Thursday, April 8, 2021

Girls’ Weekend (If you live through it, it just becomes fodder for stories.)

Many of you know my heart lies at my place in the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, regardless of where my body resides. It’s on an inland lake, fifteen miles of dirt and gravel roads from where you can buy anything, and the setting for two of my novels (Cabin Fever and Empty Promises). Unless the logging companies are working in the area, the only way in during the winter is snowmobile.


The 250-acre lake has only six resident structures plus another half-dozen properties with trailers or tent sites for occasional visits. Lucky for us, our nearest neighbors are wonderful folks. For several years, some of the family women (mother, daughter, daughter’s partner, and daughter-in-law, and four female dogs) have adopted the practice of a fall girls’ four-day vacation barring husbands, sons, brothers, nephews, etc. from camp (or for at least part of the weekend).

The women love to explore the woods and nearby lakes, taking long walks and ATV trips. Since I’ve been in the area longer, they have often invited me along as their “guide.” Now, you might think this breaks the spirit of girls’ weekend. But (if I do pat myself on the back), I do a pretty good job of being one of the girls. I may provide suggestions on where to go and what to see, but all decisions are theirs. They set the pace; on ATV rides, I take the last position allowing them to experience the unfamiliar territory at their tempo with the instruction that when they come to an intersection, they wait if they’re not sure which direction to take so I can point.

I’ve proven I’m comfortable working with women. I served as a board member for nearly a decade and president for two years of the (then 700+-person) Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime. And I’m a good listener, and do not fall into mansplaining when I’m with them. That’s easy since the four include a police officer, a full-time sergeant in the national guard, a healthcare worker, and the long-term manager of a business. I have never repeated any of their conversations to their family members.




A few weeks ago, the girls asked if I’d like to join them for their first go at a spring weekend. I was stoked to return north. We weren’t sure if we’d make the last two-and-a-half miles by snowmobile, by car, or on foot. Once they invited me, they figured they had better include the old man of the family (husband, father, father-in-law—depending on which woman we’re referring to). With everyone on board, we agreed the women would arrive on Thursday with minimal supplies since they might have to walk in. The guys would come up Friday morning towing either a snowmobile or ATV (depending on road conditions) and haul in the rest of the supplies.

The last weekend in March hit a sweet spot. Snow had melted sufficiently, but the roads were still mostly frozen and, with care and slow speeds, they drove both a Jeep and a car all the way to their camp. The tricky part was the last two-and-a-half miles where the center of the road was snow/ice packed solid by snowmobiles over the winter. They made it to camp before noon on Thursday, reported we should bring the ATV, and that because of the icy road center, we should only drive the F-150 to a landing a half mile before their camp.

We used my Outback and the Jeep to bring supplies from the F-150 to their camp. I parked at their place and humped my pack in the last 3/8ths of a mile to my house because that section of the road was a mixture of ice and bare areas that showed signs of frost heaves. With temperatures expected to rise above freezing, I was afraid I might get in fine, but not be able to get out. (Keep that thought in mind.)

At my place, I found the batteries fully charged from the solar panels, so I had electricity. I didn’t want to have to drain the entire house again when I left in two days, so I only brought water into the basement pressure tank where I attached a hose to draw buckets for drinking, dishwashing, and flushing toilets. The inside temperature was thirty-five. With cathedral ceilings, the woodstove would take hours to heat the house, but the girls were eager to continue their moose shed hunt from yesterday. Since I would need to babysit the fire until it was burning steadily, I left the house cold and off we went on our first exploration.

The morning jaunt included all ten of us (4 women, 2 men, 4 dogs). We were out for a couple of hours exploring our nearby woods, spotting lots of moose poop and browse[i], but no rubbings[ii] (where the bulls scrape their antlers against trees during the spring to eventually shed[iii] them and allow for new growth). That walk exhausted the dogs (part of the plan because they’d sleep while we went for our second, longer, exploration after lunch.)

The afternoon walk was just the girls and me. We walked miles through the woods and found areas with more moose scrapes than I’d previously seen in my lifetime. The bulls were beating the hell out of the hardwood saplings, but alas, we discovered no sheds.



I got back to my place about five-thirty and started my woodstove. By seven I had a good bed of coals and a packed stove that I knew would neither go out nor overheat, and I joined everyone for dinner and drinks around their campfire. That night I had the house temperature in the mid-fifties—perfect for sleeping—and with 28,556 steps for the day (mostly in snow), I slept well.





Saturday morning, I stocked the wood stove and brought the indoor temperature up to 68. That morning, the girls and I ATV’d to where we had turned around yesterday and explored several new areas (including one old skidder road[iv] I had not been on before!) Again, lots of moose sign but no antlers. In a wet area we came across a series of spots where the ice looked like topographical maps.










Saturday afternoon all six of us took the ATVs to property for sale that has a half-mile of river frontage. We had all walked the main road to the river but had never explored the rest of the land. Much of it is regrowth quaking aspen—a favorite of moose. We found fresh tracks suggesting we probably pushed a moose out ahead of us.


The girls located a perfect spot for a future cabin. When we returned to the ATVs, we discovered one of them had a flat tire. Our neighbors have a practice of writing each day’s activities in a camp diary, and each year they produce a limited-edition camp book of photographs recording the year’s activities. I said they needed to take a photo of the disabled ATV because it would surely become part of their story book if they bought the land. We left the wounded vehicle with the three youngest girls and returned with the other two ATVs to fetch a portable compressor. The tire just needed air, so everyone got back fine.

Temperatures had warmed from below freezing in the morning to the mid-forties in the afternoon, and the roads were getting sloppy in places. The weather forecast called for an overnight low of twenty-six with 1-2” of snow. We agreed we’d be better off waiting for roads to refreeze than risk tearing them up or slipping off the ice and sticking in mud.

After only 17,416 steps for the day, I again slept well, this time choosing to haul my sleeping bag onto the screened porch. (It’s my preferred sleeping spot unless temps fall below twenty.)

Before I went to bed, it started to snow and stick. I awoke to 3-4” of slippery white stuff.

We agreed to leave at noon and quickly learned we should have brought the cars out to the main road the night before. Within two hundred yards of their cabin, the front-wheel-drive car slid off the road. Four people pushing got the car back onto the icy middle, but going up the next rise, it slipped off again. This time we couldn’t push it out.

With most of our equipment sitting in the F-150 parked a half-mile away, we tried my small come-along[v], but the rope we had available was too stretchy to work. I pulled my Subaru Outback off the road and we positioned the Jeep with a front power winch to be next in line. The winch worked, and once the car was back onto the center, we backed it up enough so the Jeep could pass and take the lead. We then attached the car to the Jeep with a tow strap and had the Jeep pull the car the two miles to the main road.

The Jeep was steady; the car slipping and sliding all over the road. I followed next white-knuckling my way past places where my tires wanted to follow the car off the road. Once I passed the F-150, it followed in the clean-up position creeping along to keep the loaded trailer under control.

Halfway out, I slid off. I straightened my wheels and carefully reversed back onto the road. Whew.

A quarter mile further, I slid off again, this time four feet down a slope. I thought I could recover, but after reversing three feet, I was stuck. I texted the F-150. No response and after a few minutes still no truck. I hiked back a half mile and found them off the other side of the road.

With their stronger come-a-long and tow straps, they had pulled over a 4”-diameter pine tree and were now adding another tow strap to reach a large maple to use as an anchor point. With three of us working, we soon hauled the F-150 back onto the center. For a while we weren’t sure if the truck would pull the trailer out or the trailer would drag the truck back off, but the truck won. To extract my car, we attached the come-a-long and tow strap to my trailer hitch Easy Peasy.

We made it the rest of the way to the main road and caravanned without incident the remaining eleven miles to the paved road. A trip that normally takes thirty minutes, took two hours and forty-five minutes. I see an addendum coming to my neighbors’ weekend diary.

The moral of the story is to make sure you have the right tools AND people who know how to use them. Then it’s just an adventure and fodder for future stories.

I’m looking forward to the next girls’ weekend.


[i] Winter diet for moose (the Algonquin word for twig-eater) consists mainly of twigs from a wide variety of woody plants. They tend to grab a mouthful and move on – hence the term browsing. The chomped off ends of the branches are referred to as “browse sign” or “browse” for short.

[ii] Moose rub their antlers against small trees to mark territory, scrape off velvet, and work off their aggression during rut season (in the fall).

[iii] Each bull moose has two antlers, which they shed each spring. The fallen antler is referred to as a “shed.” Because they weigh so much, a moose with only one antler is lopsided and works hard to get rid of the second antler after dropping the first.

[iv] Temporary roads that loggers use to drag (or skid) trees out to a landing where they stack them for pickup are called skidder trails.

[v] A come-along is a hand-operated winch with a ratchet used to pull objects (or make them come along the path you want to drag them)

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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. Furthermore, a novella is the most recent addition to the series. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

This blog originally appeared on the Writers Who Kill blog 4/6/21

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Life After a 95% Effective Vaccine

Congratulations, you scored your double dose of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines and you are ready to rock and roll, Baby.

Does it matter that the pandemic is still raging outside your door? For those of us old enough to remember Rowan & Martin’s “Laugh-In” the answer is clear: You bet your sweet bippy it matters.

Ninety-five percent is not 100%. You still have a 1/20 chance of getting the disease given a significant exposure to the virus. Your case may not be as virulent as without the vaccine, but the scientific jury is still out—especially regarding the long-term effects of the disease.

Here’s how to think of your risk. You decide to go to in-person church (or some other super-spreader event). Let’s say for discussion that before your vaccine you had a 50/50 chance of catching the disease. (Even in super-spreader events, not everyone was infected.) With the vaccine, your chances fall to 2.5% for that one event. Life’s for living, right? No more sheltering in place because that doesn’t sound too risky.

Although, on average, if forty of you made that same decision, one of you will come down with the disease.

But okay, you take that chance. Of course, if you are going to chance it once, you’ll chance it twice, three times, ’cause heck, the odds are 39-1 against anything bad happening.

Except that’s not the way probabilities work. To stay healthy, you must win against every encounter with the disease. Your chance of winning each one (based on the assumptions above) is 97.5%. To determine the chances of staying healthy after two events, you multiply the chance of staying healthy for each of those events. 97.5% x 97.5% = about 95%.

After 10 events, your chances of not catching the disease are down to 78%. They become less than 50% after 28 such events. If you are part of a couple who attend the events together, the chances of both of you staying healthy drop to below 50% after only 14 events.

To allow us to get back to normal, we must significantly decrease our chances of being exposed to the disease in gatherings. There are only two ways to do this: Increase effectiveness of the vaccine (nope – it doesn’t work that way) or decrease the chances of being exposed during an outing. That means continuing to make safe decisions until enough people are vaccinated (or have caught the disease and are no longer contagious) so the chances of being exposed in what had been a super-spreader event decline significantly.

The math is powerful. If we can drop the original assumption of 50% to 10%, our chances of staying healthy after 28 events increases from 49% to 87%. If we can reduce the chance of exposure to 5%, the 87% after 28 events increases to 93%. This is the power of herd immunity, but we are a long way from reaching those levels of protection.

Even if you don’t quite understand the math, believe its message: your vaccination improves your odds of staying COVID-19 free, but only if you don’t take unnecessary risks.

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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. Furthermore, a novella is the most recent addition to the series. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

An open letter to my senators

Dear Senators Stabenow and Peters:

Jurors determine guilt or innocence under the law, not whether the law is constitutional. The courts make constitutional decisions. Nevertheless, forty-five of your Republican senate colleagues have taken the court’s powers and made them their own when they voted that it is unconstitutional to hold an impeachment trial for a president who is no longer in office.

It is important for our democracy that every senator vote on whether they believe the evidence presented in the upcoming impeachment trial suffices to convict former president Trump of the article of impeachment voted by the House of Representatives and delivered to the Senate. We must not allow any senator to sidestep a vote on whether Trump committed impeachable actions by instead declaring him not guilty by reason of the trial being unconstitutional.

Therefore, the Senate must delay the trial until the Supreme Court settles this issue. The Senate must send a formal request to the Supreme Court to prepare an opinion regarding the constitutionality of trying a former president on article(s) of impeachment approved by the House while the president was still in office.

If the Supreme Court deems the constitution does not allow this, the Senate should abandon the trial. The Senate and the House can then determine if censure or other sanctions are appropriate based on former president Trump’s behavior leading up to the January 6, 2021 riot at the Capital. If the Supreme Court deems the constitution does not prohibit such a trial, all senators will have to vote on the article of impeachment based on their view of the evidence presented.

I do not know the legal mechanism for having the Supreme Court take up this issue, but I believe it is critical to the future of our democracy that they do.

I encourage you and your colleagues to take the necessary actions.

James M. Jackson.
Amasa, MI

Friday, January 8, 2021

Making Endings for the New Year

 

English Proverb


In Western cultures, January 1 starts the annual calendar and with it come resolutions for the new year. We vow to lose ten pounds, exercise more, get organized, save more, quit smoking, learn Swahili, et cetera. I have nothing against goals. They can be helpful if used the right way, and five years ago I wrote a blog on Making Your Goals SMART. We can start a self-improvement project any day of the year. Today, however, I want to suggest that making good endings can be a critical step to our success.

Have you had the experience of trying to solve a problem and, seemingly out of nowhere, a solution appears, often long after you have actively been thinking about the problem? In college, I kept a notepad by my bed because I would wake up in the middle of the night knowing how to work a math problem that had stumped me the previous day or two. As an author, my recent experiences take the form of resolving a plot hole that had bothered me, or realizing I have a plot hole that I had not recognized. These sudden inspirations often occur while I am walking or listening to music.

Our minds are wired to work on open issues. Think of a computer that has programs open for Facebook, YouTube, a spreadsheet to collect receipts and expenses for your taxes, three incomplete short stories, a webpage providing information about how long it takes a body to decompose in Georgia clay, a to-do list with a few items checked off, a calendar reminding us that next week we have a colonoscopy scheduled for Tuesday at 9:20 a.m., and we need to pick up our child from soccer practice at four this afternoon, and our email program dings every time a new missive arrives. That’s a lot of stuff going on. The computer has algorithms to tell it how to allocate memory, CPU, space on the screen, and whether to access your printer remotely.

Our brains operate in a similar fashion with the positive result that our brainpower keeps working on problems we couldn’t solve. Often when we least expect it, an answer appears. They are not always great answers, but often they are spot on. Unfortunately, our brains aren’t good at prioritizing which problems to work on. Consider those times when you catch yourself thinking about the job you didn’t take seven years ago, the day Sally laughed because your clothes didn’t match, how embarrassed you felt in fourth grade when you snorted milk out your nose. We can’t change these past events. Although it may be useful to learn from past mistakes, dwelling on them at the expense of moving forward isn’t productive – and yet, if we allow them to remain open issues, our subconscious keeps offering opportunities for review. Example: two days after Sam crushed us with a negative one-liner, we think of the perfect response. Too late to use that response, but if we accept it as a fine solution to the problem, we can close that mental tab.

Sometimes we can catch ourselves wallowing in the mud hole of a past situation and issue a personal cease and desist order. This is the advice not to cry over spilt milk.

We can control a vast number of mind-tabs that opened with the best of intentions that we should put to bed. As part of preparing for 2021, I decided to end five writing projects that once excited me so they no longer suck up precious resources from more desirable projects.

Five writing projects I will end

1. Audio Books & Screen Plays: I will not create audio books for the Seamus McCree series. Closing that path means I don’t have to spend time or effort to compare (yet again) alternative financing methods and royalty splits, or find a narrator, or worry about whether Amazon is treating its vendors well. Nor will I follow several suggestions I have received to convert some of the Seamus McCree novels into screenplays.

2. Analysis Paralysis: For 2021, I will not reconsider whether I should maintain wide distribution for the Seamus McCree series or return to the Amazon-only universe with its access to Kindle Unlimited readers. Nor will I make comparisons to what happened in 2020 or 2019.

3. Dystopian Novels: I will put my idea for a dystopian YA series on hold and spend no more time world-building and sketching character arcs.

4. Class for Writers Using Microsoft Word: I know many writers could use a class to help them efficiently use Microsoft Word to prepare their drafts, manuscripts, and format their material for printed books. I enjoy teaching and could do a good job. But the time it will take me to collect material, prepare lessons, market, and deliver the course far exceeds the financial or psychological benefits I might obtain. I will turn down current requests.

5. Dealing with Psychic Bleeders: I call people who sap our positive energy with their negative energy “Psychic Bleeders.” Their techniques include “Woe is me” posts and emails, constant complaints about others, and refusal to do the most basic work themselves while looking for others to spoon-feed information. I’m giving up trying to help (some might say to save) psychic bleeders. I’ll politely refuse to engage with their antics.

The above list is not all-inclusive, nor (except for #5, I hope) am I precluded from resurrecting a project in the future.

Ending projects also holds for the non-writing parts of my life. I plan to give special emphasis to ignoring political Psychic Bleeders on whom I have spent inordinate energy this past year! [I wrote this before the events in Washington, DC on January 6. I still have some work to do on this one.]

Does this idea resonate with you? What endings should you make to free up time and energy for the important things in your life? I look forward to your comments.

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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. Furthermore, a novella is the most recent addition to the series. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

(A version of this post first appeared 1/5/21 on the Writers Who Kill Blog.)