Saturday, November 28, 2009

Five Favorite Rock and Roll Christmas Songs

The season has officially started, with lights up and the Lavinders' tree decorated. I don't decorate at home in Maine, as a rule, but might pull out my stocking this year just in case Santa wants to stop by early.

I like Christmas pop music, and five weeks of it are usually not enough to make me tired of it – especially these five songs. Leave your own favorites in the comments section.

1. "2000 Miles," The Pretenders. A song for everyone who is far from a loved one in the Christmas season. "Two thousand miles/Is very far/The snow is falling down,/It's colder day by day/I miss you."

2. "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," U2. I love counterpoint in pop music, and Bono's impassioned howl ("Baby please come home;/Baby, please come home . . .") kills me.

3. "Please Come Home for Christmas," Aaron Neville. Okay, I acknowledge a theme here. My friends and relations are much too scattered, especially at this time of year.

4. "Run Run Rudolph," Chuck Berry. If this song doesn't put you in some kind of holiday spirit, I don't know what will. Does it have anything to do with the miracle of Christmas? Of course not. Does that matter?

5. "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," Bruce Springsteen. HO HO HO HO HO HO! And Clarence Clemons' saxophone has never sounded better.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Five Things I Ate Yesterday

Most of this blog's readers are people I'm seeing this weekend. But for those of you who weren't at yesterday's feast, here are five things we ate yesterday.

How was your Thanksgiving? What dish do you need on the table in order for it to be a "real" Thanksgiving dinner?

1. Turkey. Of course. My brother-in-law Scott did it on the grill, after my sister Peggy brined it in a mix of salt water and apple juice. The sugar from the apple juice caramelized, and the whole bird smelled slightly of bacon. Awesome.

2. Dressing. It's "dressing" if it's cooked on the side (as this was), it's "stuffing" if it goes in the bird. It too wound up being cooked in a big iron pan on the grill. I made gravy to go with the dressing and the turkey.

3. Hash Brown Casserole. Peggy got this recipe from her college roommate's sister, and it is unapologetic White Trash Cooking: frozen hashbrowns mixed with cheese, sour cream, chopped onions, butter and I don't even know what else, baked in a casserole dish and finished with a crust of crushed potato chips. Leftovers are a perfect breakfast food.

4. Sweet and Sour Carrots. You gotta get your vegetables, but it wouldn't be Thanksgiving if we served them plain; these are cooked in a mix of honey, pineapple juice, soy sauce and green onions. Oh, and butter.

5. Birthday cake. Yesterday was a big birthday in my family: my sisters Peggy and Susan, my brother Ed (celebrating his 40th), and up in northern Virginia, the great and powerful Chris Bea. We had pumpkin pie, but we had birthday cake, too.

I thought about posting a list of five things I was thankful for, but it would feel ungrateful to limit it to five, and anyway, even thinking about it makes me cry. But I am thankful, and not just on Thanksgiving Day. Thank you.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Five Movies that Get Washington, DC Right

Last night I took a cab from where I'm staying, near American University, to Dupont Circle to meet friends for dinner. It was the tail end of rush hour (6:30), and the bottleneck of traffic on Nebraska Avenue above Ward Circle was ridiculous. The cabdriver was angry about it, even though he now gets paid for that time (he wouldn't have, under the old zone system, but DC cabs are metered now).

"Take the right on Foxhall," I told him.

"No, I'm going to take Massachusetts," he said. "Canal Road is crazy this time of night."

"Why would you take Canal Road?" I said. "You can cut over. Take Foxhall to Reservoir to R, if you want to avoid the traffic."

"No," he said, "I'll cut over on Cathedral to Massachusetts." Which he did; cabdrivers love Massachusetts because the lights are timed and they can speed with impunity.

It worked out fine and I was right on time, but it reminded me of one of my favorite movies, which is also one of the few movies I've ever seen that gets Washington, DC right. Forget about thrillers like No Way Out or (God forbid) The Pelican Brief; not only do I not recognize that Washington, big chunks of those movies weren't even filmed here. Even All the President's Men seems fake, partly because it happened before I lived here but mostly because it feels so self-conscious.

This is a personal list, and some movies you might include aren't here because I haven't seen them. Leave your own recommendations in the comments section.

1. Broadcast News (1987). This is the movie I was thinking about last night. Holly Hunter, as TV news producer Jane Craig, can't help giving the cabdriver directions for shortcuts and avoiding traffic. What's especially funny to DC residents who watch this movie is that she's not always right, which is even more accurate. Last night, for example, we'd have avoided traffic by taking Reservoir to R, but lost time for added blocks and stop signs in residential neighborhoods. Twenty years have made this movie look uncannily prescient.

2. Breach (2007). Forget about In the Line of Fire, this movie shows what it's really like to work for the FBI: windowless rooms, computer work, bureaucracy and paranoia. At least, that's what I've heard from people who work there. Laura Linney's character in this movie rings especially true to me: she's a career agent facing the possibility that her life's work has been a waste of time. "I'd offer you some advice," she says to agent-in-training Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), "but I don't even have a cat."

3. Dave (1993). No, the plot — Kevin Kline plays a Presidential impersonator who's drafted to take the President's place after the real President has a stroke — is completely implausible, but the movie is one of my favorites, in part because it gets the details right. Frank Langella, as the President's top aide, is terrifyingly believable; I have been at parties similar to the one he hosts near the end of the movie. Dave and the real President's wife sneak out one night for a date in Adams-Morgan, and the only part of that scene I didn't buy was how easily they found parking.

4. Election (1999). Washington, DC makes only a cameo appearance in this movie, at the very end, but what a perfect ending. It's a gorgeous shot of the front of the Hay-Adams Hotel, and Tracy Flick is doing exactly what the Tracy Flicks of this world aspire to. (And I say this as someone who often feels an uncomfortable spiritual kinship with Miss Flick.)

5. Wedding Crashers (2005). Mock me if you will. This movie is dead-on accurate about a certain stratum of Washington society, the caste that has weekend homes on the Eastern Shore and sends its children to private schools and expensive universities. I have no idea how much of it was filmed in Washington, but the Clearys' second home is in St. Michaels, Maryland.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Five Personal Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Welcome back. Me, I mean. I took yesterday off because I spent 13 hours driving south from Maine to Washington, DC, and am posting late today because the cumulative sleep deficit of the past month caught up with me, and I spent most of today sleeping.

I do this to myself, I admit. I came back from Bouchercon to multiple deadlines and external commitments, and even pulled an all-nighter about a month ago. Between the all-nighter, the shift to standard time, the change in the seasons and the ongoing list of commitments, my sleep cycle hasn't been right since.

Some people I know claim to be able to get by on six hours of sleep or less. I can't, not for any length of time. These are five things that happen to me when I go too long without at least seven hours a night. What happens to you when you get tired?

1. I lose all sense of proportion. When I am very tired, everything feels urgent. I cannot distinguish between true emergencies, pressing tasks, and minor inconveniences. Thus it becomes impossible to prioritize, and I am overwhelmed.

2. I get extremely irritable. A world without sleep is a world of overstimulation; everything is too loud, too hot, too cold, too big, too complicated, too needy, too spicy, too smelly, and too dang much in my way. This is related to but not exactly the same as #3 . . .

3. I lose my filter. Okay, I'm not the most tactful of people at the best of times, but I was trained in diplomacy, dammit, and most of the time I can manage to be polite. Without sleep, I say what I mean without regard to other people's feelings or goals, and can be not only tactless but unkind. I'm sorry about this. Sleeplessness is no excuse.

4. My memory fails. At extreme levels of sleep deprivation, my mind stops being able to retrieve any information it considers less than essential. Names, vocabulary words, historical facts, directions, street addresses and phone numbers all disappear. I lose the memories of what I read last week or what I had for breakfast this morning. When it gets really bad, I lose my ability to string words together in coherent order.

5. I start to cough. I don't know why it happens, but it always does, and has since I was 11 or 12. Long-term fatigue makes me cough, a deep, booming cough that feels like something in my chest is tearing loose. Nothing comes up, and I don't think it's asthma; I just cough. Anyone have any theories about why this happens?

Sleep. It's not just a good idea, it's the law. I plan to get eight hours tonight.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Five Random Songs

A beautiful day here in central Maine, with some company here and some on their way. I won't get a lot of sleep between now and Monday night, but for once, that's just fine.

Thanks to everybody for all the birthday wishes yesterday — it was a great day!

1. "0-4," The Notwist. I have seen The Notwist's music described as "post-rock," and that seems fair: edgy electronica that combines jazz phrasing with rock beats and an oddly classical sensibility. This CD (Shrink) was a gift from a friend who loves them with a passion approaching evangelism, but I love them too.

2. "I Am an Animal," Pete Townshend. No one makes self-loathing sound as graceful and meaningful as Pete Townshend.

3. "Icy Blue Heart," John Hiatt. Emmy Lou Harris' cover is better-known, but this version just kills me.

4. "Sugar Magnolia," Grateful Dead. "She can dance a Cajun rhythm/Just like a Willys in four-wheel drive . . ." I knew these words for years before I knew what a Willys was. I still don't really understand the analogy.

5. "Badlands," Bruce Springsteen. When I was a teenager, this song seemed to hold the wisdom of the universe. Twenty-five years out of my teens, I see no reason to change my mind about this.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Five Random Questions with KAREN OLSON

Karen Olson is the Shamus-nominated author of the Annie Seymour series, set in New Haven, and the Las Vegas-based Tattoo Shop Mysteries, featuring tattoo artist Brett Kavanaugh. She is my friend, and agreed to answer Five Random Questions while I get ready for company this weekend. Before I go, though, happy birthday to my twin sister Kathy, who will always be four minutes older than I am.

1. Why is pizza such a big deal in New Haven, and what's the issue?

There is no pizza better anywhere than New Haven. Here we've got what we call the Trifecta: Sally's, Pepe's, and Modern. I personally prefer Sally's, which has a thinner crust than the others. And it's the sauce that makes it, sweet and tangy all at the same time. The great thing about Sally's is that the pizza comes out on big cookie sheets, they give you a pile of paper napkins and some silverware and that's it. You just dive in. I prefer the white clam pie, but the sausage is outstanding, too. They do have a tuna pie on the menu but I don't know of anyone who's ever ordered it. It just sounds too weird.

2. If you could be reincarnated as an animal, what kind of animal would you want to be?

I would love to come back as one of my own cats. They've got the life: sleeping all day, getting fed regularly, people to play with when they choose.

3. What is your favorite thing to do in Las Vegas?

Since I've only been to Vegas for six days total in my whole life (two days the first time, four days the second, several years later), there are things in Vegas that I haven't seen that I'd like to. Like the Star Trek museum, or the Liberace museum, or the place where they dump all the old neon resort/casino signs. I do love to wander the resorts because everything's so over the top. The Venetian is just crazy, with the Renaissance dancers and the canal and the gondolas.

4. What as-seen-on-TV product do you secretly covet?

The Snuggie. Don't tell my family. I make fun of it, but I tend to be on the chilly side most of the time and would love to wrap that thing around me.

5. Which one of Henry VIII's wives would you most want to have dinner with?

This one is a tough one, because there are questions I'd like to ask each of them. Catherine of Aragon: Did you really never have sex with your first husband, Henry's brother? Anne Boleyn: Any truth to the rumors you have a sixth finger? Jane Seymour: You're not as innocent as you seem, right? Anne of Cleves: You played your cards right and became Henry's "sister." Did you plan that or did it just evolve into something that saved your neck? Catherine Howard: How stupid can one girl be?

But I think I'd want to have dinner with Catherine Parr, who outlived the man and then married the man she truly loved (although he was a cad and went after Elizabeth, so there's no accounting for taste). Catherine Parr was actually published, very unusual for a woman of her time. She was very outspoken about her religion, but didn't have any of Anne Boleyn's antagonism. She was incredibly intelligent, although most of Henry's wives were. It was interesting how he chose women who were smarter than he was. Except, of course for Catherine Howard. But she was a kid.

Thanks, Karen! You can visit Karen online at the First Offenders blog. Buy The Missing Ink from The Mystery Bookstore, and look for the second Tattoo Shop mystery, Pretty in Ink, in stores next spring!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Five Things You Should and Shouldn't Say to Authors

I thought about saving this post until next April, for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, but I'll forget about it between now and then. With Sarah Palin currently on book tour, I have a feeling many people will be turning out to book events who have never been to one before. That's a good thing; anything that gets people into bookstores is a good thing.

Before I go all negative, here are five things that every author loves to hear. These should be pretty self-explanatory:

1. "I can't wait to read this book."

2. "You look so much younger in person than you do in your author photo."

3. "We're reading you in my book club."

4. "I've given copies of your last book to all my friends."

5. "I had to buy this in hardcover because I couldn't stand to wait for the paperback."

And these are things you should restrain yourself from saying:

1. "Write faster!" You think this is flattering, but it just makes an author anxious. Non-celebrity authors write as fast as they can, because they make their money by writing. Most authors don't control their publication schedules, and feel that they're writing too fast as it is (to meet impossible deadlines), or that they aren't being published on a schedule that allows them to support themselves. This is particularly painful for authors who don't currently have a book contract; they may have half-a-dozen unsold manuscripts in their desk, which they would love to publish if only someone would make them an offer.

2. "Everyone tells me I should write a book." A variation of this is "I've always wanted to write a book." It's not rocket science. The average book is between 75,000 and 140,000 words. If you write 1,000 words a day, you can write a first draft in three months — and then spend as long as it takes to edit it and polish it and find an agent and a publisher. The fact that you haven't done this means that you don't really want to write a book, and it belittles the effort of the people who have. That's not to say that you aren't a fine doctor, lawyer, teacher, accountant, raconteur, whatever; it's just to say that you aren't an author. Unless you are, but I'm getting to that.

3. "Would you read/blurb my book?" I have been at book events where complete strangers handed authors manuscripts or self-published books. This embarrasses most authors, because every new author owes a great deal to established writers who helped them along the way. No decent human being wants to say no to a request for help, but this is not the way to ask. If you really want an established author to read and critique your work, sign up for a writing workshop. Not only is it an honest way to get help, it's an introduction to the world you want to be part of.

4. "You need to go on one of those talk shows," a.k.a. "The Oprah Question." Yes, once in a great while, an author shows up on "Oprah" or "Ellen" or "The Craig Ferguson Show." Glenn Beck has become known for featuring thriller authors on his shows. But the percentage of authors invited to be on television is tiny — and, except for Oprah's book club, it's not at all clear that being on TV helps sell books. (As far as that goes, no one really knows what makes a book sell, except for word-of-mouth, which might as well be magic; and what is Oprah's book club but word-of-Oprah's mouth?)

5. "Why aren't your books more like [insert big-name author's name here]?" Authors can and do compromise to make their books more commercial, and only the most idealistic insist on pure artistic integrity; as one friend of mine says, he writes the kind of books he writes so that he can write more books. That said, you wouldn't ask a tennis player why she wasn't a marathon runner, and you wouldn't ask a French chef why he didn't cook Asian food. If someone writes romances, it's because that's what she likes and what she's good at. It's not reasonable to ask why she's not writing science fiction.

A few authors are regular visitors here; anybody want to comment on other things you want to hear or not hear from readers?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Five Great Celebrity Memoirs

Yesterday I met a friend from another country for coffee at the Augusta Barnes & Noble. "Are you going to buy the Sarah Palin book?" I asked, and got a look as if I'd suggested that we go out and smash some church windows.

"I'm serious," I said. "It's an instant party. Buy the book, put it on your coffee table and have people over for holiday drinks, and you can have dramatic readings." My friend was not persuaded, but if my apartment were set up for entertaining, I'd buy the book (at Sam's Club, deeply discounted) for that reason alone. I might buy it anyway, and bring it to my sister's for Thanksgiving.

Bad celebrity memoirs are always entertaining, but a good celebrity memoir is something really special: a history not only of the individual, but of a specific moment in cultural history. I'm not embarrassed to say that I've read a lot of celebrity memoirs. These are five of my favorites. Leave your own suggestions in the comments section.

1. Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography. Great creative genius comes with a terrifying self-absorption and a certain level of megalomania, and both are on display in Charlie Chaplin's memoir. Self-absorption doesn't equal self-awareness, though, and much of what I found so compelling about this book was how little Chaplin seemed to understand about himself and what drove him. What he did understand was the terrible loneliness that came with seeing things other people couldn't see, and wanting more than other people wanted. I am not especially fond of Chaplin's films, but the book is essential reading for anyone who works with auteurs.

2. Sammy Davis Jr. with Burt Boyar and Jane Boyar, Yes I Can. A great celebrity memoir is as much about subtext as it is about what's on the page, and Yes I Can is a fascinating exercise in how to place the mirrors. I read it alongside Wil Haygood's excellent biography, In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr., which offers a very different perspective on some of the stories Sammy tells.

3. Dominick Dunne, The Way We Lived Then. Less a memoir than a personal scrapbook with long captions, The Way We Lived Then is an exquisite time capsule of Mad Men-era Hollywood. Dunne, a recovering alcoholic, is clear-eyed and fearless in his description of how he systematically wrecked his life, and pulls no punches in describing the rich and famous.

4. Anne Heche, Call Me Crazy. She must have thought that title would head off the criticism; instead, it just makes her an easier target. My friend Maeve and I listened to this on audiotape during a drive to Yosemite for Thanksgiving several years ago. We were so mesmerized we missed our exit, and drove an hour out of our way before we realized what we had done. Anne Heche presents herself as a survivor of a bizarre upbringing whose later behaviors were all justified by her early experiences. She seems unaware of or unwilling to admit any damage she might have done herself, although the revelation she describes having while on LSD (that she was a pile of human excrement) suggests that some scrap of conscience survives.

5. Shelley Winters, Shelley, Also Known as Shirley. By the time I was old enough to be aware of her, Shelley Winters had become something of a parody of herself: middle-aged, blowsy, doing guest spots on game shows and talk shows and TV mystery series. But in the 1940s and '50s, she was hot — she was beautiful and smart and electric, she was a terrific actress, and she knew everybody (and slept with most of them). Shelley, Also Known as Shirley is a frank, funny confessional and score-settler by a woman who knows exactly who she is, and apologizes for nothing.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Five Great Queens

On this date in 1533, Elizabeth I ascended to the throne of England. Her 45-year reign was a golden age in British history, a new height of intellectual, military and economic success. To mark the occasion, five other women who ruled with absolute authority.

1. Hatshepsut, Pharoah of Egypt. The historical records are sketchy, but she reigned for almost 22 years, from approximately 1479 BCE to 1458 BCE. She brought peace and prosperity to Egypt, restoring international trade and sponsoring building projects that survive to this day. She married her half-brother, Thutmose II, and had one daughter by him, Neferure. Hatshepsut became regent for Thutmose's son by a concubine, Thutmose III, but ruled as de facto pharoah until her death. Among other things, she is credited with importing the first frankincense trees to Egypt.

2. Isabella, Queen of Castile. With her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon (who was also her second cousin), she united Spain and ruled half the known world between 1474 and 1504. A fervent Catholic, she oversaw the conquest of Granada and, later, the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain. (In historical terms, "great" does not always equal "good.") She granted — on his fourth or fifth request — Christopher Columbus' petition to follow a western route to the Indies. She sponsored the Inquisition, and placed her five surviving children (a sixth died in infancy) on thrones around Europe.

3. Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. She was Sophie Auguste Frederike von Anhalt-Zerbst, a German princess, when she went to Russia at the age of 14. She converted to Russian Orthodoxy and took the name Yekaterina before she married her second cousin, Peter, heir to the Russian throne. Peter's reign lasted less than seven months; rumors that he was retarded or syphilitic were probably propaganda, but he was unacceptably pro-Prussian, and the Imperial Russian Guard deposed him in favor of his wife. Catherine ruled for 34 years (1762–1796), expanding and consolidating Russian power and modernizing the Russian economy and political system. As far as social reforms went, she talked a better game than she played; the term "Potemkin village" dates to her reign, describing reforms that happened only for show. But she did preside over the beginning of the Russian enlightenment, an unprecedented era of creativity in literature, painting and especially opera. She died of a stroke; the rumor about the horse came from her resentful, long-persecuted son and heir, Paul.

4. Victoria, Queen of England and Empress of India.
England's longest-reigning monarch (1837–1901), she was the living symbol of an empire where the sun never set. Having nine children did not keep her from taking an active role in government, presiding over military campaigns that conquered most of the world and an industrial revolution that transformed the British economy for good. The death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861 changed her; she never came out of mourning, and if she wasn't amused, that was why.

5. Tzu-Hsi, Empress of China. She was a low-ranking concubine to Emperor Hsien-Feng, but she bore his only son, and served as regent after the Emperor died. As Dowager Empress of China, she ruled with absolute authority from 1861 to 1908, refusing to give up power even when her son, Tung Chih, came of age. Tung Chih died of venereal disease at the age of 20, and the concubine who was pregnant with his child died under mysterious circumstances. Tzu-Hsi opened China to the West, which ultimately led to the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. It's not clear whose side Tzu-Hsi was on in the Boxer Rebellion, but she managed to hang on to power after Western armies intervened to suppress the rebellion. She began to make reforms and promised a constitution and representative government, but died before putting those in place. Her heir, her three-year-old nephew Pu Yi, was China's last Emperor.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Five Things I Know How to Make Without a Recipe

One of the few things I don't like about my current lifestyle is how little cooking I do. I like to cook, but it's no fun to cook only for myself, and my apartment is not set up for entertaining. I'm looking forward to heading south for Thanksgiving, where I can get in the way while my sisters cook, and maybe chop some stuff up myself.

I've been too distracted to do much cooking lately, anyway. Last week I tried to do some baking for Gaslight's performances of Rabbit Hole; I forgot an essential step of a recipe I know by heart, and wound up with a pan of burnt shortbread covered with burnt chocolate. It came out of the pan in one big charred slab, and Dizzy was sad to see it go.

Here are five things I know how to make without consulting a cookbook:

1. The four basic sauces. For the record, they are B├ęchamel, Veloute, Brown and Hollandaise, and they all involve creating an emulsion of liquids and fats, with or without flour to bind them. My mother was no good at gravy, and decided when I was very young that the gravy would be my responsibility; years of trial and error have taught me that all sauces are just a matter of patience and paying attention. Some years this is harder for me than others, which is why the Thanksgiving gravy has sometimes had lumps.

2. Spaghetti sauce. If you can't figure out how to make a basic spaghetti sauce without looking it up, you have no taste buds.

3. Toffee bars. This was what I was trying to make last week. I got the original recipe from the Silver Palate Cookbook, but it's so easy I no longer need to look it up. However, the chocolate chips don't go on top of the shortbread until five minutes before the pan comes out of the oven. Just so you know.

4. Creamed spinach. See #1, above. Actually, this is cheating; once you can make the four basic sauces, you can make an almost unlimited number of things without having to consult a cookbook. I just like creamed spinach. It's important to squeeze all the water out of the spinach after you cook it, and before you add the sauce.

5. Potato-cheese soup. I love potato-cheese soup so much that I pretty much lived on it for a year or two right out of college, because it's cheap to make and it keeps well. I haven't made it in years. Might be time to pull the soup pot out again.

What are the "go-to" recipes that you know by heart?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Five Random Songs

Last night's opening of Doubt went well, thank goodness, and this morning I'm kind of a wreck; not because I was out late last night (I wasn't) or because I had much to drink (I didn't), but because I feel like a spring that was coiled too tightly and is now unlooped on the floor.

I have about nine hours to coil the spring back up for tonight's performance, so plan to spend the day on things that will annoy Sister Aloysius, including self-indulgences like whining and writing with ballpoint pens. In fact, I've already done some of both this morning.

Five performances of Doubt remain; you can book tickets here.

1. "The Enemy Guns," DeVotchKa. This album (How it Ends) was a gift from the fabulous Jennifer Jordan, and is in constant rotation on my iTunes playlist. It's a unique sound that combines guitars, accordion, bouzouki and a wide range of percussion instruments with something that might be a wind instrument or might be a theremin, I can't tell.

2. "Firecracker," Ryan Adams. A young man's song: "Everyone wants to go on forever/I just want to burn up hard and bright."

3. "Drawn in the Dark," X. I forgot all about this track when I was making my list of scary songs. Hmm. It's a cool, spooky song with a great, menacing bass line, off Hey Zeus!

4. "Matinee Idyll (129)," Split Enz. What makes this sound — jangly piano, horns, violin, mandolin — so undeniably mid-'70s?

5. "Koka Kola," The Clash. I too take my advice from the advertising world. Or at least from Don Draper.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Special Guest Blog: Five Ways to Save the Environment from Juan of MUNDO JAZZ

From the Mundo Jazz website: "What can one say about a band whose songs convey the dangers of environmental degradation, the importance of racial harmony and the inherent evils of capitalism with subtlety and intelligence? One can say they are called Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Mundo Jazz, however, preach peace, love and understanding with all the subtlety of a brick hitting butter, through their ridiculously catchy songs, awful dancing and thunderously crass philosophizing." Mundo Jazz's lead singer, Juan Pablo Colon, has graciously agreed to guest-blog for me today, as I'm on deadline and getting ready for tonight's opening of DOUBT at Aqua City Actors Theatre in Waterville.

Brother and Sister,

Today is my honour to be ask by answergirl (is real name Cler) to write five things to save the enviroment. So, I start by explaining the enviroment. The enviroment is like a forest in Brazil, full of indios and snakes and flying frogs. If these frogs and so on die, who cares? Nobody like frogs, you say. Maybe you say my brother Luis touch a frog once and get a rash. Well I tell you, if those frog dies, then the ozone that we breath will be gone forever, so tell your kids — don't be a ass and stop destroying the enviroment. Here is some ways you can help:

1. Open your heart, open your fridge. Global warming is real! Get used to it mister Bush! You are a asshole. If we all take the door off the refrigerator is going to cool the amosphere sinificantly and probably solve the problem.

2. Stop the Chaos! According to Chaos theory (science) if a butterfly is flab his wing in the rainforest, it cause a tornado in Texas. So lets save Texas, kill as many butterfiles as possible before they get the chance. Texas has a lot of problems but they have a right to survive as well and shouldn't just get tornadoed because of these fluttering fiends of the skies. And we do not disrespect Texas for being fat and stupid people with a cowboy hat who eat burger all the time.

3. DO you really nead to use your car? Stop drivin around all the place fatty. If you walk every wear you will stop pumping gas into the air and also not look like somebody put pants on a zeppelin. You should ALWAYS buy a hybrid if possible (example a Mercedes/Benz) and only have one car unless you need two one for gigs and such and one for drivin around lookin good that is part of the job description of a musician.

4. Use energy bulbs in your lights. This will have the added bonas that you can see what you are doing at night.

5. That's all for now.

6. OK wait I thought of another. No, it's gone.

7. Oh yeah: Don't waist water. Water is a precious resauce, it comes from rivers and the sea. If we keep using water at the rate you are doing now, soon the sea will be gone and the fish will crawl onto land and evolve into dinosores again and look what happen last time. All sorts of shit will kick off. People will be running from tyranosaurus and the one with the three horns – unless it eat plants, but still is probably dangerous. Just by virchew of size, is enormous, about the size of three football stadiums (soccer not american football I don't know about this size you are asking the wrong guy) they will not be able to get the earth back online and then we all escape in a jip, but some is get eaten on the way.

I commend to you the future is in your hands!

X Peace! J*U*A*N

Um . . . thanks, Juan! If you're in the UK, you can catch Mundo Jazz live in concert between now and the end of the year; check out the tour schedule here. Those in other parts of the world can still experience the wonders of Mundo Jazz through podcasting. Juan says, "Fight capitalism — but not with guns!"

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Five Pieces of Wisdom from Sister Aloysius

Last night marked the end of three months of rehearsals for Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, opening at Aqua City Actors Theatre in Waterville tomorrow night. Showtimes are at 7:30 p.m. on November 13, 14, 20 and 21, and at 2:00 p.m. on November 15 and 22. A "talk back" session with the show's director, Bill Haley, and the actors will follow the November 15 matinee. Tickets are $12.00 ($10 for seniors and students), and you should order them in advance from the Waterville Opera House box office, (207) 873-7000. The theater is small, and ACAT's shows often sell out.

Doubt, in case you didn't see the movie (I haven't, and won't until this show closes), is a short, tense drama set in a Catholic elementary school in 1964. I play Sister Aloysius, the school's principal, who is fighting a losing battle against what she sees as declining standards, excessive sentimentality, and the tolerance of evil. She's unapologetically intimidating. I admire her, but she has not been easy company for the last three months.

If you can't come to the show — or even if you can — these are my five favorite lines. I'm posting them without comment; if you want the context, come see the play.

1. "Ballpoints make them press down, and when they press down, they write like monkeys."

2. "Innocence is a form of laziness."

3. "If you're looking for reassurance, you can be fooled."

4. "Life perhaps is longer than you think, and the dictates of the soul more numerous."

5. "Nuns fall, you know . . . It's the habit. It trips us up more often than not."

While I'm plugging local theater, I should mention that Rabbit Hole continues at Gaslight this weekend, tonight, tomorrow and Saturday. If you're in a theatrical mood, you can catch both shows!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Five Ways to Thank a Veteran

November 11 is the day the Great War ended on the Western Front, in 1918. It had been the deadliest conflict in human history, with 16 million dead and 21 million wounded. It was supposed to be the war to end all wars, and when the shooting stopped, the world stepped back in horror. Depending on which statistics you believe, the U.K. lost more than two percent of its entire population in the Great War; France lost more than four percent; Serbia lost more than 16 percent.

The holiday was called Armistice Day, but the Armistice didn't last. The Second World War left between 62 and 78 million people dead, depending on how you count Stalin's victims. Since then the United States has fought in military operations in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Cambodia, El Salvador, Lebanon, Grenada, Honduras, Bolivia, Panama, Iraq, Kuwait, Somalia, Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Haiti, Zaire, Yemen, Macedonia, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Colombia, and Pakistan.

You probably don't know what the United States was doing in each of those operations. I don't, although they're all in the history books, and most of the details are public information. Chances are good that many of the military personnel who fought in these operations didn't know what they were there for, either.

Which is why we celebrate Veterans' Day today, instead of Armistice Day. Today we honor the men and women who signed up (or were drafted, in earlier generations) to risk their lives in the service of their country, whether or not they fully understood or agreed with the goals of the policy-makers who sent them to war. It's a form of heroism that goes beyond reason or logic to the deepest primal instincts of humans: protect the tribe.

Here are five tangible ways you can show your gratitude.

1. Make a contribution to the military relief charities. The Armed Forces Relief Trust collects donations on behalf of the four Military Aid Societies: the Air Force Aid Society, Army Emergency Relief, Coast Guard Mutual Assistance, and the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. A shocking number of military families live in poverty. An enlisted servicemember's salary is not enough to support a family, and military deployments create thousands of single-parent families for months at a time. These families are often far from their original homes, without the resources and support they'd have if they lived closer to grandparents, siblings, school friends, etc. We shouldn't need the military relief charities, but we do. Support them.

2. Make a contribution to the Armed Services YMCA. The ASYMCA serves junior enlisted personnel and their families from 31 facilities around the world, offering not only the usual YMCA recreation and fitness programs but also childcare, hospital assistance, spouse support services, food services, computer training classes, health and wellness services, and holiday meals. The American Institute of Philanthropy rates it one of the nation's best-run charities, too.

3. Raise money for a Fisher House™, and/or donate your frequent flyer miles to Hero Miles. Fisher Houses are "comfort homes" on the grounds of major military and veterans' medical centers, which allow families to stay near their loved ones as they go through long-term medical treatments and rehabilitation. No family pays to stay at a Fisher House. The Fisher House Foundation also sponsors scholarships for military children and administers the Hero Miles program, which makes frequent flyer miles available to Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom hospitalized service members and their families. You can donate your miles here, and organize your own local fundraiser for the Fisher House Foundation by following the guidelines here.

4. Volunteer with the USO. The name "USO" might call up visions of big-band dances and sailors jitterbugging with the Andrews Sisters, but today's USO is just as important to today's military as it was to previous generations. The more than 130 USO locations around the world are places American service personnel can go to take a shower, check their email, call their families, watch American television. Never forget how young most enlisted personnel are; they're teenagers, or barely out of their teens, and most of them are away from home for the first time in their lives. USOs are safe places where English is spoken and no one has to apologize for being an American. USO volunteers do everything from help soldiers navigate strange airports to assembling care packages for the holidays. Check here for a location near you.

5. Volunteer or donate at your local VA hospital. Medical care is free to veterans, but the small comforts of a hospital stay aren't: television, newspapers, magazines, books, phone calls. Veterans' hospitals need library materials, phone cards, coffee supplies, new and gently used clothing, new board games, decks of cards, and cash to provide their patients with personal care items like shaving cream, razors, and deodorant. Find your local VA hospital here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Five Favorite Sesame Street Muppets

It's the 40th anniversary of "Sesame Street," which means the show has been around for almost as long as I can remember. I do remember its being a new show, which we watched instead of our previous favorite, "The Banana Splits Club." In fact, because "The Banana Splits Club" featured actors in giant puppet-like suits, I think I must have just figured that "Sesame Street" was a grittier, more urban version of the same kind of show. It too had cartoons and short films, and if those happened to be about numbers and letters, I didn't see that as being so different from the cartoons about pirates and monsters. Which I guess was the point.

Anyway, I am still very fond of the Muppets on Sesame Street, and these are my favorites. You will not find Elmo on this list. Vote for your own in the comments section.

1. The Count. I still know all the words to "The Song of the Count," and most of the words to the "Transylvania Polka." So much to admire about the Count: he's suave, he's debonair, he's got that great accent, he's a really interesting pink/purple color. Of course, my passion for the Count might explain why I never really learned to count past 10. "Ten, ten, wonderful ten! Then I start again."

2. Snuffleupagus. In the early years, Snuffleupagus was visible only to Big Bird, and the rest of Sesame Street thought he was Big Bird's imaginary friend. I don't know who made the decision to make him "real," or why. The humans' unwillingness to believe Big Bird made me horribly anxious, and must have done the same to other children, but I still think that was a valuable lesson for kids. In the name of safety, today's society doesn't allow children to have secrets. I guess that's a necessary trade-off, but it's also a loss.

3. Guy Smiley. "America's Favorite Game Show Host." Not all of Jim Henson's characters survived him, and Guy Smiley disappeared for a while. I heard they were bringing him back, but I haven't watched "Sesame Street" in a long time.

4. Grover. "It is I, your lovable, furry friend Grover." Did you ever notice that Grover speaks in complete, grammatically correct sentences, without contractions? Well, he does. How could you not love him? My brother James had a book called The Monster at the End of this Book, featuring Grover, who ran in fear from page to page pleading with kids to stop turning the pages — until he and the reader realized that the monster at the end of the book was Grover himself. Heavy-duty metaphysical stuff to be laying on kids, if you ask me. I applaud that.

5. Oscar. Moody? Me? Personality is hardwired; the child was the mother of the woman, and I was an irritable kid. I was (and am) also a terrible slob. It's why Oscar lives alone, and so do I. Oscar was much crankier when I was a kid than he is now; these days he's more likely to show his heart of gold, and we've learned that he has a whole Grouch family and various Grouch activities. Oscar and I disagree on anchovies; he likes them, I don't. Also, I have a dog instead of a worm for a pet. Other than that . . .

Monday, November 09, 2009

Five Things I Loved about Last Night's "Mad Men" Finale

This post is full of SPOILERS. If you have not been watching "Mad Men" from the beginning, and/or didn't watch the third season finale, don't yell at me for giving away critical plot points. Go watch the show, and come back later.

"Mad Men," which concluded its third season last night, is the best show on television. If you're not watching it, we may need to revisit the terms of this friendship.

"Mad Men" is the story of Don Draper, creative genius, self-made man, and driving force behind one of New York City's most prominent advertising agencies. To a lesser extent, it is the story of the other people who work for the firm (Sterling Cooper) and of Don's unhappy, ice-blonde wife, Betty.

Last night's show found Sterling Cooper, sold to a British company at the end of last season, on the block again. Don Draper learns this from his most troublesome client, Conrad Hilton, who says he's pulling his business because of conflicts with Sterling Cooper's new owner, McCann Erickson.

Don doesn't want to work for McCann, and is tired of being a pawn in the corporate shuffle. He goes to Sterling Cooper's founding partner and proposes that they buy the firm back. That's not possible, in practical terms, but over the course of the episode Don and Sterling Cooper's name partners find a way to take what they need to start a new firm, under the name Sterling Cooper Draper and Pryce (Pryce being the name of the firm's erstwhile British overlord, who's also getting shafted in the new sale).

Last night's season finale was one of the best hours — well, 50 minutes, it was a short episode — of television I've ever seen. I'm still thinking about it this morning, which is the reason for today's list.

1. Don, who spent the first two seasons of this show running from himself, succeeds in this episode by being completely honest — with himself and his co-workers – for what may be the first time in his life. Don Draper is such a self-made man that "Don Draper" is a stolen identity, belonging to a dead veteran Dick Whitman (Don's original name) was supposed to accompany on his final journey home. "Who is Don Draper?" has always been the central question of "Mad Men," and this episode showed Don figuring it out at last.

2. Peggy, who started Season One as Don's secretary, is now a creative executive at this new firm, after finally demanding what she deserves. In the first season, Peggy had an unfortunate encounter with a junior account executive, Pete, which led to an unwanted (and secret) pregnancy; Don helped her after that and has sponsored her career since, but at the price of treating Peggy like a tool instead of a human being. In last night's episode, Peggy insisted that Don see her as a person, and he did. Also, she refused to get Roger Sterling (one of the name partners) coffee. I cheered out loud at that.

3. Joan, Sterling Cooper's former office manager, returned in triumph. She left the firm to get married after it became obvious that her long-running love affair with Roger Sterling (who was married, of course) was never going to work out; adding insult to injury, Roger did leave his wife, for another Sterling Cooper secretary young enough to be his daughter. But Joan, who's the closest thing "Mad Men" has to a true hero, has risen above it all — above the fact that her doctor husband turned out to be a loser, and that she left Sterling Cooper for what turned out to be nothing. Roger was big enough to admit that the new firm needs Joan, and Joan rose to the occasion with style and class. I want to be Joan, except for the tragic part.

4. Bert Cooper, played by the immortal Robert Morse, was almost literally revived from the dead in last night's episode; Don woke him up from a nap to tell him the firm had been sold again. For the past three seasons, Cooper's been content to be the firm's Buddha-like figurehead, an inscrutably wise eccentric who doesn't seem to do much. He's starting the new firm for the sheer fun of it, because he realized he wasn't ready to die, and that was a joy to watch.

5. Sally Draper, Don's eight-year-old daughter, is the sharpest, most perceptive member of the Draper household. All through this season, Sally has been the adult voice of reason as her mother coped with an unplanned pregnancy and her own father's death. When Betty and Don sat the kids down to tell them about Betty's divorce plans, Sally wasn't fooled for a moment. If "Mad Men" continues its story line into the early 1970s, we'll see Sally on the campus of Kent State.

What did you love about last night's "Mad Men"? What didn't you love?

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Five Ways to Celebrate National Bookstore Day

Hi. I'm not going to apologize for taking a few days off from the blog, because I've been apologizing for too much lately, and the spiral has to stop somewhere. We had snow this week. I had deadlines, and have more on Monday. Gaslight opened its fourth and final show of 2009 on Thursday night — Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire, which is the strongest show we've put up this season, and it's been a good season if I do say so myself. If you're in the area, you owe it to yourself to see it; performances continue tonight and next Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Next Friday the show I'm in, Doubt, opens at the Waterville Studio Theater for six performances, November 13–15 and 20–22.

Did I say that I am desperately tired?

But today is the first annual National Bookstore Day, which is a good excuse to step away from the computer and into your local bookstore. Here are five things you can do to support your local bookstore, not just today but any day:

1. Make your next book purchase in a store instead of online. It's obvious, but I'm not just talking about giving your custom to a bricks-and-mortar store instead of to Amazon; I'm talking about being a book gatherer rather than a book hunter. Shopping online is convenient if you know exactly what you're looking for; you hunt it down, point and click, and your prey arrives at your door. But you miss so much that way. You miss the endless pleasure of browsing, the possibility of finding something unexpected and delightful.

2. Go to an author event. Hundreds of authors are on the road at any given time, peddling their works like door-to-door sales reps. Authors spend long stretches of time alone at their desks, muttering to themselves and praying they're not wasting their time. They long for the opportunity to explain themselves to readers, and could probably use a little human company. Go see one. Call it a corporal work of mercy.

3. Pay full price for a book. You like cheap books. I like cheap books. The deep discounting of books in stores like Wal-Mart, Target and — yes — Barnes & Noble and Borders has created profound and dismaying distortions in the publishing and bookselling industries. When the cover price on a bestselling hardcover is $27.95, why would you pay full price? But every time Wal-Mart sells a $27.95 book for $14.00, it hurts the book business. It hurts every author who isn't a bestseller; it hurts the publishers; it hurts independent bookstores. It doesn't even do that much for the bestselling authors whose books are discounted. Skip this morning's Starbucks and pay full price for the new Stephen King. Buy it at an independent bookstore.

4. Take a kid to a bookstore. This is a golden age for children's books, and the ability to focus on an extended narrative is one of the most valuable skills a child can develop. Every book you buy for a child is an investment in that child's future.

5. Ask a bookseller to recommend an author you've never read. People work in bookstores because they love books, and nothing pleases a good bookseller more than to be asked for a recommendation. Thousands of books get published every year, and most of them sink like stones. Finding a book that everyone else has overlooked is like finding a diamond in a box of pebbles, and it's an experience a bookseller never forgets. I will always remember pressing a copy of The Number One Ladies' Detective Agency on a customer before anyone had ever heard of Alexander McCall Smith, and I know that customer still talks about how she was reading that series before anyone else had heard of it.

And now, because I'm so tired today that my filter's gone, I'll add a suggestion for the booksellers themselves:

6. Remember why you're in this business. One of my many friends and relations recently brought her children into a well-known, big-city independent bookstore on a weekend afternoon. The store is one that does not cater specifically to children, although it has a few children's titles in stock; but these children are well-behaved, and used to shopping in the adult world. The two people working at the store that afternoon not only ignored my relative — who had gone into the store with the express intention of buying at least one book — but were sharp with her children. My relative left empty-handed, and is not likely to visit that store again. I have no connection to the store in question, but I've been there myself, and I had to admit the story didn't surprise me. An unfortunate minority of independent bookstores are run as their owners' private clubhouses. No amount of special events or celebrations of independent bookselling can save these businesses, nor should they. A good bookstore should be like a good church, determined to share its blessings with all who enter.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Five Things that Make Me Happy

Sorry for playing hooky yesterday. The past week or so has been a perfect storm of work and theater obligations, and my schedule is not going to ease up in any meaningful way until Doubt opens on November 13. (Tickets are going fast. Make your reservations here.)

I fell asleep last night before the final election returns came in, and woke up this morning to find that Maine had voted yes on Question 1, the people's veto of a law to allow same-sex marriages. I'm so sad and disgusted about this I can't express it.

Let me be clear: I'm a straight woman who chose not to get married (although I retain the prerogative to change my mind), and I also still identify myself as Catholic. The right to legal marriage isn't a religious issue, it's a civil one. The prohibition of same-sex marriage is the denial of a civil right based on a judgment rooted in religious ideas of marriage, not legal ones.

I have seen firsthand how families form through the miracle of adoption, which is all about choosing to build a family above and beyond the usual limits of biology. Whether or not they're biologically conventional, all happy families are an act of will, of an affirmative decision to live together and love each other. Every family deserves the protections and advantages our legal system offers to people who make that choice.

My sorrow and rage over this are distracting me from work, and I have too much to do today. Here are five things that make me happy, which I hope will be enough to reset my brain and let me focus on the next project.

1. Greek yogurt. I came late to Greek yogurt, discovering it for the first time when I lived in Brooklyn last year. I like its texture, which is like sour cream without the calories. It's hard to find in central Maine; the Gardiner Hannaford has only recently started to carry it, and only carries the plain and vanilla varieties.

2. Live music. Live music feels like magic to me. At various points in my life I have taken lessons in guitar, voice and keyboard, but those taught me that my talent is for listening to music, not making it. It always amazes me to hear what sounds can come from boxes and strings, and live music makes the worst day better.

3. Dogs. Dizzy lives a simple life: he sleeps, he eats, he patrols the neighborhood, he plays with his friends. Every new person he meets is a potential source of treats and petting, every open car door is an invitation to adventure, every other dog is a potential ally in the war against squirrels and cats. He expects the best, doesn't dwell on disappointment, and rarely holds a grudge. He states his needs without apology. I should follow his example more often.

4. New books. A major perk of my current lifestyle is the fact that sometimes the mail brings me boxes of free books I didn't ask for. They're not always things I want to read, but every one of them holds the possibility of delight.

5. Wine. I'm not an alcoholic; in fact, I don't think I have any alcohol in the house at the moment, except a bottle of bourbon I keep for medicinal purposes (seriously: bourbon, lemon, honey and hot water is every bit as effective as Robitussin, and tastes better). But a good bottle of wine makes happy times happier, and takes the edge off unhappy ones. In the words of Ben Franklin, "Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy." (Get that, Yes on 1 supporters? God loves us and loves to see us happy. Why don't you?)

What makes you happy? Leave a happy thought in the comments section.

Edited to add: my brother Ed reminded me of this song, which always makes me happy and seems appropriate to the day. I sing it to Dizzy all the time, and when I played this video he raised his head to see who else knew that song, and where it was coming from.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Five Patron Saints

Today is All Souls' Day, but yesterday was All Saints' Day. The Catholic Church recognizes lots of saints, and every day is a feast day for half a dozen or more.

Catholicism is a monotheistic religion (well, trinitarian — one God, three aspects), and it would be heretical to suggest that Catholic saints take the place of earlier religions' household gods. But Catholics do ask the saints to intercede on our behalf, both in general and for specific purposes, and Catholic tradition recommends asking certain saints for help in areas where they're believed to have particular experience or influence.

This website is a treasure house of information about saints, but here are five whose help I regularly ask for.

1. St. Dymphna, c. 605-620; patron saint of the mentally ill and emotionally disturbed. No, really. Dymphna, an Irish girl of noble birth, was 15 when she lost her life defending her virginity from her own father, who had lost his mind after the death of Dymphna's mother. It bothers me that so many female Catholic saints were martyred in defense of their virginity, but I see Dymphna's sainthood in the fact that she loved her father and forgave him his insanity. The terrible cruelty of mental illness is that it can make its victims hard to love, hard to be around; Dymphna reminds us that it's a saintly effort. Her feast day is May 15.

2. St. Genesius, third century BCE; patron saint of actors. According to legend, he was performing for the Roman emperor Diocletian in a play that mocked Christians when he suddenly became convinced of the truth of Christ's divinity. Presented to the emperor after his performance, Genesius announced his faith, and was arrested, tortured, and killed. Georgetown University's Mask and Bauble claims St. Genesius for its patron, and its annual awards (the Gennys) are named for him. His feast day is August 25.

3. St. Joseph, c.30 BCE(?)–sometime before 30 CE(?); patron saint of adoptive parents, fathers, doubters, the dying, and travelers, among others. Husband of Mary, adoptive father of Jesus, carpenter and man of faith. According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, he was a direct descendant of King David; beyond that, we don't know many details about him. He is not mentioned in the stories of Jesus' ministry, passion or crucifixion, so we don't know when he died. Painters and sculptors depict him as considerably older than Mary, but we have no way of knowing that for sure. Scriptures say he took his family to Jerusalem for Passover every year, so he must have been fairly prosperous. Whether or not you believe that Jesus was the Son of God, Joseph kept Mary as his wife and raised Jesus as his own son, and his example reminds us all that love, not blood, is what makes a family. He has two feast days: March 19 and May 1.

4. St. Jude Thaddaeus, c. 1 BCE(?)–sometime after 62 CE; patron saint of desperate cases. An apostle, but not to be confused with Judas; St. Jude, also called Thaddeus, was the brother of St. James the Lesser and St. Simeon, and a kinsman of Jesus. After the resurrection, he carried the Gospel to Samaria, Idumaea (the present Negev and part of Jordan), Syria, Mesopotamia (present-day Iran, Iraq and part of Turkey), and Libya. By tradition, he died a martyr at the hands of the Persians, possibly in what is now Armenia. He is the patron of hopeless causes because of his epistle to the Eastern Christian communities, which is a pep talk to the discouraged: "But you, beloved, build yourselves up in your most holy faith; pray in the holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in the love of God and wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. On those who waver, have mercy; save others by snatching them out of the fire; on others have mercy with fear. . ." His feast day is October 28.

5. St. Teresa of Avila, 1515–1582; patron saint of headache sufferers and writers (specifically Spanish, Catholic writers, but why limit it?). St. Teresa, founder of the Discalced Carmelite order, is one of only two women honored as Doctors of the Church. She is a major figure of the Counter-Reformation and the author of several classics of spirituality and clear thinking. Her true life's work didn't begin until she was 43, when she was called to found a new order of nuns, saying, "May God protect me from gloomy saints." She was sharp and cranky and not always easy company, but she was funny and loving and practical, and held no one to standards higher than she set for herself. Repentance was less important than the commitment to reform; actions were more important than intention; the work was more important than the system. "I am more afraid of those who are terrified of the devil than I am of the devil himself," she wrote. Teresa was the patron I chose at Confirmation, and is still my role model. Her feast day is October 15.