Saturday, May 31, 2008

Interview With Hannibal Jones

Hello, I’m Austin Camacho and I have the rare privilege of being your guest blogger today. I have four novels in print about my Washington DC-based, African American private detective, Hannibal Jones (my agent is shopping number 5.)

My hostess said I should write something that introduces me to you, but honestly, I don’t think you care a fig about my life. You want to know about the detective who has to deal with the twisted, corkscrew mystery plots I drop him into. So I decided to interview him. Here’s how our conversation went.


Austin Camacho: Thank you for speaking with me today.

Hannibal Jones: I had a choice?

A.C.: You are listed as a private investigator but your card describes you as a troubleshooter. How would you describe what you do, and why is it different from what most P.I.’s do?

Hannibal Jones: Most private investigators do employment vetting, matrimonial and divorce work, insurance claims and that kind of stuff. My work is more focused. My clientele is individuals, not corporations. I work with people who are in trouble and don’t know where to get help.

IA: You do bodyguard work.

HJ: Sometimes.

IA: And solve mysteries like any detective.

HJ: On occasion.

IA: And if a person has been threatened?

HJ: Look, I do whatever’s necessary to help somebody who’s gotten themselves into a jam. I don’t think much about what that might be, going in.

IA: What is your professional background?

HJ: As soon as I was old enough I moved to the States and joined the New York City police force.

IA: You weren’t born here?

HJ: No. I was raised in Germany. My dad was an Army MP. Mama was a German national. We lost Dad in Vietnam. Anyway, I came to the U.S. to be a cop and I was going to bring Mama over as soon as I was settled but she passed.

IA: While you were away.

HJ: (pause.) Yes. While I was away.

IA: I’m sorry. So, you became a policeman…

HJ: Three years on the force to make detective J.G. Three more as a detective. Then I passed the Secret Service entry exam and spent seven years as a special agent for the Treasury Department, in the protective service.

IA: But after seven years, you resigned.

HJ: Yeah, well, stuff happened. In the protective service they expect you to not only protect your principal’s life, but his reputation too. I didn’t think my duty included covering up a politician’s stupid actions. My boss disagreed.

IA: Any politician in particular?

HJ: Not going to go there.

IA: A national figure? Executive branch or…

HJ: I’m not going to go there.

IA: All right. So you clashed with your supervisor. For that you resigned?

HJ: Yeah. Well, after I knocked him on his ass the service was good enough to let me resign. They were actually pretty nice about it. Could have stopped me from getting the P.I license, you know.

IA: So why this whole troubleshooter concept?

HJ: I guess in a way I did it for Mama. She always wanted me to follow my dad’s example. He was always there for people, always looking out for the little guy. Here in Washington, we got an overabundance of little guys that need looking out for.

IA: How do you get clients?

HJ: Mostly word of mouth. I did a couple of jobs pro bono - kept a couple of kids from being approached by drug dealers. After that people started to find me when they had problems.

IA: So your neighbors are your clients?

HJ: My clients are people with problems bigger than they are. Naturally that happens a lot to people with no money. But I do get referrals from old Secret Service contacts, and sometimes from Cindy Santiago, the lawyer who’s my, um, friend.

IA: So you have entrees into a higher financial stratum, but the well-to-do don’t come to Anacostia. Why have your office here?

HJ: This building used to be a crack house. The owner hired me to clear the bad element out of here. In the process I kind of bonded with the neighborhood. I felt at home here, and I knew if I stayed, the bad element wouldn’t be back. I guess the owner knew it too. He made me a very attractive offer to stay.

IA: Why not join a larger detective agency?

HJ: I like deciding who I’ll take as a client, and what kind of job I’ll do. I won’t do matrimonial stuff, or spy on people. But I do personal protection, missing persons, sometimes get hired to prove an accused person innocent. I’ll chase a bad element away like I did here, negotiate with loan sharks. Basically, if you have to deal with the bad guys and don’t want the police involved, I’ll usually handle it.

IA: You carry a pistol. What do you think of gun control laws?

HJ: Good gun control means being able to hit the target. Anybody who wants a gun can get one, so restrictive laws only keep people who obey the law unarmed and unable to defend themselves.

IA: But isn’t it too dangerous for everyone to be able to have a gun?

HJ: Based on statistics, it’s too dangerous for everyone to be able to have a car. Maybe guns should be more like cars. You get a license to carry at 18, after passing a mandatory training course.

IA: Interesting. How would you describe your relationship with the police?

HJ: I’d call it mutual grudging respect. I don’t mess with them. They don’t mess with me.

IA: How would you describe your personal relationship with Cindy Santiago?

HJ: I would describe it as personal.

IA: What have you learned doing this job?

HJ: I’ve learned that most people are sheep. They’re not looking for trouble and they’ll do the right thing if you let them. A few people are wolves. They prey on the sheep. They need to be shut out or put down hard.

IA: And you? Where do you fit in?

HJ: Me? I guess I’m the sheepdog.

Austin S. Camacho is the author of four detective novels in the Hannibal Jones series - Blood and Bone, Collateral Damage, The Troubleshooter, and Damaged Goods. He is active in several writers’ organizations including Sisters in Crime, and teaches writing at Anne Arundel Community College. After a career as a military news reporter on the American Forces Network, Camacho is now a public affairs specialist for the Defense Department. Camacho lives in Springfield, Virginia with his lovely wife Denise and Princess the Wonder Cat.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Precision Shooting: Physics, Geometry, and Weather

by Andrew Peterson

When a target shooter, hunter, or sniper pulls the trigger, a lot of elements and factors are drawn together in a amazing way. Physics. Geometry. Weather. But the most important element is the human element — the skill of the person behind the gun.

To understand what’s really happening, let’s break it down into those three elements first. Physics, geometry, and weather. I’ll have to be brief. To cover the subject in detail would involve a novel length article, and my knowledge of the subject is limited. There’s an entire scientific industry devoted to the study of ballistics.

Let’s start with physics and the “fire triangle.” We all know a miniature explosion takes place to “fire” a bullet. To get fire, we need three things. Heat, oxygen, and fuel. If any one of those components is missing, there’s no fire. You can have a tremendous amount of heat and fuel, but without oxygen, you won’t have fire. That’s why explosives are used to extinguish oil well fires. The explosion creates a very brief vacuum in the air, removing the oxygen. With no oxygen, the oil fire dies. Most vegetation and structure fires are extinguished by removing the heat. Take away the heat, no fire. The fuel and oxygen are still present, but the heat is gone. A carbon dioxide extinguisher removes two elements of the fire triangle, both heat and oxygen.

What does this have to do with shooting? You might be wondering how a bullet works. At first glance, it looks as though a critical component is missing. Oxygen. If a bullet is like a sealed jar, where does the oxygen come from? How does the miniature explosion occur if there’s little or no oxygen inside the bullet. The answer is simple. The oxygen is contained within the gunpowder itself, in chemical form. After being struck by the firing pin, the little round primer at the base of a bullet completes the triangle by supplying the interior of the cartridge with heat.

The resulting explosion drives the bullet through the barrel of the gun. The pressure is tremendous. It takes a lot of force to overcome the friction of pushing a bullet through a steel barrel. I once had to remove a stuck bullet after a misfire. It took a steel rod and a lot of labored hammering to dislodge it.

The geometry of precision shooting is perhaps the most interesting. At medium to short distances, gravity is the biggest factor affecting a bullet’s trajectory. Picture a concept in your mind. You’re holding a rifle and pulling the trigger. If it were possible to drop the rifle at the precise instant the bullet left the end of the barrel, the bullet and the rifle would hit the ground at the same time. Why? Because once the bullet is free of the barrel, gravity begins to pull it toward the ground. It doesn’t matter if the bullet is traveling downrange at 2,500 feet per second, the bullet is still “free falling” as surely as if it were dropped from your fingertips.

So to hit a target at a long distance, you have to shoot at a “theoretical” point above the target. Let’s use an easier example. A football game. The quarterback throws the ball to a receiver 30 yards away. If he aimed directly at the receiver, the ball would hit the ground before arriving. Without thinking about it, he aims 20 feet above the receiver’s head, but because gravity pulls on the ball once it leaves his hand, it ends up in the receiver’s grasp. The same principal applies to shooting, the bullet’s arc through the air is just much longer and flatter. Also, when a quarterback throws the ball, he’s not looking at the theoretical spot above the receiver’s head, he’s focused on the receiver.

A rifle sight works the same way. When using an adjustable iron sight or optical scope, you’re always focused on the target — the direct line of sight. If you raise the rear site by half an inch, you also have to raise the front sight by half an inch to maintain the “line of sight” But since the front sight is fixed to the barrel and isn’t adjustable, you tilt the end of the rifle up to maintain your line of sight to the target. The barrel is now pointing at a “theoretical” point above the target. Like the football, the bullet will now travel in an arc to the target.

We’ve looked at physics and geometry, what about weather? Wind is the primary weather concern and it works similarly to gravity. Wind can have a significant affect on a bullet’s trajectory at long distances, especially at 1,000 yards and beyond. Wind works a lot like gravity. Once the bullet leaves the barrel, wind begins to push the bullet left or right, and some cases, when you’re shooting across a canyon, it can push a bullet up or down too.

If you have a crosswind blowing from right to left, you’ll need to move the adjustable rear sight to the right to compensate for wind. But once again, in order to maintain the “direct line of sight” to the target, you’ll also have to move the fixed front sight by half an inch to the right. Even though you still see the target directly ahead, the barrel of the rifle is now pointing at a theoretical point to the right of the target. Once the bullet leaves the barrel, the wind will act on the bullet and push it back toward the left. Make sense? So, at extreme long distances, you’re aiming at a point above and to the right of your target. Once the bullet’s free of the barrel, gravity and wind will then move the bullet along is desired trajectory. Think of the quarterback example again, if he has to throw the football with a strong crosswind present, he’ll compensate for the wind, by aiming slightly into the wind.

The same principals apply to pistol shooting as well. Because the ballistic speeds are generally subsonic, gravity and wind play a more significant role on the trajectory.

This is where the last element comes in. The human element. There’s no substitute for practice. The old expression, “how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” applies. Without exception, you’ll have to fire countless thousands of rounds in many differing weather conditions to be come a master marksman. Shooting a target at 100 yards in optimal conditions is child’s play compared to shooting the same target at 1,000 yards. The difficulty isn’t proportional to distance. It’s not 10 times harder, it’s 100 times harder. Predicting the wind correction is by far the most challenging aspect of long distance shooting, and it only comes from experience.

As an example, at 1,000 yards, you might have wind blowing right-to-left close to you, but at the target, it might be blowing left-to-right. Which wind is more important? The answer is, the wind at the target. Why? Because the bullet is moving slower at the target. Air friction has slowed the bullet down. If a bullet leaves the barrel at 2,500 feet per second, it may only be traveling at 1,800 feet per second at the end. A slower bullet is affected more by wind than a faster bullet.

It’s one thing to be lying perfectly still in ideal, comfortable shooting conditions. Add a few environmental conditions into the mix and it becomes a much more challenging situation. Rain. Snow. Humidity. Forests. Deserts. Jungles. Mountains. Each environment has it’s own set of problems and variables to overcome, and no two missions are ever the same. Each will be unique and the shooter will have to adapt to each.

Now, let’s add another layer of stress and difficulty to the fray. Throw in unfamiliar “enemy territory.” Not only is a sniper dealing with everything we just talked about, but he’s probably surrounded by enemy soldiers hell bent on hunting him down and killing him, or worse. Needless to say, a sniper’s best tool is his ability to be invisible, both before, and after the shot. Stealth is a sniper’s best friend. Marine Corps snipers are arguably the best sharpshooters in the world.

In my debut novel, First to Kill, which launches in September, my main character, Nathan McBride, is former Marine Corps sniper with 57 kills under his belt. The climax of my story involves a intense, long range sniper duel between Nathan and a highly skilled opponent, a former Army Ranger.

More information about First to Kill by Andrew Peterson, can be found at

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Summer Dreams...

by Toni McGee Causey

As I write this, there is a mosquito in this room, trying to pack me off for lunch. The buzzing is so pronounced, I’d have sworn the Goodyear Blimp was coming in for a landing, but I am not quite fast enough to see the danged thing and get to it to kill it before she jumps to the other side of the room. I could swear he’s over there saying, “Neener neener neener.” I’m sure he has his friends perched right outside the back door waiting, because as soon as I step outside, three billion of the damned critters will point toward me and the sky will darken and Moses will wonder who’s taking his schtick, and it’s ME, the WALKING DESSERT. Geez. It’s summer already. How on earth did that happen?

And in spite of how fast the summers seem to be arriving, I still look forward to this time of year with the longing of a school kid in the middle of finals. For the last three years, though, it has meant being in the throes of the best part of writing—working on the next book. For the last two years, it’s also meant actually getting to visit a bookstore and seeing a book out. (I once stood and stared so long, a customer who’d been browsing said, “Honey, it won’t bite.”) First it was Bobbie Faye’s Very (very, very, very) Bad Day (and when I sold it, there were SIX “verys” in that parenthetical. I may have lost my mind a little. I am having a hard enough time typing that sucker out every time I need to, can you imagine THREE MORE? “Hi, Ms. Causey, you just won the Carpal Tunnel First Place Ribbon if you can lift your hands to accept it, and it should like nice right there next to the WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING? statue.”)

The new one, out this week, is Bobbie Faye’s (kinda, sorta, not exactly) Family Jewels, and I swear to you, the next series will have one word titles. The sad thing is, I did this to myself.

But wonderfully, the summer is still about books. Reading is, I believe, my first love, and in elementary school, the summers meant no more getting up at the butt-crack of dawn. It meant no more massive school projects late at night (er, 3 a.m. because I am an overachiever as the procrastination).

The weird thing was… I started anticipating, and dreading, the books. Anticipating because it was HEAVEN and I could read until my eyes fell out my head (which was a serious possibility, I read so much). But it also meant that when school rolled back around and we had to do that dreaded “what did you do for your summer vacation?” essay, I was going to have nothing. Nada. Except that I read books.

I could literally go weeks without setting foot outside. My dad would often drag me to the door and say profound things like, “This is the back yard, and don’t be afraid of that blue thing up there, that’s the sky, it won’t fall on you.” Honestly, I’m surprised he didn’t toss a book out there in the middle of the yard to watch me freak out, run to it and then slam the door behind me just to prove to me that I wouldn’t die in the sunlight. [And right now, my dad is reading this, thinking, “Damn, I should have done that.”] I’m pretty sure the only reason he and my mom agreed to let me have a car as a teenager was because I could not read and drive at the same time, and to get in the car was, by definition, “outside of the house.” (My mom and dad tried to take me camping once. Referred to by our family as “That Camping Trip” and referred to by me as “Hell.” I refused to pee. At all. Three days, people, and I wouldn’t go. Not behind a bush, a tree, or with any sort of enticements. I think they cut the trip short because they didn’t want to have to explain to Social Services why their child exploded.) When Lois Greiman mentioned at RT that she and her son had been purposefully camping across an entire state or two and actually hiking, my inner book geek went, “iiiiiiiiiieeeeeeeeeeee” and nearly fell over dead. (Strangely, I played softball and we ended up having a winning team; I’m not quite sure how my dad managed to convince me that outside was okay enough long enough to play a sport. I consider this one of those wonders of the universe.)

I knew, though, that the end of summer was coming, and I had nothing to report for the “what I did for my summer vacation” essay, and it would really start to bother me. After the first couple of years of reporting that I’d read books, (and I don’t think “annoying the crap out of my little brother counted as a reportable activity), I sensed the teachers (and the kids) were thinking I was somehow… not an extrovert. Maybe even… a geek. The eye-rolling would commence and the teasing, and somewhere along about the third or fourth year of having to do one of those stupid reports, I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t say the same thing all over again, so I made up a story about my summer. Just completely fabricated the whole thing, acting as if it was real, and turned it in.

I’m not entirely sure how the English teacher knew that I hadn’t visited Morocco and slayed a couple of dragons, but geez, she was wily and she knew. And she gave me an A+. She also gave me that pursed-lipped angled-over-the-glasses glint, but I didn’t realize it was because she was on to me. I thought it was just because of the twist at the end where I’d saved a couple of street kids. (I thought that was a nice touch, for a ten year old.) That’s when I realized, though, that my summer vacation was wherever my imagination took me. Books and dreams.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

So how about you? If you had the ability to have a long summer vacation, even you people who like to go outside and do stuff, what would you do? Where would you go? What would you dream?

Toni McGee Causey lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She and her husband, Carl, are licensed general contractors and, in order to support her writing and reading addiction, run their own civil construction company. You can visit Bobbie Faye and Toni (and view videos, read excerpts and participate in contests) at

Toni will be giving away a signed copy of Bobbie Faye's Very (very, very, very) Bad Day and a $15 B&N gift certificate. Leave a comment to enter the contest!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Pittsburghese N @

By Annette Dashofy

(No Citizens’ Police Academy this week, due to Memorial Day. Sorry.)

About twenty years ago, I attended a dinner theatre’s production of Don Brockett's Forbidden Pittsburgh. Rarely before or since have I laughed so hard. One of my favorite bits dealt with our rather unique dialect around these parts.

Most days, I forget about our local accent, but my recent trip to Virginia brought a variety of speech patterns to my attention. Surprisingly, not as much southern-fried conversation as you might think. That close to our nation’s capital, you get a mix of everyone from everywhere.

Including Pittsburgh.

Then I had a friend (I won’t name names, but you know who you are) make the pronouncement that she doesn’t speak with a Pittsburgh accent. In her next sentence, she proceeded to tell me something about her haus. No. No Pittsburgh accent there. Heh heh.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Pittsburghese, let me give you a crash course. We live in hauses. A small rodent is a maus. Before the collapse of the industry, many of our locals worked in still mills and we continue to cheer on the Pittsburgh Stillers. Some of us live in EaSliberty (East Liberty for the uninformed). Others live on the SouSide (South Side). A few even live dauntaun (down town). And any of yunz who haven’t been to Primanti’s just don’t know how to eat a sammich. Speaking of which, you might get asked, y’eat yet? Translation: did you eat yet? If you ate at home, you’ll have to worsh the dishes.

Basically, Pittsburghers only use the front of their mouths to speak. It’s like the backs of our tongues are paralyzed.

Side note: this winter I watched the movie Fargo a couple of times and realized I could do that dialect simply by speaking as if my jaw were frozen (which in the bitter north, it probably would be). Yah. You betcha.

In all honesty, I don’t think I have much of a Pittsburgh accent. It’s been watered down by having so much family from West Virginia. I don’t recall ever saying yunz. Now y’all…that’s a different matter. I did, however grow up worshing clothes and living in Worshington County, but I have since trained that out of my speech. We have a crick (creek) out back, but I’m not sure if that’s Pittsburghese of just countrified.

There is one word from my childhood that I’ve never heard spoken by anyone outside of my West Virginia family. Hoopy. As in a West Virginia hoopy. I did find this definition online, but it’s not the same thing. A West Virginia hoopy is something like a hillbilly or redneck, but not quite that backwoods. All of my dad’s family were hoopies. I’ve heard it used in a derogatory sense by folks who looked down on country folks, but used with pride by self-proclaimed hoopies.

So there you have my little essay on words, accents N' @. And if you have to ask what N' @ means, you obviously aren’t from Pittsburgh. Even our news reporters have started using it.

(And that)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Fear and the Loss of Imagination

by Mike Crawmer

Two recent news stories got me thinking about childhood, parents, and imagination.

The first story told how the residents of a small Vermont town are battling the new owner of a farm. The 62-year-old owner plans to build a house—his family’s third—on the farm, but first he intends to remove a centuries-old cemetery from the property. His reasoning: He doesn’t want his three children—all under the age of 6—to be exposed to the "sadness of life" inherent in an old burying ground.

In the second story—part of a series on childhood obesity—the mother of an overweight 10-year-old talked about how excited she was when a new family moved in down the street. The family included a boy her son’s age, a new playmate, she thought, someone her son could play with outside. However, in the 11 months since that family moved in, the new kid on the block has not been seen outside his house after school. Not once.

Dreadful graveyards. Addictive TVs. Mesmerizing video games. Fearful parents. Closed doors. Drawn curtains. Manifestations of fear, the biggest killer of imagination.

I consider myself lucky, in the imagination department. I grew up on a farm. At night I’d fall asleep in a big old stone house that creaked and groaned to the shenanigans of its resident ghosts (or so I imagined). Summers I escaped the ghosts, sleeping on a cot in the lawn under a canopy of twinkling stars, picking out with my fingers Pegasus and Cassiopeia and the Big and Little Dippers and wondering where the shooting stars came from and where they went.

Hidden in the woods behind the house was a large mesa-like pile of stones. It was probably formed when the fields were cleared a century and a half earlier for planting. But to us kids it was the foundation of an ancient Indian temple, now home to snakes and the skeletons of sacrificial captives.

In the barn we played hide-and-seek among the cliffs and tunnels we created out of bales of hay and straw. I quit playing that game the day I came upon two eyes staring back at me in an otherwise dark tunnel. It could’ve been a large rodent or my imagination, running on overdrive as I worried that the jerry-rigged bales would collapse and crush me.

My favorite spot for letting my imagination run free was the old cemetery on the hilltop. Several generations of the original owners, a family named “Strong,” resided there. (I was too young to appreciate the irony of the name Strong gracing so many tombstones. Death defeats even the Strong-est among us, you might say.)

The weedy plot was enclosed by a dilapidated split-rail fence. The oldest stone—a hand-chiseled, blackened rock—featured only a date: 1799. Small tombstones marked the premature resting places of children taken by diseases, accidents, and, I was sure, snake bites. The newest monument was dated 1905. A few stones had fallen or been pushed over. All the graves were easy to spot--as their contents decayed, the ground collapsed inward, forming shallow indentations. I imagined all the jewels and gold rings buried beneath my feet, but I was too lazy to do the digging required to retrieve them.

I’m forever grateful to my parents for letting us live as kids. It saddens me to read stories like the two cited earlier. All children should have the chance to discover the power and joy (and occasional fright) of their imaginations. I mean, who’s going to write the stories in the future if the kids of today are robbed of opportunities to imagine the weird, the wonderful, the impossible and the strange?

Monday, May 26, 2008


by Gina Sestak

It's hard to post on Memorial Day without getting political, but you already know where I stand on the war from my past posts. Still, I can't bring myself to simply tout the pleasures of picnics. This is as serious holiday.

Memorial Day began unofficially after the Civil War as Decoration Day, a time to put flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers.

There is nothing wrong with honoring the dead but, to me, it makes more sense to focus on the living. Not all casualties of war die in combat. As many as 18 veterans commit suicide every day.

So, if you want to be patriotic, forego buying that "USA #1" t-shirt made in China and do something useful. Hug a veteran today.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

by Joyce Tremel

What is this world coming to?

From Thursday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Sweet-tooth robbers hit Downtown chocolate shop
Thursday, May 22, 2008

Two men who claimed to have guns robbed the Betsy Ann Chocolates shop at 500 William Penn Place, Downtown, just before 4 p.m. today.

The robbers got $125 from the cash register and a $40 gold-colored box of chocolate truffles that caught their attention as they fled, police said.

Detective Jay Johnson said there were no customers and only one employee in the store at the time. The men indicated they had guns but did not show them.

They demanded that the clerk give them the contents of the register and his wallet, the detective said.

They gave the clerk back his wallet when they saw it had no cash in it, Detective Johnson said. The men ran off in opposite directions.

Now, the money is one thing, but things have gone too far when thieves get away with a box of chocolate truffles.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Illness Sweeps in...

Kathie Shoop

I want to start by saying how much I enjoyed CJ's post--that she ended up getting a lot of the information she needed purely by accident. That is wonderful when things turn out that way.

I don't have much of a post today. Being a person who has Multiple Sclerosis, I deal with feeling crappy nearly every day. I'm used to it, my standards for feeling great are so low that what was an average day for me ten years ago would be fantastic these days. So, two nights ago, when I woke with what has turned into a diabolical stomach flu, I was stunned at how sick a person could get.

The "can't get up and move part," I'm used to. I've simply learned to A. lay down for a while when I feel like that from either my injections or the disease itself and B. muddle through it because I'm not going to die afterall.

But, yesterday, added to that kind of lethargy was the most painful stomach ache I've ever had. For twenty-four hours, my stomach felt as though a laser was burning through it. I couldn't walk more than a few steps and laying there didn't do much either. I took several baths--the bouyancy somehow helps with stomach aches--but nothing helped. And, I was reminded yet again, just how bad things can get for people and that overall, I'm doing well on a daily basis.

Now that the stomach ache is gone and only the dizziness remains, I feel like I could run a I just have to figure out how to keep my children from getting it.

How about you guys? Have you had any relatively short (it lasted--the horrible parts--for 24 hours) but awful, make you think you actually might die flu-like illnesses?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Adventures in Research--Pittsburgh Style

by CJ Lyons

Hi, all you Working Stiffs!!! Thanks, Joyce, for inviting me back to one of my favorite blog spots!

In case you guys don't remember me, I'm CJ Lyons, a pediatric ER doc who did her internship and residency at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, and who grew up in central PA.

My first novel, LIFELINES, was released in March and I was lucky enough to come to Pittsburgh for the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention in April. It was pure serendipity that the convention (one of the largest gathering of book lovers in the nation) just happened to be the month after LIFELINES came out, just happened to be in Pittsburgh, the same town LIFELINES is set in, and just happened to occur right when I needed to do some Pittsburgh based research for the second book, WARNING SIGNS.

With all those coincidences piling up, I was ready for anything to happen during my trip to Pittsburgh. At least I thought I was. Until I heard a few days beforehand that my aunt (who lives in Altoona) was going to need some pretty serious surgery—guess where? Presby. Guess when? The week I'd already scheduled to be here.

Scraping all plans for research, I begin commuting from the downtown Hilton up to Presby (bringing back lovely memories of riding those same buses when I was an intern and my car was in the shop). And I realized that along the way, I was doing research—getting a feel for the rhythms of the city, the different neighborhoods (like what's with the new signs telling you you're in Downtown, Uptown, West Oakland, etc? If you don't know where you are, you probably shouldn't be gawking at a sign to tell you!), the architecture, the views….

And then wandering around Presby—no id, no badge, but I went anywhere I wanted—reacquainting myself with a big, sprawling medical center and how easy it is tohide--er, I mean get lost, yeah, right, who would want to hide in a hospital….

I also had arranged a visit back to Childrens—new again to me, but ready to move on to bigger and better things with its new campus (coincidentally at the site of my fictional Angels of Mercy Medical Center—but hey, I was there first! Well, actually St. Francis was, but who's counting?) when I escorted the wonderful Heather Graham and her troupe of Slushpile Players over to perform for the kids.

The conference over, my aunt well on her way to recovery, I headed back downtown for my last night in Pittsburgh, when, getting off the bus I run into the too-fantastic-for-words Hank Phillippi Ryan (winner of the Agatha for her first book, Prime Time). Hank is looking a bit lost and said she just needed to get out of the hotel but had no idea where to go, so I took her across the Clemente Bridge to the riverwalk.

And this is where it gets weird. You see I have this scene in the second book that deals with a jumper from a bridge. And in that scene I included some of the River Rescue guys and one of their boats.

Guess who happened to be out on the water that Sunday afternoon?

Hank, who is an investigative reporter, sweet-talked our way onto their boathouse and the guys spent an hour with me, let me on the boat, answered my questions (I'd gotten most everything right in my draft, yeah!!), showed me their equipment, and were just the nicest you can imagine!

Turns out one of the medics and I both flew with the old Stat Angels, so we swapped tales about the good ole days over the skies of Pittsburgh. They couldn't believe I'd left the life of an ER doc to write full time (some days I can't believe it either) but they all said they wished they had the guts to do it and were very supportive.

So, despite canceling all my planned research (I still need to get back to Pittsburgh and corner some police officers and see the morgue—aren't they moving to a new facility? Anyone know?) I still ended up getting exactly what I needed—and I didn't even know it.

Ah, the mysteries of the universe….Pittsburgh style!

Thanks for reading!

CJ, whose one regret is that she never made it to Gullifty's for dessert….

As a pediatric ER doc, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about. CJ loves sharing the secret life of an urban trauma center with readers. She also loves breaking the rules; her debut medical suspense novel, LIFELINES, is cross-genre to the extreme, combining women's fiction with medical suspense with thriller pacing with romantic elements and is told from the point of view of the women of Angels of Mercy's Medical Center. Publisher's Weekly proclaimed LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), "a spot-on debut….a breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller" and Romantic Times made it a Top Pick. Contact her at

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Citizens' Police Academy: Field Trip to the Crime Lab

By Annette Dashofy

This week’s instructors opened the class with a question: How much of what you see on the CSI shows do you think is real? I, of course, having studied Lee Lofland’s book, knew the answer was “almost nothing.” In fact, cases are lost because people expect things to be like what they see on TV. They have a name for it: “The CSI effect.”

In Pittsburgh, the guys who go out and collect evidence are called the Mobile Crime Unit. While they collect all kinds of evidence, Pittsburgh Crime Lab only processes fingerprints. Blood, DNA, or ballistic evidence is sent to the Allegheny Crime Lab or the State Police Crime Lab for processing. Unlike TV when DNA results come back in ten minutes, the truth is it takes eight weeks to get results. And then the report doesn’t come back to the Mobile Crime Unit. Instead, it goes to the detectives on the case and THEY make the arrest. MCU guys don’t do that stuff.

On TV, when a fingerprint is sent to AFIS, the results come back with a photo and address of the person matching the print. In reality, while results may or may NOT come back quickly, what the crime lab gets is a list of potential matches and all they get are numbers.

They look up the name belonging to the numbers on another computer. And a human eye is required to make the definitive match.

Different detectives have different specialties. So it takes more than one or two detectives to process a crime scene.

In Pittsburgh, all members of the MCU are police officers. In Allegheny County, crime scene people are civilians and work as part of the Medical Examiners office, not the county police.

A few more fallacies you will see on television:

Video surveillance footage does NOT get clearer when you zoom in. It actually is very difficult to identify a license plate, the color of the car, or the identity of anyone on the tape.

Only 7% of firearms are found to have usable fingerprints on them. In fact, lifting fingerprints isn’t nearly as easy as they make it look on CSI. A smooth, shiny, clean surface is needed to get a clear print. Drawer handles won’t usually work. Too small. Textured surfaces won’t work either. And door knobs have just too many prints to be helpful.

While DNA can be gotten from just about anything, it’s not cheap, costing $6,000 to $7,000 per test. Fingerprint analysis only costs the officer’s time.

Speaking of DNA, the question was posed to us, which is better: DNA or fingerprints? Think about this…identical twins share the same DNA, however, they would have different fingerprints.

When swabbing for DNA, the detective would swab twice. First with a swab dampened with deionized water. Then a second, DRY swab would be used on the same spot. The water brings up more DNA. Gloves would be changed before moving to another spot. The samples would be labeled BS1 (Blood Sample 1) for the first and BS2 for the second and so on. A sample would be taken nearby as a control sample (CS1) to identify contaminants.

We got a chance to tour the Crime Lab, which isn’t nearly as high-tech and shiny as those on CSI.

We were given a demonstration of Luminol, sprayed on a jug smeared with visible blood and a plastic bottle with nothing visibly evident on it.

The first attempt failed when nothing happened. Lesson? Luminol has a short shelf life. There are different types of the stuff and the particular kind being used had to mixed and used within hours. A fresh batch revealed luminescence on both jugs when the lights were turned out.

Note: it doesn’t glow very long. It doesn’t have to. Once the presence of blood is revealed, the detectives would simply collect the sample. And Luminol really does show the presence of blood even after attempts to clean up the crime scene.

A demonstration of an alternative light source that shows different materials unnoticed by the human eye also proved fascinating. Different colored goggles or camera filters are needed to see different substances.

We wrapped up our visit to Police Headquarters and the Crime Lab with a class photo.

That’s me in the back row, second from the right. Fellow Working Stiff Gina is sitting front and center.

Our stint in Citizens’ Police Academy is winding down. We have off next week (Memorial Day) and only have one more real class before our graduation. I’m feeling a huge sense of regret to see it ending.

What WILL I blog about???

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Drop Dead Sexy

By Martha Reed

I warn everyone that I meet that I come with a disclaimer: I am a writer, and I will use everything you give me. Tell me the funny story about your grandmother’s thumb, or the odd thing about your dog, and somehow, somewhere, I will find a use for it. I mine human foible; it’s what makes my characters human. When I’m asked if my writing is autobiographic I reply: well, yes, sort of. None of my characters are actually based on any one person, but give me a funny line or goofy situation and you might end up in my next story.

Here’s the perfect example. I have two characters, John Jarad, and Sarah Hawthorne. In my story, they haven’t met yet. John’s a police lieutenant and he’s just broken off his engagement to a local girl. He’s not interested in meeting anyone else just now, thank you very much. Sarah has also broken her engagement and she’s run away to Nantucket to bury herself in work. As the omniscient author, I - of course - arrange for them to meet nicely at the end of Chapter Eight. Except for a snag: they’re still not interested. Yikes! How do I resolve this?

The answer came to me on the street today. If you live in Pittsburgh, you’ve been chilled, damp, and probably knee-deep in mud for the last three days. As I was heading back to the office I saw a twenty-something woman walking toward me with her bare arms wrapped tightly around her body – she was in a light spring dress and severely underdressed for the weather. Directly in front of me, a twenty-something man met up with her – it became obvious they were meeting for lunch – and in the smoothest, drop dead sexy move I’ve seen a years he took off his jacket and draped it around her shoulders. Pure Cary Grant. It was obvious she wasn’t expecting his gesture – who does that anymore? But she was clearly delighted – her face lit up. I could even see that she was thinking: He likes me! And I thought: Ah-ha! That’s how I get John and Sarah together, because underneath it all John is a gentleman, and he would offer Sarah his coat if she looked chilly, and she would wake up to the fact that this gesture was thoughtful and his jacket was warm and smelled of quality aftershave, and she would take a look at this great cool guy and they would get together, and hey, I’m saved!

Which brings me to the question I want to ask other writers: when you find yourself at a crossroad, a hurdle in your plotline, do you go ‘find’ a solution or do you wait for one to show up?

If it’s a matter of research, I do go find the solution, but I’ve noticed that when I hit a snag about a character’s motivation that if I just give it a little time and keep my eyes open, a nifty human response-based example will usually fall into my lap. The next question is did I see the interaction on the street today because it was meant to happen like serendipity? Or did I only notice it because I was looking for it? And have you seen any drop dead sexy moves lately?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Horsemen are Poets and Publishers Aren't

by Brenda Roger

I am just back from the PennWriters conference in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I won’t be giving a detailed report, as I have not finished processing some of the information. My reason for attending was two-fold; to get some specific information on craft and to find out more about the process of selling a manuscript.

The message from the industry is that they will only buy what they can sell gobs of in Target, Costco, Barnes & Noble and Borders. That is disappointing, but it explains why most of the books that I buy have to be special ordered, and why I like to go to Mystery Lover’s Bookshop and ask the staff there to help me select books. It also explains why I don’t watch much television, and I only go to the movies about twice a year. There are no new ideas and everything is driven my mass consumption.

My rant about boring consumer goods could go on, but I have to hurry and post this so I can bid on twenty-year-old skirts on e-bay in an effort to have something interesting to wear this summer.

If you are lucky enough to sell your work, you will get a very small payday and the marketing of the book is pretty much up to you. Hmmm. Tell me again why you need to use a large publishing house?

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the weekend was when my roommate taught me how to read a racing form. I’m not a gambler by nature, but I love to watch horse racing. I took up riding about eighteen months ago, and once you have experienced the power of the animal it is intoxicating to watch them run at top speeds. The language on a racing form is like poetry. There are phrases at the end of each entry that say things like, “stretch duel, driving,” or “wide, steady urging.”

Other than discovering that horsemen are poets, I don’t think I garnered much good news from the weekend. The information about the publishing industry being very narrow minded is useful, however, because both of my concepts could be re-packaged as something other than a commercial book. A new direction may be called for.

Who else went to the conference? How are you feeling about things?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

What If?

by Brian Mullen

I absolutely LOVE alternative histories. I have a pile of them I'm waiting to read and a few audiobooks I've managed to listen to in my vehicular travelling.

If you're not familiar with the genre, here's the premise in a nutshell. Select a fundamental event in history (say the American Colonies winning the Revolutionary War) and imagine what would have happened had the event occurred in some other way (i.e. we lost). How would the world be different? Write a story set in that reality.

One of the greats of alternative histories has got to be Harry Turtledove. I have, though have not yet read, "The Guns of the South" in which time travellers, hoping to alter history to their benefit, travel back to the American Civil War and supply the Confederates with automatic weapons. It's first on my "To Read" list.

The next one I have is titled "Pavane" by Keith Roberts and is based in a world where the Spanish Armada defeated the British Navy.

But the one that had initially captured my imagination is called "For Want of a Nail" by Robert Sobel and is the example I began the blog with. The British win the Revolutionary War and those unwilling to continue to live under British rule move...and create the United States of Mexico. The book itself is not really a novel but rather a fictitious history text book detailing the tumultuous history of these two countries including charts and appendices, quotes and speech excerpts, even footnote/references from where the information had supposedly been gathered.

It's fun to wonder "What If?" and imagine that the course of history could be significantly different over a single detail. I have long, long, long term plans to write such a story though I must admit my alternate histories will rely much more on imagination than on any real understanding of history. But, then again, that's what makes it fun in my opinion.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The World Is Too Much With Me

by Cathy Anderson Corn

My first writer’s group was spawned from a Community College course in creative writing led by teacher Linda Blahut. We took Linda’s class several times, and then some of us gracefully retired to first Linda’s, and then classmate Eleanor’s home for our sessions.

Class continued with tremendous benefits. We weren’t a high-powered, let’s-get-published group. We each read some work in progress and critiqued it, but mostly admired each person’s literary contributions. We supported each other through divorce, sickness, and death, so I guess you might say we were a social group; yet our group helped me keep writing, keep questing for a career then beyond my grasp.

Linda, the teacher, was married with teenage children. Eleanor, a fiercely independent lady who walked with a cane, had survived two marriages and lived with Charley, an energetic, loving spaniel. Ginny, widowed, treated me to dinner and an evening in her hot tub. Roy, a Vietnam vet, had divorced and shared custody of a young daughter. And my friend Vesta confessed to childhood scars, filled dressers with her unpublished novels to handle her angst. She didn’t know how to end her stories, so the protagonist ultimately got run over by a bus.

But the words of Angie, the psychologist of our group, still ring in my memory. Many times we of the circle would read and Angie’s turn would come. She’d look over her dark brown-framed glasses, throw up her empty hands, and apologetically announce, “The world has been too much with me.”

Lately, I’ve been thinking of Angie as I struggle to produce pages, to forge ahead with my novel. Some years I pumped out pages like water from a well, but this hasn’t been one of those years. The well hasn’t run dry, it just trickles at times.

I remember Angie’s words as I plug along and try to keep my project flowing. I would have liked to attend the Pennwriters Conference, but again, the world stepped in and I’m going to a Craniosacral Workshop instead (to expand on my non-writing job which pays the bills).

So, fellow bloggers and readers, has the world been too much with you lately? How do you cope with the rigors of every day living and still produce your works? What distractions in your life cause you to veer off your path to the Pulitzer Prize?

But most of all, anybody out there, or are you all at the Pennwriters Conference? Hope you’re having a great time.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Secret Life of a Writing Mama

by Kristine Coblitz

Five months ago, I took on the most difficult and rewarding job of my entire life. In this job, I was given no training. No hands-on workshops or seminars to prepare me for my duties. In this job, success is measured by whether or not I can make it to the following day without having an emotional breakdown. In this job, my boss is someone with even less experience than I have, who expects me to get the job done without excuses. She expects long hours, even on the weekends, and doesn’t tolerate sick days. On the day I started, I had to agree to a lifelong contract.

I became a mom.

In addition to being a mom, however, I am also a writer. I like to refer to myself as a “Writing Mama” because for me, the two jobs are not mutually exclusive. In my life, one goes with the other.

But not everyone will agree.

I read a blog recently that discussed the movie industry’s portrayal of mothers who are writers as being narcissistic and emotionally distant. It’s even written that Daphne du Maurier, the acclaimed author of Rebecca, “could be aloof and distant to her children” when immersed in her writing. The media has painted a generalized picture of writing moms as troubled women who are so wrapped up in the non-reality of their writing that they are unable to raise their children in a normal, functional way.

Hmph! Being normal is overrated, if you ask me.

When I was pregnant, I had more than one person tell me that with the birth of my child would come the death of my writing career. “It can’t be done,” they would tell me. “It’s either one or the other. You can’t have both.”

Once again…Hmpf!

Granted, my life transformed dramatically after my daughter was born, and I wasn’t exactly prepared for the changes. The first few months, my life was consumed with learning how to care for the little person who had invaded my life and my household. I didn’t write a word. I was too busy and too sleep deprived to even remember my name. I didn’t want to accept that the naysayers were right, but I started to doubt my ability to balance my parenting duties with my part-time technical editing job (which I need to pay for all those diapers and cans of formula), my marriage, and also my writing.

But then something happened. After about two months, I found myself getting irritable and moody, and it wasn’t just the surge of post-pregnancy hormones. Something was missing.

I had to write. But how?

I realized that I could squeeze in some writing time after my daughter and hubby went to bed. I was suddenly spending an hour every night at my computer when the house was quiet, and suddenly something amazing happened. My mood lifted. I felt like myself again.

Being a writer has helped me become a better mom, and being a mom has helped me become a better writer.

Five months into my new job as a writing mama, and I’m still going strong, averaging about three to five manuscript pages a night, even on those nights when I just want to climb into bed and pull the covers over my head. I’ve learned how to unplug the Internet and close my eyes to the dirty dishes in the sink, the last pile of laundry, and the dusty furniture, and just write. Even if the writing stinks (which it usually does).

For that one hour, I’m not just a mom. I’m a Writing Mama.

Happy Belated Mother's Day to all the Writing Mamas out there.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Citizens' Police Academy: Bomb Squad

By Annette Dashofy

Citizens’ Police Academy this week was a real hands-on experience. Maybe a little TOO hands on. But I’ll get back to that in a minute.

The topic was “Recognizing the Explosive Threat” and our instructors were Detectives Andre Henderson and Sheldon Williams of the Bomb Squad. Class began with a Power Point presentation and lecture.

The Pittsburgh Police Bomb Squad has four certified EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) techs and a support system of eight. And one BULLDOG. Last year, they answered 51 class one calls. That’s a call that consists of some type of suspicious item or package. A class three call is a bomb threat. Eight of those 51 calls involved actual IEDs and four of them were simulated devices.

There are two common types of IED (Improvised Explosive Device): Non electric such as pipe bombs AND electric which are more complex and include explosives, a power source such as a cell phone or a batter, wires, and an initiator.

Another threat that you may not think of is the media. Specifically, live television feeds. Imagine this scenario: A suspicious package has been identified and the bomb squad called in. A live news truck sets up shop and reports broadcast that the area has been cleared and the bomb squad is going on. Meanwhile, down the street, the bomber is watching all this from the local K-Mart. He watches as the EOD tech approaches his package, places a call on his cell phone and…BOOM.

Okay, what should YOU do if you find a suspicious package that might be a bomb? RAIN.

Recognize the threat
Avoid it.
Isolate the hazard (clear the area)
Notify the appropriate resources and authorities

Do NOT use your cell phone to make the call. Phones and pagers might set the bomb off. Use a landline OR move AT LEAST a football field away before calling on your cell phone.

Then we watched a video on the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, the only bomb squad school in the country that’s recognized by the FBI.

And, finally, back to that “hands-on” stuff.

Our class broke into two teams. One team headed to the “kill room” while my team were introduced to BULLDOG, the robot. Named after a former bomb squad member, the robot is an impressive-looking piece of equipment that takes a large portion of the risk away from his human teammates. BULLDOG (Bomb Urban Logistics Landmine Disposal Ordinance Guru) operates via fiber-optic wires and can be driven from a control board into a hazardous area to do certain tasks. Humans do ultimately need to go in and perform the hands-on work of handling the bomb, but BULLDOG can sometimes disable the threat or can at least help determine how much of a threat there really is.

BULLDOG has a very firm handshake. I can vouch for that fact as I somehow was “volunteered” to offer up my fist to be gripped by the robotic hand. However, his grasp only applies about 40 psi, so the operator must use extreme care in HOW a package is picked up, as it can (and has) slipped out. Dropping bombs is not good.

And my hand survived.

Next, the class teams swapped and we took our turn in the “kill room” where we were expected to locate and call out potential threats. Most were obvious. The hand grenade, the landmine, the sticks of dynamite. But the small motion detector with the blasting caps would have taken us all out.

One of the main points the detectives wanted us to “get” was that a bomb can be anything. Look around your own house. Hydrogen peroxide plus fingernail polish remover plus citrus fruit equals bomb components.

Back in the kill room we continued to look for suspicious packages, knowing that a bomb can look like anything. Another point that was stressed is to look for what does not belong. Like the homeland security book sitting on the table in the Hazelwood Presbyterian Church. THAT was the final bomb in our kill room. It was a hollowed out book that contained the IED.

To wrap up this week’s report, let me offer a couple of terms the insiders use. An explosion is called a “high order.” A fizzle is called a “low order.” The bomb squad aims to keep those high orders to a bare minimum.

Next week: Crime Scene Investigation

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I Meant to do That

by Kathryn Miller Haines

You know what an actor’s nightmare is, right? It’s when it's opening night and you’re in a play that you’ve never seen a script for. And sometimes you're not wearing pants. I always imagined that a writer’s nightmare would be that a book of mine would go to press with mistakes. Not a missed comma here or there, but an obvious error I made and didn’t catch.

Well it happened to me. And I feel like a complete moron.

I’m not going to tell you what the error is in hopes that you’re a part of the reading population it won’t matter to. I would love to blame this on my editor. Or my copy editor. Or my critique group. Or my husband (when in doubt, he’s a marvelous scapegoat). But it’s nobody’s fault but my own.

How did it happen? I’m a fast writer and sometimes, rather than verifying a detail, I plug something in thinking I’ll go back and change it later so that I don’t interrupt my flow. In this instance, I used a placeholder and then forgot about it because…well….because there were a thousand other details in my mind that I needed to attend to. And I’m an idiot. As I read draft after draft what should’ve stuck out like a sore thumb, insidiously wedged its way into the text and became a legitimate part of the story.

Someone else caught the error, the last person I’d want to have pointing out my mistakes, but by that point the book was on its way to the printer and it was too late, and too expensive, to do anything about it.

My editor assures me this happens with every book. In fact, there’s even a website devoted to it, where I find myself in the illustrious company of Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, and Steven King. In truth it’s a small thing. A single detail. A poorly chosen word that would only rip certain people out of the story and temporarily at that. But I’m one of them and that sucks. This will always be The Book with the Mistake in It.

I’ve mourned the error the way you mourn a fresh scar you know won’t go away. I know it could be much worse. I could’ve been caught plagiarizing scholarly research on black-footed ferrets. I could’ve carefully created a murder scene that so closely mimicked a real life crime that the authorities realized that there was a very good chance I had actually murdered someone. I could’ve erroneously called my book a memoir. I could’ve accidentally inserted a block of text from personal correspondence that revealed my long-standing love of prostitutes and how for years I’ve been client number 9 at a well-known brothel. In the grand scheme of things this is tiny.

When I screw up on stage I try to make a bit out of it. Let the audience know I know I messed up and share -- rather than suffer-- the laughter. You’ll leave them wondering if you didn’t intend to do it all along. I made a decision to do something similar with this mistake. I've reclaimed it. It’s part of the story now and by golly I’m going to do something with it.

But you better believe I've gone over ever manuscript since with a fine toothed comb.

So hit me with your best mistake -- writing or otherwise. How'd you make lemonade of that lemon?

Monday, May 12, 2008


by Gina Sestak


I seem to have forgotten that it's my turn to blog today.

I have nothing prepared, so I propose to open this up for questions. What would anyone like to know about:


my published and (mostly) unpublished work?

the courses I'm taking through the City of Pittsburgh Dept. of Police, the University of Pittsburgh Osher Institute, and the Pennsylvania Bar Institute which include:

Citizen's Police Academy
Irish Dancing

recent (this year):
Daniel Day Lewis films
Coming of Age on the Silver Screen (films)
Fused glass object making
Public Utility Law
Unlocking Creativity
Bird watching

I also spent part of Saturday at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter, which is the oldest known site of human habitation in North America. Oh, and I folk dance and participate in a dream study workshop (as well as being an active member of the International Association for the Study of Dreams).

Ask away.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Dinner with the Boys

by Lisa Curry

One hears how important the family dinner is to the wellbeing of children, especially during adolescence. We’re told that teens whose families make time to sit down and eat dinner together on a frequent, consistent basis are less likely to do drugs and get into trouble with the law.

Back in the days when I freelanced at home or worked part-time and spent lots of time with my kids (sometimes more than my mental health could bear), I didn’t think much about the importance of family dinners. But now that I work full-time and dinner is often the only occasion during the work/school week that my husband and I and our two boys, ages 8 and 10, are all together at once, I value that time to touch base, reconnect, and find out what’s going on in my kids’ lives.

At one recent dinner, I asked my younger son, Sean, about his day at school.

“Mrs. Cox hurt her back and had to leave, and guess who we got for our substitute,” he said. “Nurse Razzano. She’s mean!”

I’d never heard of a school nurse being called in to substitute for a teacher, but perhaps she’d been the best the school could do on little to no notice.

“She’s not that bad,” my older son, Griffin, said. “She loves my hair.”

Griffin has long, wild, curly locks, thanks to DNA inherited from yours truly and the fact that he’s refused to have it cut for the past year.

He added, “She tells me how much she loves my hair every time we have a head-lice check.”


At another recent dinner, I asked Griffin about his day. “Did you go outside for recess, or was it raining?”

“The boys went out, but the girls weren’t allowed.”

“Did the girls do something bad?” I asked.

“No, they had to have a talk about menstruation.”

Probably another of Nurse Razzano's many duties, along with head-lice checks and occasional emergency substitute teaching, I thought.

“What’s menstruation?” Sean asked.

“I’ll tell you what it ISN’T —” my husband said, “— appropriate dinner table conversation!”

Sometimes he’s funnier than the kids. “We’ll talk about it later,” I said.

After we’d eaten and their squeamish father left the table, I explained the menstrual cycle to the boys and answered other questions they posed about the facts of life.

Sean, looking thoughtful, announced, “When I grow up, I want to have sex.”

What do you say to that? Myriad possible responses flitted through my mind.

So do most people…

I’m sure you’ll have plenty of it…

Good luck with that… ?

I settled for, “Well, good, that makes you normal.”

Since my boys aren’t adolescents yet, I can’t tell you if family dinners have kept them off drugs or out of trouble with the law. But in the meantime, family dinners can always be counted on for a laugh.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Rest in Peace, Aulf

by Joyce Tremel

I’m so sick of hearing parents of criminals complain that their “baby” was unjustifiably “murdered” by police officers.

Yesterday in Pittsburgh, an officer shot and killed a 19 year old man who shot and killed his police dog. Two officers and a police dog in a marked police car responded to a report of shots fired. When they arrived at the scene, one of the officers spotted Justin Jackson, who had his hand under his shirt. When he was ordered to show his hand, Jackson pulled out a gun. The canine officer then deployed his dog and Jackson shot the dog in his chest and front legs, fatally wounding him. The officer then shot and killed Jackson. Police Chief Nate Harper stated the dog did what he was trained to do and called the shooting a justifiable action.

I agree.

The dead man’s parents do not. Here’s a quote from the dead man’s father from the Pittsburgh Tribune Review: “"This needs to stop. The police are using excessive force and killing young black men," said the victim's father, Donald Jackson of the West End. "It doesn't make sense, this is terrible, and I want answers."” And from the mother: “"We are not going to let them get away with this!" Anna Jackson screamed. "They will pay for killing my son. They are going to pay for shooting my son over a dog!"”

While I feel sympathetic to the fact that they lost their son, he killed what, by law, amounts to killing a police officer. If Jackson would have showed his hand or put the gun down, the whole incident would have ended differently. Jackson caused his own death by his actions.

Although his father stated his son did not own or carry a gun, according to court records, Justin Jackson did have an arrest record for firearms violations, assault, and criminal conspiracy.

The Pittsburgh Police Department is flying the flag outside headquarters at half-staff and some officers are wearing the symbol of mourning—a black band over their badges. They are mourning a fallen officer.

There will be a thorough investigation of the incident by the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office, but I’m sure they’ll come to the right conclusion. While certainly tragic, the shooting was justifiable.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Citizens' Police Academy: Terrorism and Gangs

Annette Dashofy is currently enjoying a long-overdue vacation with her husband, but sent in the following post on the Citizens’ Police Academy, which she attended before leaving. Gina will be stepping in to answer questions and respond to comments in Annette’s absence.

We had another two-parter this week, beginning with Detective Ashley Thompson’s presentation on CAT Eyes, or Community Anti-Terrorism. It’s a nationwide program developed to eliminate racism and terrorism through educating and empowering the average citizen to defend our homeland against terrorism.

One of the main points Detective Thompson wanted to make was that we should watch for a person’s actions. Not what they look like, but what they’re doing. He asked us to use our instincts. Listen to those gut feelings when you notice someone acting suspicious. And he recommended the book The Gift of Fear by Gavin DeBecker, if you’re interested in personal safety or crime prevention.

The general profile of a terrorist is someone who is intelligent, well educated, obsessed with initiating change. He (or she…not all terrorists are men) is 22 to 25 years old and middle class to affluent. However, remember these are generalizations.

There are two categories of terrorism: Domestic and International. Domestic is US citizen against US citizen and happens ALL THE TIME. Think neo-Nazis, the KKK, black supremacist groups, etc. All extremists are not terrorists…at least not until they commit an act of violence.

International terrorism happens less often here on US soil. And not all international terrorists are from the Middle East.

Terrorists often use a “safe house.” You may notice a few suspicious aspects of such a house. The occupant (the terrorist) will use an outside phone. They pay the rent in cash and won’t permit the landlord or maid inside. They have no furniture, but the space may be filled with lab equipment. There will be strange comings and goings, lots of different people and there will be unusual packages delivered. Occupants keep unusual hours.

If you’re thinking, this sounds like a drug house, you’re right.

Terrorists need to raise funds. Some of their methods to come up with cash are coupon fraud (clipping coupons and cashing them in illegally to a store owner); counterfeit baby formula (watered down formula—this happens more in other countries, not so much here); cigarette smuggling (this brings in BILLIONS of dollars each year in the US); illegal drugs (Afghanistan produces 70 to 90% of the world’s supply of opium); credit card theft/identity theft; and something as simple as fake non-profits. Those canisters in the 7-11 asking for your spare change…do you really know if those are legit charities???

We received so much information in this CATS Eyes Basic Program that I can’t begin to cover it all here. Basically, we need to all keep our eyes open, be alert to suspicious activities, listen to our instincts, and report those activities to the authorities. There may be an ongoing investigation that your input could assist.

If you ever get a chance to take this program, do it. We all need to do our part to protect our corner of the world.

Besides, we got a really cool certificate of completion for taking the program.

The second half of the evening was devoted to the Pittsburgh Police Intelligence Unit and gang awareness. The Intelligence Unit’s role is identification ONLY. Pittsburgh does not have a “gang unit.” And not all of their work is gang related. However, gangs were the topic covered this week.

Pennsylvania doesn’t currently have laws on the books concerning gangs, but they’re working on it.

Gangs started appearing in Pittsburgh in the 1980’s and 90’s in the East End. NOW there are gangs in every neighborhood in the city, with around 1000 identified gang members. In Pittsburgh, unlike the West Coast, gangs are less concerned with territory and more concerned with money and drugs. Here, Crips and Bloods often work together.

Gang identifiers include clothing. They wear their colors: Crips wear blue, Bloods wear red, but they adapt and aren’t stupid or obvious. The red may be a bandana or red shoe laces or belt loops or may be something worn under a shirt. The current trend is an oversized white shirt and baggy pants or t-shirts custom air-brushed with a gang identifier.

Other identifiers are hand signs: non verbal communications in which the fingers are placed in ways to “spell out” the gang’s initials.

There is also the use of slang, but it changes all the times. “Cuz” is currently a Crip greeting. “Geyer” said in a kind of growl refers to the Geyer Street gang in the North Side.

Tattoos are either used by all members of a gang or NO members of a gang.

Graffiti can be used as a warning, to challenge rivals, to put out a contract, or as a sign of respect for a fallen gang member.

Not all graffiti is gang related. A TAG is the most basic and prevalent type. A PIECE is a large, labor-intensive artsy works of graffiti, possibly with 3-D effects. These are almost masterpieces and are sometimes considered museum quality. Then there are THROW UPS, multi-colored and balloon-shaped.

None of these are gang related. Gang graffiti uses symbols, numbers, and characters and may identify a gangs ideology, territory, enemies, or allies.

Here are some of the things you may see and their translation.

OG: Original Gangster
LOC: Love of Crips
MOB: Money Over Bitches or Member Of Blood
CK: Crip Killer
BK: Blood Killer

Crips will mark x’s through their o’s because there are o’s in Blood.

Finally, as a citizen, remember the four R’s of Graffiti:
Read it
Report it
Record it (take a picture)
Remove it (quickly)

I know I won’t drive through the city and look at all that graffiti in the same way ever again.

Next week: Recognizing the Explosive Threat

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Feeling Nifty at 50

By Martha Reed

Last Friday I celebrated my fiftieth birthday, the big 5-0, and I suppose I shouldn’t let the event go past without writing about it, since writing is what I do. It’s been a pretty funny experience, first off because I’m okay with it, I’ve never felt healthier and I’m very happy where I am in my life, but everyone else seems to be having a bigger reaction to it than I am. It’s making me feel, well, odd.

One of my neighbors, a very nice older woman, saw the black balloon floating outside my door and offered her condolence, asking me how I felt about it. I think I surprised her when I said I felt great. Somehow, I think I’m supposed to be feeling like the end is near and the grim reaper is about to tap me on my shoulder, but honestly I can’t say I feel that at all – I’ve got way too much work to do to think of giving up now.

But fifty is a great time to take a pause and assess your life and your direction. I guess I’m one of the lucky ones – I wrecked my life pretty effectively in my late thirties and I have been rebuilding it ever since, and building it in what I think is a good direction and on a solid foundation. One of the things I’ve committed to is my writing – I’ve written before on how easy it is to get distracted and to go off and spend great swaths of time doing foolish things. Now don’t get me wrong, foolish is fine, in the proper place and at the proper time. Maybe that’s what turning fifty did for me; it seems to have freed me up to say ‘no, thanks’ and to continue on doing what I think is important (to me): the writing.

Two weekends back I did get a little distracted and I drove to Arlington, Virginia, to help celebrate another anniversary: twenty years of traditional mystery at the Malice Domestic convention. Everyone who enjoys traditional mysteries should go to Malice at least once – it’s a three-day merry-go-round of author signings and informative entertaining panels and interviews plus an awards banquet where they hand out the Agathas. I’ve always had fun making sure I read the Agatha entries beforehand so I could pick out my favorite dark horse, and the true surprise of the convention is just how accessible everyone is: I’ve met some terrific new authors just by sitting next to them in The Mez restaurant for lunch or taking a pause in a cozy chair in the lobby. This year introduced me to Nan Higginson with her Agatha nominated short story “Casino Gamble” ( and I fell right into a great new series by Beverle Graves Myers, “Interrupted Aria” featuring Tito Amato, a castrato soprano in 18th-century Venice.

For purposes of disclosure I should mention that something big happened to me at Malice this year, and I have to laugh at it. With all the effort I put into my fiction, with the hours I spend exploring every possible plotline or trying to develop interesting new characters, the hours I spend polishing my prose to be the very best it can be, I finally won an award at Malice XX - for my hat. That’s right, yours truly won the Malice Domestic XX Most Beautiful Hat Contest for my entry “Black and White and Read All Over”. Actually, I don’t really think it was my hat that won, I think it was more likely the pun that won the judges over, and I’m sure there are some serious southern ladies with bigger hats who are a little steamed at me right now, but I’ve made it back north across the Mason/Dixon line and I’m hoping they’ll get over it in time for Malice XXI, because next year, as God is my witness, I’ll be judged for something I wrote!

Monday, May 05, 2008


by Brenda Roger

You’re welcome for that image first thing on Monday morning. I thought it would be an appropriate topic for Monday morning because I spent much of Sunday afternoon thinking about it, but doesn’t everybody?

Actually, I just finished Ross King’s The Judgment of Paris, much of which is devoted to the story of painter, Edouard Manet, who died of untreated syphilis. Naturally, I spent all afternoon planting sunflowers and thinking about syphilis. It’s no wonder that I think my neighbors are boring!

It seemed to me that more than once I’ve read stories about the lives of artists that ended with the artist dying of syphilis, which got me thinking about the history of the disease, which sent me on a quest on the Internet.

I won’t assault you with graphic descriptions of the symptoms of syphilis. We all got enough of that from our high school gym/ health teachers. Thank you, Miss Bott. Think about hearing the word chancre repeatedly from someone wearing track shorts with contrast binding and striped gym socks pulled over her calves. Sadly, the outfit was so much more troubling than STD’s.

Had Miss Bott bothered to mention the social history of contagious diseases, I could have taken my eyes off the tube socks and actually learned something fascinating. For many years, the theory about the outbreak of syphilis in Renaissance Europe was that it was an extra special bonus prize of Columbus’s discovery of the New World. There was a catastrophic outbreak of syphilis in Naples, Italy in 1495. Treatment of syphilis at the time employed arsenic or mercury. Nothing says health and wellness quite like inhaling mercury vapors! Can you imagine?!

Recent discoveries in the field of paleopathology (the study of the history of diseases) call into question the blame shouldered for centuries by Christopher Columbus. Excavation of a site in Kingston-upon-Hull, revealed that the bodies of at least four monks from around 1450, showed signs of syphilitic infection, such as thickening of the lower leg bones. Without further testing, it cannot be conclusively proven that the monks had the type of syphilis that was sexually transmitted. There is more than one disease caused by various strains of the corkscrew shaped bacteria that cause syphilis.

I personally feel that the field of paleopathology is critical to the future of human health, because understanding the natural mutation and spread of disease could have major impact on the future of medicine. I owe my new interest in the field to poor, dear Manet.

What is the status of syphilis now, you ask? Well, in the U.S. in 1943 there were 575,593 reported cases of syphilis, in 2006, that number was down to 36,935. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of cases decreased sharply. That decrease seems to coincide with the safe sex campaigns that were a response to the AIDS crisis. Currently, the highest number of syphilis cases occur in the south, in poor and urban areas. Education and health care are the key. Profound.

Now look around the room at your co-workers. Are you the only one thinking about syphilis? You are welcome again! Happy Monday!