Saturday, June 26, 2021

A long time between readings

Eighteen months.

The last time I went out to an event of any sort was Saturday, February 22, 2020. That was the final edition of the Writers' Showcase, held at the Olde Brick Theatre (a.k.a. the Diva Theater) in Scranton, PA. It was an unusual event, to say the least: the founder and co-host of the event was not there; neither, apparently, were the owners/operators of the venue, since the doors were locked and the lights were out. But the other host was there, as were the readers, and a small audience. So we held the event anyway, in the back parking lot of the theater, lit by a sodium vapor light and the stars glowing in a clear, crisp Winter sky, including a recently-dimmed Betelgeuse. (Betelgeuse, an irregularly variable star, had plunged to a dimness never before observed, leading some to speculate that it was about to undergo the supernova explosion waiting at the end of its life. We didn't realize it at the time, but Betelgeuse was already brightening that night; analysis suggests that the dimming was caused by the alignment of an orbiting dust cloud.) The night was cold, the crowd was small, and the threat of the incursion of the COVID-19 virus, which at that point had been spreading rapidly through New York City and Philadelphia and major port cities on the West coast, hung over us - had anyone been to New York or Philadelphia lately? But it was a successful and very enjoyable event.

Eighteen months. One election, one insurrection, over 600,000 people in the U.S. dead of COVID-19 later.

The Blackwatch Cafe was supposed to open before the pandemic hit, but COVID-19 has had a way of messing up everybody's plans. Instead it opened in late April 2021. It is on the grounds of Nay Aug Park in Scranton, in a beautiful stone structure that looks like it might once have served as a guard house of some sort - but was in fact originally the women's lavatory. The poetry reading was conceived just a few weeks before it was held there, after a chance visit to the new coffee shop by poets Michael Czarnecki and Tamar Samuel-Siegel.

Michael and Tamar were the featured poets, and nine additional poets read as well. The event was held on June 19, 2021 - Juneteenth, the first officially recognized Juneteenth in the United States. But it also happened to be the last day of Spring. I read "Springtime by the Numbers," which I had originally written (and read) on the last day of Spring in 2013.


Michael Czarnecki

Tamar Samuel-Siegel

Event flyer

In contrast to the February 22, 2020 event - cold, possibly below freezing, though no one seemed particularly uncomfortable during the hour-and-change that we all stood outside under the stars - the weather for the June 19, 2021 event was absolutely beautiful, with lots of sunshine and cool breezes, some possibly brought on by the helicopter which flew over us several times and landed in the park about a hundred yards away. After the event was over but while a few stragglers were still hanging out at the now-closed coffeeshop, a gentle rain began to fall.

It was the first reading at the Blackwatch Cafe, but perhaps just the first of many more to come. Gradually, other venues will reopen and re-establish their regular readings and open mics. 

The last Writers' Showcase in the parking lot of the
Olde Brick Theatre, Scranton, February 22, 2020


New cases of COVID-19 in the United States continue to fall. They have actually fallen to such a level that a linear y-axis is becoming less and less useful. Switching to a logarithmic scale for the y-axis makes the current downward trend more visible. Cases are now at a level not seen since the fourth week of March 2020.

The Writers' Showcase event mentioned above took place on February 22, 2020 - a date that doesn't even show up on the graphs here, which I have chosen to start on March 1, 2020. At that point the disease was spreading rapidly, but the mass dying hadn't started yet. Things would get very bad very quickly, and then get worse, and worse, and worse. 

Saturday, June 19, 2021

In the Year of Brood X, 2021


Cicada on my cherry tree, June 19, 2021

I have been blogging for seventeen years. My first "official" blog post was May 14, 2004 - there had been another post a few days earlier that just said "Coming soon - Another Monkey with a blog!", but I deleted that after I officially started my blog. 2004 was a Brood X year, another year in which the Brood X cicadas emerge during the final stages of their seventeen-year cycle, and they were the subject of my twenty-fifth blog post on June 9, 2004. The cicada eggs that were laid that year grew up to be the cicadas of this year.

(I was in college during the previous Brood X cycle in 1987, and spent that summer at the TV faceplate factory in Pittston where my father worked. I remember cicadas thudding off the windshield of our car as we made the commute to work. I was two years old during the Brood X emergence before that one, and don't have any memories of it.)

I have been hearing cicadas for the past few weeks around Nanticoke, but had only seen a single one (flying near the top of one of my cherry trees) up until yesterday. The cicadas seem to be concentrated in the area alongside Route 29 on the east side of town, although there are also some along Middle Road to the south and possibly some along the river flats to the north. In large numbers they emit a sound that sounds exactly like one of the dozen or so sound effects that were used for phasers in the original TV series of Star Trek. Individually they sound like an electric drill being used in short bursts, to the point that many people assume that this is what they are hearing: some rude and thoughtless neighbor using power tools at all hours of the day and night, over and over.

Yesterday I went for a ride to the Hanover Mall to get some specialized pet food for our fifteen year old cat Babusz, who recently had an incident of odd behavior - she suddenly abandoned her usual hangout spots and went into hiding, choosing to isolate herself in odd areas around the house and refusing to accompany my mom to the bathroom, as was her custom. She did this for about two weeks, and then gradually began to emerge again, spending some of the day in her old usual spot on a rocker near where I work, racing my mom to the bathroom some (but not all) of the time. But since she emerged she has been losing weight. We'll get her to the vet soon, but having lost four cats in the last twelve months I fear the worst. At my sister's recommendation we are trying a new food/treat, Churu by Inaba. She has gradually taken to it. Our grocery store doesn't carry it, by Village Pet Supplies in the Hanover Mall does.

Babusz, July 12, 2020

The Hanover Mall is just the other side of Route 29. When I got there, I stepped out of the car and into the cicada chorus, providing a science fiction-y background to the mundane scenes of people getting out of their cars or loading purchases into their cars. I saw another cicada in the air as I parked the car.

Reports are that cicadas are absent from many areas around Northeastern Pennsylvania where they had been seen seventeen years ago. Development has disrupted and destroyed many of the underground cicada sites, eliminating whole breeding populations. NEPA is at the edge of the Brood X emergence territory, so things can be a bit more iffy here as to whether cicadas will actually show up anywhere. 

Today I went to a poetry reading, the first event I have gone to since February 22, 2020. I stepped out of the house with my Chromebook in its makeshift carrying case and my old-and-getting-older Nikon Coolpix P520. On my way to the car I heard the familiar buzz-flap of cicada wings, and watched a cicada alight on the cherry tree next to me. (My cherry trees produced their first decent crop of fruit in several years, though the cherries just ripened earlier this week and the birds have already eaten everything I didn't pick.) I carefully dropped the Chromebook, broke out the camera, and coaxed out two decent photos: 

I don't know how much longer the cicadas will be around, singing their song. When they are gone, we will not see Brood X again until 2038. If I live that long, I will be seventy years old. Will I still be blogging then?

Friday, June 11, 2021

Two eclipses in Spring 2021

Eclipses have seasons, and travel in groups of two or three. The seasons are complicated and are dictated by the way the orbits of the Earth around the Sun and the Moon around the Earth interact. In 2021 there were two eclipses in the Spring (total lunar on May 26, annular solar on June 10) and there will be two more in late Autumn (near-total lunar on November 19, and a total solar on December 4.) I was lucky enough to be in a position to view both of the Spring eclipses. 

Unfortunately for me, both of these eclipses were visible in Nanticoke at or around sunrise - and I work the late shift. 

On May 26 I forgot about the eclipse completely. Only the very earliest stages would be visible to me, and only at sunrise, as the Moon slipped beneath the Western horizon. Still, I stayed up all night for unknown reasons, and became aware almost by accident that the Moon was glowing bright red in the front window. I quickly grabbed my camera and tripod and snapped off a few photos of the rapidly-setting Moon through the curtains, through the window, and between the houses across the street.

The June 10 eclipse was different. I made plans to view it. I chose my viewing spot: the eastern high school parking lot, overlooking the Little League field - which would have been an ideal spot to observe Comet NEOWISE last July, I realized a few days after the fact. I woke up at 4:45 AM, about three and a half hours after I had fallen asleep, drove the half-mile to the high school, parked the car, and set up a few minutes before the 5:29 AM sunrise.

The minutes dragged on. Sunrise time came and went, and all that happened was that the horizon - the mountains that frame the Wyoming Valley - got a bit brighter. As a sun pillar formed, I realized the Sun was about to rise behind a copse of trees, and I would miss the rising eclipsed Sun at its dimmest and most photogenic. I grabbed my camera and tripod and ran thirty feet to the right, where the Sun would be clear of the trees.

The camera tried to adjust the exposure to balance the brightness, making the rising Sun difficult to see. I was shocked to see the sun rising as a shining crescent. I had expected a much smaller bite to be taken out of it, but I had also heard that it would be 75% covered for Northeastern Pennsylvania. I wondered what someone who had managed to miss the news of the eclipse might think if they accidentally caught a glimpse of the glowing scimitar on the horizon. 

It was possible to observe the rising Sun, filtered through hundreds of miles of atmosphere, without risk of eye damage - but only briefly. After less than a minute the Sun was painful to even glance at, and I was worried the intense light would damage my camera. I packed up my camera and tripod and headed home.

*                    *                    *

Just months after COVID-19 vaccines became widely available in the United States, infection rates have plummeted to numbers not seen since March 2020, and death rates have slowed to nearly flatten the cumulative death curve. Eligibility is expanding to younger and younger age groups. Still, it is looking like the country may fail to achieve President Biden's goal of 70% of the population having received at least one shot by July 4, thanks to a small but dedicated group of people who claim that the vaccine is worse than the disease. These people will continue to serve as a reservoir  for COVID-19, breeding variants, waiting to infect those who cannot take the vaccine for legitimate reasons of health, waiting to infect those who are vaccinated but who have only 95% protection against COVID-19.

Meanwhile, in India, new cases of COVID-19 are down significantly since mid-May, but cumulative deaths have nearly doubled since mid-April.

The United States is poised on the brink of a return to normalcy, following nations like New Zealand who have been there for months. Will the rest of the world be heading the same way?