Things I Learned From Forensic Files

Growing up, Unsolved Mysteries was a must-watch for a good night in front of the television. Who’s with me? And who still gets creeped out when they hear the theme song?

I credit those formative years with Robert Stack in making me a lifetime crime and ghost show devotee. I’ve probably watched all of them out there at least once and keep any series I like as good a go-to option for a restful evening.

Forensic Files has been one of those go-to shows for years. Even though we don’t have cable/satellite anymore, I still manage to catch the occasional episode while traveling – usually around 10pm weeknights. Does it reveal something telling about me that I can easily fall asleep with it playing in the background?

Then I realized it is available on Netflix.

Turns out, Forensic Files is also a spectacular show to binge-watch. I’ve helped myself to over 40 episodes* recently and think I’ve learned a thing or two about orchestrating the perfect murder.

DON’T take the victim’s name off of the mailbox the week they are killed.

DON’T get two teardrop tattoos on your face while in jail awaiting trial for two murders.

DON’T fall asleep at the victim’s memorial service.

DON’T make a list comparing the victim’s life insurance totals to your current debts.

DON’T toss out the victim’s belongings the night before they disappear.

DON’T spread the victim’s ashes by slowing down and throwing them out the window of your car.

DON’T mention facts about antifreeze poisoning randomly during casual conversation with friends and family.

DON’T put the victim’s dog to sleep immediately after their death.

DON’T claim suicide when the victim has been shot more than once. Same goes for a hunting accident.

DON’T grab a snack out of the victim’s kitchen.

DON’T make a to-do or shopping list for the crime.

And a couple of serious things that could have prevented at least 50% of the murders featured on the show: 1) Just be gay if you want to be gay. 2) Just get a divorce if you want one. Seriously guys, these are much better options than murder.

*Stop judging me. You know you love to binge-watch.

On My Bookshelf, Summer 2017

So I read some books. Not too many, but I have been reading just a bit over the last couple of months. Here are short reviews for two that stand out in my mind.

The Good Byline: A Riley Ellison Mystery by Jill Orr (2017)

I don’t usually pick up a mystery – it just isn’t my genre – but the back cover of this one sparked my interest in some LibraryThing Early Reviewers offerings. Overall, I really enjoyed it. Although I can’t say I will necessarily pick up the next one. To be honest – I thought a bit of the story was both obvious and over-the-top, but it still kept my interest. The heroine was delightful and – in my opinion – fairly original.

From Amazon.com: “Meet Riley Ellison, a smart, quirky, young library assistant who’s become known in her hometown of Tuttle Corner, Virginia, as Riley Bless-Her-Heart. Ever since her beloved granddaddy died and her longtime boyfriend broke up with her, Riley has been withdrawing from life. In an effort to rejoin the living, she signs up for an online dating service and tries to reconnect with her childhood best friend, Jordan James, a reporter at the Tuttle Times. But when she learns that Jordan committed suicide, Riley is shaken to the core. Riley agrees to write Jordan’s obituary as a way to learn more about why a young woman with so much to live for would suddenly opt out. Jordan’s co-worker, a paranoid reporter with a penchant for conspiracy theories, convinces Riley that Jordan’s death was no suicide. He leads her down a dangerous path toward organized crime, secret lovers, and suspicious taco trucks.”

American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse (2017)

Very good. I love these kind of books that dissect a local issue that actually relates to societal changes. My only complaint is that I felt it was a bit disjointed. Hesse does that thing that is so common in narrative nonfiction books – jumping around to different viewpoints or characters from chapter to chapter. It usually works fine, but here the story seemed to be jumping around a bit too much. At one point we’d be on fire #50 and then we’d jump back to #5. It didn’t make me put the book down, but did take away from the overall story.

From Amazon.com: “The arsons started on a cold November midnight and didn’t stop for months. Night after night, the people of Accomack County waited to see which building would burn down next, regarding each other at first with compassion, and later suspicion. Vigilante groups sprang up, patrolling the rural Virginia coast with cameras and camouflage. Volunteer firefighters slept at their stations. The arsonist seemed to target abandoned buildings, but local police were stretched too thin to surveil them all. Accomack was desolate―there were hundreds of abandoned buildings. And by the dozen they were burning. The culprit, and the path that led to these crimes, is a story of twenty-first century America.”

Hips Don’t Lie

But they do fail. The little man’s hips have been an issue for a few years now and things are quickly coming to a head.

Hip problems are fairly common for children with cerebral palsy – in the little man’s case, a mix of spastic muscles pulling on the joint and his inability to do much weight-bearing on his legs has landed him in a deteriorating situation. We are dealing with developmental hip dysplasia. Basically, one of his joints has not formed properly. The other is okay, but not great.

I’ve learned so much about hip development over the last couple of years, but I’m not a doctor and have no clue how to explain this without demonstrating with my hands. So I googled a diagram. Its like school!


The little man isn’t at the point where he is having any pain and hasn’t lost any of his already limited motion. One leg is noticeably longer than the other, it is becoming increasingly difficult to change his diapers, and his bottom half is slightly rotated. We’ve been watching it and trying other options, but the thing I have been dreading most is pretty much our only remaining option.

::sigh:: Surgery. ::sigh::

His hip hasn’t dislocated. . . yet. But without surgery he is heading for more discomfort, complications, and pain. It would also mean giving up on a future where he can stand or walk. And no, we aren’t ready to give up on that. Even just being able to stand and assist with transfers would mean a completely different life – one where he can use the restroom in privacy and ride in a regular car seat.

We are tentatively on the schedule for a hip osteotomy in January where the little man’s surgeon will go in a carve out a better socket for his femur to fit in snugly. It isn’t pleasant. On top of the awfulness of putting a child through this kind of pain when you aren’t able adequately explain what is happening to him, he will come home in a body cast for two months. It makes me sick to my stomach just to think about it and has since we first learned about the possibility from our surgeon in Arkansas.

We’ve always had great doctors and a great team. I trust them. I know we are making the right decision, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Surgery won’t be final until we have a massive team meeting in September. I guess if you don’t have a loved one with a major disability or other illness, you might not quite understand what I mean by “team”. It isn’t an exaggeration. No less than 12 people will be involved this meeting, including the husband and I. No decisions are made alone. Thankfully.

If You Come To San Francisco

There is no way I could go back and tell you about all of the things we’ve done while exploring our new home. Instead I’ll share a random assortment of photographs. Click play on some Scott McKenzie and let’s do this.

The beach at Christmas time.

Looking towards the bay from the top of the hills.

The Google.

Our new home.

Looking back at the city from Treasure Island.

The Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University.

The Palace of Fine Arts on a lovely evening.

Looking out into the Bay from tourist-central.

The famous Haight-Ashbury legs at the Piedmont Boutique.

Our new home – the view from the Leo J. Ryan Memorial Park.

And she needs no introduction. I love this photo – the bridge looks its best in the fog.

Death and Taxes?

I’ve already told you about the ridiculous housing market here in the Bay Area – about how my rent is 5x my mortgage and how my Arkansas house would be worth 12x more if it was in the neighborhood surrounding our apartment building. That isn’t real news, of course. You know those things before you move here.

Today, let’s talk about that other thing people “know” about California . . . the high taxes! I’m not trying to start a big political discussion here or even discuss whether or not any individual tax rate is warranted. Frankly, I don’t really care what you think about taxes; I just want to talk about the actual impact this has outside of all the theory. If you feel some kind of moral outrage when paying taxes, this post really isn’t for you.

First! The basics:
-Are California’s taxes among the highest in the United States? Overall, yes.
-Does this make any difference to me on a daily basis? No, not really.

Next! Some caveats:
-I don’t own real estate in the state of California, so I don’t have the same tax burden I did in Arkansas.
-My salary tripled when I moved here, so my comparisons are a bit apples to oranges. But it is interesting to compare what I expected based on all of the California-bashing to what I actually pay.

Do I feel the tax burden when I get paid? No.
I was fairly disappointed when I saw the net of my first check here. When I actually looked at the breakdown however, I realized that most wasn’t going to state taxes. In fact, the state taxes are fairly in proportion to what I was paying in Arkansas considering the salary increase. Where I’m really taking a hit is with federal taxes and an increase in retirement contributions to make up for some lost time when I was in my early 20s.

Let’s use my family as an example. We are talking about effective tax rate here (not marginal).
In California – we fall at 7.4% for state and 20.6% federal. In Arkansas – we averaged 4.8% state and 13.3% federal. When we are talking about money out of my pocket, our family income more than doubled and our taxes tripled – at both the state and federal level. Obviously you feel this difference when you are looking back over a year or more, but from paycheck to paycheck the increase is minimal. If you are paying attention and optimizing your finances, you can minimize it even more.

We consider this increase negligible for our day-to-day life, but important for lifetime financial planning.

Do I feel the tax burden when I’m at the grocery store? Yes.
The combined sales tax (state, county, city) for where I do my grocery shopping is 8.75%. For where we do the rest of our shopping (clothes, household goods, fun) it is 9%. In Arkansas, it was 6.5% where we did grocery shopping and 8.5% where we did everything else. So yes, higher across the board. Interestingly, the county and city tax rates were actually higher in Arkansas. Also interestingly, we shop for groceries in both Arkansas and California in a different city from where we do everything else. Just a fun tidbit.

I think it is pretty clear that we do feel that additional 2.25% in taxes on groceries. Mix that with the overall increase in the price of goods and it has made a big change in our monthly budget. Outside of the grocery store? Not so much.

Do I feel the tax burden when I’m renewing my car registration? Yes.
Oh my goodness did I hear some horror stories about how much it was going to cost to register my car. They were – across the board – highly exaggerated. But that isn’t to say we haven’t felt a significant increase here. It cost me $30 (that includes decal fee and online payment fee) per car in Arkansas. It costs $250 for my car and $300 for the van here in California.

The actual registration in California is $46. The rest is a whole host of various state and county fees. I’m not going to try to breakdown where our money actually went, but the DMV says this is the general breakdown:

Local government (cities/counties) 40.7%
California Highway Patrol 25.7%
DMV 13.9%
State highways (Caltrans) 13.0%
Air Resources Board 1.7%
Other state agencies 4.3%
State General Fund 0.7%

Do I feel the tax burden when I file my taxes? Eh.
On one hand, I didn’t have any surprised the first time I filed California taxes. We didn’t owe and we got a small refund, but nothing that would make me think I need to reevaluate how much money we’re loaning the government. On the other hand, this is where you see the full-year total and feel the difference of the higher tax rate. On yet the other hand (that is #3, if you are counting), what we get for our tax money here in California is all kinds of amazing. It is much easier to stomach the amount leaving your pockets if you feel like you are actually benefiting. Just to toss one more hand in there, our tax burden is offset a bit by the little man’s disability, medical costs, and services. So filing is a mixed bag, I guess.

So, that is the actually breakdown – massively simplified, of course – of what it is like to live out here in tax-land. The view from the ground, not from the political office. My takeaway? If you are opposed to a lot of the things that the government does out here in California? You probably wouldn’t be happy with your bill. If you are opposed to paying taxes in general? You probably aren’t ever happy. If you are anybody else? You probably will just adjust your budget and move on.

Arkansas – What I Miss

A little over a year ago, I told you all of the things I thought I would miss about Arkansas. Let’s revisit and talk about the things I actually do miss. Friends and family not included because I am cold and heartless (or maybe just because that is a given).

Here we go:

Food. Food. Oh so, much food. Seriously, that is #1-9 on my list. #10 is cheese dip. Yes, it gets – and deserves – its own number. I’d like to share something deep and profound about the beauty of home, but all I can think about is sitting in front of a smoker watching a big hunk of pig cook for hours. “Oh but Stephanie,” you say, “surely you can have this experience in the great state of California?” No, no I can’t. Apartment complexes kind of frown on you doing such things on your third floor balcony.

I miss pulled pork, biscuits, fried okra, sausage gravy, red beans and rice, bread pudding, and boiled peanuts. I can’t remember the last time I ate a boiled peanut, but I still miss them. I even miss sweet tea, despite the fact that I never drank it – and never knew anyone who drank it regularly – because it was too sweet. I miss the idea of sweet tea.

It’s not that these things don’t exist in the Bay Area; it’s that they aren’t very good. Or, at the least, no longer ubiquitous.

They don’t put paprika on top of deviled eggs here, people. In fact, we had an Easter potluck at work and no one even brought deviled eggs. Not one single egg! I very much dislike deviled eggs, but still. . . That has to be the only real moment of culture shock I’ve experienced. The lack of damn deviled eggs.

I miss local restaurants – David’s Burgers, Capital Grill, Shotgun Dans – and I miss chain restaurants (yes, even silly chain restaurants!) – Sonic, Newks, On the Border, Moes. I miss being able to walk into a grocery store to be greeted by my favorite iced coffee, ice cream, and iced tea (also moon pies – I’ve never purchased one, but would just like them to be around).

Oh yeah, I also miss Wal-Mart. Never saw that one coming. Target doesn’t have enough variety and is slightly more expensive for a necessity shop. I can’t do all of my shopping at any one store in my vicinity anymore.

I do miss a few things that aren’t so calorie-heavy. Namely – courtesy waves, snow, and my laundry room.

Okay, I’m done now. It is all out of my system. Sometimes I forget how stereotypically southern I am.

By Land Or By Sea?

The husband and I aren’t exactly flush with vacation time right now after both starting new jobs in the last year. And actually, I’m not really accruing that quickly since I started at the bottom of the federal scale. A big vacation was out of the question this summer and so was our planned 15th anniversary vow renewal Vegas trip [first I typed vowel renewal and giggled to myself for a few minutes]. Instead, we loaded up the kids (and dog!) for a long weekend at a rented house in Sea Ranch, California.

All we wanted out of this trip was quiet, relaxation, and waves . . . and it delivered in abundance!

Sea Ranch is this picturesque planned community about 100 miles north of San Francisco. It is this fantastic little architectural marvel – all of the homes are abstract with large windows and definite 70s flair. Wikipedia tells me that this is called Third Bay Tradition that was “characterized by turning the horizontal form of the California ranch house into a vertical form.” I don’t know anything about architecture, so I’ll just show you these nice creative commons photographs to explain.

Abalone-Bay-Sea-Ranch-dusk

Sea Ranch, California is noted for its distinctive architecture LCCN2013634736

The architecture was actually what first attracted me to the location when I was searching around for a nice beach location to visit. It is right up my alley. Sea Ranch is absolutely the place I would buy a vacation home, if I was the kind of person who could afford a vacation home. I was happy to see that the house we rented had a copy of the original plans framed in the dining room. The archivist in me was happy to learn a little bit about the family who built the place in the 70s.

The second thing that attracted me to Sea Ranch was the view. Here is an unfiltered image of what we woke up to every morning. I took this from the deck – that entire side of the house was large picture windows to capitalize on the unobstructed view.

And every evening we were able to enjoy unbelievable sunsets.

We stocked the refrigerator and spent most of our time lounging in the living room. The little man got a bit bored by day three, but the rest of us had one of our best vacations. Reading, surfing the interwebs, and playing card games filled the time we managed to stay in an upright position. Bonus: a family of wild turkeys visited the house each day.

We weren’t total hermits during the trip – we did make it down to the beach one day. Absolutely beautiful and so peaceful.

Instead of driving back down Highway 1 on the way home (because frankly I wasn’t up for driving it again), we rerouted through redwoods and along the Russian River. We stopped at Russian River Vineyards for lunch (+ oh so much wine) and enjoyed a couple of hours on the patio. Marv (the tiny dog) was a huge hit and I especially loved the guitar player rocking out slow jazz versions of 90s alternative favorites. I didn’t know I needed a slow jazz version of Smells Like Teen Spirit, but my world if definitely a better place now that I know it exists.

Grand Re-Re-Re-Opening

I have a lot to say.

About the state of the American political system, about our future, about healthcare, etc. But writing about all of those things doesn’t make me happy. In fact, it makes me pretty damn sad. And I don’t write to be sad. See, as much as I’d like to be the voice of a generation* and get all of these important thoughts down on virtual paper, I much prefer to spend my free time pondering the ways in which the Roseanne series finale could have avoided total failure** or how Hey Arnold! is a flawless microcosm of the global economy.***

So I just quit writing. And that’s not cool – I’m not a quitter.****

Unbeknownst to you, dear reader – is anyone still left out there? – I’ve spent the last couple of weeks writing for pure enjoyment and stashing away a decent queue of posts to revitalize my little home on the internet. I do love my little corner. Nothing as thrilling as Roseanne or Hey Arnold!, but good enough.

Let’s kick this off with a little reminder about me with this questionnaire from Heroine Training. Read along while I try to be clever until it backfires and comes off as pretentiousness.

What is your name? Stephanie

What is your sun sign? I had to google to see if a sun sign was the same thing as a zodiac sign. . . I’m totes a Virgo.

What is the last film you saw in the cinema? Oh sweet Jesus. Maybe. . . Toy Story 3? No wait! I took the kidlet to see Annabelle. That can’t be right?! I haven’t been to the movies in 3 years?!

What is the most played song in your iTunes library? I don’t use iTunes anymore and Spotify doesn’t have an easy way to track how many times you have listened to something. But I think probably Click Clack by RuPaul and Send My Love by Adele over the last few months. After that, your guess is as good as mine.

What is the last picture on your camera? ::sigh:: It is a photo of a Starbucks croissant that I smashed in my purse then posted to Instagram. Not on purpose. I mean, I posted it on purpose, but didn’t smash it on purpose. I ended up eating my turkey sandwich deconstructed-style that day.

What did you do for fun as a kid? Read things. Carried out ridiculous historical fantasies in my room. Are you starting to feel the only child vibes yet?

The last conversation that lit you up was about? Ugh, don’t even go there. See the top of this post.

What is your favorite piece of clothing you’re wearing now and why? I happen to be wearing my absolute favorite shirt. It is stylishly oversized, super soft, and cheap. Just like me. Wait! Can that be my new tag line?

Last cup consumed was of? Coffee, no sugar, with vanilla creamer.

Favorite color pen? Black. I have no room in my heart for blue ink lovers.

If you could have anything for dinner it would be? Pizza. Yeah, I know it is boring. I will always pick that cheesy round pie of deliciousness though. Always. Not even a special pizza. Just a regular pepperoni with mushrooms and black olives.

Ice or no ice? Ice, ice . . .:wait for it::. . . baby.

Last new place you visited? Sea Ranch, California – we rented a house in this ocean-front community to spend a long weekend staring out at the water. It was marvelous. No commitments, no traveling, no typical vacation outings, just the waves.

Last time you broke a sweat was because? It was hot. But not sweatin’ like a sinner in church hot, just regular hot.

If you had to write a fan letter write now it would be to? Mary Roach!

What do you keep avoiding on your to do list? Unpacking the books still boxed up in my bedroom (although to be fair the husband hasn’t done it either). We’ve lived here for a year now. 365 days of boxes in a corner of the bedroom.

What’s in your pocket? I am a lady so I find pockets to be at the very least elusive and possibly even a full-blown myth. When I do discover a piece of clothing with those most-coveted little fabric cups, I prefer to just put my hands in them. As if to flaunt the pure luxury of being able to store things on my person by not, in fact, storing anything.

Most looking forward to? 5:30pm on Friday evening when I get to get in my pajamas and uncork a bottle of wine. Or that would be it, if I bought wine bottles with corks. Twist cap, all the way!

3 things around you right now? A basket of toys, a package of baby wipes, and a glass of tea. #momlife

What time is it? “For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.” C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

*::gag:: No, not really.
**In summary, I believe the audience could have swallowed Dan’s death and the last year being a fantasy – perhaps even enjoyed the bittersweet ending – if the episode didn’t also negate so many of the family dynamics we had enjoyed watching during those pre-heart attack years.
***No clue. I just made that one up on the fly.
****Not true. I quit things all of the time. In fact, I’m known to be a bit of a “oh, look at that shiny thing!” kind of person.

Don’t you hate it when I footnote my own posts?

Photo time! Asian Art Edition

A couple of weekends ago we took advantage of free admission day and visited the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. Wikipedia tells me this particular museum houses one of the most comprehensive Asian art collections in the world with over 18,000 pieces (some dating back 6,000 years). I’ve been to a lot of museums and this one was pretty typical – exactly what I expected, I mean. They had some very interesting pieces, including some unlike anything I’d seen before. I especially enjoyed the juxtaposition of modern and antiquarian works in the same gallery space.

Bonus: The wonton soup from the café was unexpectedly delicious.

On My Bookshelf, February 2017

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017)

We’re only three months in to 2017 and I already have a very strong contender for best book of the year. Best book I’ve read, anyway.

This was a random read for me. It was offered as a selection from Book of the Month and I picked it simply because I felt I needed to up my novel reading. I’m sure you’ve noticed that I gravitate towards nonfiction. Really boring nonfiction, at that.

I hadn’t heard any of the buzz about Pachinko (and there is a lot!) and was honestly a little wary when it arrived and clocked in at 496 pages. No need to worry though, I devoured the entire thing in an evening over a couple of glasses of wine.

The story was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. I didn’t love the second half as much as the first – but to be honest I can’t think of any multi-generational work I’ve read that was as successful when it reached late twentieth-century. Highly recommended. Like, go to the store and get this now. Immediately.

From Amazon.com: “Profoundly moving and gracefully told, PACHINKO follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them. Betrayed by her wealthy lover, Sunja finds unexpected salvation when a young tubercular minister offers to marry her and bring her to Japan to start a new life. So begins a sweeping saga of exceptional people in exile from a homeland they never knew and caught in the indifferent arc of history.”

POPSUGAR Reading Challenge
-A book that’s published in 2017
-A novel set during wartime
-A book where the main character is a different ethnicity than you
-A book that takes place over a character’s life span
-A book about an immigrant or refugee

*This post contains Amazon Associate referral links.