Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Five Books I've Read or Listened to Lately

Overcommitted, overextended, overtired. If I get it all done by the end of the week, I'll be happy. Dizzy slipped and fell down part of my staircase last week — did I mention that already? – and is okay but sore, and yelps if he rolls over the wrong way. It's horrible to see a dog in pain, although a low dose of baby aspirin has been helping (him, not me). Of course, you can't give baby aspirin to babies any more, so it's no longer called that, but . . . I digress.

All of the above is to explain why today's post is a reading list instead of something more substantive.

1. Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge. As usual I am late to this Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, about a fierce Maine schoolteacher and the people in her life. We see the world from Olive's point of view, and Olive from the world's point of view; she is not comfortable with it, and we are not comfortable with her. It's so much easier for her to be kind to strangers than to the people she loves most, and she never understands her power over the people who love her. But she's strong and she's brave, and I wish I didn't see so much of my own self in her.

2. Christopher Rice, THE MOONLIT EARTH. Megan Reynolds' brother Cameron, a flight attendant, is one of two prime suspects in the bombing of a Hong Kong hotel. Megan can't believe it, but Cameron's recent behavior suggests he might be caught up in events beyond his control, and now he's disappeared. Megan follows the trail to Hong Kong and finds a tangle of international conspiracies and family secrets. Rice explores new territory here, putting his own unique spin on the international political thriller.

3. T.C. Boyle, THE WOMEN. Few modern authors take up as much space on my bookshelf as T.C. Boyle, and anything he writes is worth reading. That said, this study of Frank Lloyd Wright's complex personal life didn't entirely work for me. It's narrated by a fictional Japanese apprentice, Tadashi Sato, who tells us about events he could only have heard about at second or third hand, while never revealing much about himself. Wright himself remains an enigma; although Sato worships him and all these women destroy themselves for him, we never quite understand why. The most fully-realized, interesting character is Wright's second wife, Miriam, whose passion for Wright had less to do with him than with her own idea of herself. In spending so much time on Miriam, whose role in Wright's life might be seen as less significant than his first wife, Kitty; his last, Olgivanna; or his murdered "soul mate," Mamah, Boyle seems to suggest that Miriam, oblivious to everything but herself, might have been Wright's truest match.

4. Douglas E. Winter, RUN. What seems to be a routine guns-for-money deal turns out to be two overlapping conspiracies, with gunrunner Burdon Lane at the center of both. Published in 2000, this book feels dated now, set in a world before 9/11 and the Department of Homeland Security. The pace is relentless, the twists keep coming, and Winter gets so much right that it feels churlish to say I found the book ultimately unsatisfying. Lane must decide which side he's on, but I never fully understood what the sides were.

5. Matthew Dicks, UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO. Milo Slade's marriage is crumbling, at least in part because he's never been able to admit to his wife that he lives in servitude to half a dozen obsessive compulsions: opening jars of grape jelly, popping sheets of bubble wrap, bowling strikes, singing a karaoke version of "99 Luftballons," and more. He finds a video camera and several tapes in a park, and discovers that the tapes are the video diary of a woman torn apart by grief and guilt. She blames herself not only for the recent death of a friend, but also for the disappearance of her best friend from childhood, 20 years before. Milo's quest to find forgiveness for this stranger leads to his own redemption in this absolutely charming novel. I read an advance copy; it'll be out in August.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Five Things that Changed the World in Robert Byrd's Lifetime

Up this morning to the news that Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) had died at the age of 92. Senator Byrd was born on November 20, 1917, seven months after the United States formally entered the Great War. His birth name was Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr.; he was renamed Robert Carlyle Byrd by the aunt and uncle who adopted him after his mother died in the flu epidemic of 1918. He spent more than 50 years apologizing for a stint in the Ku Klux Klan in his mid-20s, a decision he later blamed on his "jejune and immature outlook."

By the time of his death, Robert Byrd had become the conscience of the Senate, a self-educated man who — among other accomplishments — wrote a four-volume history of the Senate. He holds the record for the longest service in the Senate, and spent six years as a U.S. Representative before his election to the Senate. He played the fiddle onstage at the Kennedy Center and the Grand Old Opry.

It's mind-boggling to think about the things he saw in his 92 years, but these are five that spring to mind.

1. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In August 1945, Robert Byrd was 27 years old and working as a shipyard welder. The "duck and cover" drills ended before I started elementary school, but Senator Byrd belonged to the only generation that fully understood the power of an atomic bomb. It wasn't theoretical to him, it was real in a way that I pray it will never be real to my generation, or future ones.

2. The end of Jim Crow. As a small child in Tidewater Virginia, I used to hear adults say — in a non-apology for the racist attitudes of our part of the South — "Well, we're not as bad as West Virginia." West Virginia was racist; Robert Byrd was racist. He changed. They changed. We changed. Of all of his achievements, perhaps the greatest was his willingness to be educated, and admit that he'd been wrong. He went from voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to endorsing Senator Barack Obama's candidacy for President in 2008.

3. The building of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Senator Byrd joined the Senate in January 1959; the Berlin Wall was constructed in August 1961. Byrd was a fervent anti-communist, and said that its anti-communist stance had been a major reason for his joining the Ku Klux Klan. The Cold War was real to him, and the fall of the Berlin Wall confirmed his belief in the power of democracy.

4. The space program. Senator Byrd served with Senator John Kennedy for a year before Senator Kennedy became President Kennedy, and he was such a close friend of Senator Ted Kennedy that he was overcome after Senator Kennedy suffered a seizure during the inaugural luncheon for President Barack Obama. West Virginia is a desperately poor state whose biggest industry has traditionally been coal-mining, but Senator Byrd was an environmentalist who believed that science and technology offered his state the best hope of economic development. The Biotechnology Science Center at Marshall University bears his name.

5. The attacks of September 11, 2001. In years to come, Senator Byrd may be remembered most for his opposition to the United States' response to the September 11 attacks. He opposed the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. He opposed the war in Iraq. America was better than that, he said, and in deciding to attack Saddam Hussein we isolated ourselves rather than embracing our position as first among equals in a world community. "We proclaim a new doctrine of preemption which is understood by few and feared by many," he said. "When did we become a nation which ignores and berates our friends?" Read the whole speech here. Whether or not you agree with him — and I do, and believe that history has more than justified him — you can't deny the passion for this country that radiates from every word. In the end, Senator Byrd was a true patriot, and his loss diminishes us all.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Five Places I Would Go if I Won the Lottery

Today's topic is a variation on one suggested by my friend Jen Lechner, in a conversation we had yesterday. She was on her way to one of my favorite parts of the country, and I said that my retirement fantasy is to have a house there. "You should write a post about five places you would live if you won the lottery," she said.

The thing is, I don't want to own multiple homes. Friends of mine do — in fact, a couple of my friends own three houses — and as poor as Maine is, it's not at all unusual for people to own a "camp" as well as their primary residence. (Note to non-Mainers: a "camp" is not a campsite, but a non-winterized summer home of any kind. They can be anything from a mobile home to a finished house. They often run off the grid, with septic tanks and wells and generators, but in some of the more popular vacation areas, the only difference between a camp and a regular house is that people don't live there in winter. A "cottage" is a fancy summer house, the kind the Rockefellers have on Mount Desert Island.)

I don't really want to own a house at all, but I would like to be able to go somewhere on a whim and stay as long as I want. I suppose the easiest way to do that, if you have a lot of money, is to own the place.

On this June Friday, where would you go if money were no object? Leave your dream destinations in the comments section.

1. New Bern, North Carolina. Say "NEWburn," as if it were one word. I first drove through New Bern more than 20 years ago, and was enchanted. It was North Carolina's colonial capital, is the second-oldest town in the state, and claims to be the birthplace of Pepsi Cola. It sits at the junction of the Trent and Neuse rivers. The nearest big city is Wilmington, almost 100 miles away. My favorite retirement fantasy is of buying a big yellow house (why yellow, I don't know, but yellow) with a wraparound porch, and spending my 70s and 80s as the hostess of a continuous house party, with my friends and family coming and going at will, hanging out and playing board games and telling embarrassing stories about each other.

2. Hallowell, Maine. Of course. Hallowell rather than Gardiner, only to reduce the need to drive; Hallowell is five miles up the river. Most visitors to Maine stick to the coast, or to the western lakes, and never discover this jewel at the edge of the state capital. Downtown Hallowell is a four-block stretch packed with restaurants, shops, and an excellent art gallery. You can hear live music in Hallowell at least five nights a week, even in winter. It is fun and funky and so eccentric that it deserves its own TV show. Maybe I'll write a pilot. If I won the lottery, I would start an art-house movie theater in Hallowell, or possibly in the vacant railroad depot in Gardiner.

3. Vienna, Austria. I spent one magical weekend in Vienna with my friends the Schulzes, much too long ago, and have longed to go back ever since. I didn't see a fraction of the city, and I need to see more. I'd like to spend an extended period of time there, enough to feel fluent in German (even if my accent makes me sound mentally disabled, which certain people have told me).

4. Charleston, South Carolina. My mother's family comes from Charleston, and when I was a child, my grandparents retired to a house on Meeting Street, two blocks from the Battery. It has always been a magic place to me.

5. Brooklyn Heights, NY. Manhattan's too crowded and too self-conscious; Brooklyn Heights is a neighborhood. I loved the time I spent in Brooklyn Heights, and would gladly go back if I had the means or a reason to do so.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Five U.S. World Cup Appearances

OhmyGodwasthatawesomeorWHAT? Watching alone in my apartment, I let out a shriek that scared Dizzy. (For the record, if anything seriously bad ever does happen to me in Dizzy's presence, it appears that he will run and hide rather than run to me, Lassie-style, to see if he can help.) The U.S. national soccer team is going to the second round of the World Cup, for only the fourth time in the team's history.

In fact, the U.S. team didn't even qualify for the World Cup from 1954 through 1986. This year is the team's ninth World Cup appearance. Here are five earlier highlights.

1. 1930, Uruguay. The very first World Cup is still the high-water mark for the U.S. soccer team. We came in third, defeating Belgium and Paraguay before losing to Argentina in the knockout round. Only 13 countries played that year, and Uruguay won.

2. 1950, Brazil. We lost in the first round, but not before pulling off one of the most stunning upsets in soccer history, defeating England 1-0. That was not enough to make up for the losses against Spain and Chile, but England fans feel the pain to this day.

3. 1990, Italy. The U.S. qualified for its first World Cup in 40 years by beating Trinidad & Tobago in the regional CONCACAF Championship, but washed out in the first round with successive losses to Czechoslovakia, Italy and Austria.

4. 1994, United States. The U.S. hosted the World Cup for the first time. Major League Soccer was created as a condition for winning the bid. Fears that Americans wouldn't show up to soccer games were unfounded, as attendance broke records at nine different venues: Pasadena, CA; Pontiac, MI; Stanford (Palo Alto), CA; East Rutherford, NJ; Orlando, FL; Chicago, IL; Dallas, TX; Foxborough, MA; and Washington, DC. The U.S. team got an automatic spot as the host country, but made it to the second round after a win over Colombia that may have led to the murder of Colombian defender Andres Escobar. (His own-goal lost Colombia the game and led to their first-round elimination.) Brazil knocked us out, 1-0, and went on to win the whole tournament in a penalty shoot-out against Italy.

5. 2002, Japan and South Korea. The U.S. team's best performance in modern Cup history started with a shocking win over Portugal, a draw with South Korea, and a loss to Poland. That was enough to advance to the second round, where we beat Mexico 2-0. We lost to Germany in the quarterfinals, and Germany went on to lose to Brazil in the final.

We'll play the second-place team from Group D — Ghana, Serbia or Germany — on Saturday afternoon. I'm clearing my calendar right now.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Five World Cup National Anthems

I know almost nothing about soccer (football, if you must), but the World Cup is a great spectacle, and the international rivalries are fun. When else will I ever get a chance to say, "Those blasted Slovenians!"?

Immigrant communities aside, the United States still hasn't embraced soccer wholeheartedly, and I think that has a lot to do with the whole cultural package of soccer. For one thing, soccer requires a patience and attention to detail that most Americans aren't willing to give it. True fans might rave about a 0-0 draw, and be able to talk enthusiastically about that header at the 23-minute mark or the bad call at minute 48 or the handball that invalidated the goal in injury time. (I'm not even entirely clear on how injury time is calculated; it seems arbitrary, but a lot of soccer looks that way to me.)

Another aspect of the soccer culture alien to Americans is all the singing. Around the world, soccer fans sing. Every football club has at least one theme song. Entire countries have football theme songs, with this one (England's, written for the European Championships in 1996) the best known. Choosing the theme songs for this year's World Cup was a big deal; I don't know exactly what to make of FIFA's choice of R. Kelly and Shakira for this year's official anthem and song.

What I like most, though, are the national anthems. You never see American sporting teams sing our national anthem before games; they stand silent on the field, caps or helmets or hands on their chest, looking serious and/or bored before it's time to play. At the World Cup, the teams sing out, and everybody seems to know the words. I hope our guys do.

Here are five national anthems we'll be hearing a lot more of before the tournament ends.

1. "Himno Nacional Argentino," Argentina. I like a title that means what it says. Written by Vicente Lopez y Planes (lyrics) and Blas Parera (music), the Argentine National Hymn has been the national anthem of Argentina since May 11, 1813. The song commemorates the May Revolution of 1810, and the original lyrics are graphic and violently anti-Spain ("the arrogant Iberian lion"). More moderate lyrics were adopted in 1900. At nearly four minutes, the official version is long, so you'll usually hear only the instrumental lead-in at Olympics medal ceremonies and similar events. You can hear the whole song (with English subtitles) here.

2. "Het Wilhelmus," The Netherlands. The Dutch national anthem is the world's oldest, although it was not officially recognized until 1932. The title means "The William," and the song commemorates William the Silent's revolt against Spain. (Those Spanish tyrants inspired a lot of music.) The song was first published in 1574, while William was still alive. It is written in the first person, as if sung by William himself; no one knows exactly who wrote the words, but it wasn't William. The tune comes from a French soldiers' song about the 1569 siege of Chartres. In most settings, only the first and sixth verses are sung. Interestingly, the Dutch national anthem refers to the Netherlands as "Fatherland," while the Argentine anthem calls their country "Motherland." You can listen to a short version of the Dutch anthem here.

3. "Hino Nacional Brasileiro," Brazil. Written in 1822 to commemorate Brazil's independence from Portugal, the Brazilian National Hymn has had several different sets of lyrics over the years. Francisco Manuel da Silva wrote the melody, while the lyrics are based on a 1909 poem by Joaquim Osório Duque-Estrada. This song forgoes family metaphors and calls its country simply "homeland." You can listen to it here.

4. "Himno Nacional de Uruguay," Uruguay. At 105 bars, Uruguay's national anthem is officially the longest piece of music used as a national anthem; other countries have more verses, but the music is repeated. Generally, only the first two verses are sung. The lyrics were written by the Uruguayan poet Francisco Acuña de Figueroa, with music by the Hungarian-Uruguayan composer Francisco José Debali. It was played for the first time in 1845. The song calls on its citizens as "Orientals," presumably meaning "easterners," since Uruguay is on the east coast of South America. This site not only lets you listen to the song, but teaches you the words. Oh, and this one goes in the "Fatherland" column.

5. "Paraguayos, República o Muerte," Paraguay. "Republic or Death" is what this title means. I guess it makes sense that so many national anthems seem to emphasize the need to be willing to die for one's country. (There's a future blog post: Five Things I'd Be Willing to Die For. I'll have to think about that for a while.) Anyway, the lyrics were written by the same Francisco Acuña de Figueroa who wrote the words to the Uruguayan national anthem, although it is not clear who wrote the music. It might have been Acuña de Figueroa himself, it might have been Francisco de Depuis, or it might have been the same Francisco José Debali who wrote the music for the Uruguayan anthem. Like other South American national songs, it is quite anti-Spain. Paraguay is addressed as "Fatherland." You can listen to it here.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Five Overseas U.S. Military Installations

This week marks the anniversary of the date in 1972 when the United States turned Okinawa back to Japan. We did not, however, reduce our military presence in Japan, and today the U.S. operates three air bases, three Army installations (a camp, a post and a base), four naval operations, and five Marine Corps installations there.

The United States has dozens of peacetime military installations around the globe, in addition to the war-footing camps in Afghanistan and Iraq and the peacekeeping operations in places like Kosovo, Kuwait and South Korea. As my nephew Patrick prepares to start basic training for the Air Force, here are international deployment sites that surprised me.

1. Bulgaria. Under a 2006 agreement, U.S. Air Force and Army personnel are stationed at four Bulgarian-American Joint Military Facilities: Bezmer Air Base in Yambol Province, the Novo Selo Range in Sliven Province, the Aitos Logistics Center in Burgas Province, and Graf Ignatievo Air Base in Plovdiv Province. American military personnel will provide training to the Bulgarian forces. The bases belong to Bulgaria, but the Bezmer Air Base is expected to become a major strategic airfield for combat aircraft, should the need arise. The American military presence in Bulgaria is limited by agreement to 2,500 personnel.

2. Thule Air Force Base, Greenland. This base makes the news occasionally, because it's a handy stopping point for rescue missions coming from the other side of the world. It is 695 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and 947 miles from the North Pole. If Santa runs out of reindeer fuel, Thule is probably the closest service station. The U.S. agreed to take responsibility for the security of Greenland even before we entered the Second World War, and has maintained a military presence there ever since. The base at Thule was constructed in strict secrecy from 1951-53, built mainly by Navy SeaBees deployed from Norfolk. At the height of the cold war, the base's population reached about 10,000. Today it's down to about 235, a base for the Air Force Space Command, the 22nd Space Operations Squadron, the 12th Space Warning Squadron, and the 821st Air Base Group.

3. Manas, Kyrgyzstan. The Transit Center at Manas opened in December 2001 as an Air Force base to support personnel and equipment going to and from Afghanistan. In March of this year, NATO moved 50,000 soldiers through the Manas Transit Center. Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country in central Asia, bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and the People's Republic of China. The center is near Bishkek, the nation's capital, near the northern border with Kazakhstan. It has been controversial, drawing objections from both Russia and China, and requiring the negotiation of a new agreement with the Kyrgyz government last year.

4. Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. Camp Lemonnier is a former French Foreign Legion facility that had been used by the Djibouti Armed Forces until the United States made an agreement to use it as the operations center for the new Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa in 2002. It is a U.S. Navy Expeditionary Base whose resident detachments include Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force units, a total of about 2,500 military and civilian personnel.

5. Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory. As a child, I used to hear my father (a career Naval officer) refer to Diego Garcia as if it were the most remote place on earth. If it's not, it's close. It is a coral atoll 1,000 miles south of India and 1,200 miles northeast of Mauritius. It has been a U.S. Naval support center since 1971, operated jointly with the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. Diego Garcia is the largest atoll in the Chagos archipelago, which the U.K. purchased from Mauritius (a former British dependency) in the mid-1960s. The U.K. made a controversial decision to relocate the island's inhabitants, perhaps as many as 2,000, moving them to Mauritius. The story of the Chagossians is a sad one, still working its way through the British courts. Diego Garcia is one of the five monitoring stations that maintain the Global Positioning System and part of the U.S. Space Surveillance System, as well as serving as a refueling and support station for the Military Sealift Command, several Naval Air units, and Submarine Squadron SIXTEEN. It is the home base for 19 "pre-positioning" support vessels ready to provide supplies, equipment, munitions and medical services to Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force operations. International watchdog groups have accused the U.S. of using its base at Diego Garcia for extraordinary renditions, but the U.K. denies this.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Five Things Leopold Bloom Eats and Drinks in ULYSSES

June 16, 1904 is the date on which all of the events of James Joyce's ULYSSES take place, as Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus move around Dublin and cross paths over the course of the day.

Leopold Bloom is a man of appetites, and Joyce tells us a lot about what Bloom eats and drinks. I've been to Ulysses-related events that feature several of these items, which may not appeal to American tastes.

1. Pork Kidney. Bloom starts his day with a visit to Dlugacz's butcher shop, where he spends threepence on a "moist tender gland" that he carries home in his pocket. He burns it slightly in the cooking, but enjoys it thoroughly anyway: "Done to a turn."

2. Gorgonzola Sandwich. Bloom stops off for lunch at Davy Byrne's, a "moral pub," and orders "A cheese sandwich . . . Gorgonzola," which he cuts into strips and eats with mustard. He eats "with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese."

3. Fried cods' roes. At a lonely dinner at the Ormond Hotel, where Bloom watches his wife's presumed lover, Blazes Boylan, from across the room, Bloom eats "with relish the inner organs, nutty gizzards, fried cods' roes," while his companions eat steak and kidney pie.

4. Cider. While Bloom has burgundy at lunch, he drinks cider for dinner, which upsets his stomach and mixes uneasily with whatever he drinks later in the evening. The combination causes hallucinations in the "Oxen of the Sun" episode.

5. Cocoa with cream. At the end of the day, Bloom brings Stephen Dedalus back to his home, where he makes instant cocoa — "two level spoonfuls, four in all, of Epps's soluble cocoa" — and tops it up with Molly's precious breakfast cream.

In honor of the day, I actually went out and bought a wedge of gorgonzola, and will have it with some red wine for dinner. Happy Bloomsday.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Five Child Actors Who Turned Out Okay (Apparently)

It's been a bad year for former child/teen stars, with the deaths of Brittany Murphy, Corey Haim and Gary Coleman. While I've been very critical of the Sunderlands, who encouraged their 16-year-old daughter to try a solo round-the-world sail at the wrong time of year, I'm equally skeptical of any parent who allows, encourages or pushes children to perform on screen.

Don't get me wrong: children are natural actors. Most children love dressing up, pretending, and getting attention and praise from adults. Children's theater camps are a great idea, and theater training can be an important tool to teach children empathy and tolerance.

But when children are dropped into adult environments and asked to work as adults, behave as adults, and accept bizarre behavior from adults as normal, bad things happen, even with the best of intentions. Kids need to be kids. They need to hang out with other children, they need find their own place among peers, they need to pass through the major developmental stages more or less on schedule, and without feeling that those stages (growth spurts, voice changes, puberty) jeopardize their or their families' material well-being. Despite the laws in place to protect them, too many child actors grow up too fast, without the skills or preparation they need, and the extreme pressure of their early years leads to mental illness and substance abuse in adulthood. This website, maintained by former child star Paul Peterson, explores these issues in depth.

But some child actors, through luck, strength of character, skillful parenting or a combination of the three, make it through relatively unscathed. Here are five who come to mind.

1. Mary Badham, b. 1952. Her appearance in the 2005 film Our Very Own was her first screen role in almost 40 years. She earned an Oscar nomination for her role as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and after that appeared in two more movies and episodes of "The Twilight Zone" and "Dr. Kildare." Her much-older brother, John, went on to become a prolific director and producer of TV and film, but Mary Badham left show business in 1966, went to school, got married, and raised two children. According to IMDb, she works as an art restorer and college testing coordinator, and frequently speaks (with great affection) about her experience on To Kill a Mockingbird.

2. Jodie Foster, b. 1962. She made her screen debut in a Coppertone commercial when she was only two years old, and was making regular appearances on TV by the age of seven. She played Iris, a teenaged prostitute, in Taxi Driver when she was only 12 years old; her older sister, Connie, served as her double in the explicit scenes. Melanie Griffith, then 17, had turned the role down. A friend asked me recently whether I thought that Jodie Foster's role in Taxi Driver constituted child abuse; I honestly don't know. It certainly made her the target of John Hinckley's deadly obsession, but how could anyone predict that? Foster went on to earn a degree from Yale and two Oscars. She works when she wants to, as much as she wants to, and spends the rest of her time raising her sons.

3. Brooke Shields, b. 1965. She too played a child prostitute at the age of 12, in Louis Malle's Pretty Baby (1978). More a model than an actress for most of her teens, she was the face of Calvin Klein Jeans ("Nothing comes between me and my Calvins") and on the cover of every major fashion magazine by the time she was 16. She went to Princeton, starred in a hit TV series, married and divorced Andre Agassi, and is now married to a screenwriter, the mother of two children, and a bestselling author.

4. Peter Billingsley, b. 1971. The star of A Christmas Story (1983) did not shoot his eye out, but grew up to be a successful Hollywood producer. Before he starred as Ralphie, he made dozens of TV commercials, most notably as "Messy Marvin" for Hershey's Chocolate Syrup. His executive producer credits include The Break-Up, Iron Man, and Four Christmases, and he directed last year's Vince Vaughn comedy Couples Retreat.

5. Neil Patrick Harris, b. 1973. Today's his birthday, so a very happy birthday to him, and many happy returns. He starred in TV's "Doogie Howser, M.D." from 1989 to 1993, then moved to the stage, where his roles included Mark in the Los Angeles production of Rent (1997). He's succeeded in every medium he's tried, including the Internet phenomenon Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. Last year he hosted both the Primetime Emmys and the Tonys. He is the only actor I follow on Twitter. If he's not the ridiculously cool guy he appears to be, I don't want to hear about it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Five Plays that Did Not Win the Tony Award

Did you watch the Tony Awards last night? No, me neither. I started to, but since I'd spent a big chunk of the day at the first dress rehearsal of Gaslight's summer musical, Bells are Ringing, I'd already had my recommended daily allowance of musical theater. Besides, Duck Soup was on Turner Classic Movies.

I always have mixed feelings about awards, and awards given by members of an exclusive group to other members of the same exclusive group bug me most of all. It's been a while since I went to New York, and even longer since I've seen any theater there, because it's so absurdly expensive that it's no longer an art form for the many. I understand why it costs so much; I don't have any good ideas about how to make it cheaper. But I still object.

Awards are always a little random. These are five plays that did not win the award for Best Play, when they were nominated.

1. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams, 1956. It won the Pulitzer in 1955. The original Broadway cast was Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie, Ben Gazzara as Brick, and Burl Ives as Big Daddy, with Elia Kazan directing. Bel Geddes and Kazan were nominated for Tonys, too. That year's Best Play winner was The Diary of Anne Frank, by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

2. Look Back in Anger by John Osborne, 1958. The play debuted in London in 1956, and most of that cast traveled to Broadway with director Tony Richardson. It was Alan Bates' Broadway debut, and Mary Ure was nominated for Best Dramatic Actress in the role of Alison. That year's winner was Sunrise at Campobello by Dore Schary.

3. The Odd Couple by Neil Simon, 1965. Comedies almost never win the Best Play award; a rare exception was Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, in 1968. The original Broadway production of The Odd Couple starred Art Carney and Walter Matthau, and was directed by Mike Nichols. It lost to The Subject was Roses by Frank D. Gilroy, which was the Broadway debut of a young Irish/Spanish-American actor named Martin Sheen.

4. Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley, 1982. It won the Pulitzer for Best Play in 1981, along with the New York Drama Critics Circle's Award for Best American Play. Cast members Mia Dillon and Mary Beth Hurt were also nominated for Tonys. Fellow cast members Peter MacNicol and Lizbeth McKay won Theatre World Awards for their roles. That year's winner was the eight-hour epic The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, adapted by David Edgar from the Charles Dickens novel and directed by John Caird and Trevor Nunn.

5. Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet, 1984. Another Pulitzer winner that lost the Tony, this time to Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing. Joe Mantegna won this production's only Tony; the all-star ensemble included Robert Prosky, Lane Smith, and J.T. Walsh. David Mamet has never won a Tony. His only other nomination was in 1988, for Speed-the-Plow; M. Butterfly won that year.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Five Random Songs

I have a new phone, since I managed to break mine literally in half yesterday. Although it was the second-cheapest in the store ($10 with a new contract), it has several cool features I don't know how to use, including a camera and the ability to import ring tones from my own music library. I will have to find a ten-year-old to help me figure this out. In the meantime, five random songs from the music library I do know how to manage.

1. "The Angel," Bruce Springsteen. First song on the second side of Springsteen's first album, Greetings from Asbury Park. If you woke me up in the middle of the night, I could probably recite that album's track list in order. Digital music lets us skip from track to track, but vinyl albums gave us 30-minute music suites that were a format of their own, and I miss them.

2. "Weaving Song," Phelan Sheppard. An instrumental track that feels like floating on water. It uses a wordless human voice as one of the instruments, a ghostly lilt. "Phelan Sheppard" is not one person but the last names of the two musicians, Keiron Phelan and David Sheppard. I don't know who the woman's voice belongs to. This track comes from Into the Dark, a CD compiled by John Connolly as a companion to his novel The Unquiet.

3. "The Bunting Song," The Good, the Bad and the Queen. More mood music, buzzy electronic melancholia that ends with a feeling of storm clouds brewing. This CD, released in 2007, is so much my kind of music that I actually got it as a gift from more than one person.

4. "Hold My Life," The Replacements. This album, Tim, was one of those records that changed my life, putting all my baffled adolescent rage and frustration into jangly power-pop. We're all a little older now, but I hope I never outgrow The Replacements.

5. "Wide Eyes," Local Natives. A relatively recent acquisition, I think this track came off an alternative music sampler I downloaded for free somewhere. I like it particularly for the percussion tracks, a flurry of drums and sticks and other beat-making instruments I can't name.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Five Books I've Read or Listened to Lately

A rainy day. I have work to do, errands to run, the World Cup to watch. I am more than usually irritable, for no reason I can identify, except an acute awareness of my own shortcomings.

A friend once told me about making a drinking game of an episode of "Slings & Arrows" where they drank every time someone said "Sorry." If I could have a drink for every time I've said "Sorry" in the last week or so, I'm sure I'd be in a much better mood. Sorry.

1. Christopher Farnsworth, BLOOD OATH. My friend John, on his own book tour, was recently quoted as saying that vampire novels have become the literary equivalent of chicken, a vehicle for whatever flavor the writer's really interested in. I like having friends who say smart things like that. This vampire novel is a political thriller with some interesting historical interludes and a few Frankenstein-zombie hybrids thrown into the mix; very entertaining, just the thing for a summer afternoon. Nathaniel Cade is a vampire sworn to protect the President of the United States, and Zach is the ambitious young White House aide assigned to be his wrangler. Zach's first mission in his new job is to oversee Cade as he protects the President from the nefarious schemes of an apparently immortal mad scientist. This book would also make a great TV series, if it hasn't already been optioned.

2. Steven Bach, LENI: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl. A fascinating look at the pioneering German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, one that raises as many questions as it answers. Ultimately evenhanded, it spares its subject nothing. The central truth of Riefenstahl's life is that the best work she did was for and with and through the offices of the Nazi party, and she was never willing to admit or regret that. Her sheer persistence and longevity would be enough to make her a marvel, but her extraordinary lack of self-awareness made her a monster, too. It's a discussion that will never have an answer: does great art require that degree of self-absorption and willful disregard for ordinary human behavior? If it does, do people who produce great art earn the right not to be judged as ordinary human beings? I say "No," but suspect that Ms. Riefenstahl would disagree.

3. Derek Haas, COLUMBUS. Derek Haas' second novel about the professional assassin Columbus is as clean and fast as a hit man should be. After a routine job goes awry, Columbus finds himself the target of not one but two assassins, hired under a contract that pays even after the client dies. "I told you not to like me," Columbus tells the reader, but it's hard to resist his honesty and urgency. The sequel lacks the emotional gut-punch of Haas' first novel, THE SILVER BEAR, but it's a worthy follow-up, and Columbus is one of my favorite new characters in crime fiction.

4. Stephen R. Bown, SCURVY: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail. I discussed this book earlier in the week; just fascinating, excellent as cultural, medical and naval history. A cautionary tale, too, about how bureaucracies ignore evidence in favor of expediency — even after the British Navy saw the effects of tinctures of lemon and orange on scurvy, they made wort of malt the official anti-scorbutic, because it was so much cheaper. The eventual adoption of lime juice as the scurvy remedy had as much to do with class snobbery as it did with scientific evidence, and Bown tells the story beautifully.

5. Jess Walter, THE FINANCIAL LIVES OF THE POETS. I stayed up much too late last night reading this book, and wonder how much of today's mood has to do with the anxiety and sorrow and frustration I felt for its characters. Matt left a job in journalism to start "," a website that combined investment advice with literary insights and poetry. As the book begins, he and his wife and their two sons teeter on the verge of financial doom; as the book unfolds, they go over that verge, and Matt considers some options he'd never thought himself capable of. I may have more to say about this book after I've had a few days to process it, but it simply blew me away. I've always been impressed with Walter's work, and feel overwhelmed by how good this book is. It is not light reading, but it does exactly what literature should do: it put names to things I didn't know about the world and human nature, or had been only half-aware of. In the future, if anyone wants to know what life was like for the middle-aged American professional in 2009, this book will be all they need.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Five Diseases Caused by Nutritional Deficiencies

Yesterday I needed to run a last-minute errand to Skowhegan (and saw Lakewood Theater's hilarious production of Drop Dead, which was worth the trip — it closes Saturday, so check it out if you can). The drive takes just over an hour each way, and my company was the audiobook of SCURVY: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentlemen Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail by Steven Bown.

The book is fascinating and full of gory details about naval life, obsolete medical practices and theories, and the history of science. But I can't read medical histories, however entertaining, without a little bit of hypochondria — so for the past few days I've been especially careful about my Vitamin C intake, and thinking about what other essential nutrients might be missing from my diet. Lord knows I wouldn't want to get any of these diseases.

1. Scurvy. Scurvy, as Bown makes clear in his book, is an exceptionally nasty way to die. The lack of Vitamin C (ascorbic acid, which means "acid that prevents scurvy") prevents the body from manufacturing collagen, the substance that holds us together. Gums rot, injuries don't heal, the skin can't repair itself, and eventually even broken bones that have mended come apart again. The body rots and is unable to heal, and scurvy victims eventually bleed to death when the very walls of blood vessels start to come apart. As little as 6.5 mg of Vitamin C a day can prevent scurvy. A medium orange has 50 mg, and a 100-mg serving of broccoli has twice the minimum daily requirement, as long as it's not overcooked. Boiling destroys the vitamin.

2. Beriberi. Beriberi is caused by a thiamine (B1) deficiency, and in developed nations tends to be a disease of alcoholics. "Wet beriberi" affects the cardiovascular system, and can look like congestive heart failure. Victims have shortness of breath at night and after activity, an increased heart rate, and swelling of the legs. "Dry beriberi" affects the nervous system; victims experience tingling and numbness, weakness in their legs, confusion, mental difficulties, memory loss, twitching, and pain. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, related to dry beriberi, is a tragic disorder that destroys its victims' ability to create new memories. A rare genetic disorder interferes with the ability to absorb thiamine, but most people need only between 1.1 and 1.5 mg of thiamine daily to prevent beriberi. Meats, eggs, whole grains, nuts and legumes are all good sources of thiamine. Milling and bleaching destroy thiamine, but white bread in this country is almost always thiamine-fortified.

3. Pellagra. Doctors refer to pellagra's symptoms as "the three D's": diarrhea, dermatitis, and dementia. Its cause is most frequently a deficiency of niacin (B3), but it may also be caused by deficiencies of the amino acids tryptophan or lysine, or by excessive intake of leucine. Pellagra was once endemic among populations that relied on maize as a staple food, and was so prevalent in the American South in the early 20th century that an entire hospital in Spartanburg, SC was dedicated to its treatment and study. Pellagra is still common among refugee populations, and in impoverished regions of Africa, Indonesia, and China. A small amount of brewer's yeast provides enough B3 to prevent pellagra; other good food sources are meats, whole grains, green and orange vegetables, nuts and legumes.

4. Rickets. My own grandfather McLaughlin had rickets as a child, growing up in the slums of Charleston, SC. It's a disease of slums and workhouses, caused by a deficiency of Vitamin D and/or calcium and/or phosphate. Bones soften, weaken and bend; my grandfather's shin bones were visibly bowed, although he was tall and had excellent teeth, unusual for victims of rickets. Vitamin D is the "sunshine vitamin," but most people in industrialized countries don't spend enough time outdoors to get a full dose, so food sources are also important. Fish, liver and fortified dairy products all provide significant amounts of Vitamin D. Vegetarians have to be especially careful to get enough Vitamin D, and may need to take a supplement.

5. Night blindness and xerophthalmia. Deficiencies in Vitamin A cause eye problems ranging from night blindness to complete blindness. Xerophthalmia is a fancy name for a medical condition in which the eye fails to produce tears. I've seen television ads for a treatment for "chronic dry eye," and wonder how often that disorder is simply an undiagnosed Vitamin A deficiency. Fortified dairy products provide some Vitamin A, but how many of us drink five glasses of milk (or the equivalent) a day? The best food sources of Vitamin A are dark green leafy vegetables and orange fruits and vegetables — carrots, cantaloupe, butternut squash, etc. Megadoses of synthetic Vitamin A (not from food sources) are the only recognized medical therapy for retinitis pigmentosa, but because Vitamin A is fat-soluble, high doses can be toxic. It's safest to get this vitamin from natural food sources. Too many carrots might turn you yellow (it happened to me when I was little, according to family legend), but they won't poison you.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Five Things I Did Not Know About Donald Duck

Today, June 9, is the 76th birthday of my favorite rage-addicted cartoon character, Donald Duck. Donald made his big-screen debut in "The Wise Little Hen," a Silly Symphony cartoon, on June 9, 1934. He went on to star in 127 more of his own adventures, while appearing as a secondary character in hundreds of others.

Donald Duck is dear to me for several reasons. He means well, most of the time. He expects the best, which fuels his indignation when things go wrong. He tends to be accident-prone. He sometimes has difficulty making himself understood. (If you're having a bad day, or having a conversation that's getting a little too heated, switch over to a Donald Duck voice for a few minutes and listen to what that sounds like. Unless you are talking to a police officer, your outlook is guaranteed to improve.)

Anyway, here are five things I didn't know about Donald until I looked him up.

1. His middle name is Fauntleroy. Is it any wonder he's annoyed?

2. His first girlfriend was named Donna, not Daisy. The Disney website says that Donna Duck, who appeared in Donald's first starring vehicle, Don Donald, is the same character as Daisy Duck, having undergone a name change. I don't know. I like the idea of Donald as a ladies' man, with Donna as the Disney universe's nod to Lilith.

3. Donald Duck's sacrifice for his art earned an Academy Award. Just as human actors stretch by playing characters that may do horrifying things (e.g., Edward Norton in American History X, Charlize Theron in Monster, etc.), Donald Duck is the only major Disney character ever filmed saying the words "Heil Hitler" and "Heil Mussolini." He's the star of the Academy Award-winning cartoon Der Fuehrer's Face, a propaganda film inspired by the Oliver Wallace song of the same name. Donald's a loyal Nazi, until his factory job sends him over the edge, and then . . . well, watch the video. Elements of it are troubling for modern audiences; Disney kept the film out of circulation for almost 60 years. It is available on DVD only as part of box sets on wartime Disney films and Donald's own history.

4. Donald Duck was the first Disney character to star in a cartoon targeted to South American audiences. In the years before the U.S. entered the Second World War, Disney couldn't send cartoons to occupied Europe. Walt Disney, looking for new markets, toured Latin America to gather information about audiences there. The result was two feature-length films starring Donald: Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.

5. Clarence Nash, the original voice of Donald Duck (1934-1983), was also the voice of Daisy Duck and Donald's nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Clarence Nash was the voice of Donald Duck for 50 years. His last appearance as Donald was in Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983); he died in 1985 at the age of 80. Nash trained his successor, former Disney animator Tony Anselmo. Anselmo has been Donald's voice since 1985. He has played Huey, Dewey and Louie as well, but other actors play them in the TV series "DuckTales."

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Five Endangered Species in the Gulf of Mexico

The essential premise of the theory of natural selection is that some species live and some species die. If survival of the fittest is the rule, the unfit don't survive.

But what makes a species "unfit," and who or what should make that decision? It is human nature to alter our environment. If we change the environment faster than other species can adapt to those changes, what is our obligation to protect those other species from our behavior?

In a purely Darwinian world, we wouldn't have any such obligation. We'd survive, the other species wouldn't, we'd be the biological winners. But the reality is more complicated. Humans are part of a complex system of interdependence, where our species needs to interact with a vast spectrum of other species in order to survive. The extinction of the dodo or the passenger pigeon may not have imperiled the long-term survival of homo sapiens, but how do we know? We've only been studying this stuff in any meaningful way for about 200 years.

Every ecosystem is both resilient and fragile, in ways we can't always predict. Even before the oil spill, the Gulf of Mexico was home to five endangered species of whale, three endangered and two threatened turtle species, one threatened and one endangered species of fish, and two threatened species of coral. Nine additional types of fish had been identified as "species of concern." Beyond that, dozens of bird species live around or migrate through the Gulf of Mexico; cruelly, the brown pelican just came off the threatened list last November.

The complete list of endangered marine life is available here, but these are five representative species.

1. Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus). The NOAA Fisheries Service lists five whale species as endangered in the Gulf, but some of these are theoretical at best: while blue whales can live in any ocean, only two sightings have ever been reported in the Gulf. Sperm whales, on the other hand, do live in the Gulf of Mexico; as of last fall, government scientists estimated the population at 1,665. Like the brown pelican, they had been in recovery, although the recovery was always fragile. Three human-related deaths a year would be enough to push them back into decline. They are among the deepest-diving mammals, they mostly eat squid, and they give birth once every three to six years (pregnancy takes 14-16 months). A sperm whale can live to be 70 years old.

2. Kemp's Ridley Turtle (Lepidochelys kempii). They are the smallest marine turtles, averaging about 100 pounds and about two feet across. The females nest in colonies called "arribadas;" by far the largest of them is a beach near Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. To escape predators, hatchlings must scramble to the water immediately, and let the currents carry them far out into the Gulf or even to the Atlantic Ocean. They eat crabs, fish, jellyfish and mollusks. The Kemp's Ridley Turtle is an example of a species that has simply collapsed, with the Rancho Nuevo colony declining from more than 42,000 in 1947 to as few as 200 in the early 1990s. The species had been starting to recover, with 7,866 nests counted in Rancho Nuevo in 2006.

3. Leatherback Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea). The largest marine turtle also makes its home in the Gulf of Mexico. Leatherbacks can grow to be almost seven feet long, and can weigh a ton. They live all over the world, and follow migration paths that span the globe. They prefer nesting areas that offer temperatures in the mid-80s, which makes the Gulf attractive; interestingly, higher temperatures produce larger populations of female hatchlings, while colder temperatures produce more males. No one really knows how long they can live — it's the stuff of legend — but scientists estimate that only one in 1,000 lives to adulthood. Unique in their diving abilities and their unusual non-shell carapaces, they are the last surviving relic of a family of reptiles that dates back 100 million years.

4. Smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata). Nature is amazing, and the Creator has a sense of humor. Sawfish belong to the same family as sharks, skates, and rays — they are most closely related to rays, with bodies that look more like sharks. The "saw" is a long, flat snout used to find and kill prey (mostly fish); they breathe through gills on their underside. Like other types of shark, they give birth to live young — that is, they carry their eggs inside until the eggs hatch, at which point the young emerge. They can grow to 25 feet in length, and live as long as 30 years; they reach maturity around the age of 10. Their habitat is shallow coastal waters and estuaries, and in the Gulf of Mexico, they live almost exclusively along the coastline of the Everglades. The mangrove forests protect young sawfish, and the development of these areas is a major factor in the sawfish's endangered status.

5. Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) used to be one of the most common species of coral in the Caribbean and the Florida Keys, but disease, bleaching, predation, climate change and human activity had killed as much as 95% of it by 2005. That year the National Marine Fisheries Service recognized it and staghorn coral, a related species, as endangered, and the species have been on the Endangered Species List since 2006. Healthy colonies grow very fast, but organized restoration efforts have had only mixed results. Elkhorn coral provides habitats for dozens of species, including lobsters and parrotfish.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Five People Who Celebrate Birthdays Today

I've said before, as a twin from a family of twins, that I'm skeptical about astrology. But when I heard that Tom Jones and Prince share a birthday today, I wondered. You could make an argument that these men share some things in common, and not just because they both do great versions of Prince's song "Kiss."

Today's New York Post — my primary source for all astrological information — offers this advice for people with today's birthday: "Try to see the good in every situation. Try to see that every event in this life has a purpose, even when it appears to be random. How you choose to look at the world is of huge importance. You make the world, not the other way round."

Wise words for any of us, and while I look for purpose in all things, I'm going to spend some time wondering what else these five people have in common.

1. Allen Iverson, b. 1975. A native of Hampton, VA, Iverson was known as "The Answer" even before he got to Georgetown, where he played for John Thompson from 1994–96. He left Georgetown after two seasons for the NBA draft, and played for the Philadelphia 76ers from 1996 to 2006. Since then he's spent two seasons with the Denver Nuggets, moved to the Detroit Pistons, played three games with the Memphis Grizzlies, and returned to the 76ers earlier this year before taking a leave of absence to deal with a "very serious issue" related to the health of his four-year-old daughter. A March article in the Sporting News reported that Iverson is struggling with alcohol and gambling problems as well as family difficulties.

2. Dave Navarro, b. 1967. Legendary rock guitarist whose bands have included Jane's Addiction, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Spirits in the Sky, and Camp Freddy; he's also played with Guns N' Roses and Nine Inch Nails. He used to be married to Carmen Electra, and his cousin Dan is one half of the folk-rock duo Lowen & Navarro. You can listen to his weekly Internet radio show, Dark Matter, here. The fact that he shares this birthday with Prince and Tom Jones does make me wonder whether something about June 7 makes people born on this date exceptionally cool.

3. Prince, b. 1958. Prince is 52 today, begging the question: how bad does AARP want him to be their spokesman? I can only imagine. Ten platinum albums, 30 Top-40 singles, seven Grammys, a Golden Globe, and an Academy Award (for the song "Purple Rain," 1985). Member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame since 2004, the first year he was eligible. He's one of the world's greatest live performers, and created the "Minneapolis sound," a distinctive funk-rock I think of as one of the defining sounds of the 1980s. He too once had a relationship with Carmen Electra. Hmm.

4. Louise Erdrich, b. 1954. The exception that proves the rule, or equally badass in her own field? Discuss. Louise Erdrich is the author or co-author of 13 novels for adults, five children's books, a collection of short stories, three collections of poetry, and three nonfiction books. An enrolled member of the Anishinaabe nation (also known as Ojibwe or Chippewa), she has won or been nominated for just about every major literary award available to American authors. She owns Birchbark Books, an independent bookstore, in Minneapolis, MN.

5. Tom Jones, b. 1940. Actually, that's Sir Tom Jones, OBE, to us; he was knighted in 2006. Born Thomas John Woodward in Trefforest, Wales, he married at 16 and became a father almost immediately. He and his wife, Linda, have been married more than 50 years, despite some well-publicized indiscretions; his son, Mark, has been Sir Tom's manager for almost 25 years. His music career started in earnest in 1963, and he won the Best New Artist Grammy in 1965. He was friends with Elvis; he's performed with everyone from Van Morrison to Wyclef Jean; he's had hit records for close to 50 years; and he's still touring. Friends who have seen him live say it's one of the best shows they've ever seen, and I hope I get a chance to see him myself one of these days.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Five Winning Spelling Bee Words

The Scripps Spelling Bee, held annually in Washington, DC, ends today. I mentioned earlier this week that I used to be a competitive speller, although I never made it past the city finals. One of my longest-owned possessions is a small stuffed dog that was a gift from my classmate Scott Casper, thanking me for helping him prepare for the national spelling bee in 1978 or 1979. He had beaten me when competed for rival schools, he beat me when we competed at Norfolk Academy, and he came very close to winning the whole thing.

I don't remember the word that defeated him, but here are five that have made champions over the Bee's 85-year history. Definitions are adapted from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

1. Gladiolus, 1925. Glad-ee-OH-lus, botany: any of numerous plants of the genus Gladiolus, native chiefly to tropical and southern Africa and having sword-shaped leaves and showy, variously colored, irregular flowers arranged in one-sided spikes; also anatomy, the large middle section of the sternum.

2. Crustaceology, 1955. This word doesn't even get a separate entry in the dictionary, but is pronounced kru-stay-see-OL-o-gee and I wish it meant "the study of Krusty the Klown," but it doesn't. It means the study of crustaceans, any of various predominantly aquatic arthropods of the class Crustacea, including lobsters, crabs, shrimps and barnacles. Crustaceans characteristically have segmented bodies, tough, semitransparent exoskeletons, and paired, joined limbs.

3. Smaragdine, 1961. Smuh-RAG-deen, of or relating to emeralds, or having the color of emeralds. No, I didn't know what this word meant, either. Probably because I don't own any emeralds.

4. Logorrhea, 1999. Law-guh-REE-uh, excess use of words. This is a handy word to know, and I encourage you to add it to your active vocabulary. It's one of those rare words that means exactly what it sounds like: diarrhea of the mouth. Or the pen.

5. Laodicean, 2009. Lay-ahd-ih-SEE-an, of or relating to the ancient Asia Minor city of Laodicea (present-day Western Turkey), but more commonly used to mean "indifferent or lukewarm, especially in matters of religion." Laodicea was an early center of Christianity; it is mentioned in Paul's letter to the Colossians, and is one of the seven churches addressed in the book of Revelations, where John scolded them for being "neither cold nor hot." Presumably, that's where this use of the word comes from. It is used as a proper adjective, always capitalized.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Five Cloud Terms

It's a rainy day here in central Maine, and the sky is somewhere between white and gray.

In Mrs. White's fifth-grade science class we learned about four types of clouds, but my perfunctory Internet research this morning suggests that cloud classification is more complicated than that. Nevertheless, here are the four types of clouds I learned in elementary school, and another word for something white you see in the sky.

My nephew Henry, who is not quite seven, takes a special interest in weather, so maybe he'll have something to add.

1. Cumulus. The puffy white clouds you see on sunny days. They form at a lower level than other clouds and can turn into storm-condition clouds, which are called cumulonimbus.

2. Nimbus. We learned this as a separate cloud type in fifth grade, but it appears to be an attribute of clouds, not a separate type. It means that the cloud brings precipitation, as in cumulonimbus or nimbostratus. (A related cool term is virga, precipitation that falls from a cloud but evaporates before it hits the ground.)

3. Stratus. "Stratus" means "layer," and these are the clouds that make a gray day. They can start at lower altitudes and go quite high, where they become altostratus and cirrostratus. Cirrostratus clouds carry ice crystals. They are relatively transparent, and give the sun and moon a halo effect. Today's clouds are nimbostratus, since they've brought rain.

4. Cirrus. Cirrus clouds form at high altitude and appear as wispy strands — the "mare's tail" or "mackerel sky" (which is actually formed by cirrocumulus clouds). Cirrus clouds look the way they do because of winds, and people who know about these things can tell a lot about the wind by the way cirrus clouds look and move. The sailor's rhyme goes, "Mare's tails and mackerel scales/Make tall ships carry low sails."

5. Contrail. Not clouds at all, but the condensed water vapor left by airplane exhaust; "contrail" is a portmanteau word made from "condensation trail." Still, they're pretty in a clear blue sky, and I always thought it would be fun to ride along with a skywriter sometime.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Five Essential Books for a Children's Library

My sister Peggy suggested today's blog topic. My nephews' school library has a "birthday book" donation program, which asks parents to donate a book in honor of their child's birthday, and shelves the book with a bookplate honoring the child. Last year my sister donated D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, because she thought it was a book all children's libraries should have. What other books are "must-haves" for a children's library? I've listed five below; leave your own suggestions in the comments.

1. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I've written about this book before. It changed my life, it changed the lives of several of my friends, and it is absolutely essential reading for curious girls between the ages of eight and 12. Harriet M. Welsch makes no apologies for her curiosity, but she learns that cold-hearted observation needs to come with a dose of compassion, and that being factually accurate isn't always the same as being right. It's a lesson I'm still learning.

2. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. I don't know why, but I didn't read this book as a child; I might have thought it was just a boys' book. My tutoring student and I read the book together a couple of years ago, and I fell in love with it as kids have since 1959. Appropriate for ages 9 and up, it's the story of a resourceful boy who runs away from New York City to the Catskill Mountains, and teaches himself how to live off the land. He's overwhelmed at first, and almost dies — but as he learns what the mountain offers, so do we. This book is not only a great story, but a beautifully-illustrated natural history primer.

3. Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes. Johnny Tremain is an apprentice silversmith in Boston whose bad attitude leads (indirectly) to a crippling accident. Forced to find new work, he winds up in a printing shop used by the Sons of Liberty, which gives him a front-row seat at the beginning of the American Revolution. For kids 10 and up, this is not only a painless and fascinating history lesson but also a deeply insightful emotional portrait of a boy discovering the man inside himself.

4. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. This world is not the only possible world, this time not the only possible time. It's easy for kids' worlds to become very narrow. Computers and television offer a window on the world, but also seem to have the paradoxical effect of making the whole wide world seem to be about nothing but the user. A Wrinkle in Time is the story of Meg Murry and her strange little brother Charles Wallace, who are swept across time and space into an unlikely quest to find their missing father. If science will save us, this book (for ages 9 and up) is a magical introduction.

5. The Oxford Atlas of the World. It costs 80 bucks, retail. I don't own it, mainly because I have no place to keep it, but I covet a lifestyle that would allow me to keep this book open on a reading table somewhere. Every library should, by the way, and kids' libraries most of all. I own other atlases, and have seen other atlases that are equally impressive (the National Geographic one is great), but this one shows not only the world as it is now but also as it was, with maps and diagrams that spell out the process of how it all got this way. Even now, I can't think of a more pleasant way to spend an afternoon than just leafing through an atlas.