30 November 2005

Solstice Smoke Brick

We're not Christians. That's how we wound up with a brick of smoke.

See, actually I've been a Christian. Not just an it's-Sunday-so-we-go-to-church Christian, either. I was quite devout, in fact, a born again, evangelical, God-is-tough-love kind of guy. (If I seem to belabor this point, it's because no one who met me after that period in my life is likely to believe it.) I wasn't overly preachy, at least not the way I remember it. Others who were there may have different opinions.

Somehow the feeling faded as I got older. In fact I can pinpoint the moment when I finally stopped believing in the hereafter, souls, and Someone who designed the whole works. I'd always believed that our consciousness had to have some immaterial spark, something that transcended the physical realm. Else how could humans love, laugh, remember thousands of faces, and do all the other incredible things we do? There had to be something more going on, something independent of the flesh, and if so it wasn't a big jump to believing that it persisted after death.

But when I learned about chaos theory, and how incredibly complex and unpredictable behavior can result from relatively simple nonlinear systems, I began to wonder. I realized that self-awareness, emotions, language, the whole rich inner life of the mind may very well be emergent properties of a biochemical system that's not "relatively simple" in the first place--"insanely complex" is more like it. The Neuroscience for Kids Newsletter, for example, estimates that there are about 1 quadrillion (1 x 10^15) synapses in the human brain. And while it's unutterably sad that something as beautiful as a mind could just vanish when its physical substrate dies...I could find no compelling reason to doubt it, other than I wished so heartily that it were otherwise.

So much for religion. I'm not smug about where my journey has taken me so far, in fact I envy my religious friends. Their certainty gives them bedrock, a place from which they can base their lives and derive a great deal of joy (not to mention their charitable works, which far exceed my puny efforts). It's just that personally, I feel I'd be practicing willful self-deception to deny what my reason tells me is true.

I certainly still value the spiritual side of life, and firmly believe there's a place for ritual therein. So does my wife. And while it would be somewhat hypocritical of us to throw a Christmas party...the winter solstice is right next door, and has its own deep personal and spiritual significance. Anyone who's ever battled depression likely will feel the resonance, the deep rightness of holding a celebration on the eve of the long night.Take that, dark! Take that, night!

So we have a Solstice Party. We turn off all the electric lights, put candles throughout the house, put together a roaring blaze in the fireplace, and surround ourselves with loved friends. There is ritual: Each arrival lights a candle, and each person in attendance must perform. We've had singing, music, prose, poetry, and...other.

We've had Poe's "The Bells" read to us (with bells jingled at every mention of the title phrase). We've had eldritch violin duets. Our goddaughter enthralled us all with a chapter from...hey, did you know she was writing a novel? Me neither! We've had "The Cat In The Hat" performed as theatre nouveau (and if you've seen our tiny living room, you'd realize it's pretty dang nouveau). Stan read from his journal once, revealing that his writing is every bit as sideways and brilliant as the man himself.

We've pretty much got it down after a dozen or so parties. We get scads of candles out, initially lighting just a few so we and the first guests don't trip. (Later, when they're all lit, the place is actually brighter than it is when the electric lights are on.) We build a good-sized bonfire in our little fireplace, get it all stoked up and ready to light when the first guest appears. My wife does those spring rolls and cilantro shrimp and gets out the hand-dipped chocolate-covered cherries. We fire up the big pot of spiced cider.

I have one friend--LJ--who almost always makes it, and it's almost the only time I ever see her. She was a coworker, years ago. She's tall and blond and has a perfectionist streak and a laugh like musical bells. We'd introduced her to another close friend once, and they enjoyed a brief incandescent span of months as lovers before it ended with tight-pursed lips and volumes unsaid and a metric ton of mutual resentment. (My wife and I learned much later that when they were splitting up, divvying up their shared possessions, there was a bit of a tussle over who "got" us. Fortunately they worked out a visitation schedule.)

So she's one of the early arrivals. Her beauty, and this history, and knowing that her ex-beau is going to be arriving a little later with his wife and kids, all add a certain...tension. I'm delighted to see her, you understand. Still, I'm a little more concerned with not looking like a dork in front of her than I am with most of the other guests.

We light the fire, and I close the glass fireplace doors. LJ and her date light candles. I get them drinks, and chat a bit. LJ asks if I opened the flue before lighting the fire. I roll my eyes. "Of course I did. We've been in this house ten years, c'mon already!" We talk about work, her new job is going really well and I'm thoroughly enjoying my new writing gig.

"Umm--are you sure about that flue?"

I turn around and look at the fireplace. It's a little hard to adapt to the contrasts between the dimly-candle-lit room and the hearth. Certainly it's burning nicely, but for some reason the flames, while nice and large, seem...dim. Suddenly, my brain does that optical-illusion-inversion trick and I realize that what I'm looking at is a perfectly bright fire, embedded in a solid brick of smoke. The smoke is so thick that it doesn't even appear to swirl in there.

I know I'm going to have to open the doors. But I'm clinging to the last shreds of the illusion that I know what the heck I'm doing, and so I hesitate. The smoke, incredibly, thickens, which snaps me out of paralysis. In one smooth move I jam a glove on one hand, fling open the doors with the other, and reach into the fire to slam open the flue.

Instantly the living room fills with smoke. It's as if a bomb had gone off. I hear LJ trying to stifle her laughter as I bang the fireplace doors shut again and leap for the window. The smoke alarms go off--my children begin wailing in unison with them. After the window's open, I snatch open the one on the opposite wall. I sprint to the basement, and come up lugging a big box fan, slapping the furnace "off" switch as I run by. Positioned in the window, the fan begins to suck the smoke--and all the heat--out of the room.

A crowd of guests appears all in a rush. They stop, surveying the cloud of smoke drifting into the howling fan, and shiver. This is the point at which LJ loses control completely. "I'm sorry", she gasps to me, "It's just...just", and then she's off again.

I won the "best performance" award by acclamation that night. First time ever.

So it goes, year after year. On the eve of the longest night, we gather and make light and make merry and make tasty food, and we enjoy it thunderously. So may we, even unto the eve of the longest night of all. Take that, Death!

We may not believe in the devil around here. But on Solstice Night we still spit in his eye.

24 November 2005

You need to go to Oshkosh.

If you've never been, and you like airplanes, you truly owe it to yourself to go to Oshkosh. (Sorry, I know it's officially called "EAA Airventure", but I can never bring myself to say that.) We've been going since the mid-eighties. Since we got a plane, we've been camping there under Redbird's wing about every other year.

This convention and airshow are actually directly responsible for my wife and I becoming pilots. She'd never really thought much about aviation, but watching the aerobatics acts, you could just see the wheels turning. "I wonder if those guys give rides", she murmured. "I wonder if they give...lessons." Two years later she had her license and started her aerobatics course. And of course, it was only meet and just that I fly too; gotta make sure I can talk the girl's lingo. >;-)

It was the Christen Eagles Aerobatic Team who lit us off; all hail to Charlie Hillard, Tom Poberezny, and Gene Soucy! I wonder how many other people they inspired to start flying in the 25 years that they performed. One Oshkosh I remember in particular was so rainy, foggy, and overcast that the formation acts really couldn't go up safely. Instead, Gene Soucy flew solo, and improvised a performance of such haunting grace and beauty that I can only compare it to a virtuoso jazz pianist's. He closed with a swooping, inverted falling leaf maneuver; at the apex of the last arc, he flipped the plane neatly and sideslipped in to land. The audience was so stunned that they didn't even applaud until he opened the canopy.

I only regret that I never thanked the three of them before Charlie's death in a crash in 1996.

When my goddaughter was three, her parents brought her to the show. Understand, now, that something on the order of 7,000 assorted aircraft attend; for one week, Wittman Regional Airport is hands-down the busiest in the world. Five minutes onto the grounds, she gasped and pointed. "WHAT?" we cried, whipping our heads around to look for the crash or oncoming F-16 or whatever. "PLANE!" she lisped.

This went on every two minutes for the entire day. At one point she encountered a bright yellow little biplane on static display and circled it round, and round, and round..."Pellor! Trut! Wing! N'or trut! N'or wing!"

By 2 PM, she had collapsed exhausted on her dad's shoulder. But suddenly she popped erect to point and shriek: "BIMP!" Sure enough, a dirigible emerged from behind a hangar at a take-no-prisoners deck angle, thrumming upwards.

She's in college now. But she still brings prospective boyfriends for airplane rides now and again.

I shot this picture at the 2005 show. This is the Aeroshell Aerobatic Team, who fly North American T-6 Texans and are my favorite formation act these days. (The G-Dub has an autographed poster.) Every time I hear those four big radials hollering around a barrel roll, I get goosebumps.

Go to Oshkosh.

22 November 2005

Yet Another Blog

By the way, TA fans, I started another blog today. This one is for all the little tidbits, funnies, and commentary with which I've been filling your email for so long. Now I'll post 'em here so you can read 'em at your leisure.

Kansas: How Long to the Point of Know Return

Our story so far: The Kansas State School Board decides on their own definition of science, mandating the teaching of "intelligent design" as an alternative to the theory of evolution.

An admittedly brilliant (if underemployed) Bobby Henderson writes an open letter to the Board, praising them for their decision and pointing out that his theory (viz, a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe...there's no way I can do it justice, just go and read it) is as scientifically valid as ID, and that it should also be taught in KS.

Several school board members reply. Some wittily and supportively; some less so (e.g., "It is a serious offense to mock God."). In a final vote, the...er..."less so" faction prevails. "Intelligent design" is in; scientific standards are out.

Encouraged, the Pennsylvania State School Board endorses a similar proposal, only to find themselves on the street so fast the doorknob did, in fact, hit them in the ass on the way out.

As many others, appalled by Kansas, have pointed out, I have no objections whatsoever to religion. I would love to see a comparative religion course taught in elementary or middle school. And, as the Joss character points out in Carl Sagan's Contact, science informs knowledge, not values: "What is there in the precepts of science to keep a scientist from doing evil?"

But religion is the very antithesis of science. (Keep your religion out of my kids' science classes, ID fans, and I'll refrain from barging into your religious services to point out the parts that bug me. Deal?)

Kansas or Pennsylvania? The fanatics win only because they never let up, not because they're right.

It's your move.

18 November 2005

That Deer Ain't Stopped Runnin' Yet

It was a beautiful evening, perfect for flying, soft, warm, and still. Just enough clouds to light up a sunset. Two couples decided that dinner out would be just the thing, and we knew a restaurant only 50 miles away that featured the best pies ever created by the hand of man. (Well, woman, actually, a teeny wizened old Polish grandma.)

It was my turn for the left seat, and my wife carefully scanned for traffic at the uncontrolled airport. One of our friends in the back seat had flown with us often, his girlfriend rarely. The sun was just touching the horizon as I turned onto final. I was concentrating on a perfect approach and touchdown, both for braggin' rights and to help bolster our relatively inexperienced passenger's confidence.

Yess! I rolled it on with style, right down the centerline. We were down to about 50 MPH and I was mentally patting myself on the back when my friend said distinctly, "Deer to the left."

He did not shout, nor did he gabble incomprehensibly. He's a man who really likes to be in control, has done a lot of autocross, likes performance cars. So it must have pretty tough to just sit there in the back seat, with nothing to do other than bring the problem to my attention; he concentrated on doing that as superbly as he could.

My head snapped left. A small herd of whitetail was bounding up to the edge of the runway, and one of them was staring right into my eyes as he bolted in front of the airplane.

I do not recall steering the airplane. I stomped the right rudder pedal to the floor, and almost before it hit the stop I hit the left. The net result is that the airplane did not appear to yaw at all; rather, it simply translated a few yards to the right. I was still inhaling to swear when there was a tik! noise and the deer appeared in the right-side windows. If they were bounding before, they were in stage-5 afterburner now, and they vanished in moments.

Shaking, I regained the centerline and took the first turnoff onto the parallel taxiway. We sat there for a few moments while the adrenaline aftershocks thundered through our systems. "Suppose we ought to see if the runway's clear?" said my wife. A slight rise prevented us from seeing the surface where the deer had crossed.

So, with all our lights blinking and shining, we taxied back down the runway, calling on the radio from time to time. As we hove over the rise, we saw a small patch of hide on the runway. Ten feet farther on, looking for all the world like someone had claimed the runway for Deer Nation, a larger patch of hide sat with the white-tufted tail sticking straight up out of it.

It wasn't big enough to be a hazard, so we taxied on by and got dinner. Departing, my wife made really really sure the area was deer-free before she hit the throttle.

Now, though, I regret not picking up the pieces. I suppose we could paint a little whitetail symbol on the side of the fuselage, but stringing the tail on the ADF antenna wire would have been so much classier!

16 November 2005

UPS Tracking Number

I'm waiting for the UPS guy to deliver the parts for my long-awaited, brand-new computer, purchased from the widely-respected Internet vendor Newegg.

My eight-year-old son is practically beside himself with eagerness to help me build it.

So (with apologies to Roger Waters), here's my version of "Dark Side of the Moon/Brain Damage":

Computer bits are on the truck....
Computer bits are on the truck.
Disks, RAM, and fans
And CPUs , with luck
Got to lug the mobo off the truck.

And if the box breaks open many miles too soon
And if there is no way to find the parts
And if the driver punts them, maddened, off the back
I'll see you back on Newegg really soon

Computer bits are in my hall...
The scattered bits are in my hall.
The cats whack the shredded packaging, enthralled
And both my kids delight in losing more

And if the static crackles in your ears
You shout but no child seems to hear
And if the box you build thinks it's a Commodore
I'll see you back on Newegg really soon.

The box you built refused to boot
Your new computer just won't boot
Reseat the chip, you break the frame
You bend the pins until they're lame
You stuff the slots, and pitch away the RAM
Although it don't look done, I think I am

And if the beep codes thunder in your ears
Eight hundred dollars shot, you fear
And if you kick the whole works halfway to the moon
I'll see you back on Newegg really soon.

14 November 2005

My favorite aunt

Spent a long time talking to Aunt Shirley last night. What a woman! Talk about "more than meets the eye". She's visually indistinguishable from thousands of white-haired, soft-spoken, yearly-more-fragile ladies.

And yet...and yet. Look a little more closely at the picture to the right. Her kids took one look and titled it "Busted".

Shirley and her husband raised five children. They are the kind of people you want by your side watching a sunset and at your back--definitely not in your face--in a bar fight. As those kids grew up, they got into fights and broke arms and made bad marriages, and made good marriages and bad ones again, and got into brawls at each others' weddings and had husbands die of electrocution, and went undercover as narotics cops and raised children of their own and played in rock bands and got addicted to downers and drove Trans Ams and Harleys and Corvettes through twisty country roads at 125 MPH.

(The family patriarch, Shirley's husband, died this spring, and after the service the family gathered at Shirley's house to remember him. I got a work-related call on my cell, and after a few moments the scientist on the other end paused, listening to the background racket, knowing that I'd just attended a funeral. "This...um, this would be the Irish side of your family, wouldn't it?" I smiled, thinking of my departed uncle and his brood, and told her that yes, yes it certainly was.)

The cop is retired from the force now, and lives quietly in a lakeside cottage. The rock musician will play sometimes, if we really twist his arm, but he drinks only to be sociable, and he lives a stone's throw from his mom, with his wife of thirty years and his two beautiful daughters. The sister whose electrician husband died on the job has long since remarried and seems to be making a good life for herself.

And, do you know, in all that time, I cannot recall Shirley ever once raising her voice. And yet she ruled--hell, still rules--that sprawling, obstreperous mob with a brand of steel that any tinpot dictator could only envy. It's a cliche to talk about people with a "wiry core", but by God, that woman has got one. Gold, I'd say, but gold is a soft metal. Titanium, that's what she's got, strong and light, jewel-toned highlights and all.

It's funny, when I hear her talk I am frequently reminded of her sister, my mom...and yet not. They were very close, and shared so many mannerisms and speech idioms that when Shirley talks, I sometimes hear my mom's voice. But where any conversation with my mom sooner or later turned to how miserable she was, Shirley usually gets to talking about what she's planning, what the kids are doing, what project she's taking on next. With my mom, it was always all about her. With Shirley, it's about you, or her kids, or perhaps her church. It's not that she has a low opinion of herself--you can tell that in five minutes' conversation. It's just that she rarely brings the subject up.

I know she derives great solace from her religion--characteristically, though, she usually doesn't speak of it. And perhaps she also draws strength from her unwillingness to dwell on her problems. Instead, she is focused outward, on doing for others. The picture above was taken the morning after her husband's funeral. Refusing our offers to help, she was doing our breakfast dishes.

I also have an indelible mental image of her from the day before, at the church. Her lover, her partner, her best friend for decades had gone, and they'd just made it official and taken away his casket for cremation. Shirley spent time talking to people, cried some. She confided to me, though, that she was done with the hugs--"These old bones can't take that much". Then, as people headed for the parking lot, she levered herself upright. And started putting away the folding chairs.

13 November 2005

Powerful Warm Weather We're Havin'

Climate is a squirrely kind of thing. It's composed of weather, which for temperate climes is a wild and variable beast. So it's hard to discern patterns in the sea of change. Regardless of what the experts say, in any given location the changes in climate are a matter of forty steps forward, thirty steps back, and a dozen in random sideways lunges.

And if you go by personal memory, it's even worse. "Back when I was a kid, we had real weather, sonny." Yeah, right. But it's undeniable that winters in Wisconsin were worse (or better, depending on your point of view) when I was a kid. In fact, they were colder and snowier when I moved back here twenty years ago. Today, instead of the "gales of November", I'm looking out at a sunny, temperate day. Sweatshirt weather, to be sure. But for mid-November Wisconsin, this is a heat wave.

Makes me wonder. Global climate change deniers are now a tiny minority of reputable scientists, but powerful interests continue to play a delaying game. They couldn't pull it off without some level of popular support, which, sadly, they still have in this country. Alarmist predictions of disasters have eroded public confidence that environmentalists know what the heck they're talking about. And the message is unwelcome to most: We're living on our capital, cutbacks are inevitable, conserve, sell the Hummers and Tahoes, restrict what people and companies can do with their own land.

So it's hardly surprising that Joe and Jill Six-pack pooh-pooh the ravings of the tree-hugger fringe. But the evidence of their own senses is growing undeniable. At least we'll be spared drivel about how global warming is a good thing, with ocean temperatures driving longer-lived hurricanes and the disappearance of the Arctic ice pack raising ocean levels.

Too bad the profiteers managed to delay this long, though. The experiment is already well under way, and we've no options now but to ride it out as best we can. The world's poor will be harder hit, no question. But at least we'll have the satisfaction of watching the deniers' gated seaside residences in Aruba and Cancun get pounded, then inundated. You can run, guys, but you can't hide. It's a big planet, but all of it's got weather.


We did roller coasters today.

My daughter has been bugging me about it. She wants to go up--without her brother, thank you--and rip up the sky.

Now, if you put your average five-year-old in an airplane and start chucking it about, you get one of two reactions:
  1. Screaming
  2. Extra Chunky Screaming
Her eight-year-old brother, for example, is not so big on the whole rock-and-roll-airplane thing, and yells at me whenever the bank angle exceeds 20 degrees. But G-Dub was having none of that. She wanted more: Faster, more rolling, more Gs, more zero-G over the top.

She comes by it honestly; her mother learned to fly expressly to do aerobatics. Me, I like to fly, and I like a well-turned maneuver, but I get off on things my wife never really learned to like, like a precision instrument approach, or even a meticulous flight plan. We joke that we trade personalities at the door of the airplane. On the ground, I'm...detail-challenged, shall we say. I forget things. I neglect birthdays. I leave dirty socks under the coffee table. She's the multitasker, a chemist, Goddess of the Family Schedule, lover of tiny-detailed picky handicrafts. In the airplane I mutate into a minutiae-obsessed control freak, while she blossoms into a wild-haired sky artist dreaming of lomcevaks. (Unusually, though, in this marriage, the woman's the one blessed with spatial intelligence. We divide up the tasks: When I fly, she navigates. And when she flies...she navigates.)

Today the kid and I went out to the airport, pretending we were Joe Pedestrian Aviator and his timid daughter. We scrupulously preflighted our Cardinal. We got a weather briefing and a clearance. We did the checklists. We talked to Air Traffic Control like obedient little fliers.

Before we pull onto the runway, we glance up the final approach area. The control tower is supposed to keep airplanes clear of conflict, but you never know. Watch the instruments as the power goes in--in 15 years, that airplane has never once hiccuped on takeoff, but better safe than sorry. A little extra airspeed before pulling off the runway, it's gusty today. No turns below 400 feet, even though ATC asks for one. No changes to the engine settings till we have 1,000 feet between us and the ground. We do slow and careful turns when we get to the practice area, ensuring that no other aircraft are around. "Umm, Approach, we'll be maneuvering out here...and changing altitude a ton." "Roger."

On receipt of that quiet word, we transform from a mild-mannered 30-year-old Cessna and her crew into a single organism, one wild amalgamated ton of aluminum, steel, and bulging eyeballs. We start with level turns at a 60-degree bank, pulling 2 Gs, but soon begin to yank and shove on the yoke, plunging our butts into the seats and levitating off them. Then we add quarter-rolls at the top and bottom of each dive. "Can we do more roller-coasters?"

Then I turn the controls over to Miss Pigtails--with some trepidation, I admit. "Can I do roller-coasters?" she asks eagerly. But her arms can't supply enough heave and twist to satisfy her lust for whirling scenery and Gs--the kid's still less than 40 pounds--so after a few whifferdills she gives it back to me. "Can we do more roller-coasters?"

We figure out a new maneuver: Start from level flight. Pick some hapless house, car, or ferryboat below. Stomp the rudder and pin the yoke to the roll stop so the airplane slams to knife-edge in less than a second, with the nose falling through like a homesick brick. The airspeed jumps 40 knots in five seconds. Roll upright when the target appears over the nose, then howl "SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT" over the intercom and rock with laughter. Haul the nose up so the view goes from rapidly-swelling ground to nothing but clouds--60 knots peel off the airspeed indicator as we roar skyward again. A good hard push floats us off the seats, and we're back level again, waiting for flying speed to return.

"Can we do some more roller-coasters?"

I tried to explore G-Dub's limits, but found only mine instead. After 20 minutes of yanking, diving, sudden rolls, and pretend fighter-swoops, she was still whooping and giggling. Occasionally a whoop would start scared--before I could do anything to fix it she'd be laughing again. But I started to feel distinctly unwell, and reluctantly told her that we'd have to go straight-and-level for awhile. I knew that I'd give her Total Kindergarten Bragging Rights if I blew chow while she was still hungry for more, but hey, today I was Pilot in Command. When you get your own license, kid, then you can make me hurl.