Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Goodbye. Have a great year. Carry your cell phone.

Goodbye. Have a Great Year. Carry Your Cell Phone.

My youngest niece has left for college. Kate is bright, beautiful, and enthusiastic about this new adventure. I’ve had a flurry of excited e-mails with pictures of her dorm room. She loves her classes. Her roommates are great. She calls to ask if I can order a book from Amazon and rush it to her when the school bookstore doesn’t have it. She e-mails to say she’s made the cheerleading team.

I’m so happy for her, this strong and agile young woman who wants to help others train to achieve their full athletic potential, and thrilled that she wants to share this with me. Yet my pleasure is tinged with sadness. I wish my sister, the mother who loved her so much, could be the recipient of those messages.

My sister Sara has been gone for ten years. I’m not sure what I believe about the afterlife, but I do know that sometimes I feel her spirit’s restless stirrings. Sara was a ruthless and incisive iconoclast, so usually she’s around to tweak my ego. Right now, though, she’s restless for a very different reason. Sara was hypervigilant about her children’s safety; now her daughter is embarking on an adventure that is full of wonder and promise, and fraught with danger.

Recently, I spent 2 ½ years researching and writing a book about a young woman’s murder. Amy St. Laurent was smart and lovely woman who believed in people’s essential goodness. She was also sensible, self-confident, and risk averse. She was forthright about keeping herself safe. She carried mace in her purse. She didn’t hesitate to leave uncomfortable situations or challenge those who made her feel unsafe. Yet one misstep put her in the hands of a charming predator without her cell phone, and within hours, Amy was dead.

We all want our children to believe that the world is a good place. We want them to feel safe, to be able to trust people, and to live their lives without looking over their shoulders. We also want them to be safe. To do that, they have to take responsibility for their own safety.

At every book talk I’ve given for Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine, mothers, grandmothers, and aunts have thanked me for writing the book and asked for advice to keep their loved ones safe. With the help of Lisa Beecher, police chief at the University of Southern Maine and others, my co-writer, Portland Deputy Chief Joseph Loughlin and I developed a list of safety tips for young women to help them avoid being a victim.

The last thing Amy St. Laurent’s mother heard from her daughter was “I love you, Mom,” at the end of a phone call. Tell your daughters, your granddaughters, your nieces or your friends that you love them and want them to stay safe. Please print out these tips and send them to the ones you love. Please call them and insist that they carry their cell phones and keep them charged.

· Statistics show that most sexual assaults involve alcohol and drugs. Ingestion of even a small amount can alter your perceptions and lower your defenses. Avoid excessive use of these substances.

· Trust your instincts. If a situation makes you feel uneasy, leave.

· If you go to a club or party, go with friends. Have an understanding that you will watch out for each other.

· Never leave your drink unattended. It only takes a few seconds for someone to add a debilitating substance, commonly known as a date rape drug, to your beverage.

· Never accept a drink from someone you don’t know well. Bartenders and waitpersons are the only strangers you should accept a drink from.

· Never drink anything that looks or smells strange.

· Avoid drinking from punch bowls.

· If you feel very drunk after having only a small amount of alcohol, don’t take any chances. Tell your friend, the bartender, or waitperson that you think you may have been drugged.

· Women are often conditioned to be "nice," trusting and to spare other people’s feelings. If someone is interested in you and you don’t feel the same way, be straightforward. Don’t make excuses or try to spare their feelings. Just tell them you are not interested.

· Be cautious about giving out your personal information or that of others. The less information a stranger or casual acquaintance has about you, the better your chances of not becoming a victim.

· If you think you are being stalked, contact local law enforcement immediately.

· People are not always honest about themselves. Always keep this in mind.

· Don’t get into a vehicle with someone you don’t know well, because you become a prisoner if that person has negative intentions.

· If you suspect that you or someone else has ingested a date rape drug or sedative-like substance, get help immediately. Call 911 or have a friend help you get to a hospital. Tell medical staff what you suspect, so the appropriate tests and samples can be taken for evidence purposes and proper treatment. Date rape drugs do not stay in the body for long and delay may mean the loss of valuable evidence.

· If you a partying at a private location, remember that video cameras or tape recorders may be set up and operating even if you can’t see them.

· Don’t hesitate to call the police for help. Don’t feel you would be bothering them, or that your situation is not serious enough. They would much rather prevent a tragedy than respond to one.

· Keep your cell phone charged and keep it with you.

I just learned that my niece does not have a cell phone. We are going to take care of that today.

(Note: for tips about internet safety, go to www.findingamy.com and follow the links)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Pen Noir goes lighter

I'm not a natural blogger. The idea of "chatting" instead of getting my work done shocks my disciplined Yankee soul to its core. I've got books to write, right? Plots to plan, characters to dream up, settings to investigate and research, scads and scads of research to do.

That, of course, is where the noirish pen goes light. Because for my next book I have to learn all about handbags. Handbags, you know...purses, those accessories which range from the teeny weenie all the way up to things that look like you could keep two or three small dogs inside and still have room for makeup, comb, notebook, and a delicate little ladylike handgun.

I am normally not enthused about purses. I had one I liked. It wore out. I replaced it with one that is unsatisfactory but I haven't had the ertia to find another. In the name of research, though, I will travel far and learn much. I have done so to learn about adoption (Chosen for Death), to learn about militia groups (Liberty or Death), and to learn about police procedure(Playing God). I've even shot a handgun. (See Gary Mehalik photo of me learning to shoot.) So if an interesting character presents herself and wants to chat about purses, what the heck? I will learn about purses so I'll know what she's talking about, and so I can see the world through her eyes as she walks down the street or travels through a Mall. What does she spot and what does it tell her?

It turns out that most people are interested. I happened to mention the plot for the new book to Mary Smith at Five Star, and she told me a wonderful long story about the sister of a friend who knows just the right places to go and people to see in New York. She keeps their business cards, knows which street corners they hang out on. She comes to town with a list and goes out and bags those bags. Sometimes she even calls up and orders by phone. Within minutes, this paragon of purses has been tracked down and I have an e-mail on my desk with her contact information. I can hardly wait to start increasing my store of purse lore.

Mary Smith is only the first. A few nights later, I attend a focus group for clients of a particular investment firm. As we sit around in the reception area, waiting for our group to be called, I start talking to the woman sitting beside me. It turns out that she has been sent by the research angels solely for my edification. This woman owns a boutique that sells shoes and elegant accessories. She used to design her own line of handbags. She has stories GALORE about visiting the studios of high-end designers in New York. Stories of bags stolen and sold out the back doors of production facilities. Stories of who is hot and who is not. She promises to save me accessory catalogues to help with my research. So that her name and number will linger in my tired old brain (currently suffering from a shortage of nouns), she hands me a bright neon nailfile.

Even I, with my dysfunctional purse and a deficit of nouns, can't lose a neon nailfile.

Brother-in-Crime Jeremiah Healy is married to a woman who used to be a handbag buyer for Filene's. When we meet at Five Star's lobster lunch I leave with his wife's e-mail and phone number. Once again I am reminded of people's kindness and generosity to writers doing research.

I have the addresses of two buildings in New York City which are the handbag capitol of the world.

I can hardly wait to get started.

Research on-line suggests a dark link between knockoff purses and funds for terrorism. What could be cooler than that, if you're plotting a mystery? Who knows where all this will lead?

If you're a purse lover, and you have a story to tell, please share it.