Category Archives: random musings

Can You Hear Me Now?

Ever listened to an audiobook and thought, “Reading a book out loud seems pretty cool.  I could totally do that, if only someone would give me an opportunity.  And man, I could so go for some pie right about now.” 

Except for the pie part, you’ve got your chance during the American Library Association’s annual conference here in Washington, DC.  Random House Audio will be setting up a recording studio inside OverDrive’s Digital Bookmobile — which will be parked right across the street from the conference site at the Renaissance Hotel on 9th Street NW — and inviting aspiring audiobook readers to come read a passage from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Eventually, the audio clips will be edited together, in a sort of audiobook mashup, to create a “community sourced” audiobook that participants can download. Pretty neat, huh?

Anyone can participate — you don’t have to be attending the conference, though you do have to be in DC.   The Digital Bookmobile will be parked outside the hotel, ready for you to step up to the microphone, on June 25, 26 and 27.  Start practicing your Tin Man voice now.

For more information, go here.

Hip To Be From ‘Burque

While I was born in Kansas and have lived for most of my adult life on the Atlantic Seaboard, if you ask me where I’m from, I’ll tell you that I’m a New Mexican. More specifically, I’m from Albuquerque.  That’s it in the photo above — you’re looking across the Rio Grande, past the glowing downtown, with the Sandia Mountains squatting on the city’s east side. Pretty nice.

I moved to Albuquerque when I was six years old — and while I briefly attended junior high school in the Midwest, I still did most of my growing up in the Duke City. I played Roadrunner little league baseball on scraggly grass fields hacked from vacant lots we always called “mesas,” even if they technically weren’t.  I considered three inches of snow to be a snow storm.  I drove my first car on old Route 66 in the center of town, and ate carne adovada burritos at The Frontier.  I graduated from Eldorado High School and the University of New Mexico. I oriented myself using the Sandia Mountains. And to this day, I still know how to answer The Single Most Important Question a New Mexican Will Hear: “Red or Green?” (Green, thank you very much — and why would you want it any other way?)

Those of us from New Mexico are used to our state causing confusion.  Certainly, having the word “Mexico” in your address can lead to a bad case of Mistaken Identity with our neighbor to the south. During a brief move to the Midwest, for example, I was asked if we had lived in huts or rode horses to school.  When I moved back to New Mexico in the early 1980s, one of the movers nervously asked if it was okay to drink the water. 

Even in the mid-1990s, New Mexico still wasn’t always feeling the love.  During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, a New Mexican called to order tickets for the games — and when he informed the ticket agent where he was calling from, he was told he had to consult either the Mexican or Spanish delegations. 

 “No, no, no — it’s NEW Mexico,” the exasperated Santa Fean told the attendant.

“New Mexico, old Mexico, you still have to go through the Mexican delegation,” he was told.

And Albuquerque?  Forget it.  It was a punchline.  When the seven-year-old daughter of one of my coworkers found out I was from Albuquerque, she burst out laughing.  She had heard Bugs Bunny complain that he “shoulda turned left at Albuquerque,” she said, “but I never knew the place was real!

Now, though, things are changing.  Suddenly, it’s positively hip to be from ‘Burque.  All three installments of High School Musical take place there, for instance, though it doesn’t appear an inch of film was actually shot in town — when you see Troy and Gabriella on the roof of the fictional East High School, the palm trees in the background are a giveaway that you are definitely not in the Duke City.

On television, AMC’s Breaking Bad takes place in Albuquerque — and unlike the High School Musical series, is actually filmed in the city, though it uses some of the less charismatic locations, in keeping with the main character’s drug selling business.  Things look better on USA’s In Plain Sight, which follows a federal marshall housing witnesses in the Witness Protection Program.  Not bad, considering the last major features to take place in Albuquerque (regardless of whether they were filmed there) were the gloriously trashy made-for-TV movie Sparks: The Price of Passion, with Victoria Principal, and the gawdawful serial killer film Suspect Zero.

I’m not sure if it really has become hip to hail from Albuquerque, but that’s all right.  I’m still pretty pleased to call it home.

Quiet As A What?

So, we’ve discovered we have a mouse living on the second floor of our house.

Our first hint was odd sounds in the middle of the night.  The first time we heard the noise–a very faint pit-pat-pit-pat–I made a 3 a.m. tour of the house with a baseball bat in hand, and when I saw the dog was sound asleep on the first floor (since developing hip dysplasia, Abbey has rightly determined, to her disappointment, that she can’t make it up the stairs), I decided that we had likely opened up our house somewhere to a mouse.

We’ve seen him a few times since then; he’s a little grey thing, only about as large as your thumb, and we’ve decided that as long as he doesn’t make a nuisance of himself (or decide to raise a family), we’ll let him be.  We’ve found a few of his hot spots, and we have to admit he’s very clever in a  MacGuyveresque sort of way.  In the corner of a desk drawer, for example, he had arranged a bed from a mortarboard tassle he had dragged out of an open box of knick-knacks, then surrounded it with three Hershey kisses he’d dug out of a bin. I’m all but certain he’s whizzing around the house in a toy car in a Runaway Ralph manner when we’re not home.

He also seems to have figured out that we’re willing to indulge his presence, because he’s getting more and more brazen.  At night, once the house is dark and things have settled down, we’ll hear him bounding around fearlessly, scrambling down the hall then back into our room, where the quiet of the house, and the old wooden floors, make his little steps sound like a horse galloping around the place.

The other night, Barb had left three Nature Valley peanut bars stacked on the long table in our bedroom that we use as a coffee station.  Those proved to be irresistible to our little friend (who we’ve taken to calling Jinx the Mouse).  Starting at 3:30 a.m., we heard wrappers crinkling and a great deal of commotion from the direction of the coffee station.  We flicked on the light — he was gone in a flash — and saw that he had pushed the stack down and had attempted to drag one of the bars away.  I stacked them back up and turned out the light, but in the morning, they were pushed aside again.  He’s a headstrong fellow.

I know, I know — you’re probably shuddering, wondering how we can allow something that’s technically vermin to have free run of our top floor.  But he’s just too interesting to dispose of.  We’ll keep him around for a while.

Hello, Goodbye…

Once again, my apologies for neglecting the ol’ blog — it’s been a busy week of editing, express mailing, and phone calls.  None of which means I have any news to report, but things have kicked up a bit on the excitement meter.  Over the falls! as Barb and I often say.

The mercury in central Maryland is beginning to hover in the mid-30s in the mornings now, and the trees have shed most of their leaves, moving from the showy to the mostly skeletal in a matter of days.  I’ll likely make a quick zip around the yard on the riding mower this weekend to mulch everything up for the winter.  It’s not only fun, but it beats raking any day — and I won’t even mention the time I made a turn too quickly and fell off the mower.  The seat was loose, I swear.

Finally, I finished reading The Lennon Prophecy: A New Examination of the Death Clues of the Beatles, truly one of the most bizarre Beatles books I’ve ever read.  I’ll have a review up here on Monday.

Have a good weekend!

Until the Wind Changes

Almost as if someone flipped a switch, the trees are suddenly changing colors and sloughing off their leaves like a raggy old coat.  The chipmunks in our back yard are running back and forth between our two old chestnuts and their hole by an old stone wall, their mouths crammed with the big shiny nuts as they disappear, tails twirling, into their hidey-hole. And for the first time in half a year, a strong wind suddenly kicked up from the southwest, pounding against the stone chimney on our dining room, and making the flue rattle.  Fall is here.

For those of you wondering how my battle with my cable/internet provider finally turned out: it was a war of attrition, but I finally won. (Getting Comcast to deactivate my account was just as infuriating as my numerous attempts to get someone out to fix anything, as I was told to leave my phone number and someone would get back to me on that.  And then no one did.)  I was later asked why I never called a friend of mine who heads up Comcast’s government affairs office to get him to push my requests along. My answer was simple:  I always hope it doesn’t take connections for a customer to be treated decently. 

Anyway, we’re officially done—I stood in line for an hour to return my cable box and modem—and we’re incredibly happy with our switch to Verizon.  Plus, with our home phone on the system as well, we end up with a good deal of savings every month, even after the full price for the system kicks in after six months.  So, well done all around.  Now I’m just trying not to watch the Biography Channel 24/7.

Cafe No Way

I did something the other day I have never done: I wrote in a coffee shop. Or, rather, I tried to write. And after trying, I’ve determined one thing: those sitting in Starbucks, tapping away happily on their laptop at one of those little round tables, are likely writing fiction.

Don’t tell me you’re not, because I know you are.  And I know because you don’t have your table cluttered with all the assorted crap that we non-fiction writers carry around with us.  Frankly, I’m jealous— because it looks like you’re having fun sitting there, legs crossed, a cup of Arabian Mocha Java steaming at your right hand, putting the finishing touches on your novel.  Further, you probably had to do little advance planning—you likely said to yourself, “I think I’ll go do a bit of writing at Starbucks,” picked up your laptop, and off you went.

As I said, I’m jealous. 

For non-fiction writers, it’s tougher to be that spontaneous. Case in point: the other night, I knew I was going to have about 90 minutes to kill while waiting for my daughter to finish up at volleyball practice.  So I decided I would take that opportunity to drive to the nearby coffee shop, set up my laptop, and do some writing while I waited.

That decision, however, took a bit of advance planning.  Unless I’m writing my own memoirs (which I’m not), where I have the bulk of information stored up in my head, I need to have my notes handy.  Even if I’m just tinkering with a small part of a chapter, I have be sure I’m getting everything right—and if I get stuck, I can’t devise some clever plot twist to move things along, or introduce a new character to antagonize my hero.  So I need my notes.  At the moment, I’m working out of a black binder that has all the photocopies of articles, notes, and interviews I need.  Into the shoulder bag it went.

Second, I always keep a yellow journal next to me where I write down research questions that occur to me as I write.  This is different than my black notebook, which holds the research itself; this is the book where I write down things like, “Double check events for May 1956.  Does the quote from John Smith really explain what happened? CHECK.”  Exciting stuff like that. Anyway, that goes into the shoulder bag, too.

Throw in the one or two books I’m also currently using in my research, and the shoulder bag I tossed into the back seat last night weighed about thirty pounds.  So much for spontaneously visiting  a coffee shop.  It was more like Edmund Hilary preparing for Everest.

Anyway, when I finally did make it to Starbucks, it was clear I had waaaay too much stuff to sit at one of those little round tables in the front window.  Instead, I chose the one long table they had—the one that’s reserved for wheelchairs, statutorily making me a cad–and spread out my notebook, journal, laptop, and obligatory cup of coffee.  I had officially made a mess.

It was then that I decided I won’t be writing in coffee shops or other public places. I’m better off cluttering up my space at home, spreading notebooks across every level surface, sticking Post It notes on walls and tables, and having the books I need immediately on hand. Perhaps that has more to do with the way that I work than the way other non-fiction writers work—but I would bet, at the very least, most of us are more comfortable having our notes on hand rather than winging away without them.

But for those of you who are sitting there winging away: I’m officially envious of your workspace.  And I’m all but certain you’re writing fiction.

Up In The Mornin’ And Off To School…

It’s the first day of the new school year in our little corner of Maryland, about two weeks later than usual, for some reason–normally, it seems we start around the 20th of August or so.  I’m not sure what happened to the days when school started the week of Labor Day.  Maybe that’s one of those memories that dates me, in the same way that I remember jungle gyms being built on huge pads of solid concrete that baked under the hot sun, so you could burn yourself if you tried to go barefoot, or break your arm if you fell off the monkey bars, instead of landing unhurt on that weird soft cushiony stuff they use these days that was actually found inside a meteor and does not exist naturally on this planet.

Wait, where was I?

Right.  School starting.  So, over the weekend, Barb and I ran down the laundry list of things you need to make sure your kid has before she heads out that first day.  We also made a point of reviewing the morning schedule that we would be getting back to, now that summer is over and a 13-year-old’s day can no longer begin at 10:47 a.m. 

Since . . . well, forever, really, I’ve been the one who wakes Madi up in the morning.  That’s not to say that she doesn’t set her alarm.  She does.  And she shuts it off immediately and goes back to sleep, so I have to come in, flick on the light and announce that it is now 6:31, and the bus will be here in thirty  minutes, and if the bus is missed, there is no way I am driving you to school, and I am not bluffing, I assure you, even though I am and she knows it.

And actually, she never misses the bus.  But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t sometimes make it exciting.

Anyway, this weekend, I tried to pull off another tremendous bluff, and announced that since Madi was now in eighth grade, I was through coming in and making sure she’s up.  “I’ll alert you when it’s 6:50 and time to get ready for the bus, but that’s it,” I said, not too convincingly.

Well.  Madi was up and about without any help. Turns out I failed to factor in one thing:  mascara.  As it turns out, it doesn’t matter how much or how little makeup you allow your teenage to wear, it will always take at least thirty minutes to apply.  So they build in a Makeup Buffer. And, later, probably the hair buffer.

It’s not that I had forgotten that little fact; I had actually never known it.  Because I have never been the parent of a teenager.  And when the hell did that happen?

Countdown to July

Apologies for the shortage of posts here lately, but I’m suddenly working under several deadlines.  All of them are really fun projects that I’m delighted to be working on, but it seems they all ended up being due at close to the same time. 

As if that wasn’t enough to keep me away from the blog, Barb and I are leaving this week for England, where she’s attending science conferences in London and Oxford.  I’m going along for the ride, but I’ll also be getting a bit of work done for Project Blue Harvest, as I’ll have the opportunity to visit some of the sites associated with my subject. Plus I’d be remiss if I didn’t make a quick trip to Abbey Road to stroll across the world’s most famous crosswalk.  Along with 50,000 other tourists, of course.

We’ll also be in London for our anniversary, which is July 4.  While we joke that it’s a great date for an anniversary because we always get fireworks, I’m betting July 4 is a date that passes without much notice or fanfare in the United Kingdom…

Reorganized Chaos

bordersI’ve been to two different Borders book stores in the last two weeks — one in Maryland, one in Pennsylvania — and both have been in a state of upheaval. Books are stacked on the floor. Some sections feature only bare shelves, while others are packed so tightly together there’s barely room to turn around.

And yet, I don’t mind the mess a bit, because it appears that Borders is shuffling itself around and reorganizing its layout to make things easier to find.  The biggest improvement? By far, it’s the addition of a Biography section.

Currently, Borders shelves its biographies in other areas it deems relevant, even when that makes things even more confusing.  Presidential biographies are shelved in U.S. History.  Jock bios go in Sports, while celebrity bios are in with the Film and Music section, where their placement alongside Piano for Dummies and The Art of The Matrix makes the section one huge non-sequitur.

Worse — and I’ll admit I’m biased in this — biographies of writers are placed in the Literature section, where they are then shelved by the name of the biographer, rather than the subject.  If you’re looking for my Washington Irving bio, for example, it’s in the literature section — which is mostly fiction — and shelved alphabetically under my last name, rather than with Irving’s works.  It really doesn’t make much sense; it’s a non-intuitive spot, and any casual browsers of Irving’s works are unlikely to find it (though my daughter, to her immense credit, any time she spots my book at Borders, usually puts it with Irving’s works and always turns it “face out,” as she expertly says).

The addition of this new section alone is a welcome change at Borders.  And in the Shuffling The Deck Chairs Department, I’m hoping that this reorganization means Borders has been able to hold off the bankruptcy that’s been rumored since last year.  Anyone heard anything?

Wednesday Odds and Ends

Some random shiny objects I wanted to bring to your attention:

– I’m a few days late with this, but the latest issue of  The Biographer’s Craft hit inboxes earlier this week. Editor Jamie McGrath keeps it short, sweet, and always interesting:  this month features a piece on Olivia Gentile and her book on Phoebe Snetsinger, Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds, an update on the fledgling Biographers International Organization, a short remembrance of the late David Herbert Donald, and — one of my favorite pieces — a new entry on writers’ work spaces.  Plus, you’ll get updates on new and recently acquired biographies, and Jamie’s running commentary. 

You can get the June issue right here.  And you should do so right now.

– I’m getting ready to make a quick trip up to New York City next week to hook up with Agent J so we can attend another meeting regarding Project Blue Harvest.   I still don’t want to say too much until we’ve got something firm to report, but suffice it to say, this one should be fun.  I’m looking forward to it, and it’s always a pleasure to catch up with Jonathan.

– Finally, here’s a super cool trailer for the coming Beatles: Rock Band, as well as a more cinematic introduction. Man, I can’t wait to get my hands on this thing.