The Insanity of Duck and Cover

“In the event of an attack, put a mattress over your front door.”

As I mentioned in my last post, Active Shooter Drills: The New Duck and Cover, children were told to do some very insane things during the duck and cover era. I’m sure a lot of these adults meant well, but the science behind nuclear fallout was poorly understood by much of the general population, and they were in such a panic that they came to some very strange conclusions. Those duck and cover drills were created by people with the best of intentions. But what they turned into were general panic-fests, studies in misinformation , and psychologically damaging safety theater.

There’s actually something to the duck and cover concept. You can survive a nuclear bomb if it’s low-yield, and doesn’t detonate within 10 miles of where you are ducking and covering. It really is worth it to be able to plot out a blast radius.

What follows are some of the insane policies enacted by politicians, teaching professionals, and just about anyone old enough not to be restricted to the kiddie rides at the county fair. These people should have known better. With the tiniest bit of scientific curiosity, any responsible person wouldn’t have subjected children to any of these things.

  • One school actually had the children tattoo their blood type in case they needed transfusions.
  • Many others had kids wearing dog tags that included their name, address, DOB, and blood type. Some made those children put those dog tags in their mouths during drills, and children quickly realized that that was so people would be able to identify their bodies.
  • One parent told their child not to eat freshly fallen snow because it could have fallout from nuclear bomb tests.
  • Many households stashed supplies despite having no bomb shelters.
  • Kids were taught that when they heard the air raid sirens, they should run home as fast as they could.
  • Some were instructed to put a mattress over the front door at home in the event of an attack.
  • One woman noted that her town’s only nuclear fallout shelter was in the basement of the local Sears store, but it was common knowledge that most people wouldn’t make it there in time, and if they did, they wouldn’t all fit.
  • And let’s not forget the fact that many of these shelters had no plumbing whatsoever.
  • But in the event that there was a functioning toilet nearby, children were told that a toilet tank was a safe source of drinking water, but they weren’t told what to do when that ran out.
  • And no one questioned these bomb shelters’ air intakes. Were they all filtered? How?
  • I once did a blog post entitled Seattle’s Weird Cold War Relic which will tell you all you need to know about this country’s lack of comprehension and extreme irrationality regarding the big picture of nuclear war.

In Jacksonville, my old stomping grounds, children were instructed to bring backpacks to school that contained canned fruit and vegetables, a bleach bottle filled with water, hard candy, and sugar cubes. These packs were left in the cloakroom. During drills, the children would take these backpacks and walk 3 blocks down to railroad tracks. In an emergency, they were told that a train would come and whisk them to safety. The children took these drills as an opportunity to share the hard candy. Some of them wondered where these trains were waiting, and/or how they would ever find their parents again if they were loaded onto a train.

Meanwhile, at a school in Seattle, children were lined up along the perimeter of the school grounds, facing outward, and were told that in the event of an actual attack, school busses would come and take them to safety. One woman found that to be very creepy, just as I would have. She vowed to never get on that bus. She had an escape route plotted out. (And to her I say, “Come sit by me.”)

In one district, parents were asked to write a letter to their kids in case of disaster. Many of these letters said something along the lines of, “Goodbye, I love you. Here’s the phone numbers of distant relatives, just in case.” When the children changed schools, the parents got the unopened letters back and they were asked to pass them along to the next school, or provide a new letter for their now older child. Those letters must have been horrible to have to write.

One school decided to conduct an experiment. All the students were to run home as fast as they could. Ready, set, go! They were timed in their efforts to see if it was feasible to do that in the event of an attack. Nope. Since they were all good kids, they obediently returned to school after that failed endeavor.

Many teachers made it clear that these duck and cover drills were an exercise in futility, which added to the anxiety, while other teachers totally freaked out, leaving children to conclude that adults were crazy and no one was in charge. One teacher, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, burst into tears and told the marching band, who had been practicing on the football field, that he was proud of them and didn’t know if they’d get to perform their show or not. He then walked inside, leaving them standing on the field.

Another girl’s first grade teacher marched her class outside to the water side of the New Orleans levees, and then she told them that in the event of a real nuclear attack, the kids should run there and cover themselves in “at least” 6 inches of mud. (And breathe how, exactly? And how long were they supposed to stay buried like that? Weeks?)

A few Catholic school stories were told. (Those are always fun.) One class was supposed to pray during the drills but giggled instead. They were told that prayers would keep the nukes away. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, one school had 800 kids in parking lots chanting the Rosary for an hour. Later, a nun said they had saved the world because God had heard them. In another school, the children were asked if the communist came, would you renounce your faith and live, or never renounce it and be killed? One six-year-old girl said she would renounce and live. For that she was beaten until she could barely stand.

This was a time when children were often reciting the pledge of allegiance in a building that had been designated to be a nuclear fallout shelter. In some cases, the basements beneath their feet were full of civil defense crackers. What a strange world to grow up in.

Some teachers made a point of telling students that the Soviets and the Chinese and the Cubans lied to their people about America, and the only way to save ourselves from these evil people was to duck and cover, because they could drop the bomb any second. Meanwhile, one woman who grew up in Eastern Europe said she and her fellow students were being told the same thing about the United States.

It is interesting to note that children who went to Department of Defense (DOD) schools often report that they were never subjected to duck and cover drills. Was that because the parents who worked there had already drank the Kool-Aid, so no further fear mongering was required, or was it because they already knew enough to realize these drills were futile? There’s no real way to know, now.

If you’d like to experience some of the cold war propaganda firsthand, check out the following:

Duck And Cover (1951) Bert The Turtle This is the ultimate indoctrination movie that most children were forced to watch. (I tried to pretend that I was watching this at age 7, and I still have a knot in my stomach because of it. One woman told me that she came home and told her mother a confusing story about turtles and ducks in covers afterward.)

Fallout: When And How To Protect Yourself (1959) While watching this one, I was struck by its naivete. Sure, you can go out for brief periods. Just wear a raincoat and rubber boots.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki Films HD Movies like this one were sometimes shown as a sort of cautionary “this could happen to you” tale in the 1950’s and 60’s. Its focus seems to have been the impact on the buildings. Human beings are only mentioned twice, as a mere afterthought. I’m sure that when this movie was shown to children, the fact that America is the only country to have ever used nuclear bombs in combat, and that those bombs were deployed over civilian cities, was conveniently ignored.

These children were quite often shown the footage of the nuclear tests that we conducted on Bikini Atoll from 1946 to 1958 as well. I’m quite sure that most of us have seen at least one of those, if only in the form of a still photograph.

One woman remembered being shown a film about how to deal with a body should someone die in your bomb shelter. It said to wrap the body in plastic, open the door, put the body outside, and quickly shut the door again. She was 12 years old when she saw that. I looked high and low for that film. I think she is referring to the British Protect and Survive films that were made between 1974 and 1980, which were classified by the government and only intended for release in the event of dire emergency, but they were leaked to the public.

Now anyone can watch these public information films on Youtube here. (The one that deals with body disposal is about a minute and a half long, and appears around minute 57 of this compilation.)

Even more troublesome, there was a movie that came out in 1984 called Threads. It is based on information from the Protect and Survive films, and is considered by many to be the most terrifying film ever made. I hope no child ever sees that. It’s available on many streaming platforms. I see that I can see it on Amazon Prime. Now I just have to work up the courage to do so. If I ever do, I’ll be sure to give you a full report.

In my next blog post, I’ll be writing about the impact of these duck and cover drills, and how they still influence our culture to this day.

Special thanks to the women of the Facebook Group Crones of Anarchy!, for revealing so much about their duck and cover experiences. I’ve learned so much from all of you, and I hope my blog posts do the subject justice.

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Active Shooter Drills: The New Duck and Cover

When these drills are conducted, the kindergarteners are just terrified.

Here’s everything you need to know about our warped American gun culture: When looking up statistics for the number of mass shootings in this country, I was actually relieved to discover that, according to this report in Statista, since 1982, these atrocities have only occurred in 38 states (plus Washington DC). We’re still horrified by these events, but we’re also becoming habituated to them.

Of course, Statista goes on to clarify that they’re only counting those shootings that were reported. They also note that, “since 2013, the source defines a mass shooting as any single attack in a public place with three or more fatalities, in line with the definition by the FBI. Before 2013, a mass shooting was defined as any single attack in a public place with four or more fatalities.” So the numbers are probably a bit low. Great.

They also point out that, of the 137 incidents considered, 13 of the worst mass shootings in the United States have occurred since 2015. The vast majority of the shooters in these incidents were white males, and since 2000, police have intercepted 351 active shooter incidents in the U.S. Until we call these events what they are, domestic terrorism, they’ll never be taken seriously by this government. But this government is hesitant to call white males terrorists. Or rapists. Or anything else, for that matter.

When I was in public school in the late 70’s, early 80’s, one time, one time, someone brought a knife into a classroom. It was a huge scandal. The kid didn’t even use it, and he wasn’t even in any of my classes, but it took me months to feel safe again after that. It just didn’t occur to anyone at the time to bring weapons onto school grounds. Well, except for that kid. He’s probably the CEO of some major corporation now.

Little did I know that those were the salad days of public education. I fell in the sweet spot between duck and cover and active shooter drills. I was never made to crawl under my desk in anticipation of nuclear annihilation or bloody death. Not once.

Nowadays, kids are subjected to those active shooter drills along with their totally whitewashed and historically inaccurate lessons. I often wonder how that is fundamentally changing this generation’s perspective. It’s sad to contemplate. My research on the topic broadened my worldview to the extent that it is resulting in three posts, of which this is the first.

According to this article, as of 2017, 95 percent of all public schools conduct active shooter drills. They can be as mild as just going through the motions of turning off lights and locking doors to the extreme of playing gunshot sounds over the loudspeakers while actors dressed as gunmen roam the halls. I don’t know about you, but that extreme end would seriously freak me out, and I’m 57. I can’t imagine how a 7-year-old would handle it. A kindergarten teacher told me recently that when these drills are conducted, she tries to keep the students calm, but they’re just terrified.

The article goes on to describe a study that was conducted by Georgia Tech regarding active shooter drills. Just by comparing the social media texts of community members from 90 days before a drill to 90 days after, they concluded that there is a 42 percent spike in anxiety and a 39 percent increase in depression for months afterward, and not just in the students. The teachers and parents were similarly impacted.

Frankly, I’m of the opinion that drills, as we Americans conduct them, don’t actually prepare you for any catastrophic event. They don’t empower you. Our drills teach fear and panic. When the stuff hits the fan, if you’ve been living in a state of constant, low-grade fear as politicians make us do, all bets are off. You get primal. And quite often you make poor decisions. Now, throw hundreds of small children into that mix, and you have chaos. I’ll be offering suggestions as to how to improve these drills in my third post.

But these drills, in their current format and cultural context, are nothing other than safety theater. They allow bureaucrats to give the impression that they’re doing something, when, if they really wanted to do something, they’d be advocating against weaponry, beefing up security, and insisting upon more mental health professionals on staff. Instead, we want to look like we’re doing something, so we do something. Not the right thing. Not the reasonable thing. Not the thing that makes an actual difference. But, hey, we are doing something.

While wondering about the psychological effects of active shooter drills, I began to think about the duck and cover drills that, thank God, had just stopped being commonplace a year or two before I went to school. I really feel sorry for those who had to experience them. I probably would have been that child who said, “Why do you think our desk will protect us from a bomb? How stupid is that?” And then I would have done what I was told, because I may have had a big mouth, but I was still a good kid.

I happen to be a member of a Facebook group that is mostly comprised of women from the duck and cover era, so I decided, out of curiosity, to ask them what their experience was like. I did this a about a year ago. I don’t know why it took me so long to write this blog post. Perhaps I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t prepared for the amount of insight I would gain from these women. (I had good intentions of getting this done. I lugged about 150 printed out pages of their comments back and forth to work for months. My backpack is so heavy that it triggers my car to insist on a passenger side seat belt, such is the weight of my unfinished projects.)

My post to that group said the following: “I am just young enough to have missed those cold war bomb drills that children used to have to do. You know. Duck and cover, because your desk will save you. (Sheesh.) I was wondering how many of you remember doing that. What did you think as a child? Do you think it changed the way you view the world? Was there common knowledge that these drills were an insane waste of time back then, or was there a general buy-in of this concept?

Those questions must have hit a nerve, because I got 400 replies. I wasn’t expecting that. No two people are the same, so naturally there were a variety of ways that these kids processed the duck and cover experience.

I’d say that about 55 percent were either bored silly by these drills, thinking of it as a nice break from math class, and/or too clued in to think that duck and cover would do any good at all. At the other end of the spectrum, about 30 percent were seriously freaked out by the process. (I’m quite sure I would have been in this group, even if I had been clued in.) The rest seemed to have been confused by it all, and since the adults around them weren’t telling them anything rational or understandable or true, they didn’t know what to think. That’s a really unpleasant state for a child to be in.

The 50’s and 60’s were a high stakes time to be a kid in America. Most of that generation had no expectations of living to adulthood. During the cold war, the brinkmanship displayed made them feel like the inmates were running the asylum. And when they heard about Khrushchev pounding his shoe on the table, the kind of thing that really gets a child’s attention, that provided them with all the confirmation they needed that the adults in charge were crazy. (The shoe incident made such an impression on me, a decade after the fact, that to this day I could swear I’d seen footage of it, but no such footage exists. Isn’t that strange?)

That generation’s anxiety reached its peak during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Many of children concluded that the Russians hated them personally and wanted to kill them, but they didn’t understand why. They came by their reactions honestly. Here is some of the propaganda of the era that they were treated to every single day:

These kids also bore witness to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and both Kennedys. And, lest we forget, many of these children were growing up in the south and dealing with the KKK, segregation, and an utter lack of human rights as well, so they felt more anxiety from terrorists within the country than they did from communists a half a world away.

What follows are several points that the amazing women in my Facebook group proffered for your consideration. I’ll paraphrase the comments and avoid specifics so that I don’t have to track people down to get permission to quote them. (Sorry, ladies.)

Duck and Cover Drills came in a variety of forms. As the name implies, many students had to crawl under their desks with their hands protecting their necks and/or the backs of their heads. Others were ushered into hallways to hunker down in rows, facing the walls or the banks of lockers. Some went down into the creepy, dirty basements of their schools. One woman reported that her class had to walk single file, with the teacher at the head, and she’d drop them off at their houses, one by one by one. (I’m assuming this was a small town.) Not only was that hard on the teacher, but it must have been creepy for the last group of children on the route, thinking about radiation raining down upon them with every step they took. Location, location, location, as the saying goes.

There seemed to be a wide range of communication or lack thereof, about these drills. Some kids were told entirely too much, in my opinion. Small children should not be shown videos of mushroom clouds and disintegrating buildings and melting bodies. Eight-year-olds shouldn’t memorize all the signs and symptoms of radiation poisoning or be instructed on the best ways to build and stock bomb shelters. All that should be the realm of adults.

On the other end of the spectrum, a lot of children were not told anything at all, and were left to draw their own, sometimes funny, sometimes horrifying conclusions, including the following:

  • “Fallout” meant things falling from the ceiling, and therefore climbing under their desks made perfect sense.
  • The Russians would come and take them from their parents and/or they’d never see their families again.
  • Bombs must not be much of a threat if the solution was to hide under a desk.
  • Every plane that flew over had the potential to kill them.
  • I don’t want to die crouching in a hallway.
  • While we do these drills in school, are the adults doing the same thing in the bomb shelters?
  • My parents will be blindsided unless they keep the radio on.
  • These floors are really dirty.
  • The boys are trying to look up my skirt.
  • At least we don’t have to freeze outside like we do for fire drills.
  • How will I find my family?
  • Walking home was scary, because if a plane flew over you didn’t have your desk to save you.
  • Some were scared for their parents because they didn’t have a teacher to keep them safe like the kids did.
  • The Communists or some vague enemy would break in any minute, and that would be the end.
  • They only practiced these drills at school, so school seemed dangerous.
  • One girl, whose school had them pressing their noses against a wall, thought that the paint must be strong if it could save her from the bomb.

Some children comforted themselves with the belief that nothing bad was going to ever happen to them because they lived in America and that was the safest, smartest, strongest place in the world. Others thought that since Russia beat us into space, they must be more militarily advanced. Those were likely the same children who went home and tried to build bomb shelters out of cardboard boxes in their back yards or basements. One brilliant girl even surrounded hers with lead pencils, because she had heard that lead would protect her.

In hindsight, many women were grateful for the honesty some adults were willing to provide. Some kids were told how painful their deaths might be, and actually found comfort in the idea that they were at ground zero and would die instantly. Photographs from Hiroshima made it clear that immediate death would be preferable. One woman remembers being grateful for just being sent home to be with her family during the Cuban Missile Crisis. At least that was honest.

And I found this quite interesting. It seems that nearly everyone was told that their location was a prime target. They lived near military bases. They lived near factories or power plants or big cities like Washington DC, New York, or Chicago. They lived near a transportation hub. In the heartland, the communists would target their farms to starve the country. And everyone in Florida, to this very day, knows that Cuba is only 90 miles away.

Everyone seemed to believe that they would be the first to go. No one stopped to think that Russia couldn’t bomb everywhere at once. If they could, there would be nothing left of this planet.

No matter what they thought, these kids did these drills because that’s what they were told to do. Unfortunately, they were told to do some very insane things. I’ll discuss that in my next post, The Insanity of Duck and Cover.

Special thanks to the women of the Facebook Group Crones of Anarchy!, for revealing so much about their duck and cover experiences. You guys are awesome!

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A Weird Day on the Drawbridge

Some days are yours to struggle through and be transformed by.

I rolled up on my bridge at 6:30 am. My 38-minute commute was uneventful. So uneventful, in fact, that I had yet to snap out of my sleep-deprived fog. For all intents and purposes, I was operating on sheer muscle memory. My body is never ready to face the day when it is still pitch black outside, and will remain that way for another 45 minutes.

But you don’t always get to decide when you need to be alert. I have always found that fact to be extremely unfair. It almost reaches the level of being cruel and unusual punishment.

When I saw the shabby old vintage pickup truck parked in the bike lane on the other side of the span, I knew this wasn’t going to be good. That woke me up a little bit, because I usually have Sunday mornings all to myself. Seattleites tend to sleep in, especially at this time of year.

That truck was not in a normal location. Yes, it was far enough away from the movable span so that I could do a bridge opening if a vessel requested one, but it was entirely blocking the bike lane, and I was sure that the bicyclists around here would not take kindly to that. No one likes it when their routine gets interrupted, but they really, really don’t like it.

I called up the graveyard shift guy to see if he knew anything about the truck. He did not. So I told him that I was going to approach the vehicle. If he didn’t hear back from me in 5 minutes, things probably weren’t going well for me.

What was I going to find in the truck? Someone passed out? Dead? A paranoid, gun-toting drug addict shooting up?

As I got closer, I spotted the note on the windshield and relaxed a little. No one was in the truck. The note said that the truck broke down, and that he’d be back in an hour or two, hopefully with a tow truck. Fortunately, he left his number.

I figured I’d cut the guy a break and give him an hour or so. If your car breaks down, the last thing you need is for someone to add impound fees to your anticipated expenses. I mean, haven’t you suffered enough?

I did text the guy and explained that the truck needed to be moved ASAP because it was in the bike lane. No response. But it was still early.

Then I opened my email and discovered a message from a fellow bridgetender who had worked swing shift the night before, saying the truck ended up there around 10 pm last night, and the guy was really apologetic and said he’d be back in an hour or two. Okay, that put a different spin on it. I texted the guy again and said that if I didn’t hear from him soon, I’d have to report an abandoned vehicle to Seattle PD.

I really didn’t want to do that, so I wrote up the incident report slowly, hoping that the guy would call me. I was in no hurry, really, because I doubted SPD would actually show up. They rarely do, unless someone is wielding a machete, or someone is bleeding out. (Speaking from experience.)

The guy finally called at 9 am to ask if the truck was still there. He said it had taken him all that time to find a ride. Hmm.

It was a good thing he called though, because when I looked out the window to confirm that the truck was still sitting there, I saw a guy opening its hood, and he began fiddling around in there. I asked the owner if he had sent anyone ahead. He said no.

I hate thieves. I really do. So, keeping the guy on the phone, I approached said thief and asked if this was his car. The little twerp said no, he was just trying to help. I told him that help was on the way, so he need not stick around. I then slammed the hood shut. The guy started walking slowly up the street. He’d stop about every 100 feet or so, pretending to tie his shoe, when actually, he was checking to see if I was still standing there.

You bet your life I was. With arms crossed. I got back on the phone and explained the situation, and the owner said he was en route. Once the attempted thief had rounded the corner, I decided it was safe to return to the tower, but I kept an eye on the truck. 

That was fortunate, because 10 minutes later, another guy came slowly down the street from the direction that attempted thief had gone. Of course, he had every right to do that, but what got my attention is that he was looking around furtively. He was also dressed similarly to thief number one. He stopped in front of the truck and was reaching toward the hood when I shouted.

HEY!

He immediately walked away, while speaking to someone on his cell phone. I didn’t even have to explain what I was shouting about. He knew. (And have you ever noticed how adrenalizing it is to shout? I hate shouting.) I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t been there, the truck guy would no longer have a battery or a catalytic converter or hubcaps.

The owner arrived at 9:30. I verified it was him by asking for the name on the note, then seeing that he had the key, and also, I quizzed him about what we had previously discussed and took a photo of his driver’s license.

I asked him if anything was missing, and he said it looked like someone had been inside the cab, but that he hadn’t left anything of value in there. Things were just rearranged. He said he would wait until AAA showed up with the tow truck, and then get out of my way.

He told me he was trying really hard to get back up on his feet. That broke my heart, because it looked like the guy was about 70 years old. That’s a hard stage in life from which to start over again. I wished him luck. He thanked me for my kindness, and asked me to thank the swing shift guy, too, because he had been really kind as well.

That made all the effort worthwhile. He seemed like a good man who was just down on his luck, so I was doubly glad that I hadn’t added an impound fee to that mix. I went back to my tower, cursing quietly to myself, at the economy and at COVID and at aging in general. Soon the tow truck arrived and off they went.

What a strange start to the day. Start, it turns out, was the operative word. This day was just warming itself up.

I was sitting at the desk, scanning the horizon for vessels that might need a bridge opening, and musing about what to write about next (which is why this job is perfect for a blogger), when I thought of an old friend who is about truck guy’s age and I said to myself, “I wonder whatever happened to Max?”

That sent me down a cybertunnel for a few hours, because he hadn’t left a big online footprint. When I came out the other side of the cybertunnel, I had discovered that my friend had passed away a year and a half ago. I sat there for a while with tears in my eyes, trying to absorb that news. I didn’t know what to do.

Ultimately, I wrote a blog post about it, so I could express my feelings. Writing always helps me. But I think I was in shock for most of the rest of my shift. I had been living in a Max-less world for months without knowing it, and that felt strange.

Finally, it was time to go home. It was also the last day of my work week, and I was looking forward to relaxing. I was emotionally drained. On the way home, I listened to one of my favorite NPR shows, called Snap Judgment. I like to tell stories, but I also like to have stories told to me, and this show does that with aplomb.

But on this day, of all days, the story was particularly gut wrenching. It was called Finn and the Bell, and it won a Peabody Award for good reason. It’s about an amazing boy named Finn, and it’s told from his mother’s perspective. It had to be told by her, because Finn committed suicide as a teen. (If you click on that link and listen to it, have a box of tissues close at hand.)

But this was not a story about suicide. They don’t ever even discuss why he did it. Its focus is how amazing this kid was while living, and it’s about coping with the gaping hole he left behind him. This hole is not only in the heart of his mother, but also in the heart of the little town where they lived. And the mother is so raw and honest with her emotions that you feel like you have that hole in your heart yourself. It felt like a very important story to hear, so I’m glad that I did.

But this meant that I spent the latter half of my commute having a huge ugly cry. I cried for the nice old truck guy who was being forced to start over. I cried because I hadn’t had a chance to tell my friend how grateful I was to have known him, and how I’d miss him. And I cried for Finn, a boy with so much potential, whose life was cut short just as it was getting started.

That cry purged a lot of gunk out of my soul. (And believe me, I tried to find a better word than gunk, but in the end, gunk was the only word that truly applied.) I didn’t realize how much I needed that release. It was cleansing.

By the time I got home, I felt sad and tired, but somehow lighter. I told Dear Husband about my day as soon as I walked in the door, but I think this was the kind of day that you can’t truly understand unless you were there. He was sympathetic, of course, and I was grateful for that. But it was impossible for me to fully articulate how much this day had impacted me.

I spent the evening on my recliner, cuddling my dog, watching TV with Dear Husband, and not really absorbing what we watched. I was just trying to get used to my new state of mind, while feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude for my life and my good fortune.

Some days are all yours. They can’t really be shared, whether you like it or not. They are yours to struggle through and be transformed by.

And this was definitely one of those days.

Are you wondering what to bring to Thanksgiving dinner? How about my book, Notes on Gratitude? Place your orders now! (Or any other time, since we’re on the subject.) And… thanks!

A Deep, Deep Discount

The arrogance.

There is nothing that irritates me more than not being taken seriously. I don’t mean that you have to agree with everything I have to say, but don’t be dismissive. Don’t roll your eyes or smirk or do a bitter little laugh that implies “Oh, here she goes again.”

There’s nothing more rude than assuming that what I’m saying must be wrong because I’m, I don’t know… me. How am I supposed to make a touchdown if you instantly place me 30 yards deep into my end zone, while you allow others to start on the field?

It’s especially annoying when I happen to be expressing an opinion. Opinions aren’t facts. They’re how a person feels about a subject. Again, you don’t have to agree, but to imply that I don’t really know how I feel, or that how I feel does not bear any consideration whatsoever, or that you know how I should feel better than I do? Nope. Not acceptable. My opinion does not require your stamp of approval to be valid.

If you’re not even willing to entertain what I’m trying to say, then why do you bother asking my opinion in the first place? It’s insulting. It’s a waste of time. It makes me think rather less of the person who is doing it.

I come by my irritation honestly. I am discounted all the time. All. The. Time.

Sometimes it’s because I’m a woman. Sometimes it’s because I’m of a lesser rank in one pecking order or another. And heaven forbid that things happen the way I suggested they would, or that others eventually come to the same conclusions that I did. Do I ever get an apology or even the tiniest bit of credit? Of course not.

A few examples:

There’s a minor repair that is long overdue in my office, and I have even volunteered to do the work myself, if they will just provide me with a particular product that I’d need to do the job. I’ve been asking for over three months now. First, they sent me a different product, and I explained why that wouldn’t work. Next, they ignored me for weeks. But I kept asking.

Mind you, this product costs less than 5 dollars, and it’s readily available at a store where they shop for supplies on a daily basis. The fact that they refuse to provide said product when it’s so cheap and easy to get leaves me with only one conclusion. They think I don’t know what I’m talking about and/or they don’t think the issue is important.

I remodeled my first house, for the most part, all by myself. I may be “just a girl”, but I know what I’m doing. And why would I lie about the importance of the issue? Why on earth would I make all this up?

And to add to my irritation, winter is finally upon us in terms of temperature, even though the solstice has yet to occur. That means that the needed repair is going to be much more urgent. But I guess since only three of us will suffer by freezing in this office, it’s insignificant. Forget about the fact that as the problem worsens, our options for repairing it will be ever more expensive and time consuming.

But, you know, my thoughts don’t matter. They’re not even worth hearing. The arrogance!

(UPDATE: Admin finally provided the product I needed. It only took 13 weeks.)

And I get that same dismissal any time I walk into male-dominated territory and attempt to contribute to the narrative. I walk into a mechanic’s shop and explain what’s going wrong with my car, and I’m not believed. I walk into an auto dealership because I’m hoping to purchase a car, and they think I haven’t done my homework, and that I’ll primarily be interested in learning about features such as the makeup mirror in the visor, or that certain buttons were designed so one won’t break one’s nails. (Never mind the fact that I don’t wear makeup and I keep my nails cut short.) And the arrogance of some doctors when I’m attempting to explain what’s going on with me, the person who has occupied this body for 57 years, is beyond the pale.

Don’t worry your pretty little head, honey. Just take my word for it, or buy this overpriced lemon, or shut up and take the damned pill. Why do you insist on thinking?

Even my own mother, may she rest in peace, was such a product of her generation that she would discount me all the time. When she was cold, I used to tell her that you do lose a lot of body heat from your head, so if she’d put on a hat, she’d feel warmer. I told her that every winter for decades. She ignored me. But when my brother-in-law said the same thing to her, exactly once, she put on a hat, and said she did, in fact, feel warmer. I wanted to scream.

Throughout my adolescence, I kept telling her that my mattress was too short. She said I was being silly. I spent 7 years having to sleep with my feet and ankles sticking out over the edge of the bed. Even when I showed her that this was the case, she didn’t believe me or her own eyes. Then, one day, when we were moving, I took a break by lying on my mattress, which was, for the moment, in the front yard. My feet were hanging off one end, my forearms were hanging off the other. She looked at me and said, “Wow, that mattress is way too short for you.”

My head nearly exploded.

After spending the summer in the Youth Conservation Corps, I was looking forward to showing my mother and my oldest sister the many construction projects we had done. I was really proud of them. My sister wanted to go see a certain project, and I said, “We might want to skip that one. To get to it, you have to go several miles down a road that’s covered with deep, soft sand, and I guarantee you that your car will get stuck.”

She said nonsense, and insisted we go. I told her it was a really bad idea. And sure enough, her car got stuck and had to be towed. She was furious.

So when I suggested we see a different project, she refused to go. (She often meted out this form of punishment, and I think she delighted in it.) I told her the work site was on a paved road, with a paved parking lot, and there was absolutely no risk in visiting that site, and still she refused. And at first, she convinced my mother not to go either.

Why would I lie when I hadn’t lied about the first project? What would my motivation be? Did she think I wanted to ruin her car or something? Did she think that, at the age of 16, I was incapable of distinguishing pavement from sand? It felt like I was at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. I half expected one of them to turn to me and say, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

Eventually, my mother did go with me, and was impressed by what we had accomplished. Unfortunately, by that time I was so frustrated at having to beg to be believed that the compliment fell flat for me. I still struggle with the idea that she felt I couldn’t be trusted but at the same time knew that I had done some very complex construction work that required a great deal of trust.

Another example: When I mentioned to someone with no drawbridge experience that opening a drawbridge for a vessel on a river that has a strong current is much different than opening for one on a canal with almost no current at all, he said I was wrong, and that, anyway, the canal had a strong current.

I only sit here 5 days a week, looking out at this body of water, and the behavior of the vessels thereon, all shift long and have done so on one bridge or another for more than 20 years. But of course, I’m wrong. (He also believes in mermaids, and that homosexuals are aberrant. So yeah. He’s an expert. Pffft.)

Like every woman on the planet, not a day goes by when I’m not underestimated. I’m told I shouldn’t feel the way I feel, shouldn’t react the way I react, can’t possibly know how to do x, y, or z, and that I need to be quiet and just take whatever comes my way, all while being told that I should smile much more than I do.

Discounting people seems to have become the cultural and political norm. Women are not even allowed to control their own body parts. Politicians are ignoring their constituents. I worry that all of this will end badly.

There is no end to the damage that can be done when people believe that they have a right to determine who gets to be heard. It’s like a heinous, twisted, even more despicable version of banning books, because the censorship takes on human form.

I am so f**king over it.

Minding My Own Business. Not.

I had to try.

Anyone who knows me well can tell you that, when properly motivated, I can be a buttinsky to a shockingly inappropriate degree. Sometimes it gets me into trouble. Sometimes it causes unintended damage and/or hurt feelings. Sometimes I get it all wrong.

It’s just that I can’t stand to see someone bullied. I can’t sit still when I think I’m witnessing some form of injustice. And false accusations make me want to scream.

I think the reason I am so adamant about standing up for people is that, all too often, no one stood up for me during my weakest, most vulnerable moments. If I can prevent even one person from experiencing that kind of pain, it’s worth it. One second of averting future psychological damage makes up for all the times I’ve stuck my neck out for someone, only to have my head figuratively handed back to me for my trouble.

There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re being attacked, and looking around at all the witnesses, only to find that they are suddenly engrossed in inspecting their shoes. I don’t know how people do that. It’s not in me.

Don’t get me wrong: Standing up for someone does not mean reinforcing their false accusations or beliefs because you usually like that person. It also doesn’t mean propping up someone’s inaccurate conclusions, even if they are dear friends. And that’s where I often get into trouble.

Standing up for others means taking a personal stand about what you feel is right and just and morally and literally true. It’s about having personal integrity everywhere you go. It’s about saying the emperor has no clothes when that’s what you see. Even if someone you love dearly insists that the clothes are indeed there, you stand your ground unless you are provided with evidence that contradicts what you know in the very marrow of your bones.

A friend once accused another friend of mine of being hostile and rude and irrationally cruel to him. It was a he said/she said situation. I wasn’t there. But I’ve known both of these people for well over a decade, and the accusation sounded nothing like the woman I had been talking to on a daily basis for all that time. I doubt this woman even squashes spiders. She has consistently shown herself to be polite, kind, and considerate of others. I have never seen her lose her temper. Not once. Calling her hostile is as improbable as calling Trump intelligent. That, and she had zero motive for being hostile to him, as he was only passing on a message that I wouldn’t be there that evening as planned.

In contrast, my accusing friend, as much as I love him, has demonstrated that he often draws irrational conclusions, especially when under the influence of something. And he’s also stubborn. So even when you confront him with the information once a cooler head should prevail, and even when he is unable to provide a shred of evidence, he tends to double down on his belief, and gets downright hostile about it himself. I’ve seen him lose his temper on multiple occasions.

In fact, he got hostile to the point of saying really cruel things to me, and insisting that I had to choose between the two of them. So who would you choose? It seems rather obvious to me, even though it made me sad. I chose the friend who has always been kind. And she remains kind to this day. On the other hand, the accusing friend occasionally pops up and leaves a nasty message on my blog, to remind me, I suppose, that he’s still feeling hostile. As if that will make him more palatable as a friend. As if his hostility will somehow convince me to see it his way and agree my other friend is hostile. It makes me sad.

Maturity has not tempered my need to take these stands. It has, though, taught me to be a little more subtle about it, when possible. Sometimes people don’t realize that they’re making an a$$ of themselves, and it doesn’t pay to broadcast that, unless doing so will prevent others from acting in kind.

For example, the other day I witnessed something, and I had to speak up. It was at the local YMCA where I swim 4 days a week. After a while, once you’ve established a routine like that, you tend to start recognizing those whose routines intersect with yours. I’m cordial with these people. Some I get to know better, and some are only passing acquaintances that might exchange comments about the weather with me.

I have made several friends at the Y, but I tend to give people their space unless they indicate a desire to go beyond surface pleasantries. After all, they’re not there for me. And that’s fine.

On the day in question, in the swim lane beside mine, there was a man in his early 40’s and a boy who was about 10. I’ve chatted with them before, so I know this is a father and son, and they come to the pool in an effort to lose weight. Good for them. Clearly this is a father who cares about his son’s health.

We exchanged smiles and nothing more. But as I was exercising, I overheard the father calling his son a loser. He was using a teasing tone of voice. (I think they had been racing, and the kid, of course, lost.) But the father kept saying, loudly, and with a smile on his face, “Loser. Looooooser!”

I understand that this is the teasing dynamic that many guys use with one another, but that doesn’t make it right. It got to me. Not that I was ever called a loser by a family member. But there were other names and criticisms which stuck. Sometimes people don’t realize how much words can hurt. They don’t realize how labels stick to you. They think that as long as their intentions are good, and their love is there, unspoken, then they can say anything they want to say and that will be okay.

But it’s not. It’s not. Why are we so willing to say cruel things to the people we love when we’d never say those things to a stranger? It makes me sad.

I swam a few laps, trying to figure out what to do or say, because I knew I was going to say something. I didn’t want to say anything in front of the kid. Hadn’t he been humiliated enough for one day? What to do. What to do…

And that’s when another guy came along who looked identical to the father, and he jumped in their swim lane. The three of them sort of played in the pool for a while, and I could tell that there was affection all around. That’s good.

At one point, the father and son were down in the deep end, and the other guy was in the shallow, so I quietly said to him, “Is that your nephew? He’s an awesome kid.”

He smiled and said, “Yes he is. And yes, he is.”

I said, “I heard his dad call him a loser earlier. I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it, but words can hurt. I hope he’ll rethink that, because, speaking from experience, the therapy later in life can get pretty darned expensive.”

He said that he found that concerning, and thanked me.

I went about my day, knowing the situation could play out in several ways. 1) The uncle might decide that it’s too awkward to say anything, but perhaps he’ll be even kinder to the nephew to make up for his brother’s name calling. 2) The uncle might speak up to his brother and he’ll either take it well and maybe try to stop with the name calling, or he’ll get defensive and think less of his brother or of me, but will at least have heightened awareness of what he’s doing. Or, finally , and most likely, 3)The second I turned away the uncle shook his head and blew me off.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, people are, if anything, too good at minding their own business. I knew if I didn’t speak up, no one else would. But at the same time, it’s truly not my business, and I don’t know how this family behaves under any other circumstances. Maybe I made too much of it, and caused an awkward situation for no good reason. Or maybe it was something that needed to be said.

Did I do harm or good? I’ll never know. But I had to try.

Bearing Bittersweet Witness to a Living Legend

Some people, upon passing, will break the hearts of half the world.

Sometimes I cannot believe how lucky I am. That’s exactly what I was thinking on Monday, October 17th of this year, when I got to experience the best concert I’ve ever been to in my life, bar none. The entertainer in question was none other than Sir Elton John.

As was so often the case, my older sister first introduced me to his music around 1974, right about the time my mother uprooted my entire life and moved us to Florida. I was 10 years old, and had lived a pretty sheltered life up to that point. Elton was quite a bit for me to take in.

Elton is a living legend who has more than earned that title. I don’t think I fully understood that until seeing him live for the first, and most likely the last time. I’ve loved his music since the 70’s, and I have enjoyed reading about his controversies and shenanigans over the years.

I always looked forward to seeing what he would wear next. Aside from Liberace, I had never seen a man dressed so flamboyantly. And I’m fairly certain that Elton’s Rolling Stone interview in 1976 regarding his bisexuality was my introduction to the fact that not everyone is heterosexual. I don’t think I was thinking about sexuality in any form or fashion up to that point.

Elton’s philanthropy has always impressed me as much as his music and showmanship has. AIDS came along right when I hit college. I had long anticipated getting there and going hog wild. No such luck. For many years AIDS was simply not spoken about, but it was everyone’s underlying fear. That led to a lot of misinformation that could and should have been avoided. Instead, as with the misinformation about COVID, many lives have been lost due to the ignorant silence. When Elton started his AIDS Foundation in 1992, he was the first person I remember openly talking about it without any reservations. I was in awe of his courage and dedication.

Despite him being a very integral part of both my youth and my cultural awakening, somehow I’ve never really focused in on Elton like a diehard fan would do. I’m not sure why. He deserved better from me.

I do have one theory about that, though. Until writing this blog post, I could swear I once saw Elton wearing those iconic platform shoes with goldfish in the heels at some point. I was certain that was Elton. I mean, he was known for some crazy footwear over the years, and there was a brief period in the 1970’s when goldfish were tortured in this fashion.

I remember seeing those shoes on our dusty, bulbous, old-school TV screen, on the feet of some musician standing in front of a piano. I was shocked and upset. It would be quite like me to hold a grudge against the wearer of said shoes. I can imagine my skinny preteen self, arms crossed and foot stomped, as I shouted at the TV, “You are dead to me, goldfish torturer!”

Because I was hard core like that. (I still am, if I’m honest.) My sense of integrity was quite rigid. But then preteen me would have gotten distracted by other things, even as my inner self was staging this fishy little boycott.

But my lazy internet search tonight has yielded no images of Elton in those shoes, and no talk of him wearing them. So perhaps I got that wrong. It would be a shame if my distance from him was due to a childhood misunderstanding that was firmly held in some puritanical section of my brain.

In retrospect, Elton seems to be entirely too kind to harm goldfish. But maybe that’s why I kept Elton at arm’s length all these years. I honestly have no idea. The goldfish memory only surfaced as I was walking into the concert venue. Regardless, I always loved Elton’s music.

Fast forward to 2022, and I’m sitting in the Tacoma Dome with Dear Husband and about 20,000 other people, thinking the same thing I always think at concerts: “I’m breathing the same air as someone famous.”

But there were more layers to my thought onion on this night. This was to be Elton’s last concert ever in the state of Washington. The man is 75 years old, and he wants to spend the rest of his life with his husband and his two sons, ages 9 and 11. He has certainly earned that.

And I kept circling back around to my good fortune. If this concert had come just a decade earlier, I wouldn’t have had the financial means to afford the ticket, and I wouldn’t have had anyone to go with. And yet here I was, about to witness history. I don’t know if I’ve earned that, but I certainly wasn’t going to pass on this opportunity.

Elton has been doing his final tour, entitled “Farewell Yellow Brick Road”, since 2018, and it is expected to end in 2023. It has been sporadic, thanks to COVID and other factors, such as a bout with pneumonia, and later, catching COVID himself.

Dear Husband and I had been anxiously awaiting the start of the concert, and then suddenly the spotlight shined on his piano, and there he was, in all his unmistakable glory, as if by magic. But even more magical was his ability to make all 20,000 of us feel as though he were drawing us into a warm embrace that would last the duration of the concert. He even took the extra effort to acknowledge those who were seated behind him on numerous occasions. That’s class. That’s consideration.

And believe me when I say that we were embracing Elton right back. People came to the concert dressed in his costumes. The air was thick with feathers molting from brightly colored boas. And his band, every member as advanced in years as he is, could still rock, and clearly loved performing with him for one last tour.

Elton’s showmanship is as great as it ever was, even though it was quite obvious that he was well beyond doing handstands on his piano bench like he was known to do in his youth. He had hip surgery about a year ago, so when he would walk off stage for a costume change and a break, he was obviously far from being spry, and his crew flanked him protectively. It was sad to see, but it is also a natural progression for all of us.

Hearing so many of the songs that I have known and loved throughout my life filled me with joy. And unlike Paul McCartney and the Beach Boys, his voice is just as rich and strong as it was in his youth. Some people should know when to quit. (Sorry.) But Elton, on the other hand, is choosing to move on, even though selfishly we would love to enjoy his performances until the day he would be taken off stage feet first. But he has given us more than we have a right to expect over the years. He deserves, instead, to live out his life surrounded by the love of family.

And the thought of that, as he serenaded us all, had me on the brink of a huge, ugly cry. I had to fight that urge to publicly humiliate myself the whole time. I knew I was seeing the final chapter of an amazing career, as well as the tail end of an amazing life. Because Elton, of course, is as mortal as every one of us is. It’s just that some people, upon passing, will break the hearts of half the world.

So I sat there in the Tacoma Dome, gazing at this icon, basking in the warmth generated by this gracious talent, and I said a bittersweet thank you to the universe. I have been lucky enough to see many legends come and go. The going, which I’m bound to bear witness to with greater frequency as I age, is what makes the gratitude so bittersweet.

If you’d like to check out some of the actual videos we took at the concert, check out the Elton John Farewell Tour Tacoma Dome October 2022 Playlist on my YouTube channel. Clearly we’re not cinematographers, but they will really give you a sense of what the actual concert was like.

If you’re more interested in professional grade official music videos of the songs he sang, Dear Husband introduced me to a cool website that gives you set lists from concerts, and includes links to music videos. It’s like concert meets MTV. Check it out here.

I’ll leave you now with some of the photos we took at the concert. I know I’ll be looking at these souvenirs of a very happy memory for years to come. That will have to do, because, as financially stable as I have become, I am still not willing to spend 50 dollars on a t-shirt.

Sorry, Elton, but some things will always make me put my foot down.

Are you wondering what to bring to Thanksgiving dinner? How about my book, Notes on Gratitude? Place your orders now! (Or any other time, since we’re on the subject.) And… thanks!

The Strange History of L’Inconnue de la Seine

She has been kissed more than any woman in history, yet no one knows who she is.

No one knows her name. Where her body rests now, and where she came from also remain a mystery. Her beauty has inspired artists, poets, musicians, writers, dancers, and even doctors. She has been known to inspire an international, cult-like following. She has been kissed by more people than anyone else in the history of mankind, and yet no one knows anything about her life. All these unknowns simply add to her intrigue.

She has come to be known as L’Inconnue de la Seine, or the unknown woman of the Seine. The oft repeated story about her goes something like this: A girl’s body was found floating on the river Seine in Paris, sometime around the 1880’s, and it was taken to the morgue. Because there was no evidence of foul play, it was assumed she committed suicide. The mortician was so taken with the girl’s beauty that he had a death mask made of her face, as was often the custom at the time. And her visage has been haunting and/or intriguing us ever since.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that any part of that story is true. Some say that her name was Valerie, and she was a Russian of noble stock who somehow became a prostitute in Paris, and committed suicide, either due to the shame or because someone broke her heart. Again, no evidence of this can be found. Some say she was the daughter of the owner of the factory that first produced and sold these masks, and that the cast was made while she was still alive.

I subscribe to the theory that she was indeed alive when the cast was made, because her features are too perfect. Apparently it was the custom to “improve” death masks back then, but if you look at death mask images, the majority of them are of people who were unquestionably dead. And a drowned woman would not have such fine features. In addition, some people say that you can almost make out the dents that would be caused at the corners of the mouth if someone needed breathing tubes while the plaster set.

The fact is, we don’t even know where or when she was buried, let alone her age or year of death. But one way or another, the mask became a thing. People would purchase replicas to hang on their walls. Art schools would use her face so their students could practice painting and sculpture. Apparently her face was even used at beautician training schools for a time.

And her face is, indeed, beautiful, although her features have become blurry and indistinct throughout the years, as people have taken casts of casts of casts of it, making it but a mere shadow of its former self. But she looks serene. She looks content.

During the 1920’s and 1930’s, she was the center of a cult-like following of people who romanticized female suicide, saying that to die without pain while still beautiful and full of promise was somehow something one should aspire to. I wonder how many people have themselves committed suicide because of this supposed serene expression?

When a woman is rendered anonymous, it’s easy to overlook the fact that she had emotions and aspirations and a history all her own. She had a tragic life if she really did commit suicide, and an even more tragic one if she was murdered. Yet L’Inconnue has become this mythical creature, someone to be idolized and revered.

I think the myths surrounding this girl who died too soon do her a great disservice. I suspect no one ever asked her if it was okay to turn her image into a thing that is widely profited from and used as a teaching tool. I wish we knew something, anything about her that was verifiable. Instead, she becomes whatever we want her to be.

And one of the things we want her to be, apparently, is the face of a resuscitation doll named Annie. The inventor of this CPR dummy was looking for a female face, because he believed most men would be hesitant to “kiss” a male face. He came across a bust of L’Inconnue and was intrigued by it, just as we all seem to be. He decided she would be the perfect face for his teaching tool. If you have ever gotten a CPR certification, chances are that you, too, have kissed this unknown woman. In retrospect I kind of feel guilty about it. She deserved better.

To add to the tragedy, the survival rate from CPR is not as high as Hollywood would have you believe. It’s actually about 16 percent. That’s got to be heartbreaking for all first responders. And it is said that only 3-5 percent of Americans have CPR certification, and even if they do, it’s estimated that most people forget their training within 3 months.

It is also estimated that if you have a heart attack in public, you are much more likely to be helped if you are a white male. If you’re female or a minority, you have a better chance of having people standing by and looking at their shoes. I suspect L’Inconnue would be disgusted by that prospect.

If you’re interested in learning more about L’Inconnue de la Seine, I recommend that you read The drowned muse : casting the unknown woman of the Seine across the tides of modernity, by Anne-Gaëlle Saliot. You can get an intriguing taste of this book here. And Radio Lab did a fascinating podcast about her.

If you are ever in Paris, there is a shop that sells death masks, called Atelier LORENZI, that has been in business since 1871, and has a 19th century plaster cast of her which they have been using ever since. You must make an appointment to visit this establishment. But if you do, you could “own”  L’Inconnue de la Seine, and if you hang her on your wall, she could, for the rest of your life, gaze down at you serenely, still keeping her secrets.

Women are rarely consulted in these matters. That’s nothing new. L’Inconnue de la Seine, whether she likes it or not, has become a woman you can take home with you. For the right price, of course.

If you or anyone you know is contemplating suicide, please call 988, or visit the website for the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

Additional sources:

Are you wondering what to bring to Thanksgiving dinner? How about my book, Notes on Gratitude? Place your orders now! (Or any other time, since we’re on the subject.) And… thanks!

Gone but Not Forgotten

I long for blissful ignorance on days like today.

The older I get, the more dread I feel when I think, “I wonder whatever happened to…”

Naturally, my friends are getting older, and you just never know. Times like these, I wish the internet didn’t exist. Before that, when you had that question, you had a much harder time tracking down the truth. If you were curious enough, you’d go to the library and pore over the microfiche, looking for news or obituaries, and then you’d flip through census records and phone books. Usually, you’d eventually give up and accept the fact that you probably weren’t going to get an answer.

I straddle the internet age and the non-internet age. I was in my mid-twenties when the world wide web first gained traction, so some of my friends are very internet savvy, and some find computers befuddling and mystifying on a good day. Because of that, some of my friends, usually the younger ones, have a big internet footprint, and others, usually the older ones, can barely be found at all.

Before the internet, most of us walked around blissfully ignorant of the passing of people we loved but had lost touch with. Now, it’s sort of a mixed bag. Some of my Google searches yield instant results. Some make me wonder whether a person had been a figment of my imagination.

Once, when I looked up an ex-boyfriend whom I remember fondly, not only did I discover that he had passed away, but also that he had left behind 19 children! Good grief, talk about losing touch. That was a shock to my system. But is it better than blissful ignorance?

I kind of long for that blissful ignorance on days like today. Because today I thought of someone and I Googled his name, and now I’m sad. Not surprised. Just sad.

I have no idea why I thought of Max today of all days. Just reminiscing, I suppose. Max and I go way back. We met 35 years ago because we both worked for the State of Florida, in different departments, both of which had burdened its employees with client caseloads about 10 times larger than they should have been. It was a windowless building that was a warren of individual offices. It was like a white collar prison. The stress levels in that building are impossible to adequately describe.

Max and I would cross paths in the lunchroom, and we bonded over our mutual burnout. As we got to know each other, though, we also bonded over our politics, our love of reading and writing, and the unspoken realization that we were both able to address issues in more depth than most of our coworkers, as much as it pains me to say that.

We kept up with current events. We enjoyed history. We read for pleasure. We loved to talk of our travels. Our horizons were broader than those of our peers. Max, for me, was like an oasis of nerdiness in a desert of monotonous groupthink. I always looked forward to lunch.

It may sound as though I had a romantic involvement with Max, but nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, he was 29 years older than I was, had children my age, and had completely different cultural references than I had. As much as we enjoyed each other’s company, we knew we were two entirely different types of primates, so to speak, and that was fine. We each, in our own ways, could be a bit much, so sometimes we’d get on each other’s nerves and have to take a step back. But it never lasted long.

Max was full of fascinating stories. He remembered nearly starving to death in the Philippines during World War II. He had been 5 when the Japanese occupied his country, and 8 when they were cast out. During that time, 500,000 of his countrymen died. He remembered having to hide from the Japanese. He remembered eating anything he could. Those experiences shaped him. I ache for that little boy.

In particular, Max was interested in reading anything he could get his hands on about José Rizal, one of the greatest heroes of the Philippines. Rizal’s writings helped inspire the Philippine Revolution of 1896, and he was therefore killed by the Spanish Colonial Government that same year. He was only 35. The country gained its independence from Spain two years later.

It was nearly impossible to have a conversation with Max without hearing about Rizal. I think he was intrigued by the idea that someone who had only lived a few decades could make such an indelible impact on a country. Max also sometimes lectured about Fil-Am History at a local college. He wrote many book reviews. He had been a teacher before coming to this country, just like his father, and I think he remained a frustrated academic for the rest of his life.

After a few years, his department moved to a building across town, but we still did our best to get together for lunch at least once every few weeks. At a time when I was struggling to figure life out, I’d ask him for advice, and sometimes I’d even follow it. And he’d speak of his family with such pride. I admired that about him. He knew what was important.

And then the lunches became once a month. And then a few times a year. By the time I started writing my blog in 2012, we had almost no contact at all except for the occasional email. But he would read my blog, and that meant a lot to me. Now it means even more.

One day, Max emailed me and asked when we could have lunch again. I had to remind him that I now lived 3,100 miles away in the Seattle area. And then I had to remind him of that every time I responded to his emails. It made me sad. For someone who had always lived a life of the mind, it must have been really hard to lose cognition, if he even knew it was happening.

Eventually, when he’d post a comment on my blog, it would be gibberish. Word salad. Impossible to comprehend. The first time it happened, it scared me quite a bit. I could tell he still really wanted to connect and communicate, but his ability to do so was gone. I never quite knew how to respond to those garbled comments, so I have to confess that I didn’t. But I’d think to myself, “Hello, old friend,” and I’d reach across the miles and years and squeeze his hand virtually.

Eventually the comments stopped coming. Ours was a friendship born in the workplace, so I never met his wife or family, never went to his home, and I doubt any of his loved ones knew I existed beyond being some lunch friend. Max was a very social person, so I’m sure I was one of many. I didn’t know anyone I could contact to inquire about him, and I didn’t want to upset anyone, including me, if he no longer knew who I was.

So today I Googled him, and found nothing. Then I found a half written, unofficial, only partially accurate obituary about him, posted by someone anonymously. I found no newspaper obituaries. Feeling slightly sick, I searched for him in FindAGrave. Nothing. I found an old Facebook page that he started halfheartedly in 2015, but never followed through with. On there, a niece had posted something recently that said, “Happy Birthday in Heaven, Uncle!”

I nearly burst into tears. And then I researched property records and discovered that his house had been transferred from his and his wife’s name to just his wife’s name, and the document she provided to do that was a death certificate.

There it is, then. The opposite of blissful ignorance. Sorrowful awareness?

I’ve been walking the earth for about a year and a half under the illusion that Max was out there somewhere, in body, if not in spirit. Perhaps his body finally went to that place where his mind had been dwelling for years. Who knows.

It occurs to me that we never discussed religion. Why didn’t we ever discuss religion? There’s never enough time.

If Max were alive now, he’d be 86. It’s exceedingly strange to only begin to mourn someone long after their passing. It feels wrong.

Goodbye, old friend. Thank you for the much-needed oasis. I’ll miss you.

Rest in Play, Eclipse

She was love and kindness, dog-ified.

The citizens of Seattle are a little bit more sad today, because our beloved, internationally known, solo bus riding dog has passed away. According to this article, she had cancer and died in her sleep. She was only 10 years old.

I never met Eclipse personally, but as I note in my post entitled One More Thing to Love About Seattle, she was one of the many things that made me really happy to call this area home when I first got here. And this article in NPR entitled, Eclipse the dog, known for riding the bus alone to the dog park, has died tells you everything you need to know about how beloved she was. It includes a twitter post with hundreds of comments by those who will mourn her loss, as well as a delightful YouTube video that was made by King Country Metro about her, which I’ll post below.

Eclipse showed us all that some things transcend species, require no language, and will always make the world a better place. Those things are love and kindness. Thank you, Eclipse, for teaching us all. Since you always had your bus pass on your collar, I’m sure there was a bus waiting to take you to the Rainbow Bridge in style.

Are you wondering what to bring to Thanksgiving dinner? How about my book, Notes on Gratitude? Place your orders now! (Or any other time, since we’re on the subject.) And… thanks!

On Being a Frustrated Secular Evangelical

I have the solution for all your biggest problems!

There is nothing worse than being convinced that you have a solution to someone else’s problem and yet being incapable of convincing that person to try it your way. Is it arrogant to feel like that? Not if that same thing has worked for you! Surely not.

You’ll have to forgive me. Only recently has it dawned on me that when I serve up a piping hot plate of unsolicited advice, I sound exactly like the type of person whom I despise the most: an evangelical Christian. How dare anyone force their beliefs down the throats of others? The nerve.

But I hate standing by while people suffer when they might not have to. It makes me feel helpless. No. That’s not true. I have plenty of help. Oodles of help to give. For free. So maybe I feel “not helpful”. No, that’s wrong, too, because I’m chock full o’ help, if only people would avail themselves of said help. Step right up, folks! I have the solutions for all your biggest problems!

Maybe that’s why I blog. I can throw these “one size fits most” solutions out into cyberspace in the hopes that someone, somewhere, will pick one up, put it on, and be all the better for it. You’re welcome. Even if you didn’t ask.

The reason I get so frustrated in these instances is that I care. I care deeply. So when someone ignores my ham-handed advice, or, even worse, has a hostile reaction thereto, I become confused.

Can’t that person see I’m trying to save them? Can’t they tell that the advice is coming from a good place, from someone who means well? Why not?

The resulting befuddlement is pretty much my default state. At age 57, it’s about time that I seriously entertain the idea that everyone, including me, might be much better off if I shut my pie hole and minded my own beeswax. And that tells you everything you need to know about what it must be like to be loved by me.

Run. While you still can. My inability to live and let live can be a whole new problem that no one else should have to contend with.

I wrote an actual book, and you can own it! How cool is that? http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5