Treasure Hunting

One of my fellow bridgetenders, whom I met in my Drawbridge Lovers Facebook group, recently asked me if I had ever heard of magnet fishing. I had not. He suggested that I do a search for it on Youtube, so I did. And it opened up a whole new world for me.

What made him think of suggesting it, I believe, was a recent blog post that I wrote about never really knowing what’s beneath the surface of the water, and how easy it is to start believing there’s nothing there. In fact, there’s a whole world down there, just out of sight. It’s both exciting and a little scary to contemplate.

Magnet fishermen know this all too well. They attach a rope to a very strong magnet that’s about an inch thick and the size of your hand, and they toss it in rivers and canals to see what metallic detritus they can find. They’re modern day treasure hunters.

From the looks of the oddly compelling Youtube videos I’ve seen so far, mostly what they come up with is a whole lot of nothing. Cans. Broken fish hooks. Jagged chunks of metal. Lots and lots of garbage. (We humans have been treating our waterways like waste dumps for centuries.)

And yet I can’t seem to look away, because you just never know, do you? They might pull up some valuable historic artifact. Or a submerged safe. Or a murder weapon. Who knows?

They like to look around bridges and docks and places where factories once stood. They assume that with all the human activity, more stuff will have been dropped or disposed of. That makes sense. And it makes enough sense to keep them coming back.

If I were a magnet fisherman, I’d be checking out the ship canal here in Seattle. There used to be so many houseboats floating in Lake Union that you could barely see the water, I’m told. And there are several sunken ships down there. I’d also go to London and check out the Thames. Or the canals in Holland. Centuries of history there. I bet it would be fascinating.

I think this obsession with finding something amazing, in spite of the fact that we keep coming up with practically nothing, is a very strong human trait. Who among us doesn’t wish to change our stars? It’s why we buy lottery tickets.

I’m absolutely obsessed with the series The Curse of Oak Island, which is on the History Channel, and also available on Hulu, for that very same reason. Why do I sit there, episode after episode, season after season, when all they usually come up with is just more dirt? Because once in a blue moon, they find a button. Or a three hundred year old coin. That’s all I need to keep tuning in.

But the thing that makes magnet fishing even more appealing than digging holes in Oak Island is that while these guys are tossing their magnets in there, even if they come up with nothing of note, they’re helping to clean up the waterways. So even on a bad day, their activities are a plus for us all.

Hmm… Maybe I should buy myself a magnet…

(Thanks, David M, for the inspiration for this post!)

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Not Cut Out for Grit Labor

When I was 19 years old, my eldest sister was in the Air Force, stationed in Holland. Between my freshman and sophomore years in college, she invited me to go there for the summer. What, are you kidding? Of course I said yes, with visions of jet setting around Europe dancing in my head.

Upon arrival, she mentioned that, oh, by the way, she had gotten me a job on the Air Force base. I was to mop floors and stock soda machines all summer long. I could hardly complain, could I? She had brought me to Europe, after all.

So, after pretty much zero training, I was sent off to fend for myself. And the verbal directions I was given as to the locations of the various vending machines was sketchy at best. To say I got lost is putting it mildly. That base was huge. A job that should only have taken a couple hours took me all night.

The next night, I was to mop the floors, using one of those metal industrial rolling buckets and a heavy stringy mop. I was a skinny little thing back then. At one point, I knocked the full bucket over in a hallway and flooded the place. I spent the whole night desperately trying to sop up the gigantic puddle. When my boss came in the morning he was furious.

I’ll never forget this. He called my sister and told her that I was “not cut out for grit labor”, and that was the end of that summer job. In retrospect I should have been a lot more insulted. At age 19, he was writing me off for life. And it turns out that the bulk of my career has been all about grit labor, so poo poo on you, bossman.

There were no other civilian jobs that I qualified for on base, and I had no work visa to work in country, so guess what? I traveled around Europe for the rest of the summer. It was great.

I swear to God, I didn’t do it on purpose.

Mop Bucket

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A Mental Walkabout

Once upon a time, I’d visit a different foreign country every two years. Those were the days. Now, 60 percent of my income goes toward mortgage and utilities, and I don’t see myself ever being able to leave the country again. That breaks my heart, because travel is my reason for being.

Because of this, I’ve become really adept at doing mental walkabouts. If I close my eyes, I can remember exactly what it was like to walk amongst the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square in Venice. I can also explore the ruins of Ephesus, Turkey. I remember the sights, the sounds, the smells of all the amazing places I’ve been. I can transport myself back to the Mercado Hidalgo in Guanajuato, Mexico, and sample, once again, the Hungarian Goulash in Budapest.

The one percent may make it financially impossible for me to explore the world anymore, but they can’t take away my memories. Only dementia or death can do that. I’m terrified of dementia. Death, from my perspective, is simply another way to travel. (Not that I’m in any hurry to hop on that plane.)

Until then, I’ll travel in my mind. I’ll ride bicycles along the canals in Utrecht, Holland, and swim in the crystal blue Adriatic Sea. I’ll snack on fresh bread and local cheese in the Swiss Alps. No matter how dire my financial straits become, as the saying goes, I’ll always have Paris.

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Me, in Venice, with some feathered friends.

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My Magical European Summer

Recently, I came across a diary that I wrote when I was 19, and I read it for the first time since I wrote it. That summer was the high point of my life. (So far, at least. Who knows what the future holds.)

I was traveling through Europe, and I was falling in love. Those were heady, intense, joyful days full of exploration and adventure. Love, with a backdrop of Holland and Belgium and France and Germany and Luxembourg and Switzerland… it just doesn’t get any better than that. It really doesn’t.

Reading about the events as they unfolded, with the benefit of hindsight, has been quite a unique experience. It’s kind of left me in a weird head space, if I’m honest. That summer shaped the rest of my life.

I don’t know if I’m the exception or the rule, but when I fall in love, I am all in. T was the one for me. I was convinced of it then, and I’m convinced of it now. That summer was full of laughter and endless conversations and making sweet, sweet love in strange places. I recount those things in my diary in intimate detail. I would have done anything for him. I would have sacrificed anything to make it work.

Unfortunately, he was of a more practical mindset. I truly believe that he loved me, but love was not his priority. I’ll never understand or relate to that, because in the end, love is all that matters, in my opinion. So the summer came and it went and he moved on — fairly quickly, I’m told, but I didn’t know that at the time. I kind of wish I had, because it might have made things easier for me.

I, on the other hand, went for, oh, decades, feeling like I wasn’t living the life I was supposed to be living. My life was one big detour down a really messed up side street in which I tried to settle for a happiness which always eluded me. I even trapped myself in a 16 year loveless, sexless, extremely safe relationship. What a waste.

I did fall in love a second time, with another California guy who also didn’t have the staying power or the confidence in our love to make a go of it. That’s a shame, because it could have been an incredible life. (I should probably run screaming whenever California guys cross my path.)

Meanwhile, T got married, and then divorced. But by that time I had fallen in love for a third time, with Chuck, who was amazing. For the first time since I was 19, I felt like life was “right”. I finally felt like I was over T. Chuck was passionate and intense and devoted and hilarious. And best of all, he loved me back in equal measure. He was all in. He was a gift. And then 4 years later, he went and died on me. Well, shit. That wasn’t the plan.

So now, on a whole lot of levels and for a whole lot of reasons, I’m even more convinced that I’m living a life that I’m not supposed to be living. Grief will do that to you. It changes you. But I’m sort of getting used to loving people who aren’t there to reciprocate.

After I read the final page of that old diary, I did something stupid. I went snooping on Facebook, only to find that T is once again in a relationship. He seems quite content. They travel to exotic places. They cuddle on the couch. They have family dinners. He managed to land on his feet, but then I always knew he would. He’s a land on your feet type of guy. I even saw a video clip in which he talks, and sure enough, my heart started pounding the second I heard his voice.

T once told me I wasn’t the kind you marry. Apparently not. Because the ones I wanted to marry didn’t want to marry me, and the ones who wanted to marry me, I didn’t want to marry. Things shouldn’t have turned out that way.

But I’m finally in a place where I think T got it wrong. I’m exactly who someone should marry, because when I love someone, that feeling never ever dies. (It’s the liking that comes and goes, and takes work to maintain.)

I have come to know that that never-ending kind of love is a rare, precious, priceless gift that should never be discounted, never be passed over. Because you may not ever see it again. Cherish it, nurture it, if you are lucky enough to have it.

It’s a strange feeling, having so much love to give and nowhere to put it. If I could go back and talk to that 19 year old, would I tell her to do anything differently? No, not really. The feelings she had were authentic and pure and undeniable. I might tell her to savor it even more. Devour that love, because you’re going to be on short rations the rest of your life, honey. When you’re young, you think there will be always be more opportunities, and that the possibilities are endless, that good luck will come to visit you over and over again, but that’s bullshit.

Before my comment section fills up with platitudes such as, “Before someone can love you, you must first love yourself,” or “You’ll find love when you stop looking for it,” or “There’s someone out there for you,” let me be practical for a minute and say that the older I get, the longer my odds become. It is equally possible that I’ll be living the rest of my life completely and utterly alone. I need to come to grips with that possibility. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll still hold out a certain amount of hope, but it would be much healthier to live the life I have and try to make the most of it rather than hold out for some fantasy. I’m working on it.

That diary, after that glorious summer, is full of so much pain and confusion and struggle that the re-reading often reduced me to tears. “Why is my love not enough?” “What did I do wrong?” “Why is this happening? I don’t understand.” I wish I could go back and hug that girl. But I couldn’t really offer her that much comfort. I’m still asking myself those same damned questions 33 years later.

Here’s a secret that no one tells you: Life just isn’t like a Hollywood movie. Hollywood is in California, too.

Suddenly I feel the need to go home and hug my dog.

Eiffel Tower

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“De kleine tafel!”

I was living in Holland one glorious summer (I call it my summer of love), and one day I was helping a friend move from one apartment to another. The car was nearly packed and I was standing beside it while my friend was inside looking for anything that may have been left behind.

Suddenly, this young man came running up to the car, acting hysterical, and saying, “De kleine tafel! De kleine tafel!” Unfortunately I don’t speak dutch, and I had no idea what he was on about. Whatever it was, it seemed to be the end of the world for him.

When my friend came out a conversation ensued, and finally she gave him what he was asking for: the little table. It seems that he was the landlord’s son, and in spite of the fact that the landlord had told my friend that she could have the little table, apparently her son was not of like mind, and he got very upset. My friend decided that keeping the table was not worth the risk of this kid not forwarding her mail, so she handed it over.

It never ceases to amaze me what some people consider to be a big deal. At that moment in time, that beat up, flea market table, or rather the loss thereof, was a crisis of epic proportions for that boy. That seemed like drastically skewed priorities to me, but what can I say?

Ever since then, whenever someone is overreacting and I cannot understand why, I think, “De kleine tafel!”

For example, just the other day I was asked to wash some windows that are 20 feet off the ground and under a deep overhang. The only way anyone will ever look out of or into these windows is if they employ a cherry picker, but suddenly it was urgent that they be washed.

It took me a couple hours to wash all of them, and much of that time, rather than allow myself to get worked up by the stupidity of it all, I simply sang to myself. “De kleine tafel! De kleine tafel!” And somehow the world continued to revolve around the sun.

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The Betrayer of Anne Frank

I “discovered” Anne Frank and her famous diary at the age of 12, so for me she felt like a contemporary. It seemed as if we went through puberty together. We discovered boys together. We were age-appropriately bratty and self-absorbed together. We had issues with our mothers together. (The fact that she was actually born just two years after my mother added another whole layer of complexity for me.)

Because of this, for a long time I was obsessed with the Holocaust. I read everything I could on the subject, and watched every movie. I educated myself into a deep dark depression about it. I wanted to save Anne, but of course I couldn’t. And it frustrated me even more because she came so close to making it—just a few more weeks and she’d have been liberated.

When I was 19 I lived in the Netherlands for a few months and had the opportunity to visit the secret annex. I walked where she walked. But it was a disappointing experience because it was so jam packed with tourists that you really couldn’t get the sense of what it had been like. I couldn’t feel Anne there.

I have also spent a great deal of time wondering about Anne’s betrayer. Who sent 7 out of 8 of them to their deaths? How did that person live with himself? When Anne’s diary was published and became the second most read book in the world, did the person in question feel more guilty?

We will most likely never know for sure who the betrayer was. But there are several theories. You can read more about them on Miep Gies’ website. The one I tend to believe most was further detailed in an article in The Guardian back in 2002. The man they put forth as the likely culprit is Tonny Ahlers. By all accounts he was a despicable human being who was a violent anti-semite, and a member of the NSB (the Dutch National Socialists, allied to the Nazis). There is also proof that he hated Otto Frank, Anne’s father, even to the extent of bribing him.

If it was Ahlers, I’m even more disappointed, because those who knew him say that even after the war he was violent, criminal, and unrepentant. He didn’t feel guilty then, so he certainly didn’t feel “more guilty” afterwards. In other words, he learned nothing. He went to his death a hateful man.

So my desire for some form of redemption coming from this tragedy is thwarted yet again. My inner 12-year-old is bitterly disappointed. My jaded adult whispers, “Figures. People suck.”

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I Just Love a Good Glottal Stop

I was just listening to a friend who hails from Essex, England. What was he talking about? I have no idea. Oh, I could understand him. It’s just that I was so mesmerized by the sound of his voice that I really wasn’t focusing on the content of his commentary. He could read the phone book and I would sit happily entranced at his feet. You see, I love a good glottal stop.

A glottal stop is that sort of hiccup people use in the middle of a word, like when you say uh-oh. For example, my friend doesn’t say “butter”. He says “BU-er”. Delicious.

I think glottal stops make a savory stew out of a language that would otherwise be a bland broth. It just adds a certain something that draws you in. And dozens of languages use them.

I also love that click consonant that several African languages use. Sadly they are starting to disappear. That breaks my heart because they’re delightful.

Oh, who am I kidding? I love accents and dialects of every stripe. I can spot a Dutch accent from 50 paces, and it always brings me back to the wonderful summer I spent in Holland. Indian accents make me think of the delectable smells and tastes and rich colors of that country. If you whisper in my ear with a Spanish accent, you have me at hola.

The tonal languages of Asia fascinate me as well, although I’d be afraid to attempt one. I don’t have the ear for such things. I can’t even tune a guitar.

I can’t imagine living a life that is isolated from all the scrumptious differences that this world has to offer. I want to dive into your voice and just bathe there for a while. Would you mind?

Xenophobes don’t know what they’re missing.

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Hawaiians have the glottal stop down to a science.

Language Barriers

When I was around 14 I rode the bus to school every day with a bunch of kids from migrant worker families. I was the only one on the bus who didn’t speak Spanish. It drove me crazy and they knew it. They’d say something, look over at me, and laugh. I hated being left out of the conversation. I despised the idea that I might be missing something important, which is part of the reason I majored in Spanish and Latin American Studies the first time I went to college, thus inadvertently starting down my lifelong path of pursuing useless degrees. But hey, at least now I can listen in on the conversations of a much larger portion of the population of the world, so that’s good, right?

I spent the summer after my freshman year in college in the Netherlands with my sister, who was stationed there in the Air Force. We’d go to restaurants and people would of course be speaking Dutch all around us, and once again I was completely at a loss. I spent that three months highly frustrated. But when I came home and went to restaurants, I discovered something quite interesting while eaves dropping on people’s dinner conversations: Most people have absolutely nothing interesting to say. In fact, my hyper-focus on the conversations of total strangers in subsequent weeks made me realize that I was actually better off when I didn’t understand what people were saying.

After that, during my many trips to other countries I relaxed a little and actually enjoyed the challenge of getting my point across without being fluent in the native tongue. Inability to speak makes the connections that you do manage to form all that more poignant. (Except, maybe, in France, where they take that stuff very seriously. I was once cursed out in French when I accidentally broke something at a bed and breakfast. When I asked a woman what the lady had said, she said, “You don’t want to know.”)

During my trips to the western United States, I delight in tuning my radio to KTNN, the Navajo radio station. Much to the irritation of my fellow passengers, when not playing music, the announcers on this station can ramble on for hours in Navajo, punctuating every few phrases with something that sounds like “Aye-doo-di-Ah-Jay” to me. I find that listening to a conversation in which I don’t really have to pay attention to be a massive relief. I can just be hypnotized by the sounds and the emotions I perceive behind them and let my thoughts wander.

But I also learned another very good lesson while studying abroad in Mexico. I walked up to an American friend of mine who was talking to one of the most gorgeous men I’d ever seen in my life, and I said to her, in English, something to the effect of, “My God, but he’s hot. If he were looking at me right now the way he’s looking at you, I’d probably melt into a big old greasy puddle.” He turned to me and said, “Oh, you would, would you?” The 18 year old me wanted to die right on the spot. Turns out he grew up in California. To my chagrin, he didn’t ever take a liking to me.

You never know when barriers are going to be breached, but when they aren’t, you never know if you might not just be better off.

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[Image credit: zengardner.com]

The Black Sheep in the Family

Every family has one. A relative who refuses to play by the rules. Someone who causes unbelievable heartache, unspeakable scandal, and enormous amounts of frustration. Someone who generates really, really interesting family stories. In my family that was Uncle Dave, my mother’s little brother.

When my mom was young, she was bedridden with whooping cough, and she looked out the window to see her little brother picking up her kittens by the tail, one by one, and dipping them in a can of green paint. When she got better she got back at him by shaving the tail hair off his favorite pony.

A story Uncle Dave always liked to tell about himself was the time he had a pet skunk with no scent glands, and it got loose. A few days later he was walking in the woods behind his house and there’s the skunk. It came running toward him, and he was really happy. Then it occurred to him that it might not be his skunk. So he ran away, and never saw the skunk again. That always struck me as kind of selfish. He left a skunk with no defenses and no knowledge of how to fend for itself alone in the wilderness. But selfishness was a recurring theme in Uncle Dave’s life.

I tell you those two stories to illustrate that he was a hell raiser even before he discovered alcohol. Alcohol only made him that much worse. I never knew him to be sober a day of my life. To me, he was the man who delighted in humiliating me throughout my childhood. During my awkward adolescence, he delighted in pointing out my agonizingly slow growing chest in front of large groups of people. He thought my embarrassment was very funny.

Throughout the years he got into several traffic accidents, and as is the case with alcoholics, he’d walk away unscathed. One time he got pissed off at a drinking buddy and shot out all 4 tires in his car. How he managed to stay out of jail was beyond me.

Uncle Dave actually seemed to have amazing luck. Somehow he managed to navigate through his alcoholic haze and be a success in business. And one time he was sitting in his recliner watching TV when a bolt of lightning came down the hall behind him, bounced off the mirror, crossed in front of him, took out the TV, and exploded all the bottles in his wet bar, but missed him entirely. You’d think that would be enough to get him to reevaluate his life, but no. Me, I’d have taken that as a sign.

For my oldest sister’s wedding, it’s a good thing that we confirmed the church the day before, because he had called to cancel the reservation several days prior. We’d have shown up to a locked church with no preacher. Ha, ha, ha, right? At my other sister’s wedding reception, he called my 3 year old niece over to him, and then took his cigarette and popped all her balloons. Of course she howled. I had to leave the room to keep from lunging at his throat.

The final straw for me, though, was when I was home from college and I had a fellow student with me. She was from Holland. The phone rings and it’s a man with a funny accent, and he’s asks to speak to his daughter. I assumed it was my friend’s father so I called her to the phone. She instantly went into a panic because it was the middle of the night in the Netherlands, and the only reason they would call at that hour was if it was an emergency. She gets on the phone, and gets this strange look on her face. She didn’t know this person. It was my uncle, using a fake accent. My friend was really shaken by this. Later he came by to try to meet her, three sheets to the wind as per usual, and I kicked him out of the house.  Believe me when I say he did not go quietly.

I only saw him one more time, and that was at my mother’s funeral, 7 years later. He tried to comfort me, but as far as I was concerned, it was too little, too late.

Fast forward 20 years, and imagine my mixed emotions when I heard he had blown his brains out in his garage. He was upset because at age 80 they had finally declared him to be unfit to drive. The only thing he left for his long-suffering wife was a garage that looked like an abattoir, and a note that included his name, the cost of a cremation, and the company who could do it.

I didn’t feel sad. He never allowed himself to be a part of my life in any positive way. I sure could have used a positive male role model but he was definitely not one of those. What I felt, instead, was anger. Anger at all the pain and humiliation he caused everyone within his reach. Anger at the waste of a life. Anger that he chose to go out in a way that was as selfish and over the top as every single thing he had chosen to do his entire life.

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