Scarlet Letters

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Wash your spirit clean

There is something magical about the quality of light in the early morning when it is filtered between trees that weren't planted by any landscaper.

I came late to hiking and backpacking; my parents took us on one or two camping trips when I was young, but Dad's idea of camping was (and still is) a four-star hotel on a golf course. I didn't really start camping until I was in college, a few rowdy trips when I didn't know what I was doing beyond the instructions in a book I found in the library.

But my first husband was not particularly fond of the outdoors. He said his family's idea of camping was a sleeping bag and a fishing pole. If you didn't catch anything, you starve, and you can just sleep out under the stars and eat bugs like a man. No wonder I could never get him into the woods.

The call of the wild. Eventually I took it upon myself to begin hiking and backpacking solo. And I fell in love with it.



The light, you see. That strange ethereal quality you only find in places where fluorescents have never shone. The silence isn't really silent - there is the rustling and murmur of living things all around you. The stars never shine so brightly anywhere near civilization as they do in the woods, and there is a quality to the air that fills you with energy - with light, even.

I went alone, because my husband wouldn't go and my son was too small. It was my escape, my soul replenishment. It was what I did on that one solitary day off I had every month when it was my turn for the weekend - I'd get a weekday off to compensate, and my son would be at day care. Off to the trails. A weekend here or there, hiking the Whispering Pines trail or along the Meramec River. Funny thing, those whispering pines really did whisper. It's a funny trick of the wind.



One blazing-hot August afternoon I climbed Goat Cliff alongside the Mississippi, which ends at McAdams Peak. It's not a long hike - less than seven miles - but you gain and lose a lot of elevation in those seven miles. It was 100 degrees that day, and I drank every drop of water in the bottles in my pack and sweated it all out my skin climbing to the view at McAdams Peak.

My god, I miss it so.

I got older, and health problems intervened. The plantar set in, making it harder to walk, then a knee injury two years ago pretty well ended my hiking. I kept my subscription to Backpacker and tried to switch to car camping, figuring I could get small doses of the outdoors while I tried to get back into shape, to disappear once more into the woods with everything I need on my back. Those hours-long day hikes shortened into short strolls through the Missouri Botanical Gardens, which always gave me something lovely to look at while I wandered.

This comes to mind sometimes, and always with a true sense of regret and loss. Today, it's because REI has announced it is staying closed on Black Friday. There's the usual internet kerfuffle about it: some lauding the decision, others cynically sneering that they must have had crap sales. REI's website says they want to encourage people to go outside on that Friday most people have off work. As a Midwesterner, I must admit a slight snicker; after all, it's pretty dang cold by Thanksgiving, guys.

I have gotten soft, I guess.

REI says it believes getting outside makes all our lives better. They're right. Somehow in the last several years, I've gone from a woman who disappeared onto the trails every day off to a woman who sees the sun so little she has a critical deficiency of vitamin D. Camping has become something I do on the Fourth of July only, despite my best intentions to Get Out More, and the unwavering support of my husband. I even allowed my membership at the Gardens to lapse.

I'm not so foolish as to insist that my husband and I will definitely go hiking the day after Thanksgiving. Yes, we are both off work, but you cannot roll back time that quickly, and I'm not in the shape I was back then. But some things are too important to lose from your life even if you find yourself in poor health on the dark side of forty. There has to be something we can do, even for a few hours.

Opt Outside isn't the worst idea I've read all year; it may be one of the best. Maybe it won't be too cold for us to do something. Maybe we are slowing down, but that shouldn't mean stopping. We can do this, can't we? There is still light to be captured, and the trees still whisper.



Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. 
-- John Muir, 1915

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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Decisions, decisions

Since I'll be leading a group of diligent Nanowrimo folk, I suppose I ought to work on something myself.

I know many people dislike Nano, and I wouldn't try to argue it with them. For some people it works as a kick in the pants to really dig in on a project. For some people it's distracting and leads to lousy writing habits. And for some people whose lives regularly interfere with their writing, Nano provides them with an escape to give them leave to work on their passion - the spouse and kids can't tap them on the shoulder if they're at a write-in.

For me, it is an opportunity to focus on writing, as opposed to the business of writing. I am sorry to say that between my daytime profession, my own promotion, travel, the Literary Underworld and the Eville Writers, I spend probably 2-3 times as much time on the business of writing as I do on actually writing. For Nano, that gets flipped, and if that is the only benefit I draw from it, it's very much worth the effort.

I have to choose between two projects this time. There's a novel I've been working on between other projects for years, and this is an opportunity to drive a stake through its heart and finish it. It's been far too many years, and this shows what happens when I try to work on something "in my spare time." Insert laugh track. It's a fun novel, and one I think you all will like a great deal.

Alternatively, however, I can work on the final chapter of the Blackfire trilogy. I intended to save that for next year, but during the Fall Deathmarch, I heard from many voices asking when I will finish that series. The short version is that the publisher for the Blackfire novels went out of business, so I will need to find a new home for it before I can complete it. Thus, it was kind of backburnered this year, with my focus on the Nocturne Infernum release.

Project A or Project B? Dither dither dither. Yes, I could write both, if I were Superwoman. And I will write both, but not in a month!

I'm looking forward to it, whichever I choose. It will be nice to dig back into the writing part, after so much travel and promotion, selling and signing. With the exception of one small holiday appearance, I have no such obligations from now to late February. I wonder how much I can get done in that time?

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Monday, October 19, 2015

Hell Week

This is one of those "hell weeks" when we have something going on every. single. night.

Tonight Boy is knocking on doors to sell popcorn. Which is due... today. It's only half his fault. He missed a meeting or two when I was on tour, because Jim works nights and neither of them thought to arrange his transportation to and from meetings. Then he sort of forgot that "gee, it's fall, shouldn't I be selling Boy Scout popcorn?" I looked at the calendar and saw "popcorn forms due" for today, which means he is scrambling to get some sales before his Scout meeting, where they will be untangling - er, sorting - Christmas lights for the city of Collinsville and turn in their popcorn forms.

Note: Family and friends, if you would like to buy popcorn from Ian, you can still do so online. You can go to the Trail's End website, enter ZIP code 62025 and select Ian S - Troop 1031 St. Andrew's Episcopal Edwardsville as the Scout you would like to support. If you prefer not to buy the most expensive popcorn ever but still want to support him, he is able to be hired out for manual labor, gardening, snow shoveling, odd jobs etc. in exchange for donations. About 50 percent of the money he raises through popcorn sales goes into his Scout Account, which pays for his camping trips and expenses in Scouting. Contact me for manual labor. It builds character. :)

Tomorrow night is a college fair for enterprising young Spawn who really need to bring up their biology grades, not that I am thinking of any particular young gentleman. This is, of course, simultaneous with the next meeting of the Eville Writers, so the gang will have to scribble without me until we are done with the college fair and I can go meet up with them and we can plan for Nanowrimo. I haven't yet managed to clone myself.

Wednesday night is the county board, followed by... um. Well. I got a gift certificate as a wedding present last year for a free massage from a medical spa. And it expires next week. So, that's what I'm doing. I had a chair massage at a convention last spring and I had a full massage the day of the wedding, and that's about it for the year. What, me tense?

Thursday is an orchestra outing for the Spawn, but I think that might end up being Wrist Day. As I was whining - er, discussing - on the Book of Face, it has been 17 days since I faceplanted on the sidewalk outside the Doubletree and hurt my wrists. They're still achy and sore, and this weekend I tried to carry boxes of books at the festival and they reminded me that they're still annoyed with me. My friend Gretchen pointed me toward a walk-in ortho clinic where they could evaluate my hands and make sure I haven't done anything stupid to myself. So if they're still hurting by then, I'll have to go get seen.

Friday is my day off and Jim's. That means it's our best (only) chance for Fright Fest, an annual tradition. As it is, thanks to the tour and scheduling nonsense, we have to skip the corn maze and hayride this year. I work Saturday.

Does that mean Sunday is a day of rest? ...Nah.

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Smokeout

Two years ago, my husband did the hardest thing he's ever done. Something so difficult, so traumatic, so impossible that many people live and die never managing to do it.

And we did it with him. Never think that something this hard affects only the person involved. If anyone has ever brushed up against the monster of addiction, you know that the whole family goes into the shredder with him.

Jim smoked for more than 30 years. He came from a family where smoking was as natural as eating or drinking, from a region where 23 percent of adults smoke, well above the national average. It was part of him long before we met the first time, before we re-met years later on the book tour. 

It's not like he didn't know it was bad for you. You can't grow up, live or breathe in the United States without knowing that cigarettes and nicotine are unhealthy. We can shift it onto vaping as much as we like, and it's still just muting the impact of an unhealthy, expensive habit. But the addiction was strong, strong enough that he was up to four packs a day and seemingly helpless to slow or stop.

He had tried several times to quit, once lasting a few months before he picked it back up. Sometimes it was stress, sometimes it was rationalization - "I'll just be a social smoker." Funny thing about an addictive chemical: it makes you lie to yourself. 

Part of it was the money - Jim estimates that he spent well over $120,000 on cigarettes in his decades as a smoker. And once he moved to Illinois, the cost went up - a pack of Marlboros in Illinois is now $13. Now multiply that times four packs a day times seven days a week and apply it to a job earning less than $10 an hour. The long-time nicotine use took its toll on his mouth, and half his teeth had to be pulled and replaced with partial dentures.

He tried e-cigs before there was a vape store on every corner and we had to order them from Hawaii (no kidding). He tried switching to Black-n-Tan cigars, those hideous twigs on the convenience-store counter next to the register. He tried cold turkey. 

We did all the things we read in the stop-smoking literature: picked up graphic photos of cancer-riddled lungs and taped them to the walls, stocked up on lollipops and gum. I remember watching Jim and my son searching the patio and garden outside our old apartment hunting for every last cigarette butt left by Jim or our neighbors, because when he was quitting, he would smoke anything he could see, including someone else's crushed-out butt left on the ground. Addiction.

It's hard to describe the emotions I felt watching him in the throes of a nicotine fit, his whole body shaking and convulsing, in physical pain and trying not to cry, my arms wrapped around him and wishing I could take just some of that agony away from him, take it on myself if I must, if only it would ease such terrible suffering. 

Time and again he would slip back. Sometimes a coworker offered a cigarette during break and he just didn't have the strength to say no one more time (and by the way, thanks a lot, guys). Sometimes those cigars right by the register just spoke too loudly. And then he would come home smelling like smoke, and of course I knew he had slipped again, that it all would be for nothing. And he would feel like shit, and I would be heartbroken. Rinse, repeat. 

I did not demand that he quit smoking, or set it as a requirement for our eventual marriage. He knew how I felt about it, because heaven forfend I keep my opinions to myself. But I also knew that no one can break an addiction for someone else, even someone they love. It has to come from within, a decision he made himself, or it would never hold.

Two years ago, he quit. For good. This time he used a stop-smoking hotline that provided him with lozenges and patches as long as he called in once a week, slowly decreasing in potency over the course of months so he could be eased off the physical addiction. Whenever he was tempted, whenever the coworkers passed around a pack or those stupid cigars started singing, he would call the hotline, and they'd talk him down out of the tree.

In all honesty, I was skeptical of the hotline's plan. He had been "half-quit" for some time, smoking handfuls of nasty cigars, but wasn't back up to four packs a day. I was afraid that using patches would hook him more tightly to nicotine, flooding his body with it, and it would be harder to break free, not easier. Besides, I remembered a doctor telling me that cold turkey quitters are the only quitters who stay quit, because they remember the hell of it and don't want to go back. 

I've never been so happy to be wrong.

We started counting. Days, then weeks, then months. Once he was done with the patches, he still called in from time to time, usually when he'd forgotten how long it had been. 

At first he was coughing up the most wretched, awful crap from his lungs that you can possibly imagine. It's like his body was shedding some dreadful internal skin that he had never known was there. His metabolism slowed, and he put on weight. He went overboard on caffeine - his body seeking the stimulus that the nicotine had provided - and ended up in the hospital with wildly fluctuating blood pressure that simulated a heart attack and scared the bejesus out of me. 

It was the hardest thing he's ever done, and the hardest thing I have witnessed. 

Last week, Jim realized he had forgotten his quitaversary: Oct. 10. It was two years smoke-free, two years of freedom. Two years without spending untold gazillions on little cancer sticks. Two years in which he didn't have to go outside in rain, snow, steaming heat or other unpleasant conditions to smoke, losing 20 percent of his time with the family to the call of the cigarette. Two years in which we didn't have to plan long trips with cigarette breaks, or make sure our romp through Six Flags included stops at the smoking gulags where the addicted huddle together for another drag. Two years without holes burned in his shirts from stray embers or the smell of smoke permeating everything he wore.

There is nothing Jim or I can do about all the years he spent smoking. What is done is done. The money is spent and whatever damage it caused to his lungs cannot be undone. But it will not get worse. 

His body was nicotine-free 72 hours after he smoked his last cigarette, but the rest will take longer. By three months, his circulation would have been markedly improved; by nine months, the cilia in his lungs started to grow back. By now, his risk of heart disease, stroke and heart attack are down by half. But it will be eight more years before his risk of lung cancer drops, 13 years before his risk of losing the rest of his teeth drops, 15 years before his risk of coronary disease or pancreatic cancer approaches that of nonsmokers.

You guys know all this. It gets drilled into our heads to such a regularity that we begin to dismiss it - after all, other things are bad for you! Salt and fatty foods, alcohol, texting while driving! So what?

When I think of smoking, I remember wrapping my arms around the man who would be my husband and feeling his entire body shaking in agony, wishing I could take the pain for him. 

It was a cruel irony that Jim's two-year quitaversary happened within days of losing our dear friend Shorty. Because of course it was smoking that took Shorty away from us. He and Jim were regulars out on the loading docks behind convention halls, smoking and shooting the breeze during long stints in the dealers' rooms. Shorty died of cancer just before Jim was two years' quit, and we are all in mourning for the loss of our friend. It angers me, because we wanted many more years drinking Everclear cocktails with Shorty.

I am at a loss for how to convince others to go through what Jim went through. It's kind of a hard sell: please, endure horrid misery for weeks on end! Is it worth it?

Yes. I can tell you that Jim's decision to quit was also the best decision he ever made. We found each other late in life, and we owe it to each other to stick around as long as God and fate allow, making up for lost time. He will get many more years to watch his granddaughter grow up, to watch our sons graduate, to finish college, to go on adventures with me and write more books.

We have something to live for. And so do you. Life is worth it.

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Friday, October 09, 2015

FAQ: The Blackfire Series

If there was one question I got on the Fall Deathmarch more than any other, it was, "When do we get the next Sara Harvey novel?"

This is meta-funny, since the real Sara Harvey has written a marvelous novel called Music City and you should all go buy it. But they're asking about the Blackfire series, the books I've written about the fictional Major Sara Harvey, leader of a paramilitary crew of supernatural-critter-fighters.

(Note: I need some help on this side point. Sara Harvey was a U.S. Marine before she was recruited into Blackfire. Always diligent with research, I asked several real Marines who told me you never say "ex-Marine" unless the officer in question was kicked out; once a Marine, always a Marine. The proper term for one no longer on active duty is "former Marine," they told me. But after a panel at ... um, somewhere, can't remember which time zone ... a Marine came up and told me even "former Marine" doesn't exist. Now I'm in trouble, because if I just say "Marine," the reader thinks she's still in the service, and she works for Blackfire. Help!)

For those joining our program already in progress: The Cold Ones was a novella following Harvey and her crew as they attempt to stop a zombie outbreak in progress, with flashbacks to previous adventures fighting (among others) a British redcap, a Philippine aswang and a critter of my own devising.

It began life as part of an anthology of novellas, focusing on traditional monsters written in nontraditional ways. By the time I finished it, the anthology had been canceled, and eventually another publisher picked it up.

It sold out the whole print run in 48 hours. That was a good weekend. By the end of the convention, the publisher had ordered a sequel.

Oops. I'd killed off most of the cast. Time to get creative. Thus was born Blackfire, which deals with the aftermath of The Cold Ones, introduces some new characters and some of them even make it to the end. Like the first book, Blackfire focuses on one troublesome case, with flashbacks to previous adventures. Featured this time: a springheel, an Incan demon, a Brazilian kuru-pira, a vrees demon, Tanzanian popobawa and other critters from my endless fascination with monsters from many mythologies. It was delightful fun, spinning the story in new directions, and structured as part two of a trilogy.

I had the rough outline worked out for part three when the publisher went out of business. This was a bit of an issue, since Blackfire ended on a cliffhanger. The rights reverted to me last year, and all this year I have been selling off the last of my print stock for The Cold Ones and Blackfire.

The next book? The vampires came first, and they were beautifully packaged into a compendium release by Seventh Star Press. You might've heard of it. But a compendium release for the Blackfire series is on my docket as well, combining both books and the third, unpublished story, completing the trilogy.

I know how it ends, I know how it ends... and don't bother torturing Jimmy, I haven't even told him. Muahahahahaha.

For the record, we are totally sold out of The Cold Ones, though I believe there are still copies available at some bookstores, including BSR Books, Afterwords Books and The Book Loft in Columbus, to name a few. I still have a dozen or so Blackfire copies, and for anyone who purchases Blackfire from me, I am offering a free ebook of The Cold Ones until my supply runs out.

When does the next book come out? I suppose that depends on you. And, y'know, a publisher, my Muse, time to write it and make it good... but nah, mostly you guys. Readers ask, and I try to provide.

Except Sanctuary. That book's gotta sit in the corner and think about what it's done.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Raise a glass of the blue stuff

Goddammit.

Sadness comes, of course, but whenever I lose a friend to cancer my automatic reaction seems to be fury. I've been pissed off since Rachael died, and each time since it gets worse. This year has been particularly bad: at last count, we've had seven friends and family members diagnosed with cancer, and had already lost one only weeks after her diagnosis. And now another friend is lost to us.

Shorty. His real name was Stuart Bergman, but I never once heard anyone call him Stuart. Nearly seven feet tall, of course his name was Shorty. He was known to everyone who traveled the con circuit in the mid-south - after all, he was hard to miss.

Shorty. A gentle giant with a bellowing voice and an omnipresent bottle of the mysterious "blue stuff," an alcoholic mixture of his own devising that left your mouth numb if you were foolish enough to bolt the shot.

Shorty. Master of the dealer's room, the man who corralled all of us in and out of the hall year after year, always there to lend a hand and haul a box, and no one dared lift an item from your booth when Shorty was watching.

Shorty. Smoked like a chimney since long before I knew him, often sharing a pack with Jimmy on the docks outside the dealers' room before he quit, but sadly, it caught up to him. The cancer struck him hard, robbing him of his hair and trademark beard before it robbed him of his life.

I am angry, because Shorty should have had many more years melting plastic cups with that witch's brew he called "the blue stuff." He should have enjoyed many more conventions strolling through the halls and hugging the confolk.

Goddamn cancer. Stop taking the people from my life.

Sadly, I don't seem to have a picture of myself or Jimmy with Shorty. I know they exist, so if anyone has one, please forward it to me. Instead, I give you this one: Shorty in his prime, enjoying a not-so-quiet drink at the Literary Underworld Traveling Bar with one of the LitUnd authors, Steven Shrewsbury.

Shrews is one of the few giants who could come near Shorty in height.

Blessings and peace to Shorty's family, especially to his fiancee, Becky. Already the mourning has begun on the internet, as word spreads throughout the con circuit that one of our mainstays has left us. If our lives are measured by the people who miss us when we are gone, then Shorty was indeed the biggest of us all.

Raising a glass of the blue stuff - my own, less-toxic concoction - and remembering Shorty. One of too many lost. We will miss your bellowing voice, my friend.


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Friday, October 02, 2015

Fall Deathmarch: Online Edition wraps up at Archon!

Day Five of the Virtual Tour In Which Elizabeth Doesn't Have to Split Cab Fare With Strangers.



Courtesy of the fine folks at Seventh Star Press and Tomorrow Comes Media, I'm doing a blog tour and interview blitz this week. Today's batch includes a lovely review and another interview - aren't you people sick of me yet? Highlight of the review from Bee's Knees: "Donald is one of those writers that paints such a vivid painting of her world, I can see myself walking the streets of Memphis watching the nightlife unfold in front of me."

And if you're wondering what the snarky taglines above are talking about, here is a link to my ongoing feud with American Airlines: Escape From Orlando. Add your own Snake Plissken jokes.

I apologize, con-prep ate me and I missed a day. Posts to date:

Interview with Elizabeth Donald, hosted by Deal Sharing Aunt
Review of Nocturne Infernum by Bee's Knees Review
Interview with Elizabeth Donald, hosted by Come Selahway With Me
• It's No Good to Anybody In Your Head, hosted by Shells Interviews
• Writer Wednesday Interview, hosted by Book in the Bag
• In Defense of Horror, hosted by The Den of Debauchery
• The Eroticism of the Vampire, hosted by Beauty in Ruins

The blog tour is linked and coordinated at Tomorrow Comes Media.

Naturally, this whole thing is intended to promote Nocturne Infernum. What's that? Good lord, you really haven't been reading this blog, or my endless blatherings in social media. Nocturne Infernum is the compilation of all three Nocturne books, following the adventures of my vampires in their alternate-history Memphis and the terrible, horrible things that befall them. Muahahahaha. Seriously, the Nocturne books were my maiden voyages into becoming a published author, and I had a wonderful time tormenting my Memphis miscreants. I wouldn't mind coming back to that world again!

You don't have Nocturne Infernum? I'm happy to report that the ebook version is only $4.99. You can't beat that with a stake - er, stick. You can also pick up the paperback edition via AmazonBarnes & Noble or Literary Underworld. I will have limited stock in hand at Archon this weekend - come by and see us!

What, you already bought the original versions? Well, not to put too fine a point on it... then you have the first drafts. I think of Nocturne Infernum as "the author's cut." It allowed me to trim out some stuff that I didn't want to include in the first place, fix the things that were added, mistakes I made as a beginning author, and generally make it into the book it was meant to be. I'm very happy with Nocturne Infernum, and I think you'll enjoy it too.

And now... ARCHON!!!! Come see us at the Gateway Center in Collinsville, Ill. We've been here only a few hours and Ian has escorted a princess, met Harlan Ellison in a bathroom, been interviewed for the news and had at least 20 people gape at his amazing height. It's going to be a great weekend.

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Escape From Orlando, or, How American Airlines Screwed Me

I want to begin by saying this: American has always been good to me. And up until a certain point, they handled the debacle that was Flight 1660 from Orlando to Chicago mostly with competence and grace.

The journalism convention had been marvelous (different post pending on that) and I had a late flight out of Orlando, connecting through O'Hare to get home to St. Louis. My good friend Mark was on call to pick me up at the airport. I survived Orlando's horrendous security line, losing a hair clip to the scanner, and managed to snag a cup of Cuban coffee on my way to the gate.

Trouble was brewing. The plane had not yet left Miami because of a mechanical problem. Now, I try to be fairly sanguine about such things: I'd rather they fix the plane than let me become a smoking hole in the ground. But I was getting nervous, because I only had a 55-minute window to change planes at O'Hare.

The American staff told us that anyone with a connecting flight should come see them at the desk. The line of about 20 people formed immediately - and stayed. As in, it did not move. I was still waiting for my turn 30 minutes after they called for us, and I was second in line. We started making jokes about leaving our suitcases in line so we could sit in the chairs.

I surrendered dignity; I have plantar fasciitis, and while I can walk good long distances for a woman of my size, standing still causes great pain. When the daggers began stabbing into my heels, I sat crosslegged on the floor of the airport next to my suitcase.

After at least two extended delays, I finally got to the front of the line - from my place as second, remember - and was told there was no flight on any airline that would get me home to St. Louis tonight. This was disappointing, but not unexpected; it was a pretty late flight. They offered to put me up overnight in Orlando or fly me on to Chicago and put me up there. I chose to get to Chicago, because I was scheduled to work the next day in St. Louis and had an event to cover. I figured if I could at least get to Chicago, I had a screaming chance of making my afternoon assignment.
Time marched on - or shambled, dragged, inched - and still the plane had not left Miami. The staff - who were unfailingly polite and reasonable, by the way - offered us meal vouchers for airport restaurants. This was very nice, because we were all starving and the snack bar had already closed. The American gate agent came out with meal vouchers and began passing them out - then ran out. She vanished, saying something about needing to print more of them.

We sat and waited, watching restaurant after restaurant close up, making jokes. I tried to get the hashtag going: #hangryhangrypassengers
 She came back, handed out more meal vouchers, and ran out again before she got to me. This was when I started to smell a rat. Seriously, there weren't that many people on the plane.

On the third try, she gave me a meal voucher. We were only a few gates from the tiny food court, but every restaurant was closed except one, and it was set to close in two minutes. I scrambled in just in time, and other passengers who came after me ended up on the tram to other concourses in the hope of finding food. I have no idea if they succeeded or not.

For myself, I was at the tail end of an extended business trip. This was an incredibly valuable conference of great importance to myself and the chapter I represented, and a terrific opportunity that was largely funded by the chapter. Ordinarily I could not afford a business trip to Florida. In fact, I had barely been able to afford feeding myself and my transportation around Orlando, and was down to six dollars in my wallet unless I wanted to break out the debit card and swipe from rent money.

After dinner, it was back to the gate and charging my phone, keeping my husband and my friend Mark apprised of my lack of progress, and sharing good-natured jokes with my fellow passengers. No one was flipping out, no one was angry. We were all a bit chagrined, perhaps, and tired. But when the staff announced that the malfunctioning plane in Miami had been swapped for another plane and it was about to take off for Orlando, we broke into cheers and clapping. Seriously, I'm all for a plane with wings that don't fall off.

The new plane landed, and the Miami people escaped, looking as exhausted as we felt. They boarded us quickly, and once we were in the air, they offered us free booze (first drink only) as an apology. I also overheard one of the flight attendants saying they had waived a union restriction to stay on duty this long; they were on 15 hours and counting. I believe in giving credit where it is due, and these people really tried.

Also to be credited: the baggage people. I had been asked to gate-check my carry-on way back when I was sitting cross-legged on the floor in line, and agreed to do so. The Miami plane arrived at a different gate than we were originally assigned, however. As we boarded a different plane at a different gate, I said a fervent prayer that my suitcase would actually make it to Chicago. I was utterly delighted to see it on the baggage claim carousel.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We landed at about 1 a.m. in Chicago, and the gate agent met those of us who had missed connecting flights and needed hotel vouchers.

Here's where it all went to hell.

She gave us all vouchers for the Crowne Plaza, about 25 minutes away from O'Hare. She gave us directions to the hotel shuttles, which were on the other end of a labyrinth of twisty passages all alike, and assured us that the shuttle ran every 15 minutes and we'd be at the hotel within the hour.

Keep in mind that I'm at the tail end of a conference, I've been up since 7 a.m. after only five hours' sleep, and I've been in constant motion all day. My feet were killing me, and that dinner was nearly five hours ago, so my blood sugar was a mess. Still, I hauled myself and my suitcase out to the hotel shuttles.

The shuttle was not there. There were other hotel shuttles present, but none for our hotel. One of the other guys asked me and a few other strays from American 1660 where we were trying to go, and we told him. "Oh, they stopped running shuttles at 11," he said.

Gobsmacked. I supposed I shouldn't have been, but the gate agent had told us straight up the shuttles were running. There had to be a mistake, I thought as I followed the other strays back to the terminal in search of an American employee.

No one. Nothing. Everyone was gone save one security guard and a janitor, neither of which could point us toward anyone who worked for American. The woman who gave us the hotel vouchers was back at the gate behind security, which was shut down. Even if she were still there, it would have required jumping the security gates, and I think the TSA kind of frowns on that sort of thing.

I picked up the American courtesy phone, and was connected with a ticket agent in Tucson who apologetically told me she could do nothing. I asked her if there was another number I could try to connect me with someone, anyone in Chicago. No, of course not. Then she put me on hold, so I tried the hotel on my cell, holding two phones to my ear at the same time. The hotel clerk told me he was very sorry, but the shuttle driver was gone for the night and he'd gotten calls for the last hour from other people given vouchers and he couldn't help any of us.

American Lady came back and told me my only option was to take a cab. I did the mental math and figured my six dollars wouldn't get me out of O'Hare.

Her "helpful" suggestion was to "humble myself" (direct quote) and ask the other passengers to let me ride along with them.

Seriously. That was her suggestion.

I told her that a) the other passengers were mostly gone, having figured out their own destinies, and b) they were total strangers. She gave me some song and dance about how American had been nice enough to give me a hotel voucher, and I was about done with that conversation. I should add that there was a Hilton actually attached to O'Hare, sitting there mocking me with its closeness and comfy beds. But my phone told me the room would be $349 a night, which is highway robbery, by the way.

There was one poor lost soul left when I was done dancing with American. She suggested we split a cab, so I agreed, having no other choice. As she called the taxi, I hopped on my phone and quickly transferred rent money into the debit account so I could pay my half. Fortunately cabs now take plastic, or I'd still be at O'Hare.

The cab bill was $55. The very nice stranger had cash to pay the tip. I wish I'd gotten her name.

At the front desk, the clerk apologized profusely. He told us both that they have repeatedly told American Airlines that they don't run airport shuttles after 11 p.m., yet they keep issuing late-night vouchers and the night staff at the Crowne Plaza keeps getting the angry passengers. That's when he broke the news that the morning shuttle would be leaving at 10 a.m.

A 10 a.m. shuttle would not get me back in anything like enough time to make my 11 a.m. flight. Seeing my frustration and exhaustion, the clerk comped me a breakfast buffet. It was a small kindness, but it made a big difference at this point.

Four hours. That's how much sleep I got in the end. After all that nonsense, it almost wasn't worth it... but it was, because I got to shower and change clothes. I snarfed down the breakfast, since heaven knew when I'd be able to eat again. Six dollars, remember?

In most cities, stupid rules stop Uber from picking up at airports. That had been the case in Orlando, and you'd better believe I'd tried it when I was stuck at O'Hare. But they can't stop Uber from dropping off at an airport, and that's how I got back to O'Hare. More money out of the rent, but at least it was cheaper than a cab.

C'mon, Donald, it's not that much, right? No, I suppose not. Just a week's groceries. Can I feed a family of three on $50 a week? Most of the time, yes. It's not easy, and it's not always the top-flight meals and it's hard to keep up with the Boy's milk consumption, but it keeps us alive. I could understand the confusion around the meal vouchers and after days in Orlando I was used to standing in line and I appreciated the hotel voucher. But I swiped the card because I was sure, absolutely positive, that once I could talk to real humans at American, they'd reimburse me for the taxi fare. It was only logical, after all, since they had promised a shuttle that never came.
The flight home was eventful in a different way. I was in a two-seat row with a gentleman who was suddenly bumped up to first class before takeoff. As I was wondering how I got myself a bit of that action, a man near the back began shouting and ranting. It seems someone had shifted his suitcase a bit in the overhead compartment and he became apoplectic whenever anyone touches his stuff, because he was a veteran and that was his stuff and did that guy want to take this outside? Others started to respond to him, and he became more enraged, shouting at them until calmer voices said, "Don't engage, folks."

The pilot came back to deal with this, the whole "Sir, do we have a problem here?" And the wiser heads decided the best thing to do would be to move The Shouter to a new seat.

You guessed it. Next to me.

Fortunately, I'm used to dealing with obnoxious and crazy; I'm a reporter. He tried to engage with me a bit, and I used the ultimate 21st-century block: earbuds, iPad and and a good book. He gave up and settled into his chair, morose.

And I fled Chicago.

Final arrival was just barely in time for me to change clothes and make it to my assignment: a speech at the university. I was so tired that I swear I could see the Seven Dwarfs dancing across the stage behind the speaker. At one point I realized I'd been typing nonsense for about thirty seconds. I'm amazed that the story was in English.

Yes, I could have called in, and I'm sure they would have been understanding. But then it likely would have been a vacation day, and all my days are spoken for this year. An extra vacation day means I have to cancel a booking, and I try never to cancel a booking. Nor could I afford to, now that I was even deeper in the hole.

It was days later when I finally got myself together enough to file the complaint. See, I'd been tweeting about this throughout the ordeal, first with good humor, then with annoyance. American's Twitter account might be watching, I thought, and then I'd have an actual human to help me.

Not so much, in case you were wondering. Sure, American noticed my predicament. And their helpful advice was to file a complaint once I got home. This is the advice I got while still stranded in Chicago. It's almost as good as "humble yourself."

Here's the funny thing: I love flying. I know, the automatic reaction people often have to these kinds of travel-hell stories is to declare they're never flying again. But I love it. Even with the hassles and the security crazy and the cost, I'd rather fly than drive endless hours just about every time. American has always been good to me, and up until I arrived on that shuttle platform, I was quite pleased with the way they handled an unavoidable mess.

Then American declined to reimburse me for my cab fare.

Yup. The response to my complaint came earlier today, declaring that it was not their policy to reimburse anyone for problems encountered due to delayed flights. So apparently they will issue meal vouchers as the restaurants are closing and hotel vouchers to hotels you can't get to, and that's how they handle customer service? I expected better, and I think anyone who pays the exorbitant prices of an airline ticket (plus baggage fees, natch) deserves better.

I have filed my request for a second review, in the hopes that the first response was a canned autoreply and this one will be read by a human. I hope so, because I would like to fly American again someday. I really did like them. And I believe in second (third, fourth) chances.

I guess that's how I humble myself.

EDIT: American has declined my request for second review. They reiterated their policy that they do not compensate passengers for expenses when there are delays or cancellations. Apparently they also do not take responsibility when their employees lie to customers and strand them unncessarily. For the record, my complaint continues to be centered not on the delay, but on the actions taken (or not taken) at O'Hare surrounding the accommodations.

I am not sure what steps to take next, as I really just want a) my cab fare and b) some assurance that this situation will not reoccur for others, since the hotel clerk's statements indicate this has been a recurring problem.

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