Sunday, December 20, 2009

Have an H1N1-Free Holiday....

Forty percent of U.S. adults intend to change their holiday plans due to the risk of being exposed to the H1N1 flu virus this year, according to a nationwide survey commissioned by JohnsonDiversey, a leader in the commercial cleaning and sanitizing industry.

Another survey, this one by the Harvard School of Public Health, found that one in 10 Americans stopped shaking hands because of concerns about H1N1. An equal number stopped hugging and kissing.

Meanwhile, the pork and ham producers are doing everything possible to make sure everyone knows you can’t get swine flu from their meat products.

It’s beginning to look a lot like the H1N1 Holidays.

If you've got holiday events coming up, you might consider heeding the advice of the Columbia University epidemiology professor who recommends you “party cautiously.” That means keep things clean, be careful with finger food, forget the punch bowl and maybe avoid the mistletoe.

But other experts say a kiss or two on the cheek under the mistletoe actually might be safer than shaking hands. But what I want to know is: Do people actually put up mistletoe these days? I must not be going to the right parties.

Instead, I'm reading articles about how to have a H1N1-free holiday, such as the one that declared: Do not throw or attend a party if you have a fever, cough or other flu symptoms. Well, duh. This is news?

Just in case, according to the JohnsonDiversey survey, 23 percent of U.S. adults will require guests to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer upon arrival this holiday season. How do you do that graciously? “Great to see you, thanks for coming and now go wash your hands or use sanitizer before you do anything else at my party.”

Some people recommend not shaking hands at all because who knows what viruses they’ve touched? Should we bump elbows instead? One etiquette expert suggests saying something like: “Excuse me for not shaking hands, but it's great to meet you.” I suppose another option is to shake hands and say, “Nice to meet you, now I must go wash my hands.” Or you could whip out the bottle of hand sanitizer and use it immediately, making clear you suspect the person you just met is a flu carrier. This may diminish your chances of a continuing relationship, however.

Party planners are recommending that people place bottles of hand sanitizer and tissues in plain view to encourage people to use them. Just tell me where to find some that match my evergreen centerpieces and candles because there’s nothing that says Christmas like tissues and hand sanitizer.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of warnings about bowls at parties in the H1N1 era. Most people know it's far from sanitary to dip a used cup back into the punch bowl for a refill and while using a ladle may reduce the risk, the experts claim “bowls still offer a large surface area for germs to land on.” So do cars and trucks, but I won't go there. Needless to say, the experts don't recommend repeatedly sanitizing the punch bowl -- the aftertaste might not be too pleasant.

We’re also supposed to avoid putting things like candy, nuts, chips or anything else in a big open bowl that people will reach into and spread their germs around. One article recommended putting nuts in little pleated cups or votive candle holders. I’m going for the candle holders because they don’t match the sanitizer anyway. Other articles suggest putting out cheese cubes with toothpicks, or shot glasses of dips and salsas. Maybe there's a possibility for a book here – something like “Holiday H1N1-Free Hors D’Oeuvres.”

My favorite warning, though, concerns alcohol (and not the stuff in hand sanitizer): “Remember that water, not alcohol, will keep you healthy days after the Christmas party is over, so make sure to consume an equal amount of both.”

Ho, ho, ho and Happy H1N1-Free Holidays!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Great Debate

I love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. In fact, I’ve been eating them my entire life but until this past weekend, I had no idea that I was making them wrong.

At least that was the pronouncement from Husband No. 1, the same guy who just an hour earlier returned from Market Basket -- crazed with grocery store rage -- because the Cool Whip had been relocated with “no advance notice”(he emphasized) to a new location that he insists makes no sense. “I asked why it was moved out of the freezer case where it’s been for 15 years and they said they thought it would go better near the frozen pies but if you come down the aisle from the other direction, you see the pizza first and not the pies. Who’s going to look for Cool Whip near the pizza?” he ranted.

OK, I stopped listening then. My concerns these days tend more toward world peace and whether I’m ever going to get the Christmas shopping done. But I thought I should include this information so you can understand why one probably should not give too much credence to the PB&J opinion of a guy who thinks they should post a sign at the entrance to the grocery story that says “Cool Whip Moved to Aisle 15,” which he really did say, by the way.

Anyway, Husband No. 1 informed me Saturday, after 30 years of marriage mind you, that he could not believe that I am so wrong when it came to sandwich-making. The jelly should go on first and on the bottom of the sandwich, he said, so that it works the best with your taste buds – you bite into the sweetness first.

Say what? First of all, I never analyzed how I make the sandwich beyond my preferences for the varieties that go into it (natural peanut butter and jellies that involve berries) so I had to stop and think about how I do construct a PB&J – and which layer ends up on top when it goes into my mouth. And second, I never even noticed that my beloved husband makes his sandwiches in a different order than I do, wrong though it may be. Could this mean my marriage is in trouble?

As it happened, my parents were present during this heated PB&J discussion and of course, agreed with me. So then we wondered, was it a Kansas thing? (We tend to blame all of Husband No. 1’s oddities on being from a different region of the country. It's just easier that way.)

I decided to take the question to the Internet. I went to and typed in “how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich” and up popped several sites with very elementary instructions. Some even had video to go with them. Guess which ingredient they said should go on first? Yep, the peanut butter.

But surprisingly there were no instructions on which piece of bread should be placed on top or how to put the sandwich in your mouth. So I need you, dear readers, to settle the argument: when the PB&J sandwich meets your taste buds, should the peanut butter -- or the jelly-- be on top and, even more important, does it matter?

(I thought this issue might be a whole lot more fun to discuss than Tiger Woods, although I suppose there is somewhat of a connection since both incidents involve husbands who are wrong, wrong, wrong.)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A season for truth

The truth is that lots of women hate the holiday season, although most of us don't dare to admit it to anyone beyond our closest friends.

We don't want others to know we're not perfect or that we may have difficulty dealing with the harsh December reality: holidays are a ton of work and most of it falls on women -- and not because we "enjoy it," despite what some people want to believe.

Even broaching the subject violates some taboo - we're not supposed to admit that we might dread the time of year that's supposed to be all filled with happiness and light.

But in reality, December is not a time of joy for many women, especially those already taking on most of the child-rearing and other domestic duties in the home -- often in addition to working full-time and sometimes also caring for elderly or sick relatives. For the already overburdened, the stress of trying to create the perfect holiday for everyone else is enough to push them near -- or beyond -- the breaking point.

Some people say it's our own fault for trying to live up to some fantasy of what we think the holidays should be, but I notice none of them offer to take on any of the "stuff that's got to get done" like the holiday shopping or standing in line at the post office with an armful of packages.
I've been thinking about all the holiday chores many of us take on to make everyone else happy and I'm already exhausted. Here are just a few examples:
  • Coming up with an idea for the perfect gift, finding it, and then most likely also wrapping it -- and not just for one person, but for several;
  • Putting out the decorations;
  • Cleaning to make the house presentable for entertaining;
  • Choosing, purchasing, addressing and sending holiday cards;
  • Planning the holiday menus, buying the food and then preparing it;
  • Keeping track of the social events for everyone else in the house that often require us to do even more cooking or purchasing (finding a Yankee Swap gift for your husband's office swap also takes time, for example);
  • Making special seasonal foods, whether it be Christmas cookies or latkas;
  • Finding/purchasing appropriate clothing for the season's social events;
  • Attending the extra holiday events, such as religious services, parades or craft fairs, etc.

Add a job to the mix and when you flip the calendar to December, you break out in a cold sweat and wonder why you didn't start planning in July because at work, everyone is also pushing to get things done before the holidays and that mean more work -- and possibly extra hours -- for you.

People say we should just remember the "reason for the season" and be mindful of the importance of family, but they don't come over and help you vacuum or fight the crowds at the mall on your behalf, do they? It's easy to spout platitudes when someone else is doing all the work.

What's the solution? I wish I knew. Maybe talking about it is a good start. And maybe we all need to start asking -- or demanding -- more help from others in our lives to make sure EVERYONE enjoys the holiday season this year, including we women.

Some of you are probably thinking "she needs more wine and less whine," but I suspect others understand all too well what I'm talking about. I hope this helps them know they're not alone in struggling to maintain the spirit of the holidays in the face of all the extra work that comes with them.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009: Camels, Bon Jovi, Plus a Gun & a Beard

My Thanksgiving holiday included an encounter with camels, hearing Bon Jovi perform, meeting a Rockette, seeing two famous Christmas trees in process, getting free books at a highway restaurant and spending quality time with my sons and their new accessories -- a gun for one and a full beard for the other.

Definitely not my typical Thanksgiving experience.

With No. 1 son on the job with DC Metro Police (which allows him to be armed whenever he's in the District) and No. 2 attending American University (which apparently leaves him no time to shave), it made sense this year for Husband No. 1 and I to head south to spend Thanksgiving with them and friends and relatives in the area. Since I was unsure whether I could get used to either son's new accessory, I focused on the joy of being able to hug each of them for the first time in months.

But first we made a quick (and relatively frugal) stop in NYC to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. Thanks to's "Name Your Own Price" feature, we snagged a $355 hotel room in the Club Quarters Rockefeller Center across from Rockefeller Plaza for a mere $162.33. Then it was off to the Theater Development Fund's discount TKTS ticket booth, where we nabbed tickets for the seventh row of the Broadway play "Superior Donuts" by Tony Award-winning author Tracy Letts at the Music Box Theater for just $71 each. Before the play, we joined hundreds of other NYC visitors on the new red-lit bleacher-type steps built over the TKTs booth (see photo to the right) to take in the craziness of Times Square from a safe spot -- and free of charge.

The next morning, Bon Jovi was playing outside the "Today" show before one of the largest crowds ever assembled there. It's a stretch to call it a "concert" since the band played one song and 20 minutes elapsed before the next one due to commercials and interviews. You can see the back of Jon Bon Jovi's head if you look closely at the photo.

Far more interesting was the giant Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center being decorated from a staging. Can you see the tiny men on the platforms? The tree overlooks the famous ice skating rink, which we found to be smaller than expected. Walking back to our hotel, we met the camels from the living nativity portion of the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular as they enjoyed their morning walk through the plaza. Even the usually nonplussed New Yorkers were suprised enough by camels in Manhattan to snap photos.

Did you know Radio City Music Hall houses the world's largest theater? We took the Stage Door Tour that included a long enough glimpse of the Christmas Spectacular to see a Rockettes number. Later, we met a member of the troupe of 200 women. By the way, there are six usually sold-out "Spectacular" shows daily, which means 37,000 people are in the audience each day during the months of performances!

Next, it was on to Washington, where Priceline landed us a beautiful suite in the historic Churchill Hotel in the Dupont Circle area for just $75 per night (saving us almost $300 over three nights). DC, as you probably guessed, is irate about the party crashers who managed to reach President Obama's receiving line. If you look closely behind the heads of the happy tourists to the right, you can see the outline of the tent where the now infamous incident occurred.

Across the street, workers were getting the National Christmas Tree ready for the lighting ceremony this Thursday evening. This tree is surrounded by 50 smaller trees, each decorated by their respective states, and was once a family tradition for us.
Our DC trip also included our first visit to the National Museum of the American Indian, which seemed appropriate given the holiday. We found it curious there were no exhibits on some of the tribes many of us are most familiar with -- such as the Navajo and Sioux nations, and the wealthy owners of the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos in Connecticut. The cafeteria does serve authentic American Indian food, however.
Speaking of food, our trip home included a stop at a bibliophile's delight -- the Traveler Restaurant off I-84 at Exit 74 in Union, Connecticut, just west of the Massachusetts state line. Patrons are encouraged to leave with three used books each from the shelves lining the restaurant. The restaurant gives away 1,000 to 2,000 books a week. If three books aren't enough, there's also a used bookstore in the basement where you can buy more. The food isn't bad, either.
Did this travelogue make you feel tired? Me, too. But I'm still looking forward to the next adventure on the road!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Bad Week for Women

Are you as flabbergasted as I am by last week's medical task force recommendations that women need far fewer mammograms and pap smears?

Do you believe, as my just-short-of-paranoid liberal friend does, that these ridiculous suggestions are part of a grand plan to make people fearful that if Congress finally passes health care reform, the government will deny people live-saving tests? I'm not sure, but I do find it curious that we haven't yet heard any recommendations to reduce the number of medical tests for men.

Whatever's going on, it seems like just one more assault against women and it makes me angry --- so much so that I couldn't even get in the mood to write a Thanksgiving-themed blog. OK, here it is: I'm thankful I don't have daughters because it seems to me that women not only haven't progressed very far in this country, now people are suggesting they're not even worth the medical tests that have been known to save their lives.

So I've got some female rage going, which is probably why I nearly flipped out when flipped open (yes, I wrote that on purpose to break the tension) the "What on Earth" catalogue and saw the "Hillary Nutcracker." It offends me as a woman to see someone trying to make a profit off something so demeaning to all women -- and something that also implies a female in power is a "ball-breaker"-- and I'm not even a big fan of the Secretary of State.

I found the item so disgusting that I called the catalogue's customer service (you can make your opinion known by clicking here if you want) and promised to tell everyone I know about the low standards of this catalogue by offering it for sale. (The catalogue photo does not show the nut, but the image to the right gives you a clear picture of the item's purpose.) When I finished my diatribe, the woman at the other end told me that yes, they had received a number of complaints but there also were people buying this item. My response: "People buy child pornography, too. Are you going to sell that next?" Silence.

Then there's the Newsweek cover featuring Sarah Palin. My lack of admiration for this woman is no secret BUT it appalls me to see an allegedly reputable news magazine use a photo showing her legs to illustrate a report on her new book. It's another attempt to trivialize a woman based on appearance instead of substance, or lack thereof.

The picture was taken as part of a photo shoot for an article in a running magazine. There, a candidate in running clothes seems appropriate. But of all the photos taken of Ms. Palin since she was thrust onto the national scene, why did Newsweek choose this one? Would a similar photo have been selected if the subject were male? I believe we all know the answer.

Some days it just seems like women are being trivialized wherever you turn -- and I wonder when, or if, it will ever end. It never will until more women -- and more men -- stand up for the dignity and wellbeing of females everywhere. That would be something to be thankful for.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Magical Mystery Weekend

This past weekend was beyond magical for me as a mystery writer, led by the incredible opportunity to escort the guest of honor at the 2009 New England Crime Bake for mystery writers and readers -- New York Times-bestselling author Sue Grafton, creator of the alphabet mystery series that begins with "A is for Alibi" and will see her latest installment,"U is for Undertow, on Dec. 1.

Twenty-one books, each with an imaginative and intriguing plot and all featuring Private Investigator Kinsey Milhone, whose quirks include using nail scissors to cut her hair. Sue Grafton's books have been published in 28 countries, 26 languages and have a readership in the millions. The series, which Sue expects to conclude with "Z is for Zero" by 2015, remains set in the 1980s.

Sue Grafton is a rock star in the mystery world and an inspiration to women writers. She is also extremely funny and irreverent (no surprise to her readers), exceedingly gracious, and was extrordinarily generous with her time and advice to the authors and wanna-be writers at the conference. Not only did she sign every book and additional object pushed in front of her, she surprised everyone by offering to critique the first 20 pages of one attendee whose name she selected in a random drawing.

I also became aware of another example of her generosity, though far less public, during the weekend. A woman approached Sue with a book signed 21 years earlier that also included contact information provided for the fan to someday send a few pages of her own manuscript for Sue to review and provide advice. Sue asked if she'd ever finished and the woman said she recently had finally done so. "Then I'll read them now," Sue told her. The woman got in her car and drove home to retrieve them -- and later enjoyed the manuscript review of her life.
This was my first year on the Crime Bake organzing committee and it's unbelievable how much time each member contributed to make the 2-day event a success. At a time when other mystery conferences are canceling due to the economy, ours sold out and attracted fabulous authors, forensics experts and almost 300 people who love the written word. It is nearly nirvana for a writer.

Crime Bake also is the traditional launch of the esteemed annual "Crime Stories by New England Writers" anthology. The cute guy in the white shirt is Husband No. 1 signing his story that was one of only 18 selected out of about 150 submissions for this year's edition entitled Quarry." (Ironically, Sue' s Q book is "Q is for Quarry.")

He also had the opportunity to join me and other guests at Sue's table for the "Breakfast with the Authors" event. Twenty mystery authors "hosted" tables of 10, giving attendees another chance to informally interact with those they admire and each other. (Crime Bake is a great place to meet up with mystery friends and make new ones.)
There are countless opportunities throughout the conference to talk to authors (including best-selling writers Joseph Finder, Lisa Gardner and Michael Palmer) and also agents. Attendees can sign up for a 5-minute slot to pitch a manuscript to an agent. The lucky ones, like me, walked out with a business card and were invited to submit part of a completed manuscript for the agent to consider whether to offer to represent them in trying to sell it to publishing houses. I wanted to run home and finish my book immediately.
But I was scheduled to moderate the Sunday morning "U is for Unconventional" panel of authors featuring:

Lynne Griffin who wrote "Life without Summer" about a woman trying to find out who killed her daughter in a hit-and-run accident and the therapist who tries to help her;

Jedediah Berry whose "Manual of Detection"is a surrealistic tale of a file clerk who gets promoted to detective and seraches for a missing detective in a city where all the alarm clocks are being stolen;
Francie Lin whose "The Foreigner" won the Edgar (as in Edgar Allan Poe), mystery's top award, for best first novel. It's about a timid 40-year-old Taiwanese American virgin who, after the unexpected death of his domineering mother, must journey to Taiwan to find the "rebellious younger brother lost to him for almost a decade"; and

Paul Tremblay, author of "The Little Sleep," which features a narcoleptic, wise-cracking private investigator whose latest case begins when a woman shows up in his office to ask him to find her missing fingers -- or does she?
The panelists were so fascinating that I was sorry to see our session end. But I know the energy, enthusiasm and excitement of the panel and the Crime Bake experience will stay with me for weeks. Then it will be time to get back to work on planning the 2010 version, which I'm scheduled to co-chair. Our Guest of Honor will be best-selling and longtime mystery author Charlaine Harris, whose Sookie Stackhouse character now appears in the HBO series "True Blood."
The magic continues.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Driving ... me crazy

Husband No. 1 took the wrong route to the restaurant where we were meeting friends for breakfast today, although he continues to insist it was the most efficient.

I should note that my definition of “wrong” here is selecting the route I would NOT take to this destination. Mine would have gotten us there in record time and ease, though he foolishly disagrees. Our conversation pretty much went like this:

“Why are you going this way?”
“Because this is the way to get there.”
“But I never go this way.”
“I always go this way. See, how quick and speedy it is?”
“No, it's not. We would already be seated if we’d gone my way.”

Then I threatened to buy him a GPS system because it would choose the best route (which of course is MINE). “I don’t need a GPS, I never go anywhere,” protested the man who works from home.

“Well, you’re going somewhere now and you're going the wrong way,” I replied.

The discussion continued to deteriorate. When we finally reached the restaurant, I asked the couples waiting for us: When you drive, do you take the same routes that your spouse would? I bet you can figure out the answer -- none of them do. Why is that?

Is it because men and women think differently? Although that's a good explanation for many things, I don't think it explains driving patterns. Just yesterday, for example, my own mother asked me more than once “why are you going THIS way?” while I was in the driver's seat.

I suspect there are many factors that impact our route preferences, like whether we want to get somewhere fast or just enjoy the scenery. Or maybe we want to avoid traffic lights, or a certain bridge, intersection or traffic bottleneck. It's also possible that we pick routes based on habit. But why did Husband No. 1 develop such bad habits when I did not? (I'm still talking about driving here.)

One of the men at today's breakfast says the reason people make different choices is "this is America."

But after doing a little Internet research, I discovered this phenomenon intrigues folks in other countries, too. I found a study done in Korea. Although the translation to English was a little rough, I believe I found the best answer for why people make different driving route choices:

Fuzzy logic. Yep, they blamed a mathematical technique, one that's used to deal with imprecise data and problems that have many solutions rather than one.

Fuzzy logic. I like it. And it might help explain a few more things about Husband No. 1, as well.

So, does it also drive you crazy when others can't see that your routes are the best?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Flu, Shmu: What we think, may not be true…

My sister is an elementary school teacher and says one of her students recently looked at yet another H1N1 flyer being sent home to parents and moaned, “Not another paper about the ‘hiney' flu!”

I can understand how a child might mistake the one’s for I’s. But that’s about the only thing about the flu that makes sense to me these days.

I’m still trying to adjust to the switch from “swine” to H1N1, which ostensibly occurred out of concern people would mistakenly believe pigs were spreading the disease. In other words, calling it “swine” flu hurts pork sales in the U.S. And that's a big pain in any pork producer's hiney.

However, "swine flu" is apparently more scientifically correct because the virus does have genetic material from swine viruses AND there are multiple strains of H1N1 – including some that we see in our regular “seasonal flu” seasons. So if you don’t want to say “swine” but you want to be accurate, call it the “2009 H1N1 virus.”

Now that we’ve got that straight, what do we know about dealing with this virus? Well, the answers to that keep changing, too.

Just yesterday, the annual meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America was shocked to hear the authors of a scientific study are retracting their conclusion that N95 respirators that fit tighter on the face are better than surgical masks at preventing the flu. Oops. These are the same findings that formed the basis for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention guidance on using the more expensive masks in health care settings. But apparently after questions from reviewers, a reanalysis showed the study's findings "were no longer significant.” Big oops.

Some say that once you get the flu, you can reduce its impact by taking Tamiflu capsules or inhaling Relenza. But scientists already have found 28 H1N1 strains that are resistant to both. Another oops. Meanwhile, there are reports that a healthy person taking Tamiflu suffers just 24 hours less with the drug, but gains a 20 percent chance of suffering such pleasant side effects as nausea and vomiting. Lovely.

But most disturbing to me is the possibility that 1) flu vaccines don't prevent the flu and 2) some people contend the mercury preservative in the shots causes autism in children and possibly Alzheimer’s in older people.

And yet, we hear about so many people dying from the flu that it's difficult to know whether it's worth the risk NOT to get the vaccine.

The Atlantic Monthly is just out with an article that presents a sobering case that flu vaccines may NOT work and faulty science caused health professionals to believe they do. (Click here to read it.) This will be considered heresy in much of the medical community, but -- as the article asks -- if flu shots and antiviral drugs provide little to no protection for those who need it the most, where will we be in a major pandemic? In big oops trouble, I’d say.

Here’s what the U.S. government lists as some of the symptoms of flu: fever (but not everyone gets one); cough; sore throat; runny or stuffy nose; body aches; headache; chills; fatigue, and sometimes diarrhea and vomiting. But, according to Atlantic Monthly, researchers have found that at most half, and perhaps as few as 7 or 8 percent, of such cases are actually caused by an influenza virus in any given year. Oops.

But no matter what you believe about the flu, or non-flu, it still seems like a good idea to follow the government's recommendation to take these steps to stay healthy (at least until scientists find they don't work):
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread that way.
  • Stay home if you get sick. CDC recommends that you stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them.

Halloween may be over, but these are still scary times. Which do you find most frightening -- the swine/2009 H1N1 virus or the possibility that the "experts" and the government may be wrong when it comes to influenza?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Random Thoughts

No. 1 son accuses me of being cold-hearted for telling him he's now on his own when it comes to car insurance. With our policy up for renewal and him now living in another state, it seemed appropriate to advise him it's time to take on this adult obligation. In fact, it was a pleasure after years of watching our rates skyrocket due to his automobile adventures.

But he says half-jokingly that we've abandoned him in the cold, thrown him to the wolves. I can only laugh and shake my head. Am I the only one who finds this especially ironic coming from a child who abandoned his parents for Washington, DC, and considers himself mature enough to carry a gun, arrest people and yes, hand out speeding tickets?

It's all in the bag....
I have to say that the most exciting thing about my new eyeglasses is they came with sunglasses that pop on and off with a magnet, bringing an end to the frustration of trying to wrestle the clip-on versions onto my prescription lenses. I thought my new magnetized sunglasses were pretty cool until I saw my first Miche handbag last week. Talk about the wonders of magnets – they allow you to change the look of a designer handbag simpy by snapping on a new shell of any color and design. These shells are far cheaper than buying a bunch of purses – and they fold up, taking much less room than a collection of handbags.

I’m pretty much a one-bag woman – I find one I like and stick with it, for months and sometimes years, until it becomes too worn or no longer suits my purposes (too small, too large, etc.). I used to change out pocketbooks with the seasons but I’d always forget to move something into the new bag. I have accepted the reality that I don't care enough to bother with the ritual anymore. This one-purse attitude appalls my friend Lori, who claims to have an entire room devoted to her handbags. A Miche bag might benefit us both – get me to change my look at a reasonable price and help Lori use her purse room for something else. Some people find wonder in the universe. For me this week, it's magnets.

So what kind of purse/pocketbook/handbag owner are you?

Final words…
I learned this weekend that a former colleague died from a heart attack while undergoing tests for heart issues, which unfortunately he suffered from for years. As he was being prepped for the tests, the doctor walked in, took one look at him and said, “You’re having a heart attack.” He turned to his wife and said, “Guess I’m screwed.” He was 82 years old.

This got me thinking about the “last words” people say on this earth. Some people put their final thoughts on gravestones, like the infamous “I told you I was sick.” One of my favorite obituaries this year related how a very ill man looked up at his family gathered around him and asked, “Do you people know something I don’t?” Then there’s always "thanks for the memories.”

For my personality, “I told you so” might be as appropriate as closing out with a joke. However, I think I'd prefer that my last words be “I love you.”

Have you ever thought what yours would be?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Meeting a Moose and a Mystery Author

There were two "fun" things on my list of 2009 goals: seeing a moose in the wild and meeting author Dennis Lehane. I figured that fulfilling either would be fascinating – and I was correct.

I met goal No. 1 in June when, using the “but it’s my birthday” excuse, I dragged Husband No. 1 and Son No. 2 to northern New Hampshire to find not one, but four, of the magnificent creatures in their natural habitat. (Click here for the recap.)

I figured tracking down Dennis Lehane would be more difficult. Although he lives in Boston part of the year, I don't think he's made many public appearances since the 2008 publication of “The Given Day,” his epic set in Boston around the time of the 1919 policemen’s strike. One presumes that’s because he’s been at his desk writing or in Florida teaching.

Many people are familiar with the films made from three Lehane books: the incredible “Mystic River” with Sean Penn and Tim Robbins; “Gone, Baby, Gone” with Casey Affleck and Morgan Freeman; and the upcoming “Shutter Island” due out in February and starring Leonard DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo and Ben Kingsley.

I am a huge fan of most of Lehane’s work. I was blown away by “Mystic River” but hated “Shutter Island.” And I adored his gritty mystery series featuring smart-mouthed Boston Private Investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. “Gone, Baby, Gone” is the fourth of five of those books. When he decided to end the deliciously dark string, I was devastated. I blame my grief for not yet reading “The Given Day” or “Coronado,” his short story collection.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was a few weeks ago to learn not only will his next book resurrect my favorite series, he was scheduled to sign the new paperback version of “The Given Day” at my local Barnes & Noble.

A week ago Thursday, I lined up with about 45 other fans -- plus camera-toting Husband No. 1. To my dismay, store management was so apprehensive about the potential size of the crowd that it downgraded his “reading” to a “signing.” Nonetheless, I was still going to meet Dennis Lehane – and my goal.

When it was finally my turn to bring my book to the desk for his autograph, I told him about my goals to see a moose... to which he interjected “that’s cool” … and to meet him, to which he said, “awwwhhh” as if he were truly touched (although maybe he just thought I was “touched,” as in mentally unbalanced).

In any case, it made it easier to issue an invitation for him to make his first appearance at the annual New England Crime Bake Conference for mystery writers and readers, which I’m on track to co-chair in November 2010.

Apparently our conversation continued longer than the store personnel and fans preferred. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Husband No. 1 snapping photos while the manager seemed to be wavering between calling security and tackling me himself. Apparently he doesn't have much respect for my goals.

I finally moved on after Dennis wrote down his assistant’s contact information. A few days later, she e-mailed that next year’s Crime Bake is on his calendar.

With two months still to go until the end of 2009, I am delighted to have already met my “fun” goals and contemplating the 2010 list. It’s much more enjoyable than dwelling on those pesky objectives I’m still trying to meet – like finishing my novel.

Did you set any “fun” goals for 2009? Did you accomplish them? Please share by leaving a comment below – maybe I can use them for my 2010 list!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Tragedies of Picture-Perfect Days

A perfect fall day – the piercingly blue cloudless sky, the gentle warmth from the sunlight dappling the trees, and the air crisp from the tiniest hint of cool weather to come.

It used to be that such achingly beautiful days filled my heart with gratitude that I live in New England. Now they fill me with dread.

Those of us who live in the Northeast will never forget that September 11, 2001, began as one of those picture-perfect days. By the time it ended, our world had changed forever.

In my mind’s eye, I can still see the dark sedans parked across the street that confirmed my fear that the American Airlines pilot who lived there was aboard one of the planes that slammed into the World Trade Center towers. Although I did not know him well, I was certain even then that Tom McGuinness would never have flown that plane into a building, even at gunpoint. This could only mean that an unknown force of unspeakable evil was involved.

The terror and heartbreak of that horrific day left scars on all of us. For me, they were added to another wound that refuses to heal – the pain of a similarly gorgeous autumn day just two years earlier.

The foliage blaze of glory that greeted me as I drove out of the neighborhood with my son on the morning of Oct. 15, 1999, remains seared into my memory. Trying to concentrate on the day’s to-do list led by his dental appointment, I nearly missed the approach of my cousin’s car from the other direction. I was late, as always, and considered not stopping. But her unexpected appearance was too unusual to ignore.

I hit the brakes, put the car in park and hurried toward her vehicle, which by now had turned around and parked behind me in the middle of the intersection. When I saw her face, I knew something was terribly wrong. I never expected to hear that her brother Tony had been murdered.

This week marks the 10th anniversary of his tragic death at the age of 34. The man who stabbed him with an 8-inch fishing knife after the two argued outside a bar, and then drove away to leave my cousin bleeding to death in the middle of a darkened street, is petitioning to get out of prison early. The indescribable pain continues.

On a recent fall day not long ago, I glanced up at the unblemished blue sky and rather than be pleased with nature’s gift, I found myself uttering a silent prayer that the perfect autumn day would end quickly and without tragedy.

I told a friend about the unease I feel on beautiful fall days and she said she feels it, too, after 9/11. How about you? Is there a certain type of day that fills you with dread – or better yet, with joy -- because of a memory?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Beware of the Book

Did you know that last week was "Banned Books Week"? Ironically, I spent part of it surrounded by books and those who love them at the trade show for the New England Independent Booksellers Association convention. There was no talk there about banning books in Hartford, CT, I assure you.

Nonetheless, it does my heart good as a writer and a bibliophile to know we live in a country where we have something like "Banned Books Week" to celebrate the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment. By listing books that have been banned, or "challenged" in an attempt to force their removal from library or school bookshelves, the American Library Association and other groups are trying to highlight the danger of putting restraints on information in a free society.

The ALA recorded 513 "challenges" to books in 2008, but estimates the number reflects only 20-25% of actual incidents, as most are never reported. People try to block books for a multitude of reasons, but the most frequent seem to be concerns the books are too sexual, too violent, contain objectionable profanity and slang, include offensive portrayals of racial or religious groups -- or positively portray gays. Apparently there is less concern about intellectual freedom.
I'm proud to say that from looking at the ALA's interactive map, it appears no challenges were recorded in New Hampshire between 2007 and 2009, but that should come as no surprise to those of us who reside in the "Live Free or Die" state.

It's interesting to note that some of the notable books that have been banned, or challenged, over the years include The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Charlotte's Web, Harry Potter books, The Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye and Winnie-the-Pooh. Some authors today consider it a compliment to have their books on the same lists as these classics.
Here's the list of the 10 most challenged titles from 2008. How many of them were you even aware of before today?
And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, is a 2005 children's book about two male penguins who raise an orphaned chick. It's topped the list of banned challenged books for three years running. It's based on the true story of Roy and Silo, two male penguins in New York's Central Park Zoo, who for six years formed a couple and then were given an egg to raise.

The reasons given for attempts to block the book: anti-ethnic, anti-family, homosexuality, religious viewpoint, and unsuited to age group. Ironically, book sales seem to increase when it makes the list.

His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman, undoubtedly got more challenges following the 2007 release of the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, the first entry in his Young Adult heroic fantasy series. The others are The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.
Reasons: political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, and violence

TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series), by Lauren Myracle, part of the wildly successful Internet Girls series for young adults. The online chat trilogy, which began with ttyl in 2004, features exchanges between three girls.
Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group

Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz, includes Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1981), More Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark (1984), and Scary Stories 3 : More Tales to Chill Your Bones (1991), for ages 9-12.
Reasons: occult/satanism, religious viewpoint, and violence

Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya, is an award-winning coming-of-age novel of young boy in New Mexico in the 1940s. It has sold more than 300,000 copies in paperback since its 1973 debut.
Reasons: occult/satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, and violence

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky, is a Young Adult novel published in 1999 about a high school freshman boy teetering on the brink of adulthood.
Reasons: drugs, homosexuality, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, suicide, and unsuited to age group

Gossip Girl (Young Adult series), by Cecily von Ziegesar. From the synopsis on Amazon: "Is Gossip Girl one of New York City's privileged teens with easy access to endless money, alcohol, and drugs? The answer remains a well-kept secret, but her Web page that opens each chapter (and that readers can visit) tells all about the in-crowd. Catty, backbiting, and exaggerated, GG's observations are also candid."
Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group

Uncle Bobby's Wedding, by Sarah S. Brannen, is a 2008 children's book about a same-sex marriage between two dapper guinea pigs.
Reasons: homosexuality and unsuited to age group

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini and published in 2004, tells a story of betrayal and redemption featuring Amir, the privileged son of a wealthy businessman in Kabul, and Hassan, the son of Amir's father's servant, while providing an eye-opening account of Afghanistan's political turmoil.
Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group

Flashcards of My Life, by Charise Mericle Harper, is for ages 9-12 and about a teenager whose aunt sends her a set of blank cards called Flashcards of My Life that include topics like "Friends," "Kiss" and "Identity" to spark her writing.
Reasons: sexually explicit and unsuited to age group
To see more lists of books that have been challenged, click on the links here. What's your favorite challenged/banned book?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Greatest Criminal Mind Ever

By Frank Cook

Invariably when I go to writer conferences like the New England Crime Bake (Nov. 13-15 in Dedham, MA, with Sue Grafton as this year's guest of honor) one of the most frequently asked questions is “where do you get your ideas?”

And invariably the author’s answer almost always has something to do with some soaring experience or the depth of their soul. Some build their stories around a character they conjure, others fashion them after a recent event.

Those aren’t the answers I’m looking for. When I ask, “Where do you get your ideas,” I literally mean “where are you when you get your ideas?” Are you at the grocery store? In the shower? At the gym?

Whenever I write fiction, I start with the scene. I don’t start with “the character” or “the event.” I start with the surroundings.

The idea for my short story “Liberty” (Seasmoke anthology, Level Best Books) came to me while I walked my dog around my neighborhood. The triggering thoughts were, “What kind of crime could be committed here?” “If a criminal was doing exactly what I’m doing, what kind of crime would he commit?”

Since then, I’ve found that approach has worked time and again. After attending a few author readings at my favorite book store (RiverRun in Portsmouth), I started mulling, “what kind of crime could be committed here?” That question led to “The Greatest Criminal Mind Ever” (recently selected for "Quarry: Crime Stories by New England Writers" being published in November).

Likewise, a spring morning and the annual ritual of cleaning out the basement led to frequent trips to the local recycling center. Those trips ultimately led to the story, “The dump at the Dump.”

My wife Pat Remick’s award-winning story “Mercy 101” (Still Waters anthology, Level Best Books), came from her commute on Highway 101 from Portsmouth to the state capital in Concord.

Again, first came the scene. Second, came the crime. After that, it’s matter populating the plot with the right characters.

The point here is that story ideas need not come from some grand place or exotic situation. Entertaining ideas come from the most mundane places. And let’s face it, we’ve all considered writing, “Murder at the DMV.”

But, awkwardly transitioning back to where I started, one of the great things about going to Crime Bake is listening to other authors talk about where they get their ideas and, of course, listening to experts suggest how to carry them out.

I have listened to Jeremiah Healy discuss the best way to stab people without getting blood on yourself, and I have learned as Chuck Hogan (Prince of Thieves) taught me how to rob banks. And I have been relieved to hear poison lady Luci Zahray assure, “Don’t worry, coroners almost never test for these things.”

It occurred to me then that the greatest criminal minds in New England aren’t in prison. They’re at Crime Bake.

It also occurred to me that the local SWAT team probably had the building surrounded.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A noise in the dark

When I heard the noise coming from outside at 1 a.m. Sunday, I thought perhaps we had fallen victim to thieves who have been rummaging through neighborhood cars. I rushed downstairs, flicked on the outdoor lights and looked out the window to see an adult white-tailed deer less than 3 feet of way.

The animal glanced toward me, flicked its tail and slowly ambled off. I suspect it had been grazing on the bushes near our house and clearly, it was unafraid of the human occupant peering through the window.

The experience makes me wonder what other animal behavior is going on while we sleep, though I am particularly intrigued by the deer I often spot walking through the woods behind our house or appearing on the lawn early in the morning. They are beautiful animals, even if their fondness for our Hosta and shrubs ruins the plants.

Apparently I am not the only one fascinated by these creatures. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, a 78-year-old anthropologist from Peterborough, NH, has just written "The Hidden Life of Deer" and tells us:

"Deer families are run by their mothers. Local families arrange into a hierarchy. They adopt orphans; they occasionally reject a child; they use complex warnings to signal danger; they mark their territories; they master local microclimates to choose their beds; and they send countless coded messages that we can read, if only we know what to look for."

Thomas, who's also written about the hidden lives of elephants, dogs and cats, penned her latest book after a year of observing more than 30 deer that took advantage of the piles of food she left near her farmhouse when they faced starvation following the 2007 failure of the acorn crop. She wondered how the animals knew went to come as a group and why sometimes they cooperated, and sometimes they competed.

I hope the answers, along with ways to decode the deer messages, are revealed in her book, which I intend to read because I want to know more about these animals who are living -- and eating -- so close to my door. According to some statistics, there are an estimated 20 million to 25 million deer in the USA and the number is growing because of the decline in natural predators and hunting. Experts estimate that there be now be as many as 100 deer per square mile, especially in eastern metropolitan areas.

Doesn't it make you wonder how many might be walking around outside your home tonight?

According to the HarperCollins web site, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas will discuss her new book on Friday, October 16, at Water Street Bookstore in Exeter.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Life in 3-D

There was a moment last week when I truly feared someone might have to peel me off the walls and push me through the opening of the hallway where Husband No. 1 and I waited our turn to pin a D.C. Metropolitan Police Department badge on No. 1 son's dress blue uniform. My eyes were welling, my breathing was rushing toward hyperventilation and panic was racing through my body.

This would not have been a surprise to No. 1 son, who earlier had half-jokingly noted he'd considered the possibility that I might grab his badge and go running off the stage in front of his 19 fellow rookie officers, their families, the Police Chief and the Mayor.

The thought did cross my mind. But then he advised me he'd actually been formally commissioned as an officer the day before this Police Academy graduation and issued the gun that is his until he retires or it's taken away. It was far too late to stop him from becoming a police officer. In fact, it was too late nine months earlier when he left NH to begin this adventure. And when I think about it now, it probably was already too late all those years ago when everything he touched became a weapon to use as a cowboy, a soldier or a superhero.

Nonetheless, I could see our younger son closely watching from the graduation audience, camera in hand and a grin on his face that signaled he was ready to capture the moment if I decided to bolt when the announcer called my policeman son, my husband and I forward for the badge-pinning part of the ceremony. It was an excruciatingly long walk across that stage.

But I was walking toward a young man who looked so sure, so proud and yes, so ready for his new life. It's difficult to tell from this photograph of him handing me his badge whether I'm smiling or gritting my teeth. I suspect it was a combination of both. I do know, though, that I was incredibly relieved because I'd just learned his district assignment and it wasn't the very toughest in the city (though I've since discovered it averages about 20 murders and 6,000 other major crimes annually, and is home to members of one of the nation's most dangerous gangs).

Then it was time to go through the receiving line of Police Department dignitaries. "We'll keep him safe," the Chief, an amazing and imposing woman named Cathy Lanier, told me. (To read her fascinating story, click here.) I suspect she makes that promise to all the mothers whose smiling faces cannot hide the deep fear in their hearts. Nonetheless, it was an assurance from one mother to another, which gave me comfort.

Intellectually, I know my son's career choice should not feel quite so unnerving. As a journalist, I spent years covering crime. I write about it as a mystery author. I've been on police ride-a-longs and interacted with police officers on a not-infrequent professional basis over the years. For many years, my great-uncle was in charge of the Police Department where I now live. But when I first held my son's bulletproof vest, I thought I might pass out from the realization of what it signified. Lifting his duty belt that holds his gun, flashlight, handcuffs, chemical spray, etc., nearly gave me a lump in my stomach, literally and figuratively. This is not a job for the weak or faint of heart (or their mothers).

It also is a job with its own foreign vocabulary and alphabet soup of acronyms, most of which his parents probably will never fully understand. When he talked about showing up the next day in 3-D, it took a while to realize he was referring to his assignment to DC's Police District 3 and not a movie requiring special glasses to view. His first arrest, which came his first day on the streets, was a POCA, he informed us -- involving a prohibited open container of alcohol. He advised us the demonstrations on the national mall are handled by SOD (Special Operations Division), not beat cops, and so forth. When he told us he took a report of a woman beaten in broad daylight when she wouldn't give up her diamond ring to a couple of bandits, I asked what he knew about that gang.

"Bandits are not a gang," he patiently informed me. "That's what we call the bad guys." Oh.

Even if I do learn all the terms, I'm not sure I'll ever become used to the metal lump under his shirt when I hug him. Or the idea that he's made a commitment to risk his life every day for others. But this is not about me. It's about my child finding his passion. I just pray it will add welcome dimensions far beyond the challenging realities of this new life in 3-D.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Living in "Idiot America"....

Let's see if I've got this right: parents upset over the idea that President Obama is going to address the schoolchildren of America Tuesday to urge them to study hard and stay IN school are threatening to keep their kids OUT of school so they won't hear that message.

This proves it: We are living in "Idiot America" (see definition below).

Not only do we have a major brouhaha going on over whether the president can address the nation's schoolchildren, but we've got school administrators caving in to objections that I believe are actually generated by extreme right-wing conservatives flooding e-mailboxes with incendiary messages designed to do whatever it takes to gain control of our country.

I guess we're living in spineless America, too.

Maybe those of us who believe schoolchildren ought to hear the "study hard, stay in school" message should also be calling our local school administrators. The White House is going to release the text of the president's speech on Monday, but I suspect there will still be those raising a stink that he could divert from his prepared remarks and politicize the message. If "study hard and stay in school" is a political agenda, I'm for it.

But back to "Idiot America." I went to hear Charles Pierce (who also appears on the wonderful NPR news quiz show "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me") talk about his new book "Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free" at a local bookstore last week. This is what he says are the principles of Idiot America:

1) A theory need only sell books or elevate ratings in order to be deemed valid. (This explains how someone like Ann Coulter gets TV airtime on legitimate news programs to continue to spread blatant lies and distortions, such as calling John Edwards a "fag.")

2) "Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough." (This explains the nut jobs screaming at the health care forums being held during the congressional recess and Sarah Palin's claims about death panels.)

3) A fact is defined as “that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.” (This may explain why otherwise reasonably intelligent people still believe the Internet smear campaign that Obama was not born in the United States.)

OK, I know this rant is overly political but for heaven's sakes, what is happening in our country when Idiot America gets the bully pulpit and people are no longer able to engage in civil discourse? Does anyone consider people screaming epithets at health care forums to be "civil discourse"? Disagree, sure. Disagree fervently, OK. But we've got people screaming about socialism and fascism who couldn't even define those words if their lives depended on it. And yet, they're getting the publicity instead of the millions of Americans who believe there's a problem with our health care system.

I think Charles Pierce may be correct. The people who used to be considered "cranks" that everyone else tolerated or ignored, now seem to be allowed into the mainstream and get shows on Fox.

But I'll go one step further: I believe those cranks are being manipulated by a rabid, far-right conservative movement that will go to any lengths, and that includes loudly spreading bold-faced lies, to take over our government.

If we let that happen, we're the idiots.

So, I say, it's time for a liberal Ann Coulter. I'm willing to take on the job. I just have to lose a few more pounds and make my hair a whole lot blonder. Then I'll start spouting ridiculous (but liberal) lies and use the Internet to spread my propaganda. If I stay on message long enough and loud enough, people will start to believe me and someone will want me to appear on TV. Then there will be an extremely lucrative book deal and six-figure speaking fees.

Maybe it's not so idiotic after all.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Dog Days of Summer

I recently read an article that said oxytocin levels almost double in people – and in dogs -- when humans talk to and stroke their dog friends. Beta endorphins and dopamine levels supposedly go up, too.

So, in the interest of science, Buddy and I are increasing our efforts to generate those feel-good chemicals. Oxytocin also is believed to be involved in social recognition, bonding and the formation of trust, as well as generosity.

More reasons to love dogs.

I haven’t always been a dog person. Buddy, the 18-pound Lhasa Apso pictured here, was the first dog in my life in over 30 years. He's king of our house now, but apparently that’s OK for the humans who live here, too. According to the article about Meg Daley Olmert’s book “Made for Each Other: The biology of the human-animal bond,” we feel better about ourselves if we have animals in our lives. I'll try to remember that when Buddy wakes me up at 5 a.m. by barking at the wind.

There have been a number of reports this summer that involve dogs and scientific research. My favorites were the studies that found not only are dogs smart, they're smarter than cats.

According to one report, the average dog is at least as smart as a human 2-year-old and can understand up to 250 words and gestures, do basic calculations, and count to 5. The research also shows a dog's social skills are at the teenage level. Having raised two teenagers, I can assure you a dog is far more sociable than a surly teenager who responds in monosyllables.

The research generating the most controversy among cat lovers was conducted by Dr. Britta Osthaus of England's Canterbury Christ Church University. She tested the ability of cats and dogs to retrieve unreachable food from under a plastic screen with three different scenarios: one string with a treat attached, two parallel strings with just one baited and two crossed strings with food attached to only one. All the cats could do the single string test, but none consistently chose the string with the treat when there were two strings to choose from – unlike the dogs. Cat lovers claim the felines just weren't motivated and don't care what people think but dogs are always trying to please humans. (That would come as a surprise to Husband No. 1 who is having a difficult time persuading Buddy to go outside for his evening constitutional as I write this.)

Whether you prefer canines or felines, you probably won't be shocked by the results of an Associated poll that found half of all American pet owners consider their pets as much a part of the family as any other member of the household while another 36 percent say their pet is a member of the family, but not a full member. Most also admit to feeding them human food, nearly half give them human names and a third let them sleep in their bed.

I do give Buddy human food and I suppose his name could be considered human. But I vowed I'd never let a dog sleep in our bed. Don't even try to guess how long that lasted.

But now that I know there are medical benefits from having the dog nearby so I can talk to him and pet him to increase our oxytocin levels, I don't feel quite so guilty about it.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Life in the Big City

I've spent the weekend in Washington, DC, returning No. 2 son to college and checking up on No. 1 who lives a few miles away, and it reminded me once again how much different life in the Big City is compared to mine.

I'm not just talking about the traffic or the bad drivers (more than half of them don't have driver's licenses or vehicles that have been inspected, according to my personal law enforcement expert), or the humongous modern buildings and millions of people. I'm talking about the creative innovations ... and hoping they'll someday reach New Hampshire.

For example, I had no idea that someone had invented an escalator for shopping carts. Does this make me a total rube? When No. 2 son and I embarked upon a last-minute outfit-the-dorm-room shopping expedition, we discovered the Target had two floors -- and 2 escalators for people and 2 for shopping carts. "We've got to go upstairs so we can try this," I exclaimed. Once again, No. 2 son gave me the look that reminds me he set my password as "crazy mom." I didn't care. It seemed very cool to someone who lives in town without an escalator of any kind. He agreed to accompany me, along with our shopping cart moving next to us, but drew the line on just-for-fun repeat trips.

(And, by the way, in case anyone is wondering, unlike last year's trip-to-college adventure, I did not bring the night light for his room -- although I certainly considered it. But I digress.)

Then there are the food innovations -- restaurants featuring food from nearly every country. Who knew there were so many varieties of Latin chicken? But the one place I'm most anxious to try features hot, handmade-dipped design-your-own donuts or you can order off the Fractured Prune's menu. Imagine varieties like Reese Cup® (peanut butter glaze, mini chocolate chips); Creamsicle (orange glaze, powdered sugar); Chocolate Covered Cherry: cherry glaze, mini chocolate chips Morning Buzz (mocha glaze, Oreo® cookie crumbs) and Strawberry Shortcake (strawberry glaze, graham cracker, powdered sugar). This is taking donuts to a whole new level. Who wouldn't appreciate a place with the motto -- "you create 'em, we make 'em"?

And, if you feel slightly ill after eating one of these confections, the Washington, DC, area is home to a number of walk-in medical clinics -- a concept yet to reach my part of the world. I was most intrigued by the MinuteClinics inside some of the CVS drugstores in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs (and about 22 other states). They're open seven days a week, employ nurse practitioners and physician assistants "trained to diagnose and treat common illnesses, minor injuries and skin conditions," and offer health screenings and vaccinations without appointments -- all at a cost of between $30 and $110 and "reimbursed by most insurance plans." So you can pick up some cough drops and a strep test in a single visit. Talk about convenience.

When I see innovations like these, it makes me wonder what will come next -- and about the creators of these concepts. It also makes me wonder why I'm not one of them. Maybe I need one of those designer donuts to inspire me. I'll let you know....

How about you? Spotted any innovations in your part of the world that might amaze and astound the rest of us?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

da Vinci and Me

I have been touched by da Vinci but the results weren’t exactly a work of art. Looking at the big picture, however, it was a masterpiece of technology.

The da Vinci I encountered was a machine. Actually, it’s a surgery system using robotic arms. Yes, a robot cut me open and I’m glad.

Basically, the da Vinci Surgical System consists of a computer console where the surgeon sits, a three-dimensional camera that is inserted into the body and a machine with robotic arms that the surgeon programs to make delicate and precise movements that mimic his or her movements at the console.

My ovaries were da Vinci's target, particularly one sporting an abnormal growth that already had refused to surrender to a local doctor trying to remove it with minimally invasive laproscopic surgery. Concerned the little bugger might be hiding something, he took pictures, stitched me back up and referred me to a cancer specialist at Lahey Clinic outside Boston. I arrived with my ovaries intact and three new holes in my belly – but, unfortunately, no jewelry to show for my trouble.

The Lahey doctors took one look at the photos and proclaimed me an excellent candidate for robotic surgery. I considered grabbing the photos and running out of the room. Then they said my body would be tilted quite a bit throughout the surgery. This sounded like an excellent opportunity to reverse the effects of gravity – rejuvenation without plastic surgery!

I still had a few doubts, though. “What happens if the machine breaks down?” I asked.

“We have an 800-number to call,” my surgeon said.

I laughed. She didn’t. Fortunately, it never came to that.

Named after Leonardo da Vinci, who is believed to have invented the first robot, the minimally invasive da Vinci surgery is just 10 years old. There are only 900 of the computer-enhanced da Vinci systems in use in the United States – proving once again that I was on the “cutting edge.” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

The da Vinci Surgical System allows surgeons to perform complex procedures with micro-instruments that are inserted into the body through tiny incisions – most just one-third to three-fourths of an inch long. This dramatically reduces blood loss and recovery time, and minimizes the amount of pressure on other organs. Guided by the camera and computer, the robotic arms also allow surgeons to safely cut where they might not have been able to do so easily before. Think about your wrist: It can't be rotated 360 degrees to reach something – but the da Vinci’s tiny instruments can.

The system's robotic arms replicate the surgeon’s movements in real time. This means the surgeon cannot program it and then step out for a cup of coffee or a game of tennis. Nor can the machine override the surgeon’s orders (Hey, let’s cut out that pesky stomach, too -- snip, snip). And, unlike the help desks for U.S. computer companies – the process can’t be operated from remote locations like India or Pakistan where people with thick accents claim their name is Bob or Melissa.

My surgery lasted over three hours, but I was allowed to go home that night with five new incisions. Three were unbelievably small. Within two days, I was back on the treadmill, albeit walking extremely slowly. The surgeon proclaimed me non-cancerous and cleared me to drive within 10 days but said heavy housework and lifting was forbidden for at least a month. (After hearing the latter, Husband No. 1 questioned whether he should have accompanied me into the doctor’s office.) Within two weeks, I was back at work. My only complaint is that my time spent defying gravity apparently wasn’t enough to reverse sagging body parts or make me look younger.

What 800-number do I call to fix that?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The advice that got you where you are today...

I'm still recovering from a little medical adventure so I thought you might like to hear from this guy who shares a connection with Stephen King...

By Frank Cook (aka Husband No. 1)

“Be yourself.” Oh, com’on people. What kind of advice is that?

You hear it all the time. Going for a job interview? “Just be yourself.” Pitching an agent? “Just be yourself.” Going out on a date? “Just let her know who you really are – be yourself.”

Have you ever considered the possibility that “being yourself” is what got you unemployed, unpublished and unloved?

Let’s face it, if your Facebook bio says you work in a humdrum job and you live alone with your cat, are you really surprised you don’t have a lot of friends?

It could be time for you, and maybe all of us, to be someone else. And, I hate to point out, being someone else doesn’t pay half bad.

For instance, when Angelina Jolie played someone other than herself in “Wanted,” she got $15 million. When Reese Witherspoon played someone other than herself in “Four Christmases,” she got $14 million. And Katherine Heigl, when she plays Izzy on “Grey’s Anatomy,” she gets $225,000 per episode.

Trust me, nobody would pay those people a dime to just “be themselves.”

The people who tell you to “be yourself” are the people who figure that’s all your good at and you’ll never master being someone else.

There are something like 300 million people in this country so the odds of someone really appreciating someone just like you are pretty good, but the odds of ever meeting that person are also pretty bad.

What am I suggesting? Be someone else.

No, I don’t mean identity theft. (Though it was certainly profitable for the guy who got my credit card number.) And I don’t mean going to restaurants claiming to be Barack’s brother. (He lives in Kenya.) (Not that I’ve tried that.)

I mean creating a certain aura around yourself that could be viewed as being attractive. “Yourself,” but a little more polished. Like:

“What do you do, Frank?”

“I’m a writer.”

“That sounds interesting. What do you write?”

“Well, in fact, I use many of the same words Stephen King uses.”

See how much more interesting I am?

On the other hand, I could be wrong. As my first wife likes to point out, Tiger Woods makes $128 million per year to be “himself.” And LeBron James gets $40 million a year to be “himself.”

“Why don’t you trying making yourself more like ‘themselves’?” she suggests.

She clearly has an identity crisis.

Monday, August 3, 2009

All lights burning bright?

Award-winning Canadian folksinger-songwriter David Francey recently graced a stage in my town and prior to performing each song, he shared its backstory with the audience.

As a writer, I appreciated these tales as much as the songs they generated. I was especially intrigued by the background for “All Lights Burning Bright.” Francey told us it was inspired by his discovery that the same final entry was recorded in the Watch Log Book at the end of each shift on the huge vessels traveling the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway straddling the U.S.-Canadian border:"All navigation lights burning brightly."

Francey read the logs while sailing on one of the mammoth commercial ships after his wife wangled an invitation for him to spend a week onboard. When he asked a seaman why it was so important to note the status of the navigation lights, he was told it was because of their significance to safe voyages. No matter what else a ship might encounter during the journey– if its navigation lights are burning brightly, other ships can see the vessel and those onboard can see other nearby marine traffic, as well. This is especially critical in bad weather.

The phrase “all navigation lights burning brightly” also can be a metaphor for life, says Francey. I couldn’t agree more. We can choose to go through life with our “lights” on low, moderate, "all burning brightly" or somewhere in between.

What about you – are "All Lights Burning Bright" in your life -- bright enough that others know who you are, what you stand for and what you strive for? What about in your relationships at home, at work and in your community? Do you use your talents to the maximum? Do you sail on, all lights blazing, despite rough seas?

And when your journey finally concludes, will people be able to say that you had “all lights burning bright” to the end? I hope so. I think that would be a wonderful thing.

(If you’d like to read the words to Francey's song, click here and scroll down to the end of the page to find “All Lights Burning Bright.” If you'd like to see him sing it, accompanied by Craig Werth of Portsmouth!, click on the button below)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Is this art?

In honor of comedian Bill Cosby's birthday this month, a local artist created this portrait from approximately 1,000 Jello shots. It seemed like an appropriate medium to artist Andrew Salomone, given Cosby's years as a pitchman for the colorful jiggly stuff.

Apparently the exhibit didn't last too long -- some of the art patrons decided to rearrange the shots to see how Cosby would look with a ponytail or as a Pac-Man. And then they ate the Jello out of the small cups.

So, if people can make art disappear by eating or drinking it, is it truly art?

A couple of weeks ago, a group in Sydney, Australia, arranged 3,404 coffee cups filled with different amounts of milk to create the shades of color necessary to create this giant Mona Lisa. I'm not sure if anyone drank the milk later, but again, I have to ask, is this art?

I'd also like to know what prompts people to look at something like jello shots or coffee cups and think, "Hey, I could use that to create a portrait." I'm familiar with folks thinking they see Jesus and the Virgin Mary ON food, such as tortillas and waffles, which I usually credit to active imagination or divine inspiration. But where does the inspiration come from to use things that HOLD food (and drink) to create Bill Cosby's head or the Mona Lisa?

My coffee cup may be a lot of things to me -- especially first thing in the morning -- but I've never considered it an artistic medium nor have I ever groggily peered into it and thought: "Mona Lisa." Ditto for my oatmeal bowl. Does that mean I lack imagination and/or vision?
Maybe I should go stare at my Tupperware collection for a while to see what it inspires....
How about you? Seen any food containers around your house that could become great art?