A Disconcerting Challenge to My Assumptions

I opened my bridge for a cephalopod.

So, for those who don’t know, I’m a bridgetender in Seattle. In September, I will have been operating drawbridges for 20 years. It’s a dream job. Mostly very calm and normal, and about 5 percent white knuckle panic.

You get into a routine. Each bridge has its own rhythm. It would be easy to get complacent. I make an effort not to, though. Safety first.

But some assumptions you have without even realizing you have them. When something happens to mess with those assumptions, it can be very confusing. For example, you have a habit of recognizing John Smith because he’s always at the front desk of your office building. Run into him dressed in casual clothes at the farmer’s market on a Saturday, and you may have a hard time placing him.

Something similar happened to me the other day at the bridge. I heard a horn signal that meant a boat was asking me to open the bridge. I looked out the window to spot the boat, and all I saw was a motor vessel who could easily fit under the bridge, so surely it couldn’t be him. I looked around some more. Was there a sailboat in one of my blind spots or something? I stuck my head out the window. The coast, as they say, was clear.

How strange. I looked and looked. No sailboat.

Then I glanced at the motor vessel again, and realized that it had a giant inflatable octopus (supposedly a Seattle Kraken, for our new hockey team) on top of it. This made the vessel twice as tall. Of course he’d need a bridge opening. Of course.

As I opened the bridge for my very first cephalopod, I had to laugh at my hidden assumptions. Motor vessels of that type never need an opening. Horn signals are always sailboats. And you’re never going to see a boat-sized octopus, so if you do see one, your brain can pretend it isn’t there. For a minute, at least.

Thank goodness I had the presence of mind to snap this picture. Who would believe this story without a picture? I mean, come on…

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Knock on Wood, Fingers Crossed, God Bless You

It never hurts to cover one’s bases.

It occurs to me that there are many things that I do in the course of a day that I have absolutely no explanation for. They’re habits, pure and simple, and originate in the ancient past. They have nothing to do with my current reality, but the idea of discontinuing these actions makes me very uncomfortable.

For example, I say God bless you when someone sneezes. According to Wikipedia, there are several possible explanations for this. Perhaps at some point, people thought that your soul could shoot out of your body when you sneezed, or your heart could stop, or, even worse, it could open your body to invasion by evil spirits. Another theory is that sneezing was often the first sign of the plague, so you better bless that person as quickly as you can, because they probably weren’t going to be around much longer. If any of the above is true, then those of us who sneeze while alone are doomed. Personally, I say God Bless You so as not to be perceived as being rude or inconsiderate.

I also cross my fingers for luck. Apparently, this is mainly a Christian thing. It started off in Roman times, when making a sign of the cross was believed to ward off evil. I’d forgotten that children also do it when telling a lie, or to invalidate a promise. That’s an interesting juxtaposition, when you think about it. Something I didn’t know was that in Vietnam it’s regarded as a sign of female genitals, and it is considered to be as rude as giving the finger is in this country. Good information to have if I ever go to Vietnam. I basically do it to cover my bases. It can’t hurt, right, unless you’re in Vietnam?

Another thing I do is knock on wood, so as not to tempt fate when I mention something going potentially wrong. “I hope we don’t get an earthquake (knock wood).”

I was always taught that that dated back to the Druids, who believed spirits resided in  trees. Knocking on wood was a way to acknowledge that you believe in them, so as not to anger them and cause them to make the bad thing come to pass. I’m also reading in Wikipedia that some believe you’re waking those spirits up so that they can protect you, or that the knocking sound would prevent evil spirits from hearing what you say and acting upon it. Again, for me, it’s a cover my bases type thing.

If I know all these things really hold no power, why do I do them? I like to think of myself as a scientific, analytical person. But… you never know.

I think a lot more of life consists of these strange little gestures that are out of context with the modern world than we’d care to admit.

knock on wood

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We Are Five…

Things are getting complex.

The other day I said to my husband, “Do you think we’ll ever settle down to a nice, quiet routine, or do you think we’ll always be in a state of barely controlled chaos?”

His response was, “Well, we are five…”

Indeed we are. Two adults, three dogs, all with different needs and desires. And while having dogs may not be as complex as having children, they do make an impact.

There are things we do because I’m suffering from a bad cold. There are things we do because our car was recently totaled. There are things we do because one dog is deaf and going blind. There are things we do because one dog is prone to biting and generally showing his a**. There are things we do because one dog is easily frightened.

We are still working on transferring my possessions from one location to another. We’re learning everybody’s sleep habits. We’re adjusting to various energy levels. There are work schedules to consider, and doctor/vet appointments, and errands. There are birthdays and anniversaries and relatives and friends. There are walks to be taken and cars to be repaired and a never-ending pile of clothes to be washed. There are meals to plan and prepare and eat.

When I was single, I could blow a lot of this stuff off. But now we are five, and things are exponentially more complex, chaotic… and delightful.


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Your Ways

All my life, I’ve been told that old people are set in their ways. They’re rigid. Conservative. They don’t want to try new things. It made me dread growing old.

Now that I’m getting older, though, I’m beginning to have a different perspective on this subject. First of all, I know a lot of older people who are still willing to push the outer envelope. My friend Carole even jumped out of a perfectly good airplane on her 73rd birthday. That gives me hope. I think that as the baby-boomers age, they are less willing to quietly settle into that old folks stereotype. That makes me really happy.

On the other hand, as I start to develop more and more “ways” of my own, I totally understand the desire to be set in them. One should never overlook the wealth of experience that older people possess. We say that people become “wizened”, which means shriveled or wrinkled, but I like to imagine that it also means more wise. Most of us learn as we age. There’s a reason most of your teachers are not your contemporaries. Older people developed their ways through trial and error. They’ve survived. They’ve figured out what works for them. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as the saying goes. I no longer see anything wrong with that.

As I settle into a routine that brings me joy, I’m less and less willing to change those habits. It’s only natural that I become less flexible as I become less flexible. I like the peace and quiet of not having a television. I like my Epsom salt baths by the light of my lavender candle. Cuddling with my dog makes me happy and reduces my heating bills. I doubt I’ll ever embrace Twitter. And I may say “hashtag” out loud, but I’ll always be thinking “pound sign”.

So sue me.


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Maturing as a Species

It would be easy to write a post about the many stupidities that mankind is capable of. We still have a long way to go. But most of us have managed to emotionally, ethically or intellectually evolve, at least somewhat.

In ancient Rome, it used to be perfectly acceptable to leave unwanted babies on the trash heap. (I’m glad we aren’t visited with images like that in our day to day lives anymore.)

Most of us, too, think slavery is abhorrent these days, in spite of the fact that many cultures accepted it as the norm not so very long ago.

Poor houses/work houses are a thing of the past. (Not only were they horrible, but they weren’t very effective.)

We’ve outgrown foot binding and corset stays, thank heavens.

In most places, women are allowed to vote and actually own stuff. (I just wish more of us took advantage of that hard-won voting right. Things in this country would be a lot different.)

Blood-letting is no longer our go-to cure for all that ails us.

People used to think that bathing was harmful to your health. (It makes me itch just thinking about it.)

Tomatoes were considered poisonous in the late 1700’s. (I can barely make it through the week without consuming several now.)

More and more of us are delaying marriage until our common sense catches up with our decision-making processes. (Thank God for that.)

We’re even beginning to realize that texting while driving is idiotic.

Lest we forget, there used to be a time when females could not wear pants. (I wouldn’t have survived.)

At one point, we thought heroin and cocaine were health products.

No more smoking on airplanes, buses, and elevators! (Happy dance!)

How did anyone survive when lawn darts were considered an acceptable toy?

We’ve learned about lead, asbestos, and PCBs, even as they continue to harm us.

With all our communications devices, people rarely show up at your house unannounced anymore, and I couldn’t be more grateful for it.

Most people try not to waste water, and recycling has become a habit rather than a hassle.

In the 1800’s it was scandalous to curl up in bed with a good book. (I’d die.)

We seem to have figured out that radiation is to be avoided. (More or less.)

In the early 1900’s it was relatively rare to have children attend school past the 8th grade.

So next time you feel like resisting change, think, instead, that in order to survive, society needs to mature over time, just like children do. We also need to learn from our mistakes. That knowledge may be less fun than smoking on airplanes and picking up a little cocaine at your local pharmacy, but it will serve us all well in time. I promise.


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When someone gets hurt on a drawbridge and it’s determined that it’s the bridgetender’s fault, you’d think it would be a newbie who was at the controls. But no. It’s almost always an operator who has been on the job for many years.

If anything, someone new to the job tends to be hypervigilant. When you’re training someone, you can feel that person’s nervous energy radiating throughout the room. Newbies are like coiled springs. I’ve never tested this theory, but I’m fairly certain that if I were to walk up behind a new operator and say, “BOO!” that person would be clinging to the ceiling like a cartoon cat.

If you make it past your second day, you’re usually a keeper. You’ve seen how quiet and isolated it can be, and yet you’ve come back, so you can handle it. You’ve also seen how important it is that safety be your top priority, and you’ve chosen to take that responsibility on board. Welcome to the trenches!

After a while, you’ll start to relax. You’ll get the hang of things. You’ll know where things are. You’ll have experienced a few bridge malfunctions, and you and the bridge will have survived. You’ll get familiar with every creak and groan that your bridge makes, and what each one means. This is a good thing.

But now your real challenge begins. From here on out, you have to constantly battle complacency. Don’t get lazy. Laziness in this context can equal death. A little voice inside your head might start saying, “Why bother walking across the room to check that blind spot? No one is ever standing in that blind spot.” Or maybe you’ll start rushing from one step to the next. A bridge console should be played like Clair de Lune, not like the Minute Waltz.

You may not even realize you’re floating down that lazy river of complacency. I suspect it happens in increments. You slack off a tiny little bit, and it’s almost unnoticeable. And then a year later, you slack off even more. Before you know it, you’ve developed some really bad habits.

But on this job, laziness can kill someone. And the one time that you assume that no one is standing in that blind spot will be the one time that someone is standing in that blind spot. The bridge Gods can be cruel that way.

So every day when I come to work, I remind myself that what I do is important. Most people don’t even know I’m here, but I have their lives in my hands. That’s a heavy responsibility, and one I take very seriously.

And every day when I leave work in one piece, and no one who has crossed over or under my bridge has been harmed in any way, I give thanks. The biggest thanks I give is to myself for not having gotten complacent, and for never having forgotten why I’m here.

Avoid that lazy river of complacency.


Despite the overwhelming weight of traditions as described in Fiddler on the Roof, I’ve always admired people who have them. Whether they be national or religious or cultural or simply family traditions, these customs help to bind each of us to a greater whole.

Coming from a fairly nomadic and rootless family, I don’t have very many of these habits to fall back on. But we do have a few. For example, we always shake the milk before pouring it. This came about because my grandfather was a dairy farmer. If you get raw milk directly from the cow, the cream tends to separate if you don’t shake it back up. So we shake the milk to this day even though it no longer needs it.

When we go to the movies, we always whisper “Previews are my favorite part” at the very beginning. I don’t know why, and it isn’t even always true, but we do it nonetheless.

And when traveling long distances by car, when we get close to our destination we say, “Smell the salt?” That’s because when my mother was a child they’d take family trips to Long Island, and they knew they were almost there when they started smelling the salt water.

And I’ve invented a few traditions of my own. Each year I’ll buy a Christmas ornament that reminds me of something from the past year. And I always make red, white and blue fruit salad (strawberries, green grapes, and blueberries) to eat while watching the Independence Day fireworks. And one I particularly like is the one where I blow all my worries and concerns over my shoulder whenever I cross a state line when I travel. Leave that stuff behind. Don’t take it on your trip. Like it or not, you can always pick it back up when you get home.

Customs. Habits, Rituals. Beliefs. They’re what connect us and define us. If you don’t have them, then make the effort to create your own and define yourself.


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