I love it when one (two?) of my guilty pleasures—crosswords and word games—also turns out to be a learning tool.

This time, the word-of-the-week is actually a phrase: sub rosa, Latin for under the rose. Yes, of course we knew that, but did we know why it was used to designate a secret meeting?

Lady with the Rose (Charlotte Louise Burckhardt) by John Singer Sargent*

OK, I’ll share my new knowledge and you can feel free to click your tongue and say you knew it all along.

According to one source (and checked through a wiki-search), the rose as a symbol of secrecy dates back to Greek mythology (doesn’t everything?).

In Roman times, senators would hang a rose from the ceiling of the room where secret meetings were held. The phrase is still used to indicate secrecy, confidentiality, or, as we say more often lately, “a cone of silence.”

Maybe I’ll try this some time when I’m in a confessional mood with my friends. Who will be the first to ask why there’s a rose hanging from my ceiling?

* More on the beautiful painting, Open Access from The Met, Fifth Avenue: 1882, oil on canvas, bequest of Valerie B. Hadden, 1932.


Last weekend, writers Ann Parker, Mysti Berry, and I put together a Post Card Party through an ACLU program to GET OUT THE VOTE. This non-partisan venture ended in something like 1,000,000 post cards (that is the total from ACLU, not our little party!) being mailed to voters all over the country, who might need a reminder of how important is our civic duty. (Coincidentally, “Civic Duty” is also the title of my story in this anthology, released in July, with proceeds also going to the ACLU.) The messages on the cards were nonpartisan, simply urging people to VOTE.

Low Down Dirty Vote

Below are some photos marking the occasion.

The youngest citizen to write out post cards (r): age 9

Instigator Ann Parker, far left

Nothing says you can’t have food and fun while doing your civic duty.

PS: 750  cards completed!

I Never Met a Problem I Didn’t Like

I think of September as Enrico Fermi’s month. His birthday is 9/29/1901. It’s a little early to sing, but I thought I’d introduce my own favorite aspect of Fermi’s contribution to science—his problem solving technique.

Renoir's "Two Young Girls at the Piano"

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:”

A container of pop corn in my office? It's for purely experimental purposes.

• 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?

LoCal Hamburgers

I mean very low calorie. Try these miniature “hamburger” cookies. How perfect for your Labor Day Cookout/in!

Note the spoon for scale.

Gerry Porter and her 11-year-old granddaughter, Maddie, love all things mini. The two stars of  Margaret Grace’s Miniature Mysteries were playing around in the kitchen one Saturday, unable to choose between vanilla and chocolate cookies. They came up with a new recipe that combined the best of both. Using two soft vanilla cookies and one soft chocolate cookie, they created a mini hamburger. After their day of creative play, and adding embellishments, here’s  the result!


TIME TO PREPARE: about 15 minutes

YIELD: 12 mini hamburgers


I box vanilla wafers

1 box soft chocolate cookies (SnackWells or the equivalent)

1 tube green frosting

1 tube red frosting

1 tube yellow frosting

1/8 cup sesame seeds (optional)


1. Arrange 12 vanilla wafers, flat side up, on a tray or platter. These are the bottoms of the “hamburger buns.”

2. Using the green frosting tube, squirt a ring around the edge of each wafer. Using your finger or a toothpick, rough up the frosting so it resembles ragged lettuce.

3. Place 1 chocolate cookie (the meat!) on top of each green-ringed wafer.

4. Using the red frosting tube (ketchup!), squirt a ring around the flat edges of a dozen additional wafers (the tops of the “hamburger buns).

5. Using the yellow frosting tube (mustard!), squirt a yellow ring over the red ring of Step 4, allowing the two colors to mix in places.

6. Place each newly ringed wafer, flat side down (top of the bun!), on top of a chocolate cookie/wafer.

DONE!  You now have 12 hamburgers, with lettuce, ketchup, and mustard.

7. (optional) Dot the top of each “burger” with egg white, and use as adhesive for a few sesame seeds.

Other options: add a smooth ring of white frosting for an onion, a square of orange frosting for cheese, or smooth the red ring so it looks more like tomato.

A Good Sport

There was a time when I shunned everything to do with sports. Not that I didn’t ride my bike and even treadmill (v. i.) fairly regularly.

What I disliked was the pesky winner/loser aspect, especially where kids were involved. Because winning was so important, to the coaches and parents if not the kids themselves, some kids were left out. So, what was all the lip service to “they learn teamwork” if only the athletically endowed could profit? Didn’t kids with lame arms or poor eyesight also deserve to learn teamwork?

In the image of Luks’s painting, doesn’t it look like the boy isn’t at all interested in the baseball?

Boy with Baseball by George Luks, c. 1925, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Edward Joseph Gallagher, Jr., 1954

I’ve had a hard time avoiding sports metaphors, but I’ve succeeded on the whole.

Then the New York Times came out with a special article on the history of sports phrases and suddenly it feels very scholarly to say “That’s not in my wheelhouse.” *

You can read the complete article, but here are a couple of my favorites.

Talk about scholarly, how about this first one, from Shakespeare:

1. There’s the rub.

When Hamlet says, “To sleep — perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub!” he’s talking about something that’s difficult. “The rub” is from lawn bowling, and refers to an unevenness in the playing surface. Or so they say.

2. Out of left field.

Why is left field the spot where kooky ideas come from? Why not right or center? Well, no one is too sure, but there are a couple of fascinating theories—left field was often deeper than right in early baseball stadiums; weaker fielders were put in on the left; and left fielders tended to play farther back.

* Wheelhouse comes from baseball. It’s the area in which a batter feels most comfortable hitting the ball.

Here’s a closing image:

From the Girl Baseball Players series for Virginia Brights Cigarettes, Metropolitan Museum of Art, issued 1886, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick

OR, Girls also want to have fun.

The barometer

The start of school for many of us inspires me to drag out the famous (to some of us) story of The Barometer.

Miniature barometer next to miniature physics book. Pen for scale.

As the story goes, a physics teacher posed this question on an exam and got surprising results.

Show how it’s possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer.

One student answered this way:

“Take the barometer to the top of the building and attach a long piece of rope to it. Lower the barometer until it hits the sidewalk, then pull it up and measure the length of the rope, which will give you the height of the building.”

What? The teacher expected a different answer, using the standard equation involving the difference in pressure at the top and bottom of the building.

When challenged to come up with “the right answer,” the student gave several more. Among them:

1. Take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer, the length of its shadow, and the length of the shadow of the building. Using simple proportion, determine the height of the building.

2. Take the barometer and begin to walk up the stairs. As you climb the stairs, you mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer units.

And so on.

My favorite remains this one:

“Take the barometer to the basement and knock on the superintendent’s door. When the superintendent answers, say: ‘Mr. Superintendent, if you will tell me the height of this building, I will give you this barometer.’”

How would you grade this student?

** Legend has it that the student was Niels Bohr (1885-1962, Nobel Prize in physics, 1922), but then a legend can say anything and get away with it.

All Things Chocolate

Could you pass up a meeting like this? I couldn’t. Here’s where many sisters and misters from NorCal Sisters in Crime gathered last weekend:

Chocolate Seminar: Examining the myths, the realities, and the fantasies, as well as the usual suspects.

Tantalizing tastes presented by Janet Rudolph and Frank Price.

Frank Price, earning the title Chocolate Historian. Janet Rudolph is seated, far right.

Part One, just to make it clear that this was a crime writers meeting, Janet Rudolph gave expert advice on killing with chocolate, even providing a list of mysteries where chocolate is death, or at least a prime suspect. Here’s the Dying for Chocolate list — dozens of novels for your reading pleasure.


Part Two, the lesson, from Frank Price. Chocolate is one of those nutritional pleasures that has become a part of the fabric of life for many. Chocolate is a finite resource subject to the pressures of weather, insects, over-cultivation, and political forces. At one time, worldwide, there were only a few companies who were “bean to bar.”  Now the number of “bean to bar” companies is growing as is the geographical, political, and manufacturing forces. And the ever-changing weather has caused the sourcing and manufacturing processes to become more intense and more complicated.

Consumers are becoming more demanding. Production techniques are more refined. Manufacturers are researching many different techniques to create a demarcation for their brand. Industry-wide experts guess that the supply of chocolate will be ever changing and the price for the basic bean will fluctuate in the global economy. At the same time that new manufacturers are popping up, there are many larger companies who are trying to add small artisanal brands to their portfolio so that they can launch products, packaging, and advertisement to fill various consumer niches from the everyday chocolate snacker to a more sophisticated palate, and to the baker, confectionary artist and restaurateur.

Part Three, when the fun (eating) began. We were treated to six different taste samples. (You can have your wine tasting; this is my wheelhouse)(although, port was provided for those who chose).
The samples: The presenters started us off with a 33% cacao milk chocolate, followed by darker pieces, up to 73%. Assembled tasters were asked to rank our favorites — the hands raised for each of the six samples followed a bell curve! Isn’t math great?

High School? Who remembers?

In June I attended my college reunion in Boston. (Too scary to say which one!)

But I will report on one of the conversations, the one that brought us back to high school.

Who thought that was a good idea? you ask. Probably someone who was Prom King. Or Head Cheerleader. Not me. But there were some good things about my time at RHS in Revere Massachusetts.

The old Revere High School

1. Miss Wiley. A math teacher who singled me out, with a few boys, for a special after school class in solid geometry. No one even bothers with that anymore; freshmen are too busy learning calculus already. But at the time, a century ago, solid geometry was considered “advanced math.” I often think of Miss Wiley, who must have had her own math education in the 1940s, without much feminine company. No wonder she decided to include a girl in the group. Lucky me.

2. Miss Mafera. An Italian teacher who stayed with us for 4 years, guiding us through L’Inferno of La Commedia in our senior year. We were oblivious to the fact that not every 16-year-old in a public school read Dante in the original. Later, in college, I had to read a translation whether I liked it or not.

3. Uncool Kids. Can you say cliques? At the time, I thought I wasn’t in one—the Cool Kids didn’t talk to me, wouldn’t have lunch with me, didn’t invite me to their parties.

Later I realized, I was simply in another clique—the Uncool Kids. There were enough of us, so I can’t say I was sorry being left out of the beer parties on the beach. (We went bowling. How Uncool can you get?)

Here’s a photo of me (center) with some of the Uncool Kids.

Champion bowlers

I’m sad to report that one of my best friends (far left) died 5 years ago. We stayed close over many decades. The leftmost guy, who wanted to be a doctor, died very young. I still get holiday cards from the middle guy. I wish I knew where the others in the photo are. If you’re reading this, please let me know.


It’s still July, so I still have my red, white, and blue “things” around the house. That’s my also my excuse for repurposing a Fourth of July blog, which is also a voting blog.

Here it is.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt lived down the street from us in Revere, Massachusetts. He was the best friend our family had. Or so I thought growing up in the early 1940s.

“Roosevelt gave me this job,” my father would say, tapping a small brown envelope of cash, his week’s wages.

“If it weren’t for Roosevelt and the WPA, you wouldn’t be getting new shoes for school,” my mother would remind me.

I pictured a benevolent Mr. Roosevelt driving the old truck that picked up my father and his cronies, day laborers, from the corner of our street, taking them to the construction site of the day. I imagined the WPA, whoever they were, helping my mother shop for my school clothes.

My parents, as well as our neighbors and friends, were acutely aware of House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s All politics is local. My father’s (metal) social security card (below) was a prized possession.

It seemed to me that every year was an election year, every election important to us. My mother especially was always campaigning, urging people to sign this or that petition, to vote, vote, vote. Our front window was never without a sign, RUSSO FOR MAYOR, AVALLONE FOR COUNCIL, SIEGEL FOR SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT.

And it all came together on the Fourth of July. Independence Day and Voting Day were the biggest holidays in our lives, competing with Thanksgiving and Christmas, but better because there was no back-breaking food prep or lugging a tree up the stairs. My father died on July 4, 1981—I’ve always felt that he timed it that way, going up with the glorious fireworks on Revere Beach.

Following politics, debating issues, voting, are still a priority for me. Being invited to contribute a story to LOW DOWN DIRTY VOTE has been a highlight of my year. Thanks to Mysti Berry and the grand array of colleagues in this anthology!

I’m thinking of making a poster of the LOW DOWN DIRTY VOTE cover, and propping it on my lawn.

Good Job, and other annoying phrases

. . . where my dark side is revealed.

“Good Job” is my current least favorite phrase. Take a walk through a suburban mall and count the number of times you hear it—from a mother while she helps with personal care in a restroom; or from a father to a child who allows himself to be buckled into a stroller. One time I was stuck in elevator while a toddler insisted on pushing the button, though he was too short to reach it. Finally the mother lifted the child, he pushed the button, and—yes—”Good job!” the mother said.

In my day (this is a historical blog) “Good job,” if it was heard at all, referred to handing over babysitting money, and the tone was more like “there better be a bigger wad next time.”

An unsurprising corollary to “Good job” is preschool graduation, complete with tiny caps and gowns. What? All that fuss when all the kid did was allow himself to be driven to school?

While I’m on this tack, I might as well get off my chest some other phrases that, for whatever reason, drive me crazy.

No worries. This can mean anything from “I’ll take care of it” to “It’s okay that you ran into me.” It can also mean “You’re welcome,” which is the same number of syllables, so where’s the advantage?

Going forward. Admittedly, the person who uses this the most is a current (7/22/18) spokesperson on TV. She uses it instead of “in the future” (too vague for someone purportedly giving us specifics?) or “I have no idea when”.

The last time I accepted a "young lady" comment.

Young lady. When spoken to me (old, gray, sporting a cane) exclusively by men, young and old. No woman of any age has ever called me “young lady” – we know better. I wish I could think of a good comeback. “May you die young” is probably too harsh. What if I add “so you won’t have to hear this” — still too harsh?

Happy Mother’s Day. Another phrase that seems directed only to women. Personally, I have no reason to celebrate this “holiday” – I didn’t have a mother in the traditional sense of someone who loved me unconditionally, nor have I ever been a mother. I noticed no one wished my husband a Happy Father’s Day, even though he actually is one. Next year, I might respond, “Thanks. All my children are in jail.”

It is what it is. Just say “I heard, you but I have no advice whatsoever, and really don’t feel like hammering this out with you.” Just sayin’.