Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Oddments


Nice sky tonight to end the old year.



I'm pretty grinchy about Christmas movies. Never seen White Christmas, Holiday Inn, Miracle on 34th Street. Not even A Christmas Story (gasp!). Excepting Charlie Brown and that ancient stop-motion Rudolf (which rocks), I don't like any of the old animated TV "classics."

But I love, absolutely love, It's a Wonderful Life. Dark and moving, complex and profound. Zuzu's petals gets me every time.

Pretty fond of Bad Santa too.


Dock Ellis, the guy who pitched a no-hitter on acid, as well as once tried to hit every batter in the Cincinatti Reds line-up, died back on December 20. In our homogenized world, his full-tilt craziness will be missed.



The girls got Rumplestiltskin for Christmas. What a gloriously weird, dark story. I had forgotten. Everyone is so mean! The girl's Father, the King, Rumplestiltskin. She's pretty much all alone. And faces death every night. But ends up living happily ever after.

Although she's still married to that creepy King.



Puked all day yesterday. Yikes. The stomach flu, I assume. All worn out today. My New Years celebration will consist of snuggling in bed with the lil Hucky and watching some calm, undemanding romantic comedy. I'll be asleep well before midnight. Still, not a bad way to finish out the year.

Hope you have a happy New Year yourself.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Literally

I try not to put too much pressure on Christmas Day itself; there seems to be a little too much weight on it for one day to reasonably and realistically bear. I like the odd moments at the periphery of things: decorating the tree, putting up the lights, the lazy post-Christmas days of games and reading and cookies (parenthetical semi-original cookie joke: I was worried I would nutmeg a good husband, but my wife assure me she's never cinnamon so handsome before). With all that said, this was a good Christmas. Relatively low key, no drama, no present-overload, everyone loved what they got. My wife got the aforementioned memory cookies and an mp3 player, I got tons of books, and the girls got a Wii.

Yes, a Wii.

Oh, my.

They've been pretty TV-deprived up to now, maybe 2 hours a month. Not because we're anti-TV zealots so much as, prior to being adopted by us, they were dumped in front of the TV and ignored all day. When school starts we'll enforce the 1 hour a day, after homework is done rule. Bur right now, in the netherworld between Christmas and New Year's, it's a video game orgy.

I can literally play video games all day long.

Literally.

Anyway.

We went to church today. Interesting. I thought parenthood would make me more religious; it has instead made me deeply suspicious of religion. I don't want them to get their fingers inside my children's heads. But the girls are curious, and they need to make up their own minds, and the questions church raises are good questions that I enjoy discussing.

Besides, this was a Unitarian church, barely even a church at all. Much blander than the Southern Baptist congregations I grew up in. An emphasis on community, which was nice. But, oddly, I missed the drama and sturm und drang of those crazy Baptists I grew up with.

We shall see where this all leads in the coming year.

I start The Novel on Friday.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Merry Christmas After All, And After All A Good Night!

Sporadically, I give the Huxster "memory cookies" for Christmas and/or her birthday. It's an idea I stole from Joan Didion; friends told her they always forgot all the cute things their kids said and did when they were young, so her husband wrote them down on scraps of paper so they wouldn't forget them. So that's what I do (sort of, it's a word document I keep on our network so I can access it from anywhere in the house whenever the notion strikes). Then, come gift time, I write then on slips of construction paper and put them in a pretty bag or box or, in one case, a vintage metal Beatles lunch box.

We're up to 150-ish of them. Here's some picks from the latest batch:

Our eldest calling pre-kindergarten "prettygarden"

Miss Muffett eating her turds and whey

The New Hamster primary

In kindergarten we have hookers for our coats

Can Santa even see us when we’re naked?

Our youngest putting fake fingernails on her toenails

Calling their tongues "lickers"

Our eldest asking if her pimple was a new nipple

Our youngest riding down the street on her tricycle, yelling "Merry Christmas After All, And After All A Good Night!"

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Glue

I wrote this last Christmas, forgot about it for almost a year, dug it up last month and found I still kind of liked it, well enough to submit it to a magazine (no response yet). It's about 1000 words, and a pretty fast read. I was going for a lean speed to weight ratio when I wrote it. Anyway. Merry Christmas.

Glue

The Christmas tree was up by the first weekend in December and fully decorated by Sunday night, just before prime-time TV, but all feelings of accomplishment faded when Renfield the cat jumped headlong from the entertainment center onto the top of the tree and rode it down like Slim Pickens riding the A-bomb in Dr. Strangelove, a movie Bob loved enough to have viewed multiple times (Karen had never seen it). There was surprisingly little calamity in the event; the lower limbs of the tree acted like bumpers and cushioned the fall so that the sound of the collision between tree and floor was more whoosh than crash. A few ornaments broke. Bob and Karen had been living together for just under six months, and out of their parent’s homes for only a few years, so the ornaments they owned were primarily mix-and-match second-tier cast-offs from immediate family. Nothing of great sentimental or monetary value. They had no memories of past Christmases, no established traditions. It was all one big blank slate, begging to be written upon.

They revved up the Tivo after hearing the crash, turned off the TV, and set about cleaning up the mess. The cat was long gone, hiding under the bed. They hoisted the thing back up without too much trouble and leaned it against the fake veneer of the entertainment center.

Upon examining the crime scene they found amid the debris a plaster hand-cast ornament from Karen’s childhood, faded gold paint along the periphery, the dirty white of decades-old plaster coloring the handprint itself, fingerprints and palm lines still visible. It was broken into five or six pieces, fairly cleanly. Bob was mildly surprised that Karen didn’t seem to care it was broken. It seemed the kind of thing one should express remorse for, if it were to break. Something about memory, something about the passage of time. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

They swept up the broken ornaments and cast-off pine needles and decided to put off remounting the tree until the next day. After Karen went to bed Bob dug the plaster pieces out of the garbage, then stayed up and glued it back together while watching generic late-night holiday fare, the bottle of Elmer’s sitting midway between his short glass of Jameson’s and a smoldering joint balanced on the edge of the ashtray. He didn’t do a perfect job of it--lines of glue and clearly discernable gaps showed between the pieces--but he thought he’d get enough credit for the effort to warrant the label of Christmas gift.

The next day after work they attempted to put the tree back upright again, but gave up after less than a half-hour’s effort. The cheap sheet-metal base from Walgreen’s was hopelessly askew, the eye-bolts that screwed into the tree no longer in line with the threads. Bob leaned the tree back against the entertainment center, promising to buy a new base for it the next day.

He never did. It grew to be a joke, first among them and then their friends, as the days passed and the tree stayed leaning in place. All manner of improbable solutions were offered to get the thing to stand upright, but none were taken. They accepted it as it was, in all its off-balance glory. They replaced the missing ornaments that had fallen in the original spill, put water in the bowl of the base where the bottom of the tree still sat, even began putting their presents under it when it became clear its temporary position was trending toward the permanent. When Christmas morning came they talked about how the tree had made the Christmas memorable, how they would reminisce about it for Christmases to come.

She thought the repaired handprint ornament was a sweet gesture, and told him so, kissing him on the cheek.

The novelty of the leaning tree quickly waned after Christmas Day, no longer a future amusing anecdote in the making. It was merely in the way. Annoying. The tree was shedding its needles at an alarming rate. The branches were beginning to droop, dropping ornaments on the floor almost daily for Renfield to bat around. They had to lean around its considerable bulk to insert discs into the DVD player. One loop of lights had fallen to the floor, several bulbs crushed beneath heedless sneakers and winter boots.

On New Year’s Eve one of Karen’s friends stumbled drunkenly into it, resulting in another fall and an ill-conceived group attempt to lean it back into its former position, but all it meant by the next day was a whole new pile of dead needles and more broken ornaments to sweep up.

The cat took to pissing on it in early January, as the last of the bowl games were petering out, and Bob and Karen knew it was time for the tree to go. It was a parody of a tree, an imitation. It reminded Bob of those inspirational movies that popped up at the multiplexes this time of year, stories that weren’t true, exactly, but “inspired by actual events.” It was a Christmas tree inspired by actual Christmas trees. They took off the ornaments, the lights, the tinsel and garlands and packed them haphazardly away, then loaded the denuded tree into the back of a friend’s pickup and took it to the dump.

Bob and Karen broke up just after Valentine’s Day and, like the fall of the tree, there was surprisingly little calamity in the event. Friends and trips home and a steady flow of liquor helped cushion the fall. A few years later Bob was opening boxes of Christmas gear--new tree, new house, new town--and found the hastily repaired plaster hand-cast, buried under a wreath in the corner of a box. The glue has turned clear, and he ran his finger along the ridge of the repair, the gaps now bridged, the texture smooth and hard, like a scar. He could still make out the fingerprints, the palm lines in the plaster. He wrapped the ornament in tissue paper and sent it to the last known address he had for her, with a pleasant if somewhat impersonal note of explanation, and no return address. He wasn’t sure why. Something about memory. Something about the passage of time. It was clearly not an ornament that belonged on his tree, but didn’t seem to be the kind of thing that should be thrown away.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Open Source Santa



This program has been around for awhile, and I've been meaning to blog about it since I discovered it, but with school out for two weeks and a great need to keep the kids occupied after all those plastic Christmas toys from Wal-mart break into ten thousand pieces, I figured the timing was good.

It's called Tux Paint, and it's basically free, open source Photoshop for kids. Incredibly intuitive interface: my kids got on and just went nuts, including discovering lots of stuff I didn't know was on there. You can draw and paint with the mouse, distort, add ripples and bubbles and blurs and smudges and shapes and patterns. The coolest bit is the stamps: pre-built images of ducks and planets and hats and spiders that you can put on a picture by just clicking on it. And if you save a photo as a .bmp, knock it down to 600-ish pixels wide, and save it in the stamps directory of the program, you can import your own photos! Which is what I've done below.

Did I mention it's free? Get it here.







I can't recommend this program enough. Big Fun.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Gamesmanship

I am teaching the eldest little clowncar to play checkers (I'd rather rip out my teeth with pliers than play Candyland or Chutes and Ladders, but I'll play checkers til the cows come home). Already, she's pretty good. But I'm stumbling across an issue no doubt encountered by countless parents before me: how hard do you try to win?


Clearly, I can't let her win, as she won't learn how to play - no strategy, no planning ahead, no joy of play. Just mindless self-esteem building that won't amount to much because it's false.

At the same time, I don't want to crush her like a grape. No joy of play there either. She'll never want to play again.

I'm gradually - and happily - learning the middle ground here. When she makes a mistake, gently show her the mistake before you take advantage (but take advantage). Occasionally make little clucking noises when she starts to make a bad move. And, throw her a bone every once in a while. Put a checker in harm's way and see if she jumps it. Pass over the occasionally gapingly obvious double or triple jump available to me.

She hasn't beat me yet. But she's caught me off-guard with a jump a couple of times now. And yesterday she even hit me with her first double jump she figured out all for herself.

Few things in life are as satisfying as your first double jump.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Secret Life of Lawns, Part Two

No one saw it but us.

A bright, relatively warm December morning, and the little clowncars were "helping" me hang Christmas lights while Hucky made preparations for the upcoming trip to chez Dancehall. There was nobody else outside. It's tempting to draw out the obvious moral that no one leaves their houses anymore, except to get in their car and drive somewhere, but I don't actually know that to be true. Only that it's true where I live.

Anyway. Me, the girls, the Christmas lights. A deer came trotting from out of the parking lot of the little community college that anchors one end of our block, then made its way across the trio of perfectly manicured lawns across the street, effortlessly silent. I shushed the kids and pointed.

"A reindeer!" exclaimed my oldest, but it wasn't, of course. It was a regular deer, a young buck, near fully grown, sporting small proud antlers. I called for my wife, it stopped at the noise. It relaxed, began to sniff around the lawn at its feet.

A dog from the back yard barked.

Then, in a moment so perfect it seemed scripted for the season, it began to bound away, all four legs pumping in unison so that it bounced improbably high in the air with each effort, looking as if it could fly (and I'm sure the girls were expectant that it would). It made its way quickly back up the block, paused briefly to sniff at the cars in the parking lot of the college, then disappeared around the corner.

I don't have an end to the story. This is a fairly small town, so it could have taken a route through the golf course or the park and have only one busy road between it and unincorporated land. And freedom. I hope he made it.

I told a couple neighbors about. They were polite but incurious, uninterested. Hurried back inside their houses, closed and locked their doors.

Fine with me. They're old and retired, and when I'm old and retired I'll probably be the same way. As it is, I'm often too self-absorbed to pay full attention to the world around me. It is easy to lose focus.

There is everyday magic outside the walls that surround us, waiting for notice. It's important to keep your doors open. It's important to step outside.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Open Wide

I think of it as the Good Book Vortex. Every so often I go through a period where I fall in love with every book I pick up. It doesn't happen often, maybe every couple years or so. And I'm open to the idea that it has more to do with my frame of mind than the books themselves (though I'd argue each one of the books are objectively good).

Anyway. I went through a few months this year where every book I picked up was mediocre (or in the case of The Emperor's Children, so ill-conceived it made me angry upon finishing it). But it seems I've once again stumbled into the creamy nougat center of the Good Book Vortex. It started with Seven Types of Ambiguity ("What is it about men that makes women so lonely?"), continued with Sharp Teeth (a wonderfully odd epic poem about werewolves, recommended by Maggie and her excellent on-line book club), then onto Under the Banner of Heaven (a book about the weird and bloody history of the Mormon church). And now I'm reading Life of Pi. So good I'll quote a little of it here:

"There is the story of the baby Krishna, wrongly accused by his friends of eating a bit of dirt. His foster mother, Yashoda, comes up to him with a wagging finger. 'You shouldn't eat dirt, you naughty boy,' she scolds him. 'But I haven't,' says the unchallenged lord of all and everything, in sport disguised as a frightened human child. 'Tut, tut. Open your mouth,' orders Yashoda. Krishna does as he is told. He opens his mouth. Yashoda gasps. She sees in Krishna's mouth the whole complete entire timeless universe, all the stars and planets of space and the distance between them, all the lands and seas of the Earth and the life in them; she sees all the days of yesterday and all the days of tomorrow; she sees all ideas and all emotions, all pity and all hope, and the three strands of matter; not a pebble, candle, creature, village or galaxy is missing, including herself and every bit of dirt in its truthful place. 'My Lord, you can close your mouth,' she says reverently."

I don't know if the power of that story has more to do with Hinduism or with Yann Martell, who wrote the book. But the image has been following me around for days now.

Good book.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The View From the Porch

Nothing fancy. Didn't use a tripod or a long exposure or anything. Just pointed the camera and pushed the button.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Recap

Ate the requisite turkey, stuffing, potatoes, green beans, gravy. Witnessed the requisite acting out of both children and adults. Received the requisite contrite apologies via phone the next day.

Taught the girls fake Italian accents (hey! whatsamatta you!). Replete with gestures.

Walked in the Parade of Lights! Supposed to just be the girls on their school's float, but we got roped in to keep kids from falling off the back. Big Fun. We waved! We sang! We danced!


I cannot overstate how much I enjoy the movie "The Incredibles." Sharp and witty, with a deeply cool robot spider. And there's a open disdain for mediocrity you don't often see in a kid's movie.

Did I mention the robot spider? Because that's really my favorite part.

And, finally, from the Beating A Dead Horse Dept.: watch the sky tonight, just after sunset. Crescent moon, Venus, and Jupiter, grouped together as if sitting for a photo.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Lost In Space


Beautiful sight in the evening sky now, and for the next week: Jupiter and Venus moving closer and closer together each night, and when they are a mere 2 degrees apart, a slender crescent moon will join them to create a lovely trio. Look in the sky just after sunset the next week or so, and you’ll see the players slowly taking their places, like actors backstage at a play. The whole thing culminates December 1st.

The diagram above is from the Sky and Telescope’s website.




I was going to post video of the giant fireball in the sky over Canada last week, but it’s been posted a bunch of times already. If you want to see it go to Youtube. Or Bad Astronomy. Or beekeeper extraordinaire Gordo.

I will instead post a link to footage of that $100,000 toolbelt that got lost in space during a spacewalk last week. Apparently an amateur astronomer got video of it crossing the sky. The video is here; it’s about 4 seconds long. Incredibly, If you go to Space Weather and put in your zip code they’ll let you know when and where to see it yourself. You’ll need binoculars or a telescope, though.




I started planning for The New Novel seven or eight months ago, expecting to begin it on January 2nd. Now that that date is a few weeks away, my brain is popping with changes, major and minor. And yesterday I finally figured out the title!

I almost fell over.

I'm not going to say what it is. I'm a tad superstitious about letting details out before I have a large chunk done. I will go this far: it's a nod to one of my favorite Whitman quotes.

I wrote The First Novel with no map. Just started writing, and let it take me wherever it wanted. That's a wonderful strategy for a short story, but too much damn work for a novel. Every time you make a significant change, you've gotta go back and retrofit the novel to make it work. So this time I've got a general sense of where I'm going.

We shall see if I can stay on course, or if it develops a will of its own. Check back with me in two years.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Music of the Rings

You need to trust me and just listen to this.

It's eerie and strange and a little scary and quite literally otherworldly. This is the sound of the radio emissions coming from Saturn, recorded by Cassini, and dubbed "The Music of the Rings" by Donald Gurnett, a physicist at University of Iowa. The video accompanying the audio explains the details, so I won't bother.


I stole this from the always interesting GM=tc^3: A Babe in the Universe. She thinks it's an indication of a black hole in the center of Saturn, and goes on to say planets may be "seeded" by black holes in the early formation of solar systems. Who knows, she might be right; she's certainly smarter than I am.


Here's a closely related picture (also stolen from GM=tc^3) of the aurora around Saturn's North pole (the image was captured by Casinni as well). This is the same phenomenon as the auroras powering the Northern Lights here on Earth. Both are caused by the strong magnetic fields surrounding the two planets. And those same magnetic fields produce radio signals, which in turn produce all that crazy music. They make the worlds sing.

Click it to enlarge it. It'd quite a beautiful picture.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sea of Fecundity

I usually insert some sort of caveat when I write about star-gazing, about how the picture is from NASA and the view through my scope is not nearly as detailed. But not this time; below is an actual photograph of the moon taken through the lens of the scope.


Cool, huh?

The main drawback of my big, dumb, cheap Dobsonian is that you can't do much in the way of astro-photography with it, in that it has no motor to drive the scope and keep it aligned with the ever-moving skyscape. But with bright stuff - like the moon - you can simply stick a camera over the lens, turn off the flash, and snap away. Which is what I did. This was taken with my lowest power lens and my brand new toy: an adjustable polarizing filter, which is two pieces of polarized glass that, when one is turned, increase or decreases the amount of light to pass through. It's like sunglasses for your telescope. Very fun to play with.


I'm having trouble aligning the features of the picture with on-line moon maps (click on the map above to play at home), but I'm pretty sure the dramatic crater on the left, with all the radial line running from it, is Copernicus. The smooth circular areas in the upper right are, I think, the Sea of Serenity on the left and the Sea of Tranquility just to the right. The Sea of Tranquility is where man first landed on the moon. Just below and to the right of those two circles is my favorite lunar feature name to date: the Sea of Fecundity.

Here's another shot:

I lie this one because it looks so surreal and dreamlike. It reminds me of the special effects of a low-budget 50s sci-fi flick.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Life Imitates Jokes

Q: What time is it when you go to the dentist?
A: Tooth hurty.

Get it? 2:30? Tooth hurty? That joke's a big favorite here at the Cloud. And I had a dentist appointment this week. At 2:30!

It's kooky!

Another favorite:

Q: Did you hear about the restaurant on the moon?
A: The food is good, but there's no atmosphere.

The kids don't really understand that one, but they laugh anyway. They always laugh at Daddy's jokes. I've got about 5 more years of that, after which they will become sullen, moody teenagers and be embarrassed beyond words at anything and everything I say. Or do. Or wear.

The clock is ticking.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Dead Man's Revenge


Last month the University of Arizona predicted that an asteroid would collide with Earth, or more accurately with the Earth's atmosphere, on October 7. It did. This was the first time an asteroid on a collision course with Earth has been spotted before it entered our atmosphere. Bizarrely, in our media-saturated world, there was no footage of what must have been a huge fireball as it burned up in our atmosphere, over the Sudan in Africa. What was captured on video (a frame of which is shown above) was the aftermath: the windblown trail of the asteroid after it burned up.

The interesting bit about this image is that the trail shown in the picture is glowing. That's not reflected sunlight making the trail glow, it's light emitted by the trail itself. Cool, eh? These have been spotted before - they're called "persistent trains" - but no one knows exactly what causes them. Something to do with the ionized gas left in the wake of the asteroid. They come in all sorts of pretty colors too!

The photo is from NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day. It's a great way to start your morning!



Remember the Dead Man's beer? Remember the mystery beer we found amid the cases, with the odd-sized bottle and no label?

We opened it and tried it last weekend. Three words: nasty, nasty, nasty. Daisy called it right. It was home-brewed beer gone very, very bad.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Tree of Hands

No idea where this poem came from, or what it means. It popped into my head nearly fully formed. But thanks, Mona, for the win and lose poetry theme for the week.

my daughter lost a jagged tooth
last night
and instead of under the pillow
it went into the garden
planted as a seed.
it grew into a tree of hands
by morning
fingers grasping at our clothes
as we brushed past
nails bitten and ragged
pearls of blood
beading at the tips.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Ctrl-Alt-Delete

Amid all the hoopla surrounding Halloween and the election, the resurrection of the Hubble telescope didn't get much play in the news. They rebooted one computer, fired up another that had been sitting unused in the cold of space for 18 years, and now it's back in business. Most of you probably saw this celebratory picture in the paper or on the web, but it's worth showing again. Because it's cool. And because the Hubble is the second most important telescope in the history of mankind (the first would be Galileo's, the one that first revealed the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, the craters of the moon, and put the final nails in the unwieldy but comforting Earth-is-the-center-of-the-universe model).

It is a picture of Arp 147, two interacting galaxies for the price of one. It looks like one galaxy blasted straight through the center of another, but I'm guessing it's a little more complicated than that. Thanks to Bad Astronomy (and Hubble!) for the picture and the explanation.



My favorite ten words in American political history are "of the people, by the people, and for the people." I'm glad they were quoted on Election Day. And it's movingly ironic that they were first spoken on a bloody Civil War battlefield, and echoed Tuesday by our first black President.

Both McCain and Obama gave excellent speeches that night.



I'll end with a (mostly) non-partisan Election Day memory. 1972, Nixon vs. McGovern, in the midst of the Vietnam War. I'm way too young to vote, but my sister has just turned 18. We're watching TV, and I'm haranguing her to get up off the couch and vote. She relents, we go to the high school, they let us both into the voting booth, laughing all the way. It's one of those old-fashioned ones, with the big metal lever you pull to close the drapes. It goes "shlunk" when you pull it. We vote for McGovern (more accurately we vote against Nixon), and choose the other candidates based on random choise and who has the funniest names. We shlunk the drapes back open, go home, watch more TV.

Nixon won, and was later impeached. The war raged on three more years.

The memory continues to last, far beyond the events of the day.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Because Tom Cruise Knows What's Best For Me

You know, I do plan to vote today - I love Election Day - but I must admit I'm a little tired of celebrities telling me to do so. I already have role models, thank you. And so do my children. I'm not going to go out and vote because Harrison Ford told me to.

Anyway.

I'm going to be humming this song all day long.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Destroy All Monsters!

Was there ever really any doubt?

I love this movie. It was the first movie I ever posted a clip of on the Cloud. It's got all the greats: Godzilla, his son (daughter?) Godzookie, who blows smoke rings, Rodan, Mothra, King Ghidrah. Eleven monsters in all! Gamera, sadly, is not in it, as the Godzilla and Gamera universes do not intersect.

The plot: all the word's monsters are rounded up and sent to Monster Island. Those zany Japanese Space Babes let them loose to destroy Earth, and control them from the moon. After their moonbase is destroyed, the Babes unleash King Ghidrah, but the Earth monsters unite to conquer Ghidrah and save the day! Yay!

The movie uses a lot of stock footage from other movies, but my guess is if you're a fan of Japanese monster movies, you're probably not a big stickler for continuity.

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Fearless Vampire Killers

The Halloween countdown continues.

This one’s kinda bittersweet.

It’s Roman Polanski and the stunningly beautiful Sharon Tate trading rather tame sexual innuendo in The Fearless Vampire Killers, which Polanski directed before he got famous directing Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby.

It’s bittersweet because Sharon Tate died a few years later (while pregnant with Polanski’s baby) in the gruesome Manson family murders. I won’t go into all the details, or any details, actually – you can look em up on Wikipedia - but it was a pretty horrific scene. Surreal. What a strange time.

I haven’t seen this movie for decades, but I remember thinking it was very funny and very good when I was a kid. It used to get shown once or twice a year on TV, usually late at night. Its tragic history, along with Sharon Tate’s abundant cleavage, made me run to the TV set every time. Moth to a flame. Perfect fodder for a pre-adolescent boy.

I don’t know why they don’t show it anymore.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Gamera vs. Guiron

Okay, now we're getting to the good stuff.

I gave this movie to my younger daughter for Christmas last year. It's easily the stupidest Gamera movie ever made, and that's saying something. For the culturally challenged, Gamera is the jet-propelled flying turtle hero, Guiron is the little knifey guy he's fighting. Guiron is controlled by two brain-eating Japanese Space Babes bent on destroying the Earth. Needless to say, Gamera and his little friends save the day.

We own two versions of this: the regular one (US title Destroy All Planets) and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version, which is very funny. This is the MST3K version. (note: they pulled my original clip from Youtube, so I substituted another)



And because I can't resist (and because there's like ten thousand hours of MST3K on Youtube), here's Joel and the Bots performing the Gamera theme song. It's a classic.


And what the hell, this is Mike Nelson channelling Michael Feinstein singing the Gamera song. This makes me laugh every time I see it. Just insanely funny.



By the way, you can get Mystery Science Theatre DVDs at mst3k.org for 6 bucks each. 5 bucks if you get ten of them. Which I did. It's linked over on the sidebar as well.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Death By Unicorn

A fast, funny clip from The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a weird and very campy Vincent Price movie from those crazy 70s. I saw this at the drive-in (it's shocking how many of these movies I first saw at a drive-in) with my sister and her boyfriend. They were not amused that they had to drag me along. I, on the other hand, was delighted. They kept disappearing for long stretches to "go to the snack bar," but inevitably returned empty-handed. Just shocking.

There is an equally good sequel: Dr. Phibes Rises Again. If you have Netflix, you can get them both on the same disc. A Halloween double-feature!


The Abonimable Dr. Phibes - The best bloopers are here

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Haunting

Happy Halloween! Assuming I can find the time, I'll try to post bits of my favorite Halloween movies all this week.

There's a truly dreadful remake of this movie that came out a few years back, but ignore it. The original 1963 version is wonderful. Lotsa lesbian subtext in both versions (and in the novel). If you're into that kinda thing.

The source material is Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, a really good, really scary read. Here's the first paragraph:

"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."

I love that "not sane," hiding in the second sentence. So understated, and thus so effective.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Small World

Mona sez we should write about the world beyond our senses. Okay. I wrote this in my head, lying in bed with a cold. It's pretty much straight reportage, though I did have kind of a NyQuil buzz going at the time.




I am sick in bed with a cold today. My world has shrunk to the four walls around me, the bed, the blanket.

In the paper a woman who wishes to be Vice President says the election is in God's hands. On the radio, an arrogant English accent is telling an interviewer that God is a delusion to comfort the simple-minded.

I turn the radio off. The paper has long since been tossed.

What can be gained by trivializing the world around us, shrinking it to small, bite-sized portions? In whose interest is it that I wear blinders, that I keep the true nature of things at bay?

In a few hours I will get out of bed, pick up my daughters, walk home in a NyQuil haze. They will kick at the bright leaves that fell last night in response to the first frost of the year. It is cold; we will stay inside. As evening falls Venus and Jupiter will appear in the twilight, well before the other stars. Then Vega. Then Deneb and Altair.

Mysteries huddle at our feet, curled like sleeping cats.

We will eat. We will read the girls a story, sing them a song. I will slip into bed next to my wife. We will sleep. The wide world will turn.

Tomorrow it will all begin again.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What is it about men that makes women so lonely?

Great line, isn't it?

It's from Seven Types of Ambiguity, by Elliot Perlman. I haven't read a really great book since Richard Price's Lush Life (I keep a list of everything I've read on the sidebar over there on the right, if you care). And this one may ultimately disappoint, as I haven't finished it yet. But I'm halfway through, and still riveted. The book shows the same event through the eyes of seven first person narrators. It's like strolling down a long hall of mirrors. And the various first person voices keep it focused on plot and character.

I get a curious sensation of falling when I start a new book. I start out knowing nothing. I begin to see the barest outlines of rooms, just walls at first, and they gradually acquire detail: the furniture, the wallpaper, the floor. Characters start out as mere words, form faces, then bodies. You discover how they dress, how they walk. They turn into living, breathing people if the writing is good enough. Right in front of your eyes. You can hear their voices when they talk.

That feeling of going down the rabbit hole as I read has been amplified lately because of where I've been reading. The girls have been...well, let's be polite and simply say rambunctious...at bedtime lately. So El Huquito and I take turns staying in their room as they fall asleep, to prevent talking and playing and cavorting with the kitties. We have a little reading light that clips onto the brim of a hat, and we hand off the hat to each other, night after night.

So if it's my turn, after the lights go out, I sit in a dark, warm room, surrounded by the sound of my daughters' breathing and the purring of kitties, my book illuminated in a thin cone of light. It's so relaxing. I've sometimes stayed in there for a half an hour or so after they've gone to sleep, simply because it's such a nice place to read.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Hammer Horror

Mona's word of the week is "taste."

I got nothin.

Luckily, Hammer films leap into the void. They made a million gloriously weird horror movies in the 60s and 70s. I saw most of them on Friday night Creature Feature. Usually I was fast asleep by the end, as the bat wings flapped into the sunset and the credits rolled.

Feel the cold grip of his presence. Sense the clammy excitement of his evil. Taste the blood...of Dracula!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Goon Squad

I don't often delve into politics, so I'm only gonna say this once: look closely into the eyes of Sarah Palin and you will see the pleasant, smiling, charismatic face of fascism.

It's not gonna be some guy wearing jackboots and a sneer, waving a machine gun. It's gonna be someone who is attractive and confident, selling you sweet, seductive lies, winking at you in complicity.


McCain had a genuinely classy moment when he shook his head and took the microphone away from a woman calling Obama an "Arab." That was the John McCain I respected and admired, several years ago. The one who spoke out against torture. The one who championed campaign finance reform. But he's clearly lost control of his campaign, as the Republican Hate Machine continues to spew character attacks rather than discuss actual issues.

I've got my problems with Obama too. His vote on the telecom bill. His elitist comments on people reaching for guns and religion due to ignorance and fear. His lack of specifics. But we heard him speak last month and, unlike the McCain-Palin ticket, he didn't draw an angry mob. He drew a group of people who seemed to genuinely want to believe in their country again.

Just like me.



I took the title of this post from Elvis Costello's song of the same name. They've come to look you over and they're giving you the eye.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

I Spy With My Little Eye


That this looks like a giant eye in space is only the mildly cool bit.

The wildly cool bit is what causes the image to form. It's a gravitational lens, otherwise known as an Einstein ring.

The "pupil" of the eye, at center, is a galaxy 2 billion light years away. Directly behind that galaxy is another one, 11 billion miles away.

Follow me here: the extreme gravitational forces from the close galaxy bend the time and space around it, forming a sort of lens. Not figuratively. Literally. It's a giant lens made not of glass, but of space itself. Let me repeat that: it's a lens made of bent space. The lens distorts and magnifies the light from the faraway galaxy, bending it so it looks like a bright ring around the close one. Normally, the faraway galaxy would be too faint to see. The lens magnifies the light so that we can.

I don't know why it's blue. Perhaps it's a false color image. Or a Doppler shift of some kind.

Einstein predicted this kinda stuff would happen if we looked deep enough into space (something we couldn't do at the time he predicted it). That's why it's sometimes called an Einstein ring.

Is that cool, or what?

I grabbed the image, and the details, from the always interesting Bad Astronomy blog. I asked him why it was blue, but he's too famous to answer. He even gets interviewed on Art Bell!

Anyway.

While I'm at it, another space eye.


This is the Helix Nebula, sometimes called the Eye of God Nebula. It is much closer - a mere 700 light years away - and was created by the death of a star in our own galaxy. The resultant explosion created a tube of glowing gas along the poles of the star, and we're looking down that tube. Look closely and you can see original star, at the center of the picture.

First photo is from the Keck observatory. Second one is from the Hubble. Both are from NASA.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Scents and Sensibility

Sorry. Couldn't resist.

Mona's word of last week, smell, has lingered in my brain like the scent of burnt microwave popcorn.

So, an olfactory anecdote: while I was working at the worst job I ever had (a "crepe assembler" at the Magic Pan in Minneapolis), my mean-spirited boss fell down half a flight of stairs at a party. He went to the ER, and when he came back to work a couple days later informed us he was fine, but - and I am not making this up - he had lost his sense of smell in the fall.

My theory at the time was that since smell is located in the limbic system, an ancient part of the brain (in evolutionary terms) commonly called the lizard brain because lizards have this structure in their brains as well, he would lose the more reptilian aspects of his personality, and emerge from the fall as a nicer, more pleasant individual.

I was wrong. He was still a dick.

Just a dick with no sense of smell.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.



Also: Willie Ziebell sez that there is a word for the smell of rain in the air: petrichor. Pronounced pe-trĂȘ-kor. Cool word. Thanks, Willie.



A non-smell related item: you may recall I predicted the Cubs were gonna go all the way this year. I was wrong. Very wrong. They didn't win a single game, and were effortlessly swept out of the playoffs by the Dodgers. More strangeness: on TV I witnessed Cubs fans booing their own team! At Wrigley Field! I don't think I've ever heard that before. Mets fans, sure. Yankees fans, absolutely. But not Cubs fans. They're supposed to be above that sort of behavior.

No Mets. No Cubs. No Rockies. No Twins. Gonna be a boring post-season, I predict.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Scents

I've blatantly ripped off Mona's format for the Friday Word ("smell"). She listed a deeply evocative list of smells she loves, and I'm merely following in her footsteps. Good word!

* The smell of tomato plants being watered (I've heard - perhaps from Dancehall? - that it's the vines that make the smell, and not the tomatoes themselves)
* Cigarettes. I'm an ex-smoker, and will always love the smell, and always miss smoking. It's like phantom limb syndrome. What a glorious habit. I've sat next to people who were smoking just to get a whiff of that second-hand smoke.
* Bourbon. Good bourbon. Enough said.
* Mimeographs. This'll be lost on everyone under the age of 30 or so, but in the olden days, schools printed copies using a mimeograph machine, which produced an odd blue text and the most wonderful artificial chemical smell. I have such distinct memories of the teacher passing out copies, and every kid in the class taking a deep whiff of the paper the second it landed on their desk, because it smelled so good. Cheap thrills.
* Coffee. Maxwell House or fancy-pants Starbucks, it's all the same to me.
* Bacon. Mmmmmmmmm, bacon....
* Campfires. And the way the smoky smell stays in your clothes and your hair and your skin for days afterward. You smell it and remember sitting at the fire as the stars come out and the bats begin to swoop and the coyotes begin to howl.
* Cordite. It's what makes that smell in the air after a fireworks display, when everyone is walking home, dazzled and sleepy.
* The smell in the air just before a rain.
* Sage. Particularly after a rain. La petite Huque has planted lots of sage around the house, and the smell surrounds us like a comforting blanket every time it rains.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Twofer

I've been absent from Mona's most excellent poetry Fridays for a spell, so here's one that combines two recent words: "library" and "hear."



3 a.m. drunk
stumbling home from the midtown Blarney Stone
tiptoeing past the stone lions
guarding the 42nd street library
I heard one of them whisper -hey you, kid-
-yeah- I answered and he growled
-you overromanticize this drinking you know
all that hemmingway and kerouac
all that faulkner and joyce
you oughtta get yourself some religion
a litle flannery
a little melville
hawthorne, emerson, mccarthy
those guys'd do you some good-
he stopped talking, threw me a marbled stare
challenging me
-they were just drunk on religion- I slurred
and the lion stared me down one last time before purring
-everyboby's drunk on something-
he tossed his mane victoriously
before retreating back to stony silence
and I tottered to the subway
pinballing down the long dark stairs
to fall onto a bench
await the lumbering Brooklyn bound G train
and begin the long ride home

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Anthe and Methone

This is a picture of two tiny moons of Saturn - Anthe (top left) and Methone (bottom right) - in Saturn's faint G ring. The moons are only a couple of miles across. Those arcs the moons are sitting in are caused by debris from mirco-meteorites hitting the surface of the moons. The cool thing here is that, after countless orbits around Saturn, the debris should form complete rings, as the material spreads out and around. That's what scientists expected to see. But, as I've said many times here before, the closer you look, the weirder it gets.



Apparently the debris forming the arcs is kept in place by gravitational resonances with other moons of Saturn, a concept I must confess I don't fully understand. It has something to do with a set of moons gravitationally interacting with each other (there is a third one, Pallene, in this "family" of moons). Even weirder, the moons aren't always in the center of their arcs, but wander to one side, then the other.

I like the idea of incomplete structures out there. It's easy to see Saturn's rings as stately and unchanging, proof of a stable, predictable clockwork universe. The arcs point to a more accurate picture of things, a solar system that is forever changing and evolving, rearranging itself into ever more complex structures. The moons and their arcs remind me of scaffolding around a building, the girders of a skyscraper under construction, the first few halting paragraphs of a new chapter in an epic narrative.

The photo is from NASA.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Screwball

Fall beckons, baseball season is winding down, and the Mets are yet again slouching toward their annual late season collapse. With that in mind, here's the perfect trivia question to throw out there next time you're at a bar watching a baseball game:

Q: Who is the only man to ever throw a no-hitter while on acid?

A: Dock Ellis.

Baseball is full of apocryphal stories, but this really happened. On June 12, 1970, Mr. Ellis thought he had the day off, and so indulged in a little recreational drug use with his girlfriend by dropping a tab of LSD. Starting pitchers only pitch every fifth day, so he figured it was no big deal. Until he got to the park and found out he was scheduled to pitch. Not only did he pitch, he pitched a no-hitter, which is very, very hard to do. Here's his description of what it was like, which I stole from Wikipedia:

"I can only remember bits and pieces of the game. I was psyched. I had a feeling of euphoria. I was zeroed in on the (catcher's) glove, but I didn't hit the glove too much. I remember hitting a couple of batters and the bases were loaded two or three times. The ball was small sometimes, the ball was large sometimes, sometimes I saw the catcher, sometimes I didn't. Sometimes I tried to stare the hitter down and throw while I was looking at him. I chewed my gum until it turned to powder."

Trippy.


Dock was a pretty nutty guy. He once tried to hit every batter in the Cincinnati Reds line-up. I don't know why. He hit the first three, to load the bases. The fourth batter was able to avoid getting hit and walked, walking in a run. After he threw at the next batter's head on two straight pitches, he was pulled from the game.

Surprisingly, his lifetime numbers are pretty good. A win-loss record of 138-119. An earned run average of 3.46. And 1,136 career strikeouts.

Not surprisingly, he was at one point a Met. They'll pretty much take whoever they can get.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Snapshot



My sister and I in the photo booth at the Kresge's in downtown Ottumwa, Iowa, sometime in the late sixties. Clearly, she feels I am not smiling broadly enough.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Drink Me

An addendum to my last post; remember the beer I got from the dead guy? Turns out there is a mystery beer in there. Brown bottle. Bigger than the other bottles. No label. Blank bottle top.

It's like that bottle labeled “Drink me” in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. What will happen when I do? Will I shrink, like Alice? Will I grow? Will I learn the answers to the great mysteries of life? The great mysteries of death? Will it be the best beer I’ve ever had, but as it’s unlabeled, never be able to drink again?

Will it simply suck?

Stay tuned.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Dead Man's Beer

I've been drinking a dead man's beer this week.

My niece's dad died a couple weeks ago. 45 years old, died from a heart attack. He was from little Hucky's side of the family, so I didn't know him too well. He was divorced from the Mom, so I only saw him at drop-offs and pick-ups of the niece. He seemed like a good guy. A good Dad. A little goofy, a little ineffectual. A little baffled by the modern American landscape. I can relate.

He loved his daughter, certainly.

So it goes.

Hux went to the memorial, I stayed home with the girls, and when she got home she had 6 cases of beer in the car with her. The guy was a truck driver for a beer distributor, and got free cases of beer as a perk. Lots of it, apparently. During the memorial someone noticed the 20 or so cases of beer stacked behind the house, and they got divvied up among the relatives after things were said and done. All sorts of beers: honey browns, Red Stripes, amber lagers, pale bocks. Guinnesses, which we are saving for a certain blogger's husband. Chile beer, a vile undrinkable substance that I wouldn't feed to the cats.

The cases are sitting out on our front porch, no doubt drawing disapproving stares from the trio of well kept lawns across the street (Hux finally threw a tarp over them a few days ago, for the sake of decorum). Most evenings for the last couple weeks, Hucky and I will snag one or two promising flavors from the cases after work (I'm partial to the honey brown), stick em in the fridge, and enjoy them after supper. I try to throw out a silent nod of thanks upon my first sip, to the dead man who gave it to us. I don't always remember. Sometimes I do.

So, one more time, thanks for the beer.



Got an award from the ever ebullient Scarlett Wanderlust yesterday. It's over there on the sidebar, or will be when I get around to it. Thanks, Scarlett! Wander over and check out her site. She has a pet lion named Viaggiatore. He lives there too.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Falling Man

I avoid most books and movies about 9/11. Some, like Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, have made me extremely angry, trivializing the event by making it a cheap plot device (I hated that book). Others, like Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I've found very moving.

This is from Delillo's Falling Man (I can feel Eric at My Heart's Porch cringing now, but we share a love of Uncle Cormac, so I forgive him). Not a great book, but a good one. In its best moments he describes 9/11 with precision and grace, detachment and beauty. This is from the beginning of the book:

"It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads. They had handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths. They had shoes in their hands, a woman with a shoe in each hand, running past him. They ran and fell, some of them, confused and ungainly, with debris coming down around them, and there were people taking shelter under cars.

The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now. Smoke and ash came rolling down streets and turning corners, busting around corners, seismic tides of smoke, with office paper flashing past, standard sheets with cutting edge, skimming, whipping past, otherworldly things in the morning pall.

He wore a suit and carried a briefcase. There was glass in his hair and face, marbled bolls of blood and light. He walked past a Breakfast Special sign and they went running by, city cops and security guards running, hands pressed down on gun butts to keep the weapons steady.

Things inside were distant and still, where he was supposed to be. It happened everywhere around him, a car half buried in debris, windows smashed and noises coming out, radio voices scratching at the wreckage. He saw people shedding water as they ran, clothes and bodies drenched from sprinkler systems. There were shoes discarded in the street, handbags and laptops, a man seated on the sidewalk coughing up blood. Paper cups went bouncing oddly by.

The world was this as well, figures in windows a thousand feet up, dropping into free space, and the stink of fuel fire, and the steady rip of sirens in the air. The noise lay everywhere they ran, stratified sound collecting around them, and he walked away from it and into it at the same time."

My favorite line is "Paper cups went bouncing oddly by." Such an unexpected image.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Missing Hamburger

Had an arduous medical procedure on Monday that I won't mention but which rhymes with "stolonoscopy," and am only now beginning to come out of the drug-induced haze of it all (as opposed to the drug-induced haze of, say, my 20s). The procedure itself was a cakewalk, compared to the heinous liquid I had to drink down at 5 a.m. the day of the surgery. And the fact that I couldn't eat anything at all for 36 hours prior. Nothing but clear liquids.

Luckily, beer is a clear liquid.

I've used that line like 20 times now. It's a good line.

Anyway.



My Dad picked me up afterward, because I wasn't allowed to drive, and took me out to the the Red Top, which makes the best hamburger in the state, if not the world, and I wolfed it down. And have no memory of it. Because of those crazy drugs.

I remember cutting it in half, remember eating the fries, remember snatches of conversation with my Dad, even remember a strip of bacon I pulled out of the cheesy goodness atop the burger. But no actual memory of eating the burger itself.

It's eerie. I've been trying to recapture those lost memories from right after the procedure all day today, and they've gone. Wiped away. It's like that tree falling in a forest thing.

Except with hamburgers.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Last Dollar

Excellent word of the week this week from Mona: gas. Excellent because it's back to school and back to work and everything's go go go! Anyway, here's my contribution.



The week gas went up to five dollars a gallon Toby set his car on fire.

He had been drinking over at the Tip Top in Elmore, and was driving home 2 am-ish, using country roads all the way to avoid the local police. He ran out of gas about three miles from town. He'd left his last dollar on the bar as a tip, so even if he could hitch a ride at this hour, he'd have no money to fill the damn thing up. No money til payday on Thursday.

He got out of the car and lit a cigarette, regarding the situation, and when he was done he just flipped the butt through the window into the back seat. Made sure the upholstry caught the flame, even blew on it a little, grabbed the pint of Wild Turkey from the glovebox, then backed away to watch the fireworks. One of those big explosions would improve his mood. Like on TV.

It never happened, of course. The car was out of gas.

It took Toby about a half hour to realize this. Once he did, he stood up, thinking about how different TV was from real life. He finished off the bottle of Turkey with one pull, lit up his next to last cigarette, and began the long walk home.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Bangkok Rules

Okay, it's not Monday, and Snake Plissken isn't really a monster. But I'm declaring a Monster Monday nonetheless, because Escape From New York is making the rounds on late night TV these days, and I love that movie. And because we painted the house over Labor Day weekend, and my mind and body are exhausted and I am unable to come up with an original post to save my life.

Luckily I don't have to.



Yes, I realize this clip is from Escape From LA, not New York. Get a life.

The house looks great, by the way.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Space Worms

Remember the end of Independence Day, when Will Smith defeats the aliens by uploading a virus into their computers? I always thought it was a quaint assumption on the screenwriter's part that aliens would be using Windows 95 as their operating system.

Until I read today over at AstroEngine.com that the International Space Station has a actual computer worm (the W32.Gammima.AG worm) infecting it's computer system. This is a worm originally designed to steal information from on-line gamers. And somehow it got on the space station's computer!

No, I'm not making any of this up.

And it gets weirder. They used Norton AntiVirus to get rid of it! Really. Here's the actual NASA press release. Read the second sentence. Read further and you'll be relieved to know they are now installing Norton on all their laptops. In space!

Shouldn't they have thought of that before they took off?

Doesn't exactly give you a lot of faith in NASA, does it (to be fair, there are alotta space agencies involved)? My guess is someone was playing Defender up their on their laptop, when they were supposed to be working.




Since we're on the subjects of software and space, I found a nifty little open source application called Stellarium that gives you a realistic, 3-D view of the night sky, from any time and any place. And while it's fun to look up, say, what the sky looked like the time and place you were born, the real use of this is to set it to your own city, in real time. So the next time you're outside, taking out the garbage, and see what you think is a planet and wanna figure out which one, your can fire up Stellarium when you get back in and find out. You can also zoom in to any part of the sky, search for objects, turn on constellation art, star labels, all sorts of cool stuff. If you have a telescope, you can approximate the field of view of your scope while looking for some particularly hard to find galaxy. Planetariums even use it for their projections.

I've been using Starry Night for years, and have found it a good program. But Stellarium is not only better, but free! And the fact that it's open source means there is no hidden agenda, or profit motive at work. The only agenda is to create the best piece of astronomy software possible.

Again, it's free, so download it and check it out!

Below is a screen shot of tonight's sky rendered by Stellarium, pointed toward my favorite part of the sky this time of year: Sagittarius, Scorpio, and the Galactic Center! Constellations and labels are turned on. Click to enlarge.

Monday, August 25, 2008

She Dives

I wrote this poem in my head yesterday while watching my daughter jump off the diving board for the first time.

I realize in retrospect it is actually a poem about going back to school.




My daughter at the edge of the diving board
points not straight ahead, nor toward the closest wall
but directly at me, like an arrow, a pointed finger
my position clearly marked in her mind: you are here.

She dives.

Her world is consumed by the jump, the splash,
her swim to the wall to begin it all again.
I am pinned to the freefall itself
caught in the eternal split second
when she is airborne, fully beyond my grasp.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Chewy Nougat Center

Mona, her mind sadly clouded by back-to-school and the all-Michael-Phelps, all-the-time coverage of the Olympics, has abandoned the word of the week and replaced it with a theme of the week. College. I can do that.

This is fiction, by the way, not a confessional.

Or is it? (Insert creepy music here as we fade to black.)

I am not an easy man to like.

I was less likable in college. Less able to cover my self-interest with a candy-coated shell of easy-going respectability. My wife, my kids, my friends, my co-workers, they look at the shell during our backyard bar-b-ques, our weekend bicycle rides. They look at the shell and are satisfied, and look no further. Everyone likes candy, right?

Still.

My senior year in college I slept with a girl who had just lost her mind. Really. Her name was Rachael. Her roommate had taken out a Ouija board after a few too many bong hits, a few too many kamakazies, and I don't know, I wasn't paying too much attention when she told me all this, but some dead girl with black doll eyes had apparently shown up in her brain and grabbed her wrist and tried to pull her through the board. I know, it doesn't make much sense, but again, I was distracted trying to get into her pants, and may have gotten some of the details wrong. I showed up a couple hours later, in the dorm, and heard it all then. She was by herself in the lounge area, crying. She told me her story, I sympathized, held her hand, dried her tears, rubbed her back.

The sex was surprisingly hot. I'd been expecting her to just go through the motions, get it over with. But she was really into it.

At one point I said her name, I moaned "Rachael," and she moaned back, "I'm not Rachael," and I didn't laugh, though I wanted to. She was one fucked up girl.

I hung out with her awhile Saturday morning, to be nice, but avoided her calls and her knocks at my door the remainder of the weekend. When she showed up in my Monday morning Ethics class unannounced, staring at me with all that cheap mascara running down her face, I broke it off. Dumped her.

She dropped out of college a couple weeks later. I finished out the term, got my degree, got a job, got married, had kids, the whole enchilada. Built that candy coated shell around my skin until it became my second skin.

I never saw her again.

Until last night.

When I dreamt I was back in college, shaving, and looked in the mirror and saw her face. And she said "Remember me?" and laughed. "Are you Rachael?" I asked. "I'm whoever you want me to be, baby," she cooed, and her eyes turned into black doll eyes, and she reached through the mirror for my hand. I screamed, and dropped the razor. And woke up.

"Are you alright?" asked my wife.

No, would be the short answer. But I said nothing.

I'm seeing her face, and her dead black eyes, all day today. In the sunny glare of random store windows, the rear view mirror of my car, the refection in my children's bathwater, the shine of my wife's earrings.

I am afraid to go to sleep tonight.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Every Time You're Mean To Your Sister, A Unicorn Cries

The title has nothing to do with the rest of the post, it just popped into my head this weekend and has been stuck there ever since. I didn't say it. Wanted to. But didn't.

No camping trip last weekend, due to heavy rains. And although rain is always welcome here in the high desert, and Saturday was a dream, cabin fever settled in with a vengeance by Sunday afternoon. Thus the crying unicorns.



I know I've written about it a lot in the past, but I can't help but gush: the Cassini spacecraft is the single coolest thing we've ever flung into space (at least until the New Horizons probe gets to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt and eventually even our good friend The Oort Cloud). The Cassini mission just gets cooler and cooler, weirder and weirder, dipping and diving among the moons and rings and other strange critters orbiting Saturn, changing course every few weeks to check out something new and improbable. It's not a pre-programmed path, but done somewhat on-the-fly; whenever they find something cool they scoot Cassini past it for a closer look. A few months ago Cassini did a spectacular fly-by of Saturn's bizarre ice-spewing moon Enceladus, where it flew through a giant ice geyser to see what it was made of, how hot it was, etc.

Now it's back! Flying at an altitude of 30 miles, going 64,000 miles an hour, Cassini took this shot:

Let me repeat that: 64,000 mph, and skimming only 30 miles above the surface. That's an exacting flight path, particularly when it's being flown by people literally 800 million miles away.

Next pass will be from 15 miles high.

The reason Enceladus is getting so much attention is because of those geysers. They come out of a set of four great cracks in the ice called the Tiger Stripes. Beneath the cracks is some sort of heat source, probably in the form of tidal friction from Saturn (though the Babe in the Universe thinks, predictably, that it may be a black hole). The combination of water, a heat source, and the presence of carbon molecules (discovered in the ice geyser during the last fly-by) have made this number one with a bullet on the short list of places offering the possibility of life in our solar system. Nowhere else have water, a heat source, and carbon molecules been found in the same place. All three are considered prerequisites for life.

This is an exciting time. Ice on Mars. Methane lakes on Titan.

Life here on Earth is tenacious and resilient enough so that we find it in the Arctic, in deserts, in acidic environments, high radiation environments, huddled against underwater volcanic vents. Perhaps it's merely a hedge against my Godless world view, but I'd like to believe life is as plentiful out in space, and as infinitely varied, as it is here on Earth.

We might find out real soon.



I'd be remiss if I didn't add that Pedro pitched a poem of a game this last Saturday, his best outing of the season. 7 innings pitched, 1 earned run, 8 hits, 1 walk. He's back! And, not coincidently, the Metros are in first place.

The Yankees, meanwhile, with virtually the same record, are 10 games out of first place. Ah, the vicissitudes of baseball.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bourbon and Gymnastics

Well, first off, a correction: the delightful and sky-savvy Scarlett tells me Hanny (of voorwerp fame, see my last post) is a woman, not a man. Actually, Scarlett put the whole thing much more succinctly (and correctly) in her comments than I did in the post, so I'll just quote her comments directly: "Hanny van Arkel is a...25 year old dutch school teacher who knows zip about astronomy but wanted to help search through all the gazillions of photos at galaxy zoo, saw this unusual image and pointed it out to the guys in charge. Yes, she gets to name it."

Thanks Scarlett. Clear skies!




I've been battling a deeply annoying, noxious post-Rockygrass miasma of an allergic reaction the last few weeks, in the form of a large, rapacious and insanely itchy skin rash. Think The English Patient. Think Morgellon's Disease. Think Bug. I can't sleep because of the itching. Luckily, I got a new bottle of Maker's Mark for my birthday, and the Olympics are on, so every time the itching set in I'd pour myself a tumbler of bourbon and fire up the Tivo and watch gymnastics and volleyball and swimming all night. I've never been a big Olympics watcher, primarily because for every 10 minutes of sports they show there's 50 minutes of force-fed inspirational life story bullsh1t to sit through. I don't trust people who are trying to inspire me. I'd rather have angry bees shoved up my nose than listen to the pre-fab morality plays NBC insists on shoving down my throat.

However.

With Tivo (actually it's a generic Tivo-ish DVR that came free with the satellite dish) I can fast-forward through all the bullsh1t and watch actual athletes performing actual sports.

So it hasn't been all bad.

And the girls have been watching the Tivo-compressed Olympics every day after daycare, so they are now obsessed with gymnastics. Yay! They run into the living room and tumble around til dinner. KK calls it "gymnastic-ing." As in "Look, Daddy, I'm gymnastic-ing!"

I finally got to see a dermatologist yesterday, so steroids are flowing through my bloodstream like army ants, and the rash is on the wane. Life is good. Or better, anyway.





Last camping trip of the summer this weekend. We're going up to the Sangre De Cristo range (click the pic above to see it up close), which typically host the clearest skies I've ever seen, and taking the telescope with us for the first time ever. If it doesn't break or dent on the trip up, it should be fun. Jupiter and the moon have been doing a nice little dance in the sky these last few days. Let's hope the weather cooperates (see how I effortlessly threw in the word of the week there at the very end, Mona?).

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Hanny's Voorwerp



No one knows what that blue thing in the picture is. It's called "Hanny's Voorwerp" (Hanny is the name of the Dutch guy who discovered it; Voorwerp means "object" in Dutch). It's gas of some kind, and something is (or was) lighting it up, but no one can figure out what is (or was) doing the actual lighting up.

It looks like a little blue alien guy to me, his arms hugging something we can't see. Or maybe he's doing the hokey-pokey. You put your voorwerp in, you put your voorwerp out....

The theory currently making the rounds is that the galaxy in the middle of the picture once had a big, bright quasar that lit up the voorwerp (I love that word), then disappeared. So the quasar is gone, but evidence of it's light remains in the voorwerp.

The coolest thing about it is that is was discovered by an amateur astronomer. There's this site called Galaxy Zoo where regular folks can log into a vast catalog of galaxy images and classify them, thus helping out the scientific community, not to mention being able to look a a bunch of cool galaxy pictures. SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Life) does this too. Hanny was doing just that, classifying galaxies, saw the blue blob, told the Galaxy Zoo about it, and the rest is history.

Don't know if they're gonna let Hanny name it or not.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Bloodless

Mona tells us to "cut." Here's where the knife landed.


Rachael was sitting on the floor, leaning against a toilet in a stall of the girl’s bathroom, dress hiked, legs slightly apart and pulled up knees to neck, the needle point of an earring in her right hand. She was cutting a small, jagged cross into the inside of her left thigh.

She had just come from an assembly about self-mutilation, because some wannabe goth girl had gone too far, lost too much blood and fainted in the lunchroom right into her beenie-weenies and was now in the hospital. Amateur, thought Rachael. The girl had subsequently shown up on the parental radar in every house in town, and so an assembly had been hastily assembled in the gymnasium. A powerpoint on self esteem was shown, a lady from social services was trotted out to try to put out the fire. Her voice was lively as she talked, in the way that cartoon birds are lively, but her face was pale and bloodless. Her eyes focused on a point on that back wall of the gym, just over their heads. Zombie, thought Rachael.

Then the school psychologist got up and talked earnestly about emotional numbness in the face of modern American life. The usual suspects, thought Rachael. Divorce. Drugs. Teenage pregnancy. The internet. How kids today had been left hungry, empty, abandoned, and were desperate to feel something real, conjure something true and unequivocal. That’s why they cut themselves, he said. To feel something.

Rachael was pretty sure he was missing the point. Numbness wasn’t the problem.

Numbness would be a relief.

The bell rang. She wiped the blood away with toilet paper, pocketed the earring, scooted off to class. A few spots of blood formed and dried along the edge of the cut as the day passed, tiny flakes of it dropping like scales of rust onto the dirty tiles of the floor below.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Angular Banjos Sound Good to Me

I wrote about Rockygrass last week but barely mentioned the music. So here's my favorite from the weekend: The Sparrow Quartet. It was one of the few acts that I ventured out of the water to go and see close up. Two banjo virtuosos (Bela Fleck and Abagail Washburn), a fiddle (Casey Driessen) and cello (Ben Solee). The two banjo attack gives them the pop and the drive, the cello and fiddle ground it and lend it a kind of formality. Their lead singer, Abigail Washburn is very into Chinese culture, which gives them another wrinkle (and make me think of the "angular banjos" line in that Steely Dan song). If this doesn't sound like old school, Beverly-Hillbilly's-theme-song bluegrass, that's because it's not. These guys have a sound all their own. Anyway, a clip is below, of them jamming in Beijing with Chinese musicians (intercut with mini-interviews). It's a little long at 10 minutes, but listen to the first couple minutes, at least; the cross-cultural collision is pretty cool.






I just found this on Youtube. A great compilation of the sights and sounds of Rockygrass 07 (yes, we were at that one too). Gives a great taste of why the festival is as fun as it is. Looks like a bunch of freakin hippies to me. These kids today.