The Perfect Murder Mystery

I’ve read my fair share of mystery novels. It’s a genre I enjoy, although I’m not an expert sleuth. Even so, after years of exposure to mystery stories and “true crime” TV shows I think I’ve got the hang of what an aspiring villain should not do when committing a murder. It’s pretty straightforward – just look at those who got caught and what they did wrong, and avoid repeating the same mistakes.

The first thing a villain must do if committing the perfect murder is have a plan. Whatever the villain does, he/she must not commit a murder at the spur of the moment. The reasons for this are evident in the subsequent rules that follow.

Rule #1: No crimes of passion.

Another painfully obvious observation from true crime stories is that law enforcement is always looking for links between the victim and the killer. These include relatives, in-laws, co-workers, bosses, love interests, and rivals. Clearly, as detectives find and identify links, they hope to discover all possible suspects and then narrow in on the guilty party.

Rule #2: No known relationship to the victim.

Hitchcock’s 1951 movie Strangers on a Train gives us an interesting twist on this rule. In the story two men who meet on a train explore the idea of each killing someone the other wishes to have killed. One wishes his wife dead and the other wants his father dead so he can get his inheritance. Because they are otherwise strangers, this “exchange” of murders represents a good example of Rule #2.

However, another thing that becomes obvious from these stories is that people who go soliciting other people to do their killing make a crucial mistake: now at least one other person knows about their nefarious plan. If the other person goes to the police (before or after any murders happen) the villain is exposed.

Rule #3: Confide in no one.

This was the error made by the murderer in Hitchcock’s movie. Once one of them killed his co-conspirator’s intended victim, the co-conspirator knew he did it. Later a witness verified who the killer was when the “innocent” co-conspirator refused to go through with his side of the deal.

So, we come to the situation where the villain must do the dirty deed himself. The first smart thing to do is to make sure that no forensic evidence is left at the scene of the crime:

Rule #4 Leave no forensic evidence at the crime scene.

Next, it is wise to put as much time and space between the villain and the victim’s death as possible. The classic example of this is the killer secretly damaging the brake lines on the victim’s car. Later, the victim drives down a dangerous road and the brakes fail, causing the car to fall down an embankment and kill the driver. Naturally, the villain is careful not to leave a trace that he was the one who damaged the brakes. Also, the villain is many miles away at the time and place of the driver’s death. A similar but more dramatic approach is to mount an exploding device under the victim’s car. The car ignition could turn on the device and blow up the car and its occupant. Even better, the use of a time delay would trigger the explosion some time later, likely after the car was driven away. This scheme increases the likelihood that the car is moving when the explosion occurs, probably making the crime scene more complicated for the police to analyze.

Rule #5: Ensure separation in time and space between the killer’s actions and the time/place of the murder. Go for the appearance of an accident.

Complying with all the above rules is very nearly impossible. Thus, the villain needs a technological solution in order to achieve the perfect murder. Specifically, the villain needs a non-human (i.e. robot) co-conspirator that can do the dirty work yet never “spill the beans.” This could be something as simple as a flying drone programmed to fly to the victim’s location and crash/explode on them (essentially a smart bomb). Or it could be a sophisticated humanoid robot that gets the job done much like a human would (using a gun, knife, explosives, fisticuff, etc.). As long as these robotic devices are not traceable back to the villain, and the villain ensures he has a solid alibi, a perfect murder appears possible.

Now having laid down the theoretical requirements for the perfect murder mystery, there is only one concern left to address. If, as Rule #2 states, the villain has no relationship with the victim, why would they want to kill them? In true crimes, interestingly, this situation occurs rather often. It occurs every time a drug addict kills a stranger while attempting to rob them.

 

Read More Fiction – Simile Sins

Successful fiction writers have a few pieces of advice they all have in common. In this post, I want to address this one: read more fiction. According to this popular viewpoint, one of the best ways to learn how to write fiction is to read a lot of it. In the past few years I’ve tried to follow this advice by both reading more fiction and reading a wider range of fiction. Outside of my mainstay genre of science fiction, I’ve read mysteries, thrillers, YA, and adventures. This has given me a broader perspective on many aspects of story writing.

A consequence of reading more is I also read more closely. And hence, also more critically. I think this is natural for me as I’ve spent much of my life analyzing things. I tend to read the first sentence of a paragraph, consider its meaning, and then go to the next and repeat the process. I mentally combine the meanings as I read along and form a collective overall interpretation of the paragraph. If the paragraph is well structured it is clear to me what it says and what it accomplishes in the narrative.

I’ve found that some sentences can be very disruptive to this process. The nature of this disruption can be described by my reaction to reading one of them; usually the reaction is, “Say what?” I’ve noted that certain types of sentences cause this reaction more often than others. Specifically, this seems to happen the most when I come across similes.

Many fiction writers either believe, or have been taught, that similes are essential creative “brushstrokes” in the world of literary fiction. There’s no doubt that a well-formed simile is a joy to encounter. It tends to enrich us, perhaps even provide us insight. On the other hand, poor similes can throw me right out of the story. What follows is what I consider a pretty good simile:

“Getting Joe to take out the trash is like trying to push a rope.”

What makes this a good simile is that we are all familiar with rope and we all know that, while it works well for pulling things, it is not good for pushing things. Unfortunately, rope does not give us any insight into Joe.

The following is a sentence I arbitrarily picked from a published fiction novel involving sailboats:

“His fingers kept crawling up the sides of his jacket like crabs”.

Not bad in my view. We’ve all seen crabs or videos of them and have seen their sideways movement. There may even be a bit of insight if the jacket wearer’s fingers are slender.

Let’s try another one, also from a fiction novel but this one was published by one of the big five publishing houses:

“The blossoms smelled like sex as the warm breeze scattered a confetti of pedals upon us.”

Ugh! I have all kinds of problems with this sentence. First, I did a Google search and there are many opinions about what sex smells like. Only a few mentioned anything about blossoms or the like. Second, sex doesn’t really have much to do with the paragraph this line appears in (take my word for it) although the first-person author may have had romance on her mind. Third, the phrase a confetti of doesn’t work well when we all know that confetti is composed of different colored very small pieces of paper. I would drop out the phrase entirely. Here is how I would have written the sentence:

“The warm breeze scattered the fragrant blossom pedals upon us.” 

Of course, this is no longer a simile. However, we all have experienced fragrant blossoms and can readily envision the wind scattering them on us. Sometimes as writers we work too hard to try to form creative, enriching similes. I’m especially mindful of the definition of words when composing a simile. If I end up with a simile that I feel might be a stretch, or is awkward, I take it out rather than risk throwing the reader out of my story.

Here is one last one –  taken from a book on fiction writing:

“Fiction writing can be a difficult, lonely job – like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub.”

This is pretty good although I’m not a big fan of it. On the one hand, I get what the author means. On the other hand, why the Atlantic Ocean? The Pacific Ocean is by far the largest ocean. Perhaps the author didn’t think people would know that, or be that picky; after all, the Atlantic is the second largest. I think I understand the bathtub: we all are familiar with them, they have no locomotion, and no way to steer. Also, they are too small for much company. Thus, the trip would certainly be slow going and lonely at best.

Unfortunately, the bathtub offers no insight into writing (not even if one is talking about the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho). Another reason I am not a fan of this simile is that, while I’ve done a lot of travelling, I’ve never crossed the Atlantic Ocean (so I have no personal reference as to how big it is). I have flown across the Pacific Ocean, but that goes back to my earlier comment. Lastly, there is a strong element of danger in crossing an ocean in a bathtub that has no counterpart in fiction writing.

If I had tried to write this simile I would have left the ocean and bathtub out of it. Rather, I’d have gone for phrases like self-incarceration with extended periods of solitary confinement. The thing about self-incarceration that appeals to me is that, interestingly enough, it would give me plenty of time to both read and write fiction.

 

The King (Stephen) and I

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It never occurred to me that I should compare my life to that of any of my contemporaries. Of course, like most people I’ve always kept a general awareness of what people my age are doing; but I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison of myself to anyone. The idea came to me while reading the first part of Stephen King’s memoir On Writing. Early in his book Mr. King mentions he was born in 1947, the same year I was born. As I read on I discovered he had childhood measles, which I had, as well as having to have his tonsils removed. Me too. At this point I decided it would be interesting to look more into the similarities and differences between the highly popular writer and myself. In particular I was looking for actions, events, and/or influences in our respective lives that likely factored into the different career paths we took. Since I’ve never met him I used only what he provides in his book.

As I read on, other things we had in common during childhood included liking science fiction and comic books. He mentions that the newest 1950s technology (black and white television) was late in coming to his family. It was late coming to mine as well. Perhaps the greatest similarity of all, however, was his early display of interest and talent in story writing, and my early display of interest and talent in comic book art.

Regarding my early interest in art, during the first four years of grade school I was the “go to” kid for doing art projects in my classes. I think this came about when in second grade I was so fascinated by a newspaper comic strip called Dondi that I drew three full-size panels of a similar character and showed them to my teacher. She was so impressed she mounted them on the bulletin board for the school to see. I had used India ink and artboard – all very professional looking. Then in third grade (or was it fourth) another teacher had me do all the artwork for a large paper mural that she put on the wall. My mother was so proud of me she came to school and took several 3.5×3.5 inch photos of the mural, which showed a mapping of national parks. The two photos she took are at the start of this post. I did the small drawings that are shown around the outside of the map boarder. I also added lines running from them to park locations on the map.

The significance of showing these photos of my mural artwork is not to impress anyone (not that they would). Rather, it offers some proof of my artistic bent at an early age. For example, the teacher did not ask for volunteers to do the drawings; she simply asked me to do them.

As it turns out, however, I was humbled by the accomplishment Stephen King recounts early in his book. He writes that he was ill much of his first-grade year; so much so that he missed much of school and was held back a year. While homebound much of that first year he mentions reading many comics and writing a few stories. Most notably, he describes putting together a 4-page story that he had laboriously hand printed for his mother to read. Wow! I can’t help but be impressed – I don’t remember much about my first grade but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have written even a 1-page story by the end of the school year. In those days first grade Dick and Jane books were very basic i.e. “see Spot run.” I have to believe this action was a pivotal time in the author’s life, signifying a deep interest and talent in story narrative.

I no longer feel dismayed about never having gone anywhere with my artistic talents. While I did enjoy drawing, I did not display a comparable level of natural aptitude for art that King did for story writing. He mentions that his mother was highly supportive of his talent, and I can say my mother was highly supportive of mine. In those days the attitude of most parents towards their children was, “children should be seen and not heard.”  Fortunately, some mothers back then understood more about nurturing young sons than about useless, archaic proverbs.

The Hero’s Journey Revisited

I recently attended a writers’ workshop where The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell was discussed. Campbell identified a pattern of events while researching stories and myths involving a person embarking on a journey. The general pattern can be illustrated by drawing a circle with a person starting (at home) at the top. Moving clockwise along and down the circle as time passes, events happen which result in the person beginning a journey. During the journey more events happen, including a number of challenges the traveler most overcome and fears he/she must conquer. During these events the traveler moves through the bottom of the circle and starts up the left side. Finally the traveler returns home (back to the top of the circle) and is a changed person. Not only is the traveler transformed, but he/she returns with what Campbell calls the elixir – meaning some sort of knowledge, or awareness, or potion that helps transform the world into a better place.

The movie The Wizard of Oz is a good illustration of Campbell’s pattern. In the movie Dorothy unwittingly takes a journey to Oz, a strange place with unusual characters who either want to help her or harm her. Dorothy wants to return home but discovers she must first accomplish several tasks. In the end, she successfully returns home with the realization, “There is no place like home.”

Most people wouldn’t necessarily call Dorothy a hero nor is her epiphany that there is no place like home all that enlightening for adults. Nonetheless, the movie shows how the pattern can be generalized in more than a few ways. There are some individuals who even suggest the pattern captures the meaning of life: that is, each of us embarks on a journey through life that hopefully results in new knowledge that helps human-kind.

Fiction writers have said that all they need for a story is for a stranger to come into town. When you think about it, this scenario is just a different slant on the journey pattern. It is the stranger who is the one on the journey.

The pattern can be generalized to include journeys that don’t involve physical movement. Any major life event can signify the start of a journey: high school graduation, getting married, joining the military, getting a college degree, getting a new job, joining a convent, having a baby, and getting divorced. Some of these activities involve physical travel, but the journey they represent is bigger than simply getting out of Dodge.

Two key aspects of this pattern are that the traveler: 1) confronts fears, and 2) undergoes change. The change can be anything from a transformation to an epiphany. Further, a journey (and a life) can be comprised of a series of smaller micro-journeys with each one beginning when an event occurs. Presumably, at least some of these events are prompted by decisions the traveler made based on what was learned in a prior micro-journey. The event can also be in the form of another person’s influence.

While Campbell’s findings were based on studies of stories and myths, I think their application to real life is undeniable. This suggests that the stories and myths themselves contain insights into the human condition.

Anyone thirty or older can point to events and/or decisions they’ve made that have had a major impact on their lives. In my case, the first big life-altering event that occurred to me after high school graduation was receiving a draft notice from Uncle Sam. It prompted my enlistment in the Air Force, from which I received an honorable discharge four years later. My transformation from this micro-journey included not only much-needed maturity but also being able to afford a college education.

Do each of life’s micro-journeys take us from a place of stress and put us in a better place? For the most part I think they do. Of course, much depends on the makeup of the person/traveler. If it didn’t, why would anyone care about the story?

 

Good Art and the Truth

 

Bridge1a

Old covered bridges are like walks on the beach: it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like them. So, what do covered bridges have to do with good art and the truth? I’m here to explain. As always, there is a story behind the explanation; happily, it is neither long nor complicated. The photo is of an oil painting I did in the summer of 1965. That day in July I was on-site at the Jacoby Mill Road covered bridge just a bit east of U.S. Route 68 off of Clifton Road in Xenia Township, Ohio. I had stumbled onto the bridge some weeks earlier when I was looking around Greene County for possible landscapes to paint. Having just graduated from high school, I was driving my old 1947 “high school kid” car. I parked as far off the road as possible which was difficult as the area was heavily wooded.

Now, switch to this past summer (2016) when I was attending a writers’ workshop. One of the speakers at the workshop repeated a quote I’d never heard before: “All good art gets us closer to the truth.” For some reason I couldn’t help but embrace this quote. Perhaps it was because it sounded so profound, so insightful. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm abated as I carefully listened to the speaker and realized that his narrative wasn’t helping me understand the quote. I still didn’t understand it when I left the workshop but it stayed with me (I’m like a dog with a bone on these kinds of things). I later sent an inquiry to the speaker via email but even after reading his reply I was still not satisfied.

It wasn’t until I got to thinking about this covered bridge painting that a possible interpretation of the quote occurred to me. In looking at the painting I have to admit that back then my artistic virtuosity clearly showed a lack of skill in both craft and technique. And yet, I think I could argue that the art is good for one reason: it is the only image of the bridge from this vantage point that exists today. This wouldn’t be so significant a statement except that the bridge was badly damaged by arson five years after I did this painting (1970). The county tore the remaining structure down shortly thereafter and cleared the site. Today, only parts of the abutments remain.

So, my painting gets us closer to the truth by giving us an image of what the southern entrance to the bridge looked like in 1965. The painting does not exhibit much detail or photographic accuracy, but it does honestly portray what my eyes saw then, as best I could capture the image in oils and canvas.

In fact, this explanation works even better when I thinks about the word closer in the quote. As noted, the painting does not provide detail or photographic accuracy, so it can only get us close to the truth. The same can be said of the limited number of black and white photos of the bridge that exists, taken from other vantage points. Since nature is in full color, black and white images only get us close to the truth.

Do I conclude from all of this that my painting is good art? The answer, in my view, depends upon the criteria one selects to quantify good. I select that good means the honest representation of something that no longer exists and for which any other representation differs. In this sense, my art is good.

If this definition of good art seems a little accommodating or perhaps self-serving, consider how things must have been in the Renaissance Period. In those days of da Vinci and Michelangelo, consider that the only means of representing the human form was by art (painting, sculpting, and drawing). There were no photographic plates, no instamatics or Polaroid’s, no digital bitmaps, and no videos. Indeed, these methods were the only means of generating an image of anything.

Thus, I believe I have succeeded in providing an overall interpretation of the quote. Naturally, this is only one interpretation and others might possibly surface. Until then, I’m sticking with this one for sure.

In closing, I mention an insight I learned from taking several night classes in oil painting in mid-1970: our eyes can play tricks on us. Often when I paint what I think I see I come to realize the colors on the canvas are wrong. I learned that my brain needed to be trained and any preconceived notions dispensed with. Art has been letting me know the truth ever since.

Suspension of Disbelief

Worlds to Colonize

Surely everyone familiar with the arts has come across the phrase suspension of disbelief. When we see a play or read a novel, it is clear that the play or the novel is a representation of reality. We are not flies on the wall, watching and reading about real people living their real lives (or being able to crawl into their minds, as we can with written stories). Even so, most people have little difficulty suppressing this fact in order to enjoy the play or book. The representation need only be sufficient to permit the audience/reader to suspend disbelief.

Many stories go further in their reliance on readers to suspend disbelief. For example, superheroes and talking animals can make for entertaining stories even if they don’t exist in the real world. For these genres, each individual must decide for themselves how far they are willing to suppress disbelief for the sake of entertainment, education, and/or examining imaginative ideas.

Far future science fiction stories like Star Wars have a unique place in this essay because their reality is defined at a time well into the future. This greatly facilitates suspension of disbelief since who knows what will happen by then. True, modern science suggests certain SF tropes will likely never exist. These include time travel, matter transporters (beam me up, Scotty), and faster-than-light space travel. On the other hand, modern science also hints at developing technologies that make plausible major advancements in human immortality, highly intelligent and mobile robots, and routine interplanetary space travel for non-astronauts.

To explore suspension of disbelief further consider one SF story I’ve read that takes place in a far future where mankind has colonized a number of planets in another part of the galaxy. In the hundreds of years since colonization, unfortunately, most of the colonies have failed and those remaining are in dire shape. The colonies were failing because: 1) the environments were very harsh, 2) the colonists’ equipment was getting old and failing (insufficient spares), and 3) supplies like seeds and medicines were low or exhausted. In other words, the colonies were not self-sustaining and there was (for some unexplained reason) no help available from earth.

I find the basic premise of colonizing planets believable. As for the harsh planet environments, our growing knowledge of exoplanets supports this view of planet diversity. Just because humans colonize a planet doesn’t mean it is very earth-like. In all likelihood, it is not.

However, I was unable to suspend disbelief of several presuppositions within the story. The first was the idea of humans colonizing planets without the goal of self-sustainment. No reason is given why taking this extreme risk is justified. It seems simply suicidal to me in view of the anticipated challenges in resupplying colonies. Second, nowhere in the story are intelligent robots even mentioned. Sorry, but in my opinion humanity will be relying heavily on intelligent robots to help us make our way into space. In fact, this has been much the case already. Consider all the space probes we have already sent into our solar system to gather data (New Horizons, Voyagers 1 & 2, Cassini, Pioneer series, Rosetta, Deep Space 1, Deep Impact, Vega 1 & 2, and many more). These probes foreshadow the smart, highly mobile robots that will help us successfully make our way deeper into space. They will be doing the dirty work or completely replacing humans on risky missions.

Of course, we all know that conflict is key in storytelling. The author thus needs to come up with challenges to be overcome. However, if it seems to me that a challenge is inserted to make the story work, rather than portray a realistic aspect of world building, I lose interest. I also recognize that SF writers are, by and large, not in the business of forecasting the future. So, if their future worlds don’t fit with my views of the future, that’s on me. Their job is to write entertaining stories.

My point in all of this is that knowing a person in the literary sense means understanding where they draw the line on suspension of disbelief. And if they don’t even read SF, well, I feel compassion for those who never ask, “What if?

Writers’ Workshop Critiques

In August of last year, I attended the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon 74) in Kansas City, Mo. It was my first SF convention and a bucket list check off. As a world convention, there were thousands of attendees, a huge conference center, and a lot going on – almost 24-hours a day for the entire week. I learned ahead of time about the writers’ workshop program that was part of the conference. I submitted a SF novella before the convention started and it was accepted. At the convention, I received face-to-face reviews by two successful SF writers, as well as two aspiring writers. Our small group met for over two hours to discuss our reviews of the three submitted stories.

Afterwards, I felt I received good critiques from each participant in the group. However, the real issue in getting the most out of writing critiques is knowing how to deal with them. For me this knowledge came mostly from experience. Specifically, I’d attended the Antioch Writers’ Workshop (AWW) in Dayton, Ohio the prior three summers. At the AWW I had worked on fiction writing, more specifically science fiction writing. Several years of receiving and assimilating criticism taught me to separate the helpful comments from the pedestrian ones. I consider each participant’s written and verbal feedback, and I work through all of the items in a slow, thoughtful pace. I know most style and all grammar problems can be fixed by a good editor, so I give them minimal attention. What I’m most interested in are any surprising or unexpected big-picture inputs. For example, the two key criticisms the professional writers at Worldcon gave me were: 1) my story lacked suspense, and 2) my story was partly predictable. The first was a surprise since I knew that my story contained a Big Mystery. Through discussions I came to understand that the problem was not the big mystery, but the need to inject little mysteries along the way to egg on the reader. This provides the chapter to chapter suspense that was missing from my draft.

As for the predictability of the story, that is something I’m still working on. I was concerned about it when revising the second draft so when I got the criticism I knew the point was valid. The trick seems to be to do better at concealing upcoming milestone events without shifting the story arc. I’m still exploring the best ways to do this.

Perhaps what was most interesting was that I sort of stumbled into conducting an experiment. It turns out I had the same SF novella reviewed in a fiction writing class at the annual AWW summer session a month before the Worldcon conference workshop. Thus, I had received critiques on the same draft from both workshops and could compare and contrast the feedback. What I learned was more than can be addressed in this post, but I can summarize three observations that I felt were telling. They are described in the following three paragraphs.

The first observation is that new or aspiring writers’ critiques often need some interpretation. As an example, one young writer commented that a particular section of my narrative – one having to do with a meeting among councilmen – slowed down my story. When I later looked at the draft and the feedback from the professionals I understood what was being said. The subject narrative was: 1) in the wrong place in the story, and 2) more importantly, it did not serve the purpose I had in mind when I initially wrote it. I ended up putting it in the scrap pile where it remains today.

My second observation was about a common critique I received in both workshops. Everyone seemed to agree that I needed to inject more detail into the story. We all understand why detail is important in fiction – it helps make the narrative more believable i.e. like it actually happened. I concluded that there were really several parts to this criticism. One is that, while I was doing a fairly good job at world-building, too much had been left out. This gap in information did not shroud the story in mystery (as I had hoped for) but rather it came across as not-well-thought-out. The criticism was spot on. Another part of this critique was clearly linked to the need to flesh out the major characters. I needed to get more emotion into them by having them reflect on past events and let the reader understand (via internal dialog and other techniques) why they were interpreting things the way they were.

The third observation was mildly surprising but worth some thought. Simply put, critiques provided by writers (both professionals as well as aspiring authors) who write in the same genre as the aspiring writer (i.e. me) generally provide more insight, especially in plotting and originality. As an example, I am one of those aspiring SF writers who prefers hard SF and has little interest in the neighboring genre of fantasy. As a consequence, I know my critiques of fantasy stories are not as good as they otherwise could be. I’m simply not well read on the tropes and trends of the genre. As another example, one time I received a review of my SF novella from an aspiring writer who had mentioned beforehand that she had no interest in SF stories. While she truly made a concerted effort in reading my story, her critiques showed a lack of even the most basic technical or scientific depth. This caused her to misconstrue what was meant in several important passages.

In closing, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard fiction writers talk much about the interpreter aspects of creative writing, but it occurs to me that perhaps this is what fiction writers have in common – a healthy interest in, or dare I say, a need to try to interpret the human condition.

 

 

The Sycamore Tree

Sycamore Tree lightWhen my parents retired and moved to the country, my Dad planted a sycamore tree in the side yard. Over years of visiting with them, I observed the tree grow and become a huge, sturdy tree. My mother told me sycamores were considered dirty trees becomes they frequently drop dead leaves and branches. I could see what she meant, even though I still thought the tree looked quite majestic.

Fifteen years ago I decided a sycamore tree would be a nice addition to my lower backyard. By putting it in the backyard it wouldn’t be a problem if it dropped copious leaves and branches. I soon found that many nurseries don’t stock sycamores, so I was surprised to find a 5-foot tree at an area nursery. I planted it in the backyard in a well-drained area and looked forward to watching it grow.

Several years later I was disappointed to see that the tree was not growing symmetrically; one side was pretty much bare of branches. I did some research and concluded that I couldn’t do anything about it so I cut it down to a stump. The next summer I noticed shoots of growth coming from the stump and just mowed around it. By fall there were several sizable shoots. Thinking I had nothing to lose, I selected the healthiest vertical one and cut down the others.

Next spring the shoot continued to grow and I kept all other growth around the stump cut back. Long story short, a few years later the tree was about 8-ft tall and was full on all sides. I was happy to see that there were no signs of the asymmetry of the original tree. I was a surprised at its rapid growth, but then considered that the root system from the original tree was still growing and would support such growth.

Then the next spring an unusual wind came into my area; it was the remnants of a storm from down south that had travelled north in the middle atmosphere. Unfortunately, it decided to descend in my part of Ohio and knocked down many trees, including several large cottonwoods that grew along the creek at the very back of my yard. As bad luck would have it, one of the big cottonwoods landed at the back end of my detached garage. In addition to causing several thousand dollars of damage to the garage, the cottonwood managed to split the little sycamore almost to the ground. Perhaps understandably, I was more upset about the damaged sycamore than the garage; after all, the garage was insured. However, nothing would get my sycamore back the way it was, at least not anytime soon.

This time I couldn’t help but wonder if the tree was simply not meant to be. Once again, though, I realized I had nothing to lose and cut it down to the stump. Again, shoots grew off and up from the stump that summer and I repeated the process in the fall of selecting the best shoot and cutting the rest.

Now, six years later, the tree is full and easily 15-ft tall. (The photo was taken this spring and shows the buds starting to leaf.) It is an awesome tree and will look even more so each year as it reaches to the sky. The trunk has assimilated much of the stump and in a few years the remaining stump will disappear. Then only a few people will know the extent of the tree’s troubled past.

I’ve met a few people who lives are similar to the story of this tree. Despite all odds, they keep on going. With just the right occasional and well-placed helping hand from the outside, they overcome it all and thrive.

Re-learning Button Pushing

During my working years I wrote many technical reports. Decades ago, when desktop computers became popular, I taught myself keyboarding. My handwriting was atrocious. I recall the first word processing program I used was WordPerfect. I came to like WordPerfect and grew fairly proficient with it. Naturally, the word processing experts at my company took my drafts and polished them into final report format. I didn’t try to do their job, although over the years so many new employees had keyboarding skills and used personal computers that the word processing department shrank, being replaced by one or two secretaries.

As Microsoft expanded their takeover of the personal computer applications business, they developed their own word processing application called Microsoft® Word. Over time, MSWord grew in popularity. Even so, I resisted switching to it as I wanted to avoid having to spend hours learning a new application when I was perfectly happy with the one I was using. However, when my company’s clients began asking for documents in MSWord format, the handwriting was on the wall. I made the painful switch to MSWord.

Except for keyboarding, the procedures for using MSWord were totally different from those of WordPerfect. Still, it was simply a matter of learning new procedures. Over the years as new versions of MSWord were released, changes continued to be made in its functions and procedures. This was not surprising since the product design was still maturing and new features were being added. However, Microsoft also became notorious for moving icons around and changing buttons and functions for no apparent reason. It was this change for change’s sake that caused me to realize that learning, and then re-learning, and then again re-learning procedures is just plain dog work. It doesn’t take a genius to be proficient in MSWord. Rather, it takes a reasonably intelligent person with time and patience to read and study the user manual, and then practice. And then do it all over again when the next version comes out.

A word processing application is a tool for me to do my writing. As long as it meets my needs, I don’t want to be bothered with new versions having bells and whistles that are of no interest to me. In retirement, I continue to use older versions of MSWord and I’m happy to say that most places I submit write-ups to use older versions, too.

On a related topic, I recently got to the point that it was time for me to switch from my old analog cell phone with its physical keyboard to a new digital smartphone. Here again, I had been putting off having to re-learn procedures; in this case, re-learning how to make phone calls when all the buttons, keypads, and keyboards were virtual.

So now I’ve had my smartphone for about nine months and I really like it. Of course, in the early days of using it I discovered that there really weren’t any useful user manuals online for it or most of the applications I downloaded. I was frustrated by this situation. It got worse when I came to realize that, in the few cases where user manuals did exist, they were outdated! I found the same to be true when I looked on YouTube for instructional videos. The applications on my android phone are constantly being updated and sometimes I have to re-learn how to do something I used to be able to do on a prior version of the same application.

Instead of user manuals, which I admit can be boring to read, it appears that applications now come with built-in prompts that help guide the user through the process they want to perform. I’ve found these prompts to be helpful on many occasions, but also totally useless if I’m trying to do something not addressed by any displayed prompts. In these latter cases, I’ve come up with a solution that is not very elegant but seems to work more often than not.

I start pushing virtual buttons until something happens that looks like it might take me in the direction I want to go.

Affluent Arrogant Cheapskates

I very seldom lose my cool with people. My observation is that becoming angry with someone and raising my voice seldom helps the situation. Still, there have been a few times when I’ve been really mad at someone and lost my cool. I’ve raised my voice and told them in no uncertain terms what I wanted. Sometimes it is effective, and sometimes it is not. In the latter case, I distance myself from the individual and minimize my interaction with them.

Over time, I’ve evolved a pretty clear understanding of what really sets me off. For example, if I’m being told a boldfaced lie about something very important to me, and I know it is a boldfaced lie, I get pissed. Livid, actually. Furthermore, if a close friend does something stupid and I suffer the consequences, I instantly get mad at them. I think I interpret such behavior as either a lack of respect or a lack of caring.

More recently, I encountered an individual who I eventually concluded was an affluent, arrogant cheapskate. He’s an older person who moved into the same neighborhood I was in, which is why we had any interaction at all. I was initially cordial to him, as I would be to anyone. However, over a period of several months I observed that he tended to use other folk’s possessions, such as dock boxes or dock pilings, if the owners was not using them. If it were me, I would have (as I have) bought my own dock box. He also bought new dock lines and then offered to see me his old ones – after he asked if I wanted them. Here’s a man with a much more expensive boat then mine trying to make a buck off me with some old rope. Really? Worse, he seemed to impose himself into my life during this time. I was working on an outdoor boat project and nearly every day he’d stop by and pester me. I soon cooled to him, especially when I realized he couldn’t stop sticking his nose in my business. He couldn’t seem to accept the idea that I did not want his advice. Then one day, I had a local expert visit me to help with my project and the old man saw us and couldn’t leave us alone. Indeed, he wanted the expert to look at something on his boat. Right there and then, I lost it. I told him in no uncertain terms to stay the hell away from me. I even surprised myself; I hadn’t fully appreciated how much this guy’s behavior got under my skin!

I’ve known a few affluent people, though I can’t say I typically hang with them. I’ve also known more than a few arrogant people, some of whom I get along with well because their arrogance is an attitude borne out of accomplishment rather than a sense of entitlement or uniqueness. And yes, I’ve certainly known a cheapskate or two (or three or four). I’ve never had a real problem with any of these people. An affluent, arrogant cheapskate, however, is a person bound and determined to give people advice they don’t want, based on (reported) experiences most people can’t afford to engage in, while trying to make (or save) a buck off them – all at the same time!

Such people are indeed a sight to behold – preferably from at least one neighborhood away.