Friday, June 22, 2018


JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Who's up for a little escape from reality? You? You. Yes, I see you, waving in the back. Sadly, we at Jungle Red Writers haven't quite gotten the budget to a place where we can afford to fly everybody to Finland (happiest country on Earth 2018) to tool around Helsinki eating kalakukko and sipping cloudberry lakka. To be truthful, our blog budget doesn't stretch to sending one person to Finland, Minnesota for a Fishwich and St. Paulie. But we can all get away for a couple minutes, thanks to our friends at YouTube.

First, in honor of our graduations and weddings theme this week, some wedding bloopers:

...and some amusing graduation words of wisdom.

Ah, 2015. It seemed so long ago. June is the month for Pride Parades...

...and for honoring fathers.

Oh, my God, it's like I'm peeling onions in here after that last one.

I nee to look at some funny Shih Tzu videos as a chaser. I have a Shih Tzu, and they realy do have a weirdly deep voice for a tiny dog. 

Also, evidently most other Shih Tzu owners have wall-to-wall carpeting. In my experience, this is a mistake.  

Not into dogs? How about the totally true science of how cats land on all four legs?

No explanation of why they immediately start grooming themselves afterwards, as if to say, "I meant to do that."  

Getting away to nature is always refreshing. I'm definitely a water person, and can think of nothing better than swimming with penguins...

...but I'm sure some of you would prefer soaring over mountains on eagle's wings. Literally, in the case of this GoPro.

Are you ready for that trip to Finland now?

Kiitos kaikilli! And have a great Friday!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Internet of Things is Killing Me

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: The Smithie was housesitting for friends with two elderly dogs this past weekend, and I stopped in to drop off a few things. "Why are all the family room lights on in the middle of a sunny day?" I asked.

"I don't dare turn them off," she said.

No, she wasn't suffering from some extreme fear of any possible shadow. She was staying at a smart house. Everything was connected, and run from a screen on the kitchen wall that looked more complicated than an air traffic controller's  flight center. The Smithie had turned off the lights the day before and it had taken her forty minutes to get them back on when darkness fell. She wasn't sure how she had done it, so she refused to touch them again.

"Their coffee machine is on my phone now." I looked, and she was right: among her possible internet connections was KEURIG and WATER.

"What does 'water' do?" I asked.

"I don't know," she said. "I've decided to wait until I get back to my apartment to take a shower, though."

Now, I understand why these friends are super-connected. The husband is a highly-skilled engineer and they're empty nesters, with no kids to suck up their time or mess up their settings. Plus, they're very green, and I'm sure everything is programmed for maximum efficiency and minimum power usage. 

What I'm not sure is how this is going to work for those of us without electrical engineering degrees. I'm not very internet-connected at all, and my devices are still kicking my ass. 

Take my smartphone. I admit, it's not top-of-the-line.  To be precise, it's a $35 burner I got at Wal-Mart because I had broken my last phone and was desperate to get something before leaving for Bouchercon. It works, right? And I can use it on my family plan, and it's not like I need the latest Galaxy 3000 Notebook which will probably burst into flames anyway. It texts, it takes pictures, and I can connect to and Google Maps. 

What I can't do is get rid of all the preloaded bloatware that's taking up much of what limited memory the phone has to begin with. (This device is the smartphone equivalent of a foggy minded post-menopausal woman, ie, me.) One of my kids' friends tried to tell me how to "break" the phone. It sounded like the times in Charlie Brown when the adults are speaking: wah wah wah wah. My solution? I delete any app I don't need in the next four days, then download it again when I have to. I've gotten the Target app so many times they probably think I'm a Russian hacker.

At the Very Small Library where I volunteer, we had a wonderful new energy saving system installed last year. A heat pump - heat exchange pump? - it's supposed to save us big bucks by sucking heat out of the air, even when it's cold. Sounds great, right? Free heat! Except when the air temperature falls close to, or below, 0 F. Would you care to guess how many times during a Maine winter the outside temperature falls close to or below 0 F? If your answer is "Often enough to keep the librarian and volunteers huddled around plug-in electric heaters while the patrons browse in parkas," you're correct!

It's very efficient now it's warm outside. Unfortunately, it was programmed by the installer, a big guy who evidently runs hot in the summertime. Since those of us working there have only the most rudimentary understanding of how to reprogram to a temperature somewhere north of "frosty," we've mostly given up in favor of wearing sweaters indoors.

Then there was my recent attempt top be safety conscious by changing my router's (easily guessed) password. Remember? We were all supposed to reboot our routers to prevent the Russians from hacking them? I did my part for a safer America. I changed the password. Then I had to change the password on my laptop, so it could access the router. Then my phone. Then my Kindle. Then the Smithie's phone and laptop. Youngest's phone, laptop and Kindle. When the Sailor came home on leave and the Very Tall Boyfriend dropped in, they had to change the password on their phones.

At this point, I was thinking, "Здравствуйте, Russian friends!" But the worst was yet to come. I could NOT get my Amazon Echo to recognize the new password.

Suddenly, my life was in shambles. No instant-on kitchen timer. No classical music on demand. No weather updates. Worst of all, no podcasts to lighten the time I spent cooking, cleaning, and folding laundry. I was on Episode 43 of "The History of Rome." Caesar was in Gaul, and I needed to know what happened next!

Okay, I know what happened next, having seen the Shakespeare play and watched I, Claudius. Still, I loved that podcast.

I tried rebooting Alexa, my Kindle, the router (again.) I tried to convince Amazon it was a new Echo, so it would let me run a straight start-up. (I didn't fool them.) It wasn't until the Smithie's Very Smart Girlfriend was tooling around with her tablet in the kitchen that we had a break-through. "Hey, your Echo's not working," she said. "Want me to fix it?" Twenty minutes later, I had Caesar and Pompey back.

I have no idea what she did. If the Smithie ever breaks up with her, I'm screwed. I'll have to toss out the old Echo and get a new one if I lose the connection again.

You can see, with my experiences, why I'm a little dubious about the smart home of the future. What if the sprinklers go off as soon as I step onto the grass? What if the alarm sounds every time I open the door to get the mail? What if I can't get in to the refrigerator? Admittedly, that last might have some positive results. My doctor does want me to drop a few pounds. Maybe I could get a smart scale that cheers when I do well and nags me when I don't... or maybe not.

How about you, dear readers? Are you a fan of the Internet of Things? Or do you think your stuff is smart enough as it is?

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Back to the Future

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Did you go to your class reunion? What do you remember? I went to my high school's fortieth...and I was ON A MISSION. I had a (simple expensive) black dress, and simple (expensive) jewelry. (Which I borrowed from my mom.)  But. Weirdo me, unpopular me, misfit me, had a secret. Forty years later: I was happy. There is no more important power.

My dear amazingly talented colleague Sandra Block--whose book WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT I just read and am giving a total standing ovation--had a class reunion situation, too. (She's, um, younger than I am. But these things transcend age.)

And I am giving a copy of Sandra's brand new book to one very very lucky commenter.

SANDRA BLOCK: As my twentieth college reunion approached, I was terrified! 

I still hadn’t quite recovered from my my tenth year reunion experience. My roommates and I had decided to stay in the dorms instead of a hotel. You may think you want to go back to the halcyon days of single beds, paper-thin walls and no air-conditioning, but believe me, you do not. Being sleep-deprived and hung over is not the optimal frame of mind for socialization, especially for an introvert. 

I went to Harvard, for what it’s worth, where students become hedge fund managers upon graduation. So it was easy to compare yourself to your old classmates and come up…lacking.
     It took me ten years to get over that reunion.

And now I was looking at number twenty. When I got my Red Book, six months before the reunion, I still wasn't sure I was going. 

The Red Book is a reunion stand-by, a book of reflections from your classmates sent out before the big day. Everyone writes a page about themselves. Sometimes it comes off as a resume, sometimes a poetic reverie. The famous people (yeah, I'm looking at you, Matt Damon) never write anything, not even an address to facilitate stalking. 

            Anyway…that year, I had put something different in the Red Book.

Because, I had a secret. I wasn't actually jealous of all of the gagillionaire hege-fund managers out there. No, I wasn’t. 

I was jealous of the authors. The actors, the sit-com writers, the dancers. Those who had followed their dreams. I’m a neurologist – which is respectable, no doubt. I heal people, I think all day, I make enough money. By all accounts, I done good. But, I wasn't what I really wanted to be.

 So this year, I wrote that down in the Red Book. I said I’ve always wanted to write a book, and I was finally going to do it. 

 Putting my dream on paper did something for me. It made me accountable. It made my dream not just a dream, but a dare. And then, I did it. I didn’t have a book deal, or even an agent, but I was still writing that damn book. That year, my room-mates smartly booked a B & B instead of the dorms. And we had – dare I say it – fun.

 Flash forward five years, to my twenty-fifth reunion last year. A lot had changed. This time, I could proudly put doctor and author in the Red Book. I had three books out, and even signed a copy at Logan airport! (Yes, I accosted and strong-armed a stranger into buying it – but hey, a sale is a sale).

Who knows what the next five years will bring. But this time, I know I’ll be there to find out. Before your next reunion comes up, ask yourself: what will you dare yourself to do?

What will you put down in your own Red Book?

HANK: See what I mean? Fabulous. TRUST ME, it's all about that. What will you put, Reds? And remember, you can win WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT!

Sandra A. Block   graduated from college at Harvard, then returned to her native land of Buffalo, New York for medical training and never left. She is a practicing neurologist and proud Sabres fan, and lives at home with her husband, two children, and impetuous yellow lab. Little Black Lies is her debut, a finalist in the International Thriller Awards, and The Girl Without a Name and The Secret Room are the other books in the Zoe Goldman series. What Happened That Night is her latest novel, and is in fact DEDICATED TO HER ROOMMATES!

Sandra is also a proud author/member of the Tall Poppy Book Club--which you can join here! (Lots of fun, good stuff...and free books!)

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

A Week in the Life of the Family Hugo-Vidal

Julia Spencer-Fleming: The Family Hugo-Vidal being my own, of course; the Smithie a/k/a The Maine Millenniel, The Sailor (formerly known as The Boy) and this week's star, Youngest.

We started the week with an unexpected column from the Maine Millennial:

Oh, yes, this was a surprise to me. Not my daughter's issues with alcohol - we had plenty of discussions about that - and not that she had reached the point where, as she said, "I just don't want to do that to myself anymore." The part where she also told the entire state of Maine (and anyone reading along on the internet)? That was pure Smithie. I did try to raise her to be open and honest. VERY open and VERY honest. 

Next on the agenda... you can all guess from this picture!

Yes, that's Youngest, a proud graduate of Gorham High School's class of '18. Those are false eyelashes, if you're wondering. After her friend did her make-up, I was informed this was a "beat face." Picture me rolling my (non-beat) middle-aged eyes.
Can you spot her? Me, neither.
Here's the big moment. It feels like such an accomplishment for both of us - there were times I didn't think we'd get through the past two years. Of course,  I was a water fountain. Thank God I brought a big handkerchief. Then it was outside for pics with friends,

Family - that's the Sailor, who drove all the way up from Norfolk on a three-day leave to cheer his sister on while wearing a kilt,
And friends and family together! (The young man is the Very Tall Boyfriend, who is cohabitating with the Smithie. Not a great picture of him, I'm afraid, but I look good, and it's my blog.)

Then, just two days later, it was primary day in Maine. Youngest has been interning for the Cote for Governor campaign, and because she will be eighteen by the November election, she got to cast a ballot for the very first time. She later told me she was more excited about exercising her franchise than she was about graduating! (Although she didn't get any presents for voting.)

Finally, to wrap things up, she marched with the rest of the campaign staff at Saturday's Pride march. It was a beautiful day in Portland - just about as bright and hopeful as Youngest's future.

I didn't even get to tell  you about my brother visiting with his wife and adorable son, or the spontaneous post-grad BBQ held by dear friends, or me picking Youngest up at 5am after Project Graduation (yawn!) or Youngest helping coordinate responses to challenges for seventeen-year-olds voting (via text, of course)... but enough about me and my fabulous kids. Tell me about some fabulous kids you know, dear readers!

Monday, June 18, 2018

"And in closing, class of 2018..."

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: She's finally done it! Or perhaps, we've finally done it - youngest graduated from high school last weekend. (More on that - with pictures! - tomorrow.) It's the season, of course: June means graduations and weddings, and even if you're not attending one of the other, it seems you know someone who is.

High school graduations of course have the usual roster of speakers: Salutatorian, valedictorian, principal and/or superintendent. Then there's the guest speaker. Unlike colleges and universities, which compete for the most prestigious and newsworthy orators, high schools usually stick with a distinguished alumni; someone who can honestly say to the kids, "I was in your seat ten or fifteen or twenty years ago and here is where I am now." Youngest's school invited a graduate of the class of '04 who has made a successful living as a dancer in  Hollywood, as part of his own company, and right now, touring with HAMILTON. (I was thrilled they found someone in the arts, instead of yet another computer software guy. Did you know almost 3.5 million Americans are employed in the arts? It's true!) The gist of his speech was that you can follow your dreams (I'm going to go out on a limb and guess 100% of graduations feature someone saying this) BUT you may need to have a lot of flexibility, and be willing to trade certainty for opportunity.

It got me thinking: what would I say if I were invited to come back to Liverpool High School (Go Warriors!) and address the class of 2018? I might point out the changing demographics of New York State: once one of the ten largest high schools in the state, Liverpool is now number 43, as the children of suburbanites have thronged into the cities their grandparents abandoned. I would encourage students, whether college-bound, entering the work force, or anything in between, to visit those cities for education and work, to get a better idea of what the US is going to look like everywhere by the time they are my age. I'd encourage them to visit a mosque and an African Methodist Episcopal church, a Spanish-language Catholic mass and a Buddhist temple. 

A lot of stresses and strains in our country seem to arise when we have a certain idea of what "Americans" look and sound like, and I suspect one of the best things the young generation can do is break that down. I'd urge them to actively work to make the coming demographic change a positive one, by getting to know their peers of different ethnicities and religions, of working with them and welcoming them into their homes and neighborhoods. Finally, I'd point out that as a 17- or 18-year old brand new graduate, you're feeling about as top-of-the-world as you ever will. So take advantage of it! Use that empowerment for the greater good.

Oh, and always wear sunscreen.

How about you, Reds? What would you advise the class of '18?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Last pre-graduation, I had a talk with one of my interns who was about to take part in the ceremony at her college. She was terrified. I started giving her advice: Be curious, be kind, ask questions, be compassionate, be reliable and responsible, always make the choice to be good, trust your gut, don't cut corners, be open, be present. All that. Listen, listen, listen to people. And then keep learning. 

Every door in the world is open to you!! I said, almost starting to cry.

I KNOW, she wailed. That's what scares me.

Not exactly the response I had in mind.

SO I think--one of the lessons of aging is that"you never know" is a fabulous thing, a reassuring thing. NOT a scary thing!  You never know what wonderful thing is around the next corner--that's GOOD.  

Then I kind of gave her some tough love.

I said, specifically--listen, kiddo. Your name is Yvette. (True.) You grew up IN PARIS. You are smart, you are beautiful, you are funny, you are kind. You are talented. Your parents love you, you have money, you did nog grow up in the slums of (I think I said Calcutta), you are not sick, you are not uneducated, you are not....AH, I said. Stopped myself from continuing the rant.

Count your blessings, I said.  And go out there and be brave and give it a try and expect good and BE IN THE WORLD.

HALLIE EPHRON: This is so hard. What Julia said. What Hank said. And by the way what Hillary said.
I'd add:
Be kind, pursue what interests you, and don’t forget to flush.
And most important of all, in ways large and small act as if Planet Earth is precious and fragile, because by your own actions you can make a difference.

JENN MCKINLAY: Don't forget to flush! LOL, Hallie, it's funny but really so important, especially here in the frat house. Since I have a talking problem, I would likely speak them to death or until they were begging for my demise. Seriously, a captive audience? Are you kidding me? I would keep them there for hours while I overshared every thought I'd ever had - ever. LOL. I'm kidding, mostly. In truth, I would say, be true to yourself and remember that just because you're on a path that others don't recognize doesn't mean you're lost. Then I would quote Maya Angelou: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Just a couple of months ago I spoke to a group of college seniors who were newly minted Phi Beta Kappas, so I was thinking a lot about what advice to give young people starting out in the world, whether graduating from high school or college. The gist was, "Be resilient. Be open to possibilities. For most people, life very seldom follows a pre-ordained path. Be prepared for those forks in the road, don't miss those opportunities that may take you in a direction you never imagined." I would add, be kind. Be brave. Remember that you are the future and that you can make a difference. 

RHYS BOWEN: I just attended my oldest granddaughter's graduation before I left for Europe. Excellent speakers, including the spiritual advisor to Stanford's Catholic students. Lizzie was one of the students invited to submit a speech for valedictorian but public speaking isn't something she shines at, so she opted not to. I'd love to be asked to speak at my old high school just to say "Look at me. I told you so!"... Unfortunately all those old women teachers who were so mean to me are dead now!

If I were the speaker I'd remind them that the journey is the destination. Don't go through life setting goals and saying "when I've graduated from college, got my first job, married, retired... I'll do this." Embrace the present and if you dream of doing something, do it now. The one thing you don't want is to look back on life with regret, murmuring "If only..." And don't go into any career because it pays well, it is expected of you, has prestige. You have an awfully long work life ahead and every working day should be exciting, a challenge, rewarding. Above all realize how blessed you are that you live in a country where you can vote, choose your own life path and make a difference.

LUCY BURDETTE: There are so many great ideas here, I kind of hate to pile on and muddy the waters. I love Hallie's idea of taking care of the earth--each one of us matters in this important work. Yes, ditto what Rhys said, your work should feed your joy and your soul. And it's okay not to know what you want to do with the rest of your life, because you'll probably make lots of unexpected turns, some of them related to your growth and some related to curveballs that life will throw. And yes, love the Maya Angelou quote about how you make people feel, and yes, count your blessings and give back more than you get.

My brother-in-law, Dr. Jeff Chanton, gave the commencement speech at Florida State University's graduation in 2017. I think he did an amazing job, with a big emphasis on being good stewards of our earth and the importance of science. Live responsibly and aim for sustainability. Such an important message!

INGRID THOFT: It’s very hard to add anything to the brilliant advice of the other Reds.  The two pieces of advice I might offer are seemingly contradictory, but I think a sweet spot can be found between them.  The first thing is that you don’t have to figure everything out right away.  In fact, you will spend your life figuring things out—in terms of work, family, priorities, etc.  The second piece of advice:  This is it.  You don’t get a dress rehearsal.  Don’t live as if you’re only practicing for the real thing.  So how do you balance those two ideas?  I think the key is to be thoughtful in the choices you make, but remember there are very few things in life that can’t be redone or undone.  You’re going to screw things up, and that’s okay.  And my bonus advice:  Exercise, but also have dessert.

JULIA: Wonderful advice from one and all! How about you, dear readers? What would you tell the graduating class? Or do you still remember something pertinent from your own graduation?