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.