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.
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!
“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.
It is very unusual for me to direct my readers to blog posts by other authors, but this one really spoke to me. It’s about the oldest known bridge in the world, located in Iraq. As a bridgetender, I have an obvious interest in bridges, but this story also appeals to me as a history lover and a feminist.
Archeologists are working to preserve this 4000 year old bridge in Tello, Iraq. Not only are they learning about the rich history of the area through the many artifacts that are being uncovered, but they are also training several female archeologists in a region that had all but been destroyed by ISIS until quite recently.
Once the preservation is complete, the plan is to create a visitor’s center to encourage tourism and education in the area. This bridge is also a symbol of pride for the Iraqi people, as further evidence of their rich architectural heritage. Even though the waterway that this bridge used to span is long gone, this structure is still bridging a gap, and I find that impressive.
I encourage you to check out this blog post, along with its attached video which was produced by the British Museum. It’s really quite fascinating, in a geeky, historical, bridge-loving kind of way.
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I have always hated looking in the mirror, even as a child. The image of me in my head has never matched the one I see in the reflection. I’m always surprised. And the older I get, the more that surprise turns to shock. If it weren’t for bad hair days and a penchant for getting spinach in my teeth, I’d remove every single mirror from my house.
I wonder what a world without mirrors would be like? Would we be less vain and self-absorbed? Would we spend more time caring about others and less time focused on ourselves? Would our priorities change? Or would we just take even more selfies?
Driving would become a bigger challenge, that’s for sure. I would be a lot more hesitant to change lanes on the interstate. But I think I’d be willing to take that risk in exchange for a little less self-criticism.
There was a time when mirrors didn’t exist. But even then, people tended to gaze into pools of water. Thanks to Narcissus, though, too much of that was considered, well, narcissistic.
And yet, we couldn’t leave well enough alone. According to Wikipedia, people have been struggling to come up with a decent mirror for centuries. They made them out of polished stones in Turkey starting around 6000 BC, and from polished copper in Mesopotamia 2000 years after that. These mirrors were quite precious and most likely only used by the very rich.
From the beginning, the biggest challenge with mirrors was obtaining a flat surface. Without that, the images would become warped. And if there were bubbles or impurities, the image was cloudy. Depending on the substance you used, the image wouldn’t reflect colors accurately, either. It makes you realize where the term, “through the glass, darkly” came from in the Bible.
In the 16th century, the people of Venice, long known to be experts in all things glass, perfected mirror making. But it was no mean feat. These mirrors were still considered luxuries. So much so that, again according to Wikipedia, “in the late seventeenth century, the Countess de Fiesque was reported to have traded an entire wheat farm for a mirror, considering it a bargain.”
Nowadays, and pretty much since the industrial revolution, mirrors are mass produced. Everybody’s got ‘em. Most of us have them in just about every room in our house. It was a several-thousand-year struggle to get to this point, but here we are.
And here I am, still wishing that the darned things didn’t exist. Maybe I’d feel differently if I were the fairest of them all, or if, at the very least, I looked like I think I do.
Every once in a while, I’ll drive past a pretty little park in downtown Seattle. I keep meaning to stop and check it out on foot, but that would require parking. And this is a city where parking is hard to find, and expensive when you do. So I’ve contented myself with merely admiring this place as I rush past. But now that I know more about it, I’m definitely going to have to change that.
It’s a park with four lovely old pillars, standing all alone, like soldiers. They prop up nothing but the sky. This park is a tiny respite from the urban sprawl while also presiding over some lovely views. In addition, apparently, it’s a dog park, and I’m all for those.
But recently I came across this post in Atlas Obscura. (It’s a fascinating website, by the way. Check it out. You’ll learn stuff.)
This particular post describes this park in more detail, in all its fascinating historical context. The pillars in the park used to grace the front of the Plymouth Congregational Church, whose congregation first started meeting in Seattle in 1869. The church was known for its stance on social justice issues.
At a time when Seattlites were expressing their hatred of Chinese immigrants, this church supported immigrants’ rights. They also supported women’s suffrage. Later, they hosted Martin Luther King Jr. during his only visit to Seattle.
Sadly, the church had to be demolished after the 1965 earthquake, but the congregation donated the 4 original pillars to the city, and they now stand in this lovely little park. The church is still going strong in a new location. That makes me happy.
Now, as I pass this park, I will think of it as part of Seattle’s liberal legacy. I’ll gaze on its elegant beauty, and smile even wider than I used to. When you think about it, history is everywhere you look. Sometimes you just have to do your homework.
I had the opportunity to visit yet another small-town museum, this time in Burien, Washington. The Highline Heritage Museum highlights the Highline region, which comprises the cities of White Center, Burien, Normandy Park, SeaTac, and part of Des Moines, Washington.
I’m always delighted by what I learn in these earnest little museums, but this one was particularly impressive. First of all, the displays were extremely well crafted and kept my interest. They were fun, colorful, and interactive.
They had displays relating to the region’s archeology, indigenous history, war efforts, pioneers, aircraft industry, school histories, and the Highline Times newspaper. And that list barely scratches the surface. I learned so much there that it’s potentially going to generate 4 more blog posts.
Museums of this kind make a community more vibrant. They allow you to gain a deeper understanding of a region’s culture and history, and that provides you with a stronger sense of place as you walk the streets. I highly encourage you to visit your local museums and support them.
This museum, in particular, is even more remarkable when you consider that the vast majority of it is run by volunteers. If you’re ever in the neighborhood, stop by for a visit. Also purchase something from the gift shop and/or make a donation. Consider it an investment in the region.
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!