Meme of the Month

For all the bashing it takes, Facebook is often the source of clever and intelligent memes.* Here’s one of my favorites.

You don’t have to be a scientist to “get” each one, though I confess to having to look up Borlaug. You may already know that Norman Borlaug (1914-2009) was a biologist and humanitarian, winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, and author of “Feeding a World of 10 Billion People.” He’s credited with extensive contributions to the Green Revolution, thus the stalk of wheat. So, FB can be educational.

I have a particular fondness for

• the apple/o falling from Newton’s name

• the magnet in Faraday’s y

• the Feynman diagram as his y

• the Bohr atom in his o

Each LOGO is a bit of science history. What’s not to like?

* Confirming the meaning and new usage –  meme: of Greek origin, meaning a humorous image, video, or piece of text that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users.

Best of 2016

In case you missed this on the LadyKillers Blog. It’s the time for “Best Ofs”.

My favorite book of 2016 came to me by way of a swag bag shared by Ann Parker.
She knew I was mad about Malcolm Mackay’s trilogy THE SUDDEN ARRIVAL OF VIOLENCE, HOW A GUNMAN SAYS GOODBYE, AND THE NECESSARY DEATH OF LEWIS WINTER. If you love a good hit man story, as I do, these books are for you.

So I was ready for Mackay’s newest offering, THE NIGHT THE RICH MEN BURNED. Here’s how the Prologue opens:

He ended up unconscious and broken on the floor of a warehouse, penniless and alone. He was two weeks in hospital, unemployable thereafter, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that, for a few weeks beforehand, he had money. Not just a little money, but enough to show off with, and that was the impression that stuck.

I look for three things when rating a book: character, story, and writing. Mackay is a 10 on all counts. In the first lines (above) you know this character: You know what he values, and what he will do to get it. You have arrived in the middle of a story: the man is unconscious, penniless, and alone. And you have great writing: not a wasted word (also not a gerund or an -ly adverb!).

I’m in a few book clubs, one of which is a mystery reading group at a library. We begin each meeting by rating the book, from 10

I’m almost always amazed at ratings.
“I’d give this an 8 or a 9,” Edna might say.
“But the story was weak and there were 3 subplots that weren’t wrapped up.”
“Yeah, I agree,” Edna will say with a shrug. “But I liked the woman.”

or

“I’d give this story an 8 or a 9,” Ralph might say.
“But the writing was terrible. It could have been written by a third grader.”
“Yeah, I agree,” Ralph will say. “But the story was good.”

and so on.

Apparently, I’m the fussy one, demanding all three criteria are met. I’m curious about you and your rating policies. What does it take for you to give a book a 10? a 1?

Christmas all year

The Ed Sullivan Theater on 7th in NYC and on my bathroom counter

I’m probably the most impatient person you’ll ever meet, or whose blog you’ll ever read. So, there’s no way I could wait 364 days every year for the next Christmas. Instead, I have favorite Christmas items that I keep in view all year round.

Miniature houses (of course). Why wrap them, put them away, and then unwrap them again, when Christmas will be back before you know it? This one acts as a night light in a bathroom (above).

Rockettes dance while I cook.

The Rockettes! Couldn’t do without them all year. They dance in my window box every day, behind a small Rockefeller Center tree.

Presents. Christmas shop all year. What else is that guest room dresser for?

Donations. A favorite tradition is donating a dollhouse to a holiday raffle at a local school. All year I put aside items that will end up in the house.

Ornaments. Many of my ornaments have a permanent place. Here’s a photo of a tractor ornament that hangs in my office, sent by a friend who lived in Iowa at the time.

Do you have any Christmas items that are a part of your year-round decor or do you make a clean sweep of all the red and green when December 26 dawns?

The 12 Days of Christmas

Never mind what the retail scene tells you — The Twelve Days of Christmas actually start on Christmas Day, December 25th. The twelfth day ends at midnight on January 5th of each year, followed by the feast of the Epiphany, January 6.

Here’s the symbolism of the 12 days.

The first day of Christmas - My True Love, the Partridge in a Pear Tree. In ancient times a partridge was often used as symbol of a divine and sacred king (“my true love”).

The second day of Christmas – Two turtle doves are the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The doves symbolize peace.

The third day of Christmas – The three French Hens are Faith, Hope and Love. These are the three gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The fourth day of Christmas – The four calling birds are the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The fifth day of Christmas – The five golden rings represent the first five books of the Old Testament.

The sixth day of Christmas - The six geese a-laying stand for the first six days of creation.

The seventh day of Christmas - The seven swans a-swimming represent the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.

The eighth day of Christmas – The eight maids a-milking are the eight Beatitudes.

The ninth day of Christmas – Nine ladies dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

The tenth day of Christmas – The ten lords a-leaping are the Ten Commandments.

The eleventh day of Christmas – The eleven pipers piping represent the eleven faithful apostles.

The twelfth day of Christmas - The twelve drummers drumming represent the twelve points of belief in The Apostles’ Creed.

The good news: you’re to leave your ornaments up until after January 6!


The Physics of Santa

It’s time to drag out the old physics-of-Christmas essays. In case you missed it in my newsletter, here’s my favorite version about how it’s impossible for Santa to get his job done:

There are about 2 billion children in the world and even at one toy each, we have something like 400,000 tons of sleigh, toys, and a hefty old man traveling at 650 miles per second to get around world in one night.

A simple calculation shows that Santa has 1/1000th of a second to

• pull up on a roof

• hop out

• climb down the chimney

• figure out who’s nice

• distribute the presents

• eat a snack

• say Ho, Ho, Ho

• go back up the chimney

• dust off his suit, and move on.

Not just exhausting, but physically impossible.

Or, he could just hail a cab.

Even though there’s not a lot of sleigh traffic up there, it’s not a feasible trip.

But now, I’m about to offer a rebuttal.

All we have to do is call on worm holes, those tricky features of space-time that allow a shortcut through the universe.

Imagine you’re standing in a long line at the post office. You’re at one end of the room and the clerk is at the other, lots of people-mass in between. Now imagine a piece of paper with a stick figure representing you at one corner, and a figure at the diagonally opposite corner to represent the clerk. Fold the paper so that your stick figure is on top of the clerk’s.

See? You’ve just taken a shortcut to the head of the line.

That’s what Santa can do. With a little math and a dash of relativity theory we can show that, in fact, with every stop, Santa can come out of the chimney before he gets in!

No problem making all those stops.

So, yes, Virginia, relatively speaking, Santa can do it!

Now if only I could find the right wormhole to get me through Bay Area freeways.

My Best

Last week you saw my Worst — a limerick about a typewriter, or was it a typist? So, what was the best thing I’ve ever written?

If “best” equals “memorable,” then I have to admit I wrote my best scene in the last century. At conferences, I still meet people—readers, writers, even authors with far more star power than I’ll ever have—who tell me how compelling that scene was.

My guess is that it’s because The Scene was a thinly disguised true story.

The True Story

I was strolling through Walnut Square in Berkeley, California, a multilevel shopping structure. To access the restrooms, one had to start at street level and climb an outdoor flight of stairs to a mid-level, half-indoor, half-outdoor facility. Some time in mid-afternoon, I made my way up the steps, and entered the women’s area, on the left.

The short version of the rest of the story: I was flashed.

The long version became a scene in my next novel, THE BERYLLIUM  MURDER, detailing my panic, my response, my eventual escape.

The Scene

Here’s the scene in its entirety.

<><><>

It might have been Rita’s extra-fit body that inspired me—when I left her, I had a rare desire for physical exercise and decided to walk to Elaine’s. Invigorated by the weather of a typical Berkeley morning—still a bit of fog, cool, and breezy—I went at a good clip and approached Walnut Square just before ten o’clock. I looked up at the brown wood multi-level structure with about a dozen shops and restaurants, and realized it offered a painless way to pick up a few souvenirs for Matt and the Galiganis.

It also offered a restroom, which I would need if I weren’t going straight home. I remembered exactly where it was, up a flight of stairs on the Walnut Street side, behind one of the coffee shops.

I walked up the old wooden steps to the public facilities. Just as I’d left them, I noted—unheated, cracked cement floor, ill-fitting door to the outside—more like an outhouse, but adequate for the purpose.

Soon after I’d locked myself into the center of three empty stalls, I heard someone enter the area. The person walked to my door and stood there. I couldn’t tell from the heavy, black athletic shoes whether a male or female was facing me on the other side. I detected a faint, sweet scent that might have been perfume, but I couldn’t be sure the aroma hadn’t already been there, as part of the mix of smells in the room. What I did know was that he/she was not waiting for a stall since there was an empty one on either side of me.

I sat there, all bodily functions suspended, my heart pounding in my chest. The shoes didn’t move. I could hear no breathing but my own, louder than a vacuum pump.

It’s broad daylight, I told myself, and there are shops opening all around me. If this were an attacker, why wouldn’t he break through the flimsy lock on the door. Or shoot through it. Or throw a bomb over the top. Why just stand there?

I shuffled my feet on the floor and rattled the toilet paper holder, as if to tell my would-be assailant I was going about my business unaware of his presence. I knew I couldn’t yell loudly enough for a shopkeeper to hear me, and the street traffic was a whole story below me. I didn’t want to alert my stalker that I was aware of the threat with a useless scream. I swallowed hard and thought, but my head seemed empty except for the echo of my heartbeat.

I reached into my purse for a weapon of some kind, opting not to go down easily. I wished I’d been in the habit of taking care of my nails—at least I’d have a file in my purse if I did. The half-eaten roll of peppermints, the calculator, and the small flashlight I fingered on my way through the contents weren’t going to be much help.

At the bottom of the bag, I found my cell phone. I’d forgotten to leave it home in Revere. I knew it wouldn’t work after all the hours away from its charging base, but I had an idea how I could use it—if it had enough power to make sounds when I pushed on the numbers.

A fake call. Is that the best I can do? I thought. The unfortunate answer was yes. Who shall I pretend to call, then? 911? The attacker would know he had enough time to spare before a response team could get to me. Whoever it was still hadn’t moved, or cleared his or her throat, leaving me with no clues about gender. The sweet odor faded in and out as I sat there.

I made my decision. A fake call it would be. I abandoned the idea of “Rocky,” as too obvious for a strong man, and “Bill” or “Bob” as too wimpy. I chose Mike. I punched seven numbers at random, as if I were making an ordinary call within the area code. I was thrilled to hear the sound of the connection at each button. After a moment, I said, in as loud a voice as I could summon, “Mike. Come up the stairs. Into the ladies room. Quickly.”

The unisex shoes turned in the direction of the door, giving me hope for a moment. What followed, however, was a ghoulish jig, the bulky shoes stopping, turning back to me, then finally shuffling out the door, like a dancer uncertain of his steps. I breathed out and listened intently. No further sound. Had my bluff worked, in spite of the uncertainty I’d sensed at the end? Had the person left or was he or she waiting for Mike?

I could hardly believe my pitiful scheme was effective, but I knew it was my best chance to leave the stall. I tugged at my clothing, took a few breaths and went outside, rushing down the stairs to the sidewalk. I looked around and saw no one who looked like an attacker, and no one who could have passed for Mike.

What I did see on the ground at the bottom of the stairs was a ski mask. A navy blue ski mask, in Berkeley, in June. I glanced up and down the street, as if I’d be able to spot the owner and compare shoe sizes with those of my pseudo-stalker, but the only people in view were a noisy family of four alighting from a teal blue minivan.

I shivered and walked away.

<><><>

What about the next 20 books I’ve written? Apparently nothing stands out.

If you’ve read anything of mine that’s better than this, I’d really like to know.

The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Written

A while ago, the LadyKillers topic was “The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Written.”

Finally, an easy topic. Though there were a few contenders, this “limerick” from the last century has my top vote. I wrote it in the ’80s, and—wonder of wonders—SOLD it to a magazine for $25.

(OK, it’s an Underwood, but have you ever tried to write rhymes with underwood?)

Driving Miss Royal

There once was a writer named Royal.

To her keys and her carriage so loyal.

She knew how to white-out,

Typed books with the light out,

She really was quite a smart goyal.

Our Royal could type like a racer;

No one in sight could out pace her.

She typed with great speed

And never did need

Even a tiny eraser.

But poor Royal was out making copies

When they came with the wires and floppies.

A computer they brought her

And said that she ought-er

Start learning or go and plant poppies.

So Royal met up with a cursor

And her life just got worser and worser.

In spite of her wiles

She lost all her files

And spoke in words terser and terser.

Our writer friend couldn’t believe

That software could novels retrieve.

Her disks she would whack

With alas and alack

And for her lost typewriter grieve.

For many ’tis ever so tiring

To figure out manuals and wiring.

But our Royal’s a leader,

A mystery reader,

In days she was back in there firing.

Now Royal performs any feat

With options, escape, and delete.

She does her off-loading

With no more foreboding

And menus for her are a treat.

And now for the rest of the news:

Royal is off on a cruise.

From her PC
She gets efficiency.

There’s gold in them there CPU’s!

©Camille Minichino 1989 (Yes, I actually thought I needed to protect this!)

Giving Thinks

A redo of last year’s message, in case you missed it.

Last year around this time I visited a big box store to pick up a few things for our Thanksgiving table — here’s what I found among the paper plates and napkins:

Once my fellow shopper and I stopped laughing at the typo, we realized it wasn’t so inappropriate after all.

Yes, it’s important that we all stop to GIVE THANKS on this one special day each year. But it’s also important to GIVE THINKS, every day, to think about things and give others a reason to think.*

*In case you’re wondering if this is a deliberate play on words on the part of the manufacturer: Not. The label on the package identifies them as GIVE THANKS napkins and suggests they can also be used as GUEST GOWELS.

Wishing you a Happy Thinksgiving!

Maddie Porter: A Day in the Life

Preteen Maddie Porter, of the Miniature Mysteries by Margaret Grace, often steals the show in the 9 novels of the series. Here’s the inside scoop on a typical day, in her own words.

The newest adventure of Maddie Porter

A Day in my Life with Grandma Gerry Porter

I’m Maddie Porter. I’m 11 and 3/4, and my grandma is Gerry Porter.

People are asking Grandma to talk about a day in her life. But she’s very shy when it comes to talking about herself. She taught high school for years and years, but she claims that’s different. She knows a lot about English—that means all kinds of reading and writing, like, even old stuff, Shakespeare, and all—and she loves to pass it on, she says. But if it’s about her personal life, she keeps it quiet.

So it’s up to me to do it for her. Talk about her day, I mean.

When I was a kid, I didn’t spend as much time with Grandma and Grandpa because I lived far away in Los Angeles. But now I live in Palo Alto, California, which is very close to Lincoln Point and I have my own bedroom in Grandma’s house. Grandpa was sick for a long time and then he died but I still remember a little bit about him. He was an architect and that’s what I might want to be. Either that, or I’ll get a job building dollhouses because that’s my favorite thing to do with Grandma. She has lots of friends and they come over and work on projects that they give away. Like to kids in shelters. I guess that means that they can’t afford real homes. The kids, I mean.

I’m very lucky that I have 2 homes, almost. My best friend in Lincoln Point is Taylor. Taylor’s grandpa, Henry, and my grandma are going to get married soon.

Or else, I might be a cop, like my first-cousin-once-removed Skip, but I can tell nobody wants me to do that, because . . .

Uh-oh, I think I’m doing that unfocused thing my teachers are always ragging on me about. I’m supposed to be talking about a day in Grandma’s life. But I only know about the days I’m with her, so what can I do?

Maybe I’ll just tell you about last Saturday, even though it was the worst day of my life. I did something really stupid and Grandma got mad at me. And she never gets mad, even when my ‘rents are really mad at me, so you know it must have been bad.

I’ll try to explain why it happened. I was at soccer practice with Taylor and when Henry took us back to Grandma’s house she was all upset. The place where their wedding was going to be, I forget her name, called and said someone died in their pool! Then it turned out the dead person was Grandma’s friend Mr. Templeton’s wife! He’s part of Grandma’s group that comes and builds dollhouses with us.

The second best thing I like to do, well maybe it’s the first, is help my cousin Skip solve cases like this. I know a lot about computers and I might be a computer specialist when I get to college. It’s hard to decide.

So, everyone’s trying to figure out why Mrs. Templeton, the dead lady, was even at the place where Grandma and Henry were going to get married, plus who pushed her into the pool? It’s like a hotel but they call it Bee and Bee, I think. I don’t know why.

Why Grandma was mad at me: I had an idea for how to find out something about one of the suspects. I was only trying to help, but it turned out to be not a good idea because I could have gotten hurt and some other people might have gotten hurt, too.

I don’t have time to explain it all, but I just wanted to tell you about that one day in Grandma’s life when I thought she didn’t love me anymore. Everything’s okay now, though. The end.

[Note from Gerry: Maddie wants me to correct her essay before she submits it, but I'm leaving it as is. I'm not even going to read it. I hope she didn't reveal too many family secrets!]

[Note from Margaret Grace: For the full story of Maddie's misbehavior, read Matrimony in Miniature, released September 9, 2016!]

Classic Thrills

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to include a short piece on classic crime stories in the MWA NorCal newsletter. Here it is, reproduced with my permission.

You always remember your firsts.

The first time words on a page brought me to tears was when Beth March died in “Little Women.” The first time words frightened me to death occurred when an arrogant, drunken Fortunato was lured into the vault in “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Imagine my thrill when I realized how much more excitement and suspense awaited me in the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Next I read “The Tell-Tale Heart,” in which the dark guilt of a murderer is his undoing: I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! (Poe was not one to stint on exclamation points!) “The Pit and the Pendulum” gave me the most meticulous description of a torture chamber: Any death but that of the pit! And surely no character descriptions in literature can match those in “The Man of the Crowd,” the art of following a stranger who captures your fancy.

Still, “The Cask of Amontillado” remains my favorite: I plastered it up. Surely one of the most chilling lines in crime fiction.

A place to curl up with a good thriller

•  Care to share your reading “firsts?”