Finding Your Unsafe Place

Everybody has a comfort zone, and there’s no shame in that. There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable. Unless.

If you go through life without ever being challenged, you will never grow. If you don’t experience new things, you will never learn. If you don’t seize opportunities when they present themselves, you may never fully live.

Growing and learning and living can be quite terrifying. You might have to force yourself along that path. But I guarantee you that the very best times in your life will be those where you start off not feeling particularly safe. It’s important to find your unsafe place.

I’m not talking about wandering dangerous neighborhoods alone at night. I’m not urging you to enter a lion’s den wearing a T-bone steak necklace. Don’t go rob a bank.

But take leaps of faith. Take risks. Allow yourself to fail spectacularly. Experiment. Carpe that diem. Do something you never thought you would do.

Open yourself up to the possibility that your comfort zone can be expanded. Explore those unsafe places. Make them your own.


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Observations in the Field

Before I became a bridgetender, I was a Maintenance Management Systems Engineer for the State of Florida, Department of Transportation, based in St. Augustine. I loved the work, but I hated the job, because the morale in that office was abysmal. The tension there was so thick that you could cut it with a knife, and management, to a man, was insane at worst and irrational and paranoid at best. One of the best things I ever did for myself was to become a bridgetender, but for several years there I just had to keep my head down and muddle through in a job I didn’t want to go on most days.

Fortunately, much of my work was out in the field. I jumped on every opportunity to get out there, away from the office, away from the idiots. I function best when I’m left alone to do my job.

I was tasked with doing crew studies, to ensure that work crews were making efficient use of materials, equipment and time, and that they were correctly completing their paperwork to account for same. It always made me inwardly laugh when they’d see me coming and immediately stop leaning on their shovels and actually work. I wasn’t the crew police. I wasn’t there to get them in trouble. I was more of an efficiency expert. But they never seemed to relax around me.

Another one of my duties was taking road inventory. This was driving along the state roads, determining the number of signs, pipes, road markings, drainage ditches,  deliniators, attenuators, and raised pavement markers per mile, so that we could better determine how much to budget in order to maintain those things. Geek that I am, I actually found this rather fun.

The counties in my territory were extremely rural. I often had the highway to myself. But I spent many hours out there, and I saw quite a few really strange things in my time. Here are a few:

  • A pickup truck’s wheel came off, with the axle still attached. Needless to say, the truck came to an abrupt halt, but the wheel and axle rolled an unbelievably long way (about 200 yards) before it finally came to rest in a ditch.

  • A woman’s black lace thong on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, next to a potato field.

  • A leatherback turtle trying to dig a hole to lay her eggs, right next to a busy highway. I had to stop a guy who was waiting around to take the eggs, and I had to relocate the turtle (per advice from the Fish and Game Department) before she started laying. She was not at all pleased with me.

  • I used to do road inventory near a rural Border Collie Rescue facility. I had to walk down the road, measuring stuff. About a hundred Border Collies would run up to the fence line and silently walk with me, the entire length of the field. (I really looked forward to working that stretch of road, but didn’t get to do it very often.)

  • Several water moccasins chasing my van as I was measuring the circumference of a retention pond. (They were extremely persistent. I was grateful that the van didn’t stall or get stuck or it would have been grounds for a really bad movie. Snakes on a Van.)

  • A cop car blasted past me, sirens wailing, out in the boonies. Turns out he was in a hurry to get to the bar-b-cue place 2 miles further down the road, where I, too, stopped to have lunch. (Can you say abuse of power?)

  • People putting superglue in our padlocks on retention ponds that were 15 miles away from civilization.

  • An unmelted scoop of ice cream in the middle of a hot summer road, with no one in sight.

  • A burning rag on the side of the interstate during fire season.

  • A terrified chihuahua running down the interstate.

  • A guy trying to cut the tail off a dead alligator with a Swiss Army knife. I suspect he’s the one who ran it over.

I sure have seen some things. You’d never guess how exciting the middle of nowhere can be. Fieldwork can be a fascinating adventure. I miss it.

Rural Florida Highway

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I Was Once a Guppy

The summer my grandfather taught his children to swim, by dragging them to the end of a dock and throwing them off, my mother was laid up with a really bad knee injury. Skipping that sink or swim experience was the only thing she was grateful for that summer. I think I’d have found it terrifying, too. She never did learn to swim.

Consequently, she was always afraid of the water, and what she’d do if one of her children were drowning. So she made sure that the three of us had formal swimming lessons. She just couldn’t bring herself to watch while they were going on.

The lessons I took, I believe at the local Girl’s Club, were divided up by age and ability. Students in the beginners’ class were called pollywogs. Next came guppies, then minnows. It went all the way up to dolphins.

Being a pollywog was kind of scary. You had to learn to hold your breath under water. You spent much of your time desperately clinging to the side of the pool. You were learning to navigate a new and deadly world.

But I liked being a guppy. We got to go in the deep end, provided we held on to kickboards. We spent a lot of time kick, kick, kicking the water as hard and as high as we could. We wore nose plugs and ear plugs and goggles and swim caps, but we had graduated from the use of water wings. We felt powerful, even if some accessories were still required.

I’m grateful that my mother chose not to transfer her fear of water to me. I love to swim to this day. I now consider myself a slow moving dolphin. I look forward to my aqua fitness classes every week at the local YMCA.

But I kind of miss kickboards. They were fun. And it never hurts to have something to fall back on.


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Sightseeing in Your Town

I am in the process of planning a trip to Italy with my husband. I’m very excited. I’m sure we’ll be seeing our fair share of cathedrals and museums and art galleries, and we’ll also be experiencing new culinary delights.

I am ever mindful of how lucky I am to be able to do this. Not everyone gets to travel. They may not have the time or the money, or they may have very valid responsibilities that prevent them from doing so.

As I plan to poke my head into every publicly accessible edifice that I possibly can, and wander through every park, it occurs to me that I haven’t done so in the Seattle area. Not by a long shot.

There’s a botanical garden that I drive past at least once a week that I keep meaning to visit but I never quite get around to it. I have no idea what the largest churches in town look like from the inside. There are great works of art hanging in local galleries that I have yet to gaze upon. And heaven knows there’s a whole host of restaurants that I’ve never patronized.

So here we are, spending a fortune to fly halfway around the world to experience the new and exciting, when there’s plenty of that stuff in our own back yard. And a lot of these things are experiences anyone can have if they make the effort. Often museums have free or discount days. Most parks are free or very affordable. You can wander into pretty much every church, (but I wouldn’t advise doing so if a service is already in progress).

I wonder why so many of us think the only sights worth seeing are those that are far away? Is it because we know the local things will always be within our reach, and we assume we’ll get to them someday? Do we place a higher premium on all things foreign? Or are we simply too invested in our Netflix stream to get up off the couch?

If you’re reading this, I challenge you to get up and go experience something near you that you’ve always been meaning to experience. Go on! You’ll be glad you did.

A garden near me that I have yet to see.

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Isn’t it strange how you can receive a thousand compliments, but it’s that one insult that sticks with you? I was thinking about one of those just the other day. I have no idea why this one possesses such a sharp, cutting edge for me when it was delivered by someone whom I never met face to face, but it’s a laceration that never quite seems to heal.

When I was in my early 20’s, I had just been brutally dumped by my boyfriend. I had long, thick, wavy hair at the time (I still think my hair is one of my best features), so in an effort to start afresh, I decided that it would be fun to get a curly perm. I wanted to curl that man right out of my hair, so to speak.

I’ve always been kind of a wash n’ wear type of girl, so doing something this elaborate was quite a departure for me. But desperate times call for desperate measures. Fortunately, out of sheer luck, I happened upon what I still think to this day was the world’s greatest hairdresser.

The perm she did made me feel transformed. Sadly, these things require maintenance, so I wound up seeing her many times in the next two years. And of course, while she worked her magic, we talked. I began to think of her as a friend.

It turned out that she had a son my age. She said we had a lot in common. He was as liberal as I am, and he was pursuing his dream to become a writer in a unique way. He was living in a tent in Denver in the winter. Not only was he writing about his experiences, but he was also saving a boatload of money so he could focus on his writing.

It sounded like a grand adventure, so I allowed that it might be fun to be pen pals. And besides, the perm hadn’t attracted a new boyfriend, and since I lived in conservative North Florida and was the only liberal (I thought) within a 500 mile radius, I was lonely. She gave him my address. We struck up a correspondence.

It was interesting, hearing how he lived, and what he did in his day to day. He really was a good writer, and could spin some fascinating tales. We did have quite a bit in common.

In those days before blogs, he wrote a newsletter which he distributed to his friends and family. I was soon added to the mailing list, and delighted in his exploits along with everyone else.

And then one day he wrote an entry about me. In it, he said, “My mom is trying to fix me up with a Florida girl. She tells me that this girl is not at all attractive, but that she is extremely intelligent and liberal. Thanks a lot, mom.”

Nothing quite like finding out that your hairdresser, the one who raves about how great you look while taking your money and giggling with you like a school girl, thinks you’re “not at all attractive.”

Nothing quite like having that put into a newsletter that is distributed to about a hundred other people. Even worse, having that be written by someone who knew it would be read by you. How callous.

I had an appointment with the hairdresser coming up. I decided to go. I sat in her chair. I looked her in the eye via the mirror as she babbled about how she was sooooo sorry and that her son had no right to say those things.

“You’re right. Neither did you,” I said. I left without getting the perm.

Needless to say, I never went back. It would have been too awkward. There would have been two elephants in the room. One named, “Your Son is a Jackass” and one named, “You Have Been Lying to My Face This Whole Time.”

Shortly after that, she left town. It was a shame, too, because I never found anyone else who could perm my hair without either drying it out like broom straw or making it look like a bird’s nest in a high wind.

But then maybe that had something to do with my altered self-perception. Hard to say.

Ever since, with a few brief experimental exceptions, I’ve pretty much stuck with the same tired hairstyle that I had in my high school yearbook. Yeah, whatever.

Me, long after the perm grew out.

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The Electrical Franklin

My favorite historical figure is Benjamin Franklin. His enthusiasm for science, his great sense of humor, his writing skills, and his desire to benefit mankind in so many ways with his inventions, often not profiting in any way himself, makes me wish I could travel through time and meet him. I am sure I’d be fascinated by just about anything he had to say.

Yes, he was a womanizer who treated his family horribly. He was a product of his time, and a product of his fame. Not that that’s any excuse. None of us are perfect, but I do wish he could have been a little less imperfect. Still, I’m captivated by all things Franklin.

I learned a great deal about Franklin by reading this article on the Franklin Institute web page. (It’s in Philadelphia, and I long to go there.)

This was a man who took scientific inquiry to the point of obsession. He was so enamored of lightning that he could often be seen on horseback, chasing storms. (Poor horse.)

He started doing electrical experiments in 1746, making his home ground zero for his antics. He once shocked himself so badly that he shook from head to toe and his arms and the back of his neck were numb for a time. That didn’t seem to slow him down, though.

He conducted so many experiments that, by 1749, he had come up with the concept of an electrical battery, but never took the step of figuring out what one could be used for.

It’s hard to believe in this day and age that people didn’t know that lightning was composed of a form of electricity, but Franklin took several years to prove it. While pursuing that goal, he began to think about ways to protect people from lightning, and thus came up with the lightning rod.

I love how I keep learning something new about Franklin, even after all these years. For example, he advocated sharp, pointy lightning rods, whereas in England they preferred blunt ones, theorizing that they would scrape the electrical charge out of the sky without actually getting struck. King George III favored this theory and soon set up his palace accordingly. But in the colonies, Franklin’s design prevailed, and sort of became a political statement. One more way to reject the king.

Two years after coming up with the lightning rod, he did his famous kite and key experiment. Another fun fact is that he never wrote about it himself, and the only witness was his 21 year old son William. Another thing I never knew is that he resorted to a kite simply because he had planned to conduct the experiment by using the steeple on Christ Church, but they were taking too long to finish building it. Franklin became impatient, so he went and flew a kite. When he saw that the key got an electrical charge, he knew that lightning was a form of electricity and, unbeknownst to him, his reputation amongst elementary school students was forever secured.

One tragic footnote to Franklin’s electrical fame that one rarely hears about is the story of Georg Wilhelm Richmann. His life started as tragically as it ended, as his father died of the plague before he was born. Still, Richmann became an Estonian scientist who was also studying electricity.

One stormy day in 1753 he was conducting an experiment using insulated rods, to quantify their response to said storm. He was following Franklin’s published instructions. He was struck in the head by ball lightning, receiving a red spot on his forehead, and was instantly killed, as his clothing singed and his shoes blew apart. An explosion immediately followed, and his assistant was blown across the room, as the door frame split apart and the door was torn off its hinges.

Fortunately, the assistant survived to tell the tale. Richmann was apparently the first person to die while conducting electrical experiments. He was 42 years old.

I wonder if Franklin knew of this tragedy, and if he knew that Richmann had been following his instructions. If so, I wonder what he thought. I wonder if he felt any remorse. That information seems to have been lost to history.


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Spare Me Posthumanity

I was reading up on Transhumanism because I thought it would make an interesting blog topic. Mind officially blown. I decided that it’s way too intense and complicated for it to be broken down into one of my random musings. (In other words, I am feeling too lazy to make the effort.)

But within that topic I came across the idea of Posthumanism, and it made me muse, indeed. The website describes it like this:

“Many transhumanists wish to follow life paths which would, sooner or later, require growing into posthuman persons: they yearn to reach intellectual heights as far above any current human genius as humans are above other primates; to be resistant to disease and impervious to aging; to have unlimited youth and vigor; to exercise control over their own desires, moods, and mental states; to be able to avoid feeling tired, hateful, or irritated about petty things; to have an increased capacity for pleasure, love, artistic appreciation, and serenity; to experience novel states of consciousness that current human brains cannot access. It seems likely that the simple fact of living an indefinitely long, healthy, active life would take anyone to posthumanity if they went on accumulating memories, skills, and intelligence.

“Posthumans could be completely synthetic artificial intelligences, or they could be enhanced uploads, or they could be the result of making many smaller but cumulatively profound augmentations to a biological human. The latter alternative would probably require either the redesign of the human organism using advanced nanotechnology or its radical enhancement using some combination of technologies such as genetic engineering, psycho pharmacology, anti-aging therapies, neural interfaces, advanced information management tools, memory enhancing drugs, wearable computers, and cognitive techniques.

“It is difficult for us to imagine what it would be like to be a posthuman person. Posthumans may have experiences and concerns that we cannot fathom, thoughts that cannot fit into the three-pound lumps of neural tissue that we use for thinking. Some posthumans may find it advantageous to jettison their bodies altogether and live as information patterns on vast super-fast computer networks. Their minds may be not only more powerful than ours but may also employ different cognitive architectures or include new sensory modalities that enable greater participation in their virtual reality settings. Posthuman minds might be able to share memories and experiences directly, greatly increasing the efficiency, quality, and modes in which posthumans could communicate with each other. The boundaries between posthuman minds may not be as sharply defined as those between humans.”

Okay, so is anyone else a little freaked out by this concept? Yes, it would be nice to have an enhanced capacity for learning, and who wouldn’t want a little extra vigor? But I really don’t want to live forever. I think that would become tedious and depressing. If I couldn’t count on an expiration date, I’d take everything for granted and not appreciate or value anything. I would procrastinate even more than I already do. Nothing would be precious. It would all feel inevitable.

I wouldn’t mind not feeling “tired, hateful, or irritated about petty things,” but I’m not so sure I’d want to be able to control my desires or mental state completely. Everything would become predictable. There’d be no surprises and nothing to get excited about. What would be the point?

And do I really want to risk augmentation? Too much could go wrong. Not only that, but would I want to live in such a superior state that I could no longer relate to humanity? I would hate to view people as mere primates. And while I might be able to communicate more effectively with my fellow posthumans, I would cease to be able to communicate with anyone else, and that would be tragic. And I genuinely believe that the most valuable sign of intelligence is the ability to get your point across to anyone, regardless of their IQ.

And then there’s the fact that certain people, if given these enhanced powers, would not use them for good. And because they would be so far ahead of us mere mortals, there would be little, if anything, we could do about it. That scares me.

While I can’t predict the future, and I’m sure that there are things around the corner that I can’t even begin to imagine, one thing is for certain: I wouldn’t want to meet a posthuman in a dark alley, or anywhere else.


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