Thursday, November 22, 2012

'Twas The Day After Thanksgiving

by Donna Pendergast

'Twas the day after Thanksgiving and all through the land
The shoppers were awake, the agenda was planned
The coffee was brewing, the tennies were laced
The stores would soon open, around the house they all raced

The stores were all decked out with flash holiday flair
with hope that the shoppers would soon buy their fare
And Mom with her coupons and dad with his cash
had compiled a list for the mad morning dash

When all of a sudden there arose such a clatter
Mall doors were now open, 'twas all that would matter
The crowd surged ahead in a frenzy quite crazy
Not a place for the weak and worse for the lazy.

Holiday lights in the window of a once simple store
gave the luster of magic to something quite plain before
When what to my wondering eyes should appear
But a runaway mob propelled from the rear.

Push forward, move faster, don't worry where you tread
Don't look back, don't falter, think bargains ahead
From outside the front door, for the length of the mall
Now dash away, dash away, dash away all.

Like leaves in the middle of a wild tornado fly
run for the shops, many presents to buy
Super special sale and bargains galore
but you need to move quickly and get through the door

Then in a twinkling, a voice on the mike
Door buster special, something you'll like
You need to get this deal, you need to buy more
But you better move fast, only five units per store."

So off to that aisle, shoppers flew in a flash
I'm going to get me one and save tons of cash
But I only can do it by fighting off the crowd
I need to be brazen, I musn't be cowed.
As boxes fly  into carts full of loot
get out of the way or I'll give you a boot
I need to get this deal, my kid needs this toy
And I'm on a mission to search and destroy
Don't you know it's Black Friday, only one thing to say?
Survival of the fittest is the order of the day
I'm going for the deals, I want only the best
I can't stop or falter, I can't take a rest.

Up and down the corridors, until plum out of steam
I got all my bargains, my haul is a dream
I'm done hitting stores from morning to night
Merry Christmas to all, you put up a good fight.

Black Friday is one of the most anticipated shopping days of the year for bargain-hunting shoppers. It's a time to hit the stores and officially launch the holiday shopping season. But criminals look forward to the shopping season for a very different reason. Based on experience I can tell you that they are hoping to take advantage and prey on shoppers. Be a smart shopper and heed these safety tips:

1. Avoid the ATM. Early Friday morning is no time to be hitting the money machine for a dose of cash. If you absolutely need to visit the ATM, be safe about it. Use a well-lit ATM inside an open establishment. Be especially mindful of anyone who appears to be watching you near an ATM. Also be aware of anything that seems unusual about the ATM machine itself. Criminals have become adept at rigging ATM machines to trap your card which they will extract from the rigged machine after you walk away. They can later use it by entering your pin number which they have learned by either watching you punch it in up close or watching from afar with binoculars.

2. Be Alert. Pay attention to surroundings and keep an eye out for any unusual activity. Park under lights and shop with a buddy. If you have to exit your car in a dark parking lot, wait for a crowd that is heading toward the store or mall as well.

3. Keep your purse close to your body and tightly shut. I have personally been the victim of a pickpocket who was so adroit that he was able to lift my wallet out of my purse while it was on my shoulder. I never felt a thing. Keep a tight leash on your purse and be alert in crowds and aware of persons bumping up against you. A neat tip for your purse if you are putting it in a shopping cart. Put it in the child seat area and lace the seatbelt straps through the purse handle and lock them. This prevents a thief from running by and grabbing it on the run.

4. Don't fight. Black Friday can bring out the worst in shoppers. A good deal is not worth a physical altercation.

Be safe out there tomorrow. Happy shopping, and remember, people. it's only stuff!  Today, think of what's really important and be thankful for what you already have.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Angel Killer: Deborah Blum Discusses Serial Stalker Albert Fish and eBook Publishing

by Deborah Blum

When first thinking that I might tell the story of Albert Fish – the cannibal killer who stalked New York City in the 1920s and '30s – all my friends advised against it. Did I really want to spend hours of my life with a subject this warped? “Call me if you if you really decide to write that book,” a long-time friend at NPR said. “So that I can talk you out of it.”

And yet the story haunted me. It tapped me on the shoulder when I was working on other projects. If you write for a living, you know what that means. I decided finally that I would write it but not as a full-length book.  So I pitched the shadowy, murderous path of Albert Fish as a long narrative story – an e-single – to the rising star digital publisher, The Atavist.

Last week, that story – titled Angel Killer – was the number-one selling non-fiction single on Amazon (number eight out of all Kindle singles). Partly, I think, because it’s just an incredible story of murder and detection and of scientists wrestling with their own definitions of justice regarding a madman. Partly, I hope, because I told it with style.

But also because this turned out to be just the right format for my story set in shadows.  I just participated in a panel on e-books at the National Association of ScienceWriters meeting in Raleigh, N.C.  I’m including a link to that session here because you can download a pdf there with all kinds of great information about e-publishing, from commissioned pieces like my own to self-publishing.

We talked about this newly wonderful opportunity to write a long-form story, a place where you could publish in the 10,000 to 20,000 word length (mine’s about 11,000) as opposed to a full-length book of 100,000 or more words. We talked about all the digital possibilities not available in print.  In the enhanced editions, for instance, Angel Killer contains video, audio (by me), music, interactive murder maps. We talked about what the future looks like for writers and publishers.

But here’s the thing. Every person on my panel agreed that in the end, it wasn’t the bells and whistles that made this most exciting. It was the story itself. And the opportunity to tell it a really good length, long enough to do it justice, but short enough to make it a fast read.  Which brings me back, of course, to the dark journey of Albert Fish and why I couldn’t quite let it go.

I’m not a writer who specializes in serial killers. I am a science writer who specializes in poisons and toxicology, so I do often tell stories that you might consider true crime. My book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, for instance, is subtitled “Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz-Age New York.” And it was because I spent so much time researching criminal justice in that time period, that I encountered the crimes of Albert Fish.

At first his story looks like that of many serial killers. White, male, poor and poorly educated, abused as a child, angry. He was born in 1870 in Washington, D.C. scraped out a living as a painter and handyman for most of this life in New York City. He was thin, gray, a shadow man drifting through the city streets. He stalked, he killed, and for well over a decade, he got away with it. One of the nicknames for him, after he became infamous, was the Gray Man.

But he was crazier than most. And, yes, it’s hard to argue with that description of a cannibalistic serial killer who sends recipe-infused letters to the families of his victims. I say that because he was delusional. He suffered from hallucinations, heard voices, believed that he followed the instructions of vengeful angels (hence the title of my story.)

And the question of his sanity was why I became so interested. During his 1935 trial, that was the most important, really the only question about his future. Was he crazy enough to escape the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison? The psychiatrists for the defense didn’t see it as escape. They saw a desperately mentally ill man who had become a successful killer. They wanted him locked away, studied, used to gain new understanding of multiple murders. The state of New York, though, just wanted him dead.

As a result, the trial provided one astonishing scene after another of psychiatrists facing off over a killer’s sanity. Even today, the testimony of some of the state experts – one scientist described Fish’s habits as “just a matter of taste” – is some of the most egregious on record. It was that extreme scientific testimony, the question of how we define sanity that first caught my attention.

But it was the ethical, moral dilemma that kept me interested. How should we deal with the dangerously crazy in the criminal justice system? Is there a best answer for what to do with a killer like Albert Fish once we’ve managed to catch him? One person wrote me to say engraving his name on a tombstone was a good enough result. But of the defense psychiatrists at the time likened executing an insane old man to witch burning in the Salem trials of long ago.

So, that’s why I wanted to tell the story of Albert Fish. I wanted to put myself – in the way writers do – on that wooden bench with the jurors and see if I could answer that question.  And did I find it? Some days I know exactly what I’d do. And on others the story still taps on my shoulder, letting me know that I’m still wrestling with the question. But that’s okay.  A good story should haunt you for a while anyway.