Friday, May 30, 2008

No Time, No Distance

There used to be a theory

that when we look at something

our thinking projects something

to whatever we study,

then we become what we see

as our projected something

shapes itself to the something

that’s under our scrutiny.

There is no time, no distance,

limiting this projection.

We become birds. Or clouds. Stars.

I’d catch my love with a glance,

we’d smile, turn our inspection

upward, both become the stars . . .

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Libra And The Light Polluted Sky

I ended my post yesterday by saying:

      I’m really looking forward
      to observing Libra . . .
      I urge everyone
      to check out Libra.
      It should be hard to see
      but easy to find
      in the southern sky.
      And it’s worth tracking down!

Last night around sundown I got to thinking about those words and worrying. Saying something is going to be “easy to find” can jinx you.

Last summer when I was looking for Uranus in Aquarius I had planned one sequence of star hops that proved totally impossible in my light polluted skies and I had to abandon that route.

Last night, however, things went reasonably smoothly.

Even while there was still some twilight in the western sky, I found Spica (Alpha Virginis) in the southern sky. This proved to be good news and bad news. Using Spica as a reference point, I knew that Libra was just a few binocular fields to the east. My binoculars capture about a six degree field. I started scanning to the east and relatively quickly found a couple of stars that seemed to be in the proper relationship as Alpha and Beta Librae. And there appeared to be ancillary stars around the pair in roughly the proper layout of Libra.

But the magnitude relationships didn’t seem right and I wasn’t seeing double stars where I should have been seeing double stars.

I just kind of frowned and went inside to have dinner and wonder what might be happening. It is easy to misjudge magnitudes under urban skies. It is easy to miss close doubles with a small telescope under low power. It is also easy to misjudge patterns among dim stars because you can see ‘triangles’ and ‘parallelograms’ just about everywhere you look.

After dinner the sky was much darker and Spica had moved about 15 degrees to the west, bringing more of the eastern sky into view for me. I located the stars that I thought were Alpha and Beta Librae and then I looked around a little more. Nudging my view east a little bit, looking at stars that had been screen by a tree in the alley an hour earlier, I actually said, ‘Whoa!’ out loud as I saw a reasonably bright binocular double with one bright and one dim component.

‘That’s got to be Zubenelgenubi,’ I said, out loud. ‘And if it is, I should be able to look up and to the left slightly, just outside and above the one binocular field anchored by Zubenelgenubi at the bottom, and see Zubeneschamali.’

I panned upward and slightly to the left and there was Zubeneschamali.

I had found Libra.

I had briefly confused some of Virgo’s eastern-most stars and some of the field stars between Libra and Virgo for Libra because I hadn’t really known what to expect, visually, for the two Z-stars. But once I saw them they were clearly brighter than the field stars. And once I saw Zubenelgenubi, its binary arrangement of bright star and dim companion was clear.

Sadly—damn it!—I can’t report seeing any colors in Libra. I didn’t see even a tint of yellow to Zubenelgenubi. I didn’t even see a tint of green (or blue) to Zubeneschamali.

I suspect my location might be playing a big part in my seeing. Looking south from my back yard, our neighbor two doors down has a bright nightlight on the side of his house. Our neighbor across the alley has a bright nightlight. And there are two sodium vapor street lights in our alley. (I can actually read the text of a star map at night in my back yard.) I suspect my eye is adapting to the light pollution and that is masking my ability to see subtle details of the sky.

Last summer when I looked at Uranus and Neptune and did see subtle blues and greens I did much of my viewing late, when the nightlights were out. And I actually constructed a paper glare shield to tape to the front of my telescope.


So, last night I was disappointed that I didn’t see any notable colors in Libra. But I did observe some cool things.


The most extraordinary experience of the evening was late, around eleven or eleven-thirty. As I was scanning east of Zubenelgenubi, following the dimmer stars tracing out the scale pattern of the constellation, I followed the stars all the way into Scorpius. I hadn’t even realized Scorpius had risen, but there in the sky was the unmistakable ‘head’ of the Scorpion and, looking farther east, I saw Antares itself through the trees in the alley.

I was able, for the first time, to really put Libra in perspective, between Spica in Virgo to the west and Antares in Scorpius to the east. Libra falls almost directly between the two and the two Z-stars are bright enough to hold their own, visually, with the brighter stars.

Panning back and forth across the southern sky with my wide angle binoculars from Spica, past the two Z-stars of Libra, to Antares, I actually had the feeling that I was looking up at a ‘sky show’ at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. Only I was standing in my back yard and everything was real, not a light show projected onto an auditorium ceiling.

That was a pretty cool feeling.

Under skies like mine, wide angle binoculars seem to generate more magic than a telescope.


And the distance from Zubenelgenubi to Antares is an interesting distance. If you star hop from the Z star to Antares and then continue about the same distance past Antares toward Sagittarius, that distance takes you—just before you actually get to Sagittarius—to a view of the center of the Milky Way galaxy, our galaxy.

Sadly, dust lanes prevent us out here in a spiral arm of the Milky Way from seeing the center of our galaxy in all its glory. And—damn it, again!—light pollution here south of Chicago prevents me from seeing the Milky Way at all. But with a visual measure like comparing the distance from Zubenelgenubi to Antares to the same distance past Antares, I can visually ‘mark the spot’ in my mind and know, at least, that I’m looking at something very special even if I can’t really see it.

And—much more to the point—drilling these visually landmarks into my observing mind is very important because when I do get under rural skies (or off-shore ocean skies!), when I do get good seeing, I’ll have a better understanding of where to look than if I simply ‘wrote off’ the light polluted skies and never tried to see what was available.


I want to mention one unexpected thing I saw last night.

Under Spica in Virgo I saw a sequence of six or seven field stars so dim that they didn’t even have Greek letters assigned to them on the charts, just numbers. But they formed a very attractive pattern—they looked almost like an open cluster—all the way down to Gamma Hydrae. It was a beautiful pattern of stars and it led me to a whole new constellation—Hydra (the water snake or sea monster!)—that I hadn’t even expected to observe.

Again, wide angle binoculars generate more fun and magic than a small telescope.


So, that was my adventure with Libra.

It’s a pretty cool constellation that actually looks a little like the diagrams you see on star charts. But, sadly, from my back yard it doesn’t create thoughts of alchemy in my mind with its beautiful colors because all the stars I saw just looked white to me.

But, now that I know where to look, I’m going to come back to Libra under better skies. I don’t give up easily and I almost never forget. I’m going to keep checking Zubeneschamali.

I want to see the green!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Libra And The Alchemical Sky

This summer I’m going to focus my astronomy time on open clusters and colorful double stars. Now that I’ve observed the Beehive cluster in the constellation Cancer, what’s next?

Next I’m going to focus on observing the constellation Libra

I’ve never observed Libra before, but this is probably the perfect time of year to check out Libra. And I’m really looking forward to it.

Some people may not realize that Libra is unique among the signs of the zodiac. And I strongly suspect that even fewer people realize that Libra has been associated with intrigue and mystery from almost the dawn of recorded history all the way into the present world.

In today’s post I’m going to just briefly touch on some of the astronomy of Libra and some of the alchemy of Libra.


Libra, the Scales, is a small constellation with no bright stars. I’ve never observed Libra, but I do not expect Libra to be hard to find. The constellation of Cancer is small and dim, but it is easy to find between bright Gemini and Leo. Libra is also between bright celestial landmarks.

Bright Jupiter is in Sagittarius two constellations to the east of Libra. Bright Saturn is in Leo two constellations to the west of Libra. The two gas giants stand like guardians to either side of Libra. Directly east of Libra reasonably bright Antares marks the middle of Scorpius and directly west of Libra reasonably bright Spica shines in Virgo. And this time of year Libra should be high in the southern sky, farthest from where light pollution is at its worst near the horizon.

Right off, Libra starts with a mystery: Gary Seronik is a very knowledgeable and entertaining astronomer who does a monthly column about binocular observing for Sky & Telescope magazine. Many of his columns have been collected in a great book, “Binocular Highlights: 99 Celestial Sights for Binocular Users.” Of all those celestial highlights, Gary doesn’t even find one thing to look at in Libra! Doesn’t even mention the constellation Libra. Sue French is a very knowledgeable and entertaining astronomer who does a monthly column about deep sky observing for Sky & Telescope magazine. Many of her columns have been collected in a great book, “Celestial Sampler: 60 Small-Scope Tours for Starlit Nights.” Sue doesn’t even find one thing to look at in Libra! Doesn’t even mention the constellation Libra.

This is all very strange because just typing this stuff off the top of my head I’m going to have more to say about Libra than I will have time to fit into one post! And I haven’t even seen the darn constellation, just gathered lore about it from my years in astronomy . . .

The two brightest stars in Libra, Alpha and Beta Librae are both celestial highlights worth looking at with the naked eye, binoculars and telescopes!

And they’re both part of the intrigue and mysteries of Libra.

Alpha Librae is a colorful double usually described as beautiful by observers. The stars are typically described as bright white and bright yellow or topaz. I’m looking forward to seeing them and judging their color.

Beta Librae has for many generations been described as the most unique single star visible in the heavens.

What the hell, Gary, what the hell, Sue, not even a heads up for that?

Beta Librae for many generations has been described as the only green star visible to the naked eye.

Most observers—and many astronomers—believe there are no visible green stars. The accepted wisdom is that the human visual system will interpret spectrums peaking at short wavelengths as white with a blue tint and spectrums peaking at long wavelengths as white with a red-orange tint. But typically green stars are almost never mentioned.

But experienced astronomers know that Beta Librae has been called a green star for many generations.

In fact, the odd green nature of Bea Librae takes us back to a couple of the ancient mysteries associated with Libra.

Although astronomers know the two brightest stars of Libra as Alpha and Beta, the stars have been observed for so long that they have popular names. And their popular names are two of the most interesting in the sky.

Alpha Librae is named, “Zubenelgenubi,” and Beta Librae is named, “Zubeneschamali.”

These are both Arabic names and they come down to us from a very strange era when the Roman empire dominated the known world. Those two names touch on one of the deepest mysteries of the zodiac.

The name Zubenelgenubi means ‘The Southern Claw’ and Zubeneschamali means ‘The Northern Claw.’

You see, at some point during the ascendancy of Rome, the intelligentsia of the era decided to change the zodiac and for reasons of their own decided to eliminate the constellation Libra by merging the stars of Libra with the stars of Scorpius.

It’s interesting to speculate about why people would want to modify the zodiac and it is even more interesting to speculate about why the constellation of Libra would be singled out for elimination. I suspect the answers have more to do with alchemy than astronomy, but I’m not going to get into that speculation in today’s post.

The zodiac changes, of course, did not last and Libra remains in the heavens.

Libra remains unique among the zodiac signs: It is the only zodiac sign that is inanimate. All the other signs are people, animals, insects and such. Only Libra is not a living thing.

And, historically, it is interesting that Libra, the Scales, almost never is interpreted in terms of scales for weighing money. Libra almost always is interpreted in terms of philosophy, scales for balancing justice—or even “Justice”—and more than that, Libra, the Scales, almost always is interpreted spiritually, the Scales on which our soul will be tested, where we will be judged for salvation or damnation.

Which brings me to one last mystery for today’s post.

Look at this painting. This is one of Vermeer’s most well-known works. “Woman holding a Balance.” She’s holding a scale. The same kind of scale most typically associated with Libra. Check out the description of the painting by clicking on it. The scales in the painting are empty. Vermeer wasn’t depicting a real-life scene of a woman checking out her jewelry. The woman is standing in front of painting of the Last Judgment. The ‘accepted’ interpretation of this painting now is that this is a woman undergoing a spiritual crisis. She is evaluating the material reality of her life and ‘weighing it’ against the spiritual reality of her life.

That’s much better than the secular view of this painting but I strongly suspect it is still slightly wrong.

I strongly suspect this painting is simply an allegory for the constellation of Libra itself.

Many of Vermeer’s paintings contain astronomical or astrological (or alchemical!) symbolism. In fact, one of Vermeer’s paintings is explicitly titled, “The Astronomer.” And in those days astronomy and astrology were effectively synonyms. In those days most astronomers made their living by working up horoscopes for rich people. I suspect Vermeer did a twelve painting cycle of zodiac allegories but because so many of his paintings have been lost, the ‘actual’ meaning of some of those that remain has become shadowed.

Libra. A constellation of beauty, intrigue and mystery.

I’m really looking forward to observing Libra. I might get a chance tonight. I’ll be posting more—I suspect much more—in the future. I urge everyone to check out Libra. It should be hard to see but easy to find in the southern sky. And it’s worth tracking down!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Cocos Keeling Is Calling

One of the personal reasons I’m so happy—excited even—about using oil pastels for celestial scenes is that these days optical, computer and communications technologies are so advanced that if you toss in a Pacific Seacraft 34 I could do everything I love doing while making blue water passage for, say, Cocos Keeling.

The one thing you really can’t do at all from a boat is astrophotography.

Miles off-shore you get the clearest skies imaginable. You can do visual astronomy. Every good boat has a good pair of binoculars. I also would get a simple Astroscan, but I would use it to get experience before putting together a very fast 6 or 8 inch telescope of similar design.

But astrophotography is right out.

(I’d have a full GPS system, too, but you know my boat will have a sextant and I’ll steer by the stars!)

So it’s always bugged me that if I ever got financial resources together I’d have to put aside thoughts of astro-imaging.

Living the blue water life—nowadays—I could still write, of course. And satellite communications lets sailors remain part of the modern world via the internet. I could still talk to all the people I talk to every day on the net.

Now that I’ve discovered how pleasant it is to do oil pastel impressionistic renderings, I could do astro-imaging on a boat as well.

Almost all of the little pieces of my life are ready for me to make the change to a cruising life, to transition to blue water living. I’m hoping that with this one nagging glitch taken care of, the full powers of my unconscious can work unfettered and finish pushing through whatever needs to be pushed through to make the financial resources necessary for the change available to me.

I am ready to go!

Astronomy And Impressionism

Mars Almost In The Beehive

Monday, May 26, 2008

Brian May—Old News But Good News

I’ve been meaning to do this post for quite a while . . .

I’ve been playing guitar for a long time, but I’ve never been a guitar-hero kind of guy. I like a lot of players and a lot of different styles. So, I think Steve Vai and Joe Satriani are cool and I like a lot of the music they write and play, but I don’t go all ga-ga over them.

About the only two guitar players from the pop world that really stand out to me are Alex Lifeson and Brian May.

Of the two, I think I like Brian May a little more.

Of the two, only one of them also is an astrophysicist!

So today’s post is about Brian May of the group Queen, who is also an astrophysicist.


Before Freddie Mercury bit the big one—so to speak, sorry Freddie!—I saw Queen perform live and they did a great show.

What I remember most, however, about the show was looking around the audience and saying to my friend Jim, “Wow! Out of all the concerts I’ve ever been to, this Queen audience has the most amazingly beautiful women I’ve ever seen!”

Jim just laughed and said, “Yeah, and just think, one or two of those beautiful women are actually real women!”


One of my favorite Brian May songs is “Now I’m Here.” It contains these lyrics:

    A thin moon beam in the smoke-screen sky
    Where the beams of your love light chase
    Don’t move don’t speak don’t feel no pain
    With the rain running down my face

    Your matches still light up the sky
    And many a tear lives on in my eye

    Down in the city just Hoople and me
    Don’t I love him so . . .
    Don’t I love him so . . .

    Whatever comes of you and me
    I’d love to leave my memories with you

    Now I’m here
    Think I’ll stay around, around, around . . .

    Down in the city just you and me . . .

I’ve always assumed the line “Down in the city just Hoople and me” referred to Ian Hunter, of Mott the Hoople. I’m not gay and I have no idea whether Brian May is gay or straight or what, but I always thought it was very cool of a pop musician to do a verse in a song that seems to be expressing his love for a guy .  .  . (Of course, these are glitter/glam bands I’m talking about . . .)


The meat of today’s post (so to speak, sorry), however, is that at 59 years old [!] Brian May went back to school, finished up research for his thesis on the rotational dynamics of dust clouds within the solar system [!] and got a doctorate in astrophysics. [!]

That’s pretty damn cool!

Okay. Here’s the story from the Times Online:

Rock star back at university again after 33 gap years

by Simon de Bruxelles, July 12, 2007

Brian May, the multimillionaire guitarist who founded the rock group Queen, has finally completed the PhD in astrophysics that he abandoned more than 30 years ago.

The 59-year-old composer of hits such as Fat Bottomed Girls and We Will Rock You turned his back on the stars for international fame with Freddie Mercury and his band. His thesis on interplanetary dust clouds lay gathering dust of its own in the attic of his home in Surrey.

May’s interest in the subject was rekindled last year when he co-authored a children’s science book with the astronomer Sir Patrick Moore. He discovered that remarkably little research had been done in the intervening 33 years.

He dug out his old handwritten notes and spent nine months conducting further research at Imperial College, London, where he had studied before Queen hit the big time.

May revealed his achievement when he received an honorary doctorate at Exeter University this week. He told students: “For the last nine months I’ve done nothing except slave over my PhD, which is now written up, thank God. But there are times when you really want to give up. There are times when you go, ‘Why on earth did I take this on?’ ”

After the ceremony he said: “I worked on my thesis at Imperial from 1971 to 1974 when I had to give it up because Queen became a full-time thing. I kept all my notes and I was able to find them in my loft and start working on them again.”

Using a giant telescope in the Canary Islands, May was able to show for the first time that dust clouds in the solar system are moving in the same direction as the planets. He will receive his PhD next May, provided that his thesis is approved by assessors.

Abigail Smith, a spokeswoman for Imperial College, said: “People are aware he is here and there is a feeling it is pretty cool that he has come back to finish his PhD, even if he has not been hugely visible.”

Friday, May 23, 2008

Mars Almost In The Beehive

We had clear skies Wednesday but not yesterday.

Wednesday Mars was almost in the Beehive. Just at the fringe of the Beehive.

The last time Mars was near the Beehive, if I remember right, was around 1998. Yesterday when Mars was directly in front of the Beehive we had cloudy skies.

Damn it.

Now I have to wait another ten years . . .

And Wednesday night the seeing was kind of strange. The sky was clear. Everything was easy to find. But colors were oddly off. Mars seemed kind of subdued. Iota Cancri actually seemed brighter than I remembered it, and the golden component seemed almost yellow and not gold.

Damn it again.

But I did a couple of pencil sketches right at the telescope to make note of what I was looking at. Yesterday I did an oil pastel sketch—again, just an impression!—of the scene visually. I still regard this as an experimental way of making images, but I am liking it more and more. Normally I’m so insecure and nervous about making images that I regard the actual process with something like trepidation. But this oil pastel approach to celestial scenes is actually fun for me. The process itself, I mean.

I’m still working out a good procedure for doing this, that’s why I regard this as experimental.

The way I did this image was to first mount my binoculars on a tripod. I’ve always read that a tripod mount for binoculars makes a tremendous difference and improves seeing with the binoculars almost magically. That turns out to be very true. Without the tripod mount, through my binoculars the Beehive looks like a smudge. With the tripod mount holding the binoculars steady I can make out the brightest individual stars of the Beehive with no problem.

I urge everyone interested in binocular astronomy to get a tripod mount for their binoculars.

Anyway, what I did was to first observe the Beehive through my mounted binoculars. I sketched the brightest stars of the cluster and the rough relationships between Delta and Gamma Cancri, the Beehive and Mars.

Then I observed the scene through my telescope at low power, 36x. I used the telescopic view to get a bit of a feel for the how to lay-out the dimmer stars of the cluster. But there are so many that, for the most part, I could have positioned the dimmer stars any way at all.

It is a bit awkward using binoculars and a normal telescope with the goal of drawing images because binoculars show a scene oriented ‘properly.’ My telescope, like most astronomical telescopes, shows a scene upside-down and sideways.

A long and generally pointless aside:

The upside-down and sideways thing is just the way optics work. That’s why astronomy images often include a phrase like, ‘south is up’ or ‘east is to the left’ or something similar—it lets the viewer know that what they’re seeing is a view through a telescope and not what they’d actually see in the sky in real life.

This was an issue for me when I posted “Whispering On The Moon.” Many published images of the Moon and published maps of the Moon are upside-down and reversed to make them look like what people see through telescopes. Also—[sighs]—the Moon undergoes what astronomers call ‘field rotation’ as it rises in the east, moves through the southern sky and sets in the west. That means the Moon’s north-south axis starts out in the east almost parallel to the horizon, becomes ‘normal’ and perpendicular to the horizon when the Moon is in the southern sky and then becomes almost parallel to the horizon when the Moon is low in the west. The bottom line is that the most ‘normal’ view of the Moon is when the Moon is in the southern sky and that is when the Sea of Serenity is in the upper right and the Sea of Clouds is in the lower left.

Anyway, so I’m thinking of getting what’s called an ‘image erector’ for my telescope. That’s an optical gizmo that attaches under the eyepiece. It degrades the image a tiny bit, but it creates a telescopic view that is similar to a binocular view, with the scene ‘correctly’ positioned up-and-down and left-and-right. They cost about $50-$75 so I’m not getting one right away, but it’s on my agenda of possible things to splurge on.

I’m pretty sure I’ll be using the same procedure in the future, roughing out a sketch based on a binocular view and then adding details based on the telescopic view.

I like this image a lot. I’ve exaggerated the size of Mars and many of the distance relationships. And I didn’t really capture the general lay-out of the open cluster as well as I would have liked. And I still haven’t gotten the hang of rendering the color properly so that the scanner captures the vivid intensity of the real-life scene. But even with those qualifications when I look at this it really does capture the impression of what I saw. It brings the reality of the scene back into my consciousness.

The things that trouble me are all areas that I believe—that is, I’m guessing, I’m hoping!—will be easy to improve upon as the summer goes on and I do many more oil pastel sketches.

Stay tuned! I had so much fun doing this image that I’m looking forward even more to tracking down other open clusters and getting more colorful doubles in view.

Open Clusters And Colorful Doubles

Pumpkin Mars In The New Myth Sky

Astronomy And Impressionism

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Let’s Go To The Library And Scare Ourselves

One afternoon I stood with a friend and watched fish
swimming in a fish tank. I wrote about it here.
And here. And here. It was a peaceful afternoon
even though I was thinking about sea monsters.

That was at a library and yesterday there
warring children hurled a decorative boulder through
the plate glass window by the library’s front door.

The shattering glass sounded like a shotgun blast.

War is for everyone, for children too,” Frost wrote.

“Let’s go up the hill and scare ourselves,” Frost wrote too.

But when you see warring children—hooded jackets,
red faces, throwing curses, combination locks,
throwing themselves, anything they could lift and throw—
you realize that war isn’t a metaphor
for itself the way Frost used it. War is just war.
And when war-as-just-war trickles down to children
you realize the bonfire we’re standing around
isn’t a beach party. That’s not firewood burning.

A woman and her young five or six year old girl
had been hiding in the back of the library.
I was walking back from the front. The woman said:

“Did you hear those boys cursing? I have never heard
anyone use language like that. Not even men.”

I nodded. The woman’s eyes were still wide. She said:

“When all the noise started—the yelling and banging—
I thought it was a handicapped child convulsing.
Then when I saw what was happening I thought, God,
I’ve got to get my little girl to some place safe.
So we came back here and we crouched behind the books.”

I thought about what she said. A handicapped child.
A handicapped child convulsing. That’s not too bad
a description of what actually happened.

I’ve wondered about teenagers in today’s world.

All the kids have their social network. But even
the kids not-at-arms do not seem very social.
Kids skulking. Kids glaring. Kids not talking at all
and then talking very fast, saying everything.

Children today, even the children not-at-arms,
live to the rhythm of a European town
caught between one side’s retreat, another’s advance.

Frost never said that total war’s for everyone,
children too. But now that war’s the choice metaphor
for the planet, total war has trickled down too.

Many decades ago, Robert Frost concluded:

      “The best way is to come up hill with me
      And have our fire and laugh and be afraid.”

I don’t know. Frost had his way. Folks laughed at bonfires
and they were afraid but those same people went home
and created the world we all live in today.

Bonfires at a beach party make better pictures—
I mean mental pictures, like what folks used to see
before mental pictures were replaced by TV—
than equivocal sonnets about sea monsters.

And I know that socially networked teenagers—
even the ones not hurling decorative boulders—
aren’t very impressed by monster metaphors.

Warring children. Handicapped children convulsing.

One of those is a metaphor for the other.

And I do not think Frost’s beach party metaphor
did all it could to stop today’s world from coming.

I’m going to stick with the monster metaphors.

I’ve talked to teenagers. Well, some not-at-arms ones . . .

There are sea monsters there. Just beneath the surface.

But if people—children too, the warring and not—
faced their own monsters, focused on their own monsters,
like the scientists, soldiers, beautiful women
from the monster movies of the 1950s
if people went to war against their own monsters,
maybe they wouldn’t wage war against each other.

At the very least maybe they would have less time
to spend throwing decorative boulders through windows.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Open Clusters And Colorful Doubles

Tonight should be the start of Mars passing in front of the Beehive open cluster.

It’s Wednesday morning as I type this.

[Today’s post is one of those I’m typing up without notes, so I’m sorry if things seem a little rambling.]

Right now the sky is generally clear. We have some lake-effect clouds blowing in from the east, but often those clear up completely by evening. The forecast is for clear skies tonight.


Last week Thursday or Friday I observed the Beehive for the first time in decades. It really made an impression on me. In fact, my whole observing session late last week made an impression on me. I’m still thinking about it.

I observed three things.

I started with the Beehive. The whole constellation of Cancer was invisible to my plain eyes in the light polluted skies here south of Chicago. With binoculars I was able to see Delta and Gamma Cancri easily enough. Through my binoculars the Beehive was a just barely visible smudge between the two stars. But through my telescope the Beehive was fantastic.

That whole experience made me very thoughtful for some reason.

I mean, the whole business of pointing up at a seemingly completely empty area of the sky where nothing is visible, then zeroing in on one particular spot within that empty area of sky, and seeing something beautiful.

I’m still thinking about that. Where there is nothing, there can be amazing, even profound beauty if you just know to look there and take the time to do the looking .  .  .

I’m not sure what to make of that or why it has stuck in my mind, but I’m still thinking about it.

After checking out the Beehive, I star-hopped a few degrees north to a double star I had read about but never observed, Iota Cancri.

Just like the Beehive, this was an exercise in looking closely.

Iota Cancri was invisible to my plain eye. It was barely visible as an anonymous dim star through my binoculars. Even at low power through my telescope Iota Cancri appears as a plain, dim star.

As I increased power, however, at about 72x, I began to see Iota as a double star.

At 100x I saw the most remarkable colors I’ve ever seen in a double.

One component was blue. I’ve seen blue stars before. Beta Capricorni has a blue component and so does Albireo. Wikipedia has a pretty good picture of Albireo that captures something of the blue color. This is pretty cool because when you see it in real life it actually looks that way. It’s not a white star with a hint of blue glare. It’s an actual blue star. Robin’s egg blue. What a watercolor painter would call cerulean blue. Very cool.

It’s the second component of Iota Cancri that actually made me say, ‘Wow,’ out loud when I saw it.

Beta Capricorni has a white partner. Albireo has a beautiful orange-yellow partner.

Iota Cancri has a golden partner. It really is a kind of rich, glowing gold color. It’s not topaz yellow. It’s somehow darker and richer. It really is gold.

The combination of blue and gold is something I’d never seen and never expected to see.

I’ll do a sketch of Iota Cancri one day, but I want to observe the star at higher power.

With my small scope, 100x is about as high as the objective lens will support. But I have a barlow lens that lets me double the power of all my eyepieces. The results usually aren’t great, but point sources of light like stars are sort of ‘best-case’ scenarios for using excessive power. Sometimes it works out okay.

After looking at Iota Cancri I shifted positions and checked out the northern sky.

I star-hopped from the Big Dipper to the Little Dipper and down to Polaris. I wanted to observe, again, the Engagement Ring asterism. [Polaris In The News And Out ]

Polaris is so dim it is always difficult for me to find if I don’t check it out regularly. I actually had to star-hop first to Kochab in the ‘bowl’ of the Little Dipper and then, binocular field by binocular field, star-hop down to Polaris at the end of the ‘handle.’

That worked. But the sky is so poor around here that I couldn’t see the Engagement Ring with my binoculars. With my telescope at its lowest power, however, I was just able to get Polaris and the Engagement Ring in one field. And it’s still very beautiful, too.


So, that was my observing session late last week. An open cluster, a colorful double and an asterism.

These are very good targets for a small scope like mine.

The thing is, ‘extended’ objects like a nebula or galaxy or globular cluster do not have defined edges. They are not point sources. Their apparent magnitude is spread over a section of sky and the gradient edges make it hard for our visual system to separate them out from the light polluted sky in the background.

This becomes clear when observing the Beehive through binoculars. Even though the Beehive has an apparent magnitude of around 3 and Iota Cancri has an apparent magnitude of around 4—so you would think the Beehive would be brighter and easier to see in binoculars—the opposite is true. Iota Cancri, though dim, is easy to see and the Beehive appears as a ‘smudge.’ That is how our visual system responds to minimal changes in contrast where the difference is sudden change versus a gradual change.

We see the sudden change easily but the gradual change is hard to see.

That’s why open clusters and double stars are great targets for small scopes. They both resolve to point sources. They both resolve to individual stars. (Although open clusters to the eye can be extended objects, through a telescope they resolve to stars. Unlike, say, globular clusters which only resolve to star in large telescopes.)


I had such a good time looking at the Beehive and the colorful double Iota Cancri that I’m thinking of dedicating all my observing time this summer to open clusters and colorful doubles.

There are lots of both.

I don’t know of any good books that list colorful doubles, but over the years I’ve saved clippings from astronomy magazines and I have quite a few articles dedicated to colorful doubles. There are websites dedicated to colorful doubles and I’ll look around, find some good ones and link to them.

Gary Seronik’s great book, “Binocular Highlights,” lists 35 open clusters. And that list isn’t exhaustive, it’s just the ‘easy’ ones.


So, that’s what’s up astronomy-wise right now.

I’m still giving a lot of thought to that business of seeing beautiful stuff where there appears to be nothing at all.

I’ll probably be dedicating this summer to open clusters and colorful doubles. Oil pastel works great for impressionistic renderings of both. (Oh, and I’ve found a great site where a guy makes realistic renderings of colorful doubles. I’ll link to that in another post.)

And tonight Mars should start its passage in front of the Beehive.

The skies are jumping!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Season’s First Monarch

Yesterday or the day before
I saw the season’s first monarch
flying slowly, flapping slowly,
through the sunlight and thick shadows
beneath some tall trees near my house.

All monarch butterflies fly west
to California or southwest
to Mexico. (Just like all eels
trip off to the Sargasso Sea.)

Scientists don’t have a clue why
monarchs migrate. (Or why eels do.)

I’ve talked to some scientists who
think modern cognitive studies
have shed some light on why people
engage in writing behavior.
They talk about brain chemicals,
dynamic equilibrium,
beautiful catastrophic cusps
and other impressive chatter.

I think writing is migration,
flapping off to California,
(squirming off to the Sargasso)
getting to some strange, special place,
looking to spend strange, special time
with strange, special other people
on the same impossible trip.

Yesterday or the day before
I saw the season’s first monarch
flying slowly, flapping slowly,
through the sunlight and thick shadows
beneath some tall trees near my house.

This morning I worked out these lines.
I feel a little closer now.
But I don’t have a clue to where
and I don’t have a clue to who.

I think it’s an open question—
That is, do the monarchs (and eels)
know more about where they’re going
and more about why they’re going
than people who do stuff like this?

I wonder if that butterfly
wondered about where I’d end up?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Spring Planting And A Beehive Update

This was a big weekend for me. I got my Spring planting done!

About a month ago I did all the weeding. But the weather here south of Chicago has been so erratic—hot, cold, colder, hot, cold, colder—that I’ve been afraid to put seeds in the ground. Then, over the last few weeks my garden plots became completely overgrown with weeds again. Saturday I had to do the weeding all over again to get ready for Sunday planting.

That’s a thing about gardening: No matter how simple you try to keep things, it will always be more work than you anticipated.

That’s why I try to keep things radically simple.

If you don’t keep things radically simple at the start, then by the middle of Summer you will be exhausted and fed up with gardening. You’ll find yourself making excuses to not do gardening work and soon enough your garden will get away from you and weeds will take over.

I keep things radically simple in two ways.

First, I divide all my gardening areas into small plots, about three feet by two feet. These little areas are easy to take care of. No matter how tired or distracted I may be, I can almost always muster up the energy to work on one or two of the little plots. Over time, one small plot at a time, it’s easy to take care of a full garden.

Second, I only work with plants that are hardy and forgiving and rewarding. I generally plant zinnias for color and marigolds for borders. Both flowers come in many different varieties. Zinnias are very colorful and bloom for a reasonably long period. Marigolds come in fewer colors, but once they bloom they generally bloom for many weeks. And both flowers put up with extremes in weather, weeding and watering.

I do, however, keep one or two of my small plots open for special flowers that I select each Spring.

This year, in addition to my normal zinnias and marigolds, I’ll have one plot of moss roses in my back yard and two plots of daisies and cosmos along the side of my house.

Moss roses are my favorite flower. They’re wildly colorful—not just different colors but intriguingly intense colors—and they’re small so they add a tremendous amount of color to a small space. But I’ve had mixed results with moss roses. The seeds are very small and must be sown right on the surface. The seedlings are small and fragile. I don’t like starting plants indoors. I plant everything right at the site so the seeds and seedlings have to put up with rain, wind, squirrels, rabbits and raccoons. Over the years, I’ve had maybe two good seasons of moss roses where they’ve brightened up my backyard, but I’ve also had four or five seasons where nothing has germinated or the seedlings got eaten or just couldn’t take the conditions. I’m giving them another shot this year just because the colors are so beautiful.

Alongside my house I’m trying two plots with a line of cosmos in the background and a line of daisies in the foreground. (I couldn’t find a Wiki page for either one.) I’ve never grown cosmos before so I have no idea if they’re easy or hard. They look pretty, though, on the seed packets. I’ve had mixed luck with daisies. I’ve only tried to grow daisies once or twice and I’ve never gotten a complete plot to germinate. When I have gotten daisies to grow, I’ve had trouble with plants that get all spindly and don’t support their own weight.

I don’t like troublesome plants.

Zinnias and marigolds practically take care of themselves.

But it’s fun to experiment now and then and, with such small plots, even if a full line of plants doesn’t grow, one or two still look nice by themselves.

That’s another thing about gardening: You make bets with Fate. Will the weather be reasonable? Will the seeds germinate? Will the seedlings survive? Will I have the energy and focus to the weeding, watering, thinning and more weeding and watering throughout the year? Will the plants standup to the conditions?

Working with small plots and hardy, familiar plants means that even if things don’t go exactly as planned in one or two plots, there always will be a chance the other plots will turn out okay.

I generally do okay. I’ve been doing small gardens for many, many years.

Last year I wrote that I was thinking of converting all my small plots to container gardening. But I’m such a slacker I never got around to buying the containers or soil. So this year I have containers in only two of my plots—one will be orange marigolds, the other will be multi-color zinnias.

Gardening is a lot of work, but it’s kind of peaceful work. And if you keep things radically simple—I mean, radically simple!—you can spread out the work and do it a little at a time.

If things work out this year, maybe I’ll post some sketches of my flowers.


Beehive Update

This week has a very cool astronomical event coming up.

Wednesday, Thursday and Friday Mars will pass in front of the Beehive cluster of stars in the constellation of Cancer.

Last Wednesday I mentioned that I checked out that area of sky to familiarize myself with the current look of Mars. But I got so caught up in the pumpkin orange of Mars that I forgot to check out what the Beehive looks like under light polluted urban skies.

Last week Thursday or Friday we had clear skies and I checked out the Beehive.

It’s beautiful!

The Beehive cluster is even more beautiful than I remembered it. And it’s even more beautiful than the Hyades cluster in Taurus.

Later this week—maybe tomorrow—I’ll do a post all about the Beehive and open clusters in general.

But for now I want to urge everybody with any kind of a telescope—even a small, 60mm scope like mine—to try to plan to observe the western sky this Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Mars is spectacularly pumpkin orange and the Beehive cluster looks like a thick handful of blue-white diamonds bunched up on black velvet.

The combination should be extraordinary.

Use Mars as a key. In light polluted urban skies, all the stars of Cancer are invisible. My 10x50 binoculars show Gamma and Delta Cancri, but the Beehive itself—almost directly between them—is all but invisible. It appears in my binoculars as just a smudge, and I suspect that’s just because I know it’s there.

But through my telescope at 36x the Beehive is amazing!

Open clusters and double stars are probably the only celestial sights that look almost as good through small telescopes as they do in photographs. And the Beehive may actually be more beautiful through a small scope than a photograph because you can move around a little and see the full size of the thing in real life.

Great stuff!

Later this week I’ll talk more about the Beehive and one of the most amazing double stars I’ve ever seen, Iota Cancri, just a few degrees above the Beehive.

Here’s a time-lapse photo of the Beehive I found on the net (click on it to go to its original site). Through a scope, of course, there is no blue haze around the stars. But the cluster really does kind of look like this in general. It’s very beautiful!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Horoscopes Without Dates

I usually start my day with a little exercise, walking to the grocery store to buy a daily paper. My public day, that is. My private day usually begins a few hours earlier with me writing something or drawing something or going out to check the morning stars.

I usually start reading the paper by checking my horoscope. I only read what Holiday Mathis has to say. Her horoscopes are also here online, but the way I use horoscopes needs the little clippings from the newspaper.

I’m a Scorpio.

Oddly, when I’ve talked to people who take astrology seriously, I almost always ask them to guess my sign. Even when the people don’t know me at all, even when they have just one conversation to derive their guess from, I don’t remember a serious astrology person ever getting it wrong. They always look at me, kind of smile a little, and get Scorpio.

I don’t believe horoscopes ‘work.’ I don’t believe there’s any basis to astrology.

At some point over the next two years I’ll do a couple more posts about astrology. I’ll be talking about how I believe astrology got started—I don’t think the accepted wisdom about engagement with the stars being driven by the rise of agriculture is true—and I’ll be talking about one tiny little reason why I think a certain approach to astrology can be rational and pleasant—astrology as ‘tools of cognition.’

But today I’m just going to talk about how I have fun with horoscopes. It’s a practice that I’ve had fun with for a while and I can recommend it to others. It hurts no one.

When I read my horoscope in the daily paper, I do one of two things.

If I find that particular horoscope to be irrelevant, totally unrelated to my life, I just ignore it and toss it out when I finish with the paper.

If I find that particular horoscope to be interesting or entertaining or thought provoking in any way, I cut out the horoscope and save it.

When I cut out the horoscope, I cut out only the paragraph of text. I don’t save the date. I save the undated text of the horoscope in an old cup.

I now have a cup full of a few dozen old horoscopes, all jumbled up and random, completely out of sequence.

Once or twice a week I reach into the cup and pull out a handful of the undated horoscopes. I read through them and pick three or four that seem to be most relevant to my life at that particular moment. Sometimes it is uncanny the way the text can seem to be appropriate and timely in some way. Sometimes three or four of the randomly selected horoscopes can be put into an order that seems almost like a coherent narrative.

I’m sure this is just a psychological trick of projection.

I’m thinking about things, consciously and unconsciously, and when I read through this or that horoscope it appears the text is relevant because I invest the content with meaning that matters to me.

Or, maybe—you never know—there could be something genuinely weird and Jungian going on. There actually may be archetypal dynamics like gears meshing all around us. Horoscopes may now and then touch on these archetypes and, when we read them, create some kind of resonance. The resonance and our awareness of it may actually help us understand and deal with the deep reality we are immersed in.

Or something like that.

I don’t know. Basically I do this because it’s fun and, sometimes, interesting.

And sometimes, rarely, every now and then, putting together three or four of these random horoscopes without dates helps me clarify my thinking about some oddball bit of slapstick going on in my life.

It happens.

And the thing is, making these readings—these sequences of three or four undated horoscopes—costs nothing because I’d buy the newspaper anyway for the business, sports and showbiz sections. And these readings aren’t all that different from the kind of, so to speak, issues narratives many people I know construct by going to psychics or therapists.

It’s worth mentioning, just in passing, that writers often get intrigued by using randomness. My favorite example is Philip K. Dick. Dick sometimes would cast the I Ching and use the results to shape the plot of whatever novel he was working on. It may sound crazy, but “The Man In The High Castle” was written that way and it is my pick for one of the best novels ever written.

But, anyway, like I said, I do this because it’s fun and, sometimes, interesting.

For instance, here is a sequence of undated horoscopes I put together for myself this morning. This is somewhat abridged. There are some topics (well, basically one) I will not post about which are nonetheless pivotal to me. I made this reading purposely avoiding a topic which some horoscopes have been very interesting about. Here’s what I came up with:

     You know who you are.
     People will perceive
     that you are someone
     other than who you know you are,
     and this may make you
     doubt yourself.
     But don’t. Stay firm
     in self-knowledge.

     You don’t need
     a formal ritual
     to divorce yourself
     from a part of your life
     that has become outworn.
     Let it go
     the way you discharge
     any other heavy burden—
     open your hand
     and drop it where you stand.

     You’re headed toward
     the unknown again.
     Normally you’d try to find out
     as much as possible
     about your destination,
     but you wisely realize now
     that preconceived notions
     will only keep you
     from experiencing
     the full scope of fun.

     Organization is important.
     Return phone calls at your leisure;
     nothing is pressing
     enough to interrupt
     your time for dreaming
     and planning.
     Join the real world
     only when you’re good and ready.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Whispering On The Moon

If you look at the Moon even without
a telescope you see patches, light, dark.
All the way down, all the way to the left,
the dark patch is called Mare Nubium.
In English we call it the Sea of Clouds.
Follow the twisting edge of the dark patch
all the way up, all the way to the right,
and you find Mare Serenitatis.
We call it the Sea of Serenity.

Sea of Clouds and Sea of Serenity.

They’re not real seas, of course. There’s no water
on the Moon, although scientists sometimes
believe they find indications of ice.
In fact, astronauts ‘landed’ in a sea.
Just below the Sea of Serenity
men walked in Mare Tranquillitatis,
men walked in the Sea of Tranquility.

With a telescope or binoculars
or just my eyes, when I look at the Moon
I start at Mare Serenitatis
all the way up, all the way to the right.
Then, in my mind—somehow it’s here and there—
I imagine myself somehow sailing
those lunar seas that are only dirt, dust,
all the way down, all the way to the left,
to Mare Nubium. I imagine
dropping anchor, somehow. I imagine
holding somebody I love, whispering,
“Honey, we’re home, here in the Sea of Clouds.”

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Pumpkin Mars In The New Myth Sky

Two days ago, Monday evening, I took my telescope into my backyard to observe Mars.

Next week Wednesday, Thursday and Friday Mars will pass in front of the Beehive Cluster in Cancer. I wanted to familiarize myself with that part of the sky and with the current look of Mars.

Mars is very far away right now. The Earth will continue to move away from Mars until next winter. Right now, even at high powers, my small telescope shows Mars as a very small disk. There aren’t even hints of the polar caps or darker equatorial areas.

But Mars is very orange.

Mars is pure pumpkin these days. I mean, really orange. Pure pumpkin orange.

I used the word ‘pumpkin’ to describe Mars (and Aldebaran) last September, but the current color is much stronger. Perhaps because the light is coming from a much smaller disk.

Mars now looks like some giant hurled a pumpkin up into the black night sky and then turned a blazing spotlight onto the distant squash.

I considered doing an oil pastel sketch of Mars, but Monday evening Mars was in a patch of sky with no background stars. Even at my telescope’s lowest power, 36x, there were no field stars visible along with Mars. I thought even an impressionistic rendering would need something more than just the planet.

I was shocked, in fact, by the look of the sky to the west on Monday.

I’ve noticed for the last couple of years that light pollution was bad, but Monday I got a view of just how bad.

Looking west, I could see—just barely—Pollux and Castor in Gemini. I could see Procyon in Canis Minor.

And that was all.

And I suspect that somebody new to the stars might have missed Pollux and Castor. The entire western horizon was Procyon and that’s about it.

I first located Mars by finding Pollux and Castor in my binoculars and then sweeping south along the ecliptic.

This business of cloudless skies with no stars—or almost no stars—is getting kind of bizarre. In fact, some academics suggest there is a whole new celestial mythos being born.

Here’s a bit of an extended quote about the problem:

An incident that emphasizes just how far some city dwellers are removed from real stars occurred in the hours following a major Los Angeles-area earthquake in 1994. The 4 a.m. quake, centered in Northridge, California, had prompted almost everybody who felt it to rush outdoors for safety and to inspect the damage. But the trembling landscape had also knocked out power over a wide area.

Standing outside in total darkness for the first time in memory, hundreds of thousands of people saw a sky untarnished by city lights. That night and over the next few weeks, emergency organizations as well as observatories and radio stations in the L. A. area received hundreds of calls from people wondering whether the sudden brightening of the stars and the appearance of a ‘silver cloud’ (the Milky Way) had caused the quake. Such a reaction can come only from people who have never seen the night sky away from city lights.

According to Ed Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, many of the anxious callers were reluctant to believe that what they had seen while the power was off was the normal appearance of the real night sky. Krupp, an expert in sky mythology and constellation lore, says that a new mythology has appeared over the past 25 years, a period which coincides with a massive increase in the quantity and brightness of outdoor lighting fixtures.

“Since so many of us never see a non-light polluted sky from one year to the next,” he explains, “a mythology about what people think a true star-filled sky looks like has emerged.”

This has spawned what I call urban star myths—generally accepted ‘facts’ about the appearance of the night sky—that can be proved false by just looking at a starry night sky. But, of course, that’s the problem.

Terence Dickinson
NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe

I’m looking forward to next week. The pumpkin orange of Mars against the glittering white stars of the Beehive should be remarkable and I’ll definitely do a sketch or two of the scene.

But also I’m cautioning myself to remember how light polluted our skies have become. I’m not sure what the Beehive will look like. I last observed the Beehive a couple of decades back under much darker skies. I should have checked out the Beehive Monday, but I got completely engrossed in the whole pumpkin orange color of Mars.


A few days ago I mentioned that last winter I did some tests using oil pastels of celestial scenes. I thought I’d tossed out the results, but Tuesday I found a little notebook with one of the tests in it.

By a coincidence, the oil pastel test I found is one of orange-red Aldebaran in the open cluster of the Hyades in Taurus. Aldebaran is more scarlet than pumpkin colored. But the view can be remarkable.

I observed Aldebaran on a freezing winter night when the star and cluster were high in the sky, as far from light pollution as you can get around here.

Looking at the scene through my binoculars, it was almost possible to pretend that I wasn’t standing on my grass back lawn, but rather out in space, too, looking through a viewport of a spaceship at the glittering scarlet star and the glittering white and black backdrop.

I did this oil pastel sketch trying to catch something of the overall scene. The size of Aldebaran and the stars are exaggerated because I was trying to capture a little of the glittering effect. I compressed, a little, the overall size of the cluster.

However, subjectively, this very rough oil pastel sketch does bring back almost completely my memories of the scene, my experience—my impression—of what I observed that night.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Terre Battue

Terre Battue’ is how the French say clay, and when the French talk about clay they’re almost certainly talking about red clay and they’re almost certainly talking about European clay court tennis.

The coolest tennis on the planet.

Sports-wise, this is my favorite time of year.

We are in the middle of the European clay court tennis season. In two weeks the toughest and most magic-prone tennis tournament of the year will start. On May 25 the French Open gets underway on the terre battue of Roland Garros.

Some of the weird magic has already started.

In Monte Carlo, Roger Federer, almost flawless and unbeatable on every other surface, lost in the final to Rafael Nadal in straight sets. In Berlin Federer lost to a guy named Stepanek, also in straight sets.

The hottest two part question in tennis right now is will Federer win the French Open this year? And will Federer ever win the French Open? (I don’t think he will. If he gets a lucky draw and some breaks, he could win easily, but the French Open does not often give out favors.)

Lots of historically great players have never been able to win in Paris. Jimmy Connors never won there. John McEnroe never won there (more on McEnroe later). Pete Sampras never won there. Of modern American men, only Michael Chang, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier have been champions in Paris.

And beyond just not winning, some players have been tortured.

John McEnroe was up two sets to love over his arch-rival Ivan Lendl. Somehow Lendl hung tough, charged back and won in five sets. Stefan Edberg was up two sets to one over teenager Michael Chang when Chang hung tough and edged out a five set victory. Edberg, then only twenty-three, said he wasn’t too depressed after the match because he just assumed he’d have more chances in the future. That was his only trip to the French Open final. Although American Jim Courier won in Paris twice, his amazing five set loss to Sergi Bruguera seemed to drive Courier from the game. He retired soon afterward. (That first Sergi Bruguera/Courier match is my pick for the greatest tennis match I’ve ever seen. That year and the next, Bruguera is my pick for the greatest tennis player ever. On hardcourts in that time period, Bruguera beat Pete Sampras once or twice. However injuries and awful coaching choices wrecked Bruguera’s career.)

The clay has been magical for the women already, too. Dinara Safina triumphed in Berlin by beating the number one player in the world, Justin Henin, former number one player Serena Williams and my favorite woman player, Elena Dementieva, in succession to take the title.

And although most big names in the women’s game have won in Paris at least once, Martina Hingis is notable for never winning. And being tortured. In 1997, in one of my favorite tennis matches of all time, essentially unknown Iva Majoli routed Hingis in straight sets. Two years later Hingis faced an aging Steffi Graf in the final and in a grueling three set contest that featured Hingis freaking out during the match and running to Graf’s side of the court—as the crowd jeered and whistled—to question a call. After Graf’s victory, Hingis freaked out again, broke down crying and ran off the court. Her mother had to force her back out for the awards ceremony.

Clay court tennis.

The best tennis ever.

This week we’ve got the men in Germany and the women in Italy. Next week there are small tournaments but most players will take the week off.

Then Paris.

Yeah, if anybody sees me in the real world, that odd expression on my face isn’t me being insane, it’s just me being insanely happy.

It’s clay court season!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Bad Kites (Recruitment Literature)

I want to be a bad kite
I want to see my string break
I want to flee on the wind

I want to be a bad kite,
fly off to the Land of Kites,
be happy with other kites,
just wind and sky and soaring.

I want to see my string break,
want the people down below
to cry and run forward but
be helpless as I sail off.

I want to flee on the wind,
fly off to the Land of Kites,
where the sky is just for kites,
where strings are bad memories.

I want to be a bad kite
I want to see my string break
I want to flee on the wind

I want to be a bad kite
in a sky full of bad kites,
some place where people with strings
are what bad kites laugh about.

Friday, May 09, 2008

I Am Here

I am here like another dimension
coexistent in our comprehension

with the regular dimensions we know.
I have extension into the time flow.

I was here yesterday. I’m here today.
I’ll be here tomorrow. And in some way

I have extension into an elsewhere,
where my self is, where my soul is laid bare.

And along that axis there are endless
subscripts for the things seemingly countless

that are me—thoughts, emotions, memories,
fields of Sheldrake’s speculative theories.

I am here. A deep space. A sheltered sea.
Those I love can enter, can be in me.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Jamie Update

I’ve mentioned before that every now and then I get an idea for a post but then I hesitate to put up the post because I can’t think of a good (interesting or entertaining or weird) organizing idea or I can’t think of any way to tie the post to the general theme of the blog. Sometimes I just do the post anyway, but most often I make a mental note to keep thinking about the post until I can come up with something interesting to say.

You wouldn’t believe how many of these loose ends I’ve got rattling around in my brain. [Mixed metaphor--okay, I know ‘loose ends’ don’t ‘rattle’ but I’m going to leave it in. Mark]

And some of the loose ends relate directly to stuff I post about every day.

There’s a great book about color theory I’ll talk about one day.

I have things to say about personality typing as social graffiti.

I had a strange encounter the week after New Year’s that has continued to shape my thinking nearly a half year later and one day I’ll work out a way to write about that afternoon.

I have more to say about robot musicians. (What is a Walkman or an MP3 player but a non-anthropomorphic robot?!)

I’ve used the name ‘Heidi’ once or twice in the blog—once about the real Heidi and once as a substitute name. The real Heidi was interested in astrology. Some day I’ll write about my thinking on astrology and I’ll use a story about Heidi and I walking along the lake as an intro. Heidi also had odd thoughts about makeup—she liked makeup a lot—and I’ve got a Heidi story to introduce a post on makeup if I can ever work out something worth saying about makeup and women who like it and women who don’t.


Most recently, however, I’ve wanted to do an update on a young woman I used to know named Jamie but I couldn’t think of a good organizing principle, I couldn’t think of one particular thing that would tie together the various little bits I wanted to say. So I’ve been putting it off and putting it off but I finally figured, what the hell, I’m just going to post it.

The weird bit—well, one weird bit—is that the update even involves a key topic of the blog, coincidence. Here on the blog that would be the cooler, more exotic word, synchronicity.

I knew Jamie a couple of years ago. She worked at our local library where I use the public access computers. Jamie, in fact, was the first person that I ever named by name on the blog and it was in a poem that was the very first new material that I created directly for this blog. That was a post from two years ago this month called, “Jamie’s Ghosts.”

That was a poem about how people drift in and out of each other’s life at our local library because people get other jobs then leave or people stop hanging out at the library or move away or whatever but sometimes in our minds we lose track of time or forget where we are and from the corner of our eyes we think we see people that aren’t there any more. Then, just a few weeks after I wrote that poem, Jamie left the library, moving on to her professional career. And that caused me to write and post the first song I ever wrote and posted for the blog, “The Atomic Octopus Song (Goodbye Jamie).”

Both of those pieces of writing happened about this time of year two years back when the blog was first getting started.

Just a couple of weeks ago I bumped into Jamie and had a chance to talk to her for a bit. I thought it was odd that I bumped into her around this time of year, around the two year anniversaries of the two things I wrote for her. A bit of a coincidence. A bit of synchronicity.

But even the way we bumped into each other was odd.

One afternoon I took a ride to our local grocery store because I had a taste for a pastry thing they sell that I call a cup-of-cake. I think it’s got some real name—I think it’s called parfait—but cup-of-cake sounds less French. So I drove to the store but then I had one of those moments where your brain jumps off track for a bit. I bought a magazine, some yogurt, some beef and chicken, I got a little bit of everything except the cup-of-cake that was the original reason I went to the store.

As I was pushing my cart out to my car, I realized I’d forgotten the darn thing I came for. I’d bought all sorts of stuff but I had forgotten the cup-of-cake. I started grumbling to myself that now I had to load this stuff into the car and then go back inside and go through the check-out line again just for the one item, the cup-of-cake.

As I got to my car, however, I saw a blue Volkswagen behind my car and I thought, hey, that looks like Jamie’s car! I wondered if Jamie had been in the store and I frowned thinking it was too bad we hadn’t bumped into each other.

So I loaded my groceries and went back to the store but now I was half glancing around wondering if in fact that was Jamie’s car and if I’d see her.

I walked toward the pastry section and there, coming away from the deli, was Jamie!

Pretty cool!

So we stopped to talk for a bit. Everything is going well for her. She looked as pretty as always. (Jamie looks almost exactly like Rachel Weisz.) I would have liked to talk more, but I was terrified of it turning into the kind of conversation Richard Brautigan used to write about so I exited quickly.

So, things are cool for Jamie, the first person I ever wrote anything for on Impossible Kisses. And I found out things are cool right around the two year anniversary of me having written those thing for her.

Pretty cool!

And that’s about all I’ve got to say for this post.

I hope some day I get a chance to talk to Jamie again, and at greater length. She’s a teacher and works with special needs children. Not only do I enjoy talking to Jamie, but during one of my times at college I majored in elementary education. It’s a topic I’m still pretty interested in.

And I still have one or two things to write about Jamie. Many mornings she would run from her car to the library and I would always be frightened that she would fall. But I don’t believe she ever did. However, I knew a beautiful Russian nurse who worked at the Freemason hall a block from the library and during an afternoon rainstorm she tried to run from the library to the Freemason hall and did fall down. I think I can get a post out of how I helped her up and walked her to the Freemason building. (Some people still believe Freemasons rule the world!)

So that’s my Jamie update.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Orange Lindsay

Yesterday’s mention of psychedelia got me thinking of the great graphic designer from the sixties, Heinz Edelmann, and the whole Yellow Submarine style of graphics he created back then. [I must not forget Milton Glaser! Heck, he’s still around!] That, of course, made me think of Peter Max and his popularization of the whole Edelmann pop style.

So this morning I was looking through a Peter Max book and I got to thinking about how last week I promised my drawing of Lindsay Lohan I’d do things to it but, since making the promise, I’ve just been slacking off.

So I grabbed a copy of the drawing and decided to do things to it in a pop kind of way.

I actually own a set of Dr. Ph. Martin’s inks—the same things Edelmann insisted his animators use on the ‘Yellow Submarine’ movie!—but I didn’t feel like digging them out of my closet. Instead I decided to use Bic Bright Liner highlighter markers.

Sometimes I like casual, simple solutions.

I used a Pigma pen (I’ve found they have the most durable ink of any pens I’ve ever used) to do simple outlines on a copy of my Lindsay Lohan drawing. Then I used the highlighter markers to render area fills of high chroma color.

I made Orange Lindsay.

This kind of stuff in a way is fun and relaxing. It’s fun picking the areas to outline. It’s fun picking the colors for each section.

However this kind of thing doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m not, by my nature, a fun and relaxed kind of guy.

I have trouble getting a relaxed, pleasant line for the outlines. I have trouble picking a pleasant arrangement of bold colors.

I don’t know if these are the kinds of things a person can get better at. I suspect the answer is no.

But I’m not quite ready to give up.

I’m going to try a few more ‘pop’ (well, ancient pop) things like this over the next few days. (It’s looking like it’s going to be cloudy here, so I probably won’t be doing any astronomy for a few days.)

I’ve still got that Amy Greenspon drawing waiting for me to do things to it . . .

I have a few ideas for getting a better line and more pleasant areas of color. Whatever I come up with, I’ll post—reduced!—scans of the result.

I don’t really see myself ever as a Heinz Edelmann or Peter Max type artist. I wouldn’t mind at all, however, trying to be something like Pierre Bonnard . . .

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Like A Monster

They’re like a monster—
memories, expectations—
coloring the now

not psychedelic
but strange colors, like dead plants,
wood from an old house,

feathers in dry dirt.
A monster with bad crayons!
I have oil pastels,

a good selection
of richly pigmented sticks.
Fuck that monster’s grays.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This is kind of a
companion piece
to Psychedelic Shadows

Monday, May 05, 2008

Astronomy And Impressionism

It would be an interesting photographic project to try and capture the amazing hues that appear visually. It would be interesting, too, to try and capture the subtle colors and contrasts in paint. I’m not sure photography can duplicate the sensitivity of a human eye. And I’m pretty darn sure I don’t have the skill to do it with paint.

But I’m going to be giving both projects more thought. They’d both be fun and worth doing.

Checking In With The Gods

Nothing spectacular happened to me this weekend in any objective way, but subjectively I had so much fun this weekend that I had a hard time sitting down and calming down enough to write a draft of what I wanted to say in today’s post. If today’s post seems a little disorganized and random it’s because I’m not working from a first pass, but rather from a couple of pages of disconnected paragraphs I want to get to in one sequence or another.


Friday I decided to buckle down and try to capture something of the colors of Jupiter and Saturn through a small telescope using art tools. I didn’t want to try and depict the planets realistically, but simply to capture something of the view—the shimmering, small yet strangely interesting view—of the astronomical sights through the telescope.

Essentially, I was wondering if the ‘normal’ Impressionistic approach of the art world would make sense in what I’d always thought of as a scientific context.

I’m going to post a couple of images, briefly describe the scenes they were taken from, and then come back and talk more directly about the images.


Friday night started with me observing Saturn in Leo almost due south. Although I’ve observed Saturn a great many times, there was a bit of an odd sensation Friday knowing that over the weekend I’d be trying to reproduce the view. I didn’t make any sketches there at the telescope—because then you have to worry about using a red light to avoid wrecking your night vision—but I paid attention to the image of Saturn while thinking in ‘artistic’ terms: I was conscious of hue and value, hard edges and soft, gradations, center and surround. (That’s Saturn’s largest moon Titan to the left.)

It was a simple observing session, but because I’d never really observed with those specific goals in mind, in some ways it felt as if I were seeing Saturn for the first time.

Since Saturn is a key to the constellation of Leo right now and Leo was almost directly south, I knew Gemini would be to the west. After observing Saturn, I looked west and, sure enough, there was Gemini and there, on the cusp between Gemini and Cancer was the planet Mars. Mars isn’t much to see right now, but in a couple of weeks Mars will pass in front of a beautiful open cluster of stars called the Beehive Cluster. That will be something to see, especially in light of the imaging stuff I’m posting about today.

Early Saturday morning, an hour or two before dawn, I observed Jupiter, also in the south. It was good to see Jupiter with all four bright moons visible again. That’s Callisto to the left, then Io, Europa and Ganymede.

Later, just before sunrise, I saw what might have been the thinnest crescent moon I’ve ever seen. Very cool.

For some reason, it never occurred to me to sketch the beautiful crescent moon or even observe it carefully as preparation for a later drawing. I have odd mental blocks about image making. I’ll come back to this in a few paragraphs. But that’s one of the cool things that happened to me this weekend. I think I’ve gotten over some of those strange mental blocks.


For as long as I’ve been interested in astronomy—something like three decades!—I’ve felt a strong desire to capture the images I’ve seen. As a teenager I experimented with black and white astrophotography but acceptable astrophotography requires many hours of exposure time and reasonably solid mounts with a motor drive. I’ve never had that kind of equipment or, frankly, that kind of patience. Also, after years of black and white photography, at some point in my youth I just decided that I only wanted to work in color.

There is a strong tradition of sketching in astronomy. But all the astronomical sketches I’ve ever seen, and all the articles I’ve ever read about astronomical sketching techniques, have always stressed literal, realistic depictions. I’ve always shrugged and thought, well, might as well bite the bullet and get the equipment to take photographs if you want a realistic image. Also astronomical sketches are almost always in black and white.

For some reason it never occurred to me—for decades!—that the basic tenets of Impressionism could apply to celestial images.

Capturing a meaningful celestial image, like capturing a meaningful earth-bound image, is about capturing the abstract qualities of a scene that you as an individual respond to, that have meaning for you and evoke an emotional response from you.

Many months ago when I first observed Beta Capricorni I found the blue/white double star so beautiful that I couldn’t stop myself from trying to capture the image artistically. I tried watercolor, acrylics and colored pencil but nothing I came up with was pleasant at all, nothing captured the qualities of the image I was responding to. Then, for some reason, I tried what I would have picked as the least likely medium to work: oil pastels. I did some quick sketches and I kind of liked the results. I wasn’t really happy with the results because at the time I was thinking just about realistic depictions. I didn’t save any of those experiments, but I’ve always remembered how much I kind of liked them.

Although they weren’t realistic, I had managed to capture something of the general impression of the colors and relationships.

That’s what I tried to do in the images of Saturn and Jupiter that I posted today. They’re not literal depictions of the view through my telescope. The proportions and distances aren’t intended to be exact. But to my eyes they do capture something of what I was responding to.

I like these little images.

There are problems, however. The actual oil pastel images have subtle colors that didn’t make the transition through the scanner into the digital world. In the future I will exaggerate colors slightly to account for the scanning process. The moons of Jupiter and Saturn are tiny points of light visually and although I don’t mind exaggerating them to create the impression of what I saw, I might have exaggerated a bit too much in these first images. (I want to say, too, that the quality of the oil pastels makes a difference. Cheap oil pastels are hell to work with and create dubious results. Expensive oil pastels—I used Sakura Specialist—are fun to work with and create beautful values and colors.)

I don’t know why it took me so long to think about astronomy images in an Impressionism context. I suspect I had these mental blocks because I have such strong feelings of inadequacy about my drawing abilities. And I suspect in my mind I separate science thinking from art thinking. But that Beta Capricorni stuff starting a process somewhere back in my unconscious and this weekend just broke down all barriers and I’ve had fun making plans for the rest of the summer, making plans of all the beautiful things I’ve observed over the years that were fleeting, but now I can go back, observe them carefully and draw them, capture them, save them and share them.

So, although these first images aren’t great, I’m very happy with them.

I think I’ve made a good start and I’ve got the feeling that I can improve quickly and significantly over the coming weeks.

I’ve got this strange and very pleasant sensation that a whole new chapter in my life with astronomy is opening up and I’m looking forward very strongly to the coming summer and more observations and more oil pastel renditions of the heavens.