In which reminders are useful things

I found this piece in an earlier blog entry, and I quite appreciated the reminder:

A day is not a long time. And yet it can change everything. Things that were going horribly awry can correct themselves, gently, without interference. Imminent disaster can be averted. Ships can be steered away from the rocks, and what seemed certain is suddenly a momentary shudder, a goose walking over your grave and then toddling happily away again. And one by one, each of the things that seemed to be hurtling out of your grasp, come quietly back, waiting patiently for you to notice how well-behaved they’ve become. If you move too quickly, you might startle them. So you breathe softly and make no hurried movements. Instead you relax, and give a little sigh of relief and recognition that whatever storm clouds gather blackly on the horizon, it only takes one great gust of fresh air to blow them to tatters. Nothing is as bad as you feared, and everything is better than you believed. It is a very good day.

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In which I’m talking neighbors

Neighbors make me nervous. We’ve had some lovely ones over the years and some not-so-lovely ones. Our current neighbors are delightful. We never hear from them, and even though I am highly suspicious about the new compost bed (come ON, that thing is 30×40 feet and bordered by 6-foot tall stockade fencing–it is not so much a compost heap as a BODY FARM), they are quiet and that is the most important quality in a neighbor.

Well, quiet and not creepy. The two can often go hand-in-hand, as I discovered in Texas. We lived across the street from a very sweet churchgoing couple. They were devoted to each other and their four children. They were quiet and thoughtful; the husband mowed the yards of elderly neighbors and the wife took them home-baked treats and pictures colored by the children. It seemed like they were too good to be true, and it turns out, they were.

After a few years of quiet domesticity, the wife disappeared, and the husband and children seemed unkempt and disheveled. It transpired that the wife had left the family for good to live with another man. Her pusher to be precise. Naturally, neighborhood sympathy fell heavily on the husband, but these things so often have two sides, don’t they?

On the day the wife had told her husband she would be coming around to collect some of her things, he got the children ready for school and put them on the bus. Then he sorted his wife’s clothes into garbage bags and stacked them neatly in front of the garage to await her. Above them, right on the garage door, he hung her wedding gown, a pristine white dress with an overlay of lace and an ENORMOUS SCARLET LETTER on the bodice. I’m not kidding. He had cut a letter “A” out of red felt and stitched it (alright, maybe he used Aleen’s craft glue) to the front of the dress.

It hung there all morning, swaying gently in the breeze. I know because I watched it. I kept thinking about him, sitting up at night, crafting his revenge–literally–and I was deeply horrified. (And wildly interested too, if I’m honest. It was the most riveting thing to happen in our neighborhood since an adulterous couple chose to park in the cul-de-sac around the corner for their noontime trysts. The mailman surprised them one day. Or they surprised him, I’ve forgotten now.)

Anyway, by the time the children came home, the gown was gone and the bags collected. I never saw who came and got them, or what the reaction was to the ruined dress. Only the wire hanger was left, twisted and limp as if someone had jerked the gown off of it in a hurry. The husband and children moved away shortly after and never heard of them again. Everyone blamed the wife for abandoning her family, but sometimes I wonder. A man who is capable of hanging out your wedding gown with a blood-red mark for the whole world to see might not have been the easiest sort to live with in the first place.

I’m just glad he didn’t keep a Body Farm…

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In which IT IS COMING!

Curious Beginning

September 1.

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In which I am on Twitter

Six years ago this month, I posted this on the blog:

I confess, I am tempted to Twitter. I haven’t succumbed yet, but I know it’s just a matter of time. I haven’t even gone to the site yet because I am certain it is a sucking vortex and just by clicking into it, I will be doomed to tweet forever. And honestly, at forty I ought to be immune to peer pressure, but when my friend Jerusha noted that “all the cool kids are doing it” I had immediate eighth grade flashbacks and an almost uncontrollable urge to listen to the Go-Gos and dig out my pep squad uniform. (Oh, dear Lord, I just realized I remember the ENTIRE fight song, complete with hand motions, but I have lost my multiplication tables past my fives. There is something VERY wrong about that.) So, I wonder–do you Twitter? And what do you tweet about?

Since I took the plunge and began to tweet, I’ve become very attached to Twitter. It’s my favorite form of social media. The endless spam-stream makes it impossible to keep comments open here; the maddening algorithms and sheer ickiness of Facebook mean I keep my presence there to a minimum. I’m on Pinterest, but I delegate the pinning because I know if I go over there myself, then IT will become the next sucking vortex consuming my life. But Twitter is oddly real. The ‘virtual cocktail party’ metaphor works beautifully there. It’s a fast-moving stream of chat and information, inspiration and connection. I’ve met some truly lovely people, had one or two harrowing moments, and learned more about myself and the world than I would ever have thought possible. Twitter is the platform that taught me that the people who say online friends aren’t ‘real’ have rocks in their heads. I’ve been lucky enough to meet some of my twitter pals in real life, and they’ve been wonderful, and while I’ve dabbled in other platforms, I don’t see anything taking the place of Twitter for the foreseeable future. It’s the online equivalent of Central Perk, a place to hang out and catch up. But without the muffins.

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In which I propose compliments

This piece originally ran on the Blog A Go-Go in 2007, but it  makes me so happy to think about this day. I wonder how many of my old classmates remember it?

One of my favorite high school memories is an appreciation exercise that an English teacher made us complete. (The only two things I enjoyed in that class were this exercise and seeing Gallipoli for the first time. “How fast can you run?” “Fast as a leopard…”) Anyway, this English teacher was not one of my favorites, but this assignment was genius. At the beginning of class she handed out slips of paper to us. There were thirty students in the class; we each got 29 slips of paper, one for each of our classmates, already printed with their names. Our instructions were simple: on that little piece of paper, we were to appreciate something about that particular classmate. (She made it quite clear that ONLY complimentary observations would be accepted.) The trick was, it was to be done anonymously. We were not to sign our names, and she even encouraged us to disguise our handwriting.

Naturally, we groaned and complained as only teenagers can do. It was easy to jot something about our friends, those we didn’t think about. The people we didn’t really know or didn’t especially like were more challenging. We were required to find something to compliment. She took them up at the end of the period and kept them for a few days before she passed them out. That only served to heighten the anticipation. When she passed them out, she had bundled them for us, so when she stopped at our desks, there was a little flurry of compliments drifting onto our desks at once. It was magical.

I read through mine quickly at first, then one more, slowly. The ones from my friends were easily recognizable by the handwriting. The sentiments were nice enough, but they were predictable and a little dull. The others, each written in an unfamiliar hand, were illuminating. The observations were sometimes intimate and always interesting. I was surprised by some, flattered by others. It was a little slice of voyeurism to peek into how others saw me. My very favorite was one that read: I would not mind if you sent me your first novel. It was offhand, and not, strictly speaking, a compliment, but it was vastly encouraging to me that someone even then saw me as a writer, and a successful one.

I carried those slips of paper with me for many years, through several moves, until our final move to this beautiful old house in Virginia destroyed them. Aside from my favorite, I can’t remember what they said or even the last time I read them. And I have no idea who wrote that compliment, but I wish I did. I hope somehow they find this blog and know that every time I got a rejection letter I took out that little slip of paper and read it like a cookie’s fortune, believing that someday it would happen.

It took less than an hour for us to write those anonymous compliments, but I know that for me, the effects lasted much longer than the time it took to read them. So what I propose is this: compliment someone unexpected today. Find something fabulous in the unlovely; celebrate the surprising in the mundane. And find a way to let them know. It might mean a lot more than you think.

Shortly after our move to Virginia, our stored possessions were afflicted with mold and had to be discarded. For five years I thought the compliment slips were among them. I found them last month when I was cleaning out my memorabilia boxes, a little yellow, a little faded, but just as wonderful.

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In which I commit murder

Okay, not really. But I LOVE this blog entry from 2007 discussing methods of murder. (Yes, this is exactly what mystery writers think about when we go quiet.)

Last week I attended a middle school choir concert, and as usual, I amused myself by composing a list of methods of murder. (Don’t judge–you weren’t there.) Long-time blog readers may remember a similar list compiled during the last choir concert. Alas, that list was eaten by the WordPress archive, but it gives us a chance to start anew. I feel compelled to add a disclaimer: don’t do this. It is wrong to murder other people. It is, however, amusing to THINK about murdering other people, and if you put it in a book, you will get paid for it AND you won’t go to prison.

*Defenestration: a personal favorite, both for the rhythm of the word and the finality of the method. There is a nice metaphor between shattering glass and ending a life.

*Suffocation: think “The Cask of Amontillado”. Not to be confused with…

*Smothering: pillows, stuffed animals, plastic bags.

*Garrotting: piano wire, underwire, barbed wire. The possibilities are endless.

*Blunt instrument: a distinct lack of subtlety here. Anyone can go around bashing people on the head. There is no elegance to such a crime, unless the instrument is later cooked up and served to the police a la “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl.

*Exsanguination: absolutely my favorite method to SAY. It sounds like something the Protestants would have fought the Catholics over, doesn’t it? I have read that it is a gentle way to die, provided the wound causing the blood loss is not too painful.

*Animal attack: by a trained animal assassin, of course. Think “The Speckled Band” or “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. (Conversely, a faked animal attack is also an interesting twist as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle demonstrated.)

*Anaphylaxis: an acute allergic reaction brought on by bee stings, ingesting peanuts, that sort of thing. Very useful in that the villain need not actually be present at the time of the crime.

*Arranged accidents: switching medications, removing treads from a dark staircase. Care must be insured that the accident is reversed before the investigation commences.

*Exposure: might seem like a good idea, but one must take a cautionary look at Greek myths to realize how often exposure actually failed to kill unwanted princes of prophecy.

*Manual strangulation, drowning, stabbing, falls–more common methods, but not without possibilities. Manual strangulation can be accomplished with the drapery cord of a common enemy, thereby removing TWO parties at once. Drowning ought to be accomplished simply by heaving someone overboard and sailing peacefully away. Holding the victim’s head underwater is messy and potentially dangerous. Drowning men are said to possess unholy strength. Stabbing is to be avoided on the same grounds, unless a more subtle variation can be devised. One need only look as far as history and Luigi Luccheni’s assassination of Empress Elizabeth to see how it might be done. Falls may be arranged from staircases, balconies, cruise ships, but care must be taken not to become entangled with the victim on their way down.

*Foreign substances: I have read about ground glass being slipped into a victim’s food, but I have my doubts. Wouldn’t the dinner guest note the odd texture before enough had been consumed to do any real damage?

*Poisoning, burning, and shooting: another batch of common methods, difficult to get away with in these days of excellent forensic techniques and lacking in imagination.

*Psychological murder: the most insidious and diabolical of all, driving another either to murder or suicide. Difficult to prosecute, almost impossible to prove. One must be careful not to leave either incriminating letters or the victim’s diaries behind.

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In which I may be in kindergarten

At least it feels that way…I’m attempting to learn French. Not fluent French, mind you. I’m not after reading Baudelaire in his native tongue. But we’re heading to London and Paris this summer, and I’d dearly love to at least be able to order food and hail a taxi and buy a lipstick. (“Rouge, s’il vous plait.”)

I always meant to learn French. It was my first choice in school, but–as my parents pointed out–we lived 150 miles from the Mexican border. Spanish was a much more practical option. So I took it. For six years. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was reading Cervantes and Garcia Lorca. I placed fourth in Texas in a statewide vocabulary competition. And since I haven’t used my Spanish since I graduated, I can now remember how to order toast. Maybe.

Before our trip to Italy a few years ago, I didn’t have the chance to pick up much Italian. I had about half a dozen nouns under my belt and that was it. But what I discovered, much to my delight, was that I FELT Italian. Something about the rhythm of it worked for me. It is a musical language, and I responded to it like a groupie. Within a few days, I was managing so well that a shopkeeper got offended when I didn’t speak Italian to her, thinking my failure was one of discourtesy rather than ability. (Apparently it’s possible to say “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian” TOO well.)

But just those few phrases of Italian made it infinitely easier and more comforting to navigate a city where I was a minority. With that in mind, I’m determined to hit Paris more accomplished. I’ve started daily lessons with the Duolingo app; I have the Berlitz 5-minute a day workbook, and I’ve bought what look like enormous laminated cheat sheets crammed so tightly with verbs and grammar rules I almost need a microscope to read them.

And it’s daunting. French is lovely, perhaps the most poetic and luxurious language in existence. It’s the language of my maternal line. My mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother was a native-born Frenchwoman. Is language carried in the blood? Some whisper of the memory of it encoded into our DNA? I wish. My ability to mimic accents has always been fairly good, but while Italian–another ancestral tongue–came as easily to me as rocking my baby, French puts up a little resistance. It will not let me in easily. There’s some function of the mouth, a way of setting the vowels forward on the tongue, that escapes me. So many words end with the lips pursed, as if bestowing a kiss or primming in disapproval. And the times I do get it right, it feels as if I’m getting away with something, as if I’ve broken off a little piece of vocabulary that doesn’t belong to me and run away with it. I wonder if anything about this language is going to feel like it’s MINE. It belonged to my ancestors, and I wish somehow I could believe it will belong to me. I want to reclaim at least a little of it, to carry on a conversation with my heritage. To which I suppose every native-born speaker of French would think, “Bonne chance!”

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In which we’re talking Victorians

It’s been a challenging few weeks at Casa Raybourn, and I’m ready for some sunshine and some FUN. Here’s a little Victorian/Edwardian frivolity in case you’ve missed these!


23 Charming Photos That Prove The Victorian Era Had The Best Clothes

21 Victorian Slang Terms It’s High Time We Revived

14 Victorian Insults To Unleash In Casual Conversation

What Would Victorian BuzzFeed Look Like?

Victorian Post-Mortem Photography

Victorians Being Not At All Stuffy

The Geffrye Museum: Walk Through A Victorian House

The McCord Museum: The Victorian Period (An Online Game)




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In which I am in Indonesia

Okay, not me. But my book is! I heard a rumor months ago that they were translating the Lady Julia books for sale in Indonesia, and lo, and behold, here we are. I’m always intrigued to see the variations in covers–they change QUITE a bit from country to country. Each foreign office repackages the book according to what they think will appeal to their readers. Here’s a global tour of the first Lady Julia book in four of its incarnations. First up, the newest entry from Indonesia. Check those RUFFLES!SITG Indonesia

Here’s the French cover, sporting much more black–of course. It’s chic!

French SITG Cover

Australia went a completely different–and more whimsical route.

SITG Australia

And Italy, which used three different covers, started with this one–the original American hardcover version.

SITG Italy

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In which Wolf Hall is coming

Did you know? I don’t know about your local PBS station, but mine is frothing about this one. I have been watching loads of PBS lately thanks to “Downton Abbey”, “Grantchester”, and the adorable “Great British Baking Show”. (Who knew I could care so much about a Victoria sponge? Which, if we’re honest, sounds like a queenly birth control device.) Anyway, they keep flogging Wolf Hall and I’m keen to start it. It’s gotten mixed reviews in the UK–viewership dropped off dramatically from the first week to the second–and I freely confess to not having read the book. (I started it…)

We still have something like four weeks to go before it airs, but here’s a snippet of something I blogged awhile back about Great Harry:

I’ve always been intrigued by historical puzzles, and the English royal family has had more than its fair share. The princes in the Tower, the royal imposters, the Casket Letters–I know that was Mary, Queen of Scots, but since she was of Tudor descent and her son inherited the English throne, we’ll toss her in there. One of the things that has fascinated me the most is the reproductive history of Henry VIII’s wives. I always thought it was remarkable that his womenfolk–wives and mistresses alike–had successful first pregnancies but multiple failures afterwards. (The single exception to this is the birth of Princess Mary to Katherine of Aragon.) Every other subsequent pregnancy for a partner of Henry VIII ended in miscarriage, stillbirth, or fetal death.

And yes, I know Tudor times were not a rocking age for childbearing. Just the thought of the herb-laden fats they used to cram up…never mind. We won’t talk about it. But even accounting for the difficulties of childbearing at the time, Henry VIII’s partners were woefully unlucky and managed to be unlucky in such a way as to suggest a pattern. It has long been suggested that Anne Boleyn’s reproductive tragedies after bearing Elizabeth in 1533 were due to an incompatible Rh factor. Possible, but that fails to take into account the fact that her predecessor, Katherine of Aragon, had almost precisely the same reproductive experiences. Aside from the live birth of Princess Mary, her history is a painful list of the same afflictions that Anne Boleyn suffered.

So what do they have in common? Henry. The old chestnut about him having syphilis has been pretty well discounted by now, but I came across a riveting article that posits the theory that Henry carried a genetic condition that would have resulted in a pattern of successful first pregnancies, with subsequent pregnancies frequently ending in the death of the child and only occasionally producing a healthy infant. This explanation neatly covers the reproductive history of both of his first wives AND the birth of Princess Mary as the exception to the litany of failed pregnancies. As a fascinating side note, the condition may also carry a complication that can result in erratic judgment, paranoia, and delusions with the onset near the fortieth birthday–another pattern that mirrors Henry’s experiences perfectly. Is it possible to diagnose a man who has been dead for more than four hundred years? Not likely, but it is intriguing to find a possible solution that accounts for his transformation from beloved prince to vicious tyrant and for his many failures in filling the royal nursery.

And a bit of Tudor trivia to bore your friends with: in spite of the fact that Henry VIII took to wife four Englishwomen and both Spanish and German princesses, he and all six of his wives were descended from the Plantagenet King Edward I of England. (As am I. And about nineteen million other people. But still, it’s nice to know.)

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