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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Dirt

Today is Ash Wednesday. For Christians - some Christians, anyway, and specifically I'm thinking of Roman Catholics* - this is a day of somber reflection: it marks the beginning of Lent, a forty day period of self-denial (six days each week, not counting Sundays) leading up to Easter.

Ash Wednesday was a big deal back when I was in Catholic School from kindergarten through eighth grade. Our Ash Wednesday services would take place during the school day. We would march from the school to the church sometime in the mid-morning, sit through Mass, and then line up and get a smudge of ashes - burned palms from the previous year - on our foreheads as the priest grumbled "Remember man, dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return." After we headed back to school we would all laugh at each other's "dirt" for the rest of the day. We weren't supposed to wipe the ash off, or even wash it off before bed. Most of us would come to school the next day with clean foreheads, Usually.

I was in Florida for a Space Shuttle lunch near Ash Wednesday back in the late 1990's. My mom and I found a Catholic Church near Cocoa Beach and went to the Ash Wednesday service there. Later that day we went to a restaurant for lunch. The waitresses kept looking at us strangely, and eventually one of them asked us why we had dirt on out foreheads. We told them, but I think they were still baffled. Throughout the rest of the day, we realized we weren't seeing many people with ashes on their foreheads. I suppose in that part of Florida, Catholics - or maybe Christians in general - are a rare breed.

I went for ashes today after work. The service was packed. The parking lot was filled beyond capacity, to the point that we had to wait for all the cars filling the lanes to pull out before those of us parked in spaces could leave. It was the third of three services today, and the priest pointed out that all of them were well-attended.

Is there a meaning in this beyond tradition, a ritual connecting me to to my own past and to the lives of my parents and grandparents? Is it a time to muse on mortality, to experience a season of self-denial, or to ritually cleanse one's self in preparation for the celebration of Easter?

I don't know. But one thing I can say for sure: Today, I got my "dirt."



*Many Protestant Christians, or "hellbound apostates", don't consider Catholics to be Christians at all. Donald Trump tried to insinuate that Ted Cruz isn't a "real" Christian because his Cuban roots make it more likely he's a Catholic. Go figure.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Bernie vs. Hillary, Clinton vs. Sanders: Fight With Clubs, Round 2

Francisco de Goya, Fight With Clubs. Same mire, different decade.

We're still a while away from the Pennsylvania primary, but who would have thought I could pretty much be recycling a post from 2008?

A few months ago, nobody thought the Democratic Primary process would go on long enough to reach Pennsylvania with more than one viable candidate. Hillary Clinton, the anointed candidate of the party bosses, would certainly by now have ground all of her opponents under foot with the aid of the full strength of the Party machine behind her.

Or: Barack Obama Bernie Sanders, the popular and charismatic upstart from Illinois Vermont, would have ridden a swelling wave of popular support that would have led all of his Democratic rivals to throw in the towel and jump on the bandwagon.

Or: Hillary Clinton, the one candidate certain to energize the Clinton-haters of the far Right, would have been advised by Party leaders to withdraw from the campaign, lest she create a backlash that results in a greater Republican turnout that there would be without her.

Or: ...well, you get the point.
For the record: I will support either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential election. I will do this without reservation. I will not "hold my nose and pull the lever." I believe either of them is a superior candidate to anyone on the Republican roster, and their values align far more closely to mine than any of the Republicans.

I got to see Hillary Clinton up close during the 2008 Primary race. She came to Scranton and spoke to a cheering crowd of thousands who packed a high school gym. And after she spoke there, she came into the auditorium where the overflow crowd - the hundred or so people who couldn't get in to see her but decided to stick around - had been listening to her speech over a PA. When she was done with the huge crowd, she came into the auditorium and spoke to us, just us, for more than a few minutes. It was pretty amazing.

Before I saw her there, I would have said - did say, many times - that Hillary Clinton had the charisma of a jar of pickles. After that experience, though, I was pretty impressed. She didn't have to do what she did. After speaking to a huge crowd, what did our little group matter? But she did speak to us, regardless. It was really something.

There has been an industry of "Hillary Hate" since before her husband became President. You could fill a few shelves just with the books published to attack and smear her. Republicans have been as relentless in trying to destroy her and undermine her credibility as they were, and continue to be, with Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama, or Jimmy Carter.

But some of the very same attacks on Hillary Clinton used by Republicans - including the most specious ones - are now being picked up by Bernie Sanders supporters. Just like in 2008.

And I think it's shaken Hillary. She and some of her big-name supporters have made some serious missteps and have said some seriously unhelpful things, things that have served to alienate Sanders supporters.

If Sanders wins the nomination, I don't know of any Clinton supporters who are planning to sit out the election - or, worse, cast their votes for the Republican candidate. But I do know of Sanders supporters who plan to do these things. If Clinton does get the Democratic nomination, the only way she will win is with the support of the people who are supporting Sanders now. The same is true for Sanders: he cannot win without the support of the people who are currently supporting Clinton.

If the candidates and their respective camps continue to slug away at each other as they have been doing, the inevitable outcome will be a Republican in the White House for another four to eight years. Remember what happened to this country the last time that happened? Does anyone want to see a repeat of the George W. Bush years?



Monday, February 08, 2016

Back to work

...sort of. I've been having a break from eleven hour workdays, but now limited overtime is available again. Worked until 8:34 tonight - it was supposed to be 8:00, but I got stuck on a call. Tomorrow I'm going in for 8:00 AM.

I could have worked from 6:00 PM to 10:00 PM yesterday, but I realized I wanted to watch the Super Bowl. Well, the commercials. And the halftime show. And the Kitten Bowl.

For the record, puppymonkeybaby was very disturbing. ATTENTION FUTURE PEOPLE: Brace yourselves before you look that up.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Solar halo, January 30, 2016

While I was waiting for my friend to pick me up for our trip to Bloomsburg to see Romeo and Juliet, I happened to look up and see...this.


Halos around the Sun aren't that uncommon. They just need the right type of clouds containing the right type of ice crystals to create the effect. Like so many amazing things, we miss them because we don't happen to look in the right place at the right moment.


I moved across the street into the shadow of a utility pole to try to get a better view of the halo. It turns out my phone camera image isn't wide enough to capture the whole thing, at least in portrait mode. And the lower portion of the halo was either unformed or too low to be seen. I have seen fully circular halos in the past, but those have been in late Spring, with the Sun placed much higher in the sky.

Goes to show, you never know what you might see if you just look!

Shakespearean January

A friend and I have been to numerous plays and other events together over the last - geez - ten years. (Well, nine years and five months, but still, that can't be right, can it?) The last thing we went to together was A Midsummer Night's Dream at King's College in Wilkes-Barre in April 2014. In January of this year we made up for that by going to two plays by Shakespeare.

Image from The New Vintage Ensemble Facebook page.

The first was Hamlet, presented by The New Vintage Ensemble at the Scranton Cultural Center. We saw the final performance of the run on the evening of January 16. It was an unusual experience for me, since I knew several of the actors personally; in a way it reminded me of watching my friends appear in plays in college. Conor O'Brien, former proprietor of The Vintage Theater, played the title role, while blogger and NEPA BlogCon co-organizer Mandy Boyle Pennington (who I first met at an event at The Vintage Theater) portrayed the First Player, Osric, and Francisco (the first character to appear in the play). Simone Daniel, who I met several times at The Vintage, took on the role of Horatio, Hamlet's best friend and confidante.

This was the first outing for The New Vintage Ensemble. The story unfolded on a spare stage; costumes ranged from simple to surrealistic. Hamlet runs over four hours when presented in full, but even this somewhat abbreviated version ran close to three. While the performance started off slowly, the action of the story quickly took hold and carried the characters off to their sundry dismal fates. Conor O'Brien made a fine Hamlet, more cunning and clever than the indecisive semi-madman he is usually portrayed. Hamlet was given the line regarding the fates of his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a statement usually delivered by the late-arriving Ambassador from England, whose role - like that of Fortinbras, the Norwegian prince who claims the Danish crown for himself (since no one else is using it) at the end of the play - was eliminated.

On January 30 we went to see the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble's presentation of Romeo and Juliet. We have actually seen a production of Romeo and Juliet previously, in February 2011 at the Weis Center for the Performing Arts at Bucknell University. In that earlier production the action was translated into a conflict between competing early 20th-century organized crime families. This production also brought the action into a more modern setting, one that is recent history now, but was actually an event whose beginning was still seven months in the future when we saw the Bucknell version: the "Occupy" movement of late 2011.

We have seen several performances by the BTE together over the years, including Macbeth (2011), Flood Stories Too (2013), As You Like It (2013), and The Merchant of Venice (2013.) While neither of us know any of the performers personally, we feel like we know the ensemble members from seeing them play different roles in different plays.

Even the theater itself was a character in this production: Upon arriving at the doors you immediately saw notices from the management advising that the pitching of tents, setting up campsites, or any similar activity was strictly prohibited. Going through the doors you entered into a lobby under occupation, with hand-lettered cardboard signs dotted around the tents that filled much of the space. The performance space was immersive, with sets spilling off the stage, the walls covered with more protest signs (incongruously including the hand-drawn logos of the play's corporate sponsors), spectators seated on the stage with the actors, and actors performing throughout the audience, on ladders, and on the catwalk over the stage. Characters wore the garish fashions of four and a half years ago - the Montagues now being protesters in the Occupy movement, and the Capulets representing the Establishment (embodied primarily by ambitious political candidate Lady Capulet.) The Prince, who is fed up with the violence between the two factions, has been distributed over several masked police officers in riot gear, his proclamations announced through a bullhorn. Invitations are written on iPads, messages are sent by text, and Romeo's misplaced cell phone spells disaster

This was a very engaging and energetic production, bringing new life to a play that for many has been done to death from high school on. Strangely enough, while the "Occupy" theme of the play seemed remote, almost more like something from the early 1970's than the early 2010's, the positioning of Lady Capulet as an ambitious politician, particularly one in conflict with a movement composed of idealistic youths, opened the possibility of another interpretation. The story was basically one step away from being in the here and now, portraying a conflict between the "establishment" supporters of Hillary Clinton and the "progressive" supporters of Bernie Sanders.

One missed opportunity was the complexity of the character of Mercutio. Mercutio was, as usual, portrayed as the closest friend of Romeo. Yet Mercutio is neither Montague nor Capulet; he is instead a relative of the Prince, and as such can move relatively freely among both sides of the conflict. He can also defy the Prince's orders with some degree of impunity. In the context of this production, Mercutio, excellently and playfully played here, is solidly with the protesters. But his (in this case, her) connection to the Prince in the original would translate into a connection to the riot-geared police in this version - an interesting complication that was not touched upon.

Perhaps the "Occupy" theme was carried a bit too far. There were no programs or playbills provided with cast lists or production notes - nor, as far as I can tell, is this information available at any official site. Instead, audience members were provided with double-sided hand-drawn photocopied sheets, with instructions given by a member of the cast on how to fold them into a matchbook-sized booklet. Unfortunately, this booklet contains very little useful information, and is pretty much just a souvenir of the play. (I was able to glean a partial cast list from several newspaper reviews published online.)

As the actors mingled with the audience before the play I noticed one young lady in a long green dress, and wondered what role she would perform. When the play began she took her place on a riser above the main stage. While she did speak some lines at the beginning of the play - chiding the minions of the Montagues and Capulets squabbling in the street, just before the forces of the Prince show up - it turned out that her role was to provide the music for the play, singing, playing guitar and keyboard, as well as both body and cardboard box percussion. Her voice had a lush, rich, haunting quality to it that reminded me most of Colbie Caillat. (Others have compared her to Norah Jones.) Later in the play the actors who had portrayed the by-then-deceased Mercutio, Tybalt, and a few others joined their voices to hers on her song "Man in Black" as the story spiraled to a tragic conclusion. Her musicianship was remarkable almost to the point of being distracting: I realized I was paying more attention to her singing than I was to the action of the play.

Image from CDBaby.com

Her name, I learned after the show, is Sydney Panikkar, and she is just fifteen years old - remarkably young, it seemed to me, to be so deeply involved in this production, though I realized later how ironic this is, since the titular characters of the story are only thirteen or fourteen years old. She does not have a website for her music yet, though she does have an online presence through Twitter and Instagram, as well as a YouTube page. She also has her music available for sale at the CDBaby.com website, where you can download one song at a time or her entire album, "The Perfection in Imperfection."  (Per the site it is available as a download only, but her representatives had physical copies for sale after the play.) She is a talented and promising young musician, and I hope we will be hearing more from her in the future.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Another Monkey Consumer Price Index, 2/2/2016

It's been nearly six years since I've done one of these. Click here to see the last Another Monkey Consumer Price Index post for a single point comparison, or click here to see all my AMCPI posts.

Groceries purchased at Weis, 1 Weis Plaza, Nanticoke PA
(only staple items listed)

2% milk, Weis, half gallon: $1.59
Loaf of Maiers Seeded Italian bread: $3.99*
3 lb. bag McIntosh apples: $4.99*
1 dozen large eggs, Weis: $2.59
1.06 lbs. American cheese: $5.29

*bought on sale

Most recently observed price of gallon of gasoline, 87 octane:

Sam's Club, Wilkes-Barre Township $1.85
Sunoco, Sans Souci Highway, Hanover Township: $1.94


Selected exchange rates for 2/7/2016, per xe.com

$1.00 =

0.896142 EUR (Euro)
0.689551 GBP (Great Britain Pound)
67.8797 INR (Indian Rupee)
1.41538 AUD (Australian Dollar)
1.39153 CAD (Canadian Dollar)
116.832 JPY (Japanese Yen)
8.58954 NOK (Norwegian Krone)
77.6146 RUB (Russian Ruble)
6.57315 CNY (Chinese Yuan Renminbi)

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Alpaca in the Sun, November 15, 2015

I've realized I have a lot of untold stories to share - or in this case, a story I shared on Facebook but not here. Time to correct that.

Sunday, November 15, 2015. An old college friend had come up to visit. We had taken a quick ride up to our alma mater, the University of Scranton. I gave him a driving tour of the city and pointed out the changes that had taken place in the twenty-six years since we had graduated. We stopped at a Chinese buffet for lunch, and then tried to think up something fun to do. I suggested taking a ride out to The Lands at Hillside Farms. This little hidden gem in Shavertown, PA is a working dairy farm that also houses conventional farm animals along with some more exotic types, like alpacas.


I find alpacas serenely beautiful, with their thick wooly coats and their faces that seem to display a lack of concern for anyjing happening around them. I was glad I had brought my camera along, since the setting sun provided beautiful backlighting for a the animals, particularly outlining the white alpaca with a brilliant glow.

It was only when I looked at the picture more closely that I realized the sun was also brilliantly highlighting a line of urine being sprayed by the white alpaca.


So, yeah, alpacas.

Hillside Farms was a lot of fun. If you find yourself in Northeastern Pennsylvania, especially in the Back Mountain area near Dallas, check it out!

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Seven days of nature photos, day 7: The Rainbow Bridge


For the last photo in this series, I've chosen a rainbow.

Why this image? I've got lots of pictures of rainbows; this isn't one of the better ones. It's dim, it's only a partial arc, you can't make out any secondary bows. Why this rainbow?

I wanted to pick for my last image something that wasn't just beautiful, but was also recent, and held some meaning for me. Recent nature photos posted to my blog were hard to find. I found myself considering just grasping at something: snow on roses, a pseudoscorpion, a landscape from Ireland.

Then I remembered this rainbow, and its significance. How it appeared over our late neighbor's house just hours after I had accompanied her dog, a dog we had taken care of four four years, to the vet's one last time, to see him off and hold him and hug him as the doctor injected the drugs that would slow his breathing and stop his heart. And there, over his old house, a rainbow that seemed to start at the roof and end in the sky.

I figured this was as good a place as any to end my seven days of nature photos. I hope you enjoyed these posts. Thank you for reading them.

The original post, from July 1, 2015, can be found here.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Seven days of nature photos, day 6: Clouds

And this is the point where I began to understand the reason for this exercise.


I wanted to add a cloud photo to the list. I've always been fascinated by clouds. Clouds are a lot like fire: constantly changing, never appearing the same to two people even if they view it at the same time. No one else is seeing the same thing, and no one else will ever again see the same thing - including you. Once this moment has passed, the cloud you are viewing will be gone forever.

I've taken a lot of pictures of clouds over the years, and I've included some of them on this blog. At least, I did in the early years. In the last few years my blogging has slacked off. In part it's been because I've been extremely busy. Which is sad and ironic: At the time I've been having more things going on in my life than in a long time, I've had the least time to keep a record of those things on my blog. And the place I have been keeping a record, Facebook, I have always considered to be an ephemeral platform, owned and regulated by someone with their own business reasons for doing things. It's Mark Zuckerberg's playground, he's just letting us use it for the moment.

I scrolled through thousands of blog entries looking for interesting pictures of clouds, and realized I hadn't labeled them in a way that would make them easy to pull out. So I created a new label, Clouds, and started labeling old posts with it. I realized then that I had lots of recent cloud posts that I've posted to Facebook but never posted to my blog. Indeed, I hadn't posted much of anything to my blog for the last few years.

When I was presented with this challenge, my friend specifically suggested pulling the photos from blog posts. I think he was actually trying to encourage me to take a look at my blog, see what it used to be, and see how much effort it would take to start posting to it regularly again.

Maybe it's done the trick. There are new blog posts pressing at me now, wanting to get out. Maybe I will start blogging on a regular basis again.

The image above is a sunrise over Nanticoke on October 20, 2005. The original post can be found here.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Seven days of nature photos, day 5: Ants, locked in combat


For day five of the seven day nature photo challenge, I'm doing something a little different. My photos so far have focused on beautiful aspects of nature that are easy to overlook, sun pillars and the shadow of the Earth, an Ambush Bug hiding in a rose and a Full Moon emerging from a cloud bank. This photo is also something easily overlooked, but not quite so beautiful. A great ant battle, hundreds of ants locked mandible to mandible, the dead and dying all around. Why was it happening? I have no idea. I just happened to witness it, and just happened to have a camera on hand.

The original post, from April 23 2007, can be found here.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Seven days of nature photos, day 4: Moonrise over the Susquehanna


Of course I had to include a Moon photo in this series. It was hard to decide on which one to post. Ever since I got my new camera back in 2014, a camera that allowed me to take decent photos of the Moon for the first time, the Moon has been my favorite photographic subject. I even created a whole blog dedicated to it.

This particular photo was part of a larger effort. It was taken September 27, 2015, the night of a total lunar eclipse. I set myself up on the Nanticoke-West Nanticoke bridge, in a location near to where I photographed the shadow of the Earth, hoping to photograph the full Moon rising. I was thwarted by a thick layer of clouds, but eventually the Moon broke through and I got this and many other photos.

Compare the reflection of the Moon on the water to the shape of the sun pillar featured in a previous photo in this series. The Moon's image is being reflected by the surface of the water, while the light of the Sun, still below the horizon, is being reflected by ice crystals in the air.

The original of this photo, as well as the story of what went into getting it, can be found here.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Seven nature photos, day 3: The shadow of the Earth


Like yesterday's entry, the shadow of the Earth is a not-very-rare phenomenon that is nevertheless seldom seen. It is visible on pretty much any relatively clear day just before sunrise or just after sunset. The trick is, it's on the side of the sky opposite the sun. So you need to have the sunrise or sunset at your back to see this. As a bonus, just above the shadow of the Earth you will see a bright pink glow known as the Belt of Venus - the reflected light of all of the sunrises or sunsets taking place just below the opposite horizon!

Like yesterday's Sun Pillar, the shadow of the Earth and the Belt of Venus are featured prominently in a short story I've written - as is the bridge from which these pictures were taken. See the full entry from which this picture was taken - including photos of the bridge itself, and Venus at play in its girders - here.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Seven nature photos, day 2: The Sun Pillar


This second photo is from a post dated April 23, 2006, but was actually taken May 10, 2005, making it more than four months older than yesterday's image. A sun pillar is an amazing and beautiful optical phenomenon, not especially rare, and visible shortly before sunrise and shortly after sunset when the conditions are just right. I have woven a short story around a sun pillar, among other things. And, as always, there was more going on here than just what's in the photo: This was taken during a walk with my dog Haley, who would die of lung cancer just two weeks later. You can read all about it in Untold Tales: The Sun Pillar.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Seven nature photos, day 1: The Lurker in the Roses

A friend on Facebook has invited me to take part in an online exercise, to post seven nature photos in seven days. This is an easy enough challenge, but he further suggested that I do it using photos from posts on my blog.

I decided to take up this challenge, starting with my earliest posts and working my way forward. I was a little surprised to find that very few of the 172 posts from 2004, my first year of blogging, contained any nature photos. 2005 did a bit better, and I found myself with several candidate posts.

I selected this image:



It's a simple enough photo of a rose from the Royal Highness bush I had planted a few years earlier, back in the late summer of 2001. But it was taken on the day my father died, so there's a story that goes with it. And there's a surprise hidden in the image, something I had never seen before, and have never seen since. You can read all about it in my original post, The Lurker in the Roses, from August 30, 2005.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Writers' Showcase, February 27, 2016

On Saturday, February 27 I will be one of the featured readers at the Winter edition of the Writers' Showcase. It will take place at The Old Brick Theatre, 126 W Market Street in Scranton, Pennsylvania from 7:00 PM - 9:00 PM. Admission is $4.00. Readings will include poetry and prose. I will be debuting a brand-new poem that night. Come on out and see (and hear) us!

poster by Alicia Grega
Facebook event page for The Writers' Showcase Winter Edition
Facebook page for The Writers' Showcase

Sunday, January 24, 2016

All Winter in a Day

This past December was exceptionally mild to the point of being warm, on par with the rest of 2015, which was the warmest year on record. Some plants broke their dormancy and started to bud out. Critters that should have been hibernating were out and about. Even some insects flitted around, doing whatever it is that they do.

Christmas Eve was exceptionally warm, but the warm spell didn't last much into the new year. More seasonable temperatures inflicted themselves upon Northeastern Pennsylvania by mid-January, causing much grumbling.

Early in the third week of the month meteorologists were calling for a weekend storm. "Too soon to call," said some. "Not sure how much, but something is sure to happen," said others. "PANIC!" cried others, and the people panicked.

For some people, panic was a smart move.

The storm crawled its way across the country, building strength, drawing moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. It hit the South first, disrupting air traffic on Thursday in places like Raleigh and Charlotte before gathering more moisture from the Atlantic and looping back in a clockwise Nor'easter punch aimed at the Mid-Atlantic seaboard.

By midday on Friday, January 22, meteorologists had a pretty good idea of what the storm would look like for Northeastern Pennsylvania. It would hit that evening and drop light snow overnight, with the heaviest precipitation on Saturday. The snow accumulation would have a sharp gradient in diagonal bands stretching from the northeast to the southwest; the farther to the south and west east , generally speaking, the more snow you would get.

And so it happened.

Scranton got from a dusting to an inch and a half. Williamsport, where a friend had just had a baby, got nothing. Nanticoke received between four and six inches. Hazleton got over a foot.

The worst of the storm seemed reserved for major communities closer to the ocean, though it may simply be those places that are getting the most coverage. Washington, D.C., already crippled by their lack of preparedness for the light snow that fell on Friday, was buried under and paralyzed by about two feet of snow, as were Baltimore, and Philadelphia, and New York, which had been expected to be spared the worst of it and instead received near-record accumulations. Even Boston, for which some forecasts had been predicting zero inches, got a sizable accumulation. Stone Harbor, New Jersey, where I have vacationed in the past, received extensive flooding from the "Back Bay" - a result of a low pressure-induced "storm surge" coupled with a Full Moon-strengthened high tide.

Not that smaller communities haven't been affected. They have. A man near Lancaster died in his running car, half-buried in snow, where he was either taking a break from shoveling or trying to warm the car up to get it free. It was buried by a passing plow, trapping him inside. He apparently died of carbon monoxide poisoning, which I suppose is marginally better than suffocating or freezing to death.

Is this it for Winter? Here in Northeastern Pennsylvania we have had some of our worst snowstorms later in the season, including and particularly the Valentine's Day storm of 2007. There are some rumblings of another storm lining up for later in the week.

I suppose we will just have to wait and see, and keep a good supply of milk, bread, and eggs on hand. Just in case.


Sunday, January 10, 2016

Christmas Eve 2015

It's easy to forget about the weather, to think of it only in the context of the moment. Today, January 10, 2016, was gray, clammy, and rainy, not too cold, not too warm - until a brief, windy rainstorm blew through around 5:00 in the afternoon. But last week, briefly, it was cold.

The Winter of 2015-2016 has so far been a sharp contrast to the last two Winters, and even that memory is misleading; neither of those Winters was particularly cold until later in the season, though once the temperatures dropped, they stayed in the bone-shatteringly cold range. The deep freezes of late 2013 and early 2014 were the first in several years, meaning that water that had seeped into cracks in roadways over the previous few years froze all at once, causing three or four years of potholes to emerge in a matter of days. In early 2015, the snows that fell fairly regularly were not particularly heavy, but the snow never melted between snowfalls. While it was easy to shovel the sidewalks after any one snowfall, the snow on the sides of the sidewalks just piled higher and higher.

December 2015 was the warmest on record in Northeastern Pennsylvania. So much so that when I pulled up at my brother's house after work on Christmas Eve for our Vigil Supper, no coat was required.

Christmas Eve 2015 featured a Full Moon. When I arrived at my brother's house I pulled out my camera and grabbed a few shots of the cloud-shrouded Moon rising through the trees.



What used to be "Midnight Mass" was held at my church at 10:00 PM on Christmas Eve. Parishioners used to wearing winter coats in church filled the pews in shirtsleeves. Stepping out after Mass brought some relief - temperatures by then had plummeted into the low 50's and I took the opportunity to try to grab some shots of the Full Moon over the church. This turned out to be a bit of a challenge: the Moon was still wrapped in thin clouds, while the church was surrounded by bright lights. Properly exposing the Moon might mean underexposing the church, while any attempts to get much of the church resulted in all sorts of glare. In the end I settled for two compromise shots. 


Here the overexposed Moon can be seen directly over Orion. I didn't notice Orion when I first took the image, and would not have tought it visible through the clouds.The green orb in the lower left is an internal reflection.


This is a more zoomed-out image, which unexpectedly caught my Mom coming out of the church. (She had assumed I was on my way to the back parking lot to get the car and pick her up in front of the church.) Behind her the lone altar server emerges. She promptly ran up to her parents to let them know how hot she had been!

The warm Christmas Eve was a strange experience, and not entirely unpleasant, though it left everyone with a sense of a world seriously out of whack. The Full Moon was just a nice added touch. What will future Christmas Eves be like? Was this an anomaly, or a new normal?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Ten years of The Littlest Turkey!

While posting it to Facebook last night, I realized my silly little Thanksgiving story is ten years old! Enjoy, and be sure to share it with the kids!

The Littlest Turkey (complete in one post)

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Two poems from 1990, Newark, Delaware

I attended the Writers' Showcase at the Old Brick Theatre in Scranton last night. While I enjoyed all of the featured poets - especially Maggie Glbertson, whose poetry was as always incredibly brave and powerful - I was inspired by the autobiographical narrative poetry of Ali Pica to tell some stories from my own past using the medium of poetry. I thought of two stories I wanted to tell - one, an incident in my apartment in Newark, Delaware in the summer of 1990, and another, a description of working in a TV faceplate factory in the summers of my college years.

I sat down today to write these out, but a third poem came out, based on something I thought about one day while working at AstroPower, a solar cell manufacturer (which today would be termed a "startup" company) that I signed on with after my single, disastrous semester of grad work at the University of Delaware.

I finally did write out one of the other poems. So here they are! First, or at least early, drafts of them.

(By the way: I will be one of the featured readers at the February 27, 2016 edition of the Writers' Showcase! Be there if you can!)

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Coffee for roses

the dead go into the pile
leaves and blades of grass
eggshells and vegetable scraps
rotten fruit from the crisper

lobster tails from a New Year's feast
coffee grounds from breakfasts shared
the dried-out husks of a bouquet of flowers
from back when the world was a little bit brighter
back when the smiles came a little bit easier

all go in the pile

bacteria have their way
heat builds, killing seeds
air and water feed the decay
memories consumed by slow fire

and when it is done
when the past has been reduced to small black crumbs
I will take it from the pile
work it into the soil
and plant next year's garden


The ants of Newark, Delaware

When I was renting a room in a townhouse
in Newark, Delaware in the summer of 1990
our kitchen was invaded by ants
a small army of then, little brown things
marching in a line from the back yard
across the concrete patio
through the track of our sliding glass door
across the 70's-era linoleum
up the wooden counter
across the formica counter top
and up the wall into our cabinets

I found them fascinating, and wanted to study them
one housemate wanted to eradicate them
another wanted to deter them gently,
break their trail with peppermint oil
(she was a bit of a hippie, but had a cute girlfriend)

We tried her idea. It didn't work.
Neither did vinegar, or bleach, or baking soda.
The ants kept marching, undeterred by our efforts to protect our food
I stopped being fascinated when I found that they
had worked their way into the threads of a jar of peanut butter
and into the peanut butter itself

I rode off to the supermarket and bought three different types of ant traps
three different brands, in case the ants found one or another unappealing
I placed them every few feet along their track
not just in the house, but outside as well, along the concrete patio,
along the trail that led to the lawn

They didn't work, at first. The ants walked around them, or over them,
unwilling to take the bait
and carry it off to the nest
to poison their queen
and all the other ants

And then, after three days, no more ants.
The ants were gone. Stopped. Dead? I wasn't sure.
But they weren't in our kitchen anymore,
weren't raiding our pantry anymore
weren't getting into my peanut butter anymore

I left the traps out for a few more days
then brought in the ones from outside, before they got rained on
I picked up one and wondered if it had worked
or if the ants had suddenly lost interest and moved on

when I saw that the holes were plugged
with little slivers of plants, no bigger than sawdust
bits of grass or bark or stems
cut and carried from somewhere
carried to the ant trap, the little puck with holes in the sides
filled with poison bait for the ants to carry back to the colony
did they know that this was why they were dying?
did they realize that this was the source of their doom?
did they seal it off in an attempt to save themselves?

Did it work?
Did the poison kill the queen and the entire colony?
Did they seal up the trap and move on?

I never found out. I threw out the trap, washed my hands,
and checked the peanut butter for ants.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Facebook and the November 13, 2015 Paris attack aftermath


I didn't change my Facebook profile picture to the rainbow image back when the Supreme Court made its historic decision to end anti-homosexual discrimination in marriage. I thought it was too trendy, too bandwagon-y. What would I be saying? "Look at me, I am on the side of right, if you disagree you are wrong"? Yeah, pretty much. Even so, I chose not to change it.

After the November 13, 2015 terrorist attack in France, things were different. An indisputably evil act had been done, an assault on random civilians enjoying the benefits of a free society. One of many, to be sure, and not the only one that week. But Facebook again gave the ability to do a profile image overlay, and this time I chose to participate.

ISIS / ISIL / DAESH / fuck those guys, whatever is a barbarous and evil organization that practices a twisted fundamentalist version of Islam. But at the same time they are sophisticated and media-savvy, with slickly-produced recruitment videos, a nicely-put-together magazine featuring a column written by a captive British journalist, and a strong social media presence.

There's not a hell of a lot you or I can do to stop them, short of not joining them and convincing others to not join them. (Carpet-bombing them into the Stone Age might be as effective as it was in North Vietnam, and sending in troops is exactly what they want.) But Facebook's profile image overlay of the French flag gave users a chance to send a message. Not just a message of support for the people of France, but a message to the terrorists. A wall of people from all around the world standing shoulder to shoulder, middle fingers raised, saying "FUCK YOU" with one voice.

It didn't last.

Almost immediately there came the point-and-laugh brigade. "Haha, what do you stupid assholes think you're doing? Y'all ain't doin' shit!" At the same time, Facebook had made this into a temporary option: at the time you modified your profile picture, you could also specify a date when the image would revert. (There were rumors that the rainbow flag image was a social media experiment to see how long users would keep it up, and - probably - under what circumstances they would take it down.)

And then some of the images began being replaced with a new image, mocking the original idea, suggesting that anyone who thought they were helping or changing anything by changing their profile picture was an idiot.


And now, a week after the attacks, most of the images are gone. Taken down, or timed out. Politicians are taking strong and resolute stands about cowering in fear from not just the terrorists, but from anyone who is trying to flee the terrorists, on the assumption that these people might also possibly maybe perhaps have amongst their number a terrorist posing as a refugee. The leading candidate to be the Republican 2016 Presidential nominee is agreeing that registration and monitoring of Muslims is a good idea, while Rhode Island state Senator suggests that the U.S. needs to segregate - or, should we say, concentrate - Syrian refugees into camps.

I don't know where this is going. Maybe in a little while it will be as forgotten as the events of last year. I just wanted to put this out there as a reminder of the events of November 13, 2015, and the way some people chose to respond.