Saturday, December 31, 2011

This Morning I Set Fire to my Oatmeal

It wasn't actually this bad.
My normal morning breakfast, cardiologist-approved, consists of half a cup of oatmeal flakes, a handful of raisins, and a pinch of sea salt, in a microwave-safe bowl, with the microwave set to run for three minutes. We're having a party tonight, happy new year to you, by the way, and I'm a little behind in my preparations. I was supposed to have made the pecan pies yesterday. So today I feel a little stressed, a little rattled. Harold needed the microwave for his bacon. He has to go to work on Saturdays. Hastily I popped my breakfast into the cooker, as my dad used to call it, punched the minute-button thrice and retired to the dining room to read the Times.

It was not very long before smoke and expressions of alarm came rolling out of the kitchen.

Flames were issuing from the microwave. The raisins were all on fire. What had I done? I'll tell you what. In my mad haste to get breakfast I forgot to add the water.

Harold blew the fire out, God love him. Eventually I summoned the nerve to pour a little water on the smoldering raisins. The dish did not crack. The bacon was able to be cooked. I fixed myself a bowl of dry cereal and retired to the dining room to eat it in shame. "What's wrong?" Harold said. "I set fire to my oatmeal," I said. "It's the beginning of the end. Dementia is upon me."

"No it isn't," he said. "You do that all the time."

"I do?"

"I seem to recall you burned a hole in a pot five years ago."

"Oh. Right."

"And what about the time we went out and left something on the stove that caught fire and Karen had to break into the back of the house and put it out."

"I don't remember that at all." Karen hasn't lived next door in something like twenty years.

"And what about that aluminum pot?" Yes, I melted the bottom right off an aluminum-clad pot. That I remember well. The melted aluminum took on a viscous quality like chewing gum. It was interesting, but I couldn't get it to go back on the pot.

"Relax," he said. "You're not getting any wiftier. Just stay in the kitchen with the pies. Take your computer in there."

So here I am. They'll be done in another half hour.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Memories #4

I promised to tell you what happened when we went to Granny Hill's house after we finished having Christmas with Ma Gallison. I don't remember what that ride was like, though I know we had chains on the back wheels going klish-klish-klish all thirty miles of the way, and as a result had no problems with skidding or getting stuck. When we arrived we found a spray of evergreens with a big red bow hanging on Granny's front door instead of a wreath. The reason for this was that Aunt Billie, my grandmother's sister, was visiting from Kingston, Ontario. Her husband, a famous and beloved Canadian general, had died that year. She was still deeply grieving. To hang a wreath on the door would have reminded her of that constantly, she said, and she couldn't stand it.

In the modern day we have no tradition of funeral wreaths on the doors of the dead. To us, Billie's horror of Christmas wreaths seems eccentric. You're probably thinking that Billie was one of those cranky, willful old Edwardian aunts who appear in the English costume dramas. In fact Billie was nothing like that. To us children she seemed merry all the time, always joking, the best possible company for Christmas next to Granny herself. The women of my mother's family cultivated a light-hearted spirit that made them a joy to be around.

I was horrified to see that Granny had received presents in the mail and had opened them as soon as she got them, sooner than wait for Christmas morning. When I scolded her for this – well, I never would have scolded my grandmother, but I did say, "tut, tut" – she told me she didn't save her presents for later any more. I saved the lesson for later: old people don't wait for things. At least the smart ones don't.

Next morning we again opened stockings. I remember two presents from that Christmas, a bag of barley sugar animals and a game of Mister Ree, which was sort of like Clue. I love candy. I love board games. We all played Mister Ree after a sumptuous Christmas dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, followed by with plum pudding, soaked in brandy and set on fire. What a spectacle! How we all laughed! We should have plum pudding this year. We should play a board game. Cross and Blackwell's plum pudding is pretty good. I think I'll go out and get some.

Have a very merry holiday season.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas Memories #3

The year we moved back to New Jersey from the midwest I was twelve years old, my sister nine. For the first time in recorded history it seemed that we lived close enough to my grandparents to go and spend Christmas with them. When I say grandparents I mean my grandmother Gallison in Vanceboro, Maine, and my grandmother Hill in Saint Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada, for by the time I was twelve both of our grandfathers had died.

Granny's House
But which grandmother should we spend the actual Christmas day with? They lived only thirty miles apart, but it was thirty miles of snow-covered dirt road. What we did ultimately was to follow the route we always followed on our summer visits, north from Bangor through the woods to Vanceboro, where we would stay with Ma, and then across the river and off to Saint Stephen to stay with Granny.

Thing was, it wasn't summer. My father knew perfectly well what he was getting into; he grew up in Vanceboro. So as we set out on the last leg of our journey he had the tire chains with him. In the trunk of the car. Night fell, and so did the snow, thick and fast, as we headed into the dread Tomah Woods. All my life I had heard of the horrors of the Tomah Woods, for the Gallisons were not enthusiastic outdoorsmen, though they lived at the farthest outposts of civilization and had been known to work as camp cooks. The Tomah Woods were menacing, it was said, full of kill-crazed moose, runaway logging trucks, mountain lions. And yet there we were, driving through it.
Actually it was darker
than this, and also
nearly vertical

Visibility grew worse, the snow deeper. My father drove more and more slowly. No one else was on the road. It got to be two in the morning; my mother and sister were asleep in the back seat. I was supposed to talk to my father and keep him awake, as I remember. Finally we stopped halfway up a steep hill, the wheels spinning. We could go no further without the chains.

My father had to back down the hill to the nearest flat place.

There was a garage at the foot of the hill, possibly the only building for fifty miles in any direction, but the people who worked there were nowhere to be seen and they had turned out the lights before they left. Still, in front of it was a flat place. While my mother and sister continued to sleep my father laid out the chains, just so, backed over them the way you're supposed to and fastened them on. No creatures came out of the shadowy darkness to get us, but that's not to say they weren't watching.

How I admired my father. What a hero. What a competent person. Of course his mother, waiting by her wood stove in Vanceboro, expected no less. He had told her he would get us there that night, and he did.

In every little town in Washington County there is a woman called Ma by everyone, as a term of respect. In Vanceboro that woman was my grandmother. She was still up when my father pulled the car into the barn, which was attached to the house in the manner of Maine barns. It smelled of cordwood, piled to the ceiling against the coming winter, and of kerosene and machine oil. We stumbled the length of the barn, over the worn linoleum in the shed, and into the warm kitchen where Ma welcomed us, fed us a snack and sent us to bed. She had put up a tree in the parlor and decorated it with amazing fiberglass angel hair. The next day we had Christmas. We found our stockings hung on the clothesline in front of the kitchen wood stove, for there was no mantel.

And that was our Christmas at Ma's house, playing happily with our new toys, stuffing ourselves with treats. Tomorrow I'll tell you about Christmas at Granny's house. But I won't tell you which Christmas fell on the twenty-fifth of December, because I don't think I ever knew.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Save the Local Drugstore

My phone rang a few minutes ago. The caller was a young man from the pharmaceutical insurance and supply company that services retired New Jersey state employees. He wanted us to save ourselves some money by arranging for generic medications to be delivered by mail instead of picking them up at our local pharmacy. (Cue video of smiling elderly actress hobbling to her door on her walker and welcoming the mailman, who grins and hands her a life-saving package of drugs.)

I said, no, thank you. He said, but the first shipment is free. I said, we buy our drugs from the pharmacist around the corner because we want to keep him in business. That is your reason, then? he said. I expect he was entering something on his computer. Yes, I said. Even if it would save you money? Yes, I said. We parted cordially.

He seemed like a nice young man, and what the hell, he had a job, not like a lot of young fellows of my acquaintance. After I hung up the phone I said to Harold, I should have talked to him longer. Maybe I could have got him on our side. Yes, Harold said. The two of you could go and camp out at Occupy Trenton.

But the thing about keeping the local druggist in business is more important than money. It's a quality of life issue. I would have to be really up against it, I would have to be down to eating cat food, before I would consent to have generic drugs sent to me in the mail. (The mail? Really? You do know that the Post Office is cutting services, right?) I could die three times before the medications got here, to begin with. I am not, and I do not propose to become, one of those old ladies who takes so many drugs that even her doctor has forgotten what she's on, what the side effects might be, whether they're even effective. That handful of pills I swallow every morning are nutritional supplements. Nutritional supplements. Not offered by the monstrous pharmaceutical insurance and supply company. And the occasional over-the-counter allergy pill.

When I do need a prescription drug, it's for some passing ailment, and I need it right away to encourage the ailment to pass. I take a short stroll downtown, I hand the prescription to Morty Barnett at Bear Pharmacy, he gives me my pills or whatever. Him I smile at. I do not smile at faceless bureaucrats packing pills in a mailroom somewhere.

Actually it's just as well that I didn't unload this rant on that fellow on the telephone. It might have spoiled his day.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Christmas Memories #2

I used to work in one of the great software houses of central Jersey, all during the eighties. Actually I worked in two of the great software houses. The first one, in a fit of wild prosperity, built a palatial corporate headquarters where everyone had an office with a door and all the best computer equipment. In the middle of the software palace was a huge atrium with gardens and trees, tended by a gardening service. Young women in gardening service uniforms used to come in to feed and water the trees, murmuring to them lovingly. I played opera tapes in my office with the door closed while I worked. No one could hear them but me.

I sold a couple of novels. At home I had an adorable young child with whom I wanted to spend more time. And so I left the software house for a year or so to try to make a living writing mysteries. When the money ran out I went back.

In my absence, the prosperous software house had fallen on hard times – overextended, perhaps – and another software house had bought it. New people were in charge, ruthless people, creatures from Mordor almost. The trees were gone. Three-quarters of the old employees were gone. A new crowd had joined the remnants of the old crowd, the survivors of another brutal corporate takeover. Walking the halls, wandering in the atrium, I saw shock and despair on the faces of everyone I met. If I ran into one of my old colleagues, we would greet each other like survivors of a disaster. You! You're alive!

People continued to be fired. Supervisors were forced to rank their staff and let the lowest go. Two thugs from security together with the Human Resources director in his funeral suit would appear at the door to your brand-new cubicle (the offices with doors had been torn out) and escort you to the parking lot. That was so you wouldn't trigger the virus you were presumed to have installed to bring down the company. Because of course you hated the company. Everybody hated the company.

And now Christmas was coming.

We still had an hour for lunch, and we had a large space on the ground floor off the atrium where the fitness equipment used to be before the new management got rid of it as a frivolous waste of time, a space where we could meet and sing together. A bunch of us decided to give a Christmas, or should I say holiday, concert. We rehearsed, among other things, the Hallelujah Chorus. Every lunch hour we would get together, Jews, Muslims, Christians, and sing the Hallelujah Chorus, one of the noblest expressions of human hope and joy in Western culture. We delighted in the beauty of one another's voices. It was sublime.

The day of the so-called Christmas party, or holiday party, arrived. Possibly there were company-supplied refreshments, I can't recall. Our choir assembled on the floor of the atrium, among the stumps of dead trees and ruined gardens, and sang a few secular numbers, Jingle Bells, Frosty the Snowman, Winter Wonderland. Peering down at us, impatient for everyone to get back to work, was the boss. He was not the uber-boss, for Sauron himself was squatting in his lair in the main corporate headquarters in another state. But he was the boss of that particular facility. And he was looking down on us in disapproval, because we were not at work serving the software house.

We sang the Hallelujah Chorus, as loud as we could. The sound penetrated to the farthest reaches of the building, maybe even to the Human Resources office. People came out of their cubicles and looked over the railing. You can't sit down during the Hallelujah Chorus.

I think about that event sometimes, when the state of the country looks dark. You may think you have us under your heel now, but the kingdom of our God is at hand. Everybody sing.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Christmas Memories #1

When I was a small girl I lived in Woodbury, New Jersey. Lots of interesting stuff went on there, back in the day. A passenger train ran through the town, because there was a war on and public transportation was a necessity, what with gasoline and tires being rationed. My best friend, Deborah, and I used to hang out at the station and watch the trains go by, loaded with soldiers. Roxby's, where you could get candy, ice cream, and comic books, was right across the tracks on Cooper Street. I can still recall the smell, a rich mixture of chocolate, licorice and newsprint.

Perhaps in an effort to keep me off the street my mother signed me up for Bluebirds. Deb was in it too. Bluebirds was to Campfire Girls what Brownies is to Girl Scouts. We met once a week, paying four cents dues. The meetings opened with one of the girls lighting a candle. I could not do this, since my mother had forbidden me ever to touch matches. Neither did I know by heart half the Christmas carols we all went out one night and sang. Ever the green monkey. Sometime I'll tell you what my life was like at the Catholic grade school, as the only protestant. But enough about Sister Heinrich Himmler. I was telling you about Bluebirds.

We were assigned a project. How long did we have? I can't recall; perhaps a month. Each Bluebird was to make and furnish a doll's house to give to one of the sick children in Cooper Hospital, which in those days was in Woodbury. Awards were to be given. Deb and I fell to and madly designed furniture, mostly chests of drawers made out of match boxes, which we had in plenty since our parents smoked to excess to accompany their drinking. Then we made things to put in the drawers, cutting out make-believe doll clothes with scissors. Our houses were cardboard boxes, but we couldn't figure out how to make them look anything like dwelling places for dolls. Just the same, we were keeping busy.

Then the deadline came rushing at us. In three days we were to produce furnished doll houses, and all we had were cardboard cartons and matchboxes full of ratty scraps. My mother was appalled. Deb's mother was appalled. Naturally they took over the work and produced credible doll's houses, painted, papered, windowed, doored. We brought them to the next meeting, along with our mothers. Penny something, I think her name was, won first prize. Her doll's house was beautifully constructed of masonite with glassine windows and practical, hinged doors. It was painted cream-color. Penny, blushing with pride, stood up and collected her blue ribbon.

Then the troop leader read off all the names receiving honorable mention, which was to say, us losers. We were supposed to stand up. My mother almost stood up, she said, since she had done all the work. Well, Penny's father had clearly done all the work on her house. But, so what? It was nothing to Deb and me. And then we all picked up our doll's houses and paraded down the street to the hospital.

"What? Why?" said Penny.

"We're supposed to give them away," I said. It was the whole point. She had not understood this.

I still remember the look of delight on the face of the little sick girl who got Penny's dollhouse. Even more clearly I remember Penny's howls of despair. Yes, she wept, and loudly, standing in the doorway of the little sick girl's hospital room, so that her handy and clever-fingered father (Why was he not at war? I now ask myself. Must have had one of those essential jobs) had to pick her up and carry her away. My mother clucked disapprovingly. Deb and I felt somehow vindicated.

There's a moral in there somewhere about how to have a Merry Christmas, but I can't quite put my finger on it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Morning After Halloween

The first of November in Lambertville is like Ash Wednesday in New Orleans, the day after Mardi Gras, when the sun rises on streets empty of visiting revelers, lollipops and chocolate bar wrappers littering the gutters. The residents are exhausted.

We are recovering from the battering of Nature, at least most of us are. Some still have no electricity, hence no heat or lights, and in the farther reaches of West Amwell no water either, since electricity is required to bring it up from the well. When the snow fell on Saturday it stuck to the unshed leaves of early autumn trees and weighed the branches down to the breaking point, especially the weak, fast-growing limbs of the ornamental pear trees that were so popular years ago until time proved them unsuitable. Only a tall stump is left of the tree that used to grow in front of our house. On Saturday afternoon the branches all bowed to the ground, and bowed, and bowed, and then suddenly with a bang exploded right off the tree. The neighbors have agreed that it must be replaced with something that will do better. Perhaps an oak.

The Halloween parade that was to have taken place on Sunday was canceled by the city. Things were still messed up. Multiple trucks from the electric company were at work on many downed wires. But on Monday night, Halloween night, the police closed Union Street to traffic and the crowds came in their thousands, babies dressed as bats, grownups dressed as witches, a girl dressed as a lighted jellyfish. So the holiday was saved.

And now it's over. In the distance I can hear the sound of computers being booted as NaNoWriMo begins. Not participating myself, but I do have to get busy on the Work in Progress.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance Prizewinners

I'm happy to boast that I'm one of 'em. The New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance has given The Edge of Ruin their prize for the best historical novel to come out in 2010 about New Jersey. (I didn't ask them how big the field was. Some things you're better off not knowing.)

There were four of us this year who got a prize from the New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance, or NJSAA, me and three real historians. Tomorrow afternoon at five o'clock in the Pane Room on the first floor of Rutgers' Alexander Library on College Avenue in New Brunswick, we're going to get together and talk about it.

2011 NJSAA Author Awards Winners:

Non-fiction scholarly category:

Ezra Shales. Made in Newark: Cultivating Industrial Arts and Civic Identity in the Progressive Era, (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2010).

Non-fiction popular category:

Michael S. Adelberg. The American Revolution in Monmouth County: The Theatre of Spoil and Destruction, (Charleston, S.C.: History Press, 2010).

Link to footnotes and accompanying essay:

Non-fiction reference category:

Joseph G. Bilby, ed. New Jersey Goes to War: Biographies of 150 New Jerseyans Caught up in the Struggle of the Civil War. (Hightstown, N.J.:
Longstreet House, 2010).
A publication of the New Jersey Civil War 150th Anniversary Committee, see:

Fiction and poetry category:

Irene Fleming. That's me! The Edge of Ruin, (New York, N.Y.:
Minotaur Books, Macmillan, 2010).


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

When the Great Depression Began and Ended in Lambertville

For those of you who may be curious about the beginning and end of the Great Depression, in case we have to go through another one, or in case we are actually in one, as some suggest, I have a benchmark for you.

Some say the Stock Market Crash on October 29, 1929, marked the beginning of that grim period in our nation's history. It's true that when the bottom fell out of the stock market things looked mighty dark. But, the low point? That came in 1930, on the day when the Lambertville Free Public Library got a monthly bill for $4.00 from the telephone company and the board voted to remove the telephone.

Now, this was in a time when there were no cell phones. If you needed to make a call you found a pay phone and put a nickel in (first having felt in the change slot to see whether the caller before you had neglected to take his change). Was the library phone used by patrons in 1930? Was it used by the librarian to call scofflaws who kept their books out too long? Whatever use it had been, the library board considered it superfluous.

That's right, folks, there was no telephone in the Lambertville Free Public Library for another thirteen years, when the board voted to restore phone service. So 1943, at least in Lambertville, marked the end of the Great Depression.

Makes you think. What if things got so bad the libraries had to shut down their internet connections?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bag the Cat

We interrupt the regular broadcast of news about the War of 1812 to bloviate upon our writing career, such as it is, what there is of it, as the family used to say about a vaguely unsatisfactory meal. On Wednesday last I had lunch with my agent. The Work In Progress I had hoped to hand him was not quite finished, so that I was forced to deliver a lame elevator pitch for it.

Turns out that the plot I had so craftily constructed last spring with the aid of that excellent how-to book, Save the Cat, was so complex and convoluted that it did not readily lend itself to an elevator pitch. This is a red flag for flaws in a manuscript, by the way. If you have to go on all day about what your book is about, to the point where your agent's eyes glaze over (assuming you're lucky enough to have an agent), then the book is probably a dog. Good books beget snappy log lines.

About halfway through the lunch he began offering helpful suggestions to improve the work, or at least make it easier for him to sell. By the time I had finished my post-prandial coffee I realized that a Major Rewrite was in order. Harold and I had company this weekend, so that today was the first chance I had to get to it. Many things in the WIP want straightening out, but the most starkly evident is this:

The cat must go.

So with apologies to all my fellow cat-lovers out there I'm removing all references to the kitty. I'm not even worried about what it does to my word count. Word count is the least of my problems right now.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Dropping the Ball This Week

I haven't got a single thing to say this week, not about The Collingswood Book Festival, which took place on Saturday and was great, not about life in Lambertville, which goes on as usual, not even about the War of 1812. I'm cleaning out the attic, which doubles as a guest room, because we are having guests. The task of digging out five trashbags full of dead sewing and knitting projects – first of all determining which ones are actually dead, and which merely comatose, and then carrying their rotting corpses down two flights of stairs and out to the curb – has been exhausting. My mental faculties, such as they are, are not up to blogging this week. Next week I'll be back, posting with my customary charm and erudition.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Organizing Your Plot

I used to keep an outline on the computer of whatever novel I was working on. That way I could look at it, see what day it was when such-and-such happened, see who knew about what, who was still friends with whom, who had been murdered and who was still alive &c &c. You would think a person could keep stuff like that in her head, but I like to jump around so much that it's hard for me to know where I am in the cosmic order of things.

And so I kept four files open on the computer whenever I was working: my outline; my research file, which might contain head shots of my characters and details of their lives, as well as maps of cities, train timetables, historical timelines and the like; an outtake file, where I could save things I cut in case I came to like them again; and, of course, the actual Work in Progress.

The trouble with this system was that as I worked things changed, not only the names of characters but the sequence of events, the events themselves, even the days of the week and the dates. Sometimes I remembered to go back and revise the outline, sometimes not.

When I set out to write my latest, I hit upon a terrific way to keep track of the stuff I used to use the outline for. Here it is, in case you work in Word and want to use it too.

Embed your notes about the action and the day of the week in the text as separate paragraphs, and style them H2. Chapter headings, of course, are H1. Another approach is to rough out your outline in H2 headings and then fill in the text as you write.

In this way you can run a Table of Contents (Insert - Field - TOC), update it from time to time, and see at once that you have only one Friday in the week and that it follows Thursday, that Millicent already knows Angelique's secret by page 30, and that the scene you need to go back and fix between Millicent and Rupert is on page 22.

Try it. You'll like it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Civil Unrest and the War of 1812

Civil unrest in this country is nothing new. Folks have been rioting here since the white people first annoyed the Indians. Sometimes the protestors are opposed by the police and the civil authorities, the way they were in the nineteen sixties, the way they are today in the Occupy Wall Street movement. At other times, the civil authorities ignore the protestors, even cooperate with them.

This is how it was in the first Baltimore Riot, when the very first casualty of the War of 1812 was created by a protestor dropping a rock on the foot of a passerby. The police were absent. The mayor was there, passing among the rioters, remonstrating gently with them.

What were the people of Baltimore upset about? Not the war. They were delighted when the country declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812. Federalists were against the war, but those of the Democratic-Republican persuasion were hot to get started fighting. In Baltimore, a city of 41,000 and growing apace, many of the residents were French, German, and Irish immigrants, and most were Democratic-Republicans. Not war protestors.

No, they were mad at Alexander Contee Hanson, who with his partner Jacob Wagner had dared to denounce the war in his newspaper, the Federal Republican. They began to gather at Hanson's newspaper offices on Gay Street as soon as the despised issue of his paper hit the streets, and by nightfall they were in such a passion that they tore the building down. Hanson and Wagner were not there, and so escaped a tarring and feathering.

But Hanson came back to Baltimore the following month and published a new issue of the Federal Republican, denouncing the Republicans of Baltimore as tools of Washington politicians and a rival publisher (the Baltimoreans had been rioting ever since he left). He published his street address. Two thousand rioters showed up to attack Hanson and his supporters; when they rushed the house one of the attackers was shot to death. The mayor and the police took the Federalists to jail, promising them safety, but the rioters broke into the jail and attacked them in an orgy of violence that some compared to the French Reign of Terror. One of Hanson's friends was killed and several others tortured and dreadfully maimed. Hanson himself was badly wounded.

We hope things don't come to that on Wall Street. As in Chicago in 1969, it can be tough sometimes to see who is doing the actual rioting. If past events are any guide, it's going to get worse before it gets better.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

They're After Us Again

I see by all the uproar that the masters of Facebook are messing with us again, tweaking the format, proposing to collect all sorts of new kinds of personal information about us that we may let slip in the course of our social interactions. There's an old New England saying regarding this: Two can keep a secret, if one of them is dead. Since Facebook is not expecting to turn up its toes anytime soon I suggest another slogan: Mum's the word.

We – that is, my friends and I – are on Facebook for two reasons, chiefly: to share family pictures and stories, and to connect with people who might do our writing (or other) careers some good. Many people in this latter category are actual friends, that is, people we like, people we help when we have the chance. Facebook is a handy way to keep abreast of things with all these folks, easier than email or checking blogs and web pages, way easier than snail mail. But make no mistake: We are being watched. Statistics and personal information are being gathered and – what's that word they like? – monetized.

Monetized. They're turning you into money, friends. No longer is our greatest fear the terror of having our employers see those frat party pictures where we got hammered and took off our Abercrombie and Fitches. Now they're – What? I don't even know! That's the horror of it! But the bottom line is that somebody is going to make money off our stupidity, and it won't be us. Never mind learning the clever fixes your friends are forwarding to you to keep your Facebook posts private. Next week all that will change anyway. Just remember two things:

If you don't want to see it on the front page of the weekly tabloid, don't post it online.

If your thoughts are worth actual money, you probably want to save them, copyright them and sell them your own self.

Monday, September 19, 2011

What I'm Up To These Days

Now that the cool weather is upon us I'm happy to say that I'm experiencing that snap of returned consciousness that comes with the end of a steamy summer. I have plans. First of all I plan to brag about the prize I got from the NJSAA (that's the New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance) for The Edge of Ruin until everybody gets sick of hearing about it.

But that won't take long. Then I plan to get busy, or busier, on the two books I'm working on right now, the suspense novel that takes place in a town much like Lambertville and the book about the sailor girl in the War of 1812. Which pretty much takes care of my mornings.

Then I'm actually going to drop the twenty pounds I've been promising to shed for the last ten years. I figure I can do that between noon and one. Maybe I'll stop eating and tap dance.

But what I wanted to announce today is my intention of doing more with this blog.

I'm already posting every Friday to the Crime Writer's Chronicle, which I hope you're following; four really interesting writers are on that with me. But for this one, I'm going to try to post every Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday, starting next week. Tuesday's posts will explore aspects of the War of 1812, hoping to gin up some interest in that wacky conflict in advance of the bicentennial. Friday and Sunday, random subjects, until I finish the suspense novel, at which time I may begin running excerpts from Bucker Dudley.

I'm going to have to put one of those gizmos on the blog now that make you copy hard-to-read letters into a box before you can comment. Wish I didn't have to, but I'm being snowed under with the attention of Russian spam bots. I hope you'll forgive me.

And that's what I'm up to.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Prize for the Edge of Ruin

The Edge Of Ruin, the comic thriller I wrote under the name of Irene Fleming about the early film industry in Fort Lee, New Jersey, has won a prize, the annual fiction award of the NJSAA (New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance). I must confess that I'm thrilled.

These folks are historians, not mystery fans necessarily, so the thing they like about it is the history. I think I got it right, not only the events of 1909 but the feelings and attitudes of the people of that time. Research is so much easier now than it used to be. Newspapers have put their old stories online and indexed them. The Library of Congress offers old silent movies reconstructed from the paper copies that were submitted to them for copyright protection.

Apart from the internet there were movies and books. Kino offers silent movies. Netflix offers silent movies. As for books, my two main sources were Fort Lee, The Film Town, by Richard Koszarski, and Big Trouble by J. Anthony Lucas, as well as many biographies and autobiographies. To say nothing of the stories told me long ago by my grandmother, who was living and working in New York City in those days.

I was perfectly comfortable writing about that period. 1812 is more of a stretch. Although Bucker Dudley is set in the Regency period it is in no respect a Regency novel. Most of it takes place at sea, or on military bases, or in the North Woods among the Mohawk Indians. Bucker hardly ever wears a dress, much less a corset. But it's fun. The history is as solid as I can make it. I have something like eighteen linear feet of books on the many aspects of the ever-fascinating war of 1812, and yet I manage to move the action along without boring information dumps.

I'll save the information dumps for the blog. Next week I'll talk about General Wilkinson, that wretched scoundrel.

Saturday, September 3, 2011


There is at least one hurricane connection for the War of 1812. Early in the war, perhaps a month after the declaration, a tremendous hurricane struck New Orleans and decimated the American fleet. (That is, it beat the fleet up pretty badly. "Decimated" ordinarily means "destroyed a tenth part," and don't let anyone try and tell you otherwise. In this case "decimated" means beat the fleet up pretty badly, but I don't have time to find out how badly, because I'm sitting in a rental car under a tree in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, outside the library, which is closed on account of Hurricane Lee. Fortunately their internet connection is available.

So I'm going to leave this spot now, before the tree falls on my rental car. I'm going back to my mother-in-law's house and sit on the porch, watching the wet tree limbs whip back and forth, working on my novel. Later on I'll tell you more about the damage that the unnamed hurricane did in 1812, how it affected the war effort, how a naval officer whose ship was destroyed wrote to the war office in Washington begging not to be put under the command of General James Wilkinson. I'll tell you more about Wilkinson too. He was widely hated. I hate him myself.

Farewell until better weather.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Heroes of the War of 1812 - Thomas Masterman Hardy

Sir George Cranfield Berkeley
You will recall the account of the infamous affair of the Chesapeake and the Leopard that occurred in late June of 1807, where Captain Humphreys of the HMS Leopard fired on the Chesapeake before she had a chance to clear for action, killing three American sailors. You will recall that this was done on the orders of the arrogant Sir George Cranfield Berkeley, commander-in-chief of the British North American Station. What you may not know is that Sir George had a beautiful, high-born, spoiled, self-centered daughter named Louisa. Her uncle was the fifth Earl of Berkeley. Her brother was the Duke of Richmond.

Lady Louisa Berkeley
Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy met this young woman in Halifax when she was nineteen and he was forty, a hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, and he courted her, because he was a rich man and a newly-made baronet as a result of his naval endeavors and it was time he married and begot an heir to the title. He had been at sea for half his childhood and all of his adult life. At Trafalgar he was Admiral Lord Nelson's flag captain aboard the Victory. Steady, intelligent, wise in the ways of the sea and fighting ships, Hardy was not greatly different in temperament from the fictional Captain Aubrey of Patrick O'Brian's sea stories. He was not literary, witty, or romantic. He was not a smart Regency buck of the sort that Louisa preferred.

Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, Baronet

But there were no smart Regency bucks in Halifax; they were all far away in London. Hardy, if he wasn't smart in the sense of Society, was at least a great hero. And so on November 17th, 1807, they were married.

Berkeley was recalled to England as a result of American complaints about the Chesapeake-Leopard affair, although the English felt that it served the Americans right. Hardy put to sea in the Triumph to cruise the Bay of Chesapeake, walking on eggs, as it were, to avoid offending the Americans further. He never knew when the Americans might take it into their heads to attack, and so the stoves on board the Triumph were never lit, even in his cabin, where his poor bride sat alone and shivering. Some honeymoon.

She never forgave him.

All this and more can be found in a book written by one of their descendants, John Gore, who admired her more than I do: Nelson's Hardy and his Wife.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

THE BRINK OF FAME Was Released Today

It has nothing to do with the War of 1812, but instead is a book about Hollywood in 1914. Still, you might enjoy it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The War of 1812 – Yippee! Games!

A number of entities, including the U. S. Park Service, are gearing up for the War of 1812 bicentennial by making video games out of the various events. YouTube advertisements for their efforts have stimulated profane and hostile nationalistic rants in the comments section by flame war trolls whose ancestors were dodging the draft in the potato fields of Eastern Europe in 1812 (unlike mine, who were dodging the draft in the woods of Canada – Oh, yes, and one by the name of Boyd who was a doctor on a British hospital ship in the Mediterranean during the conflict). Ignore the inane remarks and enjoy the tantalizing videos. War can be fun, if you don't get sucked into the hostility.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Partisan American Politics and the War of 1812

If you can imagine it, the United States was deeply divided in 1812 along party lines. The parties were the Federalists, based mainly in the Northeast and favorably disposed toward Britain, and the Republicans, who were mostly Southerners, unfavorably disposed toward Britain and keen to go to war on the Northern border. The president, James Madison, was a Republican and a Virginian, the anointed heir of Thomas Jefferson, who was president before him. They thought that going to war was a swell idea, even though Jefferson and  the Republicans had been instrumental in dismantling the standing army (standing armies could not be trusted, and cost money) and also the navy (same deal). It was Jefferson who said that the taking of Canada would be a "mere matter of marching." Nobody ever asked him what the Canadians would be doing while the Americans were marching.

At last the irritations of rampaging Indians and forcible impressment of American seamen, to say nothing of the lust for Canadian land, became too much to bear, and Madison declared war. Here's how the legislative branch voted on the declaration:

  • All the Federalists, most from Northern states, voted no.
  • Thirteen Republicans, four of them from New Jersey, voted no, led by John Randolph of Virginia, who felt that Madison was selling out Republican principles.
  • A few, including those representing the western territories (Mississippi and Indiana), abstained.
  • The rest of the Republicans, led by the War Hawks, voted to pass the declaration, and the United States was off on its ill-prepared adventure.

You can read all about this and many other aspects of that war in The Encyclopedia of the War of 1812 by David Stephen Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, from the Naval Institute Press.

You'll be happy to know that after the War of 1812 was over the Federalists faded away and everybody got along with everybody else in a time officially known as the "Era of Good Feeling."

I'm afraid it didn't last.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Why We Fought the British in 1812: The Thing with the Indians

The Battle of Tippecanoe
They wanted the Northwest Territory.

They were encouraged in their desires by the British, who occupied trading posts and forts throughout the Western frontier of the United States long after the Treaty of Paris concluded the American Revolution. With British encouragement the Indians continued to believe it was possible for them to hold the Northwest Territory against the Americans and stop the encroachment of land-hungry American settlers on their hunting grounds.

Even after the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 (on the site of present-day Toledo), when Mad Anthony Wayne drove their warriors before him and the British refused to open the doors of their fort to let them in, some of them thought, we can still unite the tribes and resist the Americans.

This was Shawnee leader Tecumseh's plan, when territorial governor William Henry Harrison refused to relinquish the three million acres along the Wabash River ceded in the Treaty of Fort Wayne in 1809. The "Delawares, Putawatimies, Miamies and Eel River Miamies" were the signatories to the treaty, and for the three million acres they were to receive the following: "to the Delawares a permanent annuity of five hundred dollars; to the Miamies a like annuity of five hundred dollars; to the Eel river tribe a like annuity of two hundred and fifty dollars; and to the Putawatimies a like annuity of five hundred dollars." Tecumseh's position was that the Indians were one, and the separate tribes had no authority to sell land that belonged to all the Indians.

In the real world such a position can be maintained only by force of arms. The British happily provided rifles. Tecumseh went on a tour of the southern tribes to gather support, leaving his brother, Tenskwatawah the Prophet, in charge of the Shawnee capital of Prophetstown, where the Tippecanoe flows into the Wabash River. Now Tenskwatawa was a man venerated by the Shawnee as a person of supernatural powers. He preached a return to the old Indian ways, and he told the warriors of the tribe that the American bullets could not wound them if their hearts were pure. Before you say, "foolish native superstition," you might reflect that this was also the belief of Duncan McColl, a devout Scot.

It was to Prophetstown that William Henry Harrison came with a thousand men to parley with the Indian leaders. "We will talk to you tomorrow," they said. The Americans made camp nearby and went to sleep.

At four in the morning the bravest of the Indians came creeping into the camp with orders to murder Harrison and his senior officers. They were followed by three waves of charging warriors, secure, at least at first, in their invincibility. But God was not on their side, after all. Harrison escaped death, his forces overcame those of the natives, and he was able to mount and lead a cavalry charge that drove the Indians into a swamp before he burned Prophetstown to the ground. Thirty-eight of the Indian dead were found in Harrison's camp. It was a terrible defeat for them; Indians never left their dead if they could help it. Most of the survivors lost all faith in Tenskwatawa.

This and many other ripping stories can be found in Col. John R. Elting's sardonic account, Amateurs, to Arms! A Military History of the War of 1812. He begins it, "The United States swaggered into the War of 1812 like a Kansas farm boy entering his first saloon. And, like that same innocent, wretchedly gagging down his first drink, the new nation was totally unprepared for the raw impact of all-out war." The book goes on in that vein. You want to read it.

Of Tecumseh, more later.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Why We Fought the British in 1812: Sailors' Rights

On June 22, 1807, the United States almost went to war with Britain, five years before the actual declaration of the War of 1812.

The affair of the USS Chesapeake and the HMS Leopard, which drove then-president Thomas Jefferson to the brink of declaring war, is explored in detail in the Naval Institute Press's Injured Honor, by naval historian Spencer C. Tucker and diplomatic historian Frank Reuter. It's a ripping story.

The Chesapeake was a frigate of the American navy, bound for the Atlantic and Gibraltar on what was expected to be a peaceful voyage, with civilian passengers aboard whose luggage cluttered the gun deck. The Leopard was a two-deck British ship of war, part of a squadron patrolling the area off Hampton Roads, cleared for action, gun ports open, the tompions removed from the muzzles of the guns, carefully maneuvering around the Chesapeake for the advantageous weather gauge. It did not occur to the Americans to worry. Commodore Barron did not beat the men to quarters. Why would he? the U. S. wasn't at war with Britain. He hove to when requested.

A boat put out from the Leopard and rowed to the American ship. Commodore Barron permitted Lt. George Meade to come aboard, thinking that the officer had mail for him to carry, a common courtesy amongst seagoing vessels of different nations. Instead the officer presented a demand from the Leopard's Captain Humphreys to be allowed to search the ship for deserters from the British Navy, by order of Sir George Cranfield Berkeley, commander-in-chief of the British North American Station. Quite properly Barron refused. Still he did not send the men to battle stations.

Meade returned to the Leopard, which promptly delivered three broadsides into the unprepared Chesapeake at close range. Confusion reigned among the officers and untrained crew of the American frigate. Three of the Chesapeake's men were killed and sixteen wounded, including Barron himself. The commodore was forced to strike his colors and permit the insolent British to remove four seamen from his ship. It was an intolerable humiliation.

The American people were furious. Jefferson called out the militia. He nearly took the U.S. to war over it, but in the end he deemed the country ill-prepared for war and chose instead to declare a trade embargo to weaken the British economy. The ploy backfired, beggaring New England merchants. But that's a story for another day.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Duncan McColl: Soldier, Minister, Pacifist

There is a quality to the St. Croix River Valley, the border between New Brunswick, Canada, and the state of Maine, that makes people love it with an almost irrational attachment. To my mother it was "up home." To the Indians it is sacred ground, and I've heard they want all of it back. To Harold A. Davis, a historian who grew up in Calais, Maine, it was an object of affection and intense study, out of which came his charming book,   An International Community on the St. Croix (1604-1930).

The book contains many wonderful tales. One of the best is the story of Duncan McColl, founder of the first Methodist congregation in St. Stephen and St. Davids, in New Brunswick, Canada. His role in the War of 1812 was remarkable.

When this revered churchman was a young fellow in Argyll, Scotland, he was recruited to serve in the 74th Regiment of Foot, formed to help put down the American Revolution. At the Battle of Castine in Maine he was sent to take a message to one of the British officers. In doing so he was exposed to enemy fire. The bullets ripped his clothes and his headgear, but never touched his flesh, by which sign he understood that he was meant for a life in the service of God.

33 years later, after many struggles, Duncan McColl was the pastor of a thriving Methodist congregation, whose members lived on both sides of the international border. The day war was declared was a black day for them, and for everyone in the St. Croix River Valley. But Duncan McColl called all the men together with a proposition. "I've baptized you and married you," he said, "And I don't believe you want to fight each other." They said they didn't.

"Good," he said, and gave them a paper to sign in which they swore not to attack each other. And so by his efforts Duncan McColl, who had in his day been a brave soldier, made sure that peace would prevail, on that part of the border at any rate, between the warring countries.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Sailor Girls in the War of 1812

Bucker Dudley is the story of a young girl who ran away to sea dressed as a boy and was caught up in one of the great naval battles of the War of 1812, the clash of HMS Macedonian and USS United States. When I tell people this, they narrow their eyes at me, as though such a thing could never happen. And yet such things did happen, if not every day, then certainly from time to time.

An excellent book about the phenomenon is Suzanne Stark's
Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail, an entertaining yet scholarly work that explores the lives of all sorts of women who found themselves on shipboard in those days, from the wives of officers and sailors to the prostitutes who came aboard when Royal Navy ships were in port to the occasional young girls who dressed as boys and " 'listed in the Navy" for a lark or by way of running away from bad situations at home.

Legends exist about such girls, and songs have been written about them. Here's one of the most famous.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Fourth of July Story

Here's one for you from the mists of folklore. I heard it from my father.

On the border between Maine and New Brunswick, in the Saint Croix River valley, relations have always been cordial between the Americans and the Canadians, even during the War of 1812 when their governments told the people they should be fighting each other. By 1812 the tradition of the Fourth of July picnic was deeply ingrained, even among the people of St. Stephen and environs, though the town had been settled by fleeing United Empire Loyalists.

So the whole community was looking forward to the annual fireworks display. But due to the shortage of powder, the Americans nearly had to call it off that year. Disappointment was felt all over the valley.

"See here," one of the men of St. Stephen said. "No need to cancel our picnic just because we happen to be at war. The St. Stephen armory has a plentiful supply of rockets and gunpowder the English sent us. We were supposed to use them to repel an invasion. Do you plan to invade us?"

"No," said the people of Calais.

"Then take the powder. It should make a nice display. We'll see you at the picnic."

The powder made a memorable display. Indeed the fourth of July picnic was elegant, as they say in those parts, and everyone lived happily ever after until the British navy appeared in the Bay of Fundy and menaced Eastport. But that's a story for another day.

Monday, June 27, 2011

1812: Why we Fought

Last week I promised to fill you in on some of the more bizarre details of this strange conflict. The most bizarre thing about the War of 1812, as near as I can determine, was that it was the American government who declared it.

Why start a war with the strongest naval power on the planet? Well, we were mad at them. Free Trade and Sailor's Rights was the rallying cry at the time, and that had to do with arrogant British sea power interfering with American commerce and impressing American seamen to serve on British warships. But there were other issues.

In the West (which is to say, places like Ohio and Kentucky) the American settlers were solidly behind any war that would get rid of the Indians, who allied themselves with the British. The Americans wanted the Indians' land. They moved onto it in droves. In response the Indians became the first anti-American terrorists. Mutilated corpses make for a lot of bad feeling; the Indians were hated and feared.

Population pressures drove a lot of pro-war sentiment. In that agrarian society the average American family needed enough fertile land to grow food. Not only Indian land looked good to them but Canadian land as well (and eventually, Mexican land, but that's another story). The conquest of Canada, as Thomas Jefferson once famously remarked, was a mere matter of marching. Resistance to Yankee forces was not expected.

After all, the British were busy fighting the French. How much trouble could a few Canadian farmers possibly be? So with a tiny standing army, a few inadequate forts, an ill-trained and skittish militia, and a navy consisting of six huge frigates and a number of lesser vessels, the United States of America went to war.

Not everyone liked the idea. The day after war was declared a Baltimore newspaperman published an issue of his paper denouncing the war. Outraged Baltimoreans converged on his newspaper office, broke up his presses, and pulled the building down. Then they attacked his supporters, killing some and wounding others.

Next: New England.

Monday, June 20, 2011

1812 Revisited – War with Britain!

In scarcely a year it will be the two hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the War of 1812, a war that was pretty much fought to a draw between the United States and Britain. What do you know about this conflict? Not much, I'm willing to bet. Even the hard core followers of the British Navy in the old days of sail, and there are plenty of those people, aren't aware of some of the battles that were fought on the Niagara frontier, or the role of the woodland Indians, or the fact that the New England states were so adamantly opposed to fighting the British that they were ready to secede from the union.

There is much interesting scandal to be known about the War of 1812. It ain't just dates and battles, folks. I came across stuff that you won't believe while I was researching background material for Bucker Dudley. There was treachery, cowardice, drooling incompetence, illicit sex, and raving madness. And that was just what went on in James Madison's Washington. I've decided to tear the veil from this little-appreciated conflict and tell you all. But it will take time. Watch this space for news of what happened two hundred years ago.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Prejudice, Pride, and V. S. Naipaul

Back in the old days, when a lot of the great ripping yarns were written, they were written for a very narrow audience, by writers of very narrow experience.

Case in point: Beau Geste (1924), by Percival Christopher Wren. The thrilling story of life in the French Foreign Legion and the fall of Fort Zinderneuf is marred by a scene in which the Beau stops on his way out of England to visit a pawnshop, where the writer pauses to invent and then insult a stereotypical Jewish pawnbroker. All of the readers were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, you see, and if they weren't, they wanted to be, and if they didn't want to be, well, they ought to. So let's bash the Jews.

Nowadays when nearly everybody who reads either has Jewish friends or is Jewish (What! You don't know any Jews?) the scene stands out for the piece of offensive tripe it is. Jewish people aren't like that, if they're like anything in particular. But now that I see that the book came out in 1924, a mere decade before the rise of Hitler, who had lots of admirers in England, I'm thinking that something much more sinister was at work here than simple ignorance.

But what about V.S. Naipaul? He's the one I sat down to write about. He said last week that no woman has ever been his equal in the field of writing. Their heads are full of sentimental feminine tosh, he said.

Nonsense like that would have been accepted without a murmur fifty years ago, the same as slurs against ethnic groups. Today it is greeted with a huge public outcry. My writer friends are mad at him. I'm not mad at him. I feel a vague unease, as if a passing rabbit were taking a crap on my grave. There are men everywhere who want to belittle us and stuff us back in the kitchen. Even now some antifeminist Hitler figure is rising from the bowels of the Tea Party, coming to take away our shoes and strew tacks in the yard.

Is Naipaul the greatest writer since Shakespeare? I couldn't say. I've never read him. Nor have I tried to write manly literary fiction. We in the whodunit game are out to entertain people, not stun them with the size of our packages, though I wouldn't turn down a Nobel prize in the unlikely event that somebody showed up at the door and offered it to me.

Men who do nothing in this world but put words on paper have to puff themselves up somehow. I'm sure he's a better writer than I am; otherwise, why does he keep getting prizes? Still I think you'll agree that people will be reading Jane Austen and Toni Morrison when the name of V.S. Naipaul is forgotten. I've forgotten already what the initials stand for.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Touring the Designer House

Last week my friends from the Lambertville Streetwalkers (a walking group, not the other sort of streetwalkers), drove to Doylestown, PA, for a tour of this year's designer house. The official details for the house tour can be found on the designer house web site:

It pains me to report that yesterday was the last day of the tour, so you can't go on it, but if you like the house it can be yours for a few million dollars. It's quite nice inside, though we weren't allowed to take pictures anywhere but on the grounds outside. The house was originally an old stone farmhouse, now greatly enlarged and modernized. I thought I'd show you a few of the pictures that artist Pat Shamy took of the grounds.

Here we all are standing in a light rain, having tramped
 appreciatively through the beautifully decorated rooms 
(each done by a different designer) until 
we were surfeited with decor.
The barn. No horses there right now, but after you buy it you can buy some horses
and hire a stablehand for a few dollars more.
Much of the decor is color-keyed to the barn.
Charming views, everywhere you look.
A great place to find a dead body, no?
Maybe I'll set a mystery novel here.
Thanks to Pat Shamy for the pictures.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Bleeders! Gorks! Chinkers!

No, I don't know what that means either, but it was the screamer headline on the Trenton Times sports page this morning. Those of you who follow sports probably know what it means. For the rest of us, it looks mighty like three expletives strung together. I like those expletives. Gorks, how I like them! (I'm always on the lookout for new expletives, especially since I vowed to actually stop swearing.)

When I was a little girl my best friend Deb Snyder and I used to try to swear. Since no one ever cursed in our presence--ah, those were gentler times--we had to make up our own curse words. The most terrible expression we had was "shad an the godost." It doesn't look like much in black and white but when you shout it, with the accent on the last syllable, it has a terrible power. I still use it sometimes when I bang my finger. What does it actually mean? I guess it means, "I am displeased."

Asterisks and symbols are good for representing real curse words on the internet, but one can't always remember whether a bad word is spelled "@#%&" or !@#$". So maybe the home-grown curse words are preferable. Oh, no. It's ten after eight already. Chinkers! My gorking blog is late.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Training the Brain

I took out a one-month subscription to Lumosity, that site that promises to improve one's mental function by means of little games. God knows I can use it. My brain is a shambles. We'll see whether their program actually does me any good.

First thing they do is ask some questions about one's lifestyle. Mine is pretty dull, no smoking, no drinking, moderate-to-low amount of exercise. Okay, I sit too much, but they didn't ask me that. Then one plays a couple of their little games to get rated on various mental skills. Then they send an email with one's recommendations and ratings. All this is free, by the way, in case you feel like indulging. You have to give them your contact info first, of course, so that later on they can hound you or shame you into signing up for the paid course.

My lifestyle was okay with them except for a few things. I wasn't taking on enough new challenges to suit them, and I wasn't regularly training my brain. I can understand how that would bother them. But one thing they found fault with puzzled me:

You're drinking a moderate amount of coffee or tea. Improve this.

At first I thought, Yes! I will increase my caffeine consumption. It's bound to make me feel more alert. In the immortal words of my father, if a little is good, a lot is better. But on closer examination I discovered that they actually wanted me to stop drinking coffee.

Give up coffee, my last vice? Never! Without caffeine I would spend my whole life in a total stupor. Maybe what they say is true, though. Maybe coffee ultimately makes me stupider, the way cigarettes ultimately make a smoker more nervous, craving nicotine to calm his nerves. I might try that. In some other life. If I do I'll let you know how it works out. Don't hold your breath, though, waiting for me to stop drinking coffee. I'm pretty sure it would be bad for your brain function.