Monday, September 29, 2008

It's all about the (body) heat

As the leaves change color and the nights become cooler, my thoughts have turned to how to heat the house without spending the additional $2,000 it will cost just to keep it as warm as last year. I think I’ve found the answer: Entertain more.

According to one estimate, each additional guest is equal to a 175-watt heater. In other words, the more people there are in your house, the lower you can set the thermostat. Good news for those of us heating with oil, which these days is worth more than most U.S. banks.

At first I was a bit concerned I’d have to stand very close to my heaters, I mean guests, the entire night. Some might view such proximity as an invasion of personal space, which could be a problem. Winters are long in New Hampshire and I need my heaters/guests to come back.

But I'm hoping they can just circulate, heating my house wherever they go during the evening. I've considered inviting a balance of personality types: warm and fuzzy folks to counteract the more distant sorts. Then again, it’s not traits that matter – just body heat.

I was really excited about this party-as-heat theory until I realized I have to invite at least 8 ½ guests just to equal the output of a normal space heater. Therefore, we'll be hosting large parties instead of intimate gatherings--especially in January.

What about the additional expense of entertaining all these people, you ask? Fortunately, pot luck is acceptable, and often preferable, in my part of New England. Most people don't want to take home the leftovers, which will help feed my family for a few days and reduce the grocery bill. Thanks to NH’s pesky open container law, the alcohol can remain here, too, for the next event. And let's not forget forget that candlelight is not only festive, it cuts electricty costs.

Yes, I know the experts recommend saving heat by sealing leaks with insulation, caulking, weather-stripping, etc. I'm trying to figure out how to convince people these are party games.

In the meantime, I’m working on my list of excuses, I mean reasons, to entertain. And I’ll be shopping for new party clothes. Apparently layers of warm cotton clothing in dark colors absorb light – and heat.

Shall I pencil you in for Wednesday night?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Memories and facts

I attended three very different events over the past week that not only were extremely thought-provoking, they also all were related to historical perspective in some way.

The first was a presentation by the nation’s foremost historical photo detective. Maureen Taylor can determine the era, and often the exact year, of old photos by the type of photography used and the clothing and other items in a picture. She also may attempt to guess the story behind photos by the composition and body language of the people in them. For example, as she told my Sisters in Crime New England chapter, a wide gap between what appears to be a husband and wife in a family grouping might indicate emotional distance as well.

It concerns me to think about someone trying to interpret our photographs decades from now. To prevent this, maybe we should all stand close to loved ones in future photographs, label old pictures the way we choose, and destroy any that could be interpreted the wrong way. On the other hand, a photo detective’s stories might be much more interesting to our heirs than reality.

Speaking of reality, New York Times cultural reporter David Carr visited my local independent bookstore to give a fascinating talk about his new book “The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life. His Own.” Carr, a journalist who became a cokehead and alcoholic with 15 arrests and five trips to rehab, researched his past by interviewing (and videotaping) people from the dark periods in his life.

Carr says the “night of the gun” refers to a watershed event that made him realize he’d hit bottom. He recalls becoming so violent that a childhood friend pulled out a gun in self-defense. Only later did Carr learn through his interviews that he was the one with the gun, something he finds baffling because he doesn’t remember even owning one. While addiction obviously affected his perspective, it took methodical research to reveal the inaccuracies in his personal history.

If you interviewed people from your past, would they remember the stories of your life the same way you do? (Another reason to label those photographs?) The bigger question might be – whose historical perspective is the truth?

History is very important to the “American Treasure” Music Hall of Portsmouth, a 900-seat theater built in 1878 that celebrated the grand opening of its new lobby this past weekend. The challenge facing the oldest performing arts theater in NH and the 14th oldest in the United States was not only to remove tons of shale to extend its bottom floor into a magnificent vestibule, but also to create something new and magical while honoring its past. That history includes hosting a wide variety of performers and luminaries, including such diverse people as John Barrymore, Frederick Douglas, Buffalo Bill Cody, John Wayne and Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin. One solution was to design special wallpaper reflecting memorabilia from the Music Hall's archives: ticket stubs, advertisements for shows and newspaper clippings.

Think about your memorabilia. Does it accurately reflect your past? Does it need to? (And how would it look on wallpaper?)

I certainly don't have the answers to any of these questions. But these three events have me thinking about the many ways we recall the past and how memories shape who we are today, what we become and how we're remembered.

This is good to keep in mind when writing fiction but probably even more so when it comes to writing--and reading--non-fiction. As ABC television anchor Diane Sawyer reportedly said, "I'm always fascinated by the way memory diffuses fact." Me, too.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Are we smarter than the media?

It seems like some people think all we care about is lipstick on pigs instead of real issues this election, which may be the most important in our lifetimes. Are you as tired of all the political lies and half-truths as I am? Check out if you really want to see just how bad it is this election. (Even the media can't keep pace...)

Or, check out this funny, thought-provoking video of a monologue by comedian Craig Ferguson. Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican or somewhere in between, I hope it will make you laugh AND think about what we all should be doing between now and November 5.

If you care about more than the fact that both presidential candidates used the "lipstick on a pig" expression and want to know what these people are planning to do for our country on taxes, the economy, the war, health care, environment, etc., visit: or

Do you think the media is taking this election seriously? Are you?

Monday, September 8, 2008

What mood are you in today?

If you've ever dreamed of having a personal librarian or favorite bookstore employee available round-the-clock to recommend great books to read, you’ll love “1001 Books for Every Mood” by Hallie Ephron.

Unfortunately, my moods change so often there’s barely time to read one chapter of any book, never mind the entire thing. But with 80 separate categories of must-reads, this guidebook offers an abundance of choices no matter how you’re feeling.

The listings begin with “For a Good Laugh” and end with “To Reinvent Yourself.” In between are sections like “for a Walk on the Wild Side,” “Hug Your Dog” and “to Suffer (No) Fools.” Reading the categories might almost be as much fun as reading the books.

There are even recommendations for when you want to “wallow in the slough of despond.” Think of books like: The Bell Jar, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Miss Lonelyhearts. (And, just for fun, see how people react when you tell them to leave you alone so you can “wallow in the slough of despond.”)

Hallie, who’s also a terrific mystery writer when she’s not playing personal librarian, provides a brief description of each book and rates it by literary merit on a scale of 1 to 4. She adds a symbol if the book is provocative, influential, inspirational, humorous, brainy, easy reader, page turner, challenging, bathroom book, family friendly and/or been made into a movie. Scattered throughout the book are examples of great opening lines and characters, and other trivia of interest to book lovers.

But I do think she might be missing some categories. For example, I’d like to see one for “my teenager has a more active social life than I do.” I suppose “To be Afraid, Be Very Afraid,” “To Get Philosophical” and “For Outrage” are somewhat appropriate, though.

I also searched for books to read for when “my recent college graduate is living at home and doesn’t want to be.” The most applicable options seem to be “To Survive,” “For a Kick in the Pants” and “For Heartburn.”

And what about a category for those days (rare I hope) when you might not be quite as fond of the special person in your life as you should be? There's “To Trip Down Memory Lane,” “For Romance” or “To Love Again.”

These are all great. But quite frankly, there are still days when “to Run Away from Home” and “To Join the Circus” seem most appealing. Fortunately, “1001 Books for Every Mood” offers a myriad of ways to escape without leaving your favorite reading chair.

PS --Some of you may have expected me to blog this week about the GOP VP choice, which is a fascinating subject to me as a political junkie and as a woman, but I don't want to offend anyone -- yet. :)

Monday, September 1, 2008

Please be nice to campaign callers

Once the convention confetti is cleaned up and all the candidates return to the campaign trail, your telephone will be ringing. Please don’t be mean to the political supporter at the other end of the line. It might be someone you know.

It won’t be me, though. I failed phone-banking. Didn’t even make it through my rookie two-hour stint. But it was educational. I’d forgotten how much it hurts when someone slams down a phone in your ear.

My adventure began one evening in a huge open office edged with desks occupied by people as young as my children. Not only was I the oldest person in the room, I may have been the only one from New Hampshire. It warmed my heart to know so many young people traveled here to work for our candidate. Only later did I realize they probably need outsiders because local volunteers like me aren’t tough enough.

I was led to a group of telephones lined up along the far wall (the phone bank) and handed a script so long even I'd hang up if the candidate, himself, was calling. “It’s just a template,” I was told. “The main thing is to make sure they’re registered to vote if they’re leaning our way. If they’re not, politely say ‘thank you’ and hang up.”

I was nervous. But the young people working the phones on either side of me were so animated. I barely noticed how many times they said “awesome” and “fantastic.” I haven’t had that much enthusiasm since grade school.

But I believe in the candidate. So I accepted the 25 pages of names, addresses and phone numbers to tackle in two hours. My task was to call each woman on the list and if she wasn’t registered to vote (or supporting The Other Guy), invite her to a group sign-up event on the 88th anniversary of women earning the right to vote.

I began dialing. Lots of answering machines and phones ringing too many times. Not surprising in New Hampshire, where we’re besieged by phone calls every four years during our first-in-the-nation primary. We’re hardy, but we’re not stupid. If the phone rings between 4 and 8 p.m. and the Caller ID box shows an unfamiliar phone number, we know someone wants something from us.

Finally, an elderly lady answered. I know she’s old because she told me she was 85 and had been registered to vote for years. I marched over to one of the paid staffers. He checked his computer and told me she hadn’t voted since 1980. I was afraid to ask how he knew.

I trudged back to the phone bank and dialed some more. When I identified myself as Pat from Portsmouth to the next woman brave enough to answer (or without Caller ID), she slammed down the phone. More answering machines. Then, “I don’t discuss politics at dinnertime,” another woman growled. “But are you registered to vote?” I pleaded. Slam. Two more pages of no-answers and then this: “Janet Brown? She’s been dead for 12 years.” Followed, of course, by a slammed phone.

Back I trudged to the campaign worker. He was nonplussed. “Great, that helps us refine our list. Keep going. This is a new list and it’s supposed to be women who've never voted or haven’t voted in a while. The guy who put it together isn’t here.” Of course.

Back to the phone bank. More “no answers” to check off on the list. Then I saw a name that proved the list had issues. I trudged back across the room. “There’s a problem with this list if it includes the Speaker of the New Hampshire House.”

"Maybe she hasn’t voted in a while,” he replied. I wondered if the kid had slept through civics. Maybe he wasn’t old enough for the class yet. “I assure you the Speaker of the New Hampshire House votes,” I insisted. He turned back to his computer. “Here it is. She’s listed under Terie and Teresa. That explains it. Keep going. You’re doing great.”

Back across the room. I gritted my teeth and dialed. The next woman who answered was very nice, but confused. “I work for the same campaign. Why am I on the list?” I didn’t ask if she was registered to vote.

Instead, I trudged across the room one final time and said, “I think I might be more helpful to the campaign if I did data entry."