The Wacky World of Proofreading

I’ve done a lot of proofreading in my life. I’ve worked as a writer-proofreader-editor for a small publishing company – so small that I sometimes had to fill all those functions to get an issue out. I’ve bartered proofreading academic papers for someone who offered guitar lessons in exchange. And, God help me, I’ve had to proofread my own work, which is by far the worst kind of proofing.

Now I’ve entered into an entirely new version of the practice.

It started like this.

While working on my novel (still unpublished), I needed a gig to make a little money (very little money, as it turned out). So I turned to a transcription service. This company did not transcribe medical dictation or court cases, as many think when they first hear the term. Rather, it involved transcribing mostly business meetings and occasionally interviews or podcasts. As you might guess, when the pandemic hit, business picked up because so many businesses were teleconferencing rather than talking in person. In fact, I wast kept quite busy four days a week, and sometimes extra jobs on the weekends or holidays if there was additional work that needed doing.

(When I talk about this, people sometimes think that it sounds terribly interesting. It isn’t. I hated business meetings and conferences when I had to attend them, let alone listen to them over and over as I transcribed audio files. I privately gave awards for “the world’s longest run-on sentence,” “the most ‘you knows’ and ‘I means,'” and so forth. But I digress.)

Of course, the company employed proofreaders, too, to check the work that the typists had done. But typing paid more per minute of audio than proofreading did, so despite my truly crappy typing, I signed on as a typist. (I never took typing in high school, and back then, they didn’t have keyboarding. Typing was considered a “business” or “secretarial” course at the time, and I was on the college track. Entering college as an English major, I soon learned the error of that way of thinking. English majors are required to write – and, of course, type – dozens of papers per semester. But I digress. Again.)

Two phenomena threw the typing arrangement into disarray. First was the (perhaps ill-advised) resumption of in-person business meetings. The other was the progress made in AI audio dictation software. I once used a dictation function to transcribe an interview that I did. The output was mediocre at best.

Dictation transcription software was supposed to have gotten better since the early days. And I suppose it has – but not enough to make proofreading obsolete, for which I am profoundly grateful.

What I do now is listen to the audio and edit the computer-transcribed version. It’s really editing, but they still call it proofreading.

And – wouldn’t you know? – all those run-on sentences and “you knows” and “I means” are still in there and need taking out. There are speaker names and company names that the AI attempted to spell phonetically that I need to look up and correct. There are passages from speakers with a foreign accent that aren’t transcribed even close to what the speakers said. The paragraphing is dubious and the punctuation appalling. Once, the software even transcribed “yearend” as “urine.”

All told, it doesn’t take me quite as long as typing it would have, but I usually need to do a first proofing pass and then one or two proofing-proofing passes.

It’s a drag. It still beats proofreading my own writing, though.

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Adventures in Finding Stuff

Back in the day, I used satellites to find Tupperware in the woods. It was called geocaching.

Basically, you get a GPS unit and go to the Geocaching website. (No, you don’t need the GPS to get to the website. Just a browser. And a computer or mobile device.) Satellites in orbit around the Earth send signals that help you pinpoint a location and an approximate route to it. (They’re not dedicated geocaching satellites, of course. They perform some other function like mapping or spying.)

When you go to geocaching.com, you enter the zipcode of where you live or are traveling to, and it will tell you whether there are geocaches in that area and where they are. The trick is, you only get latitude and longitude coordinates.

You make your way to the site, which usually involves car travel and some walking, through city streets or neighborhoods or woods or swamps or off overpasses or in parking lots. When you reach the destination, you find…something.

And what is the cache? Well, it can be a Tupperware container or an ammo box or a film canister or a pickle jar or anything waterproof. Depending on the size of the container, there may be trinkets inside. The rule is take one, leave one. There is also a sheet of paper where you list your name and the date you found the cache. Then you return to the website and log that you found the cache – or how many times you tried and failed.

What makes any of this fun? You get to feel clever if you find the cache. You get out in the fresh air and walk around, while still avoiding other people. And you get to rack up points on the website boasting of the number of caches you’ve found. You can geocache alone, with a partner, or even a group.

What types of geocaches have I found?

First, there are the regular caches – the ones I mentioned that come in Tupperware and ammo boxes. These are usually relatively easy to find, located in hollow trees, dense brush, and once under an overpass. That one I missed at first, but a moment later realized where it had to be. I used the excuse of accidentally dropping my keys over the railing as an excuse to go back for it, so that no one would question why I was rooting around down there.

Another popular cache is the mini-cache. These are the ones that come in small containers. The smallest mini-cache I ever saw was a mouthwash-strips container that held only a log for leaving your name. That one was in a shrubbery in the median of a residential street.

Then there’s the micro-cache. These are so small that no trinkets can possibly fit within – just the log. I once found one of these logs wrapped around a 10-penny nail loosely stuck in a fence post.

Hide-in-plain-sight caches are often attached with magnets to some metal thing at the destination, such as an industrial station near a street or highway, or a lighting fixture in a parking lot. The back of the magnet or a strip of paper hidden behind it is where you leave your name.

Photo caches. For these caches, you take a picture of the location that corresponds to the coordinates – usually a scenic or historic building. You don’t post the picture on the GPS website, just the fact that you found it and the date.

Foreign caches. When my husband and I vacationed in Eastern Europe, we took along the coordinates of some caches there and we brought some trinkets to leave. One cache we absolutely knew the location of, but were unable to get to because a pile of snow intervened.

Puzzle caches. These may involve solving a code to get the coordinates or knowing (or looking up) the answer to a clue. Some are even more elaborate. One I remember was an acrostic made from the names of a series of books.

Wheelchair-accessible caches. There aren’t a lot of these, but they do remind us that the pastime isn’t just for the able-bodied.

Dan and I haven’t geocached lately, but our days of indulging may not be over. We intend to place a geocache in a nearby park. Will we use Tupperware? Maybe, but more likely a film canister with a scroll log and a pencil stub.

Too bad our GPS unit is as ancient as we are. We could also relive our glory days of hunting and finding.

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What’s Wrong With Introverts? Nothing!

So I sit in the corner at parties, eat lunch by myself, and keep my nose in a book. That doesn’t mean I’m an introvert or unworthy of human company. I just prefer socialization on my own terms.

Introverts have gotten a bad rap over the years. They’re said to be shy, uncommunicative, anxiety-prone, fearful of crowds, friendless, and alone (except for the occasional cat). They don’t go out much or talk much. They have boring hobbies like knitting and reading and stamp collecting. Some people even believe introverts are suffering from a mental illness.

Extroversion is touted as the norm. Extroverts, it’s said, have more friends and better conversations. They go out more and have social calendars, or in some cases, social secretaries. They have exciting careers in business or law or politics. (They’re also known to have “Type A” personalities, prone to stress-related illnesses – or giving them to others.) Extroverts are widely admired for their accomplishments. They “blow their own horn” instead of fading into the background. They’re people-persons (though not always people-pleasers).

There are lots of books about overcoming introversion, as if it’s a thing to be conquered or cured. They purport to change introverts’ communication styles so they can get along with “normal” people or even with extroverts.

I’m not saying that it’s bad to be an extrovert. I’m just asking why introverts are so discounted in society. Where are the books that teach extroverts to be more introverted? Where are the seminars? The podcasts?

Introversion doesn’t mean the person is a hermit. It doesn’t mean introverts are unhappy being the way they are. It doesn’t mean a person is lacking in intelligence or afraid of relationships or dull to speak to. In fact, those are qualities that can be found in extroverts as well. Extroverts can be unhappy if their relationships are superficial. They can have trouble toning down their enthusiasm in order to have a private, meaningful conversation. And they can certainly be dull to listen to.

Get inside an introvert’s head, however, and you may find a rich and interesting place. Those hobbies and interests that extroverts consider boring have subtleties that an introvert can unlock. An introvert can be extremely knowledgeable on a variety of topics – some seemingly useless, like the complexities of poetry. Others may be more broadly interesting, such as how language affects business or political behavior. And some of their hidden interests can just be fun, like which amusement parks have the best rollercoasters.

Introverts may seem hard to get to know, especially at parties. But there are secret passwords that can unlock their vitality. Read any good books lately? is a good, reliable one. What’s the weirdest movie you’ve ever seen? Are cats better than dogs and why? What’s your idea of the perfect vacation? If you’re an extrovert, you can probably think of ways to work these into conversations – for example, when you’re talking about your recent fabulous vacation or when your kids want to get a dog.

When you hit on a topic that an introvert knows or cares about, you can see their eyes light up and their faces become more animated. Their voices change from dull and quiet to enthusiastic and interested. They may even venture a question about your favorite author or childhood pet or dream vacation. Once you get an introvert started on a conversation, it can be as interesting, vibrant, and knowledgeable as anyone else’s.

You may even make a friend or find a resource. If you ever need to know something about journalism or psychology or model trains, you have a person to turn to – and maybe even a budding friendship.

The trick is not to automatically assume that an introvert is dull or has a one-track mind. An introvert may be into both gardening and archaeology, or both blues music and what the best restaurants in town are. Include an introvert in a group outing. He or she may say nothing at first, but can really open up with a few well-chosen questions or comments and follow-ups. (I studied that in college, but I never really understood XYZ. My friend says that movies are all about superheroes these days – why is that? My kids want me to take them hiking. What’s a good place to do that? What should I wear to a winter wedding? Which should I get – a PC or a Mac?)

Above all, do not assume that introverts are all alike. They’re as varied as extroverts. They may take a little more time to get to know, but in the end, it’s worth it.

And if you are an introvert, don’t despair. You don’t have to turn yourself into an extrovert to be worthwhile. You’re fine just the way you are!

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A Three-Bunny Morning

I used to work third-shift at an alarm security company. At the same time, I was going to grad school and teaching English 101 at the university. The alarm company job was both vaguely interesting and supremely boring.

Basically, I was the person on the other end of “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” as well as monitoring business openings and closings and calling the cops or the fire department if an alarm went off in the middle of the night. I had to call the business owners too, and some of them were well beyond rude, especially when the call proved to be a false alarm.

I liked the job for the solitude – I was the only person in the building on third shift. (As you’d expect for a security company, the building was thoroughly locked down tight at night.) It was pretty quiet most nights, so I could read my assignments for the master’s degree and grade papers for English 101 while waiting for the alarms to sound. But on windy or stormy days there would be loud beeping from the machine spewing out false alarms and then the clack-clack of my IBM Selectric as I created the nightly reports.

One of the worst things about the business was that, what with both the job and grad school, I was frequently so short on sleep that I was afraid to drive myself. (Another worst thing was that the bosses would grant other workers time off for their kids’ school activities, but I couldn’t take off to study for a big exam. Or for any family-type holidays, like Easter, Thanksgiving, or Christmas. But I digress.)

What does this have to do with bunnies, you may ask? The bunnies were an after-work, early-morning bonus.

My husband, saint that he is, would sometimes drop me off at the security company late at night and come to pick me up early in the morning, to drive me to the university. Often, he got there a little early and parked behind the building to sit in the early morning light for a few minutes while I neatened my area and punched out. Sometimes, he got there ten or fifteen minutes early, just to look at the small field between the security building and the house across the way.

When I finally got to the car, if we had a few extra minutes, we both contemplated the field and counted the bunnies. The field was a place where they gathered and ate and hopped.

The thing about bunny-counting was that you had to pay close attention to the field. The bunnies were well-hidden in the long grass. Only when a bunny moved did you really notice that it was there. A wiggle of the ears. A movement towards another clump of grass. Bright eyes looking around for potential predators.

Some mornings we spotted only one bunny, and that was okay. Sometimes, if we waited a little longer and really concentrated, we saw more than one. We took the number of bunnies we saw as an omen for the day. The more bunnies, the better luck we would have. A three-bunny morning was a pleasant way to start a pretty good day. Some days we saw four or five bunnies and felt ourselves blessed. Once we even saw seven bunnies. It was a spectacular day.

Now we live in a house where there used to be woods, but the trees are not there anymore. Still, sometimes we see baby rabbits in the spring and well-fed rabbits in the fall, making their way across our walkway and devouring things my husband has carefully planted. (We also see many squirrels, a very fat groundhog, the occasional deer passing through, and multitudes of birds and butterflies.)

Bunny-counting days are long gone. I don’t even know if the security building and the house with the bunny-field still exist. I miss the days when we would have a leisurely bunny stakeout as we waited for the day to begin. The morning light, the calm expectation, the excitement of spotting a bunny’s ears, the three-bunny morning – these are things I miss.

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We Were Girl Scouts Once … and Young

Yes, I know. The main thing that most people associate with Girl Scouts is cookies. And those are certainly one important part of the Girl Scout experience. But they’re far from the only thing, or even the most important.

Officially, cookie sales promote goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills, and business ethics. All the money raised stays with local councils and troops. Nowadays, Girl Scouts no longer sell door-to-door as we did back in the day. Instead, Scouts do phone and online selling, or set up tables in front of stores and in parking lots, often waving signs to attract buyers.

I was a Girl Scout from Brownies through Seniors. And yes, I sold cookies. (Many scouts had their fathers and mothers take the sign-up sheets into work, where coworkers often ordered their goodies. My father wouldn’t do it because, he said, he worked for a government institution and it wouldn’t be proper. But I digress.)

Although the activities that cookie sales funded were many and varied, my favorite – even more than earning merit badges – was camping. I wrote about camping a few years ago. As I described it:

There we were, bedding down on sleeping bags in our tents, the cold, hard ground only a layer of canvas or plastic away. When we sprang out the next morning, our lithe teen forms dressed in green shorts and Vibram-soled boots, we hoisted our backpacks and hiked over hill and dale and rocky trails, singing optimistic songs and breathing deep of the fresh air. We ate granola as we walked.

Later that day, we built a fire and sat upon logs, tree stumps, or little water repellent squares while our dinner cooked slowly, smoke curled around our heads, and mosquitos had their meal before we had ours. Then it was more songs, jokes, stories, and talk till it was time to pour water on the fire, make sure the ashes were cool, and return to our sleeping bags, where, after hours more chat (not the electronic kind, either) we dozed off.

That was, indeed, one style of camping we did. We also went to official Girl Scout camping facilities instead of state parks. I have vivid memories of those adventures, some terrific and others less so.

There was one decidedly memorable state park trip. We set up our tents, which we shared, four scouts per. After dark, we settled in our tents to tell stories and jokes. The girls in my tent read aloud from the book The Hobbit, to the glow of flashlights, lanterns, and the occasional candle (one thing we had learned was how not to set one’s tent on fire and what to do if we did).

A sudden storm came up and turned violent, with rivers of rainwater flowing through our camp, and indeed through our tents, our candle threatening to sail away. As we read the book, we were at a passage describing a storm rife with heavy wind and rain. Every time the storm in the book became more severe, so did the storm in our camp. It was eerie. Eventually, we decided we should stop reading before we were completely washed away. The next morning we had to cope with damp sleeping bags and muddy ground. But that’s what we did. We were scouts.

Other memories were less dramatic and less pleasurable. There was the time we ate “brontoburgers,” hamburger patties wrapped in bacon and then in foil and cooked in the embers of a dying campfire. The next morning we learned a valuable lesson about the inadvisability of eating meat that was less than thoroughly cooked.

Official Girl Scout camps had large tents on raised wooden bases, so we didn’t have to worry about rainwater. We had camping names like Rover and Binky and ones based on the Lord of the Rings (Strider) or MASH (Trapper, Hawkeye), which were popular at the time. We learned songs (some of them from Free to Be (does anyone else remember that?), as well as traditional songs that must have been around since the invention of scouting (“Make new friends, but keep the old./One is silver and the other’s gold.”) The best times were when we became camp counselors, in charge of younger scouts for a month at a time.

Those were the days, never to return. But now some of my sister scouts are grandmothers and I buy my cookies from their offspring.

A Wise and Good Man

Not long ago, I saw on Facebook a picture of Captain Kangaroo in his costume, with a silly expression on his face. The caption was something on the order of “Who in his right mind would put this man in charge of a bunch of children?”

Well, I would, for one. It’s easy to take a photograph of anyone that presents an unflattering portrait, and if that person’s job is to be a children’s entertainer and to have ping-pong balls dropped on his head, he’s even more likely to look goofy.

The reality is quite different. Captain Kangaroo may have acted goofy, but in real life, he was far from it.

I had heard that Bob Keeshan (the Captain’s not-so-secret identity) was an advocate for children, but I never realized how passionately and compassionately until I had the chance to interview him, many years ago, when I was the editor of Early Childhood News magazine. (The accompanying photo is a souvenir of that occasion, resurrected from a single frame of film that somehow survived both the tornado and all our moves. My husband found it and I found a way to digitize it. If Mr. Keeshan looks tired in the photo, it’s because he had just finished giving one of his impassioned speeches. But I digress.)

Keeshan was a friend of fellow children’s entertainer Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood), and they occasionally guested on each other’s shows, spreading their message of gentleness, care, and fun with widening audiences. After Captain Kangaroo was pushed into an unfavorable time slot, the show was picked up by PBS and ran for a number of years there.

Keeshan began his crusade of child activism while he was still The Captain to innumerable boys and girls, including me (I was particularly fond of the puppet character Bunny Rabbit because it wore glasses like I did). But Keeshan learned that there was a horror movie involving an evil Santa Claus, and that commercials for it were being shown during children’s shows, including his own. He objected and made his voice heard.

After he retired, Keeshan became a tireless child advocate and speaker. He stood strongly against violent video games, which he noted taught children nothing about the real world, and particularly against children’s shows based on those same video games or on violent toys, like “Power Rangers” and “The Transformers.”

But Keeshan’s crusade for children’s rights didn’t stop at the other side of the TV screen. At the speech I attended, he said that many run-away kids should really be called “throw-away” kids for how families and society failed them. Unfortunately, neither my clips nor my notes of my article have survived, so I can’t tell you exactly what he said, just that he said it with fervor and sincerity. And sometimes quite a bit of anger.

In lieu of the article, I offer some Bob Keeshan quotes taken from other sources over the years.

Back in the old days, when I was a child, we sat around the family table at dinner time and exchanged our daily experiences. It wasn’t very organized, but everyone was recognized and all the news that had to be told was told by each family member. We listened to each other and the interest was not put on; it was real.

Generosity has built America. When we fail to invest in children, we have to pay the cost.

Children don’t drop out of high school when they are 16, they do so in the first grade and wait 10 years to make it official.

I enjoy meeting not only contemporary children, but yesterday’s children as well. It’s nice to talk about the experiences we shared, they tell me, “You were a good friend.” That’s the warmest part.

Now, how goofy does that sound to you?

The World of Cats

Once I was reading Julie and Julia (or maybe it was Julia Child’s memoirs) when I came across the statement that because she was living in France, she needed a pousiquette. I had studied French since junior high through college, and though my French is so rusty it has holes in it, I couldn’t place the word. Was it some piece of French cooking equipment? An herbaceous plant?

I began to sound out the word: poo-see-kett. Then it hit me: Julia needed a pussycat! Despite the fact that the French word for cat is chat and for pussycat is minou (I looked it up), Julia, with her inimitable flair, had made up her own word. I’ve been using it ever since and the cats don’t seem to mind (or notice).

Then recently, I learned through Facebook that the French equivalent for “purr” is ronron, which seemed a lovely approximation of the sound of a purr. I began looking up other languages’ words for “purr.” I was somewhat disappointed to learn that many other languages simply use the word “purr.” Spanish, being a Romance language like French, used ronroneo.

Other countries were more inventive. “Purr” in Vietnamese is gugu. In Croatian, it’s presti. In Japan, a cat expresses contentment by going gorogoro. German and Dutch pretty much agree on schneurren and snorren (which bring to mind “snore” rather than “purr.” This is okay with me, as we have a cat that snores. Daintily, but she snores.)

I even looked up Italian (fusa, for some reason, despite its being another Romance language), Korean (puleuleu), Hindi (myaoon), Romanian (tors), Hungarian (dorombolas), Swedish (spinna), Polish (mruczec), and Russian (murlykat).

While I was at it, I also looked up the word for “pussycat.” Spanish: minino. Dutch: poesje. Polish: kisia. Korean: goyang-i. Japanese: neko neko. Italian: micia. Hungarian: punci. Swedish: kisse (which I think is adorbz).

I restrained myself (ran out of time, really) before I could look up different versions of “meow.” Another time, I will. (But Julia’s pousiquette would have said “miaou.” With a French accent, no doubt.)

My husband and I have traveled a bit, and we love meeting cats around the world, no matter how they purr. I was in Mexico, staying at a small resort, where cats had the run of the place. The cats’ main duties seemed to be to take up lounge chairs and hope guests would drop ice cream. Each resort cat that had been neutered had a slight clip on the ear to indicate its nonreproductive status. (I understand this is also a practice in the US, a procedure known as TNR, for Trap-Neuter-Release. The clipped ear indicates the cat does not need to be trapped again. But I digress.)

In the Slovenian Alps, we met another cat with a much more strenuous job. As tourists went single file exploring the Plitvice Lakes, at the head of the column trotted a black-and-white cat who seemed to have appointed itself the tour guide. It was easy to follow even in the falling snow.

In Dubrovnik, we met a small black kitten, who proved that cat games are universal. We had dropped a brown paper bag on the ground and the kitten immediately crawled into it. We thought it was playing the bag-mice game, in which a cat makes a rattling sound in a bag and then tries to catch the imaginary mouse. But when we tried to extract the cat, we quickly learned that it would not leave the bag and wanted to go home with us. We were tempted.

Soon, we hope to go to Ireland, where, disappointingly, the pussycats will purr, just as they do in the US. Maybe we’ll find out whether Irish pussycats play the bag-mice game too. I’m betting yes.

My Worst Birthday Ever

Over the years I’ve had some pretty terrible birthdays. Ones with surprise parties that flopped. Ones with unwanted presents. One when I woke up in excruciating pain from a back injury.

Usually, however, I have small, quiet birthdays, with my husband giving me thoughtful gifts that he has sometimes hidden away for almost a year. (If he can remember where he hid them, of course.)

But the absolute worst birthday I ever had was one when my husband wasn’t even there. He had gone to Pennsylvania to visit his mother. He had also sworn that he would be home by my birthday. One would think he meant that he would leave the day before and would be home for my whole birthday. One would be mistaken.

My husband likes to drive at night when the highways are less crowded. By this theory, he should have been home early on my birthday and been able to spend virtually the whole day with me (after, perhaps, a nap). That theory, also, would be incorrect.

Instead, what he proposed to do was leave Pennsylvania early on my birthday morning and be home in time for a nice birthday dinner. This theory was incorrect as well.

By this time, I was getting agitated. My birthday rendezvous with Hubby seemed to be slipping away.

It slipped even more when on the morning of my birthday, it turned out that he had to stay longer and do a few more handyman chores for his mother (in my opinion, the main reason he goes to visit her). That would have him leaving Pennsylvania at lunchtime (or after) and arriving before I went to bed. Technically still my birthday, but I tend not to do much celebrating after I’m in bed.

Eventually, he got on the road. The snowy, slippery road. (It was December.) He called me from along the way – though he knows I hate when he talks while driving – to report his progress. Passed through the tunnel. Over the mountain. How many miles closer to me.

Then I got the phone call that meant he wouldn’t be home on my birthday at all – and that immediately became the least of my worries. He had crashed his car on a bridge covered with black ice, going through a guardrail somewhere near a tiny town in PA, and was at the hospital.

In other words, I had to bundle up on my snowy birthday night and drive to Pennsylvania to meet him at the hospital. He couldn’t remember the name of the town, but he was able to tell me what exit it was just after.

Now, I’m not the best at driving in a raging snowstorm at night in the first place. Add the stress of knowing that my husband was in a hospital – somewhere – made me forget all about my birthday. Instead, I had to drive about 300 miles just to find out what had happened.

Once I found the town and once I found the hospital, I found Dan sitting up in an office, chatting pleasantly with a social worker. Not that he needed a social worker’s services, he was just wandering around the hospital, bored. There was not a scratch on him and his nerves were much steadier than mine.

We found a local hotel, since there was no way I was driving all that way back to Ohio in the snowstorm. We were hoping it would clear by the next day. And the hotel gave out chocolate chip cookies, so there’s a plus. Not a birthday cake, but at that point, I was satisfied.

When I finally did get a chance to see the car, I was amazed that the front of it was so smashed in, yet Dan was unharmed. I’ll say this for Jeep, they really know how to build in crumple zones and passenger capsules.

So, in a way, I can thank Jeep for the best birthday present I ever got, even if it was the worst birthday of my life.

My Emotional Support Animal

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I have an emotional support animal. They’re a trend now – so trendy, in fact, that people are trying to certify miniature horses, pigs, and sloths as support animals so they can live with them in rentals and take them on airplanes. (I personally would not want a support horse, of any size, with me on a plane. I’ve seen and smelled horse flops before.)

These are not the tiny “purse dogs” that fashionable women used to carry a decade or more back. Those were merely accessories, and cost as much as such women pay for other accessories. Of course, they were adorbs, but like the obnoxiously rich women, they did no work. Even more obnoxious is the fact that one can buy on the internet animal-sized bright red vests that claim an animal to be a working dog, when in fact it has no training or official status.

Other dogs have real jobs. Seeing-eye dogs were probably the first working dogs most of us heard about or saw. They perform an important function and are not to be treated as pets if you encounter one. (It’s totally politically incorrect, but a friend of mine wrote a song, “My Seeing-Eye Dog and I Don’t See Eye-to-Eye.” It was funny, though. But I digress.)

Since that time, dogs – and particularly dogs’ noses – have been trained to detect any number of items. They detect drugs and bombs for the police and airlines. They find live people or dead bodies under rubble following an earthquake or building collapse.

Then there are animals that provide care and support of another kind: therapy animals, emotional support animals, and psychiatric service animals.

Therapy animals are most often used with geriatric patients and children in hospitals. In some nursing homes and convalescent centers, you find programs that bring small animals to interact with the residents. Even farm animals – chickens, lambs, piglets – may spark memories that had been hidden away for years.

Emotional Support Animals are dogs or cats (or, less commonly, other animals such as guinea pigs) that live with and provide comfort to a person with a psychiatric disorder. They should be registered as such, and there are places with laws that allow such animals to accompany their humans into public spaces.

Some folks confuse Emotional Support Animals with Psychiatric Service Animals. They think that “training” a dog to offer a kiss on command, or jump in their lap is a task making the animal an official service animal. Service animals, including psychiatric service animals, must receive special training that teaches them how to alleviate the symptoms of an ADA-defined disability.

Legitimate tasks for PSDs (psychiatric service dogs) include counterbalance/bracing for a handler dizzy from medication, waking the handler at the sound of an alarm when the handler is heavily medicated and sleeps through alarms, doing room searches or turning on lights for persons with PTSD, blocking persons in dissociative episodes from wandering into danger (i.e., traffic), leading a disoriented handler to a designated person or place, and so on.

(By the way, forget about cats as service animals. Just try training a cat to do anything it doesn’t want to do. If you are able to register your cat as an Emotional Support Animal or get a medical/psychiatric recommendation, you may be able to have your cat live with you in a pet-free community or have the fee for a pet waived. But that’s about it where cats are concerned.)

I, on the other hand, have an emotional support animal that requires no diagnosis or permit, though I guess you’d have to say that he does require special handling and a bit of training – my husband. In addition to the many other things he does for me, Dan is my emotional support for distressing situations, such as going to the dentist, of which I am terrified. He gets permission to enter the treatment room, sits on a stool that’s not in the doctors’ way, and touches or pats my foot (the only part of me that he can reach in that set-up).

This tiny touch grounds me and provides emotional comfort. And my husband doesn’t even have to wear a bright red vest.

Starstuff

Carl Sagan has been damned as a popularizer of science. Carl Sagan has been praised as a popularizer of science. Since the first time he put on his corduroy jacket and turtleneck to introduce the masses to the wonders of the universe in his ground-breaking TV series Cosmos, he has been many things to many people (and associated with the phrase “billyuns and billyuns”).

So. Is being a science popularizer a good thing or a bad thing? It’s a bad thing if you expect a scientist to remain in the lab and conduct research, without wasting her or his time appearing on Johnny Carson. It’s a good thing if you think science needs to be popular for society to survive.

That Sagan appeared on Carson’s show was not a fluke. Rather than being the epitome of an obsessive researcher, Sagan was an enthusiast and a promoter of science who could, at the same time, entertain as well as he explained.

Sagan was in the news a lot, too. He was the one that insisted that astronauts who had been to the moon be quarantined for a period to make sure they had brought back no alien germs. He was the one who demolished the theories of Immanuel Velikovsky, famous for his book In Search of Ancient Aliens, which purported that alien civilizations have visited Earth and left their mark on ancient astronomy, archaeology, and biblical studies. (Every year when he was teaching astronomy at Cornell University, Sagan devoted one whole lecture to debunking Velikovsky.)

Sagan’s astronomy class was swamped with auditors (particularly on Velikovsky day). To be officially registered for Sagan’s Astronomy 102 class, you had to sit through Astronomy 101, a deadly boring class taught by a deadly boring professor. (I had the great good fortune of taking Sagan’s class, and met him at department parties.) His teaching was compelling and his tests were far from regurgitating dry facts.

Sagan’s particular field barely existed: astrobiology. Since life has never been discovered on other planets, there wasn’t much to say about it, though he could, and did, do experiments on what circumstances and elements needed to be present for life to arise out of the “primordial soup.”

He memorably said, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” He was also famous for “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge” and “The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

Carl Sagan is now present on Facebook, despite the fact that he’s been dead for some years. Most of the quotes attributed to him are on the subjects of today’s culture of stupidity (though he didn’t live long enough to see how thoroughly correct he was), the lack of science education in the US (or at least rigorous science education), the dumbing-down of popular culture, and the need for both scientists and people like him to make science accessible.

Many of the Facebook quotations are influenced by the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which was required reading in his astronomy class, though it had nothing to say about astronomy. Instead, it was a work that denounced what came to be known as pseudoscience, such as belief in ghosts and witchcraft.

Losing Sagan was a profound blow both to science and to making science available and understandable to the masses. Others have attempted to carry on his work as popularizers of science, notably Neil deGrasse Tyson (who had a part in the “Is Pluto a planet?” debate) and Bill Nye (The Science Guy). Tyson has even starred in a reboot of Cosmos, though nothing can rival the fascination of the original series.

Neither one, helpful as they may be to the science-ignorant, has stepped into Sagan’s loafers as a teacher, a public figure, a prescient philosopher of science, an inspiration. I miss the heck out of him.