Saturday, January 30, 2010

Five Attractions at My Fantasy Theme Park

Just before I woke up this morning, I dreamt I was at a theme park that seemed to be based on the "Grammar Rock" cartoons of my childhood. It was a good dream, and I didn't want to wake up, but once I realized it was a dream, it was over.

A cup of coffee later, I'm still loving this idea. Does anything like it exist? In Los Angeles, I briefly dated a man who designed rides and "experiences" for theme parks, and I wish I'd learned more from him about how that process works. (And no, even my insatiable thirst for knowledge is not enough for me to want to get back in touch.) But if I won the lottery — slightly less likely than it might otherwise be, since I never play the lottery — I might build my own Grammar Rock theme park, and these would be some of the features. Of course, every sign in the park would be spelled correctly, and nothing would end in a preposition.

1. Unpacking Your Adjectives. Every park visitor would receive a package of ten large magnets, each bearing a random adjective — "big," "shiny," "crunchy," "moist," and so on (okay, maybe not "moist"). Almost every entrance or attraction in the park would have a surface where visitors could leave their adjectives, like refrigerator poetry. If you wanted more than 10 adjectives, or a specific set of adjectives, you could buy more in the gift shop.

2. Conjunction Junction. A bumper car ride with a difference: one side of your car would say "and," but the other side would say "or," and the sides would say "but." If you hit another car with "and," you'd be briefly connected; if you hit one with "but," you'd repel each other, and "or" would let you slide right by. Too complicated? I'd have engineers figure it out.

3. Apostrophe Avalanche. Every theme park needs a rollercoaster. This one would teach riders about the proper use of apostrophes by building the tracks around the consonants removed to form contractions. You'd be pulled up the Disappearing A, drop through the Missing O, and swing around the Unnecessary E. It would be a two-track ride that would end with parallel cars hooked together, to illustrate the use of the apostrophe for possessives.

4. The Plurals Fun House. Primarily a hall of mirrors, this would also have detours, drops and surprises for irregular plurals such as "children" and "mice."

5. Interjections! would be some kind of bouncy ride — a bungee drop, or a trampoline, with a light show that would suggest G-rated interjections: "Hey! Wow! Gosh!" Once a month, we'd open the park for an adults-only evening where the interjections would get a little rougher.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Special Guest Post: TOM EHRENFELD Offers Five Defenses of the iPad

I'm in Washington, DC today, catching up on some work and trying to figure out why I cannot escape from snow. Plans to spend tomorrow in Richmond may be foiled by the prospect of six inches of snowfall in an area that rarely gets any. While I'm being distracted by the demands of travel and conflicting priorities, my friend and early Mac-adopter Tom Ehrenfeld offers his thoughts on the iPad. I will never be able to afford one, so this is an academic discussion for me, but I will say that I love my iPod Touch. Oh, and my MacBook. If anyone at Apple would like to offer me an iPad for review, I'd be glad to send them my address . . .

So finally the iPad is revealed to the masses. And since the announcement of this new device (do I need to go into details to you burned out folks?), it seems that everyone who knows anything about devices has concluded that this shiny new thing is just an expanded version of the iPod Touch. Could they just shut the fuck up? Here are five reasons why this could be so very much more:

1. Have you seen the iPod Touch? This little thing that's half the size of a deck of cards can play music, run your bank account, identify songs, make restaurant reservations, give you a recipe for flan while you're in the supermarket, contact AAA when you're stranded, and perform a tracheotomy in the wilderness. (Well, everything but the bank account parts.) Talk about taking things for frickin granted! And now you can get everything that comes with an iPod Touch (including the ability to immediately transfer each and every app you own) on a device that's much larger, seemingly faster, and with about four times the screen size. If that were all that this thing was, then it would be pretty amazing.

2. This is the first time in years that I've felt a glimmer of hope for newspapers. I loves the New York Times on paper, but do feel that this is a quaint and endangered way of consuming news. And while I read the paper on the Internet, it still doesn't feel quite right to me. The very limited demo I saw of the Times on this device was very exciting — it seems to me that finally there's a right way to do what were once newspapers digitally, and this device will hasten that in a good way.

3. Unfortunately, what you see is not what you will ultimately get. Not only do I expect Apple to add more stuff (camera, multitouch capability, etc.) but the real value of the pad will be realized when folks start writing apps for it. I am already blown away by the things that my iPhone does. And I believe that in a very short time folks will invent amazing things for this tablet to do. Apple has opened up the software, and hopefully it will get better at the process of working with outsiders so as to engender more great stuff.

4. It's NOT just a big iPod Touch. Apple has never been about the very most cutting-edge technology in terms of specific technical qualities. The genius of Apple has always been the way that its products integrate cutting-edge technology to produce something that folks can USE in new and imaginative and deeply deeply satisfying ways. These things solve problems you didn't realize you had or create new experiences you hadn't quite imagined, but make perfect sense once you start experiencing them. The iPhone was not just a juiced-up phone or phone-with-music; ultimately it was something a bit more than anything that preceded it. Until folks have actually used this thing — watched movies and used the iWork suite and tried it out in contexts they hadn't really imagined — then it's ridiculous to dis the device by unimaginatively comparing it to the last generation of products. It's all about how you use it, and I believe folks will ultimately USE this differently than they do the iTouch.

5. Finally, despite what seems like drooling fanboy defense of Apple, I'm really burned out by experts and hype about its stuff. I love Apple products and have used them for many many years, but I'm just as weary of the endless chatter as anyone else. And I think that the folks who are quick with their smug "just a big iPod Touch" are basically know-it-alls who have never touched the device. Being underwhelmed by this device is in some ways a smug and under-informed way of showing off one's tech cred. I'm bored with it. I want to get my hands on one of these things; I want to read a book on one.

And this is the last thing I'll write about it!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Five Good Books I've Read or Listened to Lately

Greetings from New York City, where I'm visiting for slightly less than 24 hours. My usual host has fled to the other side of the country this week, so I'm camping out at the adorable and funky Pod Hotel, on 51st Street between 2nd and 3rd. I have a room that is approximately the size of a ship's single cabin, with bunk beds, a tiny sink, and a desk just large enough to hold my laptop and a telephone. It's all very clean, and a crazy bargain at $69/night. (You have to share a bathroom, but those are very clean, too — cleaner than the ones in my old gym used to be, anyway.)

Anyway, it occurred to me that it's been a long time since I posted a reading list, and I'm not sure why that is. It's not that I'm reading any less, but more and more of my reading these days is client-directed and/or presumably confidential. Also, I read a string of books at the beginning of the year that I didn't like at all, and I don't see the point of mentioning a book in this blog just to trash it. (Especially when those books, sometimes, are written by people within my circle of acquaintances.)

So here are five books I've read or listened to lately of my own accord, and liked. What have you been reading lately?

1. NETHERLAND by Joseph O'Neill. In the years after the September 11 attack, Hans, a Dutch banker, finds himself alone and unanchored in Manhattan. His wife has gone home to London, taking their young son with her, and he lives neither here nor there, drifting in some unidentifiable middle space. The only things that seem real to him are cricket, which he plays in a league out in Brooklyn, and his friend Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian emigre who dreams of building a cricket stadium in downtown New York. In the present day, the discovery of Ramkissoon's murdered body reminds Hans of this time and this connection, and he tells us the story in a dreamlike memoir that muses on the nature of friendship, nationality, and belonging.

2. THE MAGIC CITY by E. Nesbit. I'd never read any E. Nesbit (no, not even THE RAILWAY CHILDREN, which embarrasses me), so a friend sent me his own childhood favorite. It's quite wonderful, and a natural favorite for anyone who might grow up to be a writer. Peter, whose quiet, happy life with his much-older sister is disrupted when the sister marries a childhood friend, builds a city that becomes real, and offers him and his new sort-of stepsister (or step-niece, officially) Lucy all kinds of adventures. Inspired by Greek mythology and Bible stories, and an obvious precursor to later classic children's novels such as THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH.

3. FOOL by Christopher Moore. Yes, I know I read this book already, but I listened to the audio recording last week, and the audiobook is such a completely different (but equally delightful) experience that I have to recommend it separately. Make no mistake: FOOL is full of what the narrator calls "heinous fuckery," imaginatively bad language, extreme violence and rampant sexual misconduct, and things you might have just skimmed over on the page are far more vivid (and hilarious) on audio.

4. HANNAH'S DREAM by Diane Hammond. A sweet and simple novel about the love between small-town elephant keeper Samson Brown, nearing retirement at 68, and Hannah, the 44-year-old Asian elephant that has been his responsibility for 41 years. Sam needs to retire, but he can't leave Hannah on her own, in a yard too small and with no family. He dreams of a place where she can move freely, with other elephants, and a new keeper has some ideas about how to make it happen. If you can finish this book without shedding a few tears, I don't think we should be friends anymore.

5. THE UNDERGROUND MAN by Ross Macdonald. Another audiobook, my company on yesterday's drive from Maine to Washington, DC. Lew Archer goes looking for a missing six-year-old boy in a town on the California coast where a wildfire is burning out of control. The boy's father turns up dead, and two apparently unconnected young people take the little boy on the run. Archer's investigation leads to the discovery of more dead bodies — some new, some old — and the untangling of 15-year-old secrets. This is late-era Macdonald, and if you've read the earlier books, the answers won't come as a surprise. That's not the point, though; this is Archer in Winter, coming in sorrow rather than in anger, trying to make sense of a society where even the birds can't raise their children to adulthood. The birds, at least, are poisoned by pesticides; the humans are poisoned by their own selfishness.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Five Favorite Libraries

On this date in 1802, President Thomas Jefferson signed a law to define the role and function of a Capitol Library, and created the office of Librarian of Congress. Jefferson believed in libraries in general, and in the Library of Congress in particular; he appointed the first two Librarians, and made many suggestions about books to acquire. When the British burned the Library to the ground in 1814, Jefferson sold the nation his personal library, judged the finest in the country.

The Library held 3,000 volumes when the British burned it down; Jefferson's library, transferred to the nation in 1815, totaled 6,487 volumes. It covered a much wider range of subjects than the original collection, because, as he wrote, there was "no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer." This belief in the need for universal knowledge defined the role of the Library of Congress going forward, and today it is not only an American treasure but a human one.

Hanging above my kitchen sink is an ornament I particularly treasure, for sentimental reasons but also for itself; it honors the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Library of Congress, and includes a quotation from Thomas Carlyle: "In books lies the soul of the whole Past Time." I'm hitting the road today for about a week, and in that time I plan to visit at least five great libraries.

1. The New York Public Library. The New York Public Library is actually a citywide network of libraries, but I mean the big one, on Bryant Park. Since 2008, this has been called the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, in recognition of a $100 million donation from Schwarzman, co-founder of the Blackstone Group and a trustee of the Library. The NYPL, unlike many other public libraries, has always been funded in large part by private donations, and its original collection was a combination of two privately-endowed libraries: the Astor Library and the Lenox Library. Those collections, with a massive bequest from former New York Governor Samuel Tilden, provided the core of the Library built on the former site of the Croton Reservoir, at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. (A large donation from Andrew Carnegie paid for the construction of most of the NYPL's branches.) Today, it's a breathtaking building that is also a top-notch research library, in many ways easier to use than the Library of Congress. The lions outside the library were originally named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, but Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia renamed them Patience and Fortitude during the Great Depression.

2. The Morgan Library. One of my favorite places to visit in New York City. I've never had a reason to use the research library itself, but it's just barely possible that the project I'm working on might lead me there. Built at the turn of the last century next door to Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan's personal residence at Madison & 36th Street, the Morgan Library is an Italian Renaissance-style palazzo that holds an extraordinary trove of original manuscripts, including original Mozart compositions, Thoreau's Walden journals, and the sole surviving manuscript of Paradise Lost. It's currently offering an exhibition of Jane Austen's manuscripts and letters, which I plan to visit on Thursday.

3. The Folger Shakespeare Library. The Folger is a magical place for Shakespeare lovers to visit, and has great lectures and events; I saw Robertson Davies speak there, not long before he died. I will eventually need to look at some things in the Folger collection for the project I'm working on, and will need to apply for a special-permission reader's card to do so — but that probably won't be until sometime this summer.

4. The Library of Congress. Thieves and terrorists have made it much more difficult to use the Library of Congress than it used to be, but it's still open to the public, and it's still an invaluable and almost endless source of primary materials. More and more of the Library's collection is now available in digital format, which is extremely convenient, and people anywhere can use the "Ask a Librarian" feature of the website to find what they're looking for without a trip to Washington, DC.

5. The Gardiner Public Library. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: my own town has a remarkably good library for its size, and the MINERVA network makes the entire library system of the state of Maine available to me. Time and time again, I've been amazed by what I've been able to find through the MINERVA system, and how quickly books get from one side of the state to the other.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Five Favorite Robert B. Parker Novels

I meant to post this yesterday, but the day got away from me — as the week and the entire month have. Here it is January 23, and I am in Maine when I had not planned to be, and feeling rather frustrated and thwarted and annoyed and several things I generally hate to be. But tonight I'm going to see Monmouth Community Players' production of "Love, Sex and the IRS," so it's an ill wind that blows no good.

The passing of Robert B. Parker, earlier this week, feels like the end of an era. Parker, whom I was lucky enough to meet a few times, was such a distinctive and iconic figure that he flirted with self-parody. He was not Spenser, he said, but Spenser was undoubtedly a wish-fulfillment version of him.

Spenser never retired, and neither did Parker. Reports say that he died at his desk, working on the next book; I haven't heard whether that book was a Spenser novel, a Sunny Randall, a Jesse Stone, or something else. SPLIT IMAGE, the ninth Jesse Stone novel, will be published in February.

Parker wrote or co-wrote 70 books over a career that spanned just over 36 years. (He was 41 when the first Parker novel was published, which should inspire anyone thinking about a midlife career change.) Some of those books were better than others; some of those books felt perfunctory, to put it kindly. But more than anyone else, Robert B. Parker deserves credit for bringing the hard-boiled detective novel into the late 20th century, and beyond. His loss leaves a hole that no one can fill.

These are my own five favorites. Leave yours in the comments section.

1. CEREMONY, 1982. A Spenser novel, the ninth. Spenser reluctantly agrees to find missing teenager April Kyle; he refuses when her father, a loud and obnoxious insurance salesman, tries to hire him, but agrees to do it for April's mother, at the urging of Susan Silverman. (His fee is a dollar; I always wondered how Spenser's finances worked.) Following April's trail, he finds a web of kinky prostitution and child pornography, which April seems to have embraced. Spenser and Susan rescue her, but April persuades them not to return her to her parents, and they find a place for her in an unexpected refuge. I read CEREMONY sometime in college, and its moral ambiguity both shocked and comforted me. Although Spenser's own moral code is fairly rigid, he acknowledges in this book that he doesn't live in a black-and-white world. It is interesting to compare this book with Dennis Lehane's GONE BABY GONE.

2. A CATSKILL EAGLE, 1985. Another story of moral ambiguities and the realization that every choice limits future choices. Spenser's on-again, off-again relationship with psychotherapist Susan Silverman got annoying, then ridiculous, but everything you need to know about their connection is in this book. That said, the more interesting relationship here is the one between Spenser and Hawk, not the one between Spenser and Susan. Susan, having fled to the West Coast to find out who she is without Spenser, calls Spenser to tell him that Hawk has been jailed, and that she is worried that she too may be in some trouble. She's taken up with the heir to a major business conglomerate that makes most of its money dealing arms; her new boyfriend's father, Jerry Costigan, is a man the FBI and CIA would like to see out of the picture. Spenser busts Hawk out of prison, and cuts a deal with the Feds to assassinate Jerry Costigan in exchange for immunity.

3. SMALL VICES, 1997. Spenser shows his age for the first time in this novel; he's a Korean War vet, after all, and aging more or less in real time, though Spenser at 60 is still one badass mofo. When Spenser's investigation theatens to prove the innocence of a man convicted of murder, the real murderer — a mysterious figure known as the Gray Man — shoots and nearly kills Spenser. Spenser retreats to Santa Barbara for a long rehabilitation in the company of Susan and Hawk, and makes his way back with a renewed understanding of what really matters to him.

4. FAMILY HONOR, 1999. Introduces Boston PI Sunny Randall; I read a review that said Parker created this series with the idea that it would become a TV series starring his friend Helen Hunt. That's interesting, because I've never imagined Sunny Randall as a blonde. Nevertheless, Sunny is a believable female protagonist, and very different from Spenser. Her Boston terrier, Rosie, is an equally vivid character, and Parker does a brilliant job of giving us Sunny's backstory: she originally wanted to be a painter, and has loving but exasperated relationships with her parents and her ex-husband. Her ex-husband, in fact, plays a key role in this book's investigation, the hunt for a politician's runaway daughter.

5. ALL OUR YESTERDAYS, 1994. A sweeping saga about three generations of two Boston families, the Sheridans and the Winslows, whose fates are inextricably linked. Some critics hammered this book for its melodrama and sentimentality, but I didn't care, and still don't. The characters were people I recognized (in some cases, from my own extended family), and I bought into it and was thoroughly entertained. If memory serves, my Grandma Lamb lent me this book, and she loved it too. I hope I told Mr. Parker that my grandmother loved this book; I meant to.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Five Most-Played Songs in my iTunes Playlist

Today's post is a barefaced ripoff from a longer, more clever post by my pal Declan Hughes, whose books you should be reading. But I have some things to do today, and I'm not feeling very creative, and it's a brilliant idea for a List of Five, so here we go. I'll be fascinated to see your own lists of most-played songs; leave them in the comments section.

1. "Alex Chilton," The Replacements. From Pleased to Meet Me (1987). Far and away the most-played track in my iTunes library, beating #2 by 19 plays. No matter how bad my day is, this song is an instant mood lifter; the opening chords make me smile. "Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes round . . ." I actually saw Alex Chilton live at the Birchmere, in one of the strangest and most disappointing performances I've ever attended. He was sullen and uncommunicative, and chain-smoked through the entire set, storing his burning cigarette under the strings on his tuning pegs during songs. But that doesn't matter; he lives forever in Paul Westerberg's imagination.

2. "Bizarre Love Triangle," New Order. From The Best of New Order, 1994. I bought this CD at the going-out-of-business sale of the late, lamented Serenade Records Store, which used to be at 1800 M Street NW in Washington, DC. The lyrics are a plea from someone in a committed relationship who's fallen in love with someone else, and I should disapprove of that. Yeah, yeah, yeah, adultery is bad, but something about this song just feels head-bustingly optimistic: "Every time I think of you I feel shot right through with a bolt of blue," is how it starts, and this version distills everything great about that first feeling of falling in love. I love the Nouvelle Vague cover, which turns the song into something much more wistful, and like the heart-wrenching Frente! version as well, but this is the original, and still the best.

3. "Birdhouse in Your Soul," They Might Be Giants. From Flood, 1990. A song of devotion from the point of view of a blue canary nightlight, and do we have enough of those? I think not. "Not to put too fine a point on it/Say I'm the only bee in your bonnet/Make a little birdhouse in your soul."

4. "It's a Shame About Ray," The Lemonheads. From the album of the same name, 1992. I just noticed that all of these songs come from roughly the same era, and that era was approximately 20 years ago. I am now as far away from my favorite music as my parents were from 1950s rock-and-roll when I was a little kid. How does this happen? I do have new tracks on my playlist; there's a song from 2006 ("Roscoe," from Midlake's Trials of Van Occupanther) in my Top 25. Although when you average that out with tracks from the Monkees ("I'm a Believer," #20) and The Tams ("Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy," #23), it does still even out to the late '80s/early '90s . . . sigh. I am who I am. And that is middle-aged.

5. "Fisherman's Blues," The Waterboys. From the album of the same name, 1988. Although this record came out in 1988, I didn't hear it for the first time until February 1989, on a weekend visit to my friends Scott and Nancy, who were in graduate school in Williamsburg. This album became part of my soundtrack for the year that followed, a year that seemed infinite with possibilities. All I have to do to bring that feeling back is listen to this song. That link goes to video of a live performance of this song; if you ever get a chance to see The Waterboys live, don't miss it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Five Items off Capital Area Police Blotters Last Week

Central Maine's a pretty quiet place. Lots of people own guns — maybe even most people own guns — but they generally use them on deer and moose and birds, not people. Everybody notices everything, and it's hard to keep anything secret (although the things that do stay secret tend to be very bad indeed).

The local newspapers report the contents of area police blotters weekly, and it's always an entertaining read. We do have incidents of domestic violence, and last week's summary included a sexual assault and a couple of drunk-driving offenses — but it also included some things you wouldn't see on police blotters in big cities. I'd love to know more about these items, from last Thursday's Capital Weekly:

1. Hallowell, January 10: A Winthrop Street caller reported she'd been robbed of $50,000. Winthrop Street in Hallowell includes City Hall, a branch of the Savings Bank of Maine, a halfway house, and HallDale Elementary, among other things. This seems like big news, but I didn't see any more about it, and wouldn't we have heard about a bank robbery in Hallowell? Was there a bank robbery in Hallowell? If you know about this, pipe up in the comments section.

2. Gardiner, January 10: On West Hill Road, a person sporting a Dale Earnhardt jacket was reportedly flipping off people and yelling at motorists near New Mills Market. The subject was given a lift to the service plaza. That plaza serves I-95, which makes me wonder whether this was just a modern way of taking undesirables to the town line and sending them on their way. It's only a couple of miles from the New Mills Market to the service plaza, but it's probably not safe to walk it in the dark.

3. Augusta, January 9: At 9:08 a.m., owners of five vehicles parked at the Augusta Civic Center reported that their tires had been punctured in the sidewalls with a sharp object and flattened. Trouble-making kids, or someone with a grudge? Either way, up and busy early on a Saturday morning.

4. Gardiner, January 7: On Gowell Drive, a man reported that a motorist was following him around town, and he wasn't sure why. At dinner Monday night, I heard a story about a serial stalker who used to follow women around in downtown Gardiner, but that man is long gone. Still, I'm always interested in stories like this one. Why would someone follow a stranger, and what's that fantasy? Do stalkers think their prey will turn around and say, "Hello! Won't you come home and have dinner? I've been waiting for you all my life"?

5. Gardiner, January 6: A Summer Street man was reportedly barbecuing raccoon pelts. The man had a hunting license and was allowed to barbecue the pelts. Okay, someone please explain to me why one would barbecue raccoon pelts, how this is done, and what one does with them once they're barbecued. They're not edible, are they? Of course I needed to look up the rules for hunting raccoons, and found this: "Raccoons may be hunted at night during the open season only when the hunter is: a) accompanied by a dog; b) uses an electric flashlight to locate raccoons that are treed, or held at bay, by a dog or dogs, and; c) uses a rifle or handgun of no greater power than one which uses .22 caliber long rifle ammunition; said rifle to be loaded only when being used to dispatch a raccoon that is treed or held at bay by dogs." Raccoon season, if you're interested, runs October 1 through December 31.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Five Things on My Bucket List

This is not the post I had planned for today. I'll probably use that one tomorrow, but I've just seen an unconfirmed report of the death of Robert B. Parker. I'm hoping this is just a rumor; if it's not, Mr. Parker will get his own post later in the week. (Updated to add: the news has been confirmed by Mr. Parker's family. What a terrible loss, and my deepest sympathies to his family and friends.) But the combination of this with the fourth anniversary of my mother's death, last week, reminds me about the sands rushing through the hourglass. These are five things I'd like to do before I go, and I'm feeling a sense of urgency.

1. See the Northern Lights. The aurora borealis are visible in northern Maine, when they're active. I need to go up to Jackman or Millinocket and see them. They say the best viewing is at the new moon, and the aurora is supposed to be more active around the times of equinox; maybe I'll go up in mid-March. The new moon's on March 15.

2. Learn to play the piano. Santa, in the form of my friend Gary, gave me a full-sized keyboard for Christmas last year; so far, all I've done is fool around with it. I bought some "teach yourself" books, but I know this about myself: I'll only do the work if someone else is making me feel guilty for not doing it. I need to take some lessons.

3. Take a walking holiday. I would love to walk some portion of the Camino de Santiago de Campostela, but even a week's ramble would make me happy. Planes and cars fool us about the real distances between places, and I want to see what the world looks like at street level.

4. Go to Antarctica. I would like to see Antarctica. Over time I have realized the impracticality of applying for a job at McMurdo Station. A fellowship through NSF Artists and Writers program would be beyond me, since I am neither an artist nor a "real" writer; also, the program is currently on hiatus. But I want to see it. If I believed in reincarnation — which I don't — I might wonder whether I'd been there before.

5. Live abroad. I've lived (and do live) in places radically different from the area where I grew up, Tidewater Virginia, but I would like to spend a year living in a country that is not my own. My theory is that you can't fully understand your nationality until you import it into a foreign country. My brother James spends months at a time on jobs in Japan (he's there now, in fact), and while I don't envy him the homesickness, I envy him the chance to see what it feels like to be the American minority.

All of these things would be more fun in the company of my family and friends, so if anybody wants to take a road trip to Fort Kent, teach me piano, or hire me to housesit their pied-a-terre in Paris, get in touch.

What's on your bucket list?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Five Quotations from Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yes, he was flawed; yes, he distilled and recycled the thinking of many who came before him. He'd have admitted both of those things himself. But Martin Luther King, Jr. was and is a powerful symbol of our desire to be our best selves, and our moral imperative to recognize the value of every other person, whatever the color of our skins. I'm glad we have this holiday. It says a lot not only about who we are, as Americans, but who we want ourselves to be.

1. "[T]here comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right." From "Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution," a sermon at the National Cathedral, March 31, 1968.

2. "[F]reedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." From "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," April 16, 1963.

3. "I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the 'isness' of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal 'oughtness' that forever confronts him." From the Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1964.

4. "It is true that behavior cannot be legislated, and legislation cannot make you love me, but legislation can restrain you from lynching me, and I think that is kind of important." From a speech at Oberlin College, October 22, 1964. This sums up everything that matters about civil rights legislation, or about any law that protects a persecuted minority.

5. "Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis." From the last presidential address Dr. King delivered to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, August 16, 1967. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an extraordinary political thinker, as well as a religious leader and a social visionary. This address contemplates a mixed economy that some might call socialist; I don't think he's talking about socialism, I think he's talking about a different kind of post-capitalist system. Dr. King's premature death cut off this conversation, and the fact that our politicians didn't have the time or forum to talk about these ideas led to some bad decisions and overreactions in the 1970s, when the United States faced unprecedented shortages and bottlenecks. It's impossible to know what Dr. King might have gone on to do or say or be, but this speech suggests the work that he might consider left undone, to this day.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Five Diseases Prevented by Basic Sanitation

I'm getting out of the apartment this morning to build sets at Gaslight, and grateful for the excuse to tear myself away from the television. I can't stop watching the coverage of the Haiti disaster.

My sophomore roommate and dear friend from college, Laurie Richardson, has been a community development worker in Haiti since the mid-1990s. We lost touch — communications between here and Haiti were a challenge even before last year's hurricane or this year's earthquake — and now I'm hoping against hope to see her face on my television screen, or hear her name, or see it listed among American survivors. If any visitors to this blog know Laurie, or have heard from her, can you please let me know? And this is a cautionary tale: if you've lost touch with people who are important to you, take ten minutes today to send them a postcard or an email, or pick up the phone. You don't always have the time you think you have.

Anyway, the news coverage has emphasized the importance of getting help in fast — not only to prevent additional deaths with water and food, but also to try to forestall the outbreak of diseases caused by the breakdown of what little infrastructure was in place. These are five diseases people in developed nations usually don't have to worry about, which are just waiting for opportunities like this.

Contrary to popular belief, the unburied dead aren't the major source of disease in the aftermath of a disaster; the unwashed survivors are.

1. Cholera. Cholera is a bacterial infection of the intestines, and can be mild or severe. In severe cases, people die of dehydration and shock after a day or two of violent diarrhea and vomiting. It is spread by contaminated food and water, but that's a euphemism; the bacteria lives in the fecal matter of its victims, and the contamination spreads in areas that don't have sewers or water treatment programs. In clean, well-lighted places, it is easy to prevent and easy to treat; when infrastructures break down, it is one of the first diseases to attack.

2. Typhoid Fever. Another bacterial infection of the intestines, spread in the same way. It's a life-threatening illness that continues to affect more than 21 million people around the world every year; it can kill you, or it can give you no symptoms at all (as in the notorious case of Typhoid Mary). It is relatively easy to treat with antibiotics, and vaccines exist; these vaccines are effective for a period of years, but need boosters every 2-5 years, depending on the type. A major danger of typhoid is the fact that people can be infected without realizing it, and remain contagious for a period of time after their symptoms are gone. Travelers abroad can protect themselves from typhoid by following the rule "Boil it, cook it, peel it, or forget it," but that is not possible for the people of Haiti. In fact, Haiti had outbreaks of typhoid in 2004 and 2003.

3. Hepatitis A.
An acute viral infection of the liver, spread through fecal contamination. Victims are contagious well before they show symptoms. The Hep-A virus is resilient and not always easily killed by basic hygiene practices, which is why most American infants are now vaccinated against it, and hepatitis A vaccines were recommended for all visitors to Haiti even before the earthquake. The good news is that Hep-A is, in most cases, "self-limiting" — that is, most victims recover within a certain period of time, with no permanent damage, and the mortality rate is very low.

4. Leptospirosis. Rising numbers of leptospirosis cases in humans had been reported before the earthquake, and since this is another water-borne disease (transmitted through the urine of infected animals), it's likely that we'll see more of this as well. It is endemic among animals in certain parts of the United States, and Dizzy gets vaccinated against it. In humans, it causes high fevers, chills, body aches, vomiting and diarrhea; left untreated, it becomes Weil's disease, and can cause death by kidney failure, liver failure, or meningitis. It too is relatively easy to treat with basic antibiotics, if it's caught early enough.

5. HIV. In developed countries, we protect ourselves from HIV with basic hygiene practices, avoiding exposure to contaminated blood, and using condoms. These things will not be possible for many in Haiti in the weeks ahead. We think of Haiti as being rife with HIV, and the infection rate was among the highest in the world in the 1980s; but Haiti has been a success story in the management of HIV infection and AIDS treatment, and the infection rates have declined dramatically. Partners in Health, a Boston-based nonprofit organization, and GHESKIO, the Haitian nongovernmental organization dedicated to HIV/AIDS and related infections, have created programs that have lowered Haiti's HIV infection rate to 2.2% — still high, but much, much lower than many other parts of the world. But the earthquake has disrupted and will disrupt the treatment and prevention programs, and the extent of this disaster may well mean that people are exposed to infected blood. Partners in Health has sent out a call for medical volunteers and supplies; if you can help, click here.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Five Things I Missed by Skipping Sixth Grade

I didn't go to sixth grade. I went to a small private school that went, at the time, from pre-kindergarten through seventh grade (now it goes through eighth grade), and when I was in school, the sixth and seventh grades occupied the same classroom. I wasn't privy to the discussions about whether or why I should skip the sixth grade, but I will say that I'd have been annoyed to sit through sixth-grade classes if I thought they were doing something more interesting on the other side of the room.

That said, every so often I'll still come across things I don't know, or never learned, because they were part of the sixth-grade curriculum. Last night, for example, I realized that I've never been inside the Virginia State Capitol — which is weird, because I grew up in Virginia and lived there for several years after college, too. I think — I'm not sure of this, but I think — my school's sixth grade class went there on a field trip, which I missed for obvious reasons. If any of my old classmates check in here, can you confirm or refute this?

Anyway, I found this site, which lists the typical course of study for sixth graders, and was relieved to find that I did pick up most of these topics somewhere along the way. But gaps remain, which make me wonder whether I ought to audit a few classes at Gardiner Regional Middle School.

1. World Geography. I like maps — in fact, I'll go so far as to say I'm good at maps — but I am hopeless at geography. Never took it in college, either (it's now a prerequisite for the program I did, and should have been when I was there). I lost on "Jeopardy!" because of my ignorance of world rivers. In ninth grade we did "World Cultures," but that presumed a familiarity with the globe that I didn't have.

2. Personal appearance. The World Book says this should be part of the sixth grade curriculum. Really? In school? While I'm not at all sure that this is classroom material, it is true that my fifth grade classmates spent a lot of sixth grade figuring out the mysteries of Bonne Bell Lip Smackers and curling irons and the appropriate level of fading for blue jeans. My seventh grade class was so small that I only had one female classmate, and she already knew all that stuff; she taught me a few hairstyling tricks, but I never went through that phase of fooling around with makeup and hair products. It's possible that I wouldn't have, even given the opportunity, but it's still a big gap in my knowledge base.

3. Accident prevention. Something else the World Book says we should learn in sixth grade. I'm sure it would have been useful. It would probably be useful even now.

4. Scale drawing. I'm not sure the 6th grade at Baylake Pines did this in math class, but I never learned it. While it's pretty self-explanatory, it's a way of being able to look at things and mentally measure them that I would love to have, and don't.

5. Electricity and its uses. Most of what I know about electricity is self-taught, either through empirical study (don't overload outlets, don't put a 100-watt lightbulb into a 40-watt socket, don't touch live wires with wet hands) or reading (I highly recommend Edison and the Electric Chair, by Mark Essig). Even now, I'd like to take a class on basic principles of electricity. It might come in handy.

What do you remember from sixth grade? What did you read that year?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Five Places to Contribute to the Haiti Relief Effort

It sounds as if things in Haiti are as terrible as they could be — and they weren't good to begin with. Here are five ways to donate to trustworthy organizations that are mobilizing for the relief effort.

1. Text HAITI to 90999 to make an instant $10 donation to the American Red Cross through your cell phone provider. It'll show up on your next phone bill.

2. Make an online donation to the American Red Cross's International Response Fund here.

3. Donate to the Mercy Corps Haiti Earthquake Fund here.

4. Support UNICEF's emergency response in Haiti, targeted specifically to the needs of children, here, or call 1-800-FOR-KIDS to donate by phone.

5. Donate to Catholic Relief Services here to support the work that Catholic Charities of Haiti is already doing to help flood victims in the dioceses of Port-au-Prince, Jacmel, Hinche and Cayes. Haiti is a predominantly Catholic country, and the parishes have local knowledge and distribution networks already in place.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Five Places for a Fine Night Out in Hallowell, Maine

Saturday I met up with some friends for a Girls' Night Out — or more accurately, a Girls' Evening Out, since it started at 5:00 and we were all home by 8:30 (some of us have children, and some had football-related plans for later). But it was a good time, and made me resolve to go out more, despite the challenges of my limited disposable income.

Two towns up the Kennebec River from Gardiner is Hallowell, Maine's smallest official city and an unexpected jewel. The half-mile of Water Street that is downtown Hallowell is packed with restaurants and bars, an excellent art gallery, antique shops and funky stores. Bumper stickers call it "The Little Easy," New Orleans on the Kennebec, and if that's a slight exaggeration, you can still have a rocking good time in Hallowell on a Saturday night. On any given night, you can hear live music in at least one of half a dozen venues. Gaslight Theater puts on four or five shows a year at City Hall, and Peacox Productions, central Maine's premiere female impersonation troupe, uses the hall for three shows of its own. There's always something going on in Hallowell, and it's a major benefit of life in central Maine.

These are my favorite hangouts; fans and residents of Hallowell may note the absence of their own favorites, so feel free to talk them up in the comments section.

1. The Liberal Cup. As far as I know, it's Central Maine's only brewpub; a sister pub, Run of the Mill, opened in Saco last year. On any given night they're pouring five of the 21 beers and ales brewed on site, plus a full bar and a good selection of bottled beers. The menu includes anything you'd want to eat at a bar, plus nightly specials. We had dinner here on Saturday; I had a turkey club with really good avocados, although I think all New England restaurants should stop serving raw tomatoes between November and May. The Cup has trivia on Tuesday nights (currently on hiatus until mid-February) and live music several nights a week.

2. Joyce's. The newest restaurant on Water Street, it's a small and lovely bistro with a big outdoor patio, a back deck that overlooks the river, and an excellent function room upstairs. If you'd rather have cocktails than beer, Joyce's is the place for you. The menu is short and light but excellent, with everything well-made and fresh. Joyce's has music on Thursdays and Fridays, and outdoors on Sundays in the summer.

3. Cafe de Bangkok. You might not think of central Maine as a place to get great Thai food, but you would be wrong. The food here is as good as anything you'll find in Los Angeles or New York, and far more reasonably priced. I don't eat sushi, but I hear the sushi is good here, too. They too have music, but only on special occasions.

4. Hallowell and Wine. A funky, original "bistro and boutique" where you can get a glass of wine, a pizza, and some designer jewelry or a cool handbag. It's a storefront that has been arranged to feel like a friend's living room, with deep couches and comfy chairs and a convincing artificial fireplace. Every time I go in, I wonder why I don't hang out there all the time. Come summertime, when I can theoretically walk home from Hallowell if necessary, I just might. They have live music most nights, as far as I can tell, and a weekly open mike night.

5. Hattie's Chowder House. I do not eat seafood, but Hattie's has plenty on the menu for people like me, including an excellent hamburger. Hattie's is a welcoming, airy space with good service and reasonable prices, and Gaslight's board uses it for meetings when our usual space isn't available.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Five Random Songs

Places to go and things to do today, so this will be short. Gaslight's building sets over at Hallowell City Hall this morning, so join us if you've got some time and a hammer.

1. "Werewolves of London," Warren Zevon. Still sharp, still funny. When I moved to Los Angeles, I had to drink a pina colada at Trader Vic's just because of this song; I saw several men whose hair was perfect, but no one who looked like a werewolf. Then again, you can't always tell.

2. "Shut Up and Kiss Me," Mary Chapin Carpenter. I used to see her live performances at every opportunity, when I lived in Washington. It's been too long since I've seen her in concert.

3. "So Quiet in Here," Van Morrison. This CD (Enlightenment) was part of the soundtrack for my move to Los Angeles in 1999, but I haven't listened to it in ages. Time to pull it out again.

4. "Goldberg Variations, Variation 28 a Deux Claviers," Pius Cheung. The Goldberg Variations arranged for solo marimba, which is beautiful and magical. A gift from my friend Gary; thanks!

5. "Big Time," Peter Gabriel. Wow, several songs this morning I haven't thought about in a very long time; in fact, iTunes tells me I haven't listened to this song since December 2008. I have a vivid memory of hearing this song in a Washington, DC bar called Club Soda, sometime around 1987. That bar is long gone, but I think the sign's still there — Claire, can you confirm this?

Friday, January 08, 2010

Five Great Elvis Presley Songs

Elvis Presley would be 75 years old today, if he'd lived — and who knows, maybe he is. Happy birthday, sir, and in honor of the day, here are my own five favorite Elvis songs. Post yours in the comments.

1. "Suspicious Minds." Written by Mark James, it was Elvis' comeback hit, in 1969. I'd like to be able to claim to remember it from all the way back then, but I'm pretty sure my earliest memories of this song date back only to the early 1970s. Still, it's my all-time favorite, and might make a short list of favorite songs, period. The Fine Young Cannibals do a cover that's almost as good, but nothing carries the emotional weight of Elvis' version.

2. "Don't Be Cruel." Elvis with his usual band, plus the Jordanaires. Written by Otis Blackwell, recorded in 1956, and it still sounds fresher and cleaner than 99% of the stuff on the airwaves now. It would be a perfect dance record, except that it's only 2:02 minutes long.

3. "Burning Love." More late-era Elvis — I know, kind of iconoclastic, isn't it? — but this song's just great. Written by Dennis Linde, recorded by Elvis in 1972. I like Wynonna's cover, too.

4. "Jailhouse Rock." This song by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller was actually written for the movie (1957), which I'm embarrassed to admit I haven't seen. It's rock-and-roll as show tune, and succeeds beautifully on both counts. Every piece of it is genius: the bass line, the straight-forward drum beat, the barrelhouse piano, the guitar solo. And we can't forget the Blues Brothers' version, either.

5. "(You're the) Devil in Disguise." This song shows us what Elvis might have sounded like in a world without rock and roll. John Lennon, criticizing it on a BBC music show, said Elvis sounded like Bing Crosby on this. I'd say Pat Boone, but the point is valid; it's a weird easy-listening vibe, until it heats up and becomes something different altogether. I love the percussion track.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Five Favorite Modern Musicals

Sorry I've been away for a couple of days. I have no excuse, other than a pile of work and a general post-holiday malaise that makes me boring even to myself, much less in a public forum.

But last night I was clicking through the channels (which I never do; the TV is tuned to one of three channels pretty much all the time) and came across a movie I hadn't seen in at least 10 years, which reminded me that sometimes all I need is a little music.

I like musicals. I have friends who don't, who object to them on principle. They can't get past the idea that real life never offers opportunities to break into song, much less organized dance numbers. I say they are not leading the right kind of lives, or bringing sufficient imagination to the everyday. I live in a world where anyone might break into song, at any time. (That is one of several reasons that it's probably best I live alone, but never mind.)

Anyway, modern musicals often acknowledge this implausibility, and therefore give their characters reasons to sing and dance. Some of the movies on this list do that, and some of them don't even pretend. Leave your own recommendations in the comments section.

1. Absolute Beginners, 1986. Directed by Julien Temple from a screenplay by Richard Burridge, Don McPherson and Christopher Wicking, developed by Michael Hamlin from the novel by Colin MacInnes, with additional dialogue by Terry Johnson. Don't think too much about this movie, which works best as spectacle; the paper-thin plot revolves around Colin (Eddie O'Connell, and whatever happened to him?) and Suzette, whose romance is destroyed by ambition, and race riots in London in the late 1950s. David Bowie, as an advertising executive, steals the show with a dazzling production number called "That's Motivation," and sings the title song, which is still in heavy rotation on my iTunes playlist.

2. Across the Universe, 2007. Directed by Julie Taymor from a screenplay by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, based on a story by Clement, La Frenais and Taymor. I don't know why this movie didn't get more attention, or why its stars — particularly Jim Sturgess and Joe Anderson — aren't household names. It's a musical based on the music of the Beatles. Yes, the plot is silly; yes, it's a little long and a little self-indulgent, and we really didn't need that big production number with Eddie Izzard (though it looks and sounds great). But the art direction is spectacular, the music is wonderful, and the whole thing me me happy. Which is what musicals are for, dammit.

3. The Commitments, 1991. Directed by Alan Parker from a screenplay by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, and Roddy Doyle, based on the novel by Roddy Doyle. This was the movie I watched last night, and it was even better than I remembered. The music is organic to the plot, since the movie is about the short life of a Dublin soul band. The music is great, and the movie has wonderful things to say about the life of an artist and about the nature of Irishness: "Sure we could have been famous and made albums and stuff, but that would have been predictable," says Joey "the Lips" Fagin at the end of the movie. "This way it's poetry."

4. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, 2007. Directed by Tim Burton from a screenplay by John Logan, based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, musical adaptation by Christopher Bond. Who knew Johnny Depp could sing? And Helena Bonham Carter can't, but within the world of this movie, that works. And the kid who plays Toby, Ed Sanders, is a revelation. I wasn't crazy about the actor who played Anthony (the young romantic hero), and — it pains me to say it — I was a little disappointed with Alan Rickman, but overall, I was amazed at how well this show made the transfer from stage to screen.

5. That Thing You Do, 1996. Directed and written by Tom Hanks. Another great movie about the short life of a band, this one a Beatles-style group called The Wonders. It's deceptively simple, but the performances are great, the art direction is gorgeous, and the music (by Adam Schlessinger of Fountains of Wayne and Tom Hanks himself, among others) is irresistible.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Five Things I Plan to Avoid in 2010

2010 is off to a fine start, with unseasonably warm weather here (33 F) and a pile of interesting work to do.

I've made several New Year's resolutions, most of which I won't share here, but the biggest and most important one is to stop wasting my time on things that annoy me, just because some mythical "them" seems to expect me to play along. These are five things I plan to avoid in 2010, and wish would go away.

1. Twitter. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Twitter is the devil, especially for long-form authors. It's a distraction and a time suck. It's noise without content and technology without meaning. It is the news crawl at the bottom of a TV screen, but it's worse than that, because it consumes time and attention that people used to spend reading or in conversation with live human beings. It creates an illusion of community without responsibility, and therefore without true benefits. It's already lasted longer than I thought it would, because of its most insidious danger: it offers the illusion that someone, anyone is paying attention to what you say, 24 hours a day.

2. The Twitter symbols, # and @. I don't use hashmarks and I don't use that stupid @ sign, and I don't want to see them any more. I don't want to be part of a hive mind or groupthink or a cultural phenomenon. I'm 44 years old, I live a life of deliberate and willful eccentricity, and I refuse to embrace electronic tropes that offer my adolescent self the illusion of fitting in with a cooler crowd. I have friends in the real world, dammit.

3. Facebook friend requests from people who want to sell me things. Yes, I'm on Facebook; I don't find that inconsistent. Facebook's a virtual break room for me, and I have far more control over the noise levels there. Also, it's more of a two-way street than Twitter is. That said, I made the mistake early on of accepting Facebook friend requests from people I don't know, and from authors looking for new readers. I stopped taking friend requests from strangers a while back, and am now paring down my friends list to people I actually know, or have some meaningful connection with.

4. Textspeak. I was tired of "LOL" five years ago. Now I can't see it without wanting to snarl. How is it more expressive than a simple "Ha!"? No more abbreviations. No more acronyms. Spell it out. I correct people's spelling and punctuation for a living, but I also do it because I enjoy it. Don't push me.

5. The E! Network. It astonishes me how E!, which started out as a channel designed to report on celebrities, decided that it didn't have enough celebrities to cover and therefore needed to invent its own — so now we have an entire subculture of people who are "famous" only because they appear on a network that allegedly features famous people. On the one hand, this is almost admirable; I've always said that anything (or anyone) is interesting if you look at it closely enough, and E! seems determined to prove it. But do they have to choose such trashy, vapid people? Couldn't they at least feature people who speak in complete sentences, and do things other than shop? I didn't spend much time watching E! before, but one of my New Year's resolutions is to quit it altogether, even though that means giving up "The Soup" as well. I'll miss "The Soup," but a good New Year's resolution always involves a certain amount of sacrifice.

What are you planning to avoid this year?

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Five Random Songs

First post of the year, but I'm still in vacation mode — despite having several projects I'd like to finish before Monday morning. We're under a winter storm warning here, with about four inches of new snow on the ground since Thursday and as much as a foot more to come. Dizzy and I are snug on the loveseat with a Doctor Who marathon on BBC America, so we're all set.

And here are five random songs from my iTunes library:

1. "What's Love Got to Do With It," Tina Turner. A song that transports me immediately to the summer of 1984, which is both good and bad.

2. "I'm Only Sleeping," The Beatles. From Revolver. It might be a good day for a nap, now that I think of it. Dizzy's ahead of me on that one.

3. "Party," El Perro del Mar. The words are cheerful, but the voice sounds like she's about to cry; it's an oddly affecting combination.

4. "Good Year for the Roses," Elvis Costello. Got home to discover that my cable package now includes the Sundance Channel, which I'm excited about mainly because of Elvis Costello's talk show. He's so cool. In some alternate universe, we hang out. I'm sure of it.

5. "Highwire Days," The Psychedelic Furs. I think this song is about the downside of fame. I think the words in the background are "Get smart, get scared, get lost, take care," but I'm not sure — anyone know?