Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Got a Piece of the Rock

Today I got the swellest thing in the mail! A chunk of the terra cotta face from the Flatiron Building, courtesy of my friends Teresa Nielsen Hayden and Claire Eddy. Even if I'd still been living in NY I'd have loved this, but now it's a favored possession, along with my wrecked NY Taxi license plate (also courtesy of Claire, who has a genius for finding such things) and my NY Tel phone plate (courtesy my father, who did some design work for Bell Labs back in the days when they were Bell Labs...).

It's about six by five inches, smooth and glazed on the inside, roughly sculpted on the outside, and a nice beige in color. I'm lovin' it.

Super-Librarian <3 Sarah Tolerance

Every now and then someone sends me a URLwith a mention of my Sarah Tolerance books. And every now and then what the reader particularly likes is the anti-party-line Regency setting.

Well, of course that pleases me. The fun, or part of the fun, of writing the books is standing most or all of the Regency Romance tropes on their ear. It's almost irresistable: I used to have women come up to me, when I was writing straight Regencies back in the last millennium, and coo "Don't you wish you lived then," to which my response was generally, "Hell no." No painless dentistry? Crappy sewer- and plumbing systems? The clothes look great until you have to get strapped into a corset. And I know damned well that I would not have been the Duke's daughter, I'd have been a farmer's daughter, and probably died early from some utterly preventable disease. No thanks. But it is a fascinating era, historically and socially, and I can't quite keep my hands off it. I just want to play in the mud, not go to a tea party.

Back to the mud pit.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Sassing the Teachers

Ah, Florida, the home of cutting-edge legislation. Rep. Dennis Baxley of the state legislature has introduced a bill that would permit college students who feel their beliefs are not being respected in class to sue their teachers.

I dunno. I'm not sure I'd want a doctor who had passed Biology only because she'd sued the professor for bypassing "Intelligent Design" in his discussion of evolution. Never mind the havoc this would play with First Amendment rights.

I stand four square in favor of no one being made fun of by their teachers, and I never much liked those teachers who used ridicule as a teaching tactic. But having to add "or intelligent design" every time you say the word evolution is like something out of a Monty Python sketch. I cannot imagine trying to teach that way. Maybe that's what Baxley and his pals are after?

Saturday, March 26, 2005

This Bird Has Flown

Far too early today (like, 4:30) we woke up, got dressed, and took YG to the airport. She is now in the air, and should be touching down there at about 3:40 eastern time, or 12:40 here. I will be rather tenterhook-ish until then, but I am heading off to my writers' workshop, a little bleary from the interrupted sleep, but happy she's having her adventure.

Sarcasm Girl has a broad, sorietal mushy streak, and rode back in the car crooning, "Oh, I hope she's okay! I'm scared for her! What if someone steals her! She's my baby sister!" But YG revealed little trepidation, just excitement. Spouse was the one who got to put her on the plane; I get to pick her up (the only allow one person to go through security and wait at the gate) on Thursday night. As YG and her dad walked off to check her bag with the curbside guy she turned, braids flying, and gave one last emphatic wave of pleasure and farewell. I miss her already.

UPDATE: The Beagle has Landed. And been retrieved from the gate by her Grandma. A sigh of relief is heard.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005


Long ago and far away, before children and coastal moves, I studied choreographed stage combat. For about four years I was in really good shape. I could (my crowning achievement!) do a running somersault with a rapier in my hand, and come up en garde and ready for the next phrase of the fight. For one who was inevitably the last chosen for all teams at school, and would have been happier just walking around the track reading a book, this was a pretty amazing change. But then kids happened, and life happened, and some years piled on (about 16) and some pounds piled on (about 20). Still, the memory of playing with swords is always with me. I'm a pill to go to a movie with, if it has swordplay; I am easily offended by stupid fight choreography and mutter crossly.

So, last summer I decided to take up fencing again. Only this time I'm taking competitive fencing, which is like stage combat only in that they both use weapons. I thought my earlier training would be an asset, but in fact it's a pain in the ass. In stage combat you have a partner, someone with whom you work to create the illusion of great danger. In stage combat the cardinal rule, as for doctors, is: "First, do no harm." I've seen a 200 pound guy dislocate his shoulder pulling back on a cut with a broadsword, when his partner went up on the choreography and would have had his head sliced open. You're evaluated, when you go to qualify before a SAFD* judge, on how clearly you signal your blows before you make them: the quintessential John Wayne punch? Where he grabs the cowboy's shoulder, pulls his fist back to his ear, then lets fly? All telegraphing: you hold the shoulder so you know exactly where your partner's body is, and can guage how much room you have to cheat the punch; you pull your fist back to signal to the partner that the punch is coming. And if your partner doesn't make eye contact to let you know that he's seen, you wait. You vamp. Because the last thing you want to do is hurt the person you're working with.

In competitive fencing, of course, all of this is wrong. First of all, you have an opponent. Big difference. And you want to do some things as late as possible, so as not to telegraph anything to your opponent. Parry when there's no hope of the opponent disengaging, that sort of thing. And of course, you want to hit your opponent.

This is all difficult for me. Part of the problem is the very reason I started stage combat years ago, and started fencing now. When you're writing about swordplay, it helps to know what it's about. But I have a pretty good imagination: when my opponent thrusts at me, in my mind that's an edged weapon and my life is in danger. I've got a good solid parry--if anything I parry too hard, since the way modern fencing is scored, all you need is to deflect your opponent's blade before you riposte (and hopefully score), because a successful parry gives you right of way and it doesn't matter if he hits you if you have the right of way. Only, in my mind, that's an edged weapon and it doesn't matter if I get the point if I also get gored. So I'm hell on parrying. But I also tend to stand there like a dope once I've parried, with my patient teacher yelling "Madeleine! Hit him! Hit him!"

In stage combat you know what's coming. You want it to look clean, clear, want the fight to be a narrative which is perceivable by the audience. In competitive fencing it's a mess. No, that's not right. When you judge a fight (and we take turns at it) you have to watch to parse what a phrase that ends in a touch is: "Attack, parry, riposte, parry, riposte, break, attack--point to Rocco," or something like that. But there's nothing clear about it (elegant, yes, if you're very good, but no one in my class is that good yet) to the untutored audience.

I'm probably the oldest person in my class. We're a rag-tag group--several of us are significantly overweight, there are three lefties, only one of us moves like an athlete, and he's got so much energy he can't altogether rein it in, which is its own problem. We start out with twenty minutes of footwork drill, and once our knees are sending telegraphs to Congress begging for legislative intervention and we are swooning and dizzy, the work with the foils begin. By the time class is over I feel rather like I've been run over by a Zamboni.

I love it. I'm a terrible fencer, but not quite so terrible as when I started last year. Last night I won my two practice bouts and judged a third without embarrassing myself. By the time I'm 55, I may be able to acquit myself honorably. It's good to have a goal.

*The Society of American Fight Directors

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Names Matter

Jon Carroll, columnist for the SF Chronicle, is sometimes the best thing about slogging through my early morning routine (making lunches, prising The Young out of their nests, pretending to be awake myself). His piece today was about journalistic choices. He had me all the way to the second to last graph, and then I got lost.

That's what makes this information business so hard. Everything is a judgment call; there are no rules -- or rather, what is a rule today will not be a rule tomorrow. I'll give you an example: This paper and the New York Times both ban the term "pro-life" to describe the anti-abortion movement. I think that's a terrible idea because it is the only term that gives you a real sense of what the fight looks like from the anti-choice side. That's what they think the stakes are, like it or not.

Well, yes. I think that's exactly what they think the stakes are. And it's what I think the stakes are, too. But I'm on the other side of the issue, and if I call myself "pro-life" people are going to get confused. Letting the anti-choice people claim "pro-life" by default defines me as "pro-death," to which I take extreme exception. It permits them to set the discourse in a particularly unpleasant way. So I say, "Go, NY Times and SF Chronicle" on this one.

Monday, March 21, 2005


I hope that I never have to go through what Bob and Mary Schindler, the parents of Terri Schiavo, have been going through for the past 15 years. I hope my children outlive me in health and joy. But I also hope that if one of them was in a persistent vegetative state with no hope of recovery, I could let them go with some grace. I feel terrible for these people, whose anguish is very real, but I wish they could let their daughter go.

And I cannot believe that the party that wants to get the government off people's backs has pushed a billthrough Congress and gotten it signed by the President, all to keep this poor machine running a little longer. I was not surprised to see Randall Terry speaking in the Schindler's behalf. It seems to me that there's a segment of the population which is very tender about saving the lives of the unborn and the essentially dead, but utterly callous about the lives of people who are actually up and walking around, starving, un-educated, and in a state of misery.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Saturday in the Park with XMRadio

I am a Sondheim junkie. We are a strange and passionate breed--Joss Whedon was inspired to do "Once More with Feeling" on Buffy in no little part because he too is a Sondheim junkie. Stephen Sondheim is the only musical theatre composer/lyricist who can create a show that gives me goose bumps all the way through (Pacific Overtures) or has me in such tears that I have to sit in my seat for ten minutes before I left the theatre, lest I be mugged on the way home (Passion). Don't even get me started on Sweeney Todd.

Sondheim turns 75 on Tuesday. NYC's Symphony Space (a block and a half from my old apartment in Manhattan) annually do a "wall-to-wall" program--a full day of music and talk by and about their featured composer. It's a free program, and runs from 10 am to 11pm, and people are expected to stay for only part of it--apparently they move something like 3-4,000 people through the course of the day. And XM Radio, bless them, ran the whole thing today. Had I been living in New York I would have been sleeping out front the night before to get in; as it is, I listened to parts of it (thanks to my bud Claire, who called to alert me to this. The show is over now, but XM is re-running bits as I listen ("Joanna" from Sweeney Todd, one of the more glorious pieces of music I know).

I think my favorite part (other than the panel discussion with Frank Rich, Sondheim, and Joss Whedon, which I caught only a few minutes of) was listening James Lipton (that guy from Inside the Actor's Studio, who is also the creative director of Symphony Space, and was announcing the show) doing the "Invocation" from The Frogs,:

"Please don't fart. There's very little air, and this is art."

Happy Birthday, Steve.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Aw, Nuts

I married into an allergy. Actually, I have a couple of my own, but they are not life-threatening. Spouse, on the other hand, is seriously allergic to nuts, and only a little less so to sesame seeds. Our wedding day was enlivened by his eating a plate of tortellini which had been handsomely presented in a large wooden which, at some earlier time, a salad with walnut dressing had been served. He ate enough of the pasta to get a secondhand exposure, and we have many photos of him getting redder and redder until he realized what was happening and dealt with the problem (to the clear disappointment of the three doctors, one EMT--my father--and the crime scene photographer who were guests, all of whom wanted to save the day and cure the groom).

Genetics evidently have a sense of humor: Sarcasm Girl has inherited Dad's allergies. She's pretty responsible about asking about things she's eating ("Does it have nuts?" was one of her first full sentences. Wonder how that would look on a college application?) but sometimes people don't know. Sometimes people lie (they really do. Some people think that allergies are all in your head, and if you don't know that the allergen in there, you won't react. This is stupid. Like, criminally stupid).

So at 4:40 today I'm at the karate studio with YG when I get a call from SG. She has eaten something, her throat is itching, she's afraid it's going to close up, can I pick her up. The karate studio is well across town (19th and Taraval, for those who know the terrain) from where SG was (Mission and Russia). Not quite as bad as if she had been at the Embarcadero, but a good 15 minutes in perfect conditions. Of course, it was raining out, and rush hour. I left YG to her karate, told the nice lady at the desk to explain to her where I had gone and that I would be back as soon as I could, and took off across town. My drive was enlivened by Every Stupid Driver in the State, specially imported to make my blood pressure soar; during the drive SG called me a couple of times, increasingly worried. She sounded okay--I heard no wheezing over the phone, but it's a cell phone, what am I going to hear? I suggested that she go to a market or pharmacy and buy some Benadryl if she was that worried. At last she called and announced that the friends she'd been meeting with were taking her to Walgreens, and if she passed out or something they'd call 911. This was not terribly comforting, but knowing there was someone with her was better than not.

I get to Walgreens, find, miraculously, a parking spot and a dime for the meter (a dime buys about five minutes, but it was what I had) and charge into the store calling for SG. There she is, surrounded by a bevy of high schoolers, all giggling a little anxiously and plainly relieved to have authority (that would be me) there. So we buy the Benedryl, and to the shock of the clerks immediately start removing the packaging. By the time we get back to the car, SG has taken a hearty slug.

We then had to drive back cross town to pick up YG, who had not heard where I'd gone and was somewhat freaked out. I calmed her down and chased her into the car.

Now we are home. SG has not died. I have ordered pizza, and Dad is on his way home. Everyone is alive. I'd like to keep it that way.

Going to the Gym

One of the less desireable side effects of our move out to California from NYC has been the considerable increase in, well, me. Aside from stress eating, the fact is that in New York I walked almost everywhere--probably a couple of miles a day, easy. Here, I'm in the damned car all the time. When I say something about this to local folk, they don't understand my complaint. "There are great walks in Marin," they say, or "You know I just love walking around the Presidio." In other words, walking is something you have to drive somewhere else to do.

Which explains why I'm back at the gym. Or rather, at a new gym (my old gym, in NYC, was a Cadillac sort of place, with the floors kept perpetually clean enough to eat off, a health-and-wellness center off the dressing rooms where you could pay for any number of prohibitively expensive spa treatments or massages, and an unspoken dress code I barely passed). I'm trying to go three times a week; we have, through Spouse's job, a discount rate and membership at a chain of gyms in San Francisco, so I've tried four or five of them. I have distinct favorites. The one I tried downtown near the Embarcadero was so cold I couldn't work out (a San Franciscan's idea of what constitutes chilly and my own are wildly divergent) and wound up going to Starbucks for coffee and cake. The club in Daly City, near where Spouse works, is nice enough, but old. The locker rooms are decrepit, and the pool smells fishy. The Ocean Avenue gym has parking, but as one can never find an actual spot, it leaves one feeling rather like Tantalus trying to drink from the river Styx. Which leaves the Potrero Hill gym, which is located in a strip mall and has more parking than Heinz has pickles. So, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, after I have done 2-3 hours of writing, I head over there to put in an hour or so before I have to pick up YG, whose school is, fortunately, five minutes away.

I hate exercise. I understand its necessity. I am now une femme d'un certain age and fighting gravity and decrepitude, and unless I want to wind up like one of those females who can see the lint in her belly-button without bending over, weight bearing exercise is necessary. Ditto a certain amount of cardio workout. So I do half an hour on one of the cardio machines and try to read while I'm doing it. My tip for this is: don't try to bone up for your LSAT this way, because retention of material read while on the eliptical is virtually nil. Fluffy entertainment reading is okay; that book about a poisoning scandal in the court of James I is not. After the cardio, when my knees are whining and I smell like a locker-room, I go upstairs to do a circuit of the weight machines. Upstairs is where all the big, muscly guys in tank tops and shorts and leather weight-lifter's belts hang out, doing endless reps. It's where young women who look like gang girls (and are probably legal secretaries and med students) gossip and preen, posing by the machines to glug down another pint of water. And there's me, singlemindedly heading for the X-Press circuit as a way of earning my ten minutes in the sauna.

There are rules governing the X-Press Circuit (ten machines in a ring, which supposedly give you a complete workout in half an hour) the most cardinal, and therefore the most easily ignored of which is, If you're not doing the circuit, yield to the people who are. As near as I can tell, only a handful of us do the whole circuit; others jump in to do a quick 100 reps on the leg press, then amble away to drink more water and gossip more. The problem comes when you are trying to get through the circuit and the whole thing is filled with people who are only there for one machine (there are, needless to say, a hundred other machines around the cavernous room, but they appear to be not so lovesome as the ones on the circuit). I finish my reps on a machine, go to the next, and find it occupied by a guy built like a fireplug who has been doing shoulder presses for at least five minutes. "Are you doing the X-PRess circuit?" I ask politely, aware that this guy could snap me in two with his toes. At which point he either ignores me, lies and says Yes, or yields to me with an expression of chagrin. Needless to say, chagrin is not the most common response.

Sometimes, coward that I am, I skip that machine and come back to it later. This works when the fireplug actually leaves sometime before I get done with the circuit. Or when there are not six other people who want that same machine, and have been waiting as long as I have. It is an imperfect system. But I've become fascinated with it because I hate exercise, see. And watching people, even people who are being less than considerate of me and my geriatric needs, distracts me from my first instinct, which is to say "hell with this" and go downstairs and get an eclair. I have not yet found a way to successfully read and do bicep curls at the same time.

When it's over there is the pool (which is for laps, which is too much like exercise to count as a reward) and the hot tub and the sauna. If I haven't dallied over my reps, I generally have time to hit the sauna for a little while. My Spanish is improving; the tiny room is usually filled with people conversing in Spanish, and while I do bring my book in with me (and into the hot tub, which seems to scandalize a lot of people) it's tempting to listen in enough to get the general jist of what they're saying. When I am satisfactorily baked I return to the locker room (more Spanish conversations flying about), shower, and pull myself together to retrieve YG from school. By this time I am exhausted and hungry, but glowing with the entirely specious sense that I have accomplished something.

It's not the sort of accomplishment that lasts, of course. So I have to keep going back and going back. I don't want a lifetime membership in the gym, just the lifetime accrued virtue and benefits.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Oh, Excellent

Astute visitors will have realized that I'm not from around here (by which I mean California, not the Internet). We moved here two and a half years ago, and there are still days when I pine for New York City. But there are days when I'm happy as pie to be here, and today, reading about Judge Richard Kramer's ruling overturning California's ban on same-sex marriage' is one of them.

Sometimes I think perhaps I'm just floating off on my leftie-liberal cloud, and am completely out of touch with the opinions of the rest of the world. As I was driving YG to school this morning and listening to people calling in to KFOG, mostly to despair of the ruling, I decided to get the youth view, and asked her what she thought about all this gay marriage business.

"Well, they love each other, don't they? Then they should get the same rights, because we're all supposed to have the same rights." And what about same sex couples having children? "Do they love the children?" she asked, quite reasonably. "If they love the children, they should have them. And pets, too."

Monday, March 14, 2005

Please Don't Eat the Car...

This morning's Chronicle had a feature on Auto Orphans, that is, low-end cars that are now forgotten--except by low-end car enthusiasts. I was particularly piqued by the tale of the Trabant, "the weird little East German car that could well be dubbed the pinnacle, if that's allowed, of basic transportation.

"Affectionately known as the "Trabi," millions of these tiny cars were produced by VEB Sachsenring, Automobilwerke Zwickau. Because of the shortage of steel in East Germany, the Trabant's body was made of Duroplast, a combination of wood and cotton pulp mixed with resin.

"'That's where you get the phrase 'cardboard cars,' ' says Rod Dahlgren, a Napa auto appraiser who owns three Trabants.

"At one point, the automakers learned that rats and other rodents would chew at the Duroplast body, so in the next batch of car bodies the Trabant people mixed in some rat poison.

"'The rats stopped chewing on the bodies,' Dahlgren says, 'but the manufacturer realized this (use of rat poison) was not such a good idea.'"

I should think so. Imagine if junior had a nasty habit of nibbling on the bumpers. As for the rats--they'd likely keep chewing on the Duroplast, only they'd die, which would leave you with dead rats and a car with nibble-marks all over it. Do you think rats would learn not to chew on cars? "Hey, Hans, get away from that bumper, man! Didn't you see what happened to Aldo?"

Saturday, March 12, 2005


Just heard a preview for the 11pm local news: "Oakland Police are warning women about a serial rapist; and will there be sun in the forecast?"

Does no one look at this stuff before it gets read?

Friday, March 11, 2005

Slogging Along

I am in the middle of writing the third book in a series. This is like nothing I have ever done before; when I wrote the first book I never thought of writing another, or one after that. The second one was harder to write, because I had to find the emotional kernel of the story (which is always my starting off place in any project...if I know what the emotional journey is, the actual plot is much easier for me to deal with). This third one is the hardest yet. I'm not entirely sure why; I love the character, I like the people who surround her, I've got some fun plans for the mystery...yet there are days when I apply what's left of my mighty brain to the story, and it slides right off. Some of that is the mystery thing--I never meant to become a mystery writer, and I'm always second-guessing myself as to whether the mystery parts work. Particularly because these books are meant to be noir-ish, and noir has some particular requirements of its own--corruption, the honorable person in a dishonorable world, etc.) that need to be worked in. And (and this is the thing that is new to me) the continuing places and characters have to be groomed and taken care of. It's an interesting juggling act; if it doesn't kill me, I will doubtless have new skills and writing muscles.

Today I had a pretty good day. Some things fell into place, and some new doors opened. There's an almost physical pleasure when that happens.

Feeding Out Line

The big task of parenthood--bigger even than keeping the child alive and nourished and wearing mittens on a cold day--is letting go. This starts almost immediately--certainly by the time the kid is a year old and walks away from you for the first time.* No, you don't set your one year old on a corner and walk away, proud of her new independence. But childrearing requires a gentle, almost constant, loosening of the ties that bind, with a simultaneous backstopping just in case the child wasn't ready to have the reins loosened quite that much. This is not a license to neglect, or not to do the things you don't want to do; it's a matter of looking at your kid, considering what you know about her, about the neighborhood, and the world, and saying "Yes, you can go to the library by yourself," when half the atoms in your body are standing up screaming "NO NO NO, SHE'S JUST A BABY!"

Which leads me to spring vacation. Younger Girl, to her immense pride and pleasure is flying east to spend five days with her grandparents in Pennsylvania. Since we bought the tickets and made the arrangements (unaccompanied minor passes, extra fees, designated pick up persons at both ends) she has been counting the days. She has been discussing what it's going to be like to get up at 4:30, in order to get to the airport by 5:30, for a 7:30 flight. She has been researching the Liberty Bell and other Philadelphia sights. I had to send my recipe for Easter Bunny Meatloaf (meatloaf frosted with mashed potatoes, nestled in a bed of green beans, with paper ears and pink jelly bean eyes) so that Easter could be properly observed. It's all gonna be swell. What I don't tell YG, of course, is the image I have of myself, left behind and quite forgotten as I watch her walk down the gantry to the airplane, chatting up her flight attendent, happily on to the new adventure. (Never mind that I am a career worrier, and won't believe the whole airplane hasn't been gathered up wholesale into the belly of the Mothership, or come crashing down in the Rockies, until I get a phone call from the other end.)

Mind you, YG has her share of wobbly moments. She seemed relieved when I told her she could take her special cuddling bear, Synonym, in the bag with her books and art supplies, for the plane. She had a few moments of concern that the flight attendents might find her a burden (she plans to bring chocolates to "tip" them with--her idea). And--it's a pretty big adventure for a nine year old, and now that the initial bliss has settled a little, she's getting in touch with some anxiety. Last night she had her father tell her a story about the trip--a preview, as it were, of what the night before the trip would be like, and what it would be like to get up while it was dark, stumble into her clothes, go to the airport, etc. This morning I told a similar story to her, about how much she would be missed around the house, about how her sister would worry when YG had such a good time she forgot to call home to say goodnight, about the squeezes she was going to get on her return. She seemed to find those comforting, too.

Separation anxiety is a term that gets tossed around a lot. My understanding of the term is that, when an infant/toddler discovers that she and the parent are two separate entities with two separate sets of goals, the child has to assert herself, to walk away, as it were. But that's scary, because the child doesn't want to be too separate--she knows she still needs the parent to survive, and is afraid that the parent will resent her temerity in moving away. The best thing a parent can do is feed out the line, but make sure the kid knows that he's on the other end of that line, and proud of the child's independence. It's a delicate dance.

As usual, dancing as fast as I can, with a smile.

*I spent several years ghostwriting for a child psychiatrist who specialized in infant depression, which is, as I used to say, infinitely depressing. I am now about ten years out of date on child development theory, but I think separation anxiety--for both parent and child, remains in the current lexicon. The guy that I worked with had a theory that parents do something he called "previewing"--helping a pre-walking child stand on her feet, for example, so that said child would get a sense of how different the world would be when she could stand on her own. So I guess we've been previewing.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Baby Activist

You know, you put a kid down for ten minutes and she rolls off and does things quite unexpected. Or perhaps expected, if I'd thought about it.

Sarcasm Girl was invited by her counselor at school to attend a Young Women's Health Conference downtown today; she got the day off from her classes and attended with a few other girls (all, I believe, in upper grades, but SG skews older). She attended two workshops, one "useless" one on youth activism (I think she was imagining talking about the war or underfunding education, but it turned into 'what do we do about mean people') and one on entrepreneurship (about which I had no clue she was interested. Live and learn). But then, as I was driving her from the conference to her voice lesson, she mentioned that she was part of a youth group in which a friend is an organizer, aimed at protesting the war and the effects of No Child Left Behind, and said friend has delegated a good deal to SG. "I'm, like, sort of like spearheading the research and stuff."

My daughter the activist. Whoa.

Friday, March 04, 2005

I Love This Stuff

One of the best reasons to be a writer is that you get to poke your nose into all sorts of information, and you learn any number of nifty things, most of them useless (unless you go on "Jeopardy" or play a lot of Trivial Pursuit). This morning I was cruising through Francis Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a very useful book of slang and cant, published first in 1811. It's interesting how many things were in use then which are still common now: if I tried to use the word "Dude" in the current book (set in 1811, as it happens) I don't doubt readers would rebel against it as too modern. (Dude isn't in Grose, but I've found it elsewhere, and it's acceptably period, thanks.)

This morning I reacquainted myself with chummage, the definition of which included another phrase I would not have thought to use as too modern, and whose usage I would not have guessed:

CHUMMAGE. Money paid by the richer sort of prisoners in the Fleet and King's Bench, to the poorer, for their share of a room. When prisons are very full, which is too often the case, particularly on the eve of an insolvent act, two or three persons are obliged to sleep in a room. A prisoner who can pay for being alone, chuses two poor chums, who for a stipulated price, called chummage, give up their share of the room, and sleep on the stairs, or, as the term is, ruff it.

This makes me wonder if "ruff it" is simply the author's choice of spelling (English was pretty rough-and-ready in the spelling department even in 1811) or whether it has another meaning or origin. I suppose I'm also delighted by this because YG's summer camp is Camp Roughing It (they do not, to my knowledge, make the children nap on stairs).

The racket at the prisons at the time, which were semi-private in operation, was that prisoners had to pay for everything above the most brutally bare minimum: food, light, blankets, space. You even had to pay a fee for your fetters: the more money you spent, the lighter the fetters were, and the more range of motion they permitted. So if you were really poor, sleeping on the stairs might have sounded like a good deal if it meant extra money for a decent meal or lighter bonds.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005


What is it with girls and hair? I am the mother of two girls. They are both beautiful and funny and charming and full of life. Sarcasm Girl has a head full of long, thick, chestnut colored hair with a wave--the sort of hair from which those astonishing 40s noir do's were fashioned (she does have a lot of broken hair, as she will tear her hairbrush through it as though trying to scare it into submission). Does she like her hair? She does not. She hates the wave, considers her hair to be bushy (it is not, I promise you, bushy). Whenever she washes her hair she wants me to iron it straight for her. Her hair looks fine straight, but I rather regret the thick lushness of her hair in its native state.

And then there is Younger Girl. Today, as I was ferrying her to her Little League practice she began to fret. "I can't go unless I have a hairbrush. I can't believe what my hair is doing!" (What was it doing? Hangin' off her head is what it was doing. Nothing impressively weird, certainly.) YG has straight, honey-brown hair with natural blonde streaks (where did they come from? Not my side of the family!). Her hair is longish, with bangs, and quite pretty. And yet YG briefly threatened to ditch Little League because it looked funky.

Are all girls hair crazy? I don't remember being so myself, but I may simply have despaired of doing anything with my hair--I have a black thumb for plants and for hair.