Sunday, September 18, 2016

Cops and Nobles

British detective thrillers, whether in novels, films or on PBS Masterpiece Mystery, are sometimes mystifying to non-Brits in an odd way.

For starts, there are all those acronyms: CID, MI5 MI6, all the letters before the police officers’ names. Does everyone know that MI stands for military intelligence? Or that the CID is Crime Investigation Division? Or that the ranks of police officers ascend from PC or DC (police or detective constable) through DS (detective sergeant) to DCI (detective chief inspector)? Calling a DS a DC might cause offense.

If you are reading, as I am, Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley books, you have the additional problem of figuring out which Lord or Lady is up to whatever mischief, since sometimes the characters’ given names are used and at other times they are called by their titles. Lord Asherton, for instance, is DCI Lynley or simply Asherton, or Tommy to his friends.

Here is the cast of characters for Payment in Blood, the second of George's 19 Inspector Lynley books--very helpful when, on page 300 of some 430, you can't remember who Denton is (he's Lynley's servant.) Of course, you might prefer just to read the book or watch the video and assume that eventually everything will be understandable. But in the interest of de-mystifying some of the roles and titles, I give you the list of Cops and Nobles.

1. DCI Thomas Lynley, Eighth Earl of Asherton.
2. DC Barbara Havers, demoted from DS, Lynley’s partner. Lives with her parents.
3. Lady Helen Clyde, daughter of the Tenth Earl of Hesfield (ongoing love interest).
4. Simon Allcourt St. James, forensic scientist.
5. Deborah Cotter St. James, photographer, his wife, daughter of his valet.
6. Francesca Gerrard, widow, owner of mansion on Loch Achiemore, Scotland.
7. Philip, her late husband, buried on an island in the Loch.
8. Stuart Rintoul, Lord Stinhurst, “Midas of the Theater”, Francesca’s brother.
9. Marguerite, Countess of Stinhurst, his wife.
10. Alec Rintoul, deceased, their son, loved by No. 12.
11. Elizabeth Rintoul, their fortyish daughter.
12. Joy Sinclair, playwright (deceased), sister of No. 13, cousin of No. 19, former lover of No. 16.
13. Irene Sinclair, former actress, previously married to No. 16.
14. Joanna Ellacourt, famous actress, married to No. 15.
15. David Sydeham, her husband and manager.
16. Robert Gabriel, famous actor, formerly married to No. 13, now sleeping with No. 12 and many others.
17. Geoffrey Rintoul (deceased), brother of No. 8, grave discovered in odd place.
18. Jeremy Vinney, journalist, drama critic for the Times.
19. Rhys Davies-Jones, theatrical director, presently lover of No. 3. Prime suspect.
20. Gowan Kilbride, handyman at the mansion of No. 6.
21. Mary Agnes Campbell, maid at No. 6.
22. Hannah Darrow, deceased, subject of a book by No. 12.
23. John Darrow, publican, her husband.
24. Teddy Darrow, their son.

English police: Chief Superintendent Hiller; Superintendent Webberley, Lynley’s superior; DC Raymond Plater (Mildenhall); DC Winston Nkata.

Scottish police: DI Ian Macaskin of the Strathclyde CID; DC Kevin Lonan.

Military Intelligence: William Vassall, Sir Kenneth Willingate, Sir Andrew Higgins.

Servants: Denton, Lynley’s valet. Caroline Shepherd, Lady Helen’s maid. Cotter, valet to St. James (No. 4) and father of Deborah St. James (No. 5).

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Translator

It  could have been from a prequel to Star Trek, the earliest stages of the Universal Translator. It stood about four feet high, slightly askew on its post, and had buttons for selecting a dozen languages. It looked a little like the jukebox selectors in the booths of old diners. The bottom button was labeled “more languages.”
The Translator robot stood next to the reception desk at the local hospital where I went for some routine lab work a few days ago.
Photo from Big World Network
I always wanted to be a translator when I grew up. I came close a couple of times. At the English-language Athens News in Greece, we had to edit stories that were submitted in French or Greek. At that point, I could at least tell the difference (the Greek alphabet has different characters, duh.) At Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, a friend asked if I knew enough Greek to help him evaluate a stroke victim, to tell whether his speech was slurred. When I greeted the patient, he immediately said “Ta dontia mou. Pou einai ta dontia mou?” (By that time, my Greek was better.)
“He wants his teeth,” I told the medical student friend. “He asks where his teeth are.” “Is his speech slurred?” Harold asked. “Not at all,” I said, “but it will probably be better when he puts his teeth in.”
At the United Nations building, near the office where I worked, I sat in the galleries and watched the translators up in the glass-fronted booth instantly interpret whatever was being said on the floor in dozens of languages. In my hippie days, I chose the name “Talking Bridge,” again thinking about translating. And in a way, I think all my teaching and writing has been a matter of translating. Certainly I have discovered no new thing either in music or discourse, but sometimes just the way something is expressed can make the connection between the abstract and the useful.
I have made some pretty funny gaffes along the way. On a deadline in Salonica, I thought I was yelling “Hurry! Hurry!” when actually I was shouting “Rape! Rape!” I thought my maid’s name was Askimoula (Little Ugly One) when in fact it was Asimoula (Little Silver One.) I complimented her on her worms (skoulikia) when I meant to say something about her earrings (skoularikia.)
Anyone who has dealt with Google Translate or any of the other Internet translators knows the perils of word-by-word translations, which can be Byzantine at best and even dangerous at worst.
Here’s a recent example from Greek which was poetic but which made sense in the original: “Sometimes only lift his gaze and watched city people who swiftly sinking in darkness. Hasty and smelling nice, tired of crawling, others in small groups discussing. Had a weird atmosphere the city every dusk and asked her to hide and be quiet. Smelled glorious past and decadent nobility. A nostalgic permanently strolled through the narrow streets with the palm trees are swaying to sunburnt and parked outside the time and the wear and tear.”
California hospitals must provide a translator for patients who don’t speak English, and I was talked into translating for an elderly Greek stroke victim in the long-term care wing of the local hospital. My brief career as a translator is described in Caryatids, my book of short stories published by Amazon’s CreateSpace in January.
Obviously the local hospital wouldn’t be needing my services as a translator any more. But I thought about the first thing I had to translate for my little old lady.
“Ask her if she is in pain,” the nurse had instructed me.
Ehete pono pouthena?” I asked. Do you have pain anywhere?
The little lady answered with the Greek “No”, a sharp tip of the head backward and a tongue click (think “tsk”.)

I really doubt that the new mechanical translator robot could handle that one. Why, it didn't even have a head.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

An Intimate History

When the kids were grown, I decided to go back to school and finish the degree I’d started 25 years before. A college-level Biology class was being offered in town, and though I hadn’t taken many science classes before, I signed up.

 I never realized that studying Biology would be a religious experience. Nor that the idea of DNA was as difficult to comprehend as the sound of one hand clapping. I could barely get my mind around the idea before it would vanish—a disappearing revelation.

 Now I learn (through the New Yorker) that there’s more to the stuff our selves are made of than just the double helix. Things that happen to us are recorded on a cellular level, permanently, on those little ladder things that bridge the strands of DNA.

 They are called histones, and modifications to them can change the activity of the gene without affecting the sequence. They are epi-genetic, over-genes, and they are the way a cell can record experience.

All this is discussed in a book by Siddhartha Mukherjee to be released this month, The Gene: An Intimate History. Mukherjee, a professor at Columbia University’s medical school, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for The Emperor of All Maladies, a book about cancer.

So Epigenetics is the hot new field of study in the biological sciences, and what is already known raises some revolutionary questions as well as posing some evolutionary problems. One question is whether those cell memories can be inherited. This possibility seemed to be resolved back in the nineteenth century when Darwin’s theories pretty much got those of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (giraffes got those long necks by trying harder) laughed out of Science. Now the possibility—albeit remote-- is there again, since whatever happens to us is recorded on a cellular level. The cells multiply with this amended information, and our genes are of course passed on to the next generation.

Identical twins, such as Mukherjee’s mother and her sister, can become a great deal different from each other over time because of epigenetic information. A lot of things had been recorded in my histones between the 1950s in Tennessee and the 1970s in California. I was, as “The Music Man” had it, a sadder but wiser girl. So when we say “Oh, he’s a different person now,” we are speaking a scientific truth at a very fundamental level.

“Genes form the thread of the web (jaal) Hindu philosophers described as being,” Mukherjee writes. “The detritus that adheres to it transforms every web into a singular being. An organism’s individuality, then, is suspended between genome and epigenome. We call the miracle of this suspension ‘fate.’ We call our responses to it ‘choice.’ We call one such variant of one such organism a ‘self.’”

 That paragraph alone might well have earned the Pulitzer Prize.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Write On

              I think you should write your book.
            “But who would read it,” you ask?
            Well, you never know.
            I have been transcribing my old journals, intending to put them on a disc and leave them around somewhere. Partly I’m doing it because I want the shelf space all those diaries are using, and partly because I’m coming up to an 80th birthday and I can’t last forever.
            I found this entry for September 17, 1965: Letter from Henry Waters. “No one in the Waters family has written a book since Grandma Scott wrote Korno Siga in 1889. This is the story of Korno Siga, a mountain chief in the hills of Assam, where Great-Grandma Scott was a missionary. It had a very limited circulation!”
            On a whim, I Googled the title. After all, how many books could there be with that name? I found a book called Korno Siga, the Mountain Chief—Or Life in Assam. The author, however, was one Mrs. Mildred Marston, not Grandma Scott. I ordered the book anyway, and when it arrived, someone had written “pseud. Anna (Kay) Scott” under Mrs. Marston’s name.
            The book, a facsimile edition put out by something called “Forgotten Books”, was 200 pages describing the life of a lady physician, a medical missionary, in the mountains of India where the Biblical St. Thomas had met his end. Dealing with cholera, snakebite, addictions to various drugs, “Mrs. Marston” had also to teach sewing and cooking at the mission school. “Mr. Marston” had to deliver her three children, using tips from a midwifery book.
            One especially gripping scene had Mr. Marston walking into a group of vicious men who wore skeleton necklaces and brandished spears. He whipped out his violin—which he just happened to be carrying into the jungle—and played a hymn. The heathens—Grandma Scott’s word—fell to their knees, believing that the missionary was a god and that the violin was alive.
            There was lots of religion in the book, as one might expect, but also some surprising information on medicine, botany, Buddhism, and politics during the British rule some 50 years before Gandhi began actively working for Indian independence.
            So almost 150 years after Grandma Scott hand-wrote her account, on the wildest coincidence, it was reproduced and read by another grandma in Montara, California.
            My Aunt Ruth, who gave me my first diary when I was eleven or twelve, was very big on communicating. “Just write letters,” she told my mother. “If you can’t think of anything to say, say what you had for dinner.”
            I think it’s important. Say that you were here on this earth, and say who you were. It’s a bit like a message in a bottle. You never know who might find it and read it.

(My latest book, Caryatids, is available in Kindle and print editions through

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Not-So-Merry Christmas

            This post is for the people who have too recently lost someone dear to them, or who are sick or in trouble, or who feel alone while all about them the halls are being decked and ho-ho-ho is in the air: The people for whom this Christmas and the winter holidays are really not all that merry.


            There must have been a tree and stockings and presents the Christmas of 1943, but if there were, I can’t remember them. The country was at war, and my little brother was dying of leukemia.
            That was the year I learned about shame when I wet my pants at school and had to walk all the way home in soggy socks and squishing shoes.
            It was the year I learned about anger when I, who had never been beaten, had never hit anyone, punched a schoolmate in the nose and was sent to the principal’s office.
            It was the year I learned the big word sacrilegious. Helping my father dig a garden, I found a cluster of roots that looked like a beard, and I was assembling a twig crucifix with a bearded Jesus when my father put down his hoe and went to get my mother to deal with me.
            It was the year of my disillusionment when Mother told me the dancing lights I was seeing in my room were definitely not fairies. My parents wouldn’t discover how nearsighted I was for two more years. And somebody at school had told me that there was no Santa Claus, a fact my distracted mother and father could not or would not confirm.
            I don’t associate that Christmas with Joy To The World or Silent Night. Instead, for some odd reason, that December brings up the serious and sober strains of Beethoven. Specifically, the Allegretto of the Seventh Symphony, where the same repeated note of melody rides atop the minor harmonies. Where did I hear that piece of music? Certainly not at home.  But in response to my begging, I had begun piano lessons, so maybe my teacher, Miss Ethel, had played the theme for me.
            The worst thing of all, the thing that never should have happened, was when my poor mother in her grief said that I had made my little brother sicker by yelling at him when he took my doll. Certainly she didn’t mean it, would have taken those words back if she could have, forgot saying them the moment they were spoken.
            But I became convinced that she was right, that I was killing my brother, that my parents didn’t love me any more, that I was a bad girl, a dirty, sacrilegious, guilty and violent seven-year-old.

            There is an expectation that we should have some kind of amnesty from tragedy and misfortune during the holidays. “How horrible,” we say in response to sickness, death, homelessness, poverty, “especially at this time of year.” But hardship and dismay do not take vacations. Surely it must seem to some people that everyone except them is happily celebrating while they are alone in their misery.
            Verse 20 of the Tao Te Ching says “Everyone else is busy, but I alone am aimless and depressed. I am different.”
            But maybe we should just let the holidays float over us without any expectation of what they might be like, should be like.
            There was a moment of grace during that frightful Christmas. Staring out the window, as miserable as I was, I could see small lights in the dark, lights which became beautiful flickering hexagons, shifting and glowing. They were not fairies; my mother had been very definite about that. But despite everything, somehow I was filled with the sweetest sensation that something good was about to happen.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Sound and Fury

“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Macbeth)

            The sounds of chainsaws, leaf blowers, snoring and jackhammers aren’t exactly music to our ears. But the ghostly noise that drove me wild was none of these.
            It started at six o’clock Saturday morning. Beep-beep-beep, then pause and repeat. Like the warning of a truck backing up, except that it went on and on.
            “What kind of alarm goes off at six in the morning?” I fumed. “Surely there is some kind of noise ordinance about things like that.”
            When work started at the home construction site nearby, the beeping seemed to stop. Some kind of security alarm, I thought. The hapless workers at the site were already on my hate list because of the horrible two days of sawing and chipping when they cleared trees to make room for the new house.
            The sound was back early Sunday morning. Beep-beep-beep. I posted a complaint on NextDoor, which is Complaint Central on the Internet. None of the neighbors had heard the noise, but they advised me to call the sheriff.
            When the beeping started again Monday morning, I was fit to be tied—or to call the sheriff. I went out front and glared at the construction site. I tried to make a video documenting the noise. I went into the back yard to see if it was louder there, and it was.
            The noise was coming from my garden shed, from a plastic bag. Omigosh, an old smoke alarm, ear-splitting, and I couldn’t get it apart to remove the battery.
            So I turned the hose on it, and it was like the scene in 2001 Space Odyssey, where the dying computer Hal sings “Daisy, Daisy” and says “I’m afraid, Dave.”
            The smoke alarm gasped and sputtered and then just clicked, tick-tick-tick, until I put it in a bucket and filled the bucket with water. The thing had been beeping on and off for at least 48 hours.

            I was really glad I hadn’t called the sheriff.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Extra, Extra: Read All About It!

I discovered that the Knoxville News-Sentinel, the newspaper that formed the model for the fictional Knoxville Times of my novel, Byline, had an alumni page on Facebook. Although I didn’t recognize any of the member names, I asked to join the closed group and was accepted. I posted an image of my American Newspaper Guild card on the site.

Scrolling through the posts, I found dozens of pictures of co-workers from the mid 1950s and early 1960s, pictures of newspaper people whose descriptions and traits I had borrowed for my book. Here was the sweet-natured cartoonist. There was the scary news editor. Here was the smiling face of the morgue—now called the library—manager.

So many of my colleagues stayed on after I left, first for Spokane, Washington, then to Greece, New York, San Francisco.

It was a sobering discovery to learn that almost all of them have died. The one live person I knew was a red-haired photographer who was only a couple of years older than I, and he proved to be the website’s administrator. I remembered his strolling out of the teletype room, waving a piece of paper and saying, irreverently, “Pope’s pooped” when Pius XII expired.

This fellow drove me, in 1963, to get an interview with someone involved in a Congressional inquiry. She was visiting relatives at Christmas, and I faked my way into her house by carrying wrapped gifts, as if I were a family friend. The story was picked up by the wire services, Newsweek and Time magazine, with my name. It was my Brenda Starr moment...such a big deal at the time, and such a forgettable deal 50 years later. The photographer didn’t even remember me.

On the alumni website, I saw pictures of the old copy desk, the newsroom, the composing room, the pressmen with their newspaper hats. I saw pictures of the presses being moved with heavy equipment when they became obsolete. I saw the typewriters go and the computers come in, saw copy boys become writers and editors, marry, have children, retire. Saw the assimilation of the rival newspaper, the move to a new campus, the launching of an on-line edition.

The old News-Sentinel had four editions every day, back in the day. When a big story broke—the death of the Pope and Kennedy’s assassination both happened when I was on the copy desk—an Extra would be put out. The newsboys on the street really would shout “Extra, extra, read all about it,” just like in the movies. The paper’s circulation was huge, among the top one hundred nationally.

I can only assume that the newspaper, like all newspapers, has downsized. One alumnus, responding to a photo of the old pressmen in their newspaper hats, remarked that the broadsheet newspapers are now too narrow to make those hats...but then there are no ink-spattered pressmen either.

When I wrote my novel, I drew a map of the old newsroom and made a list of all the editorial employees, pretty surprised that I remembered those things when I can’t remember what I had for dinner yesterday. I am glad I wrote my novel, trying to describe how it was in the glory days of newspapers. But I found all the information on the alumni page disquieting. I was left with mixed emotions, as if I had experienced some odd sort of time travel, more than fifty years of the road not taken.

(The novel Byline is available on