Friday, January 29, 2010

Skywatch Friday: The Cooling Hour

We Skywatchers are not the only ones who look up more now, after having been a part of this community. It seems that our families are affected as well. Not long ago I reported that the Beloved Spouse noticed a gorgeous sunrise and, knowing that I would want to capture it, woke me a bit earlier than usual.

Last Saturday evening we were watching the cooking shows on PBS (I'm usually insired by them to do something nice for our evening meal) when the BS noticed a promising sunset. I picked up the camera and wandered out in time to get this sequence. Had I waited even a minute longer I'd have missed most of it, because just after I completed the last shot it faded away to gray, and was gone.

I did move slightly out of my usual boundaries (the back or front yard), and walked outside the fence and down the alley for a larger view, so at least some of the shots are more open than what I ususally get.

While it's true that many north Texas sunsets are enhanced by our collective refusal to improve our air quality, I guess that lovely sunsets provide a small anodyne to those of us who really do think that cleaning up the atmosphere is a good idea.

The post's title comes from a bit by Byron, in Don Juan, of which I am frequently reminded at sunset:

It was the cooling hour, just when the rounded
Red sun sinks down behind the azure hill,

Which then seems as if the whole earth it bounded,

Circling all Nature, hushed, and dim, and still,

With the far mountain-crescent half-surrounded

On one side, and the deep sea calm and chill

Upon the other, and the rosy sky

With one star sparkling through it like an eye.

No mountains or even hills here, to speak of, we're nowhere near the sea, and no star emerged, but the impact of a good sunset doesn't seem to require much more than clouds and color.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Skywatch Friday: What a Difference a Day Makes

Last week fellow Skywatchers from the U. S. Northwest were posting lovely shots of the transition from fog to full sun. Occasionally, north Texas "inherits" weather that drifts down our way and we end up with similar meteorological conditions.

Such was the case last week, when I got the opening shot of a pretty, cloudy sunset, followed by fog the next morning, and then bright, late-afternoon sun on trees against a clear blue sky. This time I had the real camera handy (the Nikon D80).

The class went pretty well last Friday, by the way; thanks for the well-wishing! Have a calm, restful weekend--especially my colleagues who all seem to be dazed by how fast this quarter is going already (and we're only in the second week of eleven).

Monday, January 18, 2010

Heal Haiti, Heal the World

I guess it's because of my geographical roots (I was born on a major fault, where a 7.2 magnitude quake occurred in 1872), but earthquake stories always seem to evoke a combination of fascination, dread, and gratitude that I wasn't there, where it happened. So when Haiti suffered its first major earthquake in two centuries, I was struck by the enormity of the catastrophe and like many others wondered why this had to happen in Haiti, of all places. Hadn't this tiny island nation suffered enough?

Last Thursday I left school in time to catch the last few minutes of The World on PRI. Amy Bracken was reporting about recent, pre-earthquake hopes for improving the lot of millions of Haitians, and about U. S. efforts to reduce disease and poverty in this embattled country. She described an interview with Dr. Paul Farmer, who (along with former President Bill Clinton) has been helping to spearhead investment in the country and to alleviate the effects of Haiti's long history of neglect by the rest of the world.

As Bracken said goodbye to Farmer after the interview, he reminded her of the "hermeneutics of generosity"--an inclination to give. The "H of G" as he calls it, involves a much deeper concept than this shorthand definition, but I was intrigued enough to pursue it. Hermeneutics is part of what I do (it refers primarily to what might be called a "science of interpretation," the theory behind the translation process), although it's most commonly used in a theological context: biblical hermeneutics, for example, which involves interpretation of scripture. This sense is, I think, the source of Farmer's usage--the grounding of generosity in the Christian tradition; it's also a vital component of Jewish teaching and lies behind the notion of the mitzvah.

I discovered, while looking for the exact phrase, that it informs the communitarian focus of some churches and synagogues, and expresses the fundamental concept of charity toward others.

This impulse may explain my tendency to scour the dregs of my bank account in response to global disasters, like the Indonesian tsunami of 2004 and last Tuesday's earthquake. Almost my first response to an event like this is to send what I can off to Doctors Without Borders. And millions of others do the same, within minutes of news reports. Others join their fellow relief workers and jump on the next boat or plane to help out physically.

Amid all the destruction and sheer misery, it may be grasping at straws to see these responses as reflecting any great human truth. Nonetheless, the idea that human beings have an innate capability to translate one nation's suffering into something palpable enough to engender a useful response is reassuring. Perhaps we aren't all so wrapped up in our own D/depression that we can't feel the distress of others. Perhaps this kind of understanding--the hermeneutics of generosity--is more a part of who we are than the greed and churlishness that has characterized the news so much of late, and more reflective of our true nature than the usual "God did it to punish them" response that also emerges.

Our metaphor-making capabilities as human beings allow us to understand something--if only a little--of what people experience when disaster strikes. Few of us have first-hand knowledge of what it's like to endure a severe earthquake or a tsunami, or even a massive hurricane or typhoon, even though these do strike us periodically. Even when a Katrina devastates an entire region of the United States, and even as badly as the relief efforts turned out there, we didn't end up with thousands tens of thousands dead in the streets. Our infrastructure may be in need of repair, but the means exist to do make it better. Haiti is much less well prepared to withstand this latest blow. (Edit 01.19.10 after this morning's headlines.)

Those of my colleagues who think I'm the quintessential pessimist may be surprised to know that I actually do harbor hope that if Haiti can withstand the inevitable chaos that follows disaster in an already politically unstable region, it may well be that the attention attracted by the massive (and unfortunately ill-coordinated) relief efforts will lead to an effective political and cultural rebuilding.

If you search Wikimedia Commons for pictures of Haiti (specifically Port au Prince) it's easy to be reminded of the continuous insults inflicted on the entire island both by natural disasters and by an almost constant political unrest. Before the earthquake, it was Hurricane Jeanne (2004) and then Ike (2008), in addition to all of the political woes experienced by a nation that's been both exploited and neglected for over two centuries. But the same search will indicate the ongoing effort over the last several years to improve Haiti's physical and economic health.

Everything I've heard about the Haitian people over the last week has pointed to their liveliness of spirit and their creative energy. Perhaps implementing a hermeneutics of generosity and extending it into the future, beyond the immediate need, can help save them and help them save themselves.

If you want to participate in the drive to help Haitians, and haven't yet done so, I have two charities to suggest: Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) and Heifer International. The former is a fairly obvious target, because they're almost the first people on the ground when something like this happens. Heifer, known more for helping families to help themselves, has 16,000 participating families in Haiti who have been actively involved in raising animals and improving agricultural practices to provide both sustenance and income. Programs like these address both health and economic well being, and provide living, breathing examples of the hermeneutics of generosity at work.

I talk a great deal about ways to heal the world (tikkun olam); it seems to me that helping Haiti to heal itself would be a good place to start.

Photo credits: A view of Port au Prince in 2008, U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist James G. Pinsky; a United Nations Development Programme photo of Downtown Port au Prince after the earthquake; and another U. S. Navy photo of flooding after Hurricane Ike.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Accidental Sunsets

As usual at the beginning of a new quarter, the past couple of weeks have been filled with meetings and the first week of classes.

The photo below was taken during Twelfth Week (as we call the "in-service" portion of the interim between quarters). I left meetings at sunset only to be surprised by a pretty western sky seen from the sixth floor of the parking garage.

Monday evening, after my first class, I was treated to an even better sunset which wins top spot in today's post.

Both shots were taken with my trusty antique, first-generation iPhone looking toward North Park Center in Dallas. The weather was cold and clear, but I have a feeling that our notorious smog had something to do with the colors.

Since there's still work to do on my new class (Pioneers of Modern Design), which premiers this evening, I'll sign off now, and wish everyone a happy Skywatch Friday. Many thanks again to our great team.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

Maybe it's my advancing age, but I suspect that my current discomfort with the space-time continuum has at least as much to do with the way the modern world works as my having just become eligible for Senior Citizen discounts at the local bijou.

Time was (as they say) when folks thought that vacuum cleaners, automatic dishwashers, and such "labor saving devices" would add to the amount of available leisure time and make us all happier, healthier people. I'm not quite sure what the proponents of these adult toys thought we'd do with that time, but I suspect (in retrospect) that it had something to do with having more time to shop for more adult toys.

I do have a vacuum cleaner, although I'm not happy with the way it works, and I'm not sure it saves me all that much time. A carpet sweeper and a broom are lighter, and although they don't do the "deep" cleaning that hoovering is supposed to accomplish, I suspect that taking my area rugs out a couple of times a year and beating the bejeeziz out of them would do the same thing.

I've only had a dishwasher once in my life, and it took every bit as much time to prepare dishes for automatic washing as it did to do them by hand. In those days the machines also used more water than hand-washing did. I understand that that's no longer the case, and that one doesn't have to pre-wash everything. Still, about the only advantage to having one seems to be that it gives people somewhere to hide their dirty dishes. But both Beloved Spouse and I find dishwashing to be soothing (and, in winter, hand-warming), and there's nothing quite like a kitchen newly cleared, wiped down, and at peace. Some of my best memories involve conversations with my grandmother at the kitchen sink, washing up after a family meal. The only dishwashers she ever had were her children and grandchildren.

But this isn't really a rant about products. It's about truthfully wondering why I seem to have so much less time to do things I love, like gardening, reading, writing, hanging out in the Carbon Sink with the puppies, and home-keeping.

When I started writing Owl's Farm two and a half years ago, I managed to sit down for several hours a week to work on posts--and eventually to divide the content into three separate blogs. But something has happened between then and now, and I'm beginning to wonder if my internal clock wasn't knocked askew while I was under the knife last spring.

I also wonder if illness isn't more conducive to thinking than health is. When I couldn't run around like a fool, chasing my own tail or fighting fires for others, I frequently managed to think about what needed doing, and then to make a stab at doing it. I actually managed to fix up a couple of rooms in the house last spring, even while my aortic valve was narrowing down to a pinhole. But now that I'm bionic, its as if time itself has narrowed, and I don't seem to have nearly as much of it. As soon as my leave was up, only six weeks after surgery, I was back at it in full force. The summer slipped away so quickly that I can't remember what happened. Now that it's bitter cold, I can barely remember the heat.

The winter holiday positively thundered past, leaving me reeling in its wake, and bereft of two weeks I thought were mine in which to relax and take it easy. I wasn't even caught up in any particular rush, because our holiday events included only our daughter's annual overnight stay on Christmas eve, and a leisurely afternoon dinner. No big New Year's bash, no parties, no mad dashes to malls, very little shopping. But my two-week holiday was over last Monday, to be replaced by meetings and course preparation, some of it valuable, some of it useless.

Perhaps it's because I'm reading Morris again. I'll be teaching him this quarter, in particular his essay on Useful Work vs. Useless Toil. Re-reading it frequently makes me wonder about how much of my time is taken up in doing things that some higher education guru thinks is necessary in order for me to do my job well--but that end up producing nothing really worthwhile. It's not that I mind creating lesson plans and making sure that I'm delivering information and sharing ideas in such a way as to promote real learning. But some of it deprives me of time to read and think, which is where my expertise originates. It's times like this that I long for the way my utopians learn in More News From Nowhere: by talking and doing, rather than taking tests and being graded.

The topic of assessment and modern modes of teaching will undoubtedly be dealt with energetically over this next year in The Owl of Athena, because my college is merging with another and will be undergoing another round of scrutiny by regional accreditors. But for now I'm trying to figure out how I'll have time to prepare for any of that, if the minutes keep flowing by at light speed.

I long for languor, relishing small moments like this one, when I'm sitting by the fire on a very cold morning, laptop on lap, writing and musing. Last year at this time I was wondering if I'd make it to another new year, and now that I have, it's up to me to wrestle my time back so I can enjoy the greater number of days now available to me. So I'll quit whining, and when the fire dies down, I'll go out into the bare winter yard to take the frost-covers off the rosemary and lavender plants. The afternoon will be a good deal warmer, so I'll let them breathe and enjoy the sunshine. Then I can come in and start a stew simmering, pour a cup of good tea, and open a book.

I'm pretty sure that's when time slows down: when we stop the clock ourselves and refuse to let modern life take over. This seems like a plan, actually. Were I one to make resolutions, this would be it: not to "waste" or "spend" or "save" time as if it were a commodity, but to just take it and live it and let the other stuff go. This is, I think, why the Sabbath was invented.

Good plan. But we shall see.

Image credit: Evelyn Morgan (1850-1919), The Hourglass, via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Pink Sky at Morning

I could have easily called this post "Pretty in Pink," but what preceded it was the reddest dawn I can remember in Texas, and it brought to mind the old sailors' warning.

The eastern sky was blood red when Beloved Spouse woke me so I could get some shots. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to set up a tripod, and I'm still too new to this camera (and too spoiled by the iPhone which has lousy quality but really quick speed) to be able to get good color in the near-dark without fuzzing things beyond recognition.

Aiming the camera in the opposite direction, however, gave me much less blurry results, and lovely pink clouds beyond my winter-stark trees.

Like much of the midwest, we're "enjoying" record cold temperatures, but I'm hoping that ice crystals in the atmosphere will yield some interesting photos for next week.

I'm absolutely swamped with work, so don't have time for much of anything, but this has been nagging me for the last two weeks. My guilty conscience won't let me go another week without checking in on Skywatch Friday. Have a good one!