Attack of the Hons

In 1924 a teacher named Jaime Garí i Poch discovered a curious drawing on a wall in the Cuevas de Araña, or Spider Caves, near Valencia, Spain. The drawing, which is as much as 15,000 years old, depicts a person on a rickety ladder, reaching up to gather honey from a beehive. It’s the oldest indication yet discovered that our ancestors were willing to risk life and limb and anger a swarm of stinging insects just to satisfy their sweet tooths.

Spider Caves honey harvesting
Sketch of Cueva Arana cave painting. By Achillea [GPL (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
As the second sweetest naturally occurring substance in the world (dates hold the top spot), humans have loved honey maybe as much as Pooh bears do, for millennia. Ancient Egyptians used it in medicines and rituals and, presumably, to feed those late night sugary cravings. The Promised Land in Exodus flows with milk and honey, and in the sexiest book in the Bible, Song of Solomon, the lover’s “lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb” and she has “milk and honey under [her] tongue.”

It’s not a great leap, then, to the use of the word “honey” as a term of endearment, which according to the OED happened around the middle of the 14th century. Honey has long held an important place in the human experience. It’s worth striving for. Kind of like love.

So, enter honey, honey pie, honey bunches, honey bunny, or any other nauseating honey-themed nickname you can dream up. And let’s not forget the ubiquitous hon or hun, depending on whether you are comparing your loved one to a gooey sweet treat or a war-mongering barbarian.

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I just don’t recommend calling your loved one a “Honey Bucket.” photo credit: magnetbox Honey Bucket via photopin (license)

And actually, I don’t mind the use of the word as a term of endearment. I have on occasion been known to use it when speaking to my husband or my children (when it can be either hon or hun, depending on the situation). My parents sometimes use it when speaking to me. It’s lovely that they do because it makes me feel treasured by some of the people who matter most in my life.

But when the checker at the grocery store, who is easily half my age, and who I have never met, calls me hon, I don’t like it. This recently happened to me and I posted about it on Facebook, polling the audience as to whether or not the incident should have bothered me.

The post generated a lot of comments, primarily divided along geographical lines. My friends who grew up in the Southern US or who live there now either defended the practice or said it didn’t bother them, while my more Northern friends took the opportunity to join the chorus of complaints. Others suggested that it was acceptable under only some circumstances, like if the person using the term were older, and not a man. It was an interesting string of comments, but I’m not sure I really got an answer to my question.

honey pot
It must be love. Photo via Pixabay.

Should it bother me? I don’t know. I’m generally okay with and appreciate cultural diversity, and as our world shrinks through electronic and economic connectedness, I suppose clashes over minor differences in mannerisms are becoming more common. In the grand scheme of things, this one isn’t so bad. I mean I’m not going to correct the young lady. But I also recognize that I’m allowed to feel what I feel and openly complain about it on social media. Because that’s what we do, right?

Of course it could be worse. Not every language has grabbed on to honey, honey pie, honey bunches, honey bunny, or hon as go to terms of endearment. My husband, who is conversationally fluent in French, refers to me once in a while as his petit chou, a term that apparently sets French hearts to fluttering and literally translates as “little cabbage.” I’m pretty sure if the young lady at the grocery store checkout called me that, I’d go a little war-mongering barbarian on her.

So what do you think, my wider Internet community? Should I have been bothered?

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Trending in History: Giants and Jerkfaces

On October 16, 1869, on William Newell’s farm near Cardiff, New York, two men digging a well, hit something surprising with their shovels. What they eventually uncovered was a ten foot tall, 3,000 pound petrified man.

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Someone clearly had an unfortunate run-in with geode water. Excavation of the Cardiff Giant, Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

For years, newspapers had been featuring reports of petrified men, believed to have come into contact with water from the inside of geodes. So no one had any doubt such a thing could happen. The good people of Cardiff flocked to see the giant, took selfies to post on Instagram and tweeted out the Syracuse Daily Standard article that dubbed the giant “a new wonder.”

Of course there were a few skeptics. Among them was Dr. Boynton, a local science lecturer who assumed the find was actually a large statue of historical significance. Noteworthy geologist and paleontologist James Hall liked this theory, calling the find, “the most remarkable object yet brought to light in our country,” a quote that once added to a picture of the respected scientist became a meme netting more than 120,000 likes and 15,000 shares on Facebook.

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Looks legit to me.

Many theologians got excited, too, pointing to the very large man as evidence supporting the literal interpretation of Genesis 6:4, which claims there were once giants on the earth. The news commentators and bloggers had a lot to work with.

But notably absent from most “media” coverage was the assessment of Yale paleontologist Othniel Marsh who stated upon seeing the Cardiff giant, “It is of very recent origin, and a most decided humbug…” Marsh wasn’t the only one to voice such outrageous ideas, but he might as well have not said anything, for all the good it did.

Most visitors adamantly claimed there was no way they would ever believe the giant had not once been a living, breathing creature. Because once a person’s decided to believe something, it’s hard to convince them not to.

Eventually, the man behind the humbuggery did confess. Cigar manufacturer, dedicated atheist, and cousin to Mr. Newell, George Hull admitted to having the statue commissioned and buried after engaging in a debate with a Methodist preacher over the literal interpretation of Genesis 6:4. He really just wanted to say, “Gotcha!”

As a bonus, he also made a pretty penny off his share in the scheme eventually selling his interest for nearly a half million adjusted 2017 dollars. He definitely fooled a lot of people and certainly supported the point that those who set out to make a point by fooling a lot of people, are kind of big jerkfaces.

Seriously, it was ALL OVER social media. #HumbugHull  #CardiffCon #GiantJerkface.

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P.T. Barnum, America’s favorite son of humbuggery, offered to buy the Cardiff Giant. When his offer was refused, he commissioned his own gypsum giant and claimed the first was a forgery. Like a boss. Public Domain, via Wikimedia

But I do think, unwittingly, Hull made another point, too. Because his giant was the fakest fake news of the day. That’s right, folks. We’ve ALWAYS had fake news. Just like we’ve ALWAYS had biased news. Because none of us, members of the media included, lives in a vacuum. Our experiences, our intentions, and our personalities, whether individual or institutional, all serve to inform our biases.

The media attention given to the Cardiff Giant rarely included expert voices that contradicted the sensational because sensational sells and improves SEO as its shared widely across platforms evidently designed to make otherwise reasonable and more or less kind-hearted people seem completely insane. So media outlets use (among other tactics) carefully worded headlines, precisely cut-off quotes, and selective expert interviews to make that happen.

So how do we combat this? First, I think we would all benefit from a deep breath. Then, the next time you think about clicking “share,” take a minute to analyze three things:

  1. The bias of the source (and, yes, there is one, see the previous paragraph)
  2. Your goal in sharing the piece (if it’s either to taunt or to yell, “Gotcha!” it’s possible you should reconsider)
  3. Whether or not the piece will further civil discourse (or whether you’re just behaving like kind of a jerkface).

I don’t mean to sound like I’m coming off heavy-handed here, though I admit that’s exactly what I’m doing. I don’t deny that I have an agenda. I want my social media feeds to be kinder, more civil places today than they were yesterday. I want to have informed conversations with informed adults who don’t always agree with me, but whose opinions are interesting and worth giving some serious consideration. And I want the media to stop reporting about how biased the media is, because, frankly, that’s super old news.

So I hope you’ll remember George Hull and the Cardiff Giant and give some thought to my terribly biased interpretation of the way we should view his story. I hope, too, that at some point you will begin to question the authority of a history blogger who insists that #GiantJerkface was trending on Twitter in 1869. And, last but not least, I hope you are careful to avoid contact with geode water (which I think sells for $7 a bottle at Whole Foods), because I’d hate to see you get petrified, and I read somewhere that can happen.

Santa Might Be On To Something

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been busy this holiday season. Already several times I’ve party planned and cleaned and hosted and cleaned. I’ve shopped for gifts, a task that no matter how early I start, always seems to take until Christmas Eve. I’ve made Christmas candies and cookies, decorated and crafted and spread Christmas cheer in a lot of little ways. But in order to accomplish these tasks, I’ve had to let others slide.

The biggest of those other tasks is sending Christmas cards. I wasn’t feeling too bad about that, though, because I am fortunate not to have many overachieving friends. I’m happy to report that I didn’t receive a single card the day after Thanksgiving (seriously, such a betrayal might signal the end our friendship). Nor did I receive any cards for the first nearly two weeks of December, which goes a long way in making a busy gal feel truly special.

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I even received a Christmas card from my dog this week, though judging by a curious postmark (and his notable lack of thumbs), I suspect he had help.

But then this third week of Advent arrived, and with it came the postcards featuring the smiling faces of friends and family and busy children who are growing faster than I can quite grasp, handmade die-cut works of art filled with sweet holiday greetings, and letters recounting a year’s worth of adventures.

So that’s when the guilt started to set in. Because for all I have done so far this busy season, I haven’t designed a postcard or die-cut any artsy Christmas trees or written a year-end letter. I haven’t even purchased a big box of factory-made holiday greetings.

And I feel especially bad about it when I take a moment to realize that even Santa, easily the season’s busiest fictional character with tens of thousands of letters to send, already has this holiday task well in hand.

In my defense, Santa does have a lot of practice. He’s been sending Christmas letters to excited littles at least since the late 19th century, decades before postal policy technically allowed him to do so. Because letters addressed to Santa Claus used to wind up in the Dead Letter office.

Or at least officially they did. There were always  those kindhearted postmasters who couldn’t stand the thought of a letter to Santa going unanswered, or an innocent expression of real need going unmet.

One such kindhearted person was Connecticut postmaster Harris Eames, who in 1894 opened a letter addressed to “Sandy Clous” from a little girl in a family he knew. From the letter, Eames learned that the family had fallen on harder times than anyone had realized. The postmaster contacted local businesses and orchestrated a Sandy Clous miracle.

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Actually, I don’t think this guy really does much of anything himself. He doesn’t even deserve those cookies! Public Domain image, via http://www.costumers.com/

For years, similar heartwarming stories rolled in from post offices all over the country, until finally, in 1913, the Postal Department relented, accepting its position as the gatekeeper for Santa Claus.

The procedure for handling and answering letters from children to their Christmas hero has changed through the years amid growing privacy concerns, but many postal offices still partner with local charities to deliver Sandy Clous miracles through what is collectively known as “Operation Santa.” And the jolly old elf himself will take the time to write back to any child who wants to send him a letter.

Sort of.

Much like Santa’s brilliant gift-giving policy, his letters do require a little help from parents. The current USPS Santa letter instructions state that you must include the response letter in a self-addressed, stamped envelope included in a specially addressed outer envelope.

presents
If only I could get my family to buy and wrap their own presents.

Oh, and because Santa is super organized and on top of such important tasks, it has to be received in Anchorage, Alaska by December 1oth. That way the postal elves have time to process it and get it back to you by Christmas, postmarked from the North Pole, of course.

I do think the USPS and Santa are on to something. So, I’ll tell you what. If you are hoping to receive a Christmas card from me this year, all you need to do is design one, place it in a self-addressed stamped envelope and a larger envelope addressed to me. Then drop it in your mailbox and I will send it right back to you, postmarked from St. Louis to give it that truly authentic feel.

Now, if you wanted it by Christmas, you’d have had to get it to me by December 10th, since I’ll surely drive around with it in my purse for a few days before remembering to drop it in the mailbox. But since we both know you can’t reasonably expect a Christmas card from me until January, I think there’s still time.

 

 

 

 

 

One Super Hip Aunt and The Brownie Express

When gold was discovered there in 1848, hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the area that would a couple years later become state of California. Some struck it rich right away. For some it took a little longer. Still others became wait staff and went to endless auditions only to get a few bit parts in a commercial here or there.

There can be little doubt that this is when the California dream began to become a reality. And man, what a dream. Except that there was one glaring problem: brownies.

Because if you happened to be the super hip aunt of a couple of bright young gold miners on the adventures of their lives, pursuing bright futures, it was hard to send said youngsters care packages full of homemade brownies all the way from Missouri to California.

Most mail to the state traveled by boat, taking about two months to make the trek. The only other option for sending care packages was by a southern stagecoach route, which took somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-four days. I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten brownies that were made from scratch twenty-four days ago, but I’m pretty sure if you have, it was a mistake.

pony express
Not brownies, but still probably important to the receiver. By Pony Express [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Enter 1860, with a relatively new state, more or less disconnected from a country on the brink of civil war. Communication was an issue and luckily three men in the freighter business had a solution. William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell introduced the Pony Express, a relay system in which swift and brave young horsemen carried mail between Missouri and California, making the trek in a previously unheard of ten days.

The first delivery arrived in Sacramento on April 14, 1860, having started out in St. Joseph, Missouri on the 3rd. Changing horses every 10 to 15 miles, and riders every 75 to 100, this first trip transported 49 letters, 5 telegrams, and a handful of papers bound for intermediate destinations.

But still no brownies. Because even ten days is a long time to ask fresh brownies to say, well, fresh. And because the nature of the Express was such that weight was a huge consideration, a bulky box of brownies still had no good way to travel from here to there. Not to mention, the brave young horsemen probably got hungry.

Which brings me to my dilemma. You see, I am a super hip aunt of a couple of bright young people on the adventures of their lives, pursuing bright futures away from home at college. And for the past several years, I have been pretty good about sending care packages to each of them at least once a semester.

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Just need some brownies now.

 

As my own children keep reminding me, this semester is nearly over. Soon the last projects and papers will be turned in, finals will be taken, grades will be calculated, and if I don’t get on it pretty quickly, no homemade brownies from super hip Aunt Sarah will have arrived.

And the trouble is I don’t have a good excuse. Because even if I were sending a care package to a niece or nephew mining for gold thousands of miles away in California, through the magic of the modern US Postal Service, I could get them their brownies in a couple of days. They’d probably even be relatively fresh.

It’s not that I haven’t thought about getting it done. I figured out when their respective spring breaks were so they wouldn’t receive goodies when they weren’t around to eat them. I’ve set aside appropriate sized boxes. I’ve made several batches of brownies (that were delicious).  And now it would seem I’ve even taken the time to blog about the fact that I haven’t yet put together packages and actually taken them to the post office.

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And now a few swift and brave young horsemen and I can be a super hip aunt.

 

So today I’m going to get it done.

Though the Pony Express was never financially successful and was halted after only about 18 months at the of the completion of the transcontinental telegraph (which was even less useful for shipping brownies), it did manage to transport more than 35,000 letters  across the nation. And if a bunch of guys on horseback can accomplish that, I can probably box up some brownies and drive across town to the post office. Because I’m a super hip aunt.

Famous First Words: Of All the Things They Could Have Said

Today marks the 140th anniversary of a momentous occasion in the history of human communication. March 10, 1876 was the day Alexander Graham Bell, the sort-of inventor of the telephone, uttered into his famous device, “Come here! I want to see you!” The man who heard those words from the next room was Thomas A. Watson.

Actor_portraying_Alexander_Graham_Bell_in_an_AT&T_promotional_film_(1926)
This man is not a telephone inventor, but he once played the role of Alexander Graham Bell, who according to some historians, wasn’t either. Film commissioned by AT&T. (Early Office Museum.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Though the message wasn’t glamorous, it was kind of genius. If Watson responded by ducking into the room, Bell would immediately know his message had been received and understood and they would know that they’d finally invented the device that would be sure to change the world.

Watson did receive the message, or at least close enough to it. He would later report that Bell had said, “Come here! I want you!” And of course, that’s how the children’s game of Telephone was invented.

Still, the world was sufficiently impressed. The well-connected Bell obtained a patent, edging out the claims of electrical engineer Elisha Gray and other telephone-like inventors who are each worthy of mention by a more thorough or trustworthy blog than this one.

But no matter where the somewhat controversial credit for the telephone’s invention should fall, there’s little question that Bell was responsible for launching it into commercial viability, maybe in part because he handled the pressure of those first words so beautifully. Because to me, that would be the most terrifying part of getting in on the invention of a communication method with the potential to take off.

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I don’t know what words were first to be uttered over a walkie-talkie, but given that the device wound up being called a “walkie-talkie,” I’m guessing the lost words weren’t terribly creative. photo credit: mob on the radio via photopin (license)

 

I know that I couldn’t handle such pressure, because a week ago, my sons had some allowance money burning holes in their pockets. They begged me to take them to a store so they could spend some of their hard-earned cash.

What they decided to buy was a set of walkie-talkies, with a video component so they can see one another as they’re talking. It’s pretty much just a lower tech version of FaceTime, exciting for them because our family has not yet reached the era of kiddo smart phones.

They’re really pretty cool little toys and the boys have had a lot of fun with them. But that first night we brought them home, my youngest, who lacks patience for such things, disappeared to play with something else while his older brother and I figured out the new walkie-talkies. We dug them out of their many ridiculous layers of plastic packaging, installed the appropriate batteries, and followed the instructions to synch them.

Then my son ran to another room and yelled, “Say something, Mom!”

I admit that for a second or two, I panicked a little. It felt like a momentous occasion, the breaking in of brand new walkie-talkies. If I said something boring or pointless, I would definitely lose cool mom points. If, on the other hand, I took a chance and ended up saying something stupid, my words might live on in embarrassing family lore.

I briefly thought through my options:

  1. The practical approach, like Bell’s first telephone call to Watson: “Come Here! I want to see you!” (perhaps not so practical when I can already see an image of him in the device).
  2. The highfalutin approach, like Samuel Morse communicating from DC to Baltimore, for the first time with the telegraph: “What hath God wrought?” (sure to garner epic mockery in the annals of family history)
  3. The seasonal approach, like that of Neil Papworth  to the phone of Richard Jarvis, demonstrating the world’s first text message: “Merry Christmas” (hardly appropriate at the beginning of March)
  4. The careless approach, like Ray Tomlinson’s 1971 note to himself in the first successful e-mail: “most likely…‘QWERTYIOP’ or something similar.” (Perhaps it will take an FBI investigation to uncover what happened to the “U”)
  5. The taunting approach, like Motorola’s Martin Cooper to his AT&T rival Joel Engel in the first successful cell phone call: “I’m ringing you just to see if my call sounds good at your end.” (That’s just not very sportsman like.)

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    But seriously, it wouldn’t hurt the kid to clean his room.

In the end I went with the mom approach: “Time to clean your room!” It turned out, the darn audio didn’t work. But the video worked just fine, because I clearly saw my son stick his tongue out at me before he rushed into the room and grabbed the walkie-talkie from my hand to take it to his brother.

It occurred to me that perhaps what Bell meant to say to his assistant was, “Come here! I want you…to clean up this dreadful experiment!” But Watson, being no dummy, hurried into the room with a big smile on his face. And history was made. Good thing, too, because if not, 140 years later, we might all still be communicating by terribly pretentious telegram.

With My Pen Held High

 

penI tend to avoid controversial topics on this blog, and when I occasionally wander into cultures and histories that are not my own, I try very hard to treat them with respect. I have intentionally chosen to make this little corner of the blogosphere a place where anyone could feel welcome.

But I certainly recognize that people who engage in communication of any kind designed for public consumption are faced with the choice of whether or not they push the envelope into the realm of offensiveness. And I celebrate the freedom of that choice, because it means that when something needs to be said, it can be said in public and it can be considered by the public.

Yesterday’s attack on Charlie Hebdo was a terrible assault on that freedom. With the people of France, with the members of the media, and with all writers, speakers, and illustrators who communicate on a public platform, from the widest national media outlet to the tiniest blog, I am adding my voice. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press matters profoundly. And so I raise my pen up high and say, Je suis Charlie!

Off the Scale and Into the Box, to Grandmother’s House We Go

Okay, okay, so I haven’t posted on this blog in something like a month. And yes, I am aware that there are dire consequences to such neglect. I know very well that if I am not posting, then no one can be reading and if no one is reading, then no one is talking about what I am posting, and if no one is talking about what I am posting then I will never reach the gazillion readers that might provide me with a large enough platform for a traditional publisher to consider taking a risk on publishing my novel that approximately .000001% of my blog followers will someday check out from the library.

I’m not complaining. The industry is what it is and I suppose it might be fair to say either I want to play or I don’t. Except that I do, most of the time. And other times, like over the course of the last month, I don’t. You could say I am taking an extended break. And, yes, I do mean “taking” because I probably won’t post again for something like a month. The reason for this is simple.

 My sons are 8 and 5 and they never will be ever again. In fact, my five-year-old is planning to turn six in the next couple weeks, and I’m going to have to let him. So while they are eight and five (almost six), I would really like their summer vacation experiences to include a mother who is available to read a book with them, or play a board game with them, or throw a ball with them. What I don’t particularly want their summer to include is a mother who is shoeing them away so she can read just one more blog, or research just one more post.

In fact, I am only sharing this one because I have shipped my children off for a couple days at Grandma’s house. Obviously I don’t mean that I literally shipped them since the US Postal Service declared back in1920 that it would no longer accept children as parcel post. And, yes, like all regulations (and safety warnings) that appear a little unnecessarily ridiculous, someone actually did it.

U.S. Mail Storage Box
But it looks so child friendly.

All 5-year-old Charlotte May Pierstorff of Grangeville, Idaho wanted to do was visit her grandmother who lived just 75 miles away in Lewiston, Idaho. Of course this was 1914 and so simply hopping in the family minivan and heading an hour or so down highway 95 wasn’t an option yet. The only good route across the fairly treacherous landscape was to take a train, an expensive proposition for the Pierstorff family.

Little May’s parents were poor, but they were also clever (or desperate for a date night).  They did what any caring parents would do. They pasted a postage stamp on their young daughter and dropped her in the mail. And at the time, they were completely within the law to do it.

The US Postal Service had begun offering domestic parcel post service in January of 1913 and while there were restrictions on poisons and certain types of live animals (smelly ones), there weren’t any regulations specifically prohibiting the mailing of people. Little May weighed in at 48 ½ pounds, just under the maximum allowable weight for a live chicken, which, it seems, was good enough for the Grangeville Postmaster.

Chicken Suit
And what grandma wouldn’t be delighted to receive this in the mail?

Mail clerk Leonard Mochel (a cousin of May’s mother, which makes the story a little less disturbing) took charge of the world’s largest chicken and saw her safely to her grandmother’s house in Lewiston. As a package, May’s train fare was only 53 cents, about a third of what she would have paid as a passenger.

May Pierstorff was likely the first child to travel by mail, but despite an outcry from postal employees, she was certainly not the last. Finally on June 13, 1920, the USPS announced that it could no longer accept children as parcel post, as children were clearly not “harmless live animals which do not require food or water while in transit.”

USPS service delivery truck in a residential a...
Just think of the mess my children could make of this back seat.

Having just driven my children the two hours to Grandma’s house in a car packed with snacks,  I have to agree with the USPS on this one. Children are most definitely not harmless (and they can be a little smelly). And believe me, despite my very noble sounding rationale for my lengthy absence from the blogosphere, I don’t think it will win me a Mother-Of-The-Year award any time soon. My kiddos still irritate me and there are days when I find myself wishing they would just hurry and grow up a little already. I still snap at them occasionally, or let myself get too distracted to listen to them tell me about their latest imaginary adventure. I may even wish from time to time that I could drop them in the mail and ship them off to family members who are less tired and can recognize how wonderfully adorable my children really are.

I have missed and will continue to miss blogging regularly because I have had the pleasure to virtually meet some really interesting people out there in the blogosphere. And I am fairly certain that there are at least a gazillion more really interesting people waiting to be virtually met. But that will have to wait a little while longer because next summer, I will be the mother of sons who are nine and six (nearly seven), and though I’m sure they will still be occasionally irritating (and smelly), they won’t ever again be the same as they are right now.