Category Archives: Articles

Psychology Undusted: Third Places

Several years ago, I wrote about this topic; but viewed from today’s perspective, I thought it might be worth ruminating on, so here’ goes:

Everyone has three places they spend time in: The first place is the home; the second is either school or the workplace; and the third is a place that feels comfortable – a home away from home, or a place we can unwind. The third place varies from person to person; it might be your local hairdresser’s, a pub, Starbucks, a small café, a favourite park bench, a nearby spot out in nature, or a library or museum. Companies like Starbucks have capitalized on people’s need for an environment of comfort; they have couches and armchairs and free Wi-Fi, and don’t make you feel like you need to drink up and move on. Your third place might even be virtual – Facebook and other social media sites where you like to “hang out” and connect with friends. It might be your local community centre; such places are crucial to a neighbourhood, whether or not we realize it, because they facilitate a sense of group identity. When a local crisis arises, they have been the places people gather to distribute clothing or food to those hit; meeting others, encouraging them, helping and being able to contribute to the greater good are all important to our sense of humanity; we all want to feel useful and needed in some way.

Thinking about that topic now through Covid-coloured glasses, at some point we’ve all lost our third places through lockdowns; the rules that govern social interaction have changed drastically, and it has effected the psychological health of both individuals and communities alike. While some of you may have been able to return to business as usual more or less, other regions have had multiple lockdowns; in either case, the subtle changes have made third places less inviting: Regulations about masks, needing to make reservations in restaurants that are half-empty, filling out contact tracing forms, etc. Perhaps your favourite haunt didn’t survive the financial strain of months of forced closure, or it closed because the owner passed away. More than missing that physical place, many people have suffered because of social distancing: Not being able to meet up with friends, spend time in good company, and, in the advent of mass home-office work, even the absence of spontaneous encounters with co-workers around the break room. Having a drink together over Skype or Zoom just isn’t the same; the spontaneity is missing. Those people who thrive on physical contact, such as a hug or a pat on the back, have suffered deeply on a psychological level whether they realize it or not.

Some positive effects have also come from lockdown: Many people have intentionally invested more into their local community; we’ve shopped locally or supported the local restaurants by ordering delivery or take-away more often than we normally would have, or bought from local farm shops (we’re blessed with an abundance of those in our area); by working at home, carbon emissions have been reduced by thousands of daily commuters (usually only one per car) not being on the road. Our holiday budgets have taken a breather. We’ve wasted less money on impulse-shopping. More and more people have felt the growing need to be off-grid and self-sufficient for future times of crisis, and the tiny home and homesteading movements are booming. More people are planting gardens, or they’re spending more time with their family.

Pre-pandemic habits made it easier to compartmentalize life: We had the home and the workplace in separate physical locations, which made it easier to leave the stress of one behind when returning to the other and, depending on your home or work environment, the relief of change might have been a subtle but necessary transition for your mental health. The potential emotional or mental strain that happened when those two places merged, at the same time losing our third place possibilities through lockdown, is not to be glossed over. The thing about the third place is that it’s also a responsibility-free zone; there are no expectations or obligations placed on us there; that kind of environment also inspires productivity and creativity, and many people have lamented becoming more “lazy” or “lackadaisical” in their habits over the past year; why get dressed up if you don’t have to go to work or be seen in public? Maybe you’ve grown comfortable in your “junk around the house” attire, or not wearing make-up or not shaving. The old adage of “Fine feathers make fine birds” is true: If you want to feel creative, dress for it; if you want to mean business in your schedule, dress for it. Even if you’re alone at home. Then, the transition to being seen by friends and strangers again might not be so daunting.

Returning to those third places may not be as easy at it sounds; we may never perceive such places the same ol’ way again. While some people can’t wait to get out and mingle, many of us have become cautious around groups of strangers – will they observe healthy social distancing and hygiene rules? Will they stay home if they’re sick? One thing I will never miss is someone giving me the Swiss three-kisses-to-the-cheeks greeting and then telling me they forgot to mention it – they have a cold. I’ve been far less sick in the last year, because of social distancing, than ever before*! I’ve been relieved to know that people are not wiping their noses on their hands and then offering it to me in greeting; hand disinfectants are ubiquitous now, and I’m perfectly fine with that.

[* I was recently chatting with my doctor about that topic, and she said that serious cases of influenza and pneumonia are already beginning to increase, even though it’s summer here; the suspicion in the medical community is that, because we’ve been disinfected and protected from fighting the minor cold viruses throughout the year, they’ve learned to hit aggressively if they get the chance. So talk to your doctor, or educate yourself through serious medical websites, about how you can support or encourage a healthy immune system.]

Today, while we were out for a day trip on the Lake of Zurich, I noticed that while many people have the typical pale blue medical masks, a variety of colours are becoming more common; they’ve at length become a fashion accessory. You can buy cloth masks in shops everywhere here now, or sew your own like I do. Back when this all started in 2020, many people scoffed at the idea of wearing a mask in public, and now it’s so engrained in us that we stare if someone forgot to put theirs on (here, they are required inside any building as well as when using public transport). Despite the hygienic regulations, things are slowly returning to a semblance of normalcy here; restaurants are open again (though masks can only be removed while you’re seated at your table); street cafés are popular because, as of right now, masks are not required outdoors (though that may change again now that the dangers of infection through aerosols are better understood and greater than previously assessed); and third places are becoming available again. People are cautious – and frankly, they have reason to be (I say this from the perspective of one who has long-term Covid symptoms that flare up every 3-4 weeks), but they’re starting to emerge from their hibernation, and that’s a good thing.

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Psychology Undusted: Lines of Desire

Have you ever felt guilty for taking a shortcut across a grassy patch rather than following the official concrete path? Or have you ever noticed a bare strip through grass? These are known as desire paths, or lines of desire (the latter term comes from the French phrase, “lignes de désir”, from the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s 1958 book, “The Poetics of Space”.

Architects would be well advised to pay attention to these worn paths when planning official paths through public parks or around businesses, because no matter how neat their officially-laid paths look, those lines of desire will continue to be followed and worn into the earth. Perhaps it’s a manifestation of democracy triumphing when a desire path gets paved over after the fact.

So why do they happen? Sometimes it’s a question of taking a shortcut from one building to the next, or from one corner to the next. Sometimes they are made out of consideration for others: During the pandemic, new lines of desires began appearing, but rather than being shortcuts, they simply ran parallel to existing paths – these were likely an attempt at avoiding proximity with others when passing on a side walk. Desire paths can be seen as the paths of least resistance, or as a silent protest against being told where to walk or how to get from points A to B. These paths have been seen as symbols of rebellion, anarchism, individual creativity, intuitive design, opportunities to take fate into one’s own hands even if treading the expected nine-to-five otherwise, or even as a passive aggressive reaction against authority.

Many languages have their own terms for desire paths or lines of desire: In Dutch, they’re known as “elephant paths”, and in French, they’re known as donkey paths, while the Germans, pragmatically, call them “trample paths” (so unimaginative!) But the diversity proves that desire paths are a universal human tendency.

Some businesses or schools, such as the University of Michigan, waited until students and staff showed them where paths would be most appreciated before paving them in; the aerial view (Google Earth) over the campus shows the intricate weave of the lines of desire that would likely not have occurred to the landscape architects:

I’d encourage you to take a walk, keeping an eye out for those lines of desire near you; if you’d prefer not to go out, then take a virtual walk – google the term “desire paths” in the image mode, and see just what pops up! Enjoy!

Personal update:

For those of you following our situation, I will say that the day after my last update everything got turned on its head once again! Chemo has been delayed another 3-4 weeks, as my husband ended up in emergency again, and they finally decided to rebuild his stoma before starting chemo. He’s now back home after over a week in the hospital, and is gaining appetite, and hopefully gaining weight again now! He’ll have a couple weeks to recover before the next phase of his treatment takes off… that’s as of THIS moment. Planning further ahead than a day is a bit pointless right now, so it’s a wait-and-see game…

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History Undusted: Limbo

Over the past year and more, we’ve all experienced limbo in one form or another: Lock downs, restrictions, cancellations of events or flights or holidays or plans to meet up with friends, and the uncertainty of how long it will all last. Then there is the feeling of limbo that comes with my personal situation of waiting for the cascade of appointments for my husband’s chemo to begin; we had a set-back last week with a bacterial infection and a week’s hospitalization, so we’ll just have to wait and see if he can keep the appointments already made or not. Limbo. Waiting to find out if he can be brought home tomorrow. Limbo.

My writing, both in the forms of this blog and of my manuscript, have both been sucked into the state of limbo as well, as I’ve spent most of the past few weeks, and more intensively the past three days, on the phone with people who’ve asked how we’re doing, or answering messages on my phone or social media. Sometimes I feel like my manuscript is calling for me to work on it, and I’m trying to reach it while wading toward it waist-deep in a thick sludge of other priorities – it’s been just out of reach for days, because by the time I actually reach it, I have no energy left.

As I was thinking about those limbo moments, I actually started wondering just where the limbo dance comes from, historically; I remember doing it as a child – the local indoor skating rink played limbo every night. So, here’s a brief low-down on the low-down dance:

The origins are vague, as is the etymology of the name: Starting in late-1800s Trinidad, the name might have come from the Jamaican English “limba“, i.e. limber. Interestingly, the game is used in Africa as a funeral game, and there may be a connection between the two regions through the slave trade which brought Africans to the Jamaican islands, as it is also a popular “dance” for wakes in Trinidad. The rules are simple: a person passes under a bar, face-up, with the only body part allowed to touch the ground being the feet. The game is considered the unofficial national game of Trinidad and Tobago, it only began to gain popularity beyond the region in the 1950s; it was adopted in the mid-1950s as a form of physical exercise for American military troops. It was often attempted to a rhythmic song, and one of the most popular was the Limbo Rock, by Chubby Checker. Just listening to the song brings back the feeling of the cool breeze blowing around the skating rink as people sped to get in line for the limbo stick as soon as they heard the music start over the loudspeaker!

As we face our own times of limbo in this age of Corona, or in the circumstances we find ourselves in, perhaps it would perk up our spirits to hum the Limbo Rock and take it with a bow and a smile.

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Life & All that Jazz: Peace in the Storm

It’s been a few weeks since I posted; right after my last post, our lives got turned upside down, so I wanted to take a moment to explain what’s been going on, and why I haven’t been present recently:

At the end of March, my husband had to find a new general doctor, as his former doctor retired; because of the full check-up, they found a tumour in his colon. It turned out to be malignant. Since that moment, everything has been moving either lightening-speed or at a snail’s pace, with nothing in between… He had a round of radiation therapy, and then surgery, after which he was in the hospital for several days; now he’s at home, and what should have been a 6-week period with a stoma will now be much shorter, as he needs to have that reconstructed before any chemotherapy can begin…we’ll know more after a consultation in a week, so this week is an emotional and mental limbo. Through it all, we are at peace; we have dozens of people around the world praying for us, and we know that our lives are in God’s hands. Our lives are always in God’s loving hands; often, we humans think we have things in our control, but that’s an illusion. The healthiest person in the world could get hit by a train tomorrow. There are no guarantees of a long, healthy life on this earth; that’s why it’s important to know where you’re going after you leave your mortal frame behind. If you haven’t thought about that, I’d encourage you to do so. Most westerners are taught that death is an uncomfortable topic, and so most people avoid it; in other cultures, death is considered a part of life’s cycle, which is closer to reality than ignoring the topic as if that would make it go away. My husband and I are Christians, so for us, mortal death is just a one-way ticket home, so to speak. Death is something we don’t have to fear – not that we’re eager for it to come, but I think you understand what I mean. Our hope rests in Someone greater than us who has our very best interests at His heart; it doesn’t rest with doctors, though we can trust God to guide their hands, decisions, discernment and actions. Even if your life philosophy doesn’t agree with mine, I’d encourage you to consider my perspective.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been in this kind of situation, but I find that for me, while normal energy is going elsewhere, I still need to keep my hands and my mind busy. While keeping one part of my mind on my husband and where he’s at in the flat, or if he needs something, or if I can entice him to eat something, the other part of my mind is too distracted to focus too much on creative writing. I don’t ever want to post a blog just to post something; if it’s not something I’m interested in personally – if it doesn’t grab my own attention, or if it’s not from my heart – I won’t post. Quality over quantity has always been my guiding motto. So instead, I’ve been cleaning – in German, we would say entschlacken, or decluttering. Our library is now nine grocery bags slimmer of books; we still have over a thousand, but these are books we read, or antiques, or first editions, or hardbacks. What I could find on Kindle got physically eliminated if it didn’t fall into those 4 categories. Besides decluttering, I crochet – right now, I’m making small toys for a Christmas gift campaign that our church participates in each year; we package up 200 boxes with toiletries, school supplies, warm hats and scarves, and toys. It gives me a goal to reach before December and keeps my hands busy.

Hopefully, in the coming week, I’ll find the creative juices to take you on our next virtual tour. In the meantime, stay healthy, stay safe, and be the best version of you.

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History Undusted: The Kindred Spirits of the Choctaw & the Irish

I recently heard of an unusual historical connection between a tribe of survivors from the Trail of Tears, and those struggling with survival half a world away during the Irish Potato Famine, 1845-1852.

The Choctaws were one of the Native American nations who were forcibly displaced between 1830 and 1850, along with Cherokee, Creek (Muscogee), Seminole and the Chickasaw nations. Basically, any land the white insurgents wanted, they took, driving out tribes from their ancestral homes; thousands died of exposure, starvation and disease on the road to their designated reserves.

But in the midst of their own sorrows, the Choctaw people heard about the plight of the Irish famine, and they responded with generosity. They collected $170 (which would be around $5,200 today) and sent it to the Irish in 1847. While gifts flowed to Ireland from various sources, the gift of this native tribe touched the Irish deeply; despite their own tragedies, they reached out and gave the Irish people hope – hope that they weren’t alone and that others cared.

Fast-forward to the Covid-19 challenges facing many Indian reservations: Many people are unemployed and barely scraping by; a lack of running water or electricity is common, so you can imagine how challenging it is for them to keep their hands clean and to be able to meet hygiene requirements – as a result, the Corona Virus has swept through these impoverished communities. A Navajo woman, Ethel Branch, started a GoFundMe, hoping to raise money to help support reservation families; she set the goal at $50,000, thinking it was far too ambitious and expecting only about a thousand dollars to come in. But the Irish heard about it, and they’ve been paying it forward, back to the people they never forgot and who they teach about in their history lessons; so far, over $5 million has been raised.

For a short news report on the story, click here.

One tweet made all the difference in this new chapter of an intercontinental friendship. This story reminds me that when we respond with empathy and generosity, even the smallest acts of kindness can encourage others, and, as the saying goes, what goes around comes around.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and keep an eye out for those who need an encouraging word or deed – you may change a life.

Alex Pentek’s “Kindred Spirits” sculpture, County Cork, Ireland

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Virtual Tour: Warther Museum, Ohio

I don’t know about you, but I love going to museums; I’ve been in huge museums such as the British Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Maritime Museum, all in London, or the Swiss National Museum in Zurich, or the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; but some of the best museums I’ve seen have also been smaller. The mega-museums usually have so much to see that you can really only cover a wing or two in a day; but I’m the kind of visitor who likes to sit and contemplate the exhibit a while before moving on, which means I can cover even less ground. I’ll often absorb the information and history by creating a calligram or two (such as this ammonite). Pocket-sized museums, however, can offer a lot for their size; they often tell the story of the region, or of one family that made a difference in their worlds.

Today’s tour takes us the the latter kind of museum: The Warther Museum, in Dover, Ohio, tells the story of a man and his wife, Ernest & Frieda Warther, who had passion for what they did and for their community. The museum houses the collections of buttons and arrowheads the couple collected, which Frieda mounted and arranged into designs. Ernest “Mooney” Warther was a master wood carver, and his finest work, a locomotive engine car with moving parts throughout, was deemed by the Smithsonian as a masterpiece.

To see the collections for yourself and read the story of this little gem, just click here. Enjoy learning about a fascinating little piece of history!

Image credit: Warther Museum website

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Virtual Tour: Voices You Know

Most of my writing in the last few weeks has been intensively focused on my current novel’s manuscript; After nearly a year of Corona Virus residual exhaustion, I’ve finally been able to focus my mind; brain fuzz is apparently widely recognized now as an after-effect, but when this all started for me it was new territory for everyone. Only by talking with other friends who’ve gone through it have we pieced together which symptoms are common denominators – it doesn’t alleviate them, but it helps to know the whys and hows.

While writing, editing, and researching for my novel, I’ve been keeping one eye open for the next interesting topic for a tour, and today I found it:

This might actually fall under another category I did back in 2016: Odd jobs (just search for that in the column on the right of the screen, and you’ll find the list). Today’s tour introduces the people behind the voices we have all heard and recognize, but who we would never recognize on the street – or even know their names: Film trailer voices, bank and computer voices, and public announcers.

Come with me as we meet some of the faces behind the well-known voices:

Carolyn Hopkins: You may not have ever thought about who is behind the voice of the airport announcer – you might think it’s a random employee of the airport who just happens to be on duty in the dispatch; but you’d be wrong. In over 200 airports worldwide, you will hear the same motherly but authoritative voice of Maine resident, Carolyn Hopkins. She records those airport warnings, delays and flight changes, as well as subway announcements and storm warnings, all received by email from her modest little home office-cum-recording studio.

Susan Bennett: Though you might not know the name, you’ll know her voice: Siri.

Jane Barbie: Back in the days before cell phones, this woman was the most-listened to recording artist of all time, with her recordings heard 25 trillion times per year. Her most famous one is: “I’m sorry. The number you have dialled…”

Redd Pepper: With a booming voice, he is one of the most-recognized film trailer recording artists in the UK and beyond.

Joe Cipriano, Mark Elliott, Beau Weaver and Scott Rummell: These four men are known within the industry as the icons of the promo and trailer world. For a trailer spoof read by the four of them, you can simply watch the video link from time mark 1:00 to 2:00.

Charles Martinet: The voice behind several of Nintendo’s Super Mario’s characters for over 25 years, he’s a bit of a character himself!

Jim Cummings: As he says, you might not know him, but you know his characters: Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, too.

Here is a short video featuring several voice-over artists – voices you’ll recognize, with a bit of an insider look into the industry’s unseen side.

Ted Williams: About 10 years ago, a YouTube video went viral about a homeless man on the side of the road with a sign claiming that he had a radio voice; he became known as the Man with the Golden Voice. His rocket into fame was a rough ride, with people taking advantage of him, but he’s now got better management, and continues to do voice-over work and support the homeless shelter that had supported him for 20 years of his life.

Hal Douglas: One of those famous movie trailer voices, here’s a short spoof video taking the mickey out of his own job.

For a short video covering the history of how box office trailers evolved with the film industry, click here.

I hope you enjoyed getting to know some of the people behind the scenes of the media!

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Virtual Tour 7: Maple Syrup

It’s time for another tour! Today’s tour takes us on a sweet-tooth trip: Maple syrup, and how it’s made.

Usually made from the sap of sugar-, red-, or black maple trees, this sap is stored during the cold seasons in the trunks and roots of trees before winter to keep the tree conserved and primed for the warmer season; when the temperatures rise, the tree is ready to go – it begins moving sugar from its roots to the twigs, supplying the energy needed to grow new shoots and leaves. At this point, if the tree is “tapped” by drilling holes into the trunks and attaching a collection container, the sap flows, and can be processed into maple syrup; when done properly, the tree won’t be substantially hindered in its spring production.

But why is sap from the maple tree so dominant? What about other hardwood trees? There are at least 20 tree species that can be tapped for sap, including hickory, pecan, birch, sycamore and walnut; but while the maple trees can be tapped from January to March, as long as the nights are below freezing and the days are warmer, and they produce about 40 litres sap for 1 litre of syrup, some trees, such as the birch, can only be tapped for 2-3 weeks, and because the sugar content is much lower in this tree, it would take about 60 litres sap to make 1 litre of syrup. Walnut trees can be tapped from autumn through spring, but its syrup tends to have a bitter and astringent taste, and so it’s not a popular flavour.

When you consider that tapping a tree produces drops at a time, harvesting is a slow process; it explains why some trees are less preferred by producers, as their volume-to-production values are lower. A major factor in maple syrup production is that, before the colonization of North America, sugar maple trees were the most abundant trees in their areas; as the most dominant biomass, it was natural that they were the most experimented with, and early Native American tribes recognized their potential – they used the sap for everything from sweet snacks to medicines and poultices, and passed on their knowledge to early European settlers.

A cheap alternative is a “maple-flavoured” syrup, which is nothing more than corn syrup with flavouring and colouring added; but corn syrup (also known as glucose syrup), which is made from the starch of corn and is a common sweetener in many pre-packaged foods, can lead to insulin resistance, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes. It increases your appetite, promoting a vicious cycle, while the real deal, maple syrup, provides at least 24 antioxidants (according the healthline.com); these can neutralize free radicals, which are believed to be among the causes of ageing and many diseases. As with anything containing sugar, however, it should be enjoyed within reason!

So, now that we’re all on the same page as to what maple syrup actually is, let’s go on our tour!

The Wheelers Maple Syrup site gives you its background, how its produced, and much more.

The New England Maple Museum, in Pittsford, Vermont, takes you on a historical journey through the local sugaring industry, with an online shop.

The Food Insider takes you on an 8-minute insider’s tour through a video: “How Real Vermont Maple Syrup is Made

I hope you enjoy exploring these links, and admit it – how many of you have a hankering for pancakes now?

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Virtual Tour 6: Hobos

Today’s tour isn’t of a place, but of a group of people: Hobos. Come along with me as we explore their origins, their ethics, their slang, and even their secret language of symbols.

Hobos were migratory workers that began as displaced soldiers after the American Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865. The conflict laid waste to large swaths of land, and many men returning found that they had no home to return to, or found families so economically devastated by the war that they couldn’t afford another mouth to feed – so those men took to the railways to take them cross-country looking for work. Before the advent of the train, these men tramped – walked – around the countryside in search of work. While railroads began in the US around 1830, they were not really nationwide until after 1910. Another group of people who took to life on the road were young men from large families; removing a hungry mouth or two could greatly benefit the family; some left with tearful goodbyes and promises to send wages when they could; others slipped out in the night and left on their adventure into the wider world.

The story goes that in the distant past, boys were often hired on temporarily to help with agricultural harvests; they were referred to as simply “boys”; but to distinguish them from other groups of workers, they were named after one of their tools, the hoe; gradually the term drifted from hoe-boy to the word we know today, “Hobo”. There is, in fact, no etymology of the word that I could find. It might also come from a railroad worker’s call on late 19th century railroads, “Ho, boy”, ho being a variation of “whoa”, used to either call attention from a distance, or as a command to stop. Perhaps the true origin of the word lies somewhere in between.

Both tramp and bum come from German, trampeln and bummeln, both referring to trekking, walking, ambling or wandering. But because both tramps and bums were associated with being lazy and opportunistic thieves, hobos carried the same stigma. Hobos, however, were honest and free; they had a strict moral code, were hard-working, and some even chose that lifestyle above their own personal wealth or position, such as James Eads Howe, founder of the International Brotherhood Welfare Association, an aid society for hobos; he was born into a wealthy family in St. Louis, Missouri, but he chose instead to live as a hobo. Some simply wanted to live with no strings attached, no address to be found by state or federal government; today, we might call it living off-grid, though our contemporary version is far more luxurious than those early migrants could have ever aspired to.

James Eads Howe, founder of the International Brotherhood Welfare Association, an aid society for hobos. 1922. Source: Library of Congress

Up through the 1920s, hobos defined themselves in terms of being free-spirited; but when the subculture exploded during the late 1920s and early 1930s as the Great Depression forced men, women and children onto the highways and byways looking for work to survive, the hobo popular image shifted to a symbol of poverty wracking the nation. As factories closed across the country, many had no choice but to migrate. The most famous image from that time is by Dorothea Lange, taken of Florence Owen Thompson, a mother of seven starving children, living in a shanty during a pea harvest in Nipomo, California in 1936. The photographer captured the plight of the migrant workers, prompting the government to send food to the camp; the images did not gain popularity until the 1950s, however; it was probably too painfully familiar to people to garner much contemporary appreciation. After the Great Depression had passed, and World War 2 was over, the number of hobos decreased drastically, but has never died out completely.

Dorothea Lange’s famous Migrant Mother, age 32, Nipomo, California
Source: Library of Congress

Today, the hobo culture continues; whether they’re called hobos, or trainhoppers, or drifters, or solo ramblers, strays, or vagabonds, it is a worldwide movement. In South America, it is estimated that 400-500,000 migrants hop trains annually in an attempt to reach the United States. As Corona lockdowns affect companies, leading to layoffs and bankruptcies, I think we’ll see a surge in the number of hobos. Every year in Britt, Iowa, a hobo convention is held, where they celebrate the positive aspects of living free, and likely discuss how to do it honourably and well. It’s a chance to connect, and to feel part of a community while still being independent. Click here to see a few images from their 2013 convention.

Hobos didn’t just try to work hard; they had a moral code of conduct that included these tenets:

  • Decide your own life; don’t let another person rule you or run you.
  • When in towns, always respect the local law and officials – be a gentleman at all times.
  • Always try to find work, even if temporary, and look for jobs nobody wants. You’ll be helping a business along, but you’ll also ensure good will if you return to that town again.
  • Don’t take advantage of the vulnerable – either locals or other hobos.
  • When no work is available, make your own work – use your talents.
  • Don’t set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos by becoming a stupid drunk.
  • Always respect nature – do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
  • If in a community jungle, pitch in and help. Help others whenever needed – you may need their help one day.
  • When jungling in town, respect handouts and don’t wear them out – other hobos will be coming along who may need them more than you.
  • Don’t cause trouble in rail yards or in towns – other hobos will be coming, and they need the goodwill.
  • Try to stay clean – bathe whenever possible.
  • When travelling, ride your train respectfully – take no personal chances, cause no problems with the train crew, and act like an extra crew member – help where you can.
  • Do not allow other hobos to molest children – expose them to the law – they are the worst garbage to infest a society.
  • Help all runaway children, and try to talk them into returning home.

I’d say that these rules are good for everyone to live by, no matter what their status or situation. Besides a code of ethics, they had a separate language. Here’s some of their colourful slang:

  • Accommodation Car = Caboose of a train
  • Bad road = a train line made unusable by some hobo’s bad action or crime
  • Banjo = a small portable frying pan, sometime a “D” handled shovel
  • Barnacle = a person who sticks to one job for a year or more
  • Beachcomber = a hobo who hangs around seaports or dockyards
  • Bindle Stick = a collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tie at the end of a stick
  • Blowed-in-the-grass = a trustworthy, genuine person
  • Bone Polisher = a mean dog
  • Bone Orchard = graveyard
  • C, H & D = a person is Cold, Hungry and Dry (thirsty)
  • California Blankets = bedding made of newspaper
  • Calling in = using someone else’s campfire to warm up or cook
  • Catch the Westbound = to die
  • Chuck a Dummy = pretend to faint
  • Cover with the Moon = Sleep out in the open
  • Docandoberry = anything growing along a river that’s edible
  • Easy Mark = place where one can get food and a place to stay overnight
  • Elevated = under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Flip = to board a moving train
  • Flop = a place to sleep, “Flophouse”, a cheap hotel
  • Glad rags = one’s best clothes
  • Graybacks, Crumbs = lice
  • Gump = a chicken
  • Honey Dipping = working with a shovel in a sewer
  • Hot = 1) a fugitive hobo; 2) a decent meal (“I could use three hots and a flop”)
  • Hot Shot = fast freight train, stops rarely
  • Jungle = an area off a railroad where hobos camp and congregate. Jungle Buzzard = a hobo or tramp who preys on his own
  • Knowledge Bus = a school bus used for shelter
  • Maeve = a young hobo, usually a girl; similar to Angelina (a young, inexperienced child)
  • Mulligan = a type of community stew, created by several hobos combining their ingredients
  • On the Fly = jumping a moving train
  • Padding the Hoof = travel by foot
  • Possum Belly = ride on the roof of a passenger car (one must lie flat)
  • Rum Dum = a drunkard
  • Sky Pilot = a preacher or minister
  • Spare Biscuits = looking for food in garbage cans
  • Stemming = panhandling or begging

Source: New Braunfels Railroad Museum, Texas

When hobos travelled from town to town, they never knew what to expect – would they be welcomed, or arrested? Out of the necessity to be prepared, a language of symbols grew: A hobo could give those who came after him a good idea of what to expect – was there work available? Would the police arrest a hobo on sight? Could you get a good meal at this house or that? The hobo would leave these symbols nearby – etched in the dirt road near a house, or marked on a stone or tree or a wall or a railcar. Here is an example of the symbols, though there are many more! Reading through them gives you a glimpse of some of the things they were up against.

In the images below, the young man getting on the train and the one cooking over a fire with a can on a stick are one and the same man – World lightweight boxing champion Lou Ambers, who travelled across the US to compete in Bootleg Bouts to earn money for his widowed mother.

I hope you enjoyed this tour of the world of hobos – without the dangers of train hopping!

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Rabbit Holes

Have you ever started what seemed like a small project, only to realize that you’d fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole, ala Wonderland?

I was sitting in my library last weekend, and I glanced up at a few old photo albums on the top shelf of one of our bookcases. I’ve been meaning to photograph, restore and edit those pictures for years, so I finally pulled one down and began. It happened to be my family history album, with photographs as far back as 1890. And so it began.

The last time I wrote an article about family history, only a couple days later I was contacted by then-unknown branches of that family – distant relatives who’d been looking for that kind of missing-link information. That article was posted on a dormant blog of mine, so I’ll post it here this coming week – who knows, maybe more relatives will show up for the party!

I spread the album open on our dining table, and began taking pictures of pictures (if you’ve ever done this, you’ll know that glossy photos are the bane of restoration attempts!), then painstakingly took out each scratch and superficial film blemish caused by age and my two emigrations (first Scotland, then Switzerland). I cropped, turned, tweaked and focused until each photo was restored and properly labelled. Then I began feeding them into a digital album program – when it’s ready, I’ll be able to order a physical hardback book, and the project will be on my cloud account to avoid losing the whole project, as happened once before (I still have the photos, and the printed book, so I can re-create it, but it hurts to have lost all that work through a computer crash, pre-cloud…!).

That’s when the first rabbit hole opened. Being a writer, I’m curious by nature. Or maybe my curiosity led me into writing. Whatever. I’m curious, and I love research. I also have a lot of experience in tracking missing persons: About 12 years ago, I tracked down nearly all of my 35 former classmates from Hawaii, 1986, from Australia to Guam to Norway to Brazil to Seattle. Every evening, when my husband came home from work, he couldn’t wait to hear what I’d accomplished that day: I “bribed” a retired LAPD detective with a bar of Swiss chocolate to track down one friend who was a hermit in the Californian mountains with no phone, no internet, and no address. I had enough for him to go on, and he put legs to my work – within 24 hours, I had my man – he came down the mountain for a phone call with me. Another friend had moved out of state from the last known address, and his name was a common one – too common to find him through conventional ways. So, I put Google Earth, white pages and intuition together, with a dose of southern charm (I’m not from the south, but I can turn it on if need be!), and got the state he’d moved to from a former neighbour of his – all he knew was where he might be working. Another friend was off-grid for security reasons – and I still tracked her down (I told her, “I could tell you how I did it, but then I’d have to kill you!” 😉) Needless to say, almost every track was an adventure.

Which brings me to the present rabbit hole: I’ve begun work on my paternal family album; on the maternal side, I don’t have any information beyond my great-grandparents, but I can trace my paternal grandmother’s family back to the Danish village they came from, on the island west of Copenhagen – and once I’ve filled in as wide as I can from the emigrated side, I’ll contact the Danish records offices or cemetery of the Old Town and go back further still if I can – so far, I’m into the 1830s; hopefully, such European records survived World Wars 1 & 2.

Nis & Maren “Mary” Aaroe, my great-great-grandparents, who immigrated with 2 small children to Kansas from Vonsild, Denmark in the 1880s. Here, in the late 1910’s.

There are a few websites that specialize in ancestry – but most of them want to charge you to see the information. I understand that a company needs to have a viable income to offset their costs, but such websites often rely on volunteer family members feeding in that information on their own dime, so I won’t support them. I have found two websites that have proven invaluable; if you want to do something similar, here they are:

www.findagrave.com is a website gathering of history and genealogy enthusiasts who photograph tombstones and gather personal information about the individual from official documents, obits, etc., with the purpose of honouring them and allowing others to find family members. It was the first time I’d seen my own father’s gravestone. I’ve been on there less than a week, and I’ve become the custodian of a dozen virtual family graves; it will be easier to add information as I come across it in research as the rabbit hole deepens. Through the efforts of complete strangers unrelated to my family, I’ve been able to fill in the blanks of missing birthdates and death-dates, as well as next of kin, and their next of kin, and so on. Another rabbit hole!

The second website is www.wikitree.com; it is a free website, like Wikipedia, but for genealogists to collaborate through, with forums and all kinds of helpful groups to get you started. So far, I haven’t needed any of the forums myself, but I’ve been busy building up the family tree and collecting pictures and information there. As I have my husband’s family tree already, it will be my next project on that website.

Keep in mind that I’m doing all of this in my spare time; I’m working on my 5th novel’s manuscript, and I have a husband in home office through the week, which means 2 meals a day instead of just 1 to plan ahead for and prepare. Someone does laundry, and cleans the house and goes grocery shopping – but since I haven’t been able to train our cats to do that, I guess it’s me, while my husband earns our keep. He earns, I spend – it works well for us. 😉

For the sake of potential relatives searching for family names online, my heritage is as follows:

Umbarger, Kuhns, Hüsler (Huesler), Aagaard (The anglicized Danish surname is sometimes misspelled as Agard or Aagard), Aaroe, Higbee, Herring. So glad I don’t have that string on my official documents! Two things can sometimes make tracking difficult is that firstly, maiden names are exchanged for the married surname, causing a break in the chain; secondly, the Ellis Island effect – officials didn’t know how to spell the name properly, so they recorded it phonetically, which makes unravelling the true path more of a challenge.

This week, the intrigue continues as I begin trying to track down the missing branches of my family. My goal is to make the album project available to even distant relatives who might be interested, although it will obviously have the emphasis of my personal perspective as far as photos go, the closer to my generation I get.

Have you done any family history research, or a family tree? Have you ever taken a DNA test? If so, what did it reveal about you and your ancestors? Please comment below!

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