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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Life at the Ephrata Cloister

They slept on wooden benches that were 15 inches wide.

In my last post, The Ephrata Codex and the First Known Female Composers in America, I discussed an interesting compendium of music from 1746 that is currently housed in the Library of Congress. This music was originally created at the Ephrata Cloister in what is now Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. These Germanic hymns are remarkable in their simplicity, and are very haunting and beautiful if you have a chance to hear them performed. (More details on how to do so can be found in that post.)

Deep within the pages of this beautifully illuminated codex, a scholar named Chris Herbert discovered that several of the compositions were attributed to three of the sisters who led celibate lives as part of the religious commune. These are now considered to be the first known written compositions by women in what is now America.

I wish we knew more about Sisters Hannah, Föben, and Katura. Currently it seems that all we know was that they lived to be about 79, 67 and 79 respectively, at a time when most women would consider themselves lucky to make it into their 40’s. Life in 18th century America tended to be unhygienic, brutish and short.

Think about it. According to this article, today, about 15 American women die in pregnancy or childbirth per 100,000 live births. That’s outrageous and says much about our broken health care system in this country. But in the 1700’s, when it wasn’t uncommon for women to have 8 children, the death rate was more like 1200 women per 100,000 live births. And by the last half of that century, long before reliable birth control, about one in three girls were already pregnant when they walked down the aisle.

Those are some scary statistics. Women must have felt like they had little choice but to play Russian Roulette with their ovaries. Most of them could expect to stare mortality in the eye several times throght the course of their lives. Under those circumstances, joining a celibate commune would be (sorry) a Godsend.

Joining the Ephrata community afforded a woman the opportunity to not have to focus on mere survival as most people did. Not only was the average woman raising a large family, she was preparing meals from scratch, making her own clothing, soap and candles, and fetching water for the laundry she had to do by hand. And if she found herself, by some misfortune, to be left as the only surviving parent, there were scant opportunities for her to make money. The only occupations that were common for white women back then were domestic service, childcare, gardening, and household production in the forms that I described above. (I specify white women because slavery was still very much in effect at the time and that’s another subject entirely. Suffice it to say that the lives of most black women were, at the very least, a thousand times more brutal.)

To make matters worse, that era was also plagued with smallpox, typhoid fever, dysentery, malaria, yellow fever, and measles. Often these maladies were brought on by unsanitary living conditions and made even more deadly by a dearth of formally educated medical professionals, especially outside of the larger cities.        

Clearly, most colonial women didn’t have time to consider composing music or producing art of any kind. It wouldn’t even have been on their radar. But the sisters who lived at Ephrata Cloister led different lives, indeed. Celibacy alone afforded those women a longevity that other women merely dreamed of. A longer lifespan meant more years to be musically and artistically creative. It makes me wonder whether all the sisters in this community were genuinely pious. This life sounds like a logical choice if you’re a woman living in that era and you want more out of life.

But that’s not to say that the sister’s lives were easy. They slept on wooden benches that were 15 inches wide, and they used wooden pillows. They slept in two 3 hour shifts per night, and usually ate one small vegetarian meal per day, often consisting of roots, greens, fresh baked bread and water. Witness reports say that the celibate sisters and brothers all looked thin and pale, but they appeared healthy.

The sanitation at the cloister was poor at best, and they were not able to bathe often. The white robes that they wore must have glowed in stark contrast to their dirty state. And yet I imagine those robes were a nightmare to keep clean as well.

When Sisters Hannah, Föben, and Katura and their fellow celibates were not composing, creating art, or praying, the sisters would spin thread, often to be woven into linen by the men at the fulling mill, in order to produce the cloth needed for the robes. They would also copy music and tend gardens. Brothers would run the water-powered saw mill, the grain mill, the paper mill, and the oil mill that extracted natural oils from seeds or oil rich vegetables. The brothers also, of course, built all the structures in the commune.

Their religious philosophies seem to have been rather unique. They believed that God had a male, wrathful side, embodied by Christ, but also a female side that was pure love and wisdom, and was embodied by someone called Sophia. The brothers and sisters were married to one side or the other, and therefore were expected to remain faithful to that spouse. Hence the celibacy.

The community’s collection of books subscribed to a wide range of ideas, including alchemy and astrology.  It seems that members of the community were not strictly bound to a rigidly defined creed. Some in the community believed in sacred visions, and that all parts of nature are intimately interconnected. One book on alchemy describes how to generate life from the lifeless. They also read about Gnosticism, Rosicrucianism, the Harmony Society, Hermeticism and Kabbalah.

You can peek inside some of their books on the Historic Ephrata Cloister’s website. One book, called The Golden Chain of Homer, includes a page in an unknown language.

The community also highly prized a book that opined that although the earth was round, its basic nature was cubic, and at its center lies the holy point of rest, also known as New Jerusalem. They also had a well-illustrated book that described the process of spiritual transformation on the body. Clearly these people were dedicated to seeking out the proper spiritual path for themselves, by any means necessary.

It appears that some members also practiced powwowing, which originated with the Pennsylvania Dutch. It’s a folk magic tradition that includes aspects of folk religion and healing charms. (I was fascinated to learn that the term abracadabra is associated with powwowing.)

In this article about Chris Herbert’s discovery of the female composers in the cloister, he states that “Rules about worship changed frequently at Ephrata. At times devotees shaved their heads, at other times they slept only three hours a night. Treatises were written about what to eat in order to sing properly, and what to eat in general — no meat, no honey.”

The founder and spiritual leader of this community, Johann Conrad Beissel, seems to have been philosophically influenced by Radical Pietists and Mystics. He came to America from Germany in 1720 and was still forming his belief system when he was baptized by the Brethren-Anabaptists in 1724, but he eventually rejected the brethren when he decided that the Sabbath should fall on Saturday rather than Sunday. (Scandalous!)

By 1732 Beissel decided to move deeper into the Pennsylvania forest and become a hermit, stating that he had a distrust of organized churches. He wanted to lead a quiet life of contemplation, but friends who believed in his philosophies followed him and built homes near his. They called this place the Camp of the Solitary. Yet, oddly, many of them lived in shared dwellings.

Then came other followers who chose not to be celibate. They were called householders. They were couples who were farmers and craftsmen. They lived nearby, supported what became the cloister, and worshiped with the brothers and sisters, allowing them to have more time to compose and draw, and hold ceremonies that included the washing of feet.

When Beissel died in 1768, membership really started to decline. The last celibate member died in 1813. At its height, the community consisted of about 80 celibate men and women, and 200 non-celibate householders living on farms nearby. After 1813, the buildings that used to house celibate members were divided into apartments and rented to church members. The last surviving (non-celibate) resident of the cloister, Marie Elizabeth Kachel Bucher, died in 2008 at the age of 98. She apparently moved from the Ephrata area in 1927, but before that she had given tours of the now empty cloister.

Today, the historic Ephrata Cloister is maintained by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and from the looks of it, they are doing a wonderful job. They certainly have a well-designed website that makes me long to visit the actual place someday. The information on this website has taught me much about Ephrata Cloister despite my distance. I lingered on its pages for hours. It includes a virtual tour, a well-made introductory video that is also played in the visitor center, and some interesting slide presentations (I particularly recommend the one called Hidden Knowledge at Ephrata) and if that ignites your interest, you can even attend a Virtual Ephrata Academy, which includes a dozen very fascinating lecture-length videos on a whole host of subjects related to the cloister in its heyday.

I am grateful that this cloister existed, especially for the sisters. It allowed them to lead fuller, healthier lives, and demonstrates that women of that era were just as creative as women are today. They simply needed the time and space to express themselves. That time and space, given to them in the form of that community, was a precious gift. We are all beneficiaries of that gift, because we can still hear their music, view their art, and walk around their community.

Other Sources:

https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/common-diseases-18th-and-19th-century

https://clickamericana.com/topics/health-medicine/us-life-expectancy-in-the-1800s

https://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/six-unbelievable-but-true-facts-about-colonial-life/

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Bridge Woman

Everyone deserves a place where they feel safe.

As you prepare to eat a nice warm meal on this Thanksgiving day (provided you’re are able to overlook the disturbing colonial overtones of this holiday), and whether you’re spending the day with family or friends or all alone, I hope that you remember to count your blessings, dear reader. I know I’m making a lot of assumptions about your circumstances, but the fact that you have access to the internet tells me that, like me, you’re a lot better off than many people are.

I’d like to tell you about someone who doesn’t have it as good as we do. As I write this, she’s sorting through garbage in a ditch, not 20 yards from where I sit. Perspective.

Here at work, I spend a great deal of time watching the comings and goings of the people who cross my drawbridge. After doing this for a while, I began to spot patterns. I’ve learned people’s routines. I’ve created backstories about them in my head, which, admittedly, are quite likely inaccurate, but it helps me feel a certain kinship with these people, even though they probably don’t even know I exist.

In the past month or so, I’ve been seeing quite a bit of someone that I’ll call “Bridge Woman”. I considered calling her “Drainage Ditch Woman”, but that seems undignified.  And she needs all the dignity she can get.

I suspect that this woman is mentally ill and/or homeless. She spends hours on the bridge approaches, sitting on the curb that separates the sidewalk from the bike lane. She is completely engrossed in the detritus that flows down the drainage ditch. It’s as if she is panning for gold. She doesn’t even look up when someone goes past.

She sorts through the gunk, sifting out little bits of God-knows-what, and puts those things in what she deems to be their proper place. Some things are placed on the sidewalk, some on the curb, and apparently some things don’t pass muster and are returned to the ditch. I’ve tried to figure out her method of categorization, but I’ve yet to succeed.

She doesn’t do anyone any harm, and it is, after all, a public sidewalk, and she’s far enough away from the part of the bridge that moves to be safe, so I let her be. And I’m painfully aware that her odds of continuing to “be” are a lot higher when she sits on this bridge and quietly organizes away. Here, she’s relatively safe. No one hassles her. No one influences her or takes advantage of her vulnerability. If anyone tries to hurt her, there are witnesses. I strongly suspect that these things can’t be said about the rest of her days or nights.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, women comprise only 29 percent of the homeless individuals (as opposed to families) in this country. This means they’re greatly outnumbered in most places. Women who are unsheltered have a much higher risk of premature death, mainly due to mental health and chronic health issues. And, “The rates of victimization and assault, including robbery, physical abuse, and sexual assault are much higher for women than men.”

An article entitled, “Rates of violence against the homeless are worse than you think” spells it out in upsetting detail. It also contains a link to a comprehensive report entitled, “Vulnerable to Hate: A Survey of Bias-Motivated Violence against People Experiencing Homelessness which details stats from 2016-2017.”

Here are some of the statistics from the article and that report that jumped out at me:

  • Life expectancy for someone who is homeless is 20-30 years less than the general population.
  • About 13,000 American homeless people die on the streets each year.
  • 1 in 3 homeless people have been deliberately hit, kicked, or experienced some other form of violence, including having things thrown at them. Some are urinated on, intimidated or threatened, or verbally abused or harassed.
  • While 1-3% of the general youth population report sexual assault, 21-42% of homeless youth have reported sexual assault. 1 in 3 teens are lured into prostitution within 48 hours of living on the street.
  • 1 in 3 homeless youth engage in survival sex.
  • The experience of violence in the lives of homeless women: A research report, showed that 78.3% of homeless women in the study had been subjected to rape, physical assault, and/or stalking. Those who experience such assault while homeless also lack access to legal, medical and mental health services, which can worsen the post traumatic effects of the experience.
  • The report also briefly focused on Seattle, my city, by saying, “many cities do not often provide free public restrooms that are easily accessible. For example, Seattle, which has the third-largest homeless population in the U.S, only had one functional 24-hour restroom, downtown, as of 2015.”

Homelessness is a rough life for anyone, but it’s even more so for women. So when I see Bridge Woman organizing garbage in the ditch, oddly enough I’m happy she’s there. Yes, I would like much more for her, but given the current state of the world, I think that that ditch is probably a safer place than many of her current societal alternatives. It makes me sad, but I genuinely believe that it’s true.

As winter approaches, and the cold, raw, Seattle weather settles in for the duration, I worry about Bridge Woman. I’m relieved to see that she now has warm clothing and good shoes, and she looks clean enough that she would blend in with the general population if only she were not so focused on the task at hand. I assume that she has been in contact with someone who cares, at least, either personally or professionally.

I hope her situation improves even more.

It probably won’t.

When the ditch is flooded with icy water, she may not enjoy her project quite as much. She’ll most likely choose to pass her time elsewhere. I hope that she continues to find safe places, ideally places that are warm and dry, where she won’t be hassled, even if it’s only for a few hours a day.

Gazing out the window at her, I count my blessings and think that she deserves better. I wonder if people understand how much we have let this woman down, or if they think she gets more than she’s entitled to. I have no idea what she wants or what she can get. I hope she is loved.

At a bare minimum, I’d like to think that all but the most cold-hearted among us can agree that everyone deserves a place where they feel safe. I’m glad my bridge has provided her with that kind of respite, if only for a short time.

I hope, dear reader, that like me, you use this holiday to give thanks for all that is good in your life, rather than thinking back, with pride, on the wholesale theft of this continent and all the bloodshed that was required to rip it from the hands of the people who were already here. If so, then Happy Thanksgiving!

Gratitude should not require a holiday. But if you’re giving added focus to it on this day, please consider ordering my book, Notes on Gratitude. And happy Thanksgiving, dear reader. I’m so glad you’re here!

A Meandering Route to the First Alphabetic Sentence

From language to writing to hopeful words on a lice comb.

As a writer, I’ve always been fascinated with linguistics, especially those studies that pertain to the social aspects of human language. Languages, after all, are created by people. Over time, the societies in which these people live shape the languages in which they speak as well as the way people write.

For example, it’s safe to assume that fishing cultures will have more vocabulary related to fishing than a culture that is desert-bound. Language is what we use to communicate, so words are created only if they are useful to the people in question. That makes perfect sense to me.

Through language, we can trace historic patterns of travel and trade. As people with different languages interact and attempt to communicate, they often adopt words in other languages and make them their own. Before the internet age, the dispersal of language tended to indicate the dispersal of people.

The history and culture of languages and the history and culture of humans influence each other, and that fascinates me as well. It’s almost as if languages live and breathe and grow just as we do. They certainly evolve like we do.

And humans have come up with several different writing systems to convert their languages into visual form. A highly simplistic way to loosely classify these systems is to break them down into three groups:

  • Logographic systems use a symbol to represent a whole word, as they do in China.  
  • Syllabic systems use symbols to represent syllables, and these symbols, together, make up words. A not-very-familiar-and-therefore-not-so-helpful example of this would be Cherokee. (Japanese, on the other hand, uses both logographic and syllabic systems.)  
  • What you’re reading right now is the Alphabetic system. In a gross oversimplification, suffice it to say that each symbol represents a unit of sound.

The current understanding is that the first alphabetic system was the Proto-Canaanite or Proto-Sinaitic, which then came to be the Phoenician alphabet. You might say it’s the granddaddy of all alphabets, including ours. It is so old that we don’t know its exact date of origin, but it’s assumed that it was as early as 1200 BC. The letters were derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Clearly, we humans have been trying to communicate for a long time. It’s kind of sad to realize that we still aren’t very good at it. If we were, there would be fewer conflicts and more compromises.

Having said all that, I must say I was quite excited when I came across this article: Oldest known sentence written in first alphabet discovered – on a head-lice comb. Needless to say, I had to drop everything to read that one, and having done so, I’ve taken you on a circuitous route from language to writing to our final destination: words of hope on a lice comb.

It seems that this oldest alphabetical sentence in the world is on an ivory comb that was found in south-central Israel. The lettering is so faint that the archeologists found the comb back in 2017, but the writing was only noticed last year.

The fact that the comb was made of ivory means that it must have belonged to an upper-class individual, because ivory would have had to have been imported. Regular folks would have used combs made of wood or bone.

Scientists confirmed that it was a lice comb because there were little pieces of head lice membranes still stuck in its teeth. (Shudder. It makes my scalp itch just thinking about it.)

So, what words of wisdom did these bronze age people have to impart to us on said comb? What knowledge did they have to share? Well (and I can’t decide whether this disappoints or delights me), the sentence on the comb translates as follows:

“May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”

From that, I can draw several conclusions:

  • The battle with lice has been going on for as long as humans have had hair.
  • Lice don’t care how rich you are.
  • People have been worried about hygiene and appearance for centuries.
  • People like to hope for the best.
  • Proto-puns are every bit as bad as modern puns.
  • We have been putting puerile instructions on products for as long as there have been products to sell.

This earliest known sentence links us to these people of the bronze age in that the above conclusions can still be drawn to this very day. We may think that we’ve modernized and increased our knowledge base over the years, but some things, like lice, are eternal.

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!

Exploding Head Syndrome is Actually a Thing!

The auditory equivalent of a sneeze?

This is my favorite gif.

It perfectly describes how I feel about the political state of this country, how I feel when I’m not taken seriously, how I feel when I see a blatant injustice that is being overlooked, how I feel when confronted with climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers and scientologists hellbent on recruiting and people who can’t be bothered to recycle. It’s also how I feel when my favorite Indian restaurant is fresh out of Palak Paneer after I’ve driven 30 miles out of my way for it.

Yeah. I’ve been known to overreact. So sue me.

When discussing some newly acquired frustration with a friend, I often end with the phrase, “my head nearly exploded.”

This, despite the fact that you’ll find none of my brain matter scattered anywhere on this globe. (Yeah. I’m prone to hyperbole, too.)

But when searching for this gif to show someone, imagine my surprise when instead I stumbled upon something called Exploding Head Syndrome. It’s actually a thing! Really. I swear. You can even find it in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, along with the World Health Organization’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems.

Now, as a general rule, if someone’s head were to explode without the aid of some outside projectile, or at the very least without an unpleasant impact with an extremely hard surface, it would be safe to assume that we’d all hear about it one way or another. (You know, people talk. That’s why all of us have heard of spontaneous human combustion, but none of us have witnessed it.)

I’ve yet to hear of any spontaneous head explosions outside of the realm of SciFi. And thank goodness. That would be scary and gross, and probably a health hazard for everyone in the vicinity.

The thing that really startled me about EHS is that after reading about it, I am certain that I’ve experienced it. Fortunately, it’s not fatal or painful. It’s not even worth treating unless it’s radically disturbing your sleep on a regular basis. That’s a load off.

Here’s how EHS manifests itself for me. I’m nestled all snug in my bed, as the saying goes, and I’m just starting to drift off to sleep when… Bang! I hear what sounds like a metal pot being dropped on the floor in the kitchen. I’m jerked awake, and the transition is so abrupt that for a minute I have no idea where I am. And then I roll over and fall back to sleep.

It happens 3 or 4 times a year. I’ve never given it much thought. And even though Dear Husband is sound asleep beside me and no one else should be in the house, not once have I ever gotten up to investigate. On some level I always know not to bother.

I’m briefly startled, yes. Then I have vague thoughts that if that crash had been legitimate, and not the stuff of my imagination, then surely the dogs and Dear Husband would be reacting in some way. But they never do. So, off I drift, and I rarely even think about it again the next day.

Not a huge deal. But strange, in retrospect, that my whole life I’ve just kind of incorporated it into my being. Maybe I’ve always assumed that it was the auditory equivalent of a sneeze.

Even though the current name for this phenomenon is Exploding Head Syndrome, there has been a movement to change its name to Episodic Cranial Sensory Shock instead. That would be a hard no from me. (Not that anyone has asked my opinion on the subject.)

I think it would be fun to ask if anyone else has Exploding Head Syndrome at a dinner party. In contrast, the other name sounds painful and debilitating and frightening and would probably cause everyone to look down at their cutlery in embarrassed silence.

Very few studies have been done on this syndrome. I suspect it will always be relegated to the scientific back burner, since it doesn’t even occur to the majority of us to mention it to our health care providers. Researchers have much bigger fish to fry. And big pharma isn’t going to underwrite a study that wouldn’t result in massive pill sales.

There are theories, of course, as to what causes EHS. The one I find most plausible is that it’s triggered by anxiety, stress, or PTSD. But I imagine that conspiracy theorists could have a field day with it. An attempt at communication or torture by Martians, perhaps? If so, they aren’t very technologically advanced.

Learning about Exploding Head Syndrome has also enlightened me about a loosely related phenomenon. I now know that it’s called a hypnic jerk. I get those, too, and have therefore been searching for their proper name my whole life.

A hypnic jerk is that involuntary twitch that seventy percent of us have experienced just as we’re falling to sleep. With me, it’s usually my right leg, but occasionally it’s my whole body, which is extremely startling. And then there are those times when I’m convinced that I’m falling, and suddenly snap awake just before I hit the ground. Those definitely get my attention. For lack of a better term, I’ve always called them “body twangs.” But when I tell doctors this, they look at me as if I have two heads.

One time, I was sleeping with my arm bent and my hand close to my head. Then I had a hypnic jerk in that arm and punched myself in the face. There’s nothing quite like waking up angry, and then discovering that there’s no one but you to chastise.

I know one guy who has a hypnic jerk every single time he goes to sleep, without fail. It’s a handy clue if you need to know his level of consciousness. You just wait for the jerk. Going… going… boing! Gone.

Apparently, hypnic jerks are caused by anxiety or caffeine or stress. They’re more common in people with irregular sleep schedules. (That would be me.) But again, they’re not particularly disruptive for me. It feels kind of like my tendons are made out of rubber bands and suddenly they’re no longer stretched. Boi-oi-oi-ng! Life goes on. But it’s nice to finally have a name for what’s happening.

If you are one of the unfortunate few whose life is really disrupted by Exploding Head Syndrome or hypnic jerks, my apologies for making light of it. It must be horrible and exhausting and life changing. I hate that for you.

But for most of us, it’s just weird and mildly annoying. I’m grateful that I fall in with the majority for once in my life. I’m not sure my heart could take it if I were constantly startled out of my sleep.

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!

This Barbie Comes with Accessories

My insane bedtime ritual.

I’m very particular. And at the age of 57, I’m only just now discovering why. (But that is a blog post for another day, once I have confirmation.)

But, yeah, particular is what I am. I don’t have OCD. I look around at the clutter in my life and I know that if I had OCD, it would be intolerable. But I do have a few quirks.

I don’t like garbage lying about. I’m the first person to cut off a mattress tag. And feeling comfortable is of primary importance to me. If I can’t get comfortable, I’m… well… uncomfortable. This is particularly true at bedtime.

I have this whole insane ritual have to go through if I’m to even entertain the possibility of sleeping. It goes like this.

  • Let the dogs out to pee.
  • Make sure they’re back inside.
  • Lock up and turn out the lights in the rest of the house.
  • Then it’s my turn to pee.
  • Prep CPAP machine for use. (This includes cleaning, and adding distilled water to the reservoir, etc. Things were much simpler prior to using a CPAP. I could just crawl into bed, sleep on my stomach and… stop breathing several times an hour.)
  • Take nighttime meds.
  • Floss.
  • Brush teeth with sonic toothbrush. (Old school tooth brushes leave my teeth feeling gross now that I know how much better a sonic toothbrush is.)
  • Put in my night guard, or risk grinding my teeth to powder as I sleep.
  • Ask Dear Husband to put lotion on my back. (My back itches like crazy at night. I once asked a bunch of women my age or older on a Facebook group about this, and it turns out that old ladies with itching backs at night is a thing. The medical profession doesn’t take us seriously enough. It’s maddening.)
  • Ask Dear Husband to set the alarm. (I can set the alarm myself, but then I wake up several times a night worrying that I haven’t done it properly.)
  • Kiss Dear Husband good night.
  • Arrange my MedCline pillow with it’s accompanying body pillow for maximum comfort. (Since I use a CPAP I can no longer sleep on my stomach, so I sleep on my side. But without a MedCline pillow, which raises my torso up and allows me to stick my arm and shoulder through a hole, I would wake up with my shoulders hunched so far forward that I’d be in pain the rest of the day. I also created a pillow case for the body pillow by sewing together three pillow cases. That keeps it cleaner.)  
  • Wad up a sheet for under my head. (A pillow on top of a MedCline pillow is waaay too much. I’ve decided a wadded sheet works better.)
  • Arrange blankets just so (so I can kick them off and pull them on as my hot flashes come and go all night, and also so that my dachshund, Quagmire, feels welcome to come snuggle.)
  • Get in bed. (Bet you thought I was already there, didn’t you? Nope.)
  • Lotion my feet. (Dry feet scratch against the sheets, and that, to me, is like fingernails down a chalkboard.)
  • Say a prayer that I haven’t forgotten anything, because now I have greasy feet and will be loathe to get out of bed again.
  • Put on my chin strap. (I’m a mouth breather. I’m trying to get out of that habit. I had to try a half dozen different strap designs before I found one I liked. I’m hoping that if I eventually learn to keep my mouth shut at night, I can use a smaller CPAP mask that is just over the nose.)
  • Pull hair out from under chin strap. (By the time I’m using all my implements of torture, my hair is covered in straps, so I try to pull it loose so I don’t walk around during the day with “strap head”. I can always tell when someone uses a CPAP and does not take that extra step.)
  • Call out to dogs and say goodnight.
  • Ask Quagmire to come cuddle, and tell him he makes me sad when he doesn’t (which is about half the time).
  • Put on my CPAP gasket. (That’s what I call the thing, anyway. Most people call them CPAP face liners. They’re Basically a triangular shaped donut of t-shirt like material that is placed between my face and the CPAP mask. Otherwise it rubs my nose raw and I get pimples. These things also reduce seal gaps that shoot jets of air out and wake you up.
  • Put on CPAP mask.
  • Ask Dear Husband, in muffled tones, to please turn out the lights.
  • Lie down.
  • Wrestle with sheets, blankets and CPAP hose.
  • Ask Dear Husband to turn on the lights again because I can’t find something.
  • Put arm through hole in MedCline pillow.
  • Rest wrist on airport pillow so I remember to not bend my wrists up under my chin like a squirrel clutching a nut as I sleep. (Without that pillow, my wrists hurt the next day. Sometimes I have to resort to wearing wrist braces, especially if I’ve had a high stress day, because days like those really make me want to squirrel up.)
  • Listen to the sounds of relaxed breathing emanating from Dear Husband, who can fall asleep before his head hits the pillow. Must be nice. I sometimes have to resist the urge to hit him with a pillow out of spite.
  • Convince myself that I don’t have to pee again, because I don’t want to have to take all this crap off so I can see where I’m going, and then untether myself from the CPAP hose.
  • Pull a batik sarong through the part of the mask that arches over the bridge of my nose. This is to block out any remaining light, and, in the event of a CPAP seal break, it prevents the jet of air from hitting my eyelashes and waking me up.
  • By now you’d think I’d be so exhausted that I could drift off to sleep. But no. I do a mind grind for anywhere from a half hour to all night long.
  • And then of course I have to turn over and rearrange everything accordingly at least twice during the night.

For me, it takes a village to have sweet dreams.

What’s so funny?

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!

Some Scary Statistics

Some dogs don’t let go.

On this, the day before Halloween, I wanted to write something scary. A ghost story. A campfire story that would give all the kiddies a shiver. Fun scary, not scary scary. You get the idea.

But the very moment I had that thought, an article popped up on my computer screen entitled, 2 Children Killed, Mother Hospitalized After Family Pit Bulls Attack Them Outside Tennessee Home. And I realized that this was a topic that is scary/important.

I know this post will ruffle feathers, so I wanted to start off by saying that I love dogs. I really do. I always have. But love brings with it a certain responsibility, and in order to make responsible decisions, one must have information. And all the information I’m providing below can be found if you read all of the links I provide. So here goes.

There are an estimated 90 million pet dogs in America, and they gift us with 4.5 million bites per year. While it’s true that “only” 40-50 Americans die each year from dog attacks, 26% of those fatalities fall in the 0 to 2-year old age range. These children never had a say in what dangers they would be exposed to. And it’s noteworthy that 77% of all maulings come from the family dog or a dog known to the victim.

Between 1982 and 2021, 931 people have been killed by dogs in the U.S. and Canada.

Still, when you consider that we’re talking 90 million dogs in America today, the odds of getting killed by one are startlingly small, almost to the point of insignificance. Unless, of course, you are a victim.

A responsible pet owner makes sure that her/his/their dog, regardless of its temperament, is not put in a position where harming someone is even a possibility. Dogs should be adequately trained, not allowed to roam free, not neglected or abused, and, whenever possible, kept away from situations that might trigger aggression or any type of startle response.

Now, here’s where I get controversial. Let’s delve into pit bulls specifically. I know several people who absolutely love pit bulls, and swear that their dogs are gentle and loving companions that wouldn’t hurt a fly. Yes, the odds are in their favor that this will remain the case. Statistically, it’s true that we humans are 21 times more likely to be killed by a mosquito than we are to be killed by a dog of any breed.

But.

Choosing a pet should be more than just an emotional decision. Yes, I’m willing to concede that pit bull puppies are about as cute as they come. But you are about to allow a creature into your world who, once large enough, is physically capable of killing you or someone you love. (And bear in mind, two 6-month-old pit bull puppies once killed a 7-year-old boy.) Fortunately, most dogs would never make that choice. But it’s something to think about, especially if you have children or other pets.

When choosing a dog, you should consider the disposition of the breed in question. Pit bulls were not bred to be “nanny dogs” as some would have you believe. This article explains the long and complicated history of pit bulls, but the bottom line is that they were originally bred for bull baiting. When that became illegal, they were used in illegal dog fighting. Aggression is what people were seeking when they bred these dogs, and I guarantee that as you read this, pit bulls are fighting in rings all over the world.

A horrific side effect of the history of the aggressive manipulation of this breed is that pit bulls are still the most abused dogs on earth. That certainly doesn’t do anything to improve their disposition, and given that one survey indicates that 41% percent of animal rescue staff would lie about a pit bull’s personal aggressive history in order to find him or her a home, in this instance I would actively discourage dog rescue with regard to pit bulls. There are so many other rescue dogs out there who need your love and attention. I hope you’ll turn your eyes to them.

Pit bulls have a bite force of 235 PSI (pounds of force per square inch). That is similar to a lot of industrial machines that most parents would never let their children play around. There are actually many breeds with a stronger bite force, but pit bulls combine their bite force with an extreme level of tenacity. Some dogs just don’t let go.

Contrary to the persistent myth, a pit bull’s jaws don’t lock. It isn’t that they can’t let go, it’s that they won’t let go once they’re in frenzied attack mode. And to me, that’s even scarier.

When getting a pet, one’s first concern should be public safety, which, of course, includes the safety of you, your loved ones, your friends, and your neighbors. This is why the vast majority of us don’t have lions or tigers or bears curled up on our living room couches. It’s just a bad idea.

So, set aside emotions when making your choice. Look at cold, hard, statistics. They don’t lie. They don’t have an opinion. And below is some pit bull information that I found extremely easy to obtain. I’ll start with the most incontrovertible truth, and the statistic that would be all I’d need to know, personally, in order to give a pit bull a pass:

In the past 16 years, from 2005 to 2020, pit bulls have been responsible for 67%, or 380 dog bite fatalities, in America.

The next most deadly breed is the rottweiler, and they are responsible for 9%, or 51 bite fatalities. All other breeds pale in comparison to those two.

That, to me, is scary. But I hope it doesn’t scare you off dogs in general. The truth is, you have a 1 in 73 chance of getting bit by a dog in the US, and your odds of dying from a dog bite are 1 in 118,776. That’s not bad at all, actually. But from a logical standpoint, you might want to avoid the possibility of greatly improving your chances of being bitten or killed by avoiding the breed that does most of that biting and killing.

Even the Pitbull Federation of South Africa, an organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the American Pit Bull Terrier in South Africa, an organization that always wishes to portray the breed in a positive light, is realistic about these dogs. They strongly encourage sterilization, and in a public statement, they stressed that they feel that, unfortunately, “99% of pit bull terrier owners should not own a pit bull and that these dogs are owned not because the breed is loved by their owners but because of the standing owning this breed gives the owners in society.”

If you want to read a very detailed statistical breakdown of North America’s scariest encounters with man’s best friend, which includes 9 pages of horrific descriptions of some of the more unusual encounters, I urge you to download this report. Dog attack deaths and maimings, U.S. & Canada, September 1982 to December 31, 2021.

In an effort to give you balanced information on this subject, I spent hours looking at several sources, but I tend to rely more on those that provide actual statistical evidence. One such source, which spells out the rarity of dog bite fatalities, but also makes clear the risk factors involved, is the National Canine Research Association of America. They also put out a simple flyer that spells out the most salient points: 15 Year U.S. Dog Bite Fatality Chart – 2005 to 2019

If, after reading all the statistics, you’re still on the fence about pit bulls, then I strongly encourage you to read the many articles listed on a page entitled Voices of pit bull experience. And then, if that isn’t gut-wrenching enough for you, check out this article, entitled Pit bull “nanny dogs” kill three children, two adults, in nine days.

You’re probably wondering if I’m saying you should have your pit bull euthanized if you already own one. I know what it’s like to love a dog. I’ve thought long and hard about this, and my answer would be no, but with a few caveats.

If your dog has displayed worrying signs of aggression, then, sorry, yes, it should be put down. If you have small children, even if your dog has displayed no aggression, your dog should not be allowed around those children unless it is completely under your physical control and supervision. If you are unwilling or unable to provide a pit bull with the continual training and socialization it requires, or if you are not doing everything possible to ensure that your dog isn’t running the streets unsupervised, or if you are neglecting or abusing that dog in any way, then at a bare minimum, your dog should be taken in by someone who is willing to step up to the increased responsibilities that this breed demands.

Keeping your pit bull is potentially a life and death decision. I encourage you to check your emotions at the door and ask yourself if you are doing everything you need to do to ensure the safety of those around you. If you can say yes to that without hesitation, then go for it, but please reassess frequently to make sure you are not becoming complacent.

The biggest takeaway from this post, I suppose, it that, when it comes time to adopt your next dog, I hope you’ll consider all the other breeds out there who need your love and care, and choose one of those. Why throw the potential kill factor into the mix? Pit bulls just aren’t worth the risk.

In the interests of full disclosure, I currently have two dogs. Nelly is a mixed breed old couch potato who leaves the room when anyone approaches. Quagmire, the dachshund, can be aggressive. I discovered that when he bit a neighbor. (And I did the right thing and paid her doctors bills. I also make sure that my pets have all the necessary inoculations to prevent the spread of disease.)

Quagmire has also bitten me and Dear Husband more than once. Usually blood isn’t involved, but not always. I’m not going to lie. It does hurt.

Some people have encouraged me to euthanize Quagmire because of this. Instead, I choose to take the occasional risk, knowing that dachshunds have one of the weakest bite forces of any breed. In addition, Quagmire is an old, 15-pound dog who is missing more than half his teeth, and is therefore not capable of killing us.

However, it’s my responsibility to make sure he can never bite a visitor again. We keep him in our house. We don’t take him to public places. Our back yard is completely and utterly dog-proofed. And if we do have visitors, we have a soft muzzle on hand that we can put on him, which basically causes him to stand still and stare balefully at us.

Quagmire will never kill anyone. And he’ll never hurt anyone who hasn’t volunteered for such treatment (and that’s a short list). I feel we’ve done our due diligence.

In contrast, in the course of my life, I’ve been lunged at by several pit bulls whose owners were walking them on leash on busy urban sidewalks, and I’m sure those owners think that their dogs wouldn’t hurt a fly. That’s not responsible pet ownership.

But one pit bull encounter, in particular, stands out for me. I was in a convenience store, prepaying for gas. There was a van parked right at the front door, and I had to walk past it to get to the pump. I wasn’t paying much attention. I certainly didn’t hear any barking. There was no one in the driver’s seat, and the window was wide open. As I walked past, a pit bull came through that window and lunged at my face. I saw it all in slow motion. I felt his hot breath on my eyelashes. I was able to jump out of the way in time, but it was a near thing. I could have been disfigured for life.

And here’s the kicker: the pit bull owner came running out of the store and started yelling at me.

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.

Climate Change: Are We Finished Being Selfish Yet?

It’s time to wake up.

I started writing posts about climate change back in 2013. I’m sure I would have written about it sooner, but I only started blogging back in December, 2012. All my posts on the subject back then seemed dire and anxious and urgent.

The good news is that I no longer feel like I’m the only one who is concerned. According to this article, the number of Americans who are alarmed about climate change has more than doubled since back then. And this article from Newsweek says that now only 10 percent of us are non-believers. The bad news is that we’re still not doing enough to stop it. In fact, many scientists believe we’re past the point of being able to do so. But we’re not even doing enough to slow it down. Frustration is mounting, yet political inaction still rules the day. There’s just too much profit still to be had from fossil fuels. To hell with the fact that we’re killing our grandchildren.

Today I read an article that broke my heart. Entitled, “The least-visited country in the world may be the first to disappear”, it discusses the tiny country of Tuvalu, nestled halfway between Australia and Hawaii. At this point, it doesn’t really stand a chance. And it’s the fault of humanity. Can you imagine having your country washed away? Can you imagine intentionally making that happen? Well, mission accomplished. We are doing this.

If you really want your heart broken, read this speech that the Prime Minister of Tuvalu gave to the United Nations back in 2007. He is all but begging them to prevent his nation, language, and unique culture from dying. And yet we did nothing. And here we are.

I know that people prefer not to dwell on bad news. I know it is so much easier if this is someone else’s problem to solve. But this is everyone’s problem now. It’s just that some of us will be treading water sooner than others, and the rest of us will be fighting for a foothold on our ever-shrinking, sun-blasted land masses. Shame on us.

For a basic primer on climate change, read my blog post from 2013 entitled Climate Change: Points to Ponder. The most discouraging thing about that post is that every single ponderous point has been proven to be true. Nealy 10 years later, I stand by every word.

It’s time to wake up.