A Heartbreaking Waste of a Life

I read an abysmally sad story this morning. Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old impoverished boy in Maryland, died of an infection from an abscessed tooth. His family lives in transient conditions, their Medicaid was canceled, and when it was reinstated the papers were most likely sent to an address where they no longer lived.

The saddest thing about this is that a simple tooth extraction, at the cost of approximately $80, could have saved this child’s life. The appointment was made, but had to be canceled when Deamonte’s mother did not receive notice of the reinstatement of his Medicaid benefits.

There are major problems existing with dental care for poor children. Medicaid dentists are hard to find – the bureaucracy involved makes it unappealing to many practitioners – and transportation is often an issue. The lack of a steady address, and telephone service that is sometimes shut off can also complicate matters.

Cavities are as much a part of childhood as inflamed tonsils. I recall having an appalling number of cavities as a child, and all those ugly silver fillings (which I’ve since had replaced with porcelain!) We were all told to brush after every meal, but the fact is that many youngsters don’t.

Good teeth care is probably one of the most important things we can teach our children. It ranks right up there with courtesy toward other people, money management, and the imporance of education, so one doesn't find oneself in the predicament of Deamonte's mother, working low-end jobs with no health benefits. As a middle-aged woman, I wish that I’d taken better care of my teeth in my younger years, that I’d worn that retainer to hold onto my perfect bite after my braces were removed (an expense that my parents, with five children, could ill afford, and for which I will be eternally grateful, because I had terribly buck teeth.) An irrational fear of the dentist kept me away for a ten-year period back in the Eighties. I brushed regularly to maintain a pearly white smile, and while I developed no cavities, periodontal disease (disease of the gums and bones that hold the teeth in place) had taken hold. This has proven to be quite expensive to treat over the years. My husband jokes that our family has paid the tuition bills for our dentist’s children.

Sure, the kids have had work done, but it’s either routine maintenance, the application of veneer for additional protection, or oral surgery for the extraction of those in-the-way wisdom teeth. They are very good about brushing and flossing, and they’ve been blessed with strong, straight teeth. On the other hand, my husband and I have had abscesses, root canals, crowns, you name it. I could be wrong, but I’m inclined to believe that the problems we’re having now are directly linked to being lazy about flossing and postponing trips to the dentist.

We, at least, have good dental coverage. Little Deamonte Driver was doomed.
My Thoughts About Oscar

I have made it a point to watch the Academy Awards every year since I was in junior high. (I remember my mother telling me I could stay up if I wanted, always with the stern warning that I had school the next day and that I’d better not oversleep.)

I have fond memories of this, traditionally the most-watched show of the year. I recall one year in the late Sixties or early Seventies when Elizabeth Taylor presented the Best Picture award wearing a beautiful yellow dress that was particularly flattering to her tanned skin and black hair. I can still hear my father, who watched with me, saying with approval, “She knows what colors to wear.” Then there was that infamous streaker at the 1974 ceremonies, at the height of the craze. Barbra Streisand’s horrible sequined pajamas with the Peter Pan collar the year after she won Best Actress for Funny Girl. (I must say her taste in clothing, which of late runs toward elegant Donna Karan outfits, has improved drastically as she got older.)

Last night’s show was the first that made me consider going to bed. The show seemed to drag on eternally. Yes, I felt Ellen DeGeneres did a fine job as host, but the show was bogged down with montages for this and that and, curiously, with reaction shots of Jack Nicholson’s face. The show was on for nearly an hour before they presented the award for Supporting Performance, which I recall used to be the first award given out (and it was for a male performer, making me wonder if they’ve ever heard of the expression, “Ladies first.”) For the most part it was one long snooze. I actually felt sorry for the folks trapped in the audience. At least I had on my bathrobe and scuffies.

I was thrilled when Martin Scorcese finally won a Best Director trophy. It would have been difficult if the award, presented by three of Scorcese's directing colleagues rather than the usual actors, went to anyone else.

Someone early in the telecast said that "Anyone can win. It's much harder to lose." I have to agree with that observation. I must say that Eddie Murphy visibly handled the loss of Best Supporting Actor quite well, much better than Peter O’Toole, who looked truly stunned for several seconds after Forest Whitaker’s name was called as Best Actor. Naturally, the first thing I heard regarding the gala evening on the news this morning was how badly Eddie Murphy behaved after his loss, storming out of the venue shortly afterward. (Of course, this same TV station included in their website Oscar coverage that Singin’ in the Rain lost the Best Picture of 1953 Oscar to From Here to Eternity. There’s just two things wrong with that statement: Singin’ in the Rain – which happens to be one of my favorite movies – was released in 1952, not 1953. And it wasn’t even nominated, so it couldn’t have lost. So I take anything they report with a proverbial grain of salt.) But I do hope he behaved as graciously as he appeared when the camera panned in for a close-up reaction shot.

Regarding the hubbub about how the silly comedy Norbit destroyed Eddie Murphy’s chances to win an Oscar, that’s the type of thinking that cheapens the Oscars, making it more of a personal issue and less about the performance they gave in a particular role – which is supposed to be the sole reason for the vote. I haven’t seen Alan Arkin’s performance in Little Miss Sunshine, but I did see Eddie in Dreamgirls, and personally, I didn’t think he was all that hot. (Nor is a Golden Globe anything to turn up one's nose at, even if it is less prestigious than the Oscar.) As for Jennifer Hudson, I predict she will go on to a major music career and that Grammys are in her future but not necessarily a lot of films, since singing is her strong point and musicals aren’t in vogue. But she will hardly be the first Oscar winner whose movie career didn’t amount to much; there’s a long list. And I'm glad that she didn't fall out of her dress as she performed; her right boob seemed a little precarious as she sang.

So the best of 2006 has been decided, and now it’s on toward the best of 2007. Maybe next year’s telecast will be livelier. If not, I'll go on to bed, and it will mark the end of a tradition in my life that’s gone on for nearly forty years.
Something I Just Don't Get

Recently I've heard a lot about text messaging, usually about how kids often run up their cell phone bills (which have to be paid by their parents) by text messaging their friends constantly.

I don't get it. Typing out messages on a teensy phone pad, often having to hit keys two and three times if you want the second or third letter of the button. That seems like a hell of a lot of work, even for me (and I'm a very fast, very accurate typist.) I have a hard time with the tiny on-screen buttons of the navigator in my car. Isn't it s whole lot easier to just pick up the phone and call? Cheaper, too, since, as they say, "standard text messaging charges apply."

Then again, maybe I'm just getting old.
How Not to Do a Book Signing

Last Saturday I dragged myself 47 miles into the South Side of Chicago to do a book signing. I had set this up shortly after the first of the year. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Black History Month and all that.

Of course, life being life, by the time the date rolled around I had what was at best an upper respiratory infection, at worst walking pneumonia, likely caused by drainage during a root canal a few days before. In hindsight, I think I could deal with tooth pain - with the help of codeine-laced pain medication - better than I could that unrelenting cough that has exhausted me for over a week now.

This is why I try not to commit to anything in advance. It's impossible to predict one's circumstances weeks or months ahead of the actual time. In the past I’ve had to cancel events for all sorts of reasons, all of them valid. My father passed away . . . my husband accepted a position in another state and we’re preparing to relocate . . . I'm recovering from unexpected surgery.

Anyway, the mere fact that it’s February in Chicago should have told me something. The forecast for last Saturday did include snow. Fortunately, it happened early that morning, and by the time I set out the sun was shining and it was a balmy 28 degrees (considering the subzero temps earlier that week, I really mean balmy.) That didn’t change the fact that I would have preferred to stay home with my husband and see who could out-hack the other, since by this time he was also sick. (Picture it: Two middle-aged people laying in bed coughing at 3AM. It was, in a word, pathetic.)

As book signings go, this one turned out to be below average. The bookstore traffic was much less than usual, the staff told me. That might have been due to the snow that had been forecast . . . or it might have been due to the fact that a popular author was autographing her new book at a nearby Wal-Mart.

I did feel that there were some things that could have been done to make things go smoother. As I drove home, I remembered how my absolute favorite bookseller used to do things, which always put both me and her store at an advantage.

For one, she would set up a table in a prominent location (more about that later) the first thing that morning and have the books she ordered stacked on it for browsing, along with a sign saying I would be in the store later that day. As a result, people who were out and about hours before I arrived and were unable to come back while I was present often bought books in advance, leaving instructions on how they wanted them autographed and then returning at their convenience to pick them up.

Having my table set up beforehand also allowed me to get right to work at the business of selling books the moment I arrive. I hate having to hang around while bookstore staff go in the back to dig out a table, pull out the folding legs, put a tablecloth over it, bring out the books, etc., all of which takes several minutes to accomplish . . . once they finish with the people on the cashier line, of course. Fifteen minutes of my two-hour appearance can easily be lost in this process. It’s like, “Didn’t they know I was coming?”

My ideal bookseller would also place signs on the entry doors so that everyone entering the store would know I was going to be there. You can’t catch everyone – some people just don’t pay attention to the world around them – but this is a good effort. But the glass doors of this bookstore were covered with posters announcing that the latest Harry Potter book is coming in July, only five short months from now. Now, I ask you, does J.K. Rowling's massively successful series really need such advance publicity? I liken this to Oprah choosing Sidney Poitier’s autobiography to be her latest book club selection instead of some struggling author no one’s ever heard of. Okay, so she can do what she pleases, but it would be nice if some unknown could get some sales. It turns out that the edict to cover the doors with Harry Potter posters was handed down from Corporate.

Did I mention the table should be in a prominent location? At this store, my table was not on the first level by the fiction section, but upstairs . . . with the children’s books and the music CDs. Come on, folks. This one is common sense. Sure, the cafĂ© is up there, too, but people come to book stores to browse, not to eat. I personally am old enough now where climbing stairs tends to leave me breathing hard, like I just carried a piece of furniture a half block. I can’t expect other people in my age group to climb a long flight to meet me if I’m not willing to do it myself. At my request the store personnel moved my table downstairs. Had I stayed there, I doubt I would have sold anything.

As I said, this signing didn’t rank among my more successful ones. But I passed on a few pointers to the store where I’ll be appearing tomorrow to wrap up Black History Month on things they can do to help move things along.

Truth be told, I’m not expecting much from the signing. Chicago is under a winter storm watch. In fact, if the weather is truly bad, I’ll reschedule.

That'll be it for me and book signings until June, when my 2007 releases will both be out. By that time of year, weather will not play a role.

So I'll skip Black History Month in the future. And I'll cross my fingers that subsequent books will be scheduled for the spring and summer months, at least while I call Chicagoland home.

Wish me luck!
Damn, I'm Good

I've spent the last week reading over the galleys for my new mainstream novel, If These Walls Could Talk (coming to a retailer near you the end of May.)

Watching me read galleys is probably pretty comical, with all the changes in expression. I grimace when I see my name misspelled on the copyright page, twist my lower lip nervously when I see that I left out the name of some important folks on the Acknowledgments page, and roll my eyes and utter all kinds of annoyed expressions, from the mild ("Oh, for crying out loud!") to the profane (What the fuck . . . .?") when I see that changes I requested in the copyedit stage have not been made.

But through it all, I am struck by the words on the pages before me. They're good, damn it! And they all came from li'l ol' me. This is a good story I've managed to put together from a teensy spark of imagination. And I don't impress easily.

While I'm writing, I tend to agonize over the words I choose, the phrasing I use. Part of me is yelling to get on with it already, that nobody's going to notice how well that sentence is constructed. But when I read over the finished product, I'm suddenly glad that I rewrote that sentence five times because I didn't like it. I'm glad that I did that paragraph over and over, right up until it was time to submit, improving it each time. I'm glad went over that sentence in my head as I drifted off to sleep instead of counting sheep.

Will anyone notice? Probably not. But I know. And when it comes to a job well done, sometimes that's enough.

God, I love my work.
Climb Ev'ry Mountain

Since I was a kid, I've known that Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay were the first two people to reach the summit of Mount Everest (with Sir Edmund's foot getting there slightly ahead of his companion,) way back in 1953. No small feat, since many people lost their lives trying to get to the top, before and after.

Mount Everest is, of course, the tallest mountain on earth, extending something like five miles into the sky, and located in a chilly climate to begin with. Chances are that most mountaintops will be considerably cooler than the ground.

But in recent months reports of climbers becoming disoriented and separated by sudden snowstorms on peaks right here in the U.S. have been in the news. Can someone explain to me why so many people climb mountains during winter months, December, January, February? Doesn't it make more sense to climb in the spring or summer: April, May, June? A party of three died in December trying to ascend Mount Hood on its most treacherous side. Another party of three was rescued yesterday.

I'm glad for those who were rescued and sorrowful for those who lost their lives. But I have to say that if for some reason mountain climbers can't climb during warmer months, when sudden, blinding snowstorms are less likely to be an issue, then perhaps they ought to consider taking up hiking.
Take a tip from me . . . Don't expect a tip for cash and carry

Last night, after finishing work with a cough that sounded like I ought to be in a TB ward, I dragged myself to my car and drove home. My husband, who is not a Catholic (and even Catholics have been absolved from eating fish on Fridays some 40 years ago) always wants to have fish on Friday: Whiting, catfish, perch, even haddock. But I knew I didn't feel like cooking, especially with a book signing 50 miles away the next day that I'd arranged before getting that killer cold and infection, so I stopped at the Chili's close to our home and ordered some take-out tilapia.

I studied the menu, made my choice and placed the order. The girl behind the counter rang it up and told me the total. When she gave me the slip to pay with my debit card, I put a '0' in the Tip column and wrote in the total before signing it. The cashier glanced at the slip . . . and her whole attitude changed. Once jovial and pleasant, she handed me my copy without a word.

Her attitude made a warm room feel cool, and I felt it was uncalled for. I'd placed an order for food and paid for it. She wasn't serving me, at least no more than the people who work behind the butcher block at the supermarket who weigh and wrap up boneless chicken breasts or ground beef. I don't tip them, either.

What's with people lately? In recent years I've noticed tip jars at delis, hot dog stands, and pizzerias, where food is prepared while the customer waits. A sandwich artist, as one nationwide deli chain calls their behind-the-counter staff, is paid to make sandwiches. Why should they expect to be tipped? Okay, so even if the customer doesn't want tomatoes on their sandwich, it isn't the same as greeting customers when they come in, handing them menus, pouring them water, taking their drink and food orders, delivering everything to their table, and checking on them periodically. These workers seem to want the best of both worlds.

A few minutes later, when my order was ready, I accepted it with a smile. The cashier, by now pleasant again, didn't say thank you.

And neither did I.
Not So Ancient

I had some time to kill last Sunday night (before I got sick) before Desparate Housewives came on at 8PM, so I checked out the first hour of the Grammy Awards.

Once ranked wtih the shows I'd never miss, I'd stopped watching years ago when it occurred to me that I didn't know who half the people were. I figured I'd be bored, but there was virtually nothing else on.

What I got was a pleasant surprise. The very first award of the evening went to the duet partners of Tony Bennett and Stevie Wonder, both people I'm familiar with. Of course, seeing how much weight Stevie has put on - his girth reminded me of B.B. King! - made me realize how many years have passed since his heyday. But hey, I've put on a few pounds myself in the last twenty years.

I saw many other familiar faces that first hour, both nominees (Natalie Cole, Beyoncé, the adorable India Arie,) and in shots of the audience of people who probably would take to the stage later on (Smokey Robinson, Lionel Richie, Reba McIntire). I found myself hitting the Last button on the remote control when a break came up in Housewives so I could see if I recognized anybody else. There was Ludacris, unrecognizable to me with dark glasses and sans his trademark cornrows. And that guy who looked so little next to a younger performer whose name I can't recall right now - wasn't that Burt Bacharach?

It was during this time that I stopped recognizing people, so I directed my attention fully to the happenings on Wisteria Lane. But I must say that I felt pretty good watching the forty-ninth annual Grammy Awards.

Maybe I'm not so ancient after all.
Who's Not Black Enough?

There's been a lot of talk about black Americans being hesitant to support Barack Obama because he's "not black enough," pointing to his white mother and Kenyan father.

I can see people being uncertain about his experience (six years in the state Senate, two years in the U.S. Senate,) but all the reasons not to support someone, this strikes me as absurd.

American political and activist history is dotted with prominent black Americans who were either born in other countries or born to immigrant parents. The famous militant Stokely Carmichael was born in Trinidad. Malcolm X's mother was from Grenada and supposedly fair enough to pass for white. Shirley Chisholm's mother came from Barbados, her father from Guyana. Colin Powell's parents hailed from Jamaica. Walter White, who led the NAACP for 25 years, was blond-haired and blue-eyed and easily could have crossed to the other side. Marcus Garvey was born in Jamaica. W.E. B. DuBois' father came from the Dominican Republic.

So what could be more black than a man whose father came from Africa, a man who is without a doubt, despite the mixed background, classified as black?

Does anyone out there truly believe that this man has no idea of what it feels like to be a black man living in America?
Yeah, I'm Still Alive

I can't remember the last time I posted. I usually write on my laptop and wrote something yesterday, but my wireless adaptor broke the other day, and the one I bought to replace it doesn't work. I don't know when I'll get it back to the store (returning stuff is such a pain in the ass.) Plus today I had a root canal at my new dentist, realizing midway through that he never asked me about any medical conditions (I have a heart murmur and am supposed to take antibiotics prior to any dental procedure.) Of course, the dentist, after assuring me that such occurrences are rare, promptly gave me a prescription to Cover His Ass (I'll be taking four times as many pills as usual, since it's after the fact.) I called my husband on the way to the pharmacy, telling him that if I drop dead of a bacterial infection the antibiotics were supposed to prevent, to make sure he gets paid.

Now, I've been coughing since I've been home, and my chest feels funny . . . .

It's probably just the writer in me that gives me this flair for the dramatic. I'm not planning on going anywhere.
Stop to Take a Tinkle

Okay, so by now I’m sure you’ve heard about the crazy NASA employee who drove from Texas to Florida, bent on kidnapping (and possibly murdering) a romantic rival. With every telling of this story in the media – and there have been plenty - it is mentioned early on how she wore a disposable adult diaper so she wouldn’t have to stop to use the bathroom.

That struck me as ludicrous. Not stopping is not an option. It’s 950 miles from Houston to the Space Coast, for crying out loud. There’s not a vehicle on the market that can travel that distance without a refill, probably two. So what’s the problem? Why couldn’t she stop to use the facilities - or at the very least, put on a fresh diaper (ugh) - at the same time she stopped to fill the tank? Personally, I never understood how even 1-year-olds can continue running around playing when they're wet or poopy. But for a grown woman to keep driving under those circumstances is just inconceivable.

Looks like the media is making the case for the insanity/mental defect claim that is sure to follow.
Danger, Falling Temps

Those of you who drop by regularly might remember that back when I first started blogging last October, I wrote an essay on my first winter in 17 years, courtesy of living in Florida. Well, I'm getting a beaut!

We are in the midst of a deep freeze that's literally as cold as your freezer. I woke up this morning to hear the meteorologists warning people not to go out unless they have to, because wind chills are already below zero and will go as low as -25.

Hard to stay in on a Saturday; that's the day when many of us run our errands: The post office, the bank, the supermarket, manicurist/hairdresser/barber, the gas station to fill up for the week (and to guard against having the contents of your tank freeze,) the car dealership to get those spark plugs changed that you should have done a month ago. Hopefully those with children can leave them with a trusted sitter. (In the What Was She Thinking category, one Chicago woman has been charged with endangering the welfare of a minor for leaving her 1-year-old alone in an unheated car while she and her 5-year-old went into a supermarket.)

So chin up, fellow sufferers!! Relief is in sight early next week, when it'll go up to 17 above.

Al to Joe: “I take a bath every day . . .”

I truly was offended, as well as dismayed, at the use of Senator Joseph Biden’s use of the word “clean” to describe Senator Barack Obama, while simultaneously saying it hadn’t applied to any previous African-American presidential aspirants. This relates to an old method of whites, particularly in the South (Northern whites are more likely to smile in black folks’ faces and call them “that nigger” behind their backs) to insult blacks, by saying they smell bad, don’t use soap, etc. To be honest, it really stung to hear the Senator's remarks, which were as inappropriate as they were invalid. Jesse Jackson always looks immaculate, and Al Sharpton’s hair is better coiffed than mine!

As I listened to Biden’s bumbling attempt to explain what he meant, “Fresh” rather than “clean,” it suddenly came to me: He meant clean, as in politically clean. (I know that’s not what he said he meant, but the man was busy trying to Cover His Ass.)

Think about it. Jesse Jackson has been involved in scandals, from extramarital affairs to car dealerships. Al Sharpton’s career was built on a scandalous incident, or maybe I should say allegations of a scandalous incident, since I believed then and now that the whole Tawana Brawley incident was a hoax (and I haven’t cared for Al Sharpton since, in spite of wishing I could get my hair touched up before my roots get tough as an overdone steak.) Carol Moseley Braun was involved in a scandal.

I don’t recall any clouds over L. Douglas Wilder, former governor of Virginia. And I certainly don’t remember Shirley Chisholm’s name ever being mixed up in any improprieties. But I don’t believe Biden was referring to Wilder or Chisholm, neither of whom were considered serious candidates in terms of the numbers of votes they could potentially get. For that matter, neither was Al Sharpton, but Jesse Jackson proved himself to be a force to be reckoned with. How glorious it must have been for blacks who lived under the shadow of legally enforced segregation all their lives to be able to vote for a black man for the nation's highest office.

But of course Biden, who has an admitted plagiarism in his own past, could hardly criticize anyone else for having soiled hands. (Personally, I don’t believe that politics and honesty go together any more than catfish and ice cream, no matter who the subject is.) That would make him sound even less articulate than he is.

Speaking of articulate, in the debates among presidential contenders, I remember noting that Jesse Jackson was the only one I could listen to who didn’t make me doze off, and years later, the same thing with Al Sharpton. They are both gifted speakers.

I don’t see Biden’s aspirations to be President going anywhere. The man’s strategy is to play up his experience in foreign policy. But if he can’t handle his fellow Democrats, why would anyone consider putting him in the most powerful position in the world?