I love it when iTunes gives me music that matches the blog. "When an irresistible force such as you/Meets an immovable object such as me..."

"Guinnevere," Crosby, Stills & Nash. At one time in my life, I listened to this song a lot. A lot.

"Prairie Fire that Wanders About," Sufjan Stevens. A dreamy choral piece from Illinois.

"The Heinrich Maneuver," Interpol. The single off this album (Our Love to Admire). I particularly like the bridge near the end of this song -- "I've got a chance for a sweet sane life..."

"Miles from Nowhere," The Smithereens. Jangly guitar rock, reminiscent of late-60s psychedelia.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I don't know how to darn.

For years, one thing was consistently on my Christmas list: a pair of plain black leather gloves, size medium (7.5, if you want to get specific). Lined, not lined, I didn't care; I wanted a pair of sleek black gloves, like Diana Rigg wore in The Avengers (the only true Avengers, by the way. Go away with your Honor Blackmans and Tara Kings, you impostors).

And every year, my mother would give me some different kind of gloves. Gray Isotoners, blue Isotoners, gloves made of revolutionary new synthetics, gloves that were practical and inexpensive and bore no resemblance to the ones I had asked for.

It got to be a sort of battle of wills. I'd ask for black leather gloves, even though Filene's basement sold exactly the pair I wanted for a mere $15 (no, not the highest quality, but so what), just to see whether this year Mom would be paying attention and give me what I wanted instead of what she thought I needed. And every year my mother, who at some point must have thought it was funny, would give me another pair of fabric gloves.

I don't remember whether I asked for leather gloves for Christmas 2005. I'd moved to Maine, and leather gloves are not very practical for shoveling snow or scraping ice; also, I've given up striving for sophistication, and admit that I will never be Diana Rigg.

What Mom gave me, that year, was a pair of red woolly gloves and a red fleece hat, both warm and sensible, and I have worn those gloves and that hat ever since. The hat's been through the washer a couple of times, and is not as bright as it used to be.

The gloves, knit on the outside and fuzzy on the inside, are starting to shred at the fingers, and I don't know how to repair them. It started happening all at once, after I scraped the ice off my car on Saturday; the right index finger started to come apart, then the left middle finger, then the right thumb.

If I knew how to darn, I could repair these gloves. They're the warmest pair I've ever had, and the red is cheerful and hard to lose (I've managed to hang onto them for three winters, a personal record). Plus, they're the last pair Mom gave me.

Does anybody darn anymore? Does anybody know how? Can you teach me?

Monday, December 15, 2008

I do not know how to make meatballs.

I bought a bag of frozen meatballs last night, and feel a little ashamed about it. But I've never found a meatball recipe that worked for me; they always wind up falling apart when I try to cook them. What's the trick?

Thanks to everyone who checked in over the weekend; I didn't lose power, and my StablIcer ice spikes (another birthday present from Anna and Jen) kept me from falling on the ice. Dizzy didn't seem to mind it at all.

It's supposed to warm up considerably today, so everything will melt before the next round arrives tomorrow.

I have a massive pile of work to finish this week, so posts are likely to be short. Send me your meatball recipes, if you've got any.

Friday, December 12, 2008

I don't know how people lived in Maine before electricity.

The company that became Central Maine Power began only 110 years ago, in 1899, and did not offer widespread service -- as the Central Maine Power Company -- until 1910. Even now, it's relatively easy to move "off the grid" in Maine -- that is, to move to a place where the power lines don't go.

I cannot imagine what that's like, and I don't want to.

The sun rose today at 6:33, and will set promptly at 4:00 p.m.; dusk will start a little after 3:00. I'm typing this with a 150-watt bulb blasting over my shoulder, and lights are on in three rooms of my five-room apartment.

We're having a real live ice storm; it started as snow yesterday, but is now a vile mix of sleet and freezing rain. It's pretty on the trees, but it won't be pretty if branches start falling and pulling down power lines.

Fortunately, I got a high-intensity headlamp -- the kind spelunkers use -- for my birthday. Thanks, Anna and Jen!

What I Read This Week

Steve Martin, BORN STANDING UP. I listened to this as an unabridged audiobook, read by the author; I wished it was longer. It's a frank, insightful memoir of Martin's career as a stand-up comedian that should be required reading for anyone who wants to make a living in a creative field.

Willy Vlautin, NORTHLINE. The topic of discussion at John Connolly's online book club this month; I'd have read it anyway, as it was a gift. The spare, powerful story of how 22-year-old Allison Johnson flees not only an abusive boyfriend but also her own destructive self, with the help of friends real and imaginary. The book comes with a CD of original music that serves as a soundtrack, and both are beautiful.

Richard Price, LUSH LIFE. A robbery-shooting on the Lower East Side of Manhattan may not be what it seems; as Detective Matty Clark investigates, he can't escape his own failings and he can't fight the flaws of the system. Not Price's strongest book, but even second-tier Price is better than almost everyone else.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

I don't know how to reduce the size of photo files (jpgs, etc.).

Nothing witty today, just an annoying gap in my knowledge base. I have some large images that need to be posted to a client's website, and I don't know how to make these files small enough to email. If anyone has suggestions, please get in touch -- and no, converting these files to PDFs doesn't work; if anything, it seems to make the files larger.

Every year I try to do something completely new -- something that forces me to say, "I don't know how to do this" -- and in 2009, I think I'll take a course on something computer-related. Adobe, maybe, or DreamWeaver. It annoys me not to know how to do stuff I need to do.

I'm irritable in general this morning, because the sky and the ground are the same white-gray color, we are under a winter storm warning that's scheduled to last until tomorrow afternoon, and I just realized that I forgot to buy milk yesterday.

Grumble about something of your own in the comments section.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I don't know why public radio broadcasters sound so different from commercial radio broadcasters.

Yesterday's drive back from Boston took a little longer than usual, as bad weather started right at the Maine border. (Today is warmer, but rainy; snow starts tomorrow. Sigh.)

I didn't really mind, though, since I hadn't seen or heard any news earlier in the day, and Maine Public Radio gave me wall-to-wall coverage of the Blagojevich arrest.

But MPR wasn't giving me timely weather updates, so I switched over to a commercial station -- and almost blasted myself out of the car. Not only was the volume of the commercial station much louder than MPR's, but the radio announcer's voice was totally different -- smoother, brighter, louder.

Public radio's voices are an easy target for comedians -- Saturday Night Live had a recurring feature called "The Delicious Dish" featuring Ana Gasteyer and Molly Shannon, which produced one of the funniest SNL sketches of all time (here -- only marginally safe for work, and even funnier if you just listen without the video).

Why is this? Why do some radio formats demand the "broadcaster voice" and others discourage it? Why do public radio broadcasters often sound as if they're talking down violent offenders?

Five Random Songs

"From Off to On," The Knife. A track from a rare live performance (Gothenburg 4/12/06); The Knife are a Swedish brother and sister who perform in long black coats, black wigs and masks. The fact that I own this 2-CD set, a gift from a friend, makes me way, way cooler than most people. (Thanks, John.)

"Rainbow Tour," Mandy Patinkin, Patti Lupone and Company. From the Evita soundtrack.

"Rotten Peaches," Elton John. I got a copy of Madman Across the Water from my brother-in-law over Thanksgiving, and have been listening to it just about nonstop since. Thanks, Scott!

"Alone," Daisy Eagan and Matt Prager. From the original demo recording of She Can't Believe She Said That, the musical I stage-managed this fall. Someone else's voice is on this track, too, but I don't know whose -- Matt? Matt's currently mixing the original cast recording, and I'll announce it as soon as it becomes available.

"Better Days," Bruce Springsteen. From Lucky Town. "I got a new set of clothes and a pretty red rose/And a woman I can call my friend."

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

I don't know why Amtrak does not offer wireless Internet.

The train is a fine way to get places, except when it isn't. Yesterday's trip from New York to Boston, which should have taken four hours, took five and a half because of an hour's delay in leaving and unexplained slowness through much of Connecticut.

Nowhere during this time -- not in Penn Station, where for once I was early and wound up waiting two hours, or anywhere along the trip -- did I have access to Internet service. I'd have paid for it; I'd have logged on at a kiosk, if one had been available.

How can this be, if Amtrak is trying to market itself as the alternative to airline shuttles for the business traveler?

It's downright embarrassing, especially when what Amtrak does advertise is its Railfone service -- look, you can make a phone call from the train, using Amtrak's own credit card-operated phone booths! That was a technological advance in 1989, when most people didn't have cell phones; that Amtrak continues to offer this service as anything but an emergency safety measure is laughable.

Amtrak is a vast bureaucracy with no meaningful competition, and therefore neither equipped nor motivated to operate in a competitive way. But when even buses now offer wireless Internet, it doesn't seem a lot to ask.

Monday, December 08, 2008

I don't know what the opposite of "distaff" is.

The men of my family all went to Saturday's Army-Navy Game, which turned out just the way it was supposed to (a blowout for Navy, 34-0, and the seventh straight Navy win).

From the road, though, Chris called to ask a pertinent question: if "distaff" refers to the female side of one's family, what's the comparable adjective for the male side?

It's not "staff." The prefix "dis" here is a false cognate, meaning not "un-" or "not-" but "a bunch of flax," from the Middle Low German dise. A distaff is the part of the spinning wheel that holds the flax to be spun, and is thus an affirmative symbol of womanhood, not a comparative description.

In the absence of an existing word for this, I suggest we come up with a new one, based on something comparable -- but modern, because very few women do their own spinning any more. The "oilpan" side of the family? The "lawnmower" side of the family?

The "remote" side of the family feels a little too on-the-nose ...

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Dizzy at the beach


Since I haven't posted any pictures of Dizzy in a while... he looks pretty much the same as ever. He likes the beach.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

I don't know of any great mysteries or thrillers set in Australia.

My friend Sue, world traveler, just asked for recommendations for mysteries and thrillers set in Australia -- and I couldn't come up with one.

Of course I thought of Colleen McCullough's THE THORN BIRDS, and Thomas Keneally's WOMAN OF THE INNER SEA is gripping, but neither of those is exactly a thriller, and anyway I assume that Sue has read them.

Michael Robotham is an Australian author writing good mysteries, but they're set in London...

Anyone have any suggestions? I feel embarrassed that I can't come up with anything, and don't know why Australian authors aren't more widely distributed, promoted and read in the United States.

Friday, December 05, 2008

I do not know how pomegranate got to be the hot new flavor.

Like most primates, I'm easily distracted by bright colors and shiny things. Red. I like the color red, and red foods are especially attractive. Strawberries, tomato sauce, apples, and red wine are red, and I love all of those things. Also cherries.

So when I saw a bottle of diet pomegranate ginger ale at Hannaford, all shiny and red, I bought it. It was only 85 cents; I had that much in my pocket from returning bottles. It looked seasonal and festive, and pomegranate is supposed to have powerful antioxidant properties.

It also tastes like Robitussin. Seriously, I think that pomegranate is the main flavoring agent of most cough syrups, and it's also the flavor of grenadine syrup, which shouldn't be used for anything once you've outgrown Shirley Temples.

Why has pomegranate taken off and become the new hot flavor? Do people actually like it, or is it just something like V-8, that you drink because it's supposed to be good for you?

Strangely, I don't think pomegranate flavor or pomegranate juice tastes much like the seeds of a real pomegranate, which I like and think are a cool, fancy thing to put on salads or pork chops. (Yes, I'm hooked on Top Chef, and have dreams about Anthony Bourdain. But who doesn't?)

Red or not, I won't be buying any more pomegranate ginger ale. In fact, I've got an extra bottle, if anyone wants it. I might bring it with me to tonight's holiday party at Kate's Mystery Books in Cambridge. Mix it with enough other stuff, and it might be drinkable as a holiday punch.

What I Read This Week

I read manuscripts this week, but did manage to finish two good books.

Chris Mooney, THE SECRET FRIEND. A paperback available only in the UK -- unless you happen to know the author, which I do. This sequel to THE MISSING is a solid forensic thriller featuring Mooney's series protagonist, CSI Darby McCormick -- but McCormick is not as interesting in this book as renegade former FBI agent Malcolm Fletcher, who gives McCormick the information she needs to track down a serial kidnapper whose victims wind up dead, with small statues of the Virgin Mary concealed in their clothing. Fletcher is such a cool, spooky character that he deserves a series of his own.

Alex Carr, THE PRINCE OF BAGRAM PRISON. Alex Carr is Jenny Siler, the subject of Crimespree magazine's next cover story (written by me). I met Jenny briefly at the Madison Bouchercon, when she was on a panel with Joe Finder, and thought, "Wow, she's really smart -- I should read her books." I'm embarrassed that it took me two years to pick one up, because this book is a diamond -- hard, clear, sharp and luminous. Nineteen-year-old Jamal, orphaned as an infant in Morocco, becomes a pawn of American intelligence operatives after arriving in Afghanistan with the wrong people. A complex plot spirals through 30 years and half a dozen major characters, cramming an astonishing amount of detail and emotion into less than 300 pages.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

I don't know why spam is always misspelled.

As I think I've mentioned before, I have four email accounts, and manage two others for clients. That's a lot of spam. Gmail and Entourage have decent spam filters, but a fair amount manages to make its way through, and every so often I look through the spam folders just to make sure I haven't missed anything important.

What surprises me is not the number of emails that are obvious scams, but how amateurish these attempts are. If you are pretending to represent a financial institution, wouldn't you take the trouble to spell its name correctly? If you're soliciting lonely men, why would you waste your time sending an email to an address that obviously belongs to a woman? And in all of these cases, if you're presenting yourself as a legitimate commercial enterprise, can't you take the time to run the email through your software's grammar and spelling checker?

The other thing I don't know is how many people respond to these spam messages. Someone must, or the spammers wouldn't bother; I wonder how many responses they need to get in order to make the effort worthwhile.

I'd think that everyone knows about the Nigerian email scam by now, but apparently not. And maybe legitimate emails have gotten so sloppy that the fake ones now look normal.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

I do not know what to ask Santa for this year.

Last night my friend Jen said that her daughter had been asking some penetrating questions about Santa and how he operates. I said that I would be happy to act as a resource on this issue, and that she could send Grace to me with any questions.

Jen shot me an insultingly suspicious look and said, "What are you going to tell her? Are you going to tell her Santa is real, or that Santa isn't real?"

"What do you mean?" I asked. "Of course Santa is real. Santa is totally real. What else would I tell her?"

I'm serious about this. Santa Claus lives, and because Santa is magic, any stories we tell about his nature and how he operates in the world must be crude approximations of the truth. That stuff about reindeer and elves got invented by creative types in the 19th century; it is no more or less valid than stories about Father Christmas or St. Nicholas or the Russian Babushka. They are ways for us to explain to ourselves the miracles that happen at the end of every year, as the seasons turn and the world renews itself again. It's why Christians celebrate the birth of our savior at this time of year, although scholars say the historical Jesus was probably born earlier in the fall.

Every year I ask Santa for something -- one thing -- that is important to me, and I have never been disappointed. Sometimes it takes a few years; sometimes I get my wish answered in a way that shows me I asked for something silly, or something I really shouldn't have been wanting. (There was that year I asked for a husband, and got someone else's ... less said about that, the better.) Santa often delivers in unexpected ways, as in the year I asked for a trip to Disney World and got an invitation to a conference there two weeks later.

So I don't know what I'm asking for this year. It's been such an extraordinary year, and I feel so lucky at the moment, that asking for anything more feels impertinent, ungrateful, and like pushing my luck.

I'd like to go to Harrogate next year. If Santa could arrange that, I'd be very grateful.

What are you asking Santa for this year?

Five Random Songs

"Why Wasn't I More Grateful (When Life Was Sweet)," Maria McKee. Yikes -- I'm grateful, I'm grateful!

"The Arcane Model," The Delgados. From The Complete BBC Peel Sessions, a Christmas gift from years past (though not from Santa).

"Can't Get You Out of My Head," Electric Light Orchestra. I will never apologize for liking ELO.

"I've Just Seen a Face," The Beatles. Another song that makes me happy, no matter what else is going on. I used to be able to play it on the guitar. I wish I still had a guitar. Maybe I'll ask Santa.

"Take a Look," Aretha Franklin. Ack, and this song kills me. "Take a look in the mirror/Look at yourself/But don't you look too close/'Cause you might see the person/That you hate the most..."

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

I do not know whether drinking sour milk will hurt you.

My comfortable life has few real luxuries -- okay, that's a lie -- but one of the most important is my morning iced latte.

Years ago, my friend Gary gave me a fancy espresso/cappuccino machine as a combination birthday/Christmas/housewarming present, and I use it every morning. My friend Pam just sent me a bag of amazing decaffeinated espresso beans, so it's a whole ritual: turn the machine on, run some water through it, grind the beans, load the dripper-thing (the technical term), and add milk, Sweet'n'Low and ice.

This morning, after a week away from home, I was so glad to get back to my routine, and even more relieved that I still had most of a jug of skim milk in the refrigerator.

I don't know what I thought that milk had been doing for the past week. Since Gardiner, as far as I know, was not sucked into a black hole, that milk was aging at the same rate as the rest of us -- but that did not occur to me until I had taken the first big swig.

AGGH. PLEH. I've rinsed my mouth out twice now, and still feel the taste in the back of my throat. But that's all it is, right? Sour milk can't kill you, can it? I mean, this is homogenized and pasteurized and vitamin-fortified and all the rest of it - this queasy feeling in my stomach is really just in my head. Isn't it?

Monday, December 01, 2008

I don't know how to make my driving time more productive.

Good morning from the Holiday Inn in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where Dizzy and I wound up spending last night.

Yesterday was a bad day on the road; after nine and a half hours of driving, this was where we were. I thought I could drive past the rain, but by the time I hit the Tappan Zee, it was clear that the weather wasn't going to get any better -- and it was snowing in Maine.

It's not a good way to start the week. I have several things due today, and at this point will not get home until around noon. Sorry, everybody.

The idea of making this trip again in three weeks fills me with dismay. I'll do it, but I need to figure out a way to be smarter about it, and a way to make my car time a little more productive. It's fun to listen to the audiobook of I, Claudius (my companion on this trip), but it doesn't get my work done.

If Dizzy would only learn to drive, it would make my life so much easier.

If you're in the Augusta area, join the members of Gaslight Theater this evening at Joyce's for our Annual Meeting and holiday party. We'll have a short business meeting, a discussion of our strategic planning process, and a holiday singalong. Free hors d'oeuvres and a cash bar, starting at 6:30 p.m.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

I do not know why those little metal discs are called "washers."

There's nothing like hanging out with very young children to make you aware of the gaps in your knowledge base. Of course, part of the fun of hanging out with little kids is being able to make things up and have them believe you -- this morning I had a conversation with my nephew Henry about Santa's army of deputies, and another with my niece, Meg, about what space aliens eat.

But my nephew Matthew pulled a small metal disc out of a basket of crayons and asked, "Do washers go on washers?" and I had to admit that I did not know.

Over at The Straight Dope, Cecil explains the purposes of washers: to distribute the pressure of a nut or bolt evenly, to provide a smooth contact surface, and (in the case of plumbing) to form a water seal. Even he, however, cannot come up with a decent explanation for why they're called washers; all he does is cite the OED, which dates the word from 1346 but gives the etymology as "of doubtful origin."

What I've Read Lately

It's been a while since I've posted a reading list, for the usual reasons: I have four different books going at the moment, in addition to three manuscripts, and have been spending a lot of reading time chasing down arcane research questions for clients. I've also set a couple of books aside because they weren't good enough to finish, which is rare for me. But here's what I've finished lately...

Julie Andrews, HOME. A lovely memoir by a lovely woman, which manages to make even the terrible stuff (war, an alcoholic stepfather, a disturbed mother, a childhood spent under horrendous economic and emotional pressure) feel like a blessing to the woman who lived it. She's such delightful company that I didn't mind the sometimes-extreme detail (we don't really need to know how she learned to wash dishes).

Stephen King, DUMA KEY. A ghost story about a man who loses his arm and finds a strange genius for painting, thanks to an island off Florida's Gulf Coast where not all the residents are benign. Some interesting stuff here about the creative life, and a couple of truly scary scenes, but the book is way, way, WAY too long. Way.

Marlene Wagman-Gellar, ONCE AGAIN TO ZELDA: The Stories behind Literature's Most Intriguing Dedications. A birthday present from Claire, which I was delighted to get, since I'm always fascinated by dedications and acknowledgments. Sadly, though, a great concept is wasted here, with grade-school level prose, excessive sentiment, and embarrassing typographical errors (children "pouring" over books, etc.). It makes me want to write my own version.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

I don't know why professional sports don't have slaughter rules.

The Detroit Lions have just lost their traditional Thanksgiving Day game, this time to the Tennessee Titans, by a score of 47-10.

Here at my sister Peggy's, none of us cared much about the game anyway, but this was a new standard of boring and humiliating. The Lions are 0-12 for the season, and I'm wondering how anyone benefits from allowing the Lions to finish out their schedule.

Is anyone still going to their home games? Is anyone watching them on TV? It's already ending in tears; what could happen between now and the end of the season, other than someone getting hurt?

I don't understand why professional teams don't have slaughter rules -- or, as Little Leaguers now have to call them, mercy rules. When it becomes obvious that a team has no chance of winning, the coaches and captains ought to be able just to call the game. Everyone gets to go home early, and the TV stations can show an old movie or rerun an episode of Seinfeld.

Design your own mercy rule for a professional sport. What margin of victory is insurmountable, and at what point in the game? What teams need to take the rest of the season off and focus on rebuilding?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

I don't know why so many people close to me have this birthday.

On the road this morning -- hello from Pennsauken, NJ, where Dizzy and I spent the night with my former roommate, Leigh -- and pressed for time, so I'll just say "Happy Birthday" to Chris, Ed, Peggy, Susan and Doyle, four of whom are my blood relatives and all of whom are dear to me.

Do you have these birthday clusters in your life? I have other friends who share birthdays, but this is an extreme case -- helped, of course, by the fact that my sisters Peggy and Susan are twins. It makes me both skeptical about astrology -- because these five people don't have that much in common -- and a little credulous, because what they have in common is their importance to Me (which is all that really matters).

So for all of you today, happy birthday, and here's your birthday horoscope from that paragon of journalistic integrity, the New York Post:

IF TODAY IS YOUR BIRTHDAY Something you start over the next few months will grow very big, very fast and before you know it you will be a bit of a celebrity. Enjoy the applause and the rewards but don't allow yourself to be distracted. Staying at the top is even harder than getting there.


I am looking forward to knowing so many celebrities in the year ahead.

Five Random Songs

"Volcano," Damien Rice. Wouldn't you expect a song called "Volcano" to be -- well, explosive? I would, too. This song is the opposite.

"Let's Go Away for a While," The Beach Boys. A bonus instrumental track off iTunes' version of Pet Sounds. Lots of vibraphone, which I like.

"To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament," Sufjian Stevens. More instrumental music, off Illinois. Weirdly appropriate, given that our President-Elect is holding his third straight daily press conference on the economy today.

"It's All Been Done," Barenaked Ladies. A collection of pop cliches whose power you cannot deny. You are helpless against the Barenaked Ladies. Just admit it.

"Peron's Latest Flame," Mandy Patinkin and company, from the Evita soundtrack. Did you know that the original title of Evita was Dangerous Jade? It's my favorite line in this song.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

I don't know why some names last and some don't.

Every morning, I get an email from the nice people at Catholic.org called "Saint of the Day." I subscribed to this; I like to read about saints, who were often rather odd people. Today's featured saint, for example, is St. Catherine Laboure, whose visions of the Virgin Mary led to the creation of the Miraculous Medal.

But the email lists more obscure saints as well, and today's patrons include St. Alnoth, a cowherd and hermit who was martyred around 700; St. Jucunda, a virgin and hermit who lived in the mid-5th century; and St. Mesrop, a fifth-century hermit who helped create the Armenian alphabet. (Apparently, it is easier to become a saint if you are a hermit. This does not surprise me.)

Anyway, I grew up in a tradition that says children need to be named after saints. My own names are variants of Helena and Clare (who, among other things, is the patron saint of television, so that's good). And what I want to know is, why isn't anyone naming their children Alnoth or Jucunda any more? Or Mercurius, whose feast day is also today?

The same ten names show up on the most-popular lists every year, although fashions come and go. You almost never meet a Carol or a Barbara younger than 40; today, you won't meet a Tiffany or a Brittany older than 35, and I'm curious to see how those names age. And sometimes names come back. How many Sarahs and Emmas do you know now, compared to 20 years ago?

Men's names tend to be less changeable. The generation of Jasons and Justins is now moving through the years, but you can find Michaels, Johns, Stephens and Roberts at any age. But no Crummine, no Wiltrudis, no Ethelburga or Maelrubius. What happened to these names? They sound funny to us, but only because we no longer know anyone named Polycarp.

Of course, some names get retired forever, for obvious reasons. You notice that no one gets named "Adolf" any more. "Genghis" isn't too popular, although you do occasionally find Eastern Europeans named Attila.

But in the case of names like Plegmund and Vulgis, I'm guessing it has something to do with the fact that most of these saints died without children, and therefore had no one to name after themselves.

Being a hermit probably didn't help, either. If Peter and Paul had been hermits instead of missionaries, those names might have disappeared, too.

Monday, November 24, 2008

I do not know how James Bond gets his clothes.

Quantum of Solace is getting mixed reviews, and those are justified. The first 20 minutes and last 20 minutes of the movie make no sense if you haven't seen Casino Royale -- and even if you have, we're not given much reason to care about Bond's cold-blooded revenge.

Between those sequences, however, is a solid Bond film in the classic tradition: international conspiracies, psychopathic villains, cool cars and great clothes.

Bond films require a certain degree of suspension of disbelief. In one sequence, he basically walks on water, leaping from one moving boat to another to chase down a damsel in distress. In another, we're expected to believe that assassins were able to bring an entire barrel of oil into a luxury hotel, drown a woman in it, leave her oil-coated body on a bed and then get out of the hotel without tracking oil anywhere else in the room or the hotel hallways. And we won't even talk about Bond's ability to run from a fireball, a standard feature of movie thrillers that defies all physical laws.

No, what bugged me in this movie was Bond's ability to come up with fabulous new clothes at any time of day, in any place he might be. One clever sequence shows him stealing a tuxedo, which I appreciated; but in the scene immediately following that one, he shows up on a Greek island wearing a gorgeous black sweater that he did not snatch off a clothesline. Later, he arrives in Bolivia with no visible luggage, but manages to come up with another tuxedo and, after that, some great-looking desert wear. (There's also the issue of his shoes, which disappear and reappear during one escape sequence.)

I live a quiet life, working from home, and I do not have time to shop for clothes. How does James Bond manage?

Shop and Pack with James: the 007 Guide to Style would be an awesome TV show. I would watch it, especially if every episode featured Daniel Craig getting dressed.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

"'In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.' Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant."

The Movie: Harvey, 1950. Mary Chase and Oscar Brodney, screenwriters, from the play by Mary Chase; Henry Koster, dir.
Who says it: James Steward as Elwood P. Dowd, a wealthy bachelor whose best friend is Harvey, a 6"3' invisible rabbit.
The context: Elwood explains himself to a psychiatrist.
How to use it: To end an argument.

A movie quote today, as I don't know what I don't know, and I'm finding myself a little insufferable at the moment. Dizzy and I are going for a long walk before it snows.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I do not know where "middle age" begins.

Today's my birthday. That means it is also my twin sister Kathy's birthday, so happy birthday, Kathy, and thanks for being four minutes older than I am. If and when we hit middle age, you'll get there first.

It's an ugly phrase, "middle age." I used it last week, when discussing restaurant options with a friend. We were talking about whether to go to a popular barbecue place in Cambridge, and I said I was no longer willing to stand in line for a dinner table. "I hate to sound like a cranky middle-aged person," I said, and my friend objected -- "Stop that! You're not middle-aged!" -- which was really more about his need to deny his own encroaching age than about any effort to pay me a compliment.

But what do we call this stretch of time? Years ago, Anna and I spent a day in Annapolis, and I had my fortune told by a nice man who'd set up a table in the back of a fancy clothing store (I think it was Avoca Handweavers; I still have the green wool cape I bought that day). He asked me several questions, including my birth date and the spelling of my name; he added up a list of numbers, and told me that I would live to be 86.

I was probably 30 at the time; 86 sounded like a good deal to me, as long as any reasonable person would want to live. But now here I am at 43, and where does that put me?

Maybe I'll live to be 96, like my great-grandmother Lamb, the legendary Frankfurter Annie (she fed hot dogs to horses, for reasons I've never heard explained). Maybe I'll live to be 100. In any case, it's not an infinite stretch, and I'm into the mid-range -- or better, more accurately, the prime.

I do work I enjoy, and am engaged and present in my life; I no longer feel the need to prove anything to anyone; I am wealthy in the love of my friends and relations; I have no major physical disabilities. It's equilibrium, or as close as we ever get.

It's a good time, and I hope it'll last a while.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I don't know why humans don't hibernate.

Winter doesn't respect the calendar in central Maine. The thermometer outside my kitchen door reads 21F. I don't want to talk about wind chills, but I'm watching the bunting on my neighbor's garage ruffle and float, and wondering how well it's attached to the clapboard.

My dear friend Jennifer L., the traitor who abandoned us for North Carolina earlier this year, came back yesterday on business and to help me celebrate my birthday a couple of days early. Jennifer, our friend Anna and I met for drinks at Joyce's, downtown Hallowell's coolest nightspot (and I do not mean that sarcastically in any way -- Joyce's really is cool).

The outside temperature was somewhere in the 20s. At one end of the spectrum Anna, hardy Maine stock, showed up without a coat: "This jacket is cashmere," she said, as if that would be enough for anyone. Jen, only three months gone from Maine, wore a coat and would have been plenty warm if whining was a heat-generating activity. I, in the middle, wore a coat and gloves but could not stop yawning, not because I was tired but because some more fundamental biologic process seemed to be taking over.

As I took Dizzy for his last walk of the night, bouncing on my toes to stay warm, I realized what it was: I want to hibernate.

Why don't humans get to hibernate, dammit?

I've read books about this. Very few mammals truly hibernate; even squirrels will wake up at intervals during the winter, to forage for food and make sure their nests are safe. Hibernation takes a lot of energy, and fat stores that humans aren't supposed to have.

But here's the thing: I've done my part. I've got those fat stores. I would be just fine if I could sleep between, say, Thanksgiving and Easter.

Well, you could wake me up for Christmas. And Inauguration Day. And I am supposed to direct a play that runs the last two weeks of February, so I guess I need to be around for that. And unless Dizzy hibernates too, someone needs to feed him and take him out...

All right, hibernation's not practical. It's a business opportunity for someone, though. Imagine if someone could offer long-term storage for humans through the winter: IV fluids, periodic turns to prevent bedsores, life management for the months people were sleeping. You could charge any amount of money for that. You'd have a waiting list for decades. I'd be on it.

Five Random Songs

"Quite Ugly One Morning," Warren Zevon. Ooh, not a good song to start the day. Next.

"Shiny Happy People," REM. Much better. An infallible mood lifter, and have you seen the Muppets' version? Go watch it right now, and thanks to Jennifer Jordan, who made me aware of it.

"Life 2: Unhappy Ending," Stars. Ooh, emotional whiplash on the iPod Shuffle. Claire gave me this CD, which was one of my favorites of 2007. Stars is a Canadian band that deserves a lot more attention in the U.S.

"Indian War Whoop," John Hartford. From the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

"Eraser," Nine Inch Nails. It's hard for me to believe that this album (The Downward Spiral) is 14 years old already. I think I need to lie down.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I don't know why Dizzy loves grass so much.

Dizzy eats anything -- anything. He is part Lab, and Labs are the garbage cans of the dog world, or maybe the goats. Dizzy's eaten tin foil just because it once held food.

He also eats grass. Lots of grass, whenever he can get it.

Conventional wisdom says that dogs eat grass to make themselves throw up. Books and vets say you shouldn't let your dog eat grass. It has no food value, it's often infested with mites, and blades of grass have sharp, serrated surfaces that can damage a dog's stomach and intestine linings.

Dizzy seems to be the exception to the rule. He's always eaten grass, and I have never been able to break him of the habit. I've tried everything, from aversion therapy (squirt guns and pennies in a soda can) to supplementing his food with a chlorophyll powder (he wouldn't eat it; I tried it, and it did wonders for my skin). He doesn't throw it up, and it never seems to bother him much.

His vet in California said, "Some dogs are just grazers." I wonder whether Dizzy thinks that he's really a cow.

Monday, November 17, 2008

I don't know how to find a job.

Times are hard. Thank God I have enough work coming in, but I have several close friends and relations right now who are looking for employment.

I wish I could help, but I realized as I was offering some feeble advice the other day that I've never found a job the old-fashioned way. I've always gotten jobs through people I knew, or by the random chance of being in the right place at the right time.

My first real job out of school was with the University itself, in the dean's office of the School of Nursing. I learned office skills there, and then signed up to be a temp, just to get an idea of the kind of jobs I might be qualified to do. As luck would have it, a position came open at an office where I was working as a long-term temp, and I left that organization 13 years later.

Before I left Washington, I applied for a series of jobs I didn't get -- good jobs, jobs I wanted or thought I should want. I'd go for second interviews, sometimes even for thirds; I never got an offer. In fact, it got to the point at which one of my colleagues, knowing I'd been passed over again, asked, "What is wrong with you?" Something else I don't know...

But I left DC without a job, and since then, my working life has been full, shaped by the things people have asked me to do. I follow my skills and my interests, without having had much of a plan or even many tangible goals. So far, it's been both educational and entertaining.

I have a birthday coming up; it's the time of year when I start to fret about these things. It might be time to get a plan. I hope it's not time to find a job, because I don't know how. I don't even have an up-to-date resume.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Special Guest Poster: Karen Olson!

I'm in the Boston area for the weekend, attending CrimeBake, so I'm delighted to welcome Karen Olson as today's guest blogger. Karen's fourth Annie Seymour novel, SHOT GIRL, is just out in mass market paperback from NAL. Thanks, Karen!

I don’t know why stores are rigid about where to put book cover stickers.

On Nov. 4, I went into my local Barnes & Noble to sign stock of my new book SHOT GIRL, which had just been released that day. The folks who work there are super, and they eagerly found all the copies of the book and piled them up on the customer service desk for me to sign. I whipped out my trusty pen and swirled my John Hancock on the title page. And then I handed each book over to the customer service rep, who was going to put an “Autographed Copy” sticker on each.

He hesitated, the sticker hovering over the cover, then apologized as he stuck it down on the bottom right hand corner, completely covering my name.

“We have to put it here,” he said. “It’s the rule.”

Now, there’s plenty of space on the left hand upper corner of the book, sort of “open space” that would accommodate a sticker quite nicely and then the customers would be able to see who actually wrote the book. I know I peruse the bookshelves by author name, but if I can’t see it, well, then, I could pass it right by. I suggested the alternative spot for the sticker. Alas, the young man said he just couldn’t do it.

“It’s the rule,” he repeated. And then he added that with mass market paperbacks, it’s tougher since there’s less room anyway.

I thought about my other covers, and placement of the autographed copy stickers on them. And I realized that my name has been covered up on all of them. It made me take a look at some of the books on my bookshelf to see who else would lose their name or title. Sean Chercover’s BIG CITY BAD BLOOD would be BIG CITY BAD; Dave White’s WHEN ONE MAN DIES would be WHEN ONE MAN by Dave; Dan Judson, Sean Doolittle, and Wallace Stroby would all lose their last names. But on the flip side, writers like Dennis Lehane, Harlan Coben, and Lee Child all have their names and titles positioned in a way so nothing is lost. There seems to be some sort of hierarchy.

So please buy my books, just so maybe someday I won't suffer from sticker obstruction :) After all, there are rules.

Karen

Thursday, November 13, 2008

I don't know who decided it was okay to leave the house in pajamas.

Yesterday afternoon I needed to run an errand in Brunswick, and since I was right there, I stopped at Wal-Mart for dog food. I have very mixed feelings about Wal-Mart, and in fact sent my friend Katharine a text right after (to which you have not yet responded, K, if you're reading this) to ask whether shopping at Wal-Mart is immoral. But that's a post for another day, and in the meantime I'm grateful to Wal-Mart for cheap vitamins, 20-lb. bags of dog food, and frozen dinners that only cost a dollar.

Anyway, it was about 4:30 in the afternoon, but by the time I left the store, I wondered whether I'd had some time fugue and lost seven hours.

For one thing, it was dark when I left the store; not twilight, dark. Nighttime dark. This happens every year, right around this time, and it shouldn't surprise me anymore, but it does. Night falls between 4:00 and 4:30. By 5:00, it's as dark as it gets. It'll be this way until March.

But more to the point of today's post, I noticed several people shopping in what appeared to be pajama bottoms. Not fancy Perle Mesta-style hostess pajamas, but flannel trousers with prints of puppies or hearts on them.

When did this become okay? I mean, I understand needing to make a run in the middle of the night or very early in the morning, and not wanting to go to the trouble of putting on a full suit of clothes. But at 4:30 in the afternoon? How lazy do you have to be? How much harder is it to pull on a pair of sweatpants?

See, I'm not a snob about this stuff. I work at home; I wear sweatpants. I leave the house in sweatpants, though I'm not proud of that. But sweatpants, at least, suggest that I might have come from or be going to the gym (don't laugh, it's happened).

Pajamas, on the other hand, say, "I've just gotten out of bed. I'm just about to go back to bed. This is the most extreme case of sleepwalking I've ever suffered."

Maybe it's just gotten too easy to get an Ambien prescription.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I don't know how to change a fluorescent light bulb.

The lights in my kitchen are fluorescent strips. If you've ever wondered just how long fluorescent lights last, consider this: I moved into this apartment four years ago, and have never had to replace these tubes.

But all good things come to an end, and the light tubes are dying. They still come on, but it takes a good 10-15 minutes for them to reach full brightness, and I need to replace them.

The problem is, I don't really know how -- and I feel almost superstitious about trying to figure it out.

Many years ago, I tried to install one of those self-sticking fluorescent strips underneath a kitchen cabinet. The adhesive didn't stick, the light strip fell, and shards of glass went everywhere. I was still finding light bulb splinters months later.

So I'm nervous about messing with these tubes, and will have to wait for a bright, sunshiny day when I'm feeling extra confident -- and when my vacuum cleaner bag is empty. Any tricks I should know?

Five Random Songs

"Feeling Good," Nina Simone. From the Verve Remixed CD, a gift from my friend and former housemate Joseph.

"Murderer," Low. I own a couple of copies of this track; this one is from Into the Dark, the soundtrack CD that accompanied UK editions of John Connolly's THE UNQUIET.

"History Never Repeats," Split Enz. This was a retro sound in the 1980s, a cheeky homage to Byrds-style 1960s-era pop. Now it sounds almost new again.

"Killing the Blues," Robert Plant & Alison Krauss. From Raising Sand, an album that continues to grow on me.

"Scared," The Tragically Hip. A song about the dangers of love. I love these guys.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I don't know why no one is talking about reinstating the draft.

It's a question that occurred to me more than once during the Presidential campaign, and seems even more relevant now, in this economic downturn: why don't we bring back the draft?

Since 1980, the Selective Service System has been registering young men between the ages of 18 and 25, against the day that the U.S. government might reinstate conscription. I don't know how many people work for that agency; I don't know exactly what the agency does.

In 2008, however, it seems like the worst form of anachronism. Even its name is weirdly insulting. "Selective"? Select whom? Select men instead of women, select young instead of old, select high school dropouts instead of college graduates? And in this environment of stop-loss and declining recruitment numbers, what's it going to take to put this system into operation?

Candidate Barack Obama talked about creating a national service program, creating a sort of GI Bill for a broad spectrum of public service jobs. I wish he'd gone one step farther, and proposed compulsory service for all Americans between the ages of 18 and 25.

It wouldn't have to be military; it could be teaching, it could be hospital work, it could be highway construction. But it would be two years of work that would basically be donated to the country, in exchange for room and board and money toward higher education. Most important, it would be a shared experience that would bond us as citizens.

I'm sorry I didn't serve in the military. I wasn't old enough when I graduated from high school, and then the circumstances of my life sent me in a different direction. But I think about this particularly today, on Veterans' Day, when the old men gather to reminisce about what they went through together.

Some day the Iraq War veterans will do that, too, but it won't be the same. They'll always be a minority, and their pride will always be tempered by a certain touchiness, an anger about having to defend their decision to serve. That's not fair. That's not right.

It is good that we have this day to honor the men and women who fought for our nation. It is bad that they are an ever-declining minority of our population. We should all be veterans.

Monday, November 10, 2008

I don't know how to whistle by blowing out.

It may be true that anyone can whistle, but I can only whistle by drawing air in, not by blowing air out.

I do several things backwards, including handwriting strokes and ice skate strokes. A friend told me today that approximately 20% of the population is born with the ability to be either right- or left-handed, and half of them just end up right-handed by chance. I'd wonder if I were part of that 10%, except that I can hardly do anything with my left hand. Still, it would explain all the backwards stuff.

Anyway, whistling. I can actually whistle pretty well by sucking in, but the breath cycle breaks down when I try to whistle a tune of any length. Many people have tried to teach me how to whistle the "normal" way, with no success.

As another birthday approaches, I realize that part of middle age is coming to terms with the things I will never be able to do. But what a feeling of accomplishment I'd have, even now, if I could figure it out.

Friday, November 07, 2008

I don't know how to explain the difference among "might," "could," and "would" to a non-English speaker.

One of the challenges of this incarnation of the blog is that I suspect many of the things I don't know are interesting only to me. I do reading work with a wonderful woman whose English is quite good, but is not her native language. Her native language is one that does not have conditional forms of verbs, and we have really struggled with this.

"Might" means that something will happen if the proper circumstances are in place; "could" means that you have the power to do it, but not that it will necessarily happen; "would" means that you have the power but you might not have the desire, or the circumstances might not be correct. I feel a little dizzy typing that out, and I know it wouldn't make sense to me if I were hearing it for the first time. (And look at that, I just threw the subjunctive in there. I can't explain the subjunctive, either.)

So tomorrow I'm spending six hours in a seminar sponsored by the Literacy Volunteers of Central Maine (Augusta and Waterville together), and this is what I'm hoping to learn.

Learning in a classroom setting is a skill of its own, and one that disappears without practice. It's hard for me to sit quietly and pay attention for any length of time. I structure my work day in 50-minute chunks, and on a typical day jump among three or four clients, or three or four projects for the same client. It's a structure that works around my personal weaknesses, and keeps me from getting too bored or frustrated.

Literacy work is one of the most rewarding things I do, and teaches me the value of persistence over time. Progress is incremental and sometimes slower than either of us wants, but sometimes we have days when the cumulative work produces a breakthrough. Suddenly the words come easy and everything makes sense, and that feels miraculous to both of us.

What I Read This Week

I didn't finish a book this week. Instead I read two screenplays and two manuscripts, as well as a bunch of comics. (I forgot to mention that I went to the Boston ComicCon last Sunday; it was fascinating, and I'll blog about it at some point.)

I also read two more of Declan Hughes's plays: his first, I Can't Get Started, a fantasia on the lives of Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman, wildly ambitious in structure but gorgeous in language and tone; and Twenty Grand, an Irish homage to Mamet that might make a pretty good movie.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

I don't know what "the catbird seat" is.

The other night at pub trivia, one of my teammates said something about being "in the catbird seat," meaning someone was sitting pretty. The phrase struck us all as funny, and we realized that we had no idea what a catbird was, much less what a catbird's seat looked like, or why that might be a good place to be.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says the Gray Catbird is "a secretive, but curious skulker of dense thickets," whose "mew" call "sounds only vaguely catlike." It is widespread through most of the United States and southern Canada.



What, then, is a catbird seat? Well, apparently catbirds build pretty nice nests; nice enough, in fact, that cowbirds regularly lay eggs in them, which catbirds throw out. The Australian bowerbird, also known as the catbird, builds elaborate bowers of rocks or shells for his mate -- though I have a hard time believing the phrase "catbird seat" comes from Australia, as it seems to have been in use in the United States in the 19th century. The OED says its first appearance in print was in a James Thurber short story, "The Catbird Seat," where credit for the phrase goes to baseball announcer Red Barber.

It's still an odd turn of phrase.

Five Random Songs (since I didn't post them yesterday)

"All Cats," Six Organs of Admittance. Electronica from a collection of music that came with an issue of The Believer magazine.

"We Shall Overcome," Bruce Springsteen and the Sessions Band. From the Live in Dublin recording. Bruce's voice is not suited to this song, but it's moving all the same, and the backup harmonies are beautiful.

"The Tony Award Song," Title of Show soundtrack. A hilarious outtake in which one character starts a power ballad about winning a Tony, and another interrupts him to say they're not putting the song on the CD because it's too cheap a joke. Cheap jokes can be funny too.

"Silver Wings," The Knitters. An excellent cover of a Merle Haggard classic.

"My Time After Awhile," Buddy Guy. Classic blues from the master.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

I don't know what changes now.

This morning the world feels fresh and new, and I'm still on the verge of tears. Only a handful of things in my blessed life -- and I have lived a seriously charmed life, touch wood -- have made me feel this grateful, this hopeful, and this proud.

I don't know what happens next.

Politicians inevitably disappoint us. Barack Obama can't possibly fulfill all our hopes, and by the end of the week we'll see those who feel they share credit for Obama's victory lining up for what they consider to be their just deserts. Our President-elect has made it clear that he can't grant all these requests, and our 24-hour media cycle will make sure that we hear all about the backlash as soon as it starts.

But that's okay, because last night we all remembered what this country is supposed to be about. Senator McCain's concession speech was not only gracious, but deeply patriotic. President-elect Obama's was equally so.

Being an American is not about accidents of birth or ethnicity. It's not about heritage, it's not about history. It is about the assumption that we are all created equal, and that we all have the right to succeed. It is about agreeing to the laws that govern us, coming together to protect each other, and taking care of the weakest members of our society. To be an American is to be a member of a social contract that obligates us as well as rewards us, and at its best offers opportunity to all.

We needed to be reminded of this. The world needed to be reminded of this. No matter what happens next, last night we came together and remembered who we're supposed to be.

Now we can carry that forward.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

I don't know what will - or should - happen to newspapers.

Before I brushed my teeth this morning, before I took the dog for a walk or turned on my coffee machine (yes, decaf) or did anything else, I turned the television on to MSNBC and booted up my computer to check FiveThirtyEight.com. Later today I'll run some errands, maybe bring some food to volunteers, and keep my weekly tutoring appointment, and while I do that I'll listen to Maine Public Radio.

What I won't do today is buy a newspaper.

I feel bad about this, because close friends of mine are newspaper reporters, and more than one has taken a buyout in the last couple of years. They're now working as PR professionals, teaching, writing novels and blogging. As often as not, the stories my friends used to write just don't get written any more.

It is a death spiral. Newspapers can't afford to keep their most seasoned reporters and editors, but when they let them go, the quality of news declines, and newspapers lose their credibility and their value to readers.

A month or two ago I asked one of my sisters whether she had read a story about a political candidate's bad behavior, and she asked where the article had appeared. "The New York Times," I said. "Oh, the Times," she said, making a brush-off gesture -- as if The New York Times were no more credible than the late, lamented Weekly World News.

But it's true that the country's major newspapers have missed some very big stories, and have gotten things wrong in major ways -- which is why everyone I know who's been tracking this election closely feels nervous about the real possibility that all the coverage we've been reading is simply wrong.

Newspapers are not the only ones vulnerable to this, but the process of gathering news to freeze it and print it once a day makes them more vulnerable, because we are no longer willing to give newspapers the time to be thoughtful and balanced.

In a way, the instant-news environment should make traditional newspapering more important than ever. I crave that authoritative voice, that objectivity that newspapers used to promise and still should. Slate surveyed its staff about a week ago and found that they were voting 55-1 for Obama. Granted, Slate doesn't pretend to be nonpartisan, but how can a staff that is weighted 55-1 for Obama give readers any kind of balanced look at McCain?

This Presidential election has highlighted some real and baffling divisions in this country, and addressing these divisions must be a priority for whoever our new President is. Red state/blue state is only a fraction of the story; the divisions have more to do with assumptions and expectations.

Internet-based media have led us (well, led me) to expect a landslide victory for Barack Obama -- but I can't help suspecting that this is because they're only communicating with those of us who are online.

What about the significant percentage of people in this country who aren't online, who don't get their news from the Internet, who aren't blogging and sending each other cool "Yes We Can" videos? Who is talking to them, who is counting them, and who is reporting their views?

It ought to be newspapers, I think. Newspapers seem to have spent most of the last five years trying to figure out how to compete online, and I understand that. But I also wonder whether they've forgotten about the people who don't live online, who would be, logically, the people who would really need newspapers.

If we wake up tomorrow morning to find that John McCain is the next President of the United States, it will represent a profound, mindboggling failure for online journalism. But it might be the best thing that ever happened for the newspaper business.

Monday, November 03, 2008

I don't know how to embed videos in blog posts.

I have a crazy amount of work to finish today -- and a Gaslight board meeting tonight -- so that I have tomorrow free, to help where I can. In lieu of an actual post I'm going to try to put this video up -- if it doesn't work, click through to this link -- and for the love of our country, vote tomorrow.

Friday, October 31, 2008

I don't know whether I'm going to dress up tonight.

Happy Halloween, folks. No parties for me tonight; instead, I'm running the box office for Gaslight Theater's production of Private Lives, which continues tomorrow and next Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. (If you're in central Maine, come see it; the performances are terrific, and it's very funny. Also, my living room sofa is part of the set.)

Our production of Private Lives is set in 1970s Maine, rather than 1930s France, so I'm toying with the idea of dressing up as a '70s hostess: wearing my mother's black-and-gold Moroccan caftan, teasing my hair very big, and laying on the blue eyeshadow.

My fear is that people will not recognize this as a costume; instead, they'll tell me how nice I look, and in the bar afterwards they'll shriek with laughter (or just shake their heads in sorrow) about my feeble attempts to make myself presentable.

What are you going to be for Halloween?

What I Read This Week

Karen Olson, SHOT GIRL. Karen's my friend, but I liked her Annie Seymour series before I met her. Annie's one of the most believable characters in crime fiction, a moody single woman who swears too much, bickers with her mother, and would sometimes rather be a good reporter than a good person. SHOT GIRL, the fourth book in this series, is far and away the best; it starts with Annie's discovery of a dead body who happens to be her long-estranged ex-husband. He's on the ground next to Annie's car, surrounded by bullets that appear to have come from Annie's gun. Annie herself is an unreliable narrator; it's a bold risk for a late book in a series, but it pays off.

Declan Hughes, PLAYS: Digging for Fire, New Morning, Halloween Night, Love and a Bottle. Meeting Declan Hughes was one of the great pleasures of this year's Bouchercon. I'd admired his novels before I met him, but my friend Richard Brewer asked, "Have you read his plays?" So now I have, and they are just as impressive as the novels: passionate, funny, and uncannily insightful, especially about their female characters. New Morning and Halloween Night are explicitly ghost stories, but all four plays are haunted by a kind of broken-hearted rage that feels specifically Irish.

Tim Maleeny, BEATING THE BABUSHKA. Tim was someone else I met at Bouchercon, and also just delightful; Bobby and others at The Mystery Bookstore have been raving about his books for years, and I'm embarrassed that I'm just reading them now. This is the second Cape Weathers investigation, but I didn't feel I'd missed anything by not having read the first (though now I'll go back to it). The San Francisco PI investigates the apparent suicide of a Hollywood producer who went off the Golden Gate Bridge, and finds himself poking a hive of Russian gangsters. Great fun, owing as much to Carl Hiaasen as to Dashiell Hammett, with a wonderful sense of place.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

I don't know whether a zombie slave would be worth the trouble.

This morning Turner Classic Movies showed one of my all-time favorite guilty pleasure movies, Val Lewton's I Walked With a Zombie. It's a great melodramatic retelling of Jane Eyre, plus zombies. What's not to love?

Some people spend their fantasy time imagining resort vacations or fabulous meals or romantic evenings with George Clooney. I am not ashamed to admit that I have spent a fair amount of fantasy time deciding who among my acquaintances deserves to be my zombie slave.

But this morning, as I watched I Walked With a Zombie for at least the sixth time, I had second thoughts.

The truth is, zombie slaves would be pretty high-maintenance. Their self-care skills seem very low, and in the absence of Purina Zombie Chow, it would be a hassle to feed them. Dizzy's vet chides me for not brushing his teeth; if I don't brush my dog's teeth, I'm definitely not brushing my zombie slaves'. I have a guest room with a pretty big closet, but I already use that closet for winter coats and luggage, so my storage space for zombie slaves is limited.

Most of all, though, I've never been a good delegator. Zombie slaves would by definition not be self-starters. I can't see taking the time every day to figure out their to-do lists, then watching them to make sure they actually get stuff done.

If you had zombie slaves, what would you have them do? And how would you support them?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

I don't know how reliable polls are.

During the month of September, I did not have a television, and my access to the Internet was limited. That was a good thing, since I observe an inverse relationship between time spent in front of a screen and time spent with live human beings; that ratio had gotten way out of whack in my ordinary life, and now that I'm home again, I'm trying to keep it from getting so unbalanced again.

Also, while I was away from the screen, I was not able to track political coverage as obsessively as I might want to. This was also good.

Now I have too much information, and no idea of how to sort through it all. This afternoon I watched a consultant for the McCain campaign say that the race is a statistical dead heat, while the Huffington Post says that Obama is pulling away. The RealClearPolitics.com average of polls show Obama six points ahead -- outside the margin of error, at least -- but is that nationwide, and what does that mean from an electoral vote perspective?

How reliable are polls, anyway? Have they caught up to modern technology yet? Are people just lying? What about the 2004 election, when early exit polls were calling the election for Kerry? Are we all just going to be fooled again?

We have six days left before Election Day, and at this rate I am not going to make it. I need to do some deep breathing and step away from the screens.

After I watch Barack Obama's speech tonight. And then the after-speech coverage.

Five Random Songs

"I Think I Love You," The Partridge Family. Ah, the Partridge Family. That's what I need. Some Partridge Family reruns ... if I iron my hair and find a vest and a tambourine, I can claim to be Laurie Partridge for Halloween.

"I Wanna Be Like You," Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. A cover of the song from "Jungle Book," fun but not as good as Louie Prima's original.

"The Man That Got Away," Rufus Wainwright. From the Rufus Does Judy album. Thisclose to being one step too far.

"Lets Go (Nothing For Me)," New Order. I love the jangly guitars on this song.

"It Was a Wonderful Time in Our Lives," Toronto Consort. Modern chamber music from The Sweet Hereafter soundtrack, spooky and beautiful and heartbreaking. I do not know the names of the instruments played here, and wish I did.