Sunday, February 28, 2010

Enter The Copia

In early January, while I was on my break from blogging, the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) took place in Las Vegas. One of the innovations introduced was the Copia eReading platform on January 6.

Copia comes from DMC Worldwide. GalleyCat described it this way here: "... it's a bit of everything: an eBook platform and store, a social networking gateway, and a full line of E-Ink eReaders."

Zikkir included DMC Worldwide's statement on the Copia here:
"The COPIA platform is the first of its kind to combine content, collaboration, social networking and e-commerce together to connect people through a collaborative experience."
First, there are actually an array of six Copia e-readers, which allow you to connect with your social network on Facebook and Twitter (photo courtesy of the Copia website here).

The Copia website reports the e-readers will boast WiFi, G3 and USB connectivity, up to 4 GB internal storage with optional Micro SD card and a long-life battery good for up to two weeks.

On January 6, Digital Trends indicated the e-readers would go on sale online in April with prices ranging from $199 to $299 depending on the amenities readers want.

By February 18, Publishers Weekly reported "b&w devices will be priced from $200 to $300—easily the most attractive pricing in the latest wave of e-ink devices." While a Copia spokesman "would not give a specific price on the color e-reader, he said it would be priced 'aggressively' to compete in a high-end device market that will be taking its cue from the $499 price point set by Apple's forthcoming iPad device." The e-reader will be available in retail bricks-and-mortar stores in June.

Engadget said that Copia "intends to support other companies' hardware too with its ePUB distribution service."

Like LibraryThing and GoodReads, Copia will allow you to compare your personal library with those of your friends. Of course, Copia also provides access to an retail site where you can search, get recommendations or purchase both e-books and p-books.

Digital Trends reported here:
DMC will initially offer two product lines—the Ocean and the Tidal—with three readers each, along with an open platform the enables publishers and users to connect through a collaborative environment. Plus, third party device makers will be able to make new devices that latch into the Copia platform.
According to their website here, DMC Worldwide services its clients "out of offices in New York City, Vienna, Amman, and Washington, D.C."

Go here to Engadget to see a video of the Copia being described at CES.

If Copia lives up to its billing, this may begin the next generation of e-reading devices, allowing consumers to connect through their e-readers.

Make Friends Wherever You Can

A young deer in Harrisburg struck up a friendship with an unlikely companion.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Wake Up, Publishing!

I love serendipity . . . You know the feeling: when the planets and stars fall into alignment, and the universe hands you a get-out-of-jail-free card.

That's the way I felt last night when I got home and sat down at my laptop to blog. Looking for inspiration, I opened Publishers Marketplace (PM) and watched the 20-minute keynote address given by Skip Prichard to the TOC Conference that PM posted yesterday. The video is an exclusive offered by Publishers Marketplace, which co-sponsored the conference.

Prichard is the CEO of the Ingram Content Group. His keynote address picked up right where my post ended last night, talking about the consumers of the future.

Prichard identified three major technology trends which are affecting the publishing industry:

  • The growth of online retail. In 2008, online retail represented 5% of all retail sales. By 2013, it is expected to represent 8% of all retail sales.
  • The speed of innovation is transforming the media industry and will impact the publishing business as well.
  • Generational shifts in consumption of media are changing and will continue to change how publishing reaches and retains readers. Prichard believes that--unlike previous generations who tended to look at print and digital as either/or--today's generations blur the lines between the two. Young people between the ages of 8 and 18 spend more than 7.5 hours a day on an electronic device.

You'll recall that in my post yesterday, I talked about the new Pew Research report titled "Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next." The subtitle of the report describes this generation as "Confident. Connected. Open to Change."

I pointed out the irony: that description is almost exactly the opposite of Big Publishing today: Terrified. Proprietary. Resistant to Change.

Continuing the troika theme, Prichard had his own trinity of suggestions for the publishing industry:

  • Simplify -- He advised publishing houses to figure out what their "unique strategic value" is and to focus on it "relentlessly." In other words, figure out what makes a publishing house special and different. Find a niche and exploit it. "The days of doing everything are over."
  • Connect -- "It's critical to pay attention to the connections at every level of the business . . . You must know your customers inside and out. Where they hang out. How do you reach them? What do they respond to?"
  • Conquer -- Prichard urges his audience to leave their comfort zones and "test the boundaries."

He quoted David Carr's Media Equation column of January 3, 2010 in the New York Times:

Five years ago, almost no one paid for music online and now, nine billion or so songs sold later, we know that people are willing to pay if the price is right and the convenience is there.
I believe the critical issue for publishing right now is to recognize that trying to set an artificial price for ebooks based on a desire to protect the print book business is an enormous mistake. Consumers are not stupid. They are not going to pay the price of a trade paperback for a rights-protected ebook that they can neither copy to their other devices nor share with friends. Carr said the decision to pay is based on the right price and convenience. WAKE UP, PUBLISHING!

Of course, the cynic in me sometimes believes that the whole point of this ridiculous ebook pricing mess is to prevent the electronic book business from growing. That's suicidal thinking. Prichard explains why:

In just a few years from now, the ebooks of today ... will be old news. And, in their place will be enhanced media versions that make stories come alive. Innovation will not stop and end with devices; innovation will transform content.

Go here to subscribe to Publishers Marketplace.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Publishing For The New Generation

The fourth annual O'Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing conference was held in New York this week. It's well worth visiting the websites here (blog) and here (registration) to look around.

I just finished watching a four-minute video here of Chris Brogan who writes about community and social media.

What can I say? The man was singing my song. Chris was asked the question: "Do you see a point when authors won't need publishers?"

Chris answered in part (you need to watch the video): "I think that there's a lot of worry to be had in this because I think just like GM and all the car companies thought that they were in the business of selling autos, not moving people from space to space, I think publishers think they're in the business of getting things printed and putting them on shelves."

Let me repeat that: "publishers think they're in the business of getting things printed and putting them on shelves." Those fifteen words go right to the heart of the problem in publishing. Almost all the steps publishers are taking right now--like trying to lock in the price point of an e-book--are really just intended to protect their print business.

I read an article in Britain's The Bookseller this weekend that simply staggered me. Peter Roche, the chief executive of the Orion Publishing Group, made some comments here to his authors at their annual party:

"...we must not allow excitement over the digital revolution to distract us from the other 98% of our business which remains printed books".
Is this guy totally out of touch with his own business? With his own readership?

On Wednesday, the Pew Research Group released a report titled "Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next." This is the first generation to come of age in the new millennium, and the report should scare the socks off Big Publishing. The subtitle of the report is "Confident. Connected. Open to Change."

Good God. Talk about irony. That is almost exactly the opposite of Big Publishing: Terrified. Proprietary. Resistant to Change.

Pew interviewed a group of young American adults from 18 to 29, and here are some of their findings:
  • They are more ethnically and racially diverse than older adults (61% White; 19% Hispanic, 14% Black; 5% Asian and 1% Other)
  • They are less religious
  • They are less likely to have served in the military
  • They are "on track to become the most educated generation in American history"
"Millennial are more highly educated when ranked with other generations at comparable ages." Many of them have had trouble finding jobs and, therefore, returned to school.

This paragraph really caught my attention:

They are history's first "always connected" generation. Steeped in digital technology and social media, they treat their multi-tasking hand-held gadgets almost like a body part . . . More than eight-in-ten say they sleep with a cell phone glowing by the bed, poised to disgorge texts, phone calls, emails, songs, news, video games and wake-up jingles.
Hello, Mr. Roche. This is your next generation of readers.

The report goes on to say: "Millennials have a distinctive reason for feeling distinctive . . . 24% says it's because of their use of technology . . . It's not just their gadgets--it's the way they've fused their social lives into them."

Yeah, Mr. Roche, this is a generation likely to opt for p-books rather than e-books.

I'll close with another quote from Chris Brogan:
"Honestly, at this point, Amazon could say to me, 'Chris, we'd love to publish your book and, instead of a 6% margin or 4% margin, we'll give you 40%. And we are the distribution and--you know--you don't get bricks-and-mortar, but--you know--you'll get this great online wealth and you'll get audible and you'll get the entire wealth behind Amazon'."
'Nuff said.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Plagiarism As Remixing???

Last month, German publisher Ullstein released a debut novel by 17-year-old Helene Hegemann. Axolotl Roadkill recounts the adventures of its 16-year-old protagonist, Mifti, who is left to find her own way after her mother's death. Taking advantage of her father's preoccupation with his own affairs, Mifti indulges in a wild life of clubbing, drugging and sexing. The book was critically acclaimed in the German press.

On February 5, a German blogger, Deef Pirmasens, pointed out here that whole passages of the novel had been copied from a novel titled Strobo by a 29-year-old Bavarian blogger whose pseudonym is Airen. Strobo's publisher has indicated it wants an "amicable settlement" of the legal issues.

Teenage plagiarists are nothing new. Remember the fuss over Kaavya Viswanathan back in April, 2006? The 19-year-old Harvard sophomore, who'd reportedly received a $500,000 advance, made news when it was revealed she'd lifted whole passages from author Megan McCafferty (see my blog here)

What's really interesting about this latest young thief is her reaction to being exposed as a plagiarist. While she apologized for not having referenced all the people whose "thoughts and texts helped me," she also defended her actions, saying here "there's no originality, just authenticity. And to me it does not matter where people take all the elements of their experimental set-ups, the main thing is where they carry them."

In The Local, a German-English publication here, Helene is quoted saying, “I myself don’t feel it is stealing, because I put all the material into a completely different and unique context . . ."

In other words, all she was doing was "remixing" in the same way that musicians do--taking original material by other artists and combining those works into a unique new work. Her main sin as she sees it, was not giving appropriate credit to those other artists.

Of course, copyright law is a speedbump in the path to that particular interpretation.

I believe copyright law is woefully archaic and needs to be revisited. However, until those laws are changed, you can't lift whole pages of someone's intellectual property without either attribution or permission.

What really astounded me was that--AFTER her plagiarism was revealed--her novel was nominated for a $20,000 fiction prize at the Leipzig Book Fair.

It turns out her father is Carl-Georg Hegemann, a German professor of dramaturgy in Leipzig.

I can understand the Book Fair wanting to support the daughter of a local, but . . . COME ON.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The New Publishing Models

I have said previously on this blog that I do not begrudge the money I pay each month for my Publishers Marketplace (PM) subscription. I joined PM when I was getting serious about my agent search. My intention was to drop the subscription after a couple of months. Here it is, five years later, and I'm still subscribing. It's a great resource for writers.

Last month the Digital Book World Conference was held at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers over January 26 and 27. Publishers Marketplace co-sponsored the conference through their weekday newsletter Publishers Lunch. And now PM has posted videos of five panels from the conference, which they offer exclusively to their members.

Tonight, I watched the panel titled "Digital Book World: Back-Loaded Book Deals: No (and Low) Advance Contracts, Profit-Sharing and Other Innovative Business Models."

Yeah, I know, quite a title, isn't it?

Lorraine Shanley moderated the panel, which featured two publishers and two agents:

  • Roger Cooper, Publisher of Perseus' Vanguard Press
  • Mary Ann Naples, Co-founder of The Creative Culture Literary Agency
  • Ira Silverberg, Literary agent with Sterling Lord
  • Robert Miller, Publisher of the HarperStudio imprint

The panel began with the two publishers describing their non-traditional publishing imprints. Robert Miller started by discussing the attributes of HarperStudio:

  • Miller wanted to move away from the traditional high advance and returns system, both of which have plagued the publishing industry. His maximum advance is only $100,000. The model calls for all direct costs (agreed upon by the publisher, agent and author) subtracted from the P&L. After those costs are covered, the author and publisher split the profit 50/50.
  • The model works because HarperStudio has lowered overhead and, therefore, lowered risk. The imprint publishes two books a month (16 so far) and has already had two New York Times best-sellers.
  • The big box stores refused to move to a "no returns" policy, and the independent bookstores were terrified of assuming the risk. Therefore, HarperStudio offers booksellers a choice: the traditional returnable model or a different non-returnable rate. Miller says "several large accounts" are experimenting with the non-returnable model.

Roger Cooper said that his Vanguard Press, which published its first book in the spring of 2007, has some similarities with HarperStudio:

  • The imprint also publishes two books a month
  • Vanguard also operates on a smaller scale with a lean staff
  • However, Vanguard does not offer ANY advances. Instead they offer a very high royalty model with royalties "far higher than the industry standard."
  • Vanguard also guarantees a "substantial marketing budget" in the contract
  • There are only three people on the "inside" of Vanguard (publisher, associate publisher and publishing manager). They hire all other talent (editing, PR, marketing and art) from "outside" Vanguard
  • Since they pay no advance, 90 days after the date of initial publishing, they begin paying monthly royalties

The first agent, Naples, said that innovative new models appealed to authors who were "disillusioned" by the traditional model of publishing. Non-traditional models are of particular interest to authors who have power and a platform.

When asked about the place of agents in these new models, Naples said that agents are able to help authors build brands and position themselves in the market.

The other agent, Silverberg, said that the e-book model is changing everything in publishing. He believes the infrastructure that was in place in publishing five years ago no longer exists. Newspapers no longer carry book pages, independent bookstores are dying and readers are buying online. Agents must invest in helping authors build a presence.

He said that the no-advance model and self-publishing model help authors at the top and at the bottom, but authors in the middle are not as able to benefit from either model.

Both publishers talked about the collaborative nature of the new models. Miller repeatedly made the point that the publisher, agent and author are now partners in making decision on what to spend money on and in discussing the P&L.

Cooper spoke again and again of the need for "transparency" between publisher and author. Under the traditional model, publishers tended to regard information as proprietary. The publishing house would pay the author an advance and, in effect, tell him to "go away." The newer models make financial partners of the author.

During the question/answer period, someone asked how publishers handle books that are printed but unsold. Miller laughed and said, "anything that costs money is charged to the profit share arrangement."

When asked if there were any types of books that are not suitable for this new model, both publishers agreed that elaborately illustrated books, which cost a great deal to publish, would not be something they'd be interested in. And, of course, because both only publish two books a month, they are very selective.

Advice For Writers

Okay, time to get back to publishing.

You may recall Harlequin's announcement of Carina Press, an independent, digital-only imprint back in early November (see my blog here). Angela James (who has been with the two biggest on-line romance websites, Ellora's Cave and Samhain) will be the Executive Editor.

About ten days ago, Angie published a list here of the top ten reasons she rejects manuscripts.

The list does not just pertain to romance. I believe it applies well to all genre fiction although perhaps not as well to literary fiction.

Interestingly enough, Britain's The Guardian posted a two-part article on "Ten Rules for Writing Fiction" here at about the same time. Some famous authors were each asked to give their "rules."

Some were clearly written tongue-in-cheek. However a number of them were terrific. These were my favorites:

Elmore Leonard: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Diana Athill: Read it aloud to yourself because that's the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK.

Margaret Atwood: Don't sit down in the middle of the woods. If you're lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong.

Roddy Doyle: Do restrict your browsing to a few websites a day.

Anne Enright: Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.

Esther Freud: Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained.

Neil Gaiman: Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

Hilary Mantel: Description must work for its place. It can't be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.

Zadie Smith: Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

Thanks to Coral Bergen for the link to the Carina blog post and to Michele Lee for the link to The Guardian article.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Update On My (Snow) Crisis

I ended my previous series on the D/FW snowstorm when the electricity came back on last Sunday. However, this past week was crazy enough that I'm going to do one final installment.

As I write this on Sunday, February 21, I have been without water for ten days. Some of this delay was caused by my insurance company dragging its feet, and some of it was caused by other issues like the impossible weather, the high number of claims in Dallas, the terrain of my neighborhood, and by that damn tree stump.

The plumber could not replace my water line until the two parts of the tree stump were removed. He estimated it would cost $850 for a backhoe and dump truck to haul the stump away.

Meanwhile, my insurance company (which shall be unnamed) insisted that this much damage could not possibly have come from snow--it had to be from wind. I'm sure it was just coincidence that my deductible for snow was only $500 while my deductible for wind was $2,750. My next door neighbor Linda suggested looking up the NOAA online reports of wind speed for 2/11/10. Wind speeds that day were only six MPH, demolishing the insurance company's claim that wind caused the tree to fall.

The insurance company's next response was to send out an arborist to look at the trees. I don't know if they were trying to claim that the trees were dead and that I failed to exercise appropriate caution or what. Anyway, the arborist agreed that the damage was due to excessive snow. Since his solution would be more ecologically sound, since the insurance company had delayed in the first place, and since my financial exposure was only $500, I agreed to have him grind up the tree stump and roots for $1,740 instead of the $850 I had previously arranged (Yes, I will admit I also enjoyed the idea of the insurance company paying almost $1,000 more).

Linda and Ken next door were my guardian angels this past week. They kept checking in on me, allowing me to shower at their house and bringing me fresh water each day. I don't know how many meals I've eaten in their warm and friendly home this week, but it was a lot. Linda was concerned that I wouldn't eat if she wasn't watching me.

While the arborist was at my house on Friday, February 19, he said he smelled gas. I called the gas company, and a repairman arrived around 4 PM on Friday. He tested and found an underground leak where the tree roots had slightly damaged the gas line. Friday night the gas company was out there until midnight replacing my gas line. In the process, the repairmen cut into the water main so we had a geyser that rose some thirty feet in the air in the street. The City had to come out to shut the water main down for repairs, increasing my popularity with my neighbors, I'm certain.

I had long since reached the end of my patience with the insurance company and announced I was going to a hotel for the night. Before I left at 11 PM, my gas had been reconnected, the pilot lights lit and Bob the Cat was safely inside.

While showering in the hotel, I noticed a red streak on my arm above the burn I'd sustained last week. I left the hotel at 11:30 PM and spent a very uncomfortable three hours in the ER waiting to get antibiotics. I didn't get back to bed at the hotel until 3 AM.

When I returned to the house Saturday morning at 7:30, the pilot lights were all extinguished. Apparently, the gas crew forgot to bleed out the air in the line so all my pilot lights blew out almost immediately after being lit.

Today, Sunday, the arborist and his crew showed up with a grinder and claw. The plan was that he would take the stump out and then the plumber would arrive at 8 AM tomorrow morning to install the new water line.

About 4 PM, the arborist came to Linda's front door to say that I needed to call Atmos Energy immediately because his grinder had cut through the NEW gas line. Leaving Ken to call the gas company, I went flying across the lawn into the house to look for Bob who was frantically scratching at the French doors trying to get away from the terrible gas odor. I slowed just long enough to scoop him up before rushing out of the house again.

Three gas company trucks responded in less than fifteen minutes. Note to self: If I ever hear a burglar at my windows, call the gas company to come and ask them to pick up the police on their way.

Once the gas was turned off, since both the water and gas lines were now cut, we made the decision to let the arborist grind up the ground before installing the new line. The gas repairman told me that the arborist's insurance will need to pay for the cut line and all the time spent waiting to lay the new line. He estimated the cost at more than twice what the job paid.

In the interim, since it was so cold outside Linda invited a new neighbor from down the hill to come up and join us for tea. I knew Kim was raising chickens and rabbits along with her four kids and was interested to learn that she'd already had to deal with foxes, possums and hawks wanting a meal at her expense. I asked if Bob had been down to visit. She laughed and said she suspected the roosters and dog would keep him off her property. I can only pray she's right.

It's now a little before 8 PM Sunday night. I once again have gas. Hopefully by tomorrow I'll have water, God willing and the creek don't rise (or the plumber doesn't cut the gas line, too, giving me a hat trick in seven days).

Oh, and did I mention? More snow is predicted on Tuesday.

Working The Night Shift

Talking about crisis intervention this week reminded me of my salad days as a social worker.

Back in the early '90s, while I was in graduate school, I worked on the Dallas County Mobile Crisis Team. There were a half dozen of us hand-picked to staff the team. We were based in the ER at Parkland Memorial Hospital. From 6:00 PM to 2:00 AM seven days a week, working in teams of two, we would be dispatched to handle psychiatric crises in the community. Our calls came primarily from the police, psychiatrists worried about patients, local crisis lines, and from the clients themselves.

That was a time when Multiple Personality Disorder (now called Dissociative Identity Disorder) was in high vogue. It was being diagnosed everywhere--mostly by inexperienced counselors and naïve therapists who were frankly thrilled to be able to say, "I have a MPD patient I need you to check on." At least once a week, we'd get a call to go talk to a so-called MPD patient.

Note: While the new terminology is DID, at the time of these incidents we used MPD, which is what I will use here.

I'm going to be blunt. Although I saw a lot of people who carried the label, I never believed any of them were actually MPD.

I am not saying that DID/MPD doesn't exist. I believe it probably does. However, it is a rare and an extreme defense mechanism created out of extreme circumstances. Anyone immediately identifying herself as MPD to strangers became suspect. When a woman greeted my partner and me at the door at 1:45 AM mouthing baby talk and holding a teddy bear with a pair of scissors sticking out of its belly, it took enormous self-control not to sigh.

Over time, I ended up as the lead partner on most of the MPD calls. I took a one-size-fits-all approach to anyone self-identifying as an "alter," depending on whether she was alone in the house or with someone else.

And before I'm accused of being sexist, all the MPD calls I handled were female. I am not saying male MPDs don't exist; I believe they probably do. We just never received a call from a male.

If the IP (identified patient) was alone, I had a routine that, boiled down to its essence, had these components: "I understand you called your counselor and said you were going to hurt yourself tonight. Tell me what you were thinking that made you say that? I'm not a psychiatrist so I'm not smart enough to understand (or discuss) your diagnosis. My only job is to keep your body safe tonight. I don't care who inside the body takes that responsibility, but someone needs to do so. If not, we're going to have to bring you to the ER at Parkland. So, what can you do to keep yourself safe tonight?"

Notice I stayed clear of "feelings" and spoke only of "thinking" and of the specific task of "staying safe tonight." My job was to keep her alive and well until morning. After that, keeping her safe became her therapist's job.

Of course, it was rarely that easy, nor that straightforward. We'd spend time building rapport, being empathetic, and making sure the IP was not psychotic, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or actively suicidal. Then we would work toward assisting the IP to develop a plan to get her safely through the night.

Throughout these interviews, my partner and I were almost always treated to a dazzling display of the IP employing different voices to ask us "Who are you?" as though she were seeing us for the first time--even if we'd already been there for an hour.

We never reacted to the switching of alters. I always called the IP by her "real" name and continued to ask the same questions over and over: "What usually works when you are thinking of taking pills or cutting on yourself?" and "What can you do tonight to stay safe?"

Basically, we just endured until she got tired of our company (or until we got close to the end of our shift).

Either we'd extract a promise from her not to hurt herself, or we'd call the police for escort to the ER. Not counting the patients who were actively psychotic or dangerously high on drugs, whom we always transported, I think we may have actually transported four women during that two-year period. Usually my saying it was time to call the police for transport was enough to convince the IP we were serious. Almost always, some "alter" would suddenly emerge to volunteer to protect the body. When confronted with going to the ER, the lady with the teddy bear and scissors who had been threatening to kill herself for thirty minutes actually said, "I can't go to the ER. They'll keep me for hours, and I'm scheduled to have lunch with my mother tomorrow." (!!!) She saw no dis-
connect between the statements of "I'm going to kill myself tonight" and "I'm having lunch with Mom tomorrow."

I said earlier my one-size-fits-all approach varied depending on whether the IP was alone or had company. Surprisingly often, we'd find a boyfriend (never a husband) eager to talk about MPD. In those cases, the IP usually was unwilling to talk to us. Instead she'd run through her repertoire of alters whom the BF was eager to help us identify. "This is Suzy. She's only twelve. Peggy is twenty-six, and Candy is four."

I'd resist the impulse to roll my eyes. Instead I'd say, "Well, she's lucky to have you. Most guys would get pretty tired of all this drama all the time."

In every single case, the IP immediately switched back to her "core persona," looked around the room and asked, "What happened? Who are these people, honey? What are they doing here?" At that point she was as eager for us to leave as we were to leave, so obtaining a promise to stay safe was easy.

One night as my partner and I were returning to the ER (alone) in our van, I said to him, "Why on earth would any guy put up with all that nonsense?"

Eddie grinned at me and said, "Probably because he gets to bed a different woman every night."

Working on that crisis team was some of the best training a social worker could ever have. We dealt with every diagnosis in the book (including schizophrenia, bipolar, major depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and every form of drug and alcohol abuse).

We talked to patients in homes, in shelters, in hospitals, in police stations, on the street and in boxes in fields. I'm happy to report that, in over two years of calls, my partner and I never had a patient harm him or herself after we left.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Coming Out On The Other Side

Last in a series.

On Saturday night, even though my car was now free of the snowbank, I opted to stay alone in my house during the coldest night yet. Why?

In retrospect, those 50 hours of focussing on very basic needs like staying warm and safe, having fresh water, and caring for my cough and burn had caused me to regress to a much lower-functioning level.

While it's not surprising that this should have happened, I'm a little taken aback by how quickly it did happen. The truth is, I wasn't really at major risk at any time during those three nights. My friends and family had offered multiple times to come get me. I was a mere phone call away from lots of help.

After I finished parking my Toyota in the driveway Saturday evening, I glanced down the street and realized for the first time that the Oncor repair crew was no longer working on my street. The disappointment I felt was almost visceral. My hope had been that the electricity would be restored Saturday.

I trudged back to the house.

Saturday night was the worst one yet. While I knew I needed to eat, I didn't have a taste for anything, Instead I munched on trail mix and drank hot raspberry tea. My cough was worse, my burn looked bad and my energy level was very low.

As he often does, Bob mirrored my mood. He trailed around behind me like a refugee afraid the boat would leave without him. While he's always been a very vocal cat, that night his whining drove me crazy.

We went to bed early, but neither of us seemed able to sleep. I read for hours, dozing off between chapters. It was freaking cold, and Bob burrowed under the comforter where I could feel him shivering. I put him on my chest and covered him up again, hoping my body heat would warm him. Gradually his shivering slowed and then stopped. He wanted to lick my cheek; I wanted him off my chest. We slept badly.

Sunday morning we were both lethargic, staying in bed much longer than usual. My loved ones called, offering to come by. I turned down all offers, saying I needed to stay in bed, both because of my cold and because I had not slept well the night before. All the males in my life accepted my response.

My best friend didn't.

Jacque announced she was coming and wouldn't take "no" for an answer. Like a gale force wind, she blew in with her husband in tow. They brought a Honda 3000 generator, a spare can of gasoline, a stack of 50-feet orange extension cords, a power strip, two five-gallon water dispensers, and lots of chocolate.

In minutes, her husband Jesse had set up the generator and hooked it up to my refrigerator. In addition to the refrigerator, we ran the extension cords through the house to my microwave, my electric blanket, a space heater in my bedroom and bedside lamp. Jesse assured me the Honda generator would let me know if I overburdened it. He said a can of gasoline would guarantee ten hours of power. I could let the generator cool for an hour and then refill it.

Jacque and Jesse didn't stay long. After giving me hugs, they left as suddenly as they'd arrived.

The difference their visit made was simply remarkable. I crawled into my warm bed in my warm room and slept soundly for the first time in three days. I woke up three hours later with Bob purring happily on top of the electric blanket.

Refreshed and energized, I went next door to check again on Ken and Linda. Their teenage boys answered the door. They said they'd been gone much of the past three days. The reason I had not been able to reach them was because the power loss had knocked out the phone's ringer.

The power returned Sunday evening although it went on and off multiple times over the next two days as branches continued to fall on power lines.

Insurance losses from the storm in Dallas/Fort Worth are estimated at $25 million. Many people have been disconcerted to learn that their home owner policies specifically exclude claims due to snow damage. Fortunately mine does not, although I've had some difficulty convincing the company of the extent of the damage done. It turns out that both my water and gas lines were disrupted, and it will take a backhoe and dump truck to remove the two gigantic root balls. As I write this, things are finally moving along, and I'm hopeful everything will soon be back to normal.

The snowstorm taught me some things. I like to think of myself as competent, rational and willing to address problems head-on. Even when I'm feeling insecure, I do a good job of masking the fear. I face the world with optimism and bravado. I dislike asking for help, preferring to maintain my hard-won independence at all costs.

It was quite humbling to realize how quickly my coping skills could desert me.

Despite years of training and of experience as a crisis intervener, I missed the signals that I was slipping into crisis. The signs were there: insomnia, lack of appetite, weight loss, lowered functioning levels.

Jacque performed a crisis intervention when she and Jesse showed up on Sunday afternoon. Her actions disrupted my downward spiral and restored my ability to cope. I'll be forever grateful to her.

If you've stuck with me through all six posts, I hope you'll learn from my mistakes. Pay attention to what's going on around you, prepare ahead of time for what might happen, ask for help when you need it, and never, ever forget to be grateful for God's grace when it is offered to you.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Shrinking World View

Fifth in a series.

After the gunshot incident, I decided the safest (and warmest) place to be was bed. By 9:00 PM Friday night, Bob and I were both huddled under the blankets of my four-poster. I read a couple of chapters from Gregg Hurwitz's thriller TRUST NO ONE by candlelight.

Luck had been with me when I'd purchased a half dozen fat decorative candles on sale months earlier. You know the kind: five or six inches high and just as wide. I quickly learned that, when you're in survival mode, these candles are far better than tall tapers because they drip inward and also because they only burn about an inch every eight hours. Over the days that followed the snowstorm, I slept with a candle burning beside the bed at night. Normally I don't need a nightlight, but having those candles helped to allay my anxiety during troubled nights. When I lurched awake as I did frequently, I'd sit up and read the Hurwitz book until I could fall back asleep.

Clutching Bob to my chest like a feline teddy bear, I curled up in a ball and closed my eyes. Bob purred loudly and periodically gave my hand or wrist a swipe with his sandpapery little tongue. I considered this a peace offering after his temper tantrums earlier in the day. While appreciating the gesture, I would have been happier without it.

My loved ones kept calling to check on me. Those voices from the outside world kept me apprised of the weather reports and helped keep my spirits up. I learned over 200,000 customers had been left without electricity Friday morning. By nightfall Oncor had restored power to 83,000 of them, leaving 117,000--including me--still in the dark in below-freezing temperatures.

Neither Bob nor I got a lot of sleep Friday night. Without the thick blanket of snow to muffle sound outside, we could hear the periodic crashes as overburdened limbs finally gave way to high winds. And, of course, there was the shouting and gunshots I mentioned previously. By 5:00 AM, I couldn't stay in bed any longer. I got up and returned to snow collection duty.

Remember what I said about tall candles not being practical? I experienced my first serious casualty Saturday morning. I was holding a candle over the stove when a drop of hot wax landed on the back of my hand. My involuntary jerk brushed my right hand against a boiling pot. The burn immediately blistered in two places even though I thrust my hand into a pot of snow.

Keeping that burn clean and dry became a real challenge. I periodically poured rubbing alcohol over it, which provided a real jolt to my days.

Saturday morning, I looked out the window and saw the plumber's truck from the previous day climbing the hill again. This time the driver triumphed over the slope, and I did a little dance around my den before answering the front door.

The prognosis came as no surprise: I needed a new water line, which meant a trench dug down the hill to street level. Moreover, he couldn't begin the work until I removed all the downed trees.

His visit gave purpose to my day. I needed to hire a tree-cutting crew. A friend called a few minutes later for an update. When he asked where I was going to find the cutters, I responded that I expected the cutters to soon find me. Fourteen years of experience living in the woods had taught me that gypsy cutters are attracted to downed trees like flies to a fresh kill.

Saturday morning tasted different. Instead of the hushed, still world to which I'd grown accustomed, I could now see and hear activity everywhere. The snow was melting, the roads were drying, and I nearly had an orgasm when I saw an Oncor truck working on a power line less than thirty feet from my property.

As I'd anticipated, four cutting crews stopped by the house before noon, offering to clear my fallen trees. These two- and three-member teams, whom I suspected were mostly composed of illegal immigrants, aggressively trolled the neighborhood for customers. The noise of chain saws soon overrode all other sounds.

Price gouging was the day's watchword. I was astounded at the chutzpah of the first crews to arrive with their extravagantly jacked-up prices. I thanked each group that came to the door, but told them I couldn't afford their services.

The second plumber arrived mid-afternoon and said essentially the same thing the first plumber had told me.

The snow had melted enough that I felt safe walking next door to knock on Ken and Linda's door. No answer. I checked their driveway. Their cars were gone. Made a note to self: feed Penny again.

By afternoon, the tree-cutting crews' prices started becoming more reasonable. Plenty of competition and too many reluctant buyers drove the estimates down. Two crews came back to offer me "special" discounts [Ha!] In addition, new players in the price war began to emerge.

Around 5:00 PM, a three-man Hispanic crew showed up at the door. I liked the look and sound of Oscar, and we quickly cut a deal. I'd estimated the job at five hours for three men. He thought they'd finish in four. His crew quickly assembled their tools, anxious to take advantage of the waning daylight. I watched them for twenty minutes to assure myself they knew what they were doing. The last thing I needed at this point was a chain saw injury on my property,

That evening I made the daily trek to the Toyota. Once more, it started up immediately and, this time, I was able to pull into the street.

After nearly 50 hours of involuntary confinement to home, you'd think I would have jumped at the chance to get away. However, something weird had happened. While I didn't understand it then, today I have no trouble recognizing the dynamic.

My world had shrunk. During those scary two days alone, the house had become my safe place, my den. I was now reluctant to leave it.

Instead of grabbing Bob and taking off for a family or friend's home, I parked the car in my driveway and returned to the cold, dark house.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Just Shoot Me

Fourth in a series.

I stood shivering, staring down at the devastation of my yard. My large red oak with four trunks lay toppled in all directions, and the split rootball had left a huge gaping hole in the ground. Water from the severed line still gushed into the hole. (In the photo above, the arborist put his white helmet in the crevasse for perspective).

I asked the City crew if they were going to shut the water off. The crew chief said he wasn't sure he could reach the water meter under all the tree limbs, but agreed to try. I backtracked in his footprints in the snow to get into my house without falling.

Thirty minutes later a second crew arrived with heavy equipment. There was a Caterpillar backhoe loader and something I think they called a truss boom. The backhoe operator told me he'd been sitting around waiting for the day's "bad call," and I was it. They'd need the heavy equipment to move the trees off the water meter.

By 1:00 PM Friday, the water had been shut off to my home, and I'd begun my search for a plumber. Fortunately, my land line was now operable -- a good thing because my cell phone was finally out of juice.

Two plumbers agreed to come give me estimates. Neither made it to my house. Trees had come down during the night further blocking access into my neighborhood. One plumber made it as far as the foot of my hill. For twenty minutes, I watched from my breakfast room window as his truck labored to climb the hill before giving up and turning back. Both plumbers promised to try again on Saturday when the weather was supposed to be warmer.

At 4:00 PM, frustrated by the forced inactivity, I decided to see if I could move my Toyota into the driveway. The crunchy snow felt safe to walk on until you put your foot through it to the ice below. I fell twice on the journey to the car, and the second fall was no fun. My leg went out from under me, and I landed on my back with the left leg under me.

I finally reached the car. Although it started up immediately, I could not get it out of its nest of snow. I realized I should have brought a shovel with me--both to dig the car out and to help stabilize me as I walked. Another newbie error. Aggravated, shivering and wet, I returned to the cold house without having accomplished anything.

When my land line came up, I'd started calling my neighbors. On two sides (to the south and west), my corner house faces wooded lots. I am in immediate proximity to just three other homes. One of the three houses (to the north) is for sale and vacant. The couple in the second house (to the northwest) had been visiting their married daughter in East Texas before the storm began, and I suspected they'd decided to extend their stay. I had not been able to reach Ken, my next-door neighbor to the east, since our call the previous night. I wondered if he and his family had gone to stay with friends.

Friday night was long . . . and cold. It seemed a whole lot colder than Thursday night. When I couldn't reach Ken or Linda next door, I became worried about their dog Penny. After putting together a meal of roast beef and Havarti cheese, I made my way to the perimeter between our yards, using a old crutch to keep from falling. Penny crawled out of her doghouse, and I fed her by hand through the fence.

I now had the novelty of a cough to enliven the boredom of my sore throat. I heated a can of clam chowder and ate the soup with crackers and hot tea. Bob turned his nose up at the tin of catfood I opened for him. His periodic grumbling left no question that he held me responsible for his unlawful imprisonment in the house.

The cat and I had developed a routine. He would run to a door and stand there, whining to go out. I would open the door; he'd look out and slowly back up into the house. Then he would grumble for a minute or so before running to one of the other two doors and repeating the entire process over again--because, of course, the weather might be different out that door. His behavior reminded me of what an old boyriend had once said about cats: their brains are very, very small and filled with evil intent. Bob and I did this "door dance" a dozen times a day over the course of our confinement.

After dinner, I returned to snow collection. I was determined to keep a full supply of drinking, washing and flushing water available because I didn't know how long I'd be trapped or how long it would take to restore water to my house.

Around 8:30 PM, I was standing just outside my backdoor, scooping snow when I saw a flash off to my right. Before I even had time to turn my head toward that direction, I heard the retort of a pistol. Startled, I backed into the house and locked the door behind me.

Kids in Texas grow up with guns. Some of them are responsible about gun ownership; others are not. Last month, I'd had a roof leak. When the repairman came to diagnose the problem, he said the hole had been created by a bullet. The roofer speculated that a kid shot his gun into the air on New Year's Eve and the bullet had come down through my roof.

By now I was pretty certain that a fair number of my neighbors were not at home, instead decamping to alternate locations with power and heat. I couldn't help but wonder if the shot I heard came from a kid playing around or from a resident trying to scare off a looter.

I heard shouting and what sounded like shots twice more during Friday night.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Cries The Earth

Third in the series.

Standing at the bathroom sink, staring down at that dry faucet, I freaked out. All of a sudden, every warning sign of the last eight hours returned to leer at me with sharp, grinning teeth. Because I'd ignored the signals, I was now trapped alone without power, water or a land line and with my car stuck in a snowbank.

In a panic, forgetting the flashlight, I ran to my nightstand where I frantically fumbled around in the dark for my cell phone. The same cell phone I could no longer recharge.

The phone had one bar left. One. I shut it off to preserve that bar as long as possible.

I sat on the bed steps and tried to calm myself. No matter what my fear tried to tell me, I wasn't in a cabin on an isolated mountaintop.

I had food, I had milk and juice, I had blankets and warm clothes, I had a flashlight and batteries. I'd be all right for several days.

Okay, I wasn't as mobile as I'd like to be. The Toyota was stuck. But it wouldn't be stuck forever. Snow melts. And, until it melted, if I had trouble, all I had to do was stand in my doorway and shout until someone heard me. There were people all around.

Slowly, I got my breathing under control. My analytical left brain tried to comfort my intuitive right brain, promising there was nothing to worry about.

I recognize that feeling trapped is an particular issue of mine. I spent a fair amount of my childhood feeling trapped. To subdue the feeling response, I deliberately shifted to a thinking response. I began to plan.

**I needed to see how many candles and matches I had available

**I'd purchased four flashlight batteries. I needed to check whether I had any more

**I reminded myself that snow melts. I still had the use of my gas stove. I could melt snow to drink and to flush the toilets

**I had a fireplace. Although I hadn't purchased wood in a while, there was still a woodpile out back. I needed to check it

The thinking exercise worked. I returned to bed -- if not calm, at least no longer crazed.

The one thing that still worried me was the question of what had happened to the water. I'd wrapped the outside faucets and left the inside faucets dripping; the pipes shouldn't have frozen.

My dreams Thursday night were filled with serpents guarding moats and hurricanes uprooting banyan trees. Even my subconscious was fretting about the water pipes. Friday morning, I decided to wait a couple of hours for things to warm up outside before calling the municipal water department.

I started in the garage where I retrieved a large Rubbermaid plastic trash can that I use to hold my leaf bags when I rake in the fall. I dragged the can through the house and out to the back door. I would use it to collect snow to melt so I could flush the toilets.

In the kitchen, I lined up three saucepans and my large soup pot. I would boil the snow in the saucepans and keep the drinking water in the soup pot. I put a large plastic container in the sink that would serve as my washbowl for cleaning my hands and dishware.

The first thing you need to know about boiling snow is that the return on investment (ROI) is not very good. It takes four pots of melted snow to fill that one pot with water. The snow was 15 inches high in the backyard and appeared to be very clean. I boiled the drinking water and washbowl water, but only heated the toilet water.

I was appalled by how inefficient my bathroom toilet tank was. It took ten and a half pots of water (or 42 pots of snow) to fill it. I experimented with not filling the tank to the line. Under six pots of water, the tank didn't work properly. Eight pots seemed to be the optimal number.

After working for over three hours (!) hauling and melting snow, I stopped to have breakfast and to call the water department. I used my precious one bar of cell time to ask if there had been a broken water main in my vicinity. The clerk said "no" and sent a crew to my house.

The crew boss knocked on my door and asked me to step outside. I followed in the footprints he made in the snow to the southwest corner of my house. He pointed, and I stared in horror at what looked like Armageddon.

A cluster of four red oaks had tipped forward under the weight of the snow and fallen down the slope of my front yard. The upended root balls had ripped my water line right out of the ground. The devastation was unbelievable.

Three of those trees were over twenty feet tall. The fourth was close to forty feet high.

My first reaction was grief. Those oaks had been a large part of the reason I'd purchased the house and a constant joy. I never tired of them -- even when raking dozens of bags of leaves every fall. Now their bare root balls loomed above a jagged crater in the earth. The giant hole was filled with ice and with the water still pouring from the broken line.

The exposed roots looked like a writhing mass of snakes swimming in the watery caldera -- reminding me of the previous night's dreams.

I bit my lip to keep from crying.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Reality Bites

Second in the continuing saga of a woman facing a personal crisis. When I last posted, I was inching my way home from work Thursday night.

At 7 PM, I reached my neighborhood. The sore throat was getting worse, and I decided to stop and pick up some Thera-Flu. The grocery store parking lot was a lake of slushy snow. My shoes and socks were drenched by the time I waded inside. Gwen, the manager on duty, asked "What's wrong with you getting out in this weather?"

I quickly found the Thera-Flu, but didn’t head for the checkout. Even with wet, freezing toes, I wasn’t anxious to go home to a cold, dark house. Wandering the aisles, I picked up snacks that didn’t require refrigeration (bananas, pretzels and Pepperidge Farm Bordeaux cookies). As almost an after-thought, I grabbed a package of flashlight batteries.

SECOND ERROR: I didn’t take the dangerous weather seriously. Although accustomed to developing contingency plans at work, I failed to assess my readiness to handle a home without power. Instead, I worried about having enough snacks.

The drive home was eerie. Although it was just 7:30 PM, I only saw two other cars on the normally busy streets.

Let me stop here and explain where I live. For the past fourteen years, I’ve owned a 3 bedroom/2 bathroom ranch house in a bedroom community adjacent to Dallas. The chief attraction of the neighborhood is its terrain. The steep inclines are reminiscent of the popular Hill Country around Austin. My front yard slopes down about five feet to the street. Other houses in the area have roofs either even with the street level or sixty feet above street level.

Only minutes from the skyscrapers of downtown Dallas, towering trees, no sidewalks, a flowing stream and abundant wildlife (including owls, possum, and raccoon) provide a sense of rural living to urban dwellers. Over the last decade, coyotes have eradicated the rabbits (and more than a few cats and small dogs) before being edged out themselves by the reemergence of the more resident-friendly gray fox.

But, during a storm, my familiar neighborhood turns hostile. Fallen tree limbs block streets and the steep hills become impossible to navigate. Ken had warned that my most direct route home had already been closed off by the town’s road crew. Remembering his alert, I circled the development and came in on H Street, the most level block in the neighborhood.

When I reached the corner on which I live, I turned in the direction of my driveway. Although the incline wasn’t sharp, my Toyota slid backward.

For ten minutes, I tried to maneuver the sixty feet from that corner to my driveway. I rocked the car back and forth in an effort to free it from the frozen tundra holding us prisoner. The tires spun, the engine labored and, every time I broke free, the vehicle fishtailed. The Toyota finally took the decision away from me, sliding backward into a snowbank across the street from my property. Disgusted, I decided to leave the vehicle where it sat -- half on and half off the street.

Reaching my house was another ordeal. My feet sank into snow up to my knees. Fortunately, the white powder also acted as a shock absorber because I fell four times between the car and the house. Beneath the fluffy stuff was that treacherous glaze of black ice.

When I purchased the property, there were over three dozen oak, pine and cedar trees on it. Half a dozen are over forty feet tall. I've been diligent about keeping them pruned. Every spring, there is at least one or two dying members of the tribe that need to be expelled. Now it seemed all that work had paid off. The brilliant white of the snow illuminated the property, making it nearly as bright as day. All looked well. In contrast to other houses on the block, I couldn't see any fallen branches on my property.

Bob The Cat had worked himself into a fine tizzy by the time I made it indoors. He followed me and my flashlight, complaining loudly at being so mistreated. Once fed, he satisfied himself with the occasional sotto voce curse.

Although the power had been out for several hours already, I didn't bother looking for the candles I keep stored over the bathroom sink. I was confident that Oncor would have the electricity back on by morning at the latest. Yet another error in thinking.

I piled blankets and comforters on the bed and prepared for a long winter's night. The house wasn't as cold as I would have expected. I wondered out loud to Bob whether the snow might have an insulating effect. Just in case, I checked all six inside faucets to make certain they were dripping. The three outside faucets were already wrapped for the winter. The first smart thing I'd done.

The memory that stands out the most is the utter quiet. No appliances humming, no clocks ticking, no sounds filtering in from outside. It was completely silent.

Although I rarely wear pajamas, I did that night. Added a pullover top and a flannel jacket. Two pair of socks.

Toasty warm under the blankets, I used my cell phone to call two friends. Thinking myself wise, I kept each call under twenty minutes to save my cell bars.

By 8:45, I was ready for sleep. I didn't even want to leave my cozy nest for the bathroom. With Bob curled up next to me, I dozed off.

Sometime after 11:00 PM, that potty break was no longer optional. The cold tile of the bathroom floor made my toes forget the two pair of thick socks I wore. After turning the faucet on, I stuck my hands under the tap. An echo from the water pipe was my only reward.

No water.

In an instant, I went from complacency to panic. The reality of the situation struck hard. No land line, no power, no water. A car stuck in a snowbank. Memories of a slip on ice in my sloping yard during February seven years earlier flooded back. Four broken bones in the left leg, two operations and two months in rehab. No way was I going to be walking around outside in this weather.

I was as terrified as if I’d found myself snowbound in a log cabin alone on a remote mountainside!

Monday, February 15, 2010

An Urban Girl's Rural Challenges

I know I've been gone for quite a while and have left some of you wondering where I was. Things with my mother finally came to a crisis, and I didn't have the energy or the will to do more than soldier on. While the situation still isn't resolved, there's an emerging path ahead.

I'm in the middle of a new challenge. Not sure how consistently I'll be posting, but I thought I'd share this one over the next few days.

Survival is hard. But I’ve always known that. As a female management analyst at a large university, I’ve honed my professional skills to a fine edge. I can spot problems and develop alternate plans at a moment’s notice. Unfortunate-ly, like the cobbler and his shoeless children, my personal life is never as well-organized as my work life.

I was recently tested at a very primitive level. Instead of holding my own against a VP during a debate on the viability of a new software system, I was forced to go mano-a-mano with a true cutthroat adversary: Mother Nature. And, let me tell you, that old bitch doesn’t even pretend to play fair. Over a four-day period, she sucker punched me more than once.

I did a few things right; I did a whole bunch of them wrong.

Okay, I know those of you who live in New York, Chicago and even, on occasion, Washington, D.C. will laugh at this lame tale from Dallas, Texas. But let’s face it. You northern guys are prepared for snow. In contrast, the entire city of Dallas goes crazy when faced with a thin veneer of frost. We speak in dire tones of the dangers of “black ice”--that transparent glaze that masquerades as a cleared sidewalk or a dry road in order to catch you unaware.

The average annual snowfall in Dallas is 2.5 inches. The occasional snow day is like that little girl in second grade who insisted on wearing dresses to school and cried if she got dirty during recess. Her pale prettiness evoked admiration, but didn’t have much of an impact on her peers. By contrast, the snowfall Dallas experienced this past weekend was like that girl from sixth grade—the one who was French kissing while the rest of us were still practicing closed lip maneuvers on our pillows. She scared us, exhilarated us and encouraged us to move beyond our safety zones.

This 2010 blast blanketed the D/FW area with more than 12 inches of snow in as many hours--nearly five times the average annual snowfall. It is now officially on record as the most snowfall to ever hit Texas in a 24-hour period. My own backyard yield was nearly 15 inches. As short as I am, that meant I was practically up to my knees in white stuff.

My latest work assignment has me reorganizing an ailing billing department. When the winter blast started on Thursday, February 11, all but one of my crew of a dozen managed to make it into work despite the sleet that had begun coating the streets. I didn’t experience much trouble on my own way into the office although the trip took much longer than the usual 22 minutes. I remember being annoyed by the pickup trucks and SUVs that sped past those of us travelling at a sensible 30 MPH over bridges and overpasses. The size of a vehicle is frequently in direct inverse proportion to the size of the brain of its driver.

During the course of Thursday, the freezing rain gradually morphed into big, fluffy flakes that just kept coming, coming . . . and coming. The novelty soon gave way to concern as the weatherman offered ominous warnings of dropping temperatures. I suggested my group go home at 3 PM before things started to freeze and made travel conditions even more iffy. My Financial Coordinator and I stayed behind to mind the shop. Monday was Presidents’ Day, and I planned to celebrate the holiday by taking Friday off so I had plenty to keep me busy.

At 4:40, I decided staying any later would be foolhardy, and I set off on what would become an epic trek across Dallas County. The journey took almost 2 ½ hours, much of it spent inching slowly forward at 0 MPH surrounded by other vehicles doing the same thing. The tedium of the drive was occasionally enlivened by spikes of adrenaline when one of those idiots in a SUV whizzed past on the slushy shoulder.

My throat was dry and scratchy, and I said a quick prayer I wasn't starting a sore throat.

Midway through the journey, my next-door neighbor Ken called my cell. He wanted me to know that my power and telephone were both out. We talked for probably 45 minutes as I crawled another mile and a half along the Interstate.

FIRST ERROR: Knowing both my power and land line were not operational, I continued to run down my cell phone chatting.