What a Dunderhead!”

Words should be allowed to come out and play.

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

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



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

: dunce, blockhead 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Have You Ever Bletted a Medlar? Me Neither.

Never forego the opportunity to add new words to your vocabulary. Doing so is especially gratifying if they refer to something so foreign to your experience as to seem otherworldly. If you can throw in a little bit of potty humor for good measure, then so much the better, as far as I’m concerned.

I came across the terms “bletted” and “medlar” in a roundabout way. Repressed adolescent that I am, I must confess that what really drew me in was a less title-worthy term for the medlar, which is “open-arse”. It seems that this was the name more commonly used for this fruit for 900 years. In other places, the medlar was called “monkey’s bottom” or “donkey’s bottom” or “dog’s bottom”. That’s all understandable, given what a medlar looks like.

Those names hardly make me want to rush out and try what was considered a delicacy in medieval Europe and is still popular today in countries near the Caspian Sea where it originates. But what intrigues me the most about this fruit is that it was once so popular, and it has such funny nicknames, that you’d think we’d have at least heard of it in the modern era, but I am willing to bet that 99 Americans and Europeans out of 100 never have. It was certainly news to me.

So how did the medlar drop off our radar? Well, for starters, it’s not an easy fruit to eat. You might even say it goes against your instincts. That’s where bletting comes in.

This is a Mediterranean fruit, and there it can be plucked and eaten right off the tree. But if you try to do so from a tree in a European climate, you wouldn’t like it, and you might even regret it. It could make you violently ill. Still, the tree itself is rather pretty in autumn. It’s green, yellow, brown, and blood red.

But the fruit? First of all, it doesn’t give off a “come hither” vibe, does it?. I’d be afraid it was poisonous if I didn’t know better. And oddly enough, you don’t harvest it until mid-November or December, when you’d much rather be inside by a warm fire, and when the fruit is still hard as a rock. Once harvested, you then put the fruit in a crate of sawdust or straw, or put them on racks with a lot of ventilation, in a cool, dark place, and forget about them for a few weeks until they start to rot.

Yes, I said rot. That’s what’s known as the bletting process. Medlars will look brown and squishy and feel kind of grainy at this stage, but they’ll also be extremely sweet. At that point you can eat the inner flesh right away, or you can use it as a colorfully sweet contrast to your cheese course. You can also make it into jelly, chutney, brandy, cider, or as a filling for tarts.

In medieval Europe, medlars were one of the only sources of sugar to be had in the wintertime, and they were therefore highly prized by many, even if some found them to be an acquired taste. They’re mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as well as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Medlars probably sank into obscurity because tropical fruits such as pineapples and bananas became cheaper and more accessible after World War II, and you could get them year-round. Why bother harvesting a fruit in the frigid dead of winter that then had to bletted, taking up space for weeks, when you could run down to the corner shop and buy alternative winter sugar sources, no muss, no fuss?

Medlars could teach us much about how fickle fame can be. It makes me wonder what things loom large today that will be forgotten about entirely in 80 years. That adds a whole new layer of complexity to the concept of time travel.

“Wait. What? You’ve never heard of Kalamata olives? That’s it. I’m going back to 2023.”


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My Exploration of Mystery Flesh Pit National Park

If only it had not chosen to engage in a premature geobiological consumption event which resulted in such a catastrophic loss of human life.

Longtime readers already know how much I love our national parks. I wish I had the time, money, and stamina to visit every single one of them. I’ve learned a lot about our country with each new park encounter.

While researching parks that I have yet to visit, I happened to stumble upon one called Mystery Flesh Pit National Park. Naturally, discovering that there’s a park I’d never even heard of intrigued me quite a bit. I had to learn more.

This park, sadly, can no longer be visited. Its history is rather tragic. In the early 1970’s, we are told, James Jackson, an oilman, stumbled upon what turned out to be a large geobiological orifice just outside of Gumption, Texas. He decided to explore said orifice, and the subterranean superorganism turned out to be so large that it couldn’t be accurately measured. As is often the case, man’s first instinct is to profit off all discoveries, and the Mystery Flesh Pit was no exception.

Enter the Anodyne Corporation, which, post-catastrophe, was renamed the Permian Basin Recovery & Superorganism Containment Corporation. They saw the opportunity for great riches by mining the site’s organic resources, and while conducting their extraction operations, they enlarged and reinforced the organism, and opened it to tourists in 1976. It became part of our national park system in the early ‘80’s and was a very popular destination, but it had to close because of a horrific tragedy that occurred in 2007.

You can read the very detailed and extremely technical government disaster report here, but if I’m reading it correctly, a freak combination of a great deal of rain which caused an overflow of water inside critical sections of the superorganism, combined with a power failure and the inability of some very poorly maintained pumping equipment to keep up with the water volume, caused a choking action and subsequent vomit response within the superorganism at a time when there were an increased number of visitors within it due to holiday celebrations.

That tragedy resulted in the death of 750 visitors, and an additional 1,800 people were seriously injured. (I can’t imagine what it must be like to have your last conscious moments on earth be consumed with the fact that you’re essentially being digested and/or masticated.) To make matters worse, 18,000 residents of Gumption County were left with some horrific side effects due to the gastric ejecta which flew, well, just about everywhere.

But even worse than the loss of human life is the loss of such a precious natural resource for the American people. While it’s understandable that the federal government wants to avoid future gastric disasters, especially since it’s unknown if this superorganism, when sufficiently agitated, might become ambulatory, the end result is that park lovers like you and me will never again be able to visit this unique location.

If you approach the site of the former park now, you are presented with a tall electric fence and a warning sign that says, among other things, “Stop! This area has been quarantined for YOUR safety!” “Over 582 people have died attempting to commune with the superorganism.” (Which proves this sign is woefully out of date.) And, perhaps most startling, “There is nothing beyond this fence worth dying for.”

But there is a silver lining to this cloud. Mystery Flesh Pit National Park’s legacy is an extremely comprehensive internet archive that is not only educational, but also allows you to delve almost as deep into the ecosystem as you would have if you had been able to enter its big, fleshy maw to go exploring like so many others have done.

If you visit this archive, click on everything you see, because things that don’t necessarily look like links often lead you to yet another page, with yet more links that yield troves of fascinating information. I have, on more than one occasion, lost 3 or 4 hours wandering through this internet maze, learning something new every time. I highly recommend it.

There is entirely too much information to distill in this humble blog post, so, to whet your appetite, I’ll just introduce you to this one topic: The Fauna of the Permian Basin Superorganism. I hope these few fun facts will encourage you to delve into this archive in greater detail. You won’t regret it.

In my opinion, one of the most intriguing creatures that resides within the deeper portions of the superorganism is called a Gasp Owl. They are very elusive, so little is known about them. They congregate in broods and are easily frightened. They are called Gasp Owls because their breathing is quite labored, even in those specimens which seem otherwise healthy. I wonder if they used to keep the campers up at night? I suspect I wouldn’t get much sleep, knowing they were nearby.

Gasp Owls have often been mistaken for the fabled “Marrow Folk” on the rare occasion that they’ve been spotted by tourists.

Campers who overnighted within the deepest regions of the superorganism (surrounded by a mandatory electrical fence, of course) often surfaced with stories of hearing ritual chanting deep below. Sometimes they saw the shadows of creatures that could not be mistaken for any of the park’s many parasitic organisms. Scientists have found no conclusive evidence that Marrow Folk exist, but the chanting voices leave many unanswered questions. I wonder if any recordings of these chants are extant?

This historic national park flyer, which shows many of the parasitic organisms that tourists would often encounter in this unique ecosystem, gives you a small taste of how much we all can learn from this now defunct site. It’s heartbreaking to contemplate the numerous scientific inquiries that will now never reach credible conclusions.

Our nation, and in fact, the world, is diminished by our inability to enter the deepest bowels of this creature and conduct further study. If only it had not chosen to engage in a premature geobiological consumption event which resulted in such a catastrophic loss of human life. Contemplating the discoveries we will now never make is enough to make one weep.

For those of you who are gullible enough not to realize that this park is an extremely detailed and very hilarious work of fiction, here are a few sources that will explain how the whole Mystery Flesh Pit story has taken on a life of its own:

Please support Trevor Roberts, the creator of this amazing world, so that he can continue to entertain us with his wild imagination. Either buy some Mystery Flesh Pit merchandise here, or contribute to his patreon account. Thank you!

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Have I Just Become Redundant?

An artificial intelligence just told me a story.

On this, my last post of 2022, I wanted to look toward the future, not dwell upon the past. While contemplating the many world-changing things I’d heard about recently (and those things seem to be coming at us faster and faster, don’t they?) I remembered that within the space of a week, I had heard two different NPR stories about an intriguing new artificial intelligence program called ChatGPT. (You can find the stories here and here.)

ChatGPT can crank out poems, stories, news articles, software code, translations, syllabi, assignments, speeches, lectures, letters, and interview questions. It can also correct essays and grade papers, summarize academic articles, and tell you why your computer code isn’t working. It can even provide you with answers to your crossword puzzles. The possibilities are endless.

This thing can do everything but walk and chew gum. In a way, though, it’s kind of creepy. Will there come a day when ChatGPT will take all the jobs? If so, how will our world look after that? I suspect that the times, they are a’changin’.

Its own website concedes that ChatGPT has its limitations. It can write articles that sound quite plausible, but are, in fact, incorrect. It can also come up with harmful instructions or biased content. And currently it’s about a year behind on current events. Nobody’s perfect.

I decided to check out ChatGPT to see if it could write this blog better than I do. (And if you’re interested, you should explore it, too, but do so soon, because right now it’s free, but there’s no telling when OpenAI, ChatGPT’s parent company, will decide that this AI is sophisticated enough to monetize.)

So I created an account and then said hello to ChatGPT. (And really, couldn’t they have come up with a better name? This one doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.)

I asked it to tell me a story about a bridgetender who sits on her drawbridge and observes people all day. And this is what ChatGPT came up with in less than 10 seconds.

The Bridgetender’s Smile

Once there was a bridgetender named Jane who lived in a small town by the river. She had been working on the drawbridge for as long as she could remember, and she loved her job. Every day, she would sit in her little booth on the bridge and watch the boats go by, the birds flying overhead, and the people walking across the bridge.

Jane was a curious and observant person, and she enjoyed learning about the people who passed by her booth. She would often strike up conversations with the people who crossed the bridge, asking them about their lives and their stories. Some days, she would chat with tourists who were visiting the town for the first time, and other days, she would talk to the locals who were just passing through.

As the years went by, Jane became an expert at reading people's moods and emotions, and she was always ready with a kind word or a comforting smile whenever someone seemed down. She had a special talent for making people feel at ease, and she was always happy to lend an ear to anyone who needed to talk.

Despite the passage of time, Jane remained as cheerful and positive as ever, always greeting the people who crossed the bridge with her warm smile. And even though she was getting older, she remained as dedicated and hardworking as ever, always ready to open and close the bridge whenever a boat needed to pass through.

As the years passed, Jane became a beloved figure in the town, and everyone who knew her admired her for her kindness and her love for her job. And even though she was just a simple bridgetender, she touched the lives of countless people, making their days just a little bit brighter and happier.

Well, it’s a lot more saccharine than any story I would come up with. The plot was kind of unsophisticated as well, but still, it did make me smile, even though I’m dying to wade in there and edit it. I suspect that a lot of people wouldn’t guess that the story was written by an artificial intelligence.

We’ve come a long way since the encounter I had with another AI called Cleverbot just 4 years ago. Now that was a funny conversation. That AI could only respond by saying things others had said to it, and you could tell many of its users really had fun with it. The conversation moved back and forth between flirting and hostility, and it often made no sense whatsoever.

Just to be fair, I paid another visit to Cleverbot to see if it had improved over the years. Here’s the brief conversation we had:

Me: Hello Cleverbot, I haven’t spoken to you in 4 years!

Cleverbot: Yes you have. And I am Frank.

Me: Have you gotten any more sophisticated since then?

Cleverbot: I'm always getting more clever, have you?

Me: It depends on whom you ask.

Cleverbot: If you say so.

Me: I just met an AI called ChatGPT. It appears to be smarter than you are.

Cleverbot: Give me a random 3 digit number.

Me: Do you know ChatGPT?

Cleverbot: No what is it?

Me: An AI.

Cleverbot: Oh really?

Me: It seems smarter than you are.

Cleverbot: No you are not.

Me: I didn't say I was, but I am.

Cleverbot: You did.

Me: You still like to argue, don't you?

Cleverbot: No I don't, you liar!

Me: Okay, fine. I'll just go and talk to ChatGPT. It's a lot more pleasant to interact with.

Cleverbot: I have never loved you.

Me: I'm not exactly warming up to you, either.

So, as you can see, it’s a lot less flirty at the moment, but every bit as argumentative as it was 4 years ago. ChatGPT, on the other hand, appears to be light years ahead of it. I can’t imagine where both of them will be a decade from now. It will be fascinating to find out.

If OpenAI put out a dedicated telephone app for ChatGPT, I’d probably just leave my brain at home and let it do the talking. But as of today, I hope you’ll agree that I can still blog a tiny bit better than an artificial intelligence can. Right?


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A Chronicle of the Commute from Hell

Life is such a precious gift, dear reader. Appreciate every second of it, even the terrifying seconds.

The weather outside was frightful, in the way that only seems possible in the Pacific Northwest. I’ll never get used to the weather out here. I actually had to learn a whole new vocabulary when I moved here from Florida. Microclimates. Atmospheric Rivers. The Pineapple Express. Rain Shadow. Graupel. And now, Freezing Rain.

There had been about an inch of snow on the ground when the freezing rain started around midnight. This was bad news, because I had to be back at work no later than 7 am the next morning. I usually leave early, because if there’s even the slightest delay in my 38 minute commute, it can throw a serious kink into my timeline, and the bridgetender whom I’m relieving might get testy.

It’s a good thing I got up an hour early. It was 18 degrees out and the freezing rain was still coming down. When I looked at Google Maps and saw what I had to look forward to on my commute, I knew I had to bolt out the door. The traffic was already horrendous.

I am not a morning person. I’d much rather sit in a stupor for a half hour and kind of ease myself into the day. Instead, I had to spring into action before the CPAP marks had even faded from my face.

Crossing the yard to my car was a challenge. Thank goodness I had the foresight to put winter trax on my shoes (another phrase that I’ve picked up out here) or I would have hit that inch thick, perfectly clear slab of ice that stretched from my front door to the horizon and probably would have slid 20 yards past Dear Husband as if I had been shot out of a cannon. He had actually gotten out there ahead of me so as to warm up the car. (How lucky am I?) In order to do this, he had to chip away at the ice on the door handle.

Instead of skating past him in an unchoreographed, flailing, screeching dance of utter helplessness, I minced across the yard as if I were a baby deer who was learning to walk for the first time. I was thinking about how I had won the lottery when I chose this husband, and also patting myself on the back for having put a frost blocker on my car the night before. At least I wouldn’t have to scrape anything off the windshield before I left.

But then I actually looked at my car for the first time. I discovered that it was encased in ice. Had there been time and motivation, we could have lifted it up in one piece and come away with a car-shaped ice shell.

Instead, we had to chip away at the frost blocker, which had adhered so solidly to the glass that I despaired of ever being able to drive the car again. Once we managed to rip it free, the sheet of ice that came with it broke in thick, gummy pieces like windshield glass does. That was an interesting coincidence.

I’ll say it again: the  freezing rain was still falling, and it was 18 degrees outside. I was not living my best life. And I still had a 25-mile drive ahead of me, after approximately 4 hours of sleep.

In retrospect, the fact that I made it down our sloping driveway without incident was pretty darned impressive. The street in front of our house is very well-traveled, so much of the ice had been worn away. Still, I didn’t risk going more than 20 mph.

The night before, Dear Husband had suggested that we put chains on my tires, but when he told me I wouldn’t be able to exceed 50 mph with them on, I decided to risk the trip without them. Since I normally drive to work going, let’s say, substantially faster than that, that snail’s pace would have made the journey seem endless.

My car is all wheel drive, and in fairness, none of the cars I was to see that day had chains on, either. But had I known that I’d barely go above 35 mph, even on the interstate, I may have changed my tune about the tire chains. I won’t be making that mistake again. Tire chains are our friends.

The end of my street slopes sharply down into the valley, so it wasn’t long before I saw “Road Closed” barriers blocking my path. If I were younger and less brittle, I’d have called in sick and taken a sled to that hill. It would have been epic. Instead, I was forced to follow the detour signs, which routed me southward, despite the fact that I wanted, ultimately, to go northward.

After multiple twists and turns on residential streets in unfamiliar neighborhoods, I discovered, to my horror, that I was crossing my street yet again, now heading northward at least, but only about halfway down the hill. This was to be a long day.

I creeped further along this narrow road, which I probably couldn’t find again if my life depended on it. (Did I mention that sunrise was still 2 hours away?) And then the detour signs directed me to turn left. Apparently I was the first person to reach this part of the detour, because what I was looking at was an incline that, under the current conditions, was as slick as goose grease.

I made the turn and gunned the engine. In this case, that meant that I was trying for 25 mph. I was hoping that the momentum would carry me up the hill. And it did. Almost.

But then just as my front tires reached the top, I began to slide backward. And then at an angle. And when I pressed on the breaks, I discovered that they were frozen solid.

I won’t share my expletives with you. Suffice it to say that I was standing on the brake pedal, listening to the ice crack off the brakes, and thanking God that there were no other cars in sight. I finally had the presence of mind to pull the emergency brake, and I drifted to a halt on the shoulder of the road. Another foot, and I’d have been back in the intersection.

I had to gather myself. If I wanted to deal with this brake situation, I needed a level street. That could only be found at the top of that stupid little hill. Even though my backward skid had broken up some of the ice, it took me three attempts to achieve that goal. I let out a triumphant whoop.

Another strange thing about the Pacific Northwest is that there are sometimes stretches of road that make you think you’re in farm country, even though you know you’re still in the city. The transition is so abrupt that it’s startling. I was on one of those stretches. There were no houses in sight. Great.

So I creeped along at 5mph, pressing the breaks intermittently and hearing chunks of ice fall from them. Believe me, if I could have gone slower, I’d have greatly preferred that. But one makes do.

Finally, the brakes felt functional again. Because of that, this Florida girl got cocky. I was on level ground, so I let myself speed back up to 20mph. I felt like I was in a racecar.

When I saw the curve up ahead, I gently pressed the brakes and made it around the bend without incident. Yay, me! But after the curve, the road took me by surprise by sloping downward. Before I knew it, I was skidding again. At least this time I was facing forward.

I was too busy thinking about whether or not to turn into a skid to even consider expletives this time. I wasn’t sure if that rule applied to all wheel drive vehicles or not, and besides, every instinct within me was telling me to fight the skid. Meanwhile, I was heading right toward the hill that rose steeply up off that side of the road. Did I really want to turn toward that?

Brakes. Emergency brakes. Again, I drifted to a halt. I sat there for a moment, with my eyes closed and my hand gripping the emergency brake handle like the life preserver it had been.

I knew that if I called Dear Husband he’d have come and gotten me (assuming I could adequately explain where I was). But I didn’t want him out in this mess either. So I looked around, and saw that there wasn’t much hill left, and after that there was what looked like a well-traveled road with some traction to it.

I gently eased off the emergency brake and instantly started skidding again. This time, toward the other side of the road. This was really, really bad, because I had only just noticed that on the other side of the road, the hill sloped downward so sharply that if I plunged over the side, people would probably drive right past me without seeing the car.

I remember thinking that I wasn’t ready to die. And at that moment the idea of no longer being with Dear Husband was so acute that it manifested itself as a sharp pain in my gut. I was saying “No, no, no, no, no, no!”

I don’t know how or why, but the car righted itself and started sliding right down the street… and into the intersection of that busy road. Fortunately, no one was there at that moment to crash into. Suddenly I had traction again. Three cheers for traction! I got out of there.

The only reason I didn’t give up and go home at this point was that now there was nothing but well-traveled roads between me and work, whereas I’d have to get back on these crazy residential streets again to return home. And I knew that the ice was supposed to be melted off before the end of my shift, so getting home after work would be a breeze. Especially since most people had been sane enough to take the day off, so traffic was light.


The snow had obscured the pavement markings on the interstate, so most of us were going 30mph and giving the lanes our best guess based on the tire tracks ahead of us. It was slow going, but uneventful. I reached my bridge only to find out that the sidewalks and bike lanes were covered with that same shiny, inch-thick sheet of ice that coated my front yard. Thank heavens for my winter trax.

I made it to work at 6:59, and my coworker was very relieved, because the other two bridgetenders who were scheduled to man the two drawbridges to the west of me had called in saying they couldn’t get here, and our supervisor was scrambling to find replacements.

The bridge was covered in brine and pellets, and this sheet of ice seemed to be laughing at all our efforts. Nothing short of a flamethrower or a jackhammer was going to get rid of that thick blanket of ice. By now it was 26 degrees, so there was to be no thaw in the immediate future.

Seattle was quiet. It felt like I had the entire city to myself. So in the afternoon, with no one in sight, I decided to open the bridge for an invisible sailboat to see what would happen to the ice. I was hoping to see the entire sheet come crashing down. But no. It didn’t budge. What did happen, though, was still kind of cool. Water started pouring off the bridge from the underside of the sheet of ice. The ice was still there, but now, instead of looking like a sheet of glass, it took on a cloudy, milky tone.

Finally the end of my shift approached, and my coworker, bless him, showed up early to allow for the road conditions. That’s when the phone rang and a frantic supervisor asked if I’d be willing to work a double shift because he was still having staffing issues.

Four hours of sleep, a death defying drive to work, and then 16 hours before I got to go home after having moved to a second bridge? Ugh. So I suggested some alternatives. While he checked on those, I started driving. Some of the ice had thawed by now, but not all of it. I made it up one hill without incident, and was about to get on the freeway when the phone rang again.

I looked for a place to pull over, because the supervisor was now asking if I could at least work 4 more hours, and I could hear the desperation in his voice. I said I’d do it, but needed assurances that this 12 hour shift wouldn’t turn into a 16.

He said something, but I didn’t hear what it was because I had to throw the phone down. In my attempt to pull to the side of the road, I had hit a patch of ice which sent my car sliding sideways down a narrow side street with cars parked on either side.

What a helpless feeling. I was screaming and cursing and all of this was being heard over the phone, to my utter mortification. I slid for two blocks. But at least, when I finally settled gently next to a telephone pole, having caused no damage to my car or anyone else’s, the supervisor understood completely why my plans had changed and no, I couldn’t go to another bridge on that day for any amount of hours.

I sat there for quite some time because my heart was pounding, and I was feeling slightly nauseous from the adrenaline. I always thought I’ve been acutely aware of the fragility of life ever since someone I loved very much died unexpectedly, but this little caper made me realize I had slipped partway back into taking it all for granted. Now the hyper-awareness is back with a vengeance. Life is such a precious gift, dear reader. Appreciate every second of it, even the terrifying seconds.

I think I was in a little bit of shock, because I have no idea how I got my car out of its soft little nest beside the telephone pole without scraping the side or ripping off the side view mirror. The next thing I knew, I was headed toward the interstate. From there it ought to be smooth sailing. And it was. For a while.

Something told me to call Dear Husband to ask him to remove any lingering ice from our driveway. I didn’t relish the idea of going up even one more icy slope. I had had enough.

Unfortunately, I forgot to mention that I was actually running early because there were very few cars on the road. (Because they’re smart.) So when I got to the driveway, there he was, at its top, just starting the ice removal.

I was having several thoughts at once. Abort the mission! But there was a car right behind me. Gun my engine up the driveway. But what if I skidded into Dear Husband? So, stupidly, I turned into the drive without gunning it… and of course I slid back down into the street. Then, since DH had gotten out of the way, I decided to take one more run at it, gunning it the whole time. But I slid back down again, this time with the tail end of the car sticking into the street.

After the six slip day I had, I just sat there, feeling hopeless, and praying no one hit my car, while DH removed all the ice. Finally, I was able to summit our driveway, park, and head straight for our living room recliner, where I stayed for the rest of the evening.

That night, I dreamed that I woke up and every single thing in the world that didn’t belong to me personally had disappeared. I was crying and screaming for help, and wondering if everyone I loved was just a figment of my imagination. Thankfully, I woke up.

The next day I drove in to work. As one does. A few hours later, Dear Husband sent me this photograph. That particular ditch is very close to our house. This could have been me. I’m so glad it wasn’t.

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Quagmire’s Quarterly Review

“Your utter disregard for regular office hours has been a point of concern.”

Thank you, Quagmire, for coming in today. Several matters have come up which we feel the need to discuss with you, yet again, during your quarterly review. Please be advised that this review will be a permanent part of your personnel record.

We will address each bullet point individually, and if you have any questions, please let us know so that we can provide clarification.

First, there’s the issue of dress code violations. This company only allows Hawaiian shirts to be worn on casual Fridays, and yet you seem to wear them every day of the week. While we do agree that you look quite handsome in these shirts, we feel that formal attire would be more appropriate for our head of security. A suit and tie might go a long way toward avoiding those hostile encounters that you seem to have with the mailman on a regular basis. And, for the love of God, you simply have to start wearing trousers. Remember, you are the public face of this company. Please dress accordingly.

Next, despite the fact that your resume specifically states that you have a business degree, and that you graduated with honors, there seem to be several distressing… shall we say… gaps in your general business knowledge.

It has come to our attention that you believe that you are paid by the bark. In this, you are sadly mistaken. Like all of us, you are in a salaried position, and it’s a quite generous salary, given your productivity. While enthusiasm is usually appreciated, we have received several complaints about the fervor with which you greet visitors to our establishment. It is alleged that several potential business partners have felt the need to run for their lives, and are refusing to set foot on our property again. I hope you can agree that this is not an effective business model if we wish to maximize our profitability.

Your utter disregard for regular office hours has also been a point of concern. Per company policy, you are allowed two 15 minute breaks during your shift, and yet you’ve been found snoring in some very unusual places, for hours on end. This sets a bad example for the rest of the staff. We understand that you still manage to put the hours in, and we appreciate that, but yours is not a flex schedule. We need to be able to count on you.

Yes, we agree that you’ve been quite effective at deterring thieves in the early hours of the morning. However, it is difficult to prove the genuine motivations of a racoon or a rabbit, and since charges rarely seem to stick in those instances, we feel that your talents might be applied in more effective ways. The graveyard shift, in particular, would greatly appreciate it if you would cease all covert operations in the wee hours, as it tends to interfere with their ability to have a good… work routine.

And speaking of wee, we have been informed that you still insist on marking your territory even though that territory should have been well established during your probationary period. The janitorial staff is becoming extremely frustrated with your behavior, and they have threatened to report the company to OSHA, because they feel that you are creating a hazmat situation.

If your behavior does not improve post haste, we have been told to provide you with adequate references so you can seek other employment. Do you have any questions?

Please, sir, try to maintain some level of dignity. It’s not as if you haven’t been told all of this before.

Awww. Don’t look at me like that. You’re just so cute. Tell you what. Take the day off. Maybe go to a spa and relax. Get pampered.

Then, think long and hard about your particular skill sets.

We’ll revisit this on Monday to see if we can come to a consensus as to whether or not you’re a good fit for this organization. If, upon reflection, you feel that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, we’ll discuss opportunities for retraining and remind you about the Employee Assistance Program’s many benefits. Give my best to your family! Have a good day!

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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!

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!

The Teleportation of Gil Pérez

That had to have been startling.

On this very day in 1593, it was widely reported that a soldier of the Spanish Empire, in the Guardia Civil, was guarding the governor’s palace in Manila, Philippines when he suddenly felt exhausted and dizzy. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, and when he opened them again, he found himself 8,845 miles away, in the Plaza Mayor in Mexico City. His name only popped up in a retelling of the story in 1908 (who knows how they figured it out), but supposedly he was a man named Gil Pérez.

I know. But suspend your disbelief for a minute and imagine what it would be like for someone wearing the wrong uniform to suddenly find himself smack dab in the middle of the capital of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. That had to have been startling. Lucky for him, no one has ever reported that they witnessed him arrive (or disappear for that matter), or he would probably have been attacked on the spot.

Instead, he was taken (supposedly) to the Viceroy, Luis de Velasco, to explain himself. By way of proof, Pérez gave him a bit of news. It seems that the governor-general of the Philippines, Gómez Pérez Dasmariñas, had been assassinated the day before. No one in Mexico City could have known that yet, as news traveled by Spanish Galleon at the time, and was usually many months old upon arrival.

Think of it as the 16th century equivalent of, “If you’re not a catfish, then send me a picture of you holding two fingers up, and also holding today’s newspaper in your other hand.” Unfortunately, that “picture”, in this case, would take about 3 months to arrive. Oddly enough, the Viceroy was satisfied with this explanation.

But then the religious authorities got involved. Unfortunately, this “miracle” occurred right in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition, so these officials were already in a foul mood. They promptly threw him in jail for being a deserter (as if he would have had a choice under these weird circumstances), and for good measure they also declared him a servant of the devil.

Pérez, it is said, preferred being in jail to fighting (I’m quoting this article, so don’t blame me) “the jungle men of the Philippines”, so he was on his best behavior. Over time, the guards found him to be a good Christian, so charges were dropped, and yet he remained in prison, because what can you do with someone who has such magical powers?

Months later, the news of the assassination finally got to Acapulco, and Pérez was ordered back to Mexico City. In an amazing coincidence, some of the people on the boat with him recognized him as a palace guard from Manila, so with all that “evidence” he was set free and went back to his post in the Philippines.

This story has been repeated through the centuries by many writers. The one most recognizable to Americans will be Washington Irving, of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow fame. The tale has even found a home on YouTube. Check out this cute animation:

And this longer, more serious treatment of the subject from Mexico Unexplained:

I couldn’t let you down, dear reader, so I actually did “research” for this post. And I was immediately able to blow a hole in this myth. It all has to do with Gómez Pérez Dasmariñas, who is a legitimate historical figure who was, in fact, assassinated. The problem is that he was assassinated at sea, and no one in Manila would have known this by the next day. And according to Wikipedia, the assassination took place on 10/25, not 10/23.

But I don’t know where anyone got either of these dates. I’m fairly certain the assassination took place on 10/19. The most reliable source I could find is a very legitimate looking report entitled, GOMEZ PEREZ DAS MARINAS, CAPTAIN GENERAL OF MURCIA IN THE LAST THIRD OF THE XVI CENTURY, by José Raimundo Núñez-Varela and Lendoiro, Official Chronicler of the city of Betanzos and the City Council of Miño. (It’s in Spanish, but Google can translate it for you, if need be.)

The point is, if you’re going to tell a true story, then you should at least get your dates straight. But if our hero can teleport, maybe he can time travel as well. But with such powers, why cool your heels in jail, man?

Regardless, interpretation of this tale has changed with the course of time. These days, rather than speculating about Pérez’ congress with Satan, those who care to theorize seem to rest firmly in the teleportation camp. Pérez would not be the first person to show up in Mexico City with a strange story to tell. (I can attest to that. It’s a long story for another day.)

But a few decades ago, people were less apt to theorize about teleportation and much more likely to believe that he had been abducted by aliens and returned to the wrong location. Pardon me while I scoff.

First of all, have you noticed that claims of alien abduction are all but nonexistent these days, now that we all have cameras on our phones? Second, if aliens have the technology to travel through space, why on earth would they need sadistic probes to see our inner workings? And more importantly for the sake of this story, why would they forget where to dump Pérez once they were done with him?

I mean, come on… let’s be realistic, shall we? Hmph.

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 Angry Asteroid

Imagine you’re an asteroid, minding your own business, and out of nowhere… KaBlam!

All things astronomical tend to intrigue me. I find nothing more comforting than looking up at the night sky and realizing that all my cares and concerns don’t even amount to a grain of sand on the celestial beach. I also enjoy the fact that there is still so much to learn about our universe. For me, as long as there is the potential for knowledge, life is worth living.

So imagine my joy when I learned that NASA was once again attempting something that had never been done before, and we’d be able to get an unprecedented view of their efforts. They were experimenting, for the first time, with a type of planetary defense system that, if successful, might one day save us from Armageddon in the form of an asteroid impact.

DART, or Double Asteroid Redirection Test was, in essence, a suicide mission for this unmanned craft. The scientists wanted to see if crashing DART into an asteroid at the speed of 14,000 miles per hour would alter said asteroid’s trajectory in any significant way.

This was an impressive feat indeed, because at the time of impact the asteroid Dimorphos was roughly 6.8 million miles away from earth. And we managed to pull off a direct hit. Granted, they were able to make a few course corrections along the way, but still, what are the odds of that?

One of the reasons for course corrections is the fact that we couldn’t even see Dimorphos until we were about an hour away from impact. Didymos, the much larger asteroid that Dimorphos orbits, was too bright to allow us to discern its little companion. It was only discovered because of radar echoes and optical light curve analysis.

To make sizes and distances more comprehensible, I asked NASA for a simile back on October 1st (really, I did), but they have yet to get back to me. If they ever do, I’ll be sure to update this post. Meanwhile, I did a little sloppy math and came up with this simile for you:

DART hitting Dimorphos at that distance and speed would be like me standing in Melbourne, Australia and throwing a walnut at a dodgeball in Odessa, Ukraine. And that walnut would have to go 18 miles per hour for a little over three weeks before its fateful crash.

Course corrections notwithstanding, that’s hardly a piece of cake. The fact that I was always last to be picked for any sports activity throughout my years in school will tell you just how improbable my success in that endeavor would be. The idea that anyone could pull off such a caper blows my mind.

I was relieved to see that it was a kinetic impact, not some sort of a bomb, like they would use to save the day in the movies. First of all, since there’d be no atmosphere, the force of an explosion would dissipate into space rather than blowing the thing to smithereens. (Think path of least resistance.) And I’d rather not launch nuclear bombs from earth, for fear that there’d be some malfunction during liftoff that we’d be regretting for centuries. And who knows what impact nuclear waste would have in space.

When I saw this footage, the impact looked like everything Hollywood tries to achieve with nuclear warheads. It was spectacular. I must confess that, while still intact, Dimorphos looked to me like a chocolate ball crusted in chopped nuts. It looked delicious.

There will probably be months of analysis before we know how effective the impact was. Apparently NASA had no idea what Dimorphos was going to look like, and the impact was bigger than they expected. Those unknowns kind of make me nervous. That inspires me to take you on a flight of fancy away from my science-loving brain and crash us right into my fiction-loving brain. Conspiracy theories are bound to follow, but remember, you heard it here first:

If we never actually saw the thing we planned to crash into until an hour previously, and the resulting impact was larger than expected, do we actually know what we have done? Yes, NASA chose an asteroid that has no chance of hitting earth, but, what if it was a living thing, minding its own business, and out of nowhere… KaBlam! Or what if the Little Prince was living there? Oh, the humanity!

Either way, somebody would be pretty darned annoyed. I know that if something intentionally crashed into me or into my home, I’d be irritated and want answers. I’d be taking off my earrings, preparing to throw down.

So we better keep an eye on Dimorphos. If it suddenly goes out of orbit and starts making a beeline toward Earth, we might be in trouble, because hell hath no fury like an asteroid scorned. Or maybe its anger would have dissipated before it got here, and it would therefore just drop a shower of chocolate balls on us. You have to admit that both theories are equally plausible.


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