Scarlet Letters

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

Monday, August 29, 2016

Fall Deathmarch and/or Stalking Guide

Each year, I swear I'm not going to do this to myself anymore. I keep swearing....

No Dragoncon for me this year, and at the moment, I do not have any Atlanta stops planned. If there seems to be sufficient interest, I may plan a bungee stop in the spring tour, but in the meantime, I hope my Atlanta fans have an awesome Dragoncon! Buy lots of books!

Sept. 9-11: Memphis, Tenn. on personal business, but am happy to meet with anyone for books or art! Deadline for ordering is Sept. 8.

Sept. 17-21: New Orleans, La. for the Excellence in Journalism conference, at which I am honored to represent the St. Louis Pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as president and delegate. A reminder to the STLSPJ crew: if you have any opinions you wish to express on the issues we will debate at EIJ, please contact me in advance. I'll be traveling via Memphis in case anyone wants to meet up.

Sept. 25: Back home. Booked to moderate/host the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists' free public screening of Spotlight, hopefully with an after-show panel discussion of local journalists who have conducted similar investigations here in St. Louis. That program is hosted by the Missouri History Museum and sponsored by a grant from the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.

Sept. 30-Oct. 2: Archon. As usual, the Literary Underworld will have its booth and hot and cold running authors in the panels, and my artwork will be on display in the art show. New this year: We hope to bring the LitUnd Traveling Bar to the Friday night party scene! That is still tentative as we are trying to make sure we can afford it and still pay the rent. Last year we had so many people ask us if the Traveling Bar would be open at Archon that we booked a room at the main hotel to give ourselves the option. See you in Collinsville!

Oct. 7-9: Louisville, Ky. for Imaginarium. Literary Underworld will be there in force, including the Traveling Bar. I've said several times that if you're a beginning author of any genre, whether you're planning to go for New York, small press, or aiming to do it yourself, you should go to Imaginarium. The programming there is more tightly focused on developing the creative arts both internally and as a business than any convention I know. Strongly recommended.

Oct. 15: Dupo arts fair in Dupo, Ill. Tentative.

Oct. 16: Leclaire Parkfest in Edwardsville, Ill. Fortunately, this one is just around the corner from my house. We will have our booth set up with books and art, and the St. Andrew's Relay for Life team will be running a used book sale for the first time. This is a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, and support is greatly appreciated (both in terms of cash and volunteers! we need warm bodies).

Oct. 22-23: Back home for a weekend crammed with personal stuff.

Oct. 28-30: Halloween. And I'm freaking home.

Nov. 4-6: Jim's and my anniversary trip, which we swear we won't cancel just because we're crazed.

Nov. 12: SPJ trivia night, the sole fundraiser for the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists. Details pending.

And that, friends, is where you can find me over the next two and a half months. I will not be taking on any new editing projects in September or October for obvious reasons, unless the client states that they don't mind waiting in line until November. I don't have a solid release date yet for Moonlight Sonata, but once it's out, I expect the travel will pick up again.

I swear I'm not going to do this to myself next year....

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Friday, August 26, 2016

Coffeehouse Review: The Abbey

This just goes to show that second chances are usually a good thing.

Waaaaaay back in the dim dark years of... um, 2011... I had a Groupon for The Abbey, a coffeehouse not far from the main office of Ye Olde Newspaper. It was not a pleasant experience. The space was okay but nothing exceptional, the food was okay (but nothing exceptional), and the server was positively growly. I didn't know if it was because I was paying with my Groupon (I tipped!) or if it was just a naturally growly place, but it put a bad taste in my mouth before I had the food.

I'd never been back. From time to time I'd be looking for a place to grab a nice lunch, maybe get a little writing done before work. I'd do a search on coffeehouses and The Abbey always popped up, but I'd remember that unpleasant server and say, "Nah."

This week I've been working in the main office on the night shift, but dropping Jim off at school meant I had two and a half hours to kill before my shift each day. Writing time. And it so happened that The Abbey had a coupon in my big Entertainment Book, which I resolutely buy every year. I figured five years meant it was time for a second chance.

First: New location. (Probably not that new; it's been a while, remember.) The new space is much bigger and nicer, with a fireplace at one end and small stage for live readings/music on the other, plus a separate meeting room (with a door!), local artists displayed on the walls, little baskets and schtuff for sale, a humidor full of what I presume are only the best cancerous logs, a gelato case and plenty of coffee and tea. Not to mention: Drive-through!

The food also has improved, though it's not the best I've had (that would be Teaspoons, still). While I think I would have preferred my BLT croissant with mayonnaise rather than the special sauce, the pepper bacon was thick and crunchy, just like I like it. The chicken and dumpling soup was unremarkable but filling. And looking at the other plates around the restaurant, it seems like there are a variety of very nice, tasty-looking combos to be had. (Note to the kitchen: Think Billy Goat Chips! They'd really round out the plates.) You can also get a Panera-style twofer: half a sandwich, half a salad or a cup of soup, pick two.

It's noon on a weekday, so the clientele is mostly middle-aged or older folks with a few young moms. I have a feeling, however, that when school is out, the teenagers would flock to this place. Evenings likely belong to the grownups, though; according to their advertising, it's low lights and jazz, and they break out the bar - a fairly impressive selection, by the looks of it.

Downsides: It's a bit on the noisy side. Mostly full, and voices carry. That doesn't bother me; I have my earbuds so I can focus on the writing. But if you're planning a lunch meeting, be prepared to raise your voice or use the meeting room.

Upsides: A large 10-person table means a writing group could meet here easily. It would be perfect for a signing sometime, or just a quick lunch (my food was out doublefast). Wifi was easily accessed and so far has not let me down.

And, of course, the coffee. Flavorful but a tad weak for my taste - and I am not one that generally goes for mud-coffee. That would be Jim. However, mugs are giant and refills are free.

Best of all, the service is polite, helpful an friendly. I was about to make an unfortunate choice in my sandwich construction and the young lady made some suggestions that truly improved the meal. The dishes were cleared away almost as quickly as I emptied them, and turnover was handled efficiently without rushing anyone.

And I might snag some of that gelato before I go.


Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Seven Challenge

Someone tagged me to post seven sentences from the seventh chapter of a work in progress. That left me with choosing the one in edits or the one I'm writing. So I decided to give you both. I also cheated and made it seven paragraphs, because reasons.

I'm also supposed to tag seven other writers, but I'm going to be recalcitrant and say if you want to do this, go ahead and do it! It's fun.


From Chapter 7 of Yellow Roses:

Cat’s gaze roved over the carved-wood railings, the ornate Byzantine design of long-neglected walls and balconies. If she concentrated on that open-window image, she could see the colors and gilt flow over the sad remains of the theater and see the way it had been.
         A shadowy figure stood on the balcony over stage right.
         “There!” Cat pointed up at the balcony. As she spoke, the figure became clearer: the dark-haired woman she had seen in her mental window, the lovely woman in the high-necked blouse and a wide-waisted skirt. The woman stood alone in the balcony, as Justin snapped pictures and Sora gazed up in her direction.
         “Sadness,” Sora said. “I don’t see anything, but… nervousness, mixed with a terrible sadness, longing.”
         The ghost flickered as if she were in a movie herself, an old one with rough film. She turned away from Cat and another form coalesced from the shadows. A man, tall and dark in a flowing coat. He reached for her and she kissed him, holding him close. Then she broke away from him, her face crumpled with silent sobs.
         Cat could hear nothing, but the man clearly protested, grabbing the woman by the arms. She pulled away, still sobbing, her face miserable. She ran from him and he grabbed after her.
         The woman twisted away from him and lost her balance, her body falling over the low railing. The man reached after her, but caught only a scrap of cloth as she fell.


From the seventh story of Moonlight Sonata, previously published elsewhere:

Her left arm tightened against his back. “Move your hands off me,” she whispered.
“If I had a nickel…” he whispered back, obeying. That light breath of air said she was laughing again, but her body was back to that tense band of muscle. He slid his own hand to his sidearm, the back of his neck crawling.
A horrible screech split the air, as a burning acrid stench suddenly overwhelmed them. Harvey’s arm shoved hard against Horowitz’s back, propelling him off the bench and onto the ground. Harvey leaped up onto the bench and fired in two-handed stance.
Horowitz rolled over and stared at hell itself.
Giant and black, its wings stretched at least ten feet across. It rose above the bench, screeching from its twisted beak below a single strange orange eye that seemed to glow in the reflection from the river lights. Covered in sleek black fur, it reached toward Horowitz with clawlike hands.
His horrified gaze went lower. He saw what it had for him.
Horowitz fired his own gun from his prone position. He struck one of the wings, tearing a hole in the thin, fibrous material. The popobawa screeched and banked toward Harvey. She fired into its trunk, hitting it at least three times. “Now would be a good time!” she shouted.


Monday, August 22, 2016

Snippets: One giant leap for sporekind

This conversation began downstairs and meandered up to my office, which I affectionately call The Tower. The stairs are... kinda steep.

ME: This is the problem with my post-lunch coffee.
JIM: Where is your coffee cup?
ME: That's the problem. It's up in the office. So do I go all the way upstairs, get the cup, come back down, get coffee, then go back up again? That's a lot of work and I'm lazy.
JIM: I see.
ME: Or, I could just get a second cup and bring it up with me.
JIM: Or I can go up with you, get your cup and bring you coffee.
ME: You could, but you are not my personal servant.
JIM: Self-interest. Anything to keep you from collecting more and more cups up there.
ME: I do not!
JIM: You do too! You collect cups on your desk until they evolve and form civilizations.
ME: *giggling* That's not true!
JIM: It is! You've had some achieve spaceflight.
ME: I always destroy them before they reach the Pleistocene era.
JIM: Hon, I saw one launch a tiny little spacecraft.
ME: *laughing*
JIM: It sailed all the way across the library to your Darrell Awards, calling, "One small step for spores, one giant leap for sporekind!"
ME: *helpless*

In case it's not obvious, the semester has begun for Jim.

MAN: I'm going to fucking love this class!*
ME: Duh.
MAN: Lot of reading.
ME: Sounds good to me.
MAN: There is a guy playing the piano here that is amazing.
ME: Sounds like a music major. Careful, they tend to be unbalanced.
MAN: Yes, you are.
ME: Excuse me. I was a theater major. Never the twain shall meet.
MAN: You theater types are unhinged also.
ME: Unhinged might be overstating it... We have a unique perspective on life, the universe and everything.
MAN: Flipping nuts then.
ME: If I'm nuts, why did you marry me?
MAN: I'm a writer and we love to be tortured souls.

This would be Spawn on the THIRD day of his senior year.
Since he wouldn't cooperate with a first-day selfie, he had to be caught in the wild (read: my office).

* Modern American Literature. 

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Batches? Batches? We no need no stinking...

Due to a confluence of life and work, I will not be free any night between now and next Tuesday. Those of you who know our family's weird schedule know that we are rarely home at the same time anyway, which means I am often preparing food in the evening for Boy that Man eats at 2 a.m. and is my lunch the next day. So while we can skate by on cereal and peanut butter sandwiches for a day or two, a week and a half really doesn't fly unless we eat at restaurants way too much.

I've never tried to do the big batch of freezer meals before, so this seemed like a good time to experiment. I grabbed a few recipes that could be done in a few hours on Sunday afternoon - those Pinterest articles about doing 40 meals in eight hours seemed like a leeeeetle more than I wanted on my last free day.

This is what I did, in case anyone's thinking of trying it:

• I used simple disposable foil pans from Wal-mart. I could have gotten giant pasta pans at Sam's Club, but that seemed like an awful lot for just my family of three. I might explore some other options (ordering from Amazon, the Dollar Store) because even at a dollar or two each, that's a bit of cash for convenience. For some, I used gallon-size disposable bags - and that seems like something that would work really well for normal worknights, preparing the ubiquitous chicken breast and freezing in advance so that I could just thaw, bake and whip up some rice or pasta to go with it.

In this case, though, I needed it to be really simple, since Boy will be cooking these unsupervised via my text instructions and he's only in his first week of culinary arts. He has basic skills, but I know my spawn. Left to his own devices, it's a box of macaroni and cheese or a frozen pizza, and Jim and I will starve to death.

Total work time: 2.5 hours.

• One pan of simple baked chicken drumsticks. I used a nifty seasoning rub (Canadian Chicken) from a local spice shop. I pick up these rubs many places - there's a pork seasoning mix from a little tourist-trap spot near Nashville that has yet to be topped anywhere in my travels, and a seasoning mix ostensibly for burgers that I absolutely love on chicken that I can only pick up from a burger joint in Memphis. I could have done several pans of these - it's my get-out-of-cooking-free card on busy weeknights - but I was looking to experiment.

• The chicken stuffing casserole became a chicken pasta casserole because I was stupid and forgot to buy stuffing mix. I made up this one in college and named it Stupid Chicken because it was stupidly easy. Just mixing cream of chicken soup, sour cream, the herbs of your choice and pour over boneless skinless chicken breast, then top with stuffing mix that you've already softened with about a cup and a half of water. I've never done it with pasta before, so that should be an experiment: a pound of ziti instead of stuffing. Besides, Boy requires vast quantities of pasta to fill him up on a regular basis.

• My mother's chicken curry casserole, doubled in size for freezing. That's 1.5 lbs. of broccoli, 1 1/2 c. cooked chicken, and sauce mixed up with two cans cream of chicken soup, sour cream or milk, onion powder and lots of sweet curry. Layer the broccoli, mix the rest together and pour over the broccoli. Then top with shredded cheddar or colby jack.

• Ravioli lasagna, which was stupidly easy from Pinterest. Layer two bags of frozen ravioli with jar spaghetti sauce and lots of mozzarella. I added some of my own herbs because I can't bear to just use jar sauce. Watch, this'll be the most popular choice.

• Chicken tetrazzini, another Pinterest one and slightly more work. Cook 8 oz. spaghetti (I doubled that, because Boy), saute two cups of mushrooms in 1/4 c. butter, then stir in 3 tbsp. flour and two cups chicken broth and simmer until the sauce thickens. Then remove from heat and add 1/4 c. half and half, 1 tbsp. parsley, 1 tsp. salt, dashes of pepper and nutmeg and 3 tbsp. sherry, which I omitted because I seem to be out. Add in 2-3 c. cooked chicken, mix together and pour over the spaghetti in the pan. Then cover that with parmesan cheese.

• Easiest one: Lemon garlic chicken. Four tbsp. olive oil, 3 cloves garlic, 2 tbsp. parsley, 3 tbsp. lemon juice, 1/4 tsp. salt and pepper in a gallon-size bag with three chicken breasts. There were several "chicken dump bag" recipes, and I think I might do a lot of these in the future.

• Baked ziti: Brown a pound of ground beef with mushrooms, onions and garlic, then drain fat. Add 2 cans of diced tomatoes, oregano, basil, marjoram and other Italian-type herbs as desired. Simmer 20 mins. - the recipe said to add water to thin if necessary, but I found there was more than enough liquid. Meanwhile, boil more ziti and drain. Mix them all together in the freezer pan and top with at least a pound of mozzarella. (I added some sprinklings of oregano.)

Theoretically, these should all be fine cooked from frozen. Theoretically. In the meantime, there's a roast in the oven and I've got some bread to bake. We shall see how the experiment works out...

Do you have a freezable recipe to share? Please do so in the comments!


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Senior Year

I'm trying to figure out how the adorable, perpetually-grinning baby who sucked his two middle fingers when he was sleepy became a tall, dashing, occasionally bespectacled young man with a smartass mouth.

It started hitting me the day we registered him for his senior year of high school. When he was born in 1999, I did the math and figured out that he would graduate in the class of 2017. That seemed like a weird, faraway, science-fictiony year, something you might see as the footer in the opening sequence of some movie involving aliens and hovercraft. And yet it is upon us, faster than I ever dreamed possible.

I thought back to my own senior year in Tennessee. I remembered going for my senior portrait and not actually understanding what that was about, or why I had to wrap this blue velvet thing around my shoulders. I was a transplant from a private girls' school in Baltimore, and totally unprepared for all the senior-year hoopla. And yet it's still the best picture of me that has ever been taken.

It was 1993 - well, 1992 when the picture was taken. My best friends then are still among my best friends now, people like Sarah Penick Sanford, Janet Pilcher Cagley, Dana Franks, Stephen Reksten, Jason Tippitt, and others who survived the wilds of Martin with me. Malinda Pitts commented on my Facebook that her oldest son is now the same age as we were when we met, when I introduced Tom Pitts to Malinda, his future wife.

I remember those times, sometimes better than I remember last week. And it's strange to me that my son is now the same age I was when so many lifelong memories were made, friendships forged that changed my life forever, and a few youthful transgressions that - well, let's just not go there. Ahem.

I wonder if my parents felt the same way in 1992 as I feel now.

Well, I'm not ready. Of course, he's going to grow up and launch his own life whether I'm ready or not. This year is about getting him ready for that big step. We talk about bank accounts and the difference between debit cards and credit cards and why student loans are a horrible idea and the pluses and minuses of owning a car. (By the way, when I explained the concept of credit cards, he said, "That sounds really sketchy." Stick with that feeling, kiddo.) We talk about careers and balancing work and school and the difference between living at home, living in a dorm, and living on your own. Adulting stuff.

Oh, there'll be family vacations together and plenty of holidays and visits - he isn't going far, after all. He loves this town as much as I do, and as far as work allows him, he wants to stay here. But we know it isn't going to be the same. Even if he lives at home for his first year of college - which is likely thanks to the egregious cost of freshman dorms - it isn't the same, nor should it be. Adulting means a different mode, a different relationship. It's more responsibility on him, and thus more freedom, taking the reins of his own life. My father said it's the point where we parents become advisors instead of running the show. (Though I'm still gonna nag Ian about wearing his glasses.)

Tonight is the night before his senior year begins. I am looking forward with him, but part of me can't help looking back. I see the collage frame of school pictures I've sort of forgotten to update since sixth grade. I see the boxes and bags of various thingamabobs for the scrapbook that trailed off about seven years ago. I think about all the times I forgot to get a picture of him on the first day of school, and the handprint I never inked on his baby sampler, and I try to remember the last time I made it to a PTA meeting and I am so not telling you that, because it's embarrassing. I wonder about all the things I missed trying to juggle two jobs and momhood, and whether he missed out on anything.

I remember when he was little, and everyone told me, "They grow up so fast! Enjoy every minute of it." I heard it so often, it was kind of a drumbeat. Yeah, yeah, I know he's gonna grow fast, he's already outgrowing every stitch of clothing faster than I can resell it on eBay. But that wasn't what they meant.

And now I want to go around to my friends who seem to be procreating at an unusual rate these days, the ones with the new babies, the ones with the toddlers learning to walk, the ones whose kids are dashing off to school carrying their little lunchboxes. I want to yell at all of the new parents, "Don't forget to take the picture! Take them to the zoo and the children's museum - don't put it off! Don't let those moments slide by, don't miss that concert, don't forget the handprint! Their hands get bigger and soon they'll be too big for the baby book you forgot about! Don't let it go too fast, because you're going to blink and when you turn around, he'll be taller than you and you'll feel like you missed something, even when you were there every day."

I want to warn them, but I know they've heard it. And when they find themselves on the night before Senior Year, they'll turn around and wonder where the hell the time went.

I guess we never really know if we did a good job, raising our kids. You just sort of aim them at the world, light the fuse and hope they fly instead of crash. I hope I did right by him, I hope Jim and I have prepared him well enough for the challenges he'll face and the decisions he'll make. I know I did the best that I could.

And while it's been a long, long time since he sucked on his middle fingers when he was sleepy, he still hugs his mom before he goes to bed.

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Monday, August 15, 2016

Love Your Spouse: Part Four

A momentous change took place in the Donald-Smith-Gillentine Inc. corporate household recently. Sure, Jim and I have been living together since early 2012, married for 1.75 years and counting. But today, I changed the outgoing message on our house voicemail.

Oh, shut up. My color-coded, multi-categorical to-do list eventually gets done.

It came to my attention recently that the house phone's voicemail was full. That's probably because no one ever answers it or pays attention to it. So why do we have one? Let's face it: everybody wants a number for you, right? When you buy stuff at Walgreens and you can't find that silly keyring stub they gave you for the rewards program, you just need to put in your phone number. But you don't put in your cell, unless you're crazy. They'll text you into insanity.

So we have a landline to stave off the silliness. Also, in case of emergencies. Boy only got a cell phone about a year and a half ago, and I felt better knowing that there was a phone in the house regardless of anyone forgetting to charge his cell.

For all this time, we've been living in a house with a phone that answers, "Hello, you've reached Elizabeth Donald. Please leave a message and I'll get right back to you."

Of course I didn't have Boy's name on it. He's a kid. Who would be calling him? My number's always been publicly listed under my own name in case there were people who wanted to call me with private info and were afraid to call the newsroom.

(As if we had caller ID in the old bureau. Hell, we were still on the "pink paper message slip from the secretaries" system when I started there...)

But that means poor Jim was kind of a nonperson. You've reached Elizabeth Donald! (Other people might live here too.) For some reason, I never got around to updating it.

So I'm giggling a bit at this last (?) step of fully integrating our lives together. We've done all the big stuff, you know. Insurance and bank accounts and pensions, oh my. Color-coded camping supplies - green for him, blue for me, red for Boy. Books and movies all catalogued - though he stubbornly refuses to ditch DVDs that I already own because sure we need two copies of Superman II: Donner Party because what nerd household doesn't?

I teased him that he's clearly hedging his bets against having to re-buy those movies if this whole marriage thing doesn't work out, while he insists it's just because he paid good money for them (like I got mine free). Of course, I've also threatened to sell his super-rare Japanese-cut Godzilla DVDs on eBay, and yet he doesn't divorce me. (It might have been a near thing when I said, "You know Godzilla isn't real, right?" Ooooh, the look I got.)

I never thought I could actually live with someone again. When I was a single mom, I was dedicated to sole possession of the remote control and living my life without clearing each decision with a committee. I knew I was too independent, too headstrong, maybe a touch too stubborn - but just a touch! - to live with anyone, not romantically, not even with a roommate.

That's one of the reasons why Jim lived in his own place when he first moved up to St. Louis. And why we lived together for two and a half years before we actually married. Love may be as grand as the poets say, but living together means being able to rationally discuss the bathmat left on the bathroom floor AGAIN.

We make a good partnership, and sometimes I think that is almost as important as being in love. We work together on our various entrepreneurial projects and support each other in our goals. We do things together, both fun and tiresome, and while I'd never pretend we don't squabble, we manage to live together in mostly-harmony.

It's one of the biggest surprises he's given me, this cohabitation without discomfort.


He rolls the toothpaste tub neatly into a curl, while I mangle it from the center (often on purpose, because it annoys him).

I maintain that macaroni and cheese is an entree; he firmly believes it to be a side dish to some form of meat.

He's a snuggler who steals the covers* and simultaneously throws them off himself; I am a sprawler who can't sleep unless my feet (at least) are covered by blankets.

He is horrified and repulsed by people drinking out of the milk jug; I.... er, sometimes save us all some dishes by skipping the cup. But not anymore. Because it horrifies him.

I throw the groceries into the bags at Aldi in whatever order I please within reason; he carefully "builds the bag" and insists on designing our grocery carrying himself.

He generally likes all the same movies I like: horror, science fiction, thrillers, the occasional drama; the reverse is not often true, as he extols the virtues of Destroy All Monsters! and Godzilla vs. the Giant Rose Thing You Can't Find in the U.S. Also Jerry Lewis. And ventriloquism. Not necessarily at the same time.

I am one of those people who simply cannot stand mouth noises; he chews rather noisily since he had to have several teeth removed and insurance won't pay for a denture.

He can literally fall asleep within 30 seconds, as documented by science! when he had a sleep study done; I am a restless mild insomniac who wakes up at least twice a night and must wear earplugs to sleep at all, even when sleeping alone.

Ten years spent on loading docks and stocking shelves means he cannot help but straighten displays of canned goods in a grocery store; I like to move the peas into the carrots section just to watch him stomp over and fix it. Tee hee.

I have a tendency to use a 25c word when a 10c word might do; he installed a dictionary app on his phone and insists I provide multiple synonyms when I use words slightly outside of the common vernacular.

Neither one of us gives a damn which way the toilet paper goes. So we've got that going for us.

And of course, I make perfect sense and he is frequently incomprehensible to me.

How does this tent go together again?

But that's marriage.

*As quoted once on Facebook: I have photographic proof of the identity of the Covers Thief in our household.