Saturday, December 31, 2011

Somebody stop that Lord a-leaping, we're trying to have a meeting here.

Hey, here's a little pre-Christmas whimsy that I never got around to finishing. Still haven't.

Sign at the Post Office: "Your Official Shipper for the Holidays."

You see that "official" tag all the time, usually on those cash-in-quick-on-the-bandwagon paperback humor books, such as The Official Preppy Handbook or The Official I Hate All Memes Especially Baby-talking Cats Handbook.

But apart from sheer meaningless chutzpah -- which, as a putative author, I do not denigrate -- what makes anything official if there's no governing body or proprietorial issues involved?

It can't be that the Post Office is a branch of the U.S. government. Those "Holidays" are rooted in religion, and that gets us perilously close to certain First Amendment issues. And let's face it, despite the political correctness, we're basically talking Christmas here, because none of the other seasonal holidays seems to require the ceremony of standing in line at the Post Office for three hours with a stack of boxes in Target gift-wrap. Anyway, nobody knows how to spell Hanukkah.

Now, even without exhuming Mithras and Saturnalia and a bunch of druids, you can argue that Christmas has long had a secular significance as well as a religious one. Atheists can enjoy singing "God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen," even though his existence and thus his ability to rest anyone, merry or morose, a gentleman or a vulgarian, is a moot point -- just as we can do karaoke without being convinced that somewhere, over the rainbow, bluebirds fly or that the Flintstones really were the modern stone-age family or that Bruno Mars would really catch a grenade for ya.

But if there is any official body for the holidays, you can bet that religion is still well represented . . .


Judas Maccabbeus presiding, George Bailey minutes secretary (Apology for absence: Jacob Marley. No apology for absence: Ebenezer Scrooge)

ITEM 346: Appointment of an official shipper.

Mr. Wenceslas reported that he had received fifty-seven requests for the position of official shipper, which the subcommittee had narrowed to five finalists: the United States Postal Services (USPS), United Parcel Service (UPS), Federal Express (FEDEX), two guys in Bensonhurst with their own van, and a runner with a cleft stick who knew all the words to "Santa Claus is Coming to Town"* . . .

And that's where I basically lost the will to live and shut down the blog for a month. It was going to end with Santa bursting in and complaining that he was the official shipper, but then you could see that coming a mile off. You want Christmas humor, go see The Muppets.

*And for future reference, Mr. Bieber, they don't include the phrase "Shake it, baby."

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Paramus, and can this be?

I'm at the IKEA in Paramus, New Jersey. I buy another basic "Billy" bookcase, having once again run out of space for all those volumes I honestly, honestly mean to read before I'd ever dream of handing over my credit card once again to Patrick in Arcade, our local bookstore, I promise, and this time I really mean it.

Trundle the 86-pound package into the parking lot and feel a back muscle go as I stuff it single-handedly into the back of the Sierra. But I struggle back into the building again, feeling the call of a Swedish cinnamon bun before I hit Route 4 back to the George Washington Bridge. And I pass a display that shows the bookcase I thought I bought, on sale for $49.99. I check my receipt. I paid $69.99.

Off to Customer Service, where a scowling young woman explains long-sufferingly that I actually bought something quite different. The sale item is 31 1/2 inches wide and 79 1/2 inches high. But my bookcase, according to her computer, is 32 inches wide and 80 inches high. (And what bothers me is that she seems to have no clue that these dimensions are virtually the same, even when I point it out. The numbers aren't the same, so I must have screwed up and chosen an entirely different product.)

Now my theory is that these are the same sizes in metric, and the rounding is just a little different, because IKEA has no concept of adjusting its manufacturing standards for its biggest market. Yeah, perhaps it's a petulant Swedish attempt to drag the US into the twentieth century, but if the shame of being the only nation other than Myanmar not to have adopted the metric system hasn't worked, I don't think the land of ABBA's going to make a dent in our resolve. These bookcases are made in Canada for God's sake, they're used to dealing with us.

So I go back to the car, unload again (noticing as I do that the package says the contents are actually 31 1/2 x 79 1/2), take it to the same customer service representative who credits my card with $69.99, still treating me as if I'm the idiot, go back into the store, get the identical product from a different spot in the racks, buy it for $20 less (a whopping 28% discount), and struggle back to the car.

The customer is always right, he just doesn't always get to feel that way.

P.S. Lodged my cinnamon bun on the front seat of the car while I loaded the replacement bookcase, my back now really hurting. The bun flipped over, but I righted it fairly quickly.

So which would you be more concerned about? A patch of sticky icing on the front seat? Or upholstery fibers on the bun?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

It works for nursery rhymes, too.

Little Poe Beep

". . . has buried her sheep
And doesn't know where to find them.

Leave them alone,
Or they'll come home . . ."

Oh no, it's another of those literary mash-ups.

"During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy Spot of Eeyore. I know not how it was -- but, with the first glimpse of the place, a sense of Insufferable Gloom pervaded my spirit."


Thursday, November 3, 2011

Seven billion people in the world. And none of them reading my blog.

Overpopulation. It's a problem. Too many people sharing too few resources, too few jobs, too small a space.

It even shows up in nursery rhymes. Take this classic:

This little piggy went to market 
This little piggy stayed home 
This little piggy had roast beef 
This little piggy had none 
And this little piggy went "wee, wee, wee, wee" all the way home. 

Five toes, five piggies. Seems logical. Or is it? Is this just another example of overstaffing and redundancy? Perhaps a classic time and motion study would reveal greater efficiencies.  

This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home. Fine, the actions are mutually exclusive, it takes two.  

This little piggy had roast beef. A third piggy? Not necessarily. Either of the first two piggies could have had the roast beef. The piggy who went to market may have paused in the middle of a busy morning’s shopping to have lunch. Can you picture him, sitting in a small bistro just off the market square, bags of groceries stuffed under the table, tucking into a plate of rare sirloin, stuffed chestnuts, and a truffle or two (hold the chipolatas)?

But maybe it wasn't a food market. Maybe our gadabout piggy has headed for the nearest cybercafe to day-trade in financial stocks, while munching on a pastrami Reuben. Or maybe commodities are more his line -- after all, who else would know so much about pork belly futures?

Or perhaps it was our first piggy who had the roast beef. Alone, vacuuming in the apartment, having divided the weekly chores with his fellow-swine, he gets a little peckish around lunchtime and cuts a cold slice or two from the Sunday joint to make himself a sandwich. Either way, no need yet for a third piggy.

This little piggy had none. Again, still no need to posit a new piggy. We’ve already learned that only one of the first two piggies ate. Clearly, the piggy left crying ‘Where’s the beef?" is the other.  

And this little piggy went "wee, wee, wee, wee" all the way home. Is there any doubt that this is the same piggy who went to market, now returning to home base? The only mystery is what caused his pathetic cries of "wee."

And here I think we have a valuable clue to the identity of the piggy who noshed on the roast beef. Consider the two scenarios. Either the piggy who went to market had the roast beef or he didn’t. Is the weeing all the way home, therefore, the result of indigestion after eating a suspect piece London broil, or is it hunger pangs? Which of these would cause him to wee so liberally? Personally, I vote for hunger pangs. And thus we can flesh the story out . . .

Two piggies, both alike in dignity, share a household – perhaps the very same brick house that withstood the huffing of the Big Bad Wolf in another tale.

"What shall we do today?" cries one, stretching and tumbling out of bed on a Monday morning.

"We’re out of everything," declares the other, no doubt the more enterprising of the two, glaring balefully into the empty refrigerator. "I must go to the market or we’ll be dining on three olives and a jar of expired mayo."

"Ah, stay home," cajoles his laconic comrade. "I've got a new DVD -- 'Sows Gone Wild.' We’ve got some leftover roast beef from the weekend. I’ll curry it for lunch"

"No, no, I must go. Frankly, Lionel, I hunger for adventure, for the wide-open spaces, for the world. Farewell, dear brother. The future beckons."

And thus he heads off to the Piggly Wiggly. His brother shrugs and opens a bag of pork scratchings.

Flash forward a few days later. A hammering on the door in the middle of a wild and rainswept night. The first piggy, brown bathrobe flung hastily over pajamas, nervously lifting the edge of the curtain. His cries of joy as he wrenches the front door open to admit the haggard, staggering form of his beloved brother, weak from hunger, and barely able to articulate.

"We . . . ," he gasps, "we . . ."

"Yes," croons his brother, helping him to bed. "We can have roast beef."

Is it too far-fetched to see the parable lurking here? When you strip the rhyme to its bare minimum, surely this is the tale of The Prodigal Son, the one brother seeking his fortune in the big city, with the tawdry temptations of its so-called "market." But a market for what?

Ruined, demoralized, high on the hog, will he be forced to sell his body to the night, to the treacle-voiced tempters who murmur "bacon cheeseburger," to the greasy faced women who hunger for his loins? He’d rather live like a pig.

And so he runs home, curly tail between his legs, to dine once again on . . . was it roast beef? Or was that joyful reunion really celebrated with a Fatted Calf? (I won’t get into the implications of interspecies cannibalism on the farm.)

Some scholars claim that we need five piggies for this drama because humans have five toes. But reduced to its basics, the true allegorical nature of the story emerges, as surely as if you read it backwards to hear the hidden bovine messages. ("Hail Elsie! Hail Elsie!")

There is only one possible conclusion. This rhyme was composed for religious purposes by somebody with only two toes. Probably a born-again sloth.

Next time on Population Control Theater, how they could have made the Harry Potter movies with three actors and a false mustache.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

In A Gaddafi Da Vida

A clerihew on the demise of a dictator. Ahem.

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi
Was not much of a laugh; e-
ven so, Libyan men are all
Relieved he never made General.

But what if he was from Martha's Vineyard, what then, eh?

In a recent poetic post, I referenced the "man from Nantucket" limerick. And then it occurred to me that, despite this verse's being the paradigm of obscenity -- and despite me being me -- I had no idea how it went on after the first line.

(Perhaps it's one of those things that's funnier if it's left to the imagination, which is why I resist all entreaties to actually write a book about the foul adventures of the fouler Finsbury the Ferret, the foulest character of my character, Oliver Swithin.)

So imagine my amazement when I discovered that the original author had penned an inoffensive little place-name pun, little knowing that he'd baited the hook for generations of dirty-minded poetasters to come. From a 1902 edition of the Princeton Tiger:
There once was a man from Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket.
    But his daughter, named Nan,
    Ran away with a man
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.
There. I read Wikipedia so you don't have to.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The other L-word.

Let it be said, I never win anything.

The advantage of having your books published in November or December is that you can force your friends to give them as Christmas gifts.

The disadvantage is that they come out too close to the deadline for nominations for many mystery awards -- actually, past the cut-off date for that one-time-only Edgar for first novel. It doesn't give readers time to get to my book in the TBR pile, realize they're in the presence of genius, and form noisy tent cities outside the homes of the Agatha nominating committee. (The coveted Agatha is the top literary award for my kind of mystery, the "cozy.")

Will Shortz. Very nice man.
But yesterday evening, I went with my friend Cindy for the first time to the Westchester Crossword Competition, organized by Will Shortz, crossword maven for the New York Times, in his home town in Pleasantville. And I got a runner-up prize as the second-fastest "rookie" -- and the winner in this category was only a second ahead of me. (In fact, I might have beaten him had it not taken a moment to sink in that I had, in fact, completed the competition puzzle when I thought there were still a couple of clues left.)

Mind you, that particular round was my best score, and I was still only thirteenth overall. The winners were polishing off a Thursday Times crossword (i.e., moderately challenging) in just over three minutes!

People in England used to boast that they used the London Times crossword -- generally a fiendish English cryptic type -- to time the cooking of their breakfast boiled eggs. If that were me, even though I'm quite adept with cryptics, those eggs would still be pretty hard boiled by the time I took them off the stove.

("Hard-boiled," "cozy" -- see what I did there?)

Friday, October 21, 2011

You didn't have to be there.

I was at a meeting the other day to hear what our democratic candidates for Rye City Council had to say about their aims for the community. In conversation before the speeches, one couple admitted they were a mixed marriage -- the husband Republican, the wife Democrat.

I came back with a great one-liner that I'd experienced the problems of a mixed marriage: my wife is a woman.

Perfectly timed and delivered. Only another woman in our cluster jumped in and talked over it. Twice. Their loss is your gain, dear reader.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Wizards, wizards everywhere.

Our local patisserie not only produces baked goods of unparalleled scrumption but also serves the best coffee on the planet. But as Halloween approaches, they had an odd lapse of judgement.

Getting my large coffee and mixed-berry flaxseed muffin the other morning, what should I see looking up through the vitrine but a dozen or so whorls of meringue, shaped and pointed like Mr. Whippy's head, with teardrop blobs of chocolate for eyes. Perfect little ghosts.

And of course, any uncanny and undoubtedly unintentional resemblance to members of the Klan was probably just my imagination. (Martha Stewart's potato ghosts -- see the picture -- provoked a similar reaction a while back. Come on, guys -- you could easily avoid the effect with a smile or a splash of food coloring. Although don't you think a KKK meeting would more easily get the contempt it deserves if a pair of red socks had got into the wash?)

Well, the good news is that there's little risk of serious offense, since Rye doesn't have any African-American residents.

P.S. Because race is a touchy subject, yes, I am being ironic about our town's appalling lack of diversity. In the 2000 census -- the last published -- there were 190 African-Americans in Rye. That's a stunning 1.27% of a city that's about eight miles from The Bronx. 

Ah well, as I remarked the other day to anyone who'd listen (i.e., nobody), the good thing about so many investment bankers in the community is that they keep down the lawyers.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Ode to a car what Tertius and I saw in the parking lot of the closed A&P on the Boston Post Road in Port Chester.

O car.
How green you would be,
Were you not a Hummer,
Were you not a stretch Hummer,
Were you not a deep-pink stretch Hummer.
Which kind of rules out the green bit anyway.

(This poetry kick is pie. I'd have another one for you if I could find a rhyme for "Nantucket.")

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Untitled Haiku.

"I love you," I said.
"And I loved you," she replied.
The pain is intense.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Don't leave home without it.

From observations in the shopping mall and on the street generally, it seems as if it's not enough just to keep your i-Phone in a convenient pocket, you also have to carry it -- illuminated -- in one hand at all times, like . . . well, like no sartorial or cultural trend that I can think of. Victorian gentlemen with their gloves or canes, perhaps?

Did I miss the memo? (Not that I have such a thing as a smart phone. I gave up long ago on being the most intelligent person in the room, but I still want to be the smartest thing on my body.)

A moment of candor.

I'm a Renaissance man. My body looks as if it dates back to the sixteenth century.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

An English original.

There's no shortage of Simpsons in American culture -- Homer, Jessica, OJ, Ashfordand -- but there's another thoroughly English Simpson whose fame didn't leap the Atlantic, probably because of that very uncompromising, incomprehensible Englishness. Alas, since I don't always check the British headlines, I'm a week or so late in hearing of the death, at the age of 92, of the original and influential playwright N.F. Simpson.

(It stood for Norman Frederick, but his friends called him "Wally," after Wallis, another American Simpson who did leap the Atlantic but in the opposite direction.)

His career and his creativity fluctuated, but he's best known for his extraordinary surrealist domestic dramas, which flourished at the avant-garde* Royal Court Theatre and on BBC radio and television in the late fifties and early sixties. Simpson was surprised when he was compared to "Theater of the Absurd" writers such as Ionesco and Beckett, preferring to acknowledge the influence of Lewis Carroll, James Thurber, and P.G. Wodehouse on his work. (Is it any wonder that I like him?)  Thriving at the same time as Spike Milligan's "The Goon Show" on the steam wireless -- and championed by the likes of Peter Cook -- he was a clear forerunner of the Monty Python school of surreal comedy.

One example. In his most famous play, One Way Pendulum, one character, Kirby Groomkirby -- played in the 1964 movie version by Cook's fellow Beyond the Fringe alumnus Dr. (and now Sir) Jonathan Miller -- likes to wear black. However, he cannot justify this sartorial choice unless he is in mourning, so he must go out and murder people on a regular basis. But before delivering the fatal blow, he makes sure he tells his victim a joke, so that he or she can die happy. Throughout the play, Kirby skulks in the attic of the Groomkirby's home, attempting to teach a hundred I-Speak-Your-Weight machines to sing the Hallelujah Chorus.

"Fifteen stone, ten pounds!"**

*Spellchecker doesn't recognize this word, but throws up the incorrect "avaunt-garde" as an alternative.

**220 pounds in U.S. currency.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

From the annals of grossness.

In a rush to get back to work this morning, I gulped down my morning vitamin supplements with the last mouthfuls of my breakfast cereal.

Imagine the effect of absent-mindedly biting on what feels to your tongue like a fresh blueberry, only to realize a microsecond later -- courtesy of your sense of taste -- that it was your fish-oil capsule.

Monday, September 12, 2011

By gad, sir, you are a character.

Odd recommendation from Netflix. Because I like the 1941 Humphrey Bogart classic version of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, they suggest I'll also like 60s TV cartoon series "Rocky and Bullwinkle."

Syndication beats sequel.

Back in April, I reported on the sheep-like repetition of the epithet "indie darling" whenever Greta Gerwig was mentioned in a review of the dreadful Arthur remake. I think I got 20,000 Google hits on the phrase. (It's now up to 114,000, although oddly you get even more if you mistype "darling.")

Well, it's happening again. The lovely Zooey Deschanel is in a new TV series in the fall line-up, and she seems to have taken over the label in a big way. Current score for "indie darling Zooey Deschanel": 986,000 hits.

Conclusion: Television reviewers have even less imagination than movie reviewers. But then somehow you expected that, huh?

Mind you, the phrase "Zooey Deschanel and Katy Perry" scores over three million Google hits, which probably all link to posts that speculate whether they're the same person. Well, you can see why from the picture. (Zooey's on the left. Or is she . . ?)

So if there's ever a remake of the Bette Davis classic A Stolen Life, in which she played twin sisters*, think of the money you could save on the special effects by simply casting Z and K.

(Although one of the sisters in the movie was named Kate Bosworth, so perhaps that role should go to the actress, uh, Kate Bosworth. On the other hand, here's a picture of Kate and Zooey together. Not so much of a resemblance.)

*Bette Davis also played twin sisters in Dead Ringers, which was directed by Paul Heinreid, who starred with Davis in Now, Voyager, which gave us that supposedly sexy business of lighting two cigarettes at once and the classic line "Oh Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars." The film also starred (by-then) veteran actress Gladys Cooper, whose grandson, Sheridan Morley (son of Robert) was the official yet posthumous biographer of Sir John Gielgud, who starred in the original Arthur, in which the title character was played by Dudley Moore, and not Russell Brand, Katy Perry's husband, who was in the remake with indie darling Greta Gerwig. I could keep this up all night, you know. Sad, isn't it?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A small wonder.

This afternoon, I managed to travel the length of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, home to three out of the top four worst intersections in the U.S., without letting my speed drop below the posted limit.

So how come when I pick up a Wii remote and race Secundus, I can't go ten yards without hitting a barrier or attempting to drive up the stairs to a pedestrian overpass? More to the point, how come the kids don't have the same problems?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

I go fourth.

If the third time's a charm, what's the fourth? Linen? Fruit?

(If it's a fourth wedding anniversary*, it's appliances, according to the modern U.S. so-called "tradition." No doubt the same consumerist folk tradition that gave us the ceremony of dancing round the Maytag, ha, ha ha.)

Anyway, I'm honored to have been asked for the fourth time to do some workshops at the annual Young Authors Conference for the best creative writers in Westchester County's high schools, also known as the best gig in the Universe.

Nice to know I'm doing something right.

*If it's a fourth wedding, it's called have-we-learned-nothing.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

I nearly stepped into a poodle.

It's taken DNA testing, the expert comments of several vets, four years of observable behavior, and enough dog-fanciers' two-cents-worths to pay for her next Nylabone, but we'd pretty well concluded that Leila, the pedigree-deprived rescue dog, is largely akita inu, the Japanese imperial breed. The pink nose is a good sign.

But today, I'm loyally but grumpily walking said beast in the pouring rain, when I have to intervene to stop her eating a dead frog.

A bit of shock, then, for this Englishman to realize his pooch could be part French.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Who Gnu?

An idle observation at 10:30 p.m., after driving for nearly twelve hours straight, hypnotized by headlights and hopped up on several cups of coffee and a large Red Bull . . .

If you're heading north on the Henry Hudson Parkway in Manhattan, just as it passes Riverbank State Park in Harlem, and you maintain a speed of about 65 m.p.h., the seams in the pavement make your front and back axles thump in the rhythm of the piano introduction to Michael Flanders and Donald Swann's song The Gnu.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Happy returns.

Me, by Tertius
It was my birthday on Monday -- thanks to anyone who sent me a greeting on Facebook. I spent a very contented afternoon with the boys, starting out by teaching them how to play Poohsticks, first on a bridge over the Blind Brook on Rye's too-busy Highland Avenue, and then further downstream in the relative safety of our glorious Nature Center. After the first game, they beat me solidly. Which is the way it should be.

Good to watch the guys thoroughly happy together for hours, basically messing about in a cool, shallow river with pieces of rope, sticks, wooden boats, soggy sandals, leaves . . .   Not a screen in sight.

Later, I'm talking to Tertius, who listens to me and comments placidly, "If I had a quarter for every word you['ve] said, I don't know what I could do with that much money."

Friday, August 19, 2011

ON again, ON again.

I'm in San Francisco, with only my iTouch to access the internet. So this can only be a brief message to say "Happy one-hundred and ninth birthday, Ogden Nash!"

Monday, August 15, 2011

What have we learned?

That it's not enough to remove the old, dried-up grounds from the coffee-maker. You also have to add fresh coffee before you run it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Convent-ional Wisdom?

Nice slip of the tongue this evening by an NPR presenter, introducing a forum on the economy, when he nearly said the "International Monastery Fund."

Looking for puns linking monks and economics. Got nothing. (Could have gone with Lehman Brothers, but they went bankrupt in 2008.)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Kill me dead.

Trying to watch a "Transformers" movie, but it's hard to keep track of who's the good robot versus who's the bad when most of the action looks like an Erector Set in a washing machine.

But it seems that half the time, you can't keep a good Decepticon down. Megatron takes a licking but keeps on ticking through two sequels, while other robots are smashed forever with one blast.

"What decides whether a transformer is beyond recovery?" I ask Primus.

"You have to destroy it hard enough," he explains.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

She'd probably get a Rover, ha! ha! ha!

There are many things in life I don't do.

I don't use the phrase "I'd tell you, but then I'd have to kill you."*

I don't cheer and break into applause when somebody drops a plate in a restaurant.

I don't work out people's zodiac signs from their birthdays, partly because I don't know what the relevant dates are, but mainly because I think astrology is as big a load of crap** as the Republican canard*** that bloody rich people get into a snit and refuse to create jobs in the US because they don't get to keep proportionally more of their income than the rest of us.

Leila. photographed by Secundus
And I don't automatically recalculate dog's ages in human years. In fact, I don't even know the formula.

However, as should be abundantly obvious from this blog, I have no influence whatsoever on my children, and when I mentioned that the divine Leila (the Overbeast) is coming up to her fourth birthday, Tertius immediately did the mental arithmetic.

"In human years," he announces, "she's old enough to drive."

Now there's a disturbing concept.

*It's not merely the fact that it's a cliche. It's the fact that people who do still use it always do so with this smug, knowing smirk on their face, as if they'd just made it up themselves and as if it bestows them with some superiority. Ah, don't get me started.

**Kindly ignore the fact that I wrote a mystery that used the signs of the zodiac as the murderer's code. I am large, I contain multitudes.

***Not French for dog, as in canine. French for duck.

Friday, July 29, 2011

How green was my Vivaldi.

I'll admit it. I'm a nerd. I have about 700 CDs of classical music. (I say "about," because I've never counted them. I'm not that much of a nerd.)

They're sitting in a cabinet in their own nook in the living room, alphabetized by composer. (Okay, that raises the nerd quotient.)

Or they were. Noticing some odd regularities cropping up on one or two shelves, I look more closely. Tertius has apparently decided they look better if they're arranged by color, and he's made a start by grabbing all the London company recordings and shoving them on one shelf. (Britten's Britten, Dutoit's Ravel and Stravinsky, Ashkenazy's Sibelius, and Haitinck's Shostakovich, mainly, cheek by jowl in rough, twentieth-century familiarity.) It took an hour to fix. Which I quite enjoyed. (Yup, slap me on the ass and call me 'Nerdy.')

There is a literary precedent. In An Embarrassment of Corpses (okay, I used the word 'literary' pretty loosely there), I mentioned that my character Oliver arranges his books by color, on the grounds that you never forget the color of a book you've read. (I tested this theory on Primus recently, who got all seven volumes of the Harry Potter series right.) I'm not sure this works for recording labels, though.

It's not just me.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

It's all about setting limits.

I mention that I need some energy from somewhere. A few minutes later, Tertius pops up and hands me an energy drink that he's concocted just for me. A kind, caring gesture from an eight-year-old that must, of course, be reinforced.

I take a sip. Fortunately I'd already dished out the praise. "What's in here?" I'm forced to ask, gasping.

"You didn't have any cranberry juice," he says. "So it's orange juice, apple juice,  lemon juice, and some of that vegetable stuff. And salt."

That almost explains the distinctive flavor. "Vegetable stuff?" I croak. We don't have any V-8's in the house.

"Yeah. I squeezed a lettuce into it."

"Did you try it?"


"Did you, er, like it?"

"Oh, yes."

"Then you can finish it," I said. Ha! Creative Parenting.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I'll buy that t-shirt.

Unexpected wisdom from Secundus, while touring The Container Store:

"Duct tape and Photoshop. Two things that make everything better."

Monday, July 25, 2011

Does she know me?

I bump into an old friend in the Patisserie, and we compare notes on how we're distributing our children for the summer. (Mine are with me at the time, camp finished for the day and squabbling over lemonades.)

"Still, you can't complain, can you?" she says brightly, as we part.

You can't? When did that become a rule?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Into the sixteenth minute.

Despite my tyranny, subterfuge, and downright lying, the boys do know that I have a car radio channel tuned to one of those stations with a playlist of just three recent releases. In a moment of gracious condescension, I accede to their clamors to switch from NPR to this setting, knowing the trip is mercilessly short. We get an autotuned Britney croaking something that won't be regarded as her best work.

"Britney Spears?" remarks ten-year-old Secundus. "Is she still alive?"

It's coming for you, Bieber.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Just checking in.

Three more people asking for directions. The last one beckons me over and starts talking before I remove the earbuds. On the restart, he growls somewhat impatiently that he wants to get to the Yonkers Raceway. Yonkers Raceway is at least fifteen miles away, on the other side of the county. Come on man, you're not even trying. I suggest buying an atlas would be a good start.

The trees still hate me. I'm walking to the station yesterday morning when there's a slapping in the leaves above my head. I stop in my tracks, and a dead branch crashes to the sidewalk a foot or two in front of me. Was this because of that forsythia pruning incident? Because the Rye Public Works department made me do it.

Nice to see Tertius taking an interest in finances. He hands me a coupon that's he sketched for a billion dollars, with my name on it. "Buy yourself something pretty," he urges.

(How about Greece?)

Since my current retirement income strategy is hoping at least one of my three boys is going to be the next Bill Gates, I think this is a good sign.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

If it's Wednesday, this must be Friday.

Two people today have ended their encounter with me by wishing me an enjoyable weekend.

It's Wednesday. (Isn't it?)

Monday, July 11, 2011

The first negative review.

And what then of this so-called book, you gloriously talented English god-among-men, I hear you cry, referring of course to this blog's namesake, the third book in the Oliver Swithin series.

Well, it was finished. Some time ago. The trouble was, it was much too long, necessitating an unplanned round of revisions to try to lose 30,000 words. But with all the disciplined cuts -- including self-indulgent moments of whimsy, irrelevant jokes, and a whole slice of sub-plot -- I only eliminated half of that target. So once more unto the breach . . .  (Starting by ousting every adverb, said he cuttingly.)

Anyway, when Secundus was praising a kid's author for a wam-bam opening, I thought I'd try him on the first paragraph of This Private Plot, which currently reads:

“The odd thing about a banana,” Oliver Swithin mused as he chased the naked policewoman across the moonlit field, “is not that it’s an excellent source of potassium, but that everybody seems to know it is.”

"Do you think you'd want to read on?" I asked.

"Nah," he said. "It sounds like a documentary about bananas."

Hey, I'd read that. I like bananas.

P.S. Best mystery opening lines ever

Runner-up: Raymond Chandler, from the short story "Red Wind."
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot, dry, Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that, every booze party ends in a fight. Meek, little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.
Winner: Charlaine Harris, Dead Over Heels
My bodyguard was mowing the yard wearing her pink bikini when the man fell from the sky.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

When your doctor says "Hmmm . . . interesting."

They say that the definition of a bore is someone who, when you ask them how they are, tells you. Prepare to be bored.

It all started several weeks ago. I was assembling new beds for the boys, and I must have spent a lot of time with all my weight pressing into my left knee. The next day, it was swollen and puffy. But I know what this is -- it's bursitis, also known as "Roofer's knee" or "Clergyman's knee" or especially "Housemaid's knee." If it's like the goose-egg I got on my elbow when I fell flat on the ice in January, it'll just go away with a bit of rest and elevation.
Housemaid's knee, housemaid's knee
It's plain to see it's house maid's knee.
No rest and elevation around this place. The knee goes down, but the fluid seems to descend down my shin, causing bruising on my foot, spots on my shins, and puffiness around my ankle. Again, I give it time. But I complain about my condition to my friend Gina, and she emails back with a jeremiad on the risks of unchecked puffiness, which could be the dreaded cellulitis. I check cellulitis on the internet. Here's my advice: Don't check cellulitis on the internet. Or at least stop before you get to the bit about flesh-eating bacteria. This terrifies me into going to the doctor the next day.
Cellulitis, cellulitis
What if my plight is cellulitis?
Next day -- the last day I put up a post on this blog -- I wake with an excrutiating pain in my ear and the sound of fluid in my ear canal. Has the feared cellulitis spread? Because it's the last day of school and I have to be back to pick up two of the boys by lunchtime, I go to the Urgent Care Center as soon as it opens. "I have a pain in my ankle and in my ear, and I want to know if they're connected" I cry. The doctor looks at me strangely, but orders an x-ray of my ankle and ultrasound of my leg. No break, no clots. Should get better on its own. But here are two types of antibiotics for the ear infection -- otitis externa, aka "Swimmer's ear."
Swimmer's ear, swimmer's ear
What we have here is swimmer's ear.
Next day, the leg gets better. The ear gets worse. Constant pain, living from Tylenol to Tylenol, side of the face hugely swollen and tender, loss of hearing. And then these spots start breaking out on my face, near my ear. I also start running temperatures of 102. I suffer for the weekend, but take myself off to my regular doctor on Monday. By now, the spots have spread across my face, scalp, and upper body, and I suspect an allergy to one of the medications . . . but which? (It's like a mystery story.)
Hives, hives, hives, hives
Antiobiotics save lives, but did they give me hives?
And that's when Dr. C says "Hmmm. Interesting." I tell him I don't want to be interesting. He says sorry and mutters things about hospital stays pumping me with anti-viral drips. Instead, he sends me to an infectious diseases specialist, Dr F. Who also says "Interesting." Because what I have is . . . chickenpox.
Chickenpox, chickenpox
Both the docs think chickenpox.
So Dr. F gives me some antivirals for the chickenpox and takes a swab of my ear, which isn't getting better, despite my reaching the end of the antiobiotics. I go home, unable to tell whether it's the pox or the ear that's responsible for a range of debilitating symptoms, mainly a desire to do nothing lay flat on my bed and stare at the ceiling for days. (No difference there from normal life, but I usually call that "research." I should add that all this happens while I'm generally in charge of the boys, now on summer break, since the mem-sahib is at an offsite for much of the week. The boys are safe, having had their chickenpox jabs. I let them watch the extended, uncut Lord of the Rings trilogy and stomp off to bed till it's over.)

But the pox halts and then recedes (messily) over several days, the swelling of the face goes down, the fevers desist. The ear is still bloody painful and my hearing remains muffled. And then Dr. F calls. The results of the swab came back -- I have a MRSA infection (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), which means the antiobiotics haven't been doing all they should.
Could it get any worser? It's a MRSA
So on to the more powerful antibiotics. Early days, but I think they're working. What's next, bubonic plague? Throg's neck? Spock's brain?

This post isn't supposed to be funny. It's a blatant bid for sympathy in a cruel and unfeeling world. But while I need a hug, don't get too close -- I may be catching.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Those entrepreneurial genes must have come from their mother.

It's the last day of school for Secundus and Tertius. Goodbye fourth and second grades, respectively.

Secundus spends the afternoon sorting through his unused school supplies from the beginning of the year and trying to sell them to Tertius.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Location, location, location.

Picking Tertius up from a playdate, I'm instantly flagged down and hustled out of fifty cents for a cup of lemonade at a stand he and his friend have erected outside his host's house.

They're not doing too well, despite unabashed enthusiasm. I suggested that the farthest point on the looping road around a gated community that's on an island isn't exactly a high traffic spot.* Indeed, I think their only previous customer was the FedEx delivery guy.

Tertius announces that not only are they selling lemonade, but homemade comics and trading cards, which they drew and xeroxed themselves.

"So what's the comic about?" I ask.

"The adventures of General Boxer-shorts."

"Isn't that a bit like Captain Underpants?" (Captain U. is the hero of a well-established series of kids books.)

"No," he says instantly, with defiance.

"Then how is it different?"

"Well, he's a general and it's boxer shorts." Of course.

*Ironically, this now-exclusive part of Rye was actually the first chunk of land sold to European settlers by the Mohegan indians.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Keeps on happening.

Yesterday, I was heading up Rye's Old Post Road -- a one-way street -- when I spotted a car coming toward me.

I flagged the driver down, not to remonstrate, but to warn her (it was a her, with a polite Southern accent) of the danger from other cars that might not be expecting any oncoming traffic as they trustingly hurtled into the Old Post Road from the intersection just ahead of her.

She thanked me. And then asked me for directions.*

*To get where she wanted to go, I told her it was quicker and easier for her to keep going the wrong way for the remaining fifty yards or so. Was that wrong?

Why, Gravity? I always obeyed your law.

Earlier this year, I was working in my office/bedroom, when I heard a thump on the roof. A branch had fallen off a tree, struck the gutter over my window, and bounced into the backyard, where Secundus was playing. Fortunately, it missed him.

A month or so later, I was walking the dog on Rye's leafy Milton Road when a large branch crashed down into the roadway from a tree on the opposite verge, at exactly the moment I passed. Being a good citizen, I hauled it out of the way of the traffic, despite being leashed to a bewildered mutt at the time. For once, nobody took the opportunity to ask me for directions.

Two days ago, Secundus and I had just stepped through the gate between the driveway and the front yard when a massive branch from one of our oaks plummeted to earth about twenty feet from where we were standing, peeling itself on the kids' zipline and making a sizeable hole where it stabbed the lawn. The indications are that it was struck by lightning, although the thunderstorm had passed hours earlier.

Then Secundus informed me that a ceiling tile had fallen down in his classroom, without hitting anyone.

So here's my question. Are the trees out to get me, or does gravity have it in for all the Beecheys? If the former, does being named after a tree cut no ice with a vengeful Mother Nature?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

I am not alone.

I thought I'd made a breakthrough in Beatles scholarship, but it was not to be.

I was watching an old episode of Gerry Anderson's classic puppet TV show "Thunderbirds," as you do, reliving memories of 1966.* It was about an out-of-control giant logging machine called "Crablogger," which naturally goes crazy and starts heading for a dam. Can International Rescue stop it before the village is destroyed?

(Of course they can, duh, whoop-de-doo, but there was always a certain disappointment among my friends when any structure survived the show without exploding in a fireball.)

But it rings a bell. "Crablogger" sounds a lot like "Crab-a-locker." As in "I Am the Walrus":

Crab-a-locker fishwife, pornographic priestess, boy you been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down.

This episode of "Thunderbirds" was first broadcast on October 9, 1966. (John Lennon's birthday, incidentally.) About this time, John heard that his old English teacher at the Quarry Bank High School was making his class analyze Beatles lyrics, so he deliberately threw some unfathomable gibberish into the song he was currently working on, which turned out to be "I Am the Walrus." The crab-a-locker line follows a couplet -- "Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog's eye" -- that is more directly inspired by the schoolyard chants of John's childhood.

But have I stumbled on the origin of the mysterious "crab-a-locker"?

Since most online references to the Beatles' lyrics cite "crab-a-locker" as a nonsense word, I'm rejoicing in my discovery. Alas, too early. One Google entry directs me to, where an anonymous contributor has recently made the same observation.

So there's someone else out there who remembers enough about 1960s cult kids television and John Lennon's psychedelic output to put two and two together, nearly half a century later?

The world just became a scarier place.

*The year that England won the World Cup, of course, and therefore the greatest year in the history of civilization. I reached the age of ten, horrified to find out on my birthday that just because you get an entry in the tens column, it doesn't make you a teenager.

And not exactly reliving, because in 1966, these kids shows were broadcast in black and white in England, although they were filmed in color for the US market. Thunderbird 2 was green, huh? I'd always imagined it as red.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I do the math.

I read an article recently about the astonishing inefficiency of the internal combustion engine. Apparently, only 16% of the energy it consumes ends up moving it forward (or backward), which is the whole point of the car after all.

Not entirely believing this, I checked around and kept coming up with similar numbers -- the motor car engine is only about 20% mechanically efficient, the rest of its energy being lost to heat, water heating, motor friction, and noise. The original article included idling, so its lower number is quite reasonable.

And it makes tea, too.
Now, no engine is ever going to get anywhere near 100%. (Want to know the most efficient engine currently measured? Human power. The bicycle.) Perhaps if we'd stuck to refining the steam-powered tricycle that was built in 1769, we'd be in a better place by now. But that pesky Karl Benz shoved a gasoline engine into his 1885 auto, and the rest is oil, and the odd bedfellows it's brought us over the years.

(Proving that the key to success is to get into the balloon first and then devote all your resources to not budging. Incumbency always has the edge, even when common sense is howling for change. Ask the oil industry, the car industry, the tobacco industry, the music business, etc., and all those re-election-seeking fifth-term politicians they buy.)

Anyway, I thought I'd see where the numbers led. Not surprisingly, I got some wildly different estimates of energy consumption, depending on the interests of those doing the estimating, but I'm happy with this as a rough first draft.

I'll try to keep this simple. First, US oil consumption in 2010 was 18,686,000 barrels a day. The good news is, that's a continued decline from a peak in 2007. (Just for perspective, 4.9 million barrels leaked from the Deepwater Horizon spill over three months, which is the amount we consume as a nation in about six hours.)

Transportation in the US uses roughly 70% of the oil we consume. This seems to be a widely agreed figure -- it's basically the percentage of petroleum that's refined into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

The hard part is separating out how much of that goes to roads, since diesel also fuels our long-distance trains. But I found a reasonable breakdown of transportation energy consumption that allotted 30% to light trucks (presumably less efficient users of gasoline), 28% to private cars and motorcycles, and 19% (mainly diesel*) to big trucks and buses. So 77% of the oil used for transportation is consumed on our highways. (This was on an educational website for kids, so it must be right.)

Okay, we multiply 18,686,000 barrels by 70%, then by 77%, and then by 80%, which represents the energy lost by the internal combustion engine. The answer comes to about eight million barrels. Give or take a gallon.

That's the amount of oil that ends up wasted on America's roads every day. Not just consumed -- wasted. Because we committed ourselves and our infrastructure to gasoline cars over a century ago. (That's 43% of our domestic consumption, if you're keeping track.) If we'd kept on studying and improving, say, battery technology or steam power during that time, instead of playing catch-up now, who knows what options we'd have today?

Want some perspective?

That wastage on America's roads is about 11% of the world's total oil production. One barrel in every nine. To heat your engine so much -- and so unnecessarily -- that you need a cooling system under the hood to keep it from exploding.

It's 90% of Saudi Arabia's oil production. It's just about equal to the combined oil production of Iraq, Iran, and Libya.

And it's more than our own domestic oil production.

Now, the US exports about a quarter of its oil, mostly to Mexico.** So just to keep our cars and trucks unnecessarily hot and noisy, we not only have to use up every gallon of our oil that we keep for ourselves, we also have to throw in pretty well everything we import from our largest supplier, which is our neighbor Canada.

From the nation whose car industry thought the Hummer was a neat response to a succession of oil shortages.

*Diesel represents about 28% of petroleum usage, so this seems to suggest twice as much diesel is consumed by long-distance trucking as by rail freight. Diesel engines are about 25% more efficient than engines powered by gasoline, although they still use internal combustion. I didn't allow for this in the calculation, but on the other hand I didn't include the idling factor either. Nor did I allow for the energy required to refine the petroleum into gas and diesel and its other products. Nor the oil used in our efforts to deal with pollution, or to maintain our car-oriented infrastructure -- where do you think that bitumen comes from? Nor all the completely unnecessary trips we make with our 20% forward motion, when the bicycle will do just as well.

**We also import about the same amount from Mexico. Go figure. (I know, I know -- there's oil and then there's oil. And it could vary with the seasons. I mean, it's not as if this 150-million-year-old substance keeps.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Don't let the gray hairs fool you.

So I'm sitting on a park bench (da-ah, duh-da duh-da), eyeing . . . .

No hang on, I'm channeling Jethro Tull, and not in a good way. Start again.

Sitting on a park bench, waiting for the van to come . . .

Those aren't even the right words. Sorry, John.

Okay, one more time. I'm sitting on a park bench in front of the library on a pleasant afternoon, trying to narrow down my selection of Ogden Nash poems for the forthcoming big event at the Arts Center, when a young man approaches me. He introduces himself as a reporter for one of the very new local online news services and asks if I have college-age children.

"No, not yet," I tell him smugly. (With Primus just completing sixth grade, I have years to go before I have to tell him that I spent his college funds on lottery tickets.)

The reporter narrows his eyes and looks at me suspiciously. "But you will soon, I imagine."

How to win friends and interview people, huh?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

. . . and one way you can't.

Following on from my last post, today Leila and I were on a patch of greenery a good twenty feet from the road when a car stops at the traffic lights and a man tries to ask me for directions. This time I have to demur, pointing out by pantomime that the dog is actually squatting mid-defecation and won't take kindly to being dragged sideways at this critical juncture.

What is it with these people? Anyway, he had a pony-tail.

More to the point, why does anyone think I look as if I know where the hell I am?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Any which way you can.

Truly, what is it about a guy wearing conspicuous earbuds who's currently bending over on somebody's front lawn with a blue plastic New York Times bag on his hand to clean up after his frisky dog, who is already straining at the leash to move on after toilet time, that makes a driver think I can quickly give directions while he's idling in the middle of the road, holding up the traffic?

And why is it, whenever I give directions -- and do my very best to make them crystal clear, as befits a 30-year professional in the field of explanatory communications -- that I immediately think of a better route as soon as he or she drives off?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Wii, the People . . .

There is no place where I feel more like a geriatric alien than the local video game store. But braving the salespeople's red-shirted scorn to get Secundus a gift for his birthday a couple of days ago -- and asking stupid questions, like why can't they make just one version of a game that plays on every system, so I don't have to pay for it more than once and I don't have to struggle in public to remember whether he has a PS or a DS, a box or a cube? -- I overhear the tail-end of an assistant's report to a concerned mother, choosing a game for her son.

"This one only has blood and violence."

Ah, "only."

Monday, May 23, 2011

Seeing is believing. Or not.

From an ambush photo by Tertius
I had temporarily lost my reading glasses again. (Most of the time, I keep them on and peer over the top, but just occasionally I want to look like something other than Professor Doofus. Found them this time in my pants pocket.*)

Secundus has a suggestion:

"You should get some bifocal skepticals."

*Solid plastic, $15 a pair online. And I get compliments on them.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Nobody knows the pretribulation I've seen.

I think this Camping chap has it wrong in predicting the Rapture for this Sunday. It's clearly taken place already. I went into the Post Office today -- a Friday -- at lunchtime and there was no waiting to get up to the counter.

Hey, I nicked this diagram from Wikipedia. Just in case you're at dinner with a bunch of Tribulationists and the conversation starts to flag.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

But I always picked the ability to fly.

Slightly disconcerting item in the sidebar of my Gmail account. It tells me "You are invisible."

Perhaps I'd better have a cup of tea and a lie-down and see if it passes.

(I was going to make some remark about heading for the women's locker room at the Y, but my kids read this.)

So Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island?

Twice in the last week, I've heard one of the rich-voiced announcers on our local classical music station refer to works by "Amadeus Mozart."

Okay, I looked it up, just to be sure. They called him "Wolfgang." He referred to himself as "Wolfgang." He never called himself just "Amadeus," and rarely, if ever, used his middle name in that form.

Of course, Amadeus means "beloved of God," which is why Peter Shaffer picked it up as the title of his play, and probably why since then, it's become an occasional and rather precious soubriquet for the great composer. But this is the Latin version. Wolfie was baptized "Theophilus," a Greek version, after a relative who used that form of the name. And during his lifetime, it was more often translated into German, as "Gottlieb."

Besides, W.A.M. can't afford to lose any more first names. "Wolfgang" is already his third. He never used the first two, which are basically Johann Chystostom. (I stole the latter for the middle name of my amateur detective, Oliver Swithin.)

Conclusion: the WQXR announcer is a pretentious git.

Friday, May 13, 2011

How many degrees of separation?

Just found that my names pops up on a website called Similar Authors. I make the second page in the list of writers who are similar to the site's most popular search, the ever-splendid Janet Evanovich.

Right next to Kathi Taylor and Rhys the Book.
I'll take that. Especially since I share that page with Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, and the outstandingly talented (and utterly gorgeous) Sparkle Hayter, who once left a lip imprint on my personal copy of An Embarrassment of Corpses but in whose presence I have always been, alas, completely tongue-tied. I need some better lines.

(A Canadian-born mystery novelist whose name really is Sparkle, who spent years as a reporter in Afghanistan, and who these days blogs about Bollywood. Possibly from Paris. Never mind better lines, I need a life.)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Compleat coincidence.

Want to hear a strange story about coincidences?

When I first announced that I was moving to Rye from Manhattan, my friend Sylvia* said "I only know one person in Rye. Her name's Anne P_____. You should look out for her."

"Sylvia," I protested, "there are 15,000 people living in Rye. Your friend is hardly likely to stroll up to me with a name-tag saying 'Anne P_____,' is she?"

The first event we attended, shortly after arriving at the new house in June 2003, was a juice-and-cookie gathering in the playground of the Primus's new nursery school, where he'd be attending summer camp. As he runs off to play, we turn our attention to the adults, mostly mothers.

A woman strolls up to us. She is wearing a name-tag saying "Anne P_____."

Anne's son is a contemporary of Primus through pre-school, but when the Elementary years begin, they go to different schools, and I never see Anne and her husband. Just this year, the boys are back together at the Middle School. And I suddenly find myself bumping into Anne again, and not just at school events. We pass in the same section of the same supermarket, obviously at the same time. Not once. Not twice. But just last week, a third time.

But here's where it ramps up -- and falls apart. The attentive among you will know that I am researching the great poet Ogden Nash's early years in Rye. And after several week's research, we think we finally have his birthplace pinpointed, about a mile or so from where we were originally looking, although to my disappointment, the estate no longer exists. But a glance at a 1900 map shows several buildings on the land, one of them on a site that's now virtually a stone's throw from . . . the P______s' house.

Or rather, where they used to live when our kids were having playdates and birthday parties. For a glimpse at the Middle School directory shows me that they've moved in the meantime. Ah well, fun while it lasted. And a mere shadow of some of the other coincidence stories I could tell, including a very puzzling one today; but I won't, because I continue to attach no significance to them.

*Not Sylvia the late centenarian actress, whose friendship, career, and passing has been well noted in these chronicles. Sylvia the mother of Primus's pre-school friend Leila, whose lovely name stuck with him and was transferred a little later to the greatest dog in the universe, who's currently barking at the mailman.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

And you thought it was librarians who were supposed to be straight-laced.

The Timothy Knapp House is thought to be the oldest surviving residential building in Westchester County, possibly dating back to 1667. It's now owned by the Rye Historical Society, and it contains the society's archives.

I spent a pleasant afternoon there, working with Rye's archivist Richard Hourahan on some further research into Ogden Nash's birth and childhood. (We're 90% sure we've identified the house where he was born in 1902, but one or two mysteries remain.)

I'm wading through clippings from the turn of the century -- the turn of the last century, that is -- from the Port Chester Journal, and I can't help getting sidetracked by the sort of events that made the local papers in those days and the language used to describe them.

My favorite discovery of the day -- apart from the report of ON's birth -- was this regular and rather puritanical formulation used to list uncollected mail:

"The following letters were uncalled for at the post office yesterday."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Happiness is a (luke-)warm pun.

Following a link from an online recommendation for a laptop case, I get to Amazon's page for the Pelican 1450 Case with Foam for Camera. Here's the picture that goes with it:

Okay, putting the sheer horror aside and avoiding any rant about the Second Amendment, lets get to the funny.* Puns about shooting -- "point and shoot" included -- too obvious. Can't do "automatic exposure," because it shows a revolver.  Jokes about a "Canon" are way off. Good when you're shooting for stock? Nah, too obscure a reference for both photography and guns. Similarly anything about "opening up." Similarly "Magnum."

Anything mixing up "Arbus" and "arquebus"? Oh wow, that's really scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Ha, barrel, geddit?

No, I respect your judgment. Hmmm.

Only for photographers of the highest caliber? Great for a news report? Could do a gag about your work being in a gallery? Or in a magazine. (But again, it's a revolver! I'm a mystery writer -- have to get these things right.) Something about Henri Cartier-Wesson? Or a "Smith & Weston"? (Could be W. Eugene S. and Edward W., or sons Cole or Brett, whose images I prefer to his dad's. Centenary of Brett's birth this year, incidentally.)

Well, since we're going that way, here's one for the cognoscenti. Ahem.

"This case must belong to Harry Callahan.**"

*Or not.

**Put it in Wikipedia and see what happens.

I think I once owned a Harry Callahan, a later print of his 1954 image "Eleanor, Port Huron," if I recall. Included his wife's bottom. Lost it in a divorce. Me, I mean, not Harry, although I suppose if he'd divorced -- which he didn't -- Eleanor would get to keep her bottom. I got to keep the Cartier-Bresson. No bottoms, though. Did you know we all have them?

Monday, May 2, 2011

The daily . . . well, compliment for once, I think.

I'm shaving. Tertius peers at me from the bathroom door.

"Dad, you look pretty good for 54," he says. We're getting ready to head off for his birthday party, so perhaps he's being particularly benign. I thank him.

"Yes," he continues, "most people in their fifties use walkers or wheelchairs."

Er, yeah. (Although by the end of the day, I'm a bit miffed that I didn't get any compliments on my purple sneakers.)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Scenes from a mall.

New shoes for all three boys at Kohls. Nerve-wracking enough for a dad, but then Tertius insists on new jeans, because his current pair aren't tight enough. "I want to look good," he declares. (Tertius is eight.)

We try out Lee slimline. Too baggy. He settles somewhat grudgingly for Levis narrow fit, with a sharp intake of breath required to snap the waistband. (And good luck trying to get anything into those pockets.) But all the time, he's complaining that I won't take him over to the girl's department, where he believes he can find an even tighter pair.

Son, my testosterone may be ebbing with age, but I'm not ready for the last drop to be sucked from my body. Ask your mother.

Besides, I think the only place you're going to find a tighter pair is the paint department of Home Depot.*

By some miracle, I get Primus to choose a new pair of sneakers, after he'd already sworn eternal fealty to his year-and-a-half-old Heelies, or what's left of them.

Secundus, on the other hand, has narrowed his choice to six pairs of potentials lined up along the aisle, and proceeds to eliminate them one by one like an axe-murderer in a teenage slasher movie. Because I don't want to spend the night in a department store while he makes his mind up, I let him have both of the two finalists. He then declares his intention to wear one of each to school tomorrow. Well, why not? We've long set a family precedence with mismatched socks. (This started out as a fashion statement by Primus, but has since become a general necessity.)

Later, we're parked in the A&P parking lot when I point out a passing convertible Mini Cooper with the top down.

Tertius asks me later what happened to the "fold-out" Mini.

Donald Trump candidacy? Well, after the first black president, why not the first orange president?

(Okay, that joke came to me quite independently this afternoon. But I googled the line and found that three people had already posted it. Facebook's loss is your gain, dear reader.)

*Benjamin Moore 838 Denim Wash. Or 795 Faded Denim.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Need to get out more.

"Country" is one Tertius's spelling words this week. He demonstrates that he recognizes it by citing the USA as his home country.

"But country has another meaning," I point out, never content to leave a horizon unexpanded.

"It does?"

"Yeah, as in 'going to the country.' What do you call the place you get to when you go out of the city and head for the open fields and farms and forests?"

"The suburbs."

Friday, April 22, 2011

Headlines we didn't need.

"Miley Cyrus has royal wedding fever."

Associated Press, twenty minutes ago. (I'm not making this up, you know.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Mooching on Mother Nature

We're stepping out of the house and into a light rain. "You know what I like about rain and snow?" says Tertius.


He sticks his tongue out and catches some drops. "Free drinks!" he cries.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The third time's enemy action.

I think that's a quote from Goldfinger (the book, not the movie), but it's not to hand to check.

I was just asked to do the Unicorn Writers Conference again for a third time, next year. I must be doing something right, then.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A thousand words.

For two years now, the talented Darren Wagner has been the official photographer of the Unicorn Writers Conference. He's just posted a montage of last Saturday's event on his website. Here's a smaller YouTube version:

I think this is my first ever YouTube appearance, that I know of. It goes by pretty fast, but in case you're trying to spot me, I'm wearing my reading glasses with the thick, black frames in all of Darren's pictures. My first appearance is 39 seconds in, with Lee Stringer. (Note how the neatness of my hair deteriorates through the course of the day.)

It's in the genes.

I arrive this morning to take the boys to school. Only Tertius comes to greet me.

"Where are the others?" I ask, glancing at my watch.

"Well, [Primus] is in the office reading a book," he tells me, "[Secundus] is still in bed . . . and I don't know where I am."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Where's that better mousetrap, then? And I'm still waiting for my flying car.

Secundus has always been the inventor in the family. But eight-year-old Tertius is catching up. He's just quietly rearranged the boys' shared bedroom into a classroom, with their plastic storage crates for desks and a dry-erase sheet taped to the wall as a chalkboard. Each desk has a book, a Post-It pad (and I want them back!) and a bottle of Poland Spring. A larger teacher's desk faces the others.

I remark to Secundus, who has been studying Thomas Edison in school, that his little brother is following in his footsteps, but that Tertius is now the one putting all his energy into furniture-shifting. When S. gets involved in these projects, he tends to be the more cerebral overseer.

"You know what they say, Dad," he replies coolly. "Genius is one percent perspiration . . ."

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Every one a gem.

The wondrous Laura Lippman lamented on Facebook the other day that Tina Fey's announcement of her pregnancy on "Oprah" has "raised the bar" for authors on book tours.

I suggested you could one-up Fey by getting pregnant on "Oprah."

(Lends a whole new meaning to jumping on the couch. Yeah, I know, it's all a bit obvious, but it's not every day a multi-award-winning New York Times best-selling mystery author sets up your one-liners.)

Talking of best-selling mystery authors -- of whom I am not yet one -- I briefly met Carol Higgins Clark yesterday, who was charming and gave a very entertaining presentation at the Unicorn Writers Conference. I did a mystery-writing workshop later, but I don't think I got as many laughs. Well, not intentionally. More about that later.

Of course, in the way of these things, "later" will end up meaning "earlier," since we always read the latest blog first. So you know this already. Do I have to repeat myself?

(Maybe Tina F. will deliver on "The Colbert Report"?)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Roger Ebert is not guilty.

Film buffs may remember the bit in the great Costas-Gavras film Z, in which a conspiracy to cover up a murder is revealed when the same distinctive metaphor -- "as lithe and fierce as a tiger" -- is used to describe an action by supposedly independent witnesses.

I noticed in at least three previews or (generally negative) reviews of the remake of Arthur (the old Dudley Moore comedy, not the PBS cartoon series about an aardvark, although that might have been better casting for Russell Brand) that actress Greta Gerwig is referred to as an "indie darling."

So I did a search, and got nearly 20,000 Google hits on the precise phrase "indie darling Greta Gerwig."

Is an "indie darling" now a proper job title? Or the birth of an accepted piece of jargon, like a native son or a principal boy or an MVP? Or are we just seeing desperately lazy and derivative journalism?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Got me taped.

Netflix charts the ratings you give movies and TV programs and makes suggestions for your viewing.

Their number one selection for me? "The Best of Benny Hill."

That's bordering on racism.

(Next up was a SpongeBob SquarePants compilation, which is more like it, although I always preferred The Fairly Odd Parents.)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Bail-out? Oh yeah? Bail THIS out, buddy.

It's the Unicorn Writer's Conference next weekend, in Portland, Connecticut, and I'm ferrying my friends Maureen Amaturo and Lee Stringer -- two other contributors -- in the trusty minivan, the Starship Minnie.

The exterior has long been a lost cause, but the interior is also temporarily unfit for human conveyance, having been trashed by the boys. So when Secundus comes sniffing for sources of income, I suggest he puts in a bit of time clearing up after himself and his brothers.

"How much will you pay me?" he asks.

"I'll give you five bucks," I reply. He shakes his head regretfully.

"That's not enough. It's a real mess in there."

Why do I feel he has a future in investment banking?

Minnie back in 2004, disgorging a three-seater sofa from Costco, still in its box. Not only did I get it all into the car -- single-handedly -- but I got the rear door closed, too.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

I hope you don't suppose those are real tears?

Thought-provoking idea from noted neuropsychologist Paul Broks, author of Into the Silent Land: "the self is a story the brain tells itself."

In other words, our brain needs to conjure a "self" -- consciousness, self-awareness -- to help make make sense not merely of the myriad (that word again) perceptions and sensations that penetrate our awareness, but, uniquely in humans, also come from within the mind. We rise from the sea of instinct to become both tale-teller and our own avid audience.

When babies emerge from the darkness of the womb, they have to learn the rules of seeing. For example, if a patch of a single color moves across our visual field without changing shape, the chances are it's one thing out there in the real world. If there's an abrupt change in color, it may well represent an edge. A blue shape with red shapes on either side could be three separate objects, but it could -- aha! -- be a small blue thing in front of a larger red thing, and so on. (Nature gives us a start -- a baby will turn his or eyes toward two black dots on a piece of card, probably thinking they're eyes in a face, a schema that many scientists think is innate.)

But in humans, pattern recognition goes beyond making sense of sensations. With our highly developed cortices, we have to deal with capacities that most animals don't have, and no animal has to our extent: language, memory of events, awareness of time, knowledge of causality, imagination, visualization, etc. And so we see patterns in behavior, too -- past behavior predicts future behavior, first impressions count, anger precedes violence, "when you're lying, your eyes look upward. . . ." We remember the past, we envisage the future, and thus we see ourselves as a character, moving from one to the other.

What I find most extraordinary, most intriguing about this metaphor for consciousness is its application to dreams. Put broadly, dreaming is the brain doing things during sleep that it didn't have time to do during the day. Sometimes it's because an issue is so overwhelming that the waking hours are not long enough to contain it, and so our anxieties party on past their curfew. Sometimes we refuse to deal with a troubling topic during the day, and so it surfaces as a nightmare when sleep overcomes our sentinels. But mainly, the brain is just catching up on the filing, storing those associations between events that you failed to note when you were awake, tucking those loitering perceptions into their pigeon holes in long-term memory.

But here's the deal: as those flashes of recent memory, newly forged associations, rehearsals of new physical skills, mental gymnastics tromp across the stage of the Theater of the Night, we continue to try to make some sense of them, just as if they were daytime images. From this haphazard mixture, we improvise surreal little stories, filling out the plot points with a touch of imagination from our own store, straining for a passing coherence.

In other words, daytime storytelling and nighttime storytelling are no different. They're exactly the same mental process.

The difference lies only in the raw material. When we're awake, our goal is to use our perceptions and our higher cortical processes to form a mental model of the world that's close enough to the real world to rely on for making predictions (often with spectacular mismatches, from believing that the scorchmarks on a tortilla are the face of Jesus to denying that the swastika tattoo on the forehead of a new beau means he's anything other than a lovable scamp).

Dream images, on the other hand, can never be forced to cohere with reality, no matter how hard we try. But we do try. And its the compromises and distortions we therefore conjure that makes them so interesting. And often preferable to reality. Go ask Alice.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I know I'm a gentleman. It said so on my dressing-room door.

It was during that production of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (I'm a stickler for the inclusion of "Adventures"; if Lewis had wanted to call it Alice in Wonderland, he would've; blame Disney), that I formulated a key criterion for personal couth. The conclusion of our outdoor play happened after the sun had set, necessitating a quick change for me, from the Executioner to Duckworth, behind a tree in the twilight. And so I had my definition: "A gentleman is someone who can tie a proper bow-tie in the dark."

(Did you know the Queen is reported to hate clip-ons?)

But I was eclipsed by a good alternative, which surfaced during a recent radio interview with Steve Martin, about his new (and hugely enjoyable) bluegrass album: "A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the banjo -- but doesn't."

Okay, it's funnier than mine, but it loses points because I've heard it before, applied to the piano-accordion.

A kind of fame.

Hey, in checking out Dame Maggie Smith's birthdate -- I'm too much of a gentleman to reveal it -- I found a cross-reference to Wikipedia's page about the University College Players (Dame M appeared in an 1953 production by the Players, when she was only . . . no, not going there.)

The entry mentions the Players' outdoor production of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1977 and 1978. Incorrectly, it was only 1978, and I know this because not only did I appear in that production, in four roles -- Robinson Duckworth, the Duck, the Executioner, and the voice of the pig-baby as it was tossed into the River Cherwell -- but I also adapted it from Lewis Carroll's book (and designed the poster). Yes, friends, I have lived. It was directed by my old friend, Robin Hodgkinson, who went on to marry the young lady playing Alice. Ahhhh.

(Distinguished author and former editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement Andrew Robinson -- not the Andrew Robinson who was so memorably shot by Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry -- was the Hatter. QC and Deputy High Court Judge Andrew Edis was the March Hare.)

But can a published mystery author get a Wiki credit for his early work? Nooooooo.

And so we say farewell, and if we'd only stopped there, we'd have been fine.

Unworthy confession. When the NPR news reporter adopted that funereal tone and began "Veteran British actress and Oscar-winner Dame . . ." my mind was already racing ahead. "Oh, please, not Judi Dench, not Maggie Smith." (Two of my favorite actors of all time.)

And then it turned out to be Elizabeth Taylor. Phew.

Oh, I'm very sorry, of course, but the news was tinged with a little relief after my assumptions. Well, Dame E's only a couple of years older than the other two (who were born just three weeks apart), but she had long retired from our screens, and her frequent bouts of ill-health had culminated in a hospital confinement since the beginning of the year, so although still sad, this development wasn't unexpected; while M and Professor McGonagall are still going strong, and have, in fact, made another movie together, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which is due out later this year.

By the way, at what point did "legendary" become a legitimate term for news agencies, synonymous with "well-known"? Is it another "miraculous"? (The Catholic Church, despite its vested interest, is scrupulously cautious and thorough about granting the status of a miracle. New York's eleven o'clock news broadcast seems to think they happen every day. "Well, truly a miraculous escape for a Bronx mother after a taxi goes out of a control . . .") Okay, it may be a shade of hyperbole that's crept into the dictionary definitions, but shouldn't a journalist be the last to adopt it?

Friday, March 18, 2011

You can't make this stuff up.

In a BBC radio documentary about the current state of the Roman Catholic Church in England, the reporter covers several controversial elements that have torn congregations apart. Among them, whether or not the priest turns his back to the worshipers at a key point in the mass, and that old favorite, the sly return of the old rite, the Latin "extraordinary form" of the service.

A priest who is unrepentant about this harking back to older values, justifies his actions:

"People also complain that because of Latin, the mass can't be understood," he allows. "[But] the mass is not immediately intelligible in English either."

Nonplussed, the reporter asks politely "Isn't that a bit patronizing?"

"Of course, people can understand English," the priest concedes. "But I wouldn't necessary be able to understand somebody talking about high energy physics. In theology, and in the words of the liturgy, it is a technical and specialized language. The prayers of the church aren't an attempt to make that language intelligible to everybody, any more than a nuclear physics textbook for postgraduates would be written in language that I could understand."

Is it me, or is this . . . ?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hasn't that Bieber kid's voice broken yet?

Secundus has set himself the task of naming twenty singers. He lowers it to ten, but successfully completes his decalogue with a clutch of teenage female singers who all seem to have Nickelodeon or Disney Channel shows. Or vice versa.

"You missed a big name," I tell him. "What about Lady Gaga?"

"Yeah, I wasn't really thinking about any old singers," he says.

Gaga is 24.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A myriad of thanks.

Hey, I just saw that my hit counter has gone over the ten thousand mark. Yes, I know that's a pretty low number compared with a lot of websites. (Kathi Taylor's over half a million, but she claims that's because she blogs about American Idol for the Pacific time zones. I think that's just false modesty. Have you seen her knitting? Wonderful.)

And yes, I know a good chunk of that number is me, logging in to make edits.

But given that my latest book is still on the conveyor belt, and so I am not yet a household name, I just want to thank any regular readers who catch this entry for checking in from time to time. And I know there are a lot more of you than the nice people who've signed up as followers. (I'm not sure what being a follower does for you, compared with just clicking a bookmark, but feel free to find out.)

And yes, that's what a myriad means, literally. Ten thousand. If you didn't know that already, my work here is done.


Anal, the well-known typo.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Spring forward! (Okay, shamble forward, then.)

Primus is not a morning person, and the advent of daylight saving time makes it worse. My irruption into the bedroom at seven o'clock, with merry cries of "Good morning, campers!", an impression of a bugle playing reveille, and a tara-diddle or two on Secundus's drum-kit is unappreciated for some reason.

He stumbles into the kitchen twenty minutes later, and my cheerful exhortations over breakfast to "Get to school and show 'em what you got!" or "Tell them to get behind you or get out of your way!" produce only silent scowls. Eventually, he speaks to his beloved father:

"If you didn't feed me, I'd disown you."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Visitor from above.

A red-tailed hawk, who decided to perch on the railing of our deck for half an hour yesterday afternoon. (A good place for hunting bunnies, if the droppings behind the swing-set are any indication.)

This picture wasn't taken with a particularly powerful telephoto (55mm on a digital SLR, equivalent to about 90mm on an older film camera), and I haven't cropped it much. The bird let me get within five feet. Well, with a beak and talons like that, what does it have to get nervous about?