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?