Thursday, February 26, 2009

I do not know how to fix the economy.

Nobody asked me, but I thought I'd just preempt any demands from the general population.

The discussion over how to "fix" the banking system interests me because I worked in banking policy from 1987 to 1999, and still write or edit the occasional piece for my former employer. During my years in Washington, I was part of the debates on the savings and loan bailout, the banking crisis of the early 1990s, the move to nationwide banking, and the passage of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which removed barriers between commercial and investment banking.

For what it's worth, I offer two observations about the current crisis.

First, the fact that a few very large institutions are teetering on the brink of failure does not mean that the system itself is broken. Most banks, as we think of banks, are healthy; most people are still repaying loans. Yes, loans have become harder to get, and mortgage money particularly has become more scarce, because our entire structure of mortgage finance transmuted in the last 15 years, and must change again in ways people are still trying to figure out. But the vast majority of banks are still out there, doing what they've always done. They're just not the ones making headlines, and they're not the ones who sponsor stadiums or buy advertising in prime time.

Second, any institution allowed to grow beyond a certain size -- no, I don't know what that size is -- becomes too big to supervise and possibly too big to regulate. I doubt very much that you could find any one person who can tell you every business that Citicorp is in. Years ago, for a client project, I tried to identify the geographic footprints of the nation's 100 largest financial institutions -- that is, I tried to compile a list of every state in which those institutions had a business presence. Six months into the project, I turned in a sprawling list that I had no confidence in; it was just too hard to know who owned what, and what an ownership stake in this business or that really meant.

I don't know what the solution is, and I'm not going to get into it here; but a government guarantee (e.g., deposit insurance, access to emergency liquidity) carries restrictions, and should. The debate over nationalizing banks is silly semantics; as soon as a bank becomes too big to fail, it's already nationalized, and it's irresponsible of the federal government not to look after its investment.

Five Random Songs (since I missed yesterday's post)

"Darling Nikki," Prince. Yes, it's dirty. It's also gleeful and funny. What happened to Prince's sense of humor?

"Regret," New Order. I close my eyes and it's 1987 again, and not in a good way. Next.

"Munich Air Disaster 1958," Morrissey. I've said before that Morrissey often teeters on the verge of self-parody. This song goes right over: a song that mourns the loss of the Manchester United football team in an air crash, but still manages to be all about Morrissey ("I wish I'd gone down/Gone down with them...").

"I'm So Free," Lou Reed. Whew, something happy. Positively boppy, in fact.

"All or Nothin' at All," Bruce Springsteen. From the Human Touch album, not one of his better records, and this isn't one of the stronger tracks.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I don't know what I'm giving up for Lent.

Here it is Mardi Gras, also known as Shrove or Pancake Tuesday, and Lent starts tomorrow. February's gotten away from me, but that's just as well (see previous entries on February, Month of Doom).

I don't generally make New Year's resolutions, but I do treat Lent as a season of reform. Rather than giving things up, I usually try to do something positive, start something new, and get myself organized.

No idea what I'm doing this year. I've just acquired two "teach yourself piano" books, and might start keyboard lessons. I'm planning to spend a chunk of March in Washington, DC, where I hope to make some progress on - yes - a book of my own. I desperately need to get my personal belongings in some kind of order, and do a thorough cleaning of my apartment.

Along the way, I could probably drop a bad habit or two. Good thing I've already eaten all those cinnamon jelly hearts from Valentine's Day.

What are you giving up, or taking on, as a Lenten resolution this year?

Monday, February 23, 2009

I don't know why wet snow is so much bigger than dry snow.

We got a lot of snow last night.

It's wet and fluffy and very pretty; it's also heavy, and pulling down trees and power lines. I still have power and I have many things to do, so this will have to do for today's post.

The first weekend of Bell, Book & Candle went very well, and thanks to everyone who came out to see it. Performances resume Thursday, continue Friday and Saturday; call 207-626-3698 for reservations, and see Gaslight Theater for details.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

I don't know how Twitter works.

Yes, I'm on Twitter now. It's still just a flirtation; a client has decided to commit to it, not only for himself but for his forthcoming series character, which I think is a cool idea -- a new narrative form, in many ways.

But I know very little about Twitter, and frankly it scares me. You can follow me @eclamb; at the moment I'm following five of my friends, including Joe Finder and The Mystery Bookstore.

But I haven't loaded Twitter onto my iPod touch or (God forbid) my telephone, and I don't plan to update my status more than once a day. I'm not that interesting, even to myself, and checking my friends' status more often than that feels like stalking.

I'd be a really good stalker, and at certain points of my life, in certain circumstances, I've been tempted. I did not have Twitter at my disposal back then, and that's a good thing.

Do you Twitter? What do you use it for? Do you know how to hook up interfaces between Twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc.? Can you point me toward a tutorial? Leave your comments below...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

I don't know how it can snow when the temperature's above freezing.

Current temperature, according to my weather widget: 33F. This is almost springlike, except for the heavy snowfall I'm watching through my living room window. The snowplow's already been through once this morning, pushing around wet slush; it looks like what's falling now is actually sticking.

People have tried to explain this to me, but I still don't understand. How can it snow when the air temperature is above freezing? I understand that the clouds are colder altitudes, and the precipitation leaves the clouds as snow or ice; why doesn't it melt in the time it takes to reach the ground? How warm does it have to be before that happens?

Snow or no snow, tonight is the final dress rehearsal for Bell, Book & Candle, and we open tomorrow. Gaslight has a tradition of never canceling performances for weather, and I don't plan to let my show be the first.

Thanks to everyone who checked in on Dizzy; he's much better, back to his old cookie-begging self. We never did figure out what made him sick.

Five Random Songs (since I didn't do it yesterday)

"Off the Hook," Barenaked Ladies. Mellow pop with a nice drum line. I've said it before: you are powerless against the Barenaked Ladies. They're just too charming.

"Unreleased Backgrounds," Beach Boys. Now this is random - exactly what the title says, from the digital release of Pet Sounds. Background harmonies, a few quiet words.

"Afterclap," 13 & God. Funky electronica by a group composed of members of The Notwist and Themselves. My friend Joseph and I saw these guys live at the Black Cat in Washington, DC, a few years ago. (Wow, I've been keeping this blog for a while...)

"To Russia My Homeland," ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. A beautiful, martial instrumental in 3/4 time, heavy on the strings. More excellent drums.

"I'll See You in My Dreams," Jimmy Durante. I love Jimmy Durante, who reminds me of my Grandpa Lamb, and oh, how I love this song. "Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I don't know what gross thing Dizzy ate from under the snow.

Sorry today's post is so late; it's a hectic day in a hectic week, and blogging is apt to be haphazard between now and Saturday. Bell, Book & Candle opens on Friday, I've got two manuscripts that must go back to their authors this week, and all the usual odds and ends for various clients.

And my alarm clock's broken; that is to say, Dizzy, who gets up at sunrise and generally wakes me up as well, although he's learned that I don't necessarily get up when he does any more. Nine years of having a morning dog has turned me into a morning person, more or less, and I rarely set an alarm any more, because Dizzy's so reliable.

This morning's sunrise came and went without any reporting from Dizzy. He was lying across my bedroom doorway when I woke up a little after 8:00 a.m., paws in the air, looking listless. He let me pet him, but did not follow me into the kitchen, even when I cracked open a couple of eggs.

Dizzy loves eggs, and gets to lick the bowl after I've scrambled them. He came when I called him, but only gave the bowl a token swipe, and then gave me a look as if I were trying to poison him. He wouldn't eat his breakfast; he took a cookie, and dropped it on the floor.

Bad, bad, scary stuff. Off to the vet we went.

They checked him, drew blood, got him to eat, made sure he was peeing, gave him some fluids. He seems okay; the vet's best theory is that he ate something nasty, which is now working its way through his system. Based on the noxious fumes coming from Dizzy's rear end all afternoon, I would say that is a safe bet.

We've had a lot of snow melt over the past several days, and Dizzy's been very interested in what's gotten left behind. The other morning I had to yank him away from something that looked like a flattened, dehydrated, salt-cured frog -- or possibly toad, I can't tell the difference -- but I don't think he managed to eat any of it before I pulled him off it. He might have. He's been burrowing in the softened snowbanks, and there's no telling what he's found.

I'm about to feed him dinner, and I hope he eats it. This is too worrying.

Monday, February 16, 2009

I don't know why they only sell those cinnamon jelly hearts around Valentine's Day.

Valentine's Day has little relevance to my life, as a single woman of a certain age. It's one of those days that's bound to disappoint almost everyone, for one reason or another, and I realized recently that many couples seem to break up right around Valentine's Day -- as I have myself, at least twice. (No, I really don't sit around remembering details of my breakups. Ignore the moldy wedding cake in the corner, please.)

Anyway, I'm not sure why this is. It might be that the the ideals of Valentine's Day make us too aware of the shortcomings of our current relationships, or it might just be that we got the relationship through the holidays and then realized it was unsustainable. Or it might be that the unrealistic expectations of Valentine's Day advertising make us unreasonably discontent with a perfectly acceptable situation.

That said, I come today not to bury Valentine's Day, but to praise it - or at least praise part of it.

Sometime in mid-January, Valentine's Day candy starts showing up in supermarkets and drugstores. Much of it is inedible: conversation hearts made of flavored chalk; oversweetened chocolate-covered cherries; squishy, too-pale bonbons in fake velvet boxes. But hidden among the chocolate - in my Hannaford, the third shelf down, between some kind of holiday-themed Starbursts and bags of cherry chews -- are bags of cinnamon jelly hearts, possibly nature's perfect candy.

Brach's makes them. They combine the best features of cinnamon bears (which I can't eat anymore, because I once lost a crown to one) with the best features of gumdrops. They are just cinnamony enough, without that metallic aftertaste you sometimes get from cinnamon-flavored things (I'm looking at you, cinnamon Altoids). They are big enough that you feel you're really eating a piece of candy (unlike Hot Tamales, which require a whole handful), but small enough that you can feel virtuous if you stop at three. Or five.

Why can't we buy these at any other time of year? I get the heart-shaped Valentine's link, but why doesn't Brach's make them as regular cinnamon-flavored gumdrops?

I bought four bags at 50% off at Hannaford yesterday. I'd have bought more, but I was too embarrassed. I might go see if Rite Aid has any leftovers today...

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Friday, February 13, 2009

I don't know how to break a slump.

A good friend and former boss told me back in the 1980s that life is a string of streaks and slumps, and that baseball is merely the most obvious illustration of this. I've clung to this piece of wisdom through the years, and read several works of popular psychology that support this.

The "streaks and slumps" theory has several corollaries, which I offer here so you don't have to spend the time or money on those books yourself:

1. The vast majority of the time, you get what you expect. If you expect to be disappointed, you will be.

2. You see what you notice, and what you keep track of is what gives your life shape. If you keep a running tally of your disappointments, what you have is a life story about being disappointed. Don't sit next to me on a train, please.

3. The minute you stop paying attention to your life as it is happening, things start to spiral out of control. Everything is manageable as long as you're here now.

To illustrate, from my own life: I hate February. I've always hated February, ever since Papa (my Grandfather McLaughlin) died in February 1977. February has always been a month where I make bad decisions, get sick, and come in for my full share of consequences. The February Curse is part of my personal mythology, and I'm deep in it right now.

This week has been a string of screwups, frustrations, dropped balls, and projects that have taken two or three times as long as they ordinarily would -- to be clear, my screwups, my frustrations, my dropped balls and my delays. It's been one of those weeks where nothing's gone right, exacerbated by the persistence of this cold/ear infection/strep throat/tuberculosis and by the fact that my front door is so badly warped by weather that I have to yank it open with a scarf tied to the doorknob. I'm going to the doctor today (finally) and getting a new door this weekend, and am resolved that this whole week is just going to be a write-off. Next week starts fresh, and it will all be better. I'm putting it on notice.

In missing yesterday's post, I missed the chance to wish a happy birthday to my lifelong friend, Adrienne Lakadat, and to the redoubtable Sarah Weinman, who is now finally in her fourth decade. Today is the birthday of my brother, James, who will always be the baby of the family. Happy birthday, everybody.

What I Read This Week

I didn't finish anything. Not just books. I didn't finish anything. It's been that kind of week.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I do not know how far it is to the center of the earth.

Tuesday night trivia at the Liberal Cup has been on a break for the last six weeks, which is fine because I've been too busy to go in any case. Last night, however, Quizmaster Geoff invited the most competitive teams back for a "Tournament of Champions," before the regular pub quiz resumes next Tuesday.

My team, Clueless, competed against four others, and finished in a shameful (but close) fourth place. One of the questions we got wrong was this one, which I gave a completely incorrect answer to because I forgot the difference between diameter and circumference.

Even if I had remembered that circumference = pi x radius-squared, I would not have been able to back out the radius from remembering that the earth is approximately 25,000 miles around (actually, 24,859.82, but what's a hundred miles among friends). These spacial concepts are something my brain just doesn't do. I am bad at space and bad at time, and if I didn't have a near-photographic memory for words, I'd be sweeping streets for a living.

Actually, street sweepers have a pension plan and better health insurance than I do. It's probably time for me to think about a career change.

Five Random Songs

"I'll Meet You Halfway," The Partridge Family. I'm not ashamed of this being in my iTunes. Not a bit. If I had a Shaun Cassidy record in my iTunes, I might be ashamed of that... good thing I only have those on cassette.

"Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," Bob Dylan. Great bar music. I don't miss a lot about Los Angeles; I miss Barney's Beanery, which for some reason I think of when I hear this song.

"It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," Bob Dylan. Some early Dylan is so self-conscious, so fraught with the effort to be meaningful, that it's hard for me to listen to. This goes in that category.

"Johnny Strikes Up the Band," Warren Zevon. Warren Zevon's first major commercial release may have been his best cohesive work. Not that he didn't write great songs after this -- and Sentimental Hygiene is a beautiful album -- but I'd put Excitable Boy on a list of top ten rock albums of all time. Hard to start so high.

"Loco-Motion," Little Eva. This song reminds me that it's NCAA basketball season. Only 27 days until the Big East tournament begins!

Monday, February 09, 2009

I don't know how much flash cotton to order.

Bell, Book and Candle opens in 11 days, and we're all scrambling to get the set and props in order. We have permission from the City of Hallowell to use flash cotton for a spell-casting effect in the first act, and I'm trying to figure out how much we need.

Flash cotton is a form of nitrocellulose, also used in flash paper and flash cord. It ignites quickly, burns fast, makes a cool burst of flame and leaves no smoke or ash. We're using flash cotton instead of flash paper because it seems safer to transport; it ships wet, and you dry it out to store it and use it.

I live in a zone between pyrophobia and pyromania. I'm always the first to suggest lighting a fire, although I feel nervous around open flames, and won't light paper matches if I can avoid it. (Wooden matches feel safer, but it's still not my favorite thing to do.) I love to see things set afire at the dinner table, but the one time I tried it myself it startled me so badly I spilled a ladle of wine all over the stove top.

So this is going to be an adventure, for me as well as for my actors, and I'm waiting for a callback right now from a pyrotechnics expert to talk about how much we need to buy, and how we should use it. You just never know when information like this might come in handy.

Friday, February 06, 2009

I don't know the preferred plural of "Euro."

It's not something that comes up often, but having just finished a project for a European client, I had occasion to see a price card listed in the EU currency. On this card, I noticed "Euro" being used as a plural noun, where I would have assumed the word was "Euros."

A quick Internet search for guidance says that the English language plural of Euro is, indeed, Euros, but that the accepted European usage is Euro in both the singular and plural. Since Euro(s) are supposed to be the financial version of Esperanto -- at least, for EU purposes -- I'd like to see some consensus on this issue.

To whom to we appeal for a final ruling on this? It feels weird to say "Euro," plural, but we use plenty of other collective nouns, and it's also a nice example of synecdoche in everyday language (i.e., using a word for a portion to mean the whole, or vice versa).

What I Read This Week

Megan Abbott, BURY ME DEEP. I've been working full out on too many projects this week, sleep-deprived and zonked on a possibly toxic combination of cold medicine to keep me going. Megan, take this for the compliment it is when I say this was the perfect book for the week that was. It's the dark, dreamy, impressionistic story of Jazz Age grass-widow Marion Seeley, who winds up alone and working in an Arizona sanitarium, and falls into some bad company. One bad move leads to another, as Marion's world turns into a spiral of doom. All of Megan Abbott's characters live in a fragile world bound by brittle rules, and once those rules break, chaos inevitably follows. I'm going to need to read this again once I'm off the decongestants, but in the meantime it's haunted my dreams this week.

Jean Strouse, ALICE JAMES: The Life of the Brilliant but Neglected Sister of William and Henry James. A fascinating biography that illuminates several issues I'm looking at for a project of my own. Among the upper class of 19th century American society, women were educated far beyond their opportunities or expectations, for no apparent purpose other than to be the perfect audience for the men in their lives. Alice James was a little different, in that her education was haphazard, informal, and largely self-driven; but the end was the same, as she found no outlet for her brilliance but her journals and her lively communications with her friends and her brothers. She died unknown and much too young: "not socially useful, particularly virtuous, or even happy." But attention must be paid, and Strouse gives Alice her long-overdue moment in the sun.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

I don't know where to find a recording of the 1976 NY Shakespeare Festival Production of "Threepenny Opera."

This is random even for me, I know. But I'm in a restless, irritable mood, tired of doing things for other people and figuring out what everybody else needs and wants.

Sometimes I can snap myself out of these moods by asking: "What do I want?" and trying to take care of that. I recommend this; sometimes it's as simple as an hour alone with a book, or a good cup of coffee.

This morning, what I want is a copy of the cast recording of the 1976 New York Shakespeare Festival production of The Threepenny Opera, starring Raul Julia, Blair Brown and Ellen Greene. I used to own it on vinyl, but lost it in a move; it's possible that it wound up among my ex-fiance's collection, because I know I still have a couple of records that belonged to him. (Which is silly, because I haven't owned a turntable in 20 years.)

But this recording no longer seems to exist. It's out of print, unavailable in either CD or electronic format. I look for it whenever I visit a used record store; I once spent an hour on the floor of a store in Brunswick, sorting through uncatalogued boxes.

Of course, if and when I ever find it, it might not be as good as I remember it. But the tunes are still intact inside my head, and I can still sing whole stretches of it (not that anyone ever asks). This verse from the finale is in my head today, given the current temperature (-2F) and the continuing terrible news about the economy:

Don't punish our wrongdoing too much; never
Will it withstand the frost, for it is cold...
Think of the darkness and the bitter weather,
The cries of pain that echo through this world.

Yeah, I'm in a mood. Maybe what I need to be searching for is a DVD of Road Runner cartoons instead...

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

I do not know what the inside of my head looks like.

I have a cold; I have clogged ears; at the recommendation of several friends, I've bought a neti pot.

Using the neti pot is very possibly the grossest, weirdest thing I've ever done to myself. It's a tool for flushing and moisturizing one's sinuses, and you do that by tilting your head, pouring saline into one nostril and letting it run out the other. It's a bizarre sensation that does, in fact, clear one's sinuses and relieve pressure, or at least redistribute it.

But it makes me uncomfortably aware that my head is a bone container filled with various wet and spongy things, and only a layer of fat and skin holds it all together. A skull is a bone frame around big empty sockets, and the awareness that my head is a network of holes is freaking me out a little. I've seen pictures of people "brain flossing" -- that is, dropping something into a nostril and pulling it out through the back of the throat -- but this is something that I will never, ever try myself or ask anyone to try in front of me.

I am a big fan of clothing, and beyond that I am a big fan of skin; both serve to hide things from my sight that I just don't want to see. I like boundaries, and most days would feel perfectly comfortable in an abaya. The neti pot makes me think about portions of my own body I never want to see, and therefore I close my eyes when I use it.

Five Random Songs

"I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," Ella Fitzgerald. It's actually supposed to thaw this weekend, with temperatures in the upper 30s. I'm torn between being excited about this and dreading the mud.

"I Know a Girl," Bebe Neuwirth. From the Chicago soundtrack, the number that opens Act Two.

"When She's Gone," Mary Chapin Carpenter. An excruciatingly beautiful song about the end of a relationship. "The way she knew by the way you kissed her/When she's gone, you won't miss her."

"Overkill," Men at Work. Phew, something happy. Mock me if you will; this song about the first rush of a crush never fails to cheer me up. Of course, you could also hear it as a stalker's anthem ... it's a fine line.

"Cry a While," Bob Dylan. From Love and Theft, an album I don't listen to much. Every time I do listen to it, I think, "Gee, why don't I listen to this more?"

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

I don't know why I read my horoscope every day.

Of course I don't believe in it. My whole family, as I've discussed before, is walking proof of the silliness of astrology. My twin sister and I could not be more different. My two younger sisters, also twins, share a birthday with one of our brothers, my son, and one of my closest friends, but these five people don't share any readily identifiable character traits (other than an ability to tolerate my company).

But I do read my horoscope almost every day, and some days I read more than one. Newspapers now publish disclaimers saying that horoscopes are "for entertainment purposes only," and that is what they do: they entertain me. I like to send friends the "If Today is Your Birthday" blurbs on their own birthdates, because I think they feel like promises of adventure.

Do I ever change my behavior because of something I read in a newspaper horoscope? Uh, no. But sometimes they're a handy excuse. Take today's, from The New York Post:

It is not the quantity of your work that matters but the quality, so stop pushing yourself to the limits of your endurance just because you think it is expected of you. Doing one thing well is better than doing many things to only an average standard.

Scorpio or not, this is good advice for me on any day. How do the stars know??

Monday, February 02, 2009

I don't know why people want to be on TV.

I wrestled with today's unknown, because it's hard to make a statement like this, much less discuss it, without sounding judgmental -- and I'm really not judgmental, I just don't understand it.

Anyway, I have no standing to be judgmental. I've been on TV plenty, starting with city spelling bees when I was a kid and continuing with Jeopardy, Ben Stein's Money, and several things that were filmed but never aired.

But I don't own any video of myself on television, and barely watched those shows when they aired. What I did see of them, I watched under the influence of large amounts of alcohol, in the company of people who let me talk to them instead of watching what was on the screen. It did not make me feel any bigger or more important to be on TV, and the point of those experiences was to play the games, meet the people and have the experience, not to be immortalized on tape.

The documentary I worked on last week, though, was only possible because so many kind, helpful and skilled people were eager for the chance to be on TV, in any capacity, for any reason. They took time out from their jobs, they put themselves to considerable personal inconvenience, and they did it all for free -- for the chance to be part of an hour-long documentary that may never air in this country at all (although everyone involved will get a DVD, and be able to show their own friends and family).

A couple of friends of mine helped out last week as a personal favor to me, and I appreciate that beyond words. But several others just wanted the chance to be on TV; I'm grateful for that, too, but I wish I understood it better.

Being on TV turns out to be so important, in fact, that the local news came out to cover the fact that we were filming a diner in Biddeford. I'm not going to embed the video, because something about this coverage makes me deeply uncomfortable -- again, I don't know why, except that watching an Internet clip of a TV news report about a documentary about an author's literary setting feels like looking down an endless hall of mirrors. But if you want to watch it, it's online here.

At least it's good publicity for the nice people at the Palace Diner, which is worth a visit if you're ever in Biddeford.