A Visit to the DPS, or Really, I’m a Citizen!

A few weeks ago, I received a letter from the Texas Department of Public Safety reminding me that my driver’s license will expire on my birthday next month. And that I would have to renew in person, since I renewed on line in 2013. And that I would have to provide my birth certificate.

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Really? I’ve been a licensed driver and registered voter in Texas for more than forty years (and in Louisiana and Florida before that). Surely the state of Texas knows I’m a citizen. But apparently the TSA doesn’t, and Texas is bringing its driver’s license policy in line with TSA to give us the ID we’ll need to get on an airplane in the future.

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When I mentioned this on Facebook, I heard from lots of friends who’d renewed recently. Some had showed up without a birth certificate and been sent away to find one. Someone was asked for her car title (complete nonsense—you don’t need to own a car to get a driver’s license). The letter also asked for proof of social security number, or of “lawful presence” if not a citizen.

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So I went on line to see the list of acceptable documents. I don’t have a passport (I had one, never used it, and it expired long ago), but I do have my birth certificate, a social security card showing my maiden and married names, and of course my current driver’s license.

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But just in case, I stuffed an envelope with everything I could think of: proof of insurance, car title, voter registration, etc., to take with me. I filled out the application on line and printed it—not only saves time, but it’s a whole lot easier to read. I looked up the nearest DPS office, which has moved since the last time I needed to go there. I read some of the hundreds of on line reviews of the facility.

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The reviews that were good emphasized two things: make an “get in line on line” appointment, and allow time to find a parking space. So this morning about 8:15 I went to the appointment web page, gave it my cell phone number, and it gave me a “approximate service time” of 10:41 AM.

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The office (the Southeast Houston MegaCenter) is about half an hour from my house, so I left about 9:40, got there about 10:10, and spent almost ten minutes cruising the parking lot. When I spotted two women who appeared to be headed for a car, I followed them and snagged their parking space. Apparently when the DPS built the MegaCenter (which truly is mega in its dimensions) they forgot that most of the people wanting to apply for or renew a driver’s license would be arriving in cars.

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I checked in at 10:18. There was a vast area filled with people sitting in chairs, waiting, but I was given a numbered slip of paper and directed to a short row of seats along one wall. A few minutes later one of the nearby clerks (there are a huge number of stations) called my number and I was on my way.

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I handed my application and my current license to the clerk, who was friendly and professional, and she asked for my birth certificate, which she carefully put in a plastic sleeve before running it through her scanner. She didn’t ask for any other papers, just my signature (on one of those electronic gizmos that produce a signature I hope my bank would never accept), my thumb prints, a quick eye test (with glasses on, read row 4), and a photo (with glasses off, no one would ever recognize me, but glasses throw off the facial recognition software we’ve been hearing so much about lately).

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I paid with my debit card, collected my temporary license, receipt, and birth certificate, and got my current license back with one corner snipped off (like a feral cat neutered and returned to the street!), and I was out of there at 10:34, before my actual appointment time.

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Moral of this story, in Texas or, I suspect, anywhere else: bring everything you need, fill out the paperwork on line if you can, and if the location offers it, “get in line on line” before you go.

Changing Cars

About three weeks ago, the check engine light in my car came on. Again. My faithful 2004 Corolla was going downhill, and I knew it. Over the last few months I’d had to replace the starter and the oxygen sensor and clean the gas tank. The rear fender was scraped, the windshield was cracked, and another wheel cover had disappeared (number nine, I think). In February I had to buy a set of new tires.

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So when the check engine light popped on again as I drove home on I69 on Friday afternoon, I wasn’t terribly surprised. Annoyed, but not surprised. It wasn’t blinking, so I wasn’t panicking. The next Monday I stopped by Mac Haik Toyota (an adventure in itself, given the condition of the I45 access road in League City) and told a service rep about my problem. They were backed up, so I made an appointment to bring the car in on Friday morning.

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The check engine light stayed on, and by Thursday the oil light was blinking now and then when I hit the brake, so I was happy to make it back to the dealership. Not so happy when Janie Elizondo, my favorite service advisor, gave me the diagnosis. The engine light was signaling that the fuel injectors were failing. And the excessive oil burning gave rise to talk about engine block replacement.

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Nope. No fuel injectors, no engine block. It was time for that new car I’ve been planning for over the last couple of years. Even a Corolla won’t last forever.

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So Janie called her favorite salesperson, Dawn Riddle, and I headed over to the sales floor, a place I hadn’t been since I bought my old car there fifteen years ago (it was Star Toyota back then; the name has changed, but most of the staff remains).

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It never occurred to me to buy anything but another Corolla. When you have a car that serves you well for fifteen years and 252,408 miles, there’s really not much reason to change brands. But, my goodness, how much the cars have changed!

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Dawn showed me around, gave me a brochure, and gave me some idea of what I was looking at. Back in 2004, there were two, maybe three “trims” of Corollas, and I headed straight for the lowest price; I had no money to speak of and wasn’t even sure I could get a car loan, having only recently gone back to work. But my Ford was dying under me (after a mere 80,000 miles), and I needed a car.

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Now there are six “trims” for 2020 Corollas (plus a hybrid version—and who knew the 2020 models would be out in June?), so the decision required a bit more thought (and a lot more money). I left with my head spinning and joined my friend Gerry Bartlett for lunch. Gerry, who drives a newish Nissan Rogue, has been telling me for over a year that I need a new car with all the modern safety features, including the Blind Spot Monitor. And I wanted wheels that didn’t have removable wheel covers.

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After lunch and a couple of errands, Gerry drove me back to Toyota, and we took a test drive. And of course I fell in love. More looking at features finally narrowed the choice down to the XLE—everything I wanted and then some (the S series has more horsepower, larger wheels, and a sportier interior, none of which matter to me).

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So when I got home I phoned Dawn and told her I wanted an XLE, but not one of the pearl white ones they had on the lot. After driving a silver sedan for fifteen years, I wanted something different. I wanted the blue-gray color Toyota calls celestite. And Dawn said she’d find me one.

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I didn’t hear from her over the weekend, but on Monday morning, just in case, I took my car title and my checkbook along when I went to have lunch with Gerry. And while we were eating, Dawn texted me: We’ve got your car.

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Even without financing I spent three hours at the dealership, and I must have signed about 43 pieces of paper. I had removed most of the contents from my old car over the weekend, and what was left was easily transfered to the new one. Then Dawn gave me a quick tour of the current state of automotive controls. Before I really knew what I was doing, I was giving Gerry a ride in my new car.

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Driving the car is no problem. The next morning I was on the freeway on my way to work. It’s getting used to all the modern conveniences. Keyless entry, pushbutton ignition. Finding the controls to adjust the mirrors (and figuring out that the rear view mirror adjusts by hand, the old fashioned way). It took me two days to figure out how to program the radio (wonderful HD radio for the local stations, and a three month trial of SiriusXM). Figuring out the door locks. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t lock the trunk until I realized it was sensing the fob in my purse. All those controls on the steering wheel. A whole new set of dashboard symbols. No mechanical parking brake. The back up camera (wait a minute, which way do I turn the wheel?). Tinted windows. And I love the Blind Spot Monitors.

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The main manual (there are several, including a quick reference guide) is over 550 pages long—the collection (in its own plastic tote) looks like what used to come with a computer, back in the 1980s.

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In fact I feel like I’m driving a computer, and I still have a few things to figure out, but I love it. I hope we have another fifteen years together. Maybe by the next time I need a car, all the cars will be driving themselves.

Nutmeg

Nutmeg, my furry companion for more than nine years, crossed the Rainbow Bridge last Friday, after a long illness. She was a rescue cat, found in a culvert with her kittens when she was a couple of years old. By the time I met her at Second Chance Pets, her kittens had been adopted and she was ready for a life of leisure. That is to say she was prepared to be a couch potato for the rest of her life.

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She was affectionate and laid back, with a loud purr and a sandpaper tongue, with which she loved to wash my face. She loved ice cream and spaghetti sauce (no, not together). She was overweight by nature and never saw the kitchen counter, but she had her favorite places on the living room couch and my bed. She upheld the cat’s tradition of never allowing a bed to be changed without feline assistance, and nothing beat sleeping on a towel warm from the dryer.

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Early in December she lost her appetite, a marked change for her, and we began a series of visits to the vet. She had severe arthritis in her spine, but a battery of tests didn’t turn up much else, despite her obvious digestive problems. Steroid shots helped for a while, but when those stopped working, the vet diagnosed her problem as lymphoma. Gradually she stopped eating, but she still climbed into my lap to sleep in the evening, until at last she let me know it was time.

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When I started to put her things away over the weekend, I realized that even our furry friends leave the bits and pieces of a life behind. From time to time I go to estate sales with my friend Gerry Bartlett. Gerry has an antique business and looks for treasures for her shop. I occasionally buy something for myself (a book and two movies at the last one, a turtle carved from tiger eye not too long ago), but I remind myself that I don’t need more “stuff.”

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Seeing the material remains of someone’s life and household can be interesting, but I also find it a bit depressing. The contents of the kitchen spread all over the counters. Souvenirs of a stranger’s long ago vacations. Books, some well worn, some never opened. Clothing and shoes and linens. I hate to think of that happening to the contents of my house one day, but I’m not sure how to avoid it.

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I thought about that as I gathered up Nutmeg’s possessions and decided what to do with them. I expect another cat will find her way into my life eventually, so I cleaned the litter box and stashed it in the storage closet, along with food dishes, mats, comb, brush, and nail clippers, a few toys, and the doggy steps Nutmeg needed to make it onto the couch the last few months. Toys that showed years of wear I threw away, along with half a dozen of those corrugated cardboard scratching pads, which Nutmeg loved.

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She didn’t love the scratching post or the small kitty condo that sat in my living room ignored for years, so I put those out at the end of my driveway on Sunday evening. They were gone Monday morning, off to entertain someone else’s cat. I brought a box of Meow Mix seafood and sauce, the only food she was interested in the last couple of months, to work for the office cats and the ferals in the back yard. The leftover veterinary food (which was supposed to help Nutmeg lose weight, although it never really did) I took back to the clinic, to pass along at their discretion.

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I sometimes think my bedroom is haunted, not unpleasantly so, by the many pets who have shared it with me. I feel paws crossing the bed when there’s no one there, and I remember Cleo and Twinky, and the other cats before them, and the dogs, Sandy the scruff terrier, Fred the labrador mix, and Albert the gentlemanly basset hound. Now Nutmeg has joined them across the Rainbow Bridge. There should be quite a furry crowd waiting for me one day.

Happy New Year 2019!

Every year I try to write a New Year’s post, although sometime during the first week of January seems to be about the best I can do. This year I spent New Year’s Day with friends, eating various traditional foods, including pork chops, black-eyed peas, and cabbage (in the form of coleslaw this year). My own tradition involves herring in wine sauce, but I didn’t take that to the party, since no one else likes it. I ate herring on New Year’s Eve, because I have every year since I was a little girl, and I’d be afraid to break the streak. Besides, I do like herring in wine sauce. (Good thing, because there’s a two-pound jar—the only size available at HEB—in my refrigerator.)

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I wrote very little fiction this year. I did some editing, for myself and a friend, wrote my Grammar Gremlin columns for the Houston Bay Area RWA chapter newsletter, blog posts, and book reviews. I closed out (I think) my contest career by unexpectedly winning the RWA Golden Heart in Paranormal Romance for Jinn on the Rocks, the third manuscript in my Pandemonia series. I’m still thinking about independent publishing for the three Jinn bocks, but I’ve been thinking about that for years, and it has not magically happened. Go figure. I’m also thinking I might try my hand at writing a cozy mystery, since I’ve been reading so many of them. Clearly I’m not into “write what you know,” so maybe I should try “write what you like to read.”

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I read 62 books in 2018, just clearing my Goodreads goal of sixty. (There was a time when I was a book-a-day reader, but those years are far behind me.) Each year I’ve noticed I read more on Kindle than on paper, but I was really surprised to see that in 2018 I read only a dozen printed books, and fifty ebooks. (As I write this, my Voyage and my Fire 8 are on their chargers on the kitchen counter; my Fire 10, which I bought mostly for watching video, is on the coffee table. Now and then I even read on my phone.) On New Year’s Day there were 627 titles in my Amazon cloud, but I think I’ve bought three or four more since then.

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Last year I read 27 mysteries by 15 authors, including multiple books by Cindy Brown, Annabel Chase, Waverly Curtis, Robert Goldsborough, Pamela Kopfler, Cynthia Kuhn, Julie Mulhern, and Kate Parker. Almost all of these books were cozies. I’ve been a mystery fan all my reading life, so this isn’t a surprise.

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Science Fiction used to be my go to reading, and I still have more science fiction (and occasional fantasy) on my keeper shelves than any other genre. This year I read eleven SF novels, but 7 were in Kirsten Beyer’s Star Trek: Voyager series. I’m hoping to up my SF reading this year. I have 55 to chose from in my Amazon cloud, not to mention the printed books in the bedroom. And all those keepers to reread some day.

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I read nine “mainstream” novels last year, but three of those were Laura Andersen’s Boleyn trilogy, set in an alternate Tudor England and just as easily added to the SF list. I love alternate history, and I have Andersen’s second trilogy to look forward to this year. My romance reading was down this year, only five, but I have plenty of those on hand for 2019.

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In nonfiction, I read ten books (and nonfiction accounted for four of the twelve printed books), ranging from the craft of writing to Hollywood history to the tale of a T Rex skeleton. I have plenty of nonfiction ebooks waiting, too.

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This month my faithful HP desk top computer reached the more-than-venerable age of nine. Yes, really. There was a time, long ago, when I actually looked forward to a new computer (or a new version of a favorite program), but now I’ve been putting off making the change for at least three months. The computer is slow, and I frequently have to wait for programs that stop responding, but I muddle along because I dread trying to get a new machine set up and working. We got new computers at work last summer (Dell all-in-ones), but we had IT guys do the switch (I wasn’t even there). And the switch has not been without problems. I haven’t decided between an all-in-one or a small tower with a big monitor, and I’ll probably have to buy a new (wireless) printer). Meanwhile I back up my documents frequently and cross my fingers.

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Wishing you all a happy and healthy year full of reading, writing, friendship, and all the other good things in life.

books 2019

 

An Afternoon at the Post Office

The other day I made a trip to the post office, on behalf of the Scorekeeper. We needed the usual three or four rolls of forever stamps, and Jo Anne wanted Christmas stamps, maybe sixty of those. I seldom buy stamps for my own use, having discovered the ease of paying most of my bills through my bank, but I’m a regular at the post office nearest the Scorekeeper.

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It’s the first week in December, so I wasn’t surprised the post office was busy. As usual, there were only two clerks working; the other three stations were piled high with packages and such. At one of the open stations a woman with a large plastic bin filled with small packages (maybe a hundred of them!) was handing them to a clerk in groups of five or six, each handful requiring discussion. Ahead of me in line were a woman and a young girl. The woman had a shopping bag full of presents, which she apparently intended to package with post office supplies before she mailed them out of the country. That requires paperwork, so she and her daughter moved aside to fill out customs declarations, and I got my turn at the counter.

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Scorekeeper check in hand, I asked for three rolls of forever flags, not always available at this particular post office, which has been known to run completely out of stamps. Then I asked for three sheets of Christmas stamps, and the clerk showed me a card with birds and one with last year’s Madonna. “Don’t you have Santa or Christmas Carols?” I asked, having checked on this year’s stamps on line. I was prepared to take birds if that was all they had.

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“Yes,” the clerk said, “but if you want those you have to pay with a credit card.”

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What the hell? Which wasn’t exactly what I said, but close. “Why?” I demanded. I’ve been buying stamps with Scorekeeper checks there for years, frequently from this particular clerk.

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He shrugged. No idea. Orders from the management.

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By then there were even more people in line, so I wrote out the check for flag stamps, while the clerk scurried off and came back with a bag of Christmas stamps and a hand held credit card reader. I pulled out my own credit card and paid for three cards of stamps (one set of Santas and two of Christmas Carols). But I still wanted an explanation of this particular inconvenience, and the clerk said I could talk to a manager at the lobby window.

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So I stuffed the stamps and receipts into my purse and headed for the lobby—and my cell phone rang. It was the veterinarian who has been treating my ailing cat, and I spent five minutes in the post office lobby discussing cat poop on my cell phone. Amazingly, that was the high point of my visit.

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Once we’d settled on the cat’s further treatment (a week’s worth of pills—that should be fun), I went to the lobby door and cornered a manager, who listened to my story and announced that the clerk was completely wrong, and the manager would speak to him. As I left, the manager was indeed speaking to the clerk. End of story, or so I thought.

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But as I drove away, the proverbial penny dropped, and I realized I had written a $160 check for three $50 rolls of stamps. I pulled the receipt out of my purse and saw that he had charged me for one card of the damn bird stamps.

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Back to the post office, where I boldly cut across the line (still long, and the woman with all the little packages in the plastic bin was still there) and had a brief argument with the clerk. After insisting once that he had given me the bird stamps, he must have seen the murderous look in my eye; he checked around the stack of stamps near his register and handed me my birds.

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It took me forty minute to buy those stamps. I think I’m going to look into the stamps-by-mail service on the USPS web site.

 

There IS an App For That!

Sometime late in 2015 my car stalled, at a busy intersection at dusk, and I discovered just how hard it was to call AAA from my little Tracphone. (Fortunately, the car started after a few minutes, and I managed to cancel my call for help.) There must be an app for that, I thought, if only I had a phone that did apps.

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So a couple of months later I went to the local Verizon store and bought myself a very smart phone; among the first apps I downloaded was AAA. And then I pretty much forgot about it.

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Last Thursday, after driving my usual 30-mile commute into Houston for work and running some business errands, I came out of the post office to a car that refused to start. Not so much as a grumble. Turn the key to utter silence.

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Sudden battery death is not unheard of in the heat of a Houston summer. Maybe that was all it was, a simple fix, even though the battery had been checked recently when I had the oil changed. No need to panic. After all, I was in the parking lot of a post office, at 11:45 AM. There are definitely worse times and places to have car trouble. And I had my phone, and the AAA app.

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So I called Jo Anne to tell her I would not be back in the office for a while. Four minute discussion of options, which boiled down to the obvious “call AAA.”

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But why call when I had that smart app, right? Surely the app would be quicker and more efficient.

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Not so fast. When I opened the app, it asked for my PIN. Seriously? I have a PIN for AAA? I tried the default PIN I usually use when forced to come up with four digits, but that didn’t work. So I backed up and tried again. This time it asked for a password. Of course it did. And my original smart phone probably knew the password, but I had to replace that phone a couple of months ago, and the new phone didn’t have a clue. Nor did I.

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By this time a nice woman picking up her mail had noticed my problem and offered me the phone number for AAA. I had that, of course, right there in the app, but I had accepted a challenge. I was going to conquer that app in the air-conditioned comfort of the post office, in case I might need it some night on the side of the road.

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I circled around the app again and put in my AAA membership number. Aha, now it knew me, but it still wanted a password, so I went through the whole password reset routine, which involved the browser, the web site, and three emails.

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At long last, with a new password, I got into the business section of the app. That presented its own challenges. The phone’s GPS had sent a not-too-accurate location, and I had to ask a postal clerk for the correct street address. Then I discovered that I couldn’t just type “Toyota” into the vehicle description boxes—they all work on drop down lists. I finally managed that, and got an immediate response and an estimate of about an hour.

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Happily, it didn’t take nearly that long. After receiving one call from the subcontractor (who rattled off her standard message so fast that I had to ask her to repeat herself) and another from the driver, I saw a truck pull into the parking lot and stop behind my car.

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The driver, a big cheerful Latino guy with a tear in the right leg of his uniform trousers, hopped out of his truck and handed me a cold bottle of water. He checked the battery with some high-tech gadget and pronounced it perfect. Probably the starter, he said, sliding the driver’s seat back so he could wiggle into my Corolla. He then performed a magical feat involving the gear shift, and the car started. There was about a fifty-fifty chance that it would start again if I turned it off, he said.

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I didn’t like those odds, so I called Jo Anne. After stopping by her house so her helper could come out and get the mail I had picked up (I didn’t think to ask her to bring me my lunch, which is still sitting under my desk), I headed south to the Toyota dealership in League City, where they quickly discovered that the problem was indeed the starter (gee, it only lasted 240,000 miles—how many starts would that be?), which they had in stock (not always the case with parts for a 2004 Corolla). While I waited, I pulled out the phone yet again, made a couple of calls, opened the Kindle app, and downloaded the book I was currently reading. The book opened to where I’d left off on my Kindle the night before, and I read until the car was ready.

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My phone was expensive, and the monthly service isn’t cheap, either, but it sure comes in handy when I need it. Between the phone itself, the AAA app, my email, the texting app, and the Kindle app, I definitely put it through its paces on Thursday. I never leave home without it.

 

Back on Trek

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been a Star Trek fan for fifty years (gee, that’s a little scary), since I was in college during the first run of the The Original Series (as it was not known then).

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During and after that run, as I caught up with missed episodes in reruns, I also read most, if not all, of the paperback spin-off novels that came out, some of them written by well-known science fiction writers of the day.

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By the time Star Trek: The Next Generation aired, life, and syndication, got in the way, and I picked up episodes of that and of Deep Space Nine rather sporadically. Didn’t even think about reading the accompanying novels, although over the years I have caught up with watching both series.

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Then came Voyager. By then my life was a bit more settled, and so was the broadcast schedule for the show, now on a regular (if short-lived) network rather than syndication. I watched Voyager from the beginning, fell in love with the ensemble cast, and read the Voyager novels (varying in quality but all featuring the familiar cast) as they came out.

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After Voyager returned to Earth, finishing its seven-year run, I read a few of the “relaunch” novels that appeared, but wasn’t terribly impressed, and there weren’t many of them. I stopped watching for them not that long after the series ended, when I heard that some writer (in a Next Generation novel, I think) had killed off Kathryn Janeway.

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Voyager without Janeway, the redoubtable first female captain with her own series? I don’t think so. Chakotay without Janeway, break my heart again.

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Not too long ago I was wondering what the Trekverse had in store for the cast of Deep Space Nine after that show closed. I knew there must have been any number of novels written in the years since then. So I went poking around on the Internet, where I learned that, this being science fiction, Janeway was restored to life four books into a (currently) nine-book relaunch series by a single author, Kirsten Beyer.

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Full CircleI tried to resist, but I failed. Completely. I devoured the first two books (Full Circle and Unworthy) over the Memorial Day weekend (and these are not short novels), the third (Children of the Storm) during the week, and the fourth (The Eternal Tide) this weekend. Hooked, obviously. I’ve downloaded number 5 (Protectors), although I might force myself to read something else next. Maybe.

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As a reader and as a writer, I’m impressed with how well Kirsten Beyer has handled bringing in backstory from five TV series and countless novels without huge info dumps and without leaving the reader (assuming a certain degree of Star Trek knowledge) totally confused. There are literally hundreds of books out there (if you think I’m exaggerating, check out Wikipedia’s List of Star Trek Novels), and there may well be people who have read them all. I’m not one of them, and never will be, but I am enjoying these.

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However, I’m not writing this to tell you “Read these books, you’ll love them!” Unless you’re a long-time Star Trek fan with a special affection for Voyager, you probably wouldn’t. It’s a niche market.

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What I am sharing, as I babbled to a writer friend recently, is the joy of rediscovering books that keep me up late, books that I can’t put down. Books that have me reading 1800 pages in ten days or so. The joy of binge reading.

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Writers come to look on reading almost as homework, too alert to the mechanics, watching to see how the writer has done something, kicking ourselves because we don’t think we can do it as well, or because we really wish we’d thought of (or written) something on our own. Although most of us are bookaholics, with huge piles of books we really want to read, on our shelves or our ereaders, the book that keeps us up all night, that keeps us away from whatever we think we should be doing, becomes a rare find.

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So when you find an author, or a series, or a subgenre that you fall in love with, go ahead and binge. Reading should be a joy, not an obligation, and I’m delighted, and thankful, to have been reminded of that.

 

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