Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Planning My Dream Conference

By Annette Dashofy

My “job” as 2009 Pennwriters Conference Coordinator reaches a milestone this Friday. Online registration opens January 2nd.

Am I ready for this milestone? Hell, no! But ready or not, here it comes.

I’ve been told by those who have traveled this path before that this is not a deadline. Good thing. There is still much work to be done. Even before the paper version brochure goes to print, I have a TON of details to work out. Like who teaches which workshop when. I’m still trying to round everyone up to commit to which workshop they WANT to teach.

The phrase “herding cats” comes to mind.

I need to practice some yoga. Breathe. Let go. No matter how prepared I am, changes will happen. They already have. One of my few editors recently backed out and I’m scrambling to fill the spot.

Silly me. I thought this process would be like checking off my to-do list. Agents lined up: check. Editors lined up: check. Workshops planned: check. Publicity: check.

Our own Working Stiff Lisa Curry is leading the publicity charge, so that part is under control at least. But the others? Every time I think I can check off one task and move on, someone backs out and I have to back peddle.
recall playing (and HATING) Candy Land when I was a kid. I’d move my piece forward and be almost to the end when I’d draw a card that would send me waaayyy back.

Conference planning is like Candy Land. Maddening.

Okay, it’s also a little bit fun. I’m rubbing elbows with agents and editors (even the ones who turn down my invitation to attend). I get to plan wonderful workshops and panels with my favorite authors presenting them.

Have I mentioned this little ironic twist? I am planning my dream conference. But I won’t have time to attend the workshops. Something is wrong with this picture.

But I’m also working on a plan. I’m going to bring several changes of clothes. So when everyone gets used to seeing me in red (“Go ask Annette…she’s the one in red.”), I will have changed into something blue and will be slipping into CJ Lyon’s Kills, Chills and Thrills Workshop. Then, when everyone catches on and starts describing me as the one in blue, I will change into black and slink into John Lamb’s Homicide 101 Workshop.

Heh heh. I learned this little trick from Pennwriters past president, Denise Meyers. Gotta give credit where credit is due.

I wish I could think of some way to hide NOW. I suppose I could stop checking my email. But I’m too conscientious for that. Darn it. Each morning, a new list of fires to be put out arrives in my inbox. Today, our webmaster, Jamie Saloff and I are tweaking the shopping cart, adding descriptions and details. Jamie has the really tough job, handling the technical end of the process. I just have to write the content.

So if you want to take a peek at what the Pennwriters Conference “A Writer’s Tool Chest” has to offer, click here.

FYI, our Friday night keynote speaker is Lisa Scottoline. I adore here. In case you haven’t checked out her New Year’s Chick Wit, go here and enjoy. You’ll get a taste of why I love Lisa and why I HAD to have her be keynote at my dream conference.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

It's a Man's World, Hedy

By Lila Shaara, Guest Blogger

I have a book coming out today. If you’re fortunate enough to have experienced such a thing, you know it is a surreal experience; it’s equivalent to a meteor landing in your yard or aliens knocking at the door to shake your hand, i.e. an enormous and shocking event. That is, in your life. To everyone else on the planet except your very nearest and dearest, the book may ooze into the public sphere with only the tiniest of whispers. No meteors, no trumpets blaring in Times Square, no heads of state mentioning you in their press conferences. This is only my second published book, so I don’t have tried-and-true coping strategies for dealing with the stresses of publishing, and of having so few people care. I’ve done a lot of “personal work” trying to keep my expectations low. (Is that a good thing? Maybe not, but low expectations are the only ones I can muster.) But it’s amazing how vulnerable you can still feel, no matter how many times you tell yourself that even if only one person reads your precious book and finds it worthwhile, you’ve done your job and you should be fulfilled, blah, blah, blah.

Anyway, the book in question involves a female scientist who does great things, but is robbed of her research, and maybe even of her life. The story was partly inspired by the true stories of two women, both of whom did momentous work that few people know about. A number of years ago, I heard a story on NPR about the late actress Hedy Lamarr.
Her story is dramatic and complicated, including her arranged marriage at 19 to a much older Austrian arms manufacturer who happened to sell weapons to Hitler and Mussolini; he discussed his products with his clients at dinner parties where he never imagined his trophy wife understood a word that was said. Her leaving him involved much intrigue, but she eventually ended up in Hollywood at MGM. During WWII, she gave a bunch of information to the War Department that turned out to be useful, because she understood, and retained, everything that was discussed at those macho dinner parties. But that wasn’t all. Along with avant-garde composer George Antheil, she invented a system of “frequency-hopping”; its purpose was to jam the frequencies of enemy torpedoes headed for Allied ships. It would have worked, too, if there had been computers and microprocessors available, but alas, although the Navy was interested initially, their people had only vacuum tubes to work with, and so the idea was shelved. However, you know that cell phone that you used to call your plumber last week? (Well, maybe not your plumber. We live in a crumbling house, so my mind always jumps to home improvement when I need examples or metaphors.) In any case, if you called anyone on a cell phone recently, you were probably using “spread spectrum” technology, which is basically what Lamarr and Antheil came up with. No one knows how much their work influenced what is being done now, and how much was independently invented; that’s one of the prices you pay for being ahead of your time.

A while later, I listened to a course on tape about the origins of life on Earth. The lecturer, Robert Hazen, told a story about a woman named Sarah Hoffman. She was a graduate student at Oregon State who wrote a paper for a class taught by an oceanographer named Jack Corliss. The paper suggested a model for how life might have come about on Earth in the deep oceans near hydrothermal vents. Corliss encouraged her to publish the paper, which ultimately wound up having three names on it; Corliss’s, another researcher named John Baross, and Hoffman at the end of the list. Given the nature of academic citations, Corliss’s name is the only one that’s usually referred to when other scholars discuss the paper, which turned out to be a big deal. After a time, Corliss wound up taking most of the credit. Hoffman left academia and suffered other professional setbacks. The details of the full story may never be known to anybody but the participants, and though it sounds as though Hoffman was treated badly, maybe she wasn’t. (And by the way, The Fortune Teller’s Daughter is NOT Hoffman’s story.)

But I knew something about the vulnerability of women in academia, because I was in graduate school in anthropology until the mid-1990s, more than a decade after the Hoffman et al article was published. One of the professors in my department “accidentally” grabbed the breasts of female students on occasion, male grad students routinely trolled the undergraduate population for sexual conquests, and every time a visiting scholar came to speak in the department, it was assumed that the female grad students would provide the food. In the defense of the almost totally male faculty, the women complied willingly enough. But even just calling yourself a feminist caused support from faculty to evaporate immediately, and without that, you couldn’t get very far. I made brownies a few times myself, though now I wish I hadn’t. But I needed the old men to sign off on my dissertation to get the damn degree.

Trying to be heard, trying to make a positive impact on the world, trying to do something momentous, is hard. Being a woman can complicate that already uphill climb. Hedy Lamarr certainly made an impact; she was a Hollywood megastar in the 1930s and 40s, and supposedly sold $7 million in war bonds in a single evening. She also happened to be a brilliant electrical engineer, but never really got to be one. Maybe that was okay with her; she was successful enough in other ways, and she still had plenty of money when she died in her eighties. But I love a quote attributed to her:

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

Lila Shaara is the author of Every Secret Thing. Today is the release date for her second book, The Fortune Teller’s Daughter. Shaara teaches anthropology at a number of Western Pennsylvania colleges. She lives near Pittsburgh with her family.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A No Post Monday

The Working Stiffs is taking a break on Monday.

Be sure to come back on Tuesday when we welcome guest blogger, Lila Shaara.

Friday, December 26, 2008

A New View


Kathie Shoop

Well, another year has sped by and I’m afraid to look at the post I wrote for Working Stiffs last year. Would I have achieved anything that I suggested I would work on in the coming year? Wow, does it matter?

This year has been hard. As far as my writing goes, things have really stalled in the agent/publication arena. And because for some reason the rejection hit me hard this time, my creativity has suffered.

So, I have a plan to harness the inspiration that used live with me, in me, but has gone away in the last four months.

One thing I’m doing is reshaping my work life. Now that kids are in school, I need to construct a work life that leaves enough room for meditation, inspiration, and perspiration. Running around to do mindless errands doesn’t count. A long walk, sorting through article angles or plot points does.

It’s taken me four months to come to grips with the idea that walking, sitting, thinking, and being are part of my writing process, that it’s not just wasted time. When the kids were home with me, it was hard, but there were segments of time where I could tune out, pile the kids into the stroller, or paint with them, read with them, roll around on the floor with them, whatever…I managed to find points of “just being,” during those times and inspiration came to me. This fall I felt such pressure to produce stuff that between my regular paid work and the less lucrative writing, I wasn’t leaving anytime to entertain my muse. I demanded she show up, but she’s been MIA. Why not, I’ve been mean to her! There have been no boundaries between work and play—there’s been no play at all.

I know I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to shape my career, but even still, it feels risky, like I should do certain things just because others will sneer if I don’t. That thought is beginning to recede for me. I’m beginning to realize that as long as my family is provided for, I can take the path I need to, that in doing so, life will go where it’s supposed to.

Any big shifts in life perspective for you?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas from Working Stiffs!

All of us here at Working Stiffs wish all of you a very Merry Christmas!

We hope you take the day to relax, eat goodies, share presents, and spend some time with family and friends.

Here's a little something to get you in the spirit.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Memories

By Annette Dashofy

In recent years, there has been one hot toy or gizmo that everyone HAS to have. I just saw on the TV that this year, it’s a realistic baby doll that drinks AND eats and as a result, does more than wets its diapers.

I think I’ll pass.

Last year it was the Wii. A few years before that, it was Tickle Me Elmo.
Okay, he was cute. I wouldn’t have minded having one of those myself.

But all of this hubbub about what’s in demand has me thinking back to my own childhood Christmases. Yes, we have to go way back in time here. Before the Cabbage Patch Kid craze.

My parents always insisted that I was spoiled. I don’t think so. Well, not much. But I don’t recall receiving any outlandish gifts on Christmas morn. In fact, I’ve had to wrack my brain to remember very much of the loot I hauled in.

I was a bit too young to remember this doll that was almost as big as I was. (Yes, that’s me). I bet it didn’t need its diapers changed, though.

While I’m throwing in some old pictures, here’s one of my mom and dad and a bit of our silver Christmas tree.

The gift I most remember being excited about was a Hot Wheels track with a loopty loop and a couple of cars to go with it. Yes, Hot Wheels. What can I say? I’ve always been a Tomboy.

One year I received a Magnus cord organ. Play by numbers. I stunk. I have no musical talent to this day. But I had fun with it. The best part was when I coaxed my mom to play. She actually knew a few songs by heart from a handful of piano lessons she’d taken in her youth.

What I do remember are the small things. Shopping with my mom in the snow. Making nut rolls. Dad’s futile attempts to get just the right gift for Mom. Wrapping gifts on Christmas eve. Milk and cookies for Santa. The excitement of waking up on Christmas morning to discover that Santa had been there, left gifts, and eaten those cookies. Visiting friends and family.

What gifts do you remember from your childhood? And what special memories do you hold dear that had nothing to do with what was inside those brightly wrapped boxes?

May this Christmas bring you an abundance of joy and wonderful memories. Happy Holidays.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Fly, LIttle Bird, Fly

By Martha Reed

For those who don’t already know, I started a new day job a month ago. It’s completely different from what I have been doing to earn a living – financial typesetting in one form or another – for the last 28 years. In my previous job I worked in production which meant that we had to get the product out by the end of each day. After your shift you put it down. This has been my working world.

In my new job I’m in research and development. This means I’m expected to stop, take an appropriate amount of time and THINK for a majority of my working hours. It’s two different completely different approaches and to be honest, I was a little nervous about being able to switch professional gears so late in the game. I mentioned this nervousness, this slight hesitant uncertainty, to a friend of my who already works in the field. She smiled, sat back in her chair and said: “Fly, little bird, fly”.

Jody was right. It is time to fly, to stretch my wings, to take to the air and try something new. Every job I’ve had since college (1980) has been leveraged on the one before. Sure, there were a couple of promotions, a few lateral moves, but each new position reflected the baseline knowledge I had learned from the other. This new job is bigger, broader, deeper. Sounds sexy, doesn’t it?

I had my first big project meeting last Friday. I brought my stack of research and I had called or contacted a member of each department, asking them questions and jotting down their concerns. I remember thinking at one point during the week: Ha! I’m finally using my journalism degree after 30 years! But it didn’t really register. I thought I was simply gathering data. Then I sat down and led the meeting with my notes spread out in front of me, trying to reach an unpopular consensus (I knew this going in) and to keep the discussion and decision making moving along in what I think is ultimately the right direction, trying to help everyone reach my conclusion. And that’s when it hit me: Hey! Wait a minute – this is plotting! I plotted the outcome of this meeting!

(That sounds vaguely evil like Richard III, but we’ll move on.)

I also had lunch last week with a group of corporate associates who work day jobs and are interested in becoming writers. I offered what I knew of the publishing world, demolished the persistent myth of hitting the bestseller jackpot and tried to explain that the real gift in living a writing life is in how the living of it will affect and enhance the way you live. Anne Lamott said it best in her book Bird by Bird but I’ll try to explain it from my end.

My life is better when I’m in the production of writing something new. When I’m imagining new characters, I look more closely at my world and the people in it. I’m more in tune with the events going on around me and in the beauty of the natural world. I notice and try to describe the exact crimson shade of the inedible red berries hanging from the bare winter branches as I crunch through the sheets of crystal ice to the bus stop each morning.

(In the Bible, God gives the naming of each thing to Man but I think it was Woman who made the final decision. That’s why it’s so amazing when we find a male writer who can write lyrically – it’s not their natural gift. Jack London was a wonder.)

I tried to explain to my friends seated at the table that I simply can’t imagine not living my life this way. My world would be stripped of its beauty. Plus, in the writing world, my characters struggle to overcome their problems, they strive to change their situations and make things better. Sometimes I can borrow the example of their strength to make changes in my real life. Yes, sometimes they give up; sometimes they fail; but sometimes the good guys win and no matter what happens it’s all because they are human. The writing life teaches me to practice compassion every day because every day it reminds me that I am human, too. I am allowed to try new things. I am allowed to fail. And every once in awhile, I am allowed to win, too.

As we head into this holiday week I believe I’ll end this blog with compassion. Happy Holidays, everyone, and best wishes for a safe and happy holiday season!

Monday, December 22, 2008


by Gina Sestak

As most of you faithful readers may have guessed by now, I have a taste for the strange, the bizarre, the unusual . . . So of course I love office Christmas parties.

I must admit to being spoiled during the 18 years I worked for our local electric utility. The vice-president in charge of my section of the company tried to out-do herself every year with theme parties. My personal favorite was the Harry Potter Christmas party a few years ago, but by then we were all wondering whether the sorting hat would be brought out to tell us who would be laid off. Alas, I was among the ones to eventually go, although my departure was officially termed an early retirement. I took one of those offers you can't refuse.

My final Christmas party at the company featured videos in which groups of employees from the three sections supervised by that vice-president acted out the scene from It's a Wonderful Life in which the townspeople all come forward to throw money at the failing banker. [Nowadays, we have Congress to do that for us.] The videos were made a few weeks before the party -- we were called to a mandatory "safety meeting," only to find out that the "safety film" was that scene from the movie and that we were expected to perform it ourselves. I didn't get a speaking role, just a wad of fake cash to contribute. Now, I've done a little acting, so while everybody else was chatting or memorizing lines, I tried to get into character. It wasn't easy. Why would I give this guy my hard earned money? I was a poor townswoman and, having been called out of the normal routine for this surprise performance, didn't even have a purse. Would a poor townswoman carry all that cash around in her hand? Of course not. When nobody was looking, I stuffed it in my bra, except for one $5 bill. That should be enough to give a banker, right? When it was my turn to come forward and throw my contribution into the basket, I tossed in the five, started to turn away, reconsidered, reached into my bra, and threw in the whole wad.

At the Christmas party, the three videos were shown and we employees were given the opportunity to vote for the best performance by those players who had been given speaking parts. My bra-money activity didn't make it into my section's final video. Or so I thought. After the awards had been presented, it was time to show the out-takes. There I was. Did you ever notice that things don't come out exactly as you plan on film? It looked as if I'd lost that money somewhere in my underwear; it took awhile to find. The upshot was that I was awarded a special imitation Oscar for "Best Performance by an Extra in a Low-Budget Electric Utility Video."

Six days after officially leaving the utility company in 2007, I started work for a small law firm and, when Christmas rolled around, I wasn't sure what to expect. I mean, law firms are supposed to be stuffy, right? Well, not really. Unbeknownst to me, some of my fellow employees were hockey-maniacs. We had our office Christmas party at a Penguins game!

This year, I waited anxiously to hear what had been planned. More sports?
No, even better -- dinner and a murder mystery theater group performing an interactive play in which we, the audience, had to figure out who killed Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. [Believe me, after hearing what all those actors said about him, it was no surprise that someone off-ed that deer.] Imagine my surprise when one of the cast (and a prime suspect) turned out to be our own Katherine Miller Haines!
The food was almost as strange as the play. Maybe you sophisticated folks have eaten this kind of stuff before, but it struck me as weird when my salad was served in a martini glass. That was nothing, though, compared to when a neatly uniformed young woman dropped a dollop of mashed potatoes into a martini glass, topped the potatoes with peas and cheese, then blasted the concoction with a blow-torch. Does that seem normal to you?
Anyway, the parties were all fun. What's your favorite or weirdest office Christmas party? Come on. We really want to know.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Merry Christmas, y’all!

By Jennie Bentley

T’is the season to go absolutely crazy with shopping and stress, some of which I’m doing, so I’m going to make it easy on everyone today, myself included, and blog about holiday books. Other people’s holiday books, mostly, although in fairness I guess I should mention that I’m working on a Christmas book myself. DIY#3 is in the works, due to my editor by March 1 and scheduled for release in May 2010, and it’s set at Christmas. I wish I could have worked the timing better, but alas, it was not to be. Book 2—now officially called SPACKLEd and SPOOKED, and available for preorder on Amazon—ends on Halloween, so Christmas was up next. Sorry.

Christmas books are a really big deal, it seems. I’ve recently heard of several authors who have been asked to put other projects on hold to write seasonal books. In that spirit, I thought I’d share some of my favorites.

Trojan Gold by Elizabeth Peters is the fourth book in the bestselling Vicky Bliss suspense series, and the third in which art historian Vicky comes up against her on-again, off-again lover and nemesis Sir John Smythe AKA John Tregarth. As Vicky puts it, “He specializes in stealing the things I’m sworn to protect.” In Trojan Gold, the two of them find themselves spending Christmas Eve together in a tiny church in the Alps, snowed in, using hymnals for kindling and pews for firewood for the tiny fire they’ve created in the baptismal, while eating chocolate and gingerbread and playing Bach on a comb. Elizabeth Peters is my all-time favorite author, and the Vicky Bliss series is my favorite of her series... this is a wonderful, wonderful book!

Several of JD Robb’s In Death books are set at Christmas time. My favorite is Holiday in Death, in which Eve Dallas, Lieutenant with the NYPSD in the year 2058 or so, and her intrepid crew of detectives—plus her husband and mostly reformed criminal Roarke—have to hunt down a serial killer who meets his victims through a match-making service.

Julia Spencer-Fleming’s latest, I Shall Not Want, isn’t exactly a Christmas book, as it covers a long stretch of time, but it ends at Christmas, and the ending is just wonderful—well, sort of; those of you who have read it will know what I mean, those of you who haven’t, need too!—so I’ll include it anyway. That’s all I can say about it, though—about the Christmas part—without giving away HUGE spoilers. She’s a great writer, and it’s a great book, and the Christmas connection puts it on the list.

My favorite traditional mystery writer is Ngaio Marsh, who wrote a series of British police procedurals about Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, his trusty sidekick Mr. Fox, and his wife Agatha Troy, a painter. They had a son, Ricky, who appears in some of the later books, as well. The Christmas book that comes to mind is called Tied Up In Tinsel. It’s your classic old school cozy, before ‘cozy’ became synonymous with far-out hobbies and do-it-yourself tips. (Yes, I know I shouldn’t complain; I’m riding that bandwagon, too.) Anyway, it has all the classic ingredients: the young lovers, the big country house, the British class distinctions, and the murder most foul. Highly recommended for anyone who likes traditional mysteries.

Not a mystery, but Mary Kay Andrews’s Blue Christmas is fun. It’s the third in a sort-of series, featuring the characters from Savannah Blues and Savannah Breeze. It’s December in Savannah, GA, and Weezie Foley is decorating her antique shop window in an effort to win the coveted Best Decorated Shop award. There’s a sort of mystery in there, too, although the book is most definitely not shelved in the mystery section. It’s a fun, light read, though—although it would probably be best to read at least Savannah Blues first, to get a better idea of the characters and their relationships. It won’t be a hardship, believe me! Of the three, Savannah Breeze is my favorite, so you may as well include that one, too. It has nothing to do with Christmas, but boy is it fun!

Not a mystery, either, although there are mysterious elements, and technically not even a book, but Lois McMaster Bujold’s novella Winterfair Gifts is great. It was released as part of an anthology called Irresistible Forces, but if you don’t mind reading things online, you can download it from Fictionwise for less than $2 (just follow the link, above). Well worth it. It’s part of the bestselling Vorkosigan Saga, which is a blend of sci-fi, space opera, and Georgette Heyer. Beyond that, it’s some damned fine writing. I don’t like sci-fi as a general rule, but I love Lois McMaster Bujold, and Miles Vorkosigan is as compelling and well-realized a character as any I’ve ever read. If you haven’t met Miles, you have to!

So that’s it for me. I could keep going, but I see I’m already over 800 words, and that means it’s time to stop.

It’s your turn. What’s your favorite Christmas book, and why?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Christmas Rerun

by Joyce

Since everyone seems to love reruns of Christmas specials on TV, I thought, hmm, maybe a Christmas blog rerun would work too. It's not in the same class as Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer or A Charlie Brown Christmas, but maybe we can consider it a Working Stiffs Classic. Or maybe not.

Anyway, here it is.

A Cop's Twelve Days of Christmas (To be sung to the tune of you-know-what.)

On the first day of Christmas, dispatch gave to me, a Peeping Tom in a pear tree.

On the second day of Christmas, dispatch gave to me, two retail thefts, and a Peeping Tom in a pear tree.

On the third day of Christmas, dispatch gave to me, three purse snatchings, two retail thefts, and a Peeping Tom in a pear tree.

On the fourth day of Christmas, dispatch gave to me, four fighting kids, three purse snatchings, two retail thefts, and a Peeping Tom in a pear tree.

On the fifth day of Christmas, dispatch gave to me, FIVE DUIs—four fighting kids, three purse snatchings, two retail thefts and a Peeping Tom in a pear tree.

On the sixth day of Christmas, dispatch gave to me, six neighbor feuds—five DUIs—four fighting kids, three purse snatchings, two retail thefts and a Peeping Tom in a pear tree.

On the seventh day of Christmas, dispatch gave to me, seven car wrecks, six neighbor feuds—five DUIs—four fighting kids, three purse snatchings, two retail thefts and a Peeping Tom in a pear tree.

On the eighth day of Christmas, dispatch gave to me, eight verbal domestics, seven car wrecks, six neighbor feuds—five DUIs—four fighting kids, three purse snatchings, two retail thefts and a Peeping Tom in a pear tree.

On the ninth day of Christmas, dispatch gave to me, nine hookers “working”, eight verbal domestics, seven car wrecks, six neighbor feuds—five DUIs—four fighting kids, three purse snatchings, two retail thefts and a Peeping Tom in a pear tree.

On the tenth day of Christmas, dispatch gave to me, ten dealers dealing, nine hookers “working”, eight verbal domestics, seven car wrecks, six neighbor feuds—five DUIs—four fighting kids, three purse snatchings, two retail thefts and a Peeping Tom in a pear tree.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, dispatch gave to me, eleven bar fights, ten dealers dealing, nine hookers “working”, eight verbal domestics, seven car wrecks, six neighbor feuds—five DUIs—four fighting kids, three purse snatchings, two retail thefts and a Peeping Tom in a pear tree.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, dispatch gave to me, twelve drunken elves, eleven bar fights, ten dealers dealing, nine hookers “working”, eight verbal domestics, seven car wrecks, six neighbor feuds—five DUIs—four fighting kids, three purse snatchings, two retail thefts and a Peeping Tom in a pear tree.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Hot Time at the Firefighters' Exam

By Annette Dashofy

As some or all of you already know, I spent five years as an EMT on the local ambulance service. I have had fantasies of being a cop. But there is not enough money in the world to make me want to be a firefighter.

It’s not that I don’t admire them. Quite the opposite. I think guys who charge into a burning building to rescue people and pets are the biggest kinds of heroes.

When I was little, lightning struck a power pole outside our house and caused a small fire in our kitchen. I can still see the flames licking the kitchen wall. I can also still see my mom pouring water on the fire from a drinking glass. Water. On an electrical fire. Not good. I think the only thing that saved her was the fact it was a plastic glass. Firefighters arrived in minutes to finish the job of putting out the flames and checked to make sure there was no fire burning between walls. I was awestruck.

A few years later, arsonists torched our barn. Neighbors risked their lives, going inside to make sure my ponies weren’t in there (they weren’t). The wonderful firefighters battled long and hard, but were unable to save the barn or its contents. However, I remember them hosing down my dad who ran through the flames into an adjoining garage and drove my grandfather’s 1957 Chevy pickup truck out to safety.

I LOVE firefighters. I just don’t want to be one. I’m too much of a chicken. And too scared of being a charbroiled chicken. Besides, they work in horrendous conditions. Hot beyond words. They lug a ton of equipment around on their backs and must respond regardless of the weather to battle a heartless, uncaring opponent that kills in a multitude of ways.

Saturday, I worked as a proctor once again…this time for the civil service written exam for firefighters. A month ago, I had the opportunity to view what kinds of people wanted to be cops. This time, I saw first hand what kinds of people dream of being firefighters. As before, it was a diverse crowd. Men outnumbered women. And there were fewer nerdy types than had taken the police exam. There was at least one young gal who I really believe needs to rethink her chosen calling. I couldn’t see this cute little blonde weighed down by bunker gear, dragging a hose into a burning building in sub freezing temperatures.

But I could be wrong. Appearances, they say, can be deceiving.

One woman had to make an emergency trip to the restroom to barf. From nerves. She may want to rethink the whole Emergency Services thing, too.

The first part of the test involved studying a detailed drawing of a room for four minutes and memorizing every detail. We proctors then collected the drawings and the test takers had to answer questions about the room. I saw a lot of wide eyes when they learned they had to memorize that sketch. I’d have been sunk right there and then. My memory is on sticky notes all over my house. TBS. Teflon Brain Syndrome. Nothing sticks.

About a half hour or so into the written exam came a different kind of test. A fire emergency in the building. A recorded voice announced that we should quickly leave the building. Over and over and over again. Emergency lights flashed from the ceiling. “Do not use the elevators.”

It was great. If you’re going to be a firefighter, you’d better be able to perform under duress.

We proctors all turned to look to our supervisor, who was frantically making calls on his cell phone to find out what was going on. Was it real? Or was it Memorex?

One of the guys at my table decided to heed the recorded voice’s recommendation and got up to leave. I told him to sit down.

What kind of future firefighter runs from a potential fire?

A smart one, probably.

But we were on the ground level with exit doors on two sides of the room. If I’d smelled smoke, I’d have been leading the charge to jump ship. As it were, test security had to be considered. If we evacuated, most likely the test would have to be scrapped and rescheduled. At great expense. I mean, if a test taker needs to use the restroom, a proctor has to escort him while guarding the test booklet and answer sheet. How would we deal with over a thousand tests during an evacuation?

But no one wants to burn up. Todd, our fearless leader finally cued the mic and was stating that we had to leave the building when someone ran in and shouted that it was a false alarm.

Huge sigh.

The proctors led the test takers in some stretching and breathing practices (how convenient that I happen to teach that kind of stuff in my yoga classes!) and Todd tacked on an extra twenty minutes to the allotted test time to compensate for the “distraction.”

This was just the first step for these potential future heroes. If they pass the written exam, they will then have to face the physical tests.

Good luck to all who struggled through the cold winter morning, upset stomachs, fire alarms, and memory tests to shoot for their dreams. They’re already heroes in my book.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Heck Of A Year

by Wilfred Bereswill

Well I was originally planning on covering a different topic, but, since this is likely my last blog at the Working Stiffs this year, there are some things I need to get off of my chest. I want to make it clear that this isn’t a pity blog. Actually, as I’m writing this I’m in a better frame of mind than I have been for most of this crazy year.

Our St. Louis Blues Christmas Tree

First off, I’d be remiss if I failed to wish all of our readers a very Merry Christmas and more importantly a fabulous and prosperous New Year.

I was talking to my beautiful wife the other day and we were discussing the wild swings of 2008; the huge ups and downs, highs and lows.

The year started with high anticipation of a glorious and exciting year. I had signed my publishing contract for my very first book, my oldest daughter was set to graduate from her Master’s Program in Speech Language Pathology and we were planning a cruise to the Caribbean or trip to my favorite spot on earth; Hawaii.

As quickly as the year began, the frustration started. Proofs for my book did not show up, my daughter worried about passing the school’s boards and finishing her thesis project and I was having some health issues very similar to our own dear reader and my friend, Lee Lofland.

In February I went to China. I didn't know then that it would likely be the last time. I had the privilege of visiting one of the most fantastic sights of my life, the Harbin Ice Festival.

Then I wound up getting stuck in the widely reported ice storms that hit China on the biggest travel day of the year, the Chinese New Year. Now getting stuck in Beijing ain't so bad, but it did forshadow the times to come.

Time pushed on and things got more frustrating. The revised ETA for my proofs came and went (several times), my daughter’s thesis was derailed by severe icy weather forcing her to delay her study cases at the facility that was 50 miles away and rumors of a takeover of Anheuser-Busch (the company I worked for) started surfacing.

Finally, my proofs showed up, my daughter enrolled in a summer program to finish things up and the rumors of the takeover slowed. Our vacation turned from exotic to ordinary when the cruise ship to the Southern Caribbean turned into a condo at Gulf Shores to be shared with our dear friends. I will tell you that as nice as Gulf Shores is, Alabama will never be mistaken for St. Thomas or Maui and a third floor condo does not float in such a way as to be confused with a Carnival Ship. At least there was no fear of getting sea sick. Oh, the caveat of the deal was that it landed me a 52” Mitsubishi LCD flat panel TV, a new Denon AV Receiver, two new Klipsch speakers, a Blu-ray Player, and all the rest. As my wife pointed out, I’ll have the TV long after my memories of a cruise would fade.

Several days before we left for vacation two things happened. I received my first box of books and my best friend, Fraiser had what I classified as a stroke. Fraiser was our 13 year-old Soft-Coated Wheaton Terrier. We rushed him to the vet and after a cold bath and some oxygen, he was given a clean bill of health. It was summed up as being overheated in the July heat. Deep down inside, I knew there was more to it than that. This was an omen for the year; an extreme high (holding my book in my hand for the first time) and low (my buddy suffering) in the very same day.

We made arrangements to have my wife’s sister watch him, but something inside told me that he was not long for this earth. I told all my daughters to say their goodbyes before we left, which they did, but not believing me.

We left on the 4th of July. The next morning we received word that he died in his sleep; leaving a cloud hanging over the vacation. We still have an empty place in our hearts and in our home.

Later that month, another proud moment. My daughter graduated and was offered a great paying job. Beyond being the extremely proud Dad, I knew that she was off the payroll and that new car I needed was looking like a reality. Well '08 struck again. The day my daughter received her first paycheck, her '99 Saturn's engine blew. I had planned on giving that one to my 16 year old daughter. Oh well.

Then came my launch party. A proud and exciting day. However, in 2008 fashion, earlier that same day Inbev announced their intention of buying Anheuser-Busch, the company that I had proudly worked at for 17 years.

So, I think you’re getting the gist of my year. Recently, I got my first review (two weeks ago). I was elated. Two weeks later (last Friday) and I’m a victim of Inbev’s cost cutting. Now, A-B did a nice, respectful job at cutting the workforce. I won’t go into details, but I have to say that it could have been much worse. No security watching us pack up, escorting us off the property. Computer accounts were still active to allow us to send farewell e-mails. They brought us to private offices staggered throughout the day to avoid passing your friends in the hallway.

In all, prior to the cost cutting, there were 24 people in the Corporate Environmental, Health and Safety Departments of A-B. There are now 4. I feel as bad for those remaining as those of us that were let go. I think their stress level will be at a higher level than mine.

The really sad part of losing my job is losing contact with the people I've grown to love. There are many people in China that I have connected with in a way that I would never have imagined. It hurts that I know that I will lose contact with them. It's a matter of distance and time. There are consultant friends I won't see and my co-workers that I've grown to respect.

In the meantime, I’ve become a full-time writer and plan to make the most of it. My work in progress will get finished and my next project will take shape. I’ll make contacts to find a new job and life will continue. Yeah, the economy still sucks and I feel much more fortunate than many others who haven’t been as blessed as I have been. I have a family that loves me, friends that care and with the Obama Administration, a career that should bounce back quickly.

In the meantime, if you know of somebody looking for a good Environmental Engineer that can write a mean report, pass on the word that I’m available.

Merry Christmas all, and all my hope that 2009 will hold plenty of promise for all of us.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Life According to the Rolling Stones

by Lisa Curry

In 1979 when I was 16 years old, I had a boyfriend who turned me on to the Rolling Stones. His little green Datsun had a kick-ass stereo system, on which we listened to his Some Girls cassette – and the next year when it was released, my Emotional Rescue cassette.

By 1981 when I went to college, that boyfriend was a distant memory, but I still loved the Stones. So did the girl who lived in the dorm room across the hall from mine. Beth and I forged a lifelong friendship while blasting the Tattoo You album on her stereo turntable, singing “Little T&A” along with Keith Richards into curling-iron microphones while dancing on a coffee table borrowed from the lounge at the end of our dorm floor.

I’ve seen the Rolling Stones in concert twice, at Georgia Tech’s stadium in Atlanta in 1989 on the Steel Wheels tour and in PNC Park in Pittsburgh in 2005 on the Bigger Bang tour. Both times I paid what I considered an exorbitant sum for tickets – $75 in 1989 and $200 in 2005 – but in hindsight, I never regretted having paid that much. After the births of my children, those two concerts rank highest on the list of most happily memorable occasions of my life.

A few years ago, when I worked at a municipal TV station, my boss – not a Stones fan – was choosing background music for the local high school football team’s annual highlights video. I told him to put some Stones on there for me. He said there wasn’t any Stones song that had a beat, tempo and lyrics that were suitable for football.

I said, “Jim, there’s a Rolling Stones song appropriate for any occasion. Let me think about it for a little while, and I’ll come up with one for you.”

So I thought about it, and sure enough, I hit upon, “You Got Me Rockin’,” off the Voodoo Lounge album, which has just the right driving beat and even the perfect lyrics for a come-back-from-behind football moment.

That same year at my husband’s company Christmas party, the DJ was playing what I considered a dreadful variety of music, so I asked him to play some Stones. He said he would, but he didn’t. When I asked, an hour later, what had happened to my Stones, he said people were dancing, and you couldn’t dance to the Rolling Stones.

I said, with all the semi-intoxicated dignity I could muster, “Young man, there is a Rolling Stones song appropriate for any occasion. Let me see what CDs you have, and I’ll find one for you.”

The only Stones CD he had was Steel Wheels, but I looked at the play list, and sure enough, there was the perfect song for dancing, “Mixed Emotions.” He rolled his eyes but played it, and even more people danced to it than had danced to his dreadful pop tunes.

I’m convinced there really is a Rolling Stones song appropriate for every occasion. I use them all the time in child rearing.

There’s the obvious favorite for the whiney child who wants everything he sees. I’ve been known to belt out in my best Mick Jagger impersonation in the toy department at Target, “You can’t always get what you wa-a-a-a-nt…”

For the child who can’t make a decision, there’s a perfect line from “Mixed Emotions”: “Get off the fence now. It’s creasing your butt.” I’ve also been known to use that one on myself on occasion.

For rousting the children out of bed for school in the morning, I like a stanza from “Hold on to Your Hat” from Steel Wheels.

“Get out of that bed, get out of the sack, don’t you give me no lip, don’t you give me no crap.”

When my firstborn, Griffin, was about four, he wanted to go to church, so I took him to St. Catherine’s on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. On the way home, he asked me who St. Peter and St. Paul were. St. Peter was easy to explain, because I always liked him. St. Paul, on the other hand, always struck me as a rather prickly saint. But I had a moment of inspiration and said, “Here, let the Stones explain it.” I slipped the Bridges to Babylon disc in the CD player and advanced to “You’ll Never Make a Saint of Me.”

“St. Paul the persecutor was a cruel and sinful man. Jesus hit him with a blinding light, and then his life began.”

Griffin yammered about St. Paul the “serpecutor” to anyone who would listen for the next two weeks, and to this day, he still says goodnight to St. Paul as part of his nightly bedtime prayers.

Religious education according to the Rolling Stones – you gotta love it.

I’ll admit that there have been times when I couldn’t think of an appropriate Rolling Stones song for an occasion. But you can always improvise. When Griffin was born, I became aware quickly just how many lullabies I didn’t know. You can only sing “Rockabye Baby” so many times before you think you’re going to lose your mind. So I cast about for songs I did know the words to. The one that came to mind was that old college favorite, “Little T&A.” Neither the beat nor the lyrics were appropriate. But a week-old infant is like a dog in that it’s not what you say but how you say it that matters. The same goes for singing.

Yes, I admit it – I crooned, “She’s my little rock and roll, my tits and ass with soul baby,” to my week-old son in my best lullaby voice.

He’s eleven now and doesn’t seem any worse off for the experience. And I really think Keith Richards would have enjoyed it.

Life according to the Rolling Stones has gone pretty well for me for the past thirty years. The Stones are as old as my dad, but they still rock, and if I have the opportunity, I’m sure I’ll pay an outrageous sum again to see them perform live in concert one more time.

I’ll leave you with a link to one of my many favorites of their songs.

So tell me, what’s the music that’s defined your life?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Not the Perfect Crime

by Joyce

Gina mentioned in a comment the other day that you shouldn't mention crimes you're going to commit in a public forum. Someone should have told these people about that. Talk about stupid criminals.

According to the article in the newspaper, three people were charged with homicide for what they believed would be the perfect murder. Allegedly Susan Yeager wanted her estranged husband, Shawn Yeager dead, so she had her brother Cory Altman shoot him in a way that they believed would look like a hunting accident. Cory borrowed a rifle, hid in the trees behind his brother-in-law's house and shot Shawn Yeager in the back when he reached his back porch. Then he got into a car driven by Robert Pessia. The article stated that Cory joked about what he'd done saying he'd "got his buck for the year." They then returned the rifle, and went to Walmart (where Susan Yeager worked) and told her what happened. Yeager's body was found by his sons, ages 12 and 15 when they returned home from school.

They might have gotten away with it except for the fact that, according to news accounts, Mrs. Yeager had been talking for several years that she'd like her husband to be killed. She had actually asked co-workers where she could buy an unregistered gun and told them she and her brother could take her husband hunting where he could be killed in an "accident."

These killers are not only the epitome of cold blooded, they're the epitome of stupid. How in the world could they think they wouldn't get caught?

I've noticed that in many cases, criminals are caught because they can't keep their mouths shut. It's human nature for someone to want to talk about his accomplishments. Most people like to brag. Imagine committing the perfect crime and not being able to tell anyone about it. Let's say you steal a famous diamond worth a gazillion dollars that no one else has even gotten close to. All your buddies are talking about the genius who stole it, and you can't say a word! Not one word. Sooner or later, most people wouldn't be able to stand it anymore. They'd have to talk. They'd have to brag. And usually to the wrong person, like a future ex-spouse. The criminal dumps the spouse and before he knows it, he's wearing the latest in shiny handcuffs.

Can any of you name any perfect--or near perfect crimes? How about some criminals who got caught because they couldn't keep their mouths shut?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Citizens' Police Academy: Narcotics Squad-Part Two

By Annette Dashofy

While heroin is by far the biggest drug problem in Pittsburgh, it isn’t the only one.

Crack cocaine is manufactured “in house” by cooking powder cocaine and baking soda into a solid “rock,” which is then smoked. Crack is generally more potent than the powdered form, since the cocaine needs to be rather pure to create crack, whereas the powder can be cut with other ingredients, diluting its strength.

Addicts use a variety of items for crack pipes. Sgt. Epler passed around some samples, including a piece of a car antenna wrapped in tape to protect the smoker’s fingers.

Crack does not burn well. The smoker must keep a flame on it for an extended period of time. If you see someone lighting up at night and you notice the lighter keeps going and going, it isn’t that the guy can’t get his cigarette lit. It means he’s smoking crack. Another giveaway is burn marks on the fingers (from holding the hot pipe) and around the mouth.

Some standard, every day household items are used in smoking crack. Chore Boy for example. You know…that copper scrubber stuff that you can buy anywhere. Small pieces of it are stuffed into the pipe between the rock of crack cocaine and the smoker’s lips. This way, he won’t suck the blistering hot rock into his lungs. Not a pleasant experience, apparently.

And have you ever seen those small glass vials containing tiny flowers for sale at a convenience store? Those vials are made from tempered glass and are used as crack pipes. After the flower is removed, of course. So if you checking out at your local convenience store and spot a display of stupid little flowers in glass vials, Chore Boy, and Bic Lighters all grouped together, this is why. It’s a crack-smoking kit. That’s the ONLY reason you will see those three items together.

Crack is sometimes packaged, like heroin, in the tips of balloons. But it is also packaged in corners from sandwich bags. Dealers fill the corners, cut them off, and tie them. Two packages can be made from each baggie. Want to take part in a little demonstration? Go get a sandwich bag from your cupboard right now. It’s okay. We’ll wait for you. Got it? Okay, now cut both bottom corners off. Good. Now what does it look like?

A diaper? Yep. This is the by product of packaging crack. If you find these “diapers” lying around in an alley near your home, you have crack dealers at work. Don’t fool yourself into thinking some neighborhood kids were playing baby dolls.

You might also see a crumpled bundle of these plastic baggie-diapers. Call the police.

If you’re wondering about pricing, in Pittsburgh the going rate is $1,000 to $1,200 per ounce.


Not everyone who smokes weed will go on to do crack. But according to Sgt. Epler, everyone he’s arrested for crack or heroin started out by smoking weed.

You’ve probably all seen joints, those little home-rolled cigarettes. The current trend is smoking blunts, or cigars filled with weed. A regular cigar is split and the tobacco dumped out. The paper is then refilled with weed. To save on the mess, cigar skins are available commercially, sold at any convenience store. According to Sgt. Epler, these serve no other purpose except for smoking weed as no one rolls their own cigars. An assortment of pipes specifically for smoking weed is also readily available.

Apparently, cops love angry women. They are great sources of information and are just about one hundred percent right-on-the-money. Sgt. Epler shared the following story:

A woman called the cops to report that her man was in the basement with four Jamaican guys and 120 pounds of weed. She had caught her man with another woman in the car she had rented for him. The cops, while a little cynical about such a tale…four Jamaicans and 120 pounds of weed? Yeah, right...arrived at the house to investigate. They found—you guessed it—four Jamaicans and 120 pounds of weed in the woman’s basement. Further investigation revealed that the Jamaicans were wanted on murder charges. They were stone-cold killers who had slain at least 12 other women who had rented houses and cars for them. This angry woman most likely saved her own life by calling the cops.


Methamphetamine has never caught on here in Pittsburgh, a fact for which Sgt. Epler was extremely grateful. He said that in the past eight years, they have made only one or two arrests for meth. One reason he speculates we haven’t seen the problem here is because one of the major components, anhydrous ammonia, isn’t readily available. Used as fertilizer on the big commercial farms of the West and Midwest, anhydrous ammonia is rarely seen locally. Plus, Pennsylvania has severely cracked down on the over-the-counter sale of pseudoephedrine, a fact which annoys Sgt. Epler every time he gets a cold.


If you are looking for a great research website dealing with Ecstasy, click here. Geared toward kids, this site actually lists which pills are good and which ones are bad.

Oxycontin isn’t seen much locally. The high is similar to heroin. Oxycontin has a reputation of being a heroin starter kit. Folks use it legitimately for pain, become addicted and move on to heroin. Xanax is also popular with the heroin crowd.

Remember the car battery I mentioned last week? Sgt. Epler finally pulled it out to show its purpose. It contained fake compartments for hiding drugs. Lots of innocuous-looking household items containing secret compartments have been used to fool the police: WD-40 cans, canisters of cheese balls and corn chips, spot remover spray. He even showed us a fake book, hollowed out to hide someone’s stash. Informants are invaluable for locating drugs hidden this way.

And that concludes my Citizens’ Police Academy experience. However, I must admit I’m hooked. I can’t wait for the next session to begin so I can drop in and pick up more tidbits of information. I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating…if you have the chance to attend a Citizen’s Academy in your area, do it. You will not regret one minute of it.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Christmas in the 'Hood

By Martha Reed

Right now I’m feeling a bit like Scrooge because the holiday decorations are up in my neck of the woods and my neighbor across the street has decided to invest this year in one of those inflatable igloo/penguin/Christmas tree sets that also plays a constantly looping muzak holiday favorites soundtrack. For the first hour on Saturday I thought it was kind of cute but now I feel like I’m trapped inside some insane Christmas version of a scary serial killer’s ice cream truck.

I complained about it to my sister on Saturday and she told me to sneak out in the middle of the night with a screwdriver and pop it. Can you tell we’re related?

This neighbor is the same guy who hung a pair of brass balls off the trailer hitch on his F150 pickup truck, if that tells you anything. Now I lived in Texas for a good ten years, and I understand how a man can love his truck, but there is a line that should not be crossed and this guy keeps crossing the line and stepping on my toes.

Let me move my laptop to the next room. Maybe that will make it better.

Nope. Let me try earplugs. I kid you not.

Okay, that’s better. Which brings me to the original idea for my blog today: What’s your favorite holiday story?

I love the movie A Christmas Story, featuring a fabulously funny voice over narrator and a kid named Ralphie.

The reason I can watch this movie over and over is because I grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, well inside the lakes effect beltway and I can vividly remember standing knee deep in snow waiting for the school bus to come. This scene captures my childhood perfectly down to the knitted stocking caps:

Since I mentioned her already, I’ll finish this blog with a true holiday story about my sister. My whole family was trapped inside the house one Christmas Eve, and we sent Boo out to get a movie that would fill up the time until we could all go to bed. She came back with her idea of the perfect family Christmas DVD: Misery, based on the horror novel by Stephen King and that's another instance of 'that should tell you everything you need to know', which now that I think of it is a pretty good writer's tool, and so I'll end on that.

Monday, December 08, 2008


by Gina Sestak

I've always liked movies. Ever since I was a little kid. I like to watch, but even more, I like to know about how they are made.

You may remember that one of the first posts I wrote for this blog [way back on September 23, 2006] concerned my glamorous job as a movie extra in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead.
I call it glamorous because my make-up was professionally desitned and applied -

so what if it was matte gray skin and red eye shadow! It looked cool.
A few years later, I was an extra in an even weirder movie -
Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh.

So what's that got to do with writing? you may ask.

I'll tell you.

This semester, I've been taking a screenwriting course at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. After years of being a highly unsuccessful fiction writer, I've decided to broaden my horizons. Henceforth, I plan to be an unsuccessful screenwriter as well!

Friday, December 05, 2008

A New Chapter

By Jennie Bentley

No, not that kind of chapter, although I’ve written a few of those, too, lately. This is a different kind of chapter, though. A life chapter, you might say.

As some of you may know, when I’m not writing books, the real me is a Realtor® and home renovator in Nashville, Tennessee. That was how I came to write the DIY-books: someone at Berkley found out about my background and asked me if I’d be interested in writing a series about a home renovator for them. For the past year and a half, I’ve juggled real estate and writing, occasionally tearing my hair out when it all threatened to be too much.

Well, no more.

As some of you have probably also gathered, the real estate industry has taken a beating lately. Sales are down, foreclosures and short-sales are up, it’s getting increasingly difficult to get a loan... Not impossible—someone with good credit and enough income shouldn’t have any problems—but the guidelines and requirements are a lot more stringent than they were a couple of years ago, when anyone who could sign their name could get a mortgage. Which was how we got in the current predicament in the first place.

But I digress. The Nashville real estate industry hasn’t suffered as much as some. Our sales are down compared to last year, but speaking from a purely personal standpoint, DH has had his best year ever. I, on the other hand, haven’t sold a single house.

Which is why, when our boss informed us, sometime during the early part of November, that he was closing the agency we were working for, we considered whether it made sense for me to just retire my real estate license and become my husband’s assistant.

Galling, I know. But there are lots of fees and things involved with being a Realtor®. There are association fees, to the tune of many hundreds of dollars a year. There’s insurance, which costs a few hundred, at least. There are monthly fees to the agency, for things like office space and technical support. There are fees to the multiple listings service, for being able to share listings with other Realtors®. There are fees to the showing centers, to pay the people who keep track of the appointments. There are fees for the online flier-sites, so we can create our own professional looking brochures. There are continuing education classes to pay for, there’s renewing the license every two years, there are industry conferences and luncheons to attend, there’s dropping money left and right on online and print advertising to try to drum up some business, there’s paying for the website...

Bottom line, we started thinking that if I wasn’t going to use the oh, so costly real estate license to actually make money, maybe it’d be better if I just didn’t have the cost of maintaining it.

So that’s how I came to retire this past week. When DH took his license to a new company, where they adore and worship him, I took mine home and put it in a drawer.

It’s a weird kind of feeling. I’m not a Realtor® anymore. Realtor® is no longer a label I can use to introduce myself. I’m still a real estate professional—heck, I still do exactly the same work I did last week, last month, and last year!—but the title is gone. Now I’m—gulp—an unlicensed assistant to my husband. Sort of like being an unpublished writer. Or a writer between contracts.

On the upside, I have a new title. Since all my income comes from writing now, I can introduce myself as a writer. And that’s pretty cool, too.

Hello, World! I’m Jennie Bentley. Writer.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

A Little Quiz About Books

by Joyce

Since news of the publishing world, not the mention the rest of the economy, is so dismal these days, many people are opting to buy books for Christmas this year. (I think people should do that every year.) If you're going this route, don't buy your books from a chain. Be sure to support your favorite independent bookseller, or buy them from our favorite, Mystery Lovers Bookshop.

I came up with a little quiz to help you with your book selection. The quiz is for fun only, so don't expect any prizes. Besides, I included links to make it way too easy for you! It's like an open book test. Feel free to add your own questions in your comments.

  1. What author writes the popular Sookie Stackhouse mysteries? What is the name of the TV show based on these books?
  2. Nancy Martin wrote what popular series? Can you name them all in order?
  3. What is the name of the book released last year featuring Pittsburgh cop Colleen Greer? What is the name of this author?
  4. What Pittsburgh author writes about actress Rosie Winter? Where does Rosie live and what is her occupation? Bonus: What does this author's dog like to eat?
  5. Which popular author was 104 years old when she passed away this year?
  6. Who wrote the book Police Procedure & Investigation: A Guide for Writers?
  7. Name the two newest Working Stiffs (both, coincidentally, had debut novels this year). No hints on this one!
  8. Another author who passed away this year was Tony Hillerman. Where are his books set?
  9. Who wrote The Murders In the Rue Morgue?
  10. Name your favorite book, movie, or play with a Christmas theme.
Well, that's it kids. Have fun!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Citizens' Police Academy: Narcotics Squad-Part One

By Annette Dashofy

The one session of Citizens’ Police Academy that I missed last time around was the Narcotics Squad. This week, I made up that session. When Sgt. Doug Epler started unpacking his props, I sensed this was going to be interesting. I was especially intrigued by a car battery sitting on the floor among the cases and boxes of drug paraphernalia. Was there a mad scientist in the house?

The Narcotics Squad in Pittsburgh consists of two impact squads, who work at street level; two investigative squads who do more in depth investigations and surveillances; a vice squad who deals with all varieties of prostitution; and a weed-and-seed unit that works off site doing in depth, long-term investigations. Each squad consists of only five or six officers. Each. City-wide.

They are kept very busy.

The number one drug problem in Pittsburgh is heroin. Note: this is not true elsewhere. But here, heroin can be found in any neighborhood, any age, rich or poor, black or white. Inside the city, a stamp bag of heroin runs around $10. In surrounding counties, it might go for $15 to $20 a bag, so folks from outside come into the city to make their purchases.

Sgt. Epler passed around a wide selection of drug-related items. But only fake drugs. Like Cremora instead of the real thing. More on that later.

A stamp bag of heroin is just that. They use the waxed glassine packets used by stamp collectors to package the drug. An addict might use 10 or 20 bags per day. At $10 each, you can see the problem. Small bundles are held together with little hair bands. Fifty stamp bags are bundled into a brick, wrapped in porno paper, the Auto Trader, or newspaper. Why porno paper? As a marketing ploy. Think the prize in a box of Cracker Jack. Buy a brick of heroin, get something extra to entertain yourself with as well.

If you find bits and pieces of torn glassine stamp envelopes and/or discarded hair bands lying around, you might want to contact the police as these are signs of heroin use in your neighborhood.

Users tend to start out snorting the stuff. They believe they aren’t junkies because they aren’t using needles. But after a while, the drug burns out the receptors in their noses and it doesn’t work any longer. That’s when the heroin user turns to the needle.

Heroin use is a team sport. Addicts share with their buddies. Girlfriends and boyfriends share. Sgt. Epler offered a demonstration of the process. Relax. No one was actually injected. The drug is cooked in a spoon. A cigarette is torn apart so that a small portion of the filter can be used to filter sediment from the cooked heroin as it’s drawn into the needle. The needle is stuck into the vein, but the user needs to be certain that he has hit the vein, rather than simply being in the muscle, so he draws back on the plunger until he sees blood enter the syringe. Then he injects part of the heroin. Next, (team sport, remember) his buddy or girlfriend is stuck, the plunger pulled back to draw blood, indicating a good stick, and the rest of the heroin is injected into the second user. That same needle is then capped and saved for the next usage. Perhaps with a different friend.

While the AIDS virus dies quickly, hepatitis will live for four days outside the body. Think about it.

A heroin addict must have his drug as soon as he gets up in the morning. Something like how I need my morning coffee. Except, if I don’t get my coffee, I get cranky. If a heroin addict doesn’t get his fix, he gets horribly sick with cramps and nausea. So every morning, you will see the neighborhood addicts out first thing to score.

So, more signs of heroin use in your neighborhood would be needles and syringes in the street. Diabetics aren’t that careless. If you see needles, it’s heroin.

One of the most interesting aspects of the presentation was the marketing side of the business. There is branding and brand loyalty and brand recognition… The dealer will make up an ink stamp to mark the stamp bags. One such ink stamp is “Why?Not.” Another might be “HellBoy.” A user might like one and not the other, so will seek out his preference. If word gets out that a particular brand is especially deadly, users will rush to buy the stuff up! They think they’re going to do it just right so it doesn’t kill them. Apparently, it’s really good up until the whole dying part.

Sometimes, heroin is transported in the tips of party balloons which are carried in the dealers’ mouths. When a user buys from him, the dealer spits out one of the tiny balloons and the user sticks it in his mouth. This way, if caught, they simply swallow the evidence. Later, when it all comes out in the end, they wash off the balloon and have their party.

If you see small rubber knots from broken balloons lying around, you have drug users in the neighborhood.

Finally, about the Cremora. The cops gained access to a dealer’s phone and called some of his users to say they had stamp bags for sale. Only the stamp bags were filled with Cremora. They used a kid’s sea horse stamp to mark the bags. One buyer didn’t know anything about the sea horse brand, but was desperate and made the purchase. As they attempted to arrest him, he ran away, snorting the Cremora out of the bag. Once caught, he complained that he wasn’t getting high. When told he’d snorted Cremora, he panicked and wanted to go to the hospital to be checked out.

Apparently, he was more concerned about snorting coffee creamer than about snorting heroin.

Next week: Crack cocaine, weed, Meth, and that car battery

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

by Kathy Miller Haines

Last April, we adopted a new dog after we lost our dearly departed Violet. Sadie is a dead ringer for her predecessor, but lacks the former's respect for our personal possessions. She’s eaten shoes, couch cushions, part of a coffee table, and enjoys destroying new issues of Entertainment Weekly before we have a chance to read them. Don’t worry: she has toys. Many, many toys. And a rawhide fetish that’s made me seriously consider investing in a cow.

We tried to abate the destruction by kenneling her when we’re not home. Neither the husband nor I was particularly thrilled about imprisoning her,so we’ve been trying to wean her off the cage during those times when we know we won’t be gone long.

Alas, it hasn’t been going so well. Last week I came home to find that she’d left everything alone, except for one thing. Let’s take a look, shall we?

What could it be that’s given her hours of pleasure? It clearly involves paper. Perhaps another view could help us identify it…

Ah, it’s a book! And it looks like an excellent read, doesn’t it? Whatever it is, it’s so delightful that she can’t be bothered to acknowledge that she’s being photographed. And wise animal that she is, she has a bookmark on hand, just in case she needs to pause in her activity. In fact, the bookmark looks vaguely familiar….

But the book! What book could possibly have such a death grip on her attention? Oh look, fellow sleuths, a piece of the cover!

Yellow moon, a woman in a red dress…it does looks familiar…

Yes, in a house full of hundreds of books, all of which are carefully stored on shelves, she chose the one title to decimate that, one hopes, will be keeping her in kibble for years to come.

The moral to this story? Aw, so many to choose from, but how about this: buy books this holiday season. Even when used improperly, they will provide hours of enjoyment. And when used as intended, you’ll be giving the recipient an experience they’ll keep with them for many days to come.

And maybe, with your help, I’ll be able to afford to get my dog more rawhide.

So what’s the last great book you…er…devoured?