Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I don't know how to fix the publishing industry.

Nobody asked me, of course, but I'm on my way to BookExpo America for the next several days, so I thought I'd just put that out there.

This year's meeting will be considerably smaller than previous years', as some large publishers will have no presence at all on the exhibit floor, and I have heard from some author friends that their publishers have been unwilling even to get them galleys to sign at the convention. Picking up advance copies of forthcoming novels is one of the major benefits of BEA for booksellers; not having as many of those available is a blow.

But it's pretty clear that the structures of the publishing and bookselling industries are outdated and in desperate need of fundamental change, so I'm looking forward to hearing people talk about it. Despite the hype, I don't think the Kindle's going to put publishers out of business, but I do think that everyone's going to have to move to a model closer to a print-on-demand system, which may make hardcovers much scarcer and more expensive.

It's also going to change our whole perspective on what it means to be "published," and I'm not sure that's a good thing. It's always been difficult for novelists, in particular, to support themselves by writing novels; the freakish success of a small percentage of authors (Stephen King, John Grisham, Dan Brown, Mary Higgins Clark) has created the illusion that writing books is a way to get rich. Getting rich from writing a novel is about as likely as winning the lottery; some do, but you can't count on it.

Moving to a print-on-demand model will make it possible for legitimate publishing houses to publish many more authors, if they want to, but it will also make it harder for any but the most successful authors to write their way to a living wage. Think about how overwhelming it already is to stand in front of the "New Releases" table at a major chain bookstore; what would that be like if you were standing in front of a wall of screens, offering you an unlimited number of books available on demand? Nothing will ever really go out of print; new authors will compete with every other book ever written, not just the two dozen released in the same week.

Meanwhile, I see so many authors embracing technologies that I actually consider antithetical and hostile to reading long-form fiction: YouTube, podcasting, and most of all Twitter. What possible correlation could exist between the false intimacy of a 140-character Tweet and the willingness to commit 8-10 hours reading a story the Twitterer wrote? And if Twitter followers are willing to commit that time to just any of their Twitter pals, how are they to distinguish between one Twit's books and another's? Where's that reading time going to come from, anyway, if they're spending all their time Twittering?

All right, enough ranting; I'm already running late, and my views on Twitter are well-known. I think those commercials are hilarious, but brothers and sisters, let's get real: they're not kidding.

By coincidence, Declan Burke is blogging about this very subject today over at Crime Always Pays. Check it out.

Five Random Songs

Ben Folds Five, "Song for the Dumped." A hilarious spouting of rage at the girlfriend who dumped him: "And don't forget to give me back my black t-shirt!"

Elvis Costello & the Attractions, "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea." I have never understood the parentheses in this title.

Nine Inch Nails, "Ruiner." Ooh, more excellent music for a bad mood -- which, by the way, I am in this morning. Could you tell?

Bruce Springsteen, "Long Walk Home." Aw, man, now I feel sad.

Heather Laws, "Girl, You're a Total Woman Now." From She Can't Believe She Said That: The Rise and Fall of Kathie Lee Gifford nee Epstein, by Matt Prager, who will be appearing in his own one-man show at Dixon Place on Friday night. He's opening for Shelly Mars at 8:00 p.m. Everybody come, and I'll see you there!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I don't know what those fuzzy caterpillars turn into.

Spring in Maine is short and intense. Everything blooms at once; at the moment, we have lilacs, rhododendrons, lilies of the valley, violets and irises blooming in my neighborhood, and the first rosebuds are appearing on bushes. The air smells wonderful, except at the edge of my parking lot, where a skunk seems to have sprayed.

But the bugs all come back at once, too: mosquitoes, fleas, ticks, beetles, blackflies, and those ubiquitous fuzzy caterpillars. I took Dizzy down to the river on Sunday afternoon, where he could greet his fans and I could sit on a stone bench and read (Sean Doolittle's SAFER, one of the best books I've read so far this year).

As I was talking to one of my neighbors, I noticed that she was looking at my t-shirt, which said GEORGETOWN. Before I asked, "Did you go to Georgetown?", I looked and saw a big fuzzy caterpillar making its way up toward my collar. I was calm; caterpillars don't scare me. But I am not a tree, so flicked the critter far away from me.

We see lots of butterflies in Maine, including the monarchs, but I suspect these fuzzy caterpillars are just moths. Anybody know?

Monday, May 25, 2009

I don't know how to use a sewing machine.

I came of age at a time when some feminists argued that young women should not learn to type; learn how to type, they argued, and you'll always be a typist.

Likewise, when I got serious about amateur theater, veterans told me, "Don't learn to sew. If you learn to to sew, you'll never do anything else."

So I didn't, and now I'm kind of sorry about it. Not sorry enough to seek out sewing lessons, but sorry.

It's one of those things, like cooking, that anyone ought to be able to teach themselves. You buy a pattern and some material, you pin it, you mark it, you cut it out, you sew it. But the few efforts I've made have looked like a kindergartener's craft project: stained, puckered, lopsided and frayed. When I try to use a sewing machine, the thread gets tangled, and I have put needles through the skin of my index fingers more than once.

This summer's Gaslight musical, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, includes many spectacular 1920s-era costumes. Some we borrowed, but at least half have been handmade by our director, Deb Howard, with the help of our stage manager, Jenny, and a couple of cast members, Jen and Karen. I'm dazzled by their skill, and more than a little intimidated.

It's probably too late for me to learn how to use a sewing machine, but it's still on my list of things I'd like to know how to do before I die. What are some things you'd like to learn to do, before it's too late?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I don't know the circumstances under which I'd agree to participate in reality TV.

I just finished reading an advance copy of Donald E. Westlake's last Dortmunder novel, GET REAL, which will be out in July. It's a fine end to the series, a dead-on skewering of reality television that made me laugh out loud more than once.

But that book, combined with this morning's news that Patti Blagojevich has agreed to appear on "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here," made me wonder about reality television.

Mrs. Blagojevich -- who admits that she does not meet anyone's definition of "celebrity" -- says she needs to do this to support her family. This puzzles me. Aren't they still hiring at McDonald's? Surely one of the strip clubs out by O'Hare needs a waitress...

Reality TV fascinates me, just because it supports my own longstanding view that many people walk around starring in the movies of their own lives. You know these people when you meet them: remember that interview Marla Maples gave to Barbara Walters, right after news of her affair with Donald Trump broke? She was talking to Barbara; she was also watching herself talk to Barbara, and anyone watching knew that this interview was the product of countless rehearsals in front of her vanity-table mirror, probably dating back to Ms. Maples' earliest childhood.

Some people don't feel real unless other people are watching them. I don't know whether this was always the case, or is just a product of our mass-media society. In any case, I suppose it's lucky that reality television exists, to give these people the opportunity for self-actualization.

No one, thank God, will ever make a reality show about my life; it would be like David Lynch's comic strip "The Angriest Dog in the World," in which the image never changed. You'd just see me on the living room couch, or at my bedroom desk, in front of the laptop...

One could argue that blogging is not too far removed from this phenomenon, and I don't deny that. But for myself, I'll say that blogging doesn't make me feel any more real -- and in fact, as the annual themes of this blog have become more personal, I've found it harder to keep up. Next year's theme is going to be as impersonal as I can make it. Suggestions?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I don't know why all the brown eggs come from Maine.

Team Clueless (that would be mine) was triumphant at The Liberal Cup's trivia night yesterday, and one of the questions that put us over the top was knowing that Maine is the nation's primary supplier of brown-shell eggs. If you buy a brown egg anywhere in the country, chances are pretty good that it came from a commercial poultry farm in Maine.

As you should know, brown eggs don't taste any different from white eggs; they're just laid by a different breed of bird. Rhode Island Reds and New Hampshires lay brown eggs, as do a hybrid of those breeds called the Production Red. The story I heard is that these breeds came to Maine on ships that had gone to China. Since the Chinese consider white a color of death and mourning, they prefer their eggs to be brown, and the New England ships that visited after the opening of Shanghai brought those eggs (and their layers) home with them.

But this doesn't explain why the Maine poultry farms decided to commit to brown egg-laying hens, or why those hens didn't show up in other seafaring communities in New England, the Southeast, or the Pacific Northwest. Why didn't brown eggs catch on in Seattle or Charleston?

The city of Portland voted last year to allow residents to keep chickens in their back yards, and a friend of mine already has a few. I don't think they're laying yet, but I keep forgetting to ask whether they'll lay brown eggs or white. It's funny that white eggs look exotic to me now.

Five Random Songs

"Van Lear Rose," Loretta Lynn. A sweet song about the courtship of the singer's parents.

"La La," Courtney Tidwell. This CD was a gift from a friend, and feels like springtime to me -- breezy, whimsical, green.

"Serves Me Right to Suffer," Jimmy Johnson. From The Alligator Records 20th Anniversary Collection, the perfect introduction to anyone who's never heard the blues.

"Rabbit in a Log," The Stanley Brothers. Lightning-fast bluegrass.

"All or Nothing," X. I'm hoping to see X in New York next week ... anyone want to come with me?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

I don't know why Cleveland ever had a Sea World.

Let's lighten things up a little, as yesterday got a little intense. Much of the traffic to this site comes not from regular readers, but from people searching for specific topics. That's fine; all are welcome.

I do ask, however, that people who leave comments sign those comments, because I really don't understand the point of commenting anonymously. I wouldn't have a telephone conversation with someone who didn't identify himself, and I certainly wouldn't speak on the street to someone wearing a bag over his head. Why should I pay any attention to a faceless voice on the Internet?

Anyway, today's question is something I'd love to have a little local knowledge on. My cousin Moira and I were chatting last night about how we still remember the day Elvis died. I was 11, at the beach, and heard it from someone's transistor radio. Moira and her sisters were getting ready to go to Sea World, based at the time in Aurora, Ohio.

Cleveland doesn't have a Sea World any more. It was acquired, first by Six Flags, then by the company that owns Cedar Point. It's now Geauga Lake's Wildwater Kingdom, and no longer has a wildlife display.

I'm charmed and puzzled by the fact that anyone thought a Sea World in Cleveland was a good idea. Yes, Lake Erie's a major body of water, but it's freshwater. Sea World is known for its dolphins and orcas, and those live in salt water. Many of the animals we associate with Sea World come from tropical climates -- although the orca, in particular, can live in very cold water. But who wants to sit outside to watch a dolphin show in Cleveland in January?

The idea of shipping these animals inland fascinates me, as well. I've seen horses loaded into a cargo plane, but how does one transport a four-ton killer whale? The tank alone would weigh tons. You'd have to do it in a truck, wouldn't you? What kind of truck?

If anyone knows the history of Cleveland's Sea World -- or has specialized information about transporting large marine mammals -- please leave your comments below. With a signature, of course...

Monday, May 18, 2009

I don't know how limiting the right to speak helps anyone.

It's commencement season again, and as I mentioned, I was in Boston on Friday for Simmons College's graduation. Simmons alumna Gwen Ifill was the speaker, and did a terrific job.

Among other things, she talked about her own commencement speaker, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, who was the first African-American woman to run for President. In her day, many dismissed Congresswoman Chisholm as a gadfly and a troublemaker, a marginal figure -- but without her, Gwen Ifill noted, Barbara Jordan would not have made her historic speech at the 1976 Democratic Convention, and Hillary Clinton might not have been such a strong Presidential candidate in 2008.

Present becomes past, and the past changes as our perception of it changes. We argue about the importance of historical events and great works of literature and oratory because their current meaning for us is always changing.

How, then, is anyone served by limiting speech in any public forum? I ask this in light of the protests against President Barack Obama's speech at Notre Dame yesterday, which many opposed because of his stances in favor of embryonic stem-cell research and in opposition to laws restricting abortion. Mary Ann Glendon declined the University's Laetare medal in protest of Notre Dame's invitation to President Obama, and some students and parents stayed away.

When I was at Georgetown, the Young Americans for Freedom invited Roberto D'Aubuisson to speak. Even in retrospect, I'm shocked by this. Roberto D'Aubuisson was widely acknowledged to be the man responsible for the 1980 assassination of Archbishop
Oscar Romero
; in 1984, when D'Aubuisson came to Georgetown, the blood on his hands was still practically fresh.

But D'Aubuisson spoke at Georgetown, while students protested outside, and that's how it's supposed to be. No one should forget that man's name; no one should forget his crime. He should have been in jail, rather than being feted as a champion of democracy, but in any case, he had a right to speak.

President Obama took the opportunity yesterday to express views on abortion that many Americans share: it's a tragedy for everyone involved, and what we need to do is reduce the perceived need for it. No one has an abortion because she wants to. Women have abortions because they feel compelled to. That is why I, despite my own belief that abortion is homicide, don't want to live in a society that enforces laws against it -- and also why I object to the term "pro-choice," because I see abortion as the last choice, the act women come to when they feel they've run out of choices.

I'm glad President Obama spoke at Notre Dame yesterday. I'm glad people showed up to protest, though I think much of that protest was misguided.

John Cardinal Newman, who believed in argument and the value of public discourse, once said, "To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often." I don't know about you, but I'm still changing...

Friday, May 15, 2009

I do not know the difference between tequila and mezcal.

Tequila can be made only from blue agave, while mezcal can be made from any type of agave. Mezcal bottles often contain a worm or other foreign object, while tequila bottles do not. What are the other differences, if any?

Sorry I've been MIA for a few days; I am posting this from Boston's South Street bus station, after spending a couple of days with family, celebrating Celeste Bea's graduation from Simmons. A happy day, and congratulations to Celeste, Keith and Vikki. I'll post late tomorrow, with an extended reading list.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I don't know how long it should take to rehabilitate disgraced public figures.

Catholic and American, I believe in second chances -- and third, and fourth, and maybe even more than that. I've had more than my fair share of second chances, and am constantly grateful for the forbearance of my family, friends, employers, clients, creditors, dog, neighbors ... well, you get the idea.

But the speedy rehabilitation of former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer makes me uncomfortable. I can't see his face or listen to his voice without thinking of that excruciating press conference he gave with his lovely wife by his side, confessing behavior he'd have prosecuted at an earlier time in his career.

This article, in Newsweek a month ago, discusses his rehabilitation and his return to the public eye. He was never really away; he resigned in March 2008, and before the end of the year had started writing a column for Slate. He's been all over the TV for the last month, giving interviews about wrongdoing on Wall Street and how to fix the nation's financial crisis.

Maybe he only needed six months to "focus on his family," as he said he would when he resigned. Maybe his skills and his gifts and his commitment to public service are too powerful to deny, and he feels an overpowering compulsion to share those things with the American people. And as the Newsweek article asks, what should he be doing?

I don't know. Richard Nixon stayed out of the public eye for a decade, and by the time he came back, people were willing to respect his abilities without dwelling on his transgressions. Gary Hart never really did come back, though he still writes the occasional thoughtful opinion piece, or shows up on a public television news program. I doubt we'll see John Edwards in the public spotlight again any time soon, at least not while his wife is still alive.

American politics seems to have unspoken rules about the price of personal disgrace, but I don't know what those are. I just know that Eliot Spitzer seems to be ignoring those rules, and it makes me very uncomfortable.

Five Random Songs

"Let My Love Open the Door," Pete Townshend. A dreamy electronic remix from the Grosse Pointe Blank soundtrack.

"To Be Myself Completely," Belle & Sebastian. The cheeriest breakup song imaginable. "But to be myself completely, I've just got to say goodbye."

"Sam Stone," John Prine. An abrupt change of tone; this is a dirge for a returned Vietnam veteran who dies of a drug overdose. I got in trouble for teaching my youngest brother the chorus to this song before he was old enough to understand the words: "There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes..."

"Soul on Fire," Spiritualized. I really like this band, whose sound owes a lot to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.

"Girl from the North Country," Jim James, M. Ward and Conor Oberst. I'm not sure where I got this track, which is a live recording.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I don't understand the point of beauty pageants.

It should not surprise any regular reader of this blog that I don't pay much attention to beauty pageants. I don't watch them, I don't read about them. At an earlier point in my career I was fascinated by the fact of a (male) lawyer acquaintance's longterm association with the Miss North Carolina pageant, because I just didn't get that at all.

I do think that beauty pageants served a purpose at one point. They were part of the big shift in American society's perception of women in the early 20th century; think about how radical they must have seemed in 1920, when we were only ten years away from fashions that didn't allow skirts above the ankle. Beauty pageants made it okay for young women to show themselves off in a way that was liberating.

But we've had that liberation for a long time. The other, more modern argument for pageants is that they are "scholarship" pageants that reward qualities beyond beauty: performing talent, community service, poise, etc., etc. To that argument, I say that the money given away in most pageants doesn't make a meaningful dent in college tuition -- if the girls are actually going to college, which they often aren't -- and the money spent on pageant appearances probably sucks up most girls' winnings, if they win anything at all. Furthermore, I would guess most of that spending is on clothes, shoes, hair and makeup, rather than on violin lessons or elocution classes.

This is not to propose any kind of restriction or ban on beauty pageants -- if girls and their mothers want to spend time, money and emotional energy on them, that's fine -- but merely to wonder why Miss California-USA's early, feeble efforts at a modeling career are the subject of any national attention, much less a lead headline on the morning news.

The Pentagon's just removed the top military commander in Afghanistan; the Pope's in Jerusalem; the civil war in Sri Lanka has erupted again in an especially ugly way; and hey, remember swine flu? It's still infecting people, and it just got to China. So why are newscasters spending any time on something that is completely artificial? Why does anyone care about Carrie Prejean?

Monday, May 11, 2009

I do not know how to eat peanuts in the shell without making a mess.

May is a time when I think about Mom a lot, as May 1 is her birthday and Mother's Day follows hard upon it. She's never far from my thoughts in any case, but in May she feels especially close, and I keep seeing things that remind me of her.

The other day I walked into Hannaford and saw a big display of bags of jumbo peanuts in the shell. Mom loved peanuts in the shell, and used to keep a stash in her nightstand (which, as small children, my twin sister and I would often help ourselves to, something I still feel guilty about).

So, thinking of Mom, I bought a bag of peanuts, and they're just as good as they were when I was a kid -- except they make a ridiculous, unbelievable, Godawful mess. I'm used to seeing this at ballparks and in crummy bars; I'm not used to seeing it in my living room, and am about to pull out the vacuum cleaner. (Sorry, Dizzy -- he hates the vacuum.)

Mom used to eat peanuts in bed, and I don't remember seeing peanut litter around her bed or nightstand. How did she manage this, particularly in the days before Dustbusters?

It's one of so many things I wish I could ask her, and one of so many ways I still think of her as magic.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

I do not know why gas stations advertise beer for sale.

Driving home from trivia last night (we lost again, dang it -- I knew I should have looked up the altitude of Mexico City before heading out), I passed a gas station -- won't say which, to protect the guilty, but if you're local you know it -- with a sign in front that reads, "Thirsty? Coors Light on Sale."

Leaving aside the fact that no price for Coors Light is a bargain (if I want to drink skunky water I can get it for free in the woods), something about this struck me as bizarre and even wrong, and I wonder why it's legal.

Maine has strict drunk driving laws, although -- as I learned from that link -- the law against drinking while driving dates back only to 1987. Alcohol-vehicle offenses make up a high percentage of cases in the Maine court system.

So why are gas stations suggesting that drivers pull over to pick up some cheap beer?

Yes, I know it's really no different from any convenience store selling beer, and in fact, Cumberland Farms stores (what New England has instead of 7-11s, for you southerners) generally have gas pumps. But advertising it to drivers still strikes me as weird. Not to say irresponsible.

Of course, I'm in the middle of a book set during Prohibition, so perhaps I'm overly sensitive to this stuff ...

Five Random Songs

"Scoop," The Notwist. This CD (Neon Golden) was a gift from a friend who said, "If you don't like this, we can't be friends anymore." When I listened to it, I understood that: it is not only beautiful, it's such a unique sound that it changed some of my ideas about popular music. I've since given other people this CD, with similar warnings. This track is an instrumental, the only one on the album.

"Space Invader," The Pretenders. Wow, another instrumental, and my iTunes isn't even set on "Genius." I'd put this in a list of five all-time best debut albums. It is -- erk -- 29 years old this year.

"Better Version of Me," Fiona Apple. I never heard the original version of this album (Extraordinary Machine), the Jon Brion-produced version that circulated on the Internet, and always feel curious when I listen to this track in particular.

"Islands in the Stream," Constantines and Feist. I'm always looking for unusual covers, and this is one of the most unusual you'll find: yes, it's an art-rock remake of the Kenny Rogers-Dolly Parton classic, and it's gorgeous. Dreamy, intense, irony-free -- which of course makes it hilarious, even though that in no way lessens my appreciation of it.

"I Believe," Chris Isaak. One of the saddest breakup songs ever, set to a bouncy swing tune. "I believe it's gonna work out okay -- but not for me, and not for you." Aggh, I associate this with a painful time in my own life, and believe I'll hit the "next" button...

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

I don't know why British people call red hair "ginger."

Today's post is just another of many random things I don't know. The hair color we call red is not truly red; most shades we call red are actually orange, of one kind or another.

But ginger? Where does that come from? Ginger roots are a light brown, like so:

And ginger flowers could be any of a number of colors:

The British have an ugly and well-documented prejudice against red-haired people, which I assume dates back to the days of the Viking raids. The Celts were small and dark, and red-haired children were probably the bastard offspring of Viking rapists and invaders (hence "red-headed stepchild"). But that still doesn't explain the origin of "ginger," because I'm fairly confident ginger doesn't grow in Scandinavia.

Plus, according to Holbein, Henry VIII was red-haired:

And Prince Harry has red hair now. If he ever becomes king, I hope and expect to see much more discussion about "gingerism" and the origin of the term. Anyone have any guesses?

Monday, May 04, 2009

I don't know what a euphonium is.

Yesterday afternoon I went to the spring concert of the Kennebec Performing Arts Company, a fine show that included a wind ensemble's pops performance, a set of choral selections, and a swinging jazz combo.

The wind ensemble was especially impressive, as it included an instrument I'd never seen (or at least, never noticed) -- two musicians playing something called a euphonium.

Wonders of technology: I had an iTouch and a wireless connection, so looked it up at intermission. Imagine my relief to find that Wikipedia describes it as "possibly the least popularly-known Western instrument of all," and says that most Americans need it to be described as a small tuba or a baritone horn. Not that I know what a baritone horn is...

Anyway, the fingering on a euphonium is the same as on a tuba or a trumpet, but apparently it's a more challenging instrument to play: "beginning euphoniumists will likely experience significant problems with intonation, response, and range compared to other beginning brass players."

So it's really cool that we have not one, but two performance-level euphoniumists here in the Kennebec Valley.

Euphoniumist. I'm tempted to take it up myself, just so I can use that word to describe myself.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Happy birthday, Mom

This makes me happy, and made Mom happy too. Let the light shine on all of us.

I don't know why people say "Rabbit rabbit" on the first of the month.

Here it is the first of May, which is also Buy Indie Day (support your local bookstores!) and would have been my mother's 68th birthday -- I guess it still is, so I hope she's having a Gibson somewhere with her parents, my cousins' Nana Kiely, my aunts Patti and Judi, my cousin Regan's husband Terry and everyone else she loved while she was here.

But I woke up this morning and said, "Rabbit rabbit," and I have no idea why I did this, or what it's supposed to do.

I first heard about the "rabbit rabbit" superstition from my high school French teacher, Mrs. Rhodes, who said it was a Breton custom (where I guess it would be "lapin lapin"). Wikipedia disagrees with this, ascribing it to Bromley, Kent, and dating it only back to 1954.

One disadvantage of going for walks with a large dog is that we rarely see rabbits. It's raining today and tomorrow, but we might go out looking for some on Sunday.