Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Smile, you're on camera...

Our awesome bungee trip to visit the folks this weekend came with an extra bonus. Well, besides retrieving the Spawn.

It was a bungee trip because I had to work Sunday, so we booked it back in the wee hours of Sunday morning so I'd be back to start my shift. But at least we had 48 hours to hang out with my dad and stepmom at their awesome lake house.

Friday was highlighted by parasailing over the Lake of the Ozarks. Boy and I had the most awesome time. It was an amazing experience, with a spectacular view and not at all scary or insecure - hell, the seats on the Sky Screamer at Six Flags sway more than that parasail harness did.

Jim did not fly. Jim is a giant chicken-man who stayed on the ground sipping beer with my folks. He still owes me for the hot-air balloon ride that didn't happen the day after we got engaged, and now he owes me parasailing too. Bawk bawk bawk, husband-o-mine.

Wahoo!

The next day was a ride on their boat, which they still haven't named, and if they don't come up with a name soon, I'm going to dub it Titanic. We all know what happens then. Anyone with good suggestions for a boat name? Don't worry that you don't know my folks; they had their chance to name their own boat. *snerk*

Jim... sat on the floor of the boat again. But this time he sat up front instead of braced at the back. Progress. He managed about three minutes actually sitting up in the seat. Okay, my dad does drive the lake with a lead foot. But that's the fun of it!

JIM: Being a wuss has kept me alive a long time.
ME: Nah, it just seems like a long time.

Work in progress.

Before the boat ride, we had breakfast at Stewart's, this little restaurant right by the dam. Yummy, but fair warning: portions are huge. We could not finish our food and ended up bringing leftovers back with us. This is what their cinnamon rolls look like.

This is not forced perspective. The roll is almost as big as Jim's head.


In between, we lounged around the house, chatted for hours, caught up with the folks, decided against the hot tub due to the 100-degree temps and 400-percent humidity, and Jim taught Dad a few things about smoking ribs for barbecue. Yum.

And Dad gave me a present. Seems he no longer needs his Nikon D80 camera body, so I HAVE A DSLR. Squee! I'm ridiculously excited about my new toy. I can't play with it yet as it doesn't have any lenses, and I don't have the slightest idea what to do with it yet, so I have a lot of learning to do.

But so far all the photography I've done has been accomplished with a Canon PowerShot point-and-shoot, or occasionally with the iPad. For a long time I have wanted to step up my photography to the next level, but I always fell into this catch-22: All the DSLR photography classes require you to have a camera already, but I didn't want to spend hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on equipment and then find out I bought the wrong thing or spent too much. There are surprisingly few resources for true beginners in the DSLR world.

Now I have the Nikon, and Dad advised me a starter lens to get. I'm going to run a special this week in the art shop in the hopes of raising funds for the lens and the basic class, so feel free to drop by. This is not the cheapest endeavor, and I've told Jim that I am leery of spending too much more than we make off it. It won't really be practical for newspaper work, either; I will probably keep using the iPad for that, as it is very simple to do photo and video with it and switch back and forth. The D80 does not do video, so it'll be solely for the art photography. I can't wait to play with it.

I'm quite excited. And tired. I woke up this morning at the Lake of the Ozarks, was back in the metro-east for work by 11 a.m., and then worked a full shift before grocery shopping to feed the Thing, who is now returned to the homestead, and then the 10 p.m. Shuffle to give Jim the car so he could get home from work. Sometimes I need to be twins...

But we brought back a cinnamon roll from Stewart's. That'll be breakfast on Monday. For all three of us.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tire-d.

Why is it that the massive disasters strike just when it's most inconvenient? And is there any way I can blame Isabel the Ghost for this?

Look, we don't have huge amounts of money. We manage to keep our heads above water by dogpaddling really really fast. We put a bit of our paychecks aside each week into two funds: one for Christmas, and one for "vacation."

Now, "vacation" is a malleable concept. This year, "vacation" meant the Fourth of July in Memphis, which allowed Boy to see his father and allowed us to pick up Stepson for his summer visit. That put two teenage boys in the house (milk count: nine gallons in six days) and the costs of two outings: a day at the St. Louis Science Center for Jim to do the male bonding thing over the robots exhibit - pout, I had to work - and our annual sojourn to Six Flags. This is why we are both sunburned within an inch of our lives.

It was a crazy, loud, fun week, and that our savings were pretty well depleted. Because that's what happens on "vacation." That's why we saved up for it.

Maybe that's why she did it. Isabel doesn't like it when things get a little rowdy in the house. The number of things that mysteriously busted or went missing during the wedding shenanigans was significant. Maybe that's why we came home after all four of us were gone at Six Flags on Saturday and found all the cereal boxes spilled onto the floor.

But Isabel has left the car alone for quite some time. Sure, she liked to break the old Toyota. And she mercilessly busted the inner workings of Jim's Suzuki. I mean, making it blow up two months after we paid it off? She's lucky I didn't call the Exorcist right then.

Why not mess with Ariane the Honda Fit? Well, Ariane is only 18 months old, and she's under warranty. Why break something that won't be expensive to fix, right? Even if we weren't a one-car family?

Damn ghost.

On Sunday, Boy departed for a week at Scout Camp, and Jim and I went on a nine-hour round-trip drive to Blytheville, Ark. to return Stepson to his mother. Our schedule was very tight; we had exactly enough time to drive from Edwardsville to Blytheville and back before Jim had to be at work. But shortly before we reached Blytheville, we heard a weird rattling sound on the passenger side of the car.

At first we imagined we'd picked up a plastic bag or something. Twice we stopped to investigate, to figure out what it was. It wasn't until we actually reached Blytheville and took another look that we found the long, thin rope of rubber unspooling off the front passenger tire.

Well, that's not good.

I drive a lot, but I take care of my car. I've taken it in for regular maintenance. When the dealership changed the oil in January, the tires were checked at 6/32, which is well within limits. Who has tires go bald in 18 months? Me and Dale Earnhart Jr., it seems.

We were 200 miles from home, and the spare in the trunk is your typical 50-mile doughnut. I walked over to the Blytheville Wal-mart, but they told me they did not carry tires for the Honda Fit. (This turned out to be surprisingly common. Apparently I will always have to special-order my tires. What the hell, tire industry, this isn't a Delorean. It's an itty bitty Honda.)

After much nail-biting, Jim and I decided to risk driving home on the bad tire. We bought a pair of snippers at the Wal-mart and cut off the rubber rope. It's not a good sign when a tire starts shedding, but the car wasn't giving us a low-pressure warning. I kept it under 65 and stayed in the right lane as much as possible, so I'd have somewhere to go if the tire went. Jim still managed to sleep most of the way home.

The next day, I called the dealership, which up until now had been getting incredibly high marks from me. They informed me that the tires were not covered under bumper to bumper (um, aren't they within the bumpers?) and I needed to contact the manufacturer. Well, that's funny, because the warranty info in my glove compartment was for Goodyear tires, but the tires themselves say Dunlap. Wait, does Goodyear make Dunlap? Well, they have different phone numbers and websites, but whatever.

Dunlap instructed me to have them inspected at a Dunlap tire dealership, of which I had two choices: one where I'd had a bad experience in the past and one I'd never used. I went to the latter on my lunch break. Inspection said there was no tread left on the tires. Thanks, I knew that. But it happened at less than half the mileage supposedly guaranteed by the manufacturer - wait, but if the tread is gone, there's nothing they can do? Even if they were supposedly guaranteed to 60k miles?

Tire Place No. 1 gave me a quote that made my heart stop. I determined to hit Firestone after work. A very dear friend once gave me a full set of Firestone tires with a full warranty and lifelong alignment as a gift, and I was very pleased with them. Besides, the alternative was Sam's Club, and I've seen what they call warranties.

Firestone Guy told me my dealership really should've owned up to some of their responsibility. The tires disintegrated off the car in 18 months, and even with my heavy driving, that's way too fast. What were they made of, Play-doh?

He gave me a bunch of discounts on my quote. Then I got to use the age-old escape clause: "Thanks, I'll be in touch after I discuss it with my husband." It's so much easier than the fallback for the single woman, "I'll have to think about that." That always seems to be an invitation for the hard sell. No one ever questions that I need to talk it over with The Man first.

(That bothered Jim, by the way. I told him I actually wasn't just using him to avoid a high-pressure sales pitch. When you start talking triple-digit purchases, we had best discuss it. We are a team, and it's his money too.)

The vote was to get the good tires, with the warranty, and spring for the lifetime alignment. It's the only car we have, and we're paying on it until 2019 kicks over to 2020. No skimping.

However, Memphis followed by feeding two 16-year-old boys followed by the Science Center and Six Flags means the savings account has less than half the cost of four new tires. Thus the emergency well of the 401(k) comes in, which I swore we wouldn't do again, but we're kind of up the creek. That tire's going to blow any moment now, and I am allergic to crashes.

Dear Isabel: Next time, could you save the Stupidly Expensive Thing for when we've just gotten our tax return and it won't hurt as much? Thanks.

So I'm tired, not just from recovering from a very long, exhausting week of travel-work-wrangle teens-work-theme park-travel, but from having to write a very nasty check tomorrow* when my tires come in. (Seriously: Still not a Delorean.)

If you're so inclined, this would be an amazing time to buy Gethsemane or Infinity. Or, y'know, any of my books. I was thinking about writing a quick short story about a possessed car, but then I remembered that Infinity already has a car for a character.

Because in two weeks, it's time to register Boy for his junior (!!) year of high school ($250) and shortly thereafter it's time for the ACT class ($125) and driver's ed ($250!!) and this is, of course, the month to renew the car registration ($101). The electric company tripled our bill last month, and once Boy finishes driver's ed, he gets his full license and my car insurance doubles.

We seriously need to sell more books.

Um, yesterday.


* Read: Today. Standard disclaimer for those who still don't get it: I write these at night and time them for when sane people are online. Yawn.

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Saturday, July 04, 2015

There is no content in this blog post.


So here, have an adorable grandbaby instead.



Happy Independence Day!

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Thursday, July 02, 2015

Julnawrimo: Day One

Word count: 1,891. I've had worse sessions.

I have two projects I plan to complete during the month of writing like a madwoman. I know if I don't get them done this month, they won't get done for a long time, because the fall schedule is brutal. However, I'm going to have to dig out my old wrist brace, because Ye Olde Wrist is aching something fierce and it's just the first day.

Once those projects are done, I'm kind of at loose ends. There's a number of things I can choose to do, but none that are contracted.

I could write the final novel of the Blackfire series and tell y'all how Major Sara Harvey's battles with the zombies end up. That series is out of print and we're down to three copies of The Cold Ones.  If I do write the final part, I might try to repackage it in a compendium edition as we did with the three vampire novels for Nocturne Infernum.

I could write the next vampire novel. Outlines for at least three more books exist, and were compiled many years ago before Cerridwen Press melted into that printing press in the sky. I guess that depends how many people want to know what the vampires are up to after all these years. Would you believe it's been 11 years since Nocturnal Urges came out? That one threw me for a loop.

There's the Sekrit Projekt, an amazing standalone book that has been sitting in a box waiting for its turn in the edit queue and when it comes out you guys will love it. Absolutely love it. All I have to do is a simple rewrite and it's ready to ship out.

I have this crazy idea for a serial novel. Write a continuing story, and sell it by chapters. I know myself well enough to know I'd need to write the whole "season" in advance; just the posting would happen live, not the writing. The idea intrigues me... maybe adventures of Cat the ghost hunter, or the Blackfire team... or both?

Or I can go rewrite Sanctuary again. Just kidding.


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Wednesday, July 01, 2015

My silly little ladybrain

While I was pregnant with Boy, I went through the precertification and piles o' paperwork in advance of his birth so the nonsense would be fairly limited when it came time to deliver the baby.

As we were filling out the paperwork, I saw that they put my first husband's name down as the responsible party with his Social Security number.

"Wait," I said. "I'm the patient, and our insurance is through my employment. Please don't do that."

"I'm sorry," she replied. "It's hospital policy. The husband is always the responsible party for medical bills."

I begged. I pleaded. I had already fought enough battles with that HMO to know that unless my name was on everything including graven images marked with blood, they would deny the claims. Besides, it was 1998, not 1958. Why in bloody hell did my husband have to be the responsible party? I handled the bills, the insurance was in my name through my employment. But he had the penis, therefore, that's the way they filled it out.

I hate being right. When the hospital filed the insurance claims for my son's birth, they used my husband's Social Security number and name, and sure enough, my insurance company denied payment for everything, stating "no existing policy." So I spent eight months with appeal after appeal, requesting the hospital to resubmit the claims (which were then denied as "we have already considered this claim"), and I was still fighting it when Boy reached his first birthday. Some of those bills ended up on our credit report.

I really hoped things had changed.

Time and again, Jim and I have run into the same issue. It has now become a requirement that if I need to get technical assistance at any store, we are to enter the building separately and he has to stand far away from me. If we don't, they don't talk to me. Jim's questions are answered; mine are ignored. My favorite is when we're standing together and I ask a question, but they direct the answer to him. (The Apple Store is better about this than most, but even then it's occasionally been a problem.)

It happened while we were planning the wedding. We went to a local credit union to open a savings account for wedding expenses. We entered together, and the teller asked Jim, "How can we help you?" It was clearly directed solely at him, as though I weren't even there, and it put him off balance so he didn't reply right away. I spoke up and said we were there to open an account.

"I see," she said, still talking to him. "And your name, sir?" Jim gave his name, and she wrote it down. "Have a seat." No one was interested in my name. So we waited, and Jim leaned over to whisper, "Why is she only talking to me?" I gave him a sad little grin and said nothing.

A few minutes later, the accounts rep came out and asked for Jim. We got up and followed him into the office. Once again, the rep spoke only to Jim, all comments and questions directed at him, as if I didn't exist. I spoke up often enough that finally he had to acknowledge my existence, but he was testy as though I were interfering.

Fortunately, it turned out that  we didn't have the right documents to verify our worthiness, so we were unable to open the account that day. We left, and by the time we reached the car Jim was fuming. He was angrier than I was, because it was simply so blatant. He vowed that we would not return to that credit union, and indeed we opened the wedding account at a different institution.

Sometimes it's been funny; at restaurants, we wait to see whether the server will put the bill in front of him or between us. You'd be stunned how many of them automatically put the bill in front of him, because as the possessor of the penis, he must be the one with the debit card. (If he were, we'd have been homeless years ago; I adore the man, but I keep the money away from him for family preservation.)

I've never yet seen a server put it in front of me; it's in the center or it's in front of him. I can be physically holding the debit card in my hand and they will still put the bill in front of him. Perhaps they think he needs to check it over and confirm the charges are correct before he lets me and my silly ladybrain throw money about frivolously.

It just becomes part of the background, the assumption that woman with man is worthless chattel and certainly never to be taken seriously with money. It colors some of our actions; he did not accompany me to shop for the new car or conduct the negotiations. The car was to be in my name, but that wouldn't stop anyone from talking solely to him. Likewise when I negotiated for things like cell phone plans or contracts for our wedding, I had to leave him in the car to be taken seriously.

Perhaps we've reached a point where society will take single women seriously - though not as seriously as a man, of course. But I must admit, one of my hesitations in accepting Jim's proposal was that society would begin to treat me like Jim's arm candy instead of a separate person of my own intelligence, capability, career goals and business to conduct.

If I needed a reminder that nothing has changed in seventeen years, we got one from our soon-to-be-former prescription mail-order company. Both of us have chronic prescriptions, but Jim continues to order his at higher cost at a local pharmacy because he's hopelessly mired in the 20th century, and I prefer to order three-month supplies via our insurance-designated mail-order company.

I ordered a refill more than a week ago, expecting to receive it within 1-2 days as has been standard practice. When it didn't arrive, I looked it up and found that it had not even been shipped yet. In fact, they were scheduling shipment for next week.

So I called to complain; I've run out of the medication now, and it has a cumulative effect. I need to get back on it soon. They apologized and said there was a mixup when they tried to charge my husband's FSA card.

Drumming my fingers on the kitchen table, I asked why in heaven's name they would charge my husband's FSA; I have my own FSA, which is registered on my prescriptions under my account login. The rep got confused, and couldn't come up with an explanation. I then asked why they hadn't contacted me a week ago to tell me there was a problem; we could have sorted this out before I was actually out of the medication. Again, no explanation.

Once we got that straightened out, I pointed out that I was out of the medication and getting sicker. To their credit, the rep got it expedited and arranged for a free one-week supply at my local pharmacy to last me until it came in. All was well.

That is, until the next day, when the company called my husband's cell to discuss "his" order. He reminded them that I am the patient and the one paying for the order, and brought me the phone so I could confirm with the morning rep everything the evening rep had already said. A ridiculous waste of time later, nothing had changed and the prescription was still set to be mailed and charged to me.

I reminded them, again, that I am a separate human being and could they please call me directly if there is a problem with my account; my husband and I work opposite shifts and are not always together, so calling him doesn't do a thing to solve the problem.

That lasted a whole hour before they called him again to inform him that my order was shipping. Gee, thanks. I'm glad you didn't burden my ladybrain with information about my own health. And then another automated phone call, informing us that there was a problem with the shipment and we needed to call right away to get it resolved.

So I did, and for the 57th time, asked them to stop calling my husband and just call me directly. Two redirects later, it seems there was no actual problem, and the prescription still will be shipped tomorrow. I'm not holding my breath. It was a delightful way to spend a lunch break.

I'm stronger and smarter now than I was in 1998, and I know how to stomp my feet and demand to be treated as a customer on my own, not the appendage of the Real Customer (i.e. a man). But when I'm sitting here waiting day after day for my prescription to arrive, it's hard on the heart. It's needlessly complicated, it sometimes costs us money, it provides no end of hassles, and that's setting aside the frustration at still being a second-class citizen.

Each time his phone rings on my business, it puts me right back as the young pregnant woman in that hospital billing office, fearful of the bills and inevitable denials, begging them not to make me my husband's chattel.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Life of a Reporter's Son

SCENE: The car, making an unscheduled turnaround in a Main Street parking lot.

BOY: Mom, what are you doing?
ME: I'm going back.
BOY: I have to be at Scouts in fifteen minutes.
ME: We're like six blocks away. You'll make Scouts.

We pull up to the fire station, and I get out with my camera. Commence several pictures of the firefighter candidates doing "the ladder test," as they climb up to the top of the ladder truck at full extension - to see if they can physically do it, and if they'll freak out at the top.

ME: Get my iPad.
BOY: *eyes camera* Why do you need your iPad?
ME: To take notes.
BOY: You said it was just a photo!
ME: I have to get information for the caption!
BOY: *sigh* *teenage eyeroll* *retrieves iPad*
ME: Thank you.

I got the photo array. It was cool. He made Scouts. He's used to this.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Totally Tubular Teen Movies

I have officially given up on the Boy's generation coming up with good teen dramedies.

It really must suck to be a teenager now. To watch a movie with teenage protagonists, they basically have the choice of fantastical worlds like The Hunger Games (good times, but whoa depressing) or they can go to "old" movies like Harry Potter (just let that sink in for a minute). Or they can go to movies like The Fault in Our Stars or The Perks of Being a Wallflower, nicely tragic. Boy is all excited about Paper Towns, because it actually is about teenagers.

My new mission is to find good teen movies for Boy. The movie-teens of the Eighties might have been a little light on parental supervision and plenty heavy on sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, but they were awesome in all the bright-neon gaudiness I remember so fondly. The top themes were breaking through socioeconomic barriers: poor vs. rich was a constant theme, as well as busting through the caste system of the modern American high school.

Of course, I was a teenager then. So my memory might be a little... flawed. But here's how I remember the Awesome Eighties. Here be spoilers! (C'mon, people, it's been thirty years.)

The Breakfast Club. Pretty much the standard, taking the stereotypes by which we all lived high school and showing the layers beneath, as five kids who couldn't be more different find out they have a lot more in common. Required viewing.

Some Kind of Wonderful. I am hesitant on this one because it also pushes another common Eighties theme that bothers the hell out of me: rejecting college, do your own thing and fight the parental plans for higher education. Granted, the Baby Boomer parents leaped into college because it was often an alternative to being drafted into Vietnam, but higher education in the 21st century is going to be absolutely essential for just about every job, so seeing the main character ditch his college fund to buy diamond earrings for a girl he barely knows horrifies me (and it horrified me as a teenager, too). Still, Eric Stolz, Lea Thompson and Mary Stuart Masterson do an amazing job with what could've been another dumb love triangle. And you have to love a movie where a girl says, "Remember when I said I'd rather be with someone for the wrong reasons than alone for the right ones? I think I'd rather be right."

• I am probably the only child of the '80s who hated Say Anything. Another one about ditching the expectations of boring parents who don't get it, we have John Cusack in his last teen role as king of the slackers, doing his best to derail the future of a brilliant and motivated girl. Yeah yeah boombox, but as one who experienced something similar once, it's more "creepy" than "romantic" in real life.

• Can't Buy Me Love is another economic story, where the nebbishy kid has the cash to bail out the pretty girl and thus becomes cool by association - only it changes his life in ways he didn't expect. Early Patrick Dempsey is charming enough to overcome a wooden Amanda Peterson as the object of his affections, and also has some sly things to say about the high school caste system.

• Wargames. Not really a teen movie, but it has a teenage protagonist and the things it tried to say about the arms race and hope vs. defeatism were almost as fascinating as the acting from Matthew Broderick and John Wood.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off. No detail required. It was playing for free at the Wildey last week and we caught the show, which is what started this line of thought. Boy remarked that it was not only absolutely hilarious, but also had some serious things to say about facing uncertain futures and problematic relationships with parents (Ferris' parents are beyond clueless, Sloan's parents are nonexistent and we could write volumes about Cameron's unseen father.)

• Do not even discuss Heathers with me.

Sixteen Candles. Deeply problematic because of the offensive Asian stereotype, casual attitudes toward date rape of an unconscious girl, and the whole panties thing. I get that everyone loves this movie, and Molly Ringwald was fun in everything she was in, but I give this one a pass.

• Just One of the Guys is one I never actually saw, but I heard plenty about it. A pretty girl decides to dress as a boy in her new high school because she's tired of not being taken seriously as a writer. Supposedly it has some sharp things to say about gender stereotypes, homophobia, sexism and sexual identity, which is pretty advanced stuff for 1985. I may watch that one for myself.

Goonies never say die.

Pretty in Pink. Yes, Molly Ringwald was in everything. Another rich-vs.-poor triangle, with Andrew McCarthy as the rich guy and the eternal "Duckie" best friend. Everyone screams about the ending (and if you yell spoilers, I will assume you are Rip Van Winkle because the movie came out 29 years ago, folks), but I am just fine and dandy with the nerdy best friend not getting the girl. The "nice guy" who hangs out with a girl in the hopes of eventually "getting" her is not a trope I care for, though Blane was kind of a loser as well. Bonus points: a parent who was actually present and had conversations with his daughter!

Back to the Future. Where we're going, we don't need roads.

Stand By Me. Not exactly a teen movie, it was more a coming-of-age story and one of Stephen King's best. I hardly need to recap it for you, though I will say that the novella is darker, more nuanced and goes into greater depth for the characters than the movie. Again we have rich (or middle-class) kids and poor kids, as you can see a stark difference in the unhappy home lives of Gordie and Chris. There's an extra stab to the heart at the end, as we all know what became of the supremely talented River Phoenix, and Wil Wheaton proved he is so much more than Wesley Crusher.

That's the list that comes to mind without extensive Google. While Boy has, of course, seen the classics like Goonies and Back to the Future, I do believe some of these gems need to be on our summer viewing list. I know there are dozens more I haven't thought of, so if you have any recommendations, put them in the comments!

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