Showing posts with label Life Lessons. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Life Lessons. Show all posts

Monday, February 26, 2018

A Writer Unplugged

Antarctic Peninsula

Earlier this week we returned from our 23-day journey in and around Antarctica. During that time, I had no access to electronic news feeds. I missed the Super Bowl – although I did hear the score the next day. I missed five shootings in or around schools: Lincoln High School in Philadelphia (1/31), an “unintentional” shooting of two in Sal Castro Middle School in LA (2/1), Oxon Hill High School, Oxon Hill, MD (2/5), the parking lot of Pearl-Cohn High School, Nashville, TN (2/9), and mass murder at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, FL (2/14). I missed (I think) Congress passing a budget. I returned to find Dreamers are still caught in a nightmare and the Olympics in full swing.

Sheep with Magellanic Penguins on Falkland Islands
Each day, the ship I was on printed a multi-page news summary. It covered the world. Cricket, Tennis, Golf, and English Premier League Football each had more lines of coverage than the two or three allocated daily to US news, which was included under the subhead “The Americas” (lumping our bit of drama with that from the rest of North, Central, and South America).

Striated Caracara - Falkland Islands
While all those events (and much, much more) transpired, I spent oodles of hours on deck watching pelagic birds, cloud patterns, the work of wind on the water. During our numerous landings, we visited new places (Argentina, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island, the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounding islands), saw thousands of birds and unique landscapes.

The only time I consciously spent in writerly activities was during one day at sea. The birds had mostly left us, and it rained or drizzled all day. I stayed in my cabin and wrote the drafts of two blogs related to the April 3 release of Empty Promises. I suppose I should also count time I spent talking with fellow passengers about my writing. That should probably be counted as sales activity.

young Black-browed Albatross - Falkland Islands
Life itself is grist for the writer’s mill, and this was an experience unlike any other I have had. The problem is, if you tried to pin me down about what I learned or how I might incorporate something into my writing, I’ll have to admit that I have no clue. Maybe an expression I heard will pop up in a character’s dialogue. Perhaps I’ll describe how one passenger walked using a stabilizing boot on one foot—the way she shifted her body to compensate for the additional weight and bulk, or how she had to navigate the stairways in rolling seas. Wait! Maybe I’ll have a passenger use a fake boot to hoodwink an airport worker into moving her to the head of the customs line.

Or perhaps a character will incorporate some trait I saw a passenger exhibit: how they approached eating each meal, a sideways shift of his eyes when he didn’t agree with a statement but chose not to engage in argument, a chuckle that turned into a giggle that turned into a knee-slapping roar.

Chinstrap Penguin in the Southern Ocean
I’m sure some writers would have recorded everything in a notebook so they could tap those recollections as needed. I am not that kind of writer. I have no patience for that kind of recording. For some time I kept a diary—sort of. A typical entry might read.

Weather good. Beat Olympia 3-2. (Only by the date could I know if this was soccer or baseball!)

King Penguin colony on South Georgia Island
I’d rather experience something than worry about trying to record it. I only take pictures as something of an after-thought. I want to experience the scenery before recording it. I want to watch the bird, how it uses lift from the waves to pop high into the air, how it uses its tail as a braking device, how it hops on the ground kicking over leaves. Oh yes, I like taking bird photographs, but sometimes I forget in the joy of watching them.

Magellanic Penguin
"If I turn my back on you will you stop squeaking?
The trip reminded me how much I enjoy being outdoors and how little I enjoy talking back to politicians on the television when they lie or avoid tackling hard topics. I missed the part of social media that keeps me in touch with friends and acquaintances; I did not miss the part of social media railing against others (regardless of whether I agreed or disagreed with their position).

I could choose to remain a Writer Unplugged. In some ways it would be easier to ignore all that’s wrong with the world and go my merry way without a care. Except, I prefer making decisions based on facts rather than beliefs, and by ignoring injustice, I’d lose the part of my core being that cares about the plight of others.

Cape Petrel in Southern Ocean
So, I shall return to being a Plugged-In Writer but commit to controlling how I gather news and interact with others about interpreting it. I shall not allow it to regain control of my time or my energy.

Oh, and so I don’t leave you with any false impressions, let me confess: I did manage to take 2,740 non-blurry pictures during the trip. How about you—what’s your biggest take-away from your latest trip or vacation?

This blog was originally posted on Writers Who Kill (2/25/18).

P.S.  I am posting photos and commentary of this trip on Facebook, as though you were traveling with me with a 20-day delay. You can follow me on Facebook at Be sure to check the Album as well as the daily posts. ~ Jim

Monday, May 8, 2017

Life Lesson from Choral Experiences

I started singing in choirs in elementary school. In those early years, we learned music by ear: listen to the teacher and reproduce what you hear. It’s how we learned to speak, but easier for some than for others. Later, we learned to sing by reading music. In that, I had an advantage because my parents forced piano lessons on me starting in second or third grade. I discovered you can learn by rote, but it’s much easier if you first master the tools of the trade. That, it turns, out, applies to much in life.

There can be stars in choirs, but a discerning listener of the best choruses can’t distinguish one voice from another. Unless you have a solo, you are supposed to blend in, not stick out. And, it turns out, sticking out is not just about the sound. Choruses, like teams, often wear uniforms, coordinate moves: lifting and setting down their music folders, entering and exiting a stage with precision. Much of being a chorus doesn’t just involve singing well.

In sixth grade, I made the all-county chorus—as a first soprano! The only thing I recall of the experience is the principal of my school mentioning he spotted me right off—I was the one yawning before the performance began. Even from a distance he recognized me because of my idiosyncrasy.

In junior high, competing schedules forced me to choose between band and chorus. With a voice that provided random octaves and a pre-teen boy’s embarrassment over the same, my tenor sax and I chose the band. I was content to sing long hours along with the radio.

By the time I reached high school, my voice had sorted itself out and I sang tenor in my church choir. The choir had a sufficiency of bass/baritones, so both my father and I sang tenor. Neither of us were natural tenors, but we could hit the high notes. We did have a third tenor in the choir and he had a fine natural voice but was, unfortunately, a bit shaky on the notes. The director determined that if Dad and I bracketed him, the true tenor sang the right notes, and as a threesome we had sufficient volume to carry our part. The result of making individual sacrifices (my throat did hurt after pieces like Handel’s Messiah) made for a better overall result.

For nearly twenty-five years after high school, I was not a choir member; but when I changed jobs and moved to Cincinnati, I was determined to join a church with a choir. I visited St. John’s Unitarian (one of four Unitarian churches I was checking out) the Sunday their morning service consisted of a congregational sing of selections from their brand new hymnal. Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time and need to recognize your luck. I had a blast sight-reading the bass parts. Someone in the congregation ratted me out to the choir director, who buttonholed me before I even left the sanctuary. The next Thursday I attended my first rehearsal.

That choir performed some great music, especially as part of our annual Spring concerts: Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Vaughn Williams, contemporary pieces as well, including my favorite American composer, Morten Lauridsen, plus South American and Indian works. I sang English, Latin, French, German, Spanish, Hindi, and Swahili (and probably others as well). Those works were a stretch for me and for the choir, but the hard work was always worth the effort even if the concert performances were never perfect.

[Here's a YouTube of Lauridsen's "Dirait-on" if you'd like a 5-minute treat.] 

Through that association, I had an opportunity to sing in a chorus that performed with the Cincinnati Symphony at Riverbend. We had only four rehearsals and were expected to come to the first rehearsal knowing the music (light years away from my early grammar school days of learning music by rote). What an eye-opening experience that was for this decidedly amateur performer. Everyone sang out (in church choirs there are usually just a few who sing out and the rest follow) and it was easy to find my mistakes and correct them because people on the right and left of me were singing something different. The rehearsal conductor expected us to correct our own mistakes. He concentrated on entrances, cutoffs, and shaping the sound. We had one dress rehearsal with the full orchestra under the baton of Jesus Lopez-Cobos, and then the performance.

It was also through the church choir that I met Jan, my partner of twenty-three years.

When we left Cincinnati and joined the choir of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Savannah in 2010, it was very small with a few excellent singers, but many much less skilled than I. We sang simple music, often in two or three parts, not the eight-part harmony of the works we often did at St. John’s. It was a bit discouraging, but I held onto a recognition I had made years ago: no matter how tired I was as I dragged myself from work to rehearsal, I felt refreshed at the end of the two hours. Even though in Savannah rehearsals were shorter, and the pieces less satisfying, I still retained that feel-better-after-singing experience.

And over the years, more quality singers joined the Savannah choir. I thought, oh good, now we’ll start doing more robust works. That hasn’t happened; this choir director has chosen to take her finer choral instrument and shape its sound. Pitches are now spot on, not just very close. She works on the sound of vowels, precise cutoffs and entrances. Rarely, we’ll end up with six or eight parts for a portion of a piece, but what is most important to her is our sound.

For a boy brought up in the nasal-speaking Rochester, NY area, rounded vowels are sometimes a stretch. I still miss singing the big pieces and would like to do more of that before I lose my voice and can no longer sing; but in the meantime, I’ve discovered I can bury myself in the hard work of sounding as one voice of a beautiful chorus.

~ Jim

This post originally appeared on the Writers Who Kill blog 5/7/2017.

Monday, March 13, 2017


As we approach the coming equinox, thoughts turn to spring cleaning. It’s a tradition, is it not: spring cleaning? Not my tradition, mind you. My seasonal thoughts turn to spring peepers and leaves popping on trees and migrating birds, many freshly attired to attract a mate, and <groan> income taxes. I don’t notice the dirt I’ve tracked into the house until it’s pointed out to me. Nor do I notice overfilled closets, file cabinets, or newsletter mailing lists until there is no room for the addition I want to make.

With that introduction, you’ll not be surprised to learn I am a packrat. Aphorisms I grew up with and still repeat include, “Waste not, want not,” and “You never know when you might need it.” It’s a family tradition. When my father died, I “inherited” a ton (figuratively and probably literally) of family papers and such—mainly because I was the child with room to store all the material. I remember hearing about my grandmother joking to my father when my grandparents transferred the papers to him as part of their downsizing, “From our attic to yours.” I assume my children know what that means for their future.

I recognize this proclivity of mine. I often joked that I kept buying bigger (or more) houses because I needed more room to store books. A couple of years ago, I instituted a new practice regarding my personal library. For every new physical book I buy, one must find a new home. Down south, our church’s youth have a book sale to support their going to the denomination’s summer camp. Up north, we donate books to one of the local libraries. I look at it as giving someone else the opportunity of reading words I will not read again (at least in this lifetime). Electronic books are exempt from the physical storage constraint.

The digital age creates both opportunities to eliminate much of the physical records I keep and an almost limitless opportunity to keep more stuff that no one will ever use. For example, I kept in a file cabinet copies of all my tax returns—the earliest was while I was in high school! Legally, it makes sense to keep the most recent seven years; I filed the remainder because you never know who might be interested. Wouldn’t it be cool to see your grandparent’s or even great-grandparents’ taxes? Or my parents’ taxes the year I was born. (Back when we really were making American great again by investing in education and infrastructure. The highest marginal Federal personal income tax rate was 91%, although my parents’ marginal rate was probably only 22%).

So, I converted my historic tax returns to PDFs and stored them on an external hard drive. Now, if someone wants to know how much I made as a camp counselor in 1969, the answer is still available! That project emptied an entire cabinet drawer. And sometime in the future when my children look at a directory of that hard drive, they can clean the whole thing with one command. So easy.

Photographs are something else again. When film and processing cost serious dollars (at least for my budget at the time), I was parsimonious with my picture-taking. With digital cameras, I’ll shoot multiple frames—you never know which shot will be the keeper. This leads to resource problems. I need to spend time going through all the pictures to determine which are best. But can I delete ALL the others?

Are you kidding? This is me, we’re talking about. Sure, I delete the out-of-focus shots and the ones with someone’s elbow taking up half the frame. But the others? Well, you never know when . . . But I haven’t the time or interest in labeling the thousands of photos I electronically keep, so who am I really kidding here about the usefulness of the thousands of stored images. And yet, you never know . . . Not all that long ago one of my WWK blog mates wanted to use a picture of a house finch to illustrate her blog. Of course I had some to share. It’s that random variable positive reinforcement that feeds my hoarding addiction.

So with that as background, you may be surprised that I recently removed about 30% of the names from my author newsletter mailing list. I use MailChimp, which is free for me, provided my list includes fewer than 2,000 addresses. I was about to add another 100+ names gleaned from a contest, which would put me over 2,000. Faced with the choice of paying to email my newsletters or making room in that virtual closet, I made room.

I figured that the chances of someone who had not opened any of my last five newsletters would suddenly become a rabid fan were dismally small. Turns out using that criterion produced almost 600 email addresses. I admit when I saw how large the number was, I hesitated before pulling the trigger and assigning those 600 people to the terrible fate of not giving them the choice to ignore my newsletter for another year.

[There is room in my newsletter if you want to sign up. Here’s a link.]

I used to have a sign in my office that said, SIMPLIFY. It was meant as reminder that if I did not actively simplify, I would fall into the trap of spending inordinate time and energy managing my complications. I know I kept that sign someplace, because you just never know when it would be useful again. Oh wait, I just did a search of my computer’s hard drive and in two seconds it gave me the link to a PowerPoint file titled “Simplify.” See, you just never know . . . 

~ Jim

This post originally appeared on the Writers Who Kill blog 3/12/17

Monday, January 2, 2017

Making Your Goals SMART

The beginning of a new year means for many the beginning of new goals. Gyms will be filled with people intent on getting into shape; weight-loss reduction programs will experience a spike in memberships; budgets will be crafted to curb “unneeded” spending and allow more savings for retirement or college or whatever. Flash forward three months and most of the goals are distant memories over which we feel guilty. Gym equipment languishes unused, some of the weight lost in January has returned by April; who knows how we’re doing against budget, but we don’t seem to be saving more.

Why Set Goals Anyway?

Each of us has our own reasons for setting goals, but in general goals provide structure to help modify behavior and improve chances of success. SMART goals make it more likely you can succeed in attaining your goal.

What are SMART goals?

SMART is an acronym to remind us how to construct goals:

S stands for Specific. The best goals are those formed with a specific outcome in mind. Let’s use weight loss for our example. Setting a goal to “lose weight” is less likely to encourage you to meet your objective, than is a goal to “lose 10 pounds,” which has specificity.

M stands for Measurable. Not only should a goal have specificity, it should be quantifiably measurable. A goal such as “lose enough weight until I look good in a bathing suit” may be what you want, but it is subjective. Further, it may have several components to it. Yes, losing weight may be necessary, but so too might be increasing muscle tone. We can measure pounds lost on a scale. We can measure muscles by number of pushups or how long we can hold the plank position.

A and R can have two different meanings depending on whether you are setting your own personal goal or whether a boss/parent/significant other is “helping” you set a goal. If the goal is personal, then A stands for Attainable and R stands for Rewarding. If your goal has a top-down element to it (as in someone else is top and you are down), A stands for Agreed and R stands for Realistic.

The combined meaning of these two letters assures the goal is something you agree is realistic, attainable, and provides some measure of reward. The reward can be anything from personal satisfaction to a corporate bonus, but it must be sufficient to make the challenge of attaining the goal worthwhile.

Your spouse telling you that you will lose 25 pounds in the next six months when you think 15 is more realistic means you have not agreed. Even if your spouse is correct that twenty-five pounds is realistic; this goal is not SMART. Similarly, if you set a goal of 25 pounds, which you would find rewarding, it might not be realistic if you haven’t weighed that since you were in high school—and that was thirty years ago!

T stands for Timely. The goal must have a timeframe attached to it. “I will lose 10 pounds” can meet the SMAR components, but when should this happen. Without a specific date, it is too easy to defer changes in your behavior until mañana—which never comes. Our SMART goal could be “I will lose 10 pounds by June 30, 2017.”

Helpful Tips on Succeeding with Your SMART Goals

We’ve developed our SMART goal of losing 10 pounds by June 30, 2017. Can we set any intermediate goals to help us stay on track and provide positive feedback along the way to achieving our main goal?

Well, of course we can! We don’t want to be in a position where we haven’t lost any weight for five and a half months and then we need to lose all the weight in two weeks. Even if we starved ourselves and dumped a bunch of water weight, we wouldn’t keep the weight off. That was not the original intention of what we meant by losing the weight.

Many goals require multiple steps to complete them. Each of those steps can be a separate goal. For example, anyone who has dieted knows losing the first pounds are the easiest. Our motivation is often high and simple changes can bring initial success. How about we set an interim goal to lose four pounds in January 2017? Specific—yes; Measurable—yes; Attainable—yes, we believe a pound a week is doable; Rewarding—you bet 40% of the way there; Time-specific—yep.

Nothing succeeds like success. You should reward yourself for attaining your interim goals. However, your reward shouldn’t be something that diminishes the likelihood of attaining your goal. So, treating yourself to a massage after losing the weight could work well. Splurging on a hot fudge sundae with all the trimmings—not so much.

Another reason to set intermediate goals is that they allow you to adjust your plan over time. You succeed with your January goal and lose the four pounds, but you felt hungry the whole month. Perhaps February’s goal is to lose one additional pound. Accomplishing this makes sure you don’t go backward, gets you closer to your goal, etc.

Visualize Success

Sports psychologists have studied the powerful effects of visualizing future success. In our weight loss example, what will change once you have lost the 10 pounds? Close your eyes and imagine how good it feels when that pair of pants you struggle to button no longer crimps your waist. Visualize each step of the process. Think of what it will feel like to slip them on—first one leg and then the other—pull the pants together to button them and the button slips into its hole without the necessity of you sucking in your gut. The zipper pulls up without any strain. The waistband has a little flex and doesn’t pinch.

Perhaps now you can wear a favorite blouse that has been a bit too tight. Mentally watch yourself in a mirror pulling on the blouse, buttoning each button, maybe decorating the outfit with a favorite necklace or lapel pin. Isn’t it great to be wearing that outfit again?

The more specific you can be about visualizing what your success looks like, the more power the effect on you.

What do you think, should SMART goals be in your future?

~ Jim

This Blog first appeared on the Writers Who Kill Blog 1/1/2017.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Northern Lights

As many of you know, Jan and I recently embarked on a nearly two-week vacation with the primary purpose of enjoying ourselves in new territory and experiencing the aurora borealis. The pictures decorating this blog are ones I took on this trip. Neither of us had ever been to Churchill, Manitoba or anywhere on Hudson’s Bay, and we enjoyed the two-day train ride up from Winnipeg. Jan had never seen the northern lights, but I had seen them on several occasions in the vicinity of our camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The most recent had been more than a decade ago.

I had stood on a low hill in a clearcut (now filled with twenty-five-foot larch) with open northerly views and watched a shimmering of greens appear with a fleck here and there of red or purple. Each time I had seen them, I had prior notice because the experts had detected a major solar event that they expected would trigger excellent displays.

It turns out those northern light views I experienced were akin to the blast of newfound love: brilliant, colorful, shimmering in excitement, leaving me breathless and a bit dizzy. What I came to realize on this trip is that, unless one is exposed to a major solar occurrence or one has prepared themselves to see the colors, we witness the more typical aurora borealis (in its long-term love affair with earth’s magnetic field) as silver.

Our visual hardware causes us problems in our quest of magnificent colors in auroras. Our eyes have two sensors, rods and cones. In a simple model of sight, rods allow us to see in low light levels. Cones are effective in brighter light. Rods do not provide color vision. Cones come in three flavors and generate electrical currents that allow our brains to “see” color.

That’s the problem: at night, we have low light. That requires rods and yields no color. To get our cones involved and generate color, the light must be brighter—or we need to have sensitized our eyes to the darkness. For the impatient among us who would like to rush out from our well-lit houses to see the aurora, our cones have no chance to acclimate.

As an example, think of what happens when we rush in from the brilliant sunlight of the beach and enter the dark of the men’s or ladies’ room. We can’t see a thing. Our cones are still stimulated from the sun bouncing off sand and water, and all we see is a smear of white. Our rods are still on break, off smoking a cigarette or chatting up the lovelies at the concession stand because, as far as they knew, there was nothing for them to do.

My few experiences with northern lights in Michigan had been on evenings when the lights were bright and my cones were able to paint the scene in color. Our first night in Churchill, we had a very nice display—and for me (and everyone else) it was all white. After that experience, I now believe many of the times I went out to look at northern lights in Michigan and believed I had not seen them, I had in fact witnessed the display without realizing it. I thought I saw only patterns of high cirrus clouds and did not recognize them for what they were.

On our second night in Churchill, Jan and I were two of only four in our group of twelve who stayed up late enough to witness the northern lights. Around 12:30 a.m. this aurora borealis started very softly, but soon built into a rollicking dance of light, some of which was bright enough (and I had been outside for over an hour) that I once again saw patterns of dancing greens.

That aurora spanned the heavens with an arc I’d estimate at almost 1200, and reached high into the sky. It was so massive that even with my 17mm lens, I could not catch it all in one photograph.

The third night it snowed. The aurora may have been burning bright, but we weren’t about to see it. Having been up two nights in a row until after two in the morning, I took it as a sign that I had nurtured my soul the previous evenings and that going to bed early was appropriate to nurture my body.

We left Churchill the evening of the fourth day and were treated to more northern lights as we awaited our plane. I stood in the airport parking lot, lit by sodium lamps, and once again saw splashes of color in the aurora. As an extra treat, we saw the aurora (back to silver) from the airplane as we flew to Winnipeg.

So what did I learn?

My camera sees much better in low light than I do. Its cone-equivalents can gather light for twenty or twenty-five seconds before rendering an image. My eyes can’t accumulate light in the same fashion as they are required to report to my brain on a continual basis. Patience is indeed a virtue. Some nights the aurora did not start until quite late. Often the initial burst of aurora activity would die out, only to return much later with an even more brilliant display. Even though I had read a book on auroras and understood how and why they are created, I had not considered how my eyesight would affect what I would and would not see.

I am a really, really lucky person. I appreciate that and do not want to forget it.

~ Jim

P.S. Here's a picture of a boreal chickadee and his reflection for those who might think I only looked skyward on this trip.

This blog originally appeared on the Writers Who Kill blog, 3/20/2016

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Six Steps to Help Prevent Financial Abuse of the Elderly

I have been working on two short stories this month. Although the stories are very different, they share two similarities. Both involve my series character Seamus McCree and crimes against the elderly or mentally diminished.

Fellow Writers Who Kill blogger Tina Whittle and I are writing one of the stories together. That one is for an anthology expected to be titled 50 Shades of Cabernet. The co-authoring thing is a new experience for me, and I am enjoying it. (I hope Tina is, too.) The second story is my planned submission to the fourth Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime anthology titled Fish Out of Water.

This need of mine to write about financial abuse of the elderly is not new. Perhaps it stems from my current responsibility to handle my mother’s finances, and I am more aware of the potential. Maybe it’s because I write about financial crimes. Criminals always follow the money, and today’s retirees as a group have a lot of money. Maybe it’s because news articles have suggested the way we now treat elder abuse is similar to the way we used to treat child abuse: severely underreporting the extent of the crime, blaming victims, allowing institutional practices to remain unchallenged. Whoa! That’s a charge.

Consider these facts:

Much as child abuse often happens within the family, according to AARP, nearly 60 percent of the Adult Protective Services cases of financial abuse nationwide involved an adult child of the elderly person.[1] According to a study sponsored by the Journal of Internal Medicine, friends and neighbors account for another 17%, and paid home aids 15%.[2] In this study, only 10% of the reported cases are perpetrated by strangers.

We don’t know for sure what percentage of total financial abuse is reported. Victims are often unaware. When they do realize they are victims, they are often too embarrassed to report the crime. Sometimes they are afraid to report the crime, fearing physical or psychological abuse from the perpetrator. Those suffering from dementia, depression, or disabilities are most at risk.

Sometimes the abuse is hard to catch, taking the form of “loans” that are never repaid, cheating not only the victim, but others who should have shared in the estate. Often the crime is simple theft, extracting money from an ATM, writing checks to themselves, buying stuff with the victim’s credit cards.

Taking a few simple steps can make it more difficult for perpetrators of elder financial fraud.

(1) As early as possible make sure you (and your parents, if alive) have an estate plan in place, including a will (and/or living trust) and health directives. Discuss your wishes with family so everyone knows what is to happen if you can’t take care of yourself in the future. This may be an uncomfortable conversation with your loved ones, but bright sunshine on your finances helps makes it harder for the mold of later abuse to take hold.

(2) Be wary when “new best friends” enter the life of a loved one. Any hint of “sharing” finances or the new friend “taking care” of finances should shoot off rockets of concern.

(3) Institute checks and balances wherever possible. Only a small percentage of lawyers and financial advisors are crooks, but alarm bells should go off if your lawyer recommends a financial advisor or vice versa. Independently verify referrals. Conversely, you may be able to use a lawyer or financial advisor as a resource to help prevent financial fraud.

(4) Use technology to help monitor spending. Credit card companies provide transaction alerts, which can provide early warning of a stolen number. If you worry about a relative who is still independent but potentially at risk, you can purchase monitoring services to spot unusual activity. An example is EverSafe.[3] (I mention them only as an example of what can be purchased. I have not used them and have no personal knowledge of how well they perform.)

(5) If one family member is responsible for a parent’s assets, make sure a second person has the ability to review transactions, asset statements, etc. I use DropBox to store my mother’s credit card, bank and mutual fund statements so one of my sisters can look over my shoulder. This protects Mom and also allows my sister to easily take over if something happens to me.

(6) If anything seems suspicious, ASK QUESTIONS.

Is financial crime against the elderly a concern for you, either for yourself or a relative? What have you done about minimizing risk of abuse?

~ Jim

This post first appeared on Writers Who Kill 2/21/16


Monday, August 31, 2015

Shoot? Don’t Shoot?

Last week I attended Writers' Police Academy sponsored, in part, by the Sisters in Crime. This year it was at a wonderful facility outside Appleton, Wisconsin. That’s less than a four-hour drive for us (right around the block in Yooper terms), so Jan and I both attended.

I was lucky enough to sign up for several special small-group classes. Crime Scene photography was excellent; it helped me understand how those folks actually work a scene using digital photography. I won a lottery and participated in a “Simunitions” exercise in which three of us attempted to extract an armed person for whom we had a warrant from a house. We were not sure if other people, including a baby, might still be in the house.

The class I want to discuss today is called MILO, an extremely realistic interactive training program.

For fifteen minutes two of us worked with an instructor and the MILO simulator. The instructor first provided a refresher on the basics of handgun control (both of us had experience shooting handguns). Next we discussed when it is appropriate for a police officer to fire his/her weapon: the key being that an officer should not shoot until feeling endangered.

The two of us took turns with the simulations. The first simulation had an angry man brandishing a knife. In scenario one he was (I think) thirty-one feet away. Was I endangered? No. I had plenty of time to shoot before he could run at me with the knife. When he did finally run, I shot. Because he kept moving, I kept shooting until the guy went down.

Lesson one: keep shooting until danger is removed.

I repeated the knife-wielding man scenarios with the guy at twenty-one feet and eleven feet. At eleven feet there is very little time between the man making a threatening move and the necessity of shooting. Very little time.

I managed those three scenarios successfully. The other student waited too long in the eleven-foot scene and was “killed.”

A little cop humor
We did several other scenarios. In all cases I correctly chose when to shoot. However, I did die in one scenario. I responded to a bank robbery by an armed man. He exited the bank, money in one hand, gun in the other. I made the correct decision of when to shoot, but then I made a rookie error. I developed tunnel vision, focusing on the downed gunman because he might not be dead and he still had the gun in his hand.

I missed seeing a car parked at the curb with the getaway driver. The screen went red when that person got off several shots before I located the problem and fired back.

Our last scenario involved both students. We were in a two-person patrol car and had made a traffic stop of an erratically-driven car. Out pops a guy pointing a gun at his head, threatening to blow his head off if we come nearer. Then he starts taunting us to shoot him. This was possibly a suicide-by-cop situation. We’re yelling at the guy to drop his gun and stay by his car. Eventually, he started moving toward us, still waving the gun more or less at his head.

Shoot? Don’t shoot?

He’s still coming toward us, waving the gun more or less at his head.

Shoot? Don’t shoot?

The waving gun is now pointed less frequently directly at his head, the gestures become loopier.

Shoot? Don’t shoot?

Crime scene photography
Both of us made the wrong decision. My partner never shot. Once the gunman reached the back bumper of his car (the line I had mentally drawn in the sand), I fired a shot into the dirt and when he kept coming, I shot his leg. According to the instructor, given the gunman was not following directions and was waving the gun around (and could easily change one of those loops into a shot at us), I had chosen the correct time to fire. However, I should have aimed for the center mass. Police officers do not shoot for extremities (or shoot the weapon out of the person’s hand). They are trained to focus on the chest through head area.

One thing the two of us didn’t do in that exercise, which many students do and which also happens a lot in real life is fire solely because the other person fires. It’s a tension-induced reflex. Combined with training to keep shooting until the opponent is no longer a threat, this reaction is often responsible for the massive number of bullets fired in some shootouts.

The exercise provided me with insight into police shootings I would never have gotten from television and printed news. Sometime it may even make it into a story.

~ Jim

This blog originally posted at Writers Who Kill

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Goals: 2014 Results & 2015 Plans

Let me wish all my readers a spectacularly positive 2015.

I am looking forward to a great year. You may recall from previous blogs and Facebook posts that I used the potential of embarrassing myself as motivation to obtain two of my 2014 goals. I wanted to lose and keep off twelve pounds, and I wanted to maintain a certain level of exercise through the year.

Weight – Mission Accomplished

The chart demonstrates that when I put my mind to it, I can lose weight, although I struggled while we were on the road. By the end of September, I wanted to maintain the fifteen pounds I had lost and so set that as a revised goal for the remainder of the year.

Exercise – Mission Mostly Accomplished

I had set an objective of earning at least 250 “Cooper Aerobic Points” each month. That I did not do. I found it easy to blow off exercise while we were on the road in May, June and July. The good news is that while not consistent, I did average 255 monthly points during the year.

The longer picture

Because I inherited my love of data-retention from my father, I can show 2014 as part of a longer perspective. The picture below suggests my 2015 weight goal.

This chart (looking a lot like the Himalayans) shows the up-down cycle of my weight since the middle of 1989. Long flat stretches on the graph do not mean I enjoyed amazingly stable weight during the period; they indicate I was not weighing myself.

For the entire period, my average weight was 191.4 (red line). The green line shows a running ten-year average weight, currently sitting at 194.2. For 2014 I averaged 186.8.

All of which is to say that my biggest problem with weight is not the ability to lose it, but once lost to keep it off.

My objective for 2015 is to avoid a weight gain. I have not averaged less than 180 pounds for a calendar year since 1994. I have set as the 2015 weight goal to average at most 179 pounds. Would I like to average less than that? Absolutely. The main task, however, is to avoid the bungee cord rise that has followed previous weight losses.

My exercise statistics since I retired do not exactly look robust. If I continue my goal of 250 aerobic points a month, I will be well ahead of the average year. Before I went back to the data and put this chart together, I planned to increase the goal to 300 points a month. Looking at my history, I’ll be fine at the 250 level and much less likely to injure myself.

I will post results periodically during 2015. If things are going well, I’ll bore you quarterly. If they aren’t going well, I’ll fess up monthly.

~ Jim

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Blocking Political Spam

With the midterm elections three weeks away, political “advertising” is heating up. Thankfully I’ve found a way to stymie the system. Note I do not claim to have beaten them; it’s just one battle in a long war.

I have met no one other than a politician who thinks that when you sign your phone up for the “No Call” list that politicians shouldn’t be barred from robocalls and the like. However, since politicians pass the laws, they exempted themselves.

I found an app for my cell phone that now allows me to avoid their robocalls and pitches for contributions. “Mr. Numbers” works on Android phones. I’m sure there are equivalent apps for Windows and Apple operating systems. I’m not even claiming Mr. Numbers is the best Android app. But here is what it allows me to do:

I set the app to block all restricted callers. These are folks who do not display a callback number. My theory is that if they don’t want me calling back, I don’t want them calling in. I originally did this to avoid telemarketers who get around the no-call list because they have some superficial link to a provider I have or had in the distant past. What I discovered is that as a bonus I no longer get political advertising or calls for contributions.

It’s a blessing I am passing on to you, unless you enjoy stringing folks along, in which case I don’t want to ruin your fun.

My only concern is that the politicians will outlaw software that restricts their “first amendment right to harass me” – er –their “free speech.” It’s a war and like any war the instruments of battle will escalate. Right now, I have the advantage and I am enjoying it.

~ Jim

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

2014 Goals Progress

Another month has dashed by, and it is time to fess-up to how I did with my twin goals of exercise and weight. Good news all around. I met my exercise goal for the month and reduced my weight below the 12-pound weight loss goal for the year.

The key for the last quarter of the year is to maintain exercising and keep off the lost weight through the end of the year. Overall on exercising, I now have had more months of success than failure and have the opportunity to end on a solid note.

Keeping weight off after losing it has been a continual problem for me. On average I've gained three pounds in the last three months of the year. If I were to do that this year, I would still technically meet my original goal, but it would not feel like a success. Therefore, I'm mentally resetting that goals so success means that I continue to maintain the current 15-pound weight loss.

Check back in a month and we'll see how I've done.

~ Jim

Monday, August 11, 2014

Driving Lessons

Beastette & Little Red
We’ve just had our family from Minnesota for a visit: two parents, two kids (almost 10 and almost 13) and dog (2+). One advantage of living deep in the woods is that kids and dogs are permitted a level of freedom unavailable at home. A great deal of learning comes from that freedom. The dog ditches her lead for the duration, roams the woods, drinks from mud puddles, swims in the lake and barks at critters without being yelled at (too much).

Children enjoy many of the same loosening of rules: they too can roam the woods, swim in the lake (under supervision), make lots of noise, sleep on the screened porch or out in a tent, and they can learn to drive years before the socially accepted, legally enforced standards.

First it starts with ATVs—all terrain vehicles. We have two: Beastette (a powerful yellow Polaris; at the time of its purchase I owned “Beastie,” a Ford Expedition) and Little Red (a slightly lower horse-powered red Honda). A sticker on Beastette indicates no one under age 16 should operate it. Another indicates you should not ride double. Both of these are important considerations if you operate an ATV off road or on slopes where an ATV can tip over. (When clearing our house site of trees, I managed to back Beastette into a hole and tip it over on myself. It hurt.)

When the kids are small we plop them in front of us and take them on ATV rides. They have to wear their bike helmets (the better to dent my chin with) and we never go superfast. The kids like bumps, so I make a point to run over all the rocks in the road. Starting around age 8, I let them do the driving, with me sitting behind them and early on with hands also on the steering bars—it takes some muscles to turn an ATV, and in case of danger I can knock a thumb from the throttle and squeeze the brakes.

They learn to steer; they learn to anticipate places where they need to go slower. I even teach them how to use hand signal turns. And once the older one was strong enough (roughly age 12) I allowed her to drive the ATV on her own, but only on “decent” trails, and I’m right there with the other ATV. They learn to drive responsibly. In a couple more years, I’ll let her go off on her own—as long as we have an agreed route and expected time of return.

Red Rover
This summer we tackled driving the car. The older is almost 13 and taller than her grandmother. There is no physical reason she can’t handle a car. She’s reasonably mature, and I’m in the passenger seat to coach, praise and if necessary throw the car out of gear and apply the emergency brake, since unlike a driver’s ed car there is no dual set of brakes. Our roads are dirt, not smooth, which inhibits going too fast—helpful when driver reactions are not yet honed.

I have been driving for almost fifty years. Much of driving becomes habit or muscle memory, both of which form from practice. I don’t have a how-to driving manual I can pull out to teach my grandkids, and the lessons I gave my younger son at camp are almost fifteen years old. And some things are entirely new.

When you first get into a car, what do you do? If you are like me you adjust the seat and then check the mirrors, first rearview mirror and then side mirrors. When I taught my son, the only seat adjustment was forward and back. Maybe you needed to adjust the tilt of the seatback if someone really tall had been in the car and cranked the seat backwards to make up for long legs. Now, in addition to those two adjustments, my car seat has up and down, tilt of the front of the seat, lumbar support – and everything is power. What used to take one minute of explanation and experimentation, this time required me to crouch next to the open driver’s door and guide her fingers to the right places to push various buttons to provide the correct seating for her.

Because of driving ATVs, we could foreshorten training about which way to turn the ignition key, but I forgot until the third time out to tell her to use the same foot for accelerator and brake – and interestingly when she converted to the right foot only approach, her braking became smoother.

When you first start to drive there are so many things to learn and many tasks must be done sequentially or simultaneously: accelerate smoothly, brake smoothly, learn where the right and left sides of the car are, learn where the tires are, signal turns, make turns without over- or under-steering, how to execute a k-turn, how to adjust windshield wipers, turn on/off lights (radio is forbidden during driving lessons).

We used rocks in roads to learn about where the tires are (try to run over that rock with your left tires), where the front bumper is (try to stop just before that rock), where the middle of the car is (drive so the rock will be in the center of the car), the space of the side mirrors (drive so the mirror just touches the evergreen).

My kids did a lot of backing up. I discovered with a rearview camera, backing up became much easier for children of the video game era, and we didn’t need to spend proportionally as much time as I had with a previous generation.

An hour a day seemed to work well. With plenty of skills to practice, we could keep it interesting and fun given I really didn’t want to go too far off my property given the illegality of the activity.

Mama Blue
The capstone activity for year one was moving from an automatic to manual transmission. I’ve always preferred manual transmissions (except in rush hour traffic), but I taught my children how to drive with automatics because it was one less thing to worry about. However, I insisted they learn to drive standard transmissions because that knowledge might save a life in case of emergency.

So for the last day out, we switch from my car to Jan’s, a basic Subaru Forester with manual transmission. I start the lesson by demonstrating all the things she will do wrong. As I’m explaining, I purposefully stall the car. It startles her and I laugh and explain what happened. I next do the airplane takeoff routine: applying lots of accelerator while keeping the clutch engaged. “Whoa!” she says. We discuss how to fix that problem. Lastly I get the car to do the herky-jerky when it’s in too high a gear with too little speed.

I explain what the clutch is doing in terms of her multiple-speed bicycle. I don’t know why I never thought of that analogy before, but she catches on quickly to what happens in a stall, airplane takeoff and the herky-jerky. Then it’s her turn. We switch seats and after she adjusts the seat and belts herself in, she figures out how to adjust Jan’s mirrors. Next we go through the gear box shifting up and shifting down, and I describe differences she might find—in that case of emergency—like some cars require you to push down to get into reverse.

She’s ready and goes to start the car, but has forgotten that she needs to depress the clutch before the ignition will work. A lesson reinforced is a lesson learned. We’ve talked about the “friction point” of every clutch: that the secret is to find that point and then you can start the car without using the accelerator. That is what we practice: clutch only starts, braking to a stop without stalling, starting again. I have 3/8ths mile of road before reaching my property line. Along the way are some hills, so we learn that starting on hills we have to involve the accelerator. This allows her to experience her own airplane revving moment and one short stretch of herky-jerky before stalling. We start and stop and occasionally stall our way to the end where we need to use reverse to turn around.

Bless her: she remembers to signal the left hand turn from which she’ll back out.

No more backup camera. She learns to loop her arm over the back seat and that reverse is a bit higher gear than first and with the wheels turned she’ll need a bit of gas. The turn made, we start and stop ourselves back to the driveway, turn around and switch drivers so I can demonstrate shifting. First I do several upshifts for her, describing the process, the timing of gas pedal release, clutch, shift, gas pedal and clutch. Then downshifting with a very quick history lesson about synchromesh should she happen to meet a car that requires a full stop to engage first gear.

She’s back to driving and now she has to accelerate fast enough to allow second gear. The first time she operates the pedals and I shift. Next she operates pedals and puts her hands on mine when I shift. Next her hands are on the gearshift, mine on top. Last she’s on her own. We make it to second gear several times before reaching our turnaround. A couple of times she didn’t engage the gear and the airplane returned. Once we met the herky-jerky man. On the way back we repeat: start, second gear, stop; start, second gear, stop.

I decide she’s ready.

“This time,” I say, “we’re going to get into third gear and you are going to have to go fast enough to do it.” She nods, wary, a bit worried, I think, but I know she can do it. I point to a spot by which I want her to be in second gear. We’re off and she accelerates smoothly, shifts into second gear and eases off the accelerator. “More gas,” I tell her and she responds. I allow her to stay in second around a bit of a curve with a threatening boulder on the left side. “Now,” I say, “accelerate and shift to third halfway down the hill.” She does, and I see the creep of a smile, but again she doesn’t continue with sufficient gas after the shift and we’re starting to climb the hill.

“Okay,” I coach, “now a downshift.” She complies, chugs up the hill, around another curve and I have her accelerate, shift to third, apply the brake, downshift to second. She remembers on her own to signal her left turn, making the turn she comes to a smooth halt.

She sits back in her seat. “That,” she says, “was overwhelming.”

I give her a big smile. “Oh no, my dear, you did it all! So, it wasn’t overwhelming. But, I’ll give you that it was whelming!”

She drives home, obtaining and staying in third, downshifts before the left turn into the driveway and comes to a perfect stop before the house. School starts in a couple of weeks and she’s earned her bragging rights for the start of eighth grade: “I drove a stick shift!”

“Yes you did,” I say. “Yes you did.”

~ Jim

[This blog originally posted on Writers Who Kill 8/10/14]

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Kindness of Strangers

Dateline 7 July 2014: Early morning, Hampton Inn, Utica, New York.
The camera case with wanderlust

I had planned to upload my photos from the day before to my computer, choose one for my daily Facebook post celebrating the road trip we were on—and the camera was not where I expected it to be. I checked the room without success. I thought about when I had last used it (taking a picture of the bridge over the Hudson River we’d crossed) and what I had done with the camera (zipped it into a soft case, which I’d shoved into an outside pouch on my knapsack).

Conclusion: when I brought the knapsack inside the motel the previous night, I must have tipped the camera case out.

 I checked outside around the car. I checked under the car. I checked inside the car. I rechecked the hotel room. Nada.

With the almost certain knowledge I had lost my small camera (I still had the big one safely stored in a camera backpack) I trooped down to the hotel front desk and enquired whether anyone turned in a lost camera. Indeed someone had, and once I told the clerk the make of the camera, it and I were reunited.

All because of the kindness of a stranger.

Normally when I use this camera, I attach its case to my belt. Normally does not mean always, and on this road trip I had misplaced my small camera once before. That time I laid it down next to me on the boat trip to visit the Northern Gannet colony on Bonaventure Island, which is off the coast of the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec. When I got up, I didn’t check around me.

 A younger man saw me leave the camera and brought it to me. Again, the kindness of a stranger. I was able to personally thank that young man, but only through this blog can I thank the person who found and turned in my camera in Utica.

Although my camera loss and recovery occurred during summer, for reasons not clear to me, that experience got me thinking about an act of kindness I received during winter. Six miles from home and about three miles from the nearest habitation, I skidded off the road with sufficient speed that I crested the snowbank. Two of my wheels retained contact with the snow. The other two were up in the air. When I tried to back out (four-wheel drive can solve anything, right?), I proceeded to spin the wheels and turtle my Ford Expedition so that none of the wheels had traction. A logging truck passed by. The driver saw me shoveling the snow from under my vehicle to attempt to regain traction. He backed up and, using my chain, pulled me out of the snowbank.

Innumerable strangers have given me directions over the years. Some of them have physically led me to where I needed to go because the directions were complicated.

In an act of kindness with long-term career effects, a professor on the Boston University selection MBA selection committee convinced the rest of the committee to ignore a technicality that would have voided my application. Without his intervention I would not have been able to go back to BU and complete my MBA. As it turned out, I later took a course taught by this professor. He recognized my name and told me the story.

I could go on (and on), but instead, I’d be interesting in hearing your stories about how a stranger’s kindness helped you.

~ Jim

[This post originally appeared on Writers Who Kill 13 July 2014]

Monday, June 2, 2014

Spring Has Finally Arrived

“Spring has sprung.
The grass has ris’.
I wonder where the birdies is.”

Do you remember that little ditty from grade school? Do they even say such nonsense today? I don’t know, but I do know that Spring has finally arrived in the Northwoods. What the heck, it is June 1st. Technically, Summer is only three weeks away.

5/17/14 Notice the buds are just getting red.
Because Jan and I are migratory, we normally experience two complete comings of Spring: one in Savannah and the other in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. By the time we leave Savannah, the weather is summer-like. Trees and bushes have leafed out; the first brood of baby birds are chirping to be fed; sand gnats are out in force; the frogs are mostly quiet.

Arriving in the U.P. we find that not only have leaves not appeared, buds are hardly even swollen. Black flies are not yet present. Frogs sing solos or duets, lonely precursors of the chorus to come.

Most mornings I still take the chill off the house with a fire in the woodstove. Unlike late Fall and Winter, one fire is sufficient for the day. In part that is because we get so much daylight this time of year and the glass wall overlooking the lake faces west.

When we first arrive, more than fourteen hours of daylight greets us—that’s almost an hour more than we had in Savannah. At the summer solstice we have fifteen and three-quarter hours of daylight here, an hour and a half more than Savannah experiences. With that extra daylight (and short growing seasons between the cold) plants and animals grow quickly.

This year I thought it would be interesting to photograph the growth of a red maple’s leaves. You can see the results below.


The tree has fully leafed out. At night I now fall asleep to the frog chorus (and the occasional Barred Owl hootfest). I awake to Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at their feeder. Black flies and mosquitoes have made their presence known. It is almost time for the snapping turtles to climb from the lake and dig their shallow nests to lay eggs.

5/31/14 Looking out from my desk

Yep, Spring has finally arrived.

~ Jim

[Originally Published on Writers Who Kill Blog 6/1/14]