Immortalizing a Fool

I fell in love with The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer when I was introduced to it in high school. It’s a satire of 14th century England, and it lampoons a whole series of character types. The characters are fictional, but some people link them to actual people living at the time. Either way, it’s brilliant.

What I love about writing is it immortalizes the subject in question. No mater what that person does after that time, his or her behavior is trapped, like a fly in amber, forevermore on the page, all at the whim of the author. That’s pretty powerful stuff.

Chaucer has shown us buffoons that, if living, would now be 700 years old. If you’re an idiot, beware, because a writer could be watching you, and you will be forever linked with your muddleheaded behavior. Take that.

Although I’m no Chaucer, in memory of him I’ll now immortalize a fool that I encountered once in my bridgetending career. I’ll call him the Hot Pink Glasses Guy. He shall wear those tacky glasses forever more within this blog, long after his taste in fashion has (hopefully) improved.

One day I was at work, and I began a bridge opening for a very large gravel barge that was making its way to a concrete processing plant. This barge passes back and forth on a daily basis. I’ve probably opened the bridge for him a thousand times. I could do it in my sleep if I didn’t care so much about minor things like not getting people killed.

It was a beautiful day, so I had the windows open. Because of that, I could hear someone shouting as he walked down the sidewalk. “Too soon! Too soon!” he screamed.

Oh, great.

I had the bridge completely open by then and the barge was slowly passing through, so I looked out the window at the shouter. It was a skinny white guy, in his early 20’s, jumping up and down in extreme agitation, causing his hot pink glasses to fairly dance on his tense little face. “Too soon!”

Then he crawled under the gate and approached the bridge, which at this point is about 1 million pounds of lurching, swaying concrete and steel.

“Uh, sir, you need to get back behind the gate for your safety.”

“Safety? What do you know about safety? You’re an idiot! You don’t know how to do your job! You opened the bridge way too soon! I studied engineering at the University of Washington. I know what’s safe and what’s not! How is this not safe?”

I could have talked about the fact that the barge weighs more than 3000 gross tons, and can’t exactly slam on his brakes or do a u-turn in the narrow channel, and therefore needs a lot of lead time for safe passage. I could have listed all the people who have died on drawbridges while doing stupid things. I could have talked about my 18 years of experience. But what would be the point? Sigh.

“Well, sir, for starters, you’re behaving irrationally and I don’t know what you’re going to do next. I can’t close this bridge until you get back behind the gate.”

He sat down on the concrete, looking smug. So I added, “Sir, do you see all these other people? You’re holding them up. I could call 911 and wait for them to arrive, but you’re going to have a very angry crowd to deal with until then.”

And sure enough, people started shouting at him. (There’s nothing like public humiliation to get a bridgetender’s desired results.) He slinked back under the gate, but not before one more petulant retort. “Idiot,” he grumbled.

I closed the bridge, but before it was completely seated, this genius walked across the street, crawled under that gate, and crossed the still-closing bridge. Because that’s safe. Because he’s an engineer. He can do anything.

Hot Pink Glasses

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A Different Perspective on Immigration

Recently, I heard someone read the poem “Home” by Warsan Shire. It moved me to the very marrow of my bones. It made me understand, on a level that I never had before, why people come to this country.

The majority of  Americans have been very lucky and have never experienced the feeling that if you stay home, the place you have always lived, then you will surely die. We have never had things explode all around us. We have never lived under the imminent threat of gang rape or abduction or starvation. Most of us know what it is to feel relatively safe.

This poem gives a voice to refugees. It’s a voice that you have never heard before. It’s insight that all of us need to have. Before you say, “Go back to where you come from,” please read this poem.

warsan-shire
Warsan Shire

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On Being Good at Your Job When No One Is Watching

In order to be a bridgetender, you have to be able to function well with little or no supervision. You have to be the type of person who takes a job seriously, believes in maintaining standards, and is very self-motivated. I am that person. And I happen to consider being left alone to be its own reward.

The downside is that praise is very thin on the ground. If you thrive on attaboys and kudos, this is not the job for you. Taking pride in having done the job well has to be enough.

The other day, I had five different vessels headed toward my bridge from both directions, and at different rates of speed. I also had vehicle traffic backed up for miles, and dozens of pedestrians and cyclists in a wide array of moods. Some were being cooperative, and some were not.

On days like that, opening the bridge is like being the conductor of a very unruly orchestra. There are a variety of moving parts to consider. When do you start your opening so as to back up the minimum amount of traffic? How do you keep all of the traveling public safe? How do you time it so all the vessels get through at once without crashing into each other or damaging the bridge?

Communication is key. You need to make sure all the vessels know what the plan is. Sometimes you have to be firm and tell a captain that he’ll have to wait for the next opening. (We try to keep our openings less than 10 minutes long to avoid traffic delays.)

That particular opening went off without a hitch. Everyone was appreciative and all went well. At the end of it, I did a little dance and thought, “DAMN, I’m good!!!”

I was feeling proud and all in the zone, and mighty pleased with myself. I was thinking that it was a shame that no supervisors were around to see the pure artistry that was that opening. I felt great.

And then the phone rang.

It was my supervisor, saying someone just called and complained because I had made him wait because I was trying to avoid a long opening that would back up traffic for miles.

Sigh. And just like that, my head shrank back down to normal size.

But it was good while it lasted.

proudcupcake

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What Makes Home?

The other day, I was settling down for an afternoon nap. My dog Quagmire was curled up beside me, and I could hear my husband doing something or other on the opposite side of the house. The sounds of home. How lucky am I?

I do feel at home in my home, thank goodness, and with my husband and my dogs, and at work… but to be honest, I still don’t feel at home in the Pacific Northwest, even though I’ve been here nearly 5 years. People confuse me out here. I don’t understand them. And the weather is strange. And I still don’t know my way around. When people talk about small towns in another part of the state, I don’t know where they are. All these things make me feel like an outcast.

So the question is, what makes home? What follows are my stream of consciousness thoughts on the subject. (Special thanks to Cris, Ray, and Martin for ideas.) It’s a dense topic. And, spoiler alert, I don’t think I’ve managed to fully define it, but here goes…

Home is familiarity. It’s knowing where everything is, and also knowing alternate routes to that place. I think GPS has punked me in this regard. I no longer have a full map in my head. I don’t know where places are in relationship to other places anymore.

To help me with this, my husband has hung a local map in the garage for me. It has made a difference. But I really need to stop being lazy by relying on a mechanical voice to get me to my destination. I need to get some sense of context.

Home is also being able to make your way around in the dark without stubbing your toe.

But it’s not just familiarity, because I knew my way around Jacksonville, Florida, and there was a sense of relief there, a sense of predictability, but I don’t miss it, and if I never go back again it wouldn’t upset me overmuch. I miss my friends, I miss the fried chicken, I miss bodies of water that are warm enough to swim in, and I miss a few other places, but I don’t miss the city at all.

Home is what you’re used to. I’m used to flat land and straight roads that are on a grid pattern. If that’s what I need to feel at home, I’ll never feel that way in the curvy, hilly, mountainous state of Washington.

Home is knowing what neighborhoods you can walk through after dark. Back to familiarity again. But maybe there’s a feeling of safety wrapped up in it.

It’s recognizing the priorities, the politics, and the culture of the place where you are. Is it where everyone shares your politics? If so, we’re all screwed these days. But I must say I feel a lot more politically at ease in Seattle than I ever did in Florida.

Home is knowing the history of your location. I’m working on that.

Home is what makes you feel normal. It’s what you expect. I’m definitely not there yet. But I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt completely normal.

What is so un-homelike about where one is living that so many people are willing to leave everything they’ve ever known and relocate to another part of the planet? What’s missing? Why do they think they’ll find it elsewhere?

Do nomads ever feel at home? Is home where your yurt is? Does home reside in the people you love? I’m loved out here. And I’m at home in my house. But then I drive away from it, and I’m back to feeling like I’m in a foreign country again.

Is it a sense of belonging? Is it being made to feel welcome? Is it having a restaurant where you can say, “I’ll have the regular,” and they know what you mean? Is it being worthy of the gossip of your neighbors? (God, I hope not.)

I always felt at home in Western North Carolina. Even the very first time I stepped foot in the area when I was 17. Whenever I am there, it feels like I can exhale. Like I can breathe. The mountains embrace me. I can sleep, knowing the crickets and fire flies mean me no harm. But why? Why that place?

If all you ever knew was prison, would you consider that home? Is home where you’re resigned to your fate?

How can one person’s home be someone else’s hell?

Home is a feeling, more than a place. Because you can feel at home in more than one place.

Is it an emotion? It’s not happiness. Because you can be sad at home. Is it contentment? Contentment is fleeting for me, albeit highly appreciated when it comes around.

And I think home takes time. I never feel at home at first. I can’t even sleep the first night in a hotel room. But jeez, how much time does it take?

The craziest thing about home is that everyone will have a different definition of what that is.

I know it’s more than the house you live in. It’s your community, your region, your environment, your loved ones. It’s the place where you’re accepted as you are. It the place you can find your way back to.

Home is your comfort zone. But what causes you to feel like you’re in that zone?

I love to travel, but I can never 100 percent relax while I’m doing it, and after a few weeks, I want to go home. Home is where you can rest. I can’t completely rest here. And I want to be able to. So I need to figure out what makes home for me.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject, dear reader.

Home

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What Mother Does This?

I have zero desire to be a parent. I have no idea what it’s like, and I don’t want to. But I do know that if I had become a parent, there are certain things that I would have never done.

Sometimes I look back on my childhood and wonder how I ever made it to adulthood. My mother was an amazing human being. You’d have loved her. Everybody did. I’d never be writing this post if she were still alive. But I have to say that some of the choices she made with regard to my upbringing leave me absolutely speechless now that I’m looking back at them as an adult.

I won’t even get into the whole looking-the-other-way-while-I-was-sexually-abused thing. That’s a subject for another day. I’m just too worn out to even tackle that topic.

No. Today I remembered something that makes my adult eyes widen in horror, and sorry, I need to vent. So here goes.

When I was about 8 years old, my mother, my stepfather and I went camping. We had a little trailer and we stayed in a very nice campground. So far, so good.

But after we got there, the campground manager approached us and said that a violent offender had escaped the local prison and police would be searching the area, so we should probably stay in our trailer and lock the door. No sooner had he said that when we saw a helicopter fly overhead with a spotlight. The guy was close.

So we sat in the locked trailer. I don’t know how long we were in there. I was 8, so it seemed like an eternity. My mother was content. You have never seen anyone get lost in a book the way that woman could. My stepfather, too, was content. He fell asleep sitting up, as he was wont to do. The man spent very little time conscious, which suited me right down to the ground. I, on the other hand, was bored silly.

I guess my mother finally got sick and tired of my whining, so she let me sit outside at the picnic table. She kept the door open, but locked the screen door. Safety first, I suppose. For them, at least.

It was pitch black outside. I saw police flashlights in the woods in the distance. I was fascinated by the helicopter.

Then, out of the darkness, I saw a scruffy man approaching. Suddenly I was aware of my vulnerability. I went to the screen door and whispered, “Mom…”

I didn’t want to draw his attention, in case he was the bad guy and he wasn’t heading specifically to our site. I didn’t want him to notice me. And being the respectful child that I was, I also didn’t want to insult him with my fear if it turned out he was one of the good guys. I whispered again. “Ma…”

She was lost in her book. And her parental radar, which was feeble at the best of times, was apparently switched off. My stepfather slept on.

The guy was getting closer. I was terrified. Even after all these years, I can feel my heart beating a little faster just thinking about it. “Maaaaaaaa…” I hissed.

When she finally looked up, I was clawing at the screen door and the man was looming over me.

“You should get your kid inside, Ma’am. It’s not safe out here.”

So she unlocked the screen door and let me in.

And then she yelled at me for not saying something.

It was awful then, but I didn’t grasp how outrageous the situation was, because stuff like that happened all the time to me. I still have a hard time feeling safe to this day.

But from an adult perspective… damn! Who does that? What mother does that?

Jeez. My inner child needs a hug.

Vulnerable by Julia Galemire

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Space Invaders

I wanted to write a creepy post for Halloween, and I asked several friends for suggestions. Every single one of them, without exception, said I should write about Trump. That, in itself, is pretty darned scary. But I think we are so used to being scared by him that it’s hard to feel the fear anymore. So I decided to write the below, instead.)

In the house I bought, there are dozens of large dents on both steel exterior doors, and on one wooden bedroom door as well. The only thing the previous owner would tell me was that there was “an incident” involving a tenant and her boyfriend. The fact that he would not go into detail leaves my imagination to run wild.

Given that these are sturdy storm doors, whatever blunt object was used to do this damage must have been heavy, and the sound must have been loud and terrifying. No person in his right mind does a thing like that. And if the damage to the bedroom door happened at the same time, then the perpetrator gained entry. The thought of that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all walk around in this bubble of security, and when it is popped, it’s beyond frightening. It challenges your sense of reality. It makes you feel as if there’s nowhere to hide. The reason most of us reside in this bubble is that knowing that it’s all an illusion would make it impossible to cope.

I used to work the graveyard shift on this tiny little bridge with an office the size of a closet. I was surrounded by windows for increased visibility when I had to do a bridge opening, but that basically meant that I was in a goldfish bowl, and anyone who wanted to mess with me could easily do so. Needless to say, I kept the blinds closed whenever possible. But that also meant I couldn’t see what was going on out on the street.

It was a very isolated job, which normally suits me just fine. Even though I was in a metropolitan area, at 3 a.m. it often felt as if I were the only person on the planet. And when the fog rolled in, that tiny room seemed like a coffin. (People with claustrophobia didn’t last in that job for very long.)

Late one night, I was on duty, and two teenage boys started pounding on the door. (Isn’t it always teenage boys? They should be sent to roam in packs on some remote Pacific island from the age of 14 to 25. I truly believe our crime rate would plummet.)

I nearly soiled myself. I peeked out the blinds and said, “What the #### do you want?”

The ringleader says, “Let us in. We want to see you do a bridge opening.”

My reply, of course, was, “F*** off, before I call the cops.”

But they continued to pound on the door and rattle the knob. (Years later, I can’t get the image of that rattling doorknob out of my head.) It occurred to me that there was just a thin film of bullet-resistant glass between me and these nut jobs, and the stuff was feeling pretty darned flimsy at that moment. And out there on my bridge, no one would hear me scream. Also, by the time the cops got there, well, it would be bad. (And by the way, the cops never showed up. As per usual.)

Eventually they left without getting in, or getting me. But then I got to spend the rest of the shift worrying that they might have vandalized my car. (They hadn’t. Not that time. They just threw the heavy duty trash can at the foot of the bridge into the river. )

Oh, and did I mention that in order to use the bathroom on that bridge you had to go across the street to the other building? Wonderful.

My point is, the reason the thought of the boogeyman in your closet or the thing under the bed or the clown in the storm drain is so unsettling for most of us is that these things violate your bubble of security. Clearly, they are up to no good. They rattle your doorknob. They shake your foundations.

And that’s completely understandable. Because sometimes you’re not being paranoid. Sometimes they really are out to get you.

Happy Halloween.

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What Do You Do?

My wonderfully woke husband recently posted this picture on his Facebook page, along with the explanation quoted below it.

Jackson Katz

Men ask why women are so pissed off, even guys with wives and daughters. Jackson Katz, a prominent social researcher, illustrates why. He’s done it with hundreds of audiences:

“I draw a line down the middle of a chalkboard, sketching a male symbol on one side and a female symbol on the other.

“Then I ask just the men: What steps do you guys take, on a daily basis, to prevent yourselves from being sexually assaulted? At first there is a kind of awkward silence as the men try to figure out if they’ve been asked a trick question. The silence gives way to a smattering of nervous laughter. Occasionally, a young a guy will raise his hand and say, ‘I stay out of prison.’ This is typically followed by another moment of laughter, before someone finally raises his hand and soberly states, ‘Nothing. I don’t think about it.’

“Then I ask the women the same question. What steps do you take on a daily basis to prevent yourselves from being sexually assaulted? Women throughout the audience immediately start raising their hands. As the men sit in stunned silence, the women recount safety precautions they take as part of their daily routine.”

Yup. I do the vast majority of these things. It’s second nature to me. I don’t even think about it. It’s what I have to do, as a woman, to walk safely through this world.

It never occurred to me that men don’t think about these things. It never really entered my mind how off balance this world is. It makes me kind of sick to my stomach in retrospect.

And then I remembered a couple of incidents that make a lot more sense to me now.

Once I was on a first date with a really nice guy and he was doing his best to impress me. We were having fun in downtown Jacksonville, and to get from one place to another, we decided to take a shortcut through an alley. (It was really more of a pedestrian walkway, paved with cobblestones and very well lit, but deserted.) I’d been through it a thousand times. But this time when we were halfway through, a scary guy entered from the other end. I stopped dead and started backing up. My date kept going and engaged the guy in conversation. He was begging for money. I think my date was trying to show me he was a compassionate person, and so he gave the guy some money, but by then I had backed out of the alley entirely. He came and apologized to me. He said he hadn’t even thought of the fact that the situation was unsafe, and he shouldn’t have put me in it. Yup. He never had to think of things like that when he was on his own.

Another time, I was riding bikes with my boyfriend through our small town, and we decided to go into the local convenience store, as we had many times before. But this time I could hear drunken shouting inside. Again, I stopped dead. I said, “Uh… not a good idea. Not safe.” But my boyfriend was thirsty, so he went anyway. I rode off and went home, where I have an arsenal of strategically placed innocent-looking items that I can use as weapons if need be. A much safer place to be than in the presence of an outraged drunken stranger. When my boyfriend got back he asked me why I had left without him. I said I wasn’t safe. He was truly baffled.

I would love to have the luxury of being baffled. Unfortunately, I’m too busy trying not to be in harm’s way. That’s the way it is. If more men saw that, it would make life easier for us women. I’m not expecting to be taken care of. In fact, I don’t want to be treated like a hothouse flower. But if I do ask you for help, or if I signal that you’re putting me in a situation, then please, take it seriously. That’s really the least you can do while I’m doing everything else on the list above, don’t you think?

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