Friday, May 26, 2006

First, a Few Items of Business...

We're going to Amsterdam tomorrow for five days. Whooohooo. Last year, Peter spent his 30th birthday by himself, packing up our life in Wheaton. This year, we're making it up to him.

So, this spot will be quiet, but not to worry, I'm leaving a couple of posts to hold you over. Plus, when I return, there will be the obligatory trip report on Travels with Grandma.

If you haven't already got involved, you might want to help save the Internet. (Which reminds me of Back to the Future ("Save the clock tower!") The basic story is that the telco lobby in the States has managed to convince legislators that they are unfairly bearing the costs of supporting Internet infrastructure and it's time the Microsofts, Googles, Amazons, and other deep-pocketed Internet profiteers chipped in. Their solution is to create a two-tiered Internet – thems that pay get to speed along in the fast lane and thems that don't, well, don't.

My completely biased take on it is that it would allow broadband providers and telcos hold companies to ransom in order to raise funds. It's a weasely stealth tax that completely undermines what the Internet is all about. Daily Tech has been covering the story, if you want the complete backstory.

"See" you again in June.

...Next, the Mushy Stuff

Dear Big B,

So, another year gone. I can tell we're getting older. Time doesn’t just fly. It laughs at us as it cruises along at Mach speed, leaving us helpless to catch up.

It's been an interesting year and I do mean interesting in both the dictionary-definition sense and the Chinese-curse sense. We have lived in interesting times this last year and have navigated our way through an ocean of changes. The best part of this year has been getting a new perspective and a new appreciation of you.

Some of our new circumstances have helped me walk a mile in your sea salt-stained Doc Martens. I have a new appreciation of your patience, your ability to soothe away groundless fears, your capacity to sigh for the thousandth time but still reason away irrationality. I have a fresh admiration for your willingness to take one for the team with grace and good humour. I have renewed respect for your optimism and your outgoing nature.

So, thank you. Thank you for being my best friend. Thank you for being a calming influence. Thank you for being the steady and loving Great Dane to my hyper and stubborn terrier.

Happy Birthday, Sweets. I love you more than chocolate, dogs, ponies, and camogie, all put together. High praise indeed.

Lil B

...And Now For Something Completely Different

I'm going away on a trip, so it must be time once again to dig into the rejection files. This one is a piece of satire I wrote, hoping to get it placed in The New Yorker's "Shouts and Murmurs" column. When they rejected it, I tried The Funny Times, who sent me back my query letter with a handwritten notation "Close, but not quite." Mad Magazine also turned me down.

I wrote this because I was fed up with all the non-compete and non-disclosure agreements I've had to sign in the course of my relatively short professional career.

Welcome aboard! We are delighted to have you join our team here at OmniCorp. We just have a little paperwork to complete and then we can show you around.

OK, the first document here is the Non-Compete Agreement. I think you’ll find that it’s a pretty standard form. You agree that after you complete your employment with us- due to the sensitive nature of our business - you will not work for any of our competitors. For how long? For ever, of course! We have to protect ourselves, you know. Incidentally, if you have children, we ask that they don't work for our competitors either - kids are like sponges. We have to guard against little Johnny sneaking a peek inside your briefcase and going on to undermine one of our trade secrets twenty years from now. You understand..

This is the Non-Disclosure Agreement. Again, this is all boilerplate stuff – nearly every company in the industry requires you to sign one of these babies before you start work. Really, nothing here should be shocking or surprising.

You basically agree to keep confidential anything we tell you to keep confidential. You also agree not to divulge our trade secrets, documentation, templates, phone lists, laundry lists, business plans, floor plans, interior decorating plans, internal communications or any other written communication. We also ask that you not share things you hear, overhear, or imagine you heard with anyone outside the company. Any thoughts you might have belong to the company, so please, until we have our ThoughtWare monitoring system in place, we ask you to use this handy Dictaphone.

Anything you create during the course of your work here becomes our property, regardless of whether it was created on company or personal time. You’ll see in the kitchen that we have a very nice set of coffee mugs, plates, and serving platters, all thanks to the ceramics students who used to work here. And you may have seen our latest novel, “The Wild Hermits of Wheaton” by OmniCorp. Alice, the secretary, is really quite a talented author. Of course, we couldn’t allow her to have the author credit – it just wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the staff, you know.

Here’s the Liability Release Waiver. The waiver recognizes the fact that any workplace can have hidden dangers and that you promise to hold us blameless should you have any workplace-related injury. This includes, but is not limited to, carpal tunnel, eyestrain, broken bones, sprained ligaments, torn muscles, or dismemberment. Which reminds me, please be careful when using the shredder on the eleventh floor, something is definitely wrong with it.

We ask that you sign a copy of our privacy policy, to acknowledge that you’ve read it and understood it. If I may speak bluntly, you have no expectation of privacy here. We own the computer systems, the network, and the phones, so any communications on these devices are subject to monitoring to ensure that only work-related business of an appropriate nature is discussed. We also own the building and everything in it, so we can always see and hear you and report to the relevant company authorities the most minor infraction of company policy. You understand how it is, business these days. We must make sure everyone is functioning at maximum capacity and that we are all working toward the same goals.

And the last document we have here is a medical authorization form to obtain a DNA sample. No, we’re not going to take your blood! A simple oral swab will do. This form authorizes the company nurse to take a sample of your DNA, so that if it’s determined that you match our standards for the ideal employee, our R&D department can get started on cloning you. You’re not going to be around forever, you know, and the least you can do is ensure that when you’re gone, the company will have a way to replace you.

Now, you can’t start work until you sign all the paperwork, so I suggest you get started. Sure, you might want to read it through, but do you really think you need a lawyer to look it over? You know, lawyers wrote all of the agreements so I’m sure they’re perfectly legal. You don’t really want to go through all the hassle, especially when we’re so excited to have you, instead of one of the other 500 qualified applicants, on board.

That’s right, there you go. Here, you can use my pen. Then I’ll show you to your desk.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Law and Order: CJU (Chicago Jury Unit)

I've been a bad blogger lately because I haven't had much to say. Or rather, I've had loads of things to say, but none of them have been appropriate for the blog. I don't write about my extended family and I don't write about work and lately, those two items have been sucking up all my time and energy.

I probably wouldn't be writing now, but I just read a post by thatgirl, in which she wondered what it's like these days to be on jury duty. In a city far, far away, not that long ago, I served on a jury for a murder trial.

Just to warn you, this is the first time I've written about this experience. It's turned out way longer than I thought it would be. (Names are changed because isn't story a lot cooler-seeming when pseudonyms are used?)

The Set-Up

I never thought I'd actually serve on a jury, since I'd been to law school and I'd been mugged at gun point, either of which can cause an attorney to break out a peremptory challenge. When I got the summons to jury duty in Chicago's criminal court, I figured I'd get a day off work, sitting on uncomfortable chairs and reading a novel. Not a bad way to spend a single day, even though it required driving deep into the South Side.

I only spent about an hour sitting on the uncomfortable chair before my name was called. I went with about 50 other prospective jurors to a courtroom. The judge called 14 names (12 jurors + 2 alternates) and my name was the third one called. I settled into a chair in the juror's box and took in the scene. Two attorneys sat on the prosecution side, a man who bore an uncanny resemblance to the putzy guy on "Spin City" and a younger woman in a dark business suit. At the defense table was a F. Lee Bailey-type guy, older and distinguished looking, and a young attractive woman lawyer. Sandwiched between them was a woman who looked about 18. She had blonde hair, a pointy face, and was thin, maybe 110 pounds.

The judge looked like a judge (maybe it was the robe, maybe it was his exalted perch) and he read the charges against the woman – first-degree murder in the death of John Simon. More than a few mouths dropped open in the jury box, trying to wrap our minds around the idea that the small girl in front of us could have killed anyone. The judge read a few basic statements, pretty much straight out of the Constitution, and asked us if anyone had a problem with any of them. One guy raised his hand and admitted that he couldn't accept the concept of innocent until proven guilty – if the police nab you, it must be for something, right? He was dismissed.

The voir dire portion of the morning events was brief. We were each asked basic questions – what we did for a living, our educational background, what we did in our spare time, did we have relatives in the police, did we belong to any organizations. Any clarifying questions were asked individually in the judge's chambers. A couple of people were dismissed, a few more were interviewed and before you knew it, we had a jury.

We were sent home for the rest of the day and were given instructions for the next morning. Going into the jury room the next morning was like walking into homeroom on the first day of high school. I felt nervous and awkward and was afraid the other kids wouldn't like me. I was also a little freaked out by the whole prospect of a murder case. The jury room was fairly narrow and was dominated by a table. We were a motley crew, ranging in age from maybe 21 to about 60. I ended up sitting by a neurosurgeon, an Italian guy who worked in flood recovery, a young Hispanic woman, and a middle-of-the-road motherly type.

The Italian guy was the class clown. He was entertaining us with stories about how his boss wanted him to avoid jury duty by acting like a racist during voir dire. He was good at breaking the ice and we were all a bit nervous about this jury thing. All we knew was the charge and the name of the victim. Both the Italian guy and the Hispanic woman speculated on a domestic abuse thing gone wrong. Then the neurosurgeon said that we didn't know the age of the victim – what if it were her child? That freaked us all out.

The Facts

Opening statements were just like you see on the TV. First Putzy man took his turn, pacing in front of us. He told us about the defendant, Lynn Smith. He told us about her checkered past: a crack cocaine addiction, a child out of wedlock with a married man, an explosive temper. He said that we would hear how Lynn had coldly and cruelly murdered the elderly and kindly neighbor-man John Smith. After a fight with her married boyfriend, Lynn sought refuge for herself and her son in John's house.

John owed Lynn some cleaning money, but he told her he would give it to her in the morning, so that she could buy groceries and items for the baby. Lynn didn't want to wait until the morning. She wanted to buy crack and so when John wouldn't give her the money, she grabbed a lead pipe and attacked him while he was changing a light bulb. Then she took her baby and ran to a motel where the police eventually found her.

How would we know for certain that Lynn had done the murdering? Because John Simon survived long enough to call 911, talk to the paramedics, and talk to the police. He only died later at the hospital. He told police that his neighbor had done it, because of a monetary dispute.

After Putzy was done with his opening statement, it was F. Lee's turn. F. Lee told us that indeed, Lynn had struck John Simon with a lead pipe but she had done so protecting her son. She had awoken in the night to her baby crying, had gone out to the kitchen, and seen John Simon molesting her son. That's the only reason she had struck him with the pipe and she only struck him enough to back him away from her son.

The Prosecution

The prosecution's case was a parade of damning witnesses. The daughter of the murdered man, who was basically there to tell us that her father was a good guy with a gentle heart who never abused children. She was the first witness and her pain was so raw, even after three years, that it hurt to listen to her.

The married boyfriend also testified for the prosecution. He confirmed the fight. He said that he had seen her smoking crack earlier that day. He said that when she called him to meet her at the motel, she hadn't said anything about molestation.

There was a parade of official-type witnesses – the cop who went to the neighbour's house, the arresting cop at the hotel, the forensic specialist, the coroner. Each laid down irrefutable proof that Lynn had picked up the pipe and beaten her neighbor at least twenty times.

Blood spatter evidence figured heavily in this case. We heard about where and how the first blows were struck. We saw picture after picture detailing the blood patterns. We had to look at everyone's clothes from the night – the victim, the defendant, and her son. The absence of splattered blood on the baby's clothes was something that lodged in my head. We also had to look at some of the autopsy photographs, all of which showed a pale man with several vicious-looking dents in his skull.

The prosecution's case took all of the first day of trial and part of the second day. As the jury, we took notes and listened carefully. When we had breaks or were shuffled out of the courtroom so the lawyers could debate an evidential motion, we were careful not to talk about the testimony we'd heard. We were sequestered during the day, having to eat the same lunch that the prisoners in the jail got. (It was disgusting – chicken mcnuggets that were fried in oil used to fry fish, so it tasted like both chicken and fish.) We were lucky enough to go home at night, under strict instructions not to talk about it.

That was the hardest part of jury duty – carrying around these images and statements without being able to process them. We weren't supposed to draw conclusions. We weren't allowed to share our fears and dread over what we would see or hear next. All we could do was show up at court, listen, and then try not to think too much about it.

The Defense

The defense's case took about half a day. We didn't start right away because of motions and a mystery witness. The mystery witness turned out to be a young woman who lived down the street from John Simon. She testified that he had abused her when she was ten years old. If listening to the daughter of the victim was hard, listening to this woman was absolutely soul crushing. It was clear that she'd had a difficult young life and that her adulthood wasn't turning out much better for her.

The next surprise of the case was that Lynn actually testified. We hadn't expected that to happen and we hung on her every word. Her female defense attorney did a good job in making her seem like a reasonable person who had made some mistakes in life, but had tried to protect her son. The female prosecuting attorney did an even better job on the cross examination at bringing out an explosive temper and some inconsistencies in the story.

Closing Statements and the Deliberations

The closing statements were again just like something off the television. Putzy waved the autopsy photographs in front of our faces, which made me both angry and uncomfortable. While the opening statements had been mostly reasonable outlines of the facts in question, the closing statements were shameless appeals and assaults on our emotions. I didn't like that at all, preferring a more logical, factual approach.

After the closing statements, the judge read the charges and instructions, which was about 3 or 4 pages long. Then we were sent to the jury room to get on with things. We had to pick a foreperson, and the main concern for most of the jury was that this person would have to speak in court. (I thought the more important role of the foreperson was to direct the deliberatons.) The Hispanic woman volunteered and no one disagreed. During the deliberations, she showed little interest in directing the conversations and the neurosurgeon stepped in and moderated the debate. We had been told not to do a straw poll, to first discuss the evidence and not to prejudge the case. We went around the table and each said a little bit about our thoughts.

It was interesting to see how people took the premise of innocent-until-proven guilty very seriously. I don't think many defendants get such a benefit, but first impressions count. Our first impression had been of a small, nearly child-like woman. Had she been a big strapping man, I don't think the deliberations would have lasted longer than 15 minutes.

We were able to come to the conclusion that she had struck the victim with the pipe. That was the easy part. The tough part was discerning her intention, her mental state, the extent of her premeditation. When she picked up the pipe, was she thinking "I'm going to kill this guy because I want my $30" or was she thinking "I have to protect my baby." ? How can anyone decide what is on the mind of any other person?

The blood evidence featured prominently in our discussion. It was what swayed it for me. The fact that most of the splatter was in the hallway, not in the kitchen, that the baby's clothes didn't have splatter on them, that a broken lightbulb was found in the man's pocket and another was found on the floor. It seemed more likely that she had come up from behind him while he was changing the lightbulb than that she had discovered anything untoward going on in the kitchen.

After discussing the blood evidence, we were moving solidly in the direction of first degree murder. Then we had to look for mitigating circumstances – was it defense of her child, as she claimed? Two middle-aged men wanted to talk about this a great deal. They seemed to identify with the defendant, like in a father-daughter way, and wanted to be sure that she was lying about the molestation. Again, it was the blood that did it for me. I have no doubt that someone abused the poor mystery witness but I don't think it was John Simon.

After an hour and a half, we were moving solidly in the direction of a unanimous first-degree murder verdict. We were taking our final vote when one of the quietest, oldest men in the room spoke up. He was one of only two African-Americans on the jury and had been reading a religious book during our breaks. (I think it was the Church of Latter Day Saints' book. I know it was advertised on television quite a bit at that time.) He wanted to talk about forgiveness, about not rushing into judgment, about acting like Jesus. (Yeah, so much for the separation of church and state.) He talked for about 20 minutes and then he was done. He had changed no one's mind and the final verdict was indeed first-degree murder.

The Verdict

We went back out and our foreperson delivered the verdict. The defense asked for a poll and so each of us had to individually state that this was our true verdict. The judge started to give us a boilerplate speech, thanking us for doing our civic duty. During this speech, he started to tear up and his voice was cracking. We were then sent to the jury room to await the debriefing and to receive our certificates.

We were stunned and nervous, second-guessing our verdict in light of the judge's seemingly emotional reaction. Did he know something we didn't know? Did we just deliver the wrong verdict?

The judge came in after about 20 minutes. He was smiling, joking, a completely different guy than we'd seen in the courtroom. He asked us if we had any questions about the case. Someone asked if we'd made the right decision. He said absolutely, we had. He said there was a ton of evidence we didn't get to hear and several other matters of a violent nature pending against her. The relief in the room was tangible, it was as though after having the wind knocked out of us, we all caught our breath at once. One brave soul asked him why he seemed choked up.

Turns out that after 20 years in the criminal court, he was "retiring" to the civil court. He'd been the judge on one of the most famous and racially divisive cases in Chicago's recent past and the fallout from that case had finally convinced him it was time to back away from the criminal cases. But he hadn't realised how emotional it was going to make him, on his very last day, his very last criminal case.

He answered a few more questions, handed out our certificates and sent us on our way. We were told that although the lawyers could approach us, we didn't have to talk to anyone. When we walked through the courtroom to leave, John Simon's family was waiting in the gallery for us. They gave us a standing ovation and that was the most difficult thing to bear. We had just followed the facts as we'd seen them, we didn't want to be credited with finally bringing them peace or justice. That's too much for 12 regular people to bear. My face felt like it was on fire and I didn't make eye contact with anyone.


I don't know what happened to Lynn. Obviously, she went to jail for a good long while. The sentencing was done separately, by a judge, sometime well after the trial. About six months after the trial, I wrote to the court asking for a copy of the record. The last entry was a continuance on the sentencing.

That was my jury experience. (It's maybe more than thatgirl or anyone else really would want to know.) I don't know if it was typical or atypical. I don't know how juries differ in Ireland. The blood evidence, while not explicitly CSI-glamorous, was crucial to the case.

I'd say that we all took our role as the jury very seriously. We wanted to do the right thing and to discover the truth. I've always been satisfied that we made the correct decision, but that didn't make it any easier to make the decision.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

This is How You Remind Me

I first learned about mnemonic devices when I was 11 and in the hospital overnight after a tonsillectomy. (Now they practically do this surgery drive-thru-style.) The girls on "The Facts of Life" were cramming for their final exams. One of them, Natalie maybe, had to memorise the entire periodic table. Tootie (I think) suggested a mnemonic device.

For example, the period table symbol for gold is AU. Tootie delivered an easy way to remember this: "A, U, give me back my gold watch!" Both the smaller and the larger lessons lodged in my dazed brain that day. I've always been a successful student because I know how to study. I swear by flash cards and mnemonic devices.

Flashcards are fabulous because they break the material down into bite-sized pieces and force you to recall information when presented with a cue. Flashcards don't do anything to help you apply the facts and think logically, but they will at least help you come up with the right information.

I don't know when exactly I got into flashcards but they are my scholarly mainstay. Flashcards are playing an instrumental role in my learning Irish. Right now, the goal is to cram as much vocabulary into my little head as quickly as possible. I'm learning basic grammar principles as I go along, but in order to learn grammar, you need to have words.

It's easy enough to remember the words for physical things, because I can link the word for the item to a concrete mental image. I was having a much more difficult time with verbs and adjectives, so I've been employing mnemonic devices to help me.

Hat tip to Fence for her clever explanatory mouse-hover text that allow you to see the pronunciation and definition of Irish words. Pretty cunning indeed. I've borrowed the Fence-translation-system, so just place your mouse on the first letter of a word to see a small strip of text showing you the definition and pronunciation.

On with the mnemonics:

Beir. So, you're catching a bear, right? But here's the fun bit. Beir is one of the Irish language's 11 irregular verbs. Its past tense is rug. After you've caught the bear, you turn him into a rug.

Tabhair. Another irregular verb. I remember tabhair by thinking about bringing something to a scary, isolated tower. The past tense is thug. So I remember this by thinking that once I've gotten to the tower, its occupant is sad and lonely so I give him a hug.

Caillte and Caite. I was confusing these two words until I sorted out mental images for them. Caillte sounds like the name Kyle, so I picture a little blonde kid, lost in the big bad world. Caite sounds like the name Katya, so I picture an Eastern European woman, who, well, let's say she's been around the block a few times and a tough life has near about ground her down.

Ag dul. Everything's dull and boring here, better get going.

Ag caint. This one is easy enough for me to remember the definition, but I needed to link the pronunciation to something. So, it's ag caint like a pint.

Lán. I picture a nice full lawn of lush, green grass.

Folamh. It's one of life's little ironies that a world that sounds pretty close to "full of" actually means empty.

I'm making good progress in my Irish lesson. My teacher likes me because I actually study outside of class. He's used to giving grinds to students who are looking for extra help to pass an exam but don't do any work outside of the one hour they meet a week. I'm a girl with plans and I'm a type-A over-achiever, so of course I study outside of class.

The mnemonic devices really work. My vocabulary is coming on nicely and but I'm going to have to start working on decoding pronunciations on my own. Right now, I'm like a trained Irish monkey, I can deliver a phonetic pronunciation that I've memorised, but I am hard pressed to read something out loud that I've never seen before. All in good time, I'm sure, but I am anxious to get up and running with this language.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Is There Anything Else You Want to Tell Me About?

We were cleaning out the shelves in the attic today in an attempt to make it more office-like. All last summer and through the winter, we used the space as our club house. We also used it as our storage shed, so this spring clean is an effort to reclaim the space and put it to better use.

Peter was sitting in his chair, near his computer. He was sorting through ancient floppy disks and computer game manuals. I was holding the trash bag and hoping he wouldn't want to hang onto too much sentimental crap.

We were on the last shelf when Peter picked up a bit of plastic packaging that I probably would have thrown away.

Peter: This is tricky. These are the nubs for the tablet pen, so they can't get thrown away.

Me: What tablet pen?

Peter shows me the pen.

Me: You mean you have a tablet?

Peter: Yes.

Me: You bought a tablet?

Peter: Yeah. (Clearly thinking that he'd married a looney.)

Me: How long have you had it?

Peter: I don't know. Couple of months maybe.

Me: Why didn't I know about this? Let me see it.

He produces a sleek-looking large tablet from underneath his desk.

Peter: I don't how you don't know about it. I've used it right in front of you.

Me: No you have not. I'd remember something like that.

Peter: Yes, I have. You were right over there on that bed and I was here working on the tablet.

Me: Yeah, but I was working on my laptop and your back is to me so I wouldn't be able to see what you were doing.

Peter: Well, yes. I have a tablet.

Me: Is anything else you want to tell me about? Secret girlfriend? Affair? Anything?

We later decided that I must have been in Slovenia when he bought the tablet. But still. You think you know someone. You spend nearly every waking, non-work hour with someone. Yet, somehow, he manages to hide a sleek electronic gadget for about two months. I'd write more about this, but clearly I have a new toy to play with.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Patently Unfair

Life is unfair. I get that. But, just in case I forget, the universe has handy ways of reminding me. Like this:

On the day I discover my first real, unmistakably grey hair, a giant zit erupts on my forhead.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

When Good Radio Stations Go Bad

When I was 13 and a new convert to pop music, I had a favourite station that played the basic synth-heavy pop music that was the in-thing during the early and mid 80s. On the morning of 1 April, my clock radio went off with the horrible jangle of guitar-heavy Beatles music. Ewww. Old people music, said my 13-year old brain.

The radio station put out an entire day of Beatles music. I really thought it was an April Fool's joke. The next day, they broadened their repertoire to cover all sorts of jangle-y guitar music that my reformed-hippie father liked. Ugh. By the third or fourth day, I was ready to accept that this wasn’t just an April Fool's joke gone wrong.

Why did it take me so long? Was I really that dim of a child? Probably, but this was a simpler time, before marketing had become the religion that it is today. A radio station seemed like such a solid fixture. When I walk, I expect the earth to meet my feet. When I turned on the radio, I expected my station to play Duran Duran and Howard Jones. It was if I'd woken up and discovered that air had been replaced with water and the polarity of the earth had been reversed.

Eventually, I learned that sometimes, good radio stations go bad. I learned to live through DJ changes, format shake-ups, and bad programming decisions. (Although I never did forgive WBEZ for pulling Talk of the Nation and replacing it with the insipid Tavis Smiley.That was just a crime against radio-humanity.) With all my radio experience, I should be able to take the changes at Newstalk 106 in stride, but it's proving to be an uphill battle.

In the last few weeks, Newstalk has taken a couple of turns for the worst. I don't know if it's related to their application for a national license or if it's some sort of scramble to improve profitability or if the brains of the operation was abducted by aliens. Maybe it's all three reasons and a handful of other reasons. All I know is that Newstalk is showing all the signs of a good radio station gone bad.

The Lunchtime Show. The unexplained MIA-status of Damien Kiberd is bad enough, but his replacement with the stodgy and ponderous Brendan O'Brien is enough to make stones weep. O'Brien is able to suck all the life and oxygen out of the room in a single dour and plodding breath.

Orla Barry. In her enlightening Radio Selection Guide post, Paige at Blank Paige had some unkind words regarding Orla Barry. To wit:
Under no circumstances should you continue listening to Eamon Dunphy wrapping up his radio show. The aural equivalent of watching a car crash, it isn't a pretty sight and runs the severe risk of injury as Orla Barry comes bounding into your consciousness like a nymphomanical deer in heat. She'll just force herself on you and you'll feel violated.

At the time, I found those words hilarious but unfair. Since I'd started listening to Orla to get away from the tedious and rambling Marian Finucain, I'd always felt that Orla was a bit of fresh air. But then, for no good reason, her show went and got itself rebranded.

Not content anymore to be the unpretentious Orla Barry Show, it is now *cue obnoxiously upbeat trumpet music* Life! With Orla Barry. No, no, no, no, NO! I do not want to have Life! With Orla Barry. If I did, I would become a man, sweep her off her Corconian feet and marry her skinny ass. I just want to listen to a damn radio program.

Plus, now, on a weekly basis, Orla commits what I believe is the most grave of all the sins in Broadcasting Land. She eats – on the radio. She has a food segment on Wednesdays and she has the termerity to crunch and crackle and smack her lips and make sloppy mmm-mmmm noises. It makes me want to stab her with her own lipstick-stained fork.

The "New" Text Number. This past week, Newstalk hammered in what is for me the final nail in its coffin: the 30-cent charge text number. They'd always had a premium charge number for texts, but it was used only for competitions. For texting in your opinions or questions or (especially during the Moncrieff show) bizarre non-sequiters, you could use a regular 086 number.

I texted in a fair bit and enjoyed doing it. It made me feel a part of the discussions. Newstalk wasn't just a radio station I listened to. It was a companion at work that provided me with an ongoing conversation in which I could participate at any time. Sure, I can still participate, but 30-cent texts are going to add up pretty quickly. Besides, it is clearly some sort of revenue generating scheme. It's clear that an enterprising accounting type looked at the text volume and thought they could rack up some major scratch if they charged more for texts. I don't buy this blah-blah-we-still-take-email-and-phone-calls baloney. I wager if they could charge for emails, they would.

It saddens me to see Newstalk taking this turn. Listening to the radio, particularly to news-oriented programming, is important to me. It's a way for me to keep informed and feel like part of the larger community. If things stay the way they are, I can't see myself listening to Newstalk with such regularity for much longer. I've already, during Orla Barry and Brendan O'Brien, started tuning into Radió na Gaeltacht. The only word I can pick up with any consistency is agus1, but at least there's no lip-smacking, annoying trumpet theme tunes or cynical revenue generating schemes.

1 agus = and. For some reason, Irish speakers seem to say agus a lot, like they have to pay extra for periods and instead choose to speak in great, big long sentences. I think that the radio station must supply oxygen canisters because everyone speaks quickly and says one big long giant sentence.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Calling All Plagiarists

I get a weekly e-newsletter from, which is usually pretty unremarkable. I only continue to get it because I am too damn lazy to figure out how to cancel it. Plus, I LOVE the section that lists the sort of sources or answers that other writers need for their research. Crazy, mad things like "need to know about highly serious but non-fatal arm-bleeding injuries" or "bee sting treatments in the 1950s" or "can you legally obtain possession of a body after death?"

Usually, I skim these items and then delete the newsletter. But the following item caught my eye: The TMN "Sloppy Seconds with Opal Mehta Contest". I was intrigued as I'd been following the Opal Mehta controversy with some interest.

For those of you joining the controversy already in progress, a 17-year old New Jersey high school student, Kaavya Viswanathan, signed a two-book deal with Little, Brown. (I would chew my own arm off to get a two-book deal with Little, Brown. OK, probably not my whole arm, since that would seriously impact my camogie playing. But I would maybe chew off my little finger.)

Viswanathan is now a 19-year old sophomore at Harvard. Her first book, How Opal Mehta Bot Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, was published in March of this year in the sort of blizzard of publicity that you would expect for a young wunderkid who had walked away with a 6-figure advance. It's the sort of story that makes good people happy and less-than-good people (like me) bitter and jealous.

But, instead of rave reviews, a funny thing happened. Accusations of plagiarism were leveled, as it seemed like Viswanathan's book contained some paragraphs that bore a striking resemblance to Megan McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts. For the record, Sloppy Firsts is the book I desperately wish I had written. It is the finest example of the genre that you'll find, with compelling, three-dimensional characters and clear, engaging writing. I loved that book and it is the standard I try to live up to in my own writing.

Viswanathan apologized for the similarities and claimed it was a case of accidental borrowing. McCafferty's publisher wasn't buying the apology and Little, Brown ended up pulling the book. Just when you thought things couldn't get any worse for the young author, yet more possible incidents of plagiarism were unearthed, from both Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries and Sophie Kinsella's Can You Keep a Secret? Little, Brown has canceled her book deal and will apparently not release a revised version of her book.

I think I will give the contest a go this weekend. The premise is simple – create a work of fiction of up to 750 words, all of them stolen as either phrases, sentences, or passages from at least 5 different books. The execution is going to be a lot more difficult but it will be fun to see what I come up with. I encourage you to give it a go too. Just think – all of us can have the chance to be world-famous plagiarists.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't feeling at least a little bit of schadenfreude. Getting your first book published is a wickedly difficult task. Landing a two-book deal worth six-figures before you even have a high school diploma is the sort of event that strikes jealousy in the heart of every writer with an unpublished novel or two on the hard drive. To see that young over-achiever undone, revealed as a cheat, sort of restores equilibrium to the world of an unbalanced, unpublished writer.

Sure, I enjoy a good success story, but I prefer it to be along the lines of Ron McLarty, a guy who didn't publish his first book until he was 56 and had written 10 novels, all of which were rejected.

I think many writers struggle with the bitter little person who lives inside of us. It's a tough business – slaving over a manuscript and then sending it out into the big, mean world. Every time you send out a book, you're sending out a little piece of your soul. To get that piece of your soul returned to you in your SASE with a form letter with your name misspelled is unbelievably humbling and depressing. If you're lucky enough to land an agent or get a book published, you might find yourself a drift in a strange land of re-writes, publicity, and non-existent sales.

So we maybe sometimes revel in downfallen writers like Viswanathan or James Frey. Maybe we write whining op-ed pieces for Salon. (Or if we're really good, we write humorous, uplifting op-ed pieces for Salon.) But in the end, I suppose all any of us can do is keep writing and hope for the best.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

We were beginning to think we'd never get to play an actual camogie match. The four matches that we'd had scheduled for April were all cancelled. Waterlogged pitches, a death on the other club, an inability on the part of the other club to field the minimum number of players, and a hospitalised player on the other club all resulted in a complete wash-out of our April schedule..

Each Monday, I came to dread the incoming-text icon on my mobile. It always seemed to have a terse message of disappointment: match off 2morrow, practice at pitch 6.45 sharp. Yesterday, I kept an eye on my treacherous mobile, expecting a similar message. We were pretty sure we were going to have a match as the other team had ordered mini-buses to ferry their players to our turf. But with the luck we'd been having, it seemed like anything could happen.

The match was meant to begin at 7.00. Most of our team arrived by 6.30 and we were enthusiastically warming up. The sun was shining and when the wind wasn't blowing, it was a beautiful, perfect day. (This was something of a minor miracle as from about 4 to 6 pm, it had pissed rain and we'd all thought we were going to have to play a wet, cold, miserable match.)

We waited and waited, alternating warming up with standing around and chatting. We heard the other team was stuck in traffic, but we thought that meant they'd be 15 or 20 minutes late. They didn't arrive until 7.45, with the horror story that they'd left at 5.15. Yes, it took them over 2 hours to travel about 10 miles.

After the other team arrived, our trainer rounded us up to name our starting team. Since we had 20 girls at the match and you can only field 15, I fully expected to sit out most, if not all, of the game. The trainer gave us a little pep talk and then started naming the team starting in the backfield with the goalie. Everything was going as I expected until he got to the forward line and I heard my name as full-forward. A complete (and highly pleasant) surprise.

I wanted to ask to see the lineup sheet, to make sure he hadn’t just misspoken. I guess he could tell that I was a bit shell-shocked by the announcement because he took me aside and said, "I want you to do exactly what you've been doing in training – make a complete bloody nuisance of yourself." He gave me a bit more instruction on where to stand and what to expect and then sent me out.

I wish I could tell you more about the game, but it was all a great big blur. The full-back who was marking me was a brick wall of a woman who moved much more quickly than you'd expect. I crashed into her a couple of times and gave up a free when I crashed into the goalie once. I didn't score any goals but I'd like to think that some of the pressure I put on the defenders allowed my teammates to score.

After an abbreviated half-time break, I went back onto the pitch at full-forward but was soon moved to midfield and then to left half-forward. I think I liked playing half-forward best. If I was a bit fitter and more confident in my skills, I know I'd love to be a midfielder.

But of course, I'll play wherever the trainer tells me to and just make a complete nuisance of myself. It's all about playing to your strengths, after all. What I lack in skill, I made up for in enthusiasm, dogged determination, and sheer bloody-mindedness.

I'm not exactly sure what the final score was, since the whole match really was just a long, exciting blur. I think it was something on the order of 5-3 (18 points total) for us and 3-1 (10 points total) for them. My favourite score was when the girl who swapped with me from the midfield ended up scoring a point by kicking the sliotar over the bar. (At least I think that's what she did – that's sure what it looked like from where I was standing.)

It felt great to finally play a match, better yet to win, and best of all to have a starting place. I'm looking forward to a fun and exciting season.