Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Duct Tape Pinata

I repaired a pinata with duct tape this weekend. S and I made it for Rockygrass, out of paper mache, but it got crushed by luggage, bounced endlessly around in the car, and dropped on the asphalt of a parking lot immediately upon our arrival. So the next day I sat at the riverside, listened to bluegrass, sipped at my beer, and slowly put the thing back together. I love the contrast, a fragile and fanciful paper thing, designed to be broken, repaired with the no-nonsense, unbreakable, everyday white-trash miracle that is duct tape.

It was a big weekend, from which we are still recovering. A Major Birthday Milestone for me (hence the pinata; after S. and I filled it with candy I snuck in a few airline bottles of Dickel - little Dickels, get it? - and resealed the thing). We also had the most excellent company of the Dancehall clan at both the campsite and the festival. Plus, if that weren't enough, three days of camping and bluegrass and river tubing and beer and (mostly) legal fun. Rockygrass is like a Dead concert with more kids and less (or at least less conspicuous) drug use. Kids are everywhere, parents are everywhere, babies are everywhere; it's like a great co-parenting experiment, with everyone looking after everyone else's kids. We had several discussions of how it was a perfect libertarian utopia for three days. Very few rules, and the rules that do crop up are not codified, but rather decided upon independently by those attending. Sure, it's artificial, and at least partially built around commerce (lots of money changing hands for tickets, food, beer, t-shirts, mandolins). But three days of several thousand people co-habitating in the great outdoors, and I did not witness a single fight, or even harsh words (except for my own, but I'll get to that eventually). It was so much easier to just relax and have a good time.

Upon arriving at the campsite we realized we forgot to pack the rain-fly of our tent (we almost forgot the tent itself). It rains almost every afternoon in the mountains this time of year, so, not a good sign. We made do with a too-small tarp for the night, and the next day El Huquita went out and bought a giant tarp that fit perfectly. We had a damp night that night, as the tent was open to the elements all day long, but were fine from there on in. Pinata meets duct tape, once again.

We found a perfect little spot to set up every day of the festival, a tree-shaded glen right next to the St. Vrain river, close enough to the music, but at a remove from the crush of the crowd. Last year we were in the same spot, and there was a fairy circle set up right next to us. Dancehall, who knows about these things (along with fluorescent viruses, bread-making, and how to find Arcturus and Spica in the night sky) gave me the detailed lowdown on fairy circles, how if you disturb anything as you walk through one your "timeline" will be slightly askew, and you'll never be quite in synch with the real world again. Sounds fine to me. I made a point of kicking up the dust just a tad every time I walked through, just to see what would happen. I haven't been the same since.

The St. Vrain is a mighty fine river, but it does get swift out in the middle, and you've gotta be careful. I was out on a rock in the middle with three of the kids when J, one of Dancehall's boyos, slipped off the rock and got sucked downstream. I've never seen O (his Dad) move so fast. Ran barefoot over all those sharp river rocks and dived in to catch his boy, and carry him back to shore. J was actually in pretty good shape, it was his Dad who got beat up by the experience (that's his foot below). As we walked to the first aid tent, I remarked that jumping in to save his boy was a valiant act of fatherhood. He replied there are no valiant acts of fatherhood. I said maybe all acts of fatherhood were valiant. We agreed there wasn't much difference between the two, and after he got his cuts peroxided up, I bought him a beer. Medics may need bandages and antiseptic for their repairs, but beer is duct tape for the soul.

My eldest learned to hula hoop this year (last year she learned to somersault).

Here is KK getting all dolled up at the art tent by her Huckylicious Mom. She'd use up her body weight in glitter daily if left to her own devices. There is still glitter all over our camping equipment, our car, our clothes. A badge of parenthood, which I wear proudly.

I had a minor fight with my wife Saturday night, putting all my utopian musings into sharp ironic relief. Here we have the pure dumb luck to stumble into paradise, and then I carelessly kick at it as if it were a sand castle. Happily, we made up the next morning inside the tent, under a giant comforter as the sun rose and the morning birds sang, until the kids came tumbling in from either side and we all snuggled together. Marriage is as fragile as paper, but infinitely repairable. Thank God for duct tape.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


As you might have guessed, I'm a big fan of space exploration. Not manned exploration, which is dangerous and needlessly expensive and yields relatively little actual science, but unmanned exploration, where you fling probes out there to all the coolest spots in the solar system (and beyond!) to see what they look like. Everything in space gets weirder the closer you look at it. And Lord knows I like weird.

The "Golden Age" of unmanned NASA probes is coming to a close, as they retool for President Monkeybone's meaningless manned missions to the moon and Mars. There's a probe currently going out to the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud (ouch!), and I think there's one en route to a comet. And there is, of course, the uber-cool Martian Lander looking for water and whatnot there at the Martian south pole. But the glory days of the "faster, better, cheaper" space probe era at NASA are coming to a close.

Cassini was my favorite of all the probes (at least until they arrive at the edge of the Oort Cloud). These pictures are a couple years old by now, but are truly remarkable. Somebody on the Cassini team clearly has an eye for composition.

That's Saturn on the left, the rings, and Titan on the right (if you look at Saturn through binoculars, you can usually see Titan hanging off to the side, quite brightly). Lots of the pictures that Cassini took were in black and white, to save on data. I now next to nothing about Art Deco, but the B&W shots always remind me of Art Deco.

That's Titan and Dione at bottom, Prometheus at the center; Telesto a mere speck in the darkness above center.

Saved the best for last. This has been called the most stunning photograph of all time. That might be taking things a tad far, but it is pretty amazing. You really need to click on this to enlarge it and get the full effect. I've read that when this image was first released, someone in th crowd burst into tears, so moved by the beauty of it. It'a a picture of Saturn backlit by the sun (something you can't see here on Earth, as the Sun and Saturn are on either side of us) which revealed never-before-seen details, like Saturn having 2 rings that no one had ever seen before. If you look closely you can see several of Saturn's 60-ish moons flitting about amid the rings.

I got all these pix at the Cassini Favorite image contest. The winners are here. The nominations (way more interesting) are here. In addition to lots more pictures, there are breath-taking movies (which I would've shown if I could have embedded them) of moons creating ripples in the rings, of ice geysers, of moons racing each other across the blackness.

I'm off to Rockygrass! Best weekend of the summer. I will listen to bluegrass with my feet in the water, a beer in my hand, my wife and children and good friends splashing in the shining water before me. See you next week.

Friday, July 18, 2008

This is my dream of home.

Mona’s word of the week is “out,” which reminds me of a Tobias Wolff a short story I love called “Firelight,” where a boy and his struggling single Mom go to visit a pompous professor at a local college. There house is nice, their clothes are nice, they hug each other, the Mom bakes brownies. There is a comforting fire in the fireplace in their living room. The boy yearns to be included in the warmth and glow of the home and the fireplace inside, and pretends this is his house, his family. Ultimately they have to leave, of course. Out of the light and warmth of this seemingly happy home. His Mom puts on a cheap coat that embarrasses him to wear, they walk to the bus stop in the bitter cold.

The story has been much on my mind lately.

There’s a little girl who goes to my kid’s daycare. Shy, overweight, doesn’t appear to have a lot of friends there. Last week my oldest asked her if she wanted to come live at our house, and she apparently said “yes,” because when I went to pick my girls up this other little girl was with them, ready to go home with us. I told her as gently as I could that she had to go with her own Mommy or Daddy, and couldn’t go home with us, but that we could arrange a playdate sometime. She was disappointed but agreed. Next day, the same scenario. Day after that, the same as well, except when I told her she couldn’t go home with us she started crying. So I gave her our number, told her to give it to her Mom, we’d set up a play date.

Fast-forward past the weekend to this week. She hugged me tightly when she saw me. She told me her mom wouldn’t let go on a playdate. She cried when we left. The crying has now stopped, but she still gives me a tight hug every time she sees me, twice a day, morning and evening. The situation has now morphed into fantasy, with my girls telling me she is their “sister” now, and they are all going to live together. Every day when I pick them up, I have to pop the “new sister” bubble as gently as I can.

Now I freely admit I don’t know what the hell I’m doing as a parent. I’m too quick to anger, I often choose reading or writing or baseball or the news over playing with them, and when our days are busy I frequently revert to task-master mode, where I ferry them from one thing to the next as quickly as possible, and rush past all the nuance, the fun, the beauty my girls are such naturals at discovering on their own.

But it breaks my heart to see this girl so clearly scared at the prospect of going home. It angers me that her parents, whoever they are, will not allow her out for a playdate. And I get the sense that tight hug I get every day from her now may be the only hug she receives. I could be wrong about all of this; it could be mere transference, as the shrinks say. I know at least part of my reaction to all this stems from issues with my own adopted children, and their wildly chaotic early childhood. I am angry at their birth parents for putting them in harm’s way. It will take years, decades, for the full ramifications of those early years to reveal themselves, like ripples from a thrown stone. I first met the girls when they were beyond the warmth and light of the hearth, my wife and I have been trying, with mixed success, to keep a nurturing fire burning ever since.

Here’s the end of that wonderful Tobias Wolff story, with slight editing.

I was shivering like crazy. It seemed to me I'd never been so cold, and I blamed my mother for it, for taking me outside again, away from the fire. I knew it wasn't her fault but I blamed her anyway—for this and the wind in my face and for every nameless thing that was not as it should be.

"Come here." She pulled me over and began to rub her hand up and down my arm. When I leaned away she held on and kept rubbing. It felt good. I wasn't really warm, but I was as warm as I was going to get.

I have my own fireplace now. Where we live the winters are long and cold. The wind blows the snow sideways, the house creaks, the windows glaze over with ferns of ice. After dinner I lay the fire, building four walls of logs like a roofless cabin. That's the best way. Only greenhorns use the teepee method. My children wait behind me, jockeying for position, furiously arguing their right to apply the match. I tell them to do it together. Their hands shake with eagerness as they strike the matches and hold them to the crumpled paper, torching as many spots as they can before the kindling starts to crackle. Then they sit back on their heels and watch the flame engulf the cabin walls. Their faces are reverent.

My wife comes in and praises the fire, knowing the pride it gives me. She lies on the couch with her book but doesn't read it. I don't read mine, either. I watch the fire, watch the changing light on the faces of my family. I try to feel at home, and I do, almost entirely. This is the moment I dream of when I am far away; this is my dream of home. But in the very heart of it I catch myself bracing a little, as if in fear of being tricked. As if to really believe in it will somehow make it vanish, like a voice waking me from sleep.

Such graceful writing. You can read the whole story by following the link at the beginning of this post.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Fucking Yankees

Okay, okay, relax, I’ll play nice. I have come to praise Yankee Stadium, not to bury it. Yesterday was the last All-Star game at Yankee Stadium, this October will be the last baseball game there. Ever. It’s getting torn down and replaced by a glitzy modern replica, currently being built across the street. Were I the Commissioner of Baseball I'd ban the destruction of the stadium as "not in the best interests of baseball," a clause they've used in the past to block trades and the selling of entire teams. Alas, I'm in charge of nothing but my own children. And even that's pretty tenuous.

Most of the readers of this blog know that the Yankees rank pretty high on the “Things I Detest” meter, just below the Bush administration, just above Bratz dolls (not currently on my childrens' cultural radar but which, I promise you now, they will never own). Luckily, my hatred of things Yankee does not extend to their stadium. I’ve been there maybe 10 times, and every time I walked through the entrance and saw the startlingly green grass field before me, the famous facade beyond it, and that short right-field porch where so many historic home run balls have been dumped, I’ve gotten a small and palpable thrill. It’s a jewel of a stadium, worthy of its legends, passed down from Ruth to DiMaggio to Mantle to Mattingly to Jeter. There are more fistfights in the stands than any other stadium I’ve been to. I’ve had my cap (a Killebrew era Twins cap, no less) grabbed off my head by a drunken Yankees fan and thrown into the parking lot. No matter. Even the wildly rowdy Stan’s Sports Bar across the street is the perfect bar in the perfect place. Just don’t wear a Mets jersey in there.

I was at Yankee Stadium about a week after Mickey Mantle died. In an uncharacteristically classy move, between innings, when they usually play Utz chips jingles and classic rock at ear-splitting volume, the noise suddenly faded, and a big number “7” (Mantle’s number) was put on the Jumbotron. No fanfare, no music, no announcer. Just the “7.” In the space of less than a minute the stadium hushed to near silence. I won’t say there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, because I don’t know that to be true. But mine certainly weren’t.

You may be asking yourself "But Shea Stadium is being torn down this year too. Where his beloved Mets play? Why isn't he whining about that?"

Well, you almost certainly weren't asking yourself that, but I'm a sucker for the cheap rhetorical device. And the answer is: Shea Stadium is a horrible concrete monstrosity in a bad location. Like watching baseball in a missile silo. Or a WWII bunker. When they tear down Shea, I will dance happily atop the rubble.

They've won 9 in a row, by the way. Let's go Mets!

Oh, and one last bit of baseball: with the acquisition of pitcher Rich Hardin, I officially pick the Cubs to get to the World Series this year. Not win it, mind you, but get there.

You heard it here first!

Monday, July 14, 2008

They're Here Already! You're Next!

Can't you see? They're after you. They're after all of us.

The climax of one of the best sci-fi movies of all time. It's always been considered to be a thinly-veiled criticism of the McCarthy era (which it certainly was), but it's a pretty malleable metaphor for lotsa things: conformity, religious extremism, fascism, hyper-commercialism. Take your pick.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Biggest Drawing In the World

With no Mona to deliver the Friday Word o' the Week to those bloggers in orbit around her, we are as lost little children. Luckily, I have been saving this for a rainy day.

I stole this from the ever-interesting Strange Maps, which is a blog devoted to...you guessed it, strange maps. A Swedish artist named Erik Nordenankar sent a GPS device around the world via DHL, to whom he gave detailed instructions. The "drawing" is the path of the GPS device as it traveled, by boat and truck and plane. It's a self-portrait, which makes it even cooler!

A slight adjustment in cool quotient: I just read on the artist's own blog that this is a purely theoretical project, and still in the planning stages. No GPS device was actually sent (although the detailed instructions, the meat of the piece, were drawn up). Which makes it slightly less cool, but not significantly. You can learn lots more about it by visiting his site (and as I only skimmed it, you'll likely end up knowing more about it than I). I got the sense that DHL caught wind of the project and was not amused.

Obama voted in favor of the onerous wire-tapping bill. I am quite disappointed. Even Hillary voted against it! But I guess she's not running for anything,...

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


We've had a good friend visiting for the last couple days (as well as his 11-year-old daughter, who my girls treat like a rock star). Monday night there was a wondrous rain, a slow, soaking rain, like balm out here in the high desert. All evening, then all night long. He and I were out on the front porch about 11, after the girls had gone to bed, having a beer, watching the rain come down, while he played his homemade cigar-box mandolin.

Something was floating down the middle of the street in the rain, aware of us but oblivious, and seemingly oblivious to the rain as well. Utterly silent. Bigger than a cat, more slender than a dog, big bushy tail. And there was no rhythmic gait as it walked; it was gliding, like a ghost, genuinely otherworldly.

It was a fox.

It continued down the street, crossed the intersection, sat down on its haunches briefly as it regarded us, then went on its way. We returned to our beers, music, conversation. Nothing earth-shaking about the moment, simply a small and surreal interlude, like a fragment of a dream.

Here is a picture of the mandolin he was playing. He made it himself, out of a cigar box.

Pretty cool, huh?

He sells them as well, for a cheaper price than you might think (as well as cigar-box violins and electric and acoustic cigar-box guitars). If you want one, drop me a line, I'll put you in contact with him.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Primordial Quark Nuggets from Space!

We had to sit through a 3 hour concert by a bad Beach Boys cover band (and is there such thing as a good one?) before we could see fireworks on the 4th of July this year. Didn’t start til 10:30, didn’t get the kids in bed til almost midnight. Arg. I deem President Monkeybone’s decision to trample upon our most basic constitutional rights in the name of preserving freedom the biggest current affront to my civil liberties, not to mention my sense of irony, but being forced to listen to “Surfer Girl” in order to watch fireworks ranks a close second.

And while I’m on the subject, on July 8th (tomorow!) the Senate votes on the FISA bill's telecom annesty amendment, which shields telecom companies from prosecution if they hand the government confidential information about private citizens (those weasels in the House already passed it). Call or email your Senator TODAY to vote against it. Even Sen. Obama, who I’ve generally liked up to now, plans to vote for it, flip-flopping from his previous position while seeking the political center. If he votes “yes,” as he says he will, it will seriously erode my confidence in him.

It’s only Christmas once a year, but our kids’ obsession with it is year-round. They kept telling us yesterday that Santa was going to come and take them for a ride to the North Pole in the middle of the night, but not to worry, as they’d be back by supper. This morning they awoke full of tales of Santa. KK got to ride on Rudolf (she held onto his horns). They landed on a cloud, and she floated to the ground on a balloon. She also got to meet Rudolf’s Mom. S, never one to be outdone, got to make toys with the elves (sound like a violation of child labor laws to me, but I kept my mouth shut). They gave her an elf suit and everything. Apparently, the girl elves wear red, the boy elves wear blue. And they sit at separate tables while they work, but they are allowed to talk to each other.

Mrs. Claus, I’m told, is quite beautiful.

In space news, the possibility of yet another deeply cool thing in space: Primordial Quark Nuggets. They are, according to this article, leftover bits from the big bang, clumps of quarks that never dissolved into protons, neutrons, etc as the universe cooled down. In this way they are similar to those primordial black holes the Babe in the Universe is so fond of, leftover pieces from the beginning of time. And space, for that matter. The article says they would be indistinguishable from near Earth asteroids. So they next time you are looking up at the night sky, and your gaze lingers on a faint star, consider that it might not be a star at all. It might be a Primordial Quark Nugget!

The picture, by the way, is a computer simulation of the "quantum foam" created when the universe cooled down enough to form matter (and, presumably, those crazy quark nuggets), back when the universe was one hundred-thousandth of a second old. I found it here.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Very Big and Very Weird

There's a cool little dance going on in the western sky for the next several days. The new moon is on the 2nd (meaning you can't see it, because the sun is almost directly behind it), but after that it will appear in the west as a young waxing crescent moon. A beautiful sight in itself, but there will also be three bright objects near it: Saturn, Mars and Regulus (the brightest star in Leo). They'll shift positions slightly over the next several nights, and create quite the pretty picture. On the 10th, Mars and Saturn will be at their closest to each other, .7 degrees apart (of course they're still 800 million miles apart, but let's not split hairs).

Plus, while all this is going on, over in the east, Jupiter will be rising at the same time. On the 4th you're gonna be looking up at the sky anyway, for fireworks, so take a couple minutes and try to find some planets. Show your kids! Impress your girlfriend! Or boyfriend, of course.

I stole the image from Sky and Telescope's excellent This Week's Sky at a Glance.

I've fallen off the orbital mechanics train the last couple weeks, so I'm making up for it today with a double post of things orbital.

100 years ago this week something very big and very weird exploded in the sky above Tunguska River in Siberia. I remember the small thrill I got reading about it when I was a little kid. It flattened trees for 800 miles, lit up the night sky half a world away with luminous clouds, set seismograph needles a-twitter, painted halos around the sun. There was no crater, and no remnant of the explosion has ever been found (admittedly, no one bothered to examine the impact site for 19 years). Ground zero was easy to find only because the trees flattened in a circle, all pointing toward the center. This odd lack of any debris has spawned a bucket of strange theories, ranging from collisions with anti-matter and black holes to alien spacecraft, nuclear fusion, and methane explosions. The more likely theory is that an asteroid or comet exploded a few miles above the ground. There is a little round lake about six miles away, with a peculiar cone at the bottom, that points to this theory (i.e. - a piece of the asteroid thrown by the explosion created the lake). But no one really knows.

A pretty cool deal, though, regardless of the specifics. It's known as the Tunguska event. It even sounds cool. Very X Files.

This just in! I read this morning that Nikola Tesla, the guy who invented both the radio and AC power before going utterly freakin nuts, caused the Tunguska event. According to "sources," he test-fired a death ray on the evening of June 30, 1908, and once he found out about the Tunguska event, he dismantled the weapon, deeming it too dangerous to remain in existence.

Easily he coolest explanation I've ever heard. Wish I'd known about it when I was a kid. Gotta call Art Bell.