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30 posts from July 2011

July 31, 2011

It has no life . . .And then it does


By Dana Cameron    

Even though the heat wave has broken for some of us, I think we're all feeling a little oppressed by this summer on many levels.  So here's a chill for you:  puppets.
Get a little frisson there?  A shiver up the spine?  I did.  It was brought back to me last week, when I was touring with the editor and several of the Capecodnoir_books contributors to Cape Cod Noir (http://tinyurl.com/4yk6h9c).  We had four fun events, and talked about the despicable and hateful things our characters did, or compared them with the desperate and violent things other authors' characters did.  I talked about the amoral — or is she just misunderstood? — Anna Hoyt and her latest adventures “Ardent” and “Disarming,” now a podcast (http://tinyurl.com/3hzm96q), and the terrible, mortal choices she faces. No one batted an eyelash.  
 After the events, Mr. G and I went looking for dead things washed up on the beach, and visited the Edward Gorey House museum (http://tinyurl.com/ybz5f53), to see the home of the illustrator known for macabre and wonderful illustrations, most of which deal with wasting death, mourning, and what's hiding under your bed. So like most of you reading this, it's not like I'm unacquainted with the ooky or grim, but stepping into one room of the Gorey house, I was brought up as short as if I'd accidentally wandered into the Arachnid Hall of Fame. 
 Before I even saw them, something made me start to edge to the door.  There they were.  Along the opposite wall, was a row of doors, and on top of the doors were a line of hand-made puppets.  I was just about able to note that they were obviously Gorey-esque.  I broke out into a sweat.  I didn't run, but I kept one eye on them at all times, uneasy until I left the room. 
 I don't know what it is.  Maybe it's the human-like faces.  I think part of it is the shell of something waited to be animated by another force.  It has no life...and then it does ... and then after, it's an empty piece of cloth again.  Just ... waiting.
 Sure it's an existential thing, but I write about vampires and werewolves, the mutation of flesh, sex, power, and pure evil.  Hell, in my latest story (http://tinyurl.com/3zdmsf2), I write about a vampire having sex while Wildsidecover she fights pure evil.  Why the hang up over cloth or papier mache?  I'm not the only one:  Joss Whedon, among others, has revisited the horror of puppets repeatedly, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel the Series, and, arguably, in Doll House.  There's even a word, pupaphobia, for the extreme fear of puppets (and not as I first thought, fear of puppies). 
Irrational, yes, and I can hear some of you saying:  But Dana ... we've seen you with puppets. In my defense, that started as a joke: I cheekily announced at a convention I would be doing interpretive dance, pole dancing, or sock puppets at another session. I opted for interpretive dance that day, but brought sock puppets another time (I'm only glad there wasn't a pole in the room). I've even bought finger puppets for friends.  But here's the thing: I don't like looking at them when they're not in use. I have puppets in the house, but I don't keep them where children can accidentally stumble over them.  Like the scenes in the Toymaker's apartment in Blade Runner, or the idea behind Being John Malkovich, you should have a little warning before you encounter puppets.
 Puppets are bad, but don't get me started about clowns.  Talk about chilling...
 No, seriously, talk about chilling.  What gives you the creeps?


 DanaCameronHeadShot Dana Cameron’s Fangborn story "Swing Shift" was nominated for an Agatha, an Anthony, and a Macavity this year; her third Fangborn story, "Love Knot," appears in "The Wild Side" August 2. Her third colonial noir adventure, "Ardent," was published in June. When not exploring the dark colonial past and the violent but hopeful lycanthropic present, Dana tries to avoid puppets, spiders, hot peppers, and big dogs.



July 30, 2011

The Scam Collector

Hi, Elaine Viets here. Let me introduce you to Thomas Kaufman, an Emmy-winning Tkc director/cameraman who also writes mysteries.  His first book, DRINK THE TEA, won the Private Eye Writers of America/St Martin's Press Competition for Best First Novel.  His second book, STEAL THE SHOW, comes out this July.  You can see the rest of his blog tour here.

By Thomas Kaufman

I'm interested in scams. Sometimes I think there are as many ways to scam as there are people. Today I thought I'd write about two different scams – one in Africa, and one here in the US.

A few years ago I was in Ghana, shooting for a WGBH documentary called SCIENCE ODYSSEY. The producer, Larry Klein, and I had spent about ten days filming in Tamale (pronounced TAH-ma-lay), about 120 miles south of the border with Burkino Faso. Here's some clips from that shoot:


Ghana Journey from Thomas Kaufman on Vimeo.

Now our shoot was over and we were flying back home. It took eight hours to drive south on roads that looked like they'd been used for mortar practice. We finally got to Accra, the capitol city of Ghana. After a good night's sleep in a hotel, we had time to kill before our plane left. It was Sunday morning, and at a local market I picked up two Dashikis that had Kente cloth from a village where we'd filmed. I was walking back to the hotel with Larry, when a young man brushed past us.

Larry took another step, stopped, looked at his wrist, then asked me if he'd been wearing a watch when we left the hotel. Larry's wrist was bare, except for a tiny red dot in the center, just about where the metal prong of the watchstrap's buckle would be.

So what we had just witnessed, without knowing it, was a young man adept at stealing watches. When he brushed into Larry, he undid Larry's watchstrap so fast that the metal prong went into his skin. By the time Larry knew what had happened, the kid was long gone, along with Larry's watch.

Now, do you need to go to Africa to get scammed? Not if you live in Washington, DC.

Stealtheshow5 It's a great place to live, a small southern town of 800,000 hard-working people that happens to have the federal government squatting on top of it. Kind of like the flying saucer that squats on a DC baseball field in DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.

While that great movie had a lesson for all mankind, the only lesson I've found from living in DC is to watch your back. This place has its share of scam artists, and not all of them are members of Congress.

Last winter I'd finished an outdoors film shoot, so the producer and I went to a small place for lunch. We'd been in the freezing cold for hours, and my hands and feet felt numb. It was nice to get someplace warm. What came next was classic DC:

We pay the bill, and as we walk outside a man intercepts us.

"Hey, man, I'm driving that cab over there. Can you tell me how to get to New York Avenue and 7th?"

Was he serious? I took a look at this guy – African American, about six feet, plaid shirt and jeans and green camo jacket. "It's over that way," I say, putting doubt in my voice. How could a DC cabdriver not know that?

"Thanks. You got a twenty for two tens?"

Okay, let's stop a moment. A twenty for two tens? This guy doesn't want to break a big bill into smaller ones – just the opposite. What was he up to?

"Sure," I say. I open my wallet, find a twenty, and he gives me two tens. We're done now, right?

Not quite. The man takes a step away, a big giant step, kind of a cartoon step, it's that exaggerated. Then he stops. He makes sure I see him stop. Then he says, "Hey. Wait a second. I gave you two tens, you gave me a one." He shows me the one in his hand.

It's the only bill there.

He had switched the bills when he took his cartoon step, palming the twenty and substituting the one. Not bad, except that I hadn't had a one in my wallet to hand him.

I take another look at this guy. His shirt is thin, the plaid colors worn away. His hands are hard and callused. They wouldn't get that way driving a cab.

And it's winter. DC doesn't get really bad winters, but as the temperature drops, there's a rise in homeless deaths due to hypothermia. Yes, we have homeless shelters in DC, but they can be dangerous places. I've known plenty of homeless people who'd rather take their chances sleeping outside on a heating grate, than risk the shelter.

Hence the scam – he gives up two tens, plus a dollar, and gets two twenties back, netting nineteen dollars. For that much, he can get a meal, and find a warm place to hole up and sleep for two or three days.

I hand him a second twenty. He gives me the dollar. Now we're done. I look him in the eye, I want to tell him it's okay. But to do that means I've seen through it, that his scam sucks (and it really does). Instead, I nod at him. He nods back and heads off to his imaginary cab. I say goodbye to the producer and drive home, where my wife and kids are listening to music and playing a board game.

I'm nineteen dollars poorer, but I don't feel poor at all. Just the opposite.

How about you? Have you ever been scammed?

July 29, 2011

The Great Summer Chicken Saga

(Nancy P. here.)  Dear TLC readers, it is my great pleasure to introduce to you one of the nicest, most interesting and talented authors I know, Susan Wittig Albert. Today, she's going to take us where I suspect this blog has never gone before, and I don't mean Texas. . .

The Great Summer Chicken Saga

By Susan Wittig Albert

 It’s been hot this summer. Very hot. Very, very hot.

But you already know this, because it’s been hot where you live, too—unless you live in the Pacific Northwest, in which case we will be glad to send you some of what we have way too much of.

But the heat is not the main feature of my summer, here on the 31 acres of Texas Hill Country that Bill and I share with two cows (a longhorn and a half-horn), two dogs, a cat, coyotes, deer, armadillos, wild pigs, possums, raccoons, and skunks.

No. The main feature of my summer is chickens. Twenty-four of them. Twenty-four “Cornish roasters,” to be precise. But let us be clear from the outset. These are not chickens that will lay gorgeous brown eggs and become beloved family pets. These are chickens that become fried chicken, chicken fricassee, chicken á la king, and chicken salad. Vegetarians, avert your eyes and cover your ears. These are chickens that are destined to be eaten.

But even chickens fated for the frying pan deserve to be chronicled. So here, in brief, is their story.

 Week One

Chicks#1 Chickens that are called to be cuisine don’t start off life looking anything like company dinner. They start off looking like adorable little balls of golden fluff. Which is exactly what they were when I opened the box that arrived at our post office on the morning of June 6. “Mrs. Albert,” the plaintive voice on the phone had said, at seven on that Monday morning. “Please, pretty please, come and get your chickens. They are making a LOT of noise. They are driving us CRAZY.” And of course nobody wants to drive a postal employee crazy.


 Week Two

These adorable balls of fluff are making themselves at home in our second bathroom, right next door to my writing studio. In the bathtub. Yes, the bathtub. What better place to keep baby chicks? Handy to water, to electricity (they need light to stay warm), and to me, Chicken Mama. I can write, dash into the bathroom to check on the chicks, dash back out and write. Repeat on the hour, every hour. Of course, this naturally slows down the book (The Darling Dahlias and the Confederate Rose) so that I have to ask for an extension, which my editor generously grants. I don’t tell her why. 

Week Three


The limits of the bathtub brooder, while ideal in many respects, make themselves crystal clear when the chicks, by some miracle of nature, begin to grow. They are now able to withstand a low temperature of 70 (oh, I wish the temperature would drop that low!), so they can move out to their new chicken coop, where they may enjoy the pleasures of their chicken yard and eat to their hearts’ content. Unfortunately, the coop is an 80-yard round trip from the house, which slows down the book even further. I ask for another extension.


Week Four


Of course, because the chickens are eating so much now, they grow. Faster. And bigger.

 Weeks Five and Six

 And even bigger. Did you know that 24 chickens can eat 50 pounds of chicken food in one week? Now you do.

 Week Seven

  Chicks,last In fact, these chickens are eating so much and growing so grossly obese that by their seventh week, they have turned into Chicken Couch Potatoes, content to do nothing but sit as close to the feeder as possible. The heat may have something to do with their laziness. This week, our average daily high was 105. Lordy, lordy, it’s hot.

 Week Eight

Well. All good things come to an end, and this saga is coming to an end soon. How do I know? Because the pullets (the girl chickens) will achieve frying chicken weight this week, and the cockerels (the boy chickens) will be roaster size about a week later. At which point, they are cordially invited to a processing party. When that’s over, they will go to a place where they will be very, very cool. The freezer.

 And so ends the Great Summer Chicken Saga—but not quite. For even after the heat of summer has faded (it will, I hope!) these chickens will provide tasty, organically-grown food for our table. Yes, I know—it’s easier and cheaper to go to the grocery and buy a whole rotisserie-broiled chicken in a cute little chicken-shaped plastic box, or drive another mile to Whole Foods and fork over a week’s pay for a three-pound fryer. But I was lucky enough to grow up on a farm, where I was introduced to the pleasure of growing my own food. Chickens—whether I’m raising Rhode Island Reds for their lovely brown eggs or Cornish for their plump thighs and delectable breasts—are an important part of my life.

 The way I see it, if you’re lucky enough to be able to grow your own chickens, you’re lucky enough.


Susan w. albert
Susan Wittig Albert is the author of the China Bayles mysteries, the Cottage  Tales of Beatrix Potter, and the new Darling Dahlias series. She blogs at www.susanalbert.typepad.com/lifescapes. Her website: www.susanalbert.com.




July 28, 2011

I'm really sorry to have to do this, but. . .

By Nancy Pickard

I hope you'll forgive me, but I'm going to call you some bad words now.  Oh, god.  I feel terrible about this, but you deserve it, you really have it coming.  Believe me, you'll be better for it when I'm finished.  So don't hate me, okay?  I'm only saying these things as your friend, for your own good.  Okay.  Deep breath.  Ready? Here goes. . .

"You. . .you. . . reliable person you!  You are talented and tremendous. . .and, and, and. . . influential!" 

Offended yet?  You would have been if you'd been the poet Coleridge back in 1832, when he proclaimed that the word "talented" was "barbarous."  ( SUCH a great word and not used nearly enough outside of the British Parliament, imo.  I'm going to email it to the President and suggest he find a place for it in his next address.  "It's barbarous!" the President thundered!  Okay, maybe this President wouldn't thunder, and since when did thunder become an intransitive verb anyway?)  But I digress.

No, really, I don't digress, or at least not much, because this is about words that morph from one part of speech to another--morphing words, morphed words, morphly morphative morphonomous words.  I made a few of those up, but which ones? And does anybody know what a "morph" is when it's at home?  I think maybe it's a small furry caterpillar with an insecurity complex. . .or why else would it keep changing like that? MilkweedTussockMothCaterpillar11oClock

The reason Coleridge loathed "talented"people  was not professional jealousy.  Or, at least, as far as I know, it wasn't, though you do have to wonder about a guy who thought opium was dandy but "talented" was uncivilized.  Do you remember the legendary "Person from Porlock" who allegedly interrupted Coleridge as he wrote  "Kubla Khan"? Maybe that Person from Porlock was talented, and that was what really pissed off the poet, ha.

 But no.  According to a recent article in the BBC News Magazine, Samuel Taylor Coleridge loathed the word because it was an abomination borrowed from us, the United Statesians.  (That was for you Canadians who get sick of hearing us claim "American" all for ourselves.)  We, you see, had morphed it from its proper "talent."  One might have talent, but no lettered gentleman would use the vulgar, "talented."  Similarly, one might exert influence, especially if one had attended Cambridge, but only the crass would describe a man as "influential."  Shudder. I haven't found out why "tremendous" was so offensive, but I think it might be because its meaning had turned upsidedown at some point, morphing from something that was dreadful enough to cause trembling, to something great and glorious.  The nerve of those language upstarts! 

As for the dread "reliable," BBC Magazine says:  "A letter-writer to the Times, in 1857, described 'reliable' as 'vile.'"

Ha!  Perhaps the letter-writer was a young woman who liked Bad Boys.


Butch and Sundance.  Unreliable as hell, and definitely not vile.  :)

But we'd never do this, right?  We'd never take umbrage (oooo, nice!) at mere morphages of words?

Maybe you wouldn't, but if I never hear "gift" used as a verb again in my lifetime I will consider it a gift. 

"Darling, let me gift you with this toaster oven."

"Sweetheart, let me brain you with this club."

Do you have pet peeves about words that used to stand as straight and tall as a knight, words as good and pure as a Lady, and which have been dragged through the putrid slime of morphification?  And if you don't, give us a poem, Mate, give us a poem, a poem with words, frabjous words!


 In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately Pleasure-Dome decree,
Where Alph, the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea--

"Oh, Bloody hell!

"Jeeves?! Was that the bloody doorbell?"



July 27, 2011

Kitchen Gadgets

Margaret Maron

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about world-changing gadgets and how I disagreed with the list that the History Channel thought were most important. (Lots of you did, too.)  That set me thinking about how we might rank the gadgets in our own kitchens, excluding the refrigerator, the range, and the dishwasher.

100_1829I have two drawers devoted to the usual assortment of gizmos: potato peeler, lemon zester, butter curler, garlic press, can opener, tongs, scissors, baster, etc. and I use them all fairly frequently . . . well, no, maybe not the butter curler.

I give cupboard space to a waffle iron, toaster, espresso machine, and deep fryer, but these seldom come out of the cupboard more than once or twice a year and that’s usually when we have houseguests (with butter curls for their waffles!) Images-3


A blender and a crock pot live in that same cupboard, but the blender’s a summer gadget—frozen margaritas and canning tomatoes—and the crock pot makes hearty stews in the winter so both get a lot of use in their seasons.

The toaster oven and microwave sit side-by-side on their own open shelf above a counter and each gets used two or three times a day.  As does the coffee maker that is important enough to merit space on the countertop itself.

All these gadgets are useful and make my life easier, but if I were told I could only have three gadgets and the rest would have to go, which three would I save, which would I sacrifice?

This is not Sophie’s choice.  We’re not talking children, one’s own flesh and blood, nor even an unblemished lamb, but it did make me think a bit.

Okay, I could give up the crockpot, toaster oven and microwave.  They are efficient, work well and quickly, but my gas range could handle their functions and surely I’d eventually start remembering to take things out of the freezer two hours earlier?

The coffeemaker?  Again, I know how to make stovetop coffee in a saucepan.

Spoons and knives could do the work of most of the gadget drawer's contents.

So which three would I most hate to do without?


#3 – our electric coffee grinder. (Are you listening, Twist?) Beans freshly ground to the desired fineness is a true luxury that has become a necessity in this house ever since a friend sent us this Cadillac of grinders.

#2 – a hand mixer.  As someone who grew up without an electric mixer, I can’t tell you how weary you can get trying to whip egg whites into stiff peaks or make smooth mashed potatoes or even mix up pancake batter with only a wire whisk.

#1 – our 13-year-old food processor.  It can, if absolutely necessary, do most of what a blender can (very, very small margaritas though) and I bless it every time I need to slice carrots, dice onions, chop nuts, or make cole slaw, an integral part of Southern cuisine.

If you had to strip down your kitchen, which gadgets would they have to pry out of your protesting hands?


July 26, 2011

Broken Promises: The Working Poor

Broken Promises: The Working Poor

This has been a miserable summer.  The weather is breaking heat and humidity records, we have no more Harry Potter movies to anticipate, kids can no longer dream of being astronauts, and the politicians in DC seem particularly asshole-ish.  To mangle a Jon Stewart bit, it's like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gets Drunk, Tells His Constituents to Go Fuck Themselves, and Blows up The Smithsonian."

This isn't a political blog - in fact, it's hard to tell the difference between the alleged parties these days.  One Asshat looks just as moronic as another.  I think, though, that there is something we can clear up, if we work together.

One of the greatest promises of our country is this: if you work hard, you will be secure.  This is the basis of the American dream.  This is what called most of our families here from other countries. This promise fuels our work ethic, our sense of pride and accomplishment, and the lessons we teach our children.

Right before our eyes, that promise is being broken.

Most people could care less about a debt ceiling that is already so obscene that we cannot imagine its volume.  Most people just want jobs.  Jobs that allow them to feed their families, hold their heads up, own their own homes, and contribute to our society as a whole.

In case you haven't been paying attention to what is really going on in DC, the people in this country who are really getting shafted by the cuts in government programs are the Working Poor.  They are NOT, as many people seem to believe, made up exclusively of crackheads and people who hold up convenience stores.  Sure, there are deadbeats, but the majority of the people who need support are the ones who are working their asses off and still losing their homes. These are people who work more than one job - they work more hours than most of us reading this blog, but they can't keep up with expenses because costs are going up and their wages are not.  These are people who have no health insurance, and rely on state and federal programs so they can take their kids to the doctors.

These are people who have to decide which bill to pay - medicine, food, or utilities.  And now we need to include the elderly - you know - the people who already spent a lifetime working based on the understanding that all the money they paid in to Social Security would provide for them after retirement.  Pension plans?  Most people lost the money they earned when their former employers went bankrupt/got refinanced/sold out/etc.  Don't miss the important part - they money they earned - by working for 40 years, only to lose it because someone got greedy and/or cooked the books.

These are not people spending money in casinos, or buying $200 pairs of shoes.  These are not people who choose between eating out at Red Robin or at Applebees.  These are not even people who get to decide whether to buy two tubes of toothpaste if it's on sale, because they barely have enough money to buy one for their family.  These are people who's souls are seared because their children go to bed hungry.

Before you tell me that I sound like a bleeding heart, or a liberal, or a socialist, or whatever term is fashionable to connote: "Tax and spend irresponsible reprobate", take a step back.  If it weren't for the whole pacifism thing, I'd be a true Libertarian.  I don't like anyone telling me how to live, especially elected officials who wouldn't know the Constitution if it grew fangs and bit them on the ass.

This debate has more to do with humanity than it does with political labels.  This is no hypothetical. People are losing their homes and can't feed their kids.  This is crisis time.  Unemployment is a reality.  People - regardless of education or experience or race or gender or religion - are losing their jobs every day.  You could be next.

What kind of country do you want to live in?  Because if America has become a country that disregards the fate of innocents in order to maintain an intransigent position on some kind of political theory, it's not a country I can be proud of.  If we sit silently by, and allow these elected officials to make decisions that break the backs and hearts of the people who just want to make a decent living, then more shame is on us than on them.

Whether you agree with me or not, the time for passive behavior is over.  Take a position.  Research the primary facts to support it.  And then demand that the men and women in Washington, DC fulfill their promise to represent their constituents.  

Enough with the broken promises.  We are better than that.  Time to stand up and act like it. 




**Please note that I wrote this blog prior to the Monday night addresses/commentaries/"news" coverage and other discussions regarding the debt ceiling crisis.  You should take whatever parts of those developments into consideration before you finalize your position.  


July 25, 2011

Y'all Come!

by Heather

Okay, I can’t help it. It’s my day to blog—so it is a bit of an advertisement, but for a really good reason, I promise.

Decadent, haunted, decaying elegance. Cemetery

That’s one of the best and most alluring descriptions I’ve heard regarding the incredibly historic city, New Orleans, Louisiana.

I love it! Now, it’s a strange place, one of those places where people go and fall in love, or go—and decide not to go back. It’s a mixed bag of unbelievable architecture, Americana, history, debauchery, music, art, and so much more.

I was there one weekend years ago with my family, filming a trailer for a book about to come out Th_0778322181
then called Ghost Walk. That same week, Katrina came in and ripped up South Florida—and continued across the Gulf to kill and destroy all along the coast, with flooding destroying homes and lives in the grand old city.

Bourbonstreet1 My dad brought me there when I was very young. (No, Dad and I did not go cruising down Bourbon Street!) I saw the old houses, the cemeteries—the “Cities of the Dead,” the cathedral, the art—and I heard the music. It began a lifelong relationship for me. After Katrina, I acquired another child when schools there shipped their students out. I have friends I cherish there, and in Houma and Lafayette, and family over in Baton Rouge.


So . . . after the storm, I’m talking with friends and they were bitter, of course—NOLA was failed by the city, the parish, the state, and the federal government. But they were ready to pick up the pieces, and to pick up the pieces, they needed to get back to work. So . . . thus was born Heather Graham’sWriters for New Orleans. www.writersforneworleans.com


The conference is at cost, and we started it out with . . . hm. Who uses New Orleans? Writers! So writers will want to keep the city going. Except that the con wasn’t going to be for any particular kind of writer, just writers. Then, hey, who cares if you write? Maybe you read. Okay, if you don’t read, you probably eat, so come to NOLA, and enjoy the parties we put on! Whatever, come!

F_paul_wilson Now we do some great panels, with great guest speakers. We have editor/agent appointments. Helen Rosburg of Medallion Press is putting on a champagne welcome party this year, and Kathy Love, Erin McCarthy, and F. Paul Wilson are doing an evening bash—guess your Civil War characters—to go along with the theme of our Saturday night dinner theater—Civil War Zombies for Peace.

Please come! Just check out the website (writersforneworleans.com,) contact Connie, and come spend some money in a city that is so unique, and so profoundly American. The grand—decaying and elegant—city survived the storm and the oil spill and now, the economy is taking its toll. So, if you’ve ever been fascinated by the cemeteries, the architecture, the music, the art—come!

P129704-New_Orleans-Hotel_Monteleone We have fantastic rates at the Monteleone—$105 a night for three days before, the conferenceand three days after the conference.  

Head out to the plantations! The trailer we did here for the Krewe of Hunter series was filmed out at the Myrtles, where our group had the whole house and the Peace River Ghost Trackers to film and explore.

There’s so much!

You all come on down! SpookyRiverBanner


July 24, 2011

Serious Reservations

Dog bowl 
By Elaine Viets

I have serious reservations about cooking. That’s why I eat out whenever I can. Fortunately, Don is no fan of home-cooked meals, either.  At least not when they’re cooked by me.

We’ve eaten some fabulous restaurant food, and some concoctions that taste like Alpo on a plate. Over the years, we’ve learned – usually the hard way – how spot  third-rate restaurants.

Here are nine warning signs.

(1) A big menu doesn’t mean the chef is creative.            

It means an 18-year-old kid is shoving food into a microwave.

(2) Beware of places that put the staff in funny costumesLederhosen.

Unless you’re hiking in the Black Forest, you shouldn’t see young men in lederhosen. Avoid restaurants that make the servers wear them. Underneath that gemutlich costume is an embarrassed server who would give his night’s tips to wear normal clothes to work. Ditto for the waitress in the dirndl.

It’s cruel to make the staff dress like hillbillies or English serving wenches. Worse, the restaurant is probably making the staff pay for their humiliation. They may have to buy those silly outfits.

(3) Music duels.

Two kinds of music hit another sour note in a third-rate restaurant. When you hear sweet strings on the restaurant’s piped-in music and hard rock coming form the radio in the kitchen, nobody’s in charge.

(4) Watch out for places that calls themselves "downhome" or brag about their "country cooking."

If country cooking is spelled with Ks, head for the hills. That country-fried coating can be an excuse for cheap food and sloppy service.

You can trust almost any restaurant that calls itself a cafe if it’s more than twenty years old. EAT is another good sign.

                                        Ma and pa kettle

(5) The French Connection.

Unless the owner’s name is Claudette or Pierre, soup du jour should be the only French phrase on the menu. Fractured French usually translates as mediocre food with outrageous prices.

Restaurants that call French fries pommes frites are always pretentious.

(6) For swingers only.

Beware of restaurants that prop open the swinging doors between the kitchen and the dining room, treating diners to views of dirty dishes and sweating staff. They don’t care any more.

(7) Disaster relief.

Any restaurant can have an occasional disaster. The kitchen may lose your order. Chef Your chicken may be overcooked. It happens.

NOTE: If the place has several police cars with dancing light bars, avoid it.

But the good restaurants buy you a drink or a free dessert to make up for their mistakes. Any place that just hands you an apology isn’t sorry – it’s downright pathetic.

(8) Managers are not ornamental.

At good restaurants, managers help out during a rush. They get your check, pour coffee or clear a table.

When you see overworked servers darting about while the manager stands around doing nothing, watch out. The manager is too good to work. The place is run just like your office.

Would you want to eat there?

Travel tip: One sure-fire way to find good food in a small town.

Look for the restaurant with one or more cop cars in the lot. If local law enforcement eats there, the food is usually tasty and inexpensive. This is also a safe place for women travelers to dine without getting hassled.



July 23, 2011

Guest blogger, Sarah Bird

 Holly here. In the late 1980's I was working in a lovely independent bookstore on Whidbey Island (Moonraker Books -- go visit, it's great)(Oops, hijacked blog in the first sentence!). I also was on the search for a fun, kinda sexy novel. Chic Lit hadn't been invented yet, I hadn't discovered Jennifer Crusie yet, but I came across a column in a women's magazine that was just as funny and irreverent as I was looking for. At the bottom of the article, a brief bio and the title of the author's novel, Alamo House. I ordered it and inhaled it and have been a fan of Sarah Bird's ever since.


“Your editor asked you to reconnect with an old flame? Does she know that reconnecting with a lost love can be like taking crack cocaine?"

Okay, crack cocaine. That got my attention. Not exactly what I’d expected when I called Nancy Kalish, a developmental psychology professor at California State University in Sacramento. Kalish is the leading expert on rekindled romance and I had an assignment from Good Housekeeping to write about reconnecting on the Internet.

I repeated my mission. This time with a lot less of the professional confidence I’d been able to fake the first time, “My editor wants me to get in touch with two friends and an old flame?”

“The old flame part,” Kalish said. “That’s the part I can’t believe.” Kalish had the stats to back up her incredulity. She’d researched more than 2,000 of these reunions and discovered that Facebook, classmates.com, and our old friend, Google, have wrecked more homes than a tornado in a trailer park.

"Fifty percent of the rekindlers I surveyed report that they'd had wonderful marriages — before they reconnected. They didn't expect meeting again to pack such a wallop. Now that looking for old flames is so easy and trendy, happy marriages are crumbling.” Crumbling at such a rate that her entire private practice is now devoted to attempts to save once-happy marriages devastated by Internet reconnects.

For about a second, she had me worried. I mean, I am most definitively in the happy marriage category. Then the whole thing seemed ridiculous. It’s been decades and a couple of dress sizes since the old flame and I torched through our torrid romance. I knew for a fact that age had cooled those embers.

"Doesn't matter," Kalish warned. "Wrinkles, weight, none of that matters. Some neuroscience research suggests that early loves are encoded in the brain, the same way cocaine addiction is. Seeing that person again, talking on the phone, even an e-mail triggers all those visceral memories of being young and in love. Do not get in touch with this man."

I loved all these alarmist quotes, they would be great for the article. The article which required that I “get in touch with this man.”

I kept telling myself how absurd Kalish’s warnings were. I mean, I wasn’t some sad specimen whose glory days had ended when they stuck a mortar board on my head and a high school diploma in my hand. I had a husband, son, career, two dogs, and a chubby gerbil that I loved. How could one Google search threaten that?

So I cried havoc, and let the Googling begin. Besides, it was easy to be dispassionate. I’d never searched him before since I knew the obscure object of my long ago passion to be such a diehard technophobe that there was no way that there would be a single pixel of him anywhere.

Which is why I was unprepared when, a couple of clicks later, his face filled, filled! my screen. For a split second, I recognized that he was no longer the handsome young man I had loved insanely. There were a pair of bifocals and a deeply eroded hairline. But then, like looking at a piece of fabric that magically turns iridescent when it’s tilted ever so slightly, the decades fell away and he was again, exactly, the handsome young man I had loved insanely. And, just like that the years fell away and I was once again the besotted young woman, throttled by desire, whom he’d driven from exhilaration to despair. The intensity of my reaction unnerved me. But what truly gave me pause was my impulse to delete my search history so that my husband would never stumble across it.

Not that I have intimate knowledge of crack cocaine, but it appeared that Kalish was right.


In the end, me and my old beau exchanged a few innocuous catch-up e-mails that, yes, I did find I way more exciting than the ones I traded with the long lost girlfriends I found. I wrote the article and forgot about rekindled love until it came blazing back in the form of an ex-husband. Not mine. I have only ever had the one. But in the fictional form of my protagonist’s lost love who re-enters her life after her daughter and her daughter’s college fund disappear.

It was exhilarating to know for a fact about the strange power of a lost love. It allowed me to understand how fully just the sound of his voice would derail her and upend her world. It allowed me to write the reunion that I never had and to experience the dangerous iridescence of a rekindled romance.




Sarah Bird is an American novelist, screenwriter, and journalist. Her father was an officer in the US Air Force, and her Catholic family of eight traveled with him around the US and the world during her childhood.

Bird’s first published novel was Do Evil Cheerfully, a mystery. In 1986, her comic novel The Alamo House was published based on her experience as a graduate student at the University of Texas.

In addition to novels, Bird has written screenplays for television and film and magazine articles for national magazines. She also writes a column for Texas Monthly.




Holly again. I have the pleasure of offering two copies of Sarah's The Gap Year (these are ARC's). Please email me at [email protected] and I will let the random number generator choose two lucky readers to recieve these ARC's. [Note: one of these books has been read. By me. You won't be able to tell, honest. (It's really good).]

July 22, 2011

Long and Silky

 by Barbara O'Neal

4422832082_89fbd7959b_z The other day, I saw a woman at the grocery store pulling her long hair over her shoulder.  The day
was breezy, and she was capturing the mass of it to keep it from blowing wildly.   It was very long, past her waist, and she smoothed it with a palm, lovingly, as one might stroke the back of a cat or a child. 

As will happen periodically, the sight of such long hair made me wonder if it is time to grow mine out again. It wasn’t so much the look of it, but the way her hands moved over it in that sensual, comfortable, pleased way.   There is nothing like the feel of all that hair, moving over shoulders, arms, back, breasts.   

My mother and I warred over my hair from youngest childhood. I always wanted it long, long, longest.  She, who had to take care of it (and has never had hair much past her ears), wanted it short.  She tortured my locks into tight braids and 5615821627_76c2c86d00_z twisted it into rag curls for Sunday school—releasing into golden tumbles that drew the commentary of friends and relatives alike.  I’m sure that’s where my attachment came from—all that attention pouring down on my four-year-old self. 

When I hit third grade, my mother talked me into a cut.  I thought it was going to be a little trim, but she cut it OFF, to my ears.  I felt like a boy. I felt ugly and strange and gnomelike.  I started growing it out that second.  She didn’t come near it for nearly four years. 

Then at the end of seventh grade, when I was suffering from a bad case of the invisibles from being twelve, and my best friend was one of the most stunning girls in our class (who long black wavy hair) my mother suggested I might enjoy feeling more modern.  I fell for it.  The beautician showed me a drawing of a long necked woman with tendrils curling around her neck and I was seduced.  Again. 

It was the most awful haircut of all time.  It showed off the color, the most boring shade of dishwater blond that can grow on a head, and cowlicks spouted every which way, and I vowed, with God as my witness, that I would never cut my hair again.

This was also, I might add, the era of The Brady Bunch and Long and Silky shampoo. We watched the Tumblrldof5jsusc1qb8p5x_large
Bradys religiously and my sisters and I all swooned for Jan and Marcia’s hair.  We wanted to have the longest hair of all, the swingiest, silkiest, swishiest hair known to womankind.  The clincher was a short story, published in Redbook, called Rowena’s Hair.  The woman in the story had living hair. It talked to her. Protected her.  Counseled her. 

I knew just how that felt.  When my hair was long, it was almost like an ally.  An extra blanket, a shield to hide behind.  I loved brushing it out, and feeling it swing around my body, across my back. I let it grow and grow and grow.  Nothing made me cut it again for more than a decade.

But time makes you consider other things.  Babies, for example, got tangled in it, so I cut it off when they were small. Grew it out again when I felt the invisibles of young motherhood coming on.  Kept it that way until my career meant I had to go out and speak and travel and look like a grownup.  I do not hate my shorter hair right now.  The cut suits me.  It’s easy enough. 

111203558_e21cdbd1c0_z Watching that woman in the parking lot on a breezy day, however, I heard the siren call of my hair again.  Perhaps it is the invisibles of middle age making me wish for that long, shiny flag of hair again.  Perhaps it’s only that I so rarely see hair so long anymore.   Whatever the source, I suspect I will be growing it out again in the near future, suffering through the bad six months of getting it all to one length. 

Or perhaps I will not.  Perhaps I don’t have the vision or the patience or the ear for listening to that rustling voice of promise in my tresses anymore.  


How do you feel about long hair? Did you have it? Do you now?