Your Eighth Decade

More and more of my friends are in their 80’s now. The older I get, the more that will happen. I see them as precious gifts.

I have no idea what life must be like in one’s 8th decade. I hope to find out myself one day. But as it stands, I have a great deal of admiration for all of these people.

Making it to 80 is no small accomplishment. It means you are overflowing with life experience. You are a survivor. You have seen and done things that most of us can only dream of. You have lived and loved and laughed and cried and fought and struggled. And here you are. Did you imagine you’d reach this mountain top? What a triumph!

You have watched the world unfold, and have been an active part in its unfolding. You have been there and you have done that. You know what it’s like to live at a time that was less comfortable and convenient. But because of that, you know that it’s possible to live without a cell phone and a microwave and 257 TV channels. Does our dependency on such foibles make you inwardly laugh?

You have most likely not been appreciated nearly as much as you deserve to be. People think they’ve heard all your stories, but they’ve barely scratched the surface. They probably aren’t asking the right questions. Shame on them.

When I see these friends, I know I’m gazing into untapped depths, and I wonder what I’m missing. People in their 80’s are diamonds walking amongst us, and should be cherished as such. The rest of us can only hope to travel that many times around the sun, and do it with such style!


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Knock on Wood, Fingers Crossed, God Bless You

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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4th of July, 1054

We Americans can get awfully full of ourselves, especially on this, the most patriotic day of our year. Yes, three cheers for independence and freedom, and for fireworks and hot dogs on the bar-b-que. I do love all these things.

(Skip this paragraph if you’re as tired of righteous indignation as I am, but…) I won’t get into the fact that this country was occupied long before we came along, and that it’s been feeling a lot less free of late. I won’t rant about how the entire system is rigged for the 1 percent, and how we fight amongst ourselves rather than show that small percentage that by dint of sheer numbers, they shouldn’t be the powerful ones. And… blah, blah, blah.

Happy 4th of July.

But I did think that perhaps we might gain a little perspective by seeing that something else really amazing happened once upon a 4th of July. It’s something that most of us don’t even know about, but it was ever so much more spectacular than any fireworks display that we can put on.

I’m talking about SN1054.

Yeah, I know. That’s not a very gripping name. It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. But it certainly kicked some cosmic butt when it exploded.

According to Chinese astronomical records, July 4, 1054 was the first day that this supernova was observed from this planet. It was also recorded by the Japanese, and is found in a document from the Arab world as well. It may even be recorded in a pictograph by the Ancestral Puebloan people that is located in current day New Mexico. At a time when global communication didn’t exist, it seems that all eyes were focused skyward.

There was good reason for this. This supernova seems to have remained visible in the daytime sky for two weeks, and was still visible by the naked eye at night for two solid years before it finally faded. Can you imagine? Man, I’d have loved to have seen that!

And the best part about it is that even amateur astronomers can see the gorgeous remnants of this supernova today. It’s called the Crab Nebula. It’s in the constellation Taurus, and you can find a detailed description of how to spot it here, if you have access to a telescope. (Or you can cheat and use a star gazing app on your phone.)

The Crab Nebula is the first astronomical object that was ever identified with a historical supernova explosion, according to Wikipedia. That’s pretty impressive.

This gorgeous nebula is about 6,500 light years from us, and it’s estimated that the main star must have blown up about 7,500 years ago. But for me, at least, it will forever be associated with the 4th of July.

The Crab Nebula in Taurus

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Big History

If you took any history classes in high school or college, especially if you are of a certain age, those classes most likely revolved around human history, or even more arrogantly, white upper class male human history. You couldn’t be blamed for thinking that nothing existed outside of the salons of Europe until we “discovered” America.

Yeah, if you’re like me, you had a brief obsession with dinosaurs. But you probably didn’t consider that history. You thought of it more as paleontology. You certainly didn’t classify the big bang as history. That was astronomy.

Yes, we are taught to put everything neatly in their own little boxes. Geology, archaeology, biology, chemistry, physics, genetics, environmental studies, psychology… each has its niche, and never the twain shall meet.

But you know, that’s kind of like studying individual trees without examining the forest. It’s like focusing on one book without ever looking up at the wonder of the library. How short sighted of us.

Thank goodness there is now an academic discipline that looks at the big picture. It’s called Big History, and instead of focusing on the 10,000 years humans have been around, it looks at time from the Big Bang to the present.

Granted, biting off a 13.8 billion year chunk of time and trying to swallow it whole is no mean feat, but in a lot of ways, it makes a great deal of sense. An interdisciplinary approach is much more three dimensional. How could one possibly study the fossil record, for example, without understanding geology? How can we ever have a grasp of the cosmos and our place within it without looking at the many causes and effects that intertwine with one another?

You can’t understand human migration without a grasp of climatology. You can’t comprehend the elements that make up life on this planet without having a sense of chemistry. It’s macrohistory, not microhistory. It looks for common themes across a variety of disciplines.

Oh, to be young and have the time and the energy and the wide-eyed innocence to be willing to rack up debt and go back to college! It’s such an amazing time to be learning. Rock on, big historians!


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The Not So Wild West

Most people, when they think of the American West, think of gun fights in dusty streets in front of saloons, Indians kidnapping helpless white women and children, and gangs robbing banks. Hollywood has done a great job of perpetuating these myths, when in fact, shoot outs were relatively rare. Our modern society is much more violent than the wild west ever was, as long as you set aside the gratuitous genocide of a million Native Americans in order to take their land.

According to The Culture of Violence in the American West: Myth versus Reality, although government oversight and protections were not prevalent in areas that were not yet granted statehood, people would often join groups for mutual protection due to their extreme isolation, and create constitutions of their own. In many cases, people who violated these rules simply had to be threatened with ostracism to bring them back in line, because in the remote vastness of the west, isolation could mean certain death.

This article goes on to say that interactions with the Native Americans were relatively peaceful until 1865, which coincides with the end of the Civil War. Before then, settlers were more interested in trading with them, as a profitable pursuit, and tradesmen realize that it’s bad form to kill off the customers. Therefore it was generally agreed that native people had a right to their own land.

Efforts to obtain land were negotiated by treaty until right after the war, so violence wasn’t considered the ultimate solution. (Whether those treaties were fair and enforced is another story entirely.) But in 1871, Congress voted not to ratify anymore treaties, and the violence greatly increased after that.

After the Civil War, railroads really took off. This meant the acquisition of land, not only for tracks, but also for acquiring the iron needed to make these railroads, and the towns needed to support them. The generals who practiced a successful scorched earth policy in the American south now turned these same policies on native villages, with the same result.

This fascinating article goes on to conclude:

“These men utilized the state’s latest technologies of mass killing developed during the Civil War and its mercenary soldiers (including the former slaves known as “buffalo soldiers”) to wage their war because they were in a hurry to shovel subsidies to the railroad corporations and other related business enterprises. Many of them profited handsomely, as the Credit Mobilier scandal revealed. The railroad corporations were the Microsofts and IBMs of their day, and the doctrines of neomercantilism defined the Republican Party’s reason for existing (DiLorenzo 2006). The Republican Party was, after all, the “Party of Lincoln,” the great railroad lawyer and a lobbyist for the Illinois Central and other midwestern railroads during his day.”

So, rather than the shoot-em-up culture that you see in the movies, we really need to think of the west as a relatively peaceful place, until greed and politics, coupled with the violent experience of a bloody war, swept in and changed it entirely.

Some more fun facts, according to this article:

  • There is only documentation of 8 bank robberies in the 15 Western states during 40 of the “wild West” years.

  • The vast majority of Westerners did not wear anything similar to the Stetson cowboy hat we think of today. The bowler was much more common.

  • Cowboys were much more likely to carry a shotgun or a rifle than a six shooter. They thought of guns mostly as tools to protect cattle.

Also, according to Noam Chomsky, the shoot-em-up Western folklore took off after the Civil War because gun manufacturers were seeing a severe downturn in business now that they weren’t producing for the war machine. They wanted people to think it was necessary to have a gun for protection, they wanted them to think men were basically lawless and violent, and they wanted them to feel manly while using guns to protect their women and children. So they created a wild West culture that didn’t really ever exist, to boost sales.

I know. I know. This is all very disappointing. It’s fun to romanticize history. Especially when the truth is so much more gruesome. But the vast majority of the violence in the west had more to do with greedy land grabs, racial prejudice, and political manipulation than lawless, independent-minded early Americans sowing their wild oats.


The West

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A Barn Razing

For 100 years, this barn looked over a field in Kent, Washington.

The barn.jpg

It was a proud barn, a working barn, for much of its life. Before its retirement, it was home to two horses, lovingly referred to as “Mr. Ed” and “Mr. Red”, along with a crazy four-horned Jacob Sheep (“Jake”), a small goat named “Billy”, and an aggressive goat called “Beavis” (because “Butt-Head” seemed too rude.) The barn kept them warm, and sheltered them from storms.


And then, one day, just like that, the farmer and his animals went away. The land was sold to the city with the stipulation that it remain an undeveloped public park, and the barn stood alone and abandoned for the next 9 years. But its neighbors still loved it, despite the meter-high mounds of pigeon poop that had accumulated inside over time.

Inside barn.jpg

The city was not nearly as in love with the barn as its residents. They feared squatters and arsonists. They feared liability if anyone were to break in and get hurt. So they scheduled it for demolition.

As the clock wound down toward its demise, someone removed the upper barn door. For many months the barn looked as if it was cold, wounded and crying out. Save me. I don’t want to go.

Barn Door Missing.jpg

Winter barn with no door

Soon, some of the wood on the side was stolen, and graffiti artists moved in. It was an undignified end for such a grand structure. Some people have no respect, and no sense of history.

Barn graffiti

And then, on the thirteenth day of March, 2019, it happened. The barn was torn down, piece by piece. Here’s a time lapse of it.


It was a sad day. It was strange to see how quickly it all ended after such a long-standing legacy. Things fall apart. The center does not hold.

The one bright light in all of this is that the wood and the rusty metal roof were salvaged and will be used to build yet another barn somewhere in Eastern Washington. So in a way, our beloved barn lives on. There will be animals for it to shelter once again.

Some day, years from now, people will walk their dogs across this field and not even realize what came before. But some of us will always see this as the place where a beautiful barn once proudly stood. And, oh, it will be missed.


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Goodbye Seattle Viaduct

On Saturday I bid adieu to Seattle’s iconic Alaskan Way Viaduct, along with the Battery Street Tunnel. Both of them were not considered up to current seismic standards, and are being replaced by the new State Road 99 Tunnel, which is scheduled to open today. Read more about it here.

It turns out that I wasn’t alone in wanting to say goodbye. It’s estimated that 100,000 other people walked the tunnel and viaduct this weekend. I’m sure many of them felt a lot more nostalgic than this relative newcomer did. The viaduct had been around since the 50’s, after all.

I was enjoying taking in the view for the last time, and marveling over the massive construction project. I had also expected a different kind of celebration. I was disappointed.

I was expecting food trucks and vendors and souvenirs. There were more port-a-potties than there were food trucks, and there wasn’t a single souvenir to be had. There were a few musicians here and there, and a smattering of antique cars. That’s about it.

I did enjoy checking out the graffiti in the tunnel. I think the city missed a great historic opportunity there. The tunnel is eventually going to be filled in with the debris from the viaduct and sealed off. They should have handed out sharpies and allowed people to write on the walls. Imagine what a treasure trove that would have been 500 years from now, what a time capsule, if we humans have managed not to completely destroy life as we know it. Archeologists would have been fascinated with what we found important enough to say, one day in time, back in 2019. So while others were feeling nostalgic, I was feeling kind of sad at historic opportunities missed.

And then I ran into a coworker. He was standing mid-tunnel, next to the office door. That’s a room most people don’t even know exists. I certainly had no idea. So he let us peek inside. How many people have come and gone in that office over the years? I wonder. I felt privileged to get a glimpse of this lonely little room.

But even better, my coworker had a sharpie. And I took advantage of it.

So, if you are reading my humble little blog post 500 years from now, first of all, nice to meet you. Second of all, if you’re excavating the Battery Street Tunnel, just outside the office door, you might still be able to see my graffiti. “Barb Abelhauser, Bridgetender, 2019”. That was me. I was there. In that tunnel. Saying goodbye.

Here are some pictures from the experience.

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