August 22, 2021No Comments

Top 27 books we read way too young

Which of these books did you sneak from the library or your parents' bookshelf when you were way too young for it? If you were an avid and early reader like me, you powered through the kids and young adult book sections at the library fast and wandered over to the adult fiction and non-fiction shelves to avoid reading cereal boxes and instruction manuals.

Along with copies of my sister's Cosmopolitan magazine, many of these books gave me a sense I was more grown-up than I really was. Check out the list and see which ones you have read, and add your own in the comments!

This list was compiled from more than 3,000 comments received on my TikTok video from August 8, 2021, talking about books I read when I was way too young.

27. Mommie Dearest by Christina Crawford (published 1978)

No more wire hangers, the bloody steak, the love scene in the horse stable. A sad, torrid Hollywood childhood we had no business reading about when we were under age 10.

26. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (1997)

Beautifully written, but the romance with Mr. Chairman is not one for the kiddos.

25. Crank by Ellen Hopkins (2004)

This best-selling series about a mother coping with her daughter's meth addiction is serious adult content.

24. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)

The quintessential dystopian novel is violent, disturbing and vividly sadistic.

23. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous (1971)

Aimed at young adults when it came out in 1971, this novel would have a trigger warning today longer than your grocery list. Profanity, sexual assault, drug use.

22. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1959)

The tragedy of mentally disabled patient Charley who receives treatment that temporarily increases his intelligence only so he can realize what he's losing. "This book had me a wreck in middle school," one commented.

21. 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James (2011)

The amazingly successful and smutty story of a young woman and the man who introduces her to a whole new world.

20. She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb (1992)

One of Oprah's early book club picks, this is the story of one woman raised by a mentally ill mother as she copes with friends dying from AIDS, health issues, and adultery.

19. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)

Esther Greenwood copes with depression, anxiety, mental asylum, attempted sexual assault and more in this book which is seen as a roman a clef of poet Sylvia Plath's own struggles in the mid-20th century.

18. The Sex Chronicles by Zane (2002)

Cinemax made these books into one of its after-dark erotic series. There are dozens and dozens of them. We just picked one.

17. Wattpad stories or fan fiction websites (2008-on)

While most fan fiction and Wattpad stories are tame, it wasn't hard in the mid-2010s to find the explicit and "spicy" stories if you were looking for them. And some people were.

16. Forever by Judy Blume (1975)

The book centers on teenage Katherine's decision to lose her virginity to her boyfriend Michael and made his member "Ralph" quite infamous.

15. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

14. The Bible, King James Version

13. White Oleander by Janet Fitch (1999)

12. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (1991)

11. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (2002)

10. Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter by Laurell K. Hamilton (1993)

This series starts out tame but gets raunchy later.

9. Dead Until Dark (Sookie Stackhouse series) by Charlaine Harris (2001)

8. The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah (1999)

7. Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel (1980)

6. Wifey by Judy Blume (1978)

5. It by Stephen King (1986)

4. The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty by Anne Rice writing as A.N. Roquelaure (1983)

3. A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer (1995)

2. Dawn by V.C. Andrews (1990)

1. Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews

January 21, 20201 Comment

Five Social Media Mistakes I’ve Quit Making

Just like that, 2020 is underway. Writers and content strategists like me have cycled through our year-end round-ups and predictions for the new year. My crystal ball is pretty hazy these days, but my hindsight vision scores a perfect 20/20 (haha).

The new year marks my 12th year using social media personally and professionally. Yes, times have changed. Platforms have faded (I miss you, Posterous, Periscope and del.icio.us!). Old platforms have evolved into places for image and video-sharing.

When I think back on the text-heavy, mini-blog posts of 2009 and reflect on the state of social today (hello TikTok), I realize that I've learned a few lessons about how best to use these platforms that seem here to stay (in one form or another). Here are five lessons I've learned:

  1. No one reads long posts: As a writer, it's hard to swallow that people don't carefully read every one of my sentences. Concision and clarity are key. Think of that old Strunk & White maxim: Omit needless words.
  2. Being funny online is harder than it looks: Comedy writers often work in pairs and this is because what sounds funny in your head doesn't always get a laugh from your audience. Every time I try to write something funny for Twitter, I run it by someone else to see if it gets a laugh first. If they wince, I skip it.
  3. Follows for following and likes for likes are still a big part of some Twitter and FB user groups (I'm looking at you, #writingcommunity) but in general, these "follow trains" and other techniques are being scrutinized by Twitter. They also don't yield truly meaningful connections, at least for me.
  4. Face it, video is the future online: I've resisted fully diving into video because I think scanning text is faster than watching someone talk, but I'm definitely in the minority. More and more people tune to videos for all sorts of content and why not? Video loads fast and people are getting better and better at producing good-looking content.
  5. Paid posts are the name of the game on Facebook and Twitter: Algorithm changes mean that paying to get your posts seen by your followers is the norm these days. Budget accordingly. Don't try to get by on organic reach alone. You'll find yourself chasing memes instead of crafting the messages you really want to get out.

How about you? What have you quit doing on social media?

December 31, 2018No Comments

Inspiration Behind My First Novel Bloodlines

The bones of the Bloodlines story rattled around in my head for nearly a decade.

The main character, Zane Clearwater, was an intruder into my original story. He had a minor role as a love interest to another character. But as I wrote and rewrote the story and worked out the plot, Zane kept reasserting himself, standing up and waving his hands, even waking me up in the middle of the night and demanding that I pay attention to him. It didn't matter that I had a story outline established. It didn't matter that I had another heroine in mind. Zane was like a sinkhole in the middle of my story landscape, and finally, I just fell in.

I resisted Zane as the main character because he seemed so ordinary. He lived in a trailer park in a crappy Tulsa neighborhood. He had no money and no special skills or talents. He wasn't given to poetic insights about his life. His aspiration was to finish welding school. He had a drinking problem that he was trying to get under control. Many people might dismiss him as a loser, but I came to see him as heroic in his determination to make a better life for himself and his younger sister, Lettie.

I think humans are good by nature, but I also think each of us has a shadow within us. Call it the devil or evil or hate. I followed Zane into his dark places. I let him tell me his fears about his own violent tendencies, his desire for closeness with his long-lost father who may be a cold-blooded killer. I waited to see if his goodness would prevail when circumstances forced him into an awful choice.

What's surprising to me as I look back on the process of writing is how long it took me to find his story. I had wanted to write a funny novel, by the way. I really did. You can still see elements of my attempts at humor with the few scenes about the beauty pageant gown reality show. And other quirky elements, like how Zane worked at the zoo, were little oddball remnants of earlier drafts that still seemed right to me. But the story that Zane wanted to tell was a darker, more serious one. I've learned you can't fight with your fictional characters.

December 13, 201722 Comments

My father, five years gone

I spent the two last years of my dad’s life traveling the globe for a job, a lucky perk with terrible timing. My world expanded as Parkinson's disease shrunk Dad’s world to a hospital bed and the cracks in the ceiling. I've learned this lesson again and again: Life's good sometimes comes mixed with the unspeakably awful. My father, a blur in motion as I grew up, who had earned the nickname "waterbug" at work because he couldn't sit still, who took me as a teenager to Los Angeles from our home in Tulsa for a weekend just because, lived his last years trapped in a shaking body, his jaw slack, eyes glazed.

Dementia and hallucinations sometimes took him back to work as a maintenance supervisor at American Airlines. He felt the stress of those days too, sometimes becoming agitated that it was time to get a plane out. Sometimes he saw his long-deceased mother and father or talked about taking a trip home to Pennsylvania. Other times, he was lucid and present. I could hear his excitement when I told him my new job sent me on my first trip to Asia. “What time is it there?” he would ask on one of our Skype calls during that trip to Singapore. “What have you seen?”

His interest made me think of his old photo albums, stacked in a cabinet with their wedding photos and other memorabilia of my parents' lives before marriage. Before anyone called him Dad, my father had joined the Air Force in 1954, working as a mechanic stationed at Sculthorpe Royal Air Force base in England. Whenever he had personal leave time, he went to see another country, and the photo albums gave us glimpses of what he saw. I remember square black-and-white photos of Dad skiing in the Alps, and him squinting at the camera on a gondola in Venice, Italy, shirts and pants dangling from a clothesline above his head.

He carried that love for travel throughout his life. After the service, he worked as an airline mechanic for American Airlines, and took Mom, my sister and me on trips to Hawaii and Florida and New York using the airline’s non-revenue or “non-rev” program that allowed employees and their families to fly for free on stand-by.

"I've never been to Africa," Dad said when I had told him Senegal on the west coast was my next stop. I heard yearning behind his words, as if he wished he were beside me, and I felt deeply sad that his health had shut that door. Even though I spent most of my time in a Dakar hotel conference room, but my dad thrilled as if I’ve been going on safari. I collected impressions of that sunbaked seaside city to share with him and Mom: the tall slender woman in colorful dresses and head cloths, men talking on cell phones and leading goats on leashes through the city streets. How the hotel's plumbing only provided cold showers. How the sky turned red at dawn. It was September, and tents full of sheep and rams with curled horns dotted the main roads in advance of the Muslim holiday called Tabaski.

"...the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness..." Carl Jung

John LipinskiStories and souvenir T-shirts became my way of sharing the experiences with my father. Mom said he wore the T-shirts to his many doctor’s and physical therapy appointments, and they acted as conversation starters for my friendly father who always had kind things to say to everyone he encountered. His favorite shirt was a bright red one I bought him in Prague that read: “Czech me out.” His parents had emigrated from Czechoslovakia in the 1920s. For Dad, it didn’t matter that the country’s split in 1993 meant his parents’ hometowns were in Slovakia, not the Czech Republic. He’d grown up saying he was Czech and he loved the wordplay.

In between my trips, I also traveled see him in Houston almost every month. Dad’s health worsened.  He slipped away from us in an increasingly wordless sorrow. His eyes stayed unblinkingly open for long periods but at the same time lacked focus, often looking upward. He still smiled but hardly spoke as I talked to him from Toronto, Canada, and after that trip, I spent most of the next two months in Houston while my father did the work of dying. Every day, he drifted further and further away from us. I imagined him living some kind of active mental life, free of his body, traveling through the world and seeing all of the parts he had missed.

After he died in December 2012, I took trips to South Africa and Malaysia and China. I visualized him at each place with me: watching a pride of lions walk by our jeep on safari, baking in the heat of Malaysia’s red-painted town of Melaka, walking on top of the Great Wall of China. His spirit felt strongest in London, about two-and-a-half hours from the air base where he was stationed. Through his eyes, I imagined him as a young man from a small town in Pennsylvania watching the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace or sampling the chaos of Trafalgar Square. He still travels with me today.

September 22, 2017No Comments

Possibility in a pot

Depending on the light and my mood, the potted cacti and succulents on my front porch resemble either the strange skyline of a science fiction city or the motley cast of characters in Star Wars’ Chalmun’s Cantina. A tangle of golden snake cactus, the opuntia’s sugar-dusted flat pancakes, and the meaty grey-green succulent leaves of kalanchoe all share the light and the warmth of the west-facing porch. They form a friendly welcoming committee to our visitors, even if most days, the only visitor is the postman.

I don’t pay much attention to my spiny community of survivors, relishing in their low-maintenance lifestyle and only occasionally remembering to splash them with water. Heavy winter rains did most of the work for this year anyhow.

As spring drew the sun higher and higher in the sky, the porch began to bake each afternoon in warm rays. As the soil warmed, the cacti and succulents began to grow in all directions. They grew tall, they grew wide. They began to flow over the rims of their terra cotta pots, and pips of new growth formed on nearly every cactus surface. Some pips dropped into the soil and seemed to immediately take root. The front porch burst full of joyous abundance and growth, and I grew excited. I felt like I had sprouted the greenest thumb. My cacti, some of which I had tended for five years or more, were finally thriving after years of stasis. Their green flesh swelled with stored water. The vigorous explosion felt life-affirming and miraculous.

The little mammillaria hardly kept up, allowing its cacti compadres become stars of the show. Two-and-a-half inches tall and shaped like a pincushion covered in fishhook spines, this laggard had not demonstrated the visible growth of its compatriots on the porch. Maybe it had grown a bit thicker, but I barely noticed a difference from its pre-winter form.

Until one afternoon, as I headed out of the house to run an errand, when that pincushion cactus stopped me in my tracks.

Almost overnight, the unremarkable and unchanging cactus did the unthinkable. It had burst into flower. A multitude of fuchsia flowers, each just a bit smaller than the fingernail on my pinky, had erupted from the diamond-patterned flesh in a nearly perfect ring encircling its top. The sheer surprise made me stop in my tracks, and the color and symmetry of the flowers made me fish my phone out of my purse to take a photo.

Cacti have always been the plant world’s strange cousin, able to survive great heat and drought that would kill most mammals, let alone plants. Cacti are peculiar to the Americas, with hundreds of different species growing in deserts from Canada to Patagonia. Its origins are shrouded in mystery. Some botanists theorize that the first cacti evolved from roses, basing their hypothesis on the cactus flowers that rival showy roses in shape and structure.

History aside, this little survivor on my porch had commanded my respect. While I thought it only bided its time, the cactus grew roots and conserved its energy for a display like I’d never seen before. Seeing those floral eruptions of hot pink made me think that anything could happen in nature.

I sat on the porch steps and counted the flowers while the sun warmed my face and shoulders. There were twenty-three. I counted the petals on one of the flowers. There were fourteen. Up close, I noticed a thin white line along the perimeter of the petals. From a distance, this white line the width of a straight pin vanished in the crazy hot pink pigment, but up close, it formed a pretty detail. I noticed dark brown buds forming above the flowers, and wondered if the bloom had only just begun. I felt alive with possibility, like a witness to God’s work at the cellular level.

Only four things are essential for plants to live: water, light, warmth and some minerals. It’s a modest list, even more so when you realize how little of each cacti need.

I thought about my own feet, planted in the fertile soil of graduate school and life and work and love. For two years, I’ve done little other than read, write, learn and write some more. Maybe I was due to blossom soon too. In that moment, I felt the potential of all the words I hadn’t yet written, of the people I hadn’t met, of the days, hopefully still numerous, left to live on this miracle-filled earth. An earth where one small cactus can spring into fuchsia extravagance one April afternoon without a moment’s notice.

September 15, 2017No Comments

Robber’s Cave social experiments hold lessons for us today

Summer camp is not just a rite of passage, but also a fine social experiment in making friends, overcoming homesickness and trying new things. A week at summer camp in Robber's Cave State Park in Oklahoma's Sans Bois Mountains when I was 12 brought me a fascination with Belle Starr the Bandit Queen, a fear of archery and a first kiss from a boy named Shane.

But 60 years ago, a group of 12-year-old boy campers at that same spot found themselves in the middle of a now-famous and quite grand inter-group conflict experiment -- a real life Lord of the Flies conflict that mercifully stopped short of killing. The study of inter-group conflict and cooperation was led by Muzafer Sherif, the founding father of present-day social psychology, and conducted with University of Oklahoma researchers.

The boys, selected for their similar backgrounds and the fact that none knew each other before, thought they were at a typical summer camp. So did their parents, who paid $25 for them to go. But the boys were lab rats in a maze, placed into engineered situations and conflicts to see how they would behave.

Sherif's research objective was to watch how tribes and prejudices could be formed and then overcome. His study took place in three distinct phases. First, the boys were broken into two separate, distinct groups that had no knowledge of each other at the beginning. A week was spent building esprit de corps among the group through camping, swimming and sports.

During the second week, the two groups were brought into conflict with one another through a multi-day tournament comprised of games of tug-of-war, baseball and tent pitching competitions. Antagonism between the groups peaked. They refused to eat together in the same dining hall. They organized raids of one another's cabins. Name-calling and trash talk morphed into flag burning, property theft and fistfights.

With hostility at its height, Sherif and his team now created extreme situations, like the water supply being shut off and the food truck breaking down. The two groups were forced to work together for things as simple as water and food. Their collective success sowed the seeds of peace between the groups. By the end of the third week, the two groups were sharing food and playing together.

Sherif demonstrated in this study our very human tendency to form groups, and within those groups, to succumb to hostility toward those outside the group. Each human group tends to develop its own culture, find its own leaders and develop its own rules for behavior. The groups become like little countries, forming mini-governments and legal systems and boundaries to differentiate it from others. These miniature systems form the root of conflicts between small groups.

The Robber's Cave experiment is famous because it seems to have the prescription for reconciling warring groups and bringing them to peace. But 60 years later, we're still struggling with the same painful issues of division and hostility.

Just a glance through my Facebook or Twitter feeds shows me that the dynamics at play among those campers are alive and well in our adult groups (political, religious, or economic). We're still inclined to be hostile to or judgmental of those who are not in our immediate group.

But we can do better. This kind of groupthink is a construct that we can break down by understanding our tendencies and then focusing on larger goals together.

Social harmony is hard to come by. An Okie girl living in California is very aware of how differently people view red states and blue states and the people within. All of us tend to think our group's views are the best, truest and most virtuous. But so did those 12-year-old boys in Robber's Cave.

September 9, 2017No Comments

The Oklahoma Girl Scout murders

The summer of my eighth birthday was overshadowed by a grisly crime made all the more harrowing because of its child victims. On a humid and rainy Sunday in June 1977, the idyllic memories of summer camp I had shared with my friends shattered into shards of horror when three Girl Scouts, two from Tulsa and one from Broken Arrow, were brutally murdered on their first night at sleep away camp.

Not only was I the same age as one of the victims, but like most of my friends, I was a Tulsa Girl Scout. My troop had just returned from a day camp near Tulsa, where we’d made seat cushions called sit-upons, sang songs about friendship to the fast drumbeat of cicadas and roasted marshmallows at a campfire, all in blissful ignorance.

Our parents kept most of the heinous details of the Camp Scott murders from us, but I overheard the news enough to know that one girl had been strangled and the other two hit on the head in a place called Locust Grove. Only as an adult still questioning how something so awful could have happened did I learn the more gruesome details about rape, blood, and bodies zipped in sleeping bags. True crime stories have since held a fascination for me, because I still try to reconcile how humans – who I believe are naturally good – can do such terrible things to one another. Like these murders.

Until that summer, I’d had no experience with death. Not even the childhood rite of passage of losing a pet. Yet here were these doomed girls who were my own age, staying at a camp like one I went to. I didn’t have to use any imagination to put myself in their places. This crime could have easily happened to any of my third or fourth grade classmates.

Eight-year-old Lori Farmer, 10-year-old Michelle Guse and nine-year-old Denise Milner had written letters home that night before going to sleep in the tent they shared at Camp Scott. Lori and Michelle had penned upbeat, excited notes about friends they had made, while Denise’s missive home reflected her deep homesickness. “Mom, I don’t want to stay at camp for two weeks,” she had written. “I want to come home…”

The next morning, a camp counselor out for a sunrise jog came upon two sleeping bags and the body of one of the girls under a tree. County sheriffs would later discover the other two girls’ bodies in the sleeping bags. Camp Scott closed down immediately, packing every camper on a bus for home. The campground never opened again.

The fallout

This was before the Friday the 13th movies were in theatres. Before the fictional Camp Crystal Lake made gory, over-the-top murder mainstream. Our parents had surely heard of terrible crimes against children like the Chowchilla kidnappings or the Babysitter Killer the year before, but we kids had been living in a bubble. We had always walked to school alone or with other others our own age. We had ridden our bikes around the neighborhood for most of our summer days, hardly ever checking in at home except to ask for money to buy ice cream.

After those murders, all that freedom evaporated. My mother didn’t let me out of her sight that summer. Outdoor games of freeze tag and hide-and-seek turned into board game marathons around the kitchen table. No more casual popping in and out of friends’ houses and backyard pools. Now, every mother scheduled play dates instead. The search for the killer went on for 10 months at a total estimated cost of $2 million, with progress reported daily on television and in the newspaper. The Camp Scott murders and the maniac responsible for them never left anyone’s mind.

Nearly 40 years later, the enormity of the evil of those murders and those poor, doomed girls still has a nightmarish hold on those who lived through it, particularly as the crime lacks a clear resolution. Though most people who followed the case will remember Gene Leroy Hart as the main suspect, he was acquitted after trial due to a lack of conclusive evidence. He died of a heart attack in 1979 at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester where he was serving time for unrelated charges. Though the autopsy had found he died of a heart attack, the sheriff had been quick to tell anyone who would listen that other inmates killed him out of a “code of honor.”

Today, a quick Internet search turns up stories about mysterious happenings at his grave in Mayes County and rumors that he had studied shapeshifting with a Cherokee medicine man and had the power to change his physical shape at will.

The suspect

Understanding evil requires looking closely at the suspected perpetrator. So what do we know about Hart? Known to friends and family as Sonny, Hart was a Cherokee and a star high school football player raised by a single mother. He had married young and had a son, but his wife left him when he first got into trouble with the law in 1966. That year, he pled guilty to charges of kidnapping and raping two pregnant women in Tulsa. His family members and community supporters claimed that Hart had only confessed to the charges because he had thought he would have been given suspended sentence, since the two women were with him willingly and hid in his trunk from their husbands.

He served three years before being released on parole. Soon after he was caught burglarizing Tulsa apartments. He went back to jail and then escaped in 1973, supposedly living in the wooded Ozark hills around Camp Scott, close to where his mother lived.

Books such as “Tent Number Eight” by Gloyd McCoy and “Oklahoma’s Most Notorious Cases” by Kent Frates describe more fully the lack of evidence against Hart for the Camp Scott murders. But months of daily news attention created a lot of pressure on Mayes County Sheriff Pete Weaver, who quickly settled on Hart as suspect number one. Hart was eventually caught at a tarpaper shack owned by a Cherokee named Sam Pigeon deep in the Cookson Hills about 50 miles away from Camp Scott. He had been living there, in the bosom of his hometown friends who believed he was innocent, for eight months.

Though some would say that Hart was a convenient scapegoat for the Camp Scott murders, most of Oklahoma outside of the tight knit Locust Grove community breathed a collective sigh of relief at his arrest in April 1978.

His trial lasted a month, and the jury deliberated over two days. Juror Lela Ramsey spoke on the 25th anniversary of the murders about the experience for an OETA documentary. “We didn’t have any choice but to acquit him,” she said. “Things just didn’t add up.”

Even after his acquittal, the district attorney and Sheriff Weaver held resolute in their opinions that Hart was the Camp Scott killer. Demands to find the real killer from Hart’s supporters were largely ignored, in the same manner that folks would later scoff at football player O.J. Simpson’s claims he would find his ex-wife’s real killer. Hart’s death meant it was time to return to normal life. Even if now, Oklahomans were more likely to lock their doors at night and keep their children close.

Why? The elusive answer

The murders on that rainy June 1977 day hollowed out the hearts of Oklahomans and robbed them of the conviction that nothing like the Chowchilla kidnappings or the Oakland County child killings could happen in the heartland. For me, it led me through fear and sadness to question how and why such a crime could happen. The closest I have come to an answer is within this excerpt from “Tent Number Eight” that recaps a 1977 speech given by clinical psychologist Robert Phillips to the Associated Press Oklahoma news executives:

Whoever committed the murders, according to Dr. Phillips, did so because he hated happiness, innocence and decency. The best way to degrade those things was to violate the young girls.

“Something happened in this man’s life to make him feel inferior and built up a passionate hatred in him. He hates being alive, and in killing, he is taking revenge on a world he believes has mistreated him.”

Phillips said the murderer probably did not plan on killing all three girls. He got caught up in the savage emotion, and the beast in him emerged. Then the man, who had no order in his life, tried to put things back in order by cleaning up the blood and putting two of the girls in sleeping bags.

We just cannot know for sure what happened that night. A broken person, three vulnerable girls, a terrible instinct, followed by terrible acts, driven by a force of evil. That all of these things came together on one rainy June night is all we know. And that makes me continue to ask why.

August 23, 2017No Comments

Trade-offs of dental school care

In 1999, I landed a job that offered excellent medical benefits with one hitch: no dental coverage until after the first year. Perhaps I could go without dental benefits for one year? It seemed a calculated risk worth taking, my then-husband and I thought.

We were enrolled in his medical plan, paying almost $100 a month out of pocket. (Goodness that sounds cheap in 2017.) It included dental coverage, but the monthly contribution took too big a bite out of our very limited budget. The choice seemed clear: We would sign up for the free medical coverage at my new job. We would both schedule dental appointments right before our coverage ran out, and then cross our fingers and hope for the best for the next 12 months.

Then, a few months later, it happened: a nagging pain in one of my molars that continued to worsen over five days. A trip to a dentist friend confirmed my suspicion. I needed a root canal--and quick. Aware that I lacked insurance, my dentist offered a 15% courtesy discount, slicing the cost of the one-hour procedure to a still-hefty $500.

But the pain in my tooth was worse than the pain to my pocketbook. I knew I had to do something. I underwent the root canal, parted with my money, then discovered later that the surgery was just the beginning. I would need a crown to protect the now-brittle tooth at an additional cost of $700, even with a discount. And I had several cavities that needed to be filled, at $90 each. There had to be a better way, I decided--or at least a cheaper one.

A co-worker tipped me off to the UCLA dental school clinic, which provides full dental care to patients for about half of a practicing dentist's fees. The student work was supervised by dental school faculty. Not everyone can get in: Patients were pre-screened to ensure that their dental needs match the school's educational needs. Once accepted, patients paid $89 for a comprehensive exam, cleaning, and a full set of X-rays. Then patients were treated for correcting their dental problems. A filling had cost between $40 and $65; a root canal between $215 and $330. A crown had cost from $275 to $335.

It was a good deal for patients, but there were some trade-offs. Appointments at the dental school clinic lasted three hours, and were sometimes devoted to a single procedure, such as a teeth cleaning or a cavity filling. The lengthy appointments were made to accommodate the students' busy schedules, and the clinic was closed during school breaks and exams.

As I waited for my initial cleaning appointment--the first step to getting my half-price crown--I got an offer I couldn't refuse. Was I willing to be a test subject in a state dental board exam? I would get the crown and a filling for free, while also doing my part to advance the field of dentistry.

To become a licensed dentist in California, students needed to pass a tough written and clinical exam--the latter of which involves cleaning teeth, putting on a crown and filling a cavity, all under the watchful eyes of state dental examiners.

Because I needed a crown and had five cavities to fill, I was a great candidate for the dental hopefuls.

I decided to give it a try and duly went to the dental school several times, where my teeth were X-rayed and prepped for their debut as educational material. The good news: I had two perfect cavities for fillings. The bad: My crown was inappropriate for the exam. (I did get a free temporary filling as a consolation prize, though.)

Despite having lost the chance for a free crown, I decided to proceed as a guinea pig. By now I wanted to help and, heck, a free filling was nothing to sneeze at.

On exam day, I cleared four hours out of my schedule to be available for the test. I arrived early, signed a few waivers and headed upstairs to wait in the hallway outside the large exam room with my anxious dental student and his assistant.

The dental students seemed nervous as we waited for the exam to begin. Failure would be costly, and not just to their pride. Beyond the years of studying and thousands of dollars in student loans, the prospective dentists have shelled out $600 to take the exam and an additional $500 to pay the assistant.

My dental team started to work immediately, numbing my mouth and swiftly installing a "dental dam" in my mouth. The dam was basically a piece of metal propping my jaw open, and a rubber sheet isolating my teeth from my tongue. He drilled an opening and cleared out the decay. A portion of the freshly drilled tooth chipped away, and the assistant rushed off to find a supervisor for consultation. The white-coated, poker-faced referee deemed the chip unavoidable, and directed my dentist to correct the problem.

Two hours later, I was sent on my way with a new filling. I left without knowing whether my dental student passed his exam. (I later found out he did.) While the price was right for my new filling, the three-hour ordeal left me with a "sprained" jaw, restricting me to a soft-food diet for several weeks and delaying my other dental work for several months. But discomfort aside, I was satisfied with the experience--and my free filling.

When my dental insurance finally kicked a few months later, I decided to go back to seeing a private dentist. It was a decision based on convenience more than anything. But even with the safety net of insurance safely in place, it is still nice to know that quality dental care at a reduced cost is there if I ever need it again.

Originally published in the Los Angeles Times on January 4, 1999.

December 30, 2016Comments are off for this post.

In Memoriam: Margaret Arakawa

Steve's mother, Margaret Arakawa, died on December 26, 2016 of natural causes at home and surrounded by family in Arleta, Calif. She was 92.

Feisty and faithful, Margaret worked hard to gain her mobility and voice back after a serious stroke in January 2015. We watched her recover slowly over many months, her determination in physical therapy astounding caregivers and medical pros who assumed a 91-year-old wouldn't have much fight in her. She would prove them all wrong. I have many memories of her perseverance during those PT sessions and on her own: endless arm and leg lifts in bed, those first steps with a walker, learning how to write with her left hand. She took a fierce pride in surprising people with her abilities in recovery, and she taught me that age is only a number. Steve, who saw her nearly every day, did everything possible to keep her in her home until her last breaths.

I met her for the first time in 2004. She was 80 but you might have guessed late 60s. She had an exercise bike in the living room in front of the television that she rode every day, and the healthiest diet of anyone I knew, despite her skill at cooking big, rich Italian dinners for us. Family and dog photos, art projects by her grandchildren, clown figurines and even a statue of Pope John Paul II covered the walls and nearly every surface of her tidy home. She wore hearing aids in both ears, and to this day, we're not sure how much she could hear. Sometimes she seemed profoundly hard of hearing, and other times, we were surprised that she understood our sotto voce comments.

She loved dogs and had one or two as companions for most of her adult life. She had a soft spot for male dogs. About ten years ago, she adopted her last dog, a young female German shepherd whose previous owners called her Ginger. Margaret promptly renamed the dog Champ and from that point on referred to her as "him." We always laughed and shook our heads at Champ's forced gender confusion, but the dog didn't seem to mind what you called her as long as she got treats and belly rubs.

Born and raised in Washington D.C., Margaret was the youngest of four children and possibly the most mischievous. She told my mother a wonderful story about her days at the all-girls St. Patrick's Academy. I may not remember all the details correctly, but it went something like this: She was hosing down a patio at the school as part of a punishment after class. I wish I could remember what the punishment was for -- talking in class, maybe? Talking back? The nun who had reported her transgression walked by to check on her work. Margaret saw her, pointed the hose nozzle right at her and drenched the nun. Margaret smiled as she told the story, giving us the impression she had absolutely no regrets.

She moved to Los Angeles in the 1940s. She met her husband, chef Raymond Arakawa, while waiting tables at the Tam O’Shanter Inn. Known by her coworkers as Rusty because of her red hair, Margaret waited on Los Angeles luminaries including Walt Disney and former attorney general John Van De Kamp when he was a child.

Margaret and Ray married in February 1958. They raised four sons: Tony, Stephen, Gregory and Michael. She quit working to focus on raising her children. She and Ray were married for 54 years until his passing in March 2012. Family formed the center of their lives and they loved nothing more than spending time with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Ray and Margaret Arakawa at their 50th wedding anniversary party at the Tam O'Shanter Inn, where they met.

Ray and Margaret Arakawa at their 50th wedding anniversary party at the Tam O'Shanter Inn, where they met.

An active member of St. Genevieve’s Catholic Church throughout her life, Margaret volunteered for many church and school functions. She founded the church’s “55 club” for senior parishioners and remained actively involved in organizing lunches and bingo for two decades until 2012. A natural entertainer, Margaret enjoyed bringing smiles and laughter to children and adults as a clown during parties in the neighborhood as well as at the Tam and St. Genevieve’s. She was a sports fanatic and attended Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants games, but she rooted most passionately for the Washington Redskins, Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Steve and I, like all of her family and friends, struggled watching her body fail her over the past few months, but we took comfort in knowledge of her deep faith in God and belief that she would rejoin loved ones in the afterlife.

A Mass in her honor will be held Sat. Jan. 7 at 10 a.m. at St. Genevieve's Catholic Church, located at 14061 Roscoe Blvd. in Panorama City. Following the burial, the family invites attendees to join them for lunch at the 94th Aero Squadron restaurant at 16320 Raymer Street in Van Nuys. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in her honor to Notre Dame High School of Sherman Oaks, St. Genevieve's Catholic Church, and the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America.

 

October 25, 2016No Comments

God of the Internet Book Signing

My book signing Saturday at Book Soup in West Hollywood drew a great crowd of friends and fans. What a treat it was to be on such hallowed ground on the Sunset Strip, appearing just days after Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson and a few days before Girls' creator Lena Dunham.

God of the Internet's plot seemed ever so timely as well, with hackers having launched an effective attack on a portion of the internet's backbone the day before, rendering Twitter and PayPal and many other sites unreachable for large parts of the day. The large-scale distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack used every day devices like baby monitors and security cameras to flood servers with a firehose of traffic making it impossible for regular users to get to the site. The Mirai botnet used in the Oct. 21 hack is not unlike the fictional one I created for the hackers in God of the Internet, and yet another reminder of the need for basic security measures like changing administrative passwords from generics like "password" or "abc123."

My huge thanks to everyone for coming out, with a special nod to Book Soup staff, Kim from LA for promoting the event, and Brad White of ICANN for being the smoothest emcee. Your support means the world to me.

Photos/Susanica Tam info@susanica.com

(Photos/Susanica Tam info@susanica.com)

(Photos/Susanica Tam info@susanica.com)

 (Photos/Susanica Tam info@susanica.com)

(Photos/Susanica Tam info@susanica.com)

Author Lynn Lipinski discusses and reads from her new book, The God of the Internet, at Book Soup in Hollywood, Calif. on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016. (Photos/Susanica Tam info@susanica.com)

(Photos/Susanica Tam info@susanica.com)