Scarlet Letters

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

Monday, February 29, 2016

Cross-post: CultureGeek on the Oscars and why Spotlight matters

If journalism is the first rough draft of history, popular culture is the first rough draft of the artistic legacy we leave behind for future generations. 

Cross-posting to CultureGeek on the Oscars: Why Spotlight Matters.


Saturday, February 20, 2016

Scripps: Day Two

It turns out I'm a dominant leadership style with a developer personality that becomes uncomfortable with limitations to my individuality and self-reliance. Also, I'm stubborn. But I figure Jim rigged the test from afar, so....

Lots of ideas shared and hypotheticals on dealing with certain situations that may arise. If I didn't already know that I tend to say "screw it" and take over a task rather than negotiate and coach teammates, I sure do now. I don't know that "belligerent" is a fair word, but I'll leave that to people who've worked with me to say and for me to keep disagreeing.

I don't know that I've had all that many surprises about myself; I'm a bit older than a lot of the other attendees, so I've had more time to get used to myself and figure out what makes me tick. That's one advantage to getting older. If you're not comfortable with yourself by the time you're thirty-nine-plus-tax, you probably have more issues going on than you can manage without therapy.

But I'm learning about other personality types, and how to work with them and motivate them. Sort of. Better: I've got a long list of ideas for ways to help the journalism community in St. Louis. That's my job now, at least in part. And that's important, for my newspaper and for my professional colleagues. We get too focused on what we are doing, and we forget to look up and see the bigger picture.

Tomorrow is wrapup, and plenty of time on the long drive home to mull over the training and try to figure out some ways to apply it to my various leadership roles. If nothing else, smoothly-running organizations won't sap nearly so much of my energy, and I might not always feel like I'm spinning plates.

I also listened to amazing blues with raunchy lyrics while drinking with my fellow journos. This whole weekend has been a bit of a flashback for me; I come back to Memphis all the time, but it's been ages since I walked down old Main Street, listened to the blues filtering out onto the cobblestones on Beale Street, and tossed a coin in the magic fountain.

It's cleaner now than it was in my youth, more touristy-corporate and less rundown-seedy. The film of danger is pretty well scrubbed away. It's still nostalgic as hell. I keep expecting to turn a corner and see a gang of twelve energetic college students, hanging around the old fountain and singing Disney songs at the couples riding by on the horsedrawn carriages, climbing the mountaintop statue on the corner and being refused entry to BB King's.

I did get carded at Wet Willie's, however. God bless them. Sing on, brother, sing on.


Scripps: Day One

Let me preface this by saying that I had four hours of sleep last night, drove the entire six-hour drive from St. Louis myself, and then had six hours of the Scripps seminar before reaching this blog post. This will therefore be a short blog post. Tiiiiiiiired.

In case anyone is wondering, the Scripps leadership seminar is intended to help journalists become better leaders, both in the profession and in the rest of their endeavors. It is an honor to have been selected, and so far I am enjoying getting to know my colleagues. I can tell that there will be some serious questions for us to discuss tomorrow.

Much of today centered on evaluating myself as a leader. Of course, I don't really think of myself as a leader much of the time, because I haven't really sought out leadership. I seem to end up in leadership roles, however, usually because nobody else wants the job. If I sit down and think about it, that's really how I end up in charge of so many things. Relay for Life team. Cub Scout den mother and committee chairman. Not one, not two, but three writers' groups. And, of course, the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists. I figured if people are going to keep putting me in charge of things, I best learn how to do it right.

But being a leader in journalism is different than leadership in other organizations. There are unique rules and challenges in our work as journalists, and those things have to be addressed in leadership roles within journalism. Sometimes, I think journalists are easier to get along with than "normal people." We are used to dealing with all kinds of people from all walks of life. We are used to talking to people, and getting them to talk to us. As I've said before, this is a tough job for an introvert.

That said, our profession sometimes attracts... unusual personalities. To say the least. Fortunately this crew seems really friendly; our initial team exercise went very smoothly. I am not sure any other group I work with could have done the tarp thing without coming to blows. (I kid, I kid... sorta.)

I was asked to analyze my strengths and weaknesses as a leader and a journalist, as there's a lot of overlap between the two. If I honestly analyze myself, I know that organization is one of my strong suits. (The state of my office belies this fact; I said organization, not neatness.) My sense of humor might not necessarily appeal to my long-suffering husband, but it does seem to make other people happy.

My weaknesses, however, become the weaknesses of the organizations I lead. I am lousy at inspiring people to follow me. Recruiting new people to join the organization is simply something I don't seem to do well. I don't think it's necessarily a coincidence that my Relay for Life team and SPJ both suffer from a serious shortage of volunteers or that only about 10-20 percent of the Eville Writers attend meetings. This necessarily limits the programs and progress that we can make, because a small group of people can only do so much before you burn them out.

This also leads to my other, probably counterproductive, personality trait. When a task must be accomplished, and nobody's available to do it, I am simply more likely to say screw it, and do it myself. This is always been my tendency. This is unfair, because there are many people who may be willing and able to help, but I am lousy at finding and/or delegating to them. It's not like I pass up volunteers in favor of doing it myself, becaus control is really not one of my issues. Instead, it's more that I have trouble finding and/or inspiring people willing to take over those tasks.

And that's about as far as we got in today's session before dinner, brief discussion of upcoming projects, and the open bar. We are journalists, after all. Tomorrow starts early, and I am looking forward to learning more about my own self and my leadership style, and what I can do to do this work better. 

And, to be honest, a better way to handle my various obligations without losing my mind. Because I'm organized, but also vastly overcommitted. And I feel the strain, mentally and physically. It's not fair to me or my family to spend 15 to 18 hours a day on my computer. Remember that part about delegation? Yeah, I need to work on that.

More tomorrow. As this is related to journalism, you can follow along in my Tweets at @BNDedonald.

P.S. Tonight's social event was a mini casino with no actual money involved. This was fun, not only because we were gambling with not-our-money, but the dealers were able to take their time and teach us all how to play the games that we wanted to play but had never had the bravery to do so without making a fool of ourselves at the casino. It turns out, blackjack is pretty fun. Rouletteā€¦ Well, I lost the equivalent of my rent in about 20 minutes. Maybe I'd best stay away from that game. 

Nick the blackjack dealer has probably never answered so many questions about his profession in a two-hour time period. The poor guy was answering questions from 12 journalists who are used to doing personality profiles. We learned that he's been a dealer since he was 14 years old, travels across the entire United States doing these casino parties, hates working frat parties, and dealers working on cruise ships make $80,000 a year for six months on the boat, six months off. That's when everyone realized we had all gone into the wrong profession. He also hesitates half a second when you have made a really stupid choice, so if he pauses at your hit, best to stand pat instead.


Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Snippets: Matrimony Edition

MAN: We're divorced.
ME: I beg your pardon.
MAN: I sent off the paperwork to [state agency] so you can have my pension.* Again. And they finally got it entered, but they still got it wrong.
ME: You're kidding.
MAN: Yup. They have us down as divorced.
ME: Oh for fuck's sake.
MAN: I called them and they're sending the paperwork so I can get it refiled as married. But for now, we're divorced, as far as they know.
ME: So we're divorced. What're you going to do?
MAN: Huh?
ME: Hey, the state says we're divorced, you're a free man. What are you going to do?
MAN: Get the paperwork so I can file it properly for us to be married.
ME: Spoilsport. C'mon, free man! What do you do with your freedom?
MAN: Mope and cry.
ME: You would, too.
MAN: Also, they need a copy of my birth certificate. It says I may have been born in 1967 but they don't know for sure. So I may or may not exist.
ME: So you're divorced AND you don't exist and you're still not going to party?
MAN: Nope. Because they've wiped me out of existence.

* This is the ongoing nonsense of getting each other added to our pension plans, so if one of us croaks before the other, we get our meager survival benefits. This is surprisingly not automatic despite the legal matrimony stuff. It is also a gigantic pain in the ass. 

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Friday, February 05, 2016


Man: I wouldn't mind going camping this year.
Me: We can't do it lightweight.
Man: What?
Me: Can't do it lightweight. Camping. It's in-tents.
Man: ...
Man: *closes eyes, rolls head back*
Me: *innocent grin*
Man: Bleeeechy.
Me: Sorry. There was too much at stake.

Beatles: "We all live in a yellow submarine..."
Me: Dear. Your hippie drug music is getting stuck in my head. If you don't change the song, I shall have to kill you in your sleep.
Man: Good.
Me: Good that it's getting stuck in my head, or good that I'm going to kill you in your sleep?
Man: Both.
Me: That's disturbing.
Beatles: "A yellow submarine.... a yellow submarine...."
Me: Look, I love the Beatles. And I understand that this music was very important for people of your generation, but...
Man: Yup.
Me: But now it's an earworm.
Man: Yup.
Me: You're not going to reply to that at all?
Man: No, because you're making fun of me for being old.
Me: It's not really 'making fun' if it's factual...
Beatles: "We all live in a yellow submarine..."

Me: Okay, seriously. What are we doing for Valentine's Day?
Man: When is it?
Me: Feb. 14.
Man: *look* I mean -
Me: A week from Sunday. You're working and I'm working, so we have to do whatever we're going to do on Friday the 12th.
Man: I don't know, what do you want to watch - um, do?
Me: Not "dinner and a movie."
Man: But there's Deadpool!
Me: We are not going to see Deadpool.
Man: I know, you don't want to go see it with Ian and me.
Me: I will go see it, if only to keep up with the Marvel Universe. But not on Valentine's Day.
Man: We can go to lunch, and then a cafe and write...
Me: *stares*
Man: What?
Me: Working on my laptop. Exactly how is that different than every other day?
Man: Oh.
Me: If I'm not mistaken, February is your month to come up with our date idea.
Man: We can go to the Botanical Gardens!
Me: In February. When nothing is blooming.
Man: We could run away for the night like we did last year.
Me: Nope. Even if we scrape together the money, we have the SPJ Student Boot Camp the next morning, we have to be back super-early.
Man: Oh yeah.
Me: Our good friends at Groupon have ideas. Roller skating...
Man: No.
Me: Rock climbing...
Man: No.
Me: Burlesque.
Man: No.
Me: In-house wine tasting... see, in the end that's just a stranger in your living room dropping off wine.
Man: Yeah, no.
Me: Extreme laser tag?
Man: Hell no.
Me: Why is it that I always have to come up with the romantic date ideas when you are the romantic one? You wanted to go to Deadpool!
Man: That was a joke!
Me: You made the joke hoping I'd say yes.
Man: We-ell....
Me: In every relationship one person is the romantic, and you were elected! How can you be so relentlessly sappy and romantic in every other respect and never have any ideas for date night?
Man: I suck in this specific area.
Me: And I'm the one who's romance-challenged, but I always have to come up with the idea! Okay, we stay home in our pajamas, order in, eat two pounds of chocolates and get silly drunk.
Man: No! We can't do that!
Me: Why not? It sounds better than most of our ideas.
Man: Because it's Valentine's Day!
Me: Okay, then you come up with something.

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In which I link to myself...

... but there are a number of thoughts in this week's review of The Affair over on CultureGeek that I think might be interested in those of you reading this blog.

It seems like the show is trying to say things about the roles we play in our lives, about striving to be more than we are and our inevitable failures to live up to our own expectations or the expectations of others. This is where The Affair stops being a soap opera: while it is certainly melodramatic, it does not ascribe to a candy-coated happily-ever-after view of love or marriage or even sex. Even the layers have layers, and there is no one who does not end up trapped at some point or another. The Affair seems to say that more than money, status, education or circumstances of birth, it is those we love who trap us the most - and yet money, status, education and circumstances of birth play the vital parts in each person's life as it unfolds. There is no action without consequence.

Go check it out, and let me know what you think. I've been mulling some of the questions the show raised, and will probably expound on them later... when I'm not so bloody tired.


Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Cutting the cord

One of the fun (?) things about doing the taxes: Finding out you made a smart choice. And I'm going to share this one in detail, because if my Facebook feed is any indication, some of you are considering the same choice. Here's how it worked out for us.

In February of last year, Jim and I decided to cancel our cable. Now, that was a big thing for people who watch as much (too much!) television as we do. We're selective-ish about what we watch, but even with our standards, we follow a good many shows. I pick what I watch for CultureGeek, and we also have a necessity to keep up with science fiction and horror television for our respective writing careers.

We were paying Charter for internet, landline and a full cable package. That was running us about $1740 a year, or $145 a month. For the record, when we dumped them, they were about to jack that up to $175 a month, or $2100 a year.

We opted to keep the landline for emergencies and so that we have a SpamPhone - you know, all those places that want your phone number and you don't want to be deluged with their stupid ad-texts? That's worth a small fee each month. And of course, we kept the internet. I work from home, after all, and our house has way too many items with microchips that need wifi.

That dropped our Charter bill to $71 a month, or $852 a year. But what about all those shows we watch?

Streaming. There are many options, and the camps are beginning to fall into religious wars over which is the best. I hear lukewarm-good things about Roku, and less about the Amazon thingie. We're an all-Mac household, so we picked up an Apple TV for $99 (right before the price dropped to $59, dammit). It ties into the family iTunes account to give us all access to everything we already owned, plus all the streaming services.

We already had an Amazon Prime membership for the free shipping. Its TV offerings were, sadly, limited, at least in terms of shows that interest us. Still, for the sake of completion, let's include the $99 a year for that one. ($49 a year for students.)

Hulu Plus costs $7.95 a month, or $95.40 a year. Of the shows that we care to watch, Hulu carries the majority of them. It has Agent Carter, Agents of SHIELD, Blindspot, Bones, Castle, Gotham, Minority Report (RIP), Quantico, Sleepy Hollow, Supernatural, SVU and Daily Show. (God, when you look at it, how do we ever manage to write books?)

Netflix costs $15.98 a month because we stubbornly refuse to give up the DVD option even though we never use it. Sigh. So that's $191.76 a year, or $95.88 if you're smarter than we are and just go for streaming. It carries Daredevil, Jessica Jones, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and sometimes Doctor Who, though I understand that's going to be a thing now.

What, are there still shows that don't fall in those categories? Yes. Which leads me to iTunes. Buying by season or by episode, we were able to pick up American Horror Story, Bates Motel, Criminal Minds, Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, Madam Secretary, Rizzoli and Isles and Supergirl. Wow, that must be expensive, right? Apparently our total outlay was $204, not including four or five movies we rented or bought via iTunes.

Okay, seriously, I don't watch all of that. There are three of us, you know. But in all honesty, I've watched most of them. I sort of dabble at Gotham and Supernatural, and we gave up on this season of American Horror Story about three episodes on. But the point of this isn't holy crap Elizabeth watches too much TV, but about the practicality of cutting the cord.

In the end, despite our TV-gluttony, we saved hundreds. Even adding together Charter (including the landline), Amazon Prime (at full price), Hulu Plus, Netflix and all those iTunes purchases, we still ended up spending at least $500 less over the course of the year than we spent last year on cable alone. And it'd be significantly more if we let go of the landline and the stupid DVD option for Netflix. Sigh.

There are flaws to cutting the cord, of course. I have yet to figure out where I can watch Colbert, other than pulling it up on my computer (I prefer to let TV shows run on the big screen while I work on my computer at night). And then there's live stuff. I bought a digital antenna ($24.99 from Amazon Basics) that worked perfectly fine every time we wanted to watch live TV (which isn't very often), yet strangely failed us during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day, dagnabbit.

And there are a few shows still difficult to find. I am oddly addicted to The Affair and Homeland, which are available on iTunes. But if you want to watch them without paying $30 for the season, you can opt for a free month's trial of Showtime's streaming service and binge-watch them both and then cancel before they start charging you $10.99 a month. Or you might find that Showtime is worth the cash; in which case, consider adding it to your Hulu membership for $8.99 a month instead. If you're a Game of Thrones fan, you might choose to go for HBO's streaming service, or just buy it outright on iTunes. It does take a little more work.

But in a decidedly unscientific poll taken of People Who Live In My House, no one misses cable. We were spending more than $500 more per year for stuff we never watched. We had hundreds of channels and never watched most of them - even as much TV as we watch. This way, we only pay for what we want. And it makes us more selective - no, really. Since I'm paying by the episode for American Horror Story, I stopped paying when it lost my interest.

Now where's that $500... I must have left it somewhere...