My life has never been so full of mystery and suspense. For instance, why does the tag on my new bathing suit read, “Do not dry in sun”? What might happen? Will the fabric melt? Burst into flames? Shrivel up to half its size? Should I be worried it’ll do all that while I’m wearing it at the beach? Just what is the intended use of this garment — beauty pageants?
No one can shed much light on my bathing suit conundrum, and authorities remain even more puzzled over the question of how a kitten managed to get inside an ATM in Fort Smith, Arkansas. A startled customer heard meowing from the depths of the machine and called firefighters, who had to take the whole thing apart to extract the critter — now known, of course, as Cash. “Probably trying to find shade is why,” said Alexis Bloom, cat handler at Fort Smith Animal Haven. “But I can’t tell you how.”
As I was writing this piece, I consulted a few notes I’d made in advance, and thought, “Right, bathing suit, kitten in ATM, and there was one more…” The next notation read, “stamp story.” What stamp story? Did I have a stamp story? It seemed unlikely. Passport stamp, maybe? Hand stamp at an event? I began shuffling through my mental files with increasing urgency. Nada. I consulted Rich, who looked as baffled as I felt. This sort of thing is happening to me with increasing frequency of late, and I’m just glad that Rich is equally memory-challenged. Keeps our marriage brimming with exciting surprises.
You’d think I’d be better at unraveling enigmas like this after the gazillion hours I’ve spent watching detective shows on TV. I have what I consider the equivalent of a PhD in crime-solving. So you can imagine how excited I was to discover I could give my skills a real-time workout with the tabletop mystery game Death at the Dive Bar. I'd played other types of mystery games requiring multiple people, extensive roll playing, and a long night of competing to uncover the killer. Tabletop mysteries provide a box full of clues that you can review at leisure and solve over time, on your own or working cooperatively with others.
A few nights ago, Rich and I headed to a favorite road house, ordered wine, and opened up the game box. Inside were letters, handwritten notes, photos, files on suspects, a locked pouch that had to be opened with a secret code, and more, including a sealed envelope with the solution.
“Oh, are you into those mystery games, too?” asked our server excitedly, peering at the papers strewn across the table. “I love them.”
Another said, “I have one whole wall in my house devoted to murder mysteries. I tape up the clues so we can all play.”
“Brilliant!” said Rich. “We’ll set up a murder board in our dining room.”
So far I’ve just begun reading the notes, examining footprints, and puzzling over such oddball items as the menu with the words “We have to talk” scrawled on it. Friends who stop by are riveted and keep asking questions I can’t answer. “Why are developers sniffing around Devil’s Well?” and “Whose handwriting is that on the menu?” and “When will you know who did it?” I’m beginning to have a lot more sympathy for those TV detectives who are always getting hassled by the Chief to make an arrest already.
I decided to apply mystery game techniques to my stamp story conundrum and examined all my clues (aka notes). Eventually I came upon this cryptic remark: “Swiss cheese solution.” Of course! I had it now!
The stamp story is a true life medical mystery. Dr. Carter Mecher was asked to figure out the reason Charleston’s VA hospital had a shockingly high number of patients dying of colon cancer. Clearly they were being diagnosed too late, but why? Mecher spent days studying everything from medical protocols to scheduling.
He finally ended up in the hospital’s mail room and noticed a curious thing: a pile of envelopes stamped with the words “Insufficient Postage.” It turned out patients were given kits with pre-stamped envelopes so they could mail stool samples to the hospital for testing. Unfortunately it hadn’t occurred to anyone the kits were slightly heavier than a letter and needed two stamps instead of one, so most samples never reached the hospital.
“I loved that moment,” said Mecher. “It was so commonsense.” Simply adding a second stamp saved countless lives.
I’m a big fan of common sense —such a rare commodity these days! — and of the Swiss cheese solution, described by British psychologist James Reason in his book Human Error. He suggests when you're in unknown territory without an obvious silver bullet, the smart move is to use multiple, semi-effective strategies; you layer multiple solutions on top of one another like slices of Swiss cheese, until there are no holes you can see through. This saved lives during the pandemic (using masking and social distancing while working like mad on vaccines) and may help me catch the killer in Death at the Dive Bar.
The Swiss cheese solution and stamp story both appear in Michael Lewis' bestsellerThe Premonition: A Pandemic Story, a nonfiction thriller about the public health community grappling with the twin threats of Covid and human folly. It’s about problem-solving in the midst of crisis, a process known as “building a plane while it’s flying.” I think we all know what that feels like. These days we seem to lurch from one catastrophe to another, praying to find a moment to catch our breath, or if God can spare the time, maybe even a small miracle.
When a friend gave me this tea towel on Sunday, I picked up the Good Book and checked the relevant passage (John 2:1) but details were skimpy. A comment in an online forum said, “Dump the water on a grape vine. Collect the grapes. Make grape juice. Ferment into wine. Since Jesus is on the metaphysical plane (god level) he is time and space irrelevant so that process takes zero time.” Hmmm, doesn’t sound like I’m going to be able to duplicate those results.
There are so many things we are destined never to know. As the saying goes, “Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.” Who said that? Google attributes it to Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, Joseph Campbell, Clive Ollies, the Japanese poet Osho, Dune author Frank Herbert, Thomas Merton, Gabriel Marcel, Alan Watts, A. A. Milne, and the poet Yeats.
So who actually said it first? Your guess is as good as mine. Or Google’s.
I’ve given up expecting answers about my hazardous bathing suit and Cash, the Houdini of kittens. In fact, I’m embracing the chaos. “Experience,” says The Premonition, “is making the same mistake over and over again, only with greater confidence.” Here’s to making all new mistakes, learning from them, and living the mystery.
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7/20/2022 04:34:52 pm
Another interesting article from you Karen. Particularly enjoyed this one because I have moved from writing historical fiction to writing a crime series. A female detective in Málaga. If you like solving mysteries you should try writing one. It is a totally different ball game and takes forever.It can't be too straightforward because then the reader works out the answer too quickly. So I put in loads of twists and turns and a handful of red herrings and then I have trouble following the plot!! Even though I know the answer. Very enjoyable though. If you are interested the series is called The Jacaranda Dunne Mysteries and book 2 visits Seville.
7/21/2022 01:48:34 am
I give you a lot of credit, Joan! I love reading mysteries but can only imagine how mind-boggling it is to write them. As you say, the author has to keep it all straight, play fair with the reader, not make it too easy or too hard, and on top of all that, keep the narrative lively. I just downloaded the first in your series, Sophie Is Still Missing, and look forward to reading it. Good luck, my friend, may the series sell millions.
7/20/2022 08:09:45 pm
This was one of the best Karen. Laughed so loud I startled Tobey
7/21/2022 01:51:00 am
So glad you liked it, Phil! I had tons of fun writing it. You won't be surprised to hear that I have not worn that bathing suit again. I suppose I will eventually, but only if I am near a large body of water I can hurl myself into if it bursts into flames.
7/20/2022 09:29:05 pm
Loved this, especially last line about learning from mistakes and learning to live with unknowns. We had a jigsaw puzzle that created an 8 or 10 story apartment building as seen from the outside. The scenes inside show a murder in one room and enough clues in various other rooms as seen through their windows to solve the crime. But it was hard.
7/21/2022 01:57:06 am
That sounds like an amazing puzzle, Phyllis; I've never heard about anything like that. I am so impressed with the creativity going into games and puzzles these days; I'm always learning about something new. Yours sounds particularly challenging — I hope you enjoyed it. Even if it was a bit much, just think of all the exercise you gave the synapses in your brain. Always a good thing!
7/20/2022 09:32:19 pm
Hysterical about the swim suit. Maybe the American Academy of Dermatologists is requesting that warning so you stay in the shade after swimming…
7/21/2022 01:59:46 am
That must be it! I can't think of any other reason that makes sense. Obviously I'm now terrified to wear it again; Rich has promised to stand by with a bucket of water.
7/21/2022 12:43:56 am
Another good one! HAHAHA.
7/21/2022 02:04:56 am
You're so right, Andrea; some days the journey seems extra full of crazy. Oh well, at least we can laugh about it all. And we can feel grateful that my bathing suit has not (so far) burst into flames, good folks did rescue that kitten, and somebody finally figured out the envelopes needed a second stamp. And so the world staggers on its merry way to the next catastrophe.
7/21/2022 04:35:46 am
Love this post, Karen! I can always count on you to mention some of my favorite quotes! “Always good to be reminded that “life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be entered into,” regardless of who first came up with it. God/Universe/Life has a way of reminding me, always, what I need to remember!
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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