Scarlet Letters

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

Sunday, April 26, 2015


Boy: What's for dinner?
Me: Hambone split pea soup. It's been cooking all day. 
Boy: Hm.
Me: Mmm, doesn't that smell good?
Boy: It smells like soup.
Me: Oh nice. You're going to appreciate home cooking two years from now when you're eating cafeteria food all the time.
Boy: I'm going to have homecooked meals every Sunday when I come visit my mom.
Me: You better. And I'll make hambone split pea soup from scratch.
Boy: ...

Scene: Driving past the garden bridge where our wedding photos were taken.

Man: Ohhh...
Me: Are you tearing up?
Man: Yes.
Me: Again?
Man: Hush.
Me: Marshmallow.
Boy: Control your husband.
Me: Yeahright. Like I could.


Scene: Dropping Boy off for play rehearsal. As he gets out, a teenage girl disembarks from a black SUV. As she approaches the door, her (presumed) father calls out, "Have fun, sweetie pie!"

The girl whirls, mortified beyond words. "DAAAAAD! No!" Boy is properly holding the door for her, but with a gigantic smirk on his face. It took everything I had not to roll down the window and call out, "Break a leg, Snookums!"

As I drove past the SUV, the dad was grinning like the Cheshire Cat. I gave him a thumbs-up.


Me: I so wanted to call out, "Good luck, Snookums!"
Boy: Thank you for not.
Me: We parents just live to humiliate you.
Boy: And you do it very well.
Me: Well, we embarrass you so much just by merely existing that we really have to work hard to truly humiliate you. 


Boy: *suspicious sounds*
Me: Don't drink the milk!
Boy: Why not? 
Me: Because we need it for breakfast.
Boy: Tell Jim to get some after work.
Me: I do not tell him to do anything. I will suggest it.
Boy: *more suspicious sounds*
Me: What are you doing now?
Boy: Making a sandwich.*
Me: You've already had two dinners!
Boy: I'm a growing boy, I need sustenance!
Me: You've done quite enough of that, you can stop.
Boy: No.

* Sandwich = two tuna sandwiches and three slices of Italian bread, after an entire container of leftover Chinese. And still chewing.


Me: Tell me you you fed The Thing before you took him to rehearsal.
Man: He fed himself. He ate some stuff.
Me: Stuff.
Man: Yes. Stuff.
Me: Was it healthy stuff?
Man: Ummmm yeah
Me: Wood chips? Maybe kibble?
Man: He grabbed a big bowl of cereal. I told him there was other stuff to eat.
Me: Am I going to have to cook an actual meal when I get home at 9 p.m. on a Sunday, smartypants?
Man: He only wanted cereal.
Me: Darling love, of course he only wants cereal. He's a teenager. He's not going to volunteer for carrot sticks and fruit or God forbid grilled chicken.
Man: I told him there were sausage and biscuits. But said nah.
Me: Boy.


Man: Oh
Man: Ohhhhh
Man: Ohhhhhhhhh
Man: Now I can say oh all I want.
Me: Whaaaat.
Man: You have unlimited texts now.
Man: Ohhhhhhh
Me: So you feel free to bug me at all times with texts that only say Oh?
Man: Well now I didn't say that...

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Friday, April 24, 2015

Show Your Work

If there's one thing that makes me go from zero to apoplectic in 2.5 seconds, it's the ongoing insistence that journalism is dead or dying, that no one does serious investigative work anymore, and that it doesn't matter.

I have long and generally profane rants that launch on automatic at such statements. In the interest of preserving my stomach lining, I've tried to avoid them of late. One must be on social media, but one must also learn to "walk away, walk away..." Yet I seem to have gotten into several of these discussions this week, because once again we're named as "worst job in America." As if that hasn't been happening for decades. It's hard work, and enormously underappreciated. So we all just snicker ruefully at that damn list and go back to our desks.

This time, I'm going to show our work. Here is some of the "useless, unnecessary" journalism of the past year, from that "dying" newspaper industry:

• The Charlotte Observer conducted an investigation of the failings of medical examiners to effectively investigate deaths in North Carolina, which lead to uncertainties for grieving families, faulty insurance decisions, and in some cases, unsolved homicides. It followed up on an investigation of one coroner in particular, then discovered that the careless work was a pattern widespread in the state.

• The Boston Globe exposed a poorly-regulated and profit-driven housing system that left thousands of college students in Boston living in unsafe, even deadly conditions. Scofflaw landlords rented apartments that didn't come close to meeting safety standards, and one student died trapped in an illegal attic apartment when a fire broke out.

• The Miami Herald dug into tens of thousands of public records, lawsuits and hundreds of interviews over two years to investigate the failures of the child protective services division in Florida (not unlike the Belleville News-Democrat's "Lethal Lapses" investigation, which won the Robert F. Kennedy Award in 2007). The coverage spurred $50 million in new protective services, rewriting the state's laws and toughening requirements for the agency.

• The Wall Street Journal documented a significant cancer risk to women of a routine uterine fibroid treatment, which led to a change in the prescribed medical treatment, and won a Pulitzer for its "Medicare Unmasked" project compiling a database of Medicare payments to specific providers. Want to find out the top 200 billing names for Medicare in Illinois? Just enter it in the database. Quest Diagnostics comes first, in case you were wondering.

• The Rock Hill, S.C. Herald investigated the misdeeds of a university president, including huge raises granted outside legal channels and hiring her own husband. This led to the resignation of the Winthrop University president.

• The Baltimore Sun uncovered a pattern of teachers being physically attacked by students in Baltimore city schools. Sometimes they were the targets of violence, other times injured while physically breaking up fights between students. It began as a look at the district's rising worker's compensation costs, until they discovered the number of students suspended for physically attacking staff was triple the number of worker's comp claims. Some teachers reported having to break up fights three times a day or more, but were being discouraged from filing reports.

• The Modesto Bee and Merced Sun-Star in California investigated two areas of conflict surrounding services for the handicapped in a five-part series. They documented stores and restaurants that failed to follow the law, and also uncovered fabricated claims from some plaintiffs abusing the law.

• The Kansas City Star dug into the death of a college student following a DUI boating accident. In the process they uncovered a series of mistakes by the arresting officer and a cover-up by his superiors, spurring a reexamination of agency procedures by the state.

• The Post and Courier of Charlotte, S.C. examined a horrifying domestic violence rate of one death every twelve days, putting the state among the top ten for women murdered by men. The series spurred new proposals to increase domestic violence penalties and take guns away from convicted batterers (stalled in the legislature). The paper won the Pulitzer Prize on Monday for this series.

• The Sacramento Bee investigated the service records of area nursing homes and a practice of hiding the homes' full ownership to keep patients and families from assessing their true quality.

• The Los Angeles Times has chronicled the four-year California drought with dozens of stories compiled on its site, detailing every aspect of the long-running drought and the historic water restrictions recently imposed by the state. They also were Pulitzer finalists for a minute-by-minute breaking coverage of a shooting spree online that "evolved into print coverage that delved into the impact of the tragedy," according to the Pulitzer committee.

• The Hilton Head Island Packet fought in court to unseal case files where local judges had bowed to rich and powerful developers and politicians to hide the cases from the public's eye.

• The Tulsa (Okla.) World investigated the botched execution of a death-row inmate, focusing not only on the execution, but on the crimes that led him to that room. It followed through the repercussions of the botched execution and started a national debate on the death penalty and the methods by which it is carried out.

• The Oregonian uncovered the prevalence of Mexican drug cartels in Oregon - yes, really - that were responsible for multiple deaths by bombs and execution-style murders. Reporter Les Zaitz conducted more than 250 interviews, including convicted traffickers and former DEA agents, continuing at the risk to his own life.

• McClatchy's Washington bureau uncovered a back-room dispute between Congress and the CIA of policies regarding torture of suspected terrorists, a "destructive standoff" during the investigation leading up to release of the controversial report.

• A coordinated effort among eight newspapers investigated a huge number of contractors on federal projects that broke the rules, costing taxpayers billions of dollars and costing workers benefits and protections. The newspapers involved in "Contract to Cheat" included the Raleigh News and Observer, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Charlotte Observer, the Columbia State, the Fresno Bee, the Kansas City Star, the McClatchy Washington Bureau and of course, the Belleville News-Democrat.

• As you probably know if you're in this area, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch won a Pulitzer for its photography during the Ferguson riots, including this photo below. If you were here, and you work in the business, you know what the reporters and photographers covering Ferguson went through. They were attacked, beaten, robbed, tear-gassed - and those are just the reporters I know personally.

Photo by Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 13, 2014

• At the risk of crowing about my own colleagues, the Belleville News-Democrat recently published a massive investigation of rape cases in southern Illinois. Some rape allegations were "cleared" by responding police within five minutes - barely time for the victim to say hello - and others dismissed for reasons like "victim uncooperative," which was a hell of a shock to the victim who reported it, endured the rape kit, agreed to testify and whose attacker had confessed. In fact, over the last eight years, 70 percent of rape cases never made it to a courtroom, even though 95 percent were able to identify their attackers. The investigation has spurred a state task force to reexamine how police and prosecutors approach sex crimes in Illinois.

• And our current heroes, the tiny seven-member newsroom of the Daily Breeze in Torrance, Calif. They conducted a six-month investigation of corruption at Centinela Valley Union High School, despite having their newsroom reduced from 14 in the past five years. (Also, only seven reporters for a 65,000-circulation paper? Holy crow. Even by newspaper journalism standards, that's insane.) The superintendent resigned and there is now a criminal investigation of widespread corruption in the school district.

This is just a sampling, drawn from the awards season of one year. It doesn't include the dogged resilience of newspaper reporters day after day for stories that don't win plaques and trophies. Reading this list fills me with pride; but not because I had a damn thing to do with it besides shoveling coal into the furnace every day along with the rest of us. I'm proud to be part of it in my own small way.

And I wanted, just once, for everyone else to see it. I might very well go full-metal reporter-rant on the next person who bitches about the so-called "mainstream media," about how we're useless and don't do anything important and newspapers are dead anyway. I am beyond apoplectic when people consider today's news to be only what someone else already posted on their goddamn Facebook feed. When I see people complaining about the news, and then backpedaling to say, "Well, it wasn't on CNN," I want to slap people. I'm not a very good politician.

Frankly, I don't know which pisses me off more: the people who have never worked in journalism and still think they know how it really works more than those of us in the trenches, or some disillusioned people in the industry who whine about our "dying" newspapers when they should damn well know better. Or they can get out. Go work in public relations, and good riddance.

We have problems. We lost the classified ad world to Craigslist, and we were slow to adapt to the internet. Are we underpaid? Oh, hell yes. We have one of the lowest-paying jobs in America that requires a college degree. And it hurts us, because we lose good people to other industries - not because they don't love the work, but because they simply can't afford to work at such a discount. These are issues that must be addressed. We were the canaries in the coal mine of the recession - when Circuit City went under, every newspaper in the nation lost an ad circular from its Sunday edition. That's the part nobody thinks about. And we will be the last to recover.

But if someone asked me what I do for a living, I could reply, "I work for a 24/7 news site. We provide local, regional, national and international news online in various formats, with a heavy emphasis on local and investigative news and features in text, graphics and video. More than 80 percent of adults in our coverage area read us, and those numbers are increasing by double-digit percentages every year. And we have a paper edition that is delivered to 50,000 locations every morning without fail."

That takes a long time to say, so I just say, "I'm a newspaper reporter." And I invariably get, "Aren't those dead?"

So read this list. And then consider how many other newspapers are doing work like this, investigating the things that cost jobs, dollars and lives in your own frigging town. Consider how many overworked, underpaid reporters are sitting at their desks on overtime pouring through ten thousand public documents to find the data on which they base their stories, only to be told that they literally don't exist. Because if it isn't on TV, it doesn't matter?

Think about that. And then think about what happens if there isn't a newspaper to unravel the ownership of the nursing home ducking its regulations, if nobody looks at the failures of a child protection agency to actually protect children, if nobody even asks if federal contractors are following the law when they take your tax dollars. Do you think CNN or some faraway news blogger gives a rat's ass about the layoffs in your kid's school district, or the proposed sales tax about to be enacted in your town?

Newspapers are not dead, dying, meaningless or invisible. Evolution always looks like death from the outside. We're just a little too busy doing the job to crow about it on late night.

But if we were gone, you wouldn't like the America you have left.


Wednesday, April 08, 2015

In search of Sara

For once, not my dear friend Sara M. Harvey. If I wish to find the Glitter Lady, I'm pretty sure she's still taking my calls. So is Sarah Sanford, despite the number of times I've killed her in print.

A few months ago, I bought a used book off Amazon's independent sellers. It was a novelization of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's "Far Beyond the Stars," which is of course very out of print. It arrived today - yeah, those guys take a while - and carried with it an extra surprise.

I flipped through the pages, and a laminated card fell out. It was a student ID for a Sara Beatty-Knudsen, who attended the Vancouver School of Arts & Academics. It's dated 1996-97, and she appears to be of middle-school age from the photo. She was part of "MS Team 3," which to me confirms middle school and using the team-teaching concept.

A little internet searching shows that the school is not in Canada, as I expected, but in Vancouver, Wash. It's still operating today as a magnet school for students of the arts, and thus, exactly the sort of place over which I would have turned backflips when I was a girl.

A girl like Sara, who was no more than twelve and yet reading novelizations from Deep Space Nine's best episode.

By my math, Sara is about 10 years younger than I am. A few more internet searches reveal that Sara and her family moved to Tucson, Ariz. for her high school years, and she graduated from Canyon Del Oro High School in 2003.

Unfortunately, that's where the trail goes cold, unless I were to spend money or abuse my position as a reporter. The other Sara Beattys I could find were the wrong age (like the 17-year-old aspiring author in Maryland or the 40-plus indexer); there are no further references to Sara Beatty-Knudsen, which implies at some point she dropped the hyphenation.

I did find a Sara Beatty of apparently the right age who is a photographer, but she said alas, she is not the object of my search; Beatty is her married name.

Oh, and Sara's middle name is Elizabeth, if I'm not mistaken.

Why go to all this trouble? In part, because curiosity is part of my job description, and hunting for things on the internet is my idea of fun. In part, because young Sara reminds me of ME when I was her age, albeit 10 years earlier. I would have given body parts to attend an arts school, and I wonder what it was like for her to leave that school and go to a regular high school in Tucson instead.

And, of course, I'd like to return her ID. It's a little piece of her history, and she deserves to have it back. She'd be about 30 now, and probably has long forgotten Vancouver School of Arts & Academics and "Far Beyond the Stars." But maybe a little trip down Nostalgia Lane would be a nice thing for her.

Anyone out there know Sara Beatty-Knudsen? I've got something for her.

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Monday, March 30, 2015

Look out, toddler behind the wheel!

Or so that's what I always see. Someone needs to tell me that I'll get used to seeing my kid driving the car in which I am a passenger, because every time I look over at the driver's seat and see Boy, I see the little seven-year-old imp whose feet couldn't quite reach the petals, grinning at me as he played at driving.

He's not bad at it, really. We've been woefully inadequate at taking him out to practice, in part because of our crazy schedules that never intersect, and in part because it's immensely stressful. Look, I know he isn't likely to kill us, not as carefully as he drives right now. But the consequences for even a minor fender-bender while he's at the learner's-permit stage are so disastrous that it makes me five times as nervous.

Plus, it's MY new car. We were supposed to teach him on Jim's old piece of crap. Which didn't last long enough for Boy to get a learner's permit.

At one point I declared it was just too much, and Jim needed to take over the instruction. Boy vetoed that one. "He's even more nervous than you," he said, and demonstrated Jim's death-grip on the Oh-Shit Handle over the passenger seat.

BOY: *rolls through stop sign*
ME: See, that's a rolling stop, otherwise known as illegal. Your grandfather used to call it a California stop, but that's because he learned to drive in Los Angeles.
BOY: On a Model T.
ME: I am so telling him you said that.

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Monday, March 16, 2015

Weekend random

For the record, brain, it was not very polite of you to come up with the title and two-thirds of the plot to the next Nocturne novel at church today. Especially since we're obligated to about three more projects before we could possibly get to that one. It's gonna be kickass, though.


Day two of Waiting for Dreamhost. Something like Waiting for Godot; when something goes wrong with my website, they respond instantly, and sometimes I can even get a live chat for help. When something goes wrong with the webstore, I must post in the forum and wait for a reply.

It's been more than 24 hours and no response. If I call them, the price is $99. Waiting. Waiting... Let's make bets!


Boy: Are we doing anything Tuesday?
Me: *parabola-mouth*
Boy: What? Oh. Oh my God.
Me: *supersniffle*
Boy: It's your birthday Tuesday, isn't it.
Me: *pout*
Boy: I may have to do some shuffling. I forgot.
Me: For the record, that's the last time you get a free pass on forgetting, meanypants.
Me: *transcribes conversation for Man*
Man: That was mean.
Me: Him or me?
Man: Him. Yours was well played.
Me: I'm a mom. We have advanced degrees in guilt.


The to-do list before Midsouthcon is so long I can't even. Awaiting deliveries, ordering promo materials, assembling booth materials. This is probably one of the biggest attempts we've ever done:

• I am editor guest of honor at the show. Both of us are guest authors.
• We will have two (2) booths with a hired flunky.
• We are premiering the new book, Nocturne Infernum. (Preorder a copy!)
• My photography will be featured in the art show.
• We will be hosting the Literary Underworld Traveling Bar.
• Both boys will be sleeping on our floor.
• If we can finalize the arrangements, we will be gathering with friends for an unbirthday dinner.

So all I need to do before Thursday is finish designing the booth sign, order it, order art show prints, mat them for hanging, design and print art show sign, finish this waaay overdue editing project, design and print flyers, do hotel reservations for the Indiana signing next month, remind one person to pick up the posters and another that my books are heading to her house, upload six new titles to LitUnd, refill Boy's meds, inventory LitUnd Traveling Bar and restock, repackage and replace booth materials, write up that [redacted item that was supposed to be last week], return the cable box to Charter, receive final shipments, pack our suitcase, make restaurant reservations, confirm badge reservations, order a bed frame, get last books added to inventory and updated in system, and turn thirty-nine-plus-tax.

I think I need a bigger car. And about two more weeks. Come to the show and see what's left of me, Memphis!

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Friday, March 13, 2015


BOY: *drops TV remote on the hardwood floor for the 900th time*
ME: *glare of doom*
BOY: I've got it! I've got it. It... still works. Sort of. Don't press too hard on the left side.
ME: Would you go get a newspaper?
BOY: Why?
ME: So I can roll it up and smack you over the head with it.
BOY: I didn't mean to!
ME: Okay, we can't change input anymore. Quit breaking my shit!
BOY: Watch your language.
ME: Yeah, it's really goddamn unladylike to swear.
BOY: You'll never catch a husband with a mouth like that.
ME: *choke*

Out-smartmouthed by my own spawn. The student becomes the master.


ME: Can you snag me a glass of milk?
BOY: *dramatic sigh*
ME: Oh please. It's not that big a trial.
BOY: *more sighing*
ME: Dear Mom, thank you for going to the grocery store after work and spending your hard-earned money buying food to fill my belly. I appreciate your sacrifices for my well-being.
BOY: Thanks Mom...


ME: Metro-East Lutheran is having its home and garden show this weekend.
MAN: *mimes zipping lip*
ME: What? It's a home show!
MAN: And garden.
ME: *glares*
MAN: I can hear the screams of the poor plants now.
ME: Excuse me. *leaves room*
MAN: *follows me to bathroom* Oh no, the plants cry, it's Elizabeth!
ME: *emerges with spray bottle*
MAN: Noooo! *flees*
ME: *chases Man, spraying him with water* Mock my gardening, will you!
MAN: *runs into closet, hides*
ME: Muahahahaha.
MAN: *from inside closet* Noooooo! The poor plants!

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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Terry Pratchett and a Vest Full of Stars

I've told this story before. But it bears repeating, given the death of Sir Terry Pratchett today. The author was mourned by more than his friends and family; he was mourned by the many readers who loved his work and had the honor of meeting him and being charmed by him, as I was, on one of the more nervous days of my life.

In 2007, I attended a convention where the famous Terry Pratchett was the guest of honor. I was a nominee for an award and much consumed with my own panels, making sure there were people on the booth in the dealer's room, assisting my friend with her book release, and other such convention business.

On Saturday, Pratchett had been scheduled for a signing one hour before me. Only one hour, which meant that by the time he was done, the line still stretched to Spain. There were a handful of us supposed to go on after Pratchett, which is a bit like scheduling a bar band to follow the Beatles. Fearing a riot, the powers that be kept Mr. Pratchett in place and moved the rest of us into a nearby ballroom.

I ended up next to Selina Rosen of Yard Dog Press, which always guaranteed snark. Selina and I had a long-standing threat of arm-wrestling dating back to my first nomination for the Darrell Award. It's a long story. The details don't matter; what matters is that we were so bored we finally arm-wrestled. And she kicked my ass. As anyone who has ever met Selina could have predicted. (As I tried to move her arm, she asked, "Are you trying? For real?" It was just sad.)

We had a few wanderers in and out, and I sold a book to a guy who made the fatal mistake of eye contact. Occasionally Selina stuck her head out into the hallway and yelled to the crowd waiting in the Line to Spain: "We will sign Terry Pratchett's books! No waiting!"

All weekend I had heard about Terry Pratchett, and the gentleman I was dating at the time was an enormous fan. I didn't know his work well enough to be starstruck yet. But he was so incredibly popular that he was basically this unseen force moving about the convention in other areas, with a wake of eager fans.

Evening fell, and I entered the banquet hall, nervous in my new cocktail dress and clutching a tiny good-luck charm. I decided to be optimistic and selected a table near the front that had some empty chairs. I was unaccompanied, as my gentleman friend was manning our table during the banquet. I asked if the seat was empty at the table near the front, and a friendly older gentleman in a black suit with subtle, sparkly stars imprinted on the vest assured me that it was.

I got the surprise of my life when he spoke in a wonderful British accent and someone referred to him as Terry.

Yes, I had dinner with Terry Pratchett.

We had a lovely time, conversation about the writing life and convention travel over chicken that was not actually made of rubber. At one point, Terry Pratchett said he'd been doing some reading about Tennessee, in particular the famous "body farm."

Blank looks all around, except me, because I know all about the body farm! They leave donated corpses out in various terrain to observe how they decay, to help students learn forensic techniques. Terry Pratchett and I talked at length about how weird and cool it is, while the others looked at their baked chicken as though it had suddenly turned over nasty.

"The thing I found strange," Pratchett said, "is that when they are finished with it, they give the body a proper burial. But none of them knew him in real life. What, exactly, do they say over him? 'Thank you for rotting for us'?"

I laughed myself silly.

Less than an hour later, I won the award. When I stepped up to give my brief speech, Terry Pratchett was clapping for me. It was one of those lifetime high points.

It was only months later that Pratchett announced he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. He insisted publicly that it should not be treated as a funeral, and I tried not to do so. But I remembered that dry wit and marvelous curiosity, and I was angry at a disease that would take that away from him before it took his life. He had a rich and wonderful life, yes, but he was only 66 years old when he died today. He should have had another twenty years of weaving tales, folks. I lodged an official protest with the universe.

I never saw him again, and never got to thank him for helping a nervous young author relax and laugh over dinner, award or no award. He was a true gentleman, a fine writer and we are all the poorer for his loss.

I hope he is now free from the shackles of disease, and wherever he is, he wears a vest full of stars.

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