Sunday, March 28, 2010

Stars for the Troops

I hope you'll take six minutes out of your day to watch the video below. It's a beautiful portrayal of another aspect of the Pease Greeters story and was filmed by AARP to accompany my story on the program. It became available just a few days ago.

Not only is it incredibly inspiring, it provides a glimpse into what happens when the troops touch down in Portsmouth. I think you'll agree that the Pease Greeters are doing wonderful things for our soldiers and our country.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

An Attitude is a Terrible Thing to Waste....

This is one of my favorite sayings from the many hundreds of smart-ass phrases I've read and laughed at over the years on cards, napkins and a variety of other products created by Anne Taintor.

While you may not know her name, I suspect you've likely seen her products in fun gift shops over the past two and a half decades. She always uses vintage photos and adds sarcastic, funny captions like "frugal is such an ugly word," "I dreamed my whole desk was clean" and "just file it under who cares." Anne Taintor has given me a lot of laugh-out-loud moments over the years.

A few months ago I was surprised to learn she also does calenders when I spotted one in a co-worker's office. I was flabbergasted to learn the calendar came from another City Hall colleague, our new planning director who happens to Anne Taintor's brother. He told me she was running a caption contest on her web site at and suggested I give it a try.

For a few days I submitted so many entries I thought I might be accused of being a caption stalker. In the end, none were chosen -- apparently I'm only exceptionally clever and funny in my own mind -- but it occurred to me that the 25th anniversary of the company founded by a woman who found a way to make money from being smart and funny (while the rest of us give it away for free) might be worthy of a news story. Fortunately for me, the editors of AARP Bulletin agreed.

Not only did I get the opportunity to chat via phone with Anne, I also got to interview the beautiful blonde whose face accompanies my favorite saying. Would you believe she's 90 now? I learned that Georgia Carroll was a high-fashion model for about six years in the 1940s, won bit parts in over a dozen films and then gave it all up to raise a family with a famous bandleader of that era. Because her photos are now in the public domain, she's recently seen her image in unexpected places -- including on the anniversary can for Spam and illustrating a news article about beautiful complexions in a New York newspaper. These days Georgia, who earned her college degree at 50, is planning to write a book about the cover girls of her era.

She's also part of a group that Anne Taintor calls her "Taintorettes" -- the real women who posed for the ads portraying an idealized version of domesticity, like women vacuuming in pearls and high heels. (Did anyone EVER do that?) Georgia first learned her face was part of some Taintor creations when her daughter's friend spotted Georgia's photo on a set of file folders and left them for the daughter a gift. When she opened the cellophane package she discovered the friend's mother, also a fashion model from that era, was featured in the file folders collection, as well.

Anne Taintor is a native of Maine, but now lives in New Mexico. She told me she once thought her audience was primarily women her age (mid-50s), but she hears from girls as young as 14 and women as old as 84 -- as well as gay men -- who appreciate her brand of humor. I asked if she considered her art feminist, since it features captions like "and to think I'm only using one-tenth of my brain" and "was it just her imagination or were all the men in her life just babies?"

Her response: "I'm told it is, but I don't really think in those kinds of terms. Certainly it's feminist in that I've always rebelled against cultural expectations."

It's an outlook especially appreciated by those who agree "an attitude is a terrible thing to waste." To read my story about Anne Taintor, click here.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Birthdays, Baby Planners and Trillions

I have this habit of ripping stories out of the newspaper that intrigue, amaze or just amuse me and in an effort to clean off my desk, I thought I'd share some with you this week:

Good Morning to All
Ever wonder why you rarely hear the song "Happy Birthday to You" on television or the radio? Apparently America's most popular song, originally written as "Good Morning to All," is copyrighted until the year 2030 and royalties must be paid if it's used on TV and radio stations, concert venues, restaurants and certain retail establishments. The good news is it's still OK to sing it at home, though not at mine, please. At my age, it sounds more like a funeral dirge.

Composed in 1893 by Kentucky sisters Mildred and Patty Hill, who taught young children, the original lyrics of my least favorite song were: "Good morning to you, Good morning to you, Good morning dear children, Good morning to you." By 1924, a second stanza had been added -- the "Happy Birthday to You" song that's now so popular. A third Hill sister, Jessica, filed suit to prove her sisters had written the song and had not been paid for it. In 1934, a court found in their favor and the next year, Jessica Hill worked with a publishing company to publish and copyright "Happy Birthday." That copyright doesn't expire until 2030. Meanwhile, the original publishing company is now part of Summery Birchard Music, owned by AOL Time Warner, and shares any Happy Birthday royalties with the Hill Foundation.

First Wedding planners, Now Baby Planners
Did you know that moms-to-be are now hiring people to help them prepare for having a baby because, well, it's just so overwhelming and time-consuming to do all that research on baby products and everything else.

Really? What the heck do they think it's going to be like once the baby arrives? A day in the park? These newbie parents-to-be ought to enjoy this baby preparation time as an easy warm-up for the next 18-plus (and I do mean, plus) years of their lives.

Apparently there are about 70 of these baby planners working in the United States today. They say they're like wedding planners, but instead they help people prepare for the baby's arrival and all the information and research they'll need. They'll even install car seats and make sure the mother-to-be's bags are packed for the hospital. Funny, I thought those people were supposed to be called husbands or significant others.

In any case, I think someone ought to start an industry built around planning for the horrible teenage years. Now that's when you really need help -- that scary time when your beloved offspring morphs into a hormonal, rebellious and ungrateful being. On the other hand, if any parent knew what the teenage years were going to be like, they probably wouldn't have kids in the first place -- which would put an end to this baby planner business. If you want to read the full article, click here.

How Much IS a Trillion?
Besides being less than the federal debt, did you know it would take 31,688 years to count that high by saying one number per second until you reached 1,000,000,000,000?

The federal debt is now estimated at more than that -- $1.35 trillion -- and if you need a visual to comprehend the enormity of this number, consider that the Washington Monument is 555 feet tall. If you stacked Washington Monuments end to end, it would take more than 2.4 BILLION of them to reach 1.35 trillion feet. Kinda takes your breath away, doesn't it? Click here to enjoy the whole story.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Books, Books, Books

It seems as though I've been thinking a lot about books lately, but not enough about my own.

Last week I attended two of my friend Paula Butturini's readings for her beautiful and touching memoir, “Keeping the Feast: One Couple’s Story of Love, Food and Healing in Italy”, while she was making a rare visit to my part of the world before returning to Paris.

I don't think it will be long before most of America learns about this book that extols the importance of food, friends and families in surviving major life crises. Due to the extraordinary story, brilliant writing and frank discussion of depression, Keeping the Feast already is garnering major league publicity, including a piece in the March 8 issue of People magazine (the edition with Susan Boyle on the cover) and in a USA Today article last week that you can read by clicking here.

Another book that's received nationwide attention is "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," a fascinating true story about the source of the scientifically famous HeLa cells written by Rebecca Skloot, who also visited my local independent RiverRun Bookstore not long ago.

HeLa cells were the first human cells grown in a laboratory and were critical to developing the polio vaccine and a number of important medicines. They also helped advance our knowledge about cancer and viruses, and were instrumental in scientific breakthoughs like cloning and gene mapping.

The source of all these cells was tissue removed in 1951 from a poor Baltimore woman named Henrietta Lacks, without her knowledge, before she died of cancer. According to the book jacket, if you piled all the HeLa cells ever grown on a scale, they would weigh over 50 million metric tons -- as much as 100 Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells have been bought and sold by the billions for medical research over the past few decades but her family never received one dime and even today, cannot afford health insurance.

Meanwhile, books have been arriving in my house over the past week from mystery writers who will be on the panel I was selected to moderate at the Malice Domestic conference at the end of April outside Washington, DC. Our subject is the "Whydunit?: Focusing on the Why to Get to the Who." It's a tough job having to prepare for this traditional mystery conference by reading great books by New York Times best-selling and award-winning author Louise Penny, Ellen Hart (24 books and counting!), Cynthia Riggs (her protagonist is 92) and Canadian writer Joan Boswell, but someone's got to do it!

And just yesterday, I spent part of the afternoon listening to Vermont author Howard Frank Mosher talk about his new book, "Walking to Gatlinburg," a Civil War-era novel that chronicles the nightmarish odyssey of 17-year-old Morgan Kinneson from northern Vermont to Tennessee during 1864.

Mosher is the author of 10 novels and a travel memoir. Yesterday he gave a slide presentation of the real-life sources of some of the characters and incidents in his latest book.

He also talked about his muse -- a broken-down drunk songwriter he met in a Tennessee bar. Mosher says he overheard the guy give a young singer the best advice he's ever heard when it comes to creativity: "Don't hold nothin' back."

I'll be thinking about that as I try to put aside all these wonderful books written by other people and prepare to plunge back into my novel-in-progress. It's time for me to stop readin' and start writin' my own book instead. I hope you won't mind if this also means fewer blog postings along the way.