Sunday, December 25, 2011

To Be Oneself

Chesapeake Bay Sunset photo contributed by Sharon Ewing


The Telling that Changes Everything II

December 11, 2011

 Being who you are won’t fix
everything, but it is something
each of us can do, whatever
our circumstances. We can be
killed, maimed, have lies told
about us, but our truth will
shine into their darkness,
whoever they are, whatever
their intentions. Their humanity
is as frail and needy as our own.
They also have the choice: to be
who they are or betray themselves,
the worst evil there is, and so
often not named in our world,
more and more confused about
what matters. It goes back to
steamrollers. When I told that
professor I was dropping out,
he, who’d said he didn’t know
if I had a mind for literature
but I certainly had a heart
for it, said to me: "The steamroller
will get you." Our society now
has so many steamrollers and so
many already flattened people
who act like cardboard cutouts of
themselves. But why not be a grain
of sand? In time the steamroller
will get you, too, but you might
contribute to the clogging and
malfunction of one machine.
When the machines fail, maybe
the cardboard cutouts will remember
they’re human and speak their
truth. What other weapon do we
have that is as potent a catalyst,
as sure to defeat pomposity and
power seized by the small-minded
and those frightened by their own
shadows? Let the shadows out of
Jung’s dark closet. There is plenty
of light to dance in, and our
suffering, paradoxically, can all
be felt as a necessary part of
self-hood and a happiness that,
if not eternal, won’t easily be
destroyed, even if we die. You
see, the ecstasy the true self
experiences is outside time, and
it’s contagious. It doesn’t need
steamrollers to make its point.
It relies on light–the Light that
is the Universe’s way of being,
the Light we were all born to
see and to live by. We may
stagger in our darkness,
but if we move confidently
forward, we’ll see the gray light
of Dawn, then the yellow saffron
of her mantle, the rosy fingers
with which she lights our day,
and what, then, will steamrollers
matter to such tough-spirited,
joyous individual grains of sand?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Christmas Cactus in the Kitchen Window

The Telling that Changes Everything III. December 18, 2011

 The Christmas cactus in the kitchen window
snuck up on me. I did notice that its
floppy stems were putting out buds at the
tips, but suddenly on this cold December
morning, with frost heavy on the chickweed
and making the feathery weeds enchanting
in their hoarfrost bonnets, it achieves
full bloom. It gets summer heat and wintry
blasts since it faces west. The cold is as
necessary as the sun to its health and
well-being. There was Ruth Pope, years
ago, whom I visited with my baby girl,
who took me into her dark bedroom
to see her cactus blooms. Mine lives
and blooms in a lighted room, but it
does need that cold. The slender,
many-layered, deep pink blossoms
seem far too exotic for my simple life,
yet here it lives, sandwiched between
the compost bucket with its eggshells
sticking out and the cobwebs on the
other side, but nothing in the created
order looks less dismayed. Pink
is such an exultant color. I do have
my moments of pink, or call them
heightened consciousness, when
the words take off, or the sky has
streaks of yellow and rose after the
sun has swum below the horizon.
Most days are essentially ordinary,
following my daily routine, reminding
myself of chores and things to finish
before nightfall. Some mornings I
feel disconnected even from this
ordinary world, like being up too
high and unable to get my feet firmly
on the ground. Proust said, as we age,
the stilts we walk on get taller until
we can no longer balance, and then
we fall and die. The stilt consciousness
passes once I’ve fed the hens, made a
fire, eaten toast, drunk my lemon-ginger tea.
There’s another state, the one I hate the
most, of fear. So many things I never
thought about, simply doing them,
risky or not. Now I have to summon
courage for a late night drive or before I
venture by car along unfamiliar roads.
Something in me that once was tough and
unconcerned, now quails, imagines
being lost, alone, cold, far from home.
I have to remind myself that I’m canny,
that people have always helped me,
that I may be scared, but "inside fear
is courage," as Mindi wrote in her book.
True, I am rewarded for getting myself
down from those stilts and back on
terra firma.  I write poems. My
Christmas cactus blooms.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

And the Words Came Early--Deborah Meyer

Photo of Judy Hogan by Deborah Meyer


And the Words Came Early by Deborah R. Meyer

Judy Hogan lives in a rich world of words.

They are in the poetry and prose books tucked into the nooks and niches of her Moncure home.

They are in her head, tumbling around, waiting for their chance to be put to permanence.

They breathe on the pages of diaries and her numerous unpublished manuscripts.

They flow effortlessly out of her as she teaches workshops and classes around the Triangle, inspiring fledgling writers to forge ahead, inspiring seasoned writers to explore their untapped resources.

But it was just one word that she used when asked what she felt when she received an email this past October notifying her that one of her fiction manuscripts had been accepted for publication.

"Ecstasy." Hogan said.

Anyone who knows Judy will not be surprised that her work is so highly regarded but will be astonished to learn that the accepted manuscript, titled Killer Frost, is a mystery novel.

Since she arrived in North Carolina in 1971, Hogan has been helping to advance the state’s state of poetry as she was also writing her own. In 1969, Hogan was living in Illinois, and a friend, Paul Foreman, who lived in Berkeley, where Hogan had worked on a Ph.D. in Classics, suggested they found a poetry journal. So Hyperion was born.

When Hogan moved to North Carolina, she began including North Carolina poets. In the mid-70s she started organizing readings for poets.

"The women’s movement brought some angry stuff out at first but there were just a lot of women starting to write. So I started collecting women’s poetry and with a grant from the National Endowment from the Arts I published a women’s issue of Hyperion in 1980. Then in 1981 I published an issue with Southern poets," Hogan said.

Foreman, by then living in Austin, Texas, had started in 1970 Thorp Springs Press and Hogan would send poets to him. Foreman suggested that Hogan, who was living in Chapel Hill, should start a press in North Carolina and in January of 1976, Carolina Wren Press was born.

"I published Jaki Shelton Green. I left in 1991 but under my editorship we did 33 books, including one children's book. We did a play, but I was most interested in the people coming up around the fringes of the establishment. I wanted to publish the people that weren’t fitting into the place where there was already a lot of help," Hogan said.

She helped to found the North Carolina Writers’ Network in 1984 serving as its President until 1987.

Born in Zenith, Kansas, Hogan discovered the joy of writing when she had to spend a year in bed at the end of the first grade due to rheumatic fever. "Mother brought me lots of library books and then I started writing little stories and drawing pictures. That was the beginning. I was building my own imaginary world I guess. I told my father when I was 10 I was going to be a writer," Hogan said.

She was 14 when she began the habit of keeping a diary, which she still does today, filling about 200 pages a month. This includes some emails that she keeps. "You tell some things in letters you don’t say in your diary," Hogan said.

Hogan recovered from the effects of rheumatic fever but never from word fever. She said her first published piece of poetry was in the Hyperion if you didn’t count her church bulletin when she was 13. "It was a poem about being an adolescent," Hogan said.

She has published five books of poetry with small presses and two prose works.

Through a lovely, chance encounter, Hogan began a lifelong friendship with the people of Kostroma, Russia. Her first visit there was in 1990, and Hogan said she feels a great kinship with the Russians. "They care about their souls. We had such terrible images of Russians from the Cold War. Every image of them was grim and hostile," said Hogan, who found this was the opposite of truth.

In 1980, Hogan began reading mysteries before she went to bed. This habit was noticed by the landlady of a bed and breakfast that Hogan would stay at when she went to Wales some summers to write poetry. "I would walk on the foot paths of the Gower Peninsula and find a spot to sit and write."

In 1990 she sprained her ankle there and had to spend a few weeks in bed. Like the year of rheumatic fever recovery, Hogan discovered something new about herself. "My landlady said I should write a murder. So I started plotting it then and set it in her bed and breakfast with Mrs. Merritt in it. Her fictional name is Evelyn Truelove. She always had opinions and made a good character," Hogan said.

The heroine of this first novel is Penny Weaver who has gone to Wales to get away from her responsibilities for a while. She falls in love with a Welsh policeman. They get around the transatlantic issue by spending six months in Wales, and six months in central North Carolina in a fictional town of Riverdell, county of Shagbark. The town according to Hogan has elements of Pittsboro, Saxapahaw and Moncure.

Is Penny Weaver Hogan?

"Pretty much," admits Hogan.

Like Hogan, Weaver works against things that bother her, like unsafe nuclear waste. One of the mysteries takes place in the local farmer’s market. Hogan has grown food she sold at the Pittsboro Farmers’ Market. Now she is a regular customer, taking some of her homegrown produce to trade for things she can’t grow.

Hogan has written eight mysteries that feature Penny Weaver and is about to start her 9th. The Killer Frost manuscript is the sixth in the series and was a finalist in the Malice Domestic contest. Despite this achievement, no agent answered Hogan’s queries about representing her. So using her own knowledge of small presses and the knowledge she has gained being a member of Sisters in Crime, an international organization she joined in 2007 that promotes "the professional development and advancement of women writing crime fiction," Hogan became her own agent. In early October she sent the manuscript to Mainly Murder Press in Connecticut.

The book will come out on September 1, 2012 and cost around $15.00 though it will be available on Nook and Kindle for $2.99.
Without giving too much of the plot away, here are the delicious opening words of Killer Frost.

 "It was a love that came upon her out of the blue, which she knew she would never understand or be able to explain to anyone else, not even to Oscar and especially not to her husband."

There is murder of course, with the setting being St. Francis College where Weaver is teaching remedial classes in composition.

Gene Dillard became good friends with Hogan while taking her poetry classes. Dillard said, "I think Judy stands as a good representation of someone who hasn’t lost the excitement of life. There is always something new and exciting around the corner for Judy. That is something we all can strive for."

Hogan’s backyard is home to an orchard, a garden, and 14 chickens. In 2010 Hogan had 600 pears on her pear tree. She canned 23 quarts of them, froze many, and made pear preserves. She bakes her own bread and makes soup, freezing her bounty for when the garden is fallow. She lives on $1000 a month.

She needs her food to eat so this does take up some of the routine of her days. But it is the words, the writing that get the most time. For without that, Hogan would starve.
Debbie Meyer lives in Pittsboro, NC, on a 17-acre farm with horses, pot-bellied pigs, dogs and cats, and her family. She works in science publishing and writes about art and animals, two essentials in her life.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the December issue of Chatham County Line, and is used by permission of Debbie Meyer and Julian Sereno, CCL editor.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Michele Drier's Edited for Death

Photo of Michele Drier, whose book Edited for Death came out recently from Mainly Murder Press.  She's blogging for me today.  JH


Michele Drier was born in Santa Cruz to a pioneer family and is a fifth generation Californian. She’s lived and worked all over the state and has called both Southern and Northern California home. During her career in journalism — as a reporter and editor at large and small daily newspapers – she won awards for producing investigative series. She lives in the Central Valley with cats, skunks, opossums and wild turkeys.

Her most recent book is the traditional mystery "Edited for Death", available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

To entice you: Amy Hobbes never expected to solve anything tougher than a crossword puzzle. When she left her job as a journalist in Southern California, she planned to give the adrenaline a rest, but her next job, managing editor of a local newspaper, delivers some surprises. After a respected Senator and World War II hero dies, and two more people turn up dead, the news heats up. Both victims had ties to a hotel owned by the Senator’s family. With the help of reporter pal Clarice and the new man in her life, Phil, Amy uncovers a number of shadowy figures, including a Holocaust survivor who has spent sixty years tracking down Nazi loot. It’s a complex and dangerous puzzle, but Amy can’t walk away until she solves it.
Visit her website at


Writing a Wrong
 I write. I’ve written news stories, magazine articles, white papers, grants, solicitation letters (not THAT kind) and in the last two years, two novels.

Even though I didn’t set out to write for a living, I liked explaining things to people. I could have chosen teaching, but instead I chose being a journalist. Ranging from a staff writer at the San Jose Mercury-News to the Executive Editor of the Manteca Bulletin, I left and came back to my newspaper career a couple of times.

In between stints in the media, I made a career of managing non-profits agencies, large and small. And there, I wrote grants, position papers for government departments, draft legislation, annual reports and fund-raising letters.

So I guess I’m a writer and because of that, over the years, I’ve threatened to write Strongly Worded Letters to a variety of people. One most recent was going to go to my local Congress member about the TSA personnel at Sea-Tac Airport. I’d flown up from California to watch my youngest niece graduate from high school and packed a new can of hair spray.

Nobody at my originating airport (large, metro, international) batted an eye.  They waved me through, but on my return flight, I was asked to pull up my sweater (granted, it was bulky—so am I), was wanded and pulled over to have my carry-on searched. Turns out the can of hair spray, which breezed through in one airport, was a no-no in Sea-Tac and, after 20 minutes of rude and invasive orders by three TSA people (including one who asked "Can’t you read?") I was given the choice of buying a baggage check for the hair spray ($25), taking it home (!!!) or throwing it away ($15), I was out a new can, humiliated, and embarrassed in front of about 150 strangers.

Now, I’ve traveled a fair amount, including three trips to Europe after 9/11. I watched luggage being blown up in De Gaulle in Paris, had my purse searched on a flight from London to Dublin and been politely questioned by English security after coming in from Greece. In all of these cases, the questioners were polite and explained what was happening.

The Sea-Tac experience was going to be a Very Strongly Worded Letter.

By the time I got home, I simmered down. No letter was written. But I haven’t forgotten the incident, the people or my humiliation.

As writers, we all have these incidents. Sometimes it’s years of humiliation or anger at a person or event. Sometimes it’s just an everyday occurrence that steams us. What we do have, though, is an outlet for our feelings of anger, humiliation or frustration.

We write about it.

Maybe it’s using that person’s name in your latest book for a nasty.

Maybe it’s putting your characters in a situation and letting them blast away at the know-nothings who acted as pompous fools.

Maybe it’s using the event as a springboard for a short story or novel.

We’re lucky because using the incidents as fodder for our storytelling allows us to write the Strongly Worded Letter in a form that reaches a broader audience.

I haven’t yet figured out where I’m going to use my TSA experience, but in some future book, the protagonist is going to run across these rude people and get even. Maybe they’ll get fired, maybe an irate traveler will punch them out, maybe their supervisor will get tired of complaints about them and publically castigate them. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but something surely will, and I’ll have my cold dish of revenge without endangering anyone!

What a great way to communicate and write a wrong!


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sara Sue Hoklotubbe: Review and Interview

Sara Sue Hoklotubbe, author of Deception on All Accounts and The American Cafe.

Sarah Hoklotubbe’s Cherokee Mystery Novels 

Tony Hillerman about Deception on All Accounts: "A dandy mystery novel. Don’t miss it."

Sara Sue Hoklotubbe’s mystery novels, set in the Tahlequah region of northeastern Oklahoma, fall into the tradition of Tony Hillerman and Margaret Coel, whose books Sara admires. If you like their writing and learning about another native American tribe in the twenty-first century, the Eastern Cherokee, originally in the mountains of North Carolina, but forced to take the "Trail of Tears" to Oklahoma by Andrew Jackson in the early 1800s, you’ll enjoy Hoklotubbe’s books.

Deception on All Accounts came out from the University of Arizona Press in 2003 and is the story of Sadie Walela, who was a bank teller in the small town of Sycamore Springs. One morning she makes the decision to go into the bank alone, although it is against the rules, because no other employees have turned up, and she needs to open the vault and then open the bank on time. A robber had hidden inside and makes her give him a huge amount of cash from the vault, and then he kills another employee when that man disobeys the robber.

Not only do we have the mystery of who the robber was and how he can be identified and brought to justice, but we learn about Sadie’s life on her farm, with her beloved wolf-dog, Sonny, her horse, Joe, and her Uncle Eli and his wife, Mary, who live nearby and stand in for Sadie’s parents. Sadie, her aunt, and her uncle live on Indian land portioned to their family when Indian Territory became the state of Oklahoma.

Sadie not only goes through the trauma of the robbery but is suspected of colluding with the robber. Then she’s promoted at the bank. Her whole relationship to the bank management is confusing and depressing.

The plot moves quickly, and the book’s title is more than justified. I identified easily with Sadie and wanted to cheer as she worked her way through the various land mines on the path at the bank.

Tony Hillerman and Margaret Coel both lived close to and respected the tribal people they have written about, but Sara is Cherokee, and we learn much about their traditions and ways in present day Oklahoma.

Sadie returns in The American Café (2011, University of Arizona Press). Having inherited some money, she buys and opens a café that had once belonged to her great aunt. She keeps its original name, The American Café. Before she can get the café ready for customers, a Creek man named Red and some sawmill workers who come in regularly for their morning coffee present themselves. Their response to her telling them she’s not open yet is to offer to make coffee and then help themselves. Before they leave, a woman whom the men claim is looney comes in with a shotgun and threatens Sadie, calling the café a "godforsaken den of sin." The men help control her, and Sadie checks the shotgun–no bullets.

Then Sadie learns that Goldie Ray, the woman who had sold her the café, has been killed, and Sadie is pulled into unraveling the problem of who killed her.

I highly recommend Hoklotubbe’s series. I learned about it last April at the Malice Domestic Convention for mystery fans and authors, at the "Malice Go-Round" event, when new authors circulate, telling a roomful of people about their recently published mysteries, in a 90-second spiel.


I asked Sara to answer some questions about her writing. Thank you, Sara.

1. When did you begin writing? Why?

I started writing in 1997 when I got married, moved to a new state, and couldn’t find a job. With extra time on my hands, my husband encouraged me to do something I’d always wanted to do – write. I invested in a couple of writing courses at the local community college where I made contact with other writers and published my first newspaper articles. A few years later, I started on my first book.

2. When and why did you begin writing mysteries?

I didn’t set out to write a mystery, it just turned out that way. I wanted to write about the inequalities women suffer in the banking business, something I had personally experienced for over twenty-one years. However, as I began to write and the story unfolded, the characters took over and before I knew it I had a murder mystery on my hands.

I think Tony Hillerman inspired me to write mysteries. I could hardly wait for the release of his next book. I felt like I knew Chee and Leaphorn personally and loved learning about the Navajo and Hopi people. As a Cherokee citizen, I wanted to write about my people and set my books in the middle of the Cherokee Nation where I grew up, and I wanted to tell realistic stories void of the mythical stereotypes that show up all too often in books about American Indians. I believe reading books by authors such as Tony Hillerman and Margaret Coel have helped me do that.

3. Are you writing a series or a stand-alone? Explain your basic idea for your series.

I am currently working on the third book in the Sadie Walela Mystery Series. Sadie is a Cherokee woman who seems to always end up in the middle of a murder investigation. Her friend Lance Smith, also Cherokee, is a police officer who lends his expertise to solve the crime, while Sadie has a tendency to root out the reason the murder happened in the first place.

4. Tell us about your journey to publication with this book.

Soon after I finished the manuscript of my first book, Deception on All Accounts, I attended a gathering of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. As a novice writer, I had already had several unpleasant exchanges with agents and editors that had left me wondering why I had bothered to write anything. No one seemed to be interested in what I had written. At the awards banquet, I approached the winner of the Writer of the Year award and asked him how he had published the fiction book he had written about a small tribe in the southern United States. He gave me the name of his editor at the University of Arizona Press and suggested I send a query letter. He thought they might be interested in my work because it was about Native people. I sent the query and they asked for my manuscript. Six months later they offered me a contract.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic. They also published my second book, The American Café.

During this whole process, I discovered something very important – rejection doesn’t always mean your work is bad. While it is of utmost importance to submit quality work, it is of equal importance to make a connection with the right publisher. I like to think of it as two pieces of a puzzle that have to fit together correctly in order to make a complete picture. It is futile to submit to publishers who have no interest in what you write.

5. Why did you choose to write about the topic, community, issues you chose?

The first rule of beginning writing is to write about what you know. I write about the Cherokee people because that’s who I am. While my books are mysteries, I like to think they go deeper than that. When my readers turn the last page of my book, I want them to feel like they learned something about Cherokee life, about relationships, and hopefully about themselves.

Some of the issues I’ve written about are discrimination, pride, love, jealousy, family secrets, and veterans with post traumatic stress disorder. These are not Cherokee issues, these are people issues. Everyone should be able to relate to them.

6. How have you found it to be published? Share that experience.

It’s surreal. I don’t know if I will ever get used to opening a package that holds the advance copy of a book with my name on the front of it. When I scan the pages and see my words, I get emotional every time. I feel so unworthy. Writing is very hard work for me, but the reward of seeing my book in print is like a dream come true.

7. Do you have comments from readers or reviewers you’d like to share?

I continue to be amazed when I receive praise from readers who took the time to send notes to me through my publisher. It is extremely humbling and I have saved each and every one.

My favorite review for The American Café came from Margaret Coel. She wrote:

"An absorbing mystery that draws the reader into the rich history, culture and landscape of Cherokee Country. The American Café has all of the twists and turns expected in a first-rate mystery, but those are only part of its charm. A gifted storyteller, Sara Hoklotubbe writes of family, the fragile ties that bind people together and the links to the past that are always just below the surface of things. Compassionate and wonderful!"

Another great review came from Library Journal:

"Great characters and an authentic Native American setting make this second series title a good pick for Tony Hillerman fans."

8. What other books have you published and where, when?

The books I have published so far are: Deception on All Accounts, 2003, and The American Café, 2011, both published by the University of Arizona Press.

9. Do you have a work in progress now? Is it part of a series?

I am currently working on the third book in the Sadie Walela Mystery Series and my goal is to have it ready to submit by the end of the year.

10. If you belong to Sisters in Crime, and/or the Guppies, has that been helpful? How?

I have been a member of Sisters in Crime for several years and I especially appreciate the support and information they provide for both published and unpublished mystery writers. I enjoy their newsletters and blogs, and their research about the current state of the mystery publishing business is invaluable. I highly recommend membership.

11. What benefit to you has it been to go to mystery conferences like Malice Domestic?

Malice Domestic, Bouchercon, and Left Coast Crime are all great fan conventions. The formats are similar with an array of panels on every subject imaginable as it pertains to mysteries. I have served as a panelist at all three conventions and enjoyed meeting other authors and fans.

I participated in the "Malice Go Round" this year and it was great fun. We had to pitch our newly published book to potential readers in only a few minutes, one table at a time, in a banquet room full of tables. Each author handed out bookmarks, postcards, or something unique, hoping the listeners would keep it and then seek out their book. I was pleasantly surprised to hear from several people later who either bought my book or found it in a library as a result of my presentation. What a great way to meet new readers!

12. What else would like to say about your books, the next one in your series?

The working title for my current work-in-progress is Giggle Hill. It tells the story of Sadie’s neighbor, an elderly Cherokee man and WWII veteran named Buck Skinner, who disappears and is then accused of murder. Sadie’s attempt to prove Buck’s innocence uncovers more about her neighbor than she could ever imagine.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Healthy Mind

Judy during a chicken workshop, spring of 2011. 
Photo by Sarah Cress.


The ancient Greeks emphasized a healthy mind in a healthy body as a human ideal. We know now that a healthy body promotes a healthy brain. Our brain is not, in my view, exactly the same as our mind, but the brain is the mind’s base, its mode of operation certainly. If we lose our brain, our minds are helpless.

Aging brings most of us new experiences of forgetfulness. Not only: where did we put our car keys, but what was it we walked into the kitchen to do? Or what is the name of that woman or that author? One successful author I know said bluntly: "I’m having trouble with nouns."

Sometimes I can’t remember an adjective or a verb either. I know the meaning, but the exact word won’t come to me.  I’ll open a thesaurus and look for similar words, and usually I’ll find it or it will come to me. In fact, most of the forgetting I experience is because the memory is delayed. If I relax, the word will float in sometimes in a few minutes, sometimes a day later.

One explanation I heard was that we have so much stored in our brains that our filing cabinets are full, and it takes awhile to retrieve a name or a verb. Fortunately, the kitchen errand usually comes back to me once I’m in the kitchen.

These experiences can make you wonder: Is my mind going? Am I getting dementia? I’m sure I’m not since generally my memory and muse (Memory was the Mother of the Nine Muses in Greek mythology) are both healthy, active, and constant companions as I write books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction.

An article in AARP Magazine, March/April 2010, page 39 ff, "Boost Your Brain Health," revealed new information about our brains: "An accomplished mathematician in his early seventies consulted [his doctor] after struggling with calculations, and after his wife noticed he was getting cranky. [The doctor] put the mathematician through a battery of tests–and the man got top scores on all of them, including 30 out of 30 on a memory test and a whopping 140 on his IQ test. So when [the doctor] saw his brain scan, he was stunned: it had all the markings of full-blown Alzheimer’s disease.

"Usually people with such profound brain changes can barely carry on a conversation....An answer, many scientists believe, is ‘cognitive reserve’: the combination of a person’s innate abilities and the additional brainpower that comes from challenging the mind. Studies show that diverse, mentally simulating tasks result in more brain cells, more robust connections among those cells, and a greater ability to bypass age- or disease-related trouble spots in the brain."

Here are some recommended lifestyle habits/routines for a healthy brain:

1) Walk and talk with a partner.
2) Vary your routine. Novelty stimulates neural connections.
3) Be a lifelong learner.
4) Play.
5) De-stress. Focus your mind and relax.
6) Imagine. Include creativity in your day.
7) Socialize and make new friends.
8) Eat right–a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fish.
9) Work with your doctor to keep blood pressure, weight, blood sugar, and cholesterol in check.
10) Shun gimmicks. Rely on challenging new habits.

You can get a reprint of the article by calling 866-888-3723. You can find it on line at

I do walk alone. I see people to talk to usually over a meal. When I teach, I see more people more often. I talk to people in the post office, in stores, to my neighbors, and I have some regular email friends.

I do love my routines, and I hate it when I hit interruptions like a problem with my chickens. A predator came into the orchard midday last week and killed a hen. Or my car breaks down, or I get sick. I do work to avoid such crises by being proactive, taking good care of my hens, my car, and my health. When the problems arise, and they always do, our brains can get to work at solving them.

Here’s where the mind and attitude come in.

It doesn’t even occur to me to stop keeping hens. I begin to "brainstorm" on solutions. I ask my growingsmallfarms listserve for advice. I ask people who understand dogs about possible guard dogs for the hens. Getting a new dog would be a major challenge at this point in my life, plus expense, but I’ll do that rather than give up my hens or put them back into the orchard without a good solution.

If my car is fixable, I get it fixed, even though it’s sixteen years old. If I’ve gotten sick, I do everything I can to get back to full health, and if need be, I change my lifestyle: more exercise, stop drinking coffee, more servings of fruit and vegetables daily.

The mind can throw up its hands and despair or set the brain to work on a solution.

All human beings have problems. Wise human beings accept that there will be problems, some within their power to solve, others beyond their control. That’s why the Alcoholics Anonymous Serenity Prayer is so potent: "Give me the courage to change the things I can change, to accept the things I can’t change, and the wisdom to tell the difference."

The first thing we can change is our attitude. I know too many people my age who accept the changes aging brings as inevitable, steps closer to death. They expect to have a stroke or a heart attack. When they have new problems with legs, feet, knees, hips, they bow to the inevitable or expect doctors to solve their problems with medicine or surgery. Obviously sometimes doctors are needed, but we can often improve our own health even when we’re old.

I was having twinges in my knees twenty years ago. A man who worked in fitness told me to walk more. My doctor also kept urging me to walk farther. "The more exercise, the better. Walk two miles instead of one." So I have been walking, and my knees rarely have twinges.

I eat less–small, more frequent meals, and I stopped my bedtime snack. I gave up coffee, and now I can tell better when I’m tired. It was a silly reason I finally worked on losing weight, but that also helped my knees. I’d bought a dress I liked for my son’s wedding, but I needed to lose ten pounds for it to fit comfortably. I did fairly easily: less food, more walking, and I’ve kept that up.

It may be harder to change and try new things as we age.

Sometimes I’m scared, as I was about attending the Writers’ Police Academy in High Point last September. But I summoned my courage, got help with directions, and did it. I got lost twice, but I found my way. Then, not only did I have the reward of an excellent program, from which I learned new things to help me in my "after fifties" career of mystery writer, but when I wrote up my experience, the editor of the National Sisters in Crime Newsletter, In Sinc, asked to quote part of my blog on her article on the Writers’ Police Academy on page one of the December issue of In Sinc.

It has been true all my adult life that, by taking on my problems (I do have a stubborn streak), by learning to "invent in desperate circumstances" (Sartre’s definition of a genius), I have not only found new solutions but have become more confident for the next time. My "reach" out into the world grows with each new challenge taken on.

I can’t always solve my problems myself. But that means asking help, and I do. I give to others what I can, and they give to me. Within reason, other people like to help.

When I had a small press, I needed so much help. I was always trying to find money, volunteers, or ideas for finding money or volunteers. Yes, people said no. So I learned which people might give money; which, time; which might give me a ride or might have ideas for solutions. I always emphasized that they had a choice: "If you want to. If it’s convenient. Or maybe you know someone?"

It’s hard to ask, but we forget that most people like to help if they can.

Yesterday Eric offered to paint the fascia boards on my house. Debbie was here to take photos for her article on me and my new book. She realized, too, that I’d need a good photo for the promotion of the book. I didn’t even have to ask. I accepted both offers gratefully. Their six-year-old daughter, Beckett, who had been shy yesterday afternoon, gradually tuned in to the spirit of what was going on with the adults.

When I asked her to draw me a picture to put on my refrigerator, she did. Now I have a handsome Thanksgiving boy turkey, with very colorful feathers, smack dab in the middle of my refrigerator.

Humor, too. Don’t forget that a healthy mind sees humor and can laugh, not only at the foibles of others, but at one’s own.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

As Simple and Holy as a Bouquet of Cosmos

Bouquet of Sensation Mix Cosmos on Judy's desk October 2011.


 In That Inner Circling Sun VIII. I wrote:
My path is clear now, and straight.
My all-too-human body has its twinges
and its doubts about all that I still plan
to accomplish, which is why that inner
sun must carry the workload and egg me on.
My greatness is an unknown, and yet I
feel it settle comfortably into the driver’s
seat, turn the key, and tell all the other
passengers: "We’re off."

In That Inner Circling Sun XIV. I wrote:

Lonely you
may be. You venture farther than most
writers want or dare to go. Your life is

lived inside a safety net around this work
you do of heeding every impulse of the
Muse. She leads. You follow. It doesn’t
get simpler, or harder, than that. Stay
where you are. Write and grow food.
Help people when you can’t say no.
Love your life, your work, every strand
that connects you to others and to your
world, where birds and other forest creatures
are as at home as you are now, here.

Let it be as simple and holy as a bouquet
of Sensation Mix cosmos, cut in a
neglected meadow, blown sideways,
then growing upward, living now,
so briefly, in a honey jar, their stems
drinking water but never fast enough
to keep them from dying. Pale lavender,
purple that is nearly red, pink--pale and
dark--white–with curving stems, buttons
ready to bud, but never with petals as
free and perfect as those that drew
their life direct from the soil, the last
heavy rain, and the south-moving sun,
A tangle of winding stems, spidery
leaves, they speak of freedom, careless
joy, and seed that persisted. The field
was bush-hogged, and they rose up
as if it had been cleared for their
benefit. Then the sweetgum saplings,
blackberry briars, tall feathery weeds
competed for space, soil, nutrients,
but they waved aloft their elegant
pastels, living and dying with equal

The fact is: I await sun.
The morning fog was warmed until
it disappeared. While they waited,
the hens groomed their feathers
back to gleaming white, huddled
for warmth, with enough space
to allow such circumspect cleaning,
like nymphs in the wood of Artemis
bathing around their goddess. When
I’m among them, they circle around
me. I’m taller, more powerful, but
Bringer of Food, Rescuer when
Lost, Speaker to their early morning
reluctant scratchy voices and their
last murmurs of contentment as
they settle at night, their dinosaur
toes gripping the wooden bars,
where they’ll sleep, and if it’s cold,
with feathers fluffed for warmth.

To put it another way, I wait upon
the Muse. If I’m a queen in the
human hive, it’s only because I’m
Her servant, desolate when she
disappears, fully alive when she slips
in again, whispering words I hadn’t
expected to hear so soon, which,
of course, subtract my power in order
to enhance hers. Servants do try to
outwit their masters. They sometimes
succeed. Oh, I can argue, and I do.
Postpone, if I don’t push it too long.
I can languish, and I do, when she
absents Herself. But then the sun
returns, it catches these variations
on the royal purple theme and
makes them glow with inner light,
and my soul becomes illumined,
too. So it becomes win-win. After
that, can I possibly believe that aging
will conquer me, or death do me in?
may be. You venture farther than most
writers want or dare to go. Your life is
lived inside a safety net around this work
you do of heeding every impulse of the
Muse. She leads. You follow. It doesn’t
get simpler, or harder, than that. Stay
where you are. Write and grow food.
Help people when you can’t say no.
Love your life, your work, every strand
that connects you to others and to your
world, where birds and other forest creatures
are as at home as you are now, here.
writers want or dare to go. Your life is
lived inside a safety net around this work
you do of heeding every impulse of the
Muse. She leads. You follow. It doesn’t
get simpler, or harder, than that. Stay
where you are. Write and grow food.
Help people when you can’t say no.
Love your life, your work, every strand
that connects you to others and to your
world, where birds and other forest creatures
are as at home as you are now, here.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

After the Backyard Chicken Workshop

This photo of my hens was taken last April by Sara Cress, a professional photographer.  The hens are two years old, laying well, and in their new feathers.  I love them!  The poem comes after the October workshop.

THAT INNER CIRCLING SUN XXVIII. After Chicken Workshop. October 9, 2011
Earlier in poem X of this book I wrote:

Yet we flourish. The Muse speaks.
We eat well from food we grew
and saved. Time opens its huge
flower. We live closer than ever to
the end of our lives, with maybe
four/fifths of our work done, and
yet we see inwardly and outwardly
into the souls of others, better than ever,
and some few see us well enough
to love and nourish us.

Then in poem XV:

May Creation’s awesome power enliven
my every hour and hold me steady
on my course, comforting, like a
frightened dog in a thunderstorm,
every nightmare my depths send up
to warn me that I’m getting old.

And in poem XXVI:

It isn’t size that matters
or whether people notice you all
the time. It’s that you live, you
flourish, you do the work you’ve
cut out for yourself every day.

It isn’t how I’m seen, but how I see.
I picked up his bored, discontented air,
wondered why he was here if he didn’t
want to learn, wondered what he saw
as others, their eyes alive with curiosity
and later gratitude, asked questions,
stared at my hens as if to memorize
every motion of their chicken behavior.
The hens fled their curiosity but returned
to peck at the corn and oats I tossed out.
That one’s not tuning in, feeling contempt,
making some judgment I wouldn’t like
but, more importantly, will make him
sick if he doesn’t let go his refusal
to see what might make his life bearable,
even pleasant. Was I seeing my enemy
then, Despair? I’m moving into
Erikson’s last stage of human maturity:
ego integrity versus despair, which
hovers in the wings, picky, discounting
whatever I’ve already achieved, throwing
wet blankets on my scheme to flourish
into and through my nineties. But the
upshot of these inner wrestling matches
will be enhanced surety, an unerring
confidence in my worth and sense of
direction. Remember: your life goes
well, and smoothly runs the river that
was once merely an intermittent creek
bed, leaf-strewn, susceptible to drought,
at times a dirt path, then a gushing
flood, hoisting heavy debris out of
its way. Even doubters and nay-sayers
notice things. Will he remember
something from his hours in my presence,
see chickweed spring up in his own
lawn and let it grow to feed his hens?
Will he revel in an omelet prepared
with fresh onions, herbs, and cheese,
eaten with new laid eggs? Will he
notice the ever-changing life around
him when he stands in a field? Will he
hear bird call, chicken gabble, soft
wind rustling grasses gone to seed?

Sunday, October 30, 2011


We've had lovely warm October days.  These cosmos came from the meadow behind my garden.


 Thursday morning I received an email from Judith Ivie of Mainly Murder Press, offering me a contract for Killer Frost, the mystery which won a finalist place in the St. Martin’s Malice Domestic First Best Traditional Mystery Contest last March. Perfect. I did try agents on the first and third mysteries I’ve written, and on this one, too, but I returned to the small press world as the most comfortable for me, and this does feel so comfortable.

I’m surprised and stunned. This news sends me in a whole new direction. I’m the same, and my plans and my books are the same. Now I have other people out there answering. People will be reading these mysteries I’ve labored to write. They’re only part of my work, but I’ve put myself fully into them. It may be nine months before Killer Frost is out–late August, or later. Besides a trade paperback, my book will be on Nook and Kindle. I’ll get royalties, for which I’ll have to work. But I’ve promised to work on selling it, and I will.

I turn seventy-five in May of the year my first mystery is published. I feel ecstatic, beside myself [ek+stasis = standing outside]. I think I’d rather get a book published than get married again.

My book will soon go out into the world, "launched in a place of sufficient depth." Old Proust shapes me still. Why is it so very important to me now to have this book published? Identity is knowing who you are and being comfortable with that person. But it is also being recognized by others as who you believe you are.

This acceptance, and Mainly Murder’s enthusiasm for the book, means to me that I am recognized as the writer I believe I am. I have had people like my poetry and my PMZ Poor Woman’s Cookbook. But I haven’t published a novel before, and it is a way to reach a wider audience. So now, if I work at it to get attention to this book, I think that wider audience will respond. I hope to stir up word of mouth, which is the best possible marketing tool, if you can once get it going. I want this book to be a best seller for Mainly Murder. I’ll do my part.

It feels like verification that I haven’t been putting myself on, that I’m a good writer, one that people will want to read. It balances me and my whole life. I can lean more on my writing economically. What I want to be for a reader looks like it will come true. It isn’t only my imagination. I have the power to reach people, stir their feedings, and maybe even influence their behavior, with my words, which are as true and from my heart as I can make them.

So much rejection, but finally my words are slipping through the hedge. I’ve always thought of publishing as finding the hole in the hedge and slipping through. I’ve been through the hedge a little bit before with my poetry, my cookbook, my articles in our community newspaper, Chatham County Line, but now I’ve found a bigger and more promising hole and slipped through that.

What will I find on the other side? Mostly likely, not riches. If I can earn a little to supplement my social security and farm income, that is all I ask. I’ll find happy readers. I can already tell. My mechanic wants to buy a book. My friend Gene wants two copies. Terry, to whom I was once married, wants to read it on his kindle. Lucy wants to buy it and says, if I’ll have a big party, she’ll bring a cake. Yes, definitely, Lucy, here at my farm.

I hope there will be library reviews and sales. Suzanne, my reader, is excited. She told me it was the most political novel I’d written yet, and that’s saying some. It will stir things up. I think I can cope.

I’ve had a lot of identities: mother, wife, editor/publisher of a small press and a poetry journal, organizer in literature, environmental activism, and local politics. I’ve been a teacher of school children, out of school adults, and college students. I’ve been, and am, a small farmer. I’ve been a secretary, delivered newspapers, worked as Postmaster Relief in a village post office, worked in customer service, babysat, cleaned people's houses. I’m a grandmother and a great grandmother, a friendly neighbor. I’ve been a writer since age seven but an especially prolific one since age fourteen, and I’m a published poet, but I haven’t before leaned on my identity as an author, and I will now be a published novelist.

As well as readers on the other side of the hedge, there will be the other authors, and some of them will like my writing and give me a boost in this new world of being a published novelist. I’ll have a new kind of camaraderie. That has already begun. Other Mainly Murder authors are welcoming me to their ranks. I think some of the mystery authors I especially love will write blurbs for me. I’m going to ask my favorites. See what happens.

There will be critics, too. Some will be dismissive and cutting, but I think some will like what I write. I might even be praised. I’m pretty tough now. Let them cut. I’ll keep writing books. I’m going to enjoy this. You know what? I’m not even scared. As Winnie the Pooh once said, "It’s different when the hum inside you is outside and has other people looking at it." I’m not afraid of that. Also, for some reason, I’m feeling very generous and gracious toward everyone.

You begin one way, in one form, and you change. You end up in a different place. It’s still you, but it’s a more unified, purpose-driven, complete you. It’s the you that was potential made actual.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Review: Louise's War by Sarah Shaber

Sarah Shaber. Louise’s War. Severn House, Surrey, England, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-7278-8040-6. $27.95.

Sarah Shaber, a Raleigh writer, whose five Simon Shaw mysteries I enjoyed, has a new series set during World War II in Washington, D.C. Louise’s War, the first book, introduces Louise Pearlie, a young widow from Wilmington, N.C., who has a job as a clerk in the Office of Strategic Services, an earlier version of the CIA.

When I visited Washington in 1983, I was told by a government employee that everyone working for the government was paranoid. This was also true in 1942. Louise learns that her loved college friend, Rachel Bloch, is in trouble in Vichy, France, the puppet government set up by the Nazis.

Jews are being arrested and sent by cattle cars to "work camps" in Germany. The message to her office concerns Rachel’s husband, who’s a skilled hydrographer. He promises to help the allies, if only his family can be evacuated out of France to safety. Bloch knows well the currents off the Mediterranean coast of Africa, where the Americans will soon be fighting the Nazis, and the U.S. very much needs this knowledge.

In the beginning of the book Louise feels quite powerless. She’s desperate to help Rachel, but what can she do and who in the Office of Strategic services is trustworthy? She finally takes the Bloch file to her boss, but then he dies and the file goes missing.

Gradually our shy, newly independent heroine gets braver. Her vivid imagination torments her as to what awaits Rachel and her child, if she’s left in France, and also reminds her of her own fate–prison?–should she be caught breaking the very strict OSS rules in her schemes to rescue Rachel.

Meantime, life goes on at Two Trees, the boarding house where Louise lives and where she meets Joe. She feels an electric attraction to Joe, which both thrills and terrifies her. She accepts a date with Joe and then learns he’s not the teacher he’s led her to believe. He’s leading a secret life. In fact, most of the people she meets are.

The D.C. political and government culture of the forties during the early phase of the war is as vivid as the homey details of the boarding house, where Dellaphine is cook and housekeeper and manages delicious meals, despite the rationing, even hand-made ice cream. The housekeeper’s daughter’s ambition to get a higher paying job working for the government is harder for Dellaphine to understand.

The backdrop for the whole book is humid heat–by day and by night–at work and at home. This is before air conditioning, or "refrigerated houses," as they were called, and only the very rich had them.

As Louise takes bolder and bolder risks, with men and with rule-breaking, to find the missing file and help her friend in France, I wanted to cheer, even while I held my breath.

Shaber knows her history, has made vivid exactly what Washington was like, from the big boys like FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, to the new independence and opportunities emerging slowly for women and Negroes. This is a fascinating read, a book to savor long after you’ve turned the last page.

Judy Hogan

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Gulping Courage


Marcel Proust in Finding Time Again, translated by Ian Patterson, p. 111, writes:
 For the true reality of a danger is perceived only in that new thing, irreducible to what one already knows, which we call an impression and which is often... summed up in a line, a line which contains the latent potentiality of its distorting fulfillment...

In That Inner Circling Sun XI, I wrote:

I wanted fame after my death, not before,
but time has ripened both me and my words.
My vision self is ready to show herself
more widely, to take new risks. If any one
thing is getting lost in our time, it is
integrity, being an integer, a whole,
knowing leaf to stem to root what one
believes, who one is, and practicing
always careful attendance on the Deep Source
of our human wisdom.

In That Inner Circling Sun XXVI, I wrote:

Oak trees have a quality
of being there–simply, quietly. Their
canopy protects, shades, delights.
Their roots undergird my house, and,
in their aging, they let go the limbs they
no longer need, that don’t enhance
their present, glorious well-being,
their unique and faithful, even modest,


More fears than ever in my life before,
but more calm certainty, too. I gulp
courage like fresh air. So far I breathe,
my blood circulates normally, my
body remains nearly as resilient as
in my youth, and my spirit is more
aggressive, determined, unwilling
to concede defeat to the fleabites
of prudence that might prevent me
from fulfilling my vocation. Maybe
this is the sacrifice Proust talked
about when you become willing,
even ardent, about living your own
life all the way to the end for the sake
of your life’s work.

Suppose one day
he did ask me to marry him. I wouldn’t
say no. I’d say, "It’s too late. We’re
already married. Didn’t you notice?"
The inconceivable does sometimes
occur, but only if we pay very close
attention. So I give my fears only
cursory attention. I won’t be foolish,
but life is all risk anyway, and the
closer I walk to my own death, the
greater the risk. Perhaps my body
feels obligated to remind me. I take
note, but I remember all the things,
people, books, poems, loves I gave
birth to because I treated my fears
like ground mist and kept walking.
A wise woman once said, "Your
next fifty years will be better, if you
don’t put a lid on yourself." Twenty-
five of those years have nearly
passed me by, but I still have
twenty-five more to live and write,
if I’m lucky, and if I don’t blanche
at obstacles and detours. I know
how to follow a crooked path,
how to reassure my own soul as
well as the souls of others. Perhaps
that, simply, is why I’m still here.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

If One Young Woman Finds My Words Help Her...

Jubilant sugar snap pea vines from last spring. 

THAT INNER CIRCLING SUN XXVII. By Century Creek. October 2, 2011
 In response to a comment on my blog, Mindi wrote: Judy, your poetry comforts me, grounds me, and encourages me to think that there is a little sanity left in this world. It feels softly contained, in the way that the day is contained by the mystery of the night. Being of a very small family, and having no grandparents after I turned 12, all my life I have wished for wise elders in my life. It just occurred to me that in the brief but important ways our lives have touched, you have become that to me: an elder I look up to, who lives a life I truly admire and aspire to, who represents something of what I’d like to be when I’m older. Earthy, poetic, compassionate, inspired, strong, zestfully honest. Thanks for your wisdom. Mindi

The cold makes a change. The roots
of the creek bank tree still hold its soil
in place, but the trunk leans across, dead,
lichen-covered, upper branches broken and
scattered. The water in the creek holds
still, except for where the sunlight hits the
surface, blue-grey, with orange shadows.
I sat here weekly for so many years,
memorized this creek and its slowly
dying tree. Now time, wind, relentless
rains have changed nearly everything.
I walked my woods, tying purple cloth
markers to find my way surefootedly
to the boundary trees, nailed up "no
trespassing" signs. My neighbor cleared
land a few feet away. Logs litter the
spaces. In my woods, trees have died
and fallen, but forest life flourishes.
I need these woods here, growing,
dying, for respite, comfort, wisdom
in my elder days. If only one young
woman finds my words help her, it’s
enough. Brain health, I read, is related
to exercise of mind and body, doing
new things, having good friends,
creating. Memory changes its speed
and rhythm, but words still flow
unbidden. Here among the litter of
leafmold and dead branches, moss
catches sun and turns the soil green.
Slender grasses root themselves
and nod to the wind. Maple and oak
saplings take root. I am rooted, too,
and waving my branches high where
the wind soughs and blows.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Writers' Police Academy

This is a photo of self-heal growing last spring in my herb garden--the big leaves near the bottom of the photo.  It makes a useful tea for colds and allergies.  I put it here to remind us that, in the natural world and in our human society, we have that which heals as well as that which destroys.


WRITERS’ POLICE ACADEMY.Last summer I impulsively signed up for the Writers’ Police Academy, directed by Lee Lofland, the author of Police Procedure and Investigation: A Guide for Writers. With a foreword by Stuart Kaminsky. Writer’s Digest Books. $19.99. ISBN: 978-1-58297-455-2. I belong to Sisters in Crime (SinC) and they were offering a scholarship. High Point (near Jamestown) is about sixty miles away, a possible commute for me. So I signed up: $145, including the banquet.

Most mysteries involve the police, and mine do. My series heroine, Penny Weaver, a mid-fifties American poet, falls for a Welsh policeman in book one. In the second book, she meets a local Sheriff’s Department detective when her landlord is murdered.

I’ve tried to learn about police procedures both in a North Carolina county and in Wales. I bought Lee’s book, and I corresponded by email with a Welsh detective a few years ago. But this promised to be the most helpful yet, and I enjoyed telling my friends and adult children, "I’m going to a police academy in September." Then I would say, "It’s for writers."

As the weekend drew near, I became more anxious. I reminded myself that, when I was about 40 and Chair of the small press organization COSMEP, I’d driven into downtown Philadelphia in the middle of the night, two sleeping children in the backseat, trying to find the friendly small press person who was putting us up for the night. I was anxious then, but this was worse. Age?

The police academy was held in Jamestown, at Guilford Technical Community College, where I’d never been. I got out maps. I googled directions. I wrote to Lee. A very kind librarian, Nancy Metzner, wrote back to call her cell phone if I got close and couldn’t find the Public Safety building. Lee and Nancy both emailed campus maps. I’d be coming back after dark and leaving in the dark both Friday and Saturday. We were to have rain all weekend, and the crime scene was "rain or shine," so I took my new rain jacket with hood, made sure the animals and chickens had what they needed, put extra clothes and some tunafish sandwiches in the truck for lunch and supper, and set off Friday morning at six.

I got lost for awhile near the college, but eventually I found the building, got registered, and chatted with other folks who’d commuted.

My first choice of the Friday morning workshops was the Crime Scene Investigation with Bill Lanning. Heavy rain began as we left the gazebo shelter to trudge uphill to the shallow grave site. My rain jacket was not waterproof. The manikin named Sonya’s body was mostly exposed. There were pieces of paper scattered around, receipts, a cigar butt thrown on top of her. She was covered by a tent, but we weren't.

Bill told us that digging a deep grave was too hard and time-consuming for most killers, so shallow graves were common. Also, even if the earth were smoothed off afterwards, the soft earth tends to sink and form a concave pattern. Some killers cut up bodies to save having to dig a grave. If wrapped in plastic (to hide odors) it doesn’t decompose as fast. If there are skeletal remains, often scattered by carrion-eating birds and animals, it’s very hard to identify the deceased. Flies can lay eggs in minutes. Ants also eat bodies.

Fortunately I did have a change of clothes in my pickup, but many folks, coming by bus from the hotel, were wet and cold the rest of the day. We got a dose of the difficulties police face.

Bio-terrorism. Dr. Denene Lofland (Lee Lofland’s wife).

Denene has been working for years in labs that supply information to the government, especially on drugs to counter the likely diseases that could be used to kill people, destroy food sources, water supplies, and to create fear. Compared to conventional and nuclear weapons, such weaponized germs are cheap to manufacture and distribute. Besides anthrax, which can be in water, food, or air, where it’s the most lethal, there is smallpox. Children haven’t been vaccinated against this for some time because it’s theoretically wiped out except for some labs in U.S. and Russia.

Other potential weapons are: salmonella, the plague (Black Death), staph, viruses, fungi, parasites, Q Fever. Not all kill everyone, but they can make you very sick for weeks, and most available vaccines against those threats go to the military. Many of these germs, e.g., the plague and anthrax, exist naturally in the wild. One quart of Botulism germs, which are created when canned vegetables spoil, could wipe out the whole population of the earth.

Handcuffing and Arrest Techniques.  Stan Lawthorne and Corp. Dee Jackson.

It’s very easy to buy handcuff keys, and criminals may hide them in pens, bullets, wear them on necklaces or even in their penises. Most cuffs used now are metal, but sometimes flex cuffs are used in arresting a lot of people at once. Don’t cuff a very dangerous suspect with hands in front, as, if he’s limber, he may be able to get out of them. Leg shackles were advised, but not hog-tying as they can die in custody if so tied and left face down. Now they lay them on their sides if they wear handcuffs and leg shackles.

Pepper spray and Tasers are used to subdue suspects if command presence and verbal instructions don’t work. Guns only if absolutely necessary. If suspects are high on cocaine or PCP, their hearts may explode from the Taser electrodes, since the drugs send the heart rate high. Such a drugged state is called "excited delirium," and the authorities have to get them medical attention as fast as possible.

Plaster Casting and Fingerprinting. Susan Powell.

If you have footprints or tire prints at a crime scene and you want to make casts, you can use dental stone, which sets fast. Then you look for the class characteristics, e.g., size, make, model, style, type of shoe or tire tread, as well as for individual characteristics: wear, cuts, microscopic debris picked up on them. Often emphasized by all the forensic instructors was: everywhere you go, you leave something and take something away with you. If the impression is in sand, Susan dampens the sand first and uses hair spray to firm it up.

In Fingerprinting I learned to dust with magnetic powder, lift fingerprints from a tile and from a glass jar with tape, and then release them onto a piece of paper or a film, examine them under a microscope for their type, sub-group, and individual characteristics. The three main types are arches, loops, and whorls. Most of mine were whorls with the bull’s eye formation. Each finger is different. Our basic fingerprints don’t change from womb to death. Not even identical twins have the same prints. You then enter as many characteristics as possible, ideally12-15, into the AFIS police computer system, and possible matches are returned, even from a partial. A Nazi War Criminal was convicted in recent years from his fingerprints on a 1944 postcard with the help of laser lights.

The Psychologist and the Sleuth. Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D.
Katherine gave a presentation to the whole academy. She has published forty books. She has articles regularly in the Sisters in Crime quarterly newsletter, In Sinc. She does psychological and legal investigations for parental fitness, sexual harassment, research competency, as well as consultation at crime scenes, death investigations, profiling, jury selection, and sentencing recommendations.

She does careful observation of suspects and others, reading body language, noticing micro expressions. She can list behaviors and traits, narrow down leads. What she does is not scientific. From a potential pool of suspects, she can give a high probability as to which one is the most likely. This is probability analysis or an educated hypothesis. Psychological autopsy is done after the crime is committed. She can develop a profile, using victimology, evidence of psychopathology, abnormal psychology, etc. She notices whether the murderer was organized or disorganized and can recognize the signs.

Psychological autopsies can settle criminal cases, ambiguous deaths, estate issues, malpractice, insurance claims. In solving murders, often the psychological elements are overlooked or treated superficially. She was present throughout the conference, always gracious. A real gift to have her with us.

Women in Law Enforcement. Sgt. Catherine Netter.
Catherine supervises a shift at a Guilford County jail. She also led the jail tour on Thursday night. She passed around her duty belt, without the gun, and we felt how heavy it was. Clothes are designed for men, so getting a shirt that fits comfortably and allows for boobs isn’t easy. That isn’t the only extra challenge police women face. Going to the bathroom involves more undressing than with men. She finds her male counterparts often worry she can’t back them up. But males on the street may underestimate her. 60% of police working in detention are women, who, generally, keep things quieter. The mothers of male inmates were often the family disciplinarians. If you’re attractive, your job is easier. She relies on her brain and her command presence. The word spreads if you’re good at subduing rowdy prisoners. 99% of running a prison is good communication. Ten men are compliant and respectful for every one who isn’t, and usually those have a history of domestic violence.

She ignores vulgar language. She’d rather work with males, and it’s an advantage to be black, as 90% of inmates are black. "The way you start is the way you end," she said.

The Role of Digital Evidence in Criminal Investigations. Lt. Josh Moulin, Task Force Commander of High Tech Crimes for Southern Oregon.
80% of the cyber crimes Josh investigates are child pornography and abuse cases. 45% of the men interested in child pornography have abused kids. This was perhaps the scariest thing I learned. The police sometimes find thousands of child pornography photos on one cell phone, computer, or other digital device.

This task force includes people from local, state, and federal (FBI, Homeland Security, ICE (Immigration and Customs)) organizations. A child abuser has an average of 13.5 victims, and most are not detected. They have a backlog of cases, but they give significant time to education, e.g., programs at middle schools.

Cell phones are often used for drug sales. They have a $20,000 machine that can crack passwords when they input biographical data. They can track emails, websites, even texting with cell phones.

It will get harder for them when people use more distance file saving, i.e., through cloud computing. He can get things from Facebook. There are people on Craig’s List setting up sex. Once they do have digital evidence, it stands up in court. They now have mental health resources to help them deal with this very difficult material.

Cold Cases. Dave Pauly, Sirchie Fingerprint Labs, and Dr. Katherine Ramsland.
In 1990 a group of forensic scientists started a cold case review group called the Vidocq Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Dave and Katherine are in it. For a case to be considered, it must be at least two years old, no longer being investigated, but have solvability. They meet monthly with the original investigation presented to them, and then they brainstorm.

Cases go cold for many reasons: administratively it may not have been considered important enough, there wasn’t enough personnel, or for socioeconomic reasons. Another reason is witness error because the witness provided only incomplete or misleading information. The investigator can screw up. If the suspect seems to have an alibi, that can throw them off. In fact, 97% of suspects are mentioned to the police in the first thirty days. There may be too much data or not enough evidence. The investigators sometimes conduct a poor interview. You should begin in a friendly way, but you must keep a certain distance. Gradually make the suspect more uncomfortable by allowing long silences, etc.

Usually the murderer is in some relationship to the victim. Cases get passed off or the investigator takes a new job. "We suck at communication," Dave said. "It makes a difference if someone cares and keeps pushing."

Women’s Personal Safety and Protection. Corp. Dee Jackson.
Dee was determined that we would learn to avoid situations that might prove dangerous, get fit, and deal effectively with potential aggressors. She made us chant: "We fight dirty to survive." She gave us handouts and we practiced three moves that would tend to disable someone approaching us who made us feel "icky." We practiced on rubber dummies. (1) Run up to him and hit him hard with our palms on his ears. (2) Run up to him, grab his head and knee him in the groin. (3) Run up to him and grab clothes, hair, head, and claw him down his face.

She had us run in place for one minute. Such a dangerous encounter usually takes three minutes. She said she’d die on the spot rather than let someone take her off and her family never see her again or know what happened. "This is 2011," she emphasized. "I want to read in the paper that you put someone in the hospital."

I’m going to do more exercises and be more careful. Dee praised me when I clawed that son of a bitch!

Banquet Speaker. Christopher Reich.
Reich’s newest book, Rules of Betrayal (2010) was on the New York Times Best Selling list. He had a job with a Swiss Bank. They had a visit from a U.S. investigator, urging them to be suspicious when large amounts of cash were deposited, transferred, or withdrawn. When the investigator left, their director told the employees, if they ever talked to that man, they’d be fired instantly, for that cash experience happened frequently.

Reich had never written a novel, but he told his new wife he was quitting his job to write it. He had literary agents fighting for it, but then he had to revise it many times. It made the New York Times list, but his second book did less well, so they wanted his huge six-figure cash advance back. He had spent it. He was given three months to write a new one. This idea came from meeting General Tommy Franks and hearing about the secret work he was doing in Iraq. That book had publishers competing and came out number three on the New York Times list.

His advice to us: Have faith in yourself and get yourself planted in your chair (what Elizabeth George calls "bum glue.").

Sunday Morning Panel to Debrief and Ask Questions about our WIPsExperts Present: Lee Lofland, Dave Pauly, Josh Mullen, Richard McMahan, Catherine Netter, Dee Jackson, Sandy Russell, Marco Conelli, Mary Grace Tomecki, his fiancee, who is Fire Commissioner in a Long Island community.
 McMahan described a reverse sting, where they set up a storefront undercover to buy drugs and firearms. They had fifteen cameras and many operatives there. They learned that guns had been stolen not far away, and they were brought right to them, and then they arrested the suspects.

Dave Pauly told more about the Vidocq Society. You can google "The Murder Room" to learn about it, and there may be a television program coming out about it soon.

Catherine admitted she found her work exhausting, mentally and physically. It’s aging her prematurely.

Dee told about the first man who ever hit her (it hasn’t happened again!) when she was military police in the Marine Corps. He was in the "excited delirium" state and came at them holding a door he’d wrenched off the hinges. He put the door down and punched Dee, breaking her nose. Her partner, who had climbed on the man’s back, yelled to her to help him. They even hit him with the door. He was finally subdued.

Mary Grace, who’s short and slender, told us how she deals with the four fire chiefs under her and all the men and women under them. "Go prepared. Don’t ever let anyone push you around. You have a moral obligation to do your job, hold your ground. [Dee threw in: "Never cry."], understand their needs, but never assume respect. You have to earn it."

I asked a WIP question about whether my Welsh detective could be used by a N.C. county sheriff’s department, and the answer was no, unless in some emergency, rule 15A405, which allows deputizing, or if he were an American citizen, properly trained and certified as a police officer.

Lee then asked: "Have we ruined your WIP?" I said, "Yes."

Some other women asked me afterwards what I was going to do. I said I’d think about it. Actually, I’m going to send Kenneth to my fictional county’s police academy. Lee confirmed by email this is possible. One thing he’d have to learn is to handle a gun.

There were some gun questions, and we learned that, because a gun is wet, it doesn’t mean it won’t fire, and also that the proper way to hold a gun in a situation where it’s needed, is to point it down, safety off, bullet in chamber.

Plain clothes police detectives also carry guns, handcuffs, pepper spray, and Tasers.


With another Guppy (the Great Unpublished Sub-Group of Sisters in Crime), Elaine Douts, I contributed most of the above to the Guppy Newsletter, First Draft, emailed to us October 1. I’ve had some days to write and think about my experience. I’m very glad I went. I can see new and interesting possibilities for my Kenneth character because he works as a regular deputy. A lot is more specific now, less vague. That’s sure to be a plus. I also plan to put a woman police person in my next novel, and thanks to Catherine Netter and Dee Jackson, I know a lot more about what that’s like.

On a personal level, I will be more aware of taking care of my personal safety and health. I’ll be adding some new exercises to my daily routine. I’m very glad I found the courage to drive myself to GTCC for the police weekend. Many of the harsh realities which the professionals deal with daily got through to me.

Dee emphasized: "This is 2011." She wanted us to live longer, be safer. She said, "People love you, care about you. I want you to be safe." I tell you what, if a man messes with me now, he’s looking to end up in the hospital!

Also at the academy, which is held yearly, people may be able to do the jail tour or a ride-along, with your name drawn out of a hat. There were more course options than I had time to take.  The High Point Public Library helped with local arrangements and registration. The college’s Criminal Justice Department, notably Sandra Neal, also helped out with local arrangements and made sure we found where we needed to go. Everyone was friendly and helpful. A police academy happens there on a regular basis. Our experts, and the 140 participants, many because of the Sisters In Crime scholarships, came from all over the country. Very worth doing! JH

September 22-25, 2011. Guilford Technical Community College, Jamestown, N.C.