Monday, March 31, 2008

Peanuts and Crackerjack

Nine reasons why Opening Day is better than Christmas:

1. The double-play. As opposed to the sexier things in the game, like strikeouts and home runs, double plays are the meat-and-potatoes of baseball, happening in most games, often several times. They are unexpectedly graceful, particularly the pivot to throw to first after receiving the ball and touching second. Everyday grace. The first time my wife saw a professional-level double-play up close, at a minor league game, she actually gasped.

2. Beer.

3. Hot dogs.

4. History. Baseball has been around for well over 100 years. It is a microcosm of American history, good and bad - labor unions, race, commercialism, the worship of celebrity, the celebration of the work ethic and upward mobility. It grew popular during the Civil War, when men from all over the United States taught each other the game to pass the time. After the war, those left alive took the game back to their hometowns.

5. Mr. Met.

6. Bill Buckner.

7. Pedro Martinez. His glory days as a power pitcher are over, and he rarely cracks 92 on the radar gun anymore. He relies on guile and control and wit to survive. In his days as President of Red Sox Nation, he used to “sign” the games he pitched, by striking out the last batter, just to show that he could strike someone out at will. Magnificent. The fact that he’s a Met is just gravy.

8. It is the only major sport with no clock. You play til you’re done. If you refuse to make the last out, it can go on forever.

9 . The Infield Fly Rule.

Friday, March 28, 2008


Mona asks us to surprise her. I'm game.

He had met her at the park overlooking the river, and she had a bottle with her--he didn’t ask why--and while they passed the bottle back and forth the conversation fell to stories with surprise endings, scary, not-quite-believable urban myths from their childhoods. She told the one about the prank where a glove was filled with water and tied to the string that turned on the light in an unpopular girl's dorm room, and how when the unpopular girl reached to turn on the light she felt the hand and she went insane and her hair turned completely white. They laughed at how the wording of the last line was always exactly the same, and then he told the story about a boy and a girl on a date, and how he ran out of gas and went to get some more, and told her not to leave the car, and how she heard a strange scraping sound from the roof of the car while the boy was gone. He never got to the ending of the story because she kissed him, a playful kiss that quickly turned into something more serious.

“I’ve got a surprise for you,” she said, her fingers curling around his neck like jungle vines.

And he didn’t know or much care what the surprise would be, sex toys or good drugs or an open-minded roommate, he just tumbled into the taxi with her and finished off the bottle as they tangled and moaned in the back seat. The cab left them off at her brownstone and she opened the door and he saw all the glowing eyes studying him from the darkness.

“Cats,” she said. “I have fourteen.”

“Your surprise is that you have fourteen cats?” he asked.

“I didn’t say it was a good surprise,” she said, laughing, and he started to ask her where they had all come from, but the question was forgotten as they fell on the bed and the cats were mostly forgotten as well, except for the occasional whiff of urine, the hungry meow from the across the room in counterpoint to their drunken fumbling. She arched her back, scratched his neck, purred in his ear til the moon went down. Like making love in a fever dream. Only after the glow had faded did reality intrude and he begin to feel uncomfortable, all the eyes watching him, the flicking of tails against his skin, and the smell, oh Jesus, the smell, it seemed to have gotten much worse during the night. He considered getting dressed and sneaking out, but the bed was so comfortable, and she was so warm, next to him.

He fell asleep finally, dreaming of tall grass and struggling, wounded birds.

When he awoke he felt more comfortable with his surroundings. He reached out to her, and her eyelids fluttered as she gave him a sleepy kiss before rolling out of bed and into the kitchen. He stretched languidly, scratching absently behind his collar, then followed her in, padding expectantly toward her as she turned to offer him a saucer of milk.

“Good kitty,” she said, reaching down to pet him.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

First Light

My big, dumb, cheap telescope arrived last week. So last weekend I did a surgical strike, driving into the Big City, and right back out again, through a snow squall no less, to get it.

It was cloudy the next 2 nights. Sigh.

Monday night, after the girls were in bed, Hucky went to the office to tame her monstrous and ever-growing to-do list, and I took the baby monitor and a beer and the telescope into the backyard. Shockingly simple to set up, and to align the viewfinder. Which is, of course, the main advantage of big, dumb and cheap.

The first thing I pointed to was the Pleiades, the seven sisters driven loony by the light of the moon, left to dance high in the sky through eternity. Found it right away. It was a tad disappointing - didn't have a big enough field of view to get the whole structure in the eyepiece. Did see a wisp of nebula around one of the stars, which was kinda cool.

Next up was the Orion Nebula (pictured above), which nearly always takes my breath away, and it was no disappointment (it's in Orion's sword, just below and to the left of the 3-star belt, and big and bright enough to see with binoculars). It's a stellar nursery, a great swath of molecular cloud lit up by the stars being born inside it. The four stars of the Trapezium were clearly visible (the Trapezium - diagrammed below - is four gravitationally bound stars, and their orbits around each other are so complex they have never been successfully modeled). I checked it out with both eyepieces, then the area surrounding it, and am pretty sure I found de Mairan's Nebula (in the lower left of the picture above), which is part of the same molecular cloud, but separated visually by a dark lane of dust (which was as impressive as the nebula itself).

Spent 5 or 10 frustrating minutes trying to get Saturn into view (remember, I'm still pretty new at this), then gave up and went inside to get another beer and check on the girls. And that second beer did the trick. I went back outside and realigned the scope and found Saturn almost immediately. It was the sight of the night. Rings clearly visible, the shadow of the rings visible on the planet itself. Wow. I think I found the moon Titan too, big and bright and hanging off to the left (I don't have enough game to positively identify moons yet). Those of you who read this blog on a regular basis have probably figured out I have a fascination with the moons and rings and other weird crap orbiting Saturn. I spent a half an hour or so looking at it with both eyeieces, playing with focus, trying to discern as much detail as possible.

That was the highlight of the night. Went to the Beehive Cluster, which, like the Pleiades, was too big to see well through the eyepiece, and then to Mars, which was just a feaureless orange ball. But my night had been made. First by the Orion Nebula, then by Saturn.

I get a powerful feeling when I look at the stars that I cannot entirely explain. It's a visceral, almost frightening thrill, like something immensely important is about to be revealed to me. I'm not exaggerating the intensity of the emotion. I think of it as a pre-religious reaction, meaning it's the impetus to religion, the feeling that lures one to belief. Not the belief itself, but the impetus to the belief. That distinction is important to me, though I don't know why exactly. I don't believe in a God that has any day-to-day control over human events. But there is no denying the feeling coursing through my blood, tickling my nerve endings, flooding my brain, lurking in my dreams.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Open the pod bay doors, please, Hal.

In memory of Arthur C. Clarke. It's a long clip, but worth it.

I saw this movie with my Dad at the drive-in, in a double feature with Fantastic Voyage. My Dad stayed up to watch Raquel Welch in FV, but fell asleep during this. I stayed awake, rapt, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. Finally had to read the novel to get it.

HAL's staring red eye still gets to me.

Friday, March 21, 2008

P... the Friday letter of the day, thanks to Mona B. And since Ms. Dancehall, predictably, has wrecked the curve yet again with a remarkable piece of writing, I will stay out of the land of words today. Instead, this is a picture of our two little girls, making the letter P on the improbably dirty carpet of out family room.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sibling bonding

Yesterday my youngest daughter asked my wife, "If my sister dies can we get another baby?"

Note she is unconcerned about her sister dying, she's just hoping she can get a new baby to play with out of the deal.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Threading a Needle

One of the weirder critters orbiting Saturn is Enceladus, a moon with huge ice-geysers spewing from its south pole. No one knows exactly what's up with those geysers, though the leading theory seems to be internal heating due to the stresses put on the moon by Saturn's gravity. Predictably, the Babe in the Universe believes it is a good place to look for a black hole. Who knows, she may be right; she's much smarter than I am.

At any rate, NASA pulled off a seriously cool trick earlier this week, by flying the Cassini probe straight into an ice-geyser, skimming just 30 miles above the surface, while going 32,000 miles an hour. It must have been cool to see (and since water implies life, maybe it was seen). I read that some sensors shut down at a crucial moment, leaving a big hole in the data, but Cassini is gonna do nine more fly-bys, so the mission is hardly a failure.

The coolest thing about Enceladus is that it is responsible for its own ring. The astounding picture below actually shows the geyser dumping ice and water vapor into Saturn's E ring. That shot just amazes me (click it to enlarge it). Apparently they got the image by flying Cassini into a spot where the Sun was blocked by Saturn, but light was still shining on the ice crystals as they fell into orbit.

I don't have any fancy-pants literary metaphor to hang onto the ice-geysers, or the Cassini fly-by, or Enceladus. I suppose I could come up with something, but it would pale when compared to the reality of the whole thing. So I'll leave it alone. You can check out the raw images from Cassini here.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers

More Harryhausen. I remember stumbling onto this movie on the little black and white TV in the back room of my grandparent’s house in rural Oklahoma. It scored a perfect 10 on the Argonaut scale. The flying saucer cutting through the Washington Monument is classic, as is the saucer crashing into the White House (both at the very end of the clip). They’re still potent images (and ones Independence Day stole decades later, to great effect).

My grandparent’s house had chickens out back we checked for eggs every morning, and cows out in the pasture. The occasional horse. There were woods out back as well, containing the legendary “tickle-tongue tree,” which I will leave for another post. I spent a lot of time fishing with my Dad and Grandpa when we visited them. My Grandma would give me as much root beer as I wanted. They let us play with firecrackers. On moonless nights it was black as pitch, as there were no streetlights or neighbors around. The stars shone like first love.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Two cents

The Tight Fist of Awesome has spoken. This week's word is fever.

The doctor said the fever was one hundred and four, but it was just numbers to the boy, who was convinced his bed was a sea and the blankets waves upon that sea. And heads would float by on the quilted water, little tiny heads, his Mom’s head, and his sister’s too, the head of the President, Danny from the Partridge Family, his English teacher Miss Summers, Aquaman, Mickey Dolenz, Mr. Potato Head, Santa. A part of his mind insisted they were only delusions from the fever, but he didn’t much care. He had wonderful conversations with the tiny heads, spirited and witty, utterly forgotten the instant they ended.

That evening the sea drained away and the heads disappeared and he was all alone, shivering and scared and very, very cold. He realized in a moment of simple lucid clarity that he might die. The looks on his parents’ faces, the hushed tones of the doctor, they way his Grandma just kept crying. Something was wrong.

He didn’t want to die. He tried to tell them all but was trapped in his cocoon of sickness, too weak to speak, or even gesture. He focused on a chair across the room. He closed his eyes. He opened them and saw a girl sitting in the chair. Her skin was as pale as parchment, her hair like dried grass.

She had coins upon her eyes.

She smiled at the boy. Her hands moved to her face and she gently plucked the coins from her eyes and placed them on the bedtable. They were pennies. Unhidden, her eyes glowed, but softly, flickering like candle flames. She placed her hand on the boy’s hand. Her skin was cold. She smiled again, shook her head. No. She closed her eyes, and as the candle-flames disappeared so did she.

The fever broke the next morning. The boy spent the day in bed, resting, convinced the girl has saved him. He promised himself to keep the coins forever, move them from pocket to pocket with each change of jeans, never let them leave his possession. But life moves on, and they got mixed in with other coins in his pocket, with army men and string and small interesting rocks. Ultimately they were spent for candy, into the cash register and out again as change, entering the flow of the world of commerce, jingling happily in the pockets of the living.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Bigger, Dumber, Cheaper

Interesting confluence of events last weekend.

La Petite Huque and the little clowncars and I went to Denver – Hux was doing some volunteer work, I wanted to buy a new telescope, and we always jump at the chance to spend some time in Chez Dancehall.

So Saturday afternoon, Dancey and the girls and I went to the telescope shop, whilst Hucky was volunteering. I had already ordered the scope and had a appointment with the owner of the shop for a little tutorial on how to use it. It was heaven in there – everything from binoculars to scopes so large they need to be pulled by a horse trailer. A gaggle of astronomy geeks stood at the counter, discussing lenses with great delight. They handled the lenses in their hands gingerly as they talked, as if the lenses were precious gems.

Minutes into the tutorial, it became clear this wasn’t the perfect scope for me (for those of you who care about these things, it was a 6” Schmidt-Cassegrain with a “go-to” controller). The owner knew this before I did, and deftly steered me toward a bigger, dumber, cheaper scope, knowing it fit my needs better (an 8” Dobsonian reflector, pictured below). Big, dumb and cheap is good.

She lost money by steering me toward a cheaper scope. But knew she’d made her customer happy. And so yes, she'd gain a customer, but more importantly she'd turn somebody on to astronomy by finding them a scope they wouldn’t get bored or frustrated with. And thus gain a lifelong customer. One who will keep buying scopes. And whose kids might buy scopes as well.

Except.... The landlord sold the strip mall they’re in. So they’re looking for a new place. I’m sure there is a razor thin profit margin keeping a store like that alive. So maybe they’ll survive, maybe they won’t. It’s significantly cheaper to get a scope over the internet, but you miss out on having a real live person listen to you and advise you, one who knows much more about these things than you do.

I hope their store makes it.

The next day I helped Dancehall’s hubby, O, move some furniture from their bookstore to their house. O’s had a used bookstore for decades, one that has won several awards for being the best used bookstore in the city. He recently closed the brick-and-mortar store to do strictly online sales.

We were surrounded by books as we moved bookshelves and furniture. It was like a church, if churches allowed smoking and grunting and farting and swearing. A book would catch my eye every few minutes, I’d ask O about it, he’d tell me about it, we went back to smoking and grunting and farting and swearing. Without fail, he knew the content of every book I mentioned. Not most of them. All of them.

When his store was open, book freaks would stand around and talk about what they'd read, in much the same way those astronomy geeks discussed lenses. They'd handle books gently as they talked, enjoying the tactile sensations of the cover, the pages, the weight in their hands.

I’m not gonna whine about the market forces shuttering these two shops. The world is what it is, and I too buy most of my books and music online (and almost did with the scope as well), and love the convenience and the price. An agile business goes with the flow of the marketplace, which is what O did, by moving to online sales. His business looks like it’s going to be fine. And maybe the telescope store will survive as well. But it’s sad what we’re losing in the process, these vast stores of information available to us by talking to people face-to-face who have spent decades doing what they do. The telescope lady knew what kind of scope I wanted better than I did. O handles hundreds of books a day, every day, and if he hasn’t read them, he has talked to somebody who has. They are experts in their fields, not because they have a degree, or a website, or a big-box franchise, but because they’ve been handling the everyday minutia of their respective businesses for years.

They will be missed. By us. And more importantly, by our children.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Come and play with us, Danny.

It's Monster Monday again.

Warning: this one's genuinely scary. Although you've probably seen it before. Stick around for the Danny-Tony dialogue bit at the end.

Friday, March 7, 2008


The Priestess of Poetry tells us today's word is "lick."

A hot sugar sun hangs burning
in a beetle red Lik-M-Aid sky
and you feel the rush
in your tongue and your skin and your brain
and the sober besuited adults who make the stuff
give you a little sugar stick to dip and lick
so your fingers don't get sticky and stained
but they don't understand
that sticky and stained is the best part
so you gobble the sugar stick down
and promptly forget about it
as you pour the powder in a pile
and stick your fingers in
and pull em out and lick em
and stick em in and pull em out
and lick em again
til your fingers and lips and tongue
are red and wet and sticky
and you look like a wide-mouthed clown
like a brain-hungry zombie
like a badly lipsticked society maiden
and you don't care
cuz your brain is buzzing
and your blood is bubbling
and all you want is moremoreMORE
as you dip and lick your way
to the fizzy center
of that hot white sugar sun

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Hither and Yon

There's alotta weird stuff orbiting Saturn besides those magnificent rings. Shepard moons, Trojan moons, moons that switch orbits, moons with ice-geysers, spokes and scallops in the rings, mysterious hexegonal clouds.

And it turns out there may be a black hole orbiting it as well. I don't know whether to trust the veracity of someone called A Babe in the Universe, but she has enough blog cred to be included from time to time in the Carnival of Space, and seems to be an actual cosmological scientist. She certainly not one of the Art Bell crowd. And to her credit, she doesn't say there it is a black hole, simply that there is an anomaly. And that the anomaly may be a good place to look for one.

In a nutshell, there's a mysterious clump of charged particles pulling Saturn's electrical field all out of whack. That's fact, not theory; the Cassini probe spotted it. No one knows what it is. But one possible explanation is a black hole. The thing behaves the way a black hole would behave.

The Babe in the Universe has a Big Idea: there are black holes all over the place. Orbiting Saturn, in the center of stars, in the center of planets (including Earth), floating all over the universe hither and yon (maybe one at the bottom of your cup of coffee, or one in that hairball the cat just puked up). Because most black holes - again, according to the Babe - aren't the result of the gravitational collapse of stars, which is the conventional theory, but rather have been around literally since the beginning of time: primordial black holes, left over from the big bang. It's a very cool idea, and an explanation for where all that missing mass is. It's not accepted theory or anything. And I don't know enough about cosmology to know how plausible it actually is.

But is sure is fun to think about.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Monster Monday

The gold standard against which all films were judged when I was growing up. I watched this countless Saturday afternoons on the static-y black and white TVs of my kidhood. Scared the f*uck out of me every time. Especially this scene. I have a very vivid memory of taking out the garbage one night and being scared sh*tless those skeletons were gonna come rattling around the corner and stab me with their big scary swords. Ran back inside as fast as I could.

The scariest bit is when they're all marching, slowly, step by step, then suddenly scream and begin running, swords held high, ready to chop up little kids like me.

All that gorgeous stop-motion animation is by Ray Harryhausen.