Meriah Lysistrata Crawford

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Yeah, so I'm a slacker

Or, as I like to think of it, busy being a productive member of society. Something like that, anyway. The bottom line is, I haven't posted in ages, but so much has happened in the interim that this is likely to be a darned exciting missive. Brace yourself.

I'm doing some volunteer stuff for my state PI and security association (PISA). I helped draft a letter requesting that the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services make some small changes to their application process. We want people to fess up if they've ever been involuntarily committed to a mental institution, for example, or whether they're subject to a restraining order when they apply for a PI or security officer registration. As it stands, neither situation prevents someone from getting a registration. Wacky, huh? Stay tuned for an update on whether or not they agree with the letter and make the changes we're requesting.

I'm also working on our annual conference, to be held March 30-April 1, 2007. I'm busy harassing people until they give in and agree to come and speak. So far, I've coerced some folks into doing training about defensive tactics, counter-surveillance, first aid and CPR/AED, forensic anthropology, and social networking sites, with much more to come. Stop on by if you're in the area:

I've also been prepping for next semester, and thinking about my adventures this past semester. One of the nifty techniques of interviewing I've learned as a PI is to ask someone you suspect of committing a misdeed what they think the punishment should be for that act. I tried that with the truly staggering amount of plagiarism that I encountered when I got my students' last set of papers. What I was taught is that someone who is guilty is more likely to say the wrongdoer should be given a second chance, or to suggest a very mild punishment. When I asked my first class the question, however, the answers didn't really seem to correlate. After pondering this for a while, I decided the answers the students gave were more likely to be reflections of their own personalities, and of their level of confidence as writers, than of guilt. I also discovered, to my great surprise, that many students didn't really know what plagiarism was. We spent a good bit of time on it. In the end I told them, basically, don't try to paraphrase. Many of them didn't understand how to do it right, and teaching them to do it in an appropriaye way would have taken a week or two, at least.

I've learned a lot on the PI side, as well, these last few months. I've been doing a lot of interviewing, primarily for background investigations. One of the great joys of being a PI is meeting and learning about people and ways of life I would normally never encounter. Though these are only brief glimpses, it gives me a richer understanding of the world I live in, and I trust it will make me a better writer, and a better person in general. And I am very, very rarely bored.

Hasta luego,

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The joys of freshman comp

Hi folks,

OK, not a lot going on lately. A little fraud, some class action, a soupçon of debtor harassment. Yes, it’s an exciting life.

On the teaching front, it’s a bit more lively. I’ve been noting, with interest, the differences between my three classes. All are English 101, and one might reasonably expect a certain homogeneity – but one would be oh, so wrong. My second class, starting at 5:30, has the most people who are older than the typical college age. It also has the most people who work. They seem slightly more focused and driven than the others, though it’s still early days. The third class, though…it’s one of the last two sections of English 101 added, and it starts at 7 p.m. Given how many of them have 8 a.m. classes, one can safely assume many are in the class because it was all they could sneak into at the last minute.

What does this lack of planning, or late entry mean? Well, they’re a lively bunch. Several students have trouble with arriving on time (more than half the class was late today), and I’m seeing more absences than in my other classes. And they have a certain fondness for their cell phones. Grrrr. I sent an e-mail to the dean just yesterday requesting permission to institute corporal punishment for this class only. I expect a good flogging or three will help turn things around. I can’t imagine he’ll object.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

How low can you go?

One of my early-career revelations about being a private investigator is that it’s not hard to excel. Why? The field is filled with slackers and idiots. Mind you, there are also a significant number of highly intelligent, hard working, dedicated professionals out there, but I’d actually say they’re probably in the minority. What am I basing this on? Well, I’ve worked with some of the best, and some of the worst. And I also teach PIs, as I’ve mentioned before. Most of the people I teach probably never do an hour of work. Heck, maybe 90 percent of them never do. Maybe more.

Part of that is because of the way Virginia’s regulations are designed. In addition to getting registered as a PI, which is fairly simple and fairly cheap, if you want to work on your own you need to have a compliance agent (another class, another test, and $100 – but you need a certain amount of experience to even get into the class), and you need a business license. The business license requires a fairly steep fee, plus insurance – totaling about $2000 in total. Most people, even if they qualify, won’t go that far. A lot of people seem to think that all they need to do is get registered, and the work will come. (And that is SO not true.) People ask me in class, what does it take to make a living as a PI? My answer: you have to work very hard at marketing yourself. Most people just can’t or won’t do it.

The other way to work as a PI in Virginia is to become an employee of either a lawyer or of someone else who has a business license. (Keep in mind, I’m simplifying here.) People who do that usually get paid squat. I know of companies that pay as little as $15 an hour (and you can probably find someone in VA who would pay you less), and that’s using your own car. These types of jobs generally don’t come with much in the way of training. So what you’ve got is a client paying $55 to $100 or more an hour (on the high end of the scale in large cities and Northern VA), and getting a poorly-trained kid doing $15 an hour work.

Let me tell you a story. I saw a post to a mailing list I’m on where a guy needed someone to do four days of surveillance on a warehouse. It was about an hour and a half away from where I live, but it was enough hours that I was willing to go that far, so I sent an e-mail saying I could do it. The guy wrote back and said he found someone to do three of the days, but needed someone for the fourth. OK, good. I got the info, and on that day I went to the location, got there early to scope it out and find a good place to watch from, and got myself settled in. I found a sweet spot: parked along a hedge in an empty parking lot diagonally across the street. I was under a tree for shade, put up sun screens in the front and back windows, and climbed into the back seat. I put a screen up on the window to the side, so I was virtually invisible to the place I was watching. I set up my camera gear and notebook, and I was all set – right on time. So far so good.

But then, twelve minutes past the start time, a minivan pulled into the lot I was in. The guy drove by me, glanced at my car, and then pulled into a parking spot directly across from the front door of the target, his car parked nose out. The guy then proceeded to sit in his front seat with a huge pair of binoculars, and stare directly at the building. I gaped at him in amazement. This kid – and he looked like he might be a college student doing a little work on the side, assuming he was clever enough to be a college student – was completely visible to me, to the people across the street, and to anyone driving down the road. I sat and watched him for a couple minutes to make sure he was staying, and put in a call to my client. I left a message explaining the situation, and sat and waited.

Fifteen minutes later, the kid still in the same highly-visible position, my cell phone vibrated. (Surveillance tip: keep your cell on vibrate – people can hear the ringer from outside the car.) We chatted, and I said he was still there, and clearly hadn’t noticed me. The client had no way of reaching the kid. So of course, I did the only thing I could do. I offered to check with him and make sure that was why he was there, and then go. But of course, I would have to charge for some of my time. I also made damn sure he was clear just what I was seeing and how obvious it was.

After I got off the phone, I pulled the screens down, climbed into the front seat, and drove over alongside the minivan. I asked if he worked for the Dumbass Investigative Agency (name changed to protect the stupid), and he stared at me with his eyes wide, and said yes. Personally, I think I’d have denied it. And maybe I should have tried to send him packing and done the work myself. But it just seemed like a good situation to get myself out of, and I was certainly glad not to be associated with that company in any way.
So, the moral of this story is…if you want a competent PI, get a referral. And get one from someone who can actually attest to the work of the individual who will be doing it.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Yummy Dirt

I remember learning in PI class that a good source of information (of the yummy, negative kind) is ex-girl/boyfriends and ex-spouses. And that made sense to me. I even heard stories about it from a friend who’s a retired federal agent. For example, they solved a cold case – a murder, no less – by going back and interviewing a woman who, at the time, had been the suspect’s girlfriend. Well, as luck would have it, they’d broken up by then – more than a decade later – and boy was she pissed. So much for the suspect’s alibi. Good for them. Cool story idea, I thought, and filed it away for later use – though the whole “hell hath no fury” angle has been used once or twice before.

But then it happened to me. I was investigating a guy a couple years ago, and really didn’t expect to find a whole lot. Most people, even if they’re complete scum, manage to stay off the radar. I mean, think about it: how many times does the average person exceed the speed limit before getting a ticket? How many times does the average junkie score drugs before they get caught? If it was that hard to do, there wouldn’t be any junkies – or prostitutes, or muggers, or child abusers, etc. But this guy…the more I dug, the more I found.

In spite of that, though, it wasn’t until I spoke with his wife (who was supposed to be his ex-wife but, oops, he’d forgotten to get a divorce before moving on) that I really began to appreciate what kind of person he was. And it wasn’t until I heard her voice, her pain, her stress, that I appreciated what kind of hell a man like that could put someone through. She wasn’t stupid or naïve, either. He’d just been that good a con man. And it wasn’t like she, or the other mothers of his children, could just shrug and move on.

Someday, that case will show up in a novel of mine, in some form. It was a doozy. The bad guy? Last I heard of him, he was in a jail in Virginia – with a little help from me. Here’s hoping he’s still there.

Friday, August 11, 2006

I just worked the coolest case...

Part of my plan when I created this blog was to write about my work. Thing is, when I actually sat down to do it, I realized I can't talk about most of my work, except in generalities. If you're sitting in one of my classes (I teach PIs at Central Training Academy in Chantilly, VA), you may hear a few more details, but there's no way I'm putting it in writing for all the world to see. And the generalities, while interesting, are more of a tease than anything else. Sorry. But if anyone has questions about being a PI, I'm happy to answer.

Anyway, since I wrote last, I graduated from the Stonecoast MFA program. Maine was too hot, but I had a blast spending time with people I've come to be good friends with over the last two years. For more on Stonecoast, check Patrick Bagley's blog. Graduating seems rather anti-climactic, on the whole. But I've come away with more than just a small piece of paper in a blue folder. I learned a great deal about writing, and my work has improved by it. Now, if only I could get off my ass and publish some of it...(Most of my work went into two novels, neither of which are quite finished yet.)

I'm also very involved with my state PI and security association, PISA. I'm working on some legislative issues this year. One of them is a law that would make the penalties for assaulting or killing a security officer more severe. I'm basing my work on a new law recently passed in Florida, where they know, along with Louisiana, the value of private security--more so than the rest of the country. (Lucky us!) What the law actually does is make the penalties the same as for assaulting or killing a police officer. Some folks think the police will be opposed to this, but emergency medical personnel, for example, are also currently included in the law. We'll see how that goes.

Most states have PI associations, and I expect many of them are as open and welcoming as PISA is. We have members who are novelists, and guests are welcome at any meeting as well. Meetings often have really interesting speakers. A month ago, we had a bomb detector dog and handler team. A month before that, a bail bondsman spoke about his work. I learned a ton from both of them. (And had a great time talking to Mayhem, the bomb detector dog.) It was interesting to hear about how they train detector dogs. With drug detection, the dog may shove his nose into a bag, bark, jump up and down, etc. But with bomb detection, movement can trigger an explosion. Dogs are taught to stop and sit, usually, when they smell something. And their senses of smell are quite amazing--they still do a better job than the machines that can do a certain amount of bomb detection. If you'd like more info about bomb detector dogs, check out these articles.

Unfortunately, though, there are apparently some dogs working that haven't been trained properly, or handlers who aren't working correctly with the dogs. There are new regulations coming, both in VA and at the federal level, to try to fix that.

OK, back to work.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Random notes

A bunch of lunatics in Virginia (surprise, surprise!) proclaimed recently that Thomas Jefferson “feigned belief in God to achieve his own political ends and came to sever Jesus Christ from his divinity.” It’s no revelation that some Christians are opposed to religious freedom – except for Christianity, that is, but the notion that keeping religion out of government is anti-Christian, and anti-God has become more common in recent years, and it’s a frightening notion. It threatens the religious freedom that this country was founded on. Given how many people are already comfortable with the notion of tossing out the first amendment and embracing torture, it’s not a good sign.

Something I learned while perusing Encarta today: No nobility exists in the United States. Article I, Section 9, of the Constitution of the United States specifies that no title of nobility shall be granted by the United States, and in addition it forbids any person holding government office from accepting any such title from a foreign ruler without the express consent of Congress. A private American citizen who accepts a title of nobility automatically resigns his or her citizenship.

This is a particularly harsh blow, as I had harbored dreams of someday being made a duchess. Dang.

Here’s a fun quiz to test your knowledge of the first lines of “great” novels. I got 11 out of 13. Can you beat me?

And another quiz:

Three words that should never be used in fiction: sphincter, scrotum, preternatural.

Happy Days…

Monday, February 21, 2005

What is this thing called blogging, Jim?

I was vehemently anti-blog until just recently. I'm not sure what made me change my mind, but I'm going to blame the medication. Yeah, that Ibuprofen sure is some wicked stuff, man.

Anyway, just back from a weekend writing retreat. A casual affair involving six people from a NoVA writing group called the Cat Vacuuming Society. (Note: No actual cats are harmed in this endeavor.) Got a big ol' pile of writing done and, though I haven't actually gone back and read any of it to make sure it isn't crap, I'm quite happy with my progress. Our retreat was in the foothills of those mountains along the western border with West Virginia, whatever they are, and I got to sit and stare out the window at horses grazing on a distant hill in between writing brilliant short stories, playing spider solitaire, and eating Shrek M&Ms. It just doesn't get any better. (God help me if that's true, but it was pretty durn cool.)

Virginia, meanwhile, is gray, and I have an invoice to work on, as well as homework and actual work, of the paying variety. Isn't that novel?

Bon soir,