Scarlet Letters

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

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A non-ranty update on various schtuff

I expended all my rants earlier. I'm too tired for any more. Instead, you get a cross-section of my life.

• This week is shaping up to be Hell Week. We get these from time to time here at Donald Smith Gillentine Inc., and usually it's those weeks when I have meetings every night after work.

For once it's not me. This week is Boy's final dress rehearsals for Les Miserables. He is working hard, five or six hours a night after school AND after math tutoring, without complaint. Boy has never been one for a strong work ethic, so to speak, so I am pretty impressed with him. Even if he has broken his glasses yet again.

Man is gearing up for finals and as usual is apoplectic. The folks are coming this weekend, so I am attempting to clean up the house, in between all the other nonsense. Of course the play falls on finals weekend and the Author Fair/Relay Cafe and Relay Sunday, because that's how we roll, and we have Cardinals tickets and will likely miss the baby shower of dear friends because we cannot clone ourselves. Who organized this thing? Oh yeah, me.

• Sean Taylor was kind enough to let me yammer on his blog this week about Nocturne Infernum, the unpublished Sanctuary, the thing I regret most and other nonsense. Check out "Missives from Schenectady," and thanks to Sean for hosting me!

• This weekend is the Author Fair at St. Andrews' book sale, as well as the Relay Cafe, and I am baking like a madwoman. I feel somewhat less prepared than last year, even though I know what to expect this time. We're short on volunteers and my usual supply of slave labor is reduced with Man and Boy distracted or booked. But it's as prepared as I can make it... except for the baking. I did mention the baking?

Yes, that means that after work each day I will bake, and after work on Friday, I will be moving tables and making a giant pot of chili as well as setting up the cookies, cupcakes and cakes at the church. If you want to come see us, we'll be at St. Andrews, 408 Hillsboro, Edwardsville from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

Saturday morning, we all troop over there with doughnuts, get the authors set up and start selling and signing - as well as minding the cafe in between the volunteer labor. By noon Saturday, Boy must go over to the theater, where he will suit up to be Third Doomed Student From the Right as he has a matinee performance. The signing and cafe close at 4 p.m., after which we must clean up and get the tables back in place. Then dinner with my parents, and we attend the last show of Les Miserables. *cheers Boy*

Sunday is Relay Sunday, which means we are responsible for the treats and hoodwinking our parishioners for donations for Relay for Life. It also means we are responsible for cleanup, which also means we're short on volunteers because oops we have Cardinals tickets and must leave no later than 12:15. Um.

After the game, I will collapse into a pile of overcommitted mush. Possibly with rum. While Jim goes to work.

• In the meantime, technology is abuzz here at DSG Inc. Boy has a MacBook Pro that is quite the beauty - a better machine than mine, despite being four years old. We got it secondhand as a gift, and unfortunately a few months later the wifi card was kaput. So I paid about $125, I think, for a new wifi card, cable and installation. Alas, another month and that card went dead, which rather annoyed me as I returned it to the Apple Store and requested warranty fulfillment.

They replaced the wifi card. And then they saw that the logic board was failing, so they replaced that too. And then the hard drive had dead spots, so they replaced that too. All of this was free. Apple has its faults, but one thing I can never fault is their service. Boy essentially got a brand new laptop inside his old case.

Alas, my laptop needs work and it is too old for me to take it back to Apple. Five years is their limit, and my old girl is pushing seven. And still going strong, mind you, but I'm doing more video and photography and the hard drive is simply not sufficient for my needs anymore. She needs a RAM upgrade, a terabyte drive and I've been advised that replacing the battery would be a good idea quite soon; I'm getting "service battery" warnings and they're about to stop making this model battery.

So I'm debating whether to do the work myself or take it to the local Mac chop shop. If I do it myself, the parts will cost me $240. If I take it to the chop shop, it'll cost $130 more, but it comes with a lifetime guarantee and they transfer my data for me. (Neither includes the battery; I'm pretty confident in my own ability to do simple cleaning and repairs on the inside of my laptop, but there are some things with which you do not screw.) I am leaning toward biting the bullet and paying the extra; not so much for the labor, but for the warranty.

In the meantime, we're planning to switch to an Airport Extreme router and wireless backup system, which should simplify backups here at DSG Inc. All we have to do is sell a kidney to pay for it... so it's a good thing we've finally got a buyer for that old armoire. I don't want to sell a kidney.

Why am I not buying a new laptop when mine is so elderly? Because a laptop with the specs I need would run $1,150-2,150, depending on whether I went with a solid-state drive. Not. Happening. Besides, with new insides, this old girl could have another five years in her.

• And here I am baking and writing whiny blog entries when I should be finishing the SPJ annual report. For the record: I suck at paperwork. Two days to go, and I will make it, but next time I'll believe them when they say start early. I don't use the word procrastination; I prefer "deadline-oriented."

Between that, SPJ Ethics Week, and the launch of the new computer system at work, it isn't really a low-stress week. It is, however, better than two weeks ago, in which I wrote twelve stories and shot and edited five videos. That makes the SPJ paperwork look like a picnic lunch...

• Finally, on a serious note: Today I learned a friend's husband has cancer. And that makes FOUR this year. Four friends and family, people from my personal circle, diagnosed just this year. It's April. I do weary of this disease striking everywhere around me. It reminds me of how far behind I am in coordinating my Relay team's efforts - it's been a hell of a spring so far - and makes me more determined than ever to meet our goal.

So buckle in for a lot of Relay stuff in the next month. Beginning with this: if you have a prize you can donate to our raffle, please email me ASAP. I want to get as much as possible in advance this year. And come by this Saturday for some chili. I promise it'll be worth it.

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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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