Friday, June 27, 2008

Pink Floyd Laughter

At the end of many Pink Floyd songs, over the coda, you often hear people saying things, you often hear people laughing. It’s never really clear what the people are saying. It’s never really clear why the people are laughing. But it’s never happy laughter.


Late yesterday afternoon I rode in the ambulance that transferred my Mom from the hospital to a ‘sub-acute care’ facility. The doctors at the hospital had decided there was nothing more they could do for her at the hospital. Her illness is too advanced, her lungs too weak, to respond to treatment.

Now it is a question of us keeping my Mom as comfortable as we can, to make her final days as pleasant as possible for her.


Late yesterday evening I spoke with my brother on the phone. We talked about what the doctors had told me about our Mom’s condition. We talked about how we could best keep our Mom comfortable and we wondered if she will be happy at the nursing home. We wondered if she would be happier at home and if the trip from the nursing home to our house would be too much for her. And we wondered if it even would be possible with me caring for her with the assistance of a part-time visiting nurse to make her comfortable at home.

Eventually my brother tried to say something encouraging, something up-beat, something hopeful.

I found myself laughing.

My brother stopped talking and I said, “No, no, no, Greg, I’m not laughing at you. I’m not really laughing. Well, I am, but it’s— It’s like the laughter you hear at the end of Pink Floyd songs, you know? It’s not happy laughter.”

And then my bother laughed and said, “Yeah, I think I know what you mean. That’s a good way of putting it.”

Thursday, June 26, 2008


Sometimes a movie comes out that is okay, but I remember the music more than the movie. One classic example of this kind of thing is Apocalypse Now. I think the movie is just okay, but in general I react to that movie as a giant video for the great Doors music. And, to be honest, I’d rather just listen to the Doors music. It’s the same—or greater!—emotional impact with less distraction.

But my personal, subjective favorite example of music being better than the movie is the sequel to “The Blair Witch Project” called “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.”

Now, “The Blair Witch Project” is one of my favorite films of all time. But the sequel is just okay. One or two great scenes but nothing to ever make me purchase the DVD. However, the closing theme, the song that runs over the end credits, is great.

That closing song expresses and sums up the themes and emotions of the entire film even better than the film itself did. (And it’s really good “Impossible Kisses”-type stuff, too!)

Here are the lyrics to the closing theme of “Book of Shadows” and a link to the POE album:

Poe: Haunted at YouTube (can’t embed)

Come here
Pretty please
Can you tell me where I am?
Won’t you say something?
I need to get my bearings
I’m lost
And these shadows keep on changing . . .

I’m haunted
By the life that I have loved
Actions that I’ve hated
Hated . . .
Haunted . . .
By the lives that wove their web
Inside my haunted head

Don’t cry
There’s always a way
Here in November
In this house of leaves we’ll pray
I know it’s hard to believe
To see a perfect forest
Through so many splintered trees
You and me
And these shadows keep on changing . . .

I’m haunted
By the life that I have loved
Actions that I’ve hated
Hated . . .
Haunted . . .
By the lives that wove their web
Inside my haunted head

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

“A Concept That I Felt Was Right”

The man behind the myths

Published Date: 25 June 2008
By Tim Cornwell

AMONG the many myths and monsters that Ray Harryhausen conjured for the movies, the skeleton sequence is what people most remember. Jason and the Argonauts boasted a hydra and a bronze giant, but the skeletons in mortal combat with the film's live-action heroes made it a classic.

Seven grimacing skeletons burst out of the soil and attack Jason and his comrades. There's a jerky, lurching, remorseless quality to their movements; some are shattered by sword thrusts, others cut and stab the men. The human cast – lead by Todd Armstrong – may be forgettable. The skeletons are not.

Only six minutes long, it was a defining sequence in stop-motion animation, created by tiny movements of a model, puppet, props or scenery, filmed frame by frame.

"I spent four months putting the skeleton sequence together, which annoyed the people who financed the picture, but it was necessary so it would look convincing," says Harryhausen, the animation pioneer who turns 88 this weekend.

An original skeleton model sits on the table in front of him. About 12 inches high, they were metal framed with about 40 tiny adjustable ball-and-socket joints, so it has "every joint that a human has", Harryhausen says proudly.

He worked mostly alone with the models, using a back-projection screen to synchronise their movements with men swinging their swords in live action scenes already filmed. On complex scenes he got through 13 frames a day, about half a second of film. "When a skeleton was going from A to B he had to be there to meet a sword in a certain frame, and that takes time to calculate."

Harryhausen gives an "In Person" talk at the Edinburgh International Film Festival today. This year he brings out a third book, with his regular collaborator Tony Dalton, called A Century of Model Animation.

The festival event has already sold out; Harryhausen is a living Hollywood legend, and the programme quotes Steven Spielberg's tribute, just one of many: "Everything that Ray did influenced me, and I salute him every day."

Stop-motion special effects have been mostly replaced by computer-generated imagery (GCI) of the kind that delivered the skeletons in the Pirates of the Caribbean, for example. But Harryhausen is the man whose pterodactyl took off with Raquel Welch in 1966's One Million Years BC, and whose cyclops grabbed sailors in 1958's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. In The Valley of Gwangi, a 1969 film that's a glorious pastiche of western camp, white-hatted cowboys lasso his dinosaurs to twangy music with period titles.

"We never saw them as B-movies. We were criticised because we made them cheaply," he says. "Our pictures have survived over the years where so-called A-movies that spent ten times what we spent have fallen by the wayside."

Clash of the Titans, his biggest, and last film, in 1981 featured his famous Medusa, a slithering creature with snakes in her hair and a rattle on her snaky tail, moving through 150 tiny joints and sharing the bill with such major stars as Laurence Olivier. "You have to ignore criticism, because no matter what you do, you will be criticised. We were criticised all the time. When we had Laurence Olivier playing Zeus, a middle-class moron in America said he looked like a tired old man in a nightgown."

Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles in 1920. He remembers early fantasy films where screen sirens shone but the monsters were missing. "They would talk about the mythology of the creatures, but they were always off the screen," he says.

That changed for him with the original King Kong in 1933. "I saw King Kong when I was 15 and it changed my whole life."

He learned everything he could about stop-motion work, by the time the Second World War finished he was making stop-motion fairy tales, before finding a job with the King Kong animator, Willis O'Brien, on Mighty Joe Young.

The films that followed, including The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and First Men in the Moon are fondly remembered, but Harryhausen found after Clash of the Titans that interest in stop-motion had shrunk, and decided after 16 films it was time to retire.

Stop-motion is still practised, most famously by Nick Park in the Wallace and Gromit films, and by Tim Burton in the likes of The Corpse Bride.But unlike Harryhausen they don't blend puppetry with live actors.

Harryhausen now lives in London. He met and married his Scottish wife, Diana, when he was working at the Rank studios.

He no longer watches many films. In his own films, the monsters, however elaborate, were built into the story, not for their own sake, he says: "I find it a little difficult to absorb anything related to CGI." His fans tell him they have what CGI tends to lack: an elusive quality of "heart". "Today they forget that they are telling a story and you have a series of explosions, one after the other, which seems to pacify the audience. In CGI you have dozens of people; one does the head, another does the skin, another does the hair. I always wanted to do it myself because I had a concept that I felt was right."

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Yesterday morning I visited my Mom in the hospital.

After I asked if any of her doctors had visited her since the night before—her primary care doctor, her heart doctor, her lung doctor or her oncologist—my Mom pointed at the white board next to her bed.

The hospital has a white board next to each patient. The shift nurse uses dry erase markers to write her name on the whiteboard, any special notes on the patient and there is a section at the bottom for ‘Goals for Today.’

Under the ‘Goals for Today’ my Mom’s nurse for yesterday morning had written, “No SOB!

My Mom pointed at the white board and asked me, “Why would she write that? I’m trying to be so nice!”

I said, “No, no, no, I’m sure that is not about you! I’m sure it’s just some hospital thing. It must be the nurse reminding herself to be informal and less officious or something like that. You know, no standard operating BS. It must mean something like that. I’m sure it’s not about you.”

I could see from my Mom’s face—even through the oxygen mask—that she didn’t believe me.

As it happened, just a few minutes later the nurse came in to check up on my Mom and see if she needed anything. She asked if everything was okay and my Mom smiled and said she was fine.

I said everything was great, and then I smiled and pointed at the white board. “But, you know, my Mom was wondering if ‘SOB’ means the same thing in the hospital as it means outside the hospital.”

The nurse looked at me, then looked at the white board and then back at me. At first her face was completely blank. She had no idea what I was talking about. Then her eyes went wide. She blushed—very deeply red—and covered her face with her hands.

“No, no, no,” the nurse said. “SOB is the abbreviation we use for ‘shortness of breath!’ That’s all it means. It really is the technically approved abbreviation we use. And the doctors use it all the time, too. Because your Mom is having trouble with her blood oxygen levels, all the nurses want to make sure that we keep her breathing steady and don’t let her experience shortness of breath. We call it SOB.”

The nurse grabbed a dry erase marker and used the heel of her palm to erase ‘No SOB’ and write in, ‘No shortness of breath.’

“There you go,” I said, smiling at my Mom. “See, I told you it was just a hospital thing. Nothing to be upset about.”

“We forget,” the nurse said, “that although we see these abbreviations all the time, it’s all new for the patients. I’m sorry.”

“No problem,” I said. “I told my Mom it was nothing to worry about.”

With all the things my Mom has to worry about, she was worried about what the nurse wrote on the white board.

Still, at least it was something that was easy to figure out. I wish all the hospital worries were that straightforward and resolved themselves that pleasantly.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Sparrow And Moon

This time of month, just days after full Moon,
I start trying to get outside early
because now the Moon’s a morning object,
waning, becoming a thinner crescent
every morning before disappearing
in the rising Sun and starting again.

Yesterday morning or the day before
the dawn was kind of ochre in the east
and billowing, mountainous clouds out west
were purple-bottomed but orange on top,
so high in the atmosphere that they caught
the first rays of sunlight although the Sun
was still somewhere below the horizon.

The Moon was in the southern sky, orange,
also reflecting Sun, but less intense
somewhere in the distance beyond the clouds.

Even by eye, without binoculars,
I could see the shadow line on the Moon,
the lunar terminator, was starting
to engulf the Sea of Serenity,
starting its trip across the lunar face
that would end darkening the Sea of Clouds.

When my back door opened and then banged shut
and I walked into the damp, morning grass
a dozen sparrows took flight from the lawn.
Most flew to the tree across the alley.
But two sparrows, chirping loudly, circled
and flew back and forth, bumping each other,
keeping up a constant chirping chatter
as they wheeled in the air above my yard.

Then one of the two chattering sparrows
broke away, flapped higher, then higher still.
Both were silent now. The other sparrow
flew straight to the tree across the alley.

The first sparrow continued to fly up,
becoming smaller as it neared the Moon,
flapping constantly as it disappeared
into the blue sky and orange moonlight.

I thought, I wonder where that bird’s going?
I wonder if that little sparrow thinks
it can flap its wings and fly to the Moon?

Then again, come to think of it, I thought,
if that bird thinks it can fly to the Moon
that makes it a more interesting bird
than any of those birds perched in the tree.

But I reminded myself this is me
thinking a delusional bird is cool . . .

Friday, June 20, 2008


A few months ago, the director of our local library put up an apparently experimental blog. (I say apparently experimental because he hasn’t kept up posting, the dilettante . . .) But one of the phrases he used has stuck with me. In one post he writes:

Both YouTube and Podcasting can be of great value for public libraries. That is especially true when one is trying to promote or extend access to Library programs, give tours to the public of new facilities and make public announcements. It could represent the future of PR for Public Libraries.

Yet, there is one value I have recently discovered with YouTube Community for those of us who are relentless reference librarians -- fancy ourselves "Library Detectives". You can sometimes find bits of information that otherwise would not be accessible.

jimsblog -- YouTube and Podcasting

It’s good to be relentless.

And it’s worth noting in passing that ‘relentless’ pops up in or near library rhetoric now and then. For instance:

      “Thoughtful. Deliberate. Contemplative. Respectful.
      These are good words to describe a librarian.
      Agressive. Relentless. Fierce. Fearless.
      These are good words to describe a hockey player.

      - Jonathan Bombulie
      Scranton (Pa.) Times Tribune
      May 22, 2001
      [quoted here]

And a library journal once complimented a woman on her ‘nicely relentless’ attitude toward her work.

I’m not sure what’s up with that. I’m guessing it’s kind of an auxesis thing but if I said that only a relentless word buff would know what I was saying.


I’ve always been a relentless writer.

In fact, I used to make a point of asking people who seem friendly if they’ve ever read “Sombrero Fallout,” by Richard Brautigan, to kind of prepare them for knowing me. But recently I’ve given up on that. Even when people have read that book carefully it’s never really occurred to them that such people might exist in real life. Nothing prepares people for knowing me.


At the hospital, the doctors have found some complications with my Mom. She remains in great spirits, though. My Mom’s parents came from that area of Europe called Serbo-Croatia, where everybody has been fighting everybody for thousands of years. My Mom’s got tough genes.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


So yesterday evening I got home late, put out fresh food for Fluffy, the cat, and then opened the refrigerator to look for fresh food for me.

Inside the refrigerator everything looked different.

I thought, What the hell?

Half the refrigerator look dark, in shadows, the other half looked bright.

I thought, What the heck, did I have a heart attack and did the part of my brain that does visual processing get mangled and now half my visual field is normal and the other half is dark?

Then I looked more closely at the inside of the refrigerator. I saw that there were two little 40-watt bulbs and the little 40-watt bulb on the right hand side was burned out.

I thought, Oh . . .

I wasn’t convinced, of course, that my brain was functioning properly, but I was relieved. I know how to change a light bulb.


At the hospital doctors discovered that my mother has pneumonia. Her right lung is badly infected. And they suspect but aren’t sure that she suffered a heart attack.

So now my Mom must stay in the hospital long enough to start her lung on the road to recovery from pneumonia. And they want to study her heart to make sure there is no lasting damage. Then they’re going to recommend she spend a week or two at a hospice where she can get physical therapy to regain her lost strength.

For a seventy-nine year old woman this is not good news. But my Mom’s symptoms were so extreme that she had been expecting news that was much worse. Compared to what my Mom had been afraid of—terrified of—this is actually a reasonably up-beat diagnosis.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


This morning in the emergency room across the corridor from my Mom’s room, a doctor called up a young man’s X-ray on the computer display and explained to him that the X-ray image showed bullet fragments, but the X-ray image couldn’t distinguish between his old bullet fragments and the new bullet fragments. She told him he would have to let his primary physician compare the new X-ray to old X-rays.

Later I got to see my Mom’s X-rays. They didn’t show any bullet fragments, but my Mom has problems of her own. She’ll be in the hospital for a while as doctors sort out exactly what is going on.

I may or may not be doing posts the next few days.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Underlying Theme

One time a friend of mine named Jim and I were talking about a famous physicist named Richard Feynman. I pointed out that even though Feynman had played a pivotal role in the Manhattan Project, he had gotten kicked out of the Army for ‘psychological’ reasons. One of the things psychologists had worried about was that Feynman had honestly answered a question about feelings of being ‘stared at’ by saying that yes, he often did feel that people stared at him. I told my friend Jim that I’d always thought such feelings weren’t just subjective, but rather some people simply got stared at more than other people.

“I myself,” I said, “frequently get stared at by people.”

Jim laughed. More exactly, he guffawed.

“Mark, that’s you in a nutshell!” Jim said. “The fact that you think people stare at you is a symptom of how nuts you are. But the fact that you’re so comfortable talking about it is a sign that you’re not going to let your insanity drive you around the bend.”

Later that night we went up to the north side. We took my car and as I was driving, Jim was sitting all slouched down in the passenger seat. I asked him what he was doing. He just said he was conducting an experiment and wouldn’t explain further.

We took the streets to the north side: Archer to Canal, Canal to downtown, then Michigan avenue up to the Gold Coast.

As we drove north on Michigan, I stopped for some red light. Jim sat up straight and cursed, shaking his head.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I’ve been sitting all slunk down in the seat,” Jim said, “because I’ve been watching people in the cars next to us. And I’ve been watching people on the sidewalk. You know, you are right. People do stare at you. What the hell is going on? What the hell is up with that? How do you stand it?”


Even though my blog posts the last couple of weeks have been short and unprepared, I’ve found myself second-guessing myself more than normal.

I was going to type up a funny story about a friend-of-a-friend which would be a kind of follow-up to my unicorn post but I decided to skip it. I’ve got a couple of things to say about ‘refractory’ minerals and astrophysics that I’m hesitating to put up. And I am hesitating to put up more details about my Mom’s illness or stuff my brother and I are talking about.

I don’t know. Even though blogs are essentially anonymous, right now—maybe it’s because I’ve been so focused, so introverted, so insular, because of dealing with my Mom’s illness—I’ve been overly aware of this whole sense of “being stared at” and it’s making me think twice about the content of my blog posts.

And it’s not really like me to hold back on stuff . . .

Regardless of how anonymous blogging is (or isn’t!), I am making a conscious effort to remind myself of the lyrics of this old Rush song:

Living on a lighted stage
Approaches the unreal
For those who think and feel
In touch with some reality
Beyond the gilded cage

Cast in this unlikely role,
Ill-equipped to act
With insufficient tact
One must put up barriers
To keep oneself intact

Living in the limelight
The universal dream
For those who wish to see
Those who wish to be
Must put aside the alienation
Get on with the fascination
The real relation
The underlying theme

Living in a fisheye lens
Caught in the camera eye
I have no heart to lie
I can’t pretend a stranger
Is a long-awaited friend

All the world’s indeed a stage
And we are merely players
Performers and portrayers
Each another’s audience
Outside the gilded cage

Living in the limelight
The universal dream
For those who wish to see
Those who wish to be
Must put aside the alienation
Get on with the fascination
The real relation
The underlying theme

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Autographic Value Of Photographs

Just about a hundred years ago there was a big scientific controversy that oddly received a lot of attention in the popular press about the presence or absence of “canals” on Mars.

Back then, sometimes scientists became very famous, kind of like pop stars today. The astronomer Percival Lowell was one such famous scientist. Newspapers and magazines often ran his photo and published quotes from him about scientific issues of the day.

However, my understanding is that although Lowell was famous as an astronomer, he didn’t actually spend a great many nights putting in hour after hour of observing time at a telescope. He regarded himself more as a “thinker” and left the day-to-day (or night-to-night) observing chores to assistants. And from interviews I’ve read, that lack of observing time was Lowell’s chief handicap because when he did observe Mars himself, visual ‘artifacts’ of the telescope and seeing conditions led him to believe he was seeing straight-line surface features on Mars, the so-called ‘canals,’ which more experienced observers simply dismissed.

But because Lowell was so famous, his own assistants hesitated to step up and correct him when the controversy became public.

So it became a big, world-wide debate: Was there life on Mars? Did scientists have direct evidence of life on Mars in the canals many observers reported seeing?

Now, of course, we know the canals were visual artifacts of certain telescopes and certain seeing conditions. Now very large telescopes routinely image Mars, probes orbit Mars taking very detailed images of the surface and probes have even touched down on Mars and sent back photos and data from the surface.

Sadly—for us science fiction fans—there are no canals on Mars.

What I thought was most interesting, however, about the great debate a hundred years ago is that Percival Lowell often photographed Mars and—to his eyes—his photographs “proved” that the canals were real. Other people looked at the photographs and told him they saw nothing. When popular magazines and book publishers reproduced Lowell’s photographs, back then, Lowell suggested that he should hire somebody to “enhance” the photographs to “bring out” the linear detail that he could see but which printing had difficulty reproducing. Back then, publishers and editors adamantly refused to create such re-touched photographs because they argued the manipulations would “spoil the autographic value of the photographs themselves.” [quoted from, “The Great Mars Chase of 1907,” by William Sheehan & Anthony Misch, Sky & Telescope, November 2007]

Oh my!

Once upon a time, publishers and editors refused to ‘enhance’ photographs because doing so would spoil the autographic value of the photographs.

The very thought of publishers and editors making such a case, today, sounds more like science fiction than the thought of life on Mars!

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Act Of Making Was The Prayer

Following the model of Jesus’s hypostasis—His incarnation into flesh—and His resurrection, some alchemists conceived their purpose as the rehearsal of their own resurrection at the Second Coming. They studied the revelation of divinity in ordinary matter, and especially in the most earthy things, those farthest from heaven and most like themselves. They looked at purulent infusions and saw their own dying spirits. Turbid waters mirrored leaden thoughts. A dusky flask suggested a dark mind, and a foaming crucible implied inner turmoil. They saw the endless labor, with the recipes calling for a year’s worth of work to accomplish a single step, as painful allegories for their own lives, and their chances of redemption. But the Stone was a hope to be cherished, since it promised that their bodies could finally be balanced and preserved, and their souls made calm and clear.

In academic language, these are hypostatic allegories. They are a general truth about alchemy, but it is easy to overstate them, as I think Jung did. Most of the time it is implicit that whatever happens in the flask is of pressing religious importance, but it is rare to find alchemists drawing parallels between each experiment and a particular state of their immortal soul. Even so, most alchemy is theo-alchemy: it is about questions of eternal life, soul and spirit, resurrection, and incarnation. Alchemists knew they were rehearsing, and often speeding up, processes that the earth does naturally by brewing metals underground. That work was God’s, and it was the ongoing perfection of the world. As the universe drew near to the millennium, human souls as well as stony spirits were slowly being purified and brought closer to God. So, in a fundamental sense, the alchemists did see their souls in the retorts and crucibles, but they rarely spoke about their experiences in the terms that Jung implies: certainly they never mentioned the psyche, the unconscious, and the archetypes, which Jung proffers as the actual mechanisms driving alchemy. Even devoted theoalchemists who wrote about revelation, spirit, and redemption did not make explicit connections between laboratory recipes and their own souls. They implied as much by talking about the relation between alchemy and prayer, but they did not have the modern penchant for confessional self-analysis. The act of making, labor, was the prayer, ora. What counted in the laboratory was the wordless work. The theoalchemists such a Georg von Welling, the ecstatic prophets like Heinrich Khunrath, the philosophic mystics like Michael Maier, and even the “scientific” psychologists like Jung all came afterward, with their heavy interpretations in tow. It is essential to remember that no matter how crucial religious meanings were to the alchemists, there are no books written in the laboratory that speak about them. At the moment of making, the act is everything. Afterward, there is plenty of time—even centuries—to try to figure out what it all meant.

James Elkins
in What Painting Is

Negotiations Between Water And Stone

The Deliriously Beautiful World Of Unnamed Substances

Rembrandt, Magic And Substance Becomes Mind

Thursday, June 12, 2008


So, over in Europe people are seeing unicorns again:

'Unicorn' born in Italy

By Malcolm Moore in Rome

Last Updated: 4:01pm BST June 11, 2008

A roe deer with a single horn in the middle of its head has found fame as the "Unicorn" of Tuscany.

The 10-month-old deer was born in captivity at the Centre of Natural Sciences, a nature reserve near Prato.

While single-horned deers have been spotted before, this particular buck has a uniquely central horn, thought to be the result of a genetic flaw.

"This is a demonstration that the fabled unicorn, which we all know from icons and legends, probably was not just a fantasy.

"It was probably an animal like this one, with a natural anomaly," said Gilberto Tozzi, the director of the centre.

Mr Tozzi added that the twin of the buck has two horns.

The mother of the two deer was brought to the park several years ago after being hit by a car in the Apennine mountains.

The mythical unicorn was thought to have healing powers and was generally depicted as a horse with the cloven hooves of a goat or deer.

The earliest mention of the beast was by the Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th century BC.

In one notebook, Leonardo Da Vinci suggested unicorns could be captured using a virgin as bait.

Mr Tozzi said the Tuscan unicorn was also remarkably elusive.

"Our deer might be aware that he is a little different.

"He doesn't let himself be seen very often" he said.

He advised visitors to "arm themselves with binoculars and a lot of patience."

Last year, a hunter in Elma, New York, photographed a stag with a third horn protruding from the front of its head.

Do people in the modern world even know the mythos of unicorns any more? Do people know that unicorns can only be touched by virgins?

The writer Harlan Ellison—who’s written a few things about unicorns—once said that he doesn’t find them very interesting, that he’d be more interested in a modern kind of unicorn, a unicorn that could only be touched by non-virgins. A tramp slut unicorn.

Ellison’s still alive. Now that people are seeing these creatures again, maybe Ellison will get out his typewriter and get to work . . .

There aren’t many topics that just make me smile without causing me to get all thoughtful and introspective and reflective and all those kinds of things but this is one of them.

About the only thought I have on this topic is that of the women I know, I think that the women who would most enjoy petting a unicorn are probably, umm, disqualified from doing so.

Too bad.

I’m guessing that petting a unicorn would be, umm, magical and fun and relaxing and all sorts of cool things.

Oh well.

This weekend will be the US Open golf tournament. I’m sure that will be magical and fun and relaxing and all sorts of cool things, too . . .

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

As Far Away As Can Be

Hmmm. Not too long ago I said I was going to plan on spending my astronomy time this summer looking at open clusters and colorful doubles. Open clusters are fun to draw, and it’s challenging trying to capture the subtle colors of colorful doubles.

But, right now, I’m not really in the mood for hauling out my telescope and setting up for regular sessions in the backyard. And I don’t really have the energy or focus to do much drawing, especially the whole drawing and scanning process.

So last night I spent some time looking for stuff like this. I’ve seen this before. This is the Andromeda galaxy. It takes a smashing picture. Smashing photos require, generally, big telescopes and time exposures of many, many hours.

But, of course, in real life—at least under light polluted skies through a very small telescope or binoculars—it looks more like this:

Galaxies make for interesting observing targets because they are the farthest things you can observe.

Interplanetary distances are measured in millions (or even billions) of miles. Interstellar distances are measured in lights years or hundreds of light years. But intergalactic distances are measured in many millions of light years. The distances are unimaginable, but, amazingly, on a good night a person can stand in their backyard, look up at the sky and peer across those great voids and observe the whirlpools of billions of stars so incredibly far away.

On a good night.

The Andromeda galaxy is the brightest galaxy in the northern sky. We used to be able to see it with the naked eye around here, but now I need binoculars. But you can see it.

Last night I spent some time looking around the handle, and bowl, of the Big Dipper. There are three “easily” seen galaxies around the Big Dipper. Two, by the bowl, are the brightest pair of galaxies in the northern sky.

M101 and M51 are within ten degrees of the handle of the Big Dipper. And M81 and M82 are just about ten degrees away from the bowl of the Big Dipper.

I didn’t take out my telescope last night—I’m a slacker, and a kind of tired one at that—but I did check out the handle and bowl with my binoculars.

It was one of those nights when I could almost see what I was looking for. Using averted vision—looking slightly off center—I could almost/sorta make out hazy patches where I knew the galaxies were. But I didn’t actually see them.

[shrugs] That’s how observing works. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Especially with deep sky objects. They are very low contrast compared to the background sky and light pollution hurts those kinds of objects the most.

But I’m going to be spending some time with the Big Dipper this summer. It’s easy to find. The surrounding ‘landmarks’ for M101 and M51 are very clear. And with an exceptional night my binoculars will come through and capture the most distant kind of object observable.

The distance sounds good to me now. I kind of wish I were that far away.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Cusp Of Chatting

Now and then on the blog, I’ve told stories about times when I’ve gotten in trouble. Today’s post is about a time when I didn’t get in trouble. [!]

Back when I worked in the corporate world, one of my jobs was teaching business people how to use so-called ‘advanced’ features of common software packages.

One afternoon I was showing a middle age businesswoman named Cheryl how to do macros in Excel. As Cheryl was typing in some sample data we were going to use, we were talking casually, just passing time. We’d known each other for almost two years so I wasn’t being too careful about what I said. We were just talking.

Somehow the topic of marriage came up. Cheryl said she thought marriage was great.

I said something like, “Marriage. I just saw a quote somewhere that said marriage is a thing that begins some night with an innocent girl telling her husband to please be gentle and ends seven years later some afternoon with a cynical woman telling a gigolo that he can hurt her if he wants to.”

Cheryl stopped typing. She looked at me. Her face was absolutely expressionless. She said, “I’ve been married seven years. Our seven year anniversary was last week.”

I thought, Oh-oh. This could be bad. Do I try to back out of this? Do I try to say something to explain that I was just chatting? Or do I charge forward?

I’d known Cheryl for a while and I decided to just charge forward.

I shrugged. I half smiled and said, “Well, if you’ve been married for seven years then I’m guessing you know exactly what that quote was talking about.”

Cheryl continued to stare at me, absolutely expressionless, for a second. Then she giggled. And laughed. And nodded. She said, “Yeah. Yeah, I guess I do.”

She looked back at the screen and continued typing.

I thought, Whoa! That was a close one!

Monday, June 09, 2008

Wildflowers Out Back

Last week when I cut the grass I forgot to cut the little patch of grass between our back fence and the paved alley. It’s a small rectangle, something like twenty feet by thirty feet. We keep the garbage cans there. I only get out there when I take out the garbage but I like to keep it neat.

After not being cut for two weeks, the grass in that little patch grew pretty tall and went to seed. A bunch of weeds grew, too. And, amazingly, a small bunch of wildflowers established themselves and bloomed.

I don’t know what kind of flowers they are, but they are pretty. They look like little daisies. They’re about a foot tall. Each flower is about two inches across. They have yellow centers and about a dozen white petals.

Saturday afternoon when I trimmed the weeds and cut the grass out there I very carefully worked around the little bunch of wildflowers.

Now I worry about them.

Today is garbage day, recycling day and yard waste pickup day. Lots of big trucks will be rumbling through our alley. The little bunch of wildflowers—I think there are only about four or five blooms right now—are only a few inches away from the alley paving. I made sure to put our garbage can and our yard waste container over to the side, behind our garage, so that the trucks would stay as far away as possible from the wildflowers when they do their pickups.

If the wildflowers can survive the squirrels and raccoons and rabbits and all manner of vehicles rumbling through our alley, they’re welcome to grow in our backyard all summer.

But, you know, darn it, now I’m going to be worrying about them all summer . . .

Friday, June 06, 2008

Half The Zodiac

The clouds cooperated last night and the crescent Moon was beautiful in the evening twilight starting off a new lunar cycle.

The next full Moon with be June 18.

The beautiful crescent Moon yesterday was in Gemini. And half the zodiac was visible in the sky as night fell.

Gemini. Cancer. Leo. Virgo. Libra. Scorpius.

Slowly, now, at about twelve degrees every night, the Moon will move through these constellations. Up until about June 10 the Moon will be dim enough so that the stars behind the Moon will be visible.

It’s a slow trip, but it’s a cool trip. If the clouds continue to cooperate, I’ll follow along with the evening Moon this month.

I’m not really in the mood to take out my telescope or even put my binoculars on their tripod, but Moon watching is cool because you can do it just hand-holding the binoculars.

The next couple of days should be especially beautiful: The Moon will be moving through Cancer. The Moon will be visiting the Beehive Cluster!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Moon In The Evening Sky

Last Tuesday, June 3, was a new Moon. That means now the Moon will be in the evening sky, a thin crescent in the evening twilight.

Gradually the Moon will rise later and later in the evening, will become more and more full.

The numbers are that the Moon travels roughly 12 degrees in every twenty-four hour period. That means it rises just less than an hour later every night.

This is a great time to observe the Moon.

Many people new to astronomy think the best time to look at the Moon is when the Moon is full, but that’s not true. When the Sun illuminates the full Moon the light is so bright, so free of shadows that details are hard to see. And it’s easy to get a headache.

Most experienced lunar observers watch the light/shadow line on the Moon move across the waxing or waning crescent early and late in the lunar cycle and avoid the Moon when it is full. On the waxing Moon, the first major feature to get illuminated is the Sea of Serenity. On the waning Moon, the last major feature for the shadow line to engulf is the Sea of Clouds.

Early and late in the lunar cycle the Moon is not bright enough to obscure nearby stars with its light. So the Moon can be observed near interesting celestial companions or followed through the zodiac.

Over the next few days the lunar crescent will be passing close first to Mars, then Saturn.

Later, the Moon will pass near Spica in Virgo, then the two Z stars in Libra. By the time the Moon gets near Jupiter it will be very bright, making it difficult to see the constellations behind it.

Since each constellation is (very) roughly 30 degrees wide, the Moon spends about two nights in each constellation.

If the clouds cooperate, this is a cool time for Moon watching.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Sheldrake: Orchestras To Planetary Systems

Right now I don’t have the time or energy or focus to prepare the kind of blog posts that I like. But I want to keep the blog moving, so I’m going to keep posting, even if my posts will be shorter.

I won’t be doing multiple-day posts for a while and today’s post is even the last long post I’ll do for a while.

Just before my mom’s health collapsed I’d been planning a kind of Impossible Kisses extravaganza, a two-week, ten-post sequence of posts all about Rupert Sheldrake.

One of the things I’d planned to do was go back through this whole blog and create an annotated index of all the references I’ve made to Sheldrake’s thinking without actually mentioning him by name. There are a lot. And I actually mention him by name twice, first here, and then here.

It was going to be a ten-post sequence because back in 1989 [! almost twenty years ago !] I wrote a short story in verse—my first such effort!—called, “Professor Martel’s Startling Conclusion.” When I posted that story on the blog, it took ten days. And that story from 1989 was all about my thinking about Sheldrake’s thinking.

pmsc part one
pmsc part two
pmsc part three
pmsc part four
pmsc part five
          pmsc part six
pmsc part seven
pmsc part eight
pmsc part nine
pmsc part ten

I’m not going to be doing long or multiple-day posts for a while, but since Sheldrake has been on my mind a lot lately—

(Remember last Friday I did a post called, “No Time, No Distance,” where I mentioned a five or six hundred year old theory of vision that holds that human vision is projective as well as receptive? Well, Sheldrake is one of the few living scientists who still takes that theory seriously.)

—Sheldrake has been on my mind a lot lately but instead of a ten-post sequence, I’m just going to do today’s post and let Sheldrake briefly speak for himself.

This is the complete epilogue to Sheldrake’s second book, “The Presence Of The Past.”

We live in a world that was born some fifteen billion years ago, a world that has always been growing and still grows, a world of developing galaxies and stars and planetary systems and planets. On this particular planet, life has been developing for over three billion years in an evolutionary process that continues in ourselves. The development of science is part of this very process—a process that science itself has discovered, first in the realm of life on Earth and now in the whole of nature. In brief, we now have an evolutionary cosmology.

But many of our habits of thought grew up within the image of an eternal, machine-like universe. There was no need for memory in the mechanistic universe, because it was permeated at all times and in all places by timeless principles of order, the eternal laws of nature.

But do these old ideas still make sense in an evolutionary universe? Were the laws for everything in the world—from protozoans to galaxies, from orchestras to planetary systems, from molecules to flocks of geese—all present in advance, awaiting the time when their harmonious, ordering properties could be manifested in the evolutionary process? Or is memory inherent in nature? Do habits build up as evolution goes on?

These are the questions that we have been asking in this book. We have explored the implications of both the view of eternal law and the view of evolving habit. We have looked at a wide range of phenomena, in the chemical, biological, social, cultural, and mental realms, from both points of view, comparing the interpretations they offer; and we have considered various ways in which experimental tests could reveal to us which of these alternatives is in better accordance with the way things are.

At present the question is open. It is possible that we do, after all, live in an amnesic world that is governed by eternal laws. But it is also possible that memory is inherent in nature; and if we find that we are indeed living in such a world, we shall have to change our way of thinking entirely. We shall sooner or later have to give up many of our old habits of thought and adopt new ones: habits that are better adapted to life in a world that is living in the presence of the past—and is also living in the presence of the future, and open to continuing creation.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


My mom is a senior citizen and she is very ill.

My brother almost flew in from the west coast. We decided against it, however, because right now there’s really nothing he can do, plus we were afraid that his presence here would just make my mom more aware of the seriousness of her illness.

This is a bizarrely tough time for my brother and he’s not even sick.

My brother’s wife is still recovering from two near fatal illnesses of her own. My brother is the older brother, the number one son—it is his nature to want to do things, he always wants to put things right. But for months there has been nothing he could do for his wife except pray that she toughed her way through her difficulties. And now that my brother’s wife seems to be through the worst of her tribulations, my brother must deal with his helplessness, again, as our mother tries to tough out her illness.

No matter how old my brother and I both get, we still tend to see ourselves just as two kids from the south side. We’re used to dealing with our own issues, our own problems, but when we see people close to us struggling neither of us handles it well. Normally my brother and I appreciate the distances in our family, the spaces between us. But I think right now my brother and I both wish our family were consolidated on the west coast, where it would be easiest for everyone to help out everyone else during times of illness.

Oh man.

Just a few days ago the only things I was worried about were Spring planting and French Open tennis.

Yesterday’s post began with me telling a story about a woman I know named Ruth. When I posted that I hadn’t seen Ruth for three or four weeks. As things happen, yesterday afternoon I visited Ruth and we had a chance to catch up a little. It turns out her husband is terribly ill, just got out of the hospital and doctors can’t even pin down exactly what is wrong with him. And her mother also is terribly ill.

Just a few days ago the only things I was worried about were Spring planting and French Open tennis.

Now it’s this stuff that makes an old kid from the south side feel like he’s watching half a dozen people he loves treading water in the middle of the Pacific without a boat and shark fins are bobbing up, circling . . .

Monday, June 02, 2008


A woman I know named Ruth—a friend of my mom—once asked me if I considered myself a lucky guy. I said I did. Then I thought about that for a second and added, “Of course, I don’t have much to show for my luck . . .”

Ruth thought that was pretty funny.


Well, really, I do have some things to show for my luck. I have manuscripts for seven novels, all still, sadly, unpublished. I have manuscripts for many short stories, poems and drawings, all still, sadly also, unpublished.

But a writer’s job is to write. Everything else is in the lap of the gods.

I did my part. I got the writing done.


And I have two years and some months of this blog, Impossible Kisses.

I want to thank everyone who has stopped in to read the blog. I especially want to thank everyone who has added comments to the blog. Thank you all for participating. This has been widly fun, far more fun than I ever anticipated.


Out there—in the real world—all sorts of things are changing around me.

Tomorrow might be the same as today. I might be back with a normal post.

Or this blog may be going on hiatus for a while.

Or this blog may be setting into the evening twilight, dropping over the western horizon in an orbit—so to speak—that will not bring it around to rise again in the east.

I don’t know.



     My friend Trixie has rocks in her head.
     They are more beautiful than gemstones,
     more beautiful than colorful stars,
     more beautiful than the magic things
     the ancients wrote of in fairy tales.

     My friend Trixie has rocks in her head.
     I’m beguiled, completely befuddled.
     Forever—just like in fairy tales!—
     I will remember my friend’s magic.