What I Learned About Sharpies and Toothpaste

Exploding pens and markers are pretty disappointing. Even more so when permanent ink destroys something important.

Today as I was deep into a Marie Kondo style tidying session, I picked up a marker. I should have guessed just by holding it that the royal blue Sharpie did not spark joy. But I had to press further and test if it could still write.

I gripped marker, I squeezed the cap…

My husband came running (I screamed) to find my hands dripping in viscous, bright blue goo. My desk was splattered with thick ink.

Soap and water did nothing to remove the permanent marker from my hands, nor did it clear the Rorschach blots that stained my desk. Rubbing alcohol removed the worst of the ink from my hands. Toothpaste, the internet advised, was the solution for the desk.

Driven by the belief that whatever I tried would be most effective if attempted immediately, I squeezed mint toothpaste all over my desk and scrubbed with a paper towel. I now see I was supposed to use a proper paste (not the gel I had handy) and a scrub pad instead of a meager paper towel. But, you know what? Gel and paper towels not withstanding, the toothpaste worked like magic. All the blue stains lifted from my desk in a matter of minutes.

Yes, I had to rinse my desk of toothpaste, and yes, my bluish fingers tingled for twenty minutes after from having bathed in all that minty gel. But my desk was good as new! And I was filled with gratitude for internet searchable household hacks, especially the ones that really work.

What I Learned About the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Earth Edition

This year I’m adventuring with Douglas Adams’ science fiction series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I just started the fifth book in the “increasingly misnamed trilogy.” I now appreciate just how handy a towel can be, and I share in the relief that “DON’T PANIC,” is written in reassuring letters on the cover of the encyclopedic tome that gives the series its name, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

During one of our recent reading sessions, my husband noted that The Hitchhiker’s Guide is a precursor to a modern technology so ubiquitous it has become a household word: Wikipedia is essentially a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Criticism of collaborative knowledge repositories abounds, but no matter the pros and cons of Wikipedia, there’s no doubt its presence has changed our reality.

As I researched the parallels between Wikipedia and the science fictional Hitchhiker’s Guide, I learned that author of the series, Douglas Adams, actually founded an online collaborative encyclopedia based on the Guide. Here is his vision statement of what he hoped to create with the Earth Edition of the Hitchhiker’s Guide:

“A collaborative guide, one that was written and kept up to date by the people who use it, in real time.”

He also wanted to h2g2.com to be:

“A place to share knowledge and celebrate the things you love by writing about them.”

Adams’ vision became a reality in 1999, two years before the launch of Wikipedia.

It’s so cool to look back and see what science fictional technologies have now become part of our everyday lives. But it’s a rare thing, indeed, to see an author reach beyond his fictional creation and bring his ideas into the practical world.

htg2.com has had its ups and downs, and its inspirational founder is no longer alive. But The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Earth Edition is still up and running. Recent entries include The Beatles Blue Album and The Potato Dumpling War of 1967. htg2.com looks like a wonderful source to learn all kinds of things I never even knew I didn’t know.

What I Learned About Charlotte’s Web and The Elements of Style

When I brought my signed copy of Vacationland home from a live show and book signing by one of my favorite podcast personalities, Judge John Hodgman, I was determined that it wouldn’t just collect dust on the shelf. The signed copy was hard won by my valiant friend, who secured tickets to the signing against all odds, drove me through the dark, rainy streets of San Francisco to the event, and suffered vandalism to her vehicle on said San Francisco streets, all with good cheer and no complaint.

But reading Vacationland took some effort. I have a lifelong habit of neglecting to read signed books. Perhaps it’s some lingering shame at my shyness when meeting the author, or it could be I’m an eBookworm at heart, and paper books are for looking pretty on the shelf, not for reading.

When I found myself under the weather and sofa bound for several days, I seized the opportunity to devour Vacationland. I read it from cover to cover in less than 48 hours. Take that, procrastination.

Vacationland concerns Hodgman’s two vacation homes, one in Massachusetts, one in Maine. The home in Maine is near the residence of a famous American author. Hodgman drops hint after hint about the famous author’s identity, but never gives his name. As I feverishly flipped the pages of Vacationland, I became more and more intrigued by the mystery of the unidentified writer. Who was he?

In a fit of sofa sick day madness, I scoured the internet to investigate Hodgman’s clues. My sleuthing didn’t get me any closer to an answer. I was reduced to asking the internet if anyone knew who the mystery writer was in Vacationland.

Several someones did. Most agreed Hodgman’s mystery writer was E.B. White.

I pulled up E. B. White on Wikipedia and learned that I’d read not one, but two books by the author. I’d have never guessed these two disparate, but fundamental reads from my youth, were by the same writer.

E.B. White is famous for having written, among other children’s books, Charlotte’s Web. I will never forget this story, which I heard sitting in a circle of classmates at the feet of our elementary school librarian. Just the title can still evoke my first taste of dreading loss, then somehow finding sweetness and beauty in its inevitability.

But E.B. White did more than just write children’s stories. Turns out he is the White half of the celebrated Strunk & White Elements of Style. This is another volume that made a big impression on me early in life. Although the Chicago Manual of Style is now the more go-to authority on the nitty gritty particulars of written expression, Strunk & White will always be my first grammar and style love. Elements of Style is slim, succinct, and unapologetically opinionated. When I read it, the reasoning behind the rules, as much as the rules, themselves, shaped the way I communicate.

Thanks to Vacationland I learned that E.B. White hated the spotlight, hid out from publicity by sneaking onto the fire escape, and hid out from New York City in rural Maine. Hodgman expressed profound admiration for the man, particularly his desire to be known for his work, not as a personality. So I hope E.B. White would be pleased that, up until this year, I had no idea who he was, but his books have always loomed large in my life.

V-Day But No Me Day

Candy hearts, cardboard hearts, cartoon hearts on TV: thudump, thudump. The fourteenth isn’t just V-Day, it’s my birthday. Only a few more hours to go. Will Mom remember her promise?

I’ve left hints. Doodled paw prints on my homework, dived into dog videos on YouTube, perused puppy training tomes.

I dig out Candy’s old leash from the kitchen junk drawer. Nothing left of Candy but this leash and her photo in a silver paw print frame. Now she’s gone, I walk around like a vampire. Stake in my heart. The stake never comes out. I never go poof, I’m walking dust.

The only thing that could save me from being the undead is a puppy.

Mom promised a new dog for my birthday. That was way back in April. Does she remember? Is my birthday even happening this year?

No party plans, no presents beneath Mom’s bed. It’s like my birthday’s papered over in pink and red. I’m forgotten amid chocolate, roses, cheesy valentines. V-Day’s happening, sure, but no me day.

It’s all a ruse. Must be. Part of the big surprise. I’ll wake to a wriggly fur ball squirming on the quilt. Hot, wet tongue. My vampire days done.

Counting down to birthday morning in achey, stakey undead heartbeats: thudump, thudump.

What I Learned about Postpartum Cats and Panting

Last Sunday night while other folks were wrapping up their Super Bowl Sundays, my smart watch buzzed with a special alert I’d been waiting for all week: Kitten Academy’s rescued mom cat, Pumice, was about to give birth

I’d never before observed kitty labor. I stayed up late, glued to the Kitten Academy live stream, while five adorable kittens came into the world.

When I woke Monday morning I couldn’t wait to get back to the live stream and make sure the newborns were doing well. Happily all five had become heat seeking missiles who piled on top of each other for warmth and mewled supersonic squeals when they needed milk.

But I was worried about their mom. As she patiently nursed her babies, Ms. Pumice was panting pretty hard. Over years of loving and caring for my own cats, panting like that has sent me to the emergency vet more than once. Nonstop panting is usually not a good sign. I was worried for Pumice and for the day old kittens whose lives depended on her.

I’m an absolute newbie to kitten birthing, but the wonderful rescuers at Kitten Academy are seasoned pros. The next time I checked in with the live stream,  a message assured viewers that the panting was perfectly normal. Shortly after, the channel posted a video explaining that all of Kitten Academy’s mom cats panted after giving birth. Not to worry.

Still, I couldn’t quite shake my uneasiness.

Later that day I checked in with the online chat for Kitten Academy supporters. Turns out I wasn’t the only one a bit unnerved by Pumice’s panting. A trusted community member, who also happens to be a veterinarian, explained that panting is actually part of the postpartum healing process. Panting aids in bringing the mom cat’s uterus back to normal size–no small feat after stretching that uterus with five cute, wiggly kittens!

As soon as I understood the reason for all that heavy breathing, I relaxed. And sure enough, as the days went by and the size of the new mom’s belly noticeably slimmed, her breathing also returned to normal. Just as the experts said from the beginning, no need to worry.

The experience taught me something new about healthy behavior after a cat has given birth. But my reluctance to be reassured taught me something new about my mind, as well. Being told that something is okay, even by people I trust and respect, doesn’t truly set me at ease. If a worry worms under my skin, the only path to reassurance is an explanation. I need to construct a narrative. If I can retell the explanation in my own words, then I’ve bought into the cause and effect and will start to relax. Without an explanation, the worry wheels refuse to still.

It’s almost a week since that amazing night counting tiny kittens emerge one by one. Pumice and her kittens continue to thrive under the protection of their amazing caregivers. It’s such a joy to check daily and see how fast they’re growing! Kitten Academy is a warm-hearted charity and does wonderful work. All five kittens (and their champion mom) will be available for adoption through the Kitten Academy website!

NB: I am not a veterinarian, and panting in postpartum cats can spell trouble in tandem with other concerning symptoms. Please consult your veterinarian or local humane society if you have any worries about a mom cat in your care!

What I Learned about Gheegle

I’m rethinking everything I assumed about emotions thanks to one of my current favorite reads, How Emotions are Made by Leesa Feldman Barrett. Barrett posits that emotions don’t belong to objective reality. They can’t be measured as physical phenomenon, like facial expressions ranges or EKG patterns. Emotions are purely social constructs, experiences we’ve been taught by our culture to expect.

I’m only half way through the book, but I find the power of that premise incredibly tantalizing.

But today, instead of diving deeper into Barrett’s intriguing insights, I got completely distracted by gheegle (and its cohorts).

In discussing emotions as social constructs, Barrett points out that, of course, many emotions are cross-cultural. We’re all human and share much of the same basic experience, like being bipedal and needing to eat. But Barrett reminds us just how many emotional concepts don’t translate.

For instance, there is gheegle.

Gheegle isn’t my first introduction to concepts that don’t map one to one with English. Last year I read all about hygge. I loved steeping in the idea of comfy coziness, but it took several books and a deep dive into Danish culture to even begin to appreciate the complex subtleties of hygge .

But gheegle, gheegle is something I understood immediately. I’ve been experiencing gheegle my entire life, just never had a name for it.

Gheegle (also transliterated as gigil) is the irresistible urge to hug, squeeze, or pinch something so crazy cute that you just can’t stand it. For years I’ve suffered (relished?) the pleasure that borders on pain of seeing my adorable kitty and needing to scoop him up and give him a great big hug. Thank you, Tagalog. The people of the Philippines have given me a name for one of my strongest emotional urges.

Lucky for me Barrett didn’t stop with gheegle. She had some more emotional social construct goodies:

Voorpret (Dutch): pleasure in anticipating an upcoming event
Age-otori (Japanese): feeling like you look worse after a haircut

Once I’d read these, productivity for the day was derailed. If, like me, you’re tickled by these delightful words, for which no equivalent exists in English, check out the links below. It’s Friday. You’re welcome.

Bored Panda: a lovely illustrated article that includes the haunting German word, Torchlusspanik (dread of decreasing opportunities as one ages).

Lonely Planet: a fun list of foreign concepts and emotions, among which my favorite was pisan zapra (Malay), the time needed to eat a banana.

(Shibu Inu photo credit)

What I Learned About the Coolest Mashup Ever: The Stroh Violin

During my many years as a musician, I spent all my time at the back of the orchestra. I wasn’t hidden behind the other players for lack of talent, but because I’m a trombonist. Trombone players, and all brass instrumentalists, play tucked away behind the strings. Not only that, for every one trombonist in the orchestra, there are about five times that many violins. The reason? Brass instruments are much louder than strings. Despite my very visceral knowledge of the sonic strength difference between brass and stringed instruments, I was still floored when I heard 99% Invisible tell the story of the Stroh violin.

99% Invisible is one of the best podcasts I’ve found for evoking a sense of wonder while exploring everyday technology, old and new. The most recent episode I enjoyed, Mini-Stories, was especially fun since it covered so many cool topics: sack cloth sewing culture, the diaspora of fauna via the Colosseum, and then the tidbit that totally tickled me, the Stroh violin.

Imagine a violin in which the traditional wooden body is replaced by a brass horn. Like a griffin or a hippogriff, the Stroh violin seems almost mythic as an unlikely mashup. A violin and a trumpet.

Why does such a weird and wonderful invention exist? We already have a tried and true way to make violins heard over trombones: hire a slew of violinists!

99% Invisible did a beautiful job recounting the origin of the Stroh violin. In short, during the very early days of the recording industry, primitive recording equipment detected sound via a big brass bell (think of an old-fashioned Victrola, only recording sound instead of playing it). Turns out these brass bell recorders did a spectacular job detecting brass instruments. Trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba were recorded with ease. Unfortunately brass bell recording technology wasn’t so great at picking up stringed instruments. Early innovators attempted all kinds of creative ways to solve this problem, one of which was the griffinesque Stroh violin.

The Stroh violin recorded so well that the technology spread to a variety of stringed instruments. There were Stroh cellos and violas, Stroh guitars, Stroh ukuleles and mandolins. I’m dying to explore an instrument museum and see them all!

Of course advances in recording technology rendered the Stroh violin mostly a museum curiosity. But as I surf YouTube to satisfy my new Stroh obsession, it’s clear that the unique sound of the Stroh hasn’t been entirely forgotten, and a few eclectic musicians still put the unique timber and tone of  these vintage wonders to interesting use today.

What I Learned About the Etymology of the Dollar

I’ve been reading a fascinating analysis in Joseph Campbell’s Creative Mythology that juxtaposes Christian and Gnostic interpretations of the snake. I always love the striking images Campbell uses to illustrate his points. So far the art in Creative Mythology has been the usual: pottery, bowls, and statuettes. But this cool coin came up in the images Campbell used to illustrate snake iconography.

“The Serpent Lifted Up” depicts a serpent wound around a cross. The symbol was stamped onto a 16th century, German coin. This isn’t any random German coin, it has a very specific name: the thaler.

Although I was supposed to be focusing on snakes and mythology, the etymology geek in me went wild when I saw the word thaler. Thaler sounds an awful lot like dollar, doesn’t it?

A little digging in Merriam Webster proved my instinct was correct. The thaler was an early currency minted in Bohemia. The thaler (written thaler in German and tolar in Czech) debuted as joachimstaler, which translates to the Valley of Joachim, where silver for the thaler was mined.

With its fairly standard weight and value the thaler became important to international trade throughout Europe. In 1566 the Holy Roman Empire established the Reichstaller as its coin of account. Around the same time in the English speaking world, the thaler became known as the daler. Daler referred to European coins of many types. It’s not hard to see the leap from the English daler to the U.S. dollar.

Back in Germany the thaler went on to dwindle to a less practical, though more artistic life. Huge coins, sometimes made from gold, were prized collectors items. Many of these works of art survive to this day, including the fascinating “Serpent Lifted Up” golden thaler.

What I Learned About Our Cat, the Ballet Dancer

I’m a cat fanatic. My favorite YouTube station: Kitten Academy. My most recent purchase: two pairs of cute cat earrings. Best of all, I wake each morning with genuine delight because I get to share my life with this handsome fellow.

As an unabashed cat lover, learning a new feline fact is very exciting.

While listening to a recent episode of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, my ears perked during the “What’s the Word” segment of the podcast. The word was “digitigrade.” From my Italian language study it was no surprise that “digit” refers to fingers and toes. But then things got interesting.

Have you ever wondered why a cat’s knee bends in the opposite direction that a human’s knee bends?

The answer to this question is simple: a cat’s knee bends exactly the same way as a human’s. In all the years I’ve been ogling cats, I’d confused kitty’s ankle with kitty’s knee.

The anatomy of the feline leg clicked for me when I understood that cats (and their canine pals) are digitigrade animals. They walk on their toes, not on their feet like us plantigrade humans.

Kitty’s foot is perpendicular to the ground and he stands on his toes, not on his feet. It should have been obvious, but I was so deeply rooted in my experience as a human who stands on her feet that I was blind to the possibility of toe walking. It took a real shake up in perspective to realize that not all beings walk like me!

My handsome Siamese buddy trots around the house all day on his tiptoes. No wonder he moves with such swiftness and grace–he’s the ultimate ballet dancer! Thank goodness he’s willing to tolerate life with this plodding plantigrade, who loves him with all her heart.

What I Learned about Learning and Happiness

It’s the start of a new year, a time when beginnings and endings encourage us to step back and check out where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’d like to be. Today I’d like to kick off a new section of my blog called What I Learned.

Since 2014 I’ve kept a personal happiness journal (similar to a gratitude journal), modeled on my experience with the social media app, Happier. Back when I used it, Happier encouraged users to share three happy moments every day. Users could include a photo with their daily happy moments, tag each with a category, and, of course, participate with other members by appreciating what had made them happier.

When the social aspect of Happier became too heavy, I translated the practice to my private journal. Once I eliminated the strain of entertaining an audience and could just be myself, I found that journal jotting three things that made me happy each day paid huge mood boosting dividends for such a tiny amount of effort spent.

I also kept the practice of tagging my happy moments. Tags help me spot trends of what brings a smile to my face—and it’s not always what I expect. No surprise that my kitty, my hubby, friends, good food, and reading top my list. But I’m surprised how often watching a video makes my day (I used to consider myself a reluctant video watcher). Nor did I expect (as someone who patterns herself after a Hobbit) that going out would rank so high on my happiness list. Another enlightening entry in the top quarter of my happy categories is learning something new.

Throughout 2017 I searched for other daily journal jotting practices with effectiveness as potent as my happy moments. I wrote affirmations, collected quotes from philosophers, tried noting the successes and failures of the day, and typed out my values. But of all the daily practices I auditioned, only one stood out above the others in bringing more joy and meaning to my life. This practice happens to correlate with that last entry in the top quarter of my happiness charts. The only of the  2017 journal jotting experiments that survived as a regular part of my practice is: What I learned today.

What I learned about learning in 2017 is that learning something new every day truly does make me feel more positive about life. If I’m super excited to tell my journal a juicy nugget of knowledge learned that day, I believe it was a good day. Evenings when I struggle to dredge up something I can qualify as “learned” follow down days where I perceive myself as drug out, burned out, and more than a little defeated. Learning something every day is becoming critical to my sense of wellbeing, purpose, and joy. It makes me feel more alive. If I added up all the What I learned today entries and tagged them as HappierLearning, this category would make an epic climb up the happiness list.

Sometimes What I learned today is a cool fact gleaned from reading or a podcast. It can be a life lesson learned the hard way by making a mistake and falling on my face, or a truth I’ve recognized about myself. I love when What I learned today is an insight, a new perspective or experience. Or when a new connection sparks, and I have a mini breakthrough that lets me understand, just a little more deeply, the world around me.

I learned from my Happier experience that daily posting is not for me. But when I do learn something new that I’m excited to share, it would be great to have a place to write about it. So I’m starting a new section of my blog called What I learned. I hope a few of the things that have tickled me to discover may bring one or two fun aha moments to others, as well.