Friday, December 24, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Solstice Birthday Lunar Eclipse

The best thing about enjoying one's birthday on the winter solstice (Robert Frost's "darkest evening of the year") is that it's important for reasons other than personal. This is the day of Sun Return on old Druidic calendars, Yule to Germanic and Scandinavian peoples, celebrated in the vast Roman empire as Saturnalia, and all manner of lively festivals among the world's peoples. This seasonal moment was considered so significant, in fact, that early Christianity appropriated it for Christ's birth day (Saturnalia occurred on December 25 of the Julian calendar). Tax collecting time in the ancient world tended to be in the fall, after harvest, and there's considerable dispute over the actual date.

So despite the fact that babies born around the Winter Solstice tend to lose out on the loot because of the proximity to Christmas, this birth date has its own specialness. Very occasionally, solstice babies are awarded with extra celestial goodies, as we were this year.

On the 20th I received this cute text message from my son: Happy early birthday mom! I assume you'll be staying up to see the present we all convinced the universe to get you?:)

And what a present it was, compounded by an ancillary gift from the Beloved Spouse, who had spent the day locating a lens and a device for marrying our digital camera to our telescope so that we could take pictures of a rare solstice lunar eclipse.

So we did stay up (well, until just at totality, when the clouds moved in) and this week's Skywatch entries include some of the results.

The evening of the 20th presented us with a pretty moon-infused sunset, through the now-bare trees:

Before the eclipse started in the wee hours of the 21st, we got a good clear shot of the solstice full moon. Since we're novices at astrophotography, we ended up with too much image for the frame; the only complete shots were from the telephoto lens. The ones shown here offer a great deal more detail, however, and we're quite happy with our first attempts.

Just before totality--and in advance of some unwelcome clouds that cut our observations short:

Of course, not all celestial portents are good ones, as the idiots prognosticating the end of the world on another solstice have warned us. But as I tell those of my students eager to seize on arcane meanings of ancient texts, truly the only thing of cosmic significance that will occur on December 21, 2012--is my 65th birthday.

Happy Winter, everyone. And Happy Yule, Merry Christmas, an enjoyable Festivus, to all.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Finding the Middle

I feel like Peter Finch's character in Network--who has become a metaphor for frustration since the film premiered the year my son was born (1976--which probably explains why I never actually saw the movie itself). But the tag line "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" has been floating around my head for the past couple of days.

It doesn't help that I've also been watching Max Headroom, via the bad-transfer DVDs we bought last month--another emblem of a good concept (not unlike Firefly) that couldn't get the ratings it needed in order to keep it in production. Max was a mid-eighties phenomenon that presaged digital media expansion and inhabited a dystopic future similar to that depicted in Ridley Scott's Bladerunner (1982).

Admittedly, I'm rather preoccupied with things dystopic/eutopic at the moment, because I'm writing a Philosophical Perspectives course for the Winter quarter (Technology and Utopia), and am finishing up a short story that involves life after a Coronal Mass Ejection causes an Electromagnetic Pulse, knocking out all solid-state electronics and screwing big-time with The Grid (the stuff I was talking about here last month). The story, however, is a utopia. No, I don't think we'd necessarily find ourselves living in garbage dumps and smacking each other about with machetes after a big calamity.

If all this isn't enough, I'm also reading Charles Robert Wilson's Julian Comstock, a thoroughly engaging literary thought experiment about life after Peak Oil and the False Tribulations. Wilson, at least, hasn't forgotten that it hasn't been all that long since we were doing without electricity altogether (emphasized rather vividly in the two movies we watched this weekend, Silverado and The Illusionist). He's also about the only science fiction writer I'm reading these days, because I'm so not into cyberpunk and military SF/schoolboy warcraft crap. I think that one reason I'm fond of non-zombie-related Steampunk is that it tends to rely on rather imaginative combinations of old technologies and Art-Deco streamline-aesthetics, rather than on blood, guts, and dismemberment by squiddy aliens.

So, yes, I'm being cranky again, primarily because I'm getting more and more frustrated about the state of modern politics, and their handmaiden, modern media.

Why all the movies and old TV shows this weekend? Several reasons: pledge fortnight on PBS (I've paid my dues and I am not willing to sit through hours of drivel from Yanni and Celtic Women which have not one thing in common with regular programming; I want my Doc Martin, damnit!), and the growing number of utterly annoying commercials for pharmaceuticals, primarily the ones that deal with male erectile issues.

My main objection to television these days actually lies in the coverage of the news, and (except for PBS) the apparent inability to report events without hyping them into the stratosphere. The ratings games that gave rise to critiques in the form of Network and Max Headroom are alive and well twenty and thirty years later--and I'm just plain tired.

The demise of civil disagreement and calm, reasoned, argument has driven me away from my television set as a primary vehicle for news. Since I haven't been able to stomach having the tube on before four or five in the afternoon for the last several years, my mornings begin with a good cup of coffee and the Daily Poop, usually the funnies first, and then a leisurely stroll through the various sections. Since I've got my mornings off this quarter, and can afford the time if I'm not grading, I can then peruse a magazine or two either in print or on the iPad, before I have to get to work. I'm frequently rewarded in one venue or another, and today I found an article that warmed my little soul right up: about a new organization called No Labels. According to its website (and a nice little introductory video), its aim is to bring back the same civil discourse I've been lamenting the loss of. Whatever our views, we ought to be able to share them, discuss them, and locate some kind of common ground without screaming at each other, and this organization is grounded in that hope.

Normally, I'm not much of a hopeful person. But that may change if this movement gets up enough steam--before that's all we have to run the show.

Image credit: Hungarian television set from 1959. ORION AT 602 - 1959. By Istvan Takacs, via Wikimedia Commons. The font is "Typewriter" by P22.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Look! Up in the Sky . . .

Or, even better, "Look! Down in the Mud!"

This is a shameful weasel of a Skywatch entry, but I needed to get two things done--put up a couple of the photos I took during our Thanksgiving break, and celebrate the news of "alien" life on earth found in none other than my beloved Owens River Valley.

First, the shots are nothing special, but they are evidence of the lengths I will traverse in the name of Skywatch Friday. The Beloved Spouse and I spent nearly two hours out enjoying the unseasonably balmy weather on November 24 waiting for a sunset. Enough leaves had fallen so that we could actually see the sky whilst sitting out in Grandma Clarice's old metal lawn chairs (which we'd had to move the day before because a huge branch was dangling overhead; once it fell, gifting us with a day's supply of firewood, we moved the chairs back). This is always the best place on the property to enjoy sunsets and the evening glass of Chateau Thames Embankment.

At any rate, I spent those hours wandering about and shooting up (ahem). But the longed-for sunset never came. The light, however, was luminous, and so the photos at least provide a record of a pleasant evening. The weather changed fairly dramatically the next day (and the Thanksgiving sunset, during which we were en route to our daughter's loft and therefore didn't photograph, was spectacular), and the leaves are pretty much gone. There will be a great deal of raking happening this weekend.

Far more interesting is NASA's announcement about a nifty bacterium found in Mono Lake, north of Bishop, California. The discovery of amazing biotic flexibility is the best news science fiction buffs have head since Sputnik was launched. It's such a big deal that the Daily Poop even ran the story on the front page, and we're not exactly known for our love of science around these parts.

Mono Lake (pronounced "moe-noe," not "mah-noe" as the newsies have been calling it) occasionally makes news related to the old Owens Valley water controversy (about which I've written in earlier posts on The Farm). For some time the water level lowered ominously due to the diversion of water to Los Angeles, and the seagull breeding site on a tiny island in the middle of the lake was threatened by coyotes via an emerging land bridge. In the '90s, however, efforts began to avert dessication of the lake and the demise of the gulls. Here's a good shot of the lake by Michael Gäbler:

Skywatch Friday folks are probably already familiar with Martha Z's photos of the site; for some of these, see her Sunset at Mono Lake post from September 8.

The newest chapter in the Saga of Mono Lake just makes my little SF-loving heart go pitty pat. According to John Matson's article in Scientific American, a bacterium found in the lake uses arsenic (poison to life as we've known it) in the same way other life forms use phosphorous--in photosynthesis and other life-processes. The fact that one element can replace another in DNA like this opens up the possibility that similar replacements might occur to produce different forms of life than those with which we are familiar.

'This study really drives the point home of how adaptive life can be and that we should go out expecting the unexpected,' [astrobiologist Dirk] Schulze-Makuch says. 'If you look at other places, from the hydrocarbon lakes of Titan to the subsurface ocean of Europa to the deserts of Mars, we really should not underestimate the abilities of life to adapt to these places.'

Yum! There's just nothing to rev up the old creative juices like confimation that one's speculations about the universe have at least some scientific grounding. I have long (and boringly to my friends) insisted that life "out there" is probably (or at least possibly) very much different than it is here on earth. This confidence was sparked long ago by SF stories involving silicon-based life instead of carbon-based, and by thought experiments about what might have happened if that pesky meteorite hadn't plowed into the Yucatan sixty-three million years ago. It's hardly an original notion, but even though I've managed not to feel too smug about driving a hybrid car or not shopping on Black Friday, I will not hold back now.

To all the doubters and skeptics and people who've rolled their eyes and smirked, "there she goes again," I told you so!

I'm really happy for Felisa Wolfe-Simon and Ronald Oremland, who authored the study, and admire their curiosity and persistence more than I can say. But I'm even happier for those science fiction writers who have been inspired anew; I can't wait to see what kinds of "nowheres" appear as a result.

Image credit: Lakeside of Mono Lake, by Michael Gäbler, via Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, November 29, 2010

New Traditions for Old

As I look out into my back garden, at the leaf-covered yard, and sheets hanging on the line, I'm musing about the changed character of holidays in our household. The weather is uncharacteristically (for this time of year) fine, after a brief morning shower that barely dampened the laundry (which has been hanging there since Saturday, sort of on purpose because leaving it overnight softens and "irons" bed linens better than anything one could add to the washer or dryer; I just forgot to take it in yesterday, so it got another night of airing). My long Thanksgiving break is coming to a close, and there are three more rather hectic weeks before the quarter's finished and a slightly longer winter break begins.

It occurred to me that over the last couple of years two new traditions have arisen for the Beloved Spouse and me. The first I've mentioned--the change of venue for the Thanksgiving meal from our house to our daughter's loft. The second, however, is probably more meaningful in the end: our refusal to participate in "Black Friday," which has become an emblem of corporate control over modern lives, and of the meaningless greed for stuff (and more stuff) that seems to have penetrated into the very being of American life.

The news yesterday was full of stories about how the economy seems to be turning around at least slightly, because so many people were apparently hopeful enough (or solvent enough) to go out and spend themselves into a frenzy after stuffing themselves with turkey. Some even seem to have foregone the feast in order to feed their desire for--what? Big screen TVs, elaborate and kitschy plastic toys, trendy clothing, digital gizmos of all varieties . . . and the list goes on. And on.

The stories were illustrated by footage of people standing in long lines overnight, and/or rushing through doors at ungodly hours to grab the "great deals." More videos followed of people standing in endless lines with shopping carts stuffed and piled high with goods (just what is "good" about "goods," I now wonder). Families, according to the Daily Poop, have made their own new traditions: shopping together. But stories of fights in malls and shopper stampedes indicated that not all of this was simply a pleasant way to spend time together after a good meal.

One good thing about living in the Bible Belt is that Sundays are pretty good days to shop, especially before church lets out. So the BS and I finally braved the crowds--which turned out to be sparse--and went out for several hours yesterday. We stopped in at Half Price Books and then had a long lunch at a sports bar (all the better to watch the finals of ATP tennis), picked up some small stuff at several stores in the "Villages" (a newish local outdoor mall that straddles the road between two adjacent towns; the one dud was a visit to the newly opened "a Real Bookstore," which turned out to be nothing of the sort), and ended our trip at Whole Foods. This was, after all, a milk run for the most part. But, including lunch and a late-birthday set of Deadwood for the BS, the whole thing set us back very little--especially since we hadn't done anything like this in months.

I've realized over these last few years of trying to live more thoughtfully, frugally, and responsibly, that small pleasures are fairly easy to come by. Meals based on pastured meat, humanely-treated cows and chickens, and well-raised plants don't even have to taste better (although they generally do, in part because I think more about how to cook them) to feel better. Spending more on food than on non-essentials means that farmers are getting more of what I pay for what I get. At some point in the near future, I'm going to write about the high cost of cheap food, but in the meantime I'm trying to plan meals and purchases ever more carefully so that I can afford to spend what they're worth.

Many people, I know, are in no position to be making these choices, because they don't have the time or the income or the opportunity; but I do, and so I can't ignore the consequences of what and how I buy. I've learned to do without a great deal, and I could certainly do without much of what I still buy. But I haven't yet reached the point at which I can live happily without my computer, the DVD library, the occasional new book or download to the iPad.

The balance between need and desire around here is still tenuous. At least, however, shopping is no longer an arbitrary activity, undertaken for its own sake. I've learned to postpone purchasing anything new until I've had time to think about its impact. I avoid going out to shop at all unless I can combine trips, and make sure I've got the cash for it; credit cards are reserved for dire emergencies (usually pet-related). The immediate result of these strategies, oddly enough, is increased enjoyment and appreciation for what the object (such as the aforementioned iPad) adds to our lives: the ability to read the New York Times on the exercise bike, or a digital edition of a magazine that doesn't have to be recycled.

A better man than I would probably think me frivolous for even desiring a new toy like this; and I'm likely to agree with him. But as the Beloved Spouse pointed out to me yesterday, while we were reflecting on our shopping trip, these are our small means of escape from an increasingly heavy burden: educating young people who have grown up in a culture that values entertainment more than intellect, instant gratification more than curiosity, and quantity over quality.

We have miles to go before we sleep. And so while I am always eager to rant away about the profusion of things that seem to preoccupy most lives, I do try not to feel smug about my sources of delight. Nevertheless, I can't help but feel good about the fact that I get at least as much pleasure from smelling my freshly folded, line-dried sheets as I do from reading the Times Magazine on the little digital reader we mulled over buying.

In truth, we would have bought it on the spot had it been available, rather than waiting the week or so before they were in stock at the local Buy More. My examination of technology and necessity will, therefore, have to remain a work in progress.

Image credit: Berthe Morisot, Hanging the Laundry out to Dry, 1875. Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Nothing But Blue Skies

The title of the post is pretty prosaic, but it's what's out there right now. The temperature's cooler, but no real freeze has hit us yet, and the weather has been swinging from gray and dismal to blustery to bright.

As I mentioned in my previous post, a couple of weekends ago we drove down to the San Antonio area to celebrate my father-in-law's eightieth birthday. The Beloved Spouse, my daughter, the puppies, and I all piled into the Element for my first trip out of town in a couple of years. I remembered to thank poor old Koko, who's recent demise made the trip possible in the first place, and raised a toast to him that evening.

This week's rather unexceptional Skywatch photo was taken from my father-in-law's patio in a posh retirement subdivision in the hill country. He's got a great view (and had an "Arlo and Woody Memorial Fence" built when he bought the place, just so we could take the dogs). On top of that, the weather was fine enough for me to sit out to grade exams before the surprise party we threw for him. We had a wonderful time seeing family again, and enjoying good company, good food, and very good wine.

But the sky was relentlessly blue all weekend. We didn't see a single cloud until we neared Dallas at sunset the following evening. Today's sky is pretty much the same. The last time I saw anything with any drama was on the 1st, when I ran outside in my slippers to get this one before the sun plummeted:

Next week's Thanksgiving, and although my son and his wife won't be flying out after all, I'm looking forward to a six-day holiday, my daughter's cooking, the company of her charming (and young) friends, and her big goofy dog.

The holiday forecast is for pleasant weather (sunny and 58). As Mariana Greene, the Daily Poop's feature garden columnist, put it this morning, "I try to remind myself every little chance I get that these kinds of days in November (and often in December through March) are our payback here in North Texas for six months or more of heat. " I'm with her. If we put up with the worst of this climate, we deserve the best it offers in recompense.

And those six days off? As much time as possible will be spent winterizing the garden. That North Texas weather has a habit of turning around and biting us in our collective backsides.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Reconsidering Electricity

While doing research on the effects of EMPs (electromagnetic pulses) on Life As We Know It for a short story this week, I kept coming across comments about how we'd be jerked back to 5000 BCE were one of these events to knock out electricity.

EMP survival is a staple on the armageddon/end-times/survivalist websites and blogs, and it's really the only potential catastrophe I worry about because there is some real possibility that it could happen--whether as a result of a terrorist explosion of a nuke over the US or in space, or as an effect of an especially large solar coronal ejection (CME), as occurred in 1859 (now referred to as the Carrington Event). I've been getting quite a lot of CME chatter in my mailbox from science news feeds, so this stuff is on my mind.

I won't go into the details, because the dangers are nicely outlined in the Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack. But I do want to consider the claim that modern civilization would come to a screeching halt, and we'd be consigned to neolithic lifeways (I refuse to say "lifestyles" in contexts like these--because of the element of choice implicit in our current use of the word) if we were to suddenly lose access to electricity.

In the first place, the real danger is to solid state electronics and all the fancy computer devices (like the laptop I'm using to write this post, and the internet I'm using to publish it) that rely on sophisticated infrastructural and telecommunications technologies upon which the United States and other first-world countries have come to depend. As the report points out, less well-developed countries are potentially in much less danger of collapse than we are:

"Our vulnerability is increasing daily as our use of and dependence on electronics continues to grow. The impact of EMP is asymmetric in relation to potential protagonists who are not as dependent on modern electronics." (Report of the Commission, 5)

In fact, simple electrical devices would still work--or could easily be developed--but almost everything we do these days depends on more complex systems. Most doomsday scenarios follow similar assumptions about how we'd end up in the aftermath of an EMP: cultural collapse, mass rioting and mayhem, takeover by one militia or another (foreign or domestic), rampant chaos, and eventually we'd be consigned to small pockets of "good" survivors at the mercy of "evil" ones.

Really? Good, helpful neighborly folk will turn on one another, co-operation wouldn't even be considered, the gun-toters would rise triumphant and ascendant, and shoot all the tree-hugging liberals and/or rape all their women folk and steal all their stuff.

To me this all amounts to a pretty dismal view of human nature (not that I really think there is any such thing). I can sort of understand the Apocalyptos who think the end is near and that god's going to rain tribulation down on all us non-believers (and on those who don't truly believe in their hearts according to one website I'm not going to link), smite us with hellfire and brimstone, set loose the beasts to devour us and all that. I mean, these folks rely on their literal interpretation of the most metaphorical text in the literary pantheon (fortunate choice of word, that), and they've been waiting for something like this since Jesus died, so they're actually looking forward to it.

But the rest of us? Wouldn't we be able to band together and sort things out? In the worst of times, don't we tend to work together--even when our government drops the ball (as with Hurricane Katrina)? And without electricity?

It's no coincidence that in my own view of utopia the occupants choose not to use electrical devices--and they get along fine without them. Of course, they've planned their lives around the complete absence of electricity (it's the first thing they decide they don't need), but they end up living pretty well, and with technologies that surpass those of the neolithic to some significant degree. Bronze Age, maybe, but not neolithic. In truth, there are degrees of technological sophistication that don't require any electricity at all, such as steam power. Just remember how much fun people are having with Steampunk these days.

Today's edition of the Daily Poop, in the "Lifestyles" section, there's an article by Alison Miller called Recovering Lost Arts: Brazos de Dios carefully crafts cheese, furniture, community--and a way of life. This is another reason why I still read the newspaper, and why I so enjoy coincidence. Just last weekend, as we drove south on I 35 to San Antonio, I noticed for the first time ever (after twenty years of making this drive) a sign for a town called "Elm Mott." I joked about how British it sounded, and wondered why I'd never seen it before--and then here it is: the very spot where Brazos de Dios is located.

The subject of the article consists of a community of about a thousand people on five hundred or so acres who "place great value in traditional craftsmanship, doing things by hand, and gathering ingredients from the earth and animals that surround them" (Miller E1). Begun in the seventies (like so many other intentional communities, only a few of which still exist) by a group of New York Christians, they now operate as Homestead Heritage and provide educational programs in crafts from cheese-making to boat building to letterpress printing. Their beautifully designed website offers this evocation of ideals that William Morris would have loved: "Our Traditional Crafts Village showcases a community of craftsmen who have returned, not to the past, but to the enduring values exemplified in handcraftsmanship. True craft requires more than skill: it expresses the craftsmen's care and concern, their personal investment in everything they do."

Now, I know that places like these are relatively scarce, although I'm going to spend some time finding more of them (before I lose the use of my electrical devices), because this kind of effort gives me hope for the future. I've been laboring under the illusion that my views of the good life are alien to most Texans (hence my continuing sense of exile). It's good to know that I'm wrong, at least to some extent.

It's also good to know that I'm right about the attractiveness of simple technologies. The folks at Brazos de Dios use electricity. But I don't imagine for one minute that they couldn't carry on just fine without it.

If, of course, they could also manage to keep the zombies and whackos from invading their farmstead in the event of an EMP.

Image credit: The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, shines above Bear Lake, U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joshua Strang, taken at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska in 2005. It was the Wikimedia Commons Featured Picture of the Year in 2006. The photo has been manipulated a bit, but the original is posted on the commons. For an artistic interpretation, see the painting by Frederic Edwin Church, below, from 1865--also from Wikimedia Commons. Some really good photos and videos
of solar activity in general are available from the Telegraph (UK) page on solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and aurora borealis in pictures.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Home, Keeping

To hermit should be a verb. My usual modus involves driving down to school and back three days a week, and occasionally accompanying the Beloved Spouse on a shopping trip that may include a meal at one of our usual haunts. Otherwise I don't get out much.

Part of this is Vera's fault. She's training me to hypermile, which means that the longer the trips, the better the mileage, so I've become really hesitant to go anywhere nearby unless I can combine stops for overall fuel efficiency. I made my first close-in, purpose-driven trip last Monday to Fairview (the town just south of McKinney) to the new Whole Foods Market on opening day.

It's rather unfortunate, however, that I can now shop so close to home, because it means I'll be getting out even less frequently. WFM is on the way home for the BS, so he will be picking up his Old Growler and muesli by himself, and I won't be forced to head south early on Fridays to stock up on food for our one remaining cat, Harpo. (My previous WFM venue was in the complex where I work.)

So what?, one might reasonably ask. My only reason for mentioning these trivialities is that I've been doing a lot of thinking about home and hearth of late. My gnawing homesickness for Eastern California has been exacerbated during the election season by the relentless lack of intelligence reflected in the Texas electorate. California doesn't usually do much better, but I used to like Jerry Brown and he's got to be an improvement over Arnold (after all, Meg Whitman thought so, too). I'm lately tempted to buy a travel trailer and a plot of land in the Owens Valley and just move back out there.

But I'm not really in a position to go anywhere, so I've taken refuge in my hermitage. I've started clearing out the garage and the attic, sorting through assorted closets, recycling stuff I don't need--all in preparation for making a real effort to fix the place up. Finally.

I hear a great deal of buzz around work about how exhausted people are from "house work" and "yard work." It makes me wonder at the differences in attitude between those folks and people like me who talk about "home-keeping" and "gardening" instead. Yes, it's hard work; but it's enormously satisfying when one can sit in a comfy chair or in the garden after an afternoon's effort and enjoy a hot cuppa. I would like nothing better than to do "house work" all the time, at least when I wasn't at the computer yapping on blogs or writing the great American science fiction novel.

If the physical space that contains one's home isn't pleasant or well-loved, or if one has no occupational choice, necessary tasks like hoovering or dusting or tidying up might well seem like drudgery. Occasionally, while Koko was still alive, I grew tired of the constant cleanup associated with caring for an ailing pet. And perhaps a bit of my current fondness for nesting in, rather than venturing out, comes from my recent release from that small burden. Koko's brother, Harpo, seems to sense it, too; he's become an affectionate companion rather than a timid soul who hides most of the time.

My own isolation (hiding?) will come to an end this weekend, when we venture south to San Antonio to celebrate my father-in-law's eightieth birthday. Granted, we'll be with family, and we'll be taking the "puppies," but it'll be something of an adventure. I don't think I've been further south than Dallas in at least two years.

Nevertheless, my efforts at clearing cobwebs from the attic are helping to clear them from my brain, and this connection may lie at the heart of why I find these activities pleasurable rather than onerous. Lately I've been able to work in the breakfast room, refurbishing some old bookends by decorating them with Japanese papers and ephemera, only because I finally cleared away months' worth of collected detritus from atop the table.

For the last couple of years I've been stymied by the length of the list of things to do, most of them major: re-tile the bath upstairs, put in a new floor upstairs, re-roof the house, re-glaze the windows, re-paint assorted rooms, re-finish floors downstairs, re-screen the porch. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I've made endless lists, prioritized, and worried over it all whenever I wasn't busy worrying about school. Of course, this strategy accomplished nothing.

Then, around the end of summer, I started simply doing things. Small things: making sure the dishes were done and the downstairs tidied before bed (so I wouldn't be greeted by a pile and/or a mess in the morning); running the vacuum cleaner through the house once or twice a week (instead of waiting until the place was three-inches thick in dog fur); picking up stray twigs from the garden (mostly bits of fallen pecan branches) and adding them to the twig "wall" that edges part of the Carbon Sink (instead of pitching them on the brush heap); making weekly forays into the garage to find objects that have to be thrown out rather than re-purposed or re-positioned; recovering old electronics boxes from the attic for recycling.

Slowly, I'm retraining myself. Instead of pining away about the lack of time I have to get anything accomplished, I've started using the existing time more wisely. I no longer keep long lists, although I do jot down ideas for small, do-able tasks. In time (time, again!) the empty boxes will be gone, the garage will be more accessible, and there will be even more time.

This is not unlike getting out of debt. Once one starts paying things down, the lower the balance becomes, and the faster the debt melts away.

What I didn't realize when I started paying attention to the process (in terms of both monetary debt and "junk debt") was the sense of well-being that ensues. One source of my periodic funks, it seems, was simply being overwhelmed by mounting numbers of tasks. "Just do it," the ad preaches.

For once, advertising seems to be doing some good. I'm just not quite sure why it took me so long to get the message.

Image credit: As always, when I think of home, I think of Carl Larsson's evocative watercolors. This one is Lathörnan ("Cosy Corner") from Ett hem, 1894, via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Stormclouds Gathering

The news has been full of storm stories, including rather stunning videos of the tornado that touched down in nearby Rice, Texas on Sunday. This week's Skywatch photos are of that same storm, but it only grazed us. As it approached, I shot both north and south/southeast, turning 180 degrees alternately: blue skies and white clouds on one side, gathering greyness on the other.

On Saturday, as I waited for the Beloved Spouse to return from east Texas with the tennis team, the tornado sirens went off here, but despite the wind, rain, and chaos, nothing much happened. By the time he got home that night, we'd suffered no more than the usual scattered pecan branches. The next afternoon I decided that the impending drama deserved documentation, and these are the results.

The shot that opens the post shows a slightly different view, toward the southwest. The rest show the contrast between what was going on to the north and south.

As the storm moved up, the sky gradually became darker, but since the sun was shining in other directions, the contrast is more apparent in some of the photos:

To the north, the front line gradually became apparent, but even when it passed through, a small patch of blue was still visible (at the bottom left of the image).

I've resurrected my project to photograph each named full moon for a year, only because I've managed to capture the last two: the Harvest moon on the equinox last month, and the full Hunter's moon last Friday night. This, of course, was the night that the Texas Rangers captured the American League Championship title and headed to the World Series for the first time in the club's history. Buzz from folks who attended the game mentioned the spectacle of fireworks over the stadium lit as much by the full moon as by the park lights. I've shot many a moon over Ranger's Ballpark, so it seemed a fitting astronomical tribute to an historic event. Here's my usual lame effort from the front porch.

The rest of the week didn't go as well. It became apparent on Sunday night that our cat Koko, who's been suffering from lymphoma for several years, was ready to meet his maker. The poor cat looked like a skinned monkey, although he was once so round and fuzzy and black that we named him after Koko the gorilla. He was so thin we could see the blood vessels in his legs when he sat in the sun. He was a pretty valiant cat, and had endured all manner of indignities over the length of his illness.

Our vets do a very sweet thing for clients when a pet is euthanized. They cast its paw print in a little clay heart and present it to the family when they come by to pick up the little cedar box containing the pet's ashes. Unfortunately, the last two years have not been good to our cats, so we now have a collection of four clay hearts--and an entire shelf of a closet devoted to pet urns. One day I'll figure out an appropriate memorial for the back yard and deposit all the remains together.

Koko's demise has produced mixed reactions. I'm glad he's not suffering (we were never sure whether he was in pain, but he certainly seemed to experience embarrassment when he couldn't make it to the cat box), and feel somewhat guilty about the relief that brings. For the past four years we've been caring for and cleaning up after a cat who's never complained and who remained cheerful throughout. Constant medication and litter-box issues have meant no holidays, so his death brings freedom from the burden (and the expense) of maintenance and the ability to take the pups on a camping trip or a family visit. We're down to one easy-to-care-for cat and the two dogs, which is probably an appropriate number of pets for a couple of geezers.

Last night's first game of the World Series didn't help our moods much, with the Rangers' being trounced by the Giants. Here's hoping things go better tonight. Have a happy Skywatch Friday, all, and a pleasant weekend.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Nature Red in Beak and Claw, Part Two

My Thursday afternoon ride on my stationary recumbent bike presented me with an interesting conundrum. I've been using the iPad to read Juliet Schor's new book, Plenitude, while I ride, but am easily distracted because the bike is on our screened-in porch, and I've got a nice view of a large pecan tree upon which all manner of activity takes place.

I guess one can tell I'm not a real photographer, or I might have slipped off the bike and tiptoed into my study to get the camera when a nearly full-grown red-tailed hawk alit on a nearly horizonal branch of said tree. I thought he was just resting, and kept an eye on him, but kept riding. By this time my dogs had settled down next to me to watch as well.

We soon discovered just why the hawk had chosen this particular perch. A young squirrel was making his way up the tree, and the hawk sat watching, patiently. The little guy got closer and closer, and turned his back on the bird for a moment. The hawk crept down his branch rather noisily, but the squirrel seemed not to notice. The next time he turned around, however, was his last, because the hawk gracefully lifted his big body up and down onto the tree rat, flew back to his perch, and then down onto the grass, prey between his claws.

The only camera handy was my iPhone, so I tried to snap him on the grass, but he was hidden by some cannas (dash those big leaves!). I got up off the bike for a better shot, but spooked him, so no picture to accompany text. I also lost .10 mile off my workout. Fortunately, Wikimedia Commons came through with a rather lovely shot of a similar event.

A better person than I might have tried to save the squirrel, but as I've mentioned, they're currently the bane of my little domestic world: plants dug up, fruit devoured, pecans wasted (this will be our third year with no yield at all). So I watched silently as nature had its way.

I'm not sure how I would have felt if the little squirrel had screamed in pain, but it didn't. The hawk did his work quietly and efficiently before he flew off to enjoy his meal.

Image credit: Hawk eating prey by Steve Jurvetson. Be sure to read his description of the event he caught on film. Even if I'd had the camera I couldn't have captured anything nearly as amazing. (The link is to his Flickr page, but I found the image on Wikimedia Commons.)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Gallimaufrey

There's no consistent theme in this week's offerings. I've been busy settling in to the new quarter and spending my two days at home during the week working on course prep instead of blogging as I'd planned. Not much time for photography, but not much to capture on the camera anyway.

Except for one rather nasty thunderstorm a few days ago, the skies have been relentlessly blue. Fall is most definitely here, but we haven't had enough of a cold snap to loosen the leaves' hold on the trees--so there isn't much color in them, either.

The opening shot was taken a couple of weeks ago, before the new quarter started. Since I work from noon to 10 pm two days a week and from 5 to 10 on Friday nights, I don't get to see sunsets on my way home--although after daylight savings time ends, I should be able to catch a few on my way down to Dallas on Friday as winter nears.

Now that the sun rises behind my comfy chair in the living room, I get to see some pretty reflections of sunlight through our old wavy-glass windows projected on the opposite wall. This one's a bit fuzzy, but it shows the effect. This wall is about to be painted a sagey green (it's now a sort-of gold with glaze over it--to match the harvest gold shag carpet we pulled out of the house when we moved in; I'm only now getting serious about getting the painting done), so the next time I take a shot like this it will be substantially different.

I hope everyone has a happy Skywatch Friday and a lovely weekend--and that the weather is as pretty where you are as it is here.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Old Friends

As I prepare to enjoy my long weekend before classes start for the Fall quarter (my first is on Tuesday afternoon), I've spent the morning in my comfy chair reading about dirt.

Speaking more specifically, I've been reading about microscopic bugs and a class of bacteria (Mycobacteria vaccae) that turn out to be particularly beneficial to humankind. Since I'm planning to spend most of the day at home-keeping (especially vacuuming, doing dishes, dusting, and generally tidying up after an insanely busy month), it seemed to be a fitting way to use my morning reading time.

Among the now-old magazines piled on my coffee table (old because I've almost completely stopped buying magazines, opting now for digital versions, library holdings, or quarterly or bi-annual publications) I unearthed the April 2010 issue of Body + Soul, the "Whole Living" periodical from the Martha Stewart bunch. I had picked it up because one of the teasers included mention of natural ways to lower cholesterol--guaranteed to arouse my interest. As I thumbed through it, I noticed a couple of articles on the cleanliness/antibacterial mania engendered by the H1N1 scare. Since I'm an avowed bug-(and dirt-) worshipper, I snagged a copy and it's been on the stack ever since.

The article "Talking Dirty" by Rachel Dowd considered the down-side of antibacterial cleansers and the like, quoting one researcher's observation that the challenges bacteria present to our immune system actually teach our bodies "how to deal with germs."

Now, I'm sure I've mentioned over the years that despite my mostly genetically induced heart disease, I'm ridiculously healthy. I can't tell you when I caught my last cold. I haven't had flu since I came back to the States at age 15. Some of my doctors tell me that the large doses of statins I take to lower my astronomical cholesterol may have something to do with this, and they're probably right. But I also think it has a great deal to do with where I grew up and how much dirt I put up with in my house.

It's not that I'm innately slovenly. But I doubt that many in my acquaintance allow spiders to have their way to the extent I do, or that think tidying up a stack of magazines is more important to a well-kept home than a dusted tabletop. I actually felt sorry for the spiders that reside in many window-corners in my ancient house when I turned the hoover on them a couple of weeks ago in a fit of pre-autumnal cleaning. The usefulness of the little beasties is quite apparent when one sucks up not only the webs and the fuzzy little egg caches, but also the remains of the other bugs--particularly mosquitoes and ants--from which the spiders have protected me.

My childhood in Asia seems to have exposed me to enough influenza viruses that I've emerged completely unscathed over many a seasonal outbreak. Before my last surgery my DO talked me into getting a precautionary shot, and I'll likely get one this year to satisfy my insurance company, but I probably don't need them.

At any rate, the article reminds us that slathering ourselves with antibacterial preparations (like those found in the dispensers next to the elevators at school) isn't just unnecessary (and probably ineffectual) but potentially harmful. By rubbing out all bacteria, we risk losing the ability to fight off new species or varieties.

I was rather pleased to learn that getting down and dirty may be good for the psyche. According to an April 2007 article in Science Daily, Mycobacterium vaccae seems to activate the neurons that produce serotonin, and thus produce an anti-depressant effect. Chris Lowry (author of a study that tested the effect of M. vaccae on mice, and mentioned in the Body + Soul article) wonders, as a result, "if we shouldn't all be spending more time playing in the dirt." These bugs are referred to as "Old Friends" in the bacteria-study biz, because their ubiquity has generated health benefits throughout human evolution. For more on the "old friends" relationship between microorganisms and the increase in maladies like allergies and autoimmune diseases, see "Should auld acquaintance be forgot. . . " by Holger Breithaupt in the December 2004 issue of EMBO Reports (European Molecular Biology Organization).

I do wish more people would relax about a bit of dust and the occasional muddy footprint tracked into the house, and concentrate on really effective ways of preventing outbreaks of the bad guys like salmonella--things like tossing dishcloths or sponges into the washing machine frequently, cooking one's meat properly, and wiping the cutting board down with soap and water, or a bit of lemon juice. Overusing stronger concoctions may turn around and bite us in the backside if the bad bugs learn to resist antibiotics.

The all-time best guide I've found to cultivating a good-bug friendly house can be found in Ellen Sandbeck's book, Green Barbarians. I've touted this small compendium of very good advice a couple of times, and still plan to review it for B&N and Amazon, but for now I recommend the chapters on the Barbarian Body and the Barbarian Table. Some of my favorite people wouldn't be caught dead without a bottle of hand sanitizer, and some day it may kill them. But Sandbeck's fans may well survive bacterial Armageddon, because we can live with mother Earth--in more ways than one.

Time to go play outside.

Photo credit: Cryptobiotic Soil from Arches National Park, by Daniel Mayer via Wikimedia Commons. For more on this particular dirt, see Cryptobiotic Soils: Holding the Place in Place, by Jayne Belnap of the USGS. Cryptobiotic derives from the Greek for "hidden life"--and these soils are full of it. For more interesting information on bacteria, see this week's post in The Owls' Parliament.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Fall Has Fell

The various heavenly activities occurring over the last few days have made the night sky pretty interesting. Even so, I've only managed cheap shots with no tripod (I'm now thinking of setting it up and keeping it ready) that do a lousy job of capturing the conjunction of Jupiter and the Harvest Moon. Nonetheless, I had to try, and of the dozen or so shots I took, these are the best--this one from last night just as the moon was rising above the house and Jupiter peeked through the leaves (the same leaves I'll be raking in another week if the weather folk are correct).

I got it in the back yard--after standing in the middle of the street in front, risking my very life to try and get a cleaner view, to no avail.

This morning I looked out the upstairs window at about 6 am to see if the moon were still up, and since it was still well above the trees I took my time--made the bed, opened the shades--before going downstairs, grabbing the camera, and heading back out. By then, however, the clouds had started interfering, and this is what I got. Fuzzy and weird, but kind of interesting. It's pretty hard to tell that it's the moon, but again, no tripod.

And finally, a word about the House Clock. I actually remembered to shoot the last appearance of the rising sun in my dining room window on Wednesday morning, on the last day of summer. Some of you may remember that it first appears in that window on the first day of spring. I love this odd seasonal reminder, and it only took me about two years of living in the house to notice it. The almost indiscernible object in the lower half of the photo is my telescope, which languishes in that corner for most of the year.

Like my distant Celtic ancestors, I've always been conscious of phenological signs and celestial markers that point me through the year. So living in a house aimed in the right direction (facing east) and blessed with a serendipitous architectural feature suits me just fine.

I'm hoping to put the telescope to better use now that I've got a nifty app for the iPad, Star Walk, that tells me what's going on overhead. It really works, and its super cool. I need a more powerful (and digital) telescope to do any serious capturing of heavenly bodies, but that's something to look forward to.

Happy autumn, happy Friday, Folks.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Skywatch Friday: The Photo That Saved My Life

No kidding. On Monday afternoon I was leaving school, and stopped at the traffic light just outside our parking garage. I saw the cloud and, since the light had turned to red just as I got to it, and it's usually pretty long, I whipped out ye olde (antique) iPhone and quickly snapped the picture--thinking that it'd be good wallpaper for the phone.

I turned it off and set it down, looking up to notice that the light was now green--but because of the fraction of a second of extra time it took me to get rid of the "camera," my left turn into traffic was delayed.

Good thing, because just as I was about to pull out, some jackass came shooting through the red light at about 50 mph. If I had actually gotten going "on time," I wouldn't be posting here today, and despite Vera's nifty side air bags and terrific frame, I'd undoubtedly have ended up as a smear on the road, given the speed at which I'd have been hit.

So, thank you everyone, for being such inspiring skywatchers that I can't pass up a good cloud, in hopes that I'd end up with something worth posting. In terms of composition, etc., this ain't much. But it did save my life.

Happy weekend!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A New Year

Although my super-religious days are long behind me, and I'm pretty much settled into the skeptical life for what's left of mine, I do understand the need for marking important moments in the year--and the Jewish High Holy Days stay with me because of this. I always find myself in a reflective mood, and remember the rituals (although I don't really practice them anymore) with fondness.

As I was cleaning house this morning, I mused on the fact that most of the recognition we pay to time is grounded in religious practice. During the last few weeks I've been lecturing about the building of cathedrals, illuminated books of hours, the liturgical year, and various religious observances, all of which acknowledge time in some way. Most festivals enjoyed by the faithful were originally tied to the agricultural year (planting in the spring, growing in the summer, harvesting first fruits in the fall), when one thanked one's god for his/her bounty.

In grad school I wrote a paper on ancient Greek agricultural festivals, many of which were suffused with mysterious rites of fertility, and dramatic performances that ended in catastrophe and catharsis. Emotionally purged, spectators went home chastened and renewed. I always thought that this sort of thing would be good for us moderns, but we seem to be too busy. A quick weep in a sad movie is about all we can muster.

Nowadays, most of our holidays are spend-fests, milked to the last nickel by our communal need to express ourselves by buying stuff. Even the most deeply moving feasts of the year seem to be less about the season or the event being commemorated than about buying Easter candy and outfits or Christmas largess. The common complaint about the earlier and earlier arrival of "the Christmas shopping season" reflects the fact that even our most sacred holidays have been co-opted. Although people complain incessantly, however, they still participate.

Because it's been quite a long time since I escaped that particular aspect of American modernity, I've had the luxury of seasonal reflections on life, the universe, and the garden, and these have taken the place of official celebrations as my children have grown and moved away into their own lives. Lately I've been hankering after real family gatherings--at least one or two a year that involve actual meetings and food and being together, and it looks like this year I might get my wish, at least once, at Thanksgiving.

This is actually a terrific holiday in theory. It's essentially secular, having no real religious connection except with a rather mythical image of Pilgrims. But it's seasonally appropriate, celebrating as it does the end of the harvest, and the enjoyment of plenty before dearth. If one can look past the cheesy holiday decorations and pre-Christmas "sales events," the couple of extra days off and the promise of a good meal and good company can really lift the spirits before the winter cold sets in and the heating bills start to go up.

My son and his wife, as it turns out, have decided to join my daughter and her new beau and me and the Beloved Spouse this year for the long weekend. I'm not quite sure when it happened, but the actual meal has become my daughter's province, and will be held in her loft in a funky-hip area south of downtown Dallas. I bring Grandma's dinner rolls and good wine, and she does the rest. She's turned out to be a damned good cook, and I'm happy to turn the real work over to her. I imagine that we'll do something in our digs as well, especially if the weather's fine, as it often is at that time of year. The end of summer is now thick with promise.

Even though I don't really celebrate Rosh Hashana these days, I mark it, if only by reflecting on ways to make the next year better. One of my promises to myself is to write more, especially on the Farm, and to improve the garden. The possibility of the former has been enhanced by the likelihood of an accommodating teaching schedule, and a quarter off from administrative duties. I'll be teaching one course I haven't taught for three years, and another for a year, so the variety alone should perk me up. I'll have a fair amount of mental reconnoitering to do at the weekend, since Yom Kippur begins Friday night and it does tend to sober me up--in more ways than one. By then my college's accreditation visit will be over, and the quarter nearly done, so endings and beginnings will commingle rather poetically.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'll go make a start on the garden. After last week's visit from Hermine, it needs my help in tidying up.

Image credit: I was looking around on Wikimedia Commons for an appropriate seasonal picture, but wanted to avoid the usual pumpkins-and-autumn-leaves fare, lovely as some of the offerings were. Thinking about Yom Kippur led me to the Wailing Wall, and this lovely painting by Gustav Bauernfeind (1848-1904). It also seemed appropriate given the day on which this post was written.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Winding Down

Even the moon is now diminishing, after the Full Sturgeon Moon two days ago. I only got one shot before my camera's battery died, but I rather like the odd effects one gets whilst trying to hold the camera steady and change settings in the dark.

But the title of this post more accurately applies both to the season and to me. The weather finally broke yesterday, and today's been more like very early summer than late. It's 88 degrees out, as opposed to a record-setting 107 on Tuesday, and since most of the mosquitoes were done in by the heat, I managed a nice sit in the garden this morning--enjoying the weather, the paper, the dogs, and a damned good cup of Joe.

There's even chicken soup a-stewin' on the stove. I had the remains of a big fat pullet to deal with, and thanks to the weather I didn't have to freeze it and wait for later. Which means that I finally had a chance to defrost the chest freezer in the potting shed so I can start putting up things to save me a bit of time (or maybe guilt) as the quarter itself winds down and I get too busy with accreditation visits and student projects to cook supper.

Some seasonal activities seem almost instinctive: slowing down, cleaning up, sorting through, clearing out. I've had a hankering for doing some of this for some time now, perhaps due to wishful thinking (Fall is my favorite season, even though most folks I talk to like Spring better) during the hot spell when the heat bore down like a weight. Lethargy is probably also instinctive in such times.

As I enjoyed my garden for the first time in weeks, I noticed that there are still surprises to be had. One clump of chives is blooming mightily, and the steadfast cucumber plant is showing signs of renewed life. The big pot of tiny basil (like minette, but it drapes more) I bought on a whim last spring is still with us, and the sweet basil is starting to come back as well. The mint family is blossoming, and even though my big mess of catmint has pretty much gone under from heat exhaustion, its babies are showing up all over the yard, thanks to a couple of rain showers. My tomato plants have survived--only just--so if the weather stays cool I may actually get some fruit out of them.

I've pretty much resisted the urge to prep for classes today, so I should be able to enjoy my tiny Friday afternoon class (about fifteen students left, I think) and save the real work for Sunday. Thursdays are becoming my Sabbath, offering a moment of rest and recuperation from the heavily laden beginning of the week. Like the garden, I'm slowing down, but showing signs of new life as well. If I can avoid watching the news and get another good night's sleep sans air conditioning, I'll be considerably less curmudgeonly than I have been for the last month.

Enough weak metaphor. On to the weekend, and the lovely skies people share from all over the world. Have a great one, Skywatchers.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

SkywatchFriday: Dog Days

Although I suppose they're officially over, we're feeling the Dog Days of summer around here: hot, sultry, heavy, oppressive, and did I mention hot? Even the clouds I've been watching look overheated.

Typically for me the summer heat wave usually corresponds with midterm exams and grading, so I've been out of communication over the last week or so. It rained rather heavily a couple of days ago, and on Tuesday we managed to get a night's sleep with windows open and A/C off. It rained again for a bit yesterday, but it looks like it'll be a while before we get any more. The small photo above is another iPhone shot I snapped as the front began to move in. The opening image is from the Nikon--one of many I took in hopes of snagging something terribly dramatic. I didn't, but I still enjoyed looking up for reassurance that change might come. Cumulus clouds offer a bit of promise, but sometimes a cloud is just a cloud, and nothing happens.

The heat is even getting to the local raptors, and our neighborhood sharp-shinned hawk paid a visit to the yard, looking for water or a tasty tidbit (i.e. a smaller bird enjoying the bird bath). I grabbed the camera and shot through the window, so the result's pretty fuzzy.

The feature section of the Friday paper is always about gardening, and more than one story this morning was about how nobody could work in the garden while the weather's like this--so at least I don't feel like a reprobate for hiding inside. And I actually did read the paper out of doors. It didn't take long for the heat to drive me back inside, but I felt pretty virtuous for a few good minutes. Most of the mosquitoes have been fried by the heat, making it safe to enjoy the relative coolness just post dawn.

Hope everyone has a comfortable weekend and some good skywatching.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Summer Clouds

The summer cobwebs and hobgoblins have entered my brain full-tilt as we enter our second week of 100 degree days. The temperature has been hovering around 105, and in north Texas, this is hot, because the heat index brings it up to about 112. The garden is wilting, and drought restrictions mean that I can't legally water it with a sprinkler except on Fridays and Mondays before 10 am and after 6 pm, although I have done a couple of times because I can't stay out more than five minutes without becoming a mozzie-banquet. All I seem to be able to do is remember what it was like in the summer of 1980, when I was driving a one year-old and a four year-old around in an old VW bus with no air conditioning. For a solid month the thermometer dipped under 100 only after sunset.

The then four-year old is now living in Seattle, where it looks like the high today might get into the '80s. Sheesh.

So I'm obsessing, it seems, about clouds--which promise quite a lot, but deliver little. The next chance of rain is tomorrow night, although the local forecasters' track record on predicting rain is abysmal. But since it's too rutting hot to go out, and I can't stand the stench of even "unscented" mosquito repellent anyway, I went back to the archives for cloud pictures, and came up with these from last summer. Most were taken in the vicinity of the Ballpark in Arlington, and one or two may have been posted previously in conjunction with baseball musings.

Since I have to take these into Photoshop to optimize them for publication (the original files are huge), I decided to run them through "auto adjust" to see what would happen. I wouldn't normally do this, but the program cost a few quid and thought I'd see what it would do to my shots.

For the most part, they're a bit brighter than the originals, but nothing really dramatic happened. I thought they were all pretty, though, and worth sharing--even in retrospect. I'm too fuzzy-headed to rant about anything, so y'all can just enjoy the pictures (as I will yours) on this hot, hot, hot midsummer Skywatch Friday.

Have a good weekend, wherever you are. I'm rather envying the skywatchers from below the equator today!

Saturday, July 31, 2010


I was amused by some of the responses to the Skywatch Friday post, about how easy it is to be distracted by the sky whilst driving. In fact, I almost had two separate accidents on two different days simply because I was overwhelmed by immensely beautiful goings on above me: big billowy cumulus clouds, wispy cirrus feathers, gorgeous colors and rays of sun highlighting brief bits of prairie. All this was almost enough to take me away from the world. In more ways than one. Of course, then I read the newspaper and my euphoria quite quickly evaporated.

Those of us who aren't prayin' folk are sometimes asked how we can keep going on in tough times if things are as bleak as the news makes them seem.

I mean, only this week the Population Reference Bureau forecast 9 billion inhabitants on this small, endangered planet, by 2050 (7 billion by next year). Couple with this the prospect of there being not nearly enough young people to help take care of the old (the birthrate is falling, despite the projected population increase, so that the old will vastly outnumber the young), and the prognosis is grim.

And then there's the Gulf. After 100 days, the Deepwater Horizon well has been capped, and the "kill" is to begin next week. The font of oil has been stanched, at least for the moment, but stay tuned in China, Michigan, the Red Sea--oh, and Louisiana again: Barataria Bay, where a boat hit an oil well and caused a new leak of oil and gas into an extremely sensitive area already compromised by the BP spill. The New York Times recently ran a good slide show on the Environmental Impact of Oil Spills, in case anybody's been hiding in a cave for the last three months. If that makes you want to get out the checkbook and fund something, try Stop the Drill at Oceana.

The "slow" economy figures in all this, of course, but the whole picture presents such a damned if you do, damned if you don't conundrum that I'm not sure how anybody can get out of bed these days.

I mean, think of the pickle: We stop spending ourselves silly, and the economy stops growing fast enough to create jobs, which adds to the recessional outlook. We stop drilling and killing wildlife, and more jobs are lost. The ultimate quandary in the Gulf is instructive: vast numbers of people along the coast make their living from oil (drilling, refining, exploring, supporting)--but they're all now suffering the consequences of the country's insatiable oil-thirst, which threatens the livelihood of other inhabitants, who depend on fishing, shrimping, and tourism.

Sometimes, homo sapiens sapiens seems an absurd name for our species. We're hardly wise. If we were, we'd think things through, not see constant growth and accumulation of "wealth" as worthy goals, and think far enough ahead that we don't arrive at crises of our own making. All those people shouting about the deficit we're leaving our grandchildren would do well to think about how much they've contributed to the real legacy: a crowded, polluted, hot planet--and the consequences thereof. Forget about the money. Think about the quality of life. Forget about satisfying wants, and think about what it will take simply to satisfy basic needs.

As conscious as I am of all this, however, I do not contemplate throwing myself off a cliff in the Grand Canyon or other colorful and poetic means of ending myself. Instead, I get up every morning, have a good cup of coffee, and go about the work of educating young designers--in hopes that they'll somehow, someday figure it all out.

Family members have asked me how I can possibly exist without having faith that some god (well, actually, a particular one) will somehow take things in hand--if only we can believe enough, or pray hard enough, or trust in his wisdom to sort things out (it's always a he). How can I go about my daily tasks with no sense of ultimate purpose?

The simple answer is hope. I hope that we will become smart enough and generous enough over the next few years to see that constant, unrelenting growth does not provide a path toward a sustainable future for our children. I hope that we will become better assessors of new technologies so that we don't keep feeding greedy corporations that exploit poor workers in third-world countries, who mine dangerous minerals to construct the newest, fastest, sexiest digital machines. I hope we slow down, anchor ourselves in our environments, and begin to really see and experience the world we're poised to lose within a couple of generations. I hope we stop playing with our children's education and start teaching them what they need to know in order to survive in a depleted world.

After Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature, one of the books that helped to raise our consciousness about what we're doing to the planet, he wrote another, less celebrated work: Hope, Human and Wild, in which he describes several communities that live in ways that offer promise for a different kind of future. He tries to "imagine a future vastly different from the present, one where people consume much less and restrain themselves much more. Where 'public' is no longer a curse word, and 'growth' increasingly is" (1). He contrasts hope with mere "wishing" that things will get better on their own. "Real hope," he says, "implies real willingness to change" (3).

I wrote More News From Nowhere as a descriptive act--a speculation about (as William Morris put it) "how we might live." But McKibben's book focuses on actual communities living actual lives: Curibita in Brazil, and Kerala in India, where people are actually doing, rather than just talking.

To this list, one could add Gaviotas in Colombia, although the population is quite small. But check out the Sustainable Cities website for larger efforts. And for an even bigger lift, search Google for "sustainable cities" and more pages on efforts around the world.

If I have any faith at all, it's that the human brain is wired for survival; that the instincts we've developed over the last couple of hundred thousand years will kick in and we'll realize that if we don't ramp down we're out of the game. To me the ultimate act of despair would be to go on as if nothing has happened.

The United States seems to be mired in American exceptionalism these days, comfortable in our cocoon of assumptions about who we are and what we're entitled to. I'm not sure how many oil spills or other disasters it'll take before we wake up and notice what we're doing to ourselves--let alone what we're doing to the rest of the world by exporting our excesses.

Still, I hope. I do what I think I can, although certainly not all that I probably could. As long as efforts go on somewhere to address the problems, I'll keep hoping and keep doing--even if, at this point in my life "doing" has more to do with driving a fuel-efficient car and going without air conditioning than with real political action. And if y'all who pray want to go on doing so, I'm pretty sure it's not going to hurt.

Image credit: this today's Wikimedia Commons's "photograph of the day," Hazy Blue Hour in Grand Canyon, by Michael Gäbler (take a look at some of his other contributions at the link). I went to the Commons to find an evocative photo of our home planet, and this came up. I thought it provided a good reason to hope that we manage not to screw it all up.