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 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.


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 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.