Friday, July 31, 2009

I don't know my schedule for August.

Earlier this year I had many big plans for August, most of which involved spending a chunk of time in the Folger Shakespeare Library. As usual, I forgot about all my other obligations and commitments, as well as the inconvenient need to earn a living. Ah, well; library time is always more romantic in fantasy, and more tedious in real life.

But I will spend some time in libraries next month, and I'll also spend a fair amount of time in transit. Here is what I do know about my whereabouts over the next four weeks:

August 1 - Packing party and closing yard sale at Kate's Mystery Books, Cambridge, MA. Everybody come, please.

August 14 - Gaslight Theater's gala opening of Five Women Wearing the Same Dress by Alan Ball, directed by Bruce Hertz; reception to follow, as well as a juried art exhibit sponsored by the Kennebec Valley Arts Association. The show runs August 14, 15, 16, 20, 21 and 22, the art exhibit runs for the first weekend only.

August 16-17 - Auditions for Gaslight Theater's production of Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire, directed by Lee Kerr. Performance dates are November 5, 6, 7, 12, 13 and 14.

August 18 - VANISHED by Joseph Finder is published in the US (it's already out in the UK). I haven't mentioned this book because I never know when to write about things I read in manuscript, but this book launches a new series featuring international security consultant Nick Heller, and it is excellent. And yes, I would say that even if Joe weren't a client and a friend. Pre-order it and get cool free stuff.

August 24 - Boston launch of the aforementioned VANISHED, at Borders-Back Bay. That store does a great job with book events, and Joe's always entertaining.

Sometime in there I will be in Washington, DC, for however short a stay, and I've committed to taking several days off -- as in off, away from the computer, everything -- at the very end of the month.

But I'll be back on September 1 to mark the fifth anniversary of this blog, with a new theme: Five a Day. Every post will be a new list of five related things, on any topic that interests or amuses me: Five Great Gene Hackman Roles, Five Awful Jobs, Five Books I've Left on Planes, etc. I like lists -- without them, my life would be a complete disaster -- and I like the idea of starting every day with a new list. I hope you like it, too.

Thanks to everybody for hanging in there with me this year, and have a great August. I might check in once in a while over the next few weeks, but I'll see you all again in September.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

I do not know what President Obama's "beer summit" is supposed to accomplish.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that tonight is the night President Obama is hosting a small social gathering: himself, Professor Henry Louis Gates, and Cambridge, MA police Sergeant James Crowley. This follows Sgt. Crowley's arrest of Professor Gates in his own home, for the crime of losing his temper and verbally abusing a police officer, and President Obama's description of that behavior as "stupid."

Much as I'd like to be a fly on the wall at tonight's event, I don't understand what it's supposed to accomplish. It was an ugly incident that showed no one in a good light, and while "stupid" was probably not the best word to describe it before a global audience, the fact that it ended with an elderly man being led from his own home in handcuffs reflects well on no one.

Was it rooted in racism? Partly, at least -- certainly Professor Gates' perception of Sergeant Crowley's behavior was rooted in the professor's study of centuries of race-based injustice. But I'd argue that class was at least as important a factor in that encounter as race. Sgt. Crowley most likely lost his temper not because Professor Gates was black, but because he felt that Gates was disrespecting his position, his authority and his duty. I know a few police officers; nothing pisses them off more than the question, "Don't you know who I am?" as if the person asking had some special attribute that exempted them from the rules that apply to everyone else.

That doesn't excuse Sgt. Crowley's behavior. Not to put too fine a point on it, police officers are and should be trained to ignore a certain level of contempt, rudeness and even verbal abuse. The United States was founded on a fundamental rejection of absolute power, and mouthing off to a cop is our God-given right. Is it polite? No. Is it disrespectful, counter-productive, and a violation of the social contract? Yes. Is it illegal? No, unless the police officer feels himself or herself to be in immediate physical danger, or unless those words are an incitement to riot and civil disorder. Professor Gates is a small man who was on the porch of his own house. Sgt. Crowley should have let that storm of righteous indignation roll right over him, even if it included disparaging remarks about the Sergeant's mother.

So I imagine that tonight's gathering is going to start out a little sheepish, on both sides. At least, I hope so. President Obama will work his famous charm; someone might break out a deck of cards; they'll start telling stories about their grandfathers, and the evening will end with warm handshakes all around.

But it won't have changed anything.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

I don't know what should happen to Michael Vick.

Michael Vick, All-Star quarterback and former dog-fighting impresario, is out of prison and has been allowed back into the NFL, with conditions. Tony Dungy, possibly the most respected man in professional football, is personally vouching for him and says he's committed to helping Vick rehabilitate himself, as a player and a man.

Now the frenzy of speculation begins about where Michael Vick will wind up, how long it will take him to get back to pre-prison performance levels, what fans have a right to expect, etc., etc. I can almost hear the collective sigh of relief in the world of sports journalism, because now they can move on from the questions too hard to answer.

Michael Vick was identified as a potential sports star before he was ten years old. He threw more than 400 yards in a game when he was a freshman in high school. He was treated as a star, but he was also schooled in the Church of Football, which gets a little squirrelly about priorities and values. It's not just a game, at that level; listen to the coaches talk and you'll hear it described as war, as life-or-death, as mortal struggle. The players are soldiers sent into battle.

The sports-as-war metaphor is as old as organized sports itself -- but I wonder what effect it has on boys and young men, especially the exceptional athletes. Kids don't always get metaphor. Kids take things literally, and kids don't understand that today's situation will be different tomorrow. In the proper context, that's what sports should teach: some days you win, some days you lose, either way it doesn't kill you or make you a hero.

I'm thinking that Michael Vick didn't learn that, and that this missing piece of information might have had a lot to do with the dog-fighting. So what if dog-fighting was brutal, messy, life-and-death? Isn't that what coaches tell their players about their own lives, their own contests? In fact, I can almost see the appeal of something as brutal and horrifying as dog-fighting to a kid raised on those battle metaphors -- because dog fights aren't metaphors, they're real.

So wherever Michael Vick winds up resuming his NFL career, I hope that the rehabilitation process continues. I hope someone -- maybe Tony Dungy -- continues the conversation with him, about what's real and what's a game and what changes your life and what doesn't. And I hope this is a conversation that children's football coaches remember to have, too.

Five Random Songs

"The Thoughts of Mary Jane," Nick Drake. A song that makes me want to get into the car and drive down some country roads.

"Slop Around," Buddy Guy. Wow, I haven't heard this in ages. Why didn't Buddy Guy ever get the same attention as, say, Chuck Berry? If you ever get a chance to see him live, don't miss it.

"Like a Wave," Rosanne Cash. A love song in 3/4 time, as all great love affairs are waltzes.

"The Fat Girl," Lyle Lovett. A deep streak of misanthropy and rage -- thinly disguised as humor -- runs through Lyle Lovett's music. It's why I love him so.

"I'm Coming to the Best Part of My Life (Live)," Cass Elliot. Aggh, the irony of this song just kills me. (Not in a choking-on-a-sandwich kind of way. Which, by the way, is a myth; Cass Elliot died of a heart attack. Stop that.)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I don't know how commercial I want this blog -- or my life -- to be.

We're in the last few days of this incarnation of the blog -- the fifth, and I would say probably the least successful (in rank order, I'd say the first year's theme was still the best, followed by the Books I've Kept, Questions, Terms of Art, and then this one). The blog takes August off (mostly), and I already know what next year's theme will be.

I always start the new blog year with a new layout, which gives me a chance to make other changes as well. If you'd like me to link to your blog, send me an email and ask; I make no promises, but I'll consider it. Guest bloggers are also welcome, but I limit the guest blogging to people I actually know.

Which brings me to the subject of today's post. I got a very nice email from a complete stranger the other day, asking whether I'd agree to let her guest-blog in order to promote her education-related service. It's a legitimate service and the request was perfectly polite, but I refused.

"The blog is not a commercial site in any way," I wrote. That's true, and I want it to continue to be true. I've never taken advertising, and don't plan to. I do invite friends and family members to guest blog when they have books out or other projects to promote, but those posts are never direct advertisements, and I try to limit even my own promotional stuff (Gaslight, the Mystery Bookstore, various clients, etc.).

This does, however, remind me that the blog is basically a big chunk of work I give away -- on top of a lot of other work I give away, on top of the fact that I've already had two clients this year push back on my rates, which I know to be well below (in some cases, shockingly below) market standards. I even had a good friend, earlier this year, suggest that a pittance I'd been paid for work in December, January and February also covered extra work I was doing, just to be helpful, in June and July.

No one can take advantage of you without your consent. Ann Landers said it, and it's true. I've built my current lifestyle around a determination to do work because I want to do it, not because I have to do it, with money being among the least important factors in whether and how I work.

But this is not sustainable over the long term, except for those lucky few who are independently wealthy, or are partnered with people willing to support them. I'm not, and too much of my life is currently subsidized by the kindness of friends and the tolerance of creditors. It's going to have to change. Exactly how remains to be seen. I plan to spend August trying to figure it out.

This excellent blog post discusses the bigger issue of creative people giving work away. I'm also planning to read this book next month. Maybe it'll give me some ideas.

Monday, July 27, 2009

I don't know how humor evolves.

Saturday was a long day at the end of a long week, starting at 4:15 a.m. when I got up to help set up for the Gaslight Theater yard sale (hosted, heroically, by Deb and Brad Howard).

Yard sales tend to bring out the less attractive aspects of human nature, so by the time I got home, I was not only bug-bitten, mildly sunburned, and dehydrated, I was also feeling pretty misanthropic -- especially since I still had my own work to do, and could not do what I really wanted to, which was take a four-hour nap.

So I had coffee instead, which kept me awake but made me so distracted that I eventually had to give up the pretense of working in favor of TV-induced hypnosis. Luckily, the cable box produced a jackpot: "A Night at the Opera" on TCM, followed by "Young Frankenstein" on Fox Movie Classics.

In a much better frame of mind at the end of "Young Frankenstein," I switched over to NBC to catch the last half of "Saturday Night Live" ... and wondered whether I had passed into a parallel universe where I'd had to check my sense of humor at the door.

Tracy Morgan was the host, and he wasn't funny. None of it was funny. The skits weren't funny. "Weekend Update" wasn't funny. One of the fake ads was kind of funny, but I'd seen it before, and I think I only laughed because it was marginally better than the rest of the show.

This worries me. Is it just me? Has modern humor evolved into something I just don't get? Have I passed into some midlife zone where I only laugh at the things I thought were funny when I was a teenager?

I do not want to believe this is true. I laugh at "30 Rock." I think "Extras" is hilarious. And after "Saturday Night Live," I stayed up way too late to watch an uncut version of the "South Park" movie that was playing on Comedy Central (and yes, walked around all day yesterday humming "Uncle F---a" to myself).

If you saw "Saturday Night Live" this week, did you think it was funny? Can you tell me why? Explaining why things are funny takes all the funny away, but seriously, I want to understand -- what am I missing here?

Friday, July 24, 2009

I don't know how much social networking helps to sell books.

This morning I went through my Facebook page and dropped at least half a dozen people I don't know at all from my "friends" list. They're authors or people connected to the book world who sent me friend requests, and I accepted those requests out of politeness more than anything else.

Being their Facebook "friend" didn't make me any more interested in them, and certainly didn't make me any more interested in their books. After seeing the umpteenth status update from a complete stranger who just wanted me to buy something from her, I decided it was time to stop the charade.

I'm coming up on - ack - ten years as an all-purpose bookperson -- bookseller, publicist, editor, researcher, reader, etc. -- and what William Goldman says about the movie business applies to publishing as well: "No one knows anything." I've developed some opinions based on my observations, though, and offer them for what they're worth.

While 95% of the authors I know are kind and interesting people, they went into literature instead of sales for a reason. The qualities that make someone a good author -- detachment, acute observation, judgment, bluntness -- may also make him or her socially awkward, and that awkwardness doesn't go away because someone hits the bestseller list. Introverts don't suddenly become extroverts when they go on book tour.

That makes the social networking sites -- Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. -- especially attractive, because they seem to offer all the benefits of touring without the inconvenience or anxiety. But this is an illusion, with implications for bookselling and book reading that concern me.

Any book is a conversation between an author and reader -- a one-sided conversation. Social networking makes it possible to open that conversation both ways, but it also takes out the medium of communication. That is, if you can have a direct conversation with an author, are you more or less likely to want that indirect communication through a book? I'd say no more likely, and possibly even less likely, as the primary sense of connection transfers from the books to the author.

That sense of connection, once transferred from the book to the author, then sets up expectations of intimacy and obligation that can interfere with the simple commercial transaction of buying a book in a store. I've noticed this among some authors with large online followings; these online followings include surprisingly big and assertive groups of online reviewers who feel entitled to free copies of books and other considerations once offered only to brick-and-mortar booksellers.

Online reviews and buzz are important, of course, but the traditional model of bookselling was one in which the publishers dealt with bookstores, leaving the author alone to write the next book. The publishing industry has changed and is changing; publishers have slashed the staffs that used to work with bookstores, as the bookstores are declining in number. Now the authors themselves are handselling directly to readers, expecting the readers to buy through online warehouses instead of through traditional bookstores. Authors' social networking is just one more thing chipping away at the traditional role of bookstores as intermediaries -- yes, you can argue that they've been forced into this, but the effect is the same, and it's killing bookstores.

It's getting to a point that's unsustainable, and the growth of self-publishing and electronic readers is accelerating that breaking point. Readers and consumers, overwhelmed with choices, will throw up their hands and give up. I'm almost at that point myself, where I'm just reading things that are shoved in front of me rather than seeking out the books and authors I actually want to read -- to say nothing of going to the trouble of finding any new authors.

To that end, this morning's culling of my Facebook list was a step toward reasserting my control over my reading habits, and a decision that I want to get my reading recommendations from the old sources -- my favorite bookstores and my friends -- rather than from the authors themselves.

Your mileage may vary, and I realize I'm opening a can of worms here. If you're an author with a different experience, or solid evidence of the translation of social networking into sales, leave your comments below.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

I don't know why humans don't get vaccinated against Lyme disease.

Dizzy and I were up and out early this morning, for his annual veterinary check-up. Dr. Sarah said he looked "great for an old guy," tested him for heartworm and Lyme disease, cleaned his ears, checked his teeth, looked carefully at what seems to be a lipoma on his chest -- and gave him his annual vaccines against Lyme disease and leptospirosis. Those vaccines are important for dogs that run off-leash in this part of the country, or anywhere they're likely to encounter deer.

Several members of my own family have had Lyme disease over the years, and this morning I'm wondering -- once again -- why there is no human vaccine against the illness.

Relatively speaking, Lyme disease is rampant in New England -- or more precisely, from Maine to Delaware, and in Wisconsin, too (though not, mysteriously, in Michigan). If caught early it's very treatable, but it can have bad longterm effects in a small but significant percentage of victims: muscle and joint pain, chronic fatigue, cognitive defects.

An attempt to introduce a human vaccine about ten years ago wasn't successful; the vaccine had some bad side effects, and the demand was never high enough to make its production worthwhile. But I don't understand why, if they've been able to develop a vaccine that is safe and effective for an 80-pound dog, they can't figure out suitable dosage for a human.

Dizzy, looking good for an old guy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

I don't know what a jake brake is.

A lazy post today, because I have many, many things to do and am already (before 8:00 a.m.) running behind. A sign on Route 201, coming into Gardiner, says "No Jake Brakes," and every time I pass it, I think, "What is that?"

This is what Google is for; I looked it up and discovered that a Jake brake, or Jacobs brake, is an engine brake that uses compressed air to stop a truck quickly. It makes a lot of noise, which is why towns ban them. Gardiner's had a sign banning them for some time, but the current sign is new, because construction on 295 is routing lots of trucks through that part of town.

I know very little about the practical realities of driving a large truck. Late last night, as I was coming home from Portland, I saw a Hannaford truck turn down a drive to a grocery distribution center on the edge of town. It was after 11:00 p.m.; I wondered whether that was the end of the truck driver's day, and if so, where the truck driver would be spending the night. Do truckers sleep in their cabs? Gardiner doesn't have any hotels or motels.

Five Random Songs

"Shoplifters of the World Unite," The Smiths. My only weakness is ... well, never mind, never mind.

"I Can't Figure You Out," Gin Blossoms. Did you know that the Gin Blossoms are still together, and touring? Yeah, I didn't either. But they are.

"Seventeen Again," Eurhythmics. I had dinner last night with friends I've known for more than 25 years, and talked, among other things, about how much easier it is to be this age than it was to be that one. I would not be 17 again for all the money in the world.

"Summer, Highland Falls (Live)," Billy Joel. A nostalgia set from the iTunes shuffle ... I am not as big a Billy Joel fan as some of my friends, but I do love this song. Though we choose between reality and madness, it's either sadness or euphoria...

"Bless the Beasts and the Children," 4 Non Blondes. A superior track from the cover album If I Were a Carpenter. I know I saw this band live at least once, but have no memory of their own music.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I don't know why people cling to the belief that the moon landing was a hoax.

Forty years ago yesterday, humans landed on the moon. In Norfolk, Virginia, my sister Kathy and I were three years old; our sisters Peggy and Susan were not quite eight months old. As best I remember, Dad wasn't home -- he was on a ship somewhere in the Caribbean, or maybe had already started work at a new job at the Pentagon. Mom was home alone with the four of us, and hugely pregnant with what would be our brother Ed.

Mom got Kathy and me out of bed to watch the black-and-white TV in her bedroom. I remember almost nothing about it, except standing in front of the television and hearing Mom say, "You have to remember this."

It didn't look real, but if the man on TV said it was the moon, it was the moon. What was much more vivid and real to me was four days later, when we watched the USS Hornet recover the landing capsule. We knew about ships like that; in fact, our dad's ship, the USS Austin, was part of the space recovery team four months later (although by that time, Dad was already on shore duty in Washington).

Even at three, I knew that we were part of the Navy, and that the Navy was part of the space program. I feel that sense of wonder and pride to this day.

Which is why I cannot understand or even really be civil to that small minority of people who continue to insist that the Apollo program was an elaborate hoax. Okay, maybe an army of bureaucrats and military types could have staged such a hoax one time; but why would anyone go through those motions six times, especially after the first Apollo mission killed three astronauts?

This brilliant website debunks the conspiracy theories point-by-point, and I recommend it to anyone foolish enough to try to argue with the Moon landing deniers.

In the meantime, I love the idea of starting a Mars program in earnest. It's a big universe ...

Monday, July 20, 2009

I don't know why all my neighbors have bought swimming pools.

Four of my neighbors now have this pool in their yards.

I can see two of these pools from my kitchen window; a third is two doors up the block, and the fourth is across the street from that house.

Everyone in Maine goes a little crazy during our two months -- OK, six weeks -- of summer, and this pool is currently on sale at Wal-Mart for about $80. The neighbors across the street set theirs up on Saturday, and it could not have been easier; they just had to make sure the surface was reasonably level, which took a little shoveling and moving around of dirt.

Something about this bothers me, though, and it's not just that no one's invited me over. If only one person in the neighborhood had a swimming pool, it would be a gathering place, an excuse to socialize and hang out on the long summer evenings, when we spend so much of the year bundled in layers and trapped in our homes. Instead, now every family has their own, and there's no visiting back-and-forth (although everyone did turn out on Saturday to watch the latest pool being filled/inflated). All these pools have become one more thing that keeps the neighbors separate.

I have a pass to the local state park, Peacock Beach, which is only three miles away; I've used it once this summer, and am resolved that I will use it again this week. It would be convenient to have my own swimming pool, but I can't help feeling that at some deep level, it wouldn't be good for me.

Friday, July 17, 2009

I don't know how to open .docx files.

Technology seems to be the issue of the week. Three separate clients have sent me electronic documents this week with the suffix .docx, which is a format Microsoft introduced as part of the Microsoft Office 2007 suite.

This format is not compatible with earlier Microsoft Office programs, nor with the Mac OSX system, which is what my computer runs. I've just found this website, which offers to convert any document I send them by mail -- but my clients pay me for discretion, among other things, and I'm damned if I'm going to email a stranger a draft of Congressional testimony or an unpublished manuscript.

Anyone have any better suggestions for a workaround? I do NOT want to have to buy Microsoft Office 2007 just to address this, when the Microsoft Office 2004 I already own does everything else I need it to do.

I just finished an egregiously bad debut thriller, coming out next month; I'm not going to shame the author by naming it, but I will say that in the tradition of The Da Vinci Code, it managed to bore me and insult my intelligence. What upsets me is that the book seems to have tremendous publisher support, and I fully expect it to hit the bestseller lists -- when far more entertaining and intelligent books don't get the support or attention they need to find the audiences they deserve.

But that's a discussion for another day, and in the meantime, here's a happier list of

Good Books I've Read Lately

Tim Maleeny, JUMP. An old-fashioned mystery in the very best sense of that word. Sam McGowan has barely retired from the San Francisco police department when he's confronted with a mysterious death in his own apartment building: his much-loathed landlord, who fell (or was pushed) from the roof. Tim is a nice guy and an excellent writer, and getting great support from his publishers at Poisoned Pen, who told me they see him as an heir to Donald E. Westlake. Based on the sheer enjoyment value of this book, that doesn't feel like an exaggeration.

Luis Alberto Urrea, INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH. A gorgeous book that really, really needs to be made into a movie. Nayeli lives in a nearly-forgotten Sinaloan village, which is invaded by corrupt police and drug dealers. After a screening of The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli and her friends realize that this is what they need to do: go north to the U.S. in order to bring home seven strong men to save the village. Among them, Nayeli hopes, will be her own lost father. What follows is an adventure that is both better and worse than Nayeli could have imagined, and simultaneously heartbreaking and triumphant. I finished it wishing it had been at least 50 pages longer, because I wasn't ready to let the characters go.

Karen Olson, THE MISSING INK. This is cheating a little, because Karen's a friend, and I actually read this book in manuscript a year ago. But it's just in bookstores now, and it's perfect summer reading. It introduces tattoo artist Brett Kavanaugh, who runs her own custom design shop in Las Vegas. A young woman comes in and asks for a special tattoo -- the name of her fiance -- but then she disappears. Curiosity leads Brett down a trail that includes an Elvis karaoke bar, a mysterious Englishman, and a close encounter with a dead body. Brett and her friends are great fun; I've already read the forthcoming sequel, PRETTY IN INK, and am delighted that this series has just gotten picked up for another two books.

John Connolly, THE GATES. John's a friend too, but I'd say this anyway: this is the best book I've read so far this year. It's a joyful, funny, scary novel for young adults that pays homage to just about every one of my own childhood favorites, from The Wind in the Willows to The Phantom Tollbooth to The Wizard of Oz. Out for an early Halloween walk one night, young Samuel Johnson and his dachshund, Boswell, see the neighbors conducting a ritual that accidentally opens the gates of Hell -- just a little, enough for the Large Hadron Collider to start sending energy across the multiverse in a way that can't be good for human beings. It'll be out in the U.S in October, just in time for everyone's Halloween reading.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A special announcement for mystery lovers

I've been up since 6:00 this morning and am already running behind, so in lieu of a regular post today, a bittersweet announcement.

Kate Mattes, den mother of the New England crime fiction community, announced yesterday that she has sold her house, the home of the legendary Kate's Mystery Books (shelves constructed by Robert B. Parker). The bookstore will survive in some format, remaining to be seen; Kate will continue to sponsor author events and her annual holiday party at different locations around Cambridge and Boston.

But in the meantime, all the books have to leave the house. Thus, she's scheduled a massive book sale and packing day for Saturday, August 1, from 11:00 to 5:00. Even Kate's not quite sure about everything she's got; she has titles in her back room, outside public view, that collectors dream about, and it's quite possible that some of these titles will be available for sale at this event.

Regardless of what you might want to buy, August 1 will be an opportunity for all of us to gather and thank Kate for her decades of support, and help her make this transition to whatever the next incarnation of Kate's Mystery Books might be.

Check the website or call the store (617-491-2660) for details. See you there.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I do not know why tech stuff all breaks at once.

Monday morning I booted up my computer to get a message that my startup disk was full, and "some data may be lost." I'd been away from the computer pretty much since Thursday afternoon, and much of the work I did on Thursday was lost, including all my temporary Internet files (meaning, mysteriously, sent emails as well).

I spent a good chunk of Monday scrambling to figure out why this had happened, and the extent of the damage. I still haven't figured out exactly what went missing -- Thursday's work and a bunch of recent photos, as best as I can tell -- but I did find a mysterious, massive (4GB) binary file called simply "Profile." No idea what it was; it had a Movie icon, but I could not open it, and deleting it from my hard drive cleared things up.

But these things always happen in batches, and that's the subject of today's post. Yesterday my modem signal started blanking out on me at about 20-minute intervals, and this morning I'd lost it altogether. Called the cable company, whose best advice was simply to turn it off and then turn it back on; I did that, and now it's working again.

While I'm dealing with the frustrations of underperforming technology, I'm also going to drive to Augusta this afternoon to -- FINALLY -- turn in a cable box that has never worked exactly right in the nearly five years I've owned it.

My computer and my modem were genuinely both broken within days of each other, but it reinforces my long-held observation that particular types of machines all break down at once. If the stove breaks, you can be almost certain that some other major kitchen appliance will fail within days; if the computer's squirrelly, the modem and/or printer and/or MP3 player will catch that disease and break down too, sooner rather than later. And if one thing's broken on my car, I can count on having to replace at least one other major item on the car as well.

Why is this? I try not to assign consciousness to inanimate objects, but can't help imagining a massive conspiracy of the machines against humankind -- and this is even before I've seen the latest Transformers movie.

Five Random Songs

"Chapel of Bones," Wonderlick. A beautiful and quirky love song by two of the guys who used to be Too Much Joy. I assume the song refers to Kutna Hora, the church of bones at the center of John Connolly's book The Black Angel.

"Motel Blues," Loudon Wainwright III. I'm all for confessional singer-songwriters, but this song goes to a place I'd rather not hear about; it's a plea to a very young waitress to come to the singer's hotel room.

"The Humor of the Situation," Barenaked Ladies. From Maroon, a relentlessly upbeat song that explores the territory between laughter and rage. (My spiritual home...)

"Twistin' the Night Away," Sam Cooke. I'm making a couple of music mixes for a friend's party this Saturday, and this song is going somewhere near the top of at least one playlist.

"All Fired Up," Interpol. Where science fiction meets folk music, with a driving techno beat. I really love this album (Our Love to Admire), and can't remember how I discovered it -- possibly through my friend Tom, possibly through my brother-in-law Scott.

Monday, July 13, 2009

I don't know why the maximum fine for speeding on 295 is $263.

I spent a lot of Thursday, Friday and Saturday driving back and forth on Interstate 295 between Gardiner and Portland, which is currently under construction. A sign on the side of the northbound route warns against speeding, and threatens fines of "up to $263."

Why $263? My best guess is that it was once a $250 fine, and has risen over time because of some annual escalator, saving the state legislature the trouble of revisiting the fine at every session. But does anyone know? I also assume that fines start lower for lower speed violations, but I don't know where the breaks come.

Finally, $263 is a decent-sized fine, but it wouldn't be a crippling one for some people, and I wonder whether it creates a perverse incentive among some summer people. I can imagine a certain brand of tourist thinking, "$263, is that all? I'll pay that fee to do 90." Is $263 a large enough fine to keep you from speeding, or do you think it's an opportunity cost worth risking? (I do not currently have a spare $263, so it serves its deterrent purpose for me.)

The sun came out just long enough to entertain my out-of-town visitors, and taking those couple of days off felt as good as a real vacation. Now the clouds are back, and my neglected work is terrifying me. Back to the desk...

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

I don't know why I get spam in Portuguese.

I can't really speak any language but English, but I have basic reading knowledge of French, German and Spanish. I can puzzle out headlines in Russian, and briefly participated in an Italian conversation group; I can read simple things in both languages, with a dictionary handy.

Languages come easily, which is convenient for looking up original source material online. I'm more or less resigned to the fact that any time I enter my email address -- as I often need to do, for access to newspaper websites -- I put myself on dozens of electronic mailing lists, forever.

What I don't understand, though, is why I've been getting so much Portuguese-language spam lately. I don't think that any of these messages are that important -- I don't need cheap prescription medications, male enhancement products, or foreign financial agents -- but it's a minor irritation to get messages I can't read.

Portuguese baffles me. Since it's a Romance language, I shouldn't find it any more difficult than French, Spanish or Italian, but I do; the nouns decline, and the o's throw me. One of these days, if I live long enough, I might take a class, although I'd be more interested in Romanian or Dutch.

How do we get on spam lists, except by visiting websites? Has anyone else noticed a big surge in Portuguese spam?

Five Random Songs

"Big Yellow Taxi," Joni Mitchell. "Don't it always seem to go/That you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone?" One of those songs that's so essential it's hard to remember someone actually wrote it.

"Paperback Writer," The Beatles. Yes, I watched Michael Jackson's memorial service yesterday afternoon. I noticed Paul McCartney's absence, and wondered whether he'd been invited.

"Your Sweet Voice," Matthew Sweet. The most romantic song on one of the most romantic pop albums (Girlfriend) of all time.

"Wimoweh," The Weavers. You know what's a good movie? A Mighty Wind is a good movie. I gave it to my mom, years ago, as a Christmas present. Wonder which of my siblings has it now, and whether they'll let me take it back.

"Ebudae," Enya. I like how the "random" function on iTunes can sometimes put together a very cogent playlist. I'd never have thought to follow The Weavers with Enya, but it makes perfect sense.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

I don't know why it's so hard to make a wig look real.

As Dizzy and I rambled around the west side of Gardiner (not to be confused with West Gardiner, a separate town) this morning, a passing car caught my attention.

It was a white Mustang convertible being driven by a man of late middle years, a story in itself; but what really drew my notice was this man's glorious head of blond curls.

It was not only a wig, it was a defiant wig, a Gorgeous George-style symphony of hair. It wouldn't have fooled a blind man, or his aged mother. It was becoming only as a bizarre accessory, in the manner of Phil Spector's wig wardrobe.

This man was driving and I was walking, so I did not have a chance to stop and ask him all the things I want to know (which was probably best). Does he think the wig looks natural? Why is he so afraid of baldness? Does he have different wigs for different occasions? Are people supposed to pretend that's his real hair?

I sound critical here -- and I am, of this particular case -- but of course I understand the need and desire for wigs, especially among people who have lost their hair to illness or chemotherapy. I've given my hair to Locks of Love more than once, and will probably do it again before the end of the year.

That said, why is it so hard to make a wig look real? We used wigs for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and although the people wearing them were attractive and pleasing to the eye, the wigs themselves looked rotten. Granted, they weren't expensive wigs, but even expensive wigs rarely look real.

My next door neighbor, facing health-related hair loss, has chosen to shave her head rather than use a hairpiece. I admire that, and it actually becomes her. I hope I'll be that brave, if I ever need to be.

Do you wear a hairpiece? Would you? Would you care if it looked real, or just go straight for the pink nylon?

Sunday, July 05, 2009

I don't know how much longer I can stay in Gardiner.

One of the reasons it's been so hard for me to keep up with the blog this year is that I don't like to acknowledge the things I don't know. My mother used to say that ignorance was nothing to be proud of, and it's been surprisingly hard for me to admit that I don't know certain things. There's a reason I own eight separate covers of the Jackson Browne song "These Days," which includes the line "Don't confront me with my failures; I have not forgotten them."

Also, the big things I don't know are things that fall outside what I'm willing to blog about. (Why am I still single? Why am I always broke? What the hell is my issue, anyway?)

We've got three weeks left to run on this incarnation of the blog, and I already know what next year's version is going to be. I won't announce it until the end of the month, but I will say that it's going to be something far less personal, and with luck far more entertaining for all of us.

In the meantime, though, I'll throw out one of the big unknowns today.

Yesterday Dizzy and I had a 4th of July dinner with the Bragdons, a fine time that included Dizzy's first taste of watermelon (he likes it).

The weather turned bad, though, and I wound up driving home when I shouldn't have. It's very dark out in China, but I know that road well enough that it probably would have been okay, in decent weather. The combination of rain and dark, however, meant that I couldn't see the road very well, and only dumb luck and St. Christopher got me home without incident.

The fact that my eye disorder (a form of retinitis pigmentosa) isn't catastrophic has let me pretend that it's not going to be life-changing, but that's coming to an end. I can't drive on country roads at night any more, and it's already starting to make me change and cancel plans.

So I'm going to have to move again, sooner rather than later, into a more urban environment.

I like it here. I hate the thought of leaving. I don't know where I'll go next. Suggestions and invitations are welcome.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

I don't know why Sarah Palin resigned.

I've generally avoided politics in this blog, because my family embraces a wide spectrum of strongly-held views, from my dad's devotion to Rush Limbaugh to my son's work as a field organizer for Barack Obama. Political discussions in this family never change anyone's mind, and inevitably end with all sides 1) agreeing to disagree and 2) baffled by how we wound up in the same family with such hopelessly unenlightened/unrealistic/gullible/cynical people.

That said, I gasped aloud when I walked into my credit union branch yesterday afternoon and saw the headline announcing Sarah Palin's resignation on a TV screen. Regardless of one's political affiliation, this is a true "What the hell?" moment.

Two and a half years, and she's done? Not running for reelection, so doesn't see the point of serving out her term? What about all the people who voted her in for a four-year term in 2006? If I were an Alaska voter, I'd be enraged.

Governor Palin said she didn't see the point of serving as a lame duck. I'd argue that lame ducks, especially at the state and local level, are ideally positioned to push their agendas through, because they don't have to worry about hedging their bets or burning their bridges. The commonwealth of Virginia doesn't let Governors run for reelection to consecutive terms, for this very reason. Tim Kaine's term is going to be up at the end of this year; is he just wasting his time, going into the office for the next five months?

Like her or not -- and I admit that I don't -- you can't deny that Sarah Palin has been one of the most unusual, most polarizing political figures in modern American history. Yesterday's announcement multiplies that by a factor of ten.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

I don't know whether my leather sneakers can go in the dryer.

Sorry I've been gone for a while: combination of work demands, computer issues (the crippled spacebar is now a broken spacebar), and an unwillingness to infect the Internet with my weather-related malaise.

By my count, we had three sunny days in June. Three. It's not raining at this minute, but it's cloudy, it rained earlier and it will rain later. Current temperature: 61F, with a high of 71F expected.

My favorite pair of Sketchers got wet a week ago and are not dry yet, and I don't know whether I dare throw them in the dryer. The uppers are at least partly leather, and I don't want them to crack. Anyone have any suggestions?

I had hoped to escape south this week, but it's not going to happen: work to do, car repairs to pay for. The weather forecast promises sun for the weekend, and while I've never been one to blame the weatherman, I'm going to hurt someone if that turns out to be a lie.

Five Random Songs

"Burning Up," Ladytron. Dreamy, funky electronica. Most of the cool, modern stuff in my music list are gifts from friends, as this is.

"Manipulating Woman," Ladyhawke. My point: more cool modern music, another gift from my friend John (who does not only give me music by bands with "Lady" in their name).

"What's Her Name Today?", Elvis Costello with Burt Bacharach. I've been listening to this CD (Painted from Memory) too much lately, as it's perfect rainy day music. The problem is that it's just gut-wrenchingly sad, and I don't need the help. In happier news, my pal Scott Shumaker is giving a concert performance of this whole album in Washington, DC on July 17 at the Arts Club of Washington. Go see him.

"Hymn for Her," The Magic Numbers. Whew, something lighter, another lovely modern song, and another gift, this from my friend Tom.

"They Can't Take That Away from Me," Ella Fitzgerald. A song that reminds me of summer evenings in Washington, DC, sitting outside with a glass of wine and watching the fireflies. Cruel of iTunes to taunt me like this.