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Today I was reminded of another winter day almost ten years ago, when I was out walking my dog in the early evening. It was cold and slushy, so I was looking for the clearest route home, which turned out to be the parking lot behind an apartment complex that had been plowed. As we walked through the lot, I saw a cell phone lying on the ground next to an empty parking space. Generally speaking, I believe in good deeds. If I’d lost my phone, I would appreciate someone picking it up and getting it back to me, instead of leaving it to be run over.

photo by Arthaey Angosii

I was surprised to find that it didn’t have a passcode, but that made it simpler. I called the number that seemed in heaviest rotation on the phone, figuring that person could help me. A girl answered, and when I explained what had happened, she passed me to her boyfriend, the owner of the pho

Far from being grateful or pleasant, the boyfriend, who hadn’t even noticed his phone was gone, swore at me and accused me of stealing his phone. I asked him why he thought a thief would call him on his phone and repeated that I’d found it in the parking lot.

“What do you want me to do with it?” I said, completely over my good deed at that point. Foolishly, I imagined that he would tell me his apartment number and I would put the phone in his mail box.

“I’m on my way to Kansas City. I’m gonna be at the Applebee’s on Metcalf,” he said.

Okaaaaay. What I really thought was Who the hell drives all the way to Kansas City to eat at Applebee’s? Who drives anywhere to eat at Applebee’s?

“So you need to come over there and turn over my phone or I’ll call the police.”

He really said that! Turn over his phone! I couldn’t help but think of the the saying No good deed goes unpunished. For the first time I thought of why that is, and I had to conclude that unfortunately a lot of people are not prepared for kindness and don’t know how to do gratitude. Why? I’m not sure. My theory about this guy is that he was a terrible person, so he expected everyone else to be terrible too. What a sad way to go through life.

As for me, I opted out of having my good deed punished. I certainly wasn’t driving anywhere to deliver a phone to some jackass. As I stood out in the cold with my dog, there was a temptation to power down the phone and throw it into one of the apartment complex’s trash dumpsters. I’m not inherently an evil person, though. More Chaotic Neutral, really. So I said, “There are three empty lots at the corner of 19th & Tennessee. I’m going to throw your phone in one of them. It probably has enough battery power left that you’ll be able to call and find it, if you get here in the next 2 hours.”

I hung up without waiting to hear what he would say. I didn’t answer when it rang. My dog and I walked on to the corner of 19th and Tennessee, and just as I said I would, I threw the phone as far as I could into one of the empty lots. Then we walked home.

Later, at bedtime, I took the dog on the same route, out of a sick curiosity. At the corner, I could see two people walking around in one of the empty lots, using a cell phone as a flash light. Reader, it was the wrong empty lot.

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Two years ago, I was overwhelmed by a lot of things. Writing, career, family, health, dogs, personal stuff. In order to keep going, I gave myself permission to let things slide. I figured as long as I was keeping myself and the dogs alive–safe, fed, with a roof over our heads–I would let everything else go, including social media and newsletters and my blog. Permission given, whoooo, I let a whole bunch of things slide.

Those two years have been good, though, because they’ve allowed me to reassess what I’m willing to let go and what I want to hold on to. One of the things I really want to let go of is Facebook. As a corporation it’s awful, but also almost all their user interfaces are terrible, too. Among the things I want to hold onto are my blog, because unlike social media, I’ve always felt like my blog really belonged to me. It’s my content, presented in the way I want, with control over who can interact with it. The real question now becomes how do I want to handle having a private place for us to talk books and writing? I don’t know yet. I’m considering doing a members only aspect to this blog, or possible a Patreon. Still thinking through that, but definitely something, because I want to be able to share things I’m reading and working on, without it being open to public consumption (and bot harvesting).

After a year of serious personal upheaval, I’m back to writing, too. I’m working on two novels, hoping to get a first draft of one of them finished by the new year. I can’t figure out which one will reach the finish line first. The only way to answer that is to keep writing. So I suppose I’d better do that, while the dogs are napping.

two large dogs--one brindled, the other white & liver--are sleeping on a chaise covered with a wrinkled floral sheet
It’s supposed to be a reading chair, but the dogs don’t read

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It’s possible you ended up here because you read my essay about sex work. Or it’s possible you’re here because you read my new book, The Reckless Oath We Made. (Or my last book, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.) Whyever you came, you may be thinking about bad life choices and mistakes.

Whether you came here to judge me or to sympathize or to say you’ve been there, what I most want to tell you is that not every bad life choice is a mistake. Sometimes the only choices available to you are bad, worse, and worst. In that scenario, the best choice you can make is a bad one.

Sometimes those bad choices bring good things. They’re not all mistakes. I never felt like the choices I made around performing sex work were mistakes. They brought me here, where I am alive, succeeding at my chosen career, and have people who love me. May all your “mistakes” be so beneficial.

The characters in The Reckless Oath We Made are also in situations where all they can hope for is to make the least bad choice available. Those choices may look like mistakes from the outside, but that doesn’t mean they won’t bring good things. So if you’re here to process your thoughts about your own choices and “mistakes,” welcome. If you’re here to lecture me about my choices, you’ll likely leave disappointed. I’ve had plenty of time to evaluate the choices I’ve made in my life and I’m okay with them.

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Hidden Cultural Gem™

On this otherwise dark day, I’m here to note that the ebook of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is on sale for $2.99 across all platforms just for today.
 
 Vogue Magazine called my book a “Hidden Cultural Gem!” This is simultaneously flattering and really funny.
 

And now I return you to mourning all the people we’ve lost in this dreary year.

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Fairly early on in All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Kellen gets arrested while he’s out drag racing with Wavy. The deputy who picks them up tries to make an overture of friendship toward Wavy. It’s clear that he thinks something is wrong with the situation and that she is in need of protection.

deputy sheriff… before we could walk out, the deputy reached across the desk and handed me a piece of paper.

“If you ever need anything, Wavy Quinn, you call me,” he said. That’s what was written on the paper, his name—Deputy Leon Vogel—and his phone number. I stuck it in my pocket and followed Kellen outside to the car.

Later, when Wavy’s parents are doing drugs and fighting, some of my early readers asked me to explain why Wavy wouldn’t call the police. I was startled, because it hadn’t occurred to me that for many people, calling the police would seem like the solution to a problem, rather than a whole other problem. The same people who have sometimes wondered how I could have kept my mouth shut as a kid, knowing my father was manufacturing and selling meth. I realized I needed to include an explanation in Wavy’s narrative, to help people understand.

Deputy Vogel told me to call him if I ever needed something. It’s what they taught in school, too. They said the police were there to help you, but I don’t think they knew what happened when the police came to your house. Cops ruin everything. They kick in the front door, throw people on the floor and handcuff them. They break things and steal things. They lock you in a patrol car, make you spend all night in the police station wearing your nightgown, and then send you home with strangers. That’s why I would never call Deputy Vogel, no matter how much Mama and Liam fought. I’d thrown away the paper with his number as soon as he gave it to me, because I remembered what happened the last time the police came to our house.

There are kids who call the police on their parents. I knew a few when I was younger, and you sometimes read about it in the news, like this 10-year-old boy in Pennsylvania. I hate to see those stories, because I can imagine how bad things must be at home when calling the police seems like the only escape. When taking a chance on strangers seems less dangerous than continuing to trust your parents. I can’t help but think of Victoria Martens from my post last week, and wondering if there was ever a point where she considered calling the police. If she ever had a chance.

Wavy chooses the devil she knows over the uncertainties of going into foster care, and the likely risk of being separated from her brother and from Kellen. As the story progresses, she begins looking for other ways to escape her parents, and so do real kids in these situations. It’s worth remembering that their solutions don’t always make sense to those of us on the outside. That doesn’t mean their solutions are inherently wrong. They’re just outside our understanding.

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As always, I’m trying to give away some signed advance copies of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. Go visit my giveaway to see all the ways you can enter to win. In addition to ARCs, I’m giving away some of my homemade penny book swag keychains.

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Well, as you can see in the sidebar, I officially have my cover for the new book.

ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL

I got the news in the old fashioned way: somebody texted me and said, “Hey, did you know your book is live for pre-order on Amazon?” No, I didn’t, but sure enough, it is. With a small publisher, the writer tends to be intimately involved in cover decisions, but with a large publisher like St. Martin’s Press, there’s a whole team of people behind the scenes doing stuff like this. Like publishing pixies coming in the night to put my book on Goodreads.

Speaking of which, there’s a giveaway for the book on Goodreads (those publishing pixies again!) You should definitely go enter.

About All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

As the daughter of a meth dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. It’s safer to keep her mouth shut and stay out of sight. Struggling to raise her little brother, Donal, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible adult around. Obsessed with the constellations, Wavy finds peace in the starry night sky above the fields behind her house, until one night her star gazing causes an accident. After witnessing his motorcycle wreck, she forms an unusual friendship with one of her father’s thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold.

Surrounded by addicts and a culture of debauchery, their relationship doesn’t set off any alarms until a well-meaning aunt steps in. Facing a charge of statutory rape, Kellen may not be completely innocent, but he’s the one stable companion Wavy and Donal have. Instead of playing it safe, Wavy has to learn to fight for Kellen, for her brother, and for herself.

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After allegations of neglect, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families started monitoring Jeremiah Oliver’s family, with monthly visits to check on the welfare of Jeremiah and his two siblings. Or at any rate, they were supposed to be monthly visits. When Jeremiah was finally reported missing in December, the visits from DCF had been irregular for more than eight months. In fact, in June of 2013, the last case worker to visit with the family was told that Jeremiah had gone to live with his grandmother in Florida.

You might think that such a change in the life of a young child being monitored by the state’s child welfare agency would spark some sort of follow up. It didn’t. No one from DCF investigated the claim that Jeremiah had moved to Florida, and they didn’t return to the Oliver family until November, for what they said would be their last visit. In December, Jeremiah’s 7-year-old sister confided in someone at school that she was being abused at home, and her little brother had been missing for a long time.

Jeremiah, lost and found

Jeremiah, lost and found

He isn’t missing anymore. On Friday, his body was found next to a highway, wrapped in a blanket, stuffed in a duffel bag. The police are proceeding on the assumption that he was murdered, and charges have been filed against his mother and her boyfriend. This would all be horrible enough, but to my way of thinking, it is rendered more monstrous by the failure of a system that should have protected Jeremiah. The DCF was aware that he was at risk of abuse and neglect. They were supposed to be checking on his welfare, but didn’t. They were supposed to be alert to signs of danger, and yet they accepted a threadbare excuse for his absence. As though the fire department had received a report of someone playing with matches and gasoline on the front porch of a house, and then failed to respond appropriately until the house burned to the ground.

This news torments, and I find myself unable to stop imagining the series of events that brought Jeremiah to that strip of grass by a road, the horrible choices of the adults in his life that acquainted him with that duffel bag. They are the same thoughts that tormented me, when I first heard about Rilya Wilson.

Rilya was born to a homeless drug addict who could not care for her. As a result, she was removed from her mother’s care and put into a foster home. In 2002, a newly assigned case worker with Florida’s Department of Children and Families arrived at Rilya’s foster home for a monthly visit. It was the first visit from DCF in fifteen months, because the previous case worker had been falsifying paperwork instead of actually visiting Rilya. Confronted with Rilya’s absence, the foster mother claimed that a different case worker had taken Rilya away for a medical examination, nearly two years before.

Twelve years later, Rilya is still in the wind. I know that many people who read Lie Lay Lain are frustrated by the lack of resolution for Shanti, the little girl missing out of foster care in the novel. I feel for them, because it’s a terrible thing, not knowing. We may never know exactly what became of Rilya, and if nothing else, I wanted to be true to that pain and emptiness in Lie Lay Lain. I wanted to acknowledge that she is lost and may never be found.

The case worker who failed to visit Rilya for those two years was given 5 years of probation. It seems like a slim sort of justice for someone who was supposed to be checking on Rilya’s safety and well-being. The case workers overseeing Jeremiah Oliver’s family have already been fired, and they are likely to face criminal charges. In Florida, Rilya’s disappearance caused a massive shift in how children are monitored by DCF. Case workers now have to document their visits through photographs and using GPS monitors. This is all a good thing for foster children in Florida, but for at-risk children in other states, there has been no great shift.

In Massachusetts, there are possibly hundreds of children missing out of foster care. And that’s just in one state, and it doesn’t take into consideration the children who remain with their families, but are being monitored by child welfare agencies.

As a nation, I marvel that we will expend vast sums of money to imprison non-violent offenders, but the care of children ranks so lowly that we think nothing of overworking and underpaying case workers. We can implement facial recognition software in hopes of catching criminals, but we can’t bring that same technology to bear to help identify and locate children. We can compile and sift through massive quantities of internet traffic and phone records, in the name of the war on terrorism, but we’re willing to let thousands of children slip through the cracks to their deaths, because it’s just too hard to keep track of them.

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I don’t think I’m bragging when I say that I was once an excellent Freshman Composition instructor. I did my best in Comp 2, where I taught my students how to conduct research that did not involve citing Wikipedia. I taught them skills that would serve them throughout their college careers, even into graduate school and beyond. I got great student evaluations, and my supervisors always lauded me for the quality of research essays that my students produced at the end of my rigorous but fun* research portion in Comp 2. On more than one occasion, other faculty members asked to sit in on my classes to see what I was doing, and graduate students asked for my help in improving their research and writing skills.

Unfortunately, I don’t teach anymore. I made the decision to become a full-time secretary primarily because of an environment like the one described in this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, which details the downward spiral of Margaret Mary Vojtko, a long-time adjunct professor. Her poverty eventually led to her death, so I feel lucky that mine merely led to a secretarial job.

Universities increasingly rely on underpaid adjunct faculty to carry the burden of what are dismissed as “entry level” courses. It seems to escape university administrators and many tenured faculty members that those entry level courses matter the most. Those are the classes where freshmen get a firm footing for the courses they will take in the next three years. Underpaying the people who teach first-year college students seems equivalent to systematically paying first grade teachers less than sixth grade teachers. After all, teaching kids to read, that’s just entry level work. Easy.

Yet those same tenured faculty lament how many students arrive in their upper level courses without the most basic research skills. Why? Because the people tasked with teaching them basic skills – the underpaid adjunct faculty – do not have the time, energy, or institutional support to become truly great teachers. Some of them are teaching four courses per regular semester and two courses per summer semester (compared to the average tenured faculty load of two/two/zero for an academic year.) At the typical pay of $3,000-$3,500 per course, an adjunct is lucky to make $30,000 a year, teaching as many as ten courses per year.

A person can survive on $30k, but teaching ten Freshman Comp courses, or ten French 1 courses in a year is grueling, if you can even get that many courses. With the typical enrollment for these types of classes running around 20-25 students, you’re staring down grading 100 essays or exams on a regular basis. And if you can’t survive on that $30k? If you have children? Or you live in an area with a higher cost of living? You’ll do what many adjuncts do: get a second job, or a third. Some adjuncts swing double teaching loads. Four courses at the university, another two picked up at a community college, raising their class time and grading time into the stratosphere. Others settle for different types of jobs. I have known adjuncts who taught three courses at the university, one at a community college, and put in 20 hours a week at the local Sonic. I imagine it’s hard to maintain your professorial dignity when you find yourself serving limeades to your students. All the elbow-patched tweed jackets in the world can’t salvage that.

Even at good universities, like the one where I’m currently a secretary, where adjunct faculty are eligible for health benefits, they are still treated like disposable people. They exist for the convenience of the university and they’re cast aside whenever budgets are tightened or enrollments dip. They are paid what often equals less than minimum wage and no amount of excellence in the classroom will produce a reward. There are no merit salary increases, no real recognition for being a stellar teacher, beyond the kind words of people who recognize how difficult the job is.

The easy answer is to say, “Well, if academia is so terrible, those put-upon adjuncts should go find other jobs, where they’ll at least earn minimum wage.” I wish they all would. I wish they all could. All of them. En masse. It would be a sobering moment for a lot of universities who treat adjuncts with all the dignity of a tampon applicator. Of course, a job is a job, and it’s hard to walk away from one you know, which is why so many adjuncts stay on. I hated to give up teaching. I was good at it and I enjoyed it. But more, I hated being paid so little for doing valuable work and doing it without any kind of safety net.

The thing is, it’s not just wrong and demoralizing to pay adjuncts so little and to provide them with no security or benefits. It’s harmful to the long-term quality of the education a university offers. A tired, demoralized adjunct instructor isn’t going to put in extra hours to develop a new classroom activity that will help students learn how to assess the quality of their research sources. She isn’t going to do elaborate classroom media demonstrations of JSTOR or lead students on guided tours of library holdings. Eventually, she’s going to give up. She’ll lower her standards. When the inevitable Wikipedia citations crop up in research essays, she’ll cringe and move on, instead of protesting. Or she’ll quit teaching altogether and become a secretary. Most universities pay their secretaries better and respect them more.

*I have the evaluations to prove that a wide variety of students thought my classes were fun.

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Today I’m taking part in day-long blogging event to raise awareness and money for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. It’s a simple story about making friends on the internet. Colby Marshall, one of my fellow Stairway Press authors, wanted to help raise money on behalf of Alaina, a little girl who’s special to a big bunch of writer friends. (Most especially to her mother, ChristaCarol.)

Colby’s plan is a simple one. She got 23 authors to blog and give away prizes today. All you have to do to enter to win is visit the Trade the Day blog and comment on guest bloggers’ posts. You’re entered to win for every blog post you comment on.

To top that off, the proceeds from every copy of her book, The Trade, that is sold from Stairway Press’ website today will go to Team Alaina.

So if you want to win, or you just want to read about my dirty writing secrets, go visit my Trade the Day blog post here.

This has been going on since midnight! You’re already missing out!

(And since I know a lot of you may already have Last Will, I’m adding to the giveaway for my blog post: a signed copy of corrected proofs of Lie Lay Lain.)

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