Scarlet Letters

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

Tuesday, June 28, 2016


For the purposes of this, you must understand a few things about Boy. He does not have a debit card, so when he orders things he gives me money and I order it for him. His father lives in Memphis, so gifts he purchases for his father are often managed this way. And he hates tomatoes with a living passion.

At Subway...

BOY: I'd like a ham and cheese on monterey cheddar.
ME: Please.
BOY: Please.
SERVER: *makes sandwich* And what would you like on it?
BOY: Extra onions, lettuce, pickles -
ME: Ew.
BOY: Hush.
ME: Ruination of a good sandwich.
BOY: And what are you ordering?
ME: Subway Club. Nunya.
BOY: And mayonnaise, please.
SERVER: Anything else?
ME: Extra tomatoes.
SERVER: *looks at Boy*
BOY: She's kidding, no tomatoes.
SERVER: *is giggling*
BOY: You're not funny.
ME: I'm hilarious.

Later, I texted him to let him know his Father's Day present for his father was ordered.

ME: Ordered and on its way. One Chicago Cubs wall pennant.
BOY: Mom no you were supposed to order a Saints football
ME: Man, you're so easy. :) Saints football, on its way with extra tomatoes.


ME: I'm dithering.
MAN: About what?
ME: Actually launching the new photography site. It's so long.
MAN: What about
ME: ... I don't know. I think people will miss the E and go to, which is taken.
MAN: I'm just throwing things out there.
ME: Heh. I haven't been Beth since the second grade.
MAN: I've got nothing.
ME: Why is my name so LONG?


Understand that when Jim and I talk at night, it's while he's working, cleaning the classrooms at SIUE. I'm a voice in the earbuds, and I often hear other people walking around the classrooms and he will sometimes pause to speak to them.

ME: I know that this level of photography is a few levels above my current ability, but it's interesting.
MAN: Hold on a sec, hon.
VOICE: *indistinguishable*
MAN: Good night, pretty girl.
ME: Stop flirting with the college students.
MAN: I was talking to a dog, woman.
VOICE: *faint laughter*
ME: *giggling*
MAN: You gave a good laugh to the woman in the wheelchair. She has a service dog and I was saying goodnight to the DOG.
ME: *giggling helplessly* Wait, you aren't supposed to bother service dogs!
MAN: I didn't pet her. I just said good night to her.
ME: I thought it was slightly out of character for you to be flirting with the students.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Father's Day Drive

Jim and I were alone on Father's Day, so we drove up the Great River Road and had wine at the Pere Marquette Lodge. Jimmy got sleepy and I did some shooting. We love Pere Marquette; the views are so spectacular they can't really be captured with my photographic skill (yet) and it's a giant no-cell zone, which was poorly timed since the phone died in the middle of chatting with my dad.

This was my second experiment with manual focus. I switched back and forth between manual and autofocus in the prom shoot, but that was different; I was using a tripod with humans who mostly stood still. This was handheld on a floating dock or by the side of the river on unstable rock. Turns out there's a few kinks in the system. One of them: It's really hard to adjust manual focus when the sun is shining directly in your eyes. I tried sunglasses, but then I could barely see at all.

Here's a few of them. I will have to decide which go up on the shop; I can't afford to put all of them out there anymore, and I'm slowly phasing out the ones that don't sell as well. If I ever get a handle on this new software, I'm planning to build a separate photography site. If I get a handle on this software...

Pick two for the site!

River Shed across from Pere Marquette

Feeder stream to the Mississippi. Jim thinks there are mega-bass in this inlet.

Grafton Lighthouse

Fishing Boat - the color was unremarkable here, so I tried black and white

Sunset on the Great River Road

Birds on the Bluff - I'd need a much better lens to get close to that eagle

Full Moon - I think this one is my favorite.

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Sunday, June 19, 2016

Dream office

I must have made some kind of enormous salary leap in my dream world, because my office was amazing. A lovely, sunlit room with a comfortable sitting area apart from my desk, a fireplace that was clearly for cooler days, and windows everywhere.

There was a patio door that overlooked a lovely pool, clean and inviting. Beyond the pool patio lay a strip of beach clearly shared with the two mansions on either side, running all the way to the shining ocean.

Someone had been busy. The sand castles out there were worthy of a TV special. I wanted to go snag my camera and get some pictures. It was a staggeringly beautiful day, with blue skies and an inviting beach not dissimilar to Jamaica.

But first I had to interview security guard candidates, and I was trying to come up with intelligent questions and scenarios while I made them wait. It's not like it would matter; the first was such a total bozo I'd already decided not to hire him; he fell asleep while waiting and he'd brought his swimsuit. 

I never got to take pictures of the sand castles, because Jim's alarm went off. No fair. Can't I go back? I have better interview questions now!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

One man down

I'm writing this on the day the world lost a good man. It won't post for a while yet, because his family doesn't know.* It seems somehow wrong that those of us who worked with him know before his family does. But sometimes that's the way it happens.

Shortly after work tonight - Wednesday night - I was killing time in a Wal-mart checkout line by cruising Facebook. I saw a post from a local police department stating that they had found an unconscious man in jogging attire on the running trail of a local park. They were unable to save him, and he was carrying no ID. They asked for the public's help in identifying him.

I hadn't seen anything on our website about it, so I called it in to the newsroom. I asked one of the guys on the copy desk if we already had someone working on the unidentified man in the park. He said no, and I told him about the police department's post.

"Mainer's missing," he replied.

And heaven help me, for a brief second I thought he was kidding. Newsroom humor is sometimes dark humor, and I thought he was making a joke and at that very moment, Mainer was giving him the quiet raised eyebrow we had all received from him on occasion.

Then I realized there's a limit even to newsroom humor. "What?" I asked brilliantly.

"Mainer didn't come into work today," he said.

I looked back at my phone and reread the physical description of the man they'd found. "Oh Christ," I said. "He, uh, matches their description. Who's on the desk?"

I filled in the night reporter, who handled it very professionally. From what I understand, the night crew all read the police department's Facebook post while our executive editor went to assist the police with the identification. I can't imagine how much harder it was on him than on the rest of us, waiting by our phones for the news.

And since I'm writing this, you know that it was him. Steve Mainer, copy editor for the Belleville News-Democrat and a damn fine journalist. I think Steve was around even longer than I, and that's saying something when you realize I've been at the paper for 16 years.

Steve was a true metro-east native: graduate of Alton High School and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, lived and worked in Belleville. He was meticulous, taking all the changes in the job in stride and maintaining the highest quality in his work and ours. He was 56 years old - too goddamn young - taciturn with a dry wit and an even temperament.

In a profession that tends to attract, er, unusual personalities, Steve stood out by his quiet, even nature. We got along well, and I respected him professionally as well as liking him personally. Copy editors are the unsung heroes of the news business. They don't get awards, their names don't appear on a byline, and nobody can pick them out in public. But they fix our mistakes, ask the questions we forgot to ask, and put together a product every single day of the year that informs the public of the things they need to know. When I sent a piece up to the desk when Mainer was on, I knew it was going to be handled right.

We don't know yet why he died. He seemed to be in fine shape, and he was a regular runner. He was found at 8:30 a.m., which is early for heatstroke, but the metro-east is enveloped in a horrible heat wave right now, so it's not beyond the realm of possibility. I suppose they'll tell us eventually.

We are a strange, sometimes-dysfunctional family in the newsroom, but we are a family, and I think that's the case with any newsroom. Back when I worked in a bureau office, we sometimes remarked that we literally spent more hours with each other than we did with our spouses and children. It's true, and an odd twist to modern society that you may not choose your coworkers, but you will literally spend your life with them. Years mount up over years, and we live through some stressful, dark times together, as well as jubilant and exciting times. Holidays and snowstorms, an on-deadline power failure, massive computer issues, a burgeoning crisis and a layoff day, we're together, for better or worse.

So if it feels as though we suddenly lost a family member, that's because we did.

I'm trying to imagine what it will be like working a Saturday shift without Mainer on the desk. I can't picture it. A few years ago, we lost another long-time copy editor, who likewise just... didn't come in one day. Roger was a good friend, and I wrote his obituary story. Mourning is not something that just dissipates after an appropriate period of time. It comes back each time we are reminded of friends we have lost, of the holes left in our lives.

Tonight, the staff is putting together a newspaper one man short. It's hardest for them, because they don't have the luxury of dumping their feelings into a blog post. They still have to shovel coal into the furnace. Tomorrow the page will be wiped clean, and we will start again, filling the pages with stories that our copy editors will repair and shape into the day's news, as Steve did for so many years.

As the editor in The Paper says, every day you still start from zero. That's the way of it, and Steve would understand.

But it's not going to be quite the same for us, and we are all the poorer for his loss.

Steve Mainer, 1959-2016

* I am told Steve's parents were informed late Wednesday night. They have my deepest condolences.

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Monday, June 13, 2016


I was playing around on Bed Bath and Beyond's website, because sometimes I get to nesting and I can't help myself. Also, we still have a bit of wedding gift card left to spend.

ME: We have been married for 574 days. So sayeth this website.
JIM: Is that all?
ME: ... It feels longer, is that what you're saying?
JIM: No... You can't track perfection, that's what I'm saying.
ME: Nice try, Sparky. You rolled a two on your saving throw.


BOY: Mom! I'm trying to watch Daredevil and Netflix won't let me.
ME: The bill is paid. Why not?
BOY: It says it exceeds the maturity level.
ME: We don't have a maturity restriction... (opens site) Oh. It does on your profile. "Teen and below."
BOY: Fix it please?
ME: Hmmm. The next level is "all content." That means you'd have access to everything on Netflix. Your poor innocent eyes.
BOY: *sigh* I'm trying to watch superheroes!
ME: Okay, I'll reset it, but you'd best behave yourself.
BOY: *mutters as he leaves my office* Ya nasty...


JIM: *hugs me* I love my wife.
ME: Really? What does that mean for me, then?
JIM: *rolls eyes* Woman! You are my wife.
ME: Oh yeah, I forgot. *grin* You're so fun to torment.
JIM: Don't torment me! Why do you torment me?
ME: You married me.
JIM: That doesn't mean you have to torment me!
ME: Did you look up the definition?


At Walmart, Boy spies a Captain America bicycle helmet.

BOY: Yes! *grabs*
ME: For ages 6 to 10.
BOY: It'll fit!

He puts it on. It does not fit.

ME: *snicker*
BOY: Whyyyy don't they make this stuff in adult sizes!
ME: Because when you grow up you are supposed to give up all fun and be boring.
BOY: You know if we set up a booth at con with these things we would sell them like crazy.
ME: You're probably right. Because con people are creative and fun.
BOY: *addresses Walmart ceiling* Make this in adult sizes!


ME: Did you make coffee?
MAN: Not yet. 
ME: The Bible requires that the man of the house makes the coffee. It says so in the Book of Hebrews.
MAN: ...
ME: HE-brews.
MAN: Blucky.
ME: I am totally unappreciated in this house.
MAN: That. is. awful.
ME: Just the other day, Ian and I were watching Angel and Lilah released a tarantula to crawl across her keyboard - don't ask, it was a thing - and Ian asked, 'What is she doing with that spider??' And I replied, 'It's a web designer.'
MAN: ...
ME: See? Just like Ian! I got nothing. You all need a sense of humor. Rent one!
MAN: I have a sense of humor. When something's funny.
ME: Other people think I'm hilarious.

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Friday, June 03, 2016

Fighting the Beast 2016

Today is our Relay for Life. Usually I drive folks crazy in the weeks leading up to Relay with exhortations and incentives to donate, but life intervened this year and I've only issued the one plea. This is probably why as of now, I've raised $10 toward my personal $300 goal, and my team is still nearly $1,000 short of its $3,000 goal.

I am speaking at tonight's Survivor Dinner (no, I'm not a cancer survivor, I just run my mouth a lot.) Below is the speech I intend to give. Please read it, and if you are so moved, consider donating before 10 p.m. CST. It reflects the number of people in my life who have been touched by cancer - at times, it feels like it is all around me. And if you're reading this, I imagine it has touched you, too.

Thank you for your time.

Fighting the Beast

I’m Elizabeth Donald, captain of the St. Andrew’s team. I’ve been walking Relays off and on for 18 years, most of them here in Edwardsville. And I feel a little funny being the one to speak to you today, because I’m not a cancer survivor or caregiver. You are fighting a battle I’ve only observed, which definitely makes me a civilian.

But I am angry.

I’m angry because there’s a list of people in my life I should be able to introduce you to, and they’re not here anymore.

I want you to meet David Black. I met David when I hired him to be my son’s tutor, at a time when Ian was struggling with middle school, ADHD and generally being a teenager. He was very good at being late to class and not paying attention; he was very bad at passing the seventh grade. His teachers were pretty much giving up on him.

David was more like Ian’s warden than his tutor, and that’s exactly what we needed. He picked Ian up every day after school and took him to the library, where they studied English and fractions with an extra dose of study skills and work ethic. A nontraditional student on his second career, David had just graduated from SIUE with his teaching degree, but it was the depth of the recession, and he hadn’t snagged a full-time job.

So Ian became his classroom of one. David had worked extensively with ADHD kids as a student teacher, and his glowing recommendations were right on the money. He found ways to motivate my child I would never have thought of. He was funny and dedicated; but he was also tough and did not put up with any tween shenanigans. Thanks in large part to David, Ian passed the seventh grade and is now on the verge of his senior year in this very high school.

David became a friend, an advisor and guide through the most difficult years this mom ever had. He was also a writer, and asked my advice as a published author on publishing his books. I gave him the advice I’ve given so many, about the best ways to hone your craft and how to approach publishers, with lots of patience because publishing is a slow industry.

In the end, David decided to self-publish his book, because it turned out he didn’t have time to wait for the publishing industry. See, in a fair and just world, I’d be introducing you to David Black the schoolteacher. He’d be standing before a classroom of kids, snarking at them as he opened their minds to the really cool stuff in history and literature. He’d be finding new ways to reach kids that other teachers gave up on, because that’s what he did. He truly had the gift.

I wish it had happened that way.

Not long after he ceased being Ian’s warden, David was diagnosed with a fairly aggressive cancer. And he fought it just as hard as he fought Ian’s attitude, as hard as he’d worked his way through college. He wrestled it for years, and we all watched him fight the Beast as he and a few of his buddies taped a live podcast every week. They called it Fade to Black. They wanted it to be a chronicle of their friendship, of David’s life, funny and profane and occasionally angry. 

He must have invited me four or five times to appear on it with them. I asked him if he wanted me there as an author - usually the reason people ask me to speak - or as a journalist, or as a Relay for Life team captain. All of the above, he said. 

And I always meant to do it, you know. It taped on a difficult night for me, but I always meant to clear my schedule just once, make the time, arrange to be there. I wanted to be there.

Time ran out. David Black lost his battle two years ago May. He never got his classroom. The Beast won.

And it really hacks me off. 

I’ve been angry since Rachael died, and David rose up my fury all over again. See, Rachael was a dear friend of mine who had been fighting breast cancer since she was in her early 20s. Rachael was proud not to be what she called a “typical cancer patient.” She believed that we hide illness and ailments behind closed doors as if it’s something to be ashamed of, and too often cancer patients are expected to wane quietly in private as though they must shut themselves away and not upset anyone.

But in all her life, Rachael was never typical, folks. She had a personality you could see shining across a room. She shared the details of her illness willingly, hoping to demystify it, showing anyone her battle scars. She loved life, she loved her friends, and she loved her husband, author Bryan Smith.

Rachael was a dear friend and a voracious reader, even if our tastes did not always cross paths; mine tend toward the creepy, hers to the literary. But she had a wicked sense of humor. She knew that I am completely squicked by anything happening to the eyes - hey, everyone’s got a phobia - and since there was a particularly grotesque eye scene in Bryan’s latest book…. let’s just say she special-ordered squishy candy eyeballs for the book release party because she knew I was going to be there, and she wanted to demonstrate the scene for me in her mad-scientist coat.


I miss her so very much.

Rachael fought her cancer to the end, but the Beast won in 2011. She was only 37. And I’ve been angry ever since, because Rachael should be here laughing and chewing candy eyeballs with me. Just as David Black should be in his classroom, ready for another year of thickheaded kids to teach.

And as Shorty should be mixing up another batch of booze. 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 all us writers on the convention circuit in the midwest and 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. The man who ran the authors’ hall, who corralled all of us in and out of the hall where we sold our books year after year, always willing to haul a box, and no one dared lift a book from your booth when Shorty was watching.

Shorty. Smoked like a chimney since long before I knew him, often sharing a pack with my future husband out on the loading docks before Jim quit. Sadly, it caught up to him. The cancer struck Shorty hard, robbing him of his hair and trademark beard before it robbed him of his life. 

He should still be here.

You know who else should be here? Patrick Swayze. Sally Ride. Alan Rickman. Farrah Fawcett. Jerry Orbach. Anne Bancroft. Eartha Kitt. David Bowie. They aren’t more important than the ones I know, than the empty chairs in this room, than the ones we’ve lost. But they’re the ones you also might have known. 

And Dick Adams. You don’t know who he is, and unfortunately, neither do I. In a fair and just world, he’d be my father-in-law. Dick married a woman with ten children - that’s love, folks - and one of those very young children eventually grew up to become my husband. Dick helped raise Jimmy and his siblings, and taught Jim what kind of man he wanted to be. Jim loved him deeply, enough that his loss still hurts, especially when we walk past his luminary on this night. 

Jim is my husband, a wonderful, caring and compassionate stepfather to my son, a blessing to our house. So sometimes I feel as though Dick’s spirit is in our home, through the man Jim became. 

But I never got to meet Dick, and he never knew me or my son. The Beast took Dick before Jim and I ever met. Another opportunity lost, robbed before its time. 

Then there are those who lost loved ones. Rachel’s husband. David’s fiancee. Jim’s mother, Pauline, who mourned Dick’s loss the rest of her life and now lies beside him. One of my team members has lost both parents, her brother and her son; a friend lost her mother and her life partner within a year, all to cancer. They all have been touched by the Beast, and they carry his mark.

And then there’s the folks who have fought cancer and won their battles. Like Macie and Gail, who both fought cancer within two years of each other. Like Sue, LaVernn, Rudy, Candace, and others from the St. Andrew’s team. My stepfather Curtis and my stepmother Karen, all survivors.

This year, there’s my stepsister Kristen, and friends like Shawn, Kevin, Joann, Hugh, Bob … all of whom have fought cancer this year.

Is there anyone, anywhere, who hasn’t been touched by it?

I often add David Black’s name to the luminaria, even though I can hear him groaning in that cantankerous way of his. David, you see… he didn’t have a lot of patience for the people who told him, “I’ll pray for you,” and did nothing else. He was a man in a pitched battle, and words just didn’t fix anything. Not for him, and not for his kids. He was angry, and felt cheated of the life he wanted. 

As a woman of faith, I do believe that prayer has meaning. But I also think David had a point. Prayer without action isn’t as useful as standing up and doing something about it. 

We donate. We hold fundraisers. We walk the track. And we share our stories, stories of the fight with the Beast. We remind everyone that cancer is the truly universal disease, the one that touches us all. We do not walk the Relay to torture ourselves in the heat, a sponsored endurance test. We do it to stand watch, taking turns into the night, reminding each other that we are all in this together.

It’s my hope that someday, this won’t be necessary. That they’ll make the breakthrough, and we won’t lose any more talented artists, brilliant minds, teachers, spouses, friends.

Because Rachel should be laughing with me. David should be hollering at his class. Shorty should be melting plastic cups with the Blue Stuff. Dick should be throwing a baseball with his grandchildren. 

It isn’t fair.
It isn’t right.
And it can be stopped.

I believe that.

I hope you do, too.


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