Scarlet Letters

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

Thursday, January 22, 2015

TurboTax and zombies

Today's addition to The List: TurboTax. Or more specifically, the company that makes it: Intuit. Which really put its foot in it this year.

I've been doing my own taxes since college. Nobody needs to try to understand my bizarre accounting system but me. It makes sense to me, okay? I started with "Taxes for Dummies," a pile of library-copied forms and a No. 2 pencil. I moved to web-based versions as technology advanced, and I have used TurboTax Deluxe downloaded software to do my taxes for years with no problems. I understand how the system works and they carry over much of my stuff from year to year, so I just need to fill in my sales and royalties, etc. It's helpful not to have to re-calculate the square footage of my office each year.

I should have paid closer attention. Seems TurboTax has recalibrated its software versions, and you can no longer use Deluxe to file the forms for home office deduction and Schedule C (read: side business income). For that, you need TurboTax Home & Business, at nearly twice the cost.

Boo hiss, TurboTax. I will be requesting a refund, I think. I like your product very much and have never had complaints about it, but this is nothing but a money grab. There is no blooming reason why we should have to upgrade to a higher product just for a home office and Schedule C. You are not keeping customers this way; you are already the highest-priced tax prep software by a factor of three, so we really don't need all that much encouragement to jump ship.

Not very Intuit-tive. (What? Love me, love my jokes.)

Hmm, looks like H&R Block's software includes the Schedule C at Deluxe level... and we won't even talk about TaxAct, which is about a quarter your price.

EDIT: Now this is how you scramble. Seems that H&R Block is offering a free version of its Deluxe software to angry, disaffected TurboTax customers. It's actually set up an email account:, and if you email them your name, email address, whether you use a Mac or PC and a scanned receipt of your TurboTax purchase, they'll send you a link for a free download of the deluxe product plus state. Given that H&R Block has less than a third of the customers that TurboTax does, according to Forbes, that's some serious hustle.

EDIT EDIT: On the other hand... I called TurboTax to get a refund on my angry-making software. The nice, polite lady immediately offered me a free upgrade. Apparently there are quite a few angry customers applying for refunds. Bravo to TurboTax on belatedly understanding customer service.

I took the upgrade; I don't want to deal with a new software program if I don't have to. So, if you (like me) already bought TurboTax and will need to report side business income (or have investment income, which I absolutely do not), call 800-445-1875 and request an upgrade. I appreciate good customer service, even if it originates from a really bad decision.

But you'd better believe I'm looking very closely at next year's version, Intuit. If you don't restore the Schedule C at the Deluxe level, H&R Block is getting my business next year.


Totally unrelated but funny....

Last night I dreamed I was Batman. Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Batmaaaaaan.

See, now it's stuck in your head, too. I was in some kind of resort and I was Batman, and there was a Robin who looked nothing like Chris O'Donnell or Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and we were capering about trying to... I dunno, prevent a jewel theft or something. I am unclear on the details.

Then I woke up, because that happens at least three times a night, and after I fell back asleep it was Zombies 101, barricading the house and everything. Fighty fight fight, because I dream in action-adventure movies.

Now here's my question: Why couldn't I have been Batman when I was fighting zombies?

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Isabel's latest triumph

Last night, Boy and I were watching TV in the living room when we heard a thunderous crash on the other side of the house.

Jim was at work, so he could not be responsible. Boy's eyes widened, and as I stood up to investigate, he said, "No, wait, take the baseball bat." Um, did anyone know where the baseball bat is? No? So I investigated anyway.

Boy's room was... well, it wasn't any more catastrophic than the last time I dared to look. If anyone knows how to get a teenage boy to clean his room, do let me know. Our room was substantially un-disastered, the bathroom was in its usual mild disarray....

Then I opened the closet.

The closet grid system had partially collapsed, dumping all my stuff and half my clothes on the floor. (Jim's side was totally fine. Naturally. Isabel likes him.) 

Later investigation showed that a small fishhook-shaped connector had snapped. Jim found a reasonable replacement at Home Depot, and conducted the repairs this afternoon because that's what people do on a national holiday, with zip ties to strengthen it against a reoccurrence.

But first, he had to empty the entire closet. There is only one in the house - well, two, if you count the coat closet under the stairs. Boy doesn't have a closet, so he has a wardrobe with drawers and hanging space that he has only partially destroyed. Jim and I share the only actual closet, which is long and narrow and has the wire shelving to allow us to store everything from towels to pillows to our clothes. 

That's what is now vomited across our bedroom.

I hate clothes. So why do I have so many?

I had entirely forgotten the closet project while I worked up in my office all day. I came downstairs to make dinner (basil cream chicken with spinach noodles tossed with browned butter and mizithra) and saw the bedroom.

ME: Aiiiieeeee!
JIM: Yeah.
ME: I forgot. 
JIM: We have to sort all this tonight.
ME: No. I don't wanna.
JIM: We have to if we ever want to sleep in here again.
ME: Let's not. We can just close the door and pretend this room doesn't exist.
JIM: Then where do we sleep?
ME: I've got a cot up in my office, I'm good.
JIM: Great, what about me?
ME: You can sleep on the couch - no, kick Boy out of his room. You get his bed.
BOY: How about no?

Isabel hates me. My bridesmaid Sara even brought me an awesome little charm for a wedding gift to help ward off the ghost so that she wouldn't misbehave. It vanished almost immediately. I'm not kidding. Cannot find it anywhere. During and immediately following the wedding, the coat closet rod snapped in half (solid wood), the handrail ripped out of the office stairwell, the coffeepot lid broke, the bed frame collapsed (okay, that was Boy)....

And as I'm typing this, the keyboard has vanished from my iPad screen. I can still type, but the letter keys do not appear. It has taken me ten minutes to type this paragraph. Not. Kidding.

Okay, Isabel, I get the hint! I'll stop complaining about you on my blog and go put my closet back together! 


Saturday, January 17, 2015

The love of a godmother

This morning was spent in the company of current and former co-workers, as we shared stories of the late Jayne Matthews and celebrated her life with laughter. That's what she wanted, of course; she had told me years ago that she would be annoyed if no one was telling funny stories at her funeral. Jayne, we gave the best we had.

In my case, by the way, I told the story of Jayne's "divorce present" to me in 2003. I didn't need to preface it with explaining Jayne's opinions on marriage, because as soon as I mentioned it, there was a scattering of rueful laughter. Everyone who ever met Jayne knew her opinions on marriage.

We celebrated her life and her passion, and bid her farewell the best we knew.

But that wasn't the only goodbye today. My mother informs me that earlier today, my adoptive godmother died. By the way, it may be January but 2015 is fired.

This takes a little explaining. As is the tradition of the Episcopal Church, I was baptized as an infant. I had godparents, including a Catholic monsignor, but I never heard from them as a child or as an adult. I think I met one of them once as a young woman, and my mother told me when the monsignor passed away, because I think it was in the news.

Maynard and Lois LeCocq were my sister's godparents, and they were devoted. Because there was simply too much love in them to play favorites, they adopted me as well. Every birthday, I got a lovely little card from Maynard and Lois. Every Christmas, there were presents mailed all the way from California - for both of us, not just the one to whom they had a religious obligation. And every time we flew back to the town of our birth, we were welcomed as family.

Maynard left us several years ago. The last time I saw Lois was in 2012, when I flew out to see my mom's family. Lois and I had a nice chat at church - because of course, she was still attending St. Luke's, the church where my late grandfather was pastor and where my sister and I were baptized and my mother was married.

Perhaps the vanishing act of my own godparents made me that much more grateful for the LeCocqs. They showed me the love of family when they had no obligation to do so, and I was always humbled by their kindness. I have never had the privilege of being a godparent to a child; I stood as sponsor to two friends in college who had chosen the Episcopal Church, and it was an honor to be their godmother, even as we crack jokes about it since both gentlemen are older than I am. Our relationship was different than that of the traditional godparent, to guide the child and support the parents.

The LeCocqs showed me what to look for when my own son was born. The man we chose for Ian's godfather was my partner at my first newspaper job, a good man and a dear friend. Tom has always been there for Ian, and he and his wife are family in every way.

It is heartbreaking to hear of Lois's death today. Once again I wished that I had kept in better touch, written more letters, mailed more pictures. I knew her health was not the best, even in 2012 when last I saw her. But I know through our shared faith that she and Maynard are reunited now, and that must be such a blessed joy.

But I am weary of saying goodbye to people. Fred Grimm. Dave Wenrich. Jayne Matthews. Lois LeCocq. All within the last few weeks. My heart is too full with unsaid goodbyes.

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Friday, January 16, 2015

Why I'm angry

Today I finished my annual report for our Relay for Life team. Of course, it was due yesterday. I'm a reporter, which means I'm deadline-oriented... only, you know, sometimes those deadlines kinda creep up on a person.

What. I'm not team captain because I'm organized, I'm team captain because I was the one without a chair when the music stopped.

Silliness aside, we had a good year. We topped our goal by more than $600, which means in the ten years that St. Andrew's has had a Relay for Life team, we've raised more than $25,000 for the American Cancer Society. I have a fantastic team: we are small but mighty. And we pulled it off last year despite me being so terrifically distracted by weddings and babies and an above-average busy year for Ye Olde Newspaper that I think I actually forgot to do one whole fundraiser.

Still, I fired off my report, and then Boy and I spent way too much time going through old photos. It was ostensibly for Throwback Thursday, but really it was just nostalgia. Boy enjoyed the years of Cub Scout shenanigans and pictures of him fighting invisible enemies with the superheroes of Six Flags.

"We had a good time, didn't we?" he said, unusually philosophical. Mom wibble.

But on one of the photos, I had a heartsick moment. There were four Facebook comments on a particularly awesome photo of Boy.

Two comments were from friends who are now dead.

Rachael Wise died of breast cancer in 2011. She had been fighting it since her early twenties, and it was the beast that chased her all the time I knew her. She was my age, and she wrestled it to the ground over and over, but still she died at the age of 37. She deserved more time with her husband, more time with her friends, more LIFE.

David Black died of cancer in 2014. I met him when I hired him a few years before to tutor my son, who was really struggling with junior high. David had just finished his teaching certifications, and ended up with a classroom of one. With understanding and the tough-love compassion of a born teacher, he got Boy through the seventh grade, and became a friend. Less than a year later he was diagnosed with a pervasive cancer, and fought it like the hard-cursing bear he was for much longer than the doctors expected.

Both Rachael and David had cheered on the photo. It was heartbreaking, and it made me mad all over again.

Because Jayne Matthews died of cancer on Tuesday. Jayne and I worked together in the Collinsville bureau for years. Our desks were opposite each other for most of that time, so I was the beneficiary of much of Jayne's wisdom - that which she dispensed to me, and which she dispensed to many others. Friends on the phone, other co-workers, sources... As others have pointed out, you didn't know Jayne for five minutes before you'd start hearing the stories. She was a fine old country talker in the tradition of her beloved Tennessee, and she could keep a story going forever.

She loved our profession unabashedly, and I remember that every Election Day she wore a loud red-white-and-blue outfit with a flag baseball cap. She stuck her I-voted stickers on the edge of the computer with which she struggled every day, and I got into the habit of doing the same, until information services told me to stop doing that.

It's been a couple of days since Jayne died, and I have struggled with what to say. While I knew she'd been in poor health for years, surviving a stroke in 2012, I didn't know that she was diagnosed with cancer at Christmastime. Whatever it was, it killed her quickly. Those who had kept in better touch with her said after more than two years in a nursing home, she was ready to go. I will trust their judgment.

But I'm still angry. Age 67 just doesn't seem like enough, not when you loved life as Jayne did. Oh, the stories. And the quotes; I used to keep a running list of them. For a while on Facebook yesterday, a bunch of us got into a quote-fest, putting up Jayne's Greatest Hits. "Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel," was one favorite. My favorite was, "It's hard to be professional when you're drooling on someone's shoes." That one was about her interview with Gloria Steinem. Jayne was not shy with her opinions, either: a staunch feminist and devoted Democrat, you didn't get away without hearing everything she thought about both.

And even then, the brassiest woman I know still knew how to be kind. My first husband and I divorced in 2003, having married too young and without really understanding the pressures that a career in journalism puts on a marriage. I took the day off when my divorce became final, and when I returned there was a "divorce present" on my desk from Jayne.

Now, Jayne had definite beliefs on marriage: that it held women back, that it was solely for the benefit of men, etc. So I was a bit leery when I opened it.

It was a small toy man, and when you squeezed him, he popped out with lines like, "You look tired, honey, I'll make dinner." "We can watch whatever you want." "Would you like me to do the laundry?"

It cracked me up, and I could definitely use some humor that day.

In the newsroom, she would sometimes ask me to help her spell something. She called me Ms. Spelling Bee, because I am a champion speller (hey, everybody's gotta have some talent) and she said that was rare among readers, that people who read a lot tend to read fast and miss the spelling o the words. I don't know if that's anything like accurate, but I think I would absolutely love to spell something for Jayne one more time.

Jayne was one of a kind, and on Saturday we will gather to bid her farewell. Her ashes will be returned to her home state of Tennessee, the place she always said she would go once she retired. She often talked about her "old lady house," how she intended to decorate it and settle in for a long sunset in which she would write angry liberal letters to the editor and donate to Democrats.

Jayne never got her old lady house. And she may have been ready to go, but I'm still angry that she doesn't get to write her letters for another 20 or 30 years.

If I needed a reminder why I still rev up the Relay team each year, why I'm still the one without a chair when the music stops, it's because I am tired of seeing the voices of dead friends echoing online because cancer silenced them.

Goodnight, Jayne. I'm going to light a luminary with your name on it this June, and maybe I'll write a few of your best quotes on the bag for good measure.

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Monday, January 12, 2015

Warning! Zombie marketing!

Author and eternal smartass Sean Taylor posed an interesting question on the Book of Face, and my answer was a story too long for a Facebook comment.

Sean asked us authors about marketing. What works, what doesn't, how do you promote yourself without going broke or being obnoxious?

To summarize myself: Flyers and bookmarks just create trash and waste your money. Word of mouth via guest blog posts and forwards spreads news of your book in a viral fashion. Results are mixed on offering the first book of a series free: yes, it will generate a lot of downloads, but if they won't spend $1.99 for the first book, odds are slim they'll pony up for the rest of the series. Others have had different experiences; maybe I just sacrificed a virgin to the wrong demons. A multi-city book tour works well if someone else is paying the bills; it's not so good if you have to sell enough books to cover your roach motel before you can feed yourself.

Direct email works, but make sure people voluntarily sign up and you don't just nab emails without permission. Paying someone to do your direct mail is dumb when MailChimp exists. Twitter can be a conversation (while populated by trolls) but a Twitter account that consists of nothing but "buy my book!" will be quickly unfollowed. The existence of a website (not just your blog or Facebook) is absolutely mandatory.

And Facebook... thanks to the algorithm constantly changing to make fewer and fewer of your followers actually see what you post, it's become practically useless for actual promotion, especially since they now insist you must pay for anything that they consider marketing. And yet it is absolutely indispensable, because despite its uselessness... it's still where the readers are. No one has been able to drag them away from Facebook, and thus we all stay, even when we curse it. 

But put your real content on a blog. This is a lesson I learned a long time ago and now I am trying to re-learn it, to shift my real content off the Book of Face and back here, where it belongs. Here I can say whatever I wish, and anyone who has chosen to follow me here will actually see what I write. (Note: Check out Feedly, my newest discovery. You CAN follow blogs without Facebook! Yay!) I wrote earlier this week that without my old LiveJournal, I would not have a writing career, and I wasn't kidding.

But what about the story, Donald?

Well, Sean asked us what our most successful marketing practice was, and I could talk about using social media, about talks in coffeehouses replacing traditional bookstore signings, about the case of red matchbooks designed to look like they came from the vampire nightclub in Nocturnal Urges, about convention appearances and author dinners and all the nonsense we go through to get attention for our work. Attention equals money equals the ability to keep writing books.

Which leads me to my most successful marketing practice....

I was building up to the release of The Cold Ones, my first zombie novel and a departure from my career's path. Well, it was a departure as far as everyone else knew. They all knew me as the vamporn lady, and I was resolutely stuck on the midnight sex panel because everyone thought the NU series was just marital aids with teeth. I'd been writing horror since long before Nocturnal Urges, of course, and written fantasy, horror and science fiction since, but I was still mired in the pink ghetto and no one in horror was taking me seriously.

If you've read The Cold Ones, you know. Major Harvey swears up a storm and kicks down doors. The zombies are bloody and malevolent, but so are various nasty beasties from the mythologies of various cultures, plus the best team of sidekicks I've ever assembled. 

It was slated to premiere at a spec-fic convention. I decided to use my reading for the launch party. We had some pre-orders, but not too many. I needed something to punch it up.

I decided to create zombie bite kits. I got a bunch of self-sealing plastic bags and printed up labels with military-style stencil writing. Here's what was in them, according to the label:

Bandage (for the bleeding)
Antiseptic (for the ickiness)
Snack (for the munchies)
Source of Flame (to fend off new friends)
Helpful Coupon (because we like you)
Bullet (just in case)

The bandage was a band-aid. The antiseptic was a single alcohol swab. The snack was a gummy body part (I love post-Halloween sales). The source of flame was at first leftover matchbooks from the Nocturnal Urges box, and later a single wooden match. The helpful coupon gave them a discount at the booth or on our webstore.

The bullet was from a bag of metal slugs given to me by a friend who used to make his own bullets. To be safe, I contacted the convention in advance and asked if they had any objections. They said no, but I might want to check with the town police department.

I called the police, and when they stopped laughing they told me that they'd have to arrest me and anyone who took the kit. The convention was in Illinois, and anyone possessing live ammunition must have a firearm owner identification card or they are violating the law.

Since I am allergic to handcuffs (shaddup, you, I heard that), I asked them about the slugs. No cartridge, no powder, just a hunk of metal. That would be okay, they said; no one can get hurt by those unless you throw them really hard.

So I informed the convention leaders, and now they were concerned. They said their security couldn't be expected to know the difference between a live round and a dead slug. While I figured most of their security would probably be more familiar with ammunition than I was, I understood their concerns. It only takes one moron, right? I considered candy bullets or chocolate ones - eat the bullet - but that raised the price of this thing considerably, and I was running out of time and cash.

Therefore, I proposed that I would put my initials on every slug that went into the zombie bite kits. Security would know that any bullet they found with my initials on it was safe, and if it didn't have my initials, it was cause for concern. That mollified the convention leaders.

So I spent two evenings in front of the TV writing "ekd" on each itty bitty slug with a Sharpie. In case you're wondering: I always use ekd for my initials, including signing my emails. If I leave out my middle initial, I'm Mr. Ed.

My son helped me assemble the bite kits, and they looked really good. I was proud of those things. We hauled them to the con, and everyone who bought a zombie book and/or attended the release party got one.

It worked. Whoa, did it work. We sold out the entire first print run of The Cold Ones within 48 hours and had orders for more. Not only that, the zombie bite kits were as popular as the book. People were delighted, and told others about them. Soon we had people showing up at the booth asking for the kits, and when we explained that they came with the book, they'd pop for both. (It helps to have a book with a $6 cover price.) The publisher was thrilled and requested the sequel (Blackfire) before we finished packing up the booth. Downside: I had to postpone two signings while the publisher rushed through the second printing, because we were out of books. Curse me with such problems!

We made the zombie bite kits for two years, with extras because there was always someone who wanted to buy some for gag gifts or (seriously) stocking stuffers. They cost almost nothing to make and were ten times more popular than anything else I'd ever done, including the matchbooks. 

And of course, there are now hundreds of bullets with my name on them.

(Ba-dump bump.)


Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Time for a Kickstarter kerfuffle.... or, a day ending in Y

Today I'm piggybacking on what Chuck Wendig and Laura Lam have to say about the latest Kickstarter kerfuffle. Feel free to go read them first; I'll wait.

I almost wasn't going to write about it, because Wendig and Lam really hit all the high points. It certainly sounds like YA author Stacey Jay was unfairly targeted by trolls, as she was being scrupulously honest about what resources were needed to get her third book out. And nobody wants to admit what resources are really needed: to wit, paying the damn author. That always seems to come last.

However, I wanted to add one thing to the discussion, and keep in mind I've run exactly one Kickstarter in my life and it was a success beyond my wildest imagination even though I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, made about 87 mistakes and if I ever do one again, I will know a hell of a lot better. I will know that you should have sane reward levels, include the cost of postage in your estimation of how much the rewards will cost you, that you should do a video or otherwise prepare for your Kickstarter, that stretch goals are a thing, that you should not set release dates one month after your KS when the damn thing isn't written yet, and so on.

There is some discussion about whether 'tis better to try Indiegogo or other lesser-known services that allow you to keep whatever you raise, rather than Kickstarter, where you must meet your goal in order to receive your funds. I can chime in on that.

From those I know who've used both, raising only partial funds can be worse than a failed campaign. With a failed Kickstarter, all you've lost is pride and dignity. We're writers. We're used to that.

But if you need $2,000 to make your project fly, and you only raise $1,200, you are now obligated to do the project anyway. Unless your project is magically scalable, somehow you must come up with the remaining funds. You can't ethically skimp on the rewards for the backers, so either you skimp on the quality of the product or you find an alternate source of revenue for the shortfall.

Skimping on product quality is bad, and sometimes it's not even possible. You don't run a campaign for the bells and whistles; you run it for the bare minimum you need to fly. Overages can pay for bells and whistles. If you put out a substandard product, your reputation suffers and you may not get repeat backers.

As for coming up with the remaining funds, that's likely to be a nonstarter. After all, if you had money in the Caymans, you'd have used that before crowdfunding at all, right? Right?

I have known authors who, like Ms. Jay, included living expenses for the time needed to complete a project in their Kickstarter descriptions. I have a feeling this falls under the category of "too much honesty." I think it's perfectly legitimate: you're paying the editor, designer, artist and printer for their time, talent and effort as well as the raw materials. As the one actually doing the creating, your time also needs to be compensated. As Ms. Jay points out, she cannot write a novel in three months if she's also working a day job. That's honesty.

It's also bad marketing. Crowdfunding really isn't supposed to fund your life so you can create. I've seen Kickstarters phrased that way, and generally it's a term that makes people run away. This is something that I didn't realize at first and that perhaps people don't get about the brave new world of crowdfunding: they're not funding you out of the kindness of their hearts. Your family may kick in some for that reason, and perhaps good friends.

But the vast majority of backers see crowdfunding as an investment. They will be paid dividends in the form of the reward you give them, and in seeing your work grow and gain notice. Think of them as low-rent Medicis: patrons of the arts, but expecting a return on the investment. "Fund my life so I can create" doesn't sell the Medicis on your project. It's not unethical or even untrue; it's just a bad way to phrase it. "We need X amount so this project can happen" is true, and more likely to gain you the backing you need.

On the other hand, I once saw a Kickstarter for a poem. A British poet wanted to write a poem, and said right up front that the money would pay her bills while she wrote it. The reward was a copy of the poem. She got something like eight times what she requested. I hope it was a really good poem. And don't get me started on the Potato Salad Guy, because that was just annoying.

I'm rather sorry that Ms. Jay opted to cancel her Kickstarter, if for no other reason than I get paid by Ye Olde Jobbe tomorrow and I could kick a little money her way. I'm not much of a Medici, but I try. I don't really think she did anything wrong, and I think her business analysis of the book's future was solid. And she makes a really good point here:

The only thing I don't apologize for is believing a writer's work has value and should be paid for. Pirating is wrong. So is expecting a writer to write for free because it is their "art." Art is not devalued when it is paid for, it is lifted up and respected and I believe we're all better as a people when that happens.

Kickstarter saw more than $500 million pledged in 2014 alone. More than 2 million backers were first-timers. There were 2,600 publishing projects, and $125 million for technology innovation. Kickstarter's numbers got a boost from the Reading Rainbow project, and I'm eternally grateful that it raised more money than the potato salad.

That isn't niche. It isn't a fad. It's something else, something we haven't really figured out how to define. I don't know if it's the future of art - if we're all going to be artist-entrepreneurs going directly to the public for the backing we need instead of traditional and time-honored structures within the industry. Anyone who claims to know where publishing is going in the next ten years is selling something.

But I'm betting some of you have a few ideas.


Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Happy birthday, Boy

Every time I don't see him for a while, I forget how big he is.

He'll go away to visit his father for a week, or he'll go to Scout camp, and then he comes back. Every time, I'm surprised to see this deep-voiced, barrel-chested, tall young man I have to reach up to hug, instead of the sweet, mischievous little boy who used to crawl into my lap every night for cuddle. And yet, when I look at him, I still see shades of that little boy in his face.

I'm timing this post to hit at 3:30 p.m. CST, because that's when he was born. I went into labor about 10 a.m. Jan. 5, 1999, which I remember because that's when we put the paper to bed at the NewsTribune and we had just finished our work when the first pains hit. Labor went all the way through that day, into the night, drove me to the hospital, and I was still in labor when the sun came up the next day, because Boy never did anything the easy way. He wasn't content with just being born; no, he had to break my tailbone with his skull and then we finally went for an emergency c-section. 

3:30 p.m., 9 pounds 3.5 ounces and 21 freaking inches tall. Yes, he was nearly two feet tall when he was born. So when I look at itty bitty newborns and think, "My son was never that small," sometimes I'm telling the truth.

It's a funny time for both of us. He's in that half-shadow between child and man, where he is striving for more independence and self-determination, wanting his freedom and thinking about some of the big choices he will be making in the next couple of years. He's also young, not just in years but in maturity, and longing for simpler childhood times when he felt safe and secure and Mommy took care of everything.

I never told him that there were no such things as monsters. We tell children this, and they learn not to trust us. How come grownups cannot see the monsters? Of course there are monsters; they're under the bed and in the closet and on the TV screen. Instead, I told him that monsters will leave us alone, because they are afraid. Mommy beats up monsters. Surprisingly, this worked quite well. 

I hope I have done right by him and taught him what he needs to know. I know I did the best that I could. I never know if it was enough. I guess no mother really knows.

We're well past the days of balloons and silly hats and relighting cake candles (because I always buy those). Instead, it'll be dinner at a restaurant and laser tag, and he'll win because he always does. And we'll talk about college and car insurance, instead of Superman vs. Batman. Well, the latter might be in there as well. We're still nerds.

Happy birthday, kiddo. Sometimes you're Boy and sometimes you're Spawn, but you'll always be my kiddo, no matter how tall you get.