What I Learned About How Thor Got His Hammer

Some of the most fun reading I’ve done so far in 2018 is Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. I absolutely loved the way Gaiman rendered the fun and danger of the adventures of the Norse gods. And as a Tolkien fan who’d had little exposure to the Norse myths, I was tickled to see the origin of the characters and special powers of the elves and dwarves. In particular the story of how Thor got his hammer was a great example of the craftsmen dwarves, their artisanship and their endearing blend of greed and work ethic.

The origin of Mjollnir, Thor’s lightning hammer, starts much like a recurring nightmare I’ve had most of my life: Thor’s pretty wife, Sif, wakes up to find herself bald. Hair razed and gone for good, thanks to the trickster, Loki. When I imagine her shock at the sudden and unexpected transformation of her appearance, I feel for her in my gut.

But luckily Sif is a goddess, not a mortal. And she’s a well-connected goddess. In order to avoid Thor’s wrath, Loki promises to obtain new hair for Sif, hair that will make her prettier than ever.

Where to get such locks? The dwarves, of course.

The dwarves are true craftsmen, and they’re not just makers of beautiful objects, they dream up and turn into reality the magical artifacts that populate the mythological universe. They’re the unsung heroes who give the big players some of their biggest powers. They’re like the patron saints of today’s makers.

While Loki is hanging out with the dwarves, he gets to see them solve Sif’s baldness problem and create other wonders, as well, such as a magical ship that can fold up small enough to put in your pocket.

I want one of those.

Loki, being Loki, tries to stir up more trouble and more magical item innovation. But he’s got to get the dwarves to work for free. He bets his own head in a match to pit a couple dwarves into outdoing the magical hair and the nifty folding ship created by their rivals. The dwarves, proud of their craft and greedy for both fame and fortune, fire up the forge and get to work.

The myth goes into detail about how Loki turns himself into a stinging fly and tries to derail the expert work of the dwarves. But the thing is, these short, strong artisans will produce marvels even under the most dire of circumstances. Thor’s hammer is created under such duress, Brokkr’s eyes are blinded with blood by the time Loki is through with him. Thanks to being blind, the handle of the hammer is shorter than it should be, so Loki gets Mjollnir for free to appease Thor and gets to and keep his head…

…well…there’s a little more to the story than that. If you’re interested, I highly recommend checking out Gaiman’s Norse Mythology!

What I Learned about the Incredible Downsizing Marine Iguana

My favorite fun fact of the week came from browsing the National Geographic feed on Instagram. I came across a picture of a marine iguana–not the most striking image I’ve ever seen on the National Geographic feed–but the description beneath the image really caught my attention.

The marine iguana can shrink. I don’t mean it dehydrates itself, or loses fat. I mean it reduces the size of its skeleton! It can lose up to 20% of its size!

Why would the marine iguana evolve to do that?

Biologists believe it’s an adaptation to help the iguanas survive in times when food becomes dangerously hard to find. Instead of starving to death, marine iguanas downsize. As smaller predators, they require less food to stay alive.

Doing a little more research, I learned that not only can iguanas shrink, but they can grow again when food becomes more plentiful. You can check out the article on Gizmodo here.

Evolution is all about stayin’ alive (cue the Bee Gees here). What a fascinating way to survive in times of scarcity.

What I Learned About Affect vs. Effect and Learning from Mistakes

One of the very best ways to learn something new is by making a mistake. But despite my love of learning, I get all prickly and defensive when I discover I’m in the wrong. It’s one of those conflicts between personality and values that I try to create in fictional characters to make them seem more human. I guess it makes me more human, too.

Being able to learn from mistakes is a skill, one I need to improve. So I was pretty pleased this evening when I practiced learning from a mistake with something approaching a positive attitude.

This week I received a story rejection in which the editor offered feedback. Much like learning from mistakes, the opportunity to learn from a rejection is invaluable. Getting comments from any industry professional instead of a form letter is gold.

While reviewing the helpful editor’s comments, I noticed a line item concerning misuse of affect and effect. I’d long ago classified affect as an adjunct of the word affectation: a pretense, putting on a certain mannerism that’s not quite genuine. In fact, if you check out the Merriam Webster Dictionary, this is still the definition emphasized for affect.

However, according to the helpful editor who rejected my story, the Oxford English Dictionary, and one of my go-to online grammar references, Grammar Girl, when in doubt, I should use effect as a noun (cause and effect) and use affect as a verb (the cause affected the result). Even Merriam Webster will agree that using effect as a verb implies the actual achievement of a final result, not merely influencing a result, which is what I intended in my offending sentence.

Use effect as a noun, affect as a verb. Pretty simple, but I have years and years of incorrect habit to overwrite. Thanks to the helpful editor pointing out my mistake, I hope to remember correct use in the future. More importantly, if I can be grateful instead of prickly and defensive when this error was pointed out to me, maybe I can have that same attitude the next time someone lets me know I’m in the wrong.

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.

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.