Today, I wrote a letter to my local city council requesting they pass a resolution calling for President Trump’s impeachment. You can read it below. Sorry for the bad scanning.
If you’re curious, Richmond CA’s resolution can be found here.
I hope you’ll consider sending a similar letter to your local government.
Buried amid yesterday’s Super Tuesday coverage was this gem from USA Today about the importance of clear writing:
Justices OK child porn sentence in war of words
WASHINGTON — A divided Supreme Court upheld a child pornography defendant’s 10-year mandatory minimum sentence Tuesday in a case that had both sides debating the meaning of Star Wars and sour lemons.
Six justices ruled that a federal law’s key phrase — “a prior conviction … under the laws of any state relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward” — means only that the last charge must involve children. The first two charges, they reasoned, could apply to adults as well.
Not so, Justice Elena Kagan said in a dissent joined by Justice Stephen Breyer, triggering a colorful debate over what she called the “ordinary understanding of how English works.”
“Imagine a friend told you that she hoped to meet ‘an actor, director or producer involved with the new Star Wars movie,'” she said. “You would know immediately that she wanted to meet an actor from the Star Wars cast — not an actor in, for example, the latest Zoolander.”
Kagan added two more examples and then concluded: “Everyone understands that the modifying phrase — ‘involved with the new Star Wars movie’ … — applies to each term in the preceding list, not just the last.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote the 6-2 opinion, countered with an example of her own.
“It would be as if a friend asked you to get her tart lemons, sour lemons, or sour fruit from Mexico,” she wrote. “If you brought back lemons from California, but your friend insisted that she was using customary speech and obviously asked for Mexican fruit only, you would be forgiven for disagreeing on both counts.”
Sotomayor’s interpretation prevailed, which was bad news for Avondale Lockhart, whose enhanced sentence for child pornography was based on a prior conviction of sexual abuse involving his 53-year-old girlfriend. He argued that the tougher sentence was intended only for those whose prior conviction involved children.
During oral argument in November, the dispute was close enough to convince Justice Antonin Scalia that the verdict should tilt in Lockhart’s favor. “When the government sends somebody to jail for 10 years, it has to turn sharp corners,” he said. “It has to dot every I and cross every T. It has to be clear.”
Scalia’s death last month left only eight justices to decide the case, but his influence lived on in the opinion and dissent. Each side cited his influential book, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, written with Bryan Garner, to bolster its case.
So, there you go. Proof that copyediting saves lives, my friends, and the pen is mightier than the sword, and so on.
Seriously, though, this is an example of how critical it can be to write clearly. In the case of Avondale Lockhart, it sent him to prison for an additional ten years. For what it’s worth, I agree with Justice Kagan. But this is the U.S. Supreme Court, and their word is final. In light of that, and assuming the statute was not actually intended to send someone like Lockhart to the clink for an additional ten years, how should the statute have been written? Here is an alternative. Incidentally, it uses the Oxford comma, which I think also adds clarity:
a prior conviction … under the laws of any state relating to sexual abuse or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward, aggravated sexual abuse, or sexual abuse
All I did was reorder the list items so that the crime related to minors comes first. The problem, though, is that it’s clunky as hell. Perhaps it should have been like this:
a prior conviction … under the laws of any state relating to: (a) aggravated sexual abuse, (b) sexual abuse or (c) abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward
The Supreme Court should have remanded the case to a fact-finding court for further testimony about the statute, if it hadn’t been done already. An expert witness in English grammar could have shed some light on this. Or how about (gasp!) calling in the actual legislator who wrote the law to testify about what he/she intended?
How do you work out with two sledgehammers? Glad you asked. I also recorded the background music to this demonstration video on my piano. Enjoy.
After hearing that actress Elle Clark (of The Seventh Equinox book trailer fame) almost bought the farm in a car accident yesterday, I flashed back to the two and half years I spent as a personal injury (PI) paralegal for a small Virginia law firm. And I realized I’m full of it.
Full of advice, I mean. So, I thought I’d pass it on, for what it’s worth. Bear in mind a couple things before reading on. First, I’m not a lawyer, and this shouldn’t be taken in place of qualified, licensed legal advice. Get a lawyer, dammit. Second, my PI knowledge is based on Virginia law, and it’s nearly six years out of date. So hold a grain of salt in one hand and a slice of lime in the other. Folks with better information — particularly those currently in the field — are encouraged to post comments below to correct and/or update my info.
That being said, there are some general concepts at work in any auto accident insurance-coverage situation I believe I can orient you to.
You’ve been injured, so get yourself treated. Go to the hospital. Go to all your doctor’s appointments. Have your providers submit your medical bills to your heath insurance carrier, just as always. Your carrier will discount and then pay your bills (minus your deductible). Just get your bills paid, and take care of yourself. Believe me, you don’t want to piss off your medical providers. They will sue to you to recover. They don’t care that somebody else may be at fault in your car accident.
If you don’t have health insurance, check your auto policy for medical expense coverage (see below). You can also stave off the hell hounds of health by negotiating for a reduced bill, paying just a little bit at a time, or having your attorney send them a “lien letter” that promises they’ll be paid out of any liability settlement you receive in the future. Lien letters don’t always work, but sometimes they can keep the creditors off your butt for a little while.
Comprehensive/Collision Coverage (auto insurance)
While health insurance will take care of your medical needs, this type of auto coverage will take care of your transportation needs. Your good ole insurance carrier will pay to repair or replace your vehicle. Here in Virginia, comprehensive/coverage is optional, so if you don’t have it and you’ve been in an accident, it sucks to be you. You’re gonna be waiting for that property liability settlement from the other guy’s auto carrier, which may or may not happen. So, absolutely, get this type of coverage from your own auto carrier ahead of time.
I drew a lame little line here to underscore that the above two areas — your health and your transportation needs — are your priorities. If you stopped here and didn’t do anything else, then your basic needs would be met. Everything that follows is merely designed to get you more money.
Medical Expense Coverage (auto)
Formerly known as MedPay (a catchier term that I’ll go ahead and use in this section), this is an optional line of no-fault medical insurance you carry on your auto policy. “No fault” means that it doesn’t matter if you or somebody else caused the accident. MedPay will cover the medical bills of anyone inside your vehicle injured in the accident. Anyone means you, your family members, your friends — anyone in the car.
If you don’t have normal health insurance, you can name your auto carrier as your health insurer so that your doctors will claim against your MedPay coverage. This won’t get you any of the network discounts that make ordinary health coverage so cool — at least, I don’t remember seeing any — so the auto carrier will merely pay the bills in full and exhaust your available coverage that much sooner. You might have several thousand dollars of MedPay available, but once it’s gone, it’s gone.
The smarter way to use MedPay assumes you already have health insurance. Use your regular health insurance to get your bills paid and your doctors off your back (see above). Then, what you do is obtain new copies of all your medical records and medical bills related to your auto injuries, and then you submit those to your auto carrier. It won’t matter if your health carrier discounted your $1,000 bill for a CT scan down to $200 and then paid that. Other carrier’s discounts and/or payments are immaterial. Your auto carrier will be required to cut you, personally, a check for the full amount.
If you’ve already retained a lawyer to handle your PI claim, then he’ll soon be in possession of all your medical records and bills, so he should handle your MedPay claims for you. He might charge you an hourly fee for this service — and 20 cents a page for photocopies, of course — but all that should be paid out of your liability settlement, if any (see below).
Liability Coverage (auto)
This is where all the drama comes in, all the Perry Mason court room theatrics, late-night infomercials, and ambulance-chasing. And it’s also where most of the misunderstandings exist.
Liability coverage is a type of legally required auto insurance designed to pay for one’s negligent acts. If you caused an accident, then your auto carrier will pay the aggrieved party out of this coverage. It comes in two varieties: property coverage and medical coverage.
Property liablity coverage will pay for fixing or replacing the other guy’s vehicle if you’re at fault. It would also come into play if, for example, you drove your car through someone’s house and wiped it out.
Medical liability coverage will compensate an aggrieved party for his medical bills. Keep that in mind: it will compensate him. It won’t pay for the medical bills, at least not directly. It’s not medical insurance. It’s to compensate a person for his damages, after the fact.
The way it works is that, let’s say you’ve been injured in a car accident, and someone else is at fault. Once your medical condition has stabilized — either you’ve completely healed, or your new medical disability has reached a predictable base line — then you can and should make a liability claim. “There’s only one bite at the apple,” PI attorneys like to say, which means you can only make a liability claim one time, so you better make it a good one.
Your medical bills, your loss of income, your mental anguish, your loss of consortium — all of these things are your medical damages. And your damages are what liability coverage is designed to compensate you for. This is ultimately a subjective determination, so PI attorneys and insurance adjusters have various ways to calculate and negotiate the value of your claim.1
The time limit to submit a liability claim will be subject to the statute of limitations of your state. In Virginia, it was (and is?) two years from the date of the car accident.2 If you’re a minor, then the two-year clock doesn’t start ticking until you reach the majority age of 18 — which means that you might not have to file a liability claim for the injuries you suffered at age 4 until 20 years old.
In any case, every liability claim stands on what’s called the three-legged stool. A three-legged stool missing one of its legs will fall over, so likewise must a liability claim have its three legs in order:
Early on during your recovery, you might receive a phone call from the other guy’s auto carrier. It might be an insurance adjuster. Remember that his motivation is to limit the amount of money he’ll have to pay to you. He doesn’t care about you. So he might have a tape recorder running while he talks to you. He’ll ask you about your injuries and try to get you to say you had an achy neck and back before the accident because your chiropractor was rough with you last week. He’ll ask you about the accident and try to get you to say you were maybe a little bit responsible for what happened. That last part is particularly important. Virginia is a “contributory negligence” state, which means that if you’re even one percent responsible for what happened to you, then you can kiss your liability payout goodbye.
The way to handle an insurance adjuster’s phone call is to keep your mouth shut. Hang up on him, if you have to. Or, if you have the steel, politely ask him to mail a “letter of representation” either to you or your attorney. This letter should identify who he is and whom he is insuring, which will make identifying the relevant insurance carriers a hell of a lot easier (see #3 above).
And that’s about all I can think of. I hope this general advice helps someone. (I’m looking at you, Elle!) Feel free to ask questions or to tell me where my information is wrong.
1When I worked in the field, it was “three times treatment and one-and-a-half times diagnostic, plus lost wages,” meaning that I totaled your medical treatment bills x 3, your medical diagnostic bills x 1.5, and your lost wages x 1, and arrived at the likely settlement value of your liability claim. Of course, we didn’t ask for that amount from the liability carrier right off the bat; we demanded an amount two or three times that — high balling because we knew their counteroffer would low ball, and then we’d go back and forth, negotiating and compromising, until we hopefully arrived in the middle, right at the original valuation. Back
2If you haven’t completely recovered from your injuries within two years, then we’d file a lawsuit in circuit court to “toll the statute.” Because you have up to one year to serve the lawsuit on the other side and thus initiate formal litigation, we wouldn’t serve it right away. And then, if you weren’t healed after three whole years, we might just “non-suit” the lawsuit, because then we’d have (I think it was) six months to re-file it and start over. What fun we had in litigation. Back
3The big ones in my area are Marks & Harrison and Chandler Law Group. Back
Victoria Strauss, of the venerable Writer Beware blog, argues in a recent post that it’s not really necessary for writers to register their unpublished works with the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress. “It’s not until your manuscript is about to be exposed to a large audience — i.e., published — that you need to think about copyright registration,” she says.
For those who don’t know exactly what she’s talking about, copyright registration is a legal formality in which you create a public record of the details of your copyright interest in a particular work. A registration can be filed through snail mail or online.
Ms. Strauss gives the following reasons not to register an unpublished work:
While I have no quibbles with her factual statements, I disagree with Ms. Strauss’s conclusion. I think it’s a damn good idea to register an unpublished work, before you ever submit it. Here are my reasons:
If registration is made within three months after publication of the work or prior to an infringement of the work, statutory damages and attorney’s fees will be available to the copyright owner in court actions. Otherwise, only an award of actual damages and profits is available to the copyright owner.
The key phrases here are statutory damages and attorney’s fees and actual damages and profits. Actual damages means how much did David Boyer make by selling your story to Great Exposure for New Writers Magazine? Did he make a whopping ten bucks? That’s your “actual” damages. Are you going to sue him, across state lines, for ten bucks? Probably not. But what if I told you that, since you filed your copyright registration before he stole it, you can sue him for statutory damages in the tens of thousands of dollars plus your attorney’s $5000 retainer?
Sounds like a good deal to me.
Ms. Strauss says that vanity presses like Dorrance Publishing harvest the contact info of registrants for their junk mail. This is true. I’ve received quite a bit of crap from Dorrance over the years. And they’re not the only ones. As I detailed in my long article about my internship with the Edit Ink book doctor scam, the faux literary agency Aardvark also used purchased direct mail lists based on copyright registrations in order to lure beginning writers into Edit Ink’s net.
But so what? Are you gonna cry about having to throw a few extra junk mail envelopes per year into your recycle bin? Come on.
Give me a real reason, such as that filing a single copyright registration costs $35. Not chump change at all, especially if you’re a writer who’s so dollar-conscious you’re willing to walk through life without health insurance because you can’t afford the premiums. So let’s talk about that a moment.
If you go to Circular 34 from the Copyright Office, “Multiple Works,” you’ll find a great way to save money on filing fees. What it says is that you can group a whole bunch of your unpublished works together into a single “collection” and just register that. One registration, one $35 filing fee. I do this once a year. My first collection, with the awe-inspiring title, Copyright Collection — January 2009, contained the text of several unpublished short stories and a couple novels.
There are a few restrictions on filing this way, as detailed in the circular, such as that all the works in the collection must be by the same author and be “assembled in an orderly form,” which I take to mean you must number the pages and include a table of contents. And this also requires that you, the writer, keep good records should, God forbid, you ever need your lawyer to pull a copy of the collection out of the LOC’s storage. (By the way, “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw?” is contained in Copyright Collection — January 2009. You’re welcome to read it.) But I’m confident that any writer with 25% of a brain can handle these tasks.
Speaking of the money/time/elbow grease burdens of copyright registration, you should take note of the following “deposit requirements” — i.e., how many copies of your work you must send in — as detailed in the Copyright Basics circular:
- if the work is unpublished, one complete copy or phono record
- if the work was first published in the United States on or after January 1, 1978, two complete copies or phonorecords of the best edition
That second bullet point should give you pause if, like me, your latest work was published in a limited edition hardback costing $45 a pop.
However, if you send in the text of your work before it’s published — and hell, why not put it in a “Copyright Collection” with 400 other things? — then you can use the LOC’s Electronic Copyright Office filing system and send in a single PDF file. Or, if you prefer to snail mail it in the old fashion way, still just send a single copy printed from your home computer or on a disk. A warning, though, if you choose to snail mail anything to the Copyright Office. Thanks to a little problem we had with anthrax powder twelve years ago, anything you mail in will probably get irradiated as a precaution before it ever lands on a copyright examiner’s desk. Not so good for that disk you sent.
So, that’s my advice. Break that piggy bank to find $35, and send your stuff in! It’s worth it.
Having just gone through a terrifying birthing experience (but everyone is fine now, thank you), my opinion about home birthing has taken a decided turn toward the grouchy.
Yes, I’m sure it’s wonderful to have your child at home, in your own bed, just surrounded by your loved ones and a midwife. I’m sure it’s wonderful to be away from doctors and their computers and IV bags. But if my son Thomas had been born at home, he would be dead right now.
As it was, an obstetrician watching the baby monitor realized the situation had turned life-threatening, so she used appropriate equipment to bring him out ahead of schedule. The moment he was out, he was pounced on by an anesthesiologist and a handful of registered nurses, who resuscitated him after about a minute and a half. He still wasn’t able to breathe on his own, so they intubated him. This was all within about the first 10 minutes of his life. By the end of the morning, he was on his way in a special ambulance to a neonatal intensive care unit, where he underwent a revolutionary new hypothermia therapy, which protected him from hypoxemic brain damage. Today, he’s home, acting like a typical newborn, and he has an excellent chance of growing up without any long-term damage whatsover.
Sure, midwives are highly trained in what they do. They join professional organizations of midwives, and they undergo training. They’re practiced in things like CPR, and they’re unafraid to call an ambulance when things get scary. But is the feel-good benefit of having your baby at home worth risking your and your child’s life? I’m convinced that if Thomas hadn’t been born in an advanced medical facility, I would be writing a very unhappy blog post this morning.
The big hullabaloo this week in horror publishing is about what appears to be some pretty serious copyright violations by the former #1 mass market publisher of horror. You can read links to the latest news here.
In addition to claims that Leisure hasn’t paid royalties to its authors in a couple years, now authors are saying Leisure is continuing to sell titles to which it has no legal right.
Although I was never a Leisure author (but not for a lack of trying, let me tell you), I can certainly sympathize with other authors’ outrage. If I had received rights to one of my books back from a publisher, and that publisher continued to sell my book anyway, I would be pretty pissed-off, too.
What can a writer do in this situation? Why, sue the shit out of them, of course. “But I don’t have any money,” the writer says. “I can’t even pay my rent. What makes you think I can afford to hire an attorney?”
Well, didn’t you register your copyright with the Copyright Office (part of the Library of Congress), before the infringement? Because it says right here in the U.S. Code that you may be able to recover the full costs of your litigation … that, on top of the possibility of a $150,000 statutory damage award, regardless of how much money the defendant may have actually made selling your stuff.
Oh, I see. You didn’t file your copyright form? Ever?
Why do you need health insurance? Because I’m a goddamn horror writer as well as a former paralegal specializing in personal injury, and I can envision all the nasty shit that can happen to you.
Every once in a while, someone in the publishing industry steps in it — as we all are prone to do by virtue of being human. Writers, most of whom I have found to be wonderfully generous people, have inevitably stepped up to help their own by launching fundraising drives to pay for their fellow’s medical bills. I certainly admire and support them. The latest victim of life is writer Steve Perry, inventor of the Thundercats cartoon I enjoyed as a kid. He has cancer, a five-year-old child, and precious little funds to take care of either. Elizabeth Massie and Laura Anne Gilman are spearheading efforts to help him out. I urge to you visit this link and to help out.
But back to to my rant. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that Steve Perry, as well as many other people I know, don’t have health insurance. It probably has to do with the prohibitive cost of obtaining it. Why, at my last job as a employee of someone else (i.e., see above reference to being a paralegal), our group health plan was so bad that re-upping my coverage would have swallowed half of my damn paycheck just to cover the premiums. No wonder people chance going through life without a net.
Still, that’s all well and good until you come down with terminal cancer. Or, let’s look at this on a more everyday level: how many people have you known who have ever been pregnant? Do you know what my son and his mother’s medical bills totaled on the day of his birth? Somewhere around $6,000. That was from just one day in the hospital. And that was probably cheap.
Not many people have that kind of money. And believe me, hospitals can and do sue people all the time to recover what’s owed to them. So, what can you do about it? Get goddamn health insurance.
Now, the question is, how do you do it affordably? So, in the interests of helping someone, I’m going to tell you how my family did it. The laws in your state may differ a bit, so be sure to consult an insurance broker if you’re interested:
What we have is our own, individual policy with our local carrier, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Sheld. (Anthem has a monopoly in our area, central Virginia. I don’t know why this is not an antitrust violation, but there you have it.) It’s called a High-Deductible Health Plan (HDHP). Because the annual deductible is so high, $5000, our monthly premiums are quite low: currently $167. Throw in an extra $71 for the optional maternity coverage.
Just $167. For a family of three. For that, everything over $5000 (incurred during just that one day of giving birth) is 100% paid for by Anthem. And in the meantime, we get to take advantage of something called “network discounts”. This means that, for instance, a $3000 MRI might get discounted by half, just by virtue of that health provider being in my insurance network. The remaining half is all that I’m responsible for.
But I hear you: “$5000?! Fuck that!” But hear me out.
You get to spend that $5000 tax-free. This happens regardless of whether you itemize your tax deductions (called an “above-the-line” deduction). You funnel this money through something called a Health Savings Account, which is nothing more than a special bank account designed to piggyback onto the health policy. Incidentally, there’s no requirement to put that much aside every year. After all, the HSA is your own frigging bank account. But whatever you do save there grows tax-free. And of course you’ll have it available to pay those deductibles when they come due.
So, to summarize:
But wait (said in a used car salesman voice), there’s more! Even that $167 per month I spend in insurance premiums is deductible because Deena and I own a small business and pay for our own health insurance. (More info at IRS Pub. 535, page 18, the chapter about Self-Employed Health Insurance Deduction.)
So, who would you rather be:
A fascinating train wreck of hairsplitting and religious stupidity now rumbles through Virginia, and its name is Delegate Bob Marshall.
To recap: Marshall was quoted as saying that disabled children are religious punishment for having had an abortion. He made the remark at a press conference to oppose state funding for Planned Parenthood. The Capital News Service dutifully reported the remarks, and the world joined in universal condemnation of him, just as Pat Robertson was condemned for his recent claim that the Haitian earthquake was God’s punishment for engaging in a voodoo ritual centuries ago. Marshall, predictably, now says his remarks were taken out of context and that he’s been slandered.
Let’s look at the facts:
1. According to Marshall’s own website, this is what he said:
“The number of children who are born subsequent to a first abortion who have handicaps has increased dramatically. Why? Because when you abort the first-born of any, Nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children. In the Old Testament, the first-born of every being, animal and man, was dedicated to the Lord. There’s a special punishment Christians would suggest, and with the knowledge they have from faith has been verified by a study by the Virginia Commonwealth University.”
2. The Capital News Service on 2/22 reported Marshall’s statement with the following lead: “State Delegate Bob Marshall of Manassas says disabled children are God’s punishment to women who have aborted their first pregnancy.” It then went on to reproduce Marshall’s statement verbatim.
3. Public outrage ensued. And now, today’s news carries this headline: Marshall demands apology for ‘slanderous’ story. It describes his speech Wednesday to the House of Delegates in which he said in part, “”The disabled and their families are reacting in part to words I never said, never meant and don’t believe.”
So, essentially what Marshall is claiming is that he was slandered by the news service’s use of “God,” specifically in how it characterized his remarks as saying that disabled children are God’s punishment, when in fact he never used the word “God.”
My reaction is: what exactly did you expect, fool?
Look closely at point #1 above. He said “Nature” takes it vengeance on children whose mothers have previously had an abortion, but then he couched it in the same breath with analysis of the Old Testament, the Lord, and punishment that Christians supposedly know about through their religious faith. So was it really, truly, a slanderous stretch of interpretation to report that Marshall said disabled kids are God’s punishment?
Come on, Bob. Stop playing games by splitting these hairs. You know exactly what you meant to say. Absolutely, you fully intended to draw a straight line between abortion, disabled kids, and God—but now you’re backtracking like a cockroach caught in the sunlight because you’ve discovered the world isn’t actually full of fundamentalist wackos. The worst thing the Capital News Service did was to use a synonym.
Just own up to your words. Say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I was wrong to make that statement.” Don’t blame others for your own failure to speak kindly of defenseless children.
I can’t stand ignorance, which is why I must sometimes write Sunday letters like this one.