Scarlet Letters

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

Monday, December 05, 2016

Sock Snippets

Overheard in the newsroom, among the talented, smart, young people who have recently joined us...

COPY EDITOR 1: I found a gray hair once.
COPY EDITOR 2: No way.
ME: I don't want to hear it from either of you!
BOTH: *laughter)
COPY EDITOR 1: Seriously! I found this gray hair while I was working at (other newspaper) and I thought, "What have you done to me?"
ME: Welcome to journalism.
BOTH: *laughter*
COPY EDITOR 1: I knew she would say something.
ME: Please. I have socks older than the both of you.

As evidenced by the gentle streaks of silver growing at my temples...

The sock line is absolutely true. I have two pair of black socks remaining from the set I bought when I was hired at McDonald's in 1992. They aren't in the best of shape, but they have survived. Our wonderful young copy editors were born in 1993 and 1994 respectively, as I discovered when I was showing them the darkroom, that museum relic from an earlier age of less convenience and smelly chemicals.

And I had me a little flashback at the same time, as I remembered the exact same line fired at me from Jayne Matthews, may she rest in peace. Jayne was an acerbic older reporter who came from the 1970s era and let no one get in the way of her steamroller of stories - she was from Tennessee and a long line of old country talkers.

Jayne sat across the aisle from my cubicle from the time I was hired at Ye Olde Newspaper until her retirement, and I remember she used to say the same thing: "I have socks older than you." It may have been true for her as well, or it may have been Jayne hyperbole, which would not be a stretch.

The wheel keeps on turning....

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Monday, November 21, 2016

Post-Election* Snippets

MAN: Some of our friends need to be more careful. These highly attractive women wanting to be my friend have mutual friends with me.
ME: The highly attractive woman looking for a good man?
MAN: Yes. I get these friend requests from these gorgeous supermodels who are all about friending me and I'm all, "Delete."
ME: Now now, hon. Who's to say an attractive woman would not be falling all over herself for you?
MAN: *eyebrow of skepticism* Not these women, hon.
ME: So you're saying there's no way an attractive woman would be attracted to you?
MAN: That's right.
ME: So you're saying I'm not attractive?
MAN: ...
MAN: ...
ME: *wide grin*
MAN: Woman!
ME: *guffaw* Oh honey. It's right in front of you, a giant pit, and you go and just jump on in.


BOY: What's for dinner?
ME: Food.
BOY: There are mashed potatoes on the counter, but no other food.
ME: Yes there is. There's a roast in the oven.
BOY: *makes face* Roast?
ME: Yes. A carefully seasoned-from-scratch beef roast simmering in my own gravy recipe, ungrateful one.
BOY: *makes face again*
ME: For what do I get face? You got a problem with roast?
BOY: Yes. Make burgers or pasta with sauce, please. *wide grin*
ME: Get outta my office.

(He had two helpings.)


Boy wanders in drinking from a dark brown bottle.

ME: ...What are you drinking?
BOY: Beer.
ME: Very funny. Are you drinking my very last diet root beer?
BOY: ... I didn't know it was yours.
ME: Spawn!
BOY: Sorry.


MAN: Can I borrow a little cash so I can get a soda to go with my lunch that I packed?
ME: Wow, subtle. Yes, I bought you lunchstuff. Yes, you can swipe a buck. It's in the change bowl.
MAN: *goes to petty cash bowl Sarah Sanford made for me*
MAN: *swipes a fiver*
ME: HEY! I said a buck, not five! You shouldn't drink that much soda!
MAN: Muahahahaha. *puts money in wallet*
ME: Hey! I've been robbed! Gimme your wallet.
MAN: No!
ME: If you're gonna drown yourself in caffeine you're not supposed to have, buy it yourself! *grabs at wallet*
MAN: *dances away* Bye now! *kisses*
ME: You taste like coffee. Did you make coffee?
MAN: *whistles*
ME: Or did you drink the last of the coffee and now you're leaving me coffee-less?
MAN: Gotta go!


ME: You have violated the Book of Hebrews.
ME: Fortunately I had one DoubleShot left. But there shall be retribution.
MAN: Strange that we are going over that in class today.
ME: You can share with them my interpretation.
MAN: I will.

* Man, it sure took a while to build up enough household snark to fill a blog entry... 

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Sunday, November 06, 2016

Happy birthday, Uncle Walter

This weekend I had the privilege of speaking at the Walter Cronkite Conference on Media Ethics and Integrity. I was pretty nervous, as I'd never done an academic conference before - SPJ conventions, guest speaker at local universities, and of course, cons. No one at the Cronkite Conference was dressed as Pennywise the Clown, however.

Somehow I missed that the conference was scheduled to coincide with Cronkite's 100th birthday, which was celebrated at the Walter Cronkite Memorial on Friday along with the unveiling of Phase IV of the memorial.

We were treated to an amazing three-act play developed by the memorial staff titled "And That's the Way It Is: Cronkite's Journey." This show has been taken on the road and performed all the way to D.C. If it is ever in your area, you owe it to yourself to catch it. Actor Jim Korinke does a spot-on Walter Cronkite, and the gentlemen playing Harry Truman and Martin Luther King Jr. are pretty amazing themselves.

Act One focuses on Truman and Cronkite's lives in parallel from 1945 onward. It is a little gentler on Truman than history has been, but more true than some of the biopics have been. Act Two focuses on King and Cronkite through the civil rights movement, including the ethical and practical issues faced by the CBS news team as they tried to cover the movement with dispassion. I did not know, for example, that simply covering the movement was seen as "championing the blacks" and that southern affiliates threatened to cut their affiliation with CBS - which would have bankrupted the network.

Unfortunately I missed most of Act III. Damn news. I was reporting on a story back home by remote, and got some information during the intermission. I was still updating the story from my laptop when Act III began, and once I was done, the doors were locked and I couldn't get in until someone came along who had a key. Rats. Jim (who was verklempt throughout the performance) reports that it was a representative of Cronkite's question-and-answer on Larry King Live on the one-year anniversary of 9/11. I would have liked to have seen that.

I only caught some of the presentations at the conference, but those I caught were fascinating. Check out the Twitter account @BNDedonald if you want more specifics. I met a journalist named Deandre Williamson of the Bahamas, who won the award for having traveled the farthest (unless it's farther to Chile? Maybe.). Williamson discussed the evolution of the media in the Bahamas, which does not have freedom of speech, and its recent adoption of the SPJ Code of Ethics a few months ago. It faces an uphill battle there, and I enjoyed discussing those issues with Deandre.

Pic taken by my long-suffering husband, who agreed to come to a journalism ethics conference on our anniversary.

My presentation was on the 2014 revision of the code, and it must have gone off well, since no one fell asleep, walked out, or threw rotten tomatoes. Big thanks go to ethics chairman Andrew Seaman for giving me his terrific PowerPoint, which I then adapted to my speech. The last time I used PowerPoint, I was in college. That was a while ago. Thanks to the Kansas City Press Club, which invited me to speak.

And thanks as well to former chairman Kevin Smith, who shared some of his thoughts and recollections with me as I prepared for the presentation. Kevin herded the cats through our entire process, and survived.

I've often said that my participation in the ethics commission and the small part I played in rewriting the code are among my proudest accomplishments, and thus it was no small thing to be asked to talk about it - here at the conference, at local universities, at SPJ conventions, at high schools, on a milk crate at a street corner. Kevin called it "spreading the Gospel"; I've sometimes called it "evangelizing ethics." As I said in the speech, there are far too many people who don't even realize the code exists, and that's because we do a lousy job of transparency in our work. We must stop expecting that the average reader knows how a newsroom functions, how news corporations work on the inside, about the difference between news and opinion, and the presence and enforcement of ethics codes.

Sometimes I've felt like the lone voice crying in the wilderness. This weekend I was among My People, and it felt wonderful. It was good to know I am not the only one who is disheartened and depressed by the vitriol we face as we try to do our jobs.

I learned a lot from my fellow journalists this weekend, and about Uncle Walt, whom I thought I already knew well. Cronkite retired before I was old enough to really comprehend the news, but when I was young and would hear my newsman father refer to "Uncle Walter," I thought at first we really had an uncle named Walter.

Dad was a big fan of Cronkite, and after you visit the memorial, you will be as well. From World War II to the Kennedy Assassination to the civil rights movement to the moon landing to facing down Spiro Agnew, the story of Cronkite is really the history of us for the last sixty years, and it's worth your time.

If you do, you get to wear The Glasses.

And that's the way it is.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Return of Snippets

Hey look, I still have a blog! The Fall Deathmarch Tour ate me. I was going to blog about New Orleans, and Memphis, and Louisville, and Dupo, and all the other places I've traveled for the last six weeks. (One of those things is closer than the others.)

About searching for non-spicy non-seafood on Bourbon Street, trying to find our way out of Louisville in the middle of a marathon, my first photography award, and getting censored by Facebook. Somehow none of that got written down...

In the meantime, have these.

JIM: Trying to read Emerson. I want to die.
ME: Why?
JIM: Boooooooorrrrriiiinnnnngggg!
ME: You mean complex. Multifaceted. Challenging.
JIM: Boooooooorrrrriiiinnnnngggg!
ME: Stimulating. Formidable. Demanding.
JIM: Boooooooorrrrriiiinnnnngggg! Long overstuffed windbaggery!
ME: I'm not sure windbaggery is a word.
JIM: It is now.
ME: I'm pretty sure you're not just allowed to make up your own words, English major.
JIM: Yes I can.

CHARACTER 1: You know how to defuse a bomb, right?
CHARACTER 2: I've seen it done.
BOY: Oh please. Just cut the wire that isn't part of the American flag. It's probably the yellow one.
ME: From your extensive experience in bomb disposal, natch. Where do you get this shit?
BOY: Sources.

ME: Could we get more stereotypical?
BOY: Yeah. He's the tough soldier who apparently has never seen a time travel movie.
ME: And she's brilliant but flibbertygibbet. And they have a black sidekick!
BOY: *two thumbs up*
ME: I hope this gets better.

ME: *dramatic sigh*
JIM: What?
ME: I want to play hooky.
JIM: You have to work today.
ME: I don't want to be me today. I want to be... a flower.
JIM: What kind of flower?
ME: Snapdragon.
JIM: Sounds like the kind of flower you'd be.
ME: ... wait. HEY!

JIM: Off to school. *kisses*
ME: Okay. Have a good day, learn things, play nice with the other children.
JIM: Nope, I'm gonna beat em up.
ME: Well then be sure to get their lunch money.
JIM: Will do.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Murder of Stephen King, or, Why We Write

How terrible for his ghostwriter.

In case you missed it a few weeks ago, James Patterson called off his novel The Murder of Stephen King. It was actually a concept with potential, though not terribly unique: a serial killer is reenacting the deaths in a famous writer's books. Too bad Patterson decided to base it on a real-life writer, one who has already done this story a couple of ways, who has actually been stalked and terrorized by crazy people, and who isn't much of a Patterson fan.

Okay, it was maybe a little unkind (or at least impolite) for King to call Patterson a terrible but very successful writer. Largely because it's public knowledge Patterson doesn't write his own books anymore. If his books are terrible, then he should probably hire better ghostwriters.

Still, this was a tacky novel concept, so I'm glad he pulled it. I name characters after real people all the time, but only with their permission. And while my friends are largely delighted to die in horrible ways - which tells you something about my friends - I am sure any who have actually been stalked would not appreciate it immortalized without their consent.

I still boggle that Patterson doesn't write his own books.

At times, usually in frustration when sales are low or when struggling to carry a box back to the car (books are heavy) we will complain, "Why are we doing this again?"

And there is always a fellow author to say, "Because we have no choice."

Because you love books.
Because you have stories inside you that won't shut up.
Because it's therapy.
Because it is the only thing you're truly good at doing.
Because no one is writing the stories you want to read.
Because you love making worlds.
Because there isn't enough of [your subgenre here] in the world yet.
Because you only get better by doing more of it.
Because if you stopped the voices would take over.
Because just like the readers, you gotta know how it ends.

Writer Mia Silverton told me she began her writing career this year, hearing this advice from Quinn Loftis in three parts: We write because we have to. We write because we are inspired. We write to impact and influence lives.

"I do," Mia says. "I write because I simply have to tell these characters' stories and see the truth unfold. 'We write because we are inspired.' I am exactly that. Inspired by all the books, authors and lightbringers that have touched my heart and soul during every single year and phase of my life. 'We write to impact and influence lives' - I write because I want to help change lives, through not only the characters and worlds I create, but the messages that are spoken within those pages of love and healing. A well-spoken word in the past created a shift in me when the time was needed and I feel called to pay it forward."

Nowhere in that do you read, "So that I can make a couple million bucks." And if you did, there would be this sad, sick swell of laughter from the dealer's room.

Sure, if you've reached that lovely, privileged spot where you're making a living at writing, you write to pay the rent and put food on the table. I was on a panel at some point during the Fall Deathmarch Tour about writer's block, and all of us opined that one sure-fire cure to writer's block is a big paycheck held over a deadline. Filmmaker Jack Snyder listed his St. Louis house, apartment in Los Angeles, office rent and two kids in private school as his cures for writer's block. Money is a terrific motivator.

But... the money is a motivator because we want what Patterson has achieved. We want to reach that point where you can write whatever you want, get it published, and still pay the rent. So if you reach that point... why would you hand off the good part to somebody else? What do you do with all your time, roll around in the dollars cackling like Scrooge McDuck? If you're so busy managing the money that you don't have time to do the writing part, maybe the priorities have gotten a little out of whack?

Harlan Ellison once disparaged the phrase, 'I like having written but I don't like to write, it's hard work.' "Well, fuck you, hard work!" Ellison said with his usual delicacy. "You don't like it, go out and sail sailboats. Of course it's hard work. If it wasn't hard work, everybody would be doing it. And the better you do it, the harder the work is. It's supposed to be hard. Art is not supposed to be easy.... Art is supposed to be hard. Art is supposed to be demanding. That's the way I feel about it."

So I don't pretend to understand what's going on in James Patterson Inc., and while I might envy receiving one-tenth of his (or Stephen King's) paychecks, I'll still keep writing my hopefully-not-terrible books.

Because I have to. For more than one reason.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Identity theft or just really silly?

For the second time, I've reserved a room in a Chicago library.

Um, not me. The other me.

I've often joked that I must be two people at any given time, because the ethical and practical restrictions of my job require a separation between Elizabeth-me and Reporter-me. My worlds do collide, but rarely. Most of the time, the author-editor-person is doing one thing while the reporter-ethicist is doing something else. I've sometimes referred to one as my evil twin. (Note: the author is the evil one.)

But unless I've developed a serious psychological problem heretofore unknown to me, I am not reserving study rooms at a library in a Chicago suburb. However, someone is doing so with my name and email address.

The first time this happened, I received the email notification while I was on the road in.... you know, I honestly don't remember. It might have been Nashville, or Atlanta, or Kansas City. I only remember because I was sitting in my hotel room when I called the library to ask what was going on.

They were as befuddled as I. They said they use the reservation system to make sure everyone gets a fair shot at using the rooms, but that there was no cost or obligation involved. So why in heaven's name would someone use my name and email to reserve a room? What benefit does it give them?

At any rate, I informed them that the person in the room was Not Me, and that they needed to be duly made aware because I would not be liable for any costs or damages. They agreed, and we hung up.

It happened again. An email notification that Someone Who Is Not Me used my name and email address to reserve a room on Tuesday. I immediately emailed the library back. I have not gotten a response yet.

In practicality, the impact is probably negligible. It's a tad concerning, sure, but it's not like my name isn't out there. I'm a public person, and the email account they're using is my public email. (Those with my private email, please do not share.) As I've often said, in either of my personas, anyone who tried to steal my identity would probably give it right back with an apology and a donation. If you're gonna steal, steal from someone who HAS something.

But if you don't think I'm stirring the plot sifter with this....


Friday, September 02, 2016

Snippets: Old Age Edition

ME: Oh no. Not possible.
JIM: What?
ME: When I started working at the newspaper, I was in the bureau office, and we had these two secretaries who answered the phone and took down messages on actual paper because well shut up, okay?
JIM: Okay.
ME: And one of those secretaries, a very nice lady named Connie, was pregnant. And she had a baby.
JIM: Okay.
ME: The baby just got her driver's license.
JIM: *chortles*
ME: Shut up! You may be used to being old, but I'm struggling with it!
JIM: I'm ooooold.
ME: Yes, I know, but I thought I was young until five minutes ago!


BOY: What are you doing?
ME: Baking cookies. Chocolate chip.
BOY: What for?
ME: Scouts.
BOY: Um.
ME: What? We're all supposed to bring something.
BOY: Everybody always just brings storebought stuff.
ME: Ha. When have you ever known me to bring storebought anything when I can bake?

(Note: First attempt at cookies using the new stand mixer was a success.)


ME: Honey! JCPenney is offering a special discount to senior citizens this weekend?
JIM: Not there yet.
ME: It's 15 percent off to all shoppers age 55 and older!
JIM: Not there yet.
ME: But it's only five years off!*
JIM: Hush woman.
ME: *hugs him* I'm looking forward to taking advantage of your senior citizen status.
JIM: Making me feel old...
ME: Not old! Seasoned!
JIM: *groans*
ME: Hey, your age is my age too... plus eight.
JIM: *facepalms*
ME: We've already gotten that benefit once -
JIM: That was so wrong.
ME: I can't wait. Think of the discounts!
JIM: *sighs*

The short version of the Senior Citizen Benefit Incident: We ate dinner at some Huddle House in Nowhere, Southland this past summer. At the end of the meal, I was pulling out my card when I saw the bill and started snickering. Jim asked me what was so funny, and I showed him the receipt, where the waitress had automatically applied the senior citizen discount to his meal. 

Jim facepalmed. Boy said, "That is the best thing to happen all day."

I didn't stop laughing for twenty miles.


Speaking of old... Last week I worked the night cops reporter shift in our main office. It was my turn in the barrel, as we have all been covering the shifts while they interview for new reporters. I chatted with the new copy editors, and during a break, I showed them the old darkroom (now office and storage space), as they said they hadn't seen it. I was enjoying telling them what little I know about the building's history and the history of the newspaper.

ME: I'm probably one of the last journos to learn how to develop film, since they were in the middle of transitioning to all digital when I graduated from college. Of course, I couldn't do it now to save my life.
NEWBIE 1: Those must be the negatives. *points at wall o' negatives* I can't imagine how you'd see everything in reverse... Wow, 1993. That's the year I was born.
ME: ...
ME: Seriously?
NEWBIE 1: *nods*
ME: I graduated from high school in 1993.
NEWBIE 2: *points to 1994* There's me.
ME: *facepalm* Preschoolers!
NEWBIES: *laugh*
ME: When I first came here, Jayne Matthews - rest her soul - informed me often that she had socks older than I was. I literally have socks older than the two of you.** I'm gonna take my walker back to my desk now...

* Technically 5.5 years.
** This is true. I have two pair of socks I bought for my first job at McDonald's in 1992. Kill me.

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