Happy Birthday, Gemini!

Gemini dates: May 21-June 20

On the door of our local coffee shop is a sign: “Take Comfort in Routine.” Under the letters is a picture of a steaming frappa-thing. I turned away in disgust. Comfort and routine do not belong in the same sentence. I realize their marketing people are trying to build customer loyalty to the frappa, but I hope it’s a temporary aberration.

I don’t like routine.

I blame this on my start in life as a Gemini.

Here’s what one source says about Geminis:

There is a dual aspect to the Gemini personality, making it difficult for these individuals to stick with any one thing in order to master it.

It’s the logline of my life.

Please don’t ask me to do the same thing every Wednesday, or at ten every morning, or twice every day. (Geminis have trouble with meds; they fudge a lot.) I meet with a book group at our library on the first Tuesday of the month—this is fine since it’s always a different book. The same with regular blogs or meetings. As long as the content is different, I survive, but ideally I’d prefer to meet on a rotating basis, using a random number generator to pick the date.

What self-respecting physicist believes in astrological signs? Not me, but I have to admit that what they say comes eerily close to my MO:

• Geminis have a hard time finishing things.

• They have many careers and are easily distracted.

and (this is a biggy):

• Their favorite color is yellow.

Geminis  are superficial, says one esteemed astrology site. Well, not Frank Lloyd Wright or Francis Crick. And not Sally Ride.

But me? Yes, I admit, I’m the cliché Gemini. I’d rather do a lot of things than one thing well. It’s nice to know it’s not my fault. It’s the fault of June 3, many years ago.

An exception: I love the routine of a homemade Boston Cream Pie on my birthday (Thanks SAS)!

Anecdote about finishing

My husband, The Cable Guy, has the opposite traits. (There’s a rule about that, isn’t there?) He’s a finisher; I’m not.

Take the way we each do word puzzles. As soon as I “get” the theme and fill in about one third of the squares, I’m done. I need a new challenge. Not so for The Cable Guy. He fills in every box to the last letter, even though the puzzle is destined for the waste basket thirty seconds later.

I dislike finishing so badly that I often do the end of a project rather than plow sequentially through the middle and get to the end last.

I have many reminders of my Gemini status—when I attend a miniatures show, for example, where I look at museum quality vases and furniture, like a miniature Shaker chair I saw recently (which deservedly cost more than my entire collection of life-size chairs).

30 books for 30 years of the conference at which it was auctioned

My miniatures are “cute” (see photo) and they’re received well for their personal touches, not for their amazing craftsmanship.

Many of my writer friends dream of being able to quit their day jobs and do nothing but write. Not me. Not a Gemini. If I had only one thing to do, I’d probably go into a null state and do nothing, ever.

In Flanders Fields

Memorial Day Weekend, May 26-28, 2018

MEMORIAL DAY was originally called Decoration Day, after the practice of decorating the graves of fallen soldiers.

Entrance to Flanders Field American Cemetery in Belgium, image courtesy of National Archives

Soldiers of the 119th Infantry, 30th Division, entering trenches at Watou, Belgium on July 9, 1918. Image courtesy of The National Archives.

Some history, and a meditation to mark the day, to think about the too many graves.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

It Takes a Village

It’s only May, and I’ve already been to 3 significant writers’ events this year: Left Coast Crime annual conference in Reno, Nevada; the Edgar™ Banquet; and Malice Domestic, a conference in Bethesda, Maryland. In a couple of months, I’ll be attending a 4th, ThrillerFest, in New York City.

Jeffrey Deaver (the tall one) and me at the podium for the Edgar™Awards

In between there have been writers meetings, bookstore events, and book clubs.

One of the things that worried me when I thought of writing as a career was that it would be a solitary occupation. So much for that.

I’d been a physicist for a long time. No one does physics alone, not since Newton, anyway. Who can accommodate something like a 17-mile-long tunnel to house a collider, or a 192-beam laser, in her garage?

Physicists gather around huge equipment in giant laboratories these days, working as a team. My graduate school mates and I spent long hours together in the same laboratory every day, sharing power supplies, monster-mentor stories, and data. We became close friends and knew each others’ families as well as our own for a few years.

All the while, I’d wanted to be a published writer—something with more popular potential than my technical papers on the scattering properties of a titanium dioxide crystal. But I couldn’t imagine sitting alone in a room with pen and paper, or keyboard and monitor, pouring out my thoughts and plots, in solitary confinement.

Imagine my delight when I discovered that writing—mystery writing especially—was a community endeavor. I discovered not only professional organizations and critique groups, but book clubs, conferences, Internet lists and groups, and blogging colleagues. Who knew?

Sure, there’s a lot of me-and-my-chair for hours at a time, but I always know I can call or email any number of colleagues if I want to brainstorm a plot point, or discuss a new character I’m developing. With each book, my acknowledgments list gets longer.

Also, like physics, writing requires research. Most of it is people-oriented, which has turned out to be quite a bonus. In the course of writing themes and subplots for 25 books, I’ve interviewed an embalmer, a veterinarian, a medevac helicopter pilot, an ice climber, a telephone lineman, a hotel administrator, an elevator maintenance man, a postmistress, a musician, and countless experts in forensics, and—uh—ways to kill people. I even have a special cop who never minds answering procedural questions.

I’ve gone to conferences in cities I’d never have visited otherwise, like Omaha and Boise and Milwaukee (I usually fly over these states on my way to and from San Francisco and Boston or New York.)

And the readers! In each series I’ve tried to make the protagonist sleuth someone readers would like to have lunch with. I’m still amazed and pleased when readers approach me, through email or at a signing, with a kind word about my books, and I remember whom I’m writing for.

Research at the Morgan Library

I’m sure some writers prefer go it alone, but I never would have made it.

The writing and reading community are smart, fun, and generous.

I’m glad I found them.

A Pebble in My Shoe

I’m just back from New York City and the Edgar™ Awards. If you missed the nominations and the grand banquet where winners were announced, go here.

Jeffrey Deaver, MWA President (the tall one) and me at the podium.

The event had me thinking of Edgar Allan Poe and his legacy for mystery writers especially. But it’s this quote of his that I relate to above all:

The past is a pebble in my shoe.

And we probably all feel the same way about a pebble in our shoe: Out!

The high school history teacher tasked with giving me a healthy respect for the past failed—maybe because his primary duty, for which he was hired, was to coach the football team to victory. (He failed at that, too.)

But I can’t blame Mr. F. forever. I’ve had ample time to visit the past in a meaningful way, to learn the details of wars, to imagine lunch with the greats of bygone ages.

We see this “poll question” all the time: if you could visit the past, whom would you have lunch with?

I suppose I could go back and ask Poe if he could sleep at night after writing the “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I couldn’t, after reading, the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. The same with his “The Cask of Amontillado.” I was young enough to worry myself sick that I’d hurt someone enough for him to seek that level of revenge.

If I ever did have a chance to time travel, I’d go forward, not back.

I don’t want to revisit the time when some women had their lower ribs surgically removed to achieve a more pleasing (to whom?) waistline. And I already know all I want to about the days before plumbing and the zipper and all the iStuff.

I’d like to visit the future, find out what becomes of the Kindle.

It’s fun to have my slide rule hanging in my office, as a reminder of earlier times, but I wouldn’t want to give up my computer.

I’d love to go away for a while and rest, and then come back in 60 or so years and talk to those who are now toddlers.

Some questions for them:

1. Has there been a First Gentleman in the White House yet?

2. Was there a revival of regular cinematic dramas—no comic heroes, no animation, no “special” effects?

3. Did we ever give peace a chance?

4. Did Amy Adams’s face ever wrinkle?

5. What’s the official language of the United States?

. . .  and more.

Of course I could read sci fi and get someone’s idea of the future, or I could write it myself and make my own predictions.

But I want to know what actually happens, whether there’ll be paper books in the year 2100, and what became of the kids who grew up hearing “Good job!” just for waking up in the morning?

What would you want to know?

Nomophobia

Nomophobia: the irrational fear of being without your mobile phone or being unable to use your phone for some reason, such as the absence of a signal or running out of minutes or battery power.

OH NO Where's my phone?

I rushed out of my house the other day for an appointment 2 miles away. About halfway there I realized I’d forgotten my cellphone. OMG! If I went back for it, I’d be late, and the only thing worse than not having my phone is being late.

I did some quick troubleshooting.

What if I had an emergency? I wasn’t even going on the freeway, I reasoned; it would be easy to flag someone down. I’d be on city streets the whole way, no lonely stretches. I’d be passing the library, 2 churches, 3 schools, at least 4 gas stations, the homes of 5 friends, and a bakery where I often stopped for scones. I’d be okay.

What if my husband had an emergency and needed to call me? If it were something really bad, he should call 9-1-1 anyway. If he wanted tell me he needed bagels, well, he was out of luck.

How about an emergency deadline that might come through email? They could wait a couple of hours till I got home, couldn’t they? I’d tell them I was camping and out of range.

I drove on, phoneless. But it wasn’t easy. While I waited for my appointment, I wouldn’t have access to my email or my calendar or Facebook. I could miss a national crisis. Or a bit of juicy gossip.

I’d have felt more comfortable if I’d left my shoes at home, or even my wallet — I could always call and have them delivered! As long as I had my phone.

Without revealing my exact DOB, let me say I lived many years without a phone in my purse. In fact, for high school graduation, I got a hot-ticket item—a “portable” radio, which was about as big as a breadbox, with a battery much heavier than a loaf of bread.

But I’ve become a nomophobe.

I feel that I’m a polite nomophobe, however, never checking my phone or texting if I’m with a real, live person. Unless that person is checking, too.

Anyone else a nomophobe?

When Art Does Not Imitate Life

A print of one my favorite paintings hangs in my office: “Wheat Field,” by Monet.

It’s representative of countless other landscape paintings, like those of Millet, Corot, Church, Cezanne, and Pissarro, all of which I love. I could sit in front of any of them for hours.

What’s so blog-worthy about that? Most of us relish the moments of meditation and pleasure we get from works of art.

But what I can’t figure out is this—if I were actually standing in one of these landscapes, I’d be freaking out. A wheat field? Eeuuw, I’d be scratching and itching, as well as asking “Where’s the nearest Starbucks?” So why do I have prints like this all over my house?

The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak, 1863

Bierstadt’s “The Rocky Mountains,” (The Met Collection, Roger’s Fund, 1907) is even worse. The sun is strong. I don’t like sun, in general. Or bugs. Or plants. And there are animals. Eeek! I’m afraid of the wild half of the animal kingdom and allergic to the tame half. Besides, they tend to add organic matter and odors to an open area like this meadow (valley? grassy knoll?), both of which I would find unpleasant if I were to stand at the focal point of this painting. I’m cringing at the thought of what would be on the soles of my shoes. And still no Starbucks or even a family-owned bistro. Nor a convenience store to buy bathroom tissue—oh, right, there’s no bathroom in sight. No sign pointing to the nearest hospital. No cell tower. Just thinking about it being there, I’m hyperventilating.

My idea of roughing it on vacation: a couple of galleries at MOMA are closed, darn; my theater seats are in the balcony, darn; and late night room service takes more than fifteen minutes, darn.

Thinking about this phenomenon—why I love paintings that depict scenes I go out of my way to avoid—it’s a lot like my relationship with fiction.

I write crime fiction; I love reading and watching movies about crime. The ensemble heist, the perfect murder, the “lovable” serial killer; a juicy kidnapping. But I don’t want any of it to touch me in real life.

There must be a name for this syndrome?

Socking it away with Ann Parker

What a thrill this week to have a special guest — my amazing friend, author, and traveling companion, ANN PARKER. Here’s her story!

First, many thanks to dear friend and colleague, Camille Minichino, for giving me one of her Thursdays to reveal the real me.

Second, lest you think the title of this post has to do with all the millions I’ve stashed away from my writing career… you are, alas, sadly mistaken.

You see, to understand the “real me,” you need to examine my ankles. (No, that isn’t a Victorian-era come-on.)

Most of the time, I dress fairly conservatively, particularly on those days when I go into the office (aka cubicle-land) or when I am doing a book event. A little color here or there, but basically I’m the “lady in black.” Black is practical. No muss, no fuss. When you wear black, no one can tell if you spilled coffee down the front of your blouse or if a chocolate bar fragmented all over your lap.

Black is my color of choice… except when it comes to hosiery.

I have rarely seen a pair of nifty socks that I can resist. Socks sporting pandas, poison, or polka dots—makes no difference. If I have the pocket change and the urge, I’ll buy them. I am particularly drawn to three-of-a-kind sock assortments where you can mix and match, while staying thematic through color and/or pattern.

Pandas . . .

poison . . .

and polka-dots!

This obsession can be dangerous. I have three drawers, full to bursting, and ever more footwear pouring in. I get socks for my birthday. Socks for Mother’s Day. Socks for Christmas. Socks for Valentine’s Day. Socks for Halloween. If there is an occasion that involves gift-giving, I will invariably receive socks. And I love every pair I receive. I keep thinking I should set up a schedule, whereby I track which socks I wear when, so I can rotate through my stock of socks in an orderly way.

A portion of one sock drawer!

I’ve sometimes wonder if my love for snazzy foot coverings (socks, not shoes, that is) might be a physical manifestation of my love for those colorful, but much maligned parts of speech—adjectives and adverbs.

Just as with hosiery, I have never met an adjective or adverb I didn’t like. I know, I know, this runs counter to the current writing fashion, which favors stripped-down language—nouns bolstered by strong verbs but scant on the flowery curlicues and flourishes. Since I write historical fiction, I cut myself some slack in this regard. After all, 19th century writing is overloaded with long, circuitous sentences and heavy with modifiers. I don’t want to write like James Fenimore Cooper (read here what Mark Twain had to say about JFC’s many literary offenses, including his breaking of the rule: “Eschew surplusage”). However, I do want to evoke some of the feel of that time in my narrative, without sending readers screaming for the door; adjectives and adverbs can help me accomplish that goal.

So, I throw open the prose doors when I write and welcome in descriptors, just like I tug open my sock drawers and take on more pairs.

Finally, did I mention that my husband signed me up for sock-of-the-month club for my last birthday??

Sock-of-the-month club from SockPanda.com

I’m doooooooooomed!

At the Book Carnival earlier this month for the launch of Ann’s latest book, A DYING NOTE, with bookseller Anne Saller (left), Rebecca Wischkaemper, and Camille Minichino (right), with Ann in the middle. (Note the ankles!)

Ann Parker—science/corporate writer by day and crime fiction author by night—writes the award-winning Silver Rush historical series published by Poisoned Pen Press, featuring saloon-owner Inez Stannert. The first five books in the series are set in 1880s Colorado, primarily in the silver boomtown of Leadville. The recently released sixth, A Dying Note, brings Inez to the golden city of San Francisco, California, in 1881. Publishers Weekly calls this latest addition to the series “exuberant” adding that it “…brims with fascinating period details, flamboyant characters, and surprising plot twists.” For more information about Ann and her series, check out http://www.annparker.net

Boston, the Hub of the Universe

Or so we were taught!

There’s a new movie out, Chappaquiddick. I don’t plan to see it, mostly because I prefer to hang on to whatever I think I know of the Kennedys. Reviews have called it out on historical facts, and also on the accents that are supposed to represent Boston.

So, it’s time to drag out my BostonSpeak piece.

I claimed Boston as my home for the first decades of my life. I was born in a suburb less than 8 miles away, went to college on the Fenway. Yes, THE Fenway—in certain classrooms on campus you could hear the crack of the bat. I also taught at that same college for many years. Is that enough Boston cred for you?

Besides hosting more than 53 institutions of higher learning, including MIT and Harvard, Boston has its own accent. Travel even 20 miles from Boston, and the accent is gone, indistinguishable from that of the network anchor in Grinnell, Iowa.

Everyone recognizes the accent; not everyone can imitate it. Even after many years in California, I can go back to it whenever I choose. Or, whenever I talk to my relatives and friends who still live there, says my husband.

“Hi, they-ah,” they say.

“Howahya?” I ask.

Even though I now speak like Californians, careful with my r’s, I’m very protective of Boston-speak.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when actors/actresses who are not natives try to take on the accent. It doesn’t work. Nothing can spoil a movie for me like a pretend Boston accent, which makes the actor sound like he’s rolling a hot potato around in his mouth. An old but good example is Rob Morrow in “Quiz Show.” In an attempt to sound out the broad a’s, his lips never met. Similarly, in “The Verdict,” set in Boston, no one got it right. Thank you, Paul Newman, for not trying. In newer movies, actors and their directors know enough not to try. They leave it to natives like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

JFK himself is often ridiculed for his accent. People laugh at his “Cuba(r) and Laos.” But Kennedy, and every other Bostonian, would pronounce Cuba as Cuba, unless the word is followed by another word that begins with a vowel. Thus:

“I went to Laos and Cuba,” but “I went to Cuba(r) and Laos.”

Similarly, a Bostonian would say “I obey the law,” but “I’m studying the law(r) of gravity.”

This is a common practice in many languages, where the letter used for the elision is actually written, as in Italian with e and ed, the words for and, depending on the first letter of the next word.

Back in the days of landlines, I called the San Jose Airport, seeking information (pre-Internet) about the layout of the airport before I drove there for a flight.

“Can you tell me where to park my car?” I asked.  ["Pahk my cah."]

“I’m sorry,” the clerk said. “We have no flights to Pakaka.”

At that moment I decided to learn to speak like a TV anchorwoman. Now, I do. Well, most of the time.

Hand me my lappet, please

It’s one of those weeks when I have to search for something to celebrate. April Fool has passed, and it’s 2 weeks till we can honor Paul Revere.

April 3 was Alec Baldwin’s birthday, but he’s getting enough attention lately. (Congratulations on that Emmy, Alec!) April 5, 1908 is Bette Davis’s birthday, but who remembers her?

It’s also National Caramel Day and National Dandelion Day. Ho hum.

Never mind those. Instead, I thought I’d learn a new word. I started with my favorite research spot: the public domain collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here it is, image and all: a lappet.

French, early 19th century

Dictionary definition:

Lappet: a small flap or fold, in particular.
  • a fold or hanging piece of flesh in some animals.
    noun: lappet; plural noun: lappets
  • a loose or overlapping part of a garment.

Clearly I’m going for the garment app.

Can you use lappet in a sentence? (Yes, this is 5th grade.)

Three Miles Downriver

That's me, on the left, in a cool but uncomfortable hat.

This week marks the 39th anniversary of Three Mile Island, forever the name of an accident, rather than the name of a nuclear reactor three miles downriver from Middletown, Pennsylvania. It’s the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history.

The accident began in Unit 2, at about four in the morning on March 28, 1979. HERE is a complete backgrounder from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission site. Here’s my version of the aftermath.

Do you remember where you were on March 28, 1979? It was a Wednesday, and if you lived on the east coast, by the time you were getting ready for work, the news, if not a plume, would have spread. For those of us working in the nuclear power industry, the memory is sharp, as for the day President Kennedy was assassinated, and the day the towers fell.

Though it resulted in no fatalities or injuries, the accident at Three Mile Island changed the way we viewed nuclear power and was probably the chief reason we haven’t seen a new plant in decades.

For me, it meant donning a hardhat, clipboard in hand, and traveling the country to inspect reactor control rooms.

Problems with control room procedures were at the heart of the accident, so the government undertook a massive overhaul of reactor operator training and human factors engineering. Week after week, I landed in towns with top-notch accommodations—where “room service” meant having a vending machine down the hall, instead of across the parking lot.

In my experience, relations between the utilities that ran the plants and the government body that regulated them had always been adversarial, and grew more so after TMI.

Sorry, the stairs aren’t working.

Take the time our team arrived for an inspection of a second floor control room. We were told the stairs were being upgraded and the only way to get to the second floor was to go out of the building through the window, climb the scaffolding to the upper level, and enter through the window on that level. Even though I was more agile then, it was still a hassle, not to mention scary. At the end of our three-day inspection, and after many hair-raising trips along the outside of the building, a plant worker made the mistake of removing a temporary partition that was hiding a perfectly good set of stairs, right in front of us.

Words were exchanged.

Surprise!

Typically, we’d arrive in town after a long flight, plus a puddle-jumper, get a few hours sleep, and show up unannounced at the plant around 8 or 9 the next morning. Tip: the “unannounced” part doesn’t work if the population is 300 and the innkeeper is the plant manager’s uncle.

“Oh, shucks,” the manager would say, with a smile that fooled no one. “We’re doing a test right now. Can you come back later? Say, around midnight?”

For all the lack of cooperation on inspection days, I was still impressed by the amazing technology and the possibilities of nuclear energy.

There’s a rumor going around that the US is starting up its nuclear energy program again.

I say this with the bias that comes from wanting to keep my electric blanket and LAN going.

The resurgence of nuclear power might also give new life to my first book ever: Nuclear Waste Management Abstracts. It was released in 1982, but you can be the first to review it on amazon.