A Delightful Drawbridge Perspective

No wonder I have always thought this job was so magical. . .

I absolutely love it when someone says something that makes me look at things in a completely different light. That happened today, and the topic was drawbridges. After working on drawbridges for 21 years, you’d think I’d have contemplated them from every possible angle, but this was a fresh perspective for me, and I was delighted.

The comment in question was added to one of my most popular blog posts, entitled Bridge Symbolism. I don’t know Shubhanshi Gupta personally, but she writes a blog called Petrichor, and, based on my admittedly brief glance, it seems to be quite full of profound thoughts. I may have to give it a closer look.

In the meantime, here is the comment she left for me:

“what I find interesting about is how they manage to integrate two different worlds together at the same time- land and water. It’s like the bridge is rooted in the ground under the water body, and it’s surrounded by water everywhere till eyes can see, but deep down, it’s touching land at the base and both it’s two ends. And in spite of all this, it lets us transit over water without having to touch it.”

Whoa. It’s as if she has stripped bridges down to their most basic components. And she draws attention to the fact that they are straddling two elements, earth and water, protecting us from one, and transporting us to the other. Bridges are portals, if you think about it. They help us transition from one place to another.

Perhaps that’s why so many people linger on my bridge and gaze down at the water. They are gathering themselves for what’s on the other side, while perhaps feeling nostalgic about what, or whom, they just left. No wonder I have always thought this job was so magical. I may never look at a bridge in the same way again.

Thank you, Shubhanshi, for your insight! I hope you’ll share many more with us on my blog. I always enjoy new perspectives. The broader the horizon, the more one gets to see.

I’ll leave you with another delightful perspective in the form of art:

Surreal Waterdrops by Mousette on DeviantArt. Check out her full body of work here.

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

Sticks ‘n Stones

In which I’m told that I’m a “White Elitist Liberal hypocritical jacka$$”.

For the most part, I’ve been really lucky with this blog. The bulk of the comments I receive are either positive or at least respectful in their disagreements, which gives me the opportunity for growth and increased perspective. I think most of you get that my posts are quite often opinion pieces, and that I’m not insisting that you agree with me. Reading your comments is one of my favorite parts about having a blog. I take your input seriously, and I learn so much from you, dear readers!

I did encounter one troll about 5 years ago who gave me pause, though. His hatred was towering, persistent, unjustified and inappropriate. I can directly quote from his pearls of wisdom because I had to save them as evidence in case things escalated.

In his eyes, I am a “White Elitist Liberal hypocritical jacka$$,” (dollar signs mine, I assure you) and I’ve been informed that I’m on his “publish when I die list”. He went on to explain that in the event of his death, the media would then show up at my door to interrogate me about what a horrible person he thought I was. (One assumes it will be a slow news day.)

This gentleman also seems to think I’ve somehow attacked him for being a Native American, but I can’t imagine any scenario in which I would have done so. Oh, and it seems that Obama and I gave away his homeland. That he believes I have that much power is flattering, I suppose, but that he thinks I would employ it so cruelly is insulting and baseless.

What seemed to trigger him were my feminist posts and my more liberal posts, and the fact that I tend to poke fun at conservatives, Floridians (having lived there for 40 years), and misogynists. Yeah, sometimes I do rant in my opinion pieces. Guilty as charged. But I don’t know this man, and wouldn’t care to, so I’m at a loss as to why he seems to find my mere existence to be some kind of personal attack on him.

His own blog, based on my admittedly brief glance at it, is riddled with hatred of women and anger at society in general. He has even self-published a few books that, he himself asserts, cast women in the role of “sexual mercenaries” whose “wicked game played upon their hapless stooge ejaculates with sex and humor.”

Whatever that means. His books don’t seem to have made it to the best seller lists. (But then neither has mine.)

I followed the standard advice and did not feed this troll, and eventually he got bored and crawled back into his cave. He’s still out there somewhere, probably pulling the wings off of more reactive flies. But now you know what I had been dealing with. That should be the end of the story.

But no. In his attacks on me, he took it to another level of fixation. Because he disagrees with my opinions, he seems to have decided that that merits a financial penalty. To achieve maximum destruction, he carried his diatribe to a different forum. I’ve only just noticed that in 2017 he left a review of my book on Goodreads, most likely because he has been blocked on Amazon. (Note: This review has since been removed. Yay!)

In the Goodreads review he says not a word about the book. I’m certain he has never read it. Instead, he attacks my blog and says, “This White Elitist author is not welcome in Spanish-Indian territory of Florida.”

His words make him look entirely unhinged. As if he determines who gets to come and go in the Sunshine State. Normally I wouldn’t give it further thought, but for the fact that at the time of this writing, my book only has 3 reviews and one additional rating on Goodreads, so his one star rant impacts my average considerably. His remarks also inject a lot of negativity into a page for a book that is all about positivity.

But by far the most frustrating aspect of this insanity is that, for the less discerning among us, his histrionics might make one think that my book espouses white elitism. That’s a belief system that I never want to be associated with, even by accident. It is against everything that I hold sacred.

Having said all that, I sure could use your help. If you have actually read my book and are willing to write an honest review of it, good, bad, or indifferent, on the Goodreads site, I’d greatly appreciate it.

When I’m asked to review a book or a service or a medical practitioner, I tend to do so. I know that honest reviews, even the negative ones if they are devoid of agenda, really matter. I can’t imagine targeting an individual in an attempt to ruin their reputation without producing a boatload of evidence of their nefarious deeds. But that’s just me.

But I can’t emphasize this enough: Please do not engage with, respond to, troll, or flame this guy in any way. Clearly he has enough problems in his life, and it would be better for both you and me if he continues to leave us alone. Life’s too short for such foolishness.

That I’m even wasting this much energy on this guy makes me sad, so I decided to get it out of my system with this post. I hope that he doesn’t turn his Eye of Sauron back in my direction as a result. I’ve said my piece. I can’t work up the energy to continue to care about what he does. In the overall scheme of things, it just doesn’t matter.

Be kind to one another, dear readers. The type of light that you choose to shine on the world will always reflect back upon you, one way or another. Namaste.

Have I Just Become Redundant?

An artificial intelligence just told me a story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bridgetender’s Smile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cleverbot: Yes you have. And I am Frank.

Me: Have you gotten any more sophisticated since then?

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

Me: It depends on whom you ask.

Cleverbot: If you say so.

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

Cleverbot: Give me a random 3 digit number.

Me: Do you know ChatGPT?

Cleverbot: No what is it?

Me: An AI.

Cleverbot: Oh really?

Me: It seems smarter than you are.

Cleverbot: No you are not.

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

Cleverbot: You did.

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

Cleverbot: No I don't, you liar!

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

Cleverbot: I have never loved you.

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

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

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

Hello?

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

A Heartwarming Holiday Play

Mr. Dickens and His Carol

‘Twas a dark and stormy night.

Seriously. ‘Twas. Would I lie to you?

Big, spongy globs of snow were flying at us sideways, and hitting our coats with a splash. As this weird snow hit the ground, it immediately intermingled with the blanket of previously accumulated powdery snow, resulting in a mélange of wet, muddy, slippery slush pies. The winter wonderland of the morning was quickly turning into an evening winter wasteland.

Our feet made squelching noises as we walked. We were drenched through and through. And it was cold and raw in the way it can only be in the Pacific Northwest. I could feel it in the very marrow of my bones. No sane person would be out in this crap. Oh, but we had theater tickets.

On a night like that, I’d much rather be snuggled up with my dog in front of a warm fire, clad in flannel pajamas and bunny slippers (me, not the dog or the fire) and wrapped in a fuzzy blanket (both me and the dog, but definitely not the fire). It is the kind of weather that calls out for one to stay home, engrossed in a good book. There are very few things that would make me shed those jammies and venture out into a slushy hellscape.

I will admit that I have been known to run down the street and pick up some pho on a night light that. It’s the ultimate comfort food. But then I’d run back home to enjoy it before the fire, with the dog and the bunny slippers. The only other thing I can think of that would make me face soggy misery, short of an urgent need for an emergency room, is a play.

Plays, when done well, are magical things. They allow you to get all cozy in your seat and be transported to another world. You don’t even need bunny slippers. You just need some imagination.

A wonderful play can feel all the more decadent when you know that the weather outside is frightful. You are one of an exclusive group of people who get to leave that place where one uses the words “trudge” and “galoshes”, and instead sit back, warm and dry, while passively observing a marvelous adventure. Sign me up.

The play in question on this night was Mr. Dickens and His Carol, based on the book of the same name by Samantha Silva. It’s a fictionalized literary cloak draped over a non-fiction skeleton of Charles Dickens‘ true circumstances as he wrote A Christmas Carol.

At the time, Dickens was partway through his latest serial novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, and it was turning out to be a shocking failure after his huge success with The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and The Old Curiosity Shop. This was extremely bad news as he was already under a great deal of financial pressure.

His wife just had the fifth of their ten children, and there were a whole host of people counting on him for their livings as well, including agents, publishers, newspapermen, and household staff, in addition to a father who was so financially irresponsible that growing up, Dickens was able to see for himself what life was like for a patriarch in a debtor’s prison.

Based on that information, Samantha Silva weaved a story about what it must have been like for the author to desperately write A Christmas Carol simply to keep his financial head above water. She turned Dickens into a Scrooge himself, bitter at all the hangers on who were intent on draining him of all his money. She allows Dickens to transform in the end, just like Scrooge did, and that is what inspires him to write A Christmas Carol as we know and love it today. God bless us, every one.

This preview performance of the world premier of the play took place in Seattle Rep’s Bagley Wright Theater. We had never been to this venue. It felt intimate. It gave me the same kind of butterflies I feel when I burrow deep into the stacks of a dusty old library filled with mahogany and possibilities. And the play would soon follow suit with its own inner flutter of butterflies.

The director announced that this was a preview performance to work out the kinks, but I saw no kinks whatsoever. Not only were the actors amazing, but the costume and set design were superb as well. I love how the actors seamlessly moved the furniture on and off the stage as the play was going on. They also provided the sound effects from just off stage.

The stage itself had a rotating floor, which allowed elements of the set to be used for different purposes as they were turned to different angles. I’m impressed when actors remember their lines and move and emote at the same time, so it’s a thousand times more impressive when they do all of that along with walking on a moving floor, keeping time with the other characters, and always managing to orient themselves to the audience, along with keeping track of what furniture needs to go where for any given scene.

That the cast and crew managed to pull all that off without a hitch was quite a feat. In the end, we were treated to a deliciously deep dive into Victorian London, with all its struggles and triumphs. And I’m pleased to say there was no slush involved.

The good news is that you can still get tickets to see this play as it will be here in Seattle until December 23rd. I hope it does, indeed, catch on and travel the world. I can imagine it becoming a delightful Christmas tradition. It was well worth a slog through the winter wickedness of the streets of Seattle to get there. For a delightful 40 second taste of this play that will leave you wanting more, check out this YouTube video.

I’ll leave you with a few photos I took while the actors were off stage. Even without people, it looks like a wonderful place, well worth exploring, doesn’t it? I highly recommend that you do so.

I’m no Dickens, but I wrote a book, too, and you can own it! How cool is that? 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.

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!

A Weird Day on the Drawbridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HEY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this was definitely one of those days.

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

The Thing About Prefixes

…in which you get to dip your toes in my stream of consciousness.

For the purposes of this post, a prefix is “an element placed at the beginning of a word to adjust or qualify its meaning,” according to Oxford Languages. For a handy list of English language prefixes, consult the Wikipedia post. They’ve got you covered.

One of the many games I play in my head (I have a rich inner life) is that of stripping words of their prefixes. It’s amazing how many of the stem words have fallen out of fashion even though their prefixed versions thrive.

Take “overwhelm” for example. When’s the last time you heard anyone use the word “whelm”? If you heard it frequently in your youth, you are probably about 700 years old. Congratulations!

Which leads us nicely to the term “congratulations”, and its interesting stem word “gratulation”, which is a manifestation of joy, and something we need a lot more of these days. It’s time to bring gratulation back. Who couldn’t use a little gratulation in their life?

One of the more maddening prefixed words, in my opinion, is “inflammable”. I’d be embarrassed to tell you how many decades I operated under the false assumption that inflammable was the opposite of flammable. And I come by that confusion honestly. The prefix “in” usually signifies “not”. So logic would dictate that inflammable would mean “not flammable”. But no.

This delightful article from Dictionary.com will clear it all up for you. But in a sloppy nutshell, “in”, in this instance, means… in. (You can’t make this stuff up.) So inflammable actually means “in a state of being easily set on fire.” In other words, flammable.

But it gets even more strange. It seems that the word inflammable predates the word flammable by about 200 years, and in truth, flammable only became more popular than its counterpart around the year 1970.  But it did so for good reason. It seems that I’m not the only one who has been confused by the word inflammable, and that confusion could be downright deadly. Because of this, safety experts have long advocated for the shorter version on labels.

In other words, it pays to read the label, especially with regard to children’s pajamas, and that label should not be confusing. Research for this post led me through a maze of websites, including one by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, which assures us that children’s sleepwear is required to be flame resistant.

But what does flame resistant mean, in actuality? Is it different from flame retardant? That led me to this website, which explained that flame resistant clothing is “less likely” to catch fire, and if it does catch fire, it will self-extinguish once it’s removed from the combustion source. This might not seem particularly comforting to the average parent, but the best thing about flame resistant material is that, when it is exposed to heat, it won’t melt and adhere to the skin like some freakish distant cousin of napalm. Yay.

But I will say this. Polyester is supposed to be flame resistant, but I have vivid memories of my teenage sister’s boyfriend attempting to impress us by taking off is polyester shirt (It was the 70’s, so you’ll have to forgive him) and dropping it in the fireplace. We watched it melt, and I remember that it stank to high heaven. So there’s that.

Now I’m wondering if something is “inflamed”, can’t we just call it “flamed”? You’ll have to look that one up yourself. These digressions of mine are making me tired.

Digress is similar to deviate, but oddly, the “di” in digress is not a prefix, despite the fact that “di” is quite often a prefix, whereas the “de” in deviate is. The prefix “de” means off or remove, and so deviate basically means to remove oneself from the “via”, or “way”. But there I go, digressing again.

Aren’t words fascinating? I could study them for hours. I always wanted an unabridged version of the Oxford English Dictionary, but where on earth would I put it? Its current version consists of 20 volumes, with a total of 21,728 pages. Sadly, authorities on the subject say that the next edition will most likely never be printed. It will only be in digital form. Even thought trees the world over will be grateful for the reprieve, for me that will be a sad day.

Because of this digital insult to humanity, children of the future will probably never experience the pure joy of lifting one of the heavy volumes up, smelling the dust, and flipping randomly through the crispy pages to learn something unexpected. What a shame. The memory still gives me butterflies.

We seem to be dipping our toes in my stream of consciousness today. That makes me self-conscious. Which leads me back to… Where were we? Oh, yeah. Prefixes.

I feel the need to mention one last thing before you move on with your day: Even the word “prefix” has a prefix. Shouldn’t that be considered a conflict of interest? I want to lodge a protest. But then “pro” is a prefix, too…

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Doing Something Small

You are planting seeds wherever you go.

Recently, a friend shared this meme with me, and it really resonated.

First of all, I hate time travel movies. They all seem so formulaic, and an easy out for most writers. Don’t like the plot corner you’ve painted yourself into? Then allow your character to time travel! Problem solved! Literary laziness is what that is.

And I do believe that Back to the Future was the first movie that ever infuriated me. You sit through the entire thing, and then… wait. What? I have to watch another movie to see what happens? Are you kidding me right now? If I’m only seeing 1/3 of a story, I should only have to pay for 1/3 of the movie ticket! I want a REFUND!!!

But this meme does bring up a good point. If we are all willing to accept that changing one tiny thing in a timeline can change the entire future of humanity, why do we find it so hard to believe that doing one little thing in the present might make all the difference for the future? If you can buy into one premise, you should be able to buy into the other. And yet so many of us don’t realize how much our actions and words and beliefs matter.

A few times in life I have been told by people that something I said, or some example that I set, really changed their point of view. They viewed that interaction as pivotal to some aspect of their lives, and in most cases I can’t even remember the conversation. I don’t see myself as an influencer. I can’t even picture that. And yet I have been told this more than once, and it never fails to bring tears to my eyes. Happy tears, because I’ve only been told about positive situations.

But that begs the question: Have I ever changed someone’s life for the worse? And would that person tell me if I had? What would that conversation look like? What would I say? What would I do? Would it be possible to fix it? Would it be too late?

Just like everyone else, I’ve had bad days. I’ve said mean things. I’ve been tired and/or depressed and/or felt defeated or defensive or scared to the point of not caring about someone else’s feelings. We aren’t always our best selves. But those moments can be pivotal, too.

To make up for these things, whether they be real or imagined, I do try to leave positive marks upon the earth. I try to do good deeds and make positive changes and reassure people and encourage them. I try to be a force for good.

But when all is said and done, none of us can ever know our true impact unless we’re told. Perhaps that’s why none of us can predict the future. We can’t even see within the range of our own sphere of influence, let alone outside of it.

That’s why it’s so important to be kind. Tread lightly. Whether you know it or not, you are planting seeds wherever you go.

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Literary Laziness

Predictable plots are downright irritating.

When we were newlyweds, Dear Husband was often shocked at how frequently I could predict plot twists in movies. But unfortunately it is all too easy to do, if you know what signs to look for. If you don’t already have, and don’t want to have this self-spoiling plot twist radar, you may want to stop reading now.

Still with me? Good. First, it’s important that you don’t lose yourself in the story. Don’t get so caught up in the scenery and the romance and the fun of it all that you forget that you’re a person who is sitting on a couch, probably eating junk food, and you’re watching a product that some writer created while they were also most likely sitting on a couch, eating junk food. That is even more true in this pandemic era.

Don’t think about the movie. Think about the person who wrote the movie. Think like a writer who is in desperate need of a paycheck. That’s got to be stressful. And stress often makes one lazy. When writers get lazy, myself included, they become predictable.

Ask yourself what destination that writer is trying to reach. And what is the shortest, and thus most profitable route to that destination? That is the well-trodden path that most storytellers take. You could walk it in the dark, such is the groove that it has imposed upon the landscape of humanity.

For example, I genuinely believe that murder mysteries are the simplest things on earth to write. All you have to do is write them backwards. Start with how the evil deed was done. Then think of what clues would be necessary for someone to figure out who the culprit is. Then go back and scatter those clues, subtly and strategically, throughout the preceding chapters, along with just the right amount of red herrings to throw them off the trail. Maybe distract your readers with a bit of sexual tension for good measure, and throw in a lot of superfluous characters, but make them seem important. And there you have it. Murder mystery.

Also, keep in mind that there are 7 Classic Story Archetypes, and they have been around since before stories were written down. Shakespeare’s plays all fit into them, as do the books of the Bible, and the vast majority of all the foundational myths from every culture throughout the world. On the most fundamental level, there really is nothing new under the sun.

Armed with that knowledge, you only need rely on your pure instinct to take the final steps to arrive at a conclusion. If something seems off to you in a story, there’s most likely a good reason for it. Trust your inner voice.

Did a character bring up something that seemed random or unnecessary to you? Did you wonder why that thing even came up, since it didn’t seem to advance the plot in any way? Then rest assured, that thing is significant. If you’re watching a romance and they suddenly have a brief discussion about elephant’s toenails, then rest assured that elephant’s toenails will figure prominently in the subsequent twist.

Also, if a character seems to be demonstrating a particular quality over and over and over again, that’s significant as well. Is the writer really going out of the way to try to convince you that someone is lovable or heroic or evil or sneaky? (A good writer would trust the viewer to do more of the heavy lifting, but a lazy one will beat you over the head with the information.) Odds are good that the twist in the end will be that that person is exactly the opposite of their ham-handed portrayal. Someone who seems weak or foolish will turn out to be strong and wise. If the writer keeps having the main character do saintly things, you can bet your life that that character is actually a sinner.

I don’t think all wordsmiths are lazy. When one manages to surprise me, I have nothing but admiration for her, him, or them. When a story feels fresh and unexpected, I know that I have truly been given my money’s worth, and then some. I am always grateful for that gift.

But if you’re playing the odds, the information above will let you win more often than not, if knowing how a story is going to play out can be considered winning. Most of the time it’s kind of a disappointment. Sometimes it’s downright irritating. But on a positive note, those lazy writers sure do make me appreciate the good ones. Talent should never be taken for granted.

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