Scarlet Letters

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

Friday, January 24, 2014

Rants waiting to happen...

I am angry with my spawn and frustrated with spinning more than the usual number of plates, some of which I can't talk about in public, was publicly humiliated today for reasons beyond my control and I'm snapping at everyone. In short, it's another Friday.

Spawn. Oh spawn o' mine, I haven't strangled you yet. Boy got in trouble earlier this week, when he stayed after school for baseball workouts and forgot that he was supposed to have a violin lesson at 5:15. That is, he received a reminder text from me at 3:45 p.m. that he was to be in front of the high school with his violin at 4:45 p.m. for Jimmy to pick him up. He acknowledged... then forgot and got on the bus anyway. He got home at 5:20, without the violin. So he was not only late to his lesson, he didn't have his instrument.

Cue the Mom-rant, up one side and down the other, about wasting his teacher's time, wasting Jimmy's time (as he sat in front of the high school for him) and my time (knocking off work early to drive him over to the violin lesson). Seems he left the violin in the cafeteria, and fortunately it found its way back to the orchestra room. That got him an extra scolding about respect for the instrument I spent three years paying off.

Now, it's been subzero temperatures all week here in sunny Illinois. Boy catches the bus at 5:45 a.m., a bone-chilling concept even when it isn't this cold. It's been as low as -24 degrees, and still I have to yell at him to wear his coat. He thinks a hoodie is enough. I told him that in subzero weather, it takes five minutes for frostbite to set in. I've shown him pictures of frostbite, courtesy of the news. Boy has a skull of adamantium.

Today I texted him a reminder that he is to arrive home a) wearing pants, b) wearing his winter coat, and c) carrying his violin if he expects to get today's code to the entertainment system. His response necessitated a brief discussion in whether texts can portray a snot-nose teenager tone, which I settled with, "Yes they can, and quit it."

(Why "wearing pants"? Because the baseball players work out in athletic shorts and t-shirts... and he is too lazy to change back before getting on the bus. My boy, the supergenius.)

Sure enough, he arrived home tonight in athletic shorts and a hoodie, no coat, no violin, according to Jimmy, who was waiting for him. I gave him a good old-fashioned phone-yelling and reminded him that once in junior high he made a habit of ditching his coat in cold temperatures. I got a friendly call from the school asking if we were having financial trouble and did I need them to put me in touch with a charity organization that could help my son get a coat? Gah.

Somebody's going to see my brain-trust spawn coming home from school in shorts during the polar vortex and call DCFS on my ass. "No, my son isn't suffering from criminal neglect; just a shortage of brain cells." Yet I cannot drive to the school and force him to put on his damn coat. Not to mention forgetting his violin means he can't practice over the weekend.

This and other things have made me unduly cranky, a rant waiting to happen. Boy got the worst of it, but he had it coming. Others really didn't, and got it anyway, for which I apologize.

And now I'd best turn what's left of my energy into writing, because I have to work the night shift tomorrow. That should cheer me right the hell up.


Monday, January 13, 2014

Coming soon...

The church stood at the end of a long road, partially hidden from view by stands of trees that had stood for a hundred years. Its walls were blood-dark brick, crumbling in places where shadows lived. The roof cast its long shadow over playground equipment, incongruously bright and cheerful. 

The small garden would have seemed cheerful and quaintly English beside any other building, a place for tea and triangular sandwiches and the light conversation of bright voices. To me, it cried out like the wind whipping across a bleak English moor, dark and full of silent screams.

The shadow of St. Augustine’s fell across the parking lot in the strange gray light, and the shape of the skeleton cross at the summit of the roof lay directly in my path, upside-down.

 There were two cars in the parking lot. The front door stood open, neither inviting nor forbidding. All beyond was darkness.


Friday, January 10, 2014

Friday Night, or What I'm Doing Instead of Writing

Friday night has been Writing Night for a very long time. My tradition was to drop off Boy at the skate center, then go to the only coffeehouse in town that stayed open late and did not have internet service.

It's a vegetarian coffeehouse, so I frequently came out screaming for bacon. Nothing against vegetarian food, per se, except I'm a solid carnivore and veggie food always seems to leave me craving meat. But it's right downtown, it has marvelous atmosphere and reasonable prices, and it didn't have internet.

Well, then it did. Once my coffeehouse acquired wifi, I had to rely on my own powers of self-control to keep writing. You can guess how well that went. I am, after all, the woman who installed productivity software on her laptop that actually shuts down the internet access for specific periods of time so that I could focus on writing.

But I kept Friday nights sacred, even after Jimmy came into my life. For one thing, he's been working night shifts almost the entire time we've been together. On those rare Fridays he was free, we would go to the coffeehouse together for Dueling Laptops. There are other coffee joints in town, but they all close at 5 p.m. (!!!).

Why not just write in my awesome tower office? For the first time since Boy was born, I have an office that is all mine, with a door I can shut. Alas, it is also where I work for eight-plus hours per day for the newspaper. It is where I run our various other enterprises: consignment sales, Literary Underworld, the photography shop, charity book sales, etc. It is the office of Donald-Smith-Gillentine Inc., otherwise known as our household, and that's a business perpetually in need of management, let me tell you.

It seems to be virtually impossible to do creative fiction at that desk. Maybe if I ever got the mountainous stack of TO-DO down to a neat, organized pile. Maybe if the inbox no longer overflowed across the surface - there is a surface, right? I saw it when we assembled the thing. My friend Allan Gilbreath calls his master "The Desk of Endless Tasks." I know exactly how he feels.

The last time Jimmy and I had Dueling Laptops at my coffeehouse, I wrote 4500 words in ninety minutes. I swear it works. Get me away from the House of Endless Tasks, away from the desk that is my master twelve hours a day, and I can actually work.

Today, however, has been an exercise in frustration. Day Job Work finished at the usual time for once, but then there was maintenance on our extracurricular enterprises, and there were some bills, and this pesky software upgrade that's making me crazy.

But I had a mind to cut the usual Endless Tasks short, because it's writing night. And just as I'm finishing...

Boy called. He's supposed to be playing ball at the Y, but they have a special event and he can't. Could I come pick him up?

I mentally subtracted the amount of time it will take to drive across town, pick him up and drive him home, allowed a brief wish that we still lived across the street from the Y except it would mean that we still lived in the apartment instead of our wonderful house, considered making him sit in the lobby for four hours, wondered if it's too cold to make him walk two miles in the dark, and agreed to come get him.

So I drove over the Y, waited out front and texted Boy twice before calling and yelling about not watching for me instead of flirting with girls in the lobby. Okay, not really. If I notice that he notices girls, he gets mad at me. Don't ask me why, the male species hasn't made sense to me since high school. Actually, it didn't make sense to me then, either.

I drove Boy home, reminded him of the usual cacophony of Momness (put away the dishes, make sure your Scout uniform is ready for tomorrow morning, if you make a mess in the living room I'll hide your laptop under your bed where it'll never be seen again, etc.) and then had to wait while he changed shoes. Why change shoes? Because our yard is a nasty, muddy, soggy mess. And he was wearing the brand-new Nikes my dad bought him for his birthday. Can't sully the new shoes by actually walking in them.

Finally, I drove to my coffeehouse. I had my fully-charged laptop, a good pair of earbuds and three whole hours left. I even found a parking space not far from the coffeehouse. No line at the register, and I ordered my cucumber-and-olive-tapenade panini (bacon, for the love of God, bacon!!!) and tea.

And only when they delivered the tea to my table did I discover that they close at eight. Not ten. Early hours in the new year.


Unfortunately, half an hour is not enough to fall through the hole in the paper. It is enough to write a bitchy blog entry complaining how life eats away at writing time, because for some reason this writing comes to me very easily. Blogging is easy. Reporting is easy - I've been writing column inches of nonfiction every weekday for 16 years now, and it's as natural as breathing.

Fiction... that's hard. That takes focus, and concentration, and at least half an hour of reading over the last session and letting the music fill my head before I can write. And while I've already written 928 words of this blog entry in 25 minutes, it would take me about three times that long to write the same amount of fiction.

I don't know why.

I don't know why it's so hard to fall through the hole in the paper. It wasn't when I first started; my God, the first book I wrote was like falling in love. Like taking dictation from someone else; it was all in my head already and I was just writing it down so others could see it too. My early books took longer to get rolling, but when they did, by God they flew. Fiction was always harder than news or blogging, but never so hard as the last couple of years.

So it just now kicked over eight o'clock, and as soon as I'm done with this yummy chocolate-coconut bar they're going to kick me out of here. And I am mulling whether to try to find any other place in town that won't roll up the sidewalks in an hour, any place where I can write.

We talked about this today, Jimmy and me. (Jimmy and I? Grammar police, cite me!) We talked about the percentage of selling/promoting time vs. writing time in our lives, and how it needs to switch this year, for more than one reason. We need to focus on writing our books, and more importantly, on family and each other. Fewer cons and travel, more writing and reading. And there's that whole wedding-and-grandbaby thing coming in the latter half of the year.

I wish I could write at home without the Tyranny of the To-Do List killing every creative impulse in my body.

I wish my brain would switch gears from nonfiction to fiction without tripping over the speed bump.

I wish this damn coffeehouse would stay open until an indecent hour. Don't they know it's a college town?

I wish.

Oops, they're closed.

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Monday, January 06, 2014

About fifteen years ago... got really cold.

No, seriously. The last time St. Louis got below -5 degrees was on Jan. 5, 1999. Or so I read, right before the snowpocalypse hit us between the eyes.

This was highly amusing to me, since 10 a.m. on Jan. 5, 1999 is when I went into labor with my awesome, exhausting, eternally hungry little boy. Of course, he wasn't born until 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 6, but that's because he's just that frigging stubborn. Twenty-nine hours until his head broke my tailbone from the inside and we went for the emergency C-section, folks. I earned that kid.

Ever since, he's been the delight of my life, my partner in crime, and the source of ninety percent of my grey hair. Life with Ian is a rollercoaster, and I never know what's coming next. From the adorable little baby into the sweet, mischievous child to ... we shall skip junior high ... to the smart, wiseass young man he is becoming. I've had to get used to wagging my finger upward and buying six gallons of milk a week. But I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Those of you who watch us on Facebook know that Jimmy and I recently found out we're going to be grandparents. Jimmy's older daughter Mallory is expecting sometime later next year. I find myself thinking of the crazy rollercoaster she's about to board, and I am simultaneously excited and nervous for her. I remember when I was pregnant, a woman who worked at my newspaper told me, "You're about to have such an adventure." I wasn't sure what she meant by that; "adventure" was not in any of the baby books I was reading.

But parenthood is an adventure, led by imaginative, hilarious little imps who make up their own reality as they go. I look at this giant, six-foot-one fifteen-year-old and wonder where my baby boy went. And then he grins at me and shows the dimple in his left cheek, and I see the baby again. He looks more and more like his father with every day that passes, but when he and I stand next to each other before the mirror, our eyes match.

I'm writing this in advance, since I'll be working at about the right time to celebrate his birth. But I know I'll stop for a moment and sniffle, remembering that sort-of-tiny baby I made. It seems so long ago... and yet it was just yesterday.

Happy birthday, kiddo. Your mom loves you.