Cornelia Parker’s PsychoBarn, rooftop installation at the Met

Few words say “scary” like “Psycho,” the hallmark of suspenseful movies. And few American artists have been as inspirational as Edward Hopper.

Last summer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue paid tribute to the movie and the artist with its rooftop installation.

Here’s another view, that’s more revealing of the structure of the “barn”:

I sat on a bench on the rooftop for the better part of an hour. The weather was perfect for a non-sun-worshipper like me: overcast, chilly. In all that time, as crowds came and went, I saw few people approach the structure closer than about 10 feet.  No one ran her hand along the railing, or closely examined the shingles, or checked the flaking paint, though the only written warning was not to climb the steps. It’s hard to tell in the photo, but at one point, when a little girl approached the steps, her (presumably) mother pulled her back in a protective gesture, covering the girl’s eyes.

And no one peered in the windows. I wonder why?

A Noisy Room of Her Own

I’ve learned to be very flexible in terms of where and when I write. Deadlines can do that to a writer.

Finding time, the “when,” is pretty easy. All I have to do is cut back on sleep and housecleaning, put a few multitasking techniques into play, and I’m all set.

The ideal place to write.

The “where” is more challenging. Living in a suburb as I do, it’s sometimes hard to find a noisy spot. We’re at the end of long driveway, at least 300 feet from the main street. In the evening, there are no sounds—no buses, no honking horns, no crowds of people.

Once in a while, I get a little relief. Our neighbors on the adjoining street are great partiers, periodically turning their backyard into a venue for celebrations. I get very excited when I see a HAPPY ANNIVERSARY or CONGRATULATIONS banner going up across the fence. We don’t know the family, so, of course we’re not invited. The best of all cases—I get to write to a cheering crowd, music included, without needing to show up. A perfect background for creative writing.

I grew up in a relentlessly noisy environment. My childhood bedroom window was no more than five feet from the juke box of a pizza parlor. [For those with a fact checker bent, look up DeMaino's Pizza in Revere, Massachusetts, still doing a thriving business.]

For years of undergraduate study, I had a commute of about an hour and 40 minutes each way, on a good day. So, I did the bulk of my homework with my arm wrapped around a pole on Boston’s MTA, the same one from which Charlie never returned.

My last apartment before migrating from Boston to California was above a bar in East Boston. It was the pre-recycling era and the law required all empty liquor bottles to be smashed. The idea was to prevent unhygienic refilling. Every night, for about an hour after the 2 a.m. closing, employees gathered around a metal barrel directly under our windows, in the back yard, and tossed the bottles into the barrel. With zero hope of sleeping, the surrounding tenants had no choice but to make good use of the time.

Those experiences shaped me forever. Once I know that the world is being taken care of, that life is going on, I can focus on my thoughts, my reading or writing. When it’s silent around me, every creaking floorboard startles me, the ice maker in my refrigerator door sounds like thunder, an air conditioner kicking in shakes me out of whatever thoughts I’m trying to put on paper.

Other than from Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny, I’ve felt little support in this attitude. Imagine how excited I was recently to find myself in the excellent company of Helen Keller:

“Cut off as I am, it is inevitable that I should sometimes feel like a shadow walking in a shadowy world. When this happens I ask to be taken to New York City. Always I return home weary but I have the comforting certainty that mankind is real flesh and I myself am not a dream.”  — Mainstream

What great company I’ve discovered! Never again will I apologize for my need for assurance that the world outside my head is present and accounted for and doesn’t need me at the moment.

Gloria Speaks

Now and then, a character will speak out, sometimes willingly, other times under duress. This time, it’s the latter: the fictional Gloria Lamerino of the Periodic Table Mysteries is not wordy like her creator. Here she obliges the author who gave her life and tells us what that life is like.

From Gloria Lamerino

Ask me to put together a system to measure the spectral lines of hydrogen. I’ll be happy to oblige. I know where I can get the right laser and detection system.

But please don’t ask me to write an essay. Nothing makes me more nervous than that. I’m feeling that old classroom anxiety all over again. My college liberal arts teachers were always telling me my answers to questions were too short, not full enough, whatever that meant. In my major, mathematics, with a physics minor, an answer was an answer, no matter how few words or numbers it took.

But, to please my mentor, Camille Minichino, I’ve agreed to write about my life as a scientist and then, unexpectedly, as the partner of a homicide detective.

It all started when I decided to retire from my laboratory career in California and return home to Revere, Massachusetts. To ease the transition, Rose Galigani, my best friend from grade school, offered me an apartment above the funeral home she runs with her husband, Frank. It seemed like a good idea until I realized the challenge it would be to do my laundry—it so happens that the washer/dryer set shares the basement with the embalming room. I found a Laundromat downtown pretty quickly. I still had to master the trick of walking past their “clients” laid out in the first floor parlors, and the chemical smells that are only partially masked by elaborate floral arrangements.

Rose and I couldn’t be more close, or more different. I look more like the average woman from a chunky Italian-American family. Rose, with her auburn hair and petite figure looks like the Hollywood version. We even managed to stay close during my three decades in California, with frequent meetings on one coast or the other.

It was during one of those Christmas getaway weekends in Boston that I met Detective Matt Gennaro, a friend of the Galiganis, who is now my husband. Between then and now, we’ve had many adventures as I’ve been able to help him solve cases where science or scientists were involved.

There was the time one of my colleagues doing hydrogen research was murdered at his lab desk; and another when a congresswoman dealing with legislation on the United States helium reserves was the victim of a hit-and-run; and I recall helping solve the murder of a poor janitor working in a lithium battery facility; and then beryllium . . .  well, you get the picture. Selected covers are shown here.

As I’m writing this, I’m working on a case of magnesium poisoning at a spa, my 12th case with Police Department the Revere. Matt just briefed me on the crime scene and the victim, a maid of honor in a bridal party.

How does one go from a physics researcher to an amateur detective? You might be surprised to learn that the training is not that different. Not that I’m skilled with weapons or forensics, but a physicist has to be a problem solver, look for clues, and find the culprit when an experiment is going wrong—a stray electromagnetic pulse? An unexpected thermal gradient?

Not so different from sifting through theories of a homicide, looking both inside and outside the box to solve the problem and capture a killer.

Look at me! I’ve come up with more than 500 words, not as painful as I thought.

Maybe my next career will be essay writing.

Every couple of years, I bring out the Fermi problem. Since today, 9/29, is his actual birthday (1901), I can’t resist posting it here. It’s my own favorite aspect of Fermi’s contribution to science—his problem solving technique.

The problem:

How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?

This is the legendary problem presented to his classes by the Nobel Prize winning Italian-American physicist. It’s the original of a category of problems called “Fermi problems,” meant to be solved by putting together reasonable estimates for each step of the solution.

At first glance, Fermi problems seem to be impossible to solve without research. The technique is to break them down into manageable parts, and answer each part with logic and common sense, rather than reference books or, these days, the Internet. By doing this systematically, we arrive at an answer that comes remarkably close to the exact answer. By the end of this calculation, we also see what advantages it has over looking up the answer on Google.

Here’s the way Fermi taught his students to solve the piano tuner problem:

1) Assume that Chicago doesn’t have more piano tuners than it can keep busy tuning pianos.

2) Estimate the total population of Chicago.

At that time, there were about 3,000,000 people in Chicago.

3) Estimate how many families that population represents.

The average family consisted of four members, so the number of families was approximately 750,000.

4) Assume that about one third of all families owns a piano.

That gives us 250,000 pianos in Chicago.

5) Assume that each piano should be tuned about every 10 years.

That gives us about 25,000 tunings per year in the city.

6) Assume that each piano tuner can service four pianos per day, and works about 250 days a year.

Each piano tuner would perform 1,000 tunings per year.

Summary: In any given year, pianos in Chicago need 25,000 tunings; each tuner can do 1,000 tunings, therefore we need 25 piano tuners.

The answer was within a few of being the number in the yellow pages of the time.

Why not just count the listings in the yellow pages in the first place? A good idea, until we remember that “solving a problem” is an exciting, challenging word to people like Fermi and to scientists in general. Difficult problems are even better opportunities to test their minds and their ability to calculate.

Another of Fermi’s motivations in giving this problem was to illustrate properties of statistics and the law of probabilities. He used the lesson to teach something about errors made in estimating, and how they tend to cancel each other out.

If you assumed that pianos are tuned every five years, for example, you might also have assumed that every sixth family owns a piano instead of every third. Your errors would then balance and cancel each other out. It’s statistically improbable that all your errors would be in the same direction (either all overestimates or all underestimates), so the final results will always lean towards the right number.

Fermi, present at the time, was able to get a preliminary estimate of the amount of energy released by the atomic bomb—he sprinkled small pieces of paper in the air and observed what happened when the shock wave reached them.

A whole cult has been built up around “Fermi questions:”

• how much popcorn would it take to fill your family room?

• how many pencils would you use up if you drew a line around the earth at the equator?

• how many rejection letters would it take to wallpaper a writer’s office? (oops, too personal?)

For Fermi, there was great reward in independent discoveries and inventions.

Many contemporary scientists and engineers respond the same way. Looking up an answer or letting someone else find it impoverishes them, robbing them of a creative experience that boosts self-confidence and enhances their mental life.

Could this also be why they don’t ask for directions when they’re lost?

Bloody Stories

A recent blog site topic invited us to compare American and British writers. Here is my response, reproduced.

Wouldn’t it be considered unpatriotic if I said I prefer British mysteries, as if I wished we had lost the Revolutionary War? From a native Bostonian yet, where it all began?

As I thought about the nationalities of writers I love, it turns out I have favorites from many countries. Karin Fossim from Norway. Pierre Lemaitre from France (How can I resist a male cop named Camille?) The recently deceased Umberto Eco from Italy. An American or two, like Thomas H. Cook and John Verdon. I thought I had a few British favorites, too, but it turns out Peter Robinson is Canadian and Peter May is a Scot. I’m one of the few readers unimpressed by the work of Denise Mina or Val Mcdermid, but Brit Mo Hayder makes up for them.

A couple of years ago, I became a British writer. Well, to be exact, a UK magazine asked me to write a short story. I was (and am) thrilled. The story, Majesty in Miniature, was published in parts over 3 months in The Dolls House Magazine.

I set the story at Windsor, the home of Queen Mary’s famous dolls house, sending my protagonists Gerry Porter and her granddaughter, Maddie, on a tour of the majestic house.

Although I’ve never seen the house in person, I knew all about it from books and videos. I knew about its running water (the cisterns housed in the basement), electric lighting, and working lifts, its miniature crown jewels and special tea services.

I was sure I could capture the essence of the dolls house; what I worried about was the language of the British characters, especially the British docent. I agonized over using “bloody”—too mild? too wild?—and finally checked in with my friend Simon Wood, who agreed to vet the story.

There was only one language problem that neither Simon nor I could have predicted.

“Docent?” a UK contact from the magazine asked me. “We’re not sure what that is.”

What? I’d been concerned about the docent’s dialogue, not the definition of the word. And isn’t the UK the home of the OED?

I figured the person was too young for an old word, or she was a foreign intern serving across the pond.

In the end, we settled on changing “docent” to “guide” and the story made it through the rest of the process.


Preparatory sketch for Doge . . . Presented to the Redeemer

Has it really taken me 3 months to organize photos from my July museum breaks? One exciting stop was to The Met Breuer, the new branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, located at 75th and Madison, the site of the old Whitney.

My favorite exhibit there: UNFINISHED — THOUGHTS LEFT VISIBLE

Some of the pieces were unfinished in the usual sense, like the paintings by Tintoretto (above) and Van Gogh (below).  In the Tintoretto painting you can see that some of the characters are fully rendered, some are hovering in the clouds as sketches.  In the Van Gogh, the sky is unfinished, a series of scattered brush strokes. The artist took his own life before completing the work.

Street in Auvers-Sur-Oise

Below are two unfinished paintings. In one, the artist has completed the face, but not much else; in the other, it’s the opposite — all but the face seems complete. An insight into how each artist worked?

Klimt's Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III

Meng’s Portrait of Mariana de Silva y Sarmiento

It seemed that every artist I’d ever heard of was represented in this exhibit: El Greco, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Monet, Manet, Sergent . . . on and on.

One more piece deserves a specific mention, however. Not a painting, but an installation

Robert Smithson's Mirrors and Shelly Sand

A long pile of sand is spread directly on the floor. The documentation reminds us that even in the museum, the sand is vulnerable to loss and disintegration, an illustration of incompleteness in its own way. The mirrors that accompany the sand change our perception of the sand. I was fascinated by this installation, and understand how it can be viewed as “unfinished,” reminding me of Sir Isaac Newton’s comment:

I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore . . . while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

I would appreciate the thoughts of anyone else who has seen this installation. Otherwise, I’m going to have to rush back to NYC and interview people in the gallery.

Trending: Zombies!

Never let it be said that The Real Me missed a trend. My guest today is bestselling, zombie-loving CHRISTINE VERSTRAETE. Here she is.

Why oh Why Zombies?

By Christine Verstraete

Thanks Camille for inviting me to your blog. I promise not to scare you or your readers too much. Heh-heh.

This is another stop on the release blog tour for Lizzie Borden, Zombie Hunter.

I can hear Camille asking, why zombies? (You can add a bunch more why’s to that, too!)

My answer: Why not?

Actually, I found myself glued to The Walking Dead TV series like a lot of other people, which one day led to a kind of epiphany: I started looking at the Lizzie Borden records and autopsy photos and realized what other reason could Lizzie Borden have for killing her father and stepmother? The photos give another more sinister reason if you look at it from a horror and supernatural viewpoint.

Of course, writing about a real-life murder can be tricky. The crime was horrific, but with the passage of time, it’s also become history. We’re distanced enough from the actual event that it has become a part of our culture. Who doesn’t remember that sick little rope-skipping rhyme, Lizzie Borden took an axe…?

And since no one really knows much about Lizzie as a person other than the modern-day film and fiction portrayals, it leaves her personality open to interpretation. Spoiled spinster? Greedy? Abused? Jealous and angry? Who really knows?

Obviously there were some problems in that family. There were rumors of Lizzie stealing. The doors in the house were all locked, even inside. Were they locked against someone on the outside—or someone on the inside?

In Lizzie Borden, Zombie Hunter, the enemies are both within and without. Lizzie has to put aside her own disgust, shock and utter disbelief at her own actions and what she’s encountered. But even as she goes on trial and faces the gallows, she is determined to see this horror through to the end. She has to protect her sister, and her hometown, from the terrors that have been unleashed, even if it means uncovering her own father’s secrets.

The Lizzie we read about at the inquest who’s unsure, confused and kind of lackadaisical (likely due to the drugs she was given) becomes a strong, confident woman determined to fight these monsters—and win.

In real life, Lizzie chose to remain in her hometown after the trial, which takes some strength of character in and of itself. How many of us could stay somewhere where every move we made was watched and talked about? Despite being snubbed, shunned and judged by society even after the trial, she is determined to live life on her terms. Or was she thumbing her nose at everyone? Again, who knows?

I have my own reasons as to why she stayed. Having talked to people overseas who had lived in the same home and the same town for generation after generation, it’s easy to see why Lizzie would have stayed. As she says in the book, “I was born here. I intend to die here.”

Lizzie supposedly had gone to Europe like other young women of her time. A theater fan, she traveled to see stage plays. But despite that, and finally having the money to do anything and live wherever she wanted, she chose to stay in Fall River, Massachusetts. Stubbornness? Again, maybe. But roots can grow deep and can be even harder to pull up.

Maybe with all that happened to her, both in real life, and in my fictional, zombie-infested world, Lizzie felt she deserved to live out her life and settle down in the only place she felt comfortable in. The one place she would always call home.

** What do you think? Why do you think she stayed? Please comment (and leave an email to enter the giveaway!)

About the Book:

Every family has its secrets…
One hot August morning in 1892, Lizzie Borden picked up an axe and murdered her father and stepmother. Newspapers claim she did it for the oldest of reasons: family conflicts, jealousy and greed. But what if her parents were already dead? What if Lizzie slaughtered them because they’d become zombies?
Thrust into a horrific world where the walking dead are part of a shocking conspiracy to infect not only Fall River, Massachusetts, but also the world beyond, Lizzie battles to protect her sister, Emma, and her hometown from nightmarish ghouls and the evil forces controlling them.

** Follow the blog tour and be sure to get your copy of Lizzie Borden, Zombie Hunter in print and Kindle Sept. 13!

Add it on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/31553183-lizzie-borden-zombie-hunter

** Go to Christine’s blog, http://girlzombieauthors.blogspot.com and enter the rafflecopter giveaway to possibly win 1 of 10 Kindle copies of Lizzie Borden, Zombie Hunter.
Email is required for entry. Contest ends 9/14.**

Think you know Lizzie Borden? Read on! The blog tour schedule is:

Mon. Sept 5 - GirlZombieAuthors – Introduction – A Little About Lizzie

Tues. Sept. 6 - Jaime Johnesee blog – 12 Questions for Lizzie Borden

Weds. Sept. 7 - Jean Rabe’s blog – Lizzie Borden… Dog Lover?

Thurs. Sept. 8AF Stewart blog interview

Fri. Sept.  9Haunt Jaunts blog – More Lizzie

Sat. Sept. 10Stephen D. Sullivan blog – Lizzie Films

Sun. Sept. 11GirlZombieAuthors recap; Camille Minichino blog – Why oh why zombies?

Mon. Sept. 12Horror Maiden’s Book Reviews

Tues. Sept. 13 - RELEASE DAY!

Zombies and Toys Review!

Join the FB Release Party – prizes, guest authors, zombie fun! (See info posted on my Facebook page and website.)

Weds. Sept. 14Chapter Break Book Blog – Lizzie as a Zombie Hunter

To give the book a boost: Share a review. And come back to the GirlZombieAuthors blog or the author website for info on another blog tour starting Sept. 26 with Bewitching Book Tours.

End note from The Real Me: If you’re not a believer by the end of Christine’s tour, you’re even more stubborn than I am.

The Postmistress Cometh

Postmistress Cassie Miller debuted in DEATH TAKES PRIORITY  in November 2015. Last week, you heard her speak in her own voice. This week, she’s back, starring in the second postmistress mystery, CANCELLED BY MURDER, released this week.

Warning: No cat appears in this book.*

* This caveat is in anticipation of readers who are moved to notify me (chastise me?) of their disappointment when there’s a cat on the cover but nowhere in the story. On the positive side, no cats were harmed before, during, or after the making of this novel.

A Postmistress Speaks

Few jobs or services have the bad press accorded the USPS. Post office employees have the singular honor of having an unflattering term that refers to their behavior. “Going postal” has come to signify becoming extremely and uncontrollably angry, often to the point of violence, and usually in a workplace environment. The term originates from the series of incidents beginning in the late ’80s, in which employees or former employees of the post office committed acts of murder.

I think it’s time for my favorite postmistress, Cassie Miller, of the Postmistress Mysteries, to convey a more positive view.

The calm, welcoming post office of my childhood

From Cassie

As you can see from the badge on my regulation blue USPS jacket, I’m CASSIE MILLER, POSTMISTRESS. I’ve just come in from one of my favorite duties, hoisting the American flag outside my post office. After many years working in Boston’s main postal facility, I recently returned to my home town of North Ashcot, Massachusetts.

Nothing makes me more nervous than writing an essay. Except possibly public speaking. I’m feeling that old classroom anxiety all over again. I remember those awful Compare and Contrast questions. The State the Theme of challenge. The Prove Your Point with Examples dare. Old Mr. Warren required a minimum of 500 words. Didn’t he realize how many that was? A typical thank-you note, a task forced on me by my mother, runs about 15 words. Thanks very much for the pretty green sweater, Aunt Tess. I wear it very often. That’s my speed.

But to please my mentor, Jean Flowers, I’ve agreed to write about my life running my one-woman post office in a small town. So here goes.

I love my job. I think of all USPS workers as the greatest couriers in the world. I’m honored that my customers trust me with their most important communications. Whether they’re paying a bill, sending an invitation, or dropping a Get Well line to a friend, they count on me to deliver.

Even though I’m only one person in a long chain of people on the way to your addressee, I take my responsibility very seriously. I imagine I might be handling a life-changing missive. A love letter, or its opposite. A job offer, or its opposite. An acceptance. A rejection. Every one of the approximately one billion Valentine’s Day cards that are sent annually is important.

Lately I’ve had some unusual experiences. I didn’t expect to become involved in solving murders, for example! But I’ve been exposed to many aspects of USPS employment, from sorter to letter carrier to counter service, plus brief stints with the inspection arm and what we used to call the Dead Letter Office, but now refer to in a more positive way as the MRC (Mail Recovery Center).

My training has served me well. Not that I’m skilled with weapons (although guns sometimes arrive at the MRC) or forensics, but a postal worker has to be a problem solver. Like all the times the USPS receives letters addressed to God, or Santa, or the tooth fairy. Or when the mailbox on the corner yields not only envelopes but keys, eyeglasses, gloves, and the occasional roast beef sandwich.

So far, I’ve been able to help our Chief of Police, my friend Sunni Smargon, as she works to bring the bad guys to justice. But what I like to talk about best is post office history. Did you know, for example, that:

• The first woman featured on a U.S. postage stamp was Queen Isabella in 1893.

• The first American woman featured was Martha Washington in 1902.

• The USPS has more than 200,000 vehicles, one of the largest civilian fleets in the world.

• The USPS handles 47% of the world’s mail volume.

You can imagine the fun postal workers have when we get together and exchange trivia!

Funny post office stories are also high on the list when my best friend Linda and I chat. Linda still works at the main post office in Boston and not a day goes by without at least one laugh. Today Linda told me about finding an unorthodox envelope in the outgoing mail slot—the customer had taped 1 quarter, two dimes, and 4 pennies across the top.

The best story might be the one about the elderly woman who addressed a letter to God, asking for $100 to cover her food and drug needs for the month. She had no one else to turn to, she said. A kind postal employee took up a collection and managed to pull together $90 and send it to the old lady. A few days later, a note in the same handwriting appeared, again addressed to God. “Thanks a lot for your attention,” the woman wrote. “But you should know that those corrupt postal workers stole $10.”

Not every good deed is rewarded, but here at the post office we do our best all the same.


The 9th miniature mystery is set for release next week. For once I can tell you the ending without being a spoiler — the title says it all: MATRIMONY IN MINIATURE.

Of course, things go wrong; otherwise, it wouldn’t be under “Crime Fiction” in bookstores and libraries.

Here’s how amazon describes it:

When murder happens in the small town of Lincoln Point CA, there aren’t many degrees of separation between the victim and retired teacher Gerry Porter. How can she stay away from the investigation when the crime scene is the venue for her marriage to Henry Baker? But this time, nephew Detective Skip Gowen tries to discourage Gerry’s and granddaughter Maddie’s efforts to solve “The Case.” He couldn’t live with himself if the murderer learns of their efforts and comes after them.