Saturday, February 27, 2010

Five Random Songs

Oh, look, a dusting of snow. When did that fall? Washington's getting the winter that appears to have left central Maine early. I have no idea what I'm doing awake at this hour, except that I have a good bit of work to do today. Here are five tunes brought to you by the iTunes "shuffle" function:

1. "I Try," Macy Gray. I think this (On How Life Is) was the first new CD I bought after moving to Los Angeles, after hearing this song on KCRW.

2. "Bring Down the Lamp," Shane MacGowan & The Popes. A swirling, frantic reel of penny whistle, drums and banjo, off MacGowan's solo release The Snake. The Snake was not available in the US for many years, and I don't remember where I bought this CD; it might have been in Heathrow Airport, or it might have been as an import at Amoeba Music in Hollywood.

3. "God Save the People," Steve Nathan & Company, from the Godspell soundtrack. I've owned this soundtrack in four formats: cassette, vinyl, CD and MP3. In the days immediately after September 11, 2001, I played this one track over and over on a cassette in my car, rewinding and playing so often the tape eventually broke.

I found this video version on YouTube, from a Filipino production in 2008:

4. "For No One," The Beatles. The end of a relationship in 2:02. Sometimes there's no drama; things just end, while you weren't even noticing. The trumpet counterpoint is devastating.

5. "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," Van Morrison. A cover of the Bob Dylan tune, almost as old as I am. Van Morrison's voice has improved with age, or maybe he's just learned how to use it better.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Five Random Questions with LAURA LIPPMAN

Laura Lippman is a veteran journalist and the Edgar®, Anthony, Agatha, Shamus, Nero Wolfe, Gumshoe and Barry Award-winning author of 14 novels and a collection of short stories. The Girl in the Green Raincoat, a novella featuring Lippman's series character Tess Monaghan, was serialized in the New York Times Magazine in 2008. Her latest novel, a standalone called LIFE SENTENCES, comes out in paperback next week. She lives in Baltimore, where her books are set, and in New Orleans. (Photo by Jan Cobb)

1. What is your favorite movie theater snack?
A box of Butterfingers miniatures, although I seldom indulge these days.

2. A first-time visitor to Baltimore has one day to spend in the city. Where do you send him/her?
The American Visionary Art Museum.

3. What was the unlikeliest course you took as an undergraduate?
A course in archaeology. I stopped going about three weeks in, took it pass-fail and ended up with a passing grade after an anthro major in my dorm gave me a brief overview.

4. If John Waters made a movie of your life, who would play you?
Mink Stole!

5. How can the Orioles turn things around?
New owner. It's my opinion that self-made millionaires (and billionaires) really have a hard time grasping that there are things they can't do. We need some happy-go-lucky dude who doesn't want to do anything but sit in the owner's box.

Thanks, Laura! Laura's next book, I'D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE, will be in stores late this summer. Maybe the Orioles will be winning by then.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Five Movies I Saw at the Uptown

This week I'm working hard and playing hard, and tonight's recreation will be the 7:10 screening of Shutter Island at Washington's legendary Uptown Theater. The Uptown, which first opened in 1936, is the last of Washington's great movie palaces, and the best place I know to see a movie. Over the past 27 years I have seen dozens of movies there, and the truth is that I've never seen a bad movie at the Uptown. It's not possible to see a bad movie at the Uptown, because the experience itself makes bad movies good.

In fact, the Uptown makes everything good. In the early 1990s, I wasted months on Mr. Wrong for little reason other than that our first date was a revival screening of Blade Runner at the Uptown, and that colored my view of him.

So I expect Shutter Island to be awesome, and am glad to be sharing that experience with Claire, Zach and Elizabeth. These are five movies I particularly remember having seen at the Uptown.

1. Gandhi (1983). My first Uptown experience was this Oscar-winning epic, which I saw on Super Bowl Sunday with a young man I was recklessly and unfortunately in love with. I was a college freshman, he was a couple of years older, and I felt almost impossibly grown-up to be taking the Metro uptown and seeing this high-brow movie when the whole rest of the city was watching the Redskins. It's a dazzling film, and the soundtrack impressed me so much that I bought the album (on vinyl, of course, though I didn't even own a record player at the time). I have never watched the whole movie since, and might find it painful to do so.

2. Dune (1984). The unreliability of memory: I know I saw this movie at a weekend matinee with a group of friends from my college theater group. I think we saw it the weekend it opened — but IMDb says it opened in December 1984, which would have put it smack in the middle of finals. Did we really take a field trip to Cleveland Park in the middle of finals? If anyone checks in who remembers this excursion, can you confirm or deny? We might not have gone until January, when we were all back early from the holidays for whatever show we were working on. Either way, we saw it before the reviews told us it was one of the worst movies ever made. I did not share that point of view, because the spectacle on the Uptown's screen was mindboggling. I still have fond memories of this movie, because I saw it at the Uptown.

3. Silverado (1985). This one I know I saw during the summer between my junior and senior years of college, and it was not only a perfect summer movie but damn close to a perfect Western. I can't understand why more people don't remember this movie, and why it never seems to be mentioned in discussions of the modern Western. For one thing, everybody's in this movie: Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Kevin Costner, Danny Glover, John Cleese, Brian Dennehy, Linda Hunt . . . and it's two solid hours of quality entertainment. In fact, I'd love to see this movie again, although it couldn't be as good on TV as it was at the Uptown.

4. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). Another fuzzy memory. I saw this movie twice in the movie theater — once with my sister Peggy, once with my brand-new boss, who became a lifelong friend. I think I saw it with Peggy first, and I don't think that was at the Uptown. The Uptown viewing was an early bonding experience with Doyle, my new boss, who suggested that we sneak out of work for a matinee on a slow day during a Congressional recess. Doyle would be the first to admit that he was a bad influence on me. Years later, I played hooky with my own assistant for a matinee screening of South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, just to advance the tradition. Anyway, if you never saw this movie on a big screen, you missed out.

5. Dances With Wolves (1991). This movie ran at the Uptown for months; it premiered in Washington, DC in October 1990, opened wide over Thanksgiving weekend, and I know I saw a matinee on a federal holiday, which might have been Martin Luther King Day in January but I'm almost certain was Presidents' Day. Certainly I was one of the last people in my circle of friends to see it, and I wound up at the theater that afternoon for want of anything better to do; I'd wanted to go to the zoo, but it was too cold. I expected to find the movie corny and tedious, and was instead utterly dazzled and charmed. I still have no idea whether this is a good movie; that's the power of the Uptown.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Five Natural Sources of Caffeine

Caffeine. It's a naturally-occurring alkaloid that acts as a pesticide in the plant world, killing insects that would otherwise eat a plant's fruits and keep it from reproducing. For humans, it is a central nervous system stimulant that fends off fatigue and restores alertness. It has several medical uses, including the treatment of headaches and the stimulation of breathing in people with sleep apnea.

Humans found caffeine on their own, and they found it all over the world: Africa, Asia, South America, North America. Europeans may not have had a natural source of caffeine until Marco Polo brought tea back from China; this would take more research time than I have this morning, so if you know about this, please share in the comments section.

Anyway, I foolishly gave it up for a while a couple of years ago, and have come back to it like a long-lost friend. Here are five natural sources of caffeine, brought to us by a loving creator.

1. Tea. The longest-documented human relationship with caffeine belongs to tea, the leaves and buds of Camellia sinensis and all its variations. Except for water, it is the most widely-consumed beverage in the world. Chinese records of tea go back a thousand years B.C., and Indian writings about tea go back at least to the Ramayana (c. 500 B.C.). England, which loves its tea with an irrational passion, didn't have it until 1662, when the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza married King Charles II. Even then, it took one of the earliest organized advertising campaigns to bring tea to the masses, starting around 1690, because the East India Company needed to bring something back in their ships after they'd dropped off their British-manufactured textiles and goods.

2. Coffee. A testament to the creativity of human beings: coffee is a drink made from the roasted, ground, brewed seeds of the berries of the coffee plant (genus Coffea). Tea is easy to understand; leaves fell in a jug of water, people drank the water anyway, it was tasty and stimulating, and the world changed. But coffee? How did people figure that out? Coffee seems to have originated in Ethiopia, and was first documented by Muslim scholars in Yemen in the 15th century. Islamic monks prized it for its appetite-suppressing properties. It reached Turkey in the next century, and from there went to Italy. In 1600 Pope Clement VIII declared it a "Christian drink," which might do a little to balance out his antisemitism and the fact that he had Giordano Bruno burned at the stake. No one's all bad . . .

3. Cocoa. The cocoa bean, native to South America, was used as currency among tribes before the arrival of the Europeans. Cortes' scribes recorded that Moctezuma II, Emperor of the Aztecs, drank no beverage but chocolate, which was not sweetened but was flavored with spices and vanilla and whipped to a froth. Chocolate doesn't have nearly as much caffeine as coffee or tea, which might be why Moctezuma was reported to drink as many as 50 cups a day. The Spaniards brought it back to Europe with them and added sugar, creating new opportunities for dentists to this day. The Spaniards also brought the tree to the West Indies and the Philippines; cocoa grows within a narrow climate band above and below the equator.

4. Kola nut. Kola nuts come from a group of trees related to the cocoa trees, and native to the tropical rainforests of Africa. They are not ground or brewed, but chewed, and their red-purple color can stain the teeth and mouth. Their flavor is naturally bitter, but Westerners know it as the distinctive taste of Coca-Cola.

5. Guarana. The guarana plant is actually part of the maple family, but while its cousins have sweet sap, the guarana has a high-powered berry with twice the caffeine content of a coffee bean. Guarana is the most popular source of caffeine in modern-day South America, the base of soft drinks and tea. Guarana's becoming more popular in the United States, too, and you can even try something called Perky Jerky, which is — yes — dried meat infused with guarana. I'm not ready for that yet, but if and when I ever make that Antarctic expedition, Perky Jerky's coming with me.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Five Living Former Vice Presidents

The news that Dick Cheney had into the hospital with chest pains inspired some rather unworthy commentary online yesterday, but it made me wonder: what, exactly, are the funeral procedures for a former Vice President? We've had a few Presidential funerals in recent memory, but I can't remember the last Vice Presidential funeral.

On that morbid note, I went back to look at a list of recent Vice Presidents to see how everybody was doing. In reverse chronological order, the five most recent living Vice Presidents:

1. Richard Bruce "Dick" Cheney, 2001-2009. Our 46th Vice President, born in January 1941, which makes him a contemporary of my parents. A Nebraska native, Cheney grew up in Wyoming and first worked in Washington as an aide to Rep. William A. Steiger (R-WI — yes, Wisconsin, not Wyoming). He worked in the Nixon White House and served as Chief of Staff to President Gerald Ford, and was known as as a moderate and a pragmatist and a generally likable guy. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1978 (midway through Jimmy Carter's term as President), and served five terms, eventually becoming Minority Whip. President George H.W. Bush appointed him Secretary of Defense (1989–1993), where he oversaw Operation Desert Storm. From 1995 to 2000, he was CEO of Halliburton, the defense contractor. His wife, Lynne, chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986 to 1996; they have two daughters and six grandchildren.

2. Albert Arnold "Al" Gore, Jr., 1993-2001. Vice President #45 was the second Baby Boomer to hold the office, born in 1948. His father, Albert Gore Sr., was a U.S. Representative from 1939–1953, and a U.S. Senator from 1953–1971; Al Jr. grew up in Washington, DC and attended St. Albans School. After graduating from Harvard, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1969, and spent approximately five months (January-May 1971) in Vietnam as an Army journalist. He married Tipper Aitcheson, who had been his date to the senior prom, in 1970, and they eventually had four children. Gore worked as a journalist, studied theology, and earned a law degree from Vanderbilt University. He was elected to his father's old Congressional seat in 1976, at the age of 28, and to the Senate in 1985. By 1988, he was already a legitimate contender for the Democratic nomination for President. He described himself as a "raging moderate," and was known for a passionate interest in high-tech issues. His wife, Tipper, drew criticism for her public calls for ratings labels on music (an idea that now seems obvious and practical, at least to me). When he joined Bill Clinton's Presidential ticket in 1992, they seemed like blood brothers, a closeness that may have been illusory and certainly didn't last. Gore ran for President in 2000 trying to distance himself from his predecessor, and lost the tightest Presidential election in history. Now 61, he's made a new career as an environmental activist, earning the Nobel Peace Prize, a primetime Emmy and a Grammy, and playing a central role in the Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006).

3. James Danforth "Dan" Quayle, 1989–1993. Vice President #44 holds the distinction of being the first Baby Boomer in that position, born in 1947. Before he became a national punchline, he had a brilliant political career. He started as a lawyer and publisher of his family's paper, The Huntington (IN) Herald-Press, and first ran for Congress at the age of 29, when he defeated an eight-term incumbent. In 1978, he was reelected by a record-setting margin, and in 1980, he became the youngest person ever elected to the Senate from Indiana, defeating three-term incumbent Birch Bayh. He set another record for his reelection margin in 1986. On paper, it makes sense that George H.W. Bush considered him an impressive candidate in 1988. He was a Reagan loyalist, he was photogenic, his wife was a career woman with ambitions of her own — he seemed perfect as a running mate for a moderate Republican WWII veteran. But he wasn't ready for the national spotlight (few are), and few ever took him seriously as Vice President. After leaving office, health issues kept him out of the spotlight for several years, but he did run for the 2000 Republican nomination, campaigning from April to September 1999. He and his wife, Marilyn, live in Paradise Valley, AZ, where the former Vice President serves as Chairman of an international division of Cerberus Capital Management, a multibillion dollar private equity firm, and president of Quayle and Associates. His son, Benjamin, has announced plans to run for Congress in the Third District of Arizona this year.

4. George Herbert Walker Bush, 1981-1989. Before he was President of the United States (1989–1993), he was Ronald Reagan's Vice President. He had run for President in 1980, appealing to the center of the Republican party; his choice as running mate was intended to reassure those who found Reagan too conservative. Before launching his 1980, Bush had spent a few years as a banker, and taught at Rice University's new business school. Before that, he had served as Director of the CIA in the Ford Administration; as chief liaison to the People's Republic of China; as Chairman of the Republican National Committee; as Ambassador of the United Nations; and as a U.S. Representative from the 7th District of Texas (1967-71). He made his money in oil, becoming a millionaire in his own right by the age of 40; he came from New England aristocracy (his father was Senator Prescott Bush, R-CT), but moved to West Texas after finishing college. He didn't graduate from Yale until 1948, because he'd taken time off to fight the Second World War, becoming the youngest aviator in the U.S. Navy. Born in 1924, he married Barbara Pierce in 1945, and they had six children. One died of leukemia as a small child; one grew up to be Governor of Florida; one grew up to be President of the United States. Among living politicians, George H.W. Bush is the one I'd like most to know.

5. Walter Mondale, 1977–1981. Born in 1928, he was too young to serve in the Second World War, but served two years in Korea, and went to law school on the GI Bill. At the age of 32, just four years out of law school, he became Attorney General of Minnesota. He was appointed to the United States Senate in 1964, to fill the unexpired term of Hubert Humphrey, who became Lyndon Johnson's Vice President. George McGovern invited him to run as his Vice President in 1972, but Mondale declined; when Jimmy Carter made the offer in 1976, he accepted. Vice President Mondale was the first to have an office in the White House itself, and is credited as the first truly activist Vice President. He chose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate in 1980, making her the first woman to run for the Vice Presidency on a major party ticket. After losing with a campaign that promised higher taxes and a nuclear weapons freeze (imagine!), he returned to the private practice of law. President Bill Clinton appointed him U.S. Ambassador to Japan in 1993, and special envoy to Indonesia in 1998. When Senator Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane crash right before the 2002 election, Vice President Mondale agreed to run in his place, but was narrowly defeated. He has been married to his wife, Joan, for 54 years, and they live quietly near Lake of the Isles, in Minnesota.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Five Random Songs

The universe has decided to mock every statement I've made this week about my plans, my schedule, the pace of my workload, etc. If this is going to happen anyway — and I submit that it is — is it any wonder I embrace the random?

Dizzy and I head south today, but posting continues as usual. Five random songs to get the morning started:

1. "Sleep Better," Pete Yorn. Thinking about breaking up with someone? Listen to this song, which makes the point that breaking up with someone doesn't change yourself. Lord, this is a depressing song.

2. "Start a War," National. And what do you know, a song about a last-ditch effort to save a failing relationship. "You were always weird, but I never had to hold you by the edges like I do now."

3. "Dreamland," Caetano Veloso. A cover of the Joni Mitchell song by a musician known as the "Bob Dylan of Brazil," whom I was unfamiliar with until my friend Tom gave me this album (A Tribute to Joni Mitchell). Great percussion on this track.

4. "Dead," Pixies. The weirdest track off Doolittle: no real melody, just percussion and electronic riffs, with Black Francis chanting words that seem almost random. If you know what this song is about (Scott L?), leave your thoughts below.

5. "Lift Me Up," Christina Aguilera. Wow, this is what "random" gets you. This is a track off the Hope for Haiti Now album, which I felt it was my duty to buy, and I can safely say it's the only Christina Aguilera track I own. There's nothing wrong with it or her — it's a super-emotive power pop ballad — it's just not my taste.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Five Random Questions with CHUCK HOGAN

Chuck Hogan is the author of five novels written alone and one, THE STRAIN, written with Guillermo del Toro. "The Town," a film by Ben Affleck based on Hogan's award-winning novel PRINCE OF THIEVES, will hit theaters this summer. His new book, DEVILS IN EXILE, is in stores now. He's a pal, and agreed to answer Five Random Questions while I drive south again.

1. Peanut butter: smooth or chunky?


2. How old will your children need to be before you let them read your books, and which one would you want them to start with?

My guess is that they will at some point sneak off and read them without asking permission first. But if they were to ask me, I would assign them THE BLOOD ARTISTS, a book without any swearing, sex, or guns - but lots of chills, weirdness, and intrigue.

3. Who's your favorite James Bond villain, and why?

Sir Hugo Drax. I love that people dismiss Moonraker as a silly absurdity among Bond movies. Hello? You were expecting maybe a Cold War documentary? Best pre-credit sequence, best closing gag, plus terrific stunt work (cable car fight!), and Jaws. Awesome.

4. Did the end of The Curse make any difference in your attitude toward the Boston Red Sox? Do you care more or less about baseball now that the Red Sox are true contenders?

I actually thought there would be a huge letdown among fans after winning the 2004 World Series, but then the opposite happened. For me, I care the same no matter whether the Sox are in first place or last.

5. If you could be appointed rather than elected to any public office, which one would you want?

Vice President. Light on responsibilities, but you get a front row seat.

Thanks, Chuck! DEVILS IN EXILE is excellent, and the second book in The Strain trilogy, THE FALL, will be out in September.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Five Good Books I've Read or Listened to Lately

These lists, I realize, have gone from more-or-less weekly to more-or-less monthly. I don't think I'm reading any less, it's just that the nature of my reading has changed. It's a great thing to get paid to read, but it means that I have much less time to read for pleasure. The jokes I used to make about prostituting my literacy aren't that funny any more (and probably never were). But these are five books that deserve your attention.

1. Laura Moriarty, WHILE I'M FALLING. Twenty-year-old Veronica is a college student struggling with her first major life decisions and processing her parents' divorce, after her mother's abortive one-night-stand with a roofer. Veronica's mother Natalie, who had been the perfect wife and mother for more than 25 years, is now barely hanging on, which she eventually can't hide from her daughter. There's humor here along with real tension and suspense, and the ending feels well-earned.

2. Joe Hill, HORNS. A year after the brutal murder of his girlfriend — a murder he was suspected of, but never charged with — Ignatius Perrish wakes up with horns sprouting from his forehead, and the power to make people confess and act on their darkest impulses. The first 70 pages or so of this book are among the most original, gripping horror stories I've ever read. The book eventually settles into a more traditional revenge thriller, but is still a powerful meditation on love, loyalty, betrayal, and grief. Everything about this book feels fresh and surprising, and Hill more than delivers on the promise of HEART-SHAPED BOX.

3. Ann Hood, SOMEWHERE OFF THE COAST OF MAINE. I listened to this on audio, and wasn't crazy about the reading; shouldn't someone reading a book set in New England look up the pronunciation of "quahog"? But the mediocre reading didn't interfere with the power of this book. Published more than 20 years ago, it's a lovely, heartbreaking novel about three college friends who follow very different paths into parenting and adulthood. Hood never takes the easy way out, and if the book doesn't wrap everything up neatly at the end, it's because life doesn't, either. This book shook me up in unexpected ways, reminding me of things I hadn't thought about in decades and making me tally up all the things I've gained and lost.

4. Chuck Hogan, DEVILS IN EXILE. A terrific, old-school revenge novel that could be the basis for a series. Chuck Hogan breaks new ground with each book; this is what a Stephen Hunter thriller might look like, if written by Richard Price. Neil Maven is a Special Forces veteran of the Iraq War who has no ideas how his skills might apply in the real world. The mysterious Brad Royce gives him not only a job but a mission, enlisting him as part of a group that robs drug dealers of their cash and destroys their product. It's a modern-day Robin Hood operation that seems too good to be true, and is. (Full disclosure: the author's a friend of mine. Check back tomorrow, when he answers Five Random Questions.)

5. Emily Arsenault, THE BROKEN TEAGLASS. I started this book over breakfast yesterday and finished it just after breakfast today, doing very little in between — which was bad, because I needed to get other things done yesterday. But I was absolutely enchanted by this first novel, which tackles the biggest questions of all, about how we define ourselves and forgive ourselves, and how the names we give things tell the story. Billy Webb and Mona Minot, junior lexicographers, discover a series of word citations that come from a nonexistent book, written by a nonexistent author. As Billy follows the trail, what started as an intellectual puzzle becomes a journey into the deepest mysteries of the human heart.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Five Most Popular Baby Names in 2008

The 2009 numbers aren't in yet, or at least, they're not posted on the Social Security Administration's website. (There's a question, by the way: when did it become necessary to get social security numbers for newborns? I got mine when I was nine or ten; all of my siblings got theirs at the same time, but I don't remember whether my brother James had been born yet.)

But these were the most popular names for new babies in 2008. It's interesting to see how little the boys' names have varied over time, while fashions in girls' names come and go.


1. Emma. Emma was a Top-10 name in the 1890s that had all but disappeared until the mid-1980s, when it started to make a comeback. A friend with a teenaged daughter named Emma reports that she's had as many as three in her class, and it's been ranked #2 or higher for most of the past ten years.

2. Isabella. The SSA's list is just national, and doesn't break out names by region. I don't know any little girls named Isabella; maybe this name is more popular in the south, or the west? Anyway, it's pretty. "Isabella" and "Elizabeth" are different versions of the same name, by the way.

3. Emily. Almost no one was named Emily in the United States between about 1920 and 1970. The name has been in the Top Ten list since the 1990s, and I have a young cousin named Emily.

4. Madison. I admit to this prejudice: I think names should come from somewhere, either a patron saint or an ancestor or a family surname. You know where this name comes from? The movie Splash. I'm not kidding. It didn't really exist as a girl's name until after the release of Splash in 1984, when Daryl Hannah played a mermaid who named herself after the New York avenue because she saw it on a street sign. It's a name that means nothing, unless you want to take it as a tribute to the wonderful world of advertising.

5. Ava. The most recently-revived name on this list; in the 1990s, it was ranked 571 on the list of popular girls' names. It's pretty, but it's another name that doesn't seem to mean anything, unless you're a major Ava Gardner fan, or you meant to name your child "Eva" and didn't trust people to pronounce it correctly.


1. Jacob. A name that was mostly gone until it was revived in the 1970s, and has been in the top ten since the 1990s.

2. Michael. Michael's been in the top ten list since the 1940s, and has been ranked #1 or #2 since the 1950s.

3. Ethan. Revived in the 1990s, top ten since about 2000. I knew someone named Ethan in high school, and thought of it as the WASPiest of all possible names — because the Ethan I knew was the WASPiest of all possible WASPs, though smart and handsome and charming with it. It's an Old Testament name, though, belonging to a wise man whose wisdom was surpassed by Solomon. (Begging the question: why isn't anyone named Solomon?)

4. Joshua. Another 1970s revival, another Old Testament name (as all the names on the boys' list are, interestingly enough). It's been in the top ten since the 1980s.

5. Daniel. Daniel, like Michael, never really went away, but has been in the top ten list since the 1980s.

Is it better or worse to have a name that many other people have? I grew up with an unusual spelling of what was then an unusual name (Clair), and it made me so self-conscious and anxious that I took the first opportunity to start using my first name (Ellen), a decision I later regretted. Now I answer to both names, and use them more or less equally, depending on the environment; mostly I am Ellen in business settings and Clair among relatives, old friends, and book people. Either way, I'm now old enough to appreciate having a name that doesn't require the addition of my last initial to distinguish me.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Five Most Popular Baby Names in 1910

As I assembled yesterday's list, I noticed that all five First Ladies had names you rarely see anymore. I know one person named Harriet, but no one named Dolley (although I know one Dorothy, Dolley Madison insisted that Dolley was her name, not Dorothy). My high school librarian was named Edith, but I've never met anyone in my age range named Edith, and know no Florences.

What happens to given names? Why doesn't anyone name their children Ethel or Percy or Norma any more?

One hundred years ago, these were the most popular names given to girls and boys. Not one of these names is in the most recent lists of Top Five Baby Names, which I'll post tomorrow.


1. Mary. An obvious choice. It's not a name in my own immediate family, because no one wanted to subject a girl child to constant teasing about her middle name being "Hadalittle." But it's my mother's sister's first name, and she had an Aunt Mary, and I know few Catholic families that don't have an Aunt Mary. The youngest Mary I know, though, is in her mid-30s.

2. Helen. I know a Helen in her early 30s, and played with a neighbor named Helen when I was a child. "Helen" might be due for a comeback, in the way that "Emma" came back.

3. Dorothy. Elmo's goldfish is named Dorothy. Other than that, I know only one Dorothy, and she's in her 40s.

4. Margaret. The most common girl's name in my own family: I have a sister named Margaret, who has a daughter named Margaret, it was our Grandma Lamb's name, and we have an Aunt Margaret. My mother had at least one Aunt Margaret, too. At least in my family, this name never went away.

5. Ruth. I know a couple of women in my age range named Ruth, but it's not a name I see my friends giving their children. Too bad, because I like it. The Baby Ruth candy bar was supposedly named after President Grover Cleveland's daughter — but she died at the age of 12, in 1904, and the Baby Ruth candy bar didn't come out until 1921.


1. John. Probably the most common name among my own male friends; it still seems very popular, though most of my friends use the nickname "Jack" for their children. It's my brother's middle name, the name of one of my uncles, and the middle name of another uncle.

2. William. Another common name in my family; I must know a dozen Williams, Wills and Bills. It's still in the top ten list of boys' names.

3. James. My dad, my brother, my great-grandfather, a couple of great-uncles . . . the most common man's name in my family. At my great-aunt Agnes' 100th birthday party, there were so many Jims and Jimmys that we should have issued numbers.

4. Robert. I think plenty of boys are still being named Robert, but the diminutive "Bob" is just about gone. I don't know anyone named Bob who's under the age of 40; it's "Rob" now.

5. Joseph. Another very common name in my family, and I know plenty of Josephs and Joes who are around my own age. It's still pretty popular, I think.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Five Fascinating First Ladies

Here's something I don't know: what is the official purpose of Presidents' Day? Is it really just a combination of Lincoln's Birthday (February 12) and Washington's Birthday (February 22), or is it supposed to celebrate all the presidents? Are we honoring Chester A. Arthur and Warren G. Harding today?

I could look that up, but I'd rather read about the first ladies. "First Lady" is not an official government title, and in fact, the term wasn't widely used until the mid-19th century. The story goes that President Zachary Taylor first used the term at Dolley Madison's funeral in 1849, and the title caught on after that. The First Lady has no official duties, and receives no salary. Her role has evolved over time, and changes according to the interests and desires of the woman in the position.

First Ladies have been very active (Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton) or almost reclusive (Ida McKinley, who suffered from epilepsy and may also have had some kind of social phobia). These are five I find particularly interesting.

1. Dolley Payne Todd Madison. She'd be on a short list of historical figures I'd invite to a dinner party. Her charm was legendary, and she defined the role of First Lady for generations to come. She was a Quaker widow when she met James Madison in Philadelphia; he was Episcopalian, 17 years her senior, and shorter than she was. Nevertheless they were devoted to each other, and she abandoned her Quaker grays to become a fashion trendsetter as Mr. Madison's hostess. As wife of the Secretary of State, she helped President Jefferson, a widower, entertain, and when her husband became President she organized Washington's first inaugural ball. She was the first to put her influence to work on behalf of war widows and orphans, and she famously saved the White House's treasures from the British during the War of 1812.

2. Harriet Lane. She was not the only, or even the first, First Lady who wasn't married to the President. Thomas Jefferson's hostess was his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, who gave birth to the first child born in the White House, James Madison Randolph; Andrew Jackson's hostess was his late wife Rachel's favorite niece, Emily Donelson, who gave birth to three children in the White House and died of tuberculosis before the end of Jackson's term. But Harriet was especially active and visible, the beloved niece of James Buchanan, whom she called "Nunc." She first served as Buchanan's hostess when he was Ambassador to the Court of St. James, where Queen Victoria gave her the rank of Ambassador's wife. In the uneasy years before the Civil War, Harriet Lane had a genius for tactful entertaining, and was able to bring together people who ordinarily wouldn't speak to each other. She married at 36, to a Baltimore banker; amassed an extraordinary art collection, which she left to the Smithsonian; and endowed a clinic for invalid children at Johns Hopkins, which survives to this day as the Harriet Lane Outpatient Clinics.

3. Edith Kermit Cardow Roosevelt. She had been a friend of Theodore Roosevelt's since childhood, and was a guest at his first wedding, in 1880. She married him in 1886, after the death of his beloved wife, and took charge of his baby daughter, Alice. Over the next ten years, the Roosevelts had five more children, and Edith ruled a house that included not only six rowdy children, but any number of exotic animals and souvenirs of Teddy's world travels. She was energetic, imaginative, amused, and no-nonsense; her program of physical therapy saved Alice Roosevelt from permanent disability after a bout of polio, and one of her sons once said, "When Mother was a little girl, she must have been a boy!" Active in several charities, particularly a group that made clothing for indigent families, her most important role was being a steadying hand on her husband, whom Alice Roosevelt once said wanted to be "the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the baby at every christening."

4. Edith Bolling Galt Wilson. Edith Galt, a descendant of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, was a widow who had inherited Washington's most prestigious jewelry business. (Galt & Bro. remained a Washington institution until 2001, when it closed after 199 years.) Woodrow Wilson was already President of the United States, and mourning hard for the loss of his first wife, Ellen. They fell in love quickly, and married quietly in December 1915, before Wilson started his campaign for reelection in 1916. A catastrophic stroke in October 1919 left Wilson paralyzed on his left side and blind in one eye. Amazingly, Edith Wilson and the President's doctor, Cary Grayson, were able to keep this a secret from the government and the nation, and Edith Wilson served as the nation's de facto President until the end of Wilson's term in 1921. This story is told in Gene Smith's marvelous book When the Cheering Stopped, which really ought to be made into a movie.

5. Florence Kling Harding. Possibly the first truly modern woman to serve as First Lady, Mrs. Harding was a force of nature, known as "The Duchess" to her husband and his circle. At the age of 19, she got pregnant and ran off with a ne'er-do-well named Pete DeWolfe. It's not at all clear that they were ever legally married, but Ohio law permitted common-law marriages, and the DeWolfes had a son, Marshall, in 1880. By 1886, Florence realized her husband was a drunk and a spendthrift. She divorced him and tried to support herself as a single parent by giving piano lessons. (Ultimately, her parents took over responsibility for young Marshall, who died young of alcoholism and tuberculosis.) At the age of 30, Florence set her cap for the handsome, affable, lazy publisher of the Marion Daily Star, Warren G. Harding. Florence took over as circulation manager, and made the newspaper a success. Her ambition drove Warren into politics; she consulted a Washington astrologer, Madam Marcia, who told her that her husband would win the Presidency but die in office. He did win — the first President to be elected after women received the right to vote — and he did die in office, in 1923. Florence survived him by just over a year.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Why I'm Not on Facebook

Yesterday, my Facebook account was the target of a 419 fraud. Someone, somehow, was able to log into my account as if they were me, and used Facebook chat to ask my friends to wire money abroad.

Luckily, a friend who got one of these instant messages picked up the phone and called me. I opened Facebook, saw these chats in progress, logged out, and changed my password. That afternoon, I tried to log on to Facebook and got a message that my account had been disabled.

I've written to ask that the account be restored, but since it's a holiday weekend, I doubt I'll get a response before Tuesday. Even then, I suspect they'll deny it, and I will have to create a new account. Annoying, and also dismaying and frightening, as I have no idea how they could have captured my Facebook password. It's not a password I use for email, or for my banking, but it is one I use on a couple of other entertainment sites.

In the meantime, it's just one less thing to waste time on. Happy Chinese New Year, everybody, and happy feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Five Canadian Icons Missing from Last Night's Olympics Opening Ceremony

Let's not quibble. Last night's Olympic opening ceremonies were spectacular. Beautiful, heartfelt, entertaining and full of things that made me wonder, "How are they doing that?"

It was also a showcase of Canadian icons that was so comprehensive it verged on self-parody. Almost everything and everyone the world recognizes as Canadian was there: Mounties, maple leaves, beavers, polar bears, totem poles; Donald Sutherland narrating; musical selections that included or paid tribute to Nelly Furtado, Bryan Adams, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Sarah Maclachlan, and K.D. Lang; Anne Murray helping to carry the Olympic flag; Wayne Gretzky as the last of four legendary Canadian athletes carrying the Olympic torch.

I'm leaving stuff out, I know. But my point is that the event was so inclusive, it was hard not to notice the handful of icons that got left out. Where were these international symbols of Canada?

1. William Shatner. Born in Montreal in 1931, he has a building named for him at McGill University. A friend observed that Quebec generally got short shrift in last night's ceremony; I didn't notice at the time, but she's right.

2. Rush. Whether or not you're a fan — and I'm not, particularly, though my ex-fiance was — you can't deny their influence on a generation of rock bands. They're from Ontario, they toured as recently as 2008, and Neal Peart just released his own version of "The Hockey Theme," described as Canada's second national anthem.

3. Gordon Lightfoot. He almost died in the early 2000s, and had a small stroke in 2006, but went on a 26-city tour last year. He's from Orillia, a mid-sized city in southern Ontario.

4. Tim Horton. Good coffee, good food, good value. Seriously, here in Maine, the Tim Horton shops are a Canadian import I sincerely appreciate, but they're named after their co-founder, a legendary Canadian hockey player who spent 24 seasons in the major leagues before dying in a car accident at the age of 44. Plus, here's how Canadian he was: he was known for neutralizing opponents who tried to fight him with crushing bear hugs. Bear hugs that broke ribs, but still.

5. Pamela Anderson. Oh, come on. She's not only Canadian, she's from British Columbia. And I bet she'd have made herself available.

What did you like most about last night's opening ceremonies? What did you miss?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Five Practical Reasons Not to Kill Yourself

The fashion designer Alexander McQueen was found dead in his London home yesterday, an apparent suicide. He was 40 years old.

The world of high fashion plays little role in my own life, but I pay more attention to it than you might expect, and I've been a fan of Alexander McQueen's designs for most of his career. The fact that I'd never wear most of it didn't reduce my admiration for his creativity and for his tailoring genius.

If indeed McQueen turns out to be a victim of suicide, he's destroyed his career in more ways than one, and my overriding emotion isn't sorrow but anger. Suicide pisses me off. It's the most hostile action imaginable, not only to oneself but to one's friends, family, and the world at large.

It's also rude and impractical. If you've ever thought of killing yourself — and I admit it's crossed my mind once or twice — here are five practical considerations that have always stopped me, and should stop you, too.

1. Someone has to find you. Suicide ends your world. It doesn't end the world. Someone, at some point, is going to find your body, and that's a terrible thing to do to anyone. If the person who finds you is someone who loves you, you've done the worst possible thing to them; if the person who finds you is someone who doesn't know you, you've inconvenienced them and traumatized them in a way they'll never get over.

1a. Someone has to clean it up. Particularly relevant if you're thinking about using a firearm. Postmortem cleaners have become the stuff of movies and fiction, but they're a luxury most people and organizations can't afford. And most bloodstains are permanent, so if you commit suicide at home, you're leaving that legacy for whomever you live with.

2. Death is undignified, and not picturesque. Adolescents, in particular, fantasize about their perfect dead bodies being found in repose, and their loved ones weeping in remorse over their lifeless corpses. It doesn't happen that way. Death is almost always messy, and most methods of suicide make it messier. Body fluids are released; overdoses cause vomiting; decay sets in and smells very bad, especially if no one finds the body right away. Consider the sad case of Lupe Velez, a 1940s Hollywood starlet who, according to vicious rumor, took an overdose, tried to vomit, and was found dead with her head in a toilet. True? Maybe not. But it's what we remember about Lupe Velez. Which brings us to #3.

3. If you kill yourself, that's what people remember. Do teenagers still listen to Nirvana? Not really, but they all know that Kurt Cobain killed himself at 27. Sylvia Plath is remembered more for her suicide than for her poetry or her life. Even Virginia Woolf's work is overshadowed by the sordid details of her self-drowning. If you're an artist, suicide doesn't prove the seriousness or value of your work; instead, it tells the world you preferred death over creation, and your death becomes more important than anything you wrote or sang or made.

4. The bastards won't be sorry. This is the worst, most brutal truth of suicide: people who didn't like you before you died won't like you any better after. In fact, suicide will only confirm their worst ideas about you, and will make them feel better, not worse, for having judged you. I've experienced this myself, after the suicide of a colleague many years ago. Everyone who worked with him knew he was a troubled, unhappy man, and he seemed unable to help himself. When he died, I wanted to feel guilty; I thought I ought to feel worse about not having liked him, or made more of an effort to like him, while he was alive. I didn't. I'm not proud of that, but I think it's human nature. Yes, it's self-justifying rationalization, but the horrifying case of Phoebe Prince shows how extreme this self-justifying rationalization can get.

5. Suicide is contagious. It's not a coincidence that Lee McQueen's close friend Isabella Blow killed herself three years ago. Suicide runs in families, and suicide clusters turn up regularly within communities. The movie Heathers made mean, hilarious fun of this, but it's true. Heathers implied this was a combination of peer pressure and attention-seeking, but I don't think so. I think it's just that once the suicide taboo is broken, suicide becomes an item on the menu of life's possibilities. Too many of my friends have parents or other close relatives who killed themselves, and I see how it happens: once someone close to you kills himself, it becomes a thing that "normal" people do. Don't fool yourself. It is not a thing that normal people do. Don't make the people who love you believe that lie.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Five Favorite Minor Simpsons Characters

Among the better Super Bowl commercials was one that showed "Simpsons" tycoon C. Montgomery Burns discovering the simple pleasures of Coca-Cola. The commercial included many of the lesser-known residents of Springfield, so I'm posting a list of my favorites today. Look closely, and you'll see most of them in this commercial.

1. Waylon Smithers. Mr. Burns' personal assistant, possibly the nicest man in Springfield. He collects Malibu Stacy paraphernalia, and cherishes a long, unrequited passion for Mr. Burns.

2. Disco Stu. Over the years, we've learned that he doesn't even like disco anymore; that he used to be married to Marge's sister, Selma Bouvier; and that he made an early change from a career as a sea captain, where he was known as "Nautical Stu." As with the best "Simpsons" characters, something about Stu is just a little tragic.

3. Moleman. Thanks to my brother Ed for this video, just in time to remind everyone to be charitable on Valentine's Day:

4. Dr. Nick Riviera. Dr. Nick was my mother's favorite minor "Simpsons" character. She spent the last seven years of her life in constant contact with the medical system, and Dr. Nick helped her laugh about it. Did you know that "Dr. Nick" was the nickname of Elvis Presley's last doctor, the man who prescribed him all those drugs? Dr. Nick provides cut-rate medical services, justified by his degree from the Hollywood Upstairs Medical College. If I ever decide to have some plastic surgery, he'll be my first stop.

5. Sideshow Bob. It's hard to limit this list to five; I had to choose Bob over Edna Krabappel, Ralph Wiggum, Fat Tony and Spike, all of whom would make a list of ten. But seriously, everyone needs a role model. Sideshow Bob is Bart's archnemesis, usually defeated by nothing more than his own vanity. Plus, Sideshow Bob is the driving force behind my all-time favorite "Simpsons" episode, "Cape Feare." His best moment in that episode is his claim that the tattoo on his belly that says "Die Bart Die" is really just German for "The Bart The."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Five Recent Additions to my iTunes

As regular readers of this blog know, I am blessed with friends and family who are generous about giving me music, so I don't buy as much new music as I once did. But I still buy some, especially before long trips, and am listening to more books on audio, since so much of my reading time these days seems to be work-related.

So these are five recent acquisitions that show up in the "Recently Added" list of my iTunes library.

1. Rosanne Cash, The List. I don't know how I missed this when it came out last fall. A friend recommended it over dinner a couple of weeks ago (thanks, Laura!), and I'm listening to it again right now, for maybe the tenth time since buying it. Rosanne's father, Johnny Cash, gave her a list of 100 essential country music songs when she was 18, and she records 13 of them here. It's hard to pick favorites, but the cover of "Sea of Heartbreak" she sings with Bruce Springsteen is mind-boggling, and her version of "Take These Chains from My Heart" is a new standard.

2. Midlake, The Courage of Others. It's been four years since Midlake released its last album, The Trials of Van Occupanther, but this was worth the wait. It's just gorgeous: moody, melodic music that lives somewhere in the middle ground between folk and rock, and gets labeled "alternative" for want of a better description. Midlake sounds like no other band, although they owe a lot to Nick Drake, Neil Young, and the 1970s-era wall-of-sound. You can listen to the whole album here.

3. Louise Penny, THE BRUTAL TELLING. Yes, an audiobook. I started listening to this on the way home from DC last week, and it's a long enough book that it lasted for a few days after that, as well. I love Louise Penny's Three Pines series, traditional mysteries set in a village in southern Quebec, and this book is her most ambitious so far. That said, I struggled with this one, though not because of the audio narration (Ralph Cosham, pronouncing the French-Canadian names beautifully.) Penny's loving attention to detail gets almost too leisurely here, and major shifts in tone and points of view wind up being not only distracting but ultimately — I felt — a little unfair. The end of the book finds Three Pines facing some major changes, which made me wonder whether Penny planned to take a break from the series, until I visited her website and saw the announcement that her next book, BURY YOUR DEAD, will be another book about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Whatever she writes next, I'm eager to read. (If you're new to the series, don't start with this one; the book assumes a familiarity with the residents of Three Pines and Chief Inspector Gamache. Go back and start with the first book, STILL LIFE. You'll be glad you did.)

4. Drink Up Buttercup, "Young Ladies." A friend sent me this link to a free — and legal! — music download site, which focuses on new, genre-crossing music. These guys sing 1960s-style psychedelic pop, and are most frequently compared to the Beatles. That's a valid comparison, but this song reminds me even more of Donovan, whom I think is due for a revival. The free download is available here. The album comes out in March, and I'll be buying it then.

5. Beverly Cleary, RAMONA THE PEST, read by Stockard Channing. I read the Ramona books to tatters, but had not revisited them in years. This audiobook download was another recommendation, from the same friend who told me about The List (so I really owe you, Laura). It's hard to imagine a better match of reader and material. Stockard Channing brings Ramona, Howie, Beezus and Henry to life, and I'll be listening to Channing's versions of the other Ramona books on future long drives. Highly, highly recommended for parents; shut off the DVD players, and let the kids listen to this instead.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Five Obscure Winter Olympic Events

I've heard people say that the Summer Olympics are the only "real" Olympics, and the TV ratings for the Winter Olympics are usually dismal. This baffles me. The Winter Olympics fascinate me, and I'd much rather watch people hurtle down a mountain at high speeds than jump across a dusty ditch.

That said, the Winter Olympics include some events that are not familiar to anyone who doesn't actually participate. Here are five that may need some explanation.

1. Biathlon. Most people are vaguely aware of this event as the "skiing and shooting one." Technically, the word biathlon means any combination of two sports, but this event is a combination of cross-country skiing and riflery. It originated in Norway, as part of military training, and was first an Olympic sport in 1924, when it was called "military patrol." Women didn't compete in this event until 1992. Competitors ski around a cross-country track, with either two or four breaks for shooting rounds. Half of the shooting rounds are from a standing position, and half are prone. Each shooting round consists of five targets, and if the competitor misses a target, he can make it up in one of three ways: a penalty skiing loop, an extra minute added to his time, or the use of one of three "extra" cartridges available for the race. Competitors use small-bore, bolt-action rifles that shoot .22LR ammunition, and the targets are 50 meters away. Setting up a biathlon course is complicated; Maine has a major biathlon facility in Fort Kent.

2. Bobsleigh. Men compete in two-man and four-man sleds, women compete in two-woman sleds. The sport originated in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and is similar to but evolved from Luge and Skeleton (keep reading). The bobsled track is a half-pipe of ice, with at least one section of straight-away and one "labyrinth," a series of twists and turns. A two-person crew consists of a pilot and a brakeman; four-person crews add two pushers. Bobsleds can go about 90 miles an hour, and hit forces of 5Gs. It's been an Olympic sport since 1924, but women have only competed at the Olympics since 2002.

3. Curling. Curling is awesome. Hard-core curling fans might object to this description, but it is kind of like shuffleboard on ice. It fascinated me as a child, because the players don't wear skates; they wear specialized curling shoes, although recreational players sometimes just wear sneakers. One shoe grips and one shoe slides; the custom-made sliding shoes are coated with Teflon, but amateurs improvise with tape or scuffing. The object of the game is to move a large oval stone (the rock) from one end of an ice lane (the curling sheet) to the other; the goal is called "the house." Four members to a side chase the rock from one end of the sheet to the other by sweeping the ice with specialized brooms, which reduces friction and keeps the rock moving. Each round (end) comprises the delivery of sixteen stones, and the team with the stones closest to the center of the house wins. Curling dates back to medieval Scotland, has been an Olympic competition sport since 1998, and is central to the plot of Louise Penny's excellent mystery A FATAL GRACE.

4. Luge. Another sledding event, with athletes competing as individuals or in pairs. Lugers lie supine (on their backs, face up) on their sleds, and steer with their feet and shoulders. Luge tracks include curves and banks, and the same tracks can be used for luge, bobsled, and skeleton. An individual luger can pull 7Gs, and hit speeds close to 100 mph.

5. Skeleton. Like luge, but prone (face down) and head first, and the skeleton sled has no steering or braking mechanisms. Athletes compete as individuals, and many bobsledders get their start on the skeleton. The course is the same as for bobsled and luge. Because skeleton sleds have no steering or brakes, the international governing body limits force to 5Gs. Skeleton was added to the permanent list of Winter Olympics sports in 2002, though it had been included in earlier games. Women have competed internationally since 2000. (Do you notice how late women are being included in a lot of these things? Don't ever question the value of Title IX.)

Monday, February 08, 2010

Five Best Gene Hackman Roles

Gene Hackman turned 80 last week. He's still the voice on the Home Depot commercials, but he hasn't made a film in six years; the last was the unfortunate Welcome to Mooseport (2004). I stayed up too late on Saturday night because Bonnie and Clyde followed The French Connection on Turner Classic Movies, and anyway I believe that Kevin Wignall suggested this list months ago.

If your views differ, leave them in the comments section.

1. Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, The French Connection (1971). Hackman's first truly iconic role. Popeye Doyle is a screw-up, a bad cop who isn't even particularly competent, except that he's willing to follow his obsessions to the bitter end. Imagine anyone else in this role, and the movie doesn't work at all, because Doyle is fundamentally unlikable — except that Hackman shows us a real man, not a cartoon. And he did about half of his own driving in that car chase.

2. Harry Caul, The Conversation (1974). Again, Hackman plays a character I'd cross a room to avoid. Harry Caul is paranoid, bitter, amoral and vain — and the discovery that he does have a conscience after all changes none of this. It's hard to imagine what a movie like The Conversation would look like if made today, and which modern actors would be willing to play Harry as he's written.

3. The Blind Man, Young Frankenstein (1974). Oh, come on. This has to be on the list. It also makes my list of all-time Top Five Movie Cameos. "Where are you going? I was gonna make espresso."

4. Harry Moseby, Night Moves (1975). I'm surprised by how few of my friends have seen this movie, a masterpiece of 1970s neo-noir. Harry Moseby is a Lew Archer-style private detective who goes looking for a runaway teenager (Melanie Griffith, in her first credited role). The search leads Harry into a tangle of sex, smuggling, greed and betrayal, and no one is redeemed. I just looked, and you can watch this as streaming video on Netflix. Do it when you're in a reasonably good mood.

5. Little Bill Daggett, Unforgiven (1992). Little Bill Daggett is the gleefully amoral sheriff of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, and he keeps the peace because peace is best for business. Having set himself up as an absolute ruler, he dooms himself to an inevitable overthrow; he's not a good man, but his actions and his end have an unlikely nobility.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Five Random Songs

I complained about the snow, but now I feel a little guilty about being in Maine, where the ground has bare spots, when the DC area is under 18 inches and counting. It's all about finding the happy medium . . . friends of mine are competing in today's US National Toboggan Championships, and a little extra snow would probably be welcome. Other than that, it's a perfect day for it: sunny, still, temperatures in the low 20s. Winter in Maine doesn't get much better than this, and Dizzy and I will probably take a long walk this afternoon.

In the meantime, here are five random songs off the iPod Shuffle.

1. "Green Island," The Skatalites. An instrumental that's heavy on the horns. This CD, a best-of collection, was a gift from my friend Tom, who knows my affection for both ska and trumpets.

2. "Prince of Peace," School of Seven Bells. Another gift, this one a Christmas present from a friend who is my main source of music produced in this century. Thanks, John!

3. "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," The Beatles. See what I mean? I bought this album myself, and originally owned it on vinyl.

4. "Black Cadillac," Rosanne Cash. My friend Jen gave me this CD after Mom died, and I gave copies to my siblings. I listened to it nonstop for months, and never got tired of it. I'm still not tired of it. "It's a lonely world/Guess it always was/Minus you/And minus blood, my blood."

5. "Drive South," John Hiatt. If my post about great driving songs had run to ten, this song would have made this list. Of course, driving south wouldn't be a great idea today, but in general . . .

Friday, February 05, 2010

Five Endangered Languages in North America

The BBC reported yesterday that the last speaker of an ancient language called Bo had died. Boa, who was approximately 85 years old, had been the last speaker of her native language for more than 30 years. She lived on the Andaman Islands, in the Indian Ocean. Linguists believed her language to be one of the world's oldest, originating in Africa during the Neolithic period. Bo is the second Andaman language to have disappeared in the last three months. You can hear what Bo sounded like here (scroll down for the audio link).

Advocates of Esperanto say that languages divide people, and that the adoption of a global language will bring peace and understanding to our divided species. I went through a brief fascination with Esperanto in middle school, when I first started to learn Latin, and it seemed obvious that we'd all be better off if we just spoke the same language.

Thirty years later, that strikes me as a little simplistic. I still think we ought to be able to communicate with each other, but more and more I see the value of learning someone else's language, and preserving those differences. We can feel things we don't have names for, but we can't know something until we give it a name. Societies define themselves by how they name the things that are important to them, which is why it matters whether we call someone "crippled" or "disabled" (to give one example). When I moved to Los Angeles, I took Spanish classes. It was important to me that I be able to watch Telemundo or Univision, or read La Opinion. (I should admit that my Spanish never got good enough for me to have a conversation; newspaper headlines and "Sabado Gigante" are about the limits of my ability.)

Anyway, of the approximately 7,000 languages human beings speak, linguists estimate that about 3,000 are in danger of extinction. These are five (of approximately 100) about to disappear from North America.

1. Lipan Apache. Spoken by two people in 1981, it may now be extinct. The last two speakers lived on the Mescalero Reservation in New Mexico, and the community that once spoke Lipan Apache now speaks English.

2. Hupa. Spoken by eight people in 1998, it is taught in primary schools on the Hoopa Valley Reservation in northwest California. Language immersion camps are also being offered to adults.

3. Osage. A language of the Sioux, spoken by five people as of 1992, in north central Oklahoma.

4. Tolowa. Four speakers in 1994, in southwest Oregon. The tribe that spoke this language is extinct, although a population survey in 2000 identified 1,000 people with an ethnic connection to the language.

5. Tuscarora. Four speakers in the US in 1997, seven in Canada in 1991. An Iroquois language that had its own dictionary and grammar; the few remaining native speakers live on the Tuscarora Reservation near Niagara Falls, NY.

The source of all of this information (and so much more) is Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 16th Edition, edited by M. Paul Lewis and published by SIL International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sustainable language development. You can buy a copy here.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Five Personal Brand Loyalties

Most advertising is wasted on me, especially celebrity endorsements. I don't need to play golf like Tiger Woods or smell like Elizabeth Hurley. But I realized when I ran out of moisturizer last week that I am brand-loyal to a handful of things, and would need to take these with me if/when I ever make it to Antarctica.

What are you brand-loyal to?

1. Tide laundry detergent. If it has to be clean, it has to be Tide. I have experimented with cheaper brands, which give me rashes, and environmentally-conscious brands, which don't get clothes clean. Tide is best — Tide with Bleach, to be specific. I'm flexible on scents. My current bottle is "Clean Breeze."

2. Oil of Olay facial moisturizer. I was even able to buy this in Russia, almost 20 years ago. I have tried the fancier versions of Oil of Olay, which I usually can't afford; I like them, and would use them if I had the money to spare, but the pink stuff suits me just fine. I do usually buy the version that has sunscreen.

3. Schweppes Diet Ginger Ale. It's more gingery than its mainstream commercial counterparts (I'm looking at you, Canada Dry), it's caffeine-free, and it has excellent bubbles.

4. Cafe Bustelo ground coffee. I am lucky enough to have friends who send me small-batch roasted beans, but I always have a can of coffee in the freezer for emergency backup. This is what I drink; it is a dark roast, ground very fine, Cuban-style.

5. Old Grand-Dad bourbon. Not to say that I won't drink other kinds of bourbon, but Old Grand-Dad is what I buy. It was a former boss's drink of choice, and the first bourbon I learned to drink. I don't need the power and complexity of the fancier stuff.

In other news, I actually bought three Powerball tickets yesterday, and — surprise, surprise — won nothing. Now I feel like a sucker.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Five Foods and Drinks Consumed Mostly in Maine

This morning's Bangor Daily News reports that once again in 2009, as has been the case for as long as anyone remembers, Allen's Coffee Brandy was the most frequently-purchased liquor in the state of Maine.

Not long after I moved to Maine, I stopped at the New Mills Market very early one morning and stood in line behind a couple who were buying a half-gallon bottle of Allen's Coffee Brandy, a gallon of milk, and a suitcase of Natural Light beer.

"Goin' ice fishing," the man said to the clerk.

"Ice drinkin', more like," the clerk said.

While the rest of the country slides into a big homogeneous soup, Maine has managed to keep its distinctive identity, including foods and drinks you seldom see anywhere but here. I'm listing five, but invite my friends and neighbors to add more in the comments section.

1. Allen's Coffee Brandy. I haven't tried it, for no particular reason; maybe I'll try some this weekend. Friends tell me it's kind of like Kahlua, but rougher, not as thick, and not nearly as sweet. It is manufactured by a family-owned business in Somerville, MA, and I have never seen it outside New England. It is most commonly drunk as a Sombrero (equal parts coffee brandy and milk) or as a Mud Slide (vodka, coffee brandy, Bailey's Irish Cream and cream, shaken and served over ice).

2. Lobster Rolls. These have to go on the list, although I don't eat lobster myself. Fans divide themselves into two camps: purists, who believe a lobster roll should include nothing but lobster meat and butter, and those who prefer a mayonnaise-based lobster salad. In either case, the roll is key: a New England-style hot dog bun that opens at the top instead of on the side. New England hot dog buns are so vastly superior to the kind used in the rest of the country that I can't understand why they're not the default style.

3. Moxie. The official soft drink of Maine, it was invented in 1876 by Maine native Augustin Thompson, who marketed it as a patent medicine. According to legend, when Calvin Coolidge took the oath of office as President of the United States after the sudden death of Warren G. Harding, President Coolidge and his father toasted the event with Moxie. Lisbon Falls, ME hosts an annual Moxie Days festival in July, with a parade and a carnival and a river race. Contrary to what some people have said, Moxie does not taste like tar. It tastes like tar with wintergreen and cinnamon mixed in. All right, I'm not a fan, but even the most dedicated lovers of Moxie admit it's an acquired taste.

4. Pickled Fiddleheads. The emergence of fiddlehead ferns is one of Maine's first signs of spring. Fiddleheads are the young, coiled leaves of the ostrich fern, which grow wild along riverbanks and lake shores. Their season is short and they don't last long after they're harvested, so pickling is a preferred method of keeping them. It's hard to describe the flavor of a fiddlehead, but it's very green — a little like asparagus, mildly oniony. One article I saw compared the flavor to okra, but I never think of okra as having much taste on its own. You'll find some recipes for pickled fiddleheads here.

5. Whoopie Pies. The Amish invented them, but in Maine, they're almost their own religion. I had never had one before I came to Maine. They're about the size of a hamburger, two soft cookies (or firm muffin tops) with white cream in the middle; if you're making your own, straight Marshmallow Fluff works just fine. Many bakeries in Maine claim to produce the state's best whoopee pies, but you can't go wrong with Gardiner's own Wicked Whoopies, which ships nationwide. The chocolate-covered Whoop-de-Dos are insanely good.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Five Great Driving Songs

Hitting the road again this morning, back to Maine for a couple of weeks. I'll be traveling a lot between now and the end of April, and possibly for longer than that. I like the feeling of being in motion; it gives me the illusion of momentum and meaning.

Every road trip needs a soundtrack, and while I'll spend a lot of the next 12 hours listening to audiobooks, these are five songs that are always in my iPod on a long drive. Leave your own recommendations in the comments section.

1. "Brand New Cadillac," The Clash. Not only the greatest car song of all time, but it has a secret feminist message: if you have a really cool car, you don't need some loser guy. A 2000 VW New Beetle counts as a really cool car, right?

2. "Roadrunner," The Modern Lovers. On the way home, I'm always driving through Massachusetts late at night, and this song is essential. "Going faster miles an hour . . . I say Roadrunner once/Roadrunner twice/I'm in love with rock and roll/And I'll be out all night." Listen to it here.

3. "White Light/White Heat," The Velvet Underground. It's a safe bet that this song has something to do with the consumption of illegal pharmaceuticals, but the beat is perfect when you're barreling through the plains of New Jersey.

4. "Gloria," Patti Smith. I'm picking this cover instead of the original (with Van Morrison and Them) because Van Morrison only gets one song on this list.

5. "Real Real Gone," Van Morrison. Mary Chapin Carpenter used to do a great cover of this as a final encore, which strikes me as a perfect use for the song. But the original version is not only a great song, it's an amazing arrangement. The organ zips up to the beginning, the horns announce the theme, Van's voice is an invitation, and the whole thing feels like flying.