Monday, November 21, 2011

Write Your Own Story

Kevin Coolidge

Once upon a time? No, too cliché. It was a dark and stormy night? It really wasn’t. It was the best of times; it was the worse of times. Already taken, and what does that even mean? Have you ever wanted to write your own story, but wondered where to begin? Getting started can be the hardest part, and Write Your Own Story Book by Usborne Books is a fun activity book full of writing tips, techniques, and methods. It’s just the thing to help a young aspiring writer stop procrastinating and start writing.

The first half of Write Your Own Story contains explanations and prompts for the important elements of the story process. A story is only as strong as its characters, and what better place to begin? There are basic character and setting suggestions, along with helpful activities to come up with story lines, and writing from different points of view. A great story needs a great start. Your main character might set out on a journey, find a treasure map, or run away from home, but something must happen to get the action going. In Write Your Own Story, there’s even space to write it all down.

Every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an ending. It’s your basic story arc, but a great way for a novice to think of it is a mountain. You have the Beginning where you introduce the characters and setting, the Build-up, where something happens to the character to start the action, the Problem, where something goes wrong, the Resolution, where the problem is resolved, and the End, where you threads are tied up. A character can face many problems, and your story may have several peaks. You may want to write an outline first.

The second half of Write Your Own Story has lots of tips to help plan your stories and develop writing skills. Having a great title can lead to a fantastic start. A title can be funny, mysterious, or intriguing, but it should make people curious to read your story.
Your imagination is one of your strongest tools, and there are questions to help you focus that creativity.

When it comes to writing, it’s not enough to have fun characters, an action-packed plot, or an exotic setting. The words you use to describe them make a big difference. Think of interesting adjectives and verbs. Whenever you see a word you don’t understand, look it up in a dictionary and use it in your writing.

Writing is the best way to improve your writing. You could keep a diary, or keep a notebook with you so you can write an idea when it comes to you. Talk to people you have never talked to before, write about something you are passionate about, read a lot, and write about the book you read. Ask people to read your stories, and tell you what they think of them—the good and the bad. Most importantly, you must write.

Great writers aren’t born with a pen in their hand. You must decide to put ink to paper. Writing stories, like any skill, is something you get better at the more you do it. So grab some pencils, an eraser, dictionaries (or maybe a thesaurus), and scrap paper to scribble and plan your stories. Fire up your brain, percolate some ideas, and most importantly, engage your imagination. Keep on reading. Keep on writing…

To write? Or to read? Why not both? Comment and let me know! If you want to be the hero of your own story, sometimes you have to write it. My cat did just that, check out his children’s book “Hobo Finds A Home”

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Dogs of War

"Cry, 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war.” Julius Caesar", Act III, scene i.

His ears twitched. One of the soldiers whispered, “Geronimo.” He’d heard that word before, during the intensive training sessions of the last few weeks. Unlike other military dogs trained to sniff out drugs or explosives, he was a specialized search dog known as a combat tracker, who could sniff out a piece of clothing and then find the person it belonged to, even if the scent was several days old.

The humans grew quiet. Cairo sat at attention trying to decipher the emotions of his comrades. His handler placed his hands around his K9 Storm Intruder vest, a canine bulletproof flak jacket, and shook. Nothing loose, no sound to alert the inhabitants of the compound. Cairo and the members of Navy SEAL Team 6 were ready…

You’ve probably heard about Cairo, the Belgian Shepherd. He’s a member of the elite task force that stormed the hiding place of Osama bin Laden. Military working dogs have been part of the American armed forces since the 1830s, being used to track Native Americans and runaway slaves during the Seminole Wars.

So what exactly do these canines do, and how do they learn to sniff out bombs and bad guys? Are they all trained to do what Cairo did? The Dogs of War, written by Lisa Rogak, answers these questions and many more. She writes about the contributions and achievements of the military working dog around the world, and how Cairo is just one example of the thousands of loyal and highly trained dogs that protect our armed forces throughout the world.

You’ll learn how the military acquires the dogs that enter the various training programs, and the different kinds of jobs that canines perform in the military. Lisa also delves into the long and heroic history of dogs serving on the battlefield. In fact, it’s believed that the Egyptians used them in battle as early as 4000 B.C. In ancient Rome, there are references to armor-clad canines, and in the Middle Ages, soldiers trained dogs to carry fire on their backs, run into enemy camps, and shake off the fire.

You’ll read about the military veterinarians who have treated them since World War Two—America’s canine troops first served in great numbers during that conflict—both under the harsh conditions of the front lines, and in the latest high-tech facilities rivaling human soldiers.

There are funny and heartwarming stories too. There’s the tale of Rex, a Vietnam-era dog that was to be euthanized, because he had recently lost thirteen pounds and could no longer bite, an important part of a sentry dog’s job description. The diagnosis was kidney failure, but his handler thought he had lost so much weight because his teeth were hurting.

His roommate was an Air Force dentist, and he found two fractured canines inside Rex’s mouth. The dentist started a covert operation, as the orders were to put the dog to sleep. He performed two root canals, and procured two troy ounces of gold for the crowns by using Rex’s actual service number. Shortly after, Rex returned to duty, which was the only thing that kept the dentist out of Leavenworth, for going against direct orders.

Scattered throughout the book are the stories of special dogs and handlers who have gone beyond the call of duty—such as Robert Hartsock and Duke. Hartsock holds the distinction of being the only dog handler in U.S. military history to be awarded the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of his fellow soldiers, both human and canine.

The Dogs of War offers a glimpse into the lives that these special dogs lead, from pup to retirement. There’s even an index with organizations and associations that help retired military working dogs find good homes. You'll see that Cairo, while highly trained, was only one of many. One dog in an incredible program that includes thousands of loyal, brave four-legged soldiers…

This column is dedicated to all veterans. Those brave souls who have served with courage, love and loyalty. You may be gone, but never forgotten.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Ghost Hunting for Beginners

Kevin Coolidge

It’s dark and it’s late. The soft glow from my camcorder gives me little comfort. I’ve been here for hours. I should call it a night, but I might not get another chance. The owner is hesitant for me to find evidence of a haunting. He doesn’t believe that anyone would pay good money to stay in a bed and breakfast that is haunted. He hasn’t experienced the terrifying and life-changing event that can come after contact with the spirit realm.

Professional ghost hunter Rich Newman knows the thrill of brushing up against the unknown, and with a little research, reading, and patience, you can too. In his book, Ghost Hunting for Beginners, he shares proven scientific methods, low-tech approaches, and the latest technology used by the professionals.

What are ghosts? Every culture, every religion, every country has these spectral entities. Are these once-living human beings lingering upon the earth, or are they just memories recorded upon the fabric of space and time that some can see and others cannot? Whatever they may be, a basic tenant of ghost hunting is that we don’t need to fear ghosts, and that we can scientifically research them.

You’ll learn what ghosts are, why hauntings occur, the different types of supernatural phenomena, and the importance of conducting responsible investigations. The book is interspersed with true accounts of historic cases—such as the Bell Witch poltergeist. There are also helpful hints, tips, and the seasoned insights that come with over a decade of fieldwork.

The lone individual can become a ghost hunter, but it is much more effective and fun when investigations are worked as a team. Deciding whom to take along on your ghostly adventures might be one of the most important decisions. Trust is implicit. If a team member tells of a full-bodied apparition appearing, there should be no doubt that it is true.

I opt to keep my team small. There’s less chance to contaminate the audio/video footage, and I can keep track of everyone. I have one male and one female, because certain entities have an easier time responding to a certain gender, and it’s crucial to be able to try different approaches.

If you wish to create a larger network, there’s information on the various types of paranormal groups, as well as advice for interacting with ghosts, how to gather and examine evidence, and how to document your investigation. Newman’s book also gives good advice as what NOT to do when seeking spirits.

Rich Newman has been investigating the paranormal for more than ten years and is the founder of Paranormal Inc. Paranormal Inc. is a group that investigates all aspects of the paranormal, specializing in fact-based (not faith-based or psi-based) techniques. Paranormal Inc. does not charge for investigations and always shares the findings with their clients. They may be contacted via email at

I check my watch, and scan the darkness. The owner hopes the report comes back negative, but a true paranormal researcher is always a little skeptical. That rattle? Just the icemaker in the kitchen. The soft ticking? The sound the heater makes, before it kicks on. A smell of lilac drifting through the air? I have no idea. It wasn’t there a minute ago. The team never wears scents to an investigation. There, in the back corner! Is that a woman in a hoop skirt? Swiftly I bring up the camera, but the display is dark. Damn batteries…

Normal? Or Paranormal? Email me and let me know. Miss a past column? Check out past columns at Want a book with no ghosts or goblins, just a friendly cat? Then get “Hobo Finds A Home” a children’s book about a cat who wanted more than just a life on the farm.

Gas Drilling & the Fracking of a Marriage

During the last year or so, all you had to do was mention “gas drilling” or “fracking” to anyone in the Potter, Bradford, or Tioga County region of Pennsylvania, and you’d be sure to get an earful. Everyone in the area has experiences, opinions, ideas, and concerns about the fact that we live smack-dab in the middle of the Marcellus Shale. “Marcellus Shale” refers to the geological formation from which energy companies are aggressively seeking to extract natural gas. The formation extends from the Catskills in New York, south and west through Pennsylvania, into West Virginia and Ohio.

What makes Stephanie Hamel’s experiences with gas drilling any different from yours or mine? In many ways, nothing – except she decided to take hers public. Hamel’s book, Gas Drilling and the Fracking of a Marriage, is a gift to all of us. In honest, thoughtful, bittersweet reflections, Stephanie shares the struggle she and her family went through, from September 2008, when they were offered a gas lease on their family land, until the book went to press in spring of 2011.

In many ways, Stephanie Hamel’s situation is no different from the story of most people living in the Marcellus Shale region. Stephanie is a wife who is concerned about the current threat to her husband’s job, a mother of two young boys, a landowner who would like to be able to put more money into her dreams for the land. Hamel, however, also has the training that gives her a special perspective on the environmental concerns at play here. Stephanie – that is, Dr. Hamel – earned her B.S. in Chemistry from Grove City College; her M.S. in Chemistry from Lehigh University; and a Joint Ph.D. in “Exposure Assessment” from Rutgers University and the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. She has also done post-graduate research in the Department of Plant Sciences at Rutgers. She is a chemist who loves soil, the land, and people. She has studied extensively about the chemicals we use and the effects they have on our bodies.

Though Hamel’s background as a scientist and a researcher give her a distinctly more academic approach to looking at a problem, she nevertheless decided to write this book from a very personal viewpoint.

As Stephanie explains in her “Notes and Disclaimers” at the beginning of her book, “This is a true story, written first in diary form and in notes taken during telephone conversations… [it] reflects a developing knowledge of the natural gas industry and the legalities associated with land ownership and gas leasing.”

The story opens with Stephanie’s email to her friend, Frank, a colleague from Rutgers who works with the DEP in New Jersey, whose background is hydrogeology. Despite distractions from busy little boys, loads of laundry, this first email outlines the Hamel family’s situation in September 2008 quite succinctly:

“… Two weeks ago, Tom and I were offered $2,500 an acre to lease our natural gas rights up in Wellsboro. The whole of northern PA is singing the Hallelujah Chorus because there is gas under our land, and it is now economically feasible to drill. There is a well within 0.50 miles of my property and I listened to the drilling during my quiet, reflective time – HA! – this summer; there are two more wells within a two mile radius.

"Everyone in the area is seeing dollar signs and is signing up as fast as the lease agreement arrives on the doorstep. Tom Hamel has the unfortunate luck of being married to the only one who regards this windfall as a curse. Frank, it is very easy for me to criticize unrestrained fossil fuel consumption, but it is much more challenging to put my money where my mouth is when a large sum of money is at stake….”

One thing I love about Stephanie is that she doesn’t shirk from discussing the hard truths of our own inherent contradictions, when we strive to be both stewards and consumers; activists with principles, yet humans with wants and needs. Stephanie has both a wry sense of humor and a critical eye on her own hypocrisy. One of my favorite scenes showing Stephanie’s humor is her example of the gas grill she proudly rescued from the landfill. For a few dollars, she fixed the bad burner, pleased to reduce, reuse, recycle – that is, until she walked out on her back porch after writing, and recognized with shock what powered that grill.

Hamel writes with clarity and acute self-awareness about the acronym that all people working in the environmental field learn – NIMBY, “Not In My Backyard”. We all understand the need for finding more energy, having a landfill, building a new highway: we just want it to happen somewhere else.

As the book unfolds, there are times that you, the reader, may be as frustrated with Stephanie’s analyzing as her husband is; where you may be as confused by Stephanie’s circuitous thoughts as Stephanie herself is. There are certainly times when you may want to shout, “Just get on with it! Decide!” You may be tempted to skip to the end to find out what the Hamels ultimately decided. Don’t do it. Life is not lived that way. Hard decisions are made the way Stephanie writes about this. Experience this journey with her, even if you have already experienced it in your own home, on your own land. If you have already struggled with this, you’ll find validation. If you haven’t, you’ll find sympathy and a better understanding for your neighbors who are dealing with.

Let other books about gas drilling be for angry recriminations, for stirring up self-righteousness on one side of the fence or the other, for black-or-white answers. Stephanie’s book is about the struggle to do what is right for oneself, for one’s family, for one’s land, for the community… the earth … the environment … and what to do when those loyalties are at loggerheads. What I love most about Stephanie’s tone is her honesty, her rueful look at her own foibles and contradictions, which definitely hold up a mirror to show us our own. Ultimately, this is not an easy issue, and Stephanie’s book honors that.