Friday, September 1, 2017

Turn, Turn, Turn. . .

One of the things I experience as I go along through life, and all the moreso as I advance in years, is that things change.  Nothing sits still.  The comfortable, familiar things in our lives eventually pass away.  Our parents grow old and die; our children grow up and leave the nest.  Books go out of print. Raisin Mini-Wheats disappear from the shelves because no-one besides me will buy them. Bell-bottom jeans and Nehru jackets go out of style (demonstrating conclusively that change is not necessarily a bad thing). . .

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Forgive me if I indulge myself in a bit of sports-as-metaphor-of-life.  I am a lifelong fan of baseball in general, and the Detroit Tigers in particular.  The past decade has generally been an era of notable success for my Tigers, with four American League Central Division titles and two World Series appearances (neither of which they won, alas).  I've taken to referring to this latest period of success as Tigers 5.0 (if you're interested, 1.0 was the Ty Cobb-era team of the 1900s/10s, 2.0 the Charley Gehringer-Hank Greenberg teams of the 30s/40s, 3.0 the Al Kaline-Willie Horton-Mickey Lolich teams of the 60s, and 4.0 the Whitaker-Trammell-Jack Morris teams of the 80s; and if you're not interested, just ignore what you just read); this season, and yesterday most particularly, brought the sad news that Tigers 5.0 is now definitively over.  Justin Verlander was traded to the Houston Astros.

You could see this day coming, even a few years ago, realizing that players age, and get injured, or sign free-agent contracts with other teams (*cough-Max Scherzer-cough*).  One way or another, the good times never last forever.  Nothing sits still.  The end of the era began in earnest back in 2015, when the Tigers traded David Price and Yoenis Cespedes at the July trade deadline, in exchange for young players who, it was hoped, would one day develop into Tigers 6.0 (they have shown flashes of promise, but the jury, alas, is still out. . .).  And the team's payroll was bloated way past their market size, to say nothing of their recent level of success.  (Just as a footnote, it blows my mind just a little that, for the second half of the 2014 season, the Tigers' starting rotation of pitchers included four Cy Young award winners, and the fifth starter, Anibal Sanchez, won an ERA title, and threw a no-hitter, besides).

This season began with hope that the band could come together again, and perhaps do something wonderful one more time.  But alas, such was not to be.  Our best hitter, Miguel Cabrera, hurt his back during spring training (curse you, World Baseball Classic!) and has been a shell of himself all season.  Ian Kinsler, our all-star infielder and clubhouse leader, has had an awful year.  Victor Martinez, who's been a key hitter all through the team's run of success, is on (almost literally) his last legs.  Pitchers who'd had off-years in 2016 were hoped to recover the old glory; none did.  And on and on and on.  Only two hitters were having strong years - Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez, and both of them were eligible for free agency at the end of this season.

The final agony began in July, when J.D. Martinez was traded to the Arizona Diamonbacks.  That was a little hard to take - J.D. had really established himself with the Tigers, and become a fan favorite; still, it was understood that the Tigers had to trade him, to get something in return, rather than let him walk for nothing at seaons's end.  That was followed by Justin Wilson (our best relief pitcher) and Alex Avila going to the Chicago Cubs.  And then yesterday, the day began with Justin Upton (the other hitter who was having a good year) being sent to the Los Angeles Angels.

I have always had a special affection for Justin Verlander.  Even as a young pitcher, you could just see the power he pitched with.  On his good days, hitters were almost defenseless against his combination of blazing speed, wicked breaking balls and a baffling change-up.  And he had a lot of good days.  Denny McLain, back in the 60s, is the only other pitcher the Tigers have had in my lifetime who could just dominate opposing hitters game after game after game; but Denny only did it for a few seasons, before hurting his arm (Denny was also one of the world's great a**holes, but whatchagonnado?).  JV, as he's known, threw two no-hitters for the Tigers, and won a unanimous Cy Young award in 2011.  Twice, he shut out the Oakland A's in the deciding game of a playoff series.  At his best, you wondered every time he took the mound if he was going to throw a no-hitter that night.  He's been that good.  He had a couple seasons (from roughly mid-'13 to mid-'15) in which his effectiveness was diminished by a core-muscle injury, but since the middle of the '15 season, he's been pretty close to the old JV.  Last year, he came within a whisker of winning his second Cy Young Award (and God bless Rick Porcello, but JV should have won it; just sayin').  And after a slow start this season, he's again been blowing hitters away, especially over the past two months.

Verlander has been, along with Miguel Cabrera, the visible face of Tigers 5.0.  And so, it is with great sadness that I watch him go.  Through the course of this season, it has seemed ever-clearer that he would soon be moving on.  His contract was just too big for a team that needed to cut payroll, and invest in younger players.  And the idea of JV, in the golden years of his career, pitching for a team of youngsters just learning how to play and win, seems somehow not quite right.  He really should be pitching for a playoff contender, trying to win the World Series championship that he never quite got in Detroit.  When Clayton Kershaw was injured, I was all-but-certain that he was going to the Dodgers.  But the Astros were always part of the conversation, and for the past month, it has been, 'why aren't the Astros going after Verlander?  They certainly need the pitching.'  And finally, at about the time that it looked like he'd be staying after all, the Astros and Tigers finally pulled the trigger at 11:59, and JV is a Tiger no more.

It is hard to see the face of my favorite team leave town.  But nothing sits still.  He leaves with absolutely no ill-will from me.  I know I'll be pulling for the Astros in the post-season, and hoping for JV to finally win the ring that he so richly deserves (and there is something portentous, is there not - in a Saints-win-the-Super-Bowl kind of way - in Verlander going to Houston, trying to win a World Series in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey?) (and also something delicious in Justin Verlander going to work for Nolan Ryan). . .

(Just as an odd aside, the Tigers began the season with three players named Justin on their roster - Verlander, Upton, and Wilson - and all three are with other teams now; and if you include JV's fiancee, we've lost two Uptons, as well; God bless you, Houston. . .)

(edit 6Sep:  As another aside, the number of ex-Tigers distributed across this year's playoff-contending teams is almost staggering - Rick Porcello, David Price, Doug Fister and Rajai Davis with the Red Sox, Max Scherzer and Edwin Jackson with the Nationals, Curtis Granderson with the Dodgers, Robbie Ray, Fernando Rodney and J.D. Martinez with the Diamondbacks, Alex Avila and Justin Wilson with the Cubs, Austin Jackson and Andrew Miller with the Indians, and now Justin Upton with the Angels and Justin Verlander (and even Cameron Maybin!) with the Astros.  If the playoffs began today, there would be 17 ex-Tigers distributed across 8 of the 10 playoff teams; y'all are very welcome. . .)

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Nothing sits still.  This past Monday brought the news that Jud Heathcote, who coached my beloved MSU Spartan basketball team from 1976-95, had died, at 90 years of age.  Jud was certainly the greatest basketball coach in MSU history not named Tom Izzo.  In fact, Tom Izzo was essentially Jud's parting gift to MSU when he retired, as Jud convinced the university to hire Izzo as his successor, a year or two before he finally retired.

Jud was a wonderful coach.  His teams won three Big Ten championships in 19 years, played in nine NCAA tournaments (seven in 11 seasons, once the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985), and famously, won MSU's first national chapionship in 1979, with a team featuring Magic Johnson and Gregory Kelser.

His talent as a coach, however, goes beyond mere wins and losses.  The aforementioned Magic Johnson aside, Jud developed the talent of players like Jay and Sam Vincent, Scott Skiles, Steve Smith, Shawn Respert and Eric Snow, all of whom had successful NBA careers, and all of whom came to MSU with a notable lack of recruiting fanfare.  Jud was a notoriously indifferent recruiter.  He wouldn't cheat to get a kid, and he absolutely refused to kiss the asses of 18-year-old prima donnas.  So (Magic aside), such success as his teams had, was mainly accomplished with less-talented rosters than his major opponents.

But for all his success, Jud will be remembered by the MSU community as an absolutely unique character.  His public face tended to be that of a grumpy curmudgeon.  His 'Jud thuds' were legendary, when one of his players would make a mistake, and he would ball up his fists and slam them against his own forehead, usually two or three times.  In one game at Illinois, he was upset with the officiating (as basketball coaches will be, from time to time).  The ball happened to roll out-of-bounds into his hands, and he slammed it violently to the floor, whereupon it bounced up and smacked him right in the face.  On his 'retirement tour' in '95, the Illinois coach gifted him with an Illini football helmet, in memory of the event.  (Here is a wonderful article by Jack McCallum in Sports Illustrated, from back in '95, that does a great job of capturing the Essential Jud)

In the years since his retirement, Jud mainly kept a low profile.  He moved back to Spokane, Washington, to be closer to his adult children, but also to leave Tom Izzo the freedom to establish his own coaching career without the Old Man looking over his shoulder.  But he would show up for all of the tournament games.  It reminded me, in a way, of how my dad was to me, in his later years - a source of wisdom, for sure, but just comforting to have him around.  The last time I saw him on TV, I remember thinking that he was getting old, and feeling a little sad about that.  And now he's gone.  Nothing sits still.

A friend of mine once sat next to Jud on an airplane.  When I asked him how that was, he smiled oddly.  "Jud is a very funny man," he said.  "And VERY profane."  So there you go.

I have my own Jud story to relate (and now seems a fitting time to tell it).  I was in my last year at MSU, which coincided with the national championship team of '79.  That team lost six games, five of them by one or two points.  The exception was an 18-point loss to Northwestern, which is about as inexplicable as things come in college basketball.  My roommate and I had a regular paddleball date on Monday afternoons, and it was the Monday after that Northwestern game.  All the regular paddleball courts were in use, so we ended up playing on the designated Handball court (which was identical to the paddleball/racquetball courts, but it was 'reserved' for handball; meaning that, if someone wanted to play handball, they could claim the court, and any paddleball/racquetball players had to relinquish the court to them).  We'd been playing for a half-hour or so, when a voice came from the balcony above and behind us - "I'm sorry, fellas, but I'm here to play handball.  So finish your game, but I need the court."  We looked up, and there, to our astonishment, was Coach Heathcote.  So we finished our game, and went up to the balcony, figuring we'd enjoy watching Jud playing handball with whomever his partner turned out to be.  But no partner ever appeared.  Jud bounced the ball, and - WHAM!! - smashed it against the front wall, then stomped after it in a deliberate, plodding manner and - WHAM!! - smashed it again, then stomped after it again, and - WHAM!! - and again and again.  My roommate and I turned and smiled at each other, and continued watching for a few more minutes, as Jud smashed out his frustrations on that poor little handball.  After that, the team went on a long winning streak, which eventually carried them all the way to the national championship.

Rest in peace, Coach.  We're gonna miss you.

Nothing sits still. . .

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

There Goes the Sun

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained, what is man that You are mindful of him, the son of man, that you care for him?  (Psalm 8:3-4)

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We're back.  Jenn and I spent Sunday and Monday on a quick, but intense pilgrimage to the Zone of Totality - in our case, Princeton, KY - to view the Great American Eclipse.  And what a great time. . .

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We left OurTown around noon on Sunday, and drove down to Evansville, IN, where we stayed with old friends. How many of you remember FTN?  He and his wife (she was Autumn in his blog, back in the day) and their two teenage children were our hosts, and took wonderful care of us Sunday evening and Monday morning.  We had been concerned about the traffic we would encounter, but honestly, traffic on the way down was pretty much a  non-issue for us (aside from the fact that the State of Indiana had about ten separate construction zones on I-69 between Michigan and Kentucky; I am not exaggerating).

We got up early on Monday, and headed across the Ohio River and into Kentucky.  Our initial plan had been to go to Hopkinsville, but at the last minute, we decided to go to Princeton (about 20 miles west) instead, looking for a smaller, more low-key setting.  As it turns out, we're glad we did (more on that to follow).  We got to Princeton (a town of about 6000 souls), around 8:30 AM, and found a group of folks settling into a parking lot that wasn't yet full, between the courthouse and the police station.  So we pulled in and joined them.  We all reasoned that, if the local authorities didn't want us there, well, we were right where they could see us, and they could tell us where they'd rather have us.

I can't say enough about the hospitality of the good folks of Princeton, KY.  They were invariably friendly to us, and eager to see to it that our stay with them, however brief, was a pleasant one.  The offices in the courthouse were closed (figuring that nobody would really want to be at work during the eclipse, I suppose), but there were a few gracious folks who showed up to keep the courthouse doors open, so we visitors could use the public restrooms in the courthouse.  We had arrived in Princeton more than three hours before the beginning of the eclipse, and five hours before the totality, so we spent our morning walking around, seeing the sights of the lovely little town, with its late-19th century buildings, and a beautiful cave, out of which issued an underground stream.  A few small shops were open, selling antiques, t-shirts, and whatnot, and there was a little artisan bakery selling some really spectacular cupcakes.

Our main concern had been the weather.  The forecasts for western Kentucky had been, um, unstable and somewhat ambiguous in the days leading up to the weekend.  But the closer we got to our go/no-go decision point, the trends were mostly promising.  When we got to Princeton, the weather was hot.  REALLY hot.  Probably around 95F, with humidity to match.  And most importantly, the sky was clear.  There was a thin layer of high haze in the morning, but as the day wore on, it virtually disappeared.  There were some clouds off to our west, but it became apparent that the prevailing breezes aloft were southerly; such clouds as there were bypassed us, and the skies over Princeton were beautifully clear all day.

With the heat and bright morning sun, a large part of our morning free time was spent in a search for shade.  There was a gap between a couple of the buildings on the main street, in which had been built a sort-of stairway park down to the cave and stream.  Jenn and I ended up settling there for a half-hour or so, chatting with a few other folks who were enjoying the shade as much as we were.

Folks continued to trickle into Princeton all through the morning (I'd guess a few hundred altogether, by the time the totality hit), even after the eclipse had begun, and us early-birds were already peering through our glasses at the gradually-diminishing crescent sun.  Some had come from Hopkinsville, up the road, with tales of being charged $50 to park (one enterprising Hopkinsvillian was charging folks $100 to sleep in their cars on his property), and by mid-morning Monday, the Hopkinsville authorities were refusing anyone new from setting up camp in their town, and so some of them were making their way to Princeton.

The little group of eclipse-chasers in our parking lot (about 20 carloads; maybe 40-50 folks in all) came from a variety of directions - several of us from Michigan (we spoke with people from Grand Rapids and the Detroit suburbs), Ohio (we had folks from Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Dayton) and Indiana, as well as a group from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and one gentleman who was there with his teenaged son from the UK (they had planned a two-week tour of the US, with the eclipse as the centerpiece).

We had a couple of friends from OurTown who were on similar pilgrimages to ours - one on the bluffs above the Missisippi river in southern Illinois, and another in a park in northwest Missouri (I have no idea why they chose those locations; we chose Princeton because it was about the shortest travel distance for us).  Through the morning, we were trading texts with each other, describing our respective travels, and our viewing locations.

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The eclipse itself began at 11:55 AM, at which point we could just see a little wrinkle of less-than-perfect roundness in one quadrant of the sun's disk.  For the next hour or so, we wandered around from one car-group to the next, talking about our past eclipsian experiences, the sundry travel experiences that had brought us to Princeton that morning, or just talking about the weather or our families, in between pausing every few minutes to take another look at the steadily shrinking solar crescent.  Jenn and I were parked next to Pete and Marie from Cincinnati, a couple about our age with six children, and their youngest in high school, so we had some common ground to talk about.

By about an hour into the eclipse, the moon was covering about 70-80% of the sun's disk, and it was noticeable that the ambient light was significantly dimmer than normal.  Not long after that, we began to notice that the temperature, which had begun the day at an oppressive level, was positively comfortable.  With five minutes to go until totality, the sun was a thin sliver in the sky, and the ambient light was like the dusk just after sunset.

As it got closer and closer to the moment of totality, we could almost see the thin sliver of sunlight visibly shrinking, until, at the last instant, we saw the brilliant 'diamond ring' as the sun's corona became visible, and the last sparkle of sunlight made a bright flare, looking just like a diamond on a ring.  And then, an instant later, the sun went out.

(I didn't take this, but it was taken yesterday, and is basically what we saw)

Annie Dillard, in a wonderful essay in the Atlantic, about the 1979 eclipse in Yakima, Washington, wrote about an onrushing wall of shadow as the eclipse overtook her.  We didn't see anything like that.  For us, the last moments of sunlight were like someone wringing the last bits of light out of the air.  One moment, we were standing there, seeing each other's faces, and an instant later, it was dark.

A joyful shout went up all through the town for maybe ten seconds or so, and then it became quiet for the rest of the totality, as we all strained to absorb the entire experience.  The sky became deep blue, not quite black.  The street lights came on, but were not in the least an impediment to viewing the eclipse.  Venus shone brightly to the west of the sun.  I took a quick scan of the sky to see if any other stars were visible, but Venus was the only one we saw (we consulted an online star chart on our way home, and it indicated that a few others should have been visible; but from the chart, it seems they may have been hidden from our view by the courthouse).

And dominating the sky, directly above the courthouse, like something out of Back to the Future, was the black circle of the moon blotting out the sun, with the thin white ring of the solar corona surrounding it.  It's a little embarrassing, but to be perfectly, brutally candid, I've seen enough 'simulated' eclipse videos in my life, that it was a little hard at first to grasp that the celestial wonder I was witnessing was actually real.  But it was. Oh, yes; it was definitely real.

Two minutes and forty seconds after the sun disappeared, suddenly we had another brilliant 'diamond ring' flash, and then the sequence of the last seconds before totality was reprised, in reverse.  The group gave another round of applause to the sun, the dusky light returned, and it began to get warmer again.  We spent a few minutes watching the crescent sun growing back, as the moon slowly moved on, uncovering the sun and allowing it to shine once again.  Our little parking-lot community circulated around, shaking hands and thanking each other for sharing the experience, wishing each other a safe trip home.  And within a remarkably short time, folks had packed their cars back up, and the community of eclipse-watchers morphed into a line of cars heading out of town, back toward the freeway, and back, in a hundred directions, to their homes.

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Our trip home was a good deal more, uh, gruelling than our trip down had been.  On the inbound journey, we were all coming at different times, and stopping at different places along the way.  But we were all leaving at basically the same time.  And, for those of us headed north across the Ohio River, there are only a limited number of bridges by which to cross the river, and they're mostly in cities.  It took us an hour to travel the last five miles to the bridge back into Evansville (and there was even construction on the bridge itself).  So we arrived home almost two hours later than we'd planned.

But we had seen the total eclipse; we had seen the moon blot out the sun, and darkness at mid-day.  We had seen the spectacular black orb, and the diamond ring; all of it.  The wonder of God's creation.  Awesome, magnificent, once-in-a-lifetime; it took our breath away. . .

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There will be another total eclipse in the US in 2024, and even closer to us, passing through Indianapolis, Cleveland and Buffalo.  It should only take us 2-3 hours to drive into the Path of Totality for that one.  But you know, it's not guaranteed that I'll still be here in seven years (I hope and  even expect to be, but it is not guaranteed), and if I am, it's not guaranteed that the weather will co-operate then, either.  So, I am glad to have seen this one. Totally, totally worth it (you see what I did there. . .)

Thanks again to our wonderfully gracious hosts in Princeton, KY.  You all went above and beyond the call of duty, and I am grateful. . .

Monday, August 14, 2017

Another Eclipse Post. . .

As we draw closer to The Great American Eclipse of 2017, a few thoughts are percolating in my brain (which is not quite as painful as it sounds). . .

Of course, a solar eclipse happens when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, and what's so complicated about that?  But when I think about it. . . It is at least a colossal conincidence (or is it?) that the moon and the sun are almost exactly the same size, when viewed from here on earth.  The moon is about a quarter the diameter of the earth, and the sun is about 100 times bigger than Earth.  But the sun is about 400 times farther from the earth than the moon, so they look to be about the same apparent size.  If the moon were a little bit smaller, or a little farther from earth, it would never be able to cover the sun (and all eclipses would be like the one in '94 that passed near OurTown).

Eclipses always correspond with a New Moon - when the moon passes from one side of the sun (viewed from our persepctive here on earth) to the other.  In fact, if the moon's orbit were coplanar with the earth's (i.e. perfectly 'flat' to earth's orbit), every new moon would result in an eclipse.  But because the moon's orbit is tilted by 6 degrees relative to the earth's, the moon sometimes passes above the sun, sometimes below it.  If the earth were bigger (I don't really know how much bigger would be 'big enough'), then the likelihood of the moon's shadow crossing the earth would increase, and there would be more eclipses.  As it is, total eclipses occur roughly every 1-2 years, somwhere on the planet (and the fact that it's been almost 100 years for the US means we're WAY overdue) (but, to make up for it, the next one comes less than seven years from now, in April 2024). . .

So, an eclipse happens when a new moon corresponds to the moon being at a point where its orbit is crossing the earth's orbit (or at least, 'close enough' to it).  And where the eclipse falls on the surface of the earth just depends on which part of the earth is turned toward the sun at the moment.  Next week just happens to be when our turn comes up here in the good ol' USA, for the first time in virtually a century.

It blows my mind a little bit that things like eclipses are mathematically predictable, to a high degree of precision.  I mean, we know when the eclipse is going to happen and where it's going to happen.  There are published maps, showing the path of totality, and how wide it is, and which towns are in the path of totality, and which are just outside it.  If you're on the southwest side of St. Louis, you'll see the totality; if you're on the northeast side, you'll just miss it, and we know that before it even happens.  We know how the eclipse will progress across the country, starting in Oregon around 10:15 AM Pacific Time, and ending in South Carolina about an hour-and-a-half later, mid-afternoon Eastern Time.  We know that the totality will last for just longer than two minutes (two minutes and 40+ seconds in Missouri/Illinois/Kentucky, where Jenn and I will (hopefully) be).  I mean, that's knowing an awful lot about how it's all going to happen, and it was known years, even decades ago. . .

Jenn and I are laying our plans to drive down next Sunday afternoon/evening.  We'll actually be staying with an old blogger-friend who lives not too far from the path of totality (but not actually inside it), then getting up early on Monday to fight the (hopefully not TOO awful) traffic, and settle in a decently favorable location from which to track the progress.  The long-range forecast, at least as of today, is pretty favorable for good viewing.  Hopefully, it will stay that way.  Then, sometime around 1:30 or so, the lights will go out.  And that's what I'm waiting to see. . .

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And of course, there are those who are just unclear on the concept. . .

In the meantime, I'm trying not to get too irritated with Jenn singing that old Bonnie Tyler song, over and over and over and over. . .

Monday, August 7, 2017

Signs In the Sky

By now, most of you, or at least some of you (okay, the nerds among you) have heard about the total solar eclipse that is due to happen on August 21, two weeks from today.  This is the first total eclipse visible in the continental United States since June of 1918, nearly a century ago.  So it's a pretty big deal, as eclipses go.  Over a narrow band maybe 50 miles wide, stretching from the Oregon coast to South Carolina, the moon will blot out the sun, for as much as two-and-a-half minutes, stretched over a couple hours, from coast to coast.

Jenn and I are planning to drive down to Hopkinsville, KY (about 8-9 hours drive time from OurTown), braving what will probably be pretty brutal traffic, at least by Hopkinsville standards.  Depending on what we see in the weather reports the day before, we could end up anywhere from Illinois to Tennessee, or just stay home, if we see that the eclipse path will be clouded under.  But we are looking forward hopefully to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the sun blotted out in mid-day.  I'll certainly blog about it, once we get back. . .

But until then, I'll whet your appetite with a few reminiscences of heavenly phenomena I've been witness to in the course of my young life. . .

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The earliest solar eclipse I can remember happened in July of 1963, when I was seven years old.  Our family was vacationing at a beach resort near what would soon become our hometown UpNorth.  In retrospect, my dad was probably interviewing for the job that would have us moving there the following November (just after the Kennedy assassination), and his bosses wanted to impress upon him the pleasantness of life on the Big Lake, in the midst of the North Woods.

Anyway, seven-year-old me was mostly happy to splash around in the Big Lake, among the sandbars and whitecaps; I recall it being sunny and warm for our entire stay there.  Then one day, folks gathered on the beach, with an air of excitement, talking about 'the Eclipse'.  Precocious (read: nerdy) child that I was, I had read age-appropriate astronomy books (maybe even a year or two above my grade-level), and knew what an eclipse was (at least in theory), but I had never seen one live and in-person.  My dad was a pretty mechanically-clever guy, and he rigged up an eclipse-viewing box, with a pinhole on one end, and a 'screen' of white cardboard on the opposite end (which, honestly, didn't require that much mechanical cleverness, but still. . .), so we could watch as the 'bite' the moon was taking out of the sun grew.  At that location, the eclipse reached a maximum of something like 85% totality.

There was much dire hand-wringing among the adults that we MUST NOT look directly at the sun, lest we go blind, so dad's little box-viewer was what we had available.  But, naughty boy that I was, I snuck off for a minute or two. I had, from time to time in my young life, squinted with my eyes just barely slitted open, and looked straight at the sun for a couple seconds, so I had reason to doubt the whole 'going blind' thing.  I wondered briefly if there were some sort of special rays or something associated with the eclipse, but decided that I'd done it before, and if I did it again just now, it probably wouldn't be any different.  So I did - just enough to confirm for myself that, viewed directly, through my tightly-slitted eyelids, the sun looked pretty much the same as what we saw in dad's box, so I was mainly content to view the eclipse via the box, for the rest of the duration of the eclipse, although I probably risked a couple more quick views through slitted eyelids.  I think one of the men at the resort had a welding hood with him, which was quite popular with the other vacationers present. . .

Anyway, it was very cool.  As the eclipse approached its maximum totality, the light had a strange, ethereal dimness about it - sort of twilight-ish, except that the sun was high in the sky, and shadows were mid-day short.  Very cool. . .

The event probably stayed in my brain because of the vacation aspect of it, combined with (especially) my mother's anxiety over my impending blindness.  Or, you know, maybe I'm just a nerd. . .

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In the course of 50-plus years since that first eclipse, I've experienced several other solar eclipses; this will be the sixth one in my lifetime to be more than 70% here in Michigan.  Some of them I've taken notice of, some of them came and went without me noticing much.  But there was another one, in May of '94, that is worth telling a story about. . .

The eclipse of '94 was an annular eclipse, meaning that the moon's disk was slightly smaller than the sun's disk (i.e., the moon was at a farther point in its orbit), so it wouldn't completely cover the sun.  But the path of maximum eclipse passed very close to OurTown, so the local news was in more-than-normal 'hype mode' for it.  One of the articles mentioned that a Number 14 welding shade was sufficient to allow viewing of the sun.  So I went to a local welding-supply store, and asked for a Number 14 shade.  "Number 14?" the guy said, when I asked him.  "Jeez, what are you trying to do?  Look at the sun?"  Well, yeah, I said.  "Well, I don't have a Number 14," the guy continued, "but if you slap a Number 6 and a Number 8 together, that's a 14; that ought to work.  I asked if he had a 6 and an 8 handy, so I could check it out.  He handed them to me, and I went out to the parking lot, put the 6 and the 8 together, and looked through them up at the sun, and saw the clear, green-tinted disk of the sun, at a comfortably dim brightness, comparable to the night-lights in my kids' bedrooms.  So the man had himself a sale. . .

A group of 5 or 6 of us played hooky from work for a couple hours on the day of the eclipse and drove to the county fairgrounds, maybe 15 miles from our office, and watched the familiar progression of the moon taking an ever-larger bite out of the sun, while the light took on the other-worldly dimness that I'd been through a few times by then.  At its peak, the sun was 96% blocked out, so the dimness was even more ethereal than usual that day.  My Number 14 welding shade was quite popular with my fellow-truants.

Our location at the fairgrounds was in what was called the 'Graze Zone', where the edge of the lunar disk just 'grazed' the edge of the solar disk, producing a very cool effect. At the height of the eclipse, the sun 'peeked through' the valleys between the lunar mountains, producing a 'string of pearls' effect, with a series of tiny pinpoints of light arrayed in an arc between the 'horns' of the thin crescent of the sun that remained visible.  And we saw it live, mitigated only by the green welding shade. . .


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Up to now, that 'string of pearls' is probably the coolest thing I've ever seen in the sky, although a few other things deserve at least a mention. . .

Halley's Comet came by in 1986, right on schedule, with all the hype that you would expect for a well-known once-in-a-lifetime event.  We have friends who have a farm 30 miles or so from OurTown (away from city lights), so we arranged a Halley's Comet viewing party with them, and the kids we both had at the time.  We actually stayed overnight at their house, and got up at 5AM, to catch the viewing window between when Halley would rise over the eastern horizon, and when the dawn's early light would wash it out.  It was pretty deep in winter at the time, so we ended up trudging across their barnyard in the snow (at 5AM), with temperatures hovering around 10 degrees or so (Fahrenheit; about -12C).

And Halley was pretty much of a dud.  We consulted our star charts, to be sure that we were looking in the right part of the sky, pointed our binoculars at the correct sector of the sky, and saw. . . a little smudge of light that wasn't on the chart.  That's all - just a little smudge.  We had to look several times to convince ourselves that it wasn't just a snowflake on the binoculars.  Once we had convinced ourselves that, by golly, that little smudge was Halley's Comet, we sighed, declared victory, and trudged back to the house to go back to bed.  While our kids wondered what the hell we had hauled them out into the frozen night for. . .

But in 1997, Hale-Bopp was a comet actually worth watching.  I think it took even the astronomer-types by surprise by how bright and prominent it was.  For weeks, there was this large, sort-of V-shaped apparition in the evening sky, visible even walking amid the bright lights of OurTown.  Nothing ambiguous or smudge-y about this one.  Very cool - the best comet I've seen in my young life. . .

In 2012, there was a Transit of Venus, in which Venus passed across the disk of the sun.  It happened rather late in the day here in Michigan, so I took my Number 14 shade to work with me, and at a suitably remote location on my drive home, I pulled off the highway and took a look at the sun.  And sure enough, there was a small black dot in the middle of the sun's disk - Venus, doing its very best to block out the sun (which amounted to something on the order of a 0.1% eclipse).  Not nearly as spectacular as even a partial eclipse, but very cool, nevertheless. . .

(There was also a transit of Mercury just last year, but it happened at an inconvenient time (early in the morning), so I missed it.  Plus, Mercury is both smaller than Venus, and farther from Earth, so it's harder to see.  But I wanted you all to know that I knew about it. . .)

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There are others, I'm sure (I recall a pretty cool triple conjunction involving Mars, Jupiter and the moon, I think), but those are the major highlights of my sky-viewing experience so far.  At least until August 21, I hope. . .


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Progress Marches On. . .

"Our grandparents did not have ultrasounds, so they wondered about the sex of a child before it was born.  We are more sophisticated now.  We wonder about it after."

          - Anthony Esolen, professor at (for now) Providence College

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Misadventures in Flying. . .

The headlines in recent days and weeks have been filled with stories of airline misadventures - people getting dragged off planes by the police, fistfights between passengers, rude treatment from flight staff, and on and on.  I really can't relate to much of what we're seeing lately - Jenn and I have flown exactly twice since 9/11, and while air travel wasn't exactly pleasant back in the day, it has gotten noticeably less pleasant since then.  Anyway, the recent stories remind me of one egregious tale of airborne awfulness. . .

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It was June of 1998, and my youngest brother was getting married in Missoula, Montana.  Jenn and I duly made our plans to fly out and be with my family in celebration of the joyous nuptials.  7M was 2 months old at the time, and in those days, you could still take an infant-in-arms on a plane, well, in-arms, without a child-seat (or, more relevantly to the cash-flow, another ticket).

In the week or so before our flight, a couple of our friends, who flew a lot more than we did, came to us, asking which airline we were flying on.  It turned out that the pilots' union for the airline which, indeed, we were flying on, was approaching the end of their contract, and had set a strike deadline for the weekend we were travelling.  Naive as we were, we didn't overly concern ourselves over it, and continued with our travel plans as if nothing was up.

Flying to Missoula from OurTown was a bit of an ordeal, all by itself, involving two planes, and four separate take-offs and landings.  From OurTown, we flew to another Michigan airport, about a 20-minute flight (and east of OurTown, so we began our journey traveling backwards.).  From there we flew to Minneapolis, where we changed planes and flew to Great Falls, Montana.  At this point, we were starting to relax, since it was only another 30 minutes or so in the air to Missoula.  We landed in Great Falls, and stayed on the plane, taking on a few more passengers, then taking off to our final destination.

Now, Missoula sits in a little bowl in the mountains, and whereas it had been bright and sunny all the way from OurTown to Great Falls and beyond, it was cloudy and rainy at Missoula (such are the climatological vagaries of mountainous terrain).  Even so, we broke through the bottom of the clouds, and the whole valley laid out below us.  We could even see the lights of the airport.  So we began to pack and stow our stuff in preparation to land.  The plane began its descent, and about halfway down, the pilot suddenly pulled up, aborting his landing, and went back into a holding pattern, informing us that conditions weren't favorable, but he would line up and try again.  We started down once more, but this time, he pulled up even sooner, telling us over the intercom that flight rules required 1000 feet visibility to land, but visibility was only 995 feet, so he was taking us back to Great Falls.  Which he did.

We arrived back at Great Falls (it was still bright and sunny), and taxied to the terminal building.  But not to a jetway.  Or any other means of leaving the plane.  The pilot engaged in some, uh, negotiations with his bosses about getting back in the air, and getting us all to Missoula.  While we sat in our seats on the plane.  For an hour.  With the plane powered down.  Including the air conditioning.  Finally, the pilot came back on the intercom, and told us that he was going to try to take us back to Missoula, even though conditions there hadn't improved, and he personally didn't think it was wise.

So we took off again, and in 30 minutes we were back at the bowl in the mountains where Missoula sits.  Again, the pilot made an attempt to land, but pulled up halfway down.  From the holding pattern, he told us that he'd make one more run, and this time, he descended virtually to ground level.  Except that, when we got to the airport, we were about 20 feet off the ground - AND THE RUNWAY WAS 20 YARDS TO OUR LEFT!!  He flew along in that configuration for virtually the entire length of the runway, before pulling back up, announcing that it just wasn't safe to land in Missoula that day, and took us back to Great Falls.  Again.

When we arrived back at Great Falls this time, we got off the plane, and the airline hastily arranged a fleet of buses to convey us all to Missoula.

The bus ride was pleasant enough, as bus rides go, but it was three hours, instead of the 30 minute flight we'd signed on for (and which - bonus points! - we'd already done twice, and twice more in reverse).  It twisted and wound through some beautiful montains.  At one point, the driver came on the intercom to tell us that just over the ridge to our left was the Unabomber cabin, so you know, more bonus points.

We eventually arrived in Missoula, just in time for dessert at the rehearsal dinner, and about five times more bedraggled than we started out.  The wedding the next day was lovely (some years later, Jenn and I rented the movie A River Runs Through It; the church in the movie is the same one in which my brother and his wife were married), and the day after the wedding, my brother took us for a hike in the mountains, which was pure bonus points.

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The airline and the union settled their differences over the weekend, and we returned home without incident.

But there remains a special place in Purgatory for the pilot who used the lives of a plane-load of passengers as a bargaining chip that day.  Oh, he made a nice show of following the rules (that last 5 feet of visibility made all the difference, I'm sure), and he gave us a nice stunt-flying performance (flying 20 feet off the ground, exactly parallel to the runway; if he could do that, he could land the plane on the runway; asshole), which we were privileged to view from inside the plane, no less.  And he used up six hours of our lives in the process.  All to flip the bird at his bosses.  What a guy!  But hey, we got to drive past the Unabomber cabin, and we did eventually get to Missoula, so there's that. . .


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Talkin' Baseball. . .

Baseball season has begun, and that's always an occasion of joy in my own psyche.  I grew up loving baseball, and had some middling success at it, mostly before I was 15.  Once the other guys hit puberty, and started throwing real curveballs, and fastballs too fast for me to get around on, I sighed, learned how to drink beer, and moved over to the softball diamond.

Since I've been a father to sons, I've taken a lot of joy from watching my sons play (I've enjoyed watching my daughters play, too, but none of them played baseball; or even softball. . .).  All of my boys have been ballplayers, and among them, they've had at least as much success as I did in my day; and, what I'm happier about, they've come to love the game almost as much as I do.  My three oldest boys all learned how to play catcher, because I told them that coaches love a kid who'll volunteer to catch (and I wasn't even a catcher; but I did coach for a couple years).  I took 'em to see the local minor league team a few times every summer, and I'd point out to 'em how the catcher would subtly 'drag' a pitch into the strike zone, and sometimes get his pitcher a strike call that wasn't quite, uh, true.  And the first time I saw one of my sons do that in a Little League game (it wasn't exactly even minor-league subtle, but it worked on the teenage ump who was calling the game that day), I burst out laughing, which is to say, busting my buttons with pride. . .

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But that's not really the story I set out to tell you today.  It's really just setting the stage for me to tell you about my friend Todd. . .

I first met Todd probably about 10 years or so ago, when his son and mine were on a Little League baseball team together.  For most of that time, our relationship has been defined by our mutual fatherhood of athletically-inclined boys.  7M and Todd's son Joel were on baseball, basketball and football teams together, roughly from age 9 all the way through high school, and were often among the better players on the field for their respective teams.  I blogged five years or so ago about a memorable weekend of baseball, during which their team won six games in two days, in 95-degree heat, winning the championship with a suicide squeeze play in the bottom of the final inning of the final game.  Todd was the coach of that team (and I had some complimentary words regarding his, um, endowment afterward).  When Joel and 7M were on the high school football team, Todd and I ended up sitting together for most of the games, all the way to the state finals their junior year (they lost), and another run to the state semifinals their senior year.  And along the way, Todd and I built a really nice friendship.  We had both grown up as jocks of one degree or another (his degree was a lot higher than mine, at least in terms of actual athletic success), and we enjoyed talking through the games with each other.  When our sons graduated, our two families joined together for their open house.

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Todd is a bear of a man, thick and muscular, and strong as an ox.  You can easily imagine him as a football player, and he was.  But his first love was baseball, and as a young man, he had more-than-modest success.  When he was in high school, he was probably the second-best high-school ballplayer in Our Town.  The best was a young man named John Smoltz.  Todd played for the Catholic high school, and he and Smoltz were actually teammates during their freshman year.  After that, though, young Mr. Smoltz moved to Waverly High across town, and he and Todd would play against each other a few times every season.  As you might imagine, Smoltz cut quite a swath through the baseball world of Our Town, as all future major-leaguers do.  But Todd held his own, and even hit a home run (or two?) off young Smoltz.  In those days, John Smoltz was the kind of high-school pitcher that young ballplayers would congratulate themselves for even fouling a pitch back off him, to say nothing of actually putting the ball in play.  Much less getting an actual hit; much less hitting a home run.

I don't know what happened with Todd's baseball career after high school, if he ever played college ball, or what.  I don't think he ever got a pro contract.  For at least the past 20 years or so, Todd's life has been the typical, ordinary grind of work and raising kids.  And putting in his time on aluminum bleachers, sitting next to me, watching our kids play. . .

John Smoltz, on the other hand, did get a pro contract, and went on to a distinguished 21-year major-league career, virtually all with the Atlanta Braves.  He was eight times an All-Star, pitched in five World Series (winning one), and won a Cy Young Award as the National League's best pitcher in 1996.  Pretty rarefied air for a guy who grew up playing on the sandlots of Our Town.  Heck, along with Magic Johnson, he's one of the most distinguished athletes to ever come from here. . .

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Since our sons graduated from high school last spring, I've seen less of Todd, but we still enjoy the occasions when we bump into each other.  Two summers ago, John Smoltz was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.  A short time after that, I bumped into Todd, and he started reminiscing about when he and John Smoltz had been the two best ballplayers in Our Town, back in the day.  So I stopped him, and said, "You know what this means, don't you?"

He looked at me.  "What?"

"You hit a home run off a Hall of Famer."

He grinned, as big a grin as I've seen him grin (and he's got a pretty big smile, just normally).  "I did, didn't I?  How many guys can say that?"

Indeed, my friend. . . Not very many, indeed. . .

Friday, February 3, 2017

Howcum Izzit. . .

. . . That so much of what I see flying under the banner of 'Love Trumps Hate' looks more like 'My Hate is Cooler than Your Hate'?

Just, you know, askin'. . .

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And, under the heading of 'People Coming Unhinged', you have people (more than one, including a former official in the Obama administration) publicly advocating the military overthrow of the President of the United States.

I mean, wouldn't it be easier just to move to Chile, or Uganda?