Saturday, December 31, 2005


Who uses it: Filmmakers
What it means: The last shot of the day
How you can use it: On the last task of your day -- or your year

Last post of 2005. This would be the time for me to say something profound about the past year, or about my goals for next year, but I'll pass.

It's been a good year, if only because my friends and family and I are still alive and well at the end of it. I lost only one friend this year (my former colleague and mentor Alton Wingate). Only one pair of my friends got divorced, and one cousin got married. Several friends and relatives had babies, and several more will have babies next year. I made some new friends, saw some new places, read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies. I learned to ice skate. Thanks to everybody who visited the blog, even those of you looking for mail-order brides.

Chris, the Lechners, the Bragdons and I are headed Down East this afternoon, to see in the New Year at the Brooklin Inn. I'm not taking the computer with me (so there, Anna -- I can give it up any time I want to), so I won't post tomorrow until late in the day.

Everybody have fun tonight... everybody Wang Chung tonight. See you next year.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Sine die

Who uses it: Legislators
What it means: In Latin, "without a day." The adjournment of a legislature at the end of its term, with no date set to reconvene. Although the Latin pronunciation is "SIN-eh DEE-ay," on Capitol Hill, they say, "sigh-nee DIE."
How you can use it: When you're going away for a while.

This would have been a good term to save for my next vacation, but it popped into my head yesterday, so I'm using it now. Yesterday was a long, long driving day, but Chris, Dizzy and I made it back to Maine... where it's raining and generally gross out. So much for winter wonderland.

On the way out of D.C. yesterday, I sat behind a bus with a placard on the back: "The alcohol beverage licensees of Washington, D.C. urge you to DRINK & DRIVE RESPONSIBLY this holiday season." I was so flabbergasted, I took a picture (not digital, so I can't post it). Drink and drive responsibly? It sounds like an episode of "Jackass."

What I Read This Week

Nick Hornby, A Long Way Down. On New Year's Eve, four unhappy people meet on the roof of Toppers' House, a North London apartment tower notorious for attracting suicide jumpers. One is a disgraced former talk show host; one is the borderline-personality daughter of a junior minister; one is a failed rock-star wannabe; and one is the middle-aged mother of a profoundly disabled son. It's risky subject matter for a comic novel, but Hornby pulls it off, and answers the eternal question, "Why go on?" with a very satisfying, "Because."

Paul Hemphill, Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams. And then again... once upon a time, a troubled young man changed the face of popular music. The child of a broken home, he married a confrontational, ambitious woman who pushed and tormented him. In constant physical pain, he turned to a lethal combination of alcohol and pills, and his friends knew he was a walking dead man for months before he died. Forty years before it happened to Kurt Cobain, Hank Williams died in the back seat of a powder-blue Cadillac, somewhere in West Virginia. His recording career spanned only four years, but his songs are eternal: "Your Cheating Heart," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Jambalaya," and my own favorite, "I Saw the Light." This short, spare book is a fitting tribute to Williams and must-reading for any serious music fan.

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explains the Hidden Side of Everything. Why do drug dealers live with their mothers? What's the real reason for the drop in the crime rate? Do "Baby Einstein" tapes have any effect on children's success in school? Economist Steven D. Levitt answers these questions and more in a tremendously entertaining book.

Vendela Vida, ed., The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers. I was going to parcel out this collection of 23 interviews over a stretch of weeks -- read one, put the book down, read the next later -- but I kept reading, and before I knew it, I was finished. Conversations here include Jamaica Kincaid's memories of her first years at The New Yorker, Susan Straight's inside view of Riverside, and John Banville's existential despair over never writing as well as he wants to. The writers here talk less about how they write than about how they see and how they think, and it's as good as a seminar.

Thursday, December 29, 2005


Who uses it: Castle architects and practitioners of siege warfare
What it means: Small windows in a castle or fortification wall that allow defending archers or snipers to shoot at attackers. They're also called "arrow loops" or "arrow slits."
How you can use it: Don't you already?

I'd never thought about the source of the modern term "loophole," until I saw the word used in a description of a siege. If you'd asked me, I'd have speculated that the term originated from knot-tying. It makes more sense that it means an opening in a fortification.

The one thing I meant to do yesterday (other than work) was get my car washed, and then I completely forgot. I believe that the Mr. Wash off Logan Circle opens very early, so I'll take the car over there this morning. It's hard to get one's car washed in Maine in the winter, just when it most needs washing.

After that, I'll pack up Dizzy and head to Annapolis, where we're picking up Chris Bea for the weekend. Then it's on to Maine, and I hope to get home before 10:00 tonight.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Faraday cage

Who uses it: Physicists and electricians
What it means: An enclosed hollow space designed to block electromagnetic fields, where the electrical current goes around the outside of the space rather than through it.
How you can use it: When you can't get cell phone reception.

Thanks to Claire Bea for bringing this term to my attention; she mentioned last night that Metro trains are natural Faraday cages, which is why cell phones don't work there. (And thank goodness for that.) Automobiles are also crude Faraday cages, which is why they're relatively safe places to be in a thunderstorm.

Dizzy and I are back in Washington, and I've lost track of what day it is. Today I'll catch up on some work, call some friends, and reorient myself before heading to Maine tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Just friends

Who uses it: People looking to escape a romantic relationship
What it means: "I do not want to have a romantic relationship with you, but I like you and most of all I want you to think well of me. So can you please not ask me for anything more than I feel like giving you?"
How you can use it: I'm sure you can think of something.

I foolishly put a visit counter on this blog about three months ago. I knew it was a mistake at the time, and yet I feel helpless to take it off, or to keep myself from checking my stats a couple of times a day.

It's comforting, mostly. I see frequent visits from Montreal, Singapore, Hampton Roads, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Annapolis, Cambridge, and various points in Maine, and I know exactly who those people are. I feel protected and reassured that people are checking in on me, so I won't go a week before someone notices an unpleasant smell from my apartment and my dog yowling to be let out.

But sometimes I am baffled and disturbed by the search strings that bring people here. Because my blog has "Girl" in the title, people often come here looking for girls to meet, chat with, or otherwise get to know better. People have come here looking for information about everything from mountain climbing to Katie Holmes, and I guess that's flattering.

Today's term of art is the result of one of yesterday's search strings. Someone came to this site looking for an answer to "what a girl means by just friends." Therefore, today's posting is a public service to that anonymous searcher. Do not invest any more emotional energy in that girl who wants to be "just friends;" what she means is, "I am not romantically interested in you, but please don't make me feel guilty about this, and please don't hate me."

Don't take it hard, my anonymous friend; soul mates may be few and far between, but on a planet of six billion people, even one percent is more people than you'll meet in a lifetime. Better luck with the next girl.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Full nelson

Who uses it: Wrestlers
What it means: a hold in which one wrestler grabs his opponent from behind, under both arms, pushing the opponent's head down toward his chest. You can break someone's neck this way, if he turns his head wrong; don't try this at home.
How you can use it: When you're at someone's mercy.

Santa Claus was awfully good to me this year: I am now the proud owner of an iPod Shuffle. I love the randomness of it. I auto-filled it from my laptop's hard drive, set it to random play, and it gave me, in succession, Chet Baker's version of "My Buddy;" "Man of Constant Sorrow," from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack; and Nouvelle Vague's cover of "Guns of Brixton." Right now it's playing the Beach Boys' "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times." It's my own personal radio station, WECL.

Christmas falling on a Sunday has left me confused about where the federal holidays fall. I believe that today is the official holiday, but since I took yesterday off, I'm back to work today. Feel free to pester me, if you know how to reach me.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas

I'm taking the day off. See you tomorrow.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Three dog night

Who uses it: Alaskans and residents of the Yukon
What it means: A night so cold you have to sleep with all your dogs for warmth.
How you can use it: Not very often, in Virginia Beach

The term I was going to use today was "Siberian dilemma," which is a Russian military expression for deciding how you're going to die -- but Mom and my sister Kathy both protested that this would be inappropriate for the season.

It's as warm as Maine's late spring here in Virginia Beach -- the temperature may get to 60 today -- and Dizzy is amazed and grateful to see grass again.

I have some last-minute shopping to do, and most of this blog's readers will see me over the next couple of days, so I'll keep it short. If you're setting things out for Santa tonight, think about adding a little protein to the mix; all that sugar cannot be good for him.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Hopper spreader

Who uses it: Snowplow operators
What it means: The machine at the back of a snowplow that drops and spreads sand or salt
How you can use it: It's not too late to add to your Christmas list.

The snowplow guys had to throw a second layer of sand onto my parking lot, because the first layer froze under new ice. We're in Washington, DC this morning, and there's very little snow on the ground; Dizzy is thrilled to be able to trot along sidewalks without worrying about ice.

We're picking up my brother Ed this morning, and then stopping in Mechanicsville to pick up the Christmas roast beef from Peggy -- it's their contribution to the Christmas feast, but they don't want to worry about having to bring it down on Sunday. I hope I have room for it in my car... it can't exactly ride in the back seat with Dizzy.

Yesterday was a Book on Tape day, and here's What I Read this Week:

Simon Kernick, The Business of Dying. I was impressed with Simon's second book, The Murder Exchange, when I read it last February; that was a sharp, complex novel that told parallel stories of a thug on the run and a disillusioned but dogged police detective. The Business of Dying, his first, is nothing short of astonishing. It's a simpler plot, but a uniquely complex protagonist: Dennis Milne is a veteran police detective who is also a hit man. He tells himself he's only killing the scum of the earth, but then he's set up to kill three innocent men -- and there's a witness. He ought to run, but there's one last case he needs to solve and one last killer he needs to bring to justice. Now I have to read the sequel, A Good Day to Die, which came out earlier this year.

Bernd Heinrich, Winter World. Zoologist Bernd Heinrich is a gifted artist as well as a brilliant writer; all of his talents seem to come from his remarkable ability just to see what surrounds him, when most of us pay no attention. In this book, he turns his attention to the amazing range of adaptations animals have made in order to survive winter in cold climates. He writes about frogs that freeze solid, only to thaw and revive in spring; about beetles whose blood is a form of antifreeze; about flying squirrels, who forage by night and go into a kind of suspended animation by day; and about the tiny kinglet, a ball of fluff whose resilience inspired this book. It took me the better part of a week to read this book, because it felt like hanging out with someone I didn't want to say goodbye to.

Alexander McCall Smith, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate. McCall Smith's second Sunday Philosophy Club book is charming, but very slight; philosopher Isabel Dalhousie wrestles with the moral dilemmas of her own 40-something single life as she helps the recipient of a heart transplant identify his donor. As I said about the first book, if you like Isabel, you like the books, and I do -- but I don't know how long I'll stick with this series.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes. How did I get through childhood without ever reading this book? I listened to it on tape yesterday, and it was perfect company for a miserable drive -- wildly romantic, unapologetically ridiculous, rather shockingly colonial and racist by today's standards. If you don't know the story, you live under a rock: the orphan John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, grows up among the apes, teaches himself to read, and makes contact with a group of marooned humans that includes the beautiful Jane Porter and her father. Besides being a great adventure, this is also my very favorite sort of doomed love story. I'm thrilled to discover that several books in this series are available online through Project Gutenburg, so I'll keep reading.

Thursday, December 22, 2005


Who uses it: Realtors and RV sales personnel
What it means: People of a certain age who live in the northern half of the country, but travel south for the winter.
How you can use it: To describe your travel plans.

My friend Carla, in Singapore, reports that her family took a walk in the rainforest today, and that the temperature there is 26. That's not so much warmer than here, where the temperature is 7, except that she's measuring in Celsius degrees and I am measuring in Fahrenheit. In Celsius, our temperature is -13, which sounds pretty dramatic.

Anyway, Dizzy and I are headed south today, as far as Washington, D.C. My apartment is not as clean as I'd like it to be, and I did not finish two projects I wanted to complete before leaving, but that's how it goes. Fingers crossed that today's traffic won't be too miserable.

I leave you with an etiquette question to ponder. When Sir Paul McCartney got married, his wife became, by courtesy, "Lady McCartney." Now that Sir Elton John is married, does his husband get a comparable title? The expert I consulted -- indirectly, thanks to the good offices of Sue Schulz -- says that husbands of female knights (Dames of the British Empire) don't get called anything special, which seems unfair. Perhaps it's time to correct this, or just do away with the silliness of titles altogether.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


Who uses it: Meteorologists and modern pagans
What it means: Literally, "sun at a standstill;" the time, twice a year, when the Northern or Southern Hemisphere is farthest from the sun, and periods of sunlight are shortest or longest.
How you can use it: Greetings of the season.

As far as historians can tell, almost every civilization has had some celebration or recognition of the solstices, especially the winter one. It's the promise that winter won't last forever, that the sun will come back and life will return.

Anna and I wrapped presents at Barnes & Noble yesterday morning, and earned a whopping $34 for the Literacy Volunteers. As Anna's husband said last year, we might as well have dropped a couple of twenty-dollar bills into the jar and gone off to the movies. But the money wasn't the point (okay, not mostly the point) -- it was a nice thing to do for the community, and we got to chat with neighbors and give away a few pamphlets.

The wrapping table was next to the Periodicals section, which gave us plenty of conversation fodder while we weren't wrapping. Every special interest has its own magazine, and usually more than one. I couldn't resist paging through New Witch, and Anna seriously considered buying Faery for one of her nieces.

"Huh, it's a fashion spread," she said, looking at a photo layout in Faery.

"What faeries are wearing this season?" I asked.

"No, I think how to dress like a faery."

"How do they know?"

I have 24 hours to get everything on my list done before leaving for Virginia Beach tomorrow. Ho. Ho. Ho.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Subnivian zone

Who uses it: Biologists and naturalists
What it means: the area above the soil and below the top of a snowpack
How you can use it: When snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or trudging through the snow.

The snow has an icy crust that I stomp through, but Dizzy sort of skates on. He doesn't seem to mind; his feet splay out wide, and his claws give him a little bit of traction. The book I'm reading explains that foxes and coyotes (and other types of dogs, including Dizzy) bound through the snow instinctively, in an effort to find small mammals' nests in the subnivian zone. I don't know what Dizzy would do if he found a chipmunk or a vole, or (God forbid) one of those poisonous shrews.

Yesterday, with six days to go, I made the decision that I would not be sending Christmas cards this year. I feel bad about it, but the season's gotten away from me. I have too much to do between now and Thursday, when I hit the road. I'd hoped to include another photo of Dizzy in the snow, and I haven't been able to take a good one; he comes toward me whenever I put the camera to my face, to see what I'm doing. So no Christmas cards from me this year, and I apologize.

It's an odd ritual, though nice. I'm always glad to get photographs of my friends' children, and I like hearing from people I never hear from at any other time of year. But the cards that are not signed, or signed with something perfunctory that gives me no news, seem pointless. I got an e-mail from someone a week or two ago, asking for my address -- so this person could mail me a Christmas card that had no note, just "seasons' greetings" and a signature. I guess I appreciate the gesture, but what a weird expenditure of time; I'd rather have had fifteen minutes spent on a substantive e-mail, and they could have saved the expense of postage.

This morning Anna and I are wrapping presents as a fundraiser for Literacy Volunteers at the Augusta Barnes & Noble. If you're in the neighborhood, stop by.

Monday, December 19, 2005


Who uses it: Physicists and natural scientists
What it means: Maintaining a liquid state at temperatures below the expected freezing point. It's a very precarious state that can turn into freezing at any time.
How you can use it: All through the winter.

Since the solstice is coming up, and since I'm reading a great book full of these terms, I think I'll devote this week to words and phrases about winter.

Gardiner is still covered in ice, and it makes going for walks very tricky. Dizzy's favorite path, behind the paperboard factory, is a fairly steep downhill slope that's impossible in this weather. I tried to explain it to him, but he doesn't believe me. I'd take him across the street to demonstrate, but breaking a leg (for him or for me) would be extremely inconvenient at this time of year. As it is, I fell on my butt just getting out of the car on Saturday, and was only grateful that no one was outside to see it.

Happy birthday today to my dear friend Gary -- I would say he's one of my oldest friends, but that would imply that he is old, and of course he is not. But it is a great comfort to me that we have been friends for... shh... more than 25 years now, and will be friends for at least 50 more. Many happy returns of the day.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Magical realism

Who uses it: English professors, literary critics, and writers
What it means: A literary genre in which apparently impossible things seem quite normal; the classic example is Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.
How you can use it: When encountering wonder in your own life, or discussing Santa Claus.

My favorite news item of the week:
Santas Go on Rampage in New Zealand City

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) - A group of 40 people dressed in Santa Claus costumes, many of them drunk, rampaged through New Zealand's largest city, robbing stores and assaulting security guards, police said Sunday.

The rampage, dubbed ``Santarchy'' by local newspapers, began early Saturday afternoon when the men, wearing ill-fitting Santa costumes, threw beer bottles and urinated on cars from an Auckland overpass, said Auckland Central Police spokeswoman Noreen Hegarty.

She said the men then rushed through a central city park, overturning garbage containers, throwing bottles at passing cars and spraying graffiti on buildings.

One man climbed the mooring line of a cruise ship before being ordered down by the captain. Other Santas, objecting when the man was arrested, attacked security staff, Hegarty said.

The remaining Santas entered a downtown convenience store and carried off beer and soft drinks.

``They came in, said 'Merry Christmas' and then helped themselves,'' store owner Changa Manakynda said.

Alex Dyer, a spokesman for the group, said Santarchy was a worldwide movement designed to protest the commercialization of Christmas.

I don't condone theft or property destruction, but frankly I've been expecting Santa to lose it for some time now. People constantly demanding things of him, and never offering him anything in return except a few cookies... all that sugar... all that darkness, at this time of year... who wouldn't need a drink?

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Frazil ice

Who uses it: River navigators and hydrologists
What it means: needle-like structures or very thin, circular plates of ice that float on top of fast-moving water
How you can use it: To describe the Kennebec and the Cobbosseecontee, right now

Yesterday's snow turned to ice, and we lost power in the late afternoon. I'm not sure what caused the power outage, or how long it lasted, because Dizzy and I fled to the sanctuary of the Lechners', who had electricity, heat, food, beer, and a washing machine. Thanks, guys!

Today, in the sunshine, the ice on the trees is breathtakingly beautiful. It's all melting, because the temperature is up to 32 degrees, which feels tropical. Dizzy and I got home about an hour ago, and he's already passed out in a patch of sunlight. I may follow him in short order.

Friday, December 16, 2005


Who uses it: Primate researchers
What it means: The mature male leader of a gorilla troop
How you can use it: As a synonym for "alpha male."

Yes, I saw King Kong last night. And to steal my brother Ed's immortal comment on Gladiator, it kicked every ass I have.

At three hours and seven minutes, it's about 20 minutes too long, but it hardly matters. King Kong is everything we go to the movies for: romance, adventure, thrills, comedy, tragedy, gorgeous costumes, great scenery, awesome special effects. It may be the most thoroughly satisfying movie-going experience I've had since The Princess Bride.

It is also very, very scary. VERY. SCARY. Whatever you're afraid of, it's in this movie: giant reptiles, bats, spiders, huge bugs, big nameless water-suckers, human sacrifice, grotesque aging, unscrupulous movie producers. How this movie got a PG-13 rating is a mystery; it is intense and violent and -- did I say this? -- really scary, and not, not, NOT appropriate for children.

So of course, my friends and I sat behind a couple who had brought their little daughter -- a girl no older than five -- to this movie. What is wrong with people?

I'm editing a manuscript, covered a screenplay and am getting ready to write a big report this week, which didn't leave much time for pleasure reading... but here's

What I Read This Week

Lee Charles Kelley, Twas the Bite Before Christmas. I read this book because I never read books like this: the title's a pun, the detective is a dog trainer in a small Maine town, and dogs help solve the mystery. But guess what? This was charming, with a good mystery and entirely believable dogs. The main character is an ex-NYPD detective who's a little too condescending to his small-town Maine counterparts, and has one too many celebrity friends, but those are minor quibbles.

James Grippando, Got the Look. I haven't read any of the earlier books in this series, featuring Florida defense lawyer Jack Swyteck. Jack's a good character, and this book isn't a traditional legal thriller, because the fact that he's a lawyer makes little difference to the plot. Jack falls in love with a woman who turns out to be married, and she gets kidnapped, for reasons that turn out to be connected to her secret past. It's very well done, but I'm tired of women-in-peril thrillers, and I think I'll quit reading them for a while.

It's snowing hard. Dizzy and I met the Gardiner fire chief by the paperboard factory this morning; he asked whether I'd seen anyone camped out back there recently. I haven't, though I told him I'd seen smoke and an abandoned campsite in the summer. The problem, he told me, isn't that someone is squatting. It's that the fire plan for that building calls for fire-fighters to stay outside the factory; if the building catches fire, and if someone is living inside, they wouldn't know they needed to go in to save him.

Somehow, this sums up everything I love about Maine. They'll leave each other alone and they'll tolerate a lot of eccentricity, but they'll go to great lengths to help, when needed.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Jesse tree

Who uses it: Catholics
What it means: The Catholic answer to the Christmas tree, which is a pagan symbol -- an evergreen tree within a church, often decorated with white and gold ChristMon(TM) ornaments, representing symbols of our faith
How you can use it: To weigh in on this "holiday tree" nonsense.

I stopped in at my local pub last night to say hi to Heather and Frank, and hear the latest Gardiner buzz. The stereo was broken, so Heather had the television on -- tuned to Fox News, I am sorry to say, and to Bill O'Reilly, which made me even sorrier. Bill O'Reilly (may his shorts itch forever) was grilling two Catholic priests about why the American Catholic hierarchy had not weighed in on this silliness about what to call the Capitol Hill Christmas tree.

Father McBrien, from Notre Dame, was more polite than I would have been, but basically said that the Church had more important issues to deal with, especially at this time of year. Christmas trees aren't Catholic, or even Christian; they're pagan symbols we adapted to our own uses, like the feasts of Samhain (All Saints' Day) and Imbolc (Candlemas). Why should the bishops care what Congress wants to call its tree? Why should anyone?

The other, younger priest took the opposite view, and said that the bishops should care about what this means for the increasing secularization of our society. I think this is stretching it -- if I were a bishop, I'd have a harder time with football coaches invoking Jesus before big games than with the reluctance to put government money behind religious celebrations of any kind. This priest would be screaming loudly if Congress decided to sacrifice a white bull on the Capitol lawn, and that was part of the same religion that gave us the Christmas tree.

If I ruled the world, my first commandment would be, "Don't be an idiot." Yesterday, as I mentioned, I went to my young friend Grace's French-immersion school recital in Freeport. It was a very nice program, though about an hour too long (two hours is too long to ask small children to sit still, especially when instrumental music is involved). But the program, though it was held in a Unitarian church, made not one single mention of the holiday season. Children sang about the cold wind, the rain, and the seasons, but there was no mention of Christmas, Hanukkah, or even the New Year.

That's the kind of school this is -- its non-discrimination policy is so important that they printed it on the front page of the recital program -- and I respect that, but I feel sorry for four-year-olds who don't get to learn Christmas songs.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


Who uses it: Musicians
What it means: In vocal music, a line of melody or counterpoint above the tenor part; in instrumental music, the treble line, or the highest line of a harmony.
How you can use it: When taking the high road of an argument.

Something about this word really pleases me; the image in my mind is of something graceful flying above, lighting down occasionally. I'm listening to Handel's Messiah, which has some lovely examples of descant.

It's not the holiday season without the Messiah, and it wouldn't be Christmas without a Christmas pageant, so I'm heading down to Freeport this afternoon to see my four-year-old friend Grace play -- I think -- a cow. (I say "I think," because when I last talked to her, she didn't want to be a cow, and was holding out for the role of donkey. So we'll see.)

Mary Maschino, the Bragdons and I drove up to Waterville last night to see Capote. Somber, but brilliant, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is amazing. In the movie's key scene, Capote says to his childhood friend, Nelle Harper Lee (a classically beautiful Catherine Keener), "Perry [the killer Perry Smith] and I were born in the same house... and he walked out the back door, and I walked out the front." Capote's time with Perry Smith, researching In Cold Blood, forced him to confront the hollowness of his own soul -- the depths of his own monstrosity -- and he never recovered.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Who uses it: Hockey players
What it means: Hitting another player with the end of your stick. It's a major penalty.
How you can use it: When you're shoving something in someone's face that does not belong there.

As many things as I've ranted about in this space, I believe that I have yet to discuss the terrible, long-played-out fashion trend of low-rise jeans.

Approximately five percent of the population looks good in low-rise jeans, and these would all be people between the ages of 17 and 25, with body fat percentages under 10%. I'll allow for the occasional exception, such as Angelina Jolie or Tod Goldberg's wife Wendy, but these people are not actually human, they're hot aliens sent from some distant planet to make the rest of us feel bad.

For most of us, low-rise jeans expose portions of the anatomy that were never intended to see the light of day, especially in a climate like Maine's. A term of art I considered using today is "muffin top," which is the roll of fat that hangs over the waistband of most low-rise jeans.

Muffin-tops, at least, are only mildly offensive. What really upsets me about low-rise jeans is the rear-view counterpart, which we could politely call the buttocks cleft.

This is a body part that I never want to see on anyone, not even on the most secret crush objects of my aging heart. I particularly do not want to see this when I am standing in line at the post office, as I was yesterday.

To be fair, the man probably wasn't wearing real low-rise jeans. The low rise came about through his choice to wear the jeans' waistband below his gut, rather than above. (It's a choice all men must come to, apparently, unless they want to do the radical thing and buy clothes that actually fit them.)

But I stood in line behind this man for more than half an hour, as he and his wife mailed packages around the world, and the man talked -- about everything and nothing -- that entire time, to his wife, to Jerry the Postmaster, and to everyone else around, including me.

All I could think about, during that stretch of time, was keeping my eyes away from that stretch of skin -- hard to do, because he was leaning forward, with his elbows on the post office counter, turning his head toward whomever he was talking to. I looked at the stamp display; I looked at the ceiling. I looked at the row of post-office boxes along the wall, and I looked at the postmistress loading tubs of mail into the dumbwaiter, behind the counter. I tried not to look at the man immediately behind me in line, because he knew exactly what I was doing, and thought it was hilarious.

"You can get a whole education, right here in line," he said.

"About something," I said.

Had it gone on one minute longer, I'd have lost it; I'd have had to say, "Stop talking... and for God's sake, pull up your pants."

Fortunately, that didn't happen. The man's wife is someone I often see in Curves -- and if I couldn't go back to Curves, and I'd humiliated myself in the post office, that would be the end of my community life in Gardiner.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Catch an edge

Who uses it: Skiers
What it means: When the edge of a ski turns into the snow, causing the skier to bobble or fall.
How you can use it: When something disrupts your progress.

I'm not much of a skier. If I want to jeopardize life and limb in freezing temperatures, I can save a lot of money by just walking down the middle of Water Street. That said, I'm already planning a trip to Sugarloaf on January 28, to see Big Head Todd and the Monsters. I don't care if I have to go alone; I don't care if I'm the oldest person there. It's on my calendar in big red letters. If you want to come along, let me know.

Last night I made the trip to Auburn to see "The Ice Harvest," the movie based on my friend Scott Phillips' book. If you liked the book, you'll like the movie, although they changed the time setting from the 1970s to the present day, and they changed the ending (which was inevitable). Oliver Platt deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination, and steals every scene he's in. It's a movie people will love or hate, and since it does include rather grotesque violence, some very sick humor, projectile vomiting and lots of naked women, I'll be careful about who I recommend it to.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Scoville rating

Who uses it: Connoisseurs of hot peppers
What it means: The level of spiciness of a chili pepper. The Scoville rating is the degree of dilution with sugar water required to neutralize a pepper's heat. An ordinary bell pepper has a Scoville rating of zero, because it's not hot; certain types of habanero peppers may have Scoville ratings of 300,000.
How you can use it: To assess hotness in anything.

I don't eat a lot of hot sauce, but I highly recommend the stuff bottled and sold by my friend Randy White. You probably still have time to order some for Christmas.

I got home last night and booted up the computer to see the news of two very different celebrity deaths, Richard Pryor's and Eugene McCarthy's. My thought was the same in each case, though for very different reasons: "Wow, he was still alive?"

Both men made Americans pay attention to unpleasant truths they'd been ignoring for too long. And it's foolish to make predictions like this, but I wouldn't be surprised if Richard Pryor's impact on our society turns out to be a lot more profound, and longer-lasting, than Eugene McCarthy's. People remember what made them laugh much longer than they remember what made them frustrated.

Saturday, December 10, 2005


Who uses it: Mainers
What it means: "Yes."
How you can use it: Unless you grew up here, don't even try.

I used it yesterday, and I apologize, because it's become a terrible cliche of anything written in or about Maine. "Ayuh" is a uniquely Maine word, and if you've never heard it spoken, the spelling gives you very little sense of how it's actually pronounced. It's really only one syllable; the "a" is little more than an intake of breath, deep in the back of the throat, and the "yuh" is basically "yup" without the "p." I can't say it the way natives do.

Kate wound up cancelling her holiday party, which was too bad, but also a relief. If I'd fought the weather and made it down to Boston, and then the party had been cancelled, I'd have been really upset.

It's hard to say just how much snow we got, because it settled some overnight. I'm guessing about eight inches, because there's at least six on the ground now. It's beautiful. The cemetery seems bigger under the snow, somehow, and this morning I wished I had a digital camera; everything was black and white, except for a small strip of blue sky and pink clouds off to the east.

The roads are reasonably clear now, so I'll drive down to Freeport later, to meet the Lechners for some Christmas cheer at Gritty's.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Immaculate conception

Who uses it: Catholics
What it means: The creation of Mary, mother of Jesus, without original sin. Not to be confused with "virgin birth," which is Jesus's birth to Mary, though she had not "known man."
How you can use it: To describe something absolutely pure.

I should have used this phrase yesterday, since yesterday was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception -- and no, I'm ashamed to say, I didn't go to Mass. St. Joseph's no longer has a resident priest, and the Mass schedule's been drastically reduced, so I can never remember whether or when it still has weekday Masses.

This week I indulged myself by rereading two of my favorite books -- Lamb, by Christopher Moore, and Marjorie Morningstar, by Herman Wouk -- and I read Talking to the Ground, Douglas Preston's wonderful memoir of his family's 1992 horseback journey over the trail of the Navajo god Monster-Slayer. Talking to the Ground is a sort of companion volume to the equally fantastic Cities of Gold, which recounts Preston's horseback trip in the footsteps of Coronado; both are fascinating histories, as well as thoughtful descriptions of the modern West.

But let's get to the second half of last week's list, Best Books I Read in 2005.

Tod Goldberg, Simplify. Tod Goldberg writes present-tense narration well enough to prove my argument that most people should leave it alone. In this collection of short stories, he offers us a rogue's gallery of male narrators with damaged lives -- some self-inflicted, some just the luck of the draw. Some of them do terrible things, some of them see terrible things, and some of them even meet Jesus and Elvis -- but everyone's just trying to connect and stay alive.

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go. The best book I read this year, a deceptively simple story about the friendship of three people who are more and less than what they seem. Even when you think you've figured out what's going on, Ishiguro surprises you; this book is a mystery, a love story, science fiction, and true horror, but most of all, it's a meditation on what it means to be human.

Laura Lippman, To The Power of Three. I have the privilege of knowing an extraordinarily gifted 19-year-old girl -- that would be you, Claire -- and I remember, myself, how intense, important, and permanent everything felt at that age. For those of you who didn't go through that -- or those of you who've forgotten what it was like -- Laura Lippman wrote this book, ostensibly about a school shooting but really about the passionate intensity of brilliant adolescents.

George Pelecanos, Hard Revolution. I should have read this last year, when it came out, but I didn't; it's okay, though, because this is a book that people should still be reading 25, 50, even 100 years from now. Pelecanos has used the format of the crime novel to give us a cultural history of Washington, D.C., in the same way Walter Mosley's done for Los Angeles. This book stretches the decade from 1959 to 1968, using one family's history to explore the reasons for the riots that almost destroyed our nation's capital. This year's Drama City was excellent, too, but I think Hard Revolution will stand as Pelecanos' masterpiece.

Jess Walter, Citizen Vince. A small-time scam artist relocates to Spokane under the Witness Protection Plan, and can't figure out who he is; the 1980 Presidential election gives him questions to ask that will help him define his new self, if his old associates let him live that long. Citizen Vince is another book that uses the structure of the crime novel to say big things about identity and the political process.

Today I'm taking the bus to Boston, despite the snow we're expecting. If any brave souls make it out to Kate's tonight, I'll see you there.

Update 10:00 a.m....

All right, so much for my bravado. Three people at Hannaford this morning told me I was nuts to think about driving down to Portland in this, much less to Boston. "First storm of the season, everybody gets a little crazy," said the man who bagged my groceries. "It snowed over Thanksgiving," I protested. "Ayuh," he said, "but that was soft. That wasn't a storm. This is a storm."

If it eases up between now and, say, 2:00 this afternoon, I might reconsider, but for now I'm staying in. Dang it. As I said to Jen, there are worse fates than being snowed in with a tin of gingerbread cookies... but not for them. BWAAA ha ha ha ha ha...

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Paradoxical undressing

Who uses it: Emergency medical technicians and doctors
What it means: The final stage of hypothermia, when victims become convinced that they're burning up, and take their clothes off. It happens most frequently in people who have been drinking, and is one reason that police often think urban hypothermia victims have been sexually assaulted.
How you can use it: When it's cold outside, baby.

The thermometer in front of my neighbor's apartment reads 24 degrees, which is really not so cold, especially compared to the 9 degrees it was last night. It feels even warmer in the sunlight. I forget what a shock it is, to people who aren't used to it; Ashton had to buy long underwear before Saturday night's pub crawl.

Dizzy seems not to notice it at all, unless it's wet, or the wind is blowing. The heat bothers him a lot more.

The temperature rarely drops below freezing in Tidewater Virginia, where I grew up, but I've always been fascinated with stories of extreme cold. A group of survivors from the wreck of the Endurance spent 17 days rowing the Antarctic seas in the James Caird, a 22 1/2" lifeboat. It was April and May, late in the Antarctic fall, and no one slept for 17 days -- but every one of them survived.

I look at the chilblain on my right index finger, and think that people must have been a lot tougher back then.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


Who uses it: Geologists, geographers, and rock climbers
What it means: A slope formed by a rock fall, or other debris
How you can use it: To describe the aftermath of an avalanche, among other things.

Dizzy had such a good time baking cookies at the Lechners' yesterday that he is still sleeping. For myself, I have some catching up to do, and I feel a little frantic. I missed a meeting at Gaslight on Monday night because I simply forgot about it -- it was even on my calendar, but I hadn't checked my calendar, and I was convinced the meeting was next Monday, not this one. Sigh.

I blame the shortness of the days. Today we'll have exactly nine hours of daylight -- sunrise was at 7:00 a.m., sunset will be at 4:00 p.m. It does strange things to my sense of time. And we're still two weeks away from the shortest day of the year.

Happy anniversary to Anna and Tarren Bragdon, who still act like newlyweds.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


Who uses it: Sleep physicians
What it means: Any of a range of sleep disorders that include the inability to fall asleep, midnight wakefulness, or waking up too early.
How you can use it: To describe your own sleep problems.

I'm prepared to admit that it's a strange and wonderful world we live in. I also know that people can do some strange things when they're asleep. I have been known to talk in my sleep and even, on rare occasion, to sleepwalk, and I once saw my mother set the kitchen up for breakfast in her sleep.

But this, ladies and gentlemen, is baloney.
Toronto, Dec. 4 (Reuters): Ontario plans to review a court decision that acquitted a man of sexual assault charges because he suffers from “sexsomnia” and was asleep at the time of the incident.

Luedecke, 33, has been acquitted of sexual assault charges because he said he was asleep during the attack. A sleep expert testified that Luedecke suffers from a disorder that causes sexsomnia — involuntary sexual behaviour during sleep — which he had experienced before.

The office of the attorney-general, which oversees the province’s prosecutions, said it needs to research its options for an appeal because of the strange circumstances of the case.

What this article does not mention is that Luedecke managed to find, unwrap, and put on a condom -- and then go into another room where the victim of the assault was sleeping -- all, allegedly, in his sleep. Right.

Anna, Jen and I are baking Christmas cookies this morning. I'm making little gingerbread corpses to take to Kate's holiday party on Friday.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Chelation therapy

Who uses it: Quack medical practitioners
What it means: Injections of EDTA, a chemical compound that binds with heavy metals in the bloodstream and supposedly cures a wide range of ailments, particularly arteriosclerosis. "Chelation" refers to the chemical process of binding with metallic ions.
How you can use it: To discuss criminally ineffective medical promises.

One of my ongoing projects includes responding to the e-mail that comes into my client's web site. Before I took this on, I didn't understand just how vast the world of spam is, and most of this spam (thank goodness) isn't even X-rated. It has to be effective, at some level, or people wouldn't bother, right? How many ignorant, fearful, lonely people have to order Cialis online to make a spam mailing profitable?

For the record, chelation therapy is effective against heavy metal poisoning -- overdoses of iron, lead and mercury -- but that is all. If you suspect that you have arterial disease and your doctor says you need bypass surgery, listen to him, get the surgery, and join a gym.

Ashton and I were having brunch at the Porthole yesterday, on the Wharf in Portland, when CNN reported that scientists had found high consumption of coffee and tea can minimize the liver damage done by high consumption of alcohol. Both of us on our fourth cups of coffee, we cracked up. "Thank God," he said.

Happy, happy birthday today to Ashton, who becomes even more handsome with each passing year, and needs no medical intervention to be so.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

7-10 split

Who uses it: Bowlers
What it means: Knocking down every bowling pin except the two at either end of the back row, at positions 7 and 10 of the pin pyramid. It's the hardest combination of pins to knock down.
How you can use it: To describe an especially tricky job.

Candlepin bowling, which is what we have here at the Lucky Strike in Gardiner (and throughout most of New England), is more like skeeball than like "real" bowling. I'm no good at it, though I did manage to beat Ashton in one game out of five last night.

We started our tour of Gardiner's night life at The Depot, a bar across the street from Gardiner Landing, and then played five games of candlepins at the Lucky Strike. Next stop was the Tilbury Tavern, where a cover band (Smoked Salmon) played classic rock, including an impressive version of the Allman Brothers' "Melissa," which you don't hear every day. From there we went to Kennebec Billiards, and Ashton beat me at pool -- though by that point, neither of us was exhibiting particularly good hand-eye coordination.

We ended the night at the Kennebec Brewing Company, and were home by 1:00 a.m. A rocking good time on the streets of Gardiner, and a round-trip (on foot, of course) of no more than two miles.

Today we may go to the Kennebec Ice Arena, because Ashton wants to try skating... and then we'll head back to Portland, mostly so he can catch his plane, but also because at that point we really will have done just about everything there is to do in Gardiner.

Saturday, December 03, 2005


Who uses it: Urban hipsters (yeah, like me)
What it means: A derisive comment -- apparently, the word is a contraction for "snide remark."
How to use it: To describe my usual running commentary.

I didn't think of this as a Term of Art, but Anna hadn't heard it before. "Maybe it's a big city thing," she said. I used it yesterday afternoon:

"It's fashionable to snark on Starbucks, but I like it," I said to her, as we carried our coffees out of a Starbucks on Exchange Street in Portland. "They provide a public service."

"How so?" Anna asked.

"They're gathering places," I said. "They're nice places where you can just sit and read a paper and listen to good music."

That said, the Old Port has a better coffeehouse right down the street from that Starbucks -- JavaNet, an Internet cafe that has a much warmer, friendlier atmosphere and a far better selection of newspapers. But JavaNet is a place to hang out for half an hour or more, and Anna and I were in a hurry to pick up Ashton.

"How long has it been since you had a slumber party for your birthday?" Anna asked Ashton, because Dizzy and I spent the night at the Bragdons' too. Tonight they're off to the Black Point Inn, to celebrate their wedding anniversary, and Ashton will come to Gardiner with me. Tonight I think we'll do the Gardiner Pub Crawl, which I had put off doing until I had company. (Yes, Gardiner has enough night spots for a pub crawl... I'll report back tomorrow.)

Friday, December 02, 2005

Pan and scan

Who uses it: Film editors and video technicians
What it means: The process of adapting a film image to television. The aspect ratio (width/height of an image) of films is different from television; therefore, to show a film on television, producers have to letter-box it -- which leaves the black strips at the top and bottom of the screen -- or "pan and scan," which is cropping each frame of film to show the TV viewer whatever the editor thinks is the key image.
How you can use it: When you're giving someone highlights, but not the whole picture.

I did finish two books this week, but I also started and rejected three novels that were simply dreadful. One of them was a debut legal thriller that read like "Law & Order" fanfiction; one was a shameless, second-rate Janet Evanovich ripoff; and one, the most disappointing of all, was a gift from someone whose literary taste I'd never have questioned, an embarrassingly clumsy Irish imitation of James Patterson. All I can think, in that last case, is that the author must be a friend of the person who gave it to me -- or that the author had presented this person with a copy, and it was so radioactively bad he had to hand it off to his first unsuspecting pal.

So I'll do something different this week. It's the time of year when people post their "Best of" lists, and I've already submitted a couple for different purposes -- on The Mystery Bookstore's website you'll find a list of my favorite crime novels published in 2005, and Tod Goldberg's compiling a list of best books of 2005 that will probably include a contribution from me.

But several of the best books I read this year weren't published this year, so I'm putting up my own list of Best Books I Read in 2005. Contrary to what you might expect, it's not all crime fiction; in fact, I'd say that what these books have in common is that they all defy simple genre classification.

Here are the first five, in alphabetical order; I'll post the second half of the list next Friday.

Kate Atkinson, Case Histories. Atkinson uses the structure of a private-eye novel to look at the subject that interests her most, which is the vast spectrum of family dynamics.

Edward Conlon, Blue Blood. All the things that make Eddie Conlon a great cop and a great writer boil down to two lines of this memoir: "We all have our vocations, and we all have our mysteries. Not all of us find religion over the wandering years, but sooner or later, everybody gets to meet God."

John Connolly, The Black Angel. The byzantine plot of this novel, which leads from New York to Juarez to the battlefields of France and the medieval graveyards of the Czech Republic, is a vast canvas for Charlie Parker's flight from redemption, which he can't bring himself to ask for.

Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One. Someone said they weren't sure what they'd get out of this book if they didn't already know a lot about Bob Dylan's life, and that's valid. Chronicles assumes you already know a lot about Dylan's public persona, but it's part of what makes the book such a gift.

Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own. For years during the 1990s, I traveled with a beaten-up copy of Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain. This book, which compares and contrasts Merton's work with that of Dorothy Day, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy, may become my new travel companion.

Thursday, December 01, 2005


Who uses it: Conservative Republicans
What it means: A moderate-to-liberal Republican; the word is an acronym for Republican in Name Only.
How you can you it: To identify yourself if you want to sit next to me at a party.

Thanks to Anna and Tarren Bragdon for this Term of Art, which they use frequently.

Many years ago, when I was still an attractive young woman who went out on dates, I used to say that I preferred to date Republicans: they tended to have better senses of humor, they were generally better-educated, and they expected to pick up the check.

But that was back when the Republicans seemed to be a permanent minority on Capitol Hill, and their humor was the gleeful irony of people who knew that no one was paying any serious attention. Once they took charge, all that good humor and joie de vivre flew out the window. I haven't lived in D.C. in six years, so I don't know whether the Democrats inherited it, but I'm guessing not yet.

Family members have chimed in with additional information on some recent posts. My mom explained the origin of "skein," which refers not to yarn but to the threads exuded by a spider, which make up a web, which is Variety's outdated slang for "TV network." Events have overtaken the use of "web" to refer to a TV network, but "skein" persists, as something that makes up the network.

My brother James, checking in from Japan, reports that dairy products are not the only western staples he has trouble finding there. "Another thing they don't have is sandwich bread," he writes. "Can't find it anywhere! The commissary will get it shipped in and it will sell out in less than an hour. Strange, how do they raise their children without PB&J sandwiches and milk?"

In (possibly) related news, I saw a news item yesterday about the raging epidemic of diabetes in Asia, as a result of their adopting so much of the Western diet...