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A Little Rain

Last weekend, I convinced my son-in-law to stand on an aluminum ladder in the rain and cut the tops off the cedar trees in our front yard with an electric hedge trimmer. The extension cord has a number of splices wrapped in electrician’s tape from when I was learning to use the hedge trimmer a few years ago. Which is why I asked my son-in-law to trim the cedar trees.

In my defence, it was only raining slightly. And it was not raining at all when I asked him to do it.

I wanted to get the trees trimmed before the real rain hits. It is supposed to rain every day for the next two weeks, averaging an inch a day. We already have two dogs and two cats.

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Reflections on Halloween

There has been a trend in recent years for some people to decorate their houses for Halloween as elaborately as other people do for Christmas. I don’t get it. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus. Even for those who don’t believe strongly in Jesus, the season represents the spirit of love and giving, children and family, life and light. The Halloween decorations celebrate death, fear, suffering, and darkness. Why would people go to great expense and effort to celebrate that? Could it be that the celebration is a deliberate response and affront to Christmas, pointing out that non-Christians can have their own holiday to celebrate?

This Halloween, I went out trick or treating with the grandchildren. We went to our neighbours, most of whom know us. It was a community event.

There was one house that was particularly elaborately decorated and particularly scary, lit only by feeble orange lights. The older grandchildren were afraid to approach it, but the two-year-old matter-of-factly walked up the steps, holding my hand, and rang the doorbell. No one answered.

This was something else that I noticed. Many of the elaborately decorated Halloween houses were only that. No one answered the door, and no one gave out any candy. They seemed to promise something that they didn’t deliver. They celebrated darkness and showed no kindness to children. It was often the houses with no decorations except maybe a single pumpkin and a porch light that gave away the most candy—the homes of the people who preferred celebrating giving and children and light rather than death and darkness.

There was a final occurrence worthy of note. The day after Halloween, my wife and I were driving our car across town when the backseat window on the driver’s side suddenly rolled down. I hit the control button on the driver’s door, and the window rolled up again. But a few seconds later it rolled down again, and this time I could not get it to go back up. We began to wonder if there was a Halloween ghost or some dark and dangerous beast in the back seat playing with the window control. My wife phoned our mechanic, who said that it could be an electrical malfunction. I pulled over and stopped, then opened the back door. It was then that I discovered that a bag of dog food had fallen over and hit the rear window control. Our dog may be annoying, but he cannot fairly be described as a dark and dangerous beast.

 

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Accept No Substitutes

Last week was student week on Dragons’ Den. Dragons’ Den is a popular CBC television show on which young entrepreneurs try to convince a group of seasoned businesspeople to invest in their products, inventions, or businesses. The presenters last week were all students.

First up was a university student who had invented a cellphone app that can scan textbooks and automatically reduce them to summaries about a fifth the size of the original. He explained that this will reduce the amount of reading that university students will have to do. (For you older readers, it is essentially an electronic version of Coles Notes. For you younger readers, there is no point in explaining what Coles Notes were since you don’t really want to know anyway.)

Second was a student who had developed a drug supplement that would increase alertness and improve cognitive abilities. He said it was a legal alternative to the illegal drugs many university students (up to 29 percent) are now taking to enhance their performance.

The dragons (the seasoned businesspeople) thought the first invention especially was “awesome.” One enthused, “The future of Canada is bright!” All six dragons agreed to invest in the app.

As someone who has earned four degrees without resorting to such methods, I was deeply offended by both pitches. I don’t appreciate people using performance-enhancing drugs and other corner-cutting measures to complete university degrees. These methods are unfair to those who don’t use such methods, and they cheapen university degrees. If you don’t have the intelligence and the work ethic to earn a university degree, you don’t deserve one.

Both inventions are typical of modern attitudes. Too many modern students (like many other people today) don’t want to do the hard work necessary to earn a degree. They are looking for shortcuts, easy answers. They want to do 20 percent of the work and get the same result. They want to spend most of their time partying and then take some pills that will enable them to stay up all night when a report is due or an exam is looming. They want to spend fewer hours working and get the same degree.

But think about the result. Do you really want a doctor or an accountant or an engineer who only studied 20 percent of the required subject matter? Often thorough explanations and fine details are key to really understanding a subject. Do you seriously want to hire someone who has only a partial understanding of his profession? And who knows whether the cellphone app will select the most important information to include in the condensed version? Similarly, do you want to hire someone who puts off doing your work until the last possible moment and then rushes through it while taking drugs?

A few years ago, my daughter was taking a university course. On the first assignment, she received the highest mark in the class, almost 20 percent higher than the second best student.

After the class, another student approached her with an urgent question. The conversation went something like this:

“How did you do it? What’s your secret?” he demanded.

She asked, “What do you mean?”

He said, “What’s your secret for doing so well? For instance, did you attend all the classes?”

“Yes.”

“Did you do all the readings?”

“Yes.”

“Did you do the supplementary readings?”

“Yes.”

“Did you do the practice questions?”

“Yes.”

“Did you do the extra, optional study questions?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.”

There is no secret formula or easy shortcut to success. The road to success requires hard work and a commitment to doing a job completely and thoroughly.

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Unravelling the Mystery II

In my previous blog, I wrote about a seminar I was scheduled to present on “How to write a murder mystery.” Unfortunately, the conference where I was scheduled to present the seminar has been postponed. I am sorry for talking about an event that will now not happen. (There is no word yet on when the conference might be rescheduled.) However, I thought that some parts of that blog might still be of interest, particularly some comments on how I began writing murder mysteries in the first place…

When we got married over 30 years ago, my wife and I developed the habit of reading together, especially just before bed. She said she liked the sound of my voice—it put her to sleep. We read a variety of books, but she liked murder mystery novels and got me intro reading mysteries. I hadn’t read many before that. Over the years, we read most of the classics—Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Ross MacDonald, Ellery Queen. Having read most of the classics, we moved on to some lesser known writers—and discovered that sometimes there were good reasons they were lesser known.

I read a book review once that said, “This book should not be put down lightly. It should be thrown, with force.” It may be heresy for a writer to say this, but some books are not worth reading—at least, for some people. One night, Jackie and I had just started reading a new mystery novel. We had gotten two or three pages into it when I literally threw the book across the room and said, “This is terrible! I could write a better mystery than that!” And my wife, wonderfully helpful person that she is, said, “Why don’t you?”

 And so I did.

 

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Unravelling the Mystery

Shortly after I posted this blog about the upcoming “Telling Stories: A Conference for Writers,” it was postponed, for reasons beyond my control. I apologize for this. I will post again if and when the conference is rescheduled. 

 

For more information about the conference, go to http://mennonitemuseum.org/category/upcoming-events/

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To Make a Difference

We all want to make our mark in the world. To be significant. To make a difference.

Sadly, too many people in our world choose to do it the easy way—by destroying something, by tearing something down, by wrecking something. To use a gun or a bomb to kill other people takes no great skill or talent. The people who do this aren’t creative or inventive. They take something that someone else has invented and use it to harm other people. It takes no great ability or sustained effort to kill or injure someone, blow something up, burn something down, vandalize a building or monument. Any moron can do it. Needlessly causing destruction is an act of plain selfishness, an attempt to demonstrate one’s own importance at the expense of other people. The perpetrators do not deserve the media attention they get.

The other way to make a difference in the world is much harder. Anyone can take a life. It is much harder to save one. If you really want to be significant, to make your mark, try doing something constructive. Find a cure for cancer. Found a school, or, better yet, teach in one for forty years. Build a bridge. Heal the sick. Comfort the brokenhearted. Offer hope. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Teach the ignorant. Shelter the homeless. Love your children. Be faithful to your spouse. Be a friend. Smile. That is the way of love. Such acts rarely get much media attention. They are acts of selflessness, not selfishness.

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Reflections on an Eclipse

There was an eclipse of the sun in our area today. But I missed it.

I couldn’t look at it directly and risk eye damage, of course. My eyesight is bad enough as it is. And I wasn’t going to go online and pay $1,000 for officially certified viewing glasses. I am too cheap for that. I know, I could have made a pin prick in a piece of paper and held it up so that the sun shone through the pin prick onto a black piece of paper. But looking at a miniature shadow of a shadow seemed a little divorced from the reality. Pointless even. So, I stayed inside and looked out a north-facing window. It looked as if evening had come early. Or as if I was wearing a really good pair of sunglasses if I could afford a really good pair of sunglasses. Or both.

Besides, I had witnessed the previous solar eclipse thirty-eight years ago. That was when I was in university and still had hopes of learning something. Back then, they told us to look at the eclipse through a piece of exposed camera film. Camera film is…well, you can’t explain that concept in the modern world.

Instead of staring at inanimate objects, I decided to do something constructive with my time. Specifically, I decided to shampoo our living room rug. Well, okay, technically my wife decided I was going to shampoo our living room rug. It was a good idea. By the time I had finished, about the time the solar eclipse was at its peak (it only reached 87 percent in our area), all of the stains on the rug were gone. However, I did observe that later in the day some of the stains had reappeared. Probably some weird side-effect of the eclipse. Perhaps an astrophysicist could explain it. Or at least someone smarter than I am.