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?”

Vote!

A bipartisan set of quotes about voting , TUESDAY NOVEMBER 8.

“Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting.”  – Franklin Delano Roosevelt

“It’s not the voting that’s the democracy; it’s the counting.” - Tom Stoppard

“Our political leaders will know our priorities only if we tell them, again and again, and if those priorities begin to show up in the polls.”  - Peggy Noonan

An eloquent quote from Abraham Lincoln:

“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

And finally, for a laugh:

“Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote. The relative positions to be assumed by man and woman in the working out of our civilization were assigned long ago by a higher intelligence than ours.”  – Grover Cleveland

Xtreme Halloween

The Real Me is always happy to welcome author and educator, JO MELE. This time she’s sharing a great Halloween story. The piece first appeared in Reminisce Magazine.

Halloween Trick or Treating

by Jo Mele

The Real Joey

My little brother Joey is the most determined; some call it stubborn, person I know. Joey loved Halloween and couldn’t wait to get home, sort his candy into piles, and eat all his favorites first.

When he was eight he had to miss trick or treating because he had a high fever. My mother’s decision to keep him in nearly drove Joey crazy. The pleading went on for hours until he gave my mother a headache and was sent to his room in tears.

I went around the neighborhood with two bags asking for a treat for my brother who was home sick. The neighbors were sorry to hear he was missing his favorite Holiday and were very generous to his sack. He didn’t even feel well enough to do his sorting and eating routine until the following weekend.

The next year Joey had two costumes ready, the pirate from last year and the new cowboy costume complete with boots and pearl handled Lone Ranger six-shooters he got for his birthday. He was counting the days to trick or treating. Unfortunately, he came down with the flu and couldn’t even stand. My mother did not allow him to go out into the frigid New York air.

I went around the neighborhood with his sack and mine and everyone said “Not again.” They poured goodies and change into his bag, and said he could buy what he liked when he felt better. He made two dollars but wasn’t happy.

When October came around again Joey was ready. He was ten years old, full of energy, had three unused costumes waiting to be worn. He was determined and on a mission. My parents had already decided they’d let him go trick or treating – no matter what. Halloween fell on a Saturday that year so Joey could rest before his long-awaited adventure and stay out late since it wasn’t a school night. It was a beautiful warm fall day and after whining “Can’t I start yet,” for the hundredth time, my mother gave in.

He was the first kid out and the last one home. When his trick-or-treat bag got heavy he came home, changed his costume and got another bag. He started over again, and again, determined to make up for lost time. He had the Halloween of his life.

When Joey finally dragged in saw his three bags full of goodies waiting for the sorting, he hugged them and burst into tears of joy. He’d won his battle with Halloween.

I admired his determination. He never gave up and wouldn’t settle for one round of trick-or-treating when he deserved three. I’m sure I would’ve quit after the first. Joey was no quitter, he needed to even the score, two traits he would carry with him for the rest of his life.

HALLOWEEN Preview

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?