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Total Eclipse of the Sun

Sunday, 15 Oct 2017, 20:48 UTC

1. The Plan

I’ll be honest. My real interest in going to see my cousin and her family was not the eclipse. It was spending time with them. And when I realized that Somerset was in 98% totality, I was starting to tell myself, “That’s pretty darned close. Do you really want to drive two hours south for a measly two percent?”

The clincher was 2024, when there will be another total eclipse, this one passing directly over Austin. “It would really be cool,” I told myself, “to be able to say that I’ve seen two total eclipses in my life.” 

Ken’s plan was to drive west toward Bowling Green and head south from there. I had no intention of getting anywhere near Bowling Green and the traffic that the interstate highways might bring as hoards of astronomical onlookers streamed south. So we split the difference and chose a tiny town in Tennessee somewhere in between. We had a plan for the next day.

2. Changing the Plan

Late that night, after everyone else had gone to sleep, I began to doubt our plan.

In truth, there wasn’t much of a town there, and although just pulling off the highway would have worked just fine, it seemed like a city park was more what we ought to be looking for. The only green areas on the online maps in this town turned out, upon inspecting satellite view, to be cemeteries. Hanging out in a cemetery wasn’t appealing, nor was just pulling off the road.

I sat up and reached for my laptop.

Certainly there was a town with a park or something similar nearby — and sure enough, there was. Just north of our planned destination, was a slightly larger town, and although its green spaces on the map also proved to be cemeteries, the city web site alluded to a memorial gazebo, complete with photographs of it and a nearby concessions stand provided by the Chamber of Commerce.

It just took a little googling, including some virtual walking up and down the town’s streets to find the park. There on Park Street was the concessions stand. And there was the gazebo. There was even a swing set. All these were along the edge of an oval-shaped path that went around a green park-y looking place.

The next morning, I proposed Westmoreland, Tennessee as our destination. Ken was game.

3. Getting There

The bonus in this deal for me was that Ken did the driving. I was navigator, but to tell the truth there wasn’t much navigating to do until we got into town.

“Turn around,” I said after I realized we’d missed our turn.

“Are you sure?” Ken asked. Evidently my voice didn’t radiate confidence. 

“Yes, turn around.” Which he did in the Fred’s Store parking lot.

We drove a few blocks, and I said, “The next street will be Jefferson, turn left there.” 

“It’s not Jefferson,” Ken said.

“It’s ok. Turn left.”

“Are you sure?” Ken asked. Evidently my voice still didn’t radiate confidence.

“Yes. Turn here.” 

This was the Park Street that I had walked up and down last night. I knew exactly where I was.

“Turn left and go straight for a block. There will be a swing set.”

And ahead of us we saw: a swing set.

“Turn into this gravel parking lot,” I said. “And drive around the end of this building. There will be a place for us to park on the other side.”

Which there was. We had arrived.

4. Totality

The park was a lush green field surrounded by a jogging trail. There were a few large trees throwing down nice shade — perfect for the sitting and the waiting. And (bonus) there was a public restroom.

There were a few people sitting in the shade under a Sweetgum tree near the parking lot, which is where we put up our folding chairs and had a peanut butter sandwich lunch. Except for two women on a blanket, the folks were from out of town — they had found Westmoreland, and this park, in the same way we had.

At the other end of the field, there were a few people under the gazebo. And there were a dozen or more under a large Oak tree. Everyone was in a good mood. The green grass and blue sky (and our peanut butter sandwiches) put smiles on our faces. We sat. We talked with the folks around us. We waited as the moon, which we could not see but which we knew was there, approached the shining sun.

And when the moon began to cross in front of the sun, the heat of the day diminished, and the light grew gradually dimmer. At about 20% totality, it was cool enough to move out of the Sweetgum shade into the sunlight. I put my welder’s glass in front of my eyes and leaned back in my chair.

When totality approached, odd things began to happen.

Streetlights came on. And dogs on the hill started barking frantically. Later, Ken said that the crickets started to sing. And then came, what I confess to me is the best part of the eclipse. 

As the moon passed completely in front of the sun, and the light of day darkened. As Venus shined in the sky near the sun and Jupiter became visible further to the east. The roosters started to crow.

Roosters. Crowing at mid-day. Because it was like dusk. And roosters crow at dusk.

We all gasped in unison, finally able to look directly at the sun. A total eclipse really is something that defies description. And no photographs do it justice. (Oh what a mistake I came so close to making when I thought 98% would be good enough.) There were wisps of corona extended out from the sun. I remember three of them. And there were little bright specks at the margins of the black disk, specks that I saw later on photographs were actually solar prominences extending out behind the disk of the moon. 

It lasted two and a half minutes.

And then came the diamond ring — the brief moment when as the sun begins to show again, there is only a tiny, tiny piece of the sun which sparkles like a diamond on one edge of the ring of sunlight surrounding the dark disk of the moon. We saw it only for a brief moment, and then the sun was bright again. And daylight began to shine. And the roosters started to crow again.

Roosters. Crowing at mid-day. Because it was like dawn. And roosters crow at dawn.

We Would Love to Have You Stay

Sunday, 15 Oct 2017, 08:36 UTC

“Please know,” Jenny said, “that we would love to have you stay here for the eclipse.”

It didn’t sink in at first that this was my cousin, because I had been texting about lightning bugs with her kids. (You can never be quite sure who is on the other end of texts to her.)

“Not sure. Probably not, because we’re going to use our PTO on a trip to Canada this summer.”

But it was Friday, and the living was easy outside on the Chuy’s patio. So it didn’t take long to reevaluate.

“Could I visit a class of yours and do The Jabberwocky?”

“Are you serious!?” 

A few minutes later, Jenny reported, “Julia and Katherine are screaming with excitement.”

“But do you think you can integrate it into your curriculum?” I asked.

“How could anyone not be able to?” she asked.

Days passed. A week. More.

“Have you given any more thought to coming in August?” she asked.

“I’m thinking that when I die, I’m not likely to say, I wish I had just stayed at home that August in 2017 when the lights went out in Kentucky.

“He’s coming!?” someone on the other end replied.

And with that, our plans were made. 

Looking Out on the Water

Saturday, 14 Oct 2017, 20:36 UTC

With a couple pulleys, a long rope, a truck and some yelling up and down the hill (“Go!” now “Slow!” now “Stop!”), we disassembled the sections of the dock, floated them over to the beach, and pulled them up onto the sand where the action of melting ice in the spring is unlikely to coax them out into the lake.

All that’s left is the platform that looks out onto the water where the dock used to be.

Winter’s snow is just around the corner, though as for that, the mid-90s of Central Texas make that hard to imagine.

Common Things

Thursday, 12 Oct 2017, 20:42 UTC

He has a habit of sitting at his desk in the evenings. Sitting, writing — typing at the keyboard.

And between the moments when he’s writing-typing, the silence settles around him and a little voice sometimes speaks out loud.

On this night, the voice was visiting for the first time in a long time, because you see there had been a long hiatus in the writing so the voice had nothing to pester the man about. But not so this night, for there had been some writing in the days previous.

- Why do you write about these silly things?

You again. I can’t say I missed you.

- I mean, apples and sticks and banana stickers and silicone lubricant.

Silly things…

- Yes… and you do know the difference between caulk and lubricant, don’t you? Or did you lubricate those stairs with caulk, as you said!?

Lubricant. (But given a tube of real silicone caulk, who knows what I might have done! Don’t tempt fate with your hypotheticals.)

- I mean, don’t you have more important things to write? Isn’t there anything important going on in your life? Don’t you have anything of consequence to share?

Feeling a little vindictive?

- I am the voice of your audience. We tire of these things. Sticks!

Fair enough. You grow tired of common things. But you are free to leave. Don’t let me keep you. Still, you should know this: there is something worth knowing, something worth hearing about little common things. 

- But… sticks!?

Yes. Sticks. And I can tell you, my grandmother would have smiled.

And while we’re at it, let’s add fish and bees to the list. (Click the picture to enlarge.)


Wednesday, 11 Oct 2017, 20:34 UTC

At the airport, they asked me if I had any liquids or food.

“Two apples,” I said. “I have two Honeycrisps in my backpack.”

They told me to take out the apples and put them in a tray, which I did.

The thing of it is, I forgot this.

I realized my mistake once I had passed thru security and was waiting for my bags to follow. Once it was too late (or perhaps unwise) to shout, Wait. I forgot the apples in my suitcase!

But forgotten them I had, and I stood there watching the TSA agent staring at his screen, clearly examining the image of my suitcase with great focus.

Then he pushed a button, and my blue suitcase emerged from the scanner. He looked over at me looking sheepishly back at him. He neither frowned nor smiled. That was just that.

October is apple season in Michigan. Those Honeycrisps must not have been the only ones.

A Bundle of Sticks

Wednesday, 11 Oct 2017, 18:59 UTC

You might know what I’m talking about — sticks. You might know the thing my grandmother hand for sticks, for kindling. I think I’ve told you about it before.

I come walking out of the woods, out from under the canopy of the oaks and pines, holding a bundle of sticks in my hand. Kindling. Something to start a fire with. Something to put in a safe, dry place, because… well because you never know when you might need a bundle of dry kindling. Because when it’s wet and cold outside, it’s too late to collect it. Because it wasn’t cold, and it wasn’t wet. Because come springtime, someone’s gonna want to start a fire.

And so I come walking out of the woods with a bundle of sticks in hand.

My cousin chuckles.

“Can’t help yourself, can you?”

He might be smiling at me and that bundle, but you know he’s thinking of our grandmother and hers. 

Banana Stickers

Tuesday, 10 Oct 2017, 20:22 UTC

“Do you see what he’s doing?” Jenny asked Burt. She pointed at me standing by the window.

That’s where the fruit were — by the window. And I was standing there taking advantage of a few idle moments to take the stickers off the bananas (because I’m all about using idle moments efficiently).

“Do you see him?” she asked again. He looked over at me silently. “He does it, too!”

Evidently my cousin prefers his bananas without stickers, also. I suspect we have our own reasons. But whatever they are, these particular stickers on these particular bananas were particularly obnoxious. There was a sticker on every single one, and none of them came off easily.

So I was a sitting duck standing at the window, because I wasn’t making much progress, and my explanations about not wanting the stickers in my compost pile back home didn’t seem to get much traction with Jenny.

“He does it, too,” she said again, almost muttering.

Burt just smiled.


Tuesday, 10 Oct 2017, 18:42 UTC

1. The Assignment

It was a simple task. The kind of task they’d heard me talk about: Just give me a hole to dig. Or tree branches to cut.

“We’re going to town,” they said.

They selected a task: lubricate the attic stairs. They gave me a blue rubber glove, that I might not get sticky stuff on these keyboard fingers of mine. And they entrusted the tube of silicone caulk to my safe keeping. 

2. The Execution

It doesn’t get much simpler that this. Squeeze the caulk. Spread it out. Clean the glops. Spread them out.

And indeed, the attic stairs pulled down and pushed back much easier when the deed was done. That task complete, I tossed the blue glove in the trash and moved outside to the gutters, where there were many pine needles to extract (an obvious consequence of having a cottage in a pine forest).

3. The Post Mortem

They returned from town later. I heard them whispering in the living room.

I saw her pointing. “What is this?” was the question. Evidently a misplaced glop of caulk.

And then to my shame, he pointed to a streak of white caulk on the attic door surface, as if to wonder silently, “What on earth was he doing that he smeared it way over here!?”

A conclusion: There is no task too simple for this man not to get something wrong in the execution of it.

A corollary: Don’t trust this man to drain your pipes for the winter — which they did not do.

Lights on the Grass

Wednesday, 04 Oct 2017, 20:14 UTC

There are so many things to talk about. Good things. Bad things. Things. We should work our way back into this gently. So let’s just talk about last night.

We stood in the dark under a nearly full moon, the dogs and I. There was someone running on the middle school track in the distance. And behind us, the guys playing soccer in the dim light of the elementary school track were still at it, their booming music barely audible now.

I looked down at the dogs, my headlamp shining on the grass in front of me as I tilted my head. There was some kind of visual trickery going on, because it looked as if there was fog about my feet. I looked again.

And now, as my brain filtered out the idea of fog, the grass seemed to be playing depth tricks. Some kind of hologram-like shimmering of the longish blades of grass alternately seeming to be very deep and then shallow. My brain couldn’t lock on to whatever it was that was playing this trick — kinda like when a printed page in front of you briefly seems three-dimensional, and then all the sudden your brain fixes on the flatness of it, and the depth snaps out of existence. Except this depth didn’t snap. It just kept flipping between near and far, shallow and deep. So I looked closer.

This was some kind of wild grass, with stalks with triple seedheaded inflorescences. I don’t know my grasses. I don’t even know the parts of the grass plants. I just throw big words around as if I know what I’m talking about. But as I looked at these … inflorescences, there were tiny, bright orange lights at the tip of each seedhead. 

What? I’m thinking to myself. I look again.

Yep. Tiny, bright orange lights. Unmistakeable, even though their brightness blinks out after my light shines on them for a second.

What!? I bend over to look more closely. And now I see it.

When each tiny, bright orange light blinks out, a moth ascends from the tip of the seedhead. The moths are watching me.

There’s another tiny, bright light. And there’s another moth flying off. We look around us (because you know the dogs are all about inspecting nature close-up). There is a host, a legion, a fluttering fury of moths rising up all around us. 

They swirl about us as we begin to make our way back home, each foot step disturbing a new wave of them, their tiny lights blinking out just as they take off.

…And there you have it. Last night.

There is an Explanation

Wednesday, 04 Oct 2017, 06:14 UTC

But one thing. There was no lost data. 

“No,” I said. “Don’t worry. I have a backup in the security deposit box at the bank. And I have another backup sitting unplugged on my desk. And I have a third backup that’s running continuously. So don’t worry; just replace the hard drive.”

Whitney sighed with relief on the other end of the line. He didn’t think the conversation was going to be a good one.

“It doesn’t usually go like this,” he said.

(Let that be a cautionary tell for you.)

And so you see, there is an explanation for the last four months. 

It starts with a PDF file and a spinning beach ball. There is that phone call from Whitney in the United States as the three of us drove across Ontario towards Algonquin Provincial Park. There are the abortive attempts to replace the hard drive and then the screen cable and then the screen and then the motherboard. And then there were the at-first abortive attempts to get this system functional again, ending with an unintended explosion of test messages and finally… Well, here we are.

The full explanation can perhaps wait for another day. Right now, I need to finish this shake and pour my coffee and get in the car and sit on the highway and… Well, make the donuts.