What a Dunderhead!”

Words should be allowed to come out and play.

Sometimes, when I wake up abruptly, I can still hear part of the dream I was just having. And so it was, this morning, when I heard my mother’s voice saying, “What a dunderhead!”

According to the good folks at Merriam-Webster, the definition of this word is exactly what I expected it to be.



dun·der·head  pronounced:ˈdən-dər-ˌhed 

: dunce, blockhead 

I hadn’t thought about the term in decades, and it made me smile. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone but my mother utter it. It never failed to make me giggle as a child. I always assumed that she heard it at the knee of her Danish father, whom she idolized. He was a merchant marine in World War II, and I suspect he felt the need to censor his sailor’s speech around his daughter.

I feel I should clarify. My mother never called me a dunderhead, not even in this particular dream. She reserved the term for bad drivers, petty criminals, and select politicians. (Nixon springs to mind.) It’s safe to say that I did not get my potty mouth from her.

Now that dunderhead has come roaring back into my mind, I became curious about its etymology. The Online Etymology Dictionary, one of my very favorite resources, had this to say:

dunderhead (n.)
"dunce, numbskull," 1620s, from head (n.); the first element is obscure; perhaps from Middle Dutch doner, donder "to thunder" (compare blunderbuss). Dunder also was a native dialectal variant of thunder. In the same sense were dunder-whelp (1620s); dunderpate (1754); dunderpoll (1801).

So it didn’t originate in Denmark. Blast. But I remain unphased, because Danish and Dutch are both Germanic languages, and I suspect the pronunciation, if not the comprehension, of each didn’t pose a challenge to the residents in those two lands, which are only about 500 miles apart.

And let’s face it. The Danes had a tendency to get around. Heaven knows my grandfather did. It’s a Viking thing.

Perhaps more intriguing than the word’s origins is its popularity. The Online Etymology Dictionary also provides this handy graph which shows when this word was trending throughout the centuries. This graph made me blink. A lot of the time when I look at these graphs, the word in question gets a sharp spike around the time of its origins, and then slowly fades into obscurity over time. Not dunderhead.

Dunderhead rose in popularity to what by all rights should have been its peak in 1829. Then it drops precipitously, but still manages to chug along until around the 1960’s, about the time that I was giggling about it. Then it starts to fade away toward its well-deserved retirement. But no! Around 2011, it not only returns to its 1829 popularity, but has sustained a meteoric rise ever since. Three cheers for dunderhead!

But what accounts for this extreme rejuvenation? It wasn’t hard to find out. In 2009, a children’s book came out entitled The Dunderheads, by Paul Fleischman. It must be very popular, because it has gone through 17 editions. And in 2012, a sequel came out entitled The Dunderheads Behind Bars.

Goodreads raves about both of these titles. I hope someone donates them to my little free library, because I’m dying to share them. I’ve added them to my library’s Amazon Wishlist, for what it’s worth.

A lazy Amazon search reveals that, since then, a few other authors have used dunderhead in book titles, and it has also made its way into the music world. There’s even a band by that name, and if you love bluegrass as much as I do, you’ll enjoy them.

So, there you have it. Hopefully dunderhead will soldier on in its various forms for generations to come. For me, its very mention makes me feel a connection to hundreds of years of ancestors, all blustering about one thing or another, managing to be opinionated without being too offensive. That resonates with me.

One thing is for sure: I got my love of words from my mother. She also liked to say, “Son of a seacook!” I’m sure that came from her father as well. Then she came across the phrase “gird your loins” in some novel or other, and found it hilarious enough to add it to her lexicon. She did enjoy a pithy turn of phrase.

Thanks, Ma. You taught me that words should be allowed to come out and play. I’d like to think you would have enjoyed my blog.

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Honoring a Native Son

Charles M. Schulz was born in Minneapolis and grew up in St. Paul.

During a recent visit to Minneapolis/St. Paul, I kept seeing statues of various characters from the comic strip Peanuts everywhere. You know. Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the gang. And Snoopy. Especially Snoopy.

When I think of Charles M. Schulz, the comic strip’s creator, I have always thought of California. I knew he had lived in Needles, California (home to Snoopy’s cousin Spike in the comic strip) for about 2 years as a child. I drove through there in 2007, during an epic Route 66 road trip. It struck me as a bleak, dreary, depressing place to live. It’s in the Mojave Desert, and still has a population of less than 5,000 people to this day. I can imagine that Needles contributed to the lonely, melancholy tone of Schulz’ comic strip. I also know there is a Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California, and I hope to visit it one day.

But it turns out that, aside from that brief Needles residency of his youth, he didn’t move to California until he was 36. He lived there until his death at age 77. Even though he spent more years in that state than any other, I learned on this recent trip that he was born in Minneapolis and grew up in St. Paul. That’s a very good reason for those cities to be proud.

So I’ll leave you with the many iconic Peanuts statues that I encountered during my visit. Enjoy!

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Raccoon Dogs?

Had you ever heard of these things before this pandemic?

The general scientific consensus is that the COVID pandemic most likely began in a live animal market in Wuhan, China. That makes a lot more sense to me than the theory that it came from a lab, regardless of its careless reputation. First of all, the first cases of COVID in humans were clustered all around that market. And scientists confirm that this virus doesn’t have markers that indicate genetic modification.

I think the primary reason that people are so resistant to the animal market idea is that they’d then have to realize how little control we actually have over nature. And it’s always nice to have some intentionally evil entity to blame for a worldwide catastrophe, isn’t it? But without the cooperation of China, we’ll never be exactly sure where it came from. Based on the evidence we have, though, I believe it came from the natural world. More specifically, it seems to have originated in raccoon dogs being sold in that market.

When I read that, my first thought was, “What in the sweet, suffering baby jeebus is a raccoon dog?” Had you ever heard of these things prior to this pandemic? I hadn’t. And you know me. I just had to find out more about them.

It turns out that raccoon dogs, also known as tanuki, aren’t raccoons, and they’re more closely related to foxes than to dogs. Given their beautiful fluffy coats, they are often sold in the fur trade, and in China, they’re also sold for meat. Some people have kept them as pets, but it’s a really bad idea for multiple reasons.

These creatures are wild animals. They don’t cope well with being penned in. They range widely. That, and they use scent to communicate, so let’s not mince words: they often stink. They also hibernate, mate for life, are very adept at climbing and swimming, and are escape artists. They don’t pose a physical threat to humans, but at 16 pounds, they can terrorize small livestock.

Their primary threat to humanity is that they carry disease, including various forms of the coronavirus. They’ve been linked to SARS. They also carry enteric viruses in their fecal matter, and harbor fleas, ticks, tapeworms and other parasites, as well as rabies, distemper, anthrax, tuberculosis, and mange.

Raccoon dogs originated in Eastern Asia, but they have become an invasive species in Europe. They were originally brought there in the 1920’s for fur farms. They eat pretty much anything from fruit and other plants to bugs, small mammals, fish, birds, amphibians, carrion and trash. (In that way, as well as in the color patterns on their face, they’re very much like raccoons.) Their litters usually contain 5-12 young, and their gestation period could be as short as 60 days, so once they got into the wild there was a population explosion.

Even though many of us have never heard of this species before, they’re rather a big deal. It is illegal to import one into the United States, and in all 50 states it is illegal to own one unless you’re an accredited zoo. Zoo Atlanta had two of them, but I can’t confirm that they’re still there. From an article in 2017, that zoo said it was the only one in America to house them. But they’ve sort of become silent about all things tanuki since then.

We’ll never know for sure if raccoon dogs are the primary culprits in causing a pandemic that killed at least 7 million people to date. Either way, these beautiful creatures are best avoided. Let’s hope they never gain a foothold in North America.


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Are We Just Domesticated Animals?

Many of us have Neanderthal DNA.

I just read a really intriguing article entitled 8 Billion People: How Different the World Would Look if Neanderthals Had Prevailed. And just like that, down the internet rabbit hole I went. The next article I read was Future evolution: from looks to brains and personality, how will humans change in the next 10,000 years? And that article, in turn, led me to Would we still see ourselves as ‘human’ if other hominin species hadn’t gone extinct?

These articles have my mind reeling. Of course, just by reading the titles, it is quite obvious that the information that they contain is based on a heaping helping of conjecture. But each one provides very logical arguments as to why they have reached their conclusions, so it’s hard not to buy into their theories.

I’m going to cherry pick these articles to reveal the speculations that made me blink the most. (I tend to blink when my mind is blown. It’s my way of blocking out the blinding light of the epiphany in question long enough to mull it over at my own pace.)

I was drawn to the first article because I am fascinated by archeology and all things Neanderthal. I love the fact that so many of us have Neanderthal DNA. I have often wondered what the world would be like if Neanderthals still existed.

This article explains that even at their height, there were only about 10,000 Neanderthals living at any one time, so the odds of us Homo Sapiens coming across one would have been very remote. And yet it did happen. DNA doesn’t lie.

Neanderthals were much more wary of outsiders than we were. They tended to hang out in small family groups. This made it hard for them to achieve the genetic diversity that we had. We know this because their skeletons reveal more deformities, on average, than homo sapiens had during that same era. So, if they had prevailed over us, it’s likely that the planet would be a lot less densely populated. They wouldn’t have been inclined toward building large cities or communities. But then again, their isolation would also mean their communities would be less apt to be wiped out by infectious diseases as ours tend to be.

What really astounded me was that this article compared our skulls to Neanderthals, and then compared domesticated animals to their wild counterparts, and they drew some interesting conclusions. For example, cows tolerate being crowded in with other cows more than their wild ancestors did, and we handle crowds better than any Neanderthal would. Our brain case is more bulbous than a Neanderthal, and a dog’s brain case is more bulbous than a wolf’s. Domesticated animals tend to have thinner jaws because of the things they eat, and we have thinner jaws than Neanderthals. We share the smaller tooth size of the domesticates as well, and our nose is less projected, too.

We are more genetically inclined to be friendly than the Neanderthals were, and this means we were more willing to cooperate with one another to survive. We shared tools and survival skills and resources. We had more emotional connection to other animals, so we domesticated those animals. Neanderthals did not do that. Those animals helped us survive. Homo Sapiens survived extreme weather changes because we could depend on wider networks when there was a crisis.

Another little tidbit that article provided was the idea that if the Neanderthals ruled the world, mammoths would probably still exist, because there would be fewer people to hunt them to extinction. If Homo Sapiens didn’t survive to exploit and destroy this planet, it wouldn’t be in as much danger as it is today. Things could have been so different.

The second article asks the question, what will humans be like in 10,000 years? Based on past evolutionary trends, if we don’t manage to destroy ourselves between now and then, it is likely that we’ll be taller, our bones will be less dense, and we’ll live longer. Our brains will shrink. We’ll be more agreeable and cooperative in order to survive our increased population. The article says, “A bit like a golden retriever, we’ll be friendly and jolly, but maybe not that interesting.”

That thought makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like the idea of humans moving more and more toward conformity. It’s the nonconformists who are the innovators, the creators, and the leaders.

And throw that whole “survival of the fittest” thing out the window. We’re less apt to be killed by predators than we once were. Despite sensationalist news to the contrary, our world is becoming increasingly less violent. Our evolution is now much more about sexual selection than anything else. If we are, in fact, domesticated, we’ve done it to ourselves.

When mere survival doesn’t consume your day-to-day existence, you feel less pressure to have offspring, so you can take your time maturing. If other creatures are any indication, this means that our lifespans will get longer, and our fertile years will be extended as well.

With our improved nutrition, medicine and hygiene, we are less apt to die young. With our desire to spend more time training for specialized jobs, we are increasingly inclined to put off childbearing. We’ve done these things to ourselves. And these trends also impact our genes. Our increased height stems from both better nutrition and our genes, as women tend to prefer and select taller men.

Since we use tools more than brute force to survive these days, and since we can make a living by being sedentary, our bones have become less dense. That trend is likely to persist. We no longer need to be strong, so our muscles are shrinking. Our jaws and teeth have shrunk because we now eat more cooked meats than fibrous raw vegetables. We’re losing our wisdom teeth for that reason.

As we spread across the planet, different groups became isolated from one another, and these groups had very different standards of beauty, so the members of these different groups looked less and less alike. But now, we are travelers. We are no longer isolated. Chances are (and I’ve always wondered about this) we will eventually become rather generic, with one skin tone, and one hair color. But this article also posits that gender differences will become even more pronounced as we select for more masculine looking men and more feminine looking women.

It seems that our brains grew over the millennia, but they started shrinking right around the time we invented farming. (And that is not a poke at the flyover states, just so we’re clear.) One theory is that life became less demanding, so our bodies stopped allocating as many calories to brain production. We also started specializing our skills rather than having to be good at everything to survive. That also came about as we built civilizations and could rely on others to do various things.

For what it’s worth, domesticated animals also evolved smaller brains. Have we bred into ourselves the tendency toward compliance and thinking less? That’s a scary thought.

We no longer have to be aggressive to survive. That trait, in fact, does not mesh well with living in a society. It wouldn’t be surprising if we bred ourselves away from aggression. Living in densely populated areas means that more outgoing and tolerant people will thrive. I’m all for increased tolerance, but I weep for the fate of us introverts in this scenario.

The wildest theory, though, is that as we become more politically divided, we could eventually develop into two separate species. I know that I, for one, would never mate with a MAGA Republican. And they probably feel the same way about me. That could have some fascinating repercussions in the distant future. This is not beyond the realm of imagination. For example, religion and lifestyles have created genetically distinct groups such as (this is their example, not mine) Jewish and Gypsy populations. Food for thought.

It may be, though, that we will have an increasingly more conscious role in our evolution moving forward. For example, if you won’t marry unless you get your parent’s approval, aren’t your parents, in essence, selectively breeding you? Also, if you’d be shunned by your community for marrying someone of a different faith, your odds of doing so drastically decrease.

Another weird selection concept has to do with computers and their algorithms. If you’re going to meet someone online, your computer will most likely have ruled out a whole host of other people that don’t match what it considers to be your “type”. Yes, you get to “swipe right”, but it’s these algorithms that decide which faces are presented to you to accept or reject in the first place. That’s kind of scary. You only breed with people you meet, so in essence, computers will impact the way we evolve as a species. Not just computers, but the corporations behind them. Shiver.

After all those blinks, you’d think I’d have been hesitant to read the third article, but no. Curiosity is my driving force, it seems. This article had more to do with what makes us human in the first place.

We are different from other animals in that we can articulate complex ideas. We create extravagant forms of art. We can imagine how we want things to be and then work toward making that a reality. We have complex social networks, and some of us, at least, feel responsible for one another.

Don’t get me wrong. Many animals communicate, use tools, create things, and mourn their dead and care for their young. In essence, the only thing that makes it seem like there’s such a wide gulf between ourselves and other primates is the 20 or so other human species that no longer exist to bridge that gap. Our species didn’t emerge fully formed and utterly different. It took eons to get where we are. It took a million years to learn to walk upright, and another million to devise tools. As our brains grew, our technology became more sophisticated. That technology freed up the time for us to become creative.

In case we get too proud of ourselves, though, remember this: Neanderthals were sophisticated hunters. We know they made tools, jewelry, and cave art. The shape of their ears meant they could hear subtleties of speech. They also buried their dead and took care of their living.

Since their DNA is still in our species, we bred with them. It would be easy to think that this was due to violence, that some poor unsuspecting homo sapien female was kidnapped and raped, but this third article brings up an excellent point: for their genes to still be with us, they had to also successfully raise these children, who then grew up to be treated as humans and accepted by groups, which allowed them to have and raise their own children, and so on. That makes voluntary inter-mating a lot more likely.

Who knows. Maybe the Neanderthals sang and danced and laughed with friends, and gazed at the stars in wonder, and worshiped gods. Maybe they told stories and gossiped and passed on information and loved and taught their children. That sounds pretty darned human to me. And lest we forget, it took homo sapiens hundreds of thousands of years to replace Neanderthals. So these people weren’t grunting pushovers.

One last mind-blowing concept. Our skulls are bulbous, unlike adult Neandertals, but very similar to Neanderthal babies. Domesticated animals, too, have skulls similar to the babies of their wild ancestors. Baby wolves, for example, are more playful, less aggressive, and more willing to meet new creatures. They also have more curiosity. These are traits that dogs also have compared to wolves, and they’re traits that Homo Sapiens have compared to what we know of Neanderthals. Strange coincidence, no?

We like to think that we won out over other hominin species because we are somehow superior. But it may just have been dumb luck and the ability to cooperate through the randomly occurring catastrophes that did it. A slight difference in the world could have brought about Neanderthals trying to figure out all these weird Homo Sapien bones they keep stumbling upon, and writing articles like this one or the three above.

And, not for nothing, we share 50 percent of the same genes as a banana. Isn’t that sobering? We really should get over ourselves.

Harrison Ford, if he were a Neanderthal.

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The Minneapolis Institute of Art

It would practically be a crime to pass up an opportunity to visit this museum.

Recently, Dear Husband and I attended a wedding in St. Paul, Minnesota. I had never been to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. Frankly, it had never occurred to me. I was pleasantly surprised by it, though. Granted, we arrived during that sweet spot after the horrific winter, yet before the horrific mosquito season, so we saw these cities at their best.

Since the area was new to me, we decided to stay several extra days to explore. We saw a lot of really amazing things that will result in more than a few blog posts, I’m sure. But today, I’ve decided to write about one of the many highlights of this trip: The Minneapolis Institute of Art.

While doing research for this trip, I came upon several lists. You know the kind. “The 27 things you really should see while visiting xyz.” And on every one of these lists, at the very tippy top, was the MIA. This gallery has over 90,000 pieces of art, covering a span of 5,000 years, from various cultures throughout the world. These lists suggested that you allow anywhere from 90 minutes to half a day for your visit, but if you can walk away after just 90 minutes, you have no soul.

This is one of the largest art museums in the United States, and it’s spectacular. There’s an entire section dedicated to contemporary art, which is a favorite category of mine, and it also houses some very well-known artists of the past, such as Van Gogh, Gauguin, El Greco, Miro, Matisse, Monet, Kandinsky, O’Keefe, Cezanne, Rembrandt and Titian. And the best part? Admission is free. It would practically be a crime to pass up an opportunity to visit this museum if you’re anywhere near Minneapolis.

But enough of my gushing adjectives. I’ll leave you with a few of the hundreds of photos that we took in the various exhibits, in no particular order. And if you’d like to explore some of the art from home, check out this page on the museum’s website.

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Favorite Blog Posts

Some posts are head and shoulders above the rest. They’re the ones I’m most proud of, and they’re the reason I do this.

I used to be obsessed with the statistics for this blog. How many views was it getting from one day to the next? Which posts were people reading? What country where my readers from?

Now I barely take notice of that stuff. It is what it is. Life’s too short to turn my love of writing into a balance sheet, especially since I haven’t monetized it, so I’m not making a penny.

But I did have a peek just now, since we’re on the subject. It turns out that this will be my 3492nd blog post, give or take. I would never have guessed that I’d have stuck with it for this long, given my usual lack of follow through. (That lack is why you’ve yet to see a second book from me. Sorry.)

Writing has become easier with time. I’m glad I don’t have to use an old Underwood typewriter to express myself, that’s for sure. A quick glance at my various posts has shown me that my writing has greatly improved, but some posts are head and shoulders above the rest. They’re the ones I’m most proud of, and they’re the reason I do this.

So, without further ado, here are just a few of my favorite posts of all time. Let me know what you think, dear readers. After all, we’re in this together.

“Toughen Up” I find this one, written in 2013, really fascinating in retrospect. I was describing my life jumping off the rails and causing an autistic meltdown. I was explaining that these meltdowns were not tantrums long before I even knew I was autistic.

“Tell Him Chuck Sent You.” I was at my lowest point in 2014, but things were about to turn around. A message from beyond?

“It’s a Leaf.” In 2015, I was a lot less resigned to, and a lot more frustrated by, the paranoia in this country.

Amanda’s Awful Adventure From a visit to the Oregon Coast in 2016, this post describes the shocking treatment of indigenous locals.

An Open Letter to White Supremacists Even though I wrote this in 2017, I’m fairly certain that the people who most need to read it still haven’t.

“I Don’t Consider Myself a Feminist” It is hard to believe some women are still saying this. I wrote it in 2018.

The Physics of Friendship from 2019. A different perspective on estrangement.

The Great Unsaid In 2020 I wrote about the horrible reason that the Pacific Northwest is thriving.

A Natural Moment A post about a very unexpected encounter I had in 2021.

The Strange History of L’Inconnue de la Seine From 2022. She’s the most kissed woman in the world, yet she still remains a mystery.

The Unexpected Insights of a Newly Diagnosed Autistic Adult describes the journey of self-discovery that I began this year and will probably continue to navigate for the rest of my life.

Here’s hoping you’ll continue to visit my blog for years to come, dear reader! Thank you. You’re the best.

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The Wisdom of an Old Friend

“Bad things do not have to happen because they have happened.” – Harold George

When I was 18, I transferred to Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida for my sophomore year in college. Autism was not even on my radar at that point. I just knew that after a life of feeling like I didn’t fit in, I now felt even more out of place. All these people seemed rich, entitled, conservative, and disgustingly sure of themselves. I felt like a message in a bottle, floating in an overly-entitled ocean with no hope of ever being read.

I have never made friends easily, and that proved to be true at Flagler as well. But friends did come along eventually, and I have many memories that I cherish to this very day. I may never have done anything with any of my degrees, but I still maintain that college was a very important and precious part of my life.

One of my dearest friends was Harold George. He was positive and energetic. He was a force of nature. Trying to keep up with him was like chasing after a dust devil in the desert. Normally I’m put off by such energy, but Harold was charming and kind. He added light to my life. Whenever I saw him, I felt a huge sense of relief. Someone cared.

We graduated before the internet age, before cell phones and social media. The only way to keep in touch was through snail mail, really, and how many people did that? Because of this, most of my college friends drifted away over time, and that included Harold. But I thought of him often.

Fast forward 18 years. I was standing in line to see presidential candidate John Kerry give a campaign speech in Jacksonville, Florida. The line was moving very slowly because they hadn’t provided enough metal detectors for the crowd that showed up on that day. I was lost in thought, trying not to go nuts with boredom. And then I heard someone talking, about 10 feet behind me in line. I immediately knew it was Harold. I couldn’t believe it.

It was so wonderful catching up with him after all those years! We exchanged email addresses. This was about 7 years before Facebook was accessible to the general public, so reconnecting was practically a miracle. At the time he told me that in college he had been inspired to be more politically active because of me. I was stunned that I had made that type of impression, or in fact any impression at all, back then. I was quiet, isolated, chronically depressed, and would have sworn I didn’t even cast a shadow.

Over the years, I’ve been increasingly impressed with the man that Harold became. He stayed in St. Augustine, had the job of my dreams, and he made a loving home with his husband. He also slowed down just enough to reveal his more contemplative side. Now that we’re Facebook friends, I have had the pleasure of reading his posts, which show how observant he is about the human condition. He genuinely cares about people and is finally learning to care about himself, too.

I recently asked Harold to do a guest post on this blog, and I’m grateful that he agreed to do so, because what follows has taught me much about Harold that I did not know in our college days. Maybe I wasn’t the only one there whose childhood undermined all confidence. Maybe I wasn’t the only one who had been bullied and raised in chaos. I would have found that comforting. Maybe we unconsciously picked up on that in each other and that’s why we formed a bond.

But I will say this. Harold, you deserve all the good things. I, too, am grateful that you hung in there. Bon Voyage, my friend. Send me a postcard or two along the way.

Without further ado, here’s Harold.

“Bad things do not have to happen because they have happened.” – Harold George

These words wandered through my mind while washing the dishes, one morning a few weeks ago. My husband and I had been chatting about our plans for our dream vacation that we had booked, and how to fill the time until the trip. As most people do, we have done a lot of planning, shopping for items that we need for the trip, and spending a lot of time discussing what we hope to experience on this holiday.

More than a couple of times I joked about not getting sick or having any accidents in the time until we depart for our vacation. Unfortunately, these jokes were part of a deeper issue, my anxiety about not getting to fully enjoy something I had hoped for over many years.

Epiphanies are often experienced in a more noteworthy way than clearing up the breakfast dishes, but that morning it seemed like a kind voice in my head was helping me accept that I may in fact deserve to enjoy this trip, and that it might very well be all I hoped it to be.

“Bad things do not have to happen because they have happened.”

I grew up in a stormy household with multiple cases of addiction, and parents who argued as frequently as most people breathe. My mother had a lot of regret about many things and would often uses phrases like “Of course it was broken, I can’t have anything nice.” I remember the day she discovered that someone had broken her treasured Bone China teapot, and she spoke as if the universe had specifically targeted her with this signal of deserved unhappiness. As the Sondheim song goes “Careful the things you say, Children will listen.”

As someone who adored his mother, I found myself trying to be her cheerleader from a very young age. I think I made some pretty strong decisions for a young person in that context, not realizing perhaps I wasn’t being fair to myself. Kids can be amazing when faced with challenges; never doubt their strength.

Coupling my sort of home life with years of bullying at school, and I found myself struggling for many years to feel good about much of anything. However, I found a way get through it, went to college, had a great job for 35 years, and recently retired.

During the second week of retirement, I remember thinking to myself how irresponsible I felt, not having any task or specific role that might benefit the world at large. Apparently working for 35 years as a public servant leaves you feeling irresponsible when you have some time off.

Was it really alright to enjoy myself doing nothing? Did I really get here, after all this time, to feel so strange about reaping the rewards of work and perseverance? Am I going to disappear now because I have no specific job that defines me, no role that will keep me in the minds of friends, family, and community members? I was experiencing an anxiety that felt too much like something I knew in my early 20s when I had no idea where I was going to go in life. So, these feelings show up again?

“Bad things do not have to happen because they have happened.”

Carrie Fisher, when discussing the challenges of mental health issues, addiction, and growing up in Hollywood, would often mention how some of the same things she dealt with over the years no longer held their power at later stages of life. She would use the phrase “location, location, location”—and this made sense to me.

Time is an amazing storyteller and guide for learning and growing, and most of all, for building faith on the foundation of the strengths you exhibited when you had no idea you were strong. You always have a chance to reframe your personal narrative, and to move above and beyond. It’s not always easy, but you are the driver.

Yesterday we finally received our passports in the mail, and it was very exciting for us. This morning over coffee, I was savoring a quiet moment of feeling good about something I had wanted to do for a long time. It’s about to finally happen.

I found myself thinking about my 12-year-old self, dreaming of traveling to escape that not-so-great time in life. That guy always seemed to have hope and find a way to dream of better days. I felt myself compelled to thank that young kid for hanging in there, for surviving until the tide did turn, as it often does. To that 12-year-old, I say thank you for getting me here to this moment, I am so grateful to you. You can rest now.

Harold, age 4, with his grandmother.

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Quirks That Might Mean You’re Autistic

Does any of this sound like you?

Since I’m so newly diagnosed with autism, I’m still kind of feeling my way through the autism terrain. One thing that has been very helpful is participating in many of the autism groups on Facebook. It’s a huge relief to have finally found my tribe. It can be taxing to always be considered the odd/weird/strange one, or the overly sensitive one. Members of these groups can relate, and that has lightened my burden considerably.

Recently, on one of the group pages, someone asked a really interesting question which prompted hundreds of responses. The topic was things that you thought everyone did, but you’ve discovered that they’re actually a quirk of having autism spectrum disorder. Some of the answers were quite fascinating.

Of course, no two people on the spectrum are alike, so I’m not trying to say that every autistic person has every one of the quirks I’m listing below. (I don’t have 37 percent of them myself. And yes, I counted.) But it does shine a light on the many different autistic tendencies.

Please know that I’m not a medical professional, and therefore you shouldn’t use this list as a diagnostic tool. But reading it certainly makes me feel less alone. I hope it will provide comfort to my readers who are, or suspect they may be, on the spectrum. You are not alone.

And by the way, I’ve organized the information into a list that makes sense to me. It doesn’t mean anything in particular. It’s in no way official. And it’s a PDF form because I couldn’t get the list format to load correctly any other way. I also hope this will allow you to download it if you wish.

So, does any of this list sound like you? Let me know in the comments below! And if you want to take an unofficial online test, I suggest the Autism Spectrum Quotient. A score of 33-50 means you could be autistic. I got a 40.

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Your Mind Can’t Be Trusted

Who knows what it’s up to?

For most of my life, I could only tell you one hallucination story. When I was a freshman in college, I had a gruesome accident while canoeing. I won’t go into the details, because they are truly disgusting, but suffice it to say that it required a trip to an emergency room, and the pain, even during my subsequent recovery, was excruciating. I went back to my dorm room clutching the bottle of codeine I had been prescribed. I followed the instructions on the label, and then I collapsed into bed.

I have no idea how much time had passed, but I woke up to see that my roommate had put a box fan at the foot of my bed, because it was a very warm day. That was nice of her. I was so out of it that I hadn’t even heard her come in and leave again.

But then I felt this change. You know that feeling you get when you’re being watched? But there was no one in the room but me.

No one but me and the box fan, that is. And suddenly I was absolutely convinced that that fan was coming to get me. It was inching closer and closer, and if I didn’t do something right now, it would chop me to pieces. I screamed.

But it was midday, midweek, and the dorm was deserted. So deserted, in fact, that I began to wonder if my roommate had put the box fan there at all. Maybe the thing showed up on its own. It looked rather angry.

I sat up and scrambled toward the headboard, hoping that I could buy myself a little time before the inevitably gory attack began. To say that I was terrified doesn’t even begin to describe the depth of my emotions at that moment. I broke out in a cold sweat.

And so, we waited, the fan and I. The fan was glaring at me and making a low growling sound as some fans do. I knew that if I touched the floor I’d be a goner, so I was trapped. I was paralyzed with fear.

At some point, I fell asleep again, this time in a fetal position by the headboard. When I woke up, the fan was still there, but I knew it was just a fan. I had a good laugh at myself.

Then I flushed the rest of the codeine down the toilet. I’d rather recover in pain than go through that again. Some things are worse than pain.

When I think about my Day of the Killer Box Fan, one thing stands out for me. I was convinced that that fan was a serious threat. I mean, convinced like I am that the sky is blue. It was a fact, man, as sure as I’m typing here.

The mind can play funny tricks on you.

The reason I thought of this was that I was reading an article on one woman’s experience with postpartum psychosis, which is very rare, but much worse than postpartum depression. She was hallucinating, too. She even thought God was talking to her. The news anchors were talking to her from the television as well. She wound up being institutionalized for 17 days.

That, in turn, made me think about the many delusional people who cross my bridge, punching the air in front of them or shouting at no one. Whatever they are seeing, it’s very real to them. It’s heartbreaking to witness.

And I’ve only just started reading a book called The Reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida. I read it after watching the documentary of the same name. The author was 13 years old at the time he wrote the book, and since he’s severely autistic and non-vocal, the way he did so was to point at various letters on a large board, and then a transcriber would write it out for him. So he spelled the book out to someone, letter by letter.

I’m only partway through the book, but it seems that people asked him questions about autism, and he answered them, describing what is going on in his mind. It’s as though he popped open his neurodivergent brain and allowed us all to look inside at the inner workings. It’s pretty fascinating.

It is amazing to discover that a non-vocal autistic person could very well be quite lucid deep down, but he can’t bridge the divide of sensory chaos to show the rest of the world that he is, in fact, quite articulate. In one section he says it ticks him off when people assume they should talk baby talk to him. I got stuck on the phrase “ticks me off”. To think that someone who never even looks up at you or interacts in any way, someone who can’t make himself understood, can still get ticked off… that’s profound.

I just remembered one other hallucination I had not too long ago. (I’m extremely sensitive to certain types of prescription medication.) I looked up at the ceiling and I thought I saw a spider. It was spindly, and it was glowing and golden. I pointed it out to a few people who were in the room with me, and they couldn’t see it. I was pretty insistent that it was there. I kept trying to convince them. They told me I was seeing things. I got so frustrated.

And then after they left, I kept looking at the spider, and all of a sudden it turned into a really beautiful, elaborate, gold filigreed glass window. That’s when I realized that they had been right. I was seeing things. So I sat back, relaxed, and watched the gorgeous ever-changing hallucination until I fell asleep.

Wow, the brain is complex. In retrospect, I can’t really say that I’ve had only two hallucinations in my life. For all I know, this is a hallucination. My whole life could be one big hallucination. I’m convinced it’s not, but I was also convinced about the killer box fan and the golden shape-shifting spider at the time. So who knows?

The idea that my brain can conjure up just about anything is wondrous, but also a little scary. I mean, what if the fan had turned into a giant and much-less-attractive spider? Who’s driving this reality of mine? Me or some other… thing? I don’t know. How can any of us be sure? It feels like we’re all at the mercy of these alien creatures that take on the shape of our squiggly grey matter.

I’ll never fully trust my brain again. Who knows what it’s up to? It could decide to go rogue at any moment. If so, brace yourself, because I’ll surely be writing about it.

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Having a Bad Day? Think 536.

Going straight to the fiery pits of hell would have been preferable to living at that time.

Sooner or later we all have a day that we wish we could have skipped. It’s part of life. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for feeling sadness, anger, or disappointment. The so-called “negative emotions” are just as valid as the positive ones, and if you squash them down too often, you’ll lose the ability to express them in healthy ways, and you may even become unable to identify those feelings when you’re experiencing them. This could render you incapable of resolving the issue.

I’m not one to tell people that they should let a smile be their umbrella. First of all, it’s condescending and rude, and it discounts what people may be going through. It also sets people up for failure if they’re still working through their feelings. It makes them feel guilty for having a legitimate reaction to a bad situation.

No. Lean into your grief and frustration, I say. That way you can process it, work through it, and move on. It’s never good to let things fester.

There is no point in comparing someone else’s tragedy to your own. Hardships are like gaseous elements. They tend to expand to fill up your personal space. What may not seem like a big deal to you can seem catastrophic to someone else.

People are entitled to their emotions. If you find yourself wanting to say, “You shouldn’t feel like that,” please think twice. It never ends well.

Having said that, though, I will admit that when I feel like I’ve been stuck in Eeyore mode for an uproductively long time, a bit of perspective helps me get through these rough patches. (It’s important that this perspective comes from within, though. If you say something like, “Think of the starving Armenians” to me, you’ll only remind me of my mother, and it won’t make that burnt Thanksgiving turkey any more palatable.)

Perspective can change my attitude. And attitude is everything, if it’s used as a tool in one’s own emotional toolbox. However, the whole attitude concept should never be used as a weapon to wield against someone else when you’re wanting to feel emotionally superior.

Has “snap out of it” or “get over it” ever worked on you? No? Then don’t blurt that out to others.

When I am casting about for a little personal perspective, though, I find the year 536 to be something worth contemplating. Many scientists believe that was the worst year in human history to date, and for very good reason. I’m fairly certain that I wouldn’t have survived it, but I’m grateful that my ancestors managed to. I think going straight to the fiery pits of hell would have been preferable to living in the Northern hemisphere at the time.

Imagine this. It’s early 536, and you’re primarily focused on surviving the winter. You are grateful when the sun breaks through the clouds and bounces off the snow, practically blinding you. Your life expectancy is around 30 years, so you take comfort wherever you can find it. What you don’t know yet is that that will be the last time you will see a patch of blue sky for the next 18 months.

Soon, your whole world will be enveloped in a mysterious fog that seems to thicken with time. The sun, while visible, looks like a dim blue ball, and you cast no shadows, even at high noon. And this goes on day after day, month after month. I can barely get through a Pacific Northwest winter with my sanity intact. I can’t imagine enduring 18 months of it, especially without knowing its cause or if it will ever end.

If you were living in some parts of Europe or Asia at the time, the temperatures dropped around 36 degrees F. China reported snow in August. Crops failed, plunging the world into famine. Starvation is a horrible way to go. To add insult to injury, wars seemed to be breaking out all over the Byzantine Empire.

And while people were struggling to get past these horrors, it happened again 4 years later, causing the temperatures to drop yet again that summer. People must have thought that they were being cursed by God. Given that we’re only now figuring out what caused this catastrophe, it must have seemed like an ominous mystery to those living at the time.

But wait. There’s more. All of this famine and pestilence led to the first significant bubonic plague breaking out in the following year, which killed off about half of the people that were left in the Mediterranean alone, and that hastened the demise of the eastern Roman Empire. The plague seems to have been carried by infected rats, and those rats were on the move because, like the humans, they were desperate to find food. Documents from the time describe millions of people dying, people vomiting blood in the streets, piles of corpses and the persistent stench of death.

We have all seen what our relatively brief pandemic lockdown has done to the country. The disasters of 536-543 destroyed the world economy so profoundly that it did not recover to pre-disaster levels until the year 640. Just imagine that. When you’re only going to live 30 years to begin with, that means many generations suffered without hope for nearly 100 years.

Based on documents from the time, along with tree ring data and ice core samples, historians and scientists now believe that this whole situation started with a gigantic volcanic eruption, probably in Iceland.  It threw so much ash into the atmosphere that it caused a volcanic winter that persisted for 18 months. Then there were subsequent eruptions in other locations. All this led to war, famine, pestilence, plague, and a century-long economic disaster.

So, yeah, when I’m seeking perspective, all I have to say to myself is 536. I’m thinking of having that tattooed on my arm in a colorful gothic font. Portable perspective.