Saturday, December 30, 2006

What are you doing New Year's Eve?

Who's asking: Johnny Mathis

Okay, so he's not asking me personally. Nevertheless, my answer is: As little as possible, unless Mr. Mathis wants to send a private jet for me.

Back in Gardiner after a 12-hour drive yesterday -- not too bad, except for a multi-car accident on I-84 that made the endless drive through Connecticut even longer. Dizzy was a trouper.

I'm posting this from the Gardiner Public Library, because it turns out that Capitol Computers is closed on Saturdays. Getting there this morning was the point of driving back yesterday... the moral of that story is, always call first.

Still, I'm glad to be home again. I've been unusually burdensome on friends and family over this holiday season, and I apologize -- and say thank you, never enough, for putting up with me.

Unless I can borrow a computer from one of my long-suffering friends, I'm offline until Tuesday. Happy new year.

Friday, December 29, 2006

What is a good answer to a girl who asks, "Why do you love me?"

Who's asking: An anonymous searcher from North America who reached this blog by putting this question on

First of all, I have to say how discouraged I am by the fact that the vast majority of people who've landed here through search engines lately have been looking for photos of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton without their underwear. Get over it, people; you have my sorrow and my pity.

Today's questioner has my curiosity. Why does he love this unknown girl? Why does he need a computer program to help him explain his feelings?

The only correct, truthful and safe answer to this question is, "I just do." If you want to elaborate, you can say, "You fill me with wonder, and I'm happy in your presence. Doing something with you automatically makes it more fun and more interesting."

It's okay to describe attributes about this girl that you consider especially lovable, but be very careful about this. Do not say that you love her because she's beautiful, or because she's hot; one day she might not be beautiful anymore, and will you still love her then? The last thing you want is a conversation that continues, "Would you still love me if..." That can only end badly.

If this seems vague and unsatisfactory, think about it from the opposite side. What would you say to someone who asked, "Why don't you love me?" You wouldn't even think about answering that question, except to say, "I just don't. I'm sorry."

Because love, in the end, doesn't need a reason. That's the point of it.

What I Read These Weeks (special two-week edition)

Michael Crichton, Next. Not a novel, as much as a series of fictional case histories that illustrate the potential dangers of commercially-exploited genetic research. Interesting for the scientific information, but tedious as fiction.

Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies. Kevin Wignall recommended this as one of the best things he'd read this year, so I finally picked it up. It's a bitterly funny novel about the Bright Young Things of the late 1930s, who believe in nothing but can't help hoping for something real. I should have read Decline and Fall first, and now have to go back to place the book in its proper context.

Christopher Moore, You Suck: A Love Story. Moore wrote this book for fans who'd been begging for a sequel to Bloodsucking Fiends, his San Francisco vampire comedy. New vampires Tommy and Jody must figure out how to feed themselves while on the run from a couple of homicide detectives, Tommy's former supermarket co-workers, and a blue Las Vegas call girl who's decided that she'd like to be a vampire, too. They recruit a Goth teenager to help them, and Abby Normal (that's what she calls herself) is a most welcome addition to Moore's fictional universe. The book's ending demands another sequel, so AuthorGuy, we're already waiting -- even though You Suck isn't on bookstore shelves for another week or two.

Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle. This memoir of a seriously dysfunctional childhood was fascinating while I read it; Walls' alcoholic father and apparently borderline mother took their four children all over the country, on the run from creditors and looking for the next big opportunity. It's remarkable that Walls and her siblings managed to survive and triumph over their childhood of neglect and near-starvation, but I finished this book with the flat, slightly queasy sense of voyeurism I often get from memoirs.

Dizzy and I are headed back to Maine today. First stop tomorrow morning is Capitol Computers, to see what they can do about my laptop. Unless they can give me a loaner, I may be offline altogether until Tuesday. If you need to reach me, do it the old-fashioned way.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Should President Ford have pardoned Richard Nixon?

Who's asking: Ashton LeBourgeois, Washington, DC


Gerald Ford packed an extraordinary amount of history into a term of fewer than 1,000 days. In the wake of Watergate, he navigated the country out of Vietnam, created an amnesty program for draft dodgers, laid the foundation for rescuing the nation from the worst economic slump in 40 years, appointed the first woman Cabinet Secretary since the 1940s, and maintained the uneasy balance of the Cold War even as we showed ourselves to be weaker than we'd claimed.

None of those things would have been possible if the nation had been focused on the trial and conviction of our former President. The rest of the world would have seen a nation humiliated and in chaos; our own citizens' heartsickness would have festered; and the worst partisan divides would have become irreparable. We'd have risked anarchy.

Knowing it would be an unpopular decision, Gerald Ford did what he thought was best for the country, and I think history has justified him.

In asking this question, Ashton said it was the "wrong decision for the right reasons," and argued that Richard Nixon should have been held accountable for his crimes, just to prove that we are a country of laws rather than men. It was fundamentally unfair, Ashton said, that Nixon escaped legal retribution.

It's hard to disagree with that, but Nixon's eventual conviction was no sure thing. Conspiracy is one of the hardest of all crimes to prove, and Nixon was careful. If the nation had endured a year-long trial that ended in acquittal, what would have happened then?

No, Gerald Ford made the right decision. I saw an article yesterday that quoted Henry Kissinger as saying that modern politicians want to be stars; Gerald Ford wanted to be a hero. In the end, he was.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

We interrupt this blog...

To report yet another computer-related emergency. A drink got dumped into my keyboard last night (accidentally, and not by me), and the computer is no longer working at all. I'm posting this on a borrowed Apple laptop, and taking my own machine somewhere this morning to see whether anything can be done for it. If I am slow in responding to e-mails, or miss a few days on the blog, this is why. Sorry.

The moral of this story is to be careful about what you ask Santa for. I asked Santa for a vacation, and I suspect that this is his way of forcing one on me. Nevertheless, when I said "vacation," I meant some place with sandy beaches and green lawns and drinks at poolside. I have a large manuscript and three research books I can work on today without needing a computer. So there, fat man.

All the same, I might go to the movies this afternoon.

This morning's news about President Ford is not a surprise, but it's sad all the same. One of my projects this year confirmed my childhood impression: he was an honest and honorable man asked to do an impossible job, and he never got the gratitude he deserved.

Instead of five random songs today, here are my five favorite CDs of 2006. I don't buy a lot of new music, and don't pretend to have my finger on the pulse of the music world -- I just liked these a lot.

Roseanne Cash, Black Cadillac. This CD came out the week Mom died, and Jen Lechner gave me a copy that I have been listening to ever since. Words can't express how much I love this album.

Belle & Sebastian, The Life Pursuit. Fine, call them precious. Call them twee. I love this record, folk-pop for smart people.

The Pernice Brothers, Live a Little. Joe Pernice combines tragic lyrics and happy tunes better than almost anyone.

Madeline Peyroux, Half the Perfect World. She sounds like Billie Holiday; she sounds like Diana Krall; she sounds like no one but herself. Her covers of "River" and "Smile" are brilliant, and she makes "The Heart of Saturday Night" her own.

Scissor Sisters, Ta-Dah. Nothing but a good time, the perfect record to brighten a gloomy day.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Where are the seeds on a pineapple?

Who's asking: Henry Lavinder, Mechanicsville, VA

Henry was eating a tangerine the other morning and complaining about the number of seeds in it. We discussed the fact that tangerines grow, and that every plant that grows has seeds.

The next morning he said, out of nowhere, "Pineapples grow."

"That's right," I said.

"But pineapples don't have seeds," he said. I'm not sure how he knows this; we weren't eating pineapple at the time, and Peggy says they don't eat a lot of pineapple.

"You're right," I said. "I will investigate."

It turns out that pineapples do have seeds, but they appear on the flowers, which we never see. It's hard to grow a pineapple from seeds; farmers usually sprout new plants from slips and suckers, and sprouting a plant from a pineapple crown is a time-honored elementary school science project.

Pineapples themselves are not a single fruit. Botanically, each pineapple is a cluster of fruits that grow and merge together around the fibrous core, which is actually a stem/stalk.

The pineapple is the American colonial symbol of hospitality, because they were so rare and expensive that a host who put out a pineapple for his guests was really giving them his best. Yesterday's Christmas celebration at the Lavinders upheld all standards of Southern hospitality, and it was a wonderful day. Pictures are on their blog, here.

Dizzy and I start the journey north this afternoon, and will make it as far as Washington, D.C. tonight.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

What do you want for Christmas?

Who's asking: Santa Claus, North Pole

Same things I want every day.

Wishing you all the beverages and redemption of your choice, on Christmas Day and throughout the year.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

What are the words to the joke version of "Jingle Bells"?

Who's asking: Therese Schulz, Herrsching, Germany

Some traditions need to be preserved and shared across cultures.

Jingle bells, Batman smells,
Robin laid an egg
Batmobile lost its wheel
And Joker got away!

No, it doesn't make any sense. But neither does "one-horse open sleigh," in today's environment.

The other silly carol that always comes to mind at this time of year is:

We three kings of Orient are
Tried to smoke a rubber cigar
It was loaded, it exploded
Now we're on yonder star...

What other wacky carol lyrics do you remember? Post them in the comments section below, and pass me that eggnog...

Friday, December 22, 2006

What's your favorite Beatles song?

Who's asking: John Schramm, California

This is like asking for my favorite flavor of ice cream -- why do I have to choose just one? (If I do, it's fudge ripple. But sometimes strawberry. And rum raisin is good, too.)

So if I had to pick only one, it would be "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," a George Harrison composition on Help. It combines all the tuneful cheer of classic Beatles pop with heartwrenching adolescent angst ("Gather round, all you clowns/Let me hear you say/'Hey, you've got to hide your love away'"). Favorite Lennon/McCartney composition: "A Day in the Life," a whole life in one song. Favorite Beatles album: Revolver, which was every bit as revolutionary as Sgt. Pepper.

Important correction, posted 12/28/06: "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" is, in fact, a Lennon/McCartney composition, written by John Lennon but credited to both songwriters. I am mortified. Thanks to Scott Phillips for the correction -- this is what I get for writing about music when I'm away from my CD collection.

What's your favorite? Leave it below.

Best Things I Read in 2006 (Part Two):

Robert Greenfield, Timothy Leary: A Biography. Greenfield accomplishes the near-impossible here, making a compelling book from the life of a genuinely rotten human being. Essential cultural history.

Robert Littell, Legends. Retired spy Martin Odum can no longer remember which of his undercover identities is the "real one." Legends digs deep into the question of identity, and was so gripping I lost a night's sleep over it.

Christopher Moore, A Dirty Job. The right book at the right time for me; the story of beta male Charlie Asher, who finds himself an instrument of doom in the wake of his own wife's death. Hilarious, sad and deeply compassionate.

Mary Roach, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Another book I read at exactly the right time. Roach follows her fascinating Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers with this look at scientific research into heaven, reincarnation, spiritualism and more. Spook manages to be both respectful and funny, and left me feeling optimistic.

Anne Tyler, The Amateur Marriage. Anne Tyler is our generation's Edith Wharton. She covers most of the 20th century in this story of Michael and Pauline's troubled marriage. This is the book that I wanted Alice McDermott's After This to be.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

What is winter?

Who's asking: Henry Lavinder, Mechanicsville, VA

Henry is three. They haven't really gotten to seasons of the year in his preschool yet, although he knows all about fall.

Winter is the coldest, darkest time of year, except along the equator. In the Northern Hemisphere, winter begins on December 21, the winter solstice. The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year; in Gardiner today, the sun rose at 7:11 a.m. and will set at 4:02 this afternoon.

Here outside Richmond, where I am today, the day's a little longer: sunrise at 7:20, sunset at 4:54.

My original plan had been to run up to Washington today, but I don't think I will. I am fighting off yet another cold, and really don't want to be sick for Christmas. "We all have snotty noses," Henry said yesterday, and that includes me.

I, at least, have mastered the art of blowing my nose.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

What language does Pingu speak?

Who's asking: Henry and Matthew Lavinder, Mechanicsville, VA

For those of you who don't hang out with very young children, Pingu is a Claymation penguin that lives at the South Pole with his mother, father and brother (mysteriously, a puffin) in a geographically inaccurate igloo.

Pingu and his pals are the subject of a series of rather entertaining kids' TV programs that originated in Switzerland about 20 years ago, were hugely popular in England, and have only recently made it to the United States. My younger nephews love Pingu, and my sister Peggy likes the shows because they're very short, so she can enforce limits on their TV-watching time.

Anyway, Pingu and his friends speak a language that sounds real, but isn't. It's "'penguinese' -- an expressive penguin language which is very appealing and easy to understand." according to the official Pingu news page. Pingu's gibberish is kind of soothing; it's like visiting a foreign country where you don't speak the language, and must therefore rely on tones of voice and nonverbal cues to communicate.

Instead of five random songs today, here are the five songs in my iTunes library that have "Christmas" in the title:

"Christmas," The Who. From Tommy, who doesn't know what day it is.

"Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis," Tom Waits. Tom Waits once told an interviewer that this was his most autobiographical song. It was a joke, of course, but jokes always hide a deeper truth.

"Christmas Day," Jim White. Not everyone has a home to go to on Christmas; the narrator of this song is in a Greyhound bus station.

"Christmas in Prison," John Prine. I love this song, and not just because it steals my all-time favorite melody, "Believe Me if All Those Endearing Young Charms." How can you not love a waltz that begins, "It was Christmas in prison, and the food was real good/We had turkey and pistols carved out of wood"?

"Christmas Morning," Lyle Lovett. Another beautiful, sad waltz about alienation and loneliness. Hmm. A theme may be emerging here.

And although it doesn't have the word in the title, I'll add Kirsty MacColl's immortal "The One and Only." Funny, this one is also a waltz:

Some lives read like a postcard,
And some lives read like a book
I'll be happy if mine
Doesn't read like the joke
From an old Christmas cracker...

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Is it OK to turn verbs into nouns?

Who's asking: Steven Dean, Mechanicsville, VA

Steve asks, "What's your stance on the 'verbification' of nouns? Also, what's your stance on putting quotes around non-words to make them words?"

Since I admitted yesterday that I have no formal advanced education in English, I'm not sure I want to venture an opinion on this -- I know of at least two professional copy editors who visit this site on a regular basis, and invite them to leave comments below.

That said, the great strength of English is its ability to grow, change and assimilate other languages. We've already talked here about the emergence of "Google" as a verb. According to one reference I found, approximately 1/3 of English verbs began as nouns. Steve himself gave the example of using the word "gift" as a verb, which is perfectly acceptable as a short version of "make a gift of." (In that case, though, the simple "give" is probably a better choice, or "present" if you want to make it clear that it's something more formal.)

The overriding rule of language is clarity. If I say "I Googled her," you know exactly what I mean, and I've only used three words; it's much easier than saying, "I investigated her, using the online search engine Google." (The people at Yahoo, and Dogpile must gnash their teeth every time they hear "Google" as a verb.)

If a good word already exists to describe an action, turning a noun into a verb is unnecessary, and I'd change it in a text I was editing. Particularly in business English, you should never ask your reader to work any harder than necessary. Nothing stops a train of thought faster than the question, "What does that mean?"

And as for your question about quotation marks, I think it's fine to use them in writing to set off deliberate errors; just don't make that "air quotes" gesture with your hands, or I will send you to Tod Goldberg to have your knuckles clipped.

Monday, December 18, 2006

What are five things people don't know about you?

Who's asking: Tom Ehrenfeld, Cambridge, MA, who has tagged me with this meme

How am I supposed to answer this question? Who are the "people" who supposedly don't know these things? I am far more secretive than anyone suspects, and I'll be damned if I drop any of those secrets here.

However, these are five things that would surprise most people I'm not related to:

1. I never took a college-level English class. I placed out of the two semesters required by the School of Foreign Service, and spent my electives on foreign languages instead.

2. I do an excellent elephant imitation, and will gladly perform on request even when I haven't been drinking. Giving credit where credit is due, I learned the technique from my old friend Ginger Baskett.

3. I'm a fraternal twin with two younger sisters who are identical twins. One of those sisters has fraternal twin boys of her own.

4. A priest once told me I should probably get married, for the good of my soul. That was a good 10 years ago...

5. I was the "contestant" in the pilot episode for the game show that eventually became "100 to 1." The version I did was called "Beat the Crowd," and the host was John Fugelsang, who's much better-looking and more charismatic than Bob Saget.

Rather than tag other bloggers, I invite everyone who visits today to leave their own five surprising facts about themselves in the comments section.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Pictures of the week

The rapid snow melt in Gardiner left all sorts of things for Dizzy to investigate. I try not to look too closely.

It's 724 miles from Gardiner to Virginia Beach. Dizzy is tired, and so am I.

Friday, December 15, 2006

What's your favorite cheese?

Who's asking: Ed Lamb, Virginia Beach, VA

My brother Ed asks this question in response to a Chicago Tribune article that reported that California is about to overtake Wisconsin as the nation's leading producer of cheese. The spokesman for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board pointed out that Wisconsin produces 600 varieties of cheese, while California produces only 250 -- so even if California's gross production exceeds Wisconsin, Wisconsin will still rule.

We're passionate about cheese in my family -- my cousin Moira is hilarious on the subject, and Ed says he has been known to peel a package of cheese and eat it like a banana. That said, there is such a thing as bad cheese, and bad cheese is about as bad as it gets. I still remember the nasty, sour-sweet taste of a particular hard brown goat cheese I once tried; in general, it's a good idea to stay away from brown cheese.

That said, I could never pick just one as my favorite. While cheddar is what's always in my refrigerator, sometimes I really want a good Gorgonzola for my salad, a chevre with some fruit, or Brie with just about anything. One of the best meals I ever had was a supper of green apple slices with very thin slices of Asiago cheese, toasted French bread and a good bottle of white wine.

Mmm, cheese...

This week has been a jumble, with little time for pleasure reading. It's time for the list of Best Things I Read in 2006. Several of these books were not published in 2006, and I'm a little surprised that so few of them are traditional crime fiction. I'm also disappointed that 2006 is ending before I got to several of the books that I'd put aside to read when I had time to give my full attention: Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land, Jess Walter's The Zero, Cormac McCarthy's The Road... oh, well.

In alphabetical order, here are the first five; the second five will follow next Friday. Feel free to leave your own recommendations and comments below.

Megan Abbott, Die a Little. It came out last year, but I didn't get to it until this year; nevertheless, it's one of the classic noir novels of any year. Schoolteacher Lora King has reason to suspect that her brother's new wife, Alice, is not what she seems to be. Then again, as Lora discovers, neither is she.

Peter Behrens, The Law of Dreams. An extraordinary first novel, the story of Fergus's journey from western Ireland to Canada in the wake of the Great Famine.

Angela Carter, Wise Children. I am embarrassed that I never read any Angela Carter until this year. This, her last novel, is an elaborate, satirical fantasia on Shakespearian theater, Freudian psychology, British class dynamics and more. Dazzling.

John Connolly, The Book of Lost Things. And this is the best book I read this year. I've been foisting it on a lot of people since the U.K. edition came out in October; different people see very different things in it, which I always consider the true hallmark of art. Twelve-year-old David retreats first mentally, then physically into the world of books; what he finds are all the dangers of the real world, without the real world's rewards. I have returned to different sections of the book several times since I first read it, and will likely reread the whole thing at intervals for the rest of my life.

David Feige, Indefensible. People who think the government is not tough enough on crime need to read this book; in fact, anyone who wants a crash course in the American criminal justice system should read this book and Edward Conlon's Blue Blood together, to get both sides of the story. Feige compresses years of experience as a Bronx public defender into this story of a week in his life, and it's a compelling read.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

What's Gaslight doing next year?

Who's asking: The cultural elite of Kennebec County, Maine

Gaslight announced its 2007 season on Tuesday night, so I thought I'd give them (us) a shameless plug today.

The theme of the season is "The Things We Do for Love," and each of the plays looks at a different aspect of love: romantic love, family love, the love among friends and the love of a place and time.

The season kicks off with Almost, Maine, a fairly new play by John Cariani. Almost, Maine is a series of vignettes set in a small town somewhere north of Bangor -- some funny, some sad, all about the ways people look for love in the most unlikely places. It'll run March 22, 23, 24, 29, 30 and 31.

Next comes the musical, Lucky Stiff, a farce about a very strange bequest: Harry Witherspoon's Uncle Anthony has left him a fortune, but only if Harry manages to give his uncle's corpse one last weekend on the town in Monte Carlo. Performance dates are June 21, 22, 23, 28, 29 and 30.

I'm actually directing the third play of the season, Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart. Crimes of the Heart is the story of one very bad weekend in the lives of three sisters, who manage to get through it because all the other options are bad. Auditions for this play will be in late May, and performance dates are August 16, 17, 18, 23, 24 and 25. You'll be hearing a lot more about this in the months ahead.

The season closes with Over the River and Through the Woods, by Joe DiPietro. As the title suggests, it's a play about grandparents -- four of them, to be precise, who nearly smother their lone grandson with love.

Season tickets to Gaslight are a crazy bargain, and you don't have to commit to performance dates ahead of time. It's the perfect gift for any central Maine resident; see the website for details.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Do Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving?

Who's asking: Therese Schulz's teacher, Gilching, Germany

But of course. In fact, Canadians will tell you that they have been celebrating Thanksgiving in North American longer than we U.S. residents have been; explorer Martin Frobisher celebrated the first Thanksgiving in Newfoundland in 1578.

As in the United States, Thanksgiving in Canada is a harvest festival. Their harvest is earlier than ours, so their Thanksgiving is, too. Canada first declared Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1879, fixing the date as November 6. After the first World War, Thanksgiving and Armistice Day (Veterans' Day/Remembrance Day/November 11) fell in the same week, so the Canadian Parliament voted in 1957 to move Thanksgiving to the second Monday in October. On this date, it usually falls on the same day as the U.S. observance of Columbus Day, but this is just a coincidence.

Because Canadian Thanksgiving does not mark the beginning of any shopping season, it's a little less commercial than its American counterpart; Canadians do, however, celebrate with turkey, stuffing and various root vegetables. And beer. Lots of beer.

My iPod Shuffle got corrupted somehow, which sent me into a panic until I downloaded a repair utility from the Apple Gods. Thanks, Apple!

Five Random Songs:

"I'm All Right," Madeleine Peyroux. Madeleine Peyroux is what Norah Jones wishes she sounded like. And she's still only in her early 30s. She deserves to be a huge, huge star.

"Ode to Isis," ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. The overture to their album Worlds Apart -- it is epic and apocalyptic and very short, so it's weird to hear it out of context.

"The Long Black Veil," Mick Jagger with The Chieftains. A great version of a classic song, though after hearing Val McDermid sing it at Bouchercon, I'm fascinated at the idea of recasting this as a tale of a doomed lesbian affair.

"Might Tell You Tonight," Scissor Sisters. The Scissor Sisters distill everything that was good about popular music in the 1970s, and I say that with no trace of sarcasm. You cannot listen to this song without feeling just a little bouncier.

"You're My Best Friend," Queen. Speaking of the best of the '70s...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

What's with the "-palooza" everything?

Who's askingAnna Bragdon, China, ME
Anna asks: "When did everything become '-palooza'?  Enough already." 
Good question, but first, a few birthdaypalooza greetings: belated happy birthdays to Susan Kinsolving and Abera Lechner (one year old yesterday!), and happy birthday today to Mary Maschino.  Also, anyone looking for a slightly higher-class holiday party should stop by Gaslight Theater's group reading of A Christmas Carol, tonight at the American Legion Hall in Hallowell.  Festivities start at 6:30.
The word "lollapalooza" means "something outstanding of its kind," and its origins are obscure.  Rube Goldberg drew a character named "Lala Palooza," but the character took her name from the catchphrase, not the other way around. 
Modern use of the word, and the current Everythingpalooza (I found "PowerPoint Palooza" and "Algebra Palooza" in my Google search, which just overwhelms me with the tragedy of humanity), date back to 1990, when Perry Farrell created a music festival to serve as a vehicle for Jane's Addiction's farewell tour.  The first Lollapalooza is now legendary: the line-up included Jane's Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, the Rollins Band, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Violent Femmes, Ice-T & Body Count, Living Colour, Fishbone and the Butthole Surfers.  The second year was a full-scale tour with main and secondary stages and traveling sideshows.  The Lollapalooza tour became a staple of the music industry for the next five years, finally grinding to a halt after the 1997 tour.  Farrell revived Lollapalooza in 2003, but the 2004 tour wound up being cancelled.  It returned in 2005 and 2006 as a weekend-long festival in Grant Park, Chicago. 
For people now in their early 30s, the Lollapalooza Festival represented everything that was coolest about the rock-and-roll lifestyle: great music, disrespect for authority, piercings, tattoos, extreme sports, and life-threatening stunts.  Like Woodstock, Lollapalooza came to represent a generation, and many people claim to have attended Lollapalooza shows who never got near them.  (During the '90s, I was busy making the world safe for state bank regulation; I never went to a Lollapalooza show, and would have stood out like a sore thumb if I had.) 
Anyway, the Lollapalooza Generation is now working in midlevel marketing positions, teaching high school math, selling bedroom furniture and otherwise living lives of quiet desperation.  When asked to come up with names or marketing blurbs, the coolest, most exciting thing they can think of is Lollapalooza; "This Christmas bazaar is going to be as great as Lollapalooza," they say.  "Let's call it Yule-a-Palooza." 
And that, Anna, is what's with the "-palooza" everything.  It's going to be with us for a long time. 
At least it's not "-stock."

Monday, December 11, 2006

Why does Montreal have a statue of Robert Burns?

Who's asking:  Christopher, a visitor to this blog
Because Montreal is the largest city in the French-speaking province of Quebec, people may not realize what a diverse city it is.  Montreal houses the largest English-speaking community in Quebec, as well as large and long-standing Asian and Jewish communities. 
Montreal, like the rest of Canada, used to belong to England, and the Empire's pawprints are still all over it.  The statue of Robert Burns in Square Dorchester (formerly known as Dominion Square) stands near a monument that commemorates Canadian soldiers killed in the Boer War. 
Burns' statue honors Montreal's Scottish heritage, which dates back to the city's earliest days.  General James Murray, the first British governor of Quebec, was a Scot; the founder of Montreal's largest institution of higher learning, James McGill, came from Glasgow.  The St. Andrew's Society of Montreal, founded in 1835 to provide "welfare and educational assistance to those of Scottish descent and sustaining Scottish culture and traditions within the local community," remains active today. 
Once again, I'm posting by e-mail today.  If you have trouble leaving comments, send me an e-mail -- among the many rotten features of the allegedly "upgraded" Blogger beta, my e-mail address is now in the upper right-hand corner of this thing.  Glad to see that Google is encouraging new strategies and tactics for the spammers of the world.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Where were you?

Who's asking: Various people, in various contexts

I've been snowed in. We got six inches of snow here on Friday, and my parking lot didn't get plowed until about two hours ago -- by which time most of the snow had melted, of course, so what had been snow with a little bit of traction is now ice with none at all. Tomorrow's supposed to be a little warmer, so I should be able to get out and about. The isolation is starting to get to me.

Things I missed this weekend: the Christmas party at Kate's; Chris's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, at St. John's; a dinner to celebrate Ashton's birthday, in Washington, D.C.

I could not be any sorrier, and if Santa really exists, he'll bring me a jet-pack.

Blogger Beta is still behaving very badly, and if you haven't converted your own blog yet, DON'T. Wait for more of the bugs to be worked out, first. I finally managed to post this by e-mail, and I have no idea whether I can upload photos this way. Maybe things will be sorted out tomorrow.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Have you seen the new Al Yankovic video?

I made the mistake of upgrading to Blogger beta on Friday, and have not been able to post a new entry since. I keep getting an error message saying Blogger is not able to complete my request. If and when these technical difficulties ever resolve themselves, I'll be back. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Who's asking: Jennifer Lechner, Freeport, ME

I had a different question ready to go this morning, but after Jen called this morning -- and I watched this video -- nothing else could possibly occupy my attention. Not only is this the funniest, smartest thing I've seen in ages, but I also want to say that Donny Osmond is smokin' hot, even dancing like a fool. He may be the one Mormon who could persuade me to try plural marriage.

The distraction was welcome, because the weather's rotten and I'm supposed to go to Cambridge this afternoon for Kate's Christmas party. Rather than try to drive all the way there myself, I think I will see if I can make it to Portland, and then take the bus from there. This will mean radical changes to the rest of my weekend's plans, but sometimes I need to pay attention to my anxiety.

This week I've been trying to catch up with things that have stayed on my to-be-read pile until I had time to give them the attention they deserved. My attention span is still not what it should be, but I still have three or four books I'd really like to finish between now and the end of the year.

What I Read This Week

Michael Connelly, Echo Park. LAPD Detective Harry Bosch looks for resolution to a 13-year-old case, and confronts his own failings as well as those of this colleagues. This is not one of the stronger entries in the series, but that's like saying that a particular piece of bacon is done less well than its companions. I'm fascinated with the way that Connelly is isolating Bosch, book by book, and wonder what this is leading to.

Mark Billingham, Buried. Detective Inspector Tom Thorne is called in to help find the kidnapped son of a former high-ranking police officer. Less emotional, more ingeniously plotted than the last two Thorne novels; I prefer the more emotionally-wrecked Thorne, but it feels like Billingham is sharpening his tools for the next novel. Can't wait for that one.

Jean H. Baker, James Buchanan. Yeah, okay, I read this one for work. It's a short biography of our 15th President, who makes most historians' lists of Worst Ever. Buchanan was a political genius whose lack of vision and will led directly to the Civil War. It's rather a tragic story, and worth reading for the light it casts on current events.

Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics. This first novel's made a lot of "Best of 2006" lists, and maybe my expectations were too high. It's the story of Blue van Meer's senior year of high school, during which her favorite teacher, Hannah Schneider, is murdered. Blue, the daughter of a widowed university professor, sees the world -- and tells the story -- through a prism of books, but this gimmick never paid off as much as I wanted it to. Some reviewers compared Blue to Nancy Drew, but I'd call this book "Harriet the Spy," as retold by Nabokov. The moral is that grownups betray the teenagers they're responsible for, which is neither insightful nor newsworthy. Meh.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Have Britney, Paris, Lindsay etc. been flashing their private parts on purpose for attention, or is it an honest mistake?

Who's asking: Sheila Cameron, W. Hollywood, CA

At, we are all about the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake. No question too big, no question too small, very little too distasteful.

This one's close, but answering it gives me an opportunity to plug Sheila's latest crusade against inappropriate celebrity behavior. We must all do what we can.

This behavior is deliberate, no question about it. Underpants aren't something you just happen to forget, and going without them is reckless and unsanitary -- not that Britney Spears doesn't have a history of public disregard for sanitation issues.

It's more interesting to speculate on the reasons for these displays. Perhaps they think showing their naughty bits will keep photographers from using the pictures; obviously, that strategy's not working.

But I prefer to think that these three young women, who have almost no formal education among them, are responding to more primal imperatives. Displaying one's genitalia is classic female primate mating behavior; not only does it attract the male of the species, it's also supposed to warn off other, lower-ranking females. It's a jungle out there, and these little monkeys are fighting for dominance the only way they know how.

One more reason to stay in school, kids...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

What percentage of the U.S military is made up of citizens from other countries?

Who's asking: Mike Clements, W. Gardiner, ME

Service is the U.S. military is a time-honored method of immigrating to the United States, and since 2001, an executive order offers expedited citizenship to foreign nationals who serve in our military. My hometown has a large Filipino community, many of whose members originally came to Norfolk through a connection to the U.S. Navy.

That said, it must be a little surreal to wear the uniform of a country other than one's own homeland, and not very many people do it. While 7,500 members of the U.S. military became citizens in 2004, foreign nationals make up less than 3% of our military -- about 30,000 soldiers, sailors and Marine in all. The number of new non-citizen recruits declined last year, but the number of new recruits overall declined last year, too.

I grew up in a Navy family; I'm proud of my father's service, and have always been a little sorry that I didn't serve. But enlisting or enrolling in a service academy means that you trust your government to use you well -- and that's a lot to ask, in the United States of America in the year of our Lord 2006. Damn it.

Random songs off the iPod Shuffle this morning:

"Ranking Full Stop," The English Beat. Excellent skating music. If the weather holds, ponds should be ready for skating in another week or two...

"Whistling in the Dark," They Might Be Giants. Another potential theme song for my life. "I'm having a wonderful time/But I'd rather be whistling in the dark..."

"Come to Love," Matthew Sweet. This album (100% Fun) is not as good as his masterpiece, Girlfriend, but it's close. Nothing's better than solid pop.

"Chicago," Sufjian Stevens. My favorite cut off this CD (Illinois), which was a birthday gift from my friend Tom. Thanks, Tom!

"Love is Teasin'," Marianne Faithfull and The Chieftains. Marianne Faithfull is on my short list of famous people I'd invite to a dinner party. Don't you think she'd be cool to know?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

What's the difference between "mostly sunny" and "partly cloudy"?

Who's asking: Richard Bostwick, Hallowell (or is that North Hallowell?), ME

You know, I always assumed that there was a difference -- but guess what? Not really. Meteorologists can and do use "mostly sunny" and "partly cloudy" to describe the same set of weather conditions, depending on their mood and the time of day. ("Mostly sunny" doesn't work at night.) They may be more likely to use "mostly sunny" if the weather is clearing, and more likely to use "partly cloudy," if things are getting overcast, but otherwise it's a half-empty/half-full decision.

I don't know why I assumed that predicting the weather was a more exact science than that.

Anyway, today is mostly sunny, before more snow comes tomorrow and Thursday. The thinnest of ice skins is starting to show up on the Kennebec, and last night's low temperature of 18 was too cold even for Dizzy.

The happiest of birthdays today to Mr. Ashton LeBourgeois, who grows daily more distinguished-looking.

Monday, December 04, 2006

What does Dizzy think of snow?

Who's asking: Various people, mainly from southern California

He loves it.

The snow is the only good thing about this morning, which started badly when I stumbled getting out of bed. This has to be a new standard of clumsiness even for me, and set the tone for a morning of minor aggravations.

Aggravation #1: People who misspell my name despite having received items from me that spell my name correctly. It's "Clair," without the e. Yes, it's not the usual spelling. If you consistently misspell it, you are not paying attention and you are being disrespectful, and therefore I feel no obligation to pay attention to you. If you can never remember how I spell it, call me "Ellen" instead. It's one of the reasons I use both names.

Aggravation #2: Anonymous blog commenters. I don't expect you to register for Blogger just so you can comment on my blog. If you're not a member of Blogger, however, I do expect you to sign your posts. I've had a couple of snarky comments lately from total strangers who haven't signed their posts, and from now on, I'm deleting all anonymous comments. My name's on this thing, and if you want to post, yours should be too.

Aggravation #3: The Gardiner town fathers have taken all the trashcans out of the Common, presumably because they fill with snow and are too hard to maintain in the winter. This is not a good solution. I'd contribute to a collection for trashcans with hoods. People don't stop going to the Common in the wintertime, and who wants to pick up a winter's worth of trash once the snow melts?

I think I need to go outside and throw a few snowballs at trees. Feel free to list your own potential snowball targets in the comments section -- as long as you sign your posts...

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Picture of the week

Since I don't post on Sundays, it'll be picture day. This is the Cobbosseecontee behind the abandoned Gardiner Paperboard factory, more or less across the street from my apartment building.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

What's Blu-ray?

Who's asking: Mike Clements, W. Gardiner, ME

This question came up at the movies last night, when a preview trailer advertised the availability of Talladega Nights on DVD, PSP and Blu-Ray. (We saw Tenacious D in: The Pick of Destiny. To my kids and godchildren I say: this movie is not appropriate for you. If you do see it -- which I'm telling you not to -- do not think for one minute that I understood half the jokes or thought any of it was funny. Go see Happy Feet instead. Thank you.)

Neither Mike nor I had ever heard of it, but apparently Blu-ray is the next big thing in home video technology. Blu-ray discs (BD) are written to be read by blue-violet lasers, instead of the red lasers used to read standard DVDs and CDs. The blue-violet light has a shorter wavelength, which allows data to be packed more tightly on a Blu-ray disc than on a DVD. Therefore, Blu-ray is the emerging technology for high-definition videos. Blu-ray discs can hold more than five times as much data as a DVD -- up to 25GB of data on a single layer disc, and up to 50GB of data on a double-layer disc. Blu-ray discs are not the same as high-definition DVDs (HD-DVDs), which use a different technology.

Blu-ray drives are not yet available for PCs, but that's planned for the future. The electronic companies are manufacturing Blu-ray machines that can also play DVDs and CDs, so if this technology takes off, you won't have to replace your existing library. Seven of the eight major movie studios are now releasing videos in Blu-ray format as well as in DVD.

I'm not rushing out to buy one, though. For those who are considering it, I have one word: MiniDisc.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Who are the poorest people in the world?

Who's asking: Sue Schulz, Herrsching, Germany

Sue asked me this question a while back, so Sue, I'm sorry for taking a while to get to it.

Past a given point, poverty's academic: you either have enough to eat, or you don't. You have a roof over your head, or you don't. You have confidence that you'll continue to eat and to sleep indoors, or you don't.

Millions of people don't get enough to eat every day, and have no permanent place to live. Most of these people live south of the Equator; a disproportionate number of them live in Africa.

The nation with the world's lowest GDP, however, is in not in Africa, but between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. East Timor (pop. 947,000) comprises all or part of four islands in the Indonesian archipelago, and has a per-capita gross domestic product of only $400/year. Its colonial history makes East Timor the only Portuguese-speaking country in Asia; it was a Portuguese colony until 1975, then fought Indonesia for independence until 2002. As part of its efforts to put down the insurgency, the Indonesian government destroyed farmlands, blocked the distribution of food, and obstructed basic medical care.

Riots over internal military issues split the country again earlier this year, and a U.N. peacekeeping force led by Australia currently occupies the country.

Economic development, investment and growth are the only longterm cures for global poverty. If you want to buy goods produced in lesser-developed countries at prices that are fair to the makers, check out the Global Exchange gift shop.

This week I read three massive manuscripts for clients who pay me for discretion, as well as for any expertise I may have. I only finished one published book, which had sat on my to-be-read pile for much too long.

What I Read This Week

Judy Clemens, To Thine Own Self Be True. Dairy farmer and motorcycle aficionado Stella Crown is having a tattoo done when the tattoo artist disappears, and his wife is murdered. People who won't talk to the police don't mind talking to Stella, but Stella -- unlike some amateur sleuths -- keeps the cops in the loop from beginning to end. With her third book, Judy Clemens seems to be pulling off the impossible: a realistic, engaging amateur detective series that is not inappropriately light-hearted, and does not minimize the effects of violence on its victims. Well done.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

How should I decorate my Jesse Tree?

Who's asking: Many recent visitors to this blog, according to my site meter

The site meter on this blog gives me the search strings that bring people here, which is not always a good thing. To the person who landed here looking for "how to seduce your mother," I say: Seek professional help now. To all the various Googlers hunting for girls of one kind or another, I say: Your chances will improve if you take a shower and step away from your computer once in a while.

People looking for Jesse tree decoration hints get sent to this entry from last year, in which I explained that the Jesse tree is Christianity's answer to the Christmas tree, a pagan symbol. (By the way, this distinction strikes me as a little silly. If all things glorify the Lord, why shouldn't we borrow customs from pagans?)

Anyway, the Jesse tree is supposed to be decorated with Chrismon(TM) ornaments, "Chrismon" being short for "Christ monograms." You can buy them online, but if you're sincerely putting up a Jesse tree to honor the Nativity (rather than to impress your friends with your Pharisean piety), you should make your own.

The traditional colors for these ornaments are white and gold, and they are meant to be symbols of faith: crosses, the star of David, the fleur-de-lis (representing the Trinity), doves (representing the Holy Spirit), etc. Catholic Jesse trees often have ornaments marked with the pyx (the Greek letters chi and rho, superimposed on each other, standing for Christ) and the Constantinian monogram IHS (in hoc signo vinces, under this sign victory).

In one of my closets is a big plastic bin of Christmas decorations that hasn't been opened since I got to Maine. It remains to be seen whether I'll open it this year. I am not feeling terribly Christmasy at the moment, especially since the temperature here is spiking to nearly 60 today.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Why don't you post pictures on this blog?

Who's asking: Paul Tomme, Arlington, TX; Susan Lamb, Richmond, VA; various other people

My standard answer to this question was that I did not own a digital camera, and thus had no easy way of taking or posting photographs to the blog.

The more complicated answer is that I'm not a picture-taker, and never have been. Anyone who's driven with me knows that I don't process visual information as quickly as I process other sensory input (that's my defense, I'm sticking to it). I'd much rather go blind than deaf (a statement that's going to come back to haunt me some day).

Furthermore, I feel a little superstitious about photographs. I tend not to take pictures for the same reason I don't usually buy souvenirs for myself when I'm traveling (though I like to buy them for other people, the tackier the better). Recording an image or a moment acknowledges its transience; it says, "This is over, we're never coming back, remember this?" I don't want to document the things I've lost. I prefer not to think of time as linear, and to believe that no losses are permanent.

All that said, my first answer to this question is no longer valid. Through the unexpected and overwhelming generosity of the above-mentioned Mr. Tomme, I now own a digital camera. Therefore, by popular demand, I'm going to start posting a photo or two a week up here -- but in my own way, for my own purposes.

Above is the first picture I took and saved with the new camera. I invite you to leave captions for it in the comments section.

And here are the first five random songs off the iPod Shuffle this morning:

“Goodnight Irene,” The Weavers. A Mighty Wind kind of wrecked my ability to appreciate The Weavers without irony, but this song remains a classic.

“Bloodletting (The Vampire Song),” Concrete Blonde. Whatever happened to these guys?

“High as a Kite,” The Pernice Brothers. This birthday brought excellent contributions to my music library, including this latest album, Live a Little. As a friend said, it sounds just like The Pernice Brothers… but what’s wrong with that?

“Trouble Me,” 10,000 Maniacs. This is the live version, off the MTV Unplugged album. I like Natalie Merchant’s voice better live; she tends to be over-produced. (Ed, keep your anti-Natalie Merchant comments to yourself. You’re just wrong about this, and that’s the end of the discussion.)

“I Have the Touch,” Peter Gabriel. Remember when Peter Gabriel used to be cool? When exactly did that end, and why?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Is it snowing by you?

Who's asking: Anna Bragdon, China, ME

It is not. Although the temperature is only 32F (0C for those of you reading abroad), what is falling from the sky is very, very cold rain, and it could not possibly be any more miserable. The cold is that bone-cracking, damp chill that makes you feel you will never be warm again ever, ever, ever in your whole life, even if you boil your feet and wrap yourself in 20 blankets.

Even Dizzy, normally oblivious to the cold, has wadded himself up in a pile of blankets on my bed. He thinks it's a good day for a nap, and I am having a hard time disagreeing -- but he is a sporting dog and I am a working dog, so it's time for another cup of coffee. A very HOT cup of coffee.

Monday, November 27, 2006

How many of your friends pick up a dictionary looking for one word, and wind up reading the whole thing?

Who's asking: Linda Brown, Sherman Oaks, CA

Today is a do-it-yourself question, because I am swamped to the point of panic and had no business taking all that time off this past weekend. (I did, however, see two highly entertaining movies: The Departed and Casino Royale. Check them out. That Daniel Craig is one fine, fine... uh... actor. He's a fine actor, yes indeed he is.)

I suspect you are looking for validation of your own habits, Linda, and I am happy to give it to you. At a guess, I'd say all my friends are dictionary browsers -- because if you aren't someone who appreciates the entertainment value of a dictionary, I don't think we should be friends any more.

To prove my point, I challenge everyone who visits today to open a dictionary to any page, and post a cool random word in the comments section. I'll start:

rin-der-pest (rĭn'dər-pĕst) n. An acute, often fatal, contagious viral disease, chiefly of cattle, characterized by ulceration of the alimentary tract and resulting in diarrhea.

Isn't knowledge a wonderful thing? Leave your own discoveries below.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

How many countries are there in the world?

Who's asking: Therese Schulz, Herrsching, Germany

You'd think this would be a simple question with a straightforward answer, but it's not. It varies, it depends on whom you ask, and it depends on how you define "country."

For our purposes, let's define "country" the way international law does, meaning a geographic territory with its own government whose boundaries are recognized by other countries, and which represents itself independently before international organizations. By this definition, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not countries; nor is Puerto Rico.

Under this definition, the world has 192, 193, or 194 countries. The United Nations has 192 member countries. The United States recognizes ambassadors from 193 countries; the extra one is Vatican City, which is not a member of the U.N. Some Chinese nationalists argue that the true number is 194, which includes Taiwan. The U.S. does not officially recognize Taiwan as a separate country, but this is diplomatic weaselry to appease mainland China.

So if you ask me, I say the number is 194; if you ask your teacher, she'll probably say 193. Remember, too, that there are at least half a dozen "wars of national liberation" being fought around the world at any given time -- if you ask this question again next year, you might get a different answer.

Friday, November 24, 2006

What are babesiosis and Chagas disease?

Who's asking: Me (yes, I know I've given myself two questions in a row; it's my blog, dammit)

I'm off to give blood this morning at the Gardiner Lions' Club, and will have to fill out the usual questionnaire about whether I've ever been in prison, gotten tattooed, or used needles for illicit drugs (in case you were wondering: No. No. No.). The questionnaire also asks about various exotic diseases, including these two.

I've always figured that if I've never heard of them, I haven't had them, but this may not necessarily be true for babesiosis. Babesiosis is a parasitic infection carried by northern deer ticks, which are rampant up here. People with Lyme disease -- carried by those same ticks -- often have babesiosis as well.

The most common form of babesiosis in the United States is often asymptomatic, but severe cases can cause symptoms similar to malaria: fever, chills, muscle aches and weakness, fatigue and an enlarged spleen. Treatment for babesiosis is also similar to that for malaria, with a combination of antibiotic and antiparasitic medications.

Chagas disease is another parasitic infection, endemic to South America. Chagas disease is transmitted by the so-called "kissing bugs" (triatomine bugs) that live in cracks and holes of substandard housing through Latin America. Again, many people with the disease never display any symptoms, but in severe cases it can cause brain damage, organ enlargement, fever, chronic fatigue and even death. The CDC estimates that chronic Chagas infection decreases victims' life-spans by an average of nine years.

Since both of these illnesses are bloodborne, it's a good thing the Red Cross asks about them. For hypochondriacs like me, though, it's just one more thing to worry about...

What I Read This Week

Scott Smith, The Ruins. Uh... we waited 12 years for this? Smith follows his dazzling 1994 debut, A Simple Plan, with this horror novel about a group of young people who take a foolhardy trip into the Mexican jungle, and live just long enough to regret it. People whose opinions I respect have raved about this book as an exercise in suspense, but not even one of these characters seemed real enough for me to care what happened to them. Bleah, bleah and once again bleah. I felt quite cranky about this.

Tom Standage, A History of the World in Six Glasses. An inspired, entertaining look at how civilization has been shaped by the invention, development and distribution of six key human beverages: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola. Great fun, full of fascinating tidbits of information and insights about what each culture's choice of beverage says about it.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Is it true that turkeys are so stupid they can drown in the rain?

Who's asking: Me

I first heard this rumor from an old boyfriend whose father was a feed salesman, and the idea of it enchanted me -- I could imagine entire flocks of turkeys looking at the sky, then falling on their backs as the water filled their beaks and drowned them.

Sadly, it's not true. Basic turkey anatomy prevents it. Turkeys' eyes are on opposite sides of their heads, so they don't look up in the same way we do (or, for you Shaun of the Dead fans, the same way dogs do). Instead, they tilt their heads sideways to see things above them. This does not expose their nostrils to rainfall, any more than their beaks would already be exposed.

That said, turkeys are seriously stupid animals. Wild turkeys are dumb -- I have come close to hitting more than one that was just strolling across a road, oblivious to cars -- and domesticated turkeys are even dumber, as they've had all their survival instincts bred out of them. describes incidents in which domestic turkeys, startled, have panicked and run to a corner or a fence, where they've piled up and smothered each other. I am a bad, bad person for giggling at that mental image. I do object in principle to factory farming, and buy organic meats when I can; but I am also grateful that turkeys are just so darn tasty, and dumb enough to let us eat them.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Is it possible to survive on a diet of nothing but pumpkin pie?

Who's asking: John Erath, Arlington, VA

I've been saving this question for Thanksgiving week, because I too am extremely fond of pumpkin pie -- for that matter, I'm extremely fond of pumpkin soup, pumpkin bread, stewed pumpkin, and roasted pumpkin.

The answer to this question is yes -- at least for a while. Pumpkin pie includes all the major food groups, but not exactly in the proportions we're supposed to eat them. According to one analysis I found, a slice of pumpkin pie has 320 calories, of which 48% (153 calories) comes from fat. As a rule, we're only supposed to get 30% of our calories from fat, but pumpkin pie is undoubtedly better for you than a Big Mac.

While pumpkin pie is a fantastic source of Vitamin A and a decent source of Vitamins C, D and E, you'd probably need to take B supplements after a while. The beta carotene in pumpkin might turn your skin yellow or orange after a while, and you might not get enough iron from a pumpkin pie-based diet.

All that said, it might be worth the risk... for a day or two. Moderation in everything, including moderation.

I'm off to Hannaford to buy my canned pumpkin right now.

First five random songs off the iPod Shuffle this morning:

"Miss Otis Regrets/Just One of Those Things," Kirsty MacColl and the Pogues. Off the Red Hot & Blue tribute album, a perversely cheerful cover of a Cole Porter medley. One of my favorites.

"Could It Be Forever," The Partridge Family. As part of my birthday celebration, I copied my Partridge Family Greatest Hits CD to my iTunes library. In my heart, I'm still six years old -- and 16 -- and 26.

"Chimes of Freedom," The Byrds. The Byrds' sound is eternal.

"Fragments of Fragments," The Who. From the new CD, Endless Wire; it's an echo of "Baba O'Riley," and somehow brings everything back around. See Pete Townshend's recent journal entry for his own take on the aging process.

"Why," Annie Lennox. Weirdly appropriate for this week, which has brought many long-quiet voices back into my life. I guess that's what birthdays are for. "This is the book I never read/These are the words I never said/This is path I'll never tread/These are the dreams I'll dream instead."

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

What will happen to the FREE KATIE movement now that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are married?

Who's asking: Jim Lamb, Virginia Beach, VA

Regular readers of this blog know that I have been a member and advocate of the FREE KATIE movement since it first began in my cousin Sheila's living room. Almost two years, several disappointing movies, one baby and an extravagant Italian wedding later, the need to provide encouragement and sanctuary to the new Mrs. Kate Cruise has never been greater. After spending the past weekend shrouded in black, the members of FREE KATIE remain committed to the cause. We hope, we pray and we remain convinced that it is only a matter of time.

Short post today, as I'm trying to get to Portland for lunch -- everyone's favorite magical Irishman, John Connolly, will be reading from and discussing The Book of Lost Things at the Portland Public Library. All the cool kids will be there.

Monday, November 20, 2006

What's it like to be a twin?

Who's asking: Alex Trebek, Los Angeles, CA

All right, this is egregious name-dropping even for me, and he asked me this question seven years ago, so using it today is a stretch. But today's my birthday -- which means that it is also the birthday of my twin sister, Kathy -- so it seemed appropriate for the occasion.

What I told Mr. Trebek (I don't know him well enough to call him Alex) was that I couldn't really say, since I had always been a twin and had nothing to compare it to. It's one of those questions that's always baffled me: what's it like to be right-handed? What's it like to have blue eyes? (OK, the answers to those are: 1) Convenient and 2) No one knows what it's like to be the bad man -- to be the sad man --)

Having a fraternal twin is like having any other sibling, except more so. From the day of one's birth, the essential pronoun is "we," not "I." We learned to share, to cooperate and to compete before we could talk. When Kathy and I were very small, I did most of the talking for both of us, since she was shy and had a serious hearing loss; thus, my later career as a spokeswoman might have been foreordained. (Kathy got over her shyness and most of the hearing loss, and no longer has any trouble speaking for herself.)

When you're a twin, you worry a lot about what's fair, but not just about making sure you get yours. I learned very early, for better or worse, what made Kathy mad, sad, and glad. I'm sorry to say I have not always used these powers for good -- but what are siblings for?

Like most children in large families, I went through phases of wishing desperately that I'd been an only child. As an adult, I'm grateful beyond words to have my sisters and brothers. Everyone ought to be part of a large family, and everybody ought to be a twin. It's much less lonely this way.

So today I say happy birthday, Kathy, and many happy returns. We're in this thing together.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Who were the Cyclades?

Who's asking: Claire Bea, Montreal, QC

Ordinarily I don't answer questions for people who are doing their homework, but this one is only tangential to a paper Claire's writing about traffic in stolen antiquities. She came across a reference to someone as the world's leading expert in Cycladic culture, and had never seen the name before.

I wasn't familiar with it either, so we consulted Claire's brother Chris, who happens to be writing his own big paper on certain aspects of ancient Greek history.

He was kind enough not to mock us when he explained that the Cyclades are not people, they're a group of islands in the Aegean sea. The largest and best-known of these is Naxos. They were the home of a sophisticated Early Bronze Age civilization that, among other things, carved distinctive idols out of native white marble. The Cycladic civilization, which combined elements of both the Anatolian and Helladic cultures, was superceded by the Minoan culture that rose around 2700 B.C.

Cycladic idols, which resemble modern sculpture, have been looted from archaeological sites and sold on black markets around the world. Because they were removed from their original locations, archeologists may never fully understand their purpose or meaning. As if that weren't enough reason never to buy anything advertised as a "Cycladic figurine," many of the works now on the market are fakes. You can see examples of the real thing here.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Why don't Americans pronounce the "h" in "herb"?

Who's asking: Dan Freedman, Cheshire, UK

First, before any rumors start when people click through to that link: I have no current plans to join any radical Afro-jazz musical groups. (I could probably make my hair form dreadlocks if I tried, though.)

I am sorry to have to tell you, Dan, that the American pronunciation of this word ("urb") is the correct one. English borrowed this word from the French, who did not pronounce the "h," in a manner similar to the words honor, hour, and heir. The English restored the voiced "h" at some point, when they added the voiced "h" back to other French-derived words, such as humble and human. (Donald Trump didn't get the memo about this, but Americans pronounce those h's, too.)

So we actually pronounce "herb" in a more traditional and accurate way, except when we use it as a prefix in the words herbaceous, herbicide, and herbivore. Our mother tongue is a capricious mistress, not to say a vicious bitch.

What I Read These Weeks (special double edition):

Peter Spiegelman, Red Cat. Peter Spiegelman's private investigator, John March, is the black-sheep son of a prominent New York investment banking family. In this third outing, March's own brother, David, comes to him in desperation for help in identifying a blackmailer. The only identifying information David can give his brother about the woman he had an affair with is that she had a red cat tattoo. When a corpse with that tattoo is pulled out of the East River, John has to figure out just how much trouble his brother is in. Spiegelman is among the best writers in crime fiction today; I'd go so far as to say he's this generation's heir to Ross Macdonald, offering sharp and compassionate observations about the way families keep their secrets. This book comes out next February.

Megan Abbott, The Song is You. Abbott's second novel is based on the 1949 disappearance of actress Jean Spangler, whose purse was found in Griffith Park days after she was last seen. As in her first book, Die a Little, Abbott gives us an almost hallucinatory picture of 1950s Los Angeles, following her main character, a burnt-out Hollywood press agent, as he digs for the truth about what happened to Jean. And as in any classic noir novel, no one gets out of this one unscathed. Well done.

Anne Tyler, The Amateur Marriage. Michael and Pauline fall in love with each other the week after Pearl Harbor, and the fever of wartime sweeps them into marriage before they can realize that they are wholly unsuited to each other. Tyler follows them through the next six decades, through birth and death and loss and divorce, illuminating the nature of marriage, and of love that persists even when you can't stand each other. Anne Tyler has always been one of my favorite novelists, but this book stands above almost everything she's written.

Chris Grabenstein, Mad Mouse. Grabenstein's first novel, Tilt-a-Whirl, won the Anthony for Best First Novel, and while I was rooting for my own client (Theresa Schwegel) to win, and also really, really loved Megan Abbott's first book, I was delighted to see Tilt-a-Whirl get some formal recognition. Grabenstein's heroes, the young cop-in-training Danny Boyle and his partner, the formidable John Ceepak, return in this sequel, which is just as good as the first book. As the town of Sea Haven, NJ prepares for a blowout Labor Day weekend, someone starts taking shots with a paintball rifle at Danny and his friends -- but then the shots are real.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

What did you think of Borat?

Who's asking: Anna Bragdon, China, ME

Yesterday afternoon I knocked off early and drove to Brunswick to catch the twilight show of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan with the Lechners. We were the youngest people in the theater by a decent margin, and one lady got up and left the theater halfway through the movie.

We were a little surprised that only one person left. The movie could not possibly be any more offensive; it is gratuitously disgusting, and culminates in a nude man-on-man wrestling scene that I would give a lot to wipe from my memory.

That said, it's also the funniest, most subversive, most brilliant movie I've seen in years, and should be required viewing for every voting-age American.

It's a movie that answers once and for all the question, "Why does the rest of the world hate us so much?" Well, it's because too many of us are smug, ignorant, mean and incurious about anything outside our immediate orbit. Almost everyone who fell victim to Borat is accusing him of setting them up, but he's more like Alan Arkin in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: a communications-impaired audience to the careless, the unkind and the self-absorbed.

The movie includes only one set piece that I felt was unfair to Borat's targets; it really is too much to expect a group of people to respond with equanimity to someone who comes to the dinner table with a napkin full of excrement.

Did I enjoy it? Hard to say. I laughed at parts, but I also squirmed, and it made me ashamed at points of not only my Americanness, but my humanity. Despite that -- or maybe because of it -- I'll probably see it again.

Sorry today's post is so late. My head is far, far down, as I'm really hoping to take a big chunk of next week off. Lots of things to move out the door between now and then.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

What are the rules for the use of "that" and "which"?

Who's asking: Mary Maschino, Gardiner, ME

At some point, grammar rules fall into such complete neglect that they might as well not even exist anymore. I often wonder whether this has happened to "that" vs. "which," and I wonder even more about "that" vs. "who."

Still, my whole life's been about lost causes and hopeless cases, so here's the rule. (Note: just to confuse things, this is the rule for American English; the rule for British English is almost the opposite. If you're reading this in the U.K., disregard the next couple of paragraphs.)

Using "that" instead of "who" is an error that irritates me more, so let's take care of that first: "that" refers to animals and inanimate objects. "Who" refers to people. If you write "the man that shot me," instead of "the man who shot me," you are not only demonstrating your ignorance, you are expressing a disregard of other people's humanity that borders on sociopathy. (Yeah, I feel strongly about this.)

"That" introduces an essential clause that is necessary to identify whatever you're describing: "This is the gun that shot me."

"Which" introduces a nonessential clause that merely provides additional information about something you've already identified. "The gun, which the killer had purchased the day before, still shone with its original factory oil."

A good rule of thumb, if you're confused, is to look at the punctuation. "Which" almost always needs a comma in front of it; "that" rarely does.

First Five Random Songs off the iPod Shuffle this morning:

“Pain (Makes You Beautiful),” the Judybats. Title track off a great album. The Judybats are a Knoxville-based band that was very popular in the DC area in the early to mid-1990s... they’re still playing, but I don’t think they have a record deal anymore. They put on an excellent show, if you ever get a chance to see them live.

“Amazing Journey/Sparks,” The Who. From Tommy; like several tracks in this rock opera, it doesn’t stand particularly well by itself.

“Rainy Days and Mondays,” Cracker. Another great cover from If I Were a Carpenter. If I ever wanted to send someone spiraling into depression, I’d make him a CD that included this song, along with Sinead O’Connor’s cover of “Gloomy Sunday,” Beck’s “Guess I’m Doing Fine,” and a few other choice cuts. Better hit the fast-forward...

“White Limousine,” Duncan Sheik. Duncan Sheik is trying hard to be this generation’s Nick Drake (without the suicidal mood swings, I hope). It’s not as distinctive a sound – or maybe Drake’s influence is too pervasive on Sheik and his contemporaries – but I still like this album a lot.

“Where I Go,” Natalie Merchant. One of the less memorable tracks on this album (Tigerlily).

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

When is Kate's Christmas party?

Who's asking: Several people at the New England Crime Bake, last weekend

Kate's Mystery Books will be having its annual holiday party on Friday, December 8. Festivities will begin around 5:00 p.m and go until about 9:00, or until Kate kicks everybody out.

Authors who have said they plan to attend include Reed Farrel Coleman, Joseph Finder, Chuck Hogan, Chris Mooney, Karen Olson, Peter Spiegelman, and Sarah Stewart Taylor. Everyone is welcome; if you're an author who'd like to attend, shoot Kate an e-mail or call her (the number's on her site) to make sure she has your books on hand for the party. If you're a reader, there's no better opportunity in all of New England to meet dozens of authors in a relaxed, congenial setting.

In the interests of fair play, I should also mention that The Mystery Bookstore's holiday open house is scheduled for Saturday, December 9, from 1:00 to 7:00 p.m. It promises to be an equally fabulous event, with the slight disadvantage that I myself will not be there. Our Chris is playing Demetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream at St. John's that night, and even I have not figured out a way to be in two places at once.

Best and happiest birthday greetings today to the ageless Carla Forbes-Kelly, even though it's almost tomorrow already where she is.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Do you know why I stopped you?

Who's asking: A police officer at the end of the Lowell Connector, around 9:00 yesterday morning.

"Was I speeding?" I asked, and the policeman said, "Yes." The speed limit on the Lowell Connector is 55 miles per hour; the Connector ends abruptly, dumping people onto a street with a speed limit of 35. He was waiting right at the intersection, watching for unwary motorists.

"You don't even speed," Anna said when I told her this story, and it's true; his radar gun clocked me at 56 MPH. Since that was more than 20 miles above the speed limit for the new road, I was lucky he didn't give me a reckless driving citation. He also cited me for a dead headlight I didn't know had burned out, bringing the total price of the ticket to $260 -- plus, of course, whatever it costs to get the headlight fixed.

File this one under "no good deed goes unpunished." I was in Lowell this weekend as a volunteer bookseller for Kate's Mystery Books; she paid for my hotel room on Friday night, but gas and all other expenses were on my own dime. I don't do any active business development at these things, but it's useful to me to meet people and be able to put faces with names.

I feel as if the universe just whacked me with a hammer. It doesn't help that it's cold and rainy this morning, Dizzy has a new and angry-looking hot spot, and I'm so tired I can't put two words together.

In happier news, The Mousetrap closed to full and appreciative audiences, and I did get to have dinner with Reed Farrel Coleman and Karen Olson on Friday night, which was worth any other aggravations the weekend may have held.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Why is it called a "yo-yo"?

Who's asking: Keith Bea, Alexandria, VA

First of all, I have to say how flattered I am to be asked a question from a major-league researcher and policy analyst -- Keith works for the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress, where he investigates far more serious matters and does not have time to waste on the sort of thing we wonder about at

His actual question was based on his discovery that the word "yo-yo" is the Tagalog name for the toy; how did Americans pick up a word from Tagalog?

I've always thought of yo-yos as being one of those mass media-created mid-20th century crazes, like the Hula Hoop or the Frisbee. A little time on the official website of the National Yo-Yo Contest and Museum showed me how wrong I was.

Yo-yos are one of the oldest human toys, with references going back to 500 B.C. They probably originated in China, but Greek vases from around 500 B.C. show youths playing with yo-yos, and archeologists have found terracotta yo-yos in temple ruins. Egyptian illustrations also show things that look like yo-yos.

Yo-yos landed in Europe in the late 18th century, and a 1789 painting shows the doomed Dauphin Louis playing with his emigrette ("little emigrant"). They were all the rage in Napoleon's court, by which time they were called "joujou de Normandie." (This is one theory for the origin of the name "yo-yo," but it's incorrect.) By 1791 the toy had made it to England, where it was called a "bandalore" or a "quiz." The first mention of the toy in the U.S. came in 1866, when two men filed a patent application for "an improved bandalore."

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the planet, Filipino toymakers had perfected their own version of the toy, made of wood. A 1916 Scientific American supplement included the yo-yo in an article on "Filipino Toys;" the name, the article said, meant "come-come" or "return" in Tagalog.

Pedro Flores brought the first Filipino yo-yos to California in the 1920s, and opened a factory in 1928. Flores' yo-yos were carved from a single piece of wood. Instead of having a string tied to the central axle, Flores looped the string to allow the axle to keep spinning -- the "sleeping" action that makes most modern yo-yo tricks possible.

Entrepreneur Donald F. Duncan Sr. saw Flores doing tricks with his yo-yo in San Francisco in 1928 or 1929, and was so impressed he bought the company. A marketing genius, he sent teams of "Duncan Yo-Yo Professionals" around the country to put on exhibitions of all the cool tricks you could do with a yo-yo. He trademarked the word "yo-yo" in 1932, and opened the Duncan Yo-Yo factory in Luck, Wisconsin, in 1946.

By 1965, the word "yo-yo" had become so universal that the Federal Court of Appeals ruled that Duncan could no longer hold on to the trademark. The Duncan Company was forced into bankruptcy later that year; the Flambeau Plastics Company purchased the yo-yo business, and continues to produce 11 different models of Duncan yo-yos. June 6, Donald Duncan's birthday, is now designated as National Yo-Yo Day. (Not to be obnoxious, but I'd like to know when Pedro Flores' birthday is, and what holiday he gets.)

I myself have been yo-yoing to and from Massachusetts this week, and leave again in a couple of hours for the New England Crime Bake, happening this weekend in Lowell. Gaslight Theater's performances of The Mousetrap continue this weekend at Hallowell City Hall; I won't be there tonight, but will be back for closing night tomorrow (and then back in Lowell on Sunday morning. What was I saying about the beneficial effects of caffeine?).

No reading list this morning, as I'm already too far behind. No posts tomorrow or Sunday, either -- check back for books and more on Monday.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Can one drink too much caffeine?

Who's asking: Jennifer Jordan, Wisconsin

Jen asks this question on behalf of a certain Midwestern publishing whiz kid she knows: "The man drinks Red Bull allllllllllll day, and as a good friend, I worry."

I would worry about anyone with a taste for Red Bull -- I'm pretty sure that stuff is nothing more than barely-diluted Mountain Dew syrup -- but the caffeine question is a good one.

Caffeine, a naturally-occurring plant alkaloid, is one of many proofs (in my mind) of a God who loves us and wants us to be happy. Caffeine in small to moderate amounts is not only not harmful, but beneficial. It stimulates the central nervous system and acts as a mild diuretic. It is an effective treatment for both migraine headaches and various breathing difficulties, and some studies suggest that drinking coffee can help counteract the liver damage inflicted by alcohol. It does not build up in the body over time.

As always, however, too much of a good thing can mess you up, and I can personally testify to the horrors of caffeine overdose.

Many years ago, I stayed up all night to study for an exam, consuming several pots of double-strength Constant Comment tea. I had my last cup just before leaving for the exam. About 20 minutes into the exam, a powerful wave of wellbeing washed through me. I felt omniscient and omnipotent, as if I could get up and fly around the room. Bluebook in front of me, I prepared to write the greatest German exam in Georgetown history...

Then my face flushed bright red, and I broke out into a cold sweat. My hands started to shake, and my heart started pounding so hard I could hear the blood in my ear canals. I felt dizzy and nauseated, and nearly passed out.

Instead I stumbled to the restroom, where the night's tea made a hasty exit. My symptoms disappeared immediately, leaving me so tired I could barely stay awake for the exam.

According to the medical descriptions of caffeine overdose, my experience was typical. The body rids itself of caffeine quickly and efficiently in most cases of overdose, but in extreme situations, people can go into cardiac arrhythmia and convulsions, and -- on rare occasion -- even die.

Chronic caffeine overuse is a different issue. Caffeine sensitivity varies wildly among individuals. Because caffeine is physically addictive, people do build up a tolerance to it. The real problem with excessive use of caffeine over time is what happens when you try to quit, or can't maintain your regular consumption levels. Caffeine withdrawal can cause paralyzing headaches, muscle aches, fatigue, nausea, depression and -- surprisingly -- sleeplessness. If you want to quit caffeine, taper off over time rather than trying to go cold turkey. If you're a hard-core addict at risk of being cut off from your supply, carry a bottle of Excedrin with you; two Excedrin have enough caffeine to fend off the worst symptoms of withdrawal.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Is that a Dalmatian?

Who's asking: Various neighbors and complete strangers, at least once a day

Dizzy has a black head with white spots and a white body with black spots, and many people assume that any black-and-white spotted dog must be a Dalmatian. Because he was a five-month-old stray when I adopted him, I don't actually know what he is, but my California vet's best guess was a mix of pointer and Lab. Dizzy has a Lab head and build, with pointer markings.

So when people ask me this question, I say, "No, he's pointer and Lab." Four times out of five, the person asking the question will say, "Huh. He looks like a Dalmatian."

This annoys me way more than it should, but Dizzy doesn't look anything like a Dalmatian. Dalmatians are smaller and more slightly-built, topping out at about 70 pounds. (Dizzy's fighting weight is about 80 pounds.) The Dalmatian breed standard calls for "round and well-defined spots, the more distinct the better." Dizzy's spots look like he knocked a can of black paint off a ladder.

Because I am a moron and my external hard drive isn't working, I can't post a photo of Dizzy today, but you can see one here. You can see some very cute pictures of Dalmatians here. Not the same type of dog at all.

No iPod Shuffle mix this morning, because I'm listening to The Who's new album, Endless Wire, an early birthday present from my friend Gary. Thanks, Gary... and thanks, Pete. You both rule.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

What happened to my hair?

Who's asking: Sean Doolittle, Omaha, NE

Hey, have you voted yet? No? Then what are you doing reading this post? If you have time to surf the Internet, you have time to vote. Go vote, then come back and read this later. Thanks.

Okay, let me say this first: I find bald men who embrace their baldness -- by shaving their heads or keeping their hair very short -- extremely attractive. There's a confidence that goes with being fearlessly bald that no well-coiffed man can hope to achieve. And nothing is sadder than the men who cling to those last strands of hair, combing them sideways or forward in a losing effort that fools no one. Give it up, guys, and let your light shine (off the tops of your heads).

Without having access to your medical records, Sean, I'm guessing that your hair loss is a case of standard male pattern baldness, or androgenetic alopecia (androgenetic = related to masculinity, alopecia = hair loss). This is an genetic trait that, contrary to conventional wisdom, can be inherited from either the mother's or the father's side. Everyone's hair falls out all the time; what happens in male pattern baldness is that these hairs don't get replaced, because high levels of a hormone called dihydrotestosterone (DHT) cause the hair follicles to shrink and become inactive. Weirdly, this hormone only affects the follicles on top of the head, so hair on the rest of a man's body, up the neck and to about the tops of the ears, can grow as bushy as ever. (In these cases, I highly recommend judicious use of a razor.)

Baldness in primate species is the mark of the alpha male, and -- perhaps counterintuitively -- makes men look younger, after a certain point. A good friend of mine has been bald for as long as I've known him, going on 20 years now. Twenty years ago, at the age of 29, he looked ten years older than his age; now, as he approaches 50, he looks ten years younger.

People can lose their hair for other reasons besides male pattern baldness, so anyone who experiences sudden hair loss should go see a doctor. Nutritional deficiencies, exposure to radiation or certain poisons, and some serious illnesses can all cause sudden hair loss. Baldness can also be caused by alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that can cause hair loss not only on one's head, but anywhere on the body. (Since you have eyebrows, Sean, I'm guessing this isn't your problem.)