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The Explanation He Promised

Sunday, 26 Jul 2015, 21:10 UTC

1. Talking to Alan

I made the mistake, years ago, of telling Alan that I had explained to a roomful of fourth graders that it probably made sense that Pluto’s status as a planet was revoked. It made sense, I told them, because we now know that there are other bodies beyond Pluto, some larger than Pluto itself, orbiting the Sun in the dark, distant recesses of our solar system. I told them that Pluto is one of that vast group.

I said all this to Alan who was sitting across the dining room table from me. The words had barely left my mouth when his characteristic grin went grim. And his son who was also at the table almost jumped and with a startled look on his face turned to look at his father, waiting to see his reaction.

There was no particular reaction. Alan smiled (although as I recall it, his eyes had widened a bit), and he patiently said, “I’ll have to explain it to you sometime, Dave, when we have more time.”

2. Listening to Alan

Last Friday, Alan sat before the cameras, as he has been for a week, now. He and the New Horizons science team were talking to the press about the things they had learned that day from the most recent images from New Horizons.

They were all science in that press conference. Talking about methane ice and nitrogen ice and carbon monoxide ice. About flowing glaciers of nitrogen. About ice mountains and in-filled craters. About Sputnik Planum and Hillary Montes and Norway Montes. About Pluto’s atmosphere extending out 100 miles from the surface.

01 Stern 05 Pluto HazeNEW
Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute link

And then there was a question directed to Alan that brought up that word, planet. Here is what he said.

You know, there’s been this controversy where astronomers and planetary scientists have largely been on different sides of it. I think that you and the public just like we on the science team can pretty well tell what we’re dealing with.

[At this point, for a brief moment, his eyes sparkled and his mouth betrayed a smile. And then he continued...]

It’s very hard not to call an object like this with this level of complexity, an atmosphere, with potentially an internal ocean, certainly with complicated seasonal cycles, and certainly a big complicated system of moons … uh … a planet.

I think I just got that explanation he promised.

It Was Something

Saturday, 25 Jul 2015, 19:44 UTC

Did you see that moon?

I don’t just mean that half-moon hanging at the top of the heavens tonite just after sunset, although that one casts a fine moon shadow when you’re out late.

I mean the moon that was there a week ago or so. Closer to the sun. Alongside Venus about the time, I guess, of Ramadan. Did you see it? And Venus? And did you see Jupiter? It was there, too. A conjunction it was. Remarkable to look at. Two wandering stars joining almost together and then wandering day by day apart.

They’re still out there just after sunset, Venus and Jupiter. Although the Ramadan moon has left them behind in its daily eastward march. And Jupiter is is fleeing Venus now, or is it the other way around?

The other night we were out at the track, the Fair and Industrious Trudy and I. And we gazed at them, Venus and Jupiter. They made a line segment in the sky. Brilliant Venus on the left. Jupiter on the right. A horizontal line segment in the truest sense.

I just wanted to ask you about that. If you’d seen it. It was something.

Amazing Grace

Saturday, 27 Jun 2015, 07:42 UTC

Several years ago, I sat around a table in the evening with some of the most important people in my life. The incandescent light of the place glowed on our faces as it has so many evenings over the years.

I was talking about an uncertain job and a desire to teach. My cousin was trying to convince me to take the jump. “We have to get you to do this,” she said. But as we talked, I must have said something that revealed a bit of my worldview, my pessimism and cynicism. Because other cousin’s son looked at over me with wide eyes and said, “But David, you’d never be able to tell the children that!”

It was true. And I never took that jump, which is probably just as well, because I am deeply cynical and unforgivingly negative about the system of this world.

But this week. Oh my heavens, this week. The supremes several times spoke in ways that I never would have dared hope for. And there’s talk of the battle flag coming down from some of its many perches in the south. And the president stood before a full Mother Emmanuel congregation and gave an amazing eulogy.

He spoke with no teleprompter. He spoke with and nodded to and smiled at those around him. He spoke his words that made even a cynic stop and listen. He spoke amazing words. 

And at the end… At the end of those words he paused and gazed at his hands on the podium. He stood there quietly for a moment and then several moments longer. Quiet filled the sanctuary. And then he slowly looked up, and he began to sing.

The President of the United States of America stood in front of them, in front of us, and he began to sing Amazing Grace (video).

It was enough to bring tears to the eyes of even this cynical wretch.

The Rains We Had

Wednesday, 03 Jun 2015, 22:49 UTC

1. Baling Water

In the morning on one of those days, between the rains of the night before and the rains there were about to come, the fair and industrious Trudy and I stood beside the galvanized tub in the backyard where our leeks and watermelons grow, baling. We took plastic cups, the two of us, and baled the two inches of water from the top of the soil in that tub, soil that was so saturated that the water would not drain out of the leaky bottom.

The tomatoes plants had given up blooming. And the cucumbers. And the Engelmann Daisies And the Coreopsis. Trudy picked a couple of the leeks to put them out of their misery.

We stood there in the morning in our work clothes picking leeks and baling water out of the galvanized tub.

In comparison to the death and destruction wrought on poor souls just south of here, it was of course less than nothing.

3. French Drain

On one of those rainy days, as the water fell from the sky in torrents, I stood at the front door and watched the water run down the gravel of a french drain we put in a couple years ago.

It’s something I’ve taken a liking to when it rains hard: watching the water begin to run across the stones and disappear down into them where the perforated pipe lies hidden. Many days of digging and shoveling went into that, and confess that I find some pleasure in seeing it work.

So I stood there as sheets of rain swept across the street and the gutters filled faster than the downspouts could empty them. And I watched the running water sink into the stones until the pipe would take no more and the stones turned into a creek of water rushing around the corner of the house.

I took a picture of that moment and sent it to my brother, to which he replied, “Wow.” And the rushing creek got deeper. And it got deeper. And still the rains kept coming. 

I went into the garage to see if the water was starting to creep under the door. It had come in about a foot.

And just then, the rain let up for a moment. For a few moments. But long enough for the rushing water to go around the corner of the house. Long enough for the water to recede back out from under the garage door.

And as a measure of our fortune if view of so much misfortune around us in those days, that was as bad as it got for us.

2. The Fallacy of Linear Extrapolation

A year ago by now, the heat was upon us. We had long since given up on the hope of more than a handful of tomatoes because of the heat. The daytime temperatures were already consistently climbing into the mid nineties, and the nighttimes were no longer cool enough for fruit to set.

The ground underfoot was as hard as rock.

Heck, less than a month ago, I extrapolated linearly on the wonderful rainfall we had had. And I quipped sarcastically that we only needed that wonder to continue apace for another year and a half in order to restore the water to Lake Travis.

But feast your eyes on this snapshot of the lake levels:


You might guess from that plot which regime I was extrapolating from. 


Trees and Toads and Roaches

Sunday, 17 May 2015, 20:00 UTC


The rain continued to fall, today. Hours of it. Delicious hours of it. Half the day. Delicious. At least the trees are likely of that opinion.

On the other hand, our neighbors a block down the street might see it differently. Runoff there tends to course down the center of their block, racing thru backyards on days like this, assaulting patio doors and flowing out the front if they’re not careful to construct passive (and active) waterworks to divert the torrent.

And Bill across the street probably doesn’t see it as deliciously as the trees, either, as the saturated ground forced us to call off our planned posthole-digging, fence-moving party today.

But the trees. (And it really is always about the trees, isn’t it?) The trees must find the rain that we’ve had to be a relief from the brutal drought of the last many years.


Bang. Slap! BANG!

A loud slapping-swatting sound came from down the hall.

“Oh, oh,” I said. 

I heard a mumble come from the fair and industrious Trudy and the sound of triumphant footsteps crossing the living room floor.

“Was that what I think it was?”

Another mumble. “Yes…”

Then from the dining room, she added, “I don’t understand why those big roaches won’t just stay outside.”

Probably because they are fleeing the rain the trees find to be so delicious And probably because they are fleeing the toads whose song we can hear out back at this very moment.


Friday, 15 May 2015, 21:34 UTC

Oh you’re gonna miss me baby
And I’ll be so far away
Oh you’re gonna miss me baby
And I’ll be so far away


Lake Levels

Wednesday, 13 May 2015, 19:40 UTC

It has been raining, of late. The tomatoes and the cucumbers and the peppers and watermelon and grass and trees and weeds are celebrating with a showy show — green, the likes of which we haven’t seen in many years.

According the the Lower Colorado River Authority, two weeks ago, 14 days precisely at this very minute, the Lake Travis lake level was 629.48 feet above sea level. At the moment, it is 630.54 feet. That’s a lake level rise of one foot. One foot in 14 days!

But here’s the thing of it. The historical average level for Lake Travis is 670.47 feet above sea level.

Let’s see, at the current rate of one foot in 14 days, let’s call that two feet per month, we only need it to continue raining as it has been for another … 20 months. 

Non-stop rainy, drizzly, stormy days for a year and a half. That’s all we need.

A Long Time Ago

Wednesday, 13 May 2015, 04:47 UTC

Ranga and I work together. I’m an engineer on the project. He’s a product manager. We had just ordered our lunch and were standing there looking at all the soups on the menu. We spoke about our plans for a week-long company event in the summer.

He is going up the weekend before. I am staying the weekend after, meeting the fair and industrious Trudy afterwards for a trip to Assateague Island to see the ponies.

“I went up there with a friend once in the summer,” I said. “I was a summer intern. It was 1981.”

His eyes widened. “Wow!” He emphasized the w’s when he said it.

I looked over at him. “What, wow?” I asked.

“That was a long time ago.”

I looked down for a moment, lost maybe in a reverie. Then I looked up. “Yes, it was a long time ago,” I conceded.

“I wasn’t born yet,” he said.

It doesn’t seem that long ago. But I guess it was.

Country Dogs

Tuesday, 12 May 2015, 00:48 UTC

Outside it was cool and crisp. There was a slight breeze blowing. We took the dogs for a walk.

We took them for a walk into the night. Into the fresh air washed clean from the rains of the day. Down the block. Over to a vacant field where the wildflowers have been left to grow. To where the grass is high. Into the wild.

To say that Miss Izzy and Mr. Guinness live lives of leisure does not quite capture the reality of it.  During the day when we are at work, they can wander in and out of a doggie door. Out into the backyard and back into the house where they certainly nap in luxury most of the day. Out into the hot sun and then back into the cool house when they’ve had enough. But of course like any dogs, at the end of the day, they are eager to go out beyond borders of their little Eden, out into the wild.

For us this night, the wild was was not very far away. Just down and over a couple blocks. To a vacant lot where the grass is long and the wildflowers grow. Along the edge of a soccer field, on a path well-worn by soccer moms and soccer dads and soccer kids. Not all that wild after all, but wild enough for Izzy and Guinness.

They were pulling at their leashes. They were enjoying the cool and crisp, enjoying the breeze. Izzy stopped and raised her head. She gazed into the vacant lot, peering over the long grass at shadows in the distance. 

“Ok, miss Izzy. Let’s go,” I said, stepping off the sidewalk into the grass and the wildflowers.

She leapt off the sidewalk following me, bounding over the grass the was over her head. Bounding once. Bounding twice. Keeping her head up. Bounding thrice. And with that third bound, she decided that she’d had enough. She stopped and pulled me back to where we had come from, where the grass and the weeds wouldn’t scratch at her belly. Back from that little bit of wild. Back to the sidewalk, where Guinness patiently awaited her return.

He had no interest in the grass or the wildflowers or the shadows in the distance. And now, neither did she.

Because you see… we don’t have country dogs.

Night Thoughts

Monday, 11 May 2015, 00:31 UTC

Something woke me up. 

In the dark, in the bed, I turned over. But at that moment, the same thing that woke me up must have startled Izzy, because she woofed once and that started barking loudly as she ran out into the living room, barking madly thru the screen door at something in the backyard.

The fair and industrious Trudy got out of bed and settled her down, sliding the glass patio door shut so that Izzy’s alarm might not wake the entire neighborhood as it had us.

But that was two hours ago. Guinness has settled down in the living room. Izzy is quiet now, curled up somewhere at the foot of the bed. Trudy sleeps motionless beside me. And I am here, wide awake, unable to turn my brain back into off.

They’re going to build another highway, another bridge over the river towering over the existing one. And the legislature is going to pass a law stripping the city from its ability to regulate (to forbid) plastic grocery bags. And another law allowing concealed weapons on college campuses. 

The east side of the city is gentrifying at a rate that will complete the refashioning of the city, effectively banishing those without significant means to somewhere else, anywhere but inside the city limits where real estate is now only affordable to the upper crust. 

The trail they were going to bring to this neighborhood will bypass us after all, sticking to the other side of the freeway in response to the howls of protest from a vocal handful of loons worried about dangerous others walking and riding nearby. 

I have a code review to do, and I didn’t do it over the weekend. And we have deadlines looming in July that are unlike any deadlines I’ve ever faced before.

My family is gathering in Michigan in the middle of July on precisely that weekend when my company is gathering in Maryland. So I’ll miss the kids as another year passes and they head into middle school.

Ben has talked about changing jobs, which might be a good thing. But he has also talked about moving far away.

The Bermuda grass needs to be pulled in the garden bed in the back. And the Hackberries coming up along the fence. There are fire ants in the pepper plants. The wild blackberries are taking over the beds on the south side of the house. Will our first apple on the apple tree make it? And the two persimmons? There is poison ivy in the new pocket park at the end of the block.

Do I have my running stuff packed for tomorrow? Where is my laptop to take to work? I didn’t pack my lunch. Will the Monterey Oak heal its wound. Will the neighbor’s Walnut tree drop that branch on our power line? Why isn’t the oven broiler working? Will Martin finally get the permit allowing him to replace the patio door at the condo? Should we do the flooring ourselves? Do we need a new circuit if we put new lighting in the ceiling?

In the dark, in the bed, I sit up and fumble for my glasses and walk into the study and begin typing the the keyboard. Because clearly, my brain is not going to turn off.