A Gallo-Roman Mystery

The first Roman dodecahedron was unearthed in the English countryside in 1739. Since then, about 100 more have been found all over the northern bits of the Roman Empire, in places like present day Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Hungary.

These objects are all dating anywhere from the 2nd to the 4th century, and they are all different, and yet have a lot in common. They’re all made of 12 equal sides (hence the name). They’re hollow, and each side has a different sized hole in it. Where the corners meet, there’s always a little ball. They’re made of brass. Some are as small as an egg, others are bigger than a baseball. None have been found (yet) in the southern reaches of the Roman Empire.

And that, in a nutshell, is everything we know about these dodecahedrons. No one knows what they were used for. Nothing in the writing of that era mentions them in any way. There is no imagery of them, either. None of these objects have numbers on them, and each is different in size, so they probably have nothing to do with measurements.

What are they, then? Weapons? Religious artefacts? A child’s toy? Does it have something to do with knitting? Astronomy? Is it a candle holder? Are they meant for the top of a staff? They’re often found with coins. Does it have something to do with banking? Again, they’re different sizes. Clearly these things were considered valuable if they were stored with the money. And they wouldn’t have been easy to make.

But what are they? What? What? It’s driving me nuts.

If you want to read up on the various theories in extreme mathematical detail, check out the website romandodecahedron.com. For a lighter read, check out this article, and/or the Wikipedia page.

The bottom line is that we’ll probably never know for sure what these things are without any historical documentation to prove our theories. Basically, the Roman dodecahedron is the epitome of the unanswered question, and that, dear reader, drives me up a freakin’ wall.

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Seattle’s Weird Cold War Relic

58 years ago, the City of Seattle completed a project that is unique to this city, as so many things tend to be. It was a nuclear fallout shelter beneath Interstate 5 in the Ravenna neighborhood. It was pretty much obsolete from the minute it was finished, as people had by then realized that surviving a large scale nuclear attack was highly unlikely. Rather than let it sit empty and admit what a massive waste of money the shelter was, it became a Department of Licensing office from 1963-1977.

The room was 3000 square feet, and designed to hold 200 people. The bathrooms and decontamination showers had such narrow doors that only the most svelte of citizens could enter, and for such a large crowd there were only 3 toilets. The showers for that same crowd were serviced by one 40 gallon hot water tank. No kitchen was provided, and the instructions for the shelter suggested that people should warm canned food (which they were expected to provide themselves), in their armpits.

There were books, games and recreational equipment provided by the Red Cross. The space was also equipped with folding metal chairs, collapsible bunks and insulated paper blankets. In addition, there were escape hatches, an escape tunnel, a generator, and an air filtration system.

In case of emergency, the first 200 people to arrive would be allowed in. Everyone else would be locked out. (What could possibly go wrong?) There were additional plans, which would have been impossible to execute, to evacuate the rest of the residents of Seattle east of the Cascade Mountains.

After 1977, this place became a storage facility for WSDOT records and used furniture. Eventually it was all but abandoned except for the occasional homeless person. But even the homeless didn’t favor it, because the room is freezing cold most of the time. (Every Department of Licensing employee had to huddle around a space heater, which meant the electricity bills when it was an office were obscene.)

Check out this interesting article to see some oddly fascinating photos of this cold, lifeless, uncomfortable looking space, and reflect upon the fact that at one time in our history we were so completely terrified of utter annihilation that this silly plan seemed like a viable option.

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Witness Trees

I recently read an article from Smithsonian Magazine that described five American “witness trees” that were present during historically significant events. Trees that bore witness to civil war battles. Trees that were witness to great tragedies.

It seems that the National Park Service has started a Witness Tree Protection Program, to preserve such trees. Their focus has been in and around Washington DC, but other trees in the country have survived historical events as well. This article, from the American Battlefield Trust, describes many such witness trees.

I think it is important to preserve trees generally, but even more so when they can act as messengers from a present place to a distant time. I think that this preservation should be greatly expanded, to increase our connection to the earth. Trees that were used for lynching should be considered witness trees, too, so we don’t forget how truly evil people can be, and so that we never forget that these horrible things really happened and must never happen again.

But I also think of the many trees that have seen wonderful things. Are there trees that witnessed the Selma to Montgomery march? I’m sure there are. They witnessed the determination for justice as well as the horrible violence and ignorance that it was met with. Were any trees peeking through the windows as the Declaration of Independence was signed? They witnessed the start of an extremely flawed and exclusionary democratic experiment that still needs work, but is more precious for all that. I’m sure there’s many a tree that bore witness to the announcement of the emancipation of slavery as that news traveled slowly throughout the south. And what events have the nation’s mighty sequoia trees seen, and when have they seen them?

If trees could talk, I suspect they’d have many fascinating stories to tell. That is, if they would even bother interacting with such trivial short-lived creatures as ourselves. Trees talking to humans would be much like us telling our life story to a butterfly. A lot of effort for something that will be gone in the blink of an eye.

This tree survived some of the harshest fighting in the Battle of Gettysburg.

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Living through History

We lived through history yesterday, and it was for the most part shameful. If you think killing a woman in the Capitol Building is acceptable or, worse yet, heroic, if you can say you love people who would do such a thing, if you call people who mounted an insurrection “true patriots”, then you are a moral reprobate.

A woman died. And she was a Trump supporter to boot. At what point do you admit that things have gotten out of control? At what point do you say enough is enough?

Our transitions of power have always been peaceful until now, even when the results stuck in the craw of the majority. Are you proud of yourselves? Do you have any idea what you’ve done to democracy?

The only reason I said “for the most part shameful” up above is that Georgia, a state I’d long since given up on, just managed to elect their first black senator ever, and also the youngest senator. That’s history, too. I wish that was what I could focus on, because it’s miraculous. But no. Shame on the insurrectionists.

Oh, and then, on top of everything else, protestors blocked my bridge for 15 minutes yesterday, too. 6 cars, blocking every lane of traffic, completely strangling the Seattle evening commute. I have no idea what they were protesting, and frankly, I don’t care. It accomplished nothing but ill will. It didn’t further anyone’s agenda. It was just negative energy. And it stressed me out and caused paperwork.

So, yeah, weird day at best.

I’ll leave you with this wisdom from a meme, in the hopes that it will cause you to untangle some pretzel logic if you happen to be experiencing it:

“You might be in a cult if you believe that:

You can’t trust the votes.

You can’t trust paper ballots.

You can’t trust judges at the polling places.

You can’t trust polling observers.

You can’t trust voting machines.

You can’t trust state canvassing committees.

You can’t trust state recounts.

You can’t trust 50 Secretaries of State.

You can’t trust the National administrator for election security.

You can’t trust Trump’s Attorney General.

You can’t trust Trump’s FBI.

You can’t trust the states circuit court judges.

You can’t trust US district court judges, including Trump appointees.

You can’t trust US Supreme Court judges, including Trump’s appointees.

You can’t trust the last ten Secretaries of Defense.

BUT you can trust Donald Trump.”

A Deeper Look at Coloring Books

I must confess that I have adult coloring books. And that really does feel like a confession to me. Isn’t coloring the stuff of children? I’m slightly embarrassed by this activity, but I find it very comforting at the same time.

In a world that feels increasingly out of control, coloring is wonderfully predictable. There are established boundaries. And while these boundaries do exist, I still get to choose how pretty to make the spaces within them. It’s my way of feeling creative without actually expending too much mental energy on it. I can get lost in the patterns and set my anxieties aside for a brief, colorful moment.

So when I came across an article entitled, “The Dark, Forgotten History of Coloring Books”, I didn’t want to read it. I didn’t want my multicolored bubble to be burst in any way. But, as is so often the case, curiosity got the better of me.

It seems that coloring books first came out as a way to induce submission in children. They were used to teach them how to behave. It’s part of the reason so many of us are loathe to color outside of the lines. Them’s the rules, after all.

The first coloring book was called The Little Folks Painting book. You can see it here. It includes lessons which are really warnings about not being disobedient. Don’t play tricks on people. Don’t be selfish. Don’t oversleep. According to the article, one of the lessons is,

“Never be discontented, never wish for anything you cannot have.”

Well, now, isn’t that creepy? By coloring, we’re being compliant. We’re being contained. We’re learning to accept the things we cannot control. By killing time in this way, we’re also not being trouble-makers. And John Lewis reminded us how important it is to make good trouble.

Even more chillingly, the article says,

“To color is to inhabit a world designed by others, to dwell in an environment where you are left with no options but to memorize what is already there… After days of coloring these diminutive dreams, I came to see the energy I spent on it as dimming my capacity to imagine how a future can be conceived and built.”

Shades of 1984.

So will I stop coloring? Probably not. Sometimes you just need to shut off your brain. But it’s crucial to remember to turn it back on.

Maybe I’ll have to come up with even more ways to make these designs my own, besides simply choosing which colors go where. Perhaps I’ll use the designs as wrapping paper for a gift. Or maybe I’ll fold them into Christmas ornaments. Maybe I’ll take the author’s suggestion and tear them up and make a collage. Or I’ll create a tattoo.

I’ve always been rather noncompliant. I don’t suspect that will change any time soon. I do believe in certain rules and regulations, simply in order to live without chaos. But I hate the idea of being manipulated in any way. So yeah, I’m apt to color outside the lines of life.

But every once in a while, it’s nice to let others make the choices for you, if only on the page of a coloring book. As with any habit, though, moderation is key. I don’t want to turn into a Stepford colorer. That would not be good.

The_Little_Folks_Paint_Book

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Before Central Park

It’s hard to imagine, but the area around Central Park in New York City used to be very rural. It was sparsely populated, with enough trees that the residents could gather their own firewood. They also obtained fish from the river.

One settlement, called Pigtown, had to relocate up there because their pigs were stinky enough to cause the residents in town (which was all below 14th street at the time) to complain. There were also a few bone-boiling plants around the area that is now home to Tavern on the Green, as well as a Hessian encampment from the revolutionary war, and an old fortification from the War of 1812 that still stands.

But by far the largest settlement, all but forgotten until recently, was Seneca Village. This was not some transient squatters camp full of criminals, or some shantytown full of illegal bars, as the media in the 1850’s would have you believe. This place fell victim to the propaganda perpetuated by those who really, really wanted that park.

No, this was a middle class, mostly African American community of long-established homes. The settlement had been founded in 1825, and most of the residents had lived there that entire time. There were 3 churches. There were schools. Of the 91 African American males with enough property to be allowed to vote in New York State at the time, 10 of them lived in Seneca Village. According to the 1855 census, this village had 264 residents.

Make no mistake: these people did not want to leave their village to make way for Central Park. They were forced out, along with about 1400 other people in the area. The park was originally set for a different site, but that location was owned by rich white people, and their lawsuits caused the city to look elsewhere.

The residents of Seneca Village also had lawsuits, but they lacked influence. Some of these residents stayed on until the bitter end, and were removed rather violently in 1857. Many of them weren’t adequately compensated when eminent domain made way for the park. The village was razed, leaving almost no trace that people once lived and loved and made a home there.

What must it have been like to watch your village, the place where you worshipped and shopped and helped your neighbor, get destroyed? How heartbreaking to realize just how powerless you are. How outrageous to have your legacy ripped from you, only to have it so quickly forgotten by the wider world.

Now, all that remains of Seneca Village is a plaque and a few archeological dig sites. Even the descendants of these people have been lost to time. I find this all rather sad.

Things fall apart. The center does not hold.

Seneca Village

Quakers and Slavery

My whole life, I’ve been taught that Quaker’s were at the forefront of the abolitionist movement. Movies about the Underground Railroad almost always include a Friend or two. Quakers often hid runaway slaves in their homes. These things are true. And yet, if you dig deeper, you find that their history has been rather whitewashed over time.

You can find the typical story line on the brynmawr.edu website:

The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) was the first corporate body in Britain and North America to fully condemn slavery as both ethically and religiously wrong in all circumstances. It is in Quaker records that we have some of the earliest manifestations of anti-slavery sentiment, dating from the 1600s. After the 1750s, Quakers actively engaged in attempting to sway public opinion in Britain and America against the slave trade and slavery in general. At the same time, Quakers became actively involved in the economic, educational and political well being of the formerly enslaved.

The earliest anti-slavery organizations in America and Britain consisted primarily of members of the Society of Friends. Thus much of the record of the development of anti-slavery thought and actions is embedded in Quaker-produced records and documents. Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College and the Quaker Collection at Haverford College are jointly the custodians of Quaker meeting records of the Mid-Atlantic region, including Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, New York and Vermont and these records illuminate the origins of the anti-slavery movement as well as the continued Quaker involvement, often behind the scenes, in the leadership and direction of the abolitionist movement from the 1770s to the abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865, and beyond.

Again, all these things are true. So imagine my shock when I stumbled across this article entitled, “The 18th-Century Quaker Dwarf Who Challenged Slavery, Meat-Eating, and Racism”. I mean, with a title like that, one is rather compelled to read the article, right? I was expecting the typical Quaker/slavery juxtaposition, but that is not what I got. Not at all.

It seems this radical Quaker lived in a cave in Pennsylvania, and was a bit of a thorn in the side of his fellow Quakers. According to the article,

One Sunday, 18th-century Quakers living in Abington, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, were met with a strange sight outside their morning meeting. The snow lay thick on the ground and there was Benjamin Lay, a member of the congregation, wearing little clothing, with his “right leg and foot uncovered,” almost knee-deep in the snow. When one Quaker after the next told him that he would get sick or that he should get inside and cover up, he turned to them. “Ah,” he said, “you pretend compassion for me, but you do not feel for the poor slaves in your fields, who go all winter half-clad.”

Wait a minute. “The poor slaves in your fields?” But, um… they’re Quakers, right?

But it turns out that the Quakers only started muttering about slavery in the 1750’s, didn’t really start a true abolitionist movement until the 1770’s, and all Quakers weren’t really on the same page until the 1830’s. And yet this little guy, Benjamin Lay, was doing his radical protest thing in the 1730’s. Go, Benjamin!

Before he acted up in Pennsylvania, he had lived in a Quaker community in Barbados, where 90 percent of the people were enslaved and treated worse than horses. His protests there got him ejected from the community.

In 1737 Benjamin Franklin published Lay’s tract entitled, All Slaveholders That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. (Good old Franklin didn’t have the courage to include his name as publisher, though. He was a slave owner himself, and profited from running ads in his gazette about runaway slaves. He only became an ardent abolitionist just prior to his death.)

Basically, Benjamin Lay was one of Quaker’s first truly dedicated abolitionists, and you don’t often hear anything about him because to admit he existed is to admit that many Quakers were slave owners, and given that they finally and quite outspokenly got on the right side of history, admitting to their slave owning past is, at best, awkward.

I had to learn more about Quakers and slavery, but it wasn’t easy. I waded through a ton of articles that touted the party line, but then I came across this one entitled Slavery in the Quaker World by Katharine Gerbner.

In it, Gerbner states that the earliest abolitionist Quaker article, called the Germantown Protest, is from 1688. It denounces slavery, but the majority of Quakers at the time rejected this article. In fact, many Quakers in the 17th century were involved in the slave trade. She further states that the Quakers of the time were all for converting slaves to Christianity, but that they felt slavery and Christianity were perfectly compatible, and that Christian slaves would work harder and be more docile.

All this information was rather eye opening for me. It just goes to show that nothing is ever as simple as it is described in elementary school history textbooks. I’ll never look at Quakers as pure abolitionist heroes again. Now I’ll see them as a flawed people who came to learn enough from their morally repugnant past to change and do the right thing.

And when all is said and done, shouldn’t that be what we all do?

220px-Benjamin_Lay_painted_by_William_Williams_in_1790
Benjamin Lay

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The Confederate Monument Thing Again

On this day, when we traditionally celebrate American independence, I’m a little surprised that I’m having to revisit a post that I wrote in 2017 entitled, “Historical Statues: One Solution“. But yes, indeed, the controversy over whether or not to remove confederate statues has reared its ugly head yet again.

That 2017 blog post describes a brilliant solution that the people of Budapest, Hungary came up with to deal with their brutal communist era statues. It’s really quite fascinating, and I hope it’s an idea that can be adopted here. It would allow the statues to still exist, but in an educational context in a museum-like setting where those who don’t want to see them won’t have to. Please do read it and tell me what you think.

But for those of you who don’t click through, I leave you with a few points to ponder:

  • Monuments are not history. They’re the glorification thereof.

  • No child should have to grow up under the shadow of statues of people who thought they should be enslaved.

  • Removing a statue won’t erase the history, and we can and should still learn from that history. Learn, but not deify.

It really is okay to become older and wiser as a society. I promise. We’ll be okay.

Happy Independence Day.

Confederate_Monument_-_E_frieze_-_Arlington_National_Cemetery_-_2011
Historically absurd.

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Shopping for the Apocalypse

A few days ago, I realized that if I was going to bake a cake for my husband’s birthday, I’d need a few ingredients. With that in mind, I decided to stop by my local Fred Meyer store after work. Social distancing and COVID-19 pandemic be damned.

What a nightmare.

The first red flag, the one that should have made me turn around and get out of there, was the fact that there were no shopping carts available. I had to stand in line in the lobby and get someone’s cart as they left the store. Not only was half the free world shopping ahead of a possible quarantine, but the store was severely understaffed. (And who could blame them? Would you want a cashier’s job right now, where you get to touch stuff that other people have touched all day long?)

And yet, I persisted.

When I finally got a cart, I noticed that there was no Purell available anymore to sanitize the cart handle. I was not the only one in that store that was pushing the cart with my shirt sleeves. A lot of people were wearing masks, too, and many were swerving as far away as they could from other patrons that they passed.

I had a hard time finding the products I required. As you can see from my photo below, whole aisles were empty. A lot of items were in unexpected places. I spent an hour finding what I needed, and as I fed off the tense atmosphere, I started grabbing things that I didn’t need, just in case. Because you never know.

All the paper products were gone. And hand sanitizer? Forget about it. The milk had been picked over, and the soup aisle was sparsely stocked. The only bread available was of the French variety. Oddly enough, there were plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables to be had. But you couldn’t buy a fruit rollup for love nor money. The section of the store where they sell clothing, auto parts and small kitchen appliances was completely deserted.

I saw two women arguing over the last bag of flour. It occurred to me that I’ve never been in a position where I couldn’t obtain whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted it, as long as I had the money. The thought of having the money and yet having to go without is new and scary. How fortunate I’ve been.

After spending an hour desperately searching for everything (whether I needed it or not), I felt like weeping. It was just so overwhelming. Our world has changed so quickly that it feels impossible to keep up. But my adventure had only just begun. Now it was time to see the cashier.

The lines were so long that they snaked down the aisles. And everyone was quiet. So quiet. I realized, suddenly, that the store did not have music playing as they usually do. The tension was so thick that you could cut it with a knife. It felt like a riot could break out at any minute, but how do you blame an invisible virus for turning your life upside down?

While standing in line, the thing I dreaded most happened. I had a coughing fit. I tried to suppress it by clearing my throat. I pulled my stomach in so far it felt like it was trying to pass my spine. My eyes were watering. And I had left my cough drops in the car. I coughed helplessly into my elbow. I suddenly felt unsafe.

Everyone around me looked at me nervously, and some tried to move away. I was afraid someone would call security or something, and I’d be dragged out of the store without my hard-won purchases. So finally, I broke the silence.

“I swear to God, y’all, this isn’t COVID. It’s allergies. I’m being treated by a doctor. There’s no lung involvement, and no fever. I swear to God.”

That confession seemed to break the tension. Everyone started talking at once. About their allergies. About their relief. About how crazy all of this is. One woman actually apologized to me for her visceral reaction to my cough. I told her that I didn’t blame her. I’d probably react the same way under the circumstances.

Finally, I was able to check out. Someone was waiting for my cart at the door. I have never been so happy to go home in all my life.

I told my husband about the crazy experience. I had dinner. I watched a little TV, and then I went to bed early.

Around midnight, the dogs started barking. My husband was coming in the front door, laden with grocery bags. He had been shopping at a store that stays open late. Because you just never know.

For the first time, I feel like I’m not writing for you, dear reader, but for future generations who will wonder what this pandemic was like. They’ll be able to read all the articles about disaster preparations, deaths, and political maneuvers, but there will be fewer things about what the experience was like for the average person. We are living history. So if you’re reading this decades from now, hello from across the years and miles, from Seattle, ground zero of the American outbreak. May heaven help us all.

shopping

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Traffic Lights. Who Knew?

Fun fact: The first three-colored traffic lights were installed in 1920. No one seems to have written down the exact day that these ubiquitous devices arrived on the scene, but it was sometime before October, at the intersection of Michigan and Woodward Avenues in Detroit. Happy 100th birthday sometime before October, traffic light! You’ve been annoying commuters ever since!

Actually, according to Wikipedia,

“The world’s first traffic light was a manually operated gas-lit signal installed in London in December 1868. It exploded less than a month after it was implemented, injuring its policeman operator. Earnest Sirrine from Chicago patented the first automated traffic control system in 1910. It used the words “STOP” and “PROCEED”, although neither word was illuminated.”

But the one the majority of us see today (and every other day of our lives, like it or not) is 100 years old. Before traffic lights, humans were placed at intersections to direct traffic. What could possibly go wrong? I can’t imagine a more tedious or more irritating job on earth, and this is coming from someone who opens drawbridges for a living.

Between the exploding gas light and our current tried and true one, several designs were tried out throughout the world, some with semaphore flags, which weren’t particularly effective at night. No two were alike, it seems, and that must have caused no end of confusion. I’m impressed that society survived.

The idea to control multiple intersections at once, and do so automatically, didn’t come about until March, 1922, in Houston, Texas. Traffic lights were not introduced to South India until 1953, and it seems they’ve been ignored ever since.

I also happen to know from personal experience working with the Department of Transportation that while most lights used to be encircled in black tubes to reduce glare and increase visibility, most locations have gotten away from that because birds would use them as nesting sites and block the light. Now if anything, most lights have a shade cover across the top for glare reduction and to reduce water intrusion.

While doing research for this post, I came across this article that discusses why the colors red, green and yellow were chosen for traffic lights. Basically, red is the color with the longest wavelength, so it can be seen from a greater distance than other colors. It was used to indicate danger long before traffic signals became a thing.

There’s no indication as to why green has been used for Go. Blue is on the opposite side of the color wheel from Red, and that’s the color Japan used for many years, but the rest of the world hopped on the Green bandwagon. Yellow was chosen because it has a shorter wavelength than red, but not as short as green.

So there you have it. Everything you ever wanted to know about traffic lights but were afraid to ask. You’re welcome.

Traffic lights

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