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.

October 5, 2018No Comments

Book Review: Appalachian Alchemy by Barlow Adams

This first appeared in Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel in October 2018.

Are you made of lead or water? Will you sink, or will you flow?

Life is rough on the banks of the Kentucky River in Barlow Adams’s debut novella, Appalachian Alchemy, which finds the youngest Merrick boy trying to answer those questions in the aftermath of his father’s murder. When nine-year-old Book and his 12-year-old brother, Evan, watch Silas Long gun down their father, they learn firsthand that their family is part of a tribe of river people who operate under a particular code of honor distinct from the local sheriff’s brand of law. With Ennis Merrick lying on the ground “like he had fallen down drunk,” the two boys watch as Long unloads bullets from their deceased father’s gun and places the empty gun in his rope belt. Long hands the unused bullets to the boys, saying, "If’n you get on in age a bit and feel like I wronged you or your daddy...you give me [back] this bullet anyway you think is right." Grief, for these boys, comes with a responsibility for revenge.

For troubled, angry Evan, the choice is clear. He will avenge his father's death without the lawman’s help. But things are different for quiet, thoughtful Book. Will Book sink to the “ways of the county,” or will he be strong like the river and keep moving? Is he made of lead or water? Readers will appreciate his torn loyalties as the sheriff questions Book about his father’s killer. Book doesn’t so much take his family’s side as he is compelled to: “I opened my mouth to tell him. My father reached his hand out from the grave and clamped my lips shut.” This push and pull between loyalty to an insular community and the embrace of the larger world’s values of law and order form the novella’s central conflict.

Nine years pass quickly with Adams’s taut writing, and it seems Book’s elemental makeup is more water than lead. Smart, observant, and well read, the youngest Merrick is on track to transcend his raising and get out of Beattyville. In a Romeo-and-Juliet-scented plot twist, he falls in love with Silas Long’s niece, Kelsey, and seems willing to put their family feud to the side despite the displeasure of their relatives. Book may be different from his family and the townspeople, but he’s still drunk enough of the river water to have bought into the sense of honor that Beattyville’s residents prize above all.

Book’s mother and brother know he is special and expect him to leave them behind for a better life, but that doesn’t mean Book’s path will be smooth. While Evan quits school before the ninth grade, Book becomes the first in his family to earn his high school diploma and goes one step further, winning a partial college scholarship. He and Kelsey make plans for their future at random-seeming Syracuse University in New York. We never learn their reasons for that particular school over cheaper and closer alternatives in Kentucky or even big cities like Atlanta, Chicago, or New York City. In the end, it’s a missed opportunity to flesh out Kelsey’s motivations and desires beyond being with Book, but not a critical flaw. We understand their desire to leave Beattyville behind, and that is enough to keep the story moving.

But the ways of the river won’t be shaken easily. Book’s need to supplement his partial scholarship to realize his dreams drives him to sell the meth his brother has begun cooking to the area’s most desperate. These “tadpole” people who never leave the river are more than willing to trade their “cheap watches and Dale Earnhardt memorabilia pieces” for the promise of a high to transport them temporarily out of soul-sucking destitution. Book is conflicted by the morality of selling drugs, but practicality, ambition, and loyalty keep him in the game. And he can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Summer is ending, and fall means a fresh start at Syracuse University, Kelsey by his side. It all seems worth it—until everything changes.

At first glance, Adams’s novella seems to revisit a familiar and sympathetic story: A young man caught between old-school loyalty and the promise of something beyond poverty and crime in his rural hometown. The polarities that can be spun from this—nature versus nurture, family loyalty versus individual advancement—sound more simplistic than the complex portrait Adams has drawn of a morally flexible young man who finds his capacity for violence is greater than he thought when his allegiance is torn between love and family. A happy ending here is not a given.

Adams’s strengths as a writer lie within his ear for dialogue, his ability to capture the insularity of Beattyville, his strong, relatable characters, and his skill for meshing the tragic with the comic. Book’s father haunts Appalachian Alchemy, while his brother provides a perfect foil and cautionary tale to any river shortcuts that Book considers. Adams paints bonds of brotherhood as blood ties that give us life and purpose, but also hold us back. Graphic violence illustrates the depth of those ties and adds a dark intensity and grit to the narrative that may not please sensitive readers who would otherwise enjoy Adams’s poetic turns of phrase, such as a boy being one of a traveling salesman’s “leftover smiles” and hearing “a cricket’s chorus to her amen.” As you read, you’ll feel the water beat against the boat’s side and smell the diesel fuel burning. You’ll root for Book to be as strong as the river rather than as heavy as the lead bullets that brought his father and brother down.

Appalachian Alchemy

By Barlow Adams (Los Angeles: REaDLips Press, 2017)

$8.99, paper. ISBN 9780999058428, 148 pp.

April 21, 2018No Comments

Book Review: You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld

This review first appeared in The Same on March 28, 2018.

My freshman year of high school I crushed on a boy named T. After months of in-class flirting and meaningful looks, T. asked me to go to the movies with him one afternoon after school. My first date! I was thrilled. I don’t remember the movie or how it ended, because we kissed for most of the second hour. Pretty innocent stuff, but literally the most exciting thing that had happened to me at age fourteen.

School was out soon after that date and I spent the rest of May and most of June waiting for him to call me. The phone never rang but that didn’t stop me from building up an entire fantasy world in which he was on an extended vacation with his family—somewhere with no phones. I was certain that once school resumed, so would our budding romance. This is not what happened. What happened is he made fun of my hair to his friends when he bumped into me at Big Splash Water Park then walked away from me like I was nothing. The romance was over before it really began.

This painful memory is also the sharpest one I have of a time when my carefully tended inner fantasy world was gutted like a dead fish. The story I had concocted—that he was a nice person, that he really liked me—was nothing more than a sand castle washed away with the morning tide. I learned a hard lesson that day about what to do when the world I had pictured vanishes under the weight of someone else’s actions.

Characters in Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest collection of short stories, You Think It, I’ll Say It, learn this lesson too. And they learn how to move on, in tears, in joy, in resignation, and always in the knowledge that there are ways in this world that we will always, inevitably, be alone, whether in relationships or out of them. The women (and one man) of these stories are flawed, hopeful, lonely, observant women at their lives’ midpoints, navigating motherhood and marriage and professional success with sex and power and love. Taken together, the tautly written and multi-faceted story collection is a portrait of modern womanhood, albeit one within a bubble of affluence and comfort.

Misunderstandings abound, as Sittenfeld’s characters navigate the sticky mess of interpersonal relationships. While misunderstandings can be spun into comedy gold, a la the 1970s and 80s “Three’s Company,” Curtis Sittenfeld rends them heartbreaking instead. She exposes the essential, silly or delusional truths we tell ourselves, and the internal worlds we create and try to keep intact. What is life, really, but our internal voice spinning the narrative of our lives? If those inner worlds intersect with reality, sometimes we are pleasantly surprised, but more often than not, we are Julie in the story “The World Has Many Butterflies,” from which the larger collection draws its title. Julie’s marriage has lost its luster, and “for a stretch of several months, whenever Julie had sex with her husband, she pretended he was [her husband’s co-worker] Graham.” She and Graham had yet to share anything intimate other than a game they played at social engagements to which both couples were invited. At country clubs and dance recitals, they play I’ll Think It, You Say It, a game he initiates that allowed him to stand in silence while she dished and gossiped and judged the couples around them. The scene in which she confesses her love for him – at the Four Seasons Hotel – is painful and embarrassing, as he spells out in a “legalistic” manner that he was never romantically interested in her and that worse, she realized that she was never saying what he thought, that he was just listening. Her humiliation from the lunch is not quite over. Julie runs into Graham’s wife after their divorce at the Butterfly Center where their children are on a field trip.  She learns that Graham had moved in with a co-worker named Beth Brenner, ten years younger, blond and svelte, in mergers and acquisitions. “How embarrassing, in light of the news about Beth Brenner, that Julie had imagined Graham might desire her forty-four-year-old self, even boob-lifted and hair-straightened…Beth Brenner offered rather convincing evidence that he’d said he was never romantically interested in her because he was never romantically interested in her.”

Part of Sittenfeld’s work is to trace how tenuous our connections to other humans, even those closest to each other, can be. And how commitments like marriage and parenthood are made in a thousand ways each day. In “A Regular Couple,” we join newlyweds Jason and Maggie on their honeymoon. Maggie, a successful attorney with a national reputation for defending a famous sports star in a rape case, and her public defender husband encounter one of Maggie’s high school frenemies, the then-popular girl Ashley Frye and her husband, also on their honeymoon. The conflict with Ashley Frye, decades-old, exacerbated by Maggie’s career choices, comes at a dance club, and causes Maggie to also spill her venom on Jason, who we learn is as much her trophy husband as Ashley is her husband Ed’s trophy wife. When Ashley finds Maggie’s sore spot and inserts the knife, Maggie’s response threatens her new marriage. Insisting that the sports star Billy Kendall “had raped the cocktail waitress” but also using a tone of voice that “she also didn’t really care,” Ashley’s comments goad Maggie into saying “As for Jason being by conscience, I’d say it’s more like I’m his gravy train.”

Sittenfeld wades into #MeToo territory in the final story, “Do-Over.” Told from the point of view of a good-looking, wealthy white male named Clay, we meet Sylvia McClellan, the woman he stole a student council prefect election (prefect, we are told, is a fancy boarding school name for president) a quarter of century ago. Readers of Sittenfeld’s debut novel Prep (Random House, 2005) will easily picture these characters in the dorms of Ault. The story opens up, appropriately, with Clay reassuring his fourteen-year-old daughter after the election of Donald Trump as president, crushing her hopes for the first female president. “Progress happens in fits and starts,” he texts his daughter, and we learn that that night he dreams of Sylvia. Four months later, he’s not surprised when out of the blue she emails him, wanting to meet for dinner. Clay is no Neanderthal, and gets why she may be calling, and this is exactly where Sittenfeld’s characterizations are so spot on. We can’t hate Clay for the white male privilege he’s benefited from, not just as a white male, but as a handsome, athletic one born to money and with little struggle ascended to success in his field. We don’t know what he does for a living, but investment banking or lawyering seem like the right fit.

Perhaps the recent election of Donald Trump spurred him to make the comment, as he avers, or maybe it is as a father of a girl about the same age Sylvia would’ve been at the time he stole the election, but he wades into an apology over dinner. “I guess we’ll never know the results of that runoff, but I’d be willing to bet I lost and you won. And even if it was a different time, even if I wasn’t the one who came up with the plan, what happened was completely sexist,” Clay says.  It turns out, however, that this was not her intent for the dinner at all. She was following up on secret crush she’d had for him during that time, a crush that perhaps made her willing to go along with the plan where he assumed the prefect role and she became associate prefect just because he “had more experience.” Without ever knowing the actual outcome of the election. Sylvia, it turns out, never voted for herself in the election, a note that rings true to female readers taught that to do so would be “conceited or indecorous.”

It’s a nuanced version of #MeToo, lacking the gut punch of some of the stories passed around since the movement caught fire last October, but one that many women can relate to. It’s the story of women who have ingested messages of inferiority and people-pleasing so deeply that the acting this way has become ingrained. When the time comes to stand up, women like me fail sometimes. We don’t trust ourselves. It comes externally, and from inside our heads. How many ways, how deep is our desire to get along and be liked, how willing are we to suppress what we want for the good of the other. “I learned an important lesson from all that, which was to be my own advocate and if I came off as immodest, so be it? And you have to figure that out at some point, right? Or at least if you’re a woman, you do, or not a white man,” Sylvia tells Clay.

At any rate, it’s not why she called him. She is assailed with dissatisfaction in her own marriage, weary of seeing her husband Nelson filling his unemployed days with video games in the same track pants with orange stripes. Sylvia confesses to Clay that she cooked up the whole plan to meet him: “I came here to go on a date with you. You wouldn’t know it was a date, but I would,” she tells Clay. “I wasn’t hoping we’d end up in bed. For one thing, I don’t think I could live with the guilt, and for another childbirth wrecked my body.” Her awkward confession turns into date sabotage as she asks him if he’s ever had an anal fissure “as blasé as if she’s asking if he’s ever tasted coconut water” before telling him about her own caused by her daughter’s birth.

We feel Clay’s pain: he’s hardly the most sensitive man in the world, but he’s trying. He sits with Sylvia, he doesn’t bolt, even though “the narrowness of the margin of error allowed here, combined with the high likelihood of his screwing up—it reminds him of marriage counseling.” This is a particularly apt of the place that most men find themselves when discussing issues of gender inequality. Sittenfeld has chosen to tell this story from the man’s point of view, but still it is Sylvia whose voice shines. “There was this story I told myself, that growing up I’d been the awkward good girl, the responsible student, and I’d missed out socially but in the long term I’d come out ahead…But something came loose inside me, something got dislodged, and I am still that teenager,” Sylvia tells Clay.

The reader can take away lessons, too, that the ten stories in this collection provide a snapshot of modern womanhood that is more nuanced than proponents of gender equality may wish to acknowledge. Sittenfeld doesn’t tell stories with black-and-white morals or victories of right over wrong. She tells a quieter truth of a loneliness that can persist through marriage and motherhood and professional success. For women who thought they could have it all, the goal remains ever elusive.

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House Publishing Group, Apr 24, 2018

March 11, 2018No Comments

Book Review: Darkroom by Mary Maddox

Characters in Mary Maddox’s 2016 thriller, Darkroom, don’t crack many smiles. They live in a bleak world as full of shadows as the old-school darkroom where photographer Day Randall had developed her artistic images. When Day goes missing at the start of the novel, her absence sets her roommate Kelly Durrell on a dangerous journey into the violent sphere of drug dealing and distribution controlled by the very rich and very secretive Stuart Helm.

Kelly and Day are an unlikely pair and Darkroom asks readers to accept their friendship as deep enough to inspire extraordinary acts on Kelly’s part. Kelly, an assistant curator at the Museum of the Rockies, is attracted to Day’s photographic talent and sympathetic to her struggles with mental illness and drug use. Kelly invites the woman to share her townhome and her life. Kelly, despite her professional success, lives in an isolation of her own making, far from her estranged parents and the memory of her dead sister in the Midwest. She has no particular love for her adopted home of Boulder, Colorado, and Day is her only friend. The only real commitment keeping her in Boulder is her demanding job at the museum. She works for a micro-managing, credit-stealing boss named Joyce who makes workdays nearly intolerable. In the first chapter, Kelly describes herself as a “woman who dabbed her smudged mascara with a tissue and dreaded going to work.” Kelly seems bogged down by inertia, not particularly interested in anyone sexually, intimate with no one, working for a boss she dislikes. She’s in a sort of stasis. If she first befriended Day in order to shake up her own life, she later finds out that the price will be much higher than she considered.

Readers looking for wise-cracking, articulate cool dude bad guys in the style of Elmore Leonard won’t find them here. The novel’s other characters are as grim and humorless as the world Kelly has created for herself in Boulder. We meet the reclusive Stuart Helm, living in a high-tech compound with his child bride Odette who sneaks out at every occasion to do drugs and find lovers. His head of security, Yount, is a stone-hearted thug willing to do anything for a buck. Others include Greg, a cocaine-addicted former artist and bar owner who was Day’s most recent lover and a bar manager named Welch who rapes unconscious women. None inspire sympathy or admiration. Even the bouncer with the silly name of Animal is a serious dude, trying to help Kelly find Day without destroying his own chances at a private security gig working for Yount that he desperately wants. Readers seeking relief from the frosty and sinister world Maddox has created find some in the blossoming romance between Animal and Nina, a bartender at the club where he works.

Maddox’s writing thrums with tension and some lovely turns of phrase from the first line: “Some photographs speak for the dead, but their meanings may be elusive.” By chapter six, readers are well into the swing of the mystery. Maddox builds suspense well through a series of not-too-surprising plot twists that kept me turning pages to find out what happened to Day and what price Kelly would pay to learn the secrets of her disappearance.

Readers looking for a taut thriller populated by unpredictable characters will find Darkroom compelling and worthwhile. Maddox’s crisp writing is a pleasure to read and the smart, resilient protagonist she created in Kelly Durrell is an example of the strong female characters I love to see in fiction. Those looking for something more light-hearted should keep on moving.

Darkroom by Mary Maddox, Cantraip Press, Mar. 31, 2016

 

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.

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)

July 10, 20151 Comment

Fiction: Opportunity Knocks, Part 1

The first time it happened she was at the laundromat. Then there was another occasion, a few weeks later, while pushing her cart at the supermarket. Initially it was terrifying, but now it happened nearly every day and Robin was starting to like it. It was certainly more gratifying than the long stints of yoga and meditation she’d been trying in order to replace resentment and powerlessness with peace and acceptance.

Yes, she did feel just the tiniest bit lonely, but loneliness was a tolerable price to pay for this seductive new power. The things she learned! Just today, she’d discovered that Alesha and her husband hadn’t had sex in three months. And that Missy was pretending not to know how to use a spreadsheet program to avoid doing work.

Knowledge was power. And power was something Robin definitely lacked in her dead-end cubicle job at Creek City. She’d tried to accept it, writing out little gratitude lists every morning to try to keep her attitude positive. I am healthy. I have a wonderful son who loves me. I have a job when so many people do not. But knowing people’s secrets turned out to be far more motivating. Her secret knowledge made her feel strong, like a hammer cracking through people’s outer shells, revealing their messy, gooey insides. So she quickly learned not to mind that she’d had to become invisible to get it.

Even Robin’s young boss Paul Boyce, Creek City’s chief of staff, wasn’t immune to the power of her invisibility. She heard his footsteps, quick and agitated, on the hallway tile before he poked his head in the conference room where she had been waiting for him for half an hour.

“I almost didn’t see you. What are you doing just sitting here?” Paul was short and plump, with tiny hands and a high-pitched voice that reminded Robin of her son when he was a toddler, always on the verge of a temper tantrum if he didn’t get his way. Her son grew out of it, but Paul was committed for life.

“You said to meet you down here at one,” Robin said. She tried not to let her impatience leak out. His favorite power play was to make people wait.

His little legs covered the twenty feet of thin office carpet in surprisingly long strides. He started rifling through the box of laminated name tags. With trembling hands Robin fumbled for the smooth black jade pendant hanging around her neck, trying to tap into the calming powers promised by the saleswoman at the Goddess Rock Shop. Try as she might, she could only partially believe in the stone’s mystic powers. If Paul were to ask about whether the stone had any meaning (which he never would) she would deny it and say she simply liked the way it looked.

“Robin, am I going to find typos again?”

The sound of her name hit her ears like the heavy clang of a bell. She could feel his anger rising like a fiery morning sun, even though he hadn’t actually found a typo yet. He was looking for an excuse to erupt.

“I checked them twice,” Robin said.

She tried to swallow but her mouth was too dry. After days of enjoying her invisibility, she felt practically naked to be the focus of so much of someone’s attention. Especially the critical kind.

If he found a mistake in the name tags, he’d start yelling and then follow her back to her desk where he would stand over her shoulder watching her try to correct the names with shaking hands. Please don’t find an error, she thought.

He pulled out a random sample for inspection, his green eyes ping-ponging over the names and titles. Robin held her breath. Paul had every name of every commissioner memorized. He was the kind of man who was uptight about the small details but often let the really big things slide.

“Looks OK,” he said, and flung them on the table in a messy heap. Robin’s hands crabbed over the table, gathering them up for re-alphabetization. He turned his back to her.

Her shoulders softened and she took a deep breath to release the tension, like the yoga instructor told her. She was invisible once again.

You can read Part 2 here.

March 27, 2015No Comments

Why I’ll Likely Self-Publish

I've been struggling to find a literary agent for one of my two fiction novels for more than a year now. I've pitched the story at conferences and via email, and received a steady trickle of rejections. Mostly formulaic responses, some nicer than others, one or two with encouraging words, but all the same rejection in the end.

People tell me to take heart. Kathryn Stockett was rejected 60 times before finding someone to accept her debut novel, The Help.

Others tell me to self-publish. After all, the greatest thing about the Internet and the print-on-demand technology is that I don't have to rely on someone else to "give me permission" to publish my novel. I can do it myself.

But since I was a girl, I wanted to be an author, and I thought authors needed agents and publishers. And to be honest, I don't want to sort out ISBN numbers and e-book formats and cover art. I want to write.

However, the truth is that I cannot get a foothold in the publishing business. I've tried to figure out the rules of what makes an agent accept your work. I've been told all of these things:

  1. It's all about the writing. If the writing is good, we'll consider it.
  2. Target agents based on their interests and other clients.
  3. Format your manuscripts properly and be professional.
  4. No typos!
  5. Make me fall in love with your characters.
  6. I've got to be hooked on the first page.
  7. Create a narrative voice I haven't heard before.
  8. Create a world that I want to learn more about.
  9. Develop a platform and fan base first.
  10. It's a subjective business.

I've worked in business long enough to know that following the rules only gets you so far, and by this, I mean that you can follow rules to a "T" but still get rejected for just not being the right fit. Which has led me to the recent conclusion that most of those tips are noise, because number 10 seems to trump them all.

Case in point: take a look at just a handful of the rejection emails (form letters) I've received.

  1. I'm sorry. This is not for me.
  2. You have an interesting idea for a book and there's a lot to like about your approach. But in the end I'm afraid I didn't come away from this quite fully convinced this was something I think I'd be able to represent successfully. (I've gotten this exact same email for both of my novels.)
  3. I’m afraid your book isn’t a good match for my list.
  4. Having considered it carefully, we have decided that we are not the right fit for your project, and so we are going to pass at this time.
  5. As interesting as your novel sounds, I don't believe I would be the best agent to represent your work.

The world of book publishing has changed. I may need to admit that despite persistence and hard work, I may not find a traditional book deal waiting for me. And that I should take advantage of the opportunities afforded by self-publishing to reach readers directly.

I'll just wait until the latest batch of rejections finishes trickling in, to be certain.

 

December 5, 20143 Comments

Fiction in a minute: Right-size

Alicia spouted business cliches with such earnestness that I had to wonder if she'd been living under a rock for 2o years. How could anyone in the year 2014 call for a paradigm shift or blame something on a perfect storm without a measure of irony at the sheer overuse of the terms? Then she stood up and announced it was time to think out of the box. I rubbed my forehead like I was really thinking hard so she wouldn't see me roll my eyes.

Privacy screen in place, I fired up the laptop to watch some funny cat videos and daydream about starting my own business. The meeting droned on around me and I vaguely heard someone say something about squaring a circle. I had no idea what that meant.

I did have a great idea for a new business watching the news about the day-after-Thanksgiving retail sales. Professional line-waiting. It's an untapped niche of the service industry. Thousands of people want to score $79 flat-screen televisions and tablets but they don't want to wait in line outside the Best Buy for four days. I'd hire the homeless and the otherwise unemployed to secure places in line. Then, on the day of the sale, my savvy customer could simply swoop in to take their place and get the great pricing without all the hassle.

I had just come up with the slogan We Wait For You when Alicia's voice cut through the fantasy.

"The upshot here is that on a go-forward basis we need to right-size this department," she said.

The phrase "right-size" got my attention because every business school flunkie knows that when managers say right-size they mean it's time to fire some people. I shut the laptop screen without even watching the video kitten get out of the cardboard box, as Alicia demanded everyone stand up. I got to my feet, exchanging confused glances with the cubicle warriors around me, then watched as Alicia's assistant wheeled two chairs out of the conference room. Were we going to have meetings where everyone had to stand now, like those Silicon Valley companies do? I'd just read a story on the Huffington Post about how making people stand during meetings encouraged creativity or teamwork or fewer restroom breaks.

Alicia swiped at her smart phone. "Everyone remember the rules for musical chairs?"

Concerned looks bounced around the room. Was she serious?

The dance track "What Does the Fox Say" inexplicably blared from the tiny speaker on her phone and she bounced her head in rhythm. "When the music stops, find a chair. If you find a chair, you keep your job. If you're left standing, well, sayonara and we wish you well."

There was barely time to be stunned or protest because my colleagues starting marching around the conference room table, hands grazing chair backs in the hopes that continued contact would bring an advantage.

The music stopped just as the singer was about to answer the song's titular question. Alicia grinned as eight adults in business casual bumped hips and settled rumps into chairs. Me? I was left standing, along with Ruben from marketing. He looked like he was going to cry.

"I know this seems tough," Alicia said. "But remember, in Chinese, the word crisis also means opportunity. Or something like that. One door shuts, another one opens."

Ruben turned on his heel and walked out. Nine sets of eyes shifted to me.

"I see it as a win-win," I said. "Let me know if you want me to wait in line for you at the Apple store. I'll give you the discounted rate."