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.

July 6, 2017No Comments

Protect yourself with better passwords

I have more digital passwords than keys, and without a handy key ring and visual clues like a Hello Kitty key cap, I'm having a hard time keeping them straight.

Add to that the cautions of most info security professionals to avoid using the same passwords across multiple sites and systems, and creating passwords with at least seven characters using symbols like $ or % as well as capital letters and you've got a mind-melding memory challenge. Did I forget to say that you shouldn't write them down, either?

The password we should protect the most is our email password. If a hacker gains access to your email account, he or she could use the "helpful" Forgot Your Password? feature on most sites and possibly change the passwords to your other accounts, like banks, PayPal, social networking and more.

Three different types (desktop, portable and web-based) of software solutions have surfaced for those of us who confuse our bank password with our Yelp password.

Password management programs like KeePass and Password Safe (available free) will store your passwords in one encrypted database and allow you to access them with one master password or key file. Even easier to use are web-based password managers like 1Password and LastPass that allow you to access your encrypted passwords from any device.

Experts say that the most common passwords, and thus the easiest to break, are:

  • the word "password"
  • birthdays or anniversary dates
  • children's or pet's names
  • QWERTY or ABCDEF or ABC123
  • cities and hometowns

And if you think picking a word from the dictionary is the answer, think again. Among the different ways hackers use to crack passwords are the "dictionary attack," which basically tries every word in the English or any other foreign language as your password. Some dictionary crackers even substitute symbols for letters, like pa$$word instead of password.

The best recommendation for password protection is to use a password manager, and to think of phrases that have personal meaning to you and are more complex than a proper name or a dictionary word. Some people use book or poetry excerpts, favorite dinner entrees, phrases from childhood or song lyrics as a foundation for their passwords, and then build in special characters and capital letters. Complex, yes, but some things -- like bank accounts and other personal information -- should be protected to the best of our efforts.


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

(Photos/Susanica Tam

(Photos/Susanica Tam

 (Photos/Susanica Tam

(Photos/Susanica Tam

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

(Photos/Susanica Tam

October 11, 2016No Comments

The looming digital crisis of confidence

The first hints of trouble will probably start after the polls close on November 8.

Should votes not go his way, GOP Presidential Candidate Donald Trump will likely reiterate and ramp up his claims of a “rigged” election. These cries, left vague enough to fit neatly into a number of real world risks as well as conspiracy theories, are designed to exploit our worries about cyber security, Russian espionage and voter fraud.

From there, it’s not that far of a leap to a call for recounts in key states, “Not My President” signs in yards, and a full frontal legal assault on the legitimacy of the election.

This is the ugly side of a digital, interconnected world. The fact that to date there have been no indications that previous elections have been tampered with gives little comfort in light of state-sponsored cyber attacks that are becoming increasingly sophisticated and damaging. I wrote my second novel about terrorists' cyber attacks shutting down water, power and banking systems. Equally scary and not at all fictional is the Russian willingness to try to influence November's presidential election via hacking.

Voters need only read headlines to understand the breadth and depth of the risks of any computerized system in an inter-connected world. Today’s cyber threats come from all angles – power grids being shut down, water treatment systems tampered with, millions of dollars stolen from banks. Little wonder that more than half of U.S. voters (56%) are concerned that this year’s election will be affected by hacking or cyber attack, according to a September 2016 survey conducted by security firm Carbon Black.

The vulnerabilities of state voting systems, particularly those using direct-recording electronic (DRE) machines, have been well-documented since the 2000 Gore/Bush election. These machines record and store votes electronically, and pose the greatest risk for a security breach. Many are backed up by paper trails, but a large group are not.

Many pundits are looking at Pennsylvania as the state to watch this election. Not only is it a swing state showing a very close race between the two candidates, but it is also a state in which the majority of its counties are using DREs with no verifiable paper trail. Should the legitimacy of this election be questioned, Pennsylvania is likely where it will happen.

That we should have seen it coming won’t matter come November.

Internet security professionals have been warning us for years that anything connected to the Internet can be hacked, even as companies race to connect our toasters, deadbolt locks and pacemakers to the much-vaunted Internet of Things.

Most of us have decided that the benefits of hyper-connectivity outweigh the risks. We like the convenience and we don’t think much about the huge data trails we leave in our wakes. We use 123abc as our password for multiple accounts, and tap into free wifi without worrying about what data we are sending through the airwaves. It’s hard to fully comprehend the risks until we see real-world consequences like identity theft, exposure of private or embarrassing photos or data, or the failure of systems we rely on.

Maybe this November will give us our wake-up call. Or maybe not. Voter fraud in the U.S. is quite a rare thing, and back-up paper trails provide confidence that tampering, if it happened, could be uncovered.

Still, the queasy feeling about this November’s election persists. Part of Donald Trump’s genius is that like a true dealmaker, he always leaves lots of room for negotiation. He exploits the fears of the electorate by undermining and questioning the very process itself. If you’re losing the game, question the rules.

When Trump says that if he loses in November, it will only be because the election was “rigged,” he leaves out the specifics of how. He could mean the scheduling of the debates, the endorsements of party leaders or any number of potential upsets. Should he lose on November 8, the hackability of the voting machines will be ready and waiting as a reason.

Undermining the confidence of our voting system is the real danger. The doubt itself is damaging enough.

September 30, 20161 Comment

Secrets of the Kitchen Cabinet

The roaches have discovered my secret. They've invaded my unit's kitchen cabinets and made little roach tracks through the dusty wasteland of cut crystal vases, a KitchenAid stand-up mixer, bread plates, a stainless steel seltzer bottle and a carved wood ice bucket.

The roaches have found the wasteland of my wedding registry gifts.

And for the exterminator to eradicate these six-legged intruders, I have to pull everything out of the kitchen and bath cabinets. Seeing all of these cooking, baking and entertaining objects is like unpacking lost baggage from a long-ago vacation. These gifts--china, crystal--have outlived my interest in home entertaining and also the marriage. The days when I thought I would be throwing dinner parties are pretty much over. Hell, most weeknights I'm balancing a sandwich or Thai takeout on the couch with my laptop. Weekends I go out to dinner. I don't need a fancy cheeseboard with four different kinds of cheese cutters to slip a slice of cheddar out of the pre-packaged bag from Ralph's. I don't need silver ice tongs to crack a cube out of the tray in the freezer. And the seltzer bottle? I don't even like seltzer water! What was I thinking?

I know what I was thinking. I was under the mid-1990's spell of the Macy's, Bed Bath & Beyond, Ross Simons and Williams-Sonoma wedding registry lists. Marketers had concocted a set of fantasy images about my married life and I'd bought right in, imagining somehow once we said the "I do's" that we'd magically morph into people who throw cheese tasting parties and serve seltzer water with artisanal ice cubes. People who make their own ice cream and cheese. People who use double-boilers and candy thermometers. None of these things happen.

Now roaches claim these glamorous items as their landscape and I must take the territory back, object by object. A one gallon stock pot. Christmas china. Ceramic ramekins. Cloth napkins. A mortar and pestle. A spring coil strainer. All-Clad pots and pans that get passed over on the rare days I do cook because they're too heavy. Bon Appetit cookbooks with recipes that call for Tahitian vanilla beans and blood orange zest. Confronting these relics is like reading old diary entries from middle school: nostalgic, startling and a little embarrassing.

I pack everything into boxes and consider a garage sale. But is there even a market for these things? A quick search on eBay reveals that the last Lenox Federal Cobalt place setting of china sold a month ago for 39 bucks.  I had become a hoarder of tableware and gourmet cooking tools that I had no use for and not many people want anymore.

A friend deep in the wedding scene tells me that now, brides and grooms ask for money toward honeymoons and houses now. Crowdfunding. How practical! We should have done that.

So, if you're in the LA area and you need mother of pearl caviar spoons, cut crystal high ball glasses or a melon baller, drop me a line quick before the whole lot goes (washed, of course) to the thrift store.

Now to tackle the bathroom cabinets, which are a graveyard of hair, skin and makeup products that didn't work out. That's another blog post.

May 23, 20163 Comments

Groundwork for a salmon revival

I thought human teen-dom was tough. My own experience of navigating mean girls, not having two Polo shirts to wear at the same time (80s kids called that doubling-up) and picking the wrong boy to kiss after school pale in comparison to the rites of passage nature inflicts on its non-human inhabitants. Take salmon, for example, as a case of one species' rough initiation to adulthood. Orphaned as hatchlings, they make an epic journey from inland rivers to the sea and back again. It is an odyssey fraught with peril, as they learn to avoid predators and forage for food, only to have to find their way around manmade obstacles like dams, mining pits and pumping plants.

Of course, salmon may not be the most sympathetic creatures in the world. A search for videos and photos reveals more interest in serving the fish for dinner rather than enjoying images of it in its wild habitat. But in California, the health and well-being of salmon gets a lot of attention from water agencies and environmental groups alike, who monitor its population as an indicator of the ecosystem's health. I recently had the chance to take a tour of several salmon recovery projects around the Sacramento Valley's Yolo Bypass and came away impressed with the fresh thinking being applied to solving some big, systemic problems.

Knaggs Ranch, Yolo Bypass

The Nigirl Project at Knaggs Ranch, after the water has gone.

Let's talk about the Nigiri Project, one of three stops on the tour I took. Despite its name, the project has nothing to do with sushi, but everything to do with helping young fish prepare for their journey to the sea. The name is a play on the Japanese term nigiri, which means fish over rice, which is a perfect description of what the project does. Project managers flood rice fields not far from the Sacramento airport with water from the Sacramento River during winter months, and juvenile salmon are captured and brought there for several weeks. The fish grow large, thanks to the nutrients in the water, before they are put back into the river to continue on their way.

It's a strategy that Asian countries have used between planting seasons for many years, and it seems to be working in California as well. The salmon living in the flooded rice fields thrive and get plump on microorganisms in the water, while their counterparts in the river do not. Since beginning the project in 2012, project collaborators California Trout and Cal Marsh & Farms have also been able to replicate these results across five different agricultural floodplains throughout the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. It works because it mimics the more natural flow of the Sacramento River before flood management practices were put in place, and it's good for the environment and for agricultural interests economically.

The Nigiri project is just one of many innovative collaborations aimed at helping fish while benefiting agriculture. Todd Manley from the Northern California Water Association has an enormous list of them, some completed and some in progress, that are happening in the Sacramento Valley. Most are public-private partnerships that give hope to those who think gains can be made when differing sides work together, not against one another. One we visited is a century-old water pumping plant on the Sacramento River that is being replaced with a new, state-of-the-art pumping plant that will employ screens and barriers that block young salmon from getting sucked into the pumps. The joint project by Reclamation District 2035 and Woodland Davis Clean Water Agency is one of the last remaining projects from a 20-year effort to protect threatened and endangered fish species while moving water to relieve nearby cities of Woodland and Davis from dependence on groundwater.

Juvenile salmon aren't the sole focus of these projects. The adults swimming upstream in the Sacramento River to spawn are kept on track and out of dead ends through a series of barriers that prevent them from taking the wrong turn out of the river and into natural drainage areas. Lewis Bair, general manager at Reclamation District 108, walked us through one of these projects near the popular fishing spot Knight's Landing.

Knight's Landing

Project site at Knight's Landing

It's worth noting that the land here doesn't even reside in RD108's service area, yet the water agency chipped in just under a fifth of the $2.5 million cost for the improvements because it knows that nature doesn't draw boundaries like people do. Bodies of water are connected, whether they are in one service area or another, so it makes sense to treat them in an integrated, interconnected way.

With drought conditions ongoing in parts of the state, Mother Nature isn't resolving the issue of water scarcity any time soon. Collaborative, forward-thinking projects like these are at least moving us -- and those young salmon -- in the right direction.

January 29, 2016No Comments

From outcast to Africa’s “golden voice”

People said he was cursed. Schoolchildren avoided him. His father sent him to live on the streets when he was a teenager.

Mali musician Salif Keita could be a bitter, angry man, but instead, he writes beautiful songs about life, love and fighting prejudice. His most recent is the plaintive “Folon.” The word folon means the past in Keita’s native tongue, Bambara.

“In the past/ no one wanted to know/ In the past, whatever happened, you could not speak about it/”.

Keita has lived through political turmoil, spending 15 years in exile during Mali’s military dictatorship. “Folon” is about his homeland’s return to democracy, but it could just as easily be about Keita’s own life. Born albino, he was ostracized by his village and his family, and left to live on the streets as a teenager. He found his voice and his salvation in music. Today, he has earned a place among the best and brightest on the world music scene and is frequently called the golden voice of Africa.

“Music is my life, my freedom. It gives me the opportunity to talk to people. To tell them what I want and what I feel,” he said in an interview with PBS Newshour in 2015.

Cast away by his family, Keita made his own living in Mali’s capital, Bamako, by drawing on his heritage, peppered with his own experiences as a pariah. Music and storytelling came naturally to Keita, who came from a family of griots, or storytellers, who have kept West African history alive for thousands of years through words and music. His big break came in the eighties as leader of West African supergroup Les Ambassadeurs who rode the global music wave with their fresh take on afro-pop.

Keita’s albinism, a genetic condition that causes the skin, hair or eyes to have little or no color, also caused his blindness. But looking back on his life and his success, he demonstrates nearly boundless resiliency and optimism. “If I were black,” he told Newshour. “Then I wouldn’t have had this opportunity to be popular in the world.”

When he was young, Keita wanted to be a teacher. Today, as the father of several albino children, he splits his time between family, music and his eponymous global foundation for the fair treatment and social integration of people with albinism.

“Albinism is not a curse, but a disease which, like any other, needs to be treated with care and love,” he told South Africa’s City Press in 2014.

He sent a powerful message from his life in the song “La Difference”:

Some of us are beautiful

Some are not

Some are black

Some are white

All that difference was on purpose

He found lightness and humor in his journey from outcast to one of the continent’s most well known musicians. “If I were black, I would have had good eyesight, and I could be a teacher for 40 people,” he said. “But now, I’m a teacher for a million people. That’s funny.”

As he sang in “Folon,” “In the past, people did not want to know/ today, people want to know.”

Note: this text originally appeared in Give YourSelf Permission Magazine 2015.

August 21, 2015No Comments

Fiction in a minute: Superstition

My wristwatch was stuck at half past two, even though the morning sun indicated otherwise. Most people would get a battery, reset the time and move on with their day. But I had old superstitions rattling around in my head, a legacy of my Nana’s myriad household warnings and omens–like if your right palm itched you were going to get money, if you got your stomach wet while you washed dishes you’d marry a drunk, or if you sang at the table you’d marry a crazy person. And if a clock stopped, someone was going to die.

“Just put a new battery in it, for crissakes,” my boyfriend Stuart said, when he caught me regarding the watch with the kind of revulsion I reserved for cockroaches and cigarette butts.

I talked him into going to the jewelry store with me. We followed the empty footpath around the lake to town. It was one of those dark November days, stark trees against a sky blanketed in grey clouds, wind whipping up dried leaves into clattering funnels. A duck swam across the rippled water, flapping its wings. I pulled the thick wool of my jacket snug across my chest, and wondered if it would rain.

“My mom called,” he said.

If Stuart wanted to pick a topic to take my mind off of Nana’s superstitions, he could not have chosen a better one. We never failed to argue about his mother. I’ve watched Stuart try to rescue her from herself since we were kids. She was the kind of person who thought the world owed her a good time, so every day was a disappointment. I supposed drinking cheap bourbon out of plastic tumblers compensated somehow, or at least made the time pass.

But in the name of harmony, I bit back the question “What kind of trouble is she in now?” and made one of those “mmm” sounds.

“She got laid off,” he said, glancing sideways at me.

She only started working again two weeks ago, I thought. Even for her that had to be record.

“She’ll get unemployment, then?”

“That’s not the point, Kelsey. I’m worried about her. She spends too much time alone in that trailer. No one comes to visit her anymore. She didn’t even get any trick or treaters at last month.”

The kids were probably scared to go there. See, Sherri’s trailer didn’t need to be decorated special for Halloween. It already had the requisite cobwebs, rickety steps and general disrepair of a haunted-looking trailer, every day of the year.

“She wants me to move back in with her.”

Enough. The words spilled out of me like sleet from the sky.

“No way. Bad idea. You love living in your own apartment. And being around her isn’t going to help you stay sober,” I said.

“She’s hit the bottom. She said so herself. And she needs my help. How can I say no to that?”

“She can do what you did and dig herself out. Pour the bourbon down the sink, go to AA meetings and get a sponsor, and do the work herself.”

Stuart’s silence went on so long I thought maybe I’d gone too far, but when I glanced at him he was studying the footpath like we were on a tight rope and he didn’t want to take one wrong step. I quieted the chatter in my head so it wouldn’t continue to come out of my mouth, and concentrated on the moment. I felt the metal watch in my long sweater’s pocket hit my upper thigh with every step. I listened to the sound of dried leaves skittering across the grass. I watched my breath form clouds in the air. After a while, I took his hand and squeezed, relieved when he squeezed back and smiled.

In the distance, a muddy black truck rounded the corner and rumbled toward us.

“She has to admit she has a problem,” Stuart said. “Until then…” He shook his head slowly, eyes still on the ground.

Ahead, the truck wove sharply onto the shoulder before jerking back between the yellow lines for another twenty feet, then lurching back to the shoulder. Sun glare on the windshield blocked my view of the driver. Stuart, oblivious, continued to stare at his shoes hitting the dirt path. Something wasn’t right, I thought. The driver was texting or drunk or maybe both.

“Stuart!” I shouted, but it only made him look at me, not at the danger ahead. And the truck had sped up. I yanked his hand, which sent him sprawling toward me and out of the truck’s path. The horn screamed at us as the driver shook his fist at us and drove by, as though we had been in his way. Then, the shrill squeal of brakes on pavement followed by a loud crash.

I was down, my head on the grass, the pain in my hip so sharp I couldn’t breathe for a moment. Stuart stood above me, stunned, and pulled me to my feet.

Stuart ran toward the wreck, and I followed behind, slowly, my hip crying out with every step. The truck had smashed head-on into a maple tree. The front end of the truck had folded onto the windshield, and a pair of thick, denim-clad legs were visible through the open driver’s side door.

When I got close enough, I saw the blood on the steering wheel and heard a terrible gurgling, but Stuart blocked me from looking at the driver’s face.

“It’s pretty bad,” was all Stuart said. I saw a beer can on its side between the brake pedal and his brown work boot. The smell of beer wafted to me over cold air.

“Could have easily been you that got hit, instead of that tree,” one of the cops who came later told us. “Kind of a cold day for a walk, ain’t it?”

We wouldn’t have been out at all except for that stupid wristwatch stopping, I thought. I pulled it out of my pocket and looked at its face, now as cracked as the truck’s windshield. I must have landed on it when I fell. And I watched as the minute hand ticked forward.

July 24, 2015No Comments

Fiction: Opportunity Knocks, Part 3

Robin slid limply down the side of the turbine until she could feel the cold tile floor through the seat of her pants. His fall played on repeat in her head. He was just a man, blood and flesh and bones like all of us, the power he held completely vanished -- dispensed into the air like humidity. She’d had entertained a few fantasies about killing him, or at least having him disappear, but now, incredulously, someone had actually taken that ultimate step. A small smile found its way to her face.

She waited as the group filed down the stairs, shoes clanging on metal. Ladonna’s knees went wobbly on the staircase, and she fell backwards against the fire chief, who grabbed her by the elbows and guided her slowly down. Harmon stood back, away from the body and seemingly out of its line of sight. Robin realized that Harmon somehow wasn’t completely confident Paul wasn’t going to sit up, point his finger at Harmon and shout “murderer!” But Robin could see Paul’s eyes were closed and his neck was at a very unnatural angle. A trickle of blood ran down his chin. He was clearly dead.

The commissioners whipped out their cell phones in near unison to call 9-1-1 while the head engineer spoke intently into his radio.

“...horrible accident...”

“...I was scared of something like that when he suggested we go up there...”

”...the catwalk was slippery. I almost lost my balance...”

The police arrived, as did paramedics and some employees who were stationed at the power plant. The police shuffled everyone into the conference room. But they didn’t seem to notice when Robin peeled off to hide the camera.

She needed to think. From the way everyone was acting, it was clear that no one saw what happened but her. The right thing to do was to tell the police what happened. Because it was a terrible accident, right? But still, something held her back. Why hadn’t Harmon said anything?

A policeman in a stiff blue uniform stood at the door to the conference room with watchful eyes and a neutral face. The head engineer slouched in his seat, head tilted and resting on the chair back. Harmon sat by himself at the far end of the u-shaped conference table.

“Cup of coffee, Commissioner?” Robin said to Harmon, holding out a steaming paper cup. Up close, he smelled metallic, a scent Robin associated with fear and sweat and adrenalin. And blood. The armpits of his suit were stamped with damp rings and he’d loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top two buttons of his broadcloth shirt.

He took the cup with a nod, and peered at her through wire-rimmed reading glasses as if seeing her for the first time.

“I’m Robin. Paul’s assistant,” she said.

He took a sip of the coffee and shuddered. “Still very hot,” he said. “I’ll let it cool down.”

He set the coffee on the conference room table and gave her a quick smile as though she was dismissed. But when she didn’t move away, he tilted his head at her and raised his wooly eyebrows.

Her head was churning ideas so fast she was afraid they would pour out of her ears. Career blogs always talked about seizing opportunities. Should she seize this one? She had come to enjoy the small powers of invisibility, but didn’t she want to have the power to make real change? And, to be honest, to taste the pleasure of being extremely visible for once? To be someone who mattered?

“Terrible accident, wasn’t it?” she finally mustered.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I was right in front of him when it happened. If only I had turned around --  I might have been able to grab him...”

I’ve got you, old man, she thought.

Out loud, she said, “Really?”

His eyes, now cold and calculating, bored into hers, as though he could see into her soul. She held herself perfectly still, feeling her breath go in and out of her lungs, just like in yoga class.

“And where were you when this terrible accident occurred?” he said.

“You didn’t see me?” she said. She leaned on the edge of the table, but didn’t break eye contact. She wanted to see every one of his reactions.

“I’m not surprised you didn’t notice me. People tell me I just blend into the background,” she said.

His grey eyes were steady on hers, but his tongue darted out to quickly wet his lips, betraying his discomfort.

She smiled. “I’m always amazed what people do and say around me. Paul never understood that. I could have been a valuable asset to him, but he was too much of an asshole to see it.”

His eyes popped wide open at her profanity.

“Not a very kind way to speak of the newly deceased,” Harmon said, tapping the coffee cup thoughtfully. “But I understand what it is like not to be appreciated. Or maybe I should say to be to misunderstood.”

“I saw you two arguing.”

She was surprised how strong her voice sounded. It felt so good to have real power. To be in control instead of at the mercy of another. She saw it clearly now. Her invisibility was a defense mechanism. The way she coped with an impossible situation. And now, she felt she could shed it like a winter coat on an early spring day. She just didn’t need it any longer.

Harmon closed his eyes for a beat. When he opened them, she knew he wasn’t planning on confessing anything to the police.

“Perhaps there was a little spat about how a contract should be awarded. Just a little mix-up in the course of business, my dear. Barely worth mentioning.”

“Funny,” she replied with just the hint of a smile. She stood back up and planted her feet, thinking of yoga’s tree pose. She envisioned her legs growing deep roots in the ground, making her unmovable, connected to the earth.

“I was thinking it was barely worth mentioning what I saw today from the floor of the power plant. Where I was taking pictures of all the VIPs on their important tour,” she said.

She forced herself to keep her hands at her side so as not to betray her nerves under his glare.

“What a talented woman you are.”

He stood up with a grunt, taking advantage of his height by forcing her to look up instead of down at him. She could smell the coffee on his breath. He was a killer and he was trying to intimidate her. But she had leverage. She leaned into his coffee smell, close enough to see dots of white wax in his mustache.

She laughed.

“Like I said, you see a lot when you are invisible.”

Neither one moved for several beats. Harmon locked his eyes on hers as if waiting for her to back down or state what she wanted. Robin did neither. She just breathed and waited, the black silk camisole fluttering against her breastbone with each exhale.

Doors were opening for her she had never imagined. Just yesterday she was hoping Paul would grant her a merit increase on top of her cost-of-living pay raise. Now, she could take his job.

“Where’s the camera?” he said at last.

“It’s not with the police, if that is what you are asking.”

“How can I be sure it stays that way?”

This was it. The moment of truth. Robin told him she wanted Paul’s job, then waited. She reminded herself again of tree pose, the deep roots extending through the carpet, the building’s foundation, on into the soil and rocks below, but her branches reaching for the sky.

“Paul taught you well, didn’t he?” Harmon said with a curt nod.

A detective in a brown leather blazer opened the conference room door and spoke quietly to the uniformed officer.

“Can we see Robin Duffy next?” the detective said.

Robin tugged the seams of her blazer down and stepped away from Harmon and the conference table. She turned back to look at Harmon. He was staring at the tabletop like it was covered in hieroglyphics.

Two weeks later, Head Commissioner Harmon opened the regularly scheduled meeting of the commission in memory of former chief of staff Paul M. Boyce, a loyal employee of Creek City who died tragically in an accident at the city’s hydroelectric power plant. Harmon read from a bulleted list of Boyce’s accomplishments and tried to sound sincere.

“Now, for the next order of business,” he said, his hands shaking slightly as he turned the loose pages of his detailed agenda. “Appointing Paul’s successor.”

Robin sat in the first row, her knees pressed together and feet angled to the left. She smoothed her navy blue skirt across her legs and tried to project confidence and professionalism.

“As you know, I’ve taken a very personal interest in filling the chief of staff position,” Harmon said. “And on behalf of the committee, we think we have found the right person for the appointment from within the staff. Robin Duffy has worked for the city for fifteen years, most of those under the tutelage and guidance of Paul Boyce. Her job title of administrative assistant does not do her justice, for her work has gone far beyond that. In the past two months, she has demonstrated the ability and the knowledge to step into Paul’s wingtips. I can tell you firsthand that she has learned so much from her mentor.”

Harmon waited for a beat while David McNerney made the motion to appoint Robin to the position, and Ladonna Jackson made the second. Just as he’d asked them to a few days before, in exchange for chair positions on the finance and revenue committee, and handshake agreements to help move pet projects forward.

“All in favor?” Harmon said.

Twenty “ayes.”

“Any opposed?”


Robin flashed what she hoped was a grateful smile at the commissioners. Some smiled generally in her direction, others looked at their papers or their laptops, a few checked their mobile phones. Two minutes into her new job and she was already becoming invisible again. She glanced over at Harmon, expecting the same from him. But he was sitting up straight, staring directly at her, unmasked hatred in his eyes.

Oh well, she thought. She could manage him. She’d found the dossiers Paul had prepared on each one of the commissioners. And Harmon’s was the juiciest one of all.