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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The Ephrata Codex and the First Known Female Composers in America

“April 1775. This curious book was lent me by Doctor Franklin just before he set out for Pennsylvania.”

As I write this, I’m being serenaded by a haunting a cappella quartet. The music they are performing echoes across time from the mid 1700’s. It was composed by members of the Ephrata Cloister in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Listening to these devotional Germanic hymns is a welcome retreat from the modern world.

It is miraculous that this music was preserved. In fact, the historic cloister, which you can still visit, boasts of more than 1,000 original compositions. Many of them were gathered together in 1746 to make up the Ephrata Codex, an anthology of all the members’ compositions up to that year.

The 972-page codex is a handwritten, gorgeously illuminated work of art that is housed in the Library of Congress. It’s the only known copy. It has been digitized, thank goodness, so you can look at every page of it online here. But I’m including pictures from some of the pages in this post, since the entire volume is now in the public domain.

There are many things that intrigue me about this codex. One of them is the note on the inside cover. It says, “April 1775. This curious book was lent me by Doctor Franklin just before he set out for Pennsylvania.”  The quote is attributed to John Wilkes.

I would love to know this book’s entire provenance. The Doctor in question had to be Benjamin Franklin. According to Wikipedia, the year before, he had been Postmaster General of British America, and was living in England. I’m quite sure he rubbed elbows with Wilkes, who was the Lord Mayor of London at the time. But as Franklin’s sympathies for the rebel cause in the colonies started to increase, it was time to return to Philadelphia. One month after he loaned out this book, Franklin became a Delegate from Pennsylvania to the Second Continental Congress, which was convened in support of the Revolutionary War. Those were heady times, indeed.

One assumes there was no time or opportunity for Wilkes to return the book to Franklin during that period, and the fact that Wilkes wrote in it gives one the impression that he expected to possess it for quite some time. Why would Franklin bring such a heavy book to England in the first place? And why would he loan such a treasure out to someone who would soon become his enemy in nationality if not in spirit?

How did Franklin come to possess this book? Did he ever visit the cloister? It isn’t that far from Philadelphia, and the cloister did house the second German printing press in the colonies. Franklin started off as a printer’s apprentice, so this press would have been of interest to him.

And when would he have come to own this large, significant book in order to loan it out just seven years after the death of Johann Conrad Beissel, the founder of the religious community at the heart of which was the Ephrata Cloister? While the codex was being passed around, the cloister was still limping along, with the last celibate member surviving until 1813. So why hadn’t the community held onto the codex?

The second thing that intrigues me about the codex is that, according to this article, Chris Herbert, a modern-day vocalist and musicologist who has extensively studied this book, and in fact is considered to be an expert on it, discovered, almost by accident, that several of the musical compositions therein had been written by women.

That meant that these women, Sister Föben, Sister Katura and Sister Hanna, are the first known female composers in America. (You can see their work on pages 653-679 in the codex, which seems to correspond with Images 680-706 in the Library of Congress’ digitized version. It was very exciting to see their names!)

Composing is a stellar achievement for women in the mid 1700’s, a time when most women were housewives and mothers and did all the laundry by hand and made all the meals from scratch. That these particular women had the time and opportunity to compose, and that it occurred to them that they were allowed to take credit therefor, is impressive indeed. It was their lives at the Ephrata Cloister which made that possible. (And it was a fascinating community. I’ll delve deeper into it in my next post.)

But let’s circle back to this hauntingly simple and beautiful music. It is Chris Herbert who produced the album Voices in the Wilderness, which I’m enjoying so much as I write this. He included the works of those three female composers, and the album was recorded in the Meetinghouse at the very cloister at which it had been created. Bearing witness to that would have given me goose bumps.

Seriously, check out this music. It’s amazing! Also check out this video entitled The Music of Ephrata Cloister on Herbert’s YouTube page. And while you’re there, check out Hebert’s own performances as well. I just love discovering new (to me) music, don’t you?

Additional Source:

https://blogs.loc.gov/music/2019/05/a-sweet-bitter-sweet-find-in-an-eighteenth-century-pennsylvanian-music-manuscript/

Do you enjoy my random musings? Then you’ll love my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

My 10th Bloggiversary!

What an unexpected milestone!

Tomorrow, December 1, 2022, marks the tenth year that I have been writing this blog. I find it nearly impossible to imagine sticking to any task in life for that long, and yet here we are. What an unexpected milestone.

If this blog were my spouse, I’d be looking around for a traditional gift made of tin, because according to myweddinganniversary.com, “The traditional 10th anniversary gift is tin, symbolizing how a successful marriage needs to be flexible and stable, and able to be bent without being broken. Tin symbolizes preservation and longevity.”

When I started this blog, the last thing I would have predicted was preservation or longevity. I assumed that I’d run out of ideas in about 6 months. But then it became a habit. Then it grew on me. Now, I can’t imagine life without it.

My first post ever, entitled “Nature is what’s happening while you’re not looking.” is a full-on love letter to bridgetending, the job that I’ve now been doing for just over 21 years, and the thing that has given me the time and opportunity to observe the world minutely and then blog about it. But when I reread that post just now, I was kind of shocked that it makes no mention of the fact that I was about to embark on this life-changing blogging endeavor. Of course, at the time I thought this blog was mere whimsy and would have a brief shelf life. That goes to show that we never know how long a journey we will take when we first step out the door.

You’d think I’d have at least said something like, “Hi everybody! I’m Barb, and I’m nervous. Thank you for stopping by. I hope you like what you see.”

But in truth, I don’t think that I believed that anyone outside of my family would ever read it. And that’s a genuine irony, because my closest blood relatives are the very people who rarely take the time to read these outpourings of my very soul. I can only hope they’ll choose to do so long after my body has been made into compost and returned to the earth. If that’s the case, I’d like to say “Hello, relative! It’s about freakin’ time! Ha!”

This blog has caused me to go down numerous avenues of inquiry that I wouldn’t have pursued otherwise. It has allowed me to make friends that I wouldn’t have met in any other way. It has also given me the opportunity to vastly improve my writing skills and find my (often disastrously unfiltered) voice.

If this blog were a dog, it would be 56 to 79 in human years, depending on its size, according to this calculator. Good dog! So good! That deserves a chunk of cheese.

This is my 3,417th post. I now have 655 followers, but I don’t take that very seriously, because I follow scores of blogs that I almost never find the time to read. But when I follow a blog, it’s kind of a vote of confidence, and I definitely appreciate those when they’re directed at me.

Since I’m writing this post two weeks prior to its actual publishing, I can only calculate the following statistics based on overall averages. Through the years, I’ve had about 215,000 visitors who have read about 374,000 posts. That’s a lot of eyes upon my words. It’s almost too much to comprehend. It humbles me.

As for words, I’ve written about 1,808,000 of those in this blog over the years. It’s safe to say that I’ve exposed my soft underbelly to the extent that I can never run for president. But if you’re a regular reader, you know that such an idea would never cross my mind anyway. That much scrutiny and criticism would be my definition of hell.

Having said that, though, I’m even more humbled by the fact that so many people have chosen to share my words with others. I’m unsure if the 4,705 shares on Facebook include my own postings on my Facebook group for this blog, but I can guarantee you that I have had nothing to do with the 4,138 shares on Twitter, the 3,792 shares on LinkedIn, the 4,537 shares on Reddit, or the 4,406 shares on Tumblr. If I were that active on social media, I’d have no time to write.

Of the 15,465 comments that my posts have generated on the WordPress site alone, I must confess that 6,989 of them are mine. I make every effort to respond to every comment, even now, because I’m so gratified when someone takes the time to reach out to me that I feel that they’re owed a response. I’ve learned so much from my readers, and that education, for me, is priceless.

This must be a labor of love, because, despite a brief and feeble attempt to sell out by allowing ads on my blog a while back, I have made not even one thin dime in all these years. In a way, that’s kind of pathetic, but the truth is that I never wanted this to feel like a job. Money has never been the object.

I did self-publish one anthology, and I practically beat you over the head with my plaintive cries to purchase a copy. It’s safe to say that I shouldn’t quit my day job. But I am really proud of the fact that it’s out there, somewhere, especially since my last name is Abelhauser, and there are only 10 of us left on earth. This book is my way of saying we were here.

I learned so much from that first book, and if I had it to do over again, I’d make several significant changes. I have the blog posts picked out for several more anthologies, but as much as I love to write, I lack the follow through to actually make them come to life. I had so many wonderful people helping me with the first book, and many of those would jump right in and help out again if I asked. I just can’t seem to get my act together. The fault is entirely mine.

Part of my hesitancy in taking on another anthology is that I have a complete and utter lack of time, and a good portion of that lack is due to the blog itself. It can be stressful, trying to pump out content on a daily basis. When I’m not writing it, I’m usually in the midst of full-blown anxiety because I’ve fallen behind or I can’t think of anything to write.

To that end, I decided to cut back and only post on even numbered days, starting on August 8, 2021. When I reread my announcement about that change, I have to laugh at my naivete. I actually thought it would double my free time, and I’d have the opportunity to relax and read books, a pastime that I sorely miss.

I miss it still, unfortunately, because somehow when I made that change, my blog posts, which had up to that point averaged 528 words per post, almost immediately increased to 1059 words per post. So I’m actually writing more now than I had been. Believe me when I say that this was not a conscious effort on my part. The reduction in deadline stress seems to have awakened my muse, or at the very least, my tendency to ramble on.

But my life is so full these days, and my health is ever more precious to me. The bulk of my health issues are triggered by stress, so I’ve decided to take a run at reducing my content yet again. Don’t panic. You’ll hardly notice. I’ve decided to only post on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays going forward. Statistically, viewership tanks on the weekends anyway, and on the weekdays, it will still feel like an every other day thing for you.

Hopefully this change will be a reduction in stress for me. But who knows? Maybe I’ll start writing even longer posts to feed my addiction. If so, perhaps I should quit blogging entirely and just write the books that are in me somewhere.

Nah. I’d be lost without your comments on a regular basis! I write alone, but we read together.

Thank you, dear reader, for sticking with me all this time. I hope you’ll continue to do so. You have been my companion on this journey of self-discovery by way of inspiring me to explore the world. And that means more to me than you’ll ever know.

So, what will I be doing to celebrate this decade of blogging bliss tomorrow? Truth be told, I’ll driving someone to a very unpleasant sounding outpatient surgical procedure, and then anxiously waiting until I can return him home. That’s what one does when one has a full life, I suppose.

After 10 years, I feel that I have the right to ask you for a favor. Please have some cake for me to recognize this lofty milestone of mine. Maybe even blow out a candle if you’ve got one. At the very least, sing a song, do a dance, or leave a comment below.

Thanks! And this isn’t goodbye. You can’t get rid of me that easily. I’ll be talking to you in two days. Life does have a way of going on.

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!

Do you like this quirky little blog? Then you’ll enjoy my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

An Ode to the Humble Lac Bug

This bug has transformed the world.

The vast majority of us couldn’t identify a lac bug if our life depended on it. And yet, not a day goes by in which you haven’t benefited from this bug’s mere existence. Even though odds are high that you’ve never crossed paths with even one of these critters, you probably swallow or touch lac bug secretions thousands of times each year.

Admit it. You had no idea, did you? I certainly didn’t, until an offhand comment sent me through a twisty maze of research, and at the end of this maze sat the humble lac bug. Specifically, the female lac bug, minding her own business, carrying on with her brief and buggy little life.

So we embark upon this winding avenue of inquiry by gazing at a bug no bigger than a watermelon seed. I know this is probably not your favorite thing to look at, but you’ll thank me someday when you emerge, triumphant, from your local bar, just having won something mildly satisfying on trivia night. You’re welcome. Please consider using the proceeds to purchase my book, Notes on Gratitude. ( Shameless self-promotion.)

The impetus for this adventure was my offhand comment that I intended to weatherproof a piece of wood by coating it in shellac. Actually, as most people do these days, I was really going to use polyurethane, but for some reason, my brain came up with the much more ancient, traditional, and natural product that I doubt I’ve ever had the opportunity to use myself. (Besides, shellac works much better as an indoor resin, so it wouldn’t have been appropriate for my purposes.)

From there, Dear Husband told me that shellac came from the shell of the lac bug. This was news to me. (And proved to be false. Sorry, hon.)

Lac bugs secrete a substance that we turn into shellac, the only known commercial resin of animal origin. It’s a renewable resource. It’s considered a natural form of plastic. We have been using it for at least 3,000 years.

Europe first learned of lac and its many uses thanks to the travels of Marco Polo in the late 13th century. They must have been gob smacked. All that, from a bug?

You’ve probably heard of shellac being used on fine furniture and stringed instruments as a wood finish/primer/stain/high-gloss varnish. In fact, in the 16th-century a craftsman who could apply shellac well was called a varnisher, and this was considered a trade all its own.

But shellac is even more versatile than that. For about 40 years, it was mainly used to make records. Unfortunately, these records were very fragile. Therefore, in the 1950’s they started making records from vinyl. (There’s a scene from 1946 in It’s A Wonderful Life in which Donna Reed smashes a record. That was shellac, not vinyl as the YouTube link erroneously claims. You can’t smash vinyl like that.)

Shellac has also been used as a dye, particularly on cotton and silks, and as an artist’s pigment as well as a protective coating on paintings. Its color ranges from yellow to orange to a rich reddish ochre.

Before modern advances in plastics, shellac was molded into picture frames, boxes, jewelry, and dentures. Shellac mixed with a specific type of synthetic resin produces Bakelite, and at the risk of dating myself, that substance made things seem very colorful and modern when I was a child, but now those same things look incredibly quaint.

For many years, shellac was used by archeologists as a coating to stabilize the bones of dinosaurs, but it’s an organic substance, so modern conservators no longer use it for fear it will have a negative effect on fossils in the long term.

But probably the most surprising thing about shellac, at least for me, is that it is edible. Now, don’t get too excited. Many shellac products are most definitely not edible.

You would be ill-advised to take a can of shellac off your hardware store shelf and chug it down, for example. To make shellac usable for the maximum amount of time, things are added that would be quite dangerous for you to consume. In a nutshell: Don’t do it. Even the edible kind of lac products are toxic to humans if eaten in large quantities.

Having said that, I feel obligated to mention that to this day, shellac is used as a coating on pills and candies. If you take any type of timed release pills, you’re most likely consuming shellac. Shellac is what makes jellybeans shiny. It’s also used on candy corn, Milk Duds, Goobers and Raisinets, Junior Mints and Sugar Babies. It was used in Skittles, but they went bug-free and vegetarian in 2009.  It’s also used on citrus and apples to make them shiny and prolong their shelf life. It’s nearly impossible for most of us to avoid consuming shellac, and knowing that means I’ll never look at the world in the same way again.

Shellac is also used to make biodegradable plastic bags, shoe polish, hair spray, nail polish, floor wax, grinding stones, adhesives for fishing flies, and it’s a binder in India ink. It makes felt hats stiffer and more water resistant. There’s even an ancient Vedic book that claims that an entire palace was once made from its resin. (Oh, for a Wayback Machine!)

Veterinarians used to mix lac with lard and use the paste to fill cavities in broken horse hooves. In addition, shellac is an ingredient in blue and green fireworks. Ironically, it’s also used for mounting insects.

So, how is shellac made? I encourage you to check out this fascinating YouTube video. It’s a bit slow to start, but then it gets really interesting. It even shows people stretching shellac into transparent sheets as big as a man. Once those sheets dry, they’re broken into shards for bulk sale. You’ll also see men pulling shellac like 20 foot stretches of taffy.

(The above mentioned video kind of reminded me of those “how do they make stuff” videos that you’d see while watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Mr. Rogers fed my inner nerd. If his travel budget had been bigger, I can imagine him going to India and wandering through this shellac factory, gently asking all the questions you wish you could ask.)

Nature does most of the dirty work in the shellac production process. Basically, the life cycle of your average female lac bug is about 6 months. They feed on the sap of certain trees, mainly found in India and Thailand. They swarm to these trees by the thousands, eat the sap, lay eggs, and secrete lac, which dries as a hard substance that protects their larvae.

During this process, a single lac bug can lay 300-1,000 eggs. Unfortunately, this same lac secretion eventually encases the mature bug as well, and ultimately they die. At a certain point, the young will break through the crust and the cycle begins all over again. (And now I’m singing The Circle of Life.)

The trees are pruned twice a year, and the lac is broken off the pruned branches. It is then ground up, melted, and sifted to remove the dead bug bits and any other debris. While it does take about 100,000 lac bugs to make a pound of shellac resin, no live bugs are intentionally harmed by humans to make shellac, so PETA can calm down.

Lac bugs do have natural predators, which means approximately 40 percent of these bugs don’t get to fulfill their mission. These enemies include monkeys, squirrels, rats, lizards and birds, as well as a host of parasites.

One of the most endearing stories about lac bugs that I came across is that they are responsible for raising more than 900 households in Vietnam from poverty. Lac harvesting had been a traditional occupation for their ancestors, who used to sell the lac to the Soviet Union. But after the Soviet bloc broke up, the industry collapsed, the trees were chopped down for firewood, and the resulting fields were used to cultivate other crops that were much less financially rewarding. A Vietnamese initiative to restore the lac industry has been a huge success, and it has radically improved many human lives. Thanks, lac bugs!

Even though the use of shellac is on the wane now that we have synthetic resin compounds, it’s safe to say that the humble little lac bug has transformed the world, and continues to have a significant influence on it to this very day.

Lac bugs should really learn how to brag. We’d be lost without them. Who knew?

Additional Sources:

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!

The Girl and the Hat

Giving the gift of warmth.

Years ago, a girl was given a hat. While the giver meant well, it was the ugliest hat the girl had ever seen. She knew she’d never wear it, but, having been taught to be polite, she sincerely thanked the giver for his kindness.

This was long before the girl realized that it was okay not to keep a gift if she really didn’t like it (provided she was subtle and tactful in its disposal or re-gifting). So the girl relegated it to the top shelf of her closet. When she moved across the country, it was stuffed into a box, and it traveled with her from state to state until both girl and hat reached their destination.

We humans spend entirely too much time clinging to unwanted things. They weigh us down. They slow us down.

There’s no need to describe the hat in question, because ugly for one person may not be ugly for another. Know this: It was well-made. It was warm. Beyond that, it is probably best if you just imagine your version of the world’s most unappealing hat.

The packing box that housed the hat joined several others that the girl never quite got around to unpacking. This was a collection of things she didn’t really need or want, but that she hesitated to part with. This sad hat was just one more element in a pile of useless guilt clutter that we all seem to carry around with us so as not to hurt people’s feelings.

Years went by. During that time, the girl was going through several emotional growth spurts, and was beginning to view the world through a different lens. Having finally clawed her way out of desperate poverty, she became more aware of her good fortune and unearned privilege, even as she bore witness to the unmet needs of others at every turn.

The girl came to realize that if something in your life can languish in a box for years, then all it’s doing is taking up space. She was surrounded by useless stuff. But this stuff didn’t have to be useless. None of this stuff asked to take on the role of the albatross around her neck. It began to feel as though she were holding these things hostage, or preventing them from realizing their full potential. It was time to set them free.

When the hat finally returned to the light of day, the girl discovered that it wasn’t really that ugly. It was just not her style. Not even a little bit.

The hat was in excellent shape, and surely someone out there would love to have it. With winter rapidly approaching, and so many people desperately trying to keep warm while living on the streets, the hoarding of this hat began to feel like a criminal act to her.

Several dozen homeless people passed by her office every night. She watched that parade of desperation and, due to her inaction, felt complicit in a world too cruel and selfish to face up to its own yawning privation. So, one bitterly cold evening, she took the hat to work. The girl pinned a sign to the hat which said, “Free to anyone in need. Stay warm!”

She folded the hat neatly and placed it on a clean and sheltered curb in front of her office door. She felt as though she were sending her only child off to college. It was an odd sensation.

“Live your best life,” she told the hat by way of farewell, and then she returned to her nice warm office and set to work.

Between tasks, she wondered what would become of the hat. She hoped it would go to someone whose need for warmth was particularly acute. She wondered if she’d see it some day on the head of one of the many marchers in the desperation parade. This hat might be destined to save someone’s life.

But its legacy might be more humble. Perhaps it would simply go to a scholarship student who needed a little warmth while walking back to the dormitory. Maybe the hat would worm itself into the student’s quirky little heart on the way. There would be no shame in that, either.

What if no one took it? She worried about that. How sad it would be to leave work at the end of the shift, only to discover that the hat had languished there for 8 hours, waiting for its life to begin. It would have been rejected, again and again, by the various passersby. That would be a fate worse than being shut away and neglected for years.

But the girl needn’t have worried. When she left work, she was pleased to find that the hat was gone. She would never know the rest of the story, just as we can never know what happens to any of the people or things that we set free.

She sent well wishes skyward, hoping they might accompany the hat on its new journey. She knew she couldn’t change the entire world, but at least one person would not be quite as cold on this night. The hat was gift of warmth and comfort for someone who was out in the cold. That was a start.

Whether that warmth and comfort lasted for more than an evening was not for her to decide. She wanted to think that it would last a season or a lifetime. But in the end, that would be up to the hat and its wearer.

Stay warm and well, Dear Reader. Winter is coming. Please share any hats and coats and gloves that you don’t need with the wider world.

Nope. This isn’t the actual girl or the actual hat.

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!