Monday, January 30, 2006

People on the Trail

The air was warm; the sky was blue; the sun was shining from the sky. It was a good day for an afternoon run, and the number of people on the trail showed it.

There was the well dressed man, who hangs out at a certain bench along the path. He was saying he wished he had the energy of that jumping dog.

There were the running parents, each pushing a jogging stroller with siblings of unknown age.

There were the hardcore runners, two men and a woman, stretching and talking after their workouts.

There were the after work friends meeting under the highway and going for a jog while they caught up on each others' lives.

There was the old couple, walking slowly on the trail, she guiding the way, he watching each step carefully and leaning a bit on his walking stick.

There was the bike rider who almost wiped out as he whizzed past and around the runners.

There was the made-up woman who wore a grey sweatshirt (on that warm day) with thick matching eye shadow.

And there was the tired man sitting and half stretching and half people watching with his dog tied to his waist. The dog sniffed at the man's mouth. The man said something to the dog, and you could almost see the dog smile. I bet the man's breath was ripe, and the dog knew it. I know the man's breath was bad. My dog told me so.

Town Lake Hike and Bike Trails
Austin, TX

9:16:32 PM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []  

 Friday, January 27, 2006


You're a VIP!? a man asked us, enviously eyeing the badges that hung from our necks on yellow straps.

Yes, but it's not like we worked with the science. It's not like we had any hand in the engineering or logistics. We were just friends. But by that stoke of fortune, we got yellow straps and badges that would let us in as VIPs to watch the New Horizons launch to Pluto. And even though our vantage point turned out to be farther away than anyone had thought it would be, we would do it again in a pinch.

Let me tell you why.

On the third day, the sun was shining thru a broken deck of clouds at 3600 feet. The wind was chilly, but when the sun came out it warmed our backs.

We sat on a long wharf that reached out into the lagoon. We sat with hotdogs in our hands, our legs hanging over the side of the dock, and our eyes on the distant rocket. And we listened to the firing room audio over speakers set up on shore.

As we sat and watched and listened, the winds and clouds conspired to delay the launch in increments of ten and 15 minutes. An hour and a half passed. But eventually there came the time when the launch director polled his team for a final go/no-go.

He called the engineers one by one in rapid succession. One by one they responded, Go! And when they got to the Red Line Monitor, he was Go! And there was a sigh of relief in the crowd, for a red line violation had aborted the launch two days before. After a moment of silence, the launch director announced he was Go, and the count resumed at T minus four minutes and counting.

Waves on the water rippled gently in the breeze. Clouds glided across a blue sky. The countdown proceeded.

3 minutes and counting
2 minutes and counting
Ignition and liftoff!

Far in the distance, clouds of exhaust and steam puffed up from the base of the launch pad. There was a bright orange flash, and the white rocket in the distance began to rise.

As it climbed, the crowd around us cheered. Over the speakers, we heard the roar of the rocket, but from that point over the water, there was nothing but silence and the ripple of the waves. The rocket climbed into the air, leaving a trail of smoke to mark its trajectory -- a bright orange flame at the top of a curving line leaning out over the ocean.

20 seconds into the flight, the rocket disappeared behind a white cloud. Several seconds later, it reappeared over the top as a flash of orange and then disappeared again only to reappear as another flash of orange followed by a smokey trail.

At 55 seconds, we heard a rumble, and the ground seemed to shake. It started quietly but quickly grew louder -- the roar of launch dissipated by the 12 miles between us. We marvelled out loud that the sound would be so loud after travelling so far across the water.

And none of us took our eyes from the sky until it had climbed high into the sky and was finally lost behind the clouds over the ocean to the east. None of us took our eyes from the sky until then.

And that is why we would do it again in a pinch. Because even from that distance, we couldn't take our eyes away.

NASA Kennedy Space Center
Cape Canaveral, Florida
for the New Horizons/Pluto launch

11:32:43 PM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []  

 Thursday, January 26, 2006

Twelve Miles Away

On the third day, when we got to the front of the line for the buses to take us to the stands to view the launch, a man came walking up and made an announcement. He told us we wouldn't be going to the viewing stands after all.

There was silence in the ranks. We were trying to figure out what he meant.

We wouldn't be going to the stands where we had been two days before, because the safety guys were worried about the wind and the rocket plume. So he told us they were going to take us someplace else, someplace 12 miles from the pad.

There was silence in the ranks. We were trying to figure out what he meant.

Twelve miles away?

We didn't have to get on the buses, he said. We could stay at the visitor's center and watch from there.

Twelve miles away?

The center was closer, he said. But there was no direct line of sight to the pad. And if the clouds didn't break entirely, the rocket might be behind them before it cleared the treetops. So if we stayed behind, we might not see it at all.

Twelve miles away.

We took the bus. And although we did indeed have a direct line of sight (over water) to the pad, and although there was plenty of room still on the dock in the bay when we got there, we were far enough away that the rocket was merely a small white spot on the horizon.

Twelve miles away. ...I kept my thoughts to myself.

Cape Canaveral, Florida
waiting for the New Horizons/Pluto launch

10:11:51 PM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []  

 Wednesday, January 25, 2006

A Story About Animals

They want a story about animals.

Trudy says to write about the alligator we saw from the bus, the little one who was sunning himself in the mud beside the water.

Ben says to write about the armadillo, the one the bus driver announced that caused all the people to rush to the right side of the bus to see. An armadillo, for heavens sake! The bus driver pointed it out and all the people strained to see, while the three of us sat in our seats on the left, un- particularly impressed.

And now, Trudy reminds me about the dolphin she saw playing in the morning surf twenty yards offshore (now she says it was feeding) while her lame husband slept, and the boy, too. How sad, that she was alone as the sun rose out of the the ocean. (Now she says it wasn't so sad.)

Trudy, Ben says, every time we make a comment, he writes it down.

That's enough, David, she says.

And that is the story of the animals.

in and around Cocoa Beach, Florida
while we were waiting for the rocket to launch

11:10:48 PM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []  

 Tuesday, January 24, 2006

On Scrub Jay Trail

We had the day off, since the rocket launch had been scrubbed. So we spent the afternoon outside.

There were no manatees to be seen from the observation deck along the canal. Perhaps it was because the sun was getting low and the manatees had sought out warmer places. Perhaps it was the murkiness of the water. Perhaps it was the rising tide that made the canal flow backwards. Whatever it was, the manatees weren't there, so we didn't stay long either.

Just off Route 3 and then down Bio Lab road, we turned left down a two-rut road, two long lines of white coastal sand that ran thru the scattered Palm and Scrub Oaks and the scattered stands of Pine. At the end of the road there was a gravel parking lot and a trail head. This was Scrub Jay Trail.

We got out of the car and started down the path, walking single file. There was a sweet smell in the air that made us breathe deeply and smile. Periodically there was unseen scurrying in the underbrush. And as the sun sunk lower, its golden light dazzled from between the trunks of distant trees.

The path wound around, gradually looping left toward the open water of Mosquito Lagoon. Here and there we encountered yet narrower paths leading down to the water, paths where you would have to duck your head, paths where you could not quite see where your next footsteps would take you.

Shall we take this path? I asked.

It was a chilly day, and with the sun barely shining thru the undergrowth, the warmth of the day was gone. Certainly no alligators would be about now, with the sun so low and the air so cold. What harm could there be in going down to the water's edge? I took two steps down the path and then stopped and thought about it a little more. Then I turned back, leaving it to whatever intrepid souls had forged that path in the first place.

Across the lagoon, last light illuminated the tops of the tallest palms and pines. Their brown trunks and olive green fronds and needles were capped with a golden glow. As we walked further and the sun sunk lower, the glow diminished until at last it was gone and the day began to fade to dusk.

There was silence all around us, except for the sound of Ben lagging behind us humming a tune and whacking at the marsh grass with a stick he had taken a liking to -- a stick he would later pack with loving care into the bottom of his suitcase for the flight back to Texas. He would lag farther and farther behind until we were just about to disappear around a turn, and then he'd jog to catch up with us, thumping loudly in his hiking shoes, bringing the racket of his grass-whacking with him. Yes, there was silence all around us.

With the setting of the sun and the passing of its lingering light, it was time to leave. Before long, the path led us back to where we started. We stomped our feet to get rid of the sand from our shoes, and we drove back down that two-rut road, back out to civilization, and back to our motel in Cocoa Beach, where we would walk some more on the beach and then collapse into bed, hoping that the rocket would launch successfully tomorrow.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

10:15:00 PM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []  

 Monday, January 23, 2006

Afternoon in the Tidewaters

On the morning of the second day, we went to Waffle House. (Actually, we went there for breakfast every day, but that's another story.) And when Ben was done with his waffles and Trudy was done with her fried eggs and grits and I was done with my cheesy eggs and pork chops, we got up to pay the bill.

You heard, didn't you?

Four people were seated next to the cash register, and they all had VIP badges hanging from their necks just as we did. They were looking up at us with serious expressions on their faces.

You heard that they scrubbed the launch, didn't you? said the woman closest to us.

We hadn't heard, and frankly we weren't willing to take their word for it. We had come this far, and it was hard to imagine how we'd kick ourselves if we took their word for it and it turned out to be wrong. So we thanked them but drove to the visitor's center anyway, where we were promptly informed that the launch had been scrubbed.

Although the rain from the night before was gone and the sky was a cloudless blue, the cold front had hit Baltimore hard, and the science center was running on backup power. You don't launch when your systems are already running on backup power. So they scrubbed. And we got a day off.

Leaving the world of rockets and interplanetary spacecraft, we spent the day at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. As it turned out, we ended up being rushed for time and only got part of the afternoon, but that also is another story. In any event, our afternoon there was time well spent. We checked out a pair of 7x binoculars from the ranger station and took a long, slow driving tour along a dirt road thru the mud flats and hammocks of the refuge.

You should have seen us when we came across two Roseate Spoonbills.

There they were standing in shallow water sweeping their bills back and forth thru the water, periodically tossing their heads back in the air. The sunlight was dancing on the ripples of water stirred up by the wind, and it illuminated the birds in a way no words or picture can capture.

The pink of their plumage was a gentle pastel. A dark streak of fuchsia ran down their sides. And sometimes when they turned their tails to the wind, the breeze ruffled their feathers and the sunlight shined thru, making them glow in the afternoon light.

Left and right, left and right, they worked their greenish bills thru the water, oblivious to our presence only 30 yards away. And it's not like we were being subtle; we were plastered to the windows. Ben was snapping pictures as Trudy and I at first gawked in silence, and then began offering photo advice.

Take that picture.

Take a picture now!

From the outside, we must have been a sight to see, although the Spoonbills didn't especially seem to care.

Behind the Spoonbills, there were black Koots with white beaks. And there were Brown Pelicans flying in formation overhead and landing in the tidewaters. There were Great Blue Herons and Green Herons and Tricolored Herons. And there were Cattle Egrets and Snowy Egrets. There were White Ibis. There were Ospreys flying overhead and Ospreys perched on poles and limbs. And there was a Bald Eagle nest large enough for a double bed in a pine tree far in the distance.

But the Spoonbills. It was the Spoonbills who slew us on that afternoon in the tidewaters.

And we plan to go back someday.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

11:52:50 PM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []  

 Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Beach in Cocoa Beach

As we walked outside, the sun was just going down behind the palm trees and buildings in the west. The sky was ablaze with brilliant pink on blue. We marvelled at the colors and then walked to the beach on the other side of the motel.

Some people were cooking their dinner on the grill. Two kids tossed a baseball back and forth. Beyond a low fence the dune grass was waving in the wind, and beyond the dunes, two-foot waves thundered as they pounded the beach. The sea foam was lit bright white in the last light of day, and the waves glowed emerald/pea green.

A shrimp boat was sitting far offshore, its trawling gear hanging limply off one side. Further out to sea, the Disney cruise ship was leaving port. We had passed it on our way into town and noticed smoke coming from one of its two red stacks. It was a floating city, with swimming pools and high-rise apartments with balconies looking out over the ocean.

Ben had underestimated the coolness of the ocean breeze. Although Trudy and I wore jackets, he had only his T-shirt, and he cowered behind me trying to keep out of the wind. We turned to leave, and Ben spotted a shell in the sand. He picked it up and showed it to me, marvelling at how perfect it was.

Tomorrow morning we planned to go beach combing, but now it was time to go to dinner. Ben put the shell in his pocket, and we walked back across the dunes.

Cocoa Beach, Florida before the New Horizons/Pluto launch

10:06:58 PM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []  


The Sea Aire motel was a pink, mostly one-story building that sat between the boulevard and the beach. Seaside you could grill burgers or sit in hanging swings and watch the thundering surf pound the sand. Streetside, there was a small parking lot that held half a dozen cars. Our room was in between.

We were hungry, but there we were on the beach with the sound of the surf coming from just beyond the dunes. So we took a quick walk in the sand. I mean, what else would you do in a place like that?

Dinner wasat one of the big hotels in Cocoa Beach. The New Horizons launch team was hosting a party in the Galaxy Room, and we were invited. There were engineers. There were scientists. There were spouses. There were friends. And there were kids running around. There was a slide show of the history of the project so far. There were scrumptious hors d'oeuvres. There were large racks of beef. There were big red strawberries and chocolate fondue.

Clyde Tombaugh's widow was there and his family. And Alan was there. I could hear his animated voice down the hall. When he turned and saw us, a smile broke out on his face. He shouted my name and gave me a hug. We had not seen each other for a very long time.

After a couple hours of munching and socializing, the crowd began to thin as the hour got late.

It was nighttime, and the sky was black. Orion periodically looked down on us thru broken clouds sailing in from the east. Far out in the water, the white lights of a ship and two trawlers shimmered on the horizon. Behind them, a mostly full moon was rising out of the eastern sea.

To the north, out of sight around the bend of Cape Canaveral, an Atlas V rocket was standing on its launch pad shining in white spot lights. It was waiting for tomorrow.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow was what we had come for. Tomorrow they were going to light that rocket and send a piano-sized spacecraft on a decade-long journey to the far reaches of the solar system, to a point somewhere up in that black, star-speckled sky where Pluto and Charon circle each other in silence.

Tomorrow. We had our fingers crossed.

At Cape Canveral before the New Horizons/Pluto launch

9:26:42 AM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []  

 Saturday, January 21, 2006

Antigua Tracking Station

We sat in the viewing stands and waited anxiously for the launch. The sky was blue with only a few clouds. The sun was warm, but a chilly wind out of the southeast was kicking up whitecaps on the water.

The target launch time slipped several times. Ground winds were gusting out of limits. A valve on the rockets seemed to be misbehaving. High altitude winds were too strong. And then there was a report that Antigua tracking station had fallen offline.

When I was a child we had a children's record album with short audio skits of great moments in American history. One of them was of Werner von Braun launching a rocket in which von Braun played himself.

Hello, adventurer, he said in a thick German accent as he invited us to witness the first launch of an American rocket.

As the countdown was nearing, he ran thru a checklist of all the tracking stations. I only remember one of them, and I can hear his voice clearly even now.

Antigua Tracking Station, come in, von Braun said. Antigua Tracking Station, come in.

I told this story to Trudy and Ben as we sat in the stands waiting for NASA to get Antigua back online. As we sat there one row from the top of the viewing stands, I shared that childhood memory with them and with the woman in front of us who was clearly listening.

Antigua Tracking Station, come in, I said with a German accent. Antigua Tracking Station, come in!

Ben and Trudy chuckled. The woman in front of us smiled.

I assume they got Antigua back, because a few minutes later the launch slipped again, but this time it was because of something else.

At Cape Canaveral for the New Horizons/Pluto launch

11:04:58 PM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []  

 Friday, January 20, 2006

Those Atlas Guys Are Good

Before he had a chance to catch his breath, I put one hand on his shoulder and held out my right to his.

Good luck, Alan I said, looking into his eyes, squeezing his hand firmly. Good luck.

This was the scheduled day of launch. Years of effort had converged on this time and this place for him and his colleagues and their friends and families. Untold numbers of meetings. Unspeakable numbers of email messages. They all led to this day.

He smiled as he looked back at me.

I've slept well at night. Those Atlas guys are good.

At Cape Canaveral for the New Horizons/Pluto launch

8:59:59 PM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []  

 Saturday, January 14, 2006

Group Hug Hello

It wasn't quite midnight when we got back to the hotel room.

There were minutes left to go, but pajama-clad kids in the rooms on either side of us were already yelling Happy New Year! as they dashed from room to room. Other kids in another room peered into the hallway from a barely open door, wishing they were part of the celebration out there.

We opened the door and began to get ready for bed, turning on the television for the last few minutes of the countdown, first watching the celebration in Toronto and then New York City.

When the glowing ball reached the bottom and the crowd began to cheer, Trudy looked at me and smiled. Ben was standing shirtless in a pair of sweatpants, looking at us as Trudy walked towards me.

As Trudy got near enough for us to hug, Ben dashed from his place on the other side of the room and inserted himself betweem is. And what was going to be a hug and a Happy New Year kiss became a family group hug saying hello to 2006.

Dec 2005 holidays in Ottawa

11:20:22 PM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []  

Group Hug Goodbye

Dinner went late into the night.

The bread and meats and rice, the sweet gulab jamin and fragrant cantaloupe, the hot chai, and the conversations (one at the adult-end of the table, and another at the kid-end) kept everyone distracted while the hours ticked away. In the blink of an eye, it was time to go.

As the adults pulled the final conversations together and began saying goodbyes, the kids gathered on one side of the table in an amorphous group. There were teenage girls looking like queens. There were young boys speaking in lordly tones. One boy wore a suit coat. Another was in a very comfortable pair of jeans.

Group hug, said a voice from somewhere in their midst, and the amorphous group reformed into a circle.

They jockeyed around a bit, some choosing one place and then another, and the circle adjusted to the changes. After a few moments, they stabilized.

From Canada from Britain and from the United States, tall and short, boy and girl, related and not, the kids put their arms around each other as if they had known each other forever, and they bowed their heads to the center.

And they said goodbye.

Dec 2005 holiday gathering in Ottawa

11:03:53 PM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []  

 Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Future is Fealty and Rent

The feudal lords are back at the helm, and landlords whisper in their ears.

For political models,
For business models,
Look to China and you shall see
That the future is: fealty and rent.

China!? you ask incredulously? Think that won't happen here?

And to which I respond, Boiling frogs.

We are already well on our way.

10:06:30 PM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []  

 Tuesday, January 10, 2006

An Isolated Spot

The sun was grazing the treetops along the railroad tracks.

It gets dark too early to wait until we get home, so it was either run then or don't run at all. (The don't-run strategy hasn't worked so well for the past two years.) So with the tops of the barren trees getting less golden by the minute, I went outside.

There's a retaining pond down at the corner of the parking lot, where cattails and brown grasses rustle in the breeze, and weedy things grow near the water's edge. Bird-sounds come from hidden places there, and splashes make you turn and look.

Beyond the pond, there is a fence and in places a rock wall. And beyond them is a woods with paths that twist and turn under the junipers and oaks and elms. I have run those paths before, but today I took the other road that ran along a dike with the train tracks on one side and the woods on the other.

After a while, the path turned and ended at a locked steel gate beyond which was an old railroad crossing with only a stop sign and RR cross-bars. I squeezed myself between the gate and a large rock, and in a few steps and a turn to the right I was in a part of Austin I did not know.

This could have been a road in Michigan where the trees tower over the two lane road and kids ride their bikes out from their driveways. It could have been Illinois, where the prairie continues to grow in constrained isolation along long stretches of railroad right of way.

Here were two looming oaks hanging over me and leafless Possumhaws laden with orange-red berries. To the left were modest houses turning their backs to me, and to the right were tall, dried grasses and stabby brambles growing along the ground.

And look! Here is a well-worn path working its way thru the slice of trackside prairie. Imagine what it must be like in summer with the seven-foot grasses green and full. Imagine the overgrown jungle path. But today, you can see the path with your eyes as it winds around and works up the embankment to the railroad tracks.

And wait! What is that? A hammock. Someone has a hammock hidden in the tall grass. A big one with a wooden frame and a pillow -- enough for several rambunctious kids perhaps, or one person napping, or two.

Whose place was this? I did not know. There, among the grasses and weeds: an isolated spot of serenity.

10:28:22 PM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []  

 Monday, January 9, 2006

That Drove The Kernel Away

I'm the only one west of the Mississippi. Brother, mother, aunts, cousins... they're all on the eastern side. And it's been that way for a very long time, which in a way is their problem, but my life so far away has always had a kernel of sadness in it.

When are you coming home, Davy, my grandmother would ask when I saw them in the summer. Can you see the kernel I'm talking about?

But my mom comes down a lot. And my dad. And my brother is kind of a crazy man sometimes, flying down and flying down.

That drives away the kernel.

Still, I was far from my grandparents -- they only came here once. And I'm far from my aunts and my cousins and kids who don't get here very often -- not often enough.

So then there's this email I get in November saying a bunch of them are coming. And then another email. And a phone call saying that maybe they are coming. And then some family rumors saying they are. And some family reports saying they might. And a Can't wait to see you! note on the inside of a Christmas card. And finally, a phone call saying they had arrived.

They're here! They're here! Aunt. Cousin. Kids. All the way from Kentucky to here. All the way to Austin. Now. What to do?

Clay Pit.
South Austin.
Blue skies and sunshine.
A bike ride around the lake for the boys.
Renaissance market on the drag for the rest of us.
Ansel Adams and the Gutenberg Bible at the Ransom Center.
The UT Tower.
Shady Grove.
Galaxy Cafe.

And a drive down Congress Avenue at night from the south side of the river with the Capital aglow and the holiday decorations lit.

We were walking down the street at the end of the day, and I leaned over to my aunt and said, Chachi Vicki, I am so glad you came.

That drove the kernel away.

10:03:07 PM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []  

 Sunday, January 8, 2006

Hook 'em Horns

It was the winter of 1973. I was a high school freshman, but I had friends who were a year younger than I was, so I still sometimes did stuff at their school. On this night, it was a basketball game. It was an away game. And we lost.

Now this was more than thirty years ago, so the details are a bit hazy, but as I remember it, I got home sobbing with tears streaming down my face. I wasn't just angry about the officiating (which I thought was the cause of the defeat); I was fundamentally shaken. My world had turned upside down, and my heart was broken. My mother tried to comfort me, but it didn't take away the pain.

And since that night, I have not been a very good booster.

So it is with some hesitation that I tell you that tonite we went to see the University of Texas tower lit in celebration of the football team's recent Rose Bowl victory and ascendency to the national championship.

Following well-defined protocol, the tower was very orange. The top was shining brightly, and a gradually fading wash of orange lit the straight sides. The numeral 1 was encoded in eleven stories of three-across-windows on each of the tower's four faces.

A plane circled overhead. People streamed in from all directions. On the oak-lined South Mall, a throng of people stood and stared. Many had cameras. Some had tripods. And some sat gawking from the windows of their SUVs as cars lined up behind them. In the distance, the traffic on the upper deck of the interstate slowed as drivers took in the view.

Gregg and Kelley looked at us and said, You first.

Gregg produced a camera, and Kelley handed us two white caps with burnt orange longhorns embroidered on the front. I shook my head, but there really was no getting out of it. So I put my arm around Trudy and smiled for the picture.

Then we took one or two of them.

I tell you this tonite so that if you happen ever to come across a photo of Trudy and me in caps in front of a glowing orange UT tower at night, you might remember this, even if it does make me a curmudgeon in the wake of a national championship:

I am not a very good booster. The spirit in me died after that basketball game in the winter of 1973.

Hook 'em horns.

10:58:31 PM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []  

 Friday, January 6, 2006

Cosmopolitan Evening

The adults sat at one end of the table, and the kids at the other. And while we all settled into our chairs and warmed to each other (because we were mostly strangers), the owner of the restaurant brought out plates of appetizers and cups of tea and finally dishes with bread and rice and sumptuous meats.

The kids formed a kid huddle from which could be periodically heard squeals of laughter. One of them ate his shrimp, and all the others, not liking shrimp and seeing an escape, piled theirs on the plate in front of him.

At our end of the table, the conversation wandered here and there. We talked about the kids. We talked about travelling. And from time to time we laughed out loud about some inept politician somewhere in the world -- frankly often south of the Canadian-American border.

At one point, one of the women across the table asked, So is Austin a very cosmopolitan city?

No, not really, I said after a moment's reflection. It's a laid back city. People don't get too dressed up, and you can wear blue jeans almost everywhere you go. Some folks get dressed up for the theater, but some folks don't.

She looked at me and smiled, nodding in noticeable silence.

At that point, Trudy stepped in. I don't remember just what she said, certainly due of the shame that soon washed over me. Whatever she said, it was suddenly plain to me that I've lived 46 years of my life without knowing the correct meaning of the word, cosmopolitan.

I'm afraid to even imagine what kind of impression I left on our end of the table that night.

Talking politics in Ottawa

10:04:09 PM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []  

 Thursday, January 5, 2006

Just Include Emerson

Just so you know, the ticket agent told us, next time you fly, reserve his ticket under his full name, including Emerson. She pointed at the boy.

She had been on the phone for a long time talking in hushed whispers, clearly trying to clear up some sort of security issue.

I looked at Trudy and she looked at me. It was pretty clear what the agent was implying, but I couldn't resist. I looked at the agent.

Just him? I asked. Not us?

The agent looked at us with a blank expression.

I can't go into details, she said. Just include Emerson.

And with that, she handed us our boarding passes.

Flying from Austin to Ottawa for winter break.

9:55:58 PM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []  

 Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Approachable Math

Out of the shadows of the distant past, I see a tall, lean professor standing in a dark lecture room talking about differential equations and tensors. His hair is short and gray but has a whimsy wisp to it. His voice is calm and just a little bit raspy. You could imagine him speaking to you over a cup of coffee.

As he talks about the math, he also talks about the mathematicians, and when he does, his eyes light up.

Maupertuis, he says, drawing out the first and last syllables, savoring the 'r' in the middle.

Eudoxus, he proclaims, emphasizing the 'x' as if it's a prize worth holding up for all to see.

In the shadows between the stacks, walking the marble floors of the math library with my backpack sitting on a sill behind me, I found an amazing book. The Variational Principles of Mechanics, where it was all laid out in words before the mathematics began to fly. What a strange thing, I thought, that this could be so approachable.

And then there were those classes, with Professor Ray Langebartel's flashing eyes and his floating hair[*], and the names of great mathematicians pronounced as profound truths so loudly that they linger in my mind even now. What a strange thing, that he could make it so approachable.

University of Illinois Urbana/Champaign, ca. 1980.

[*] weave a circle 'round him thrice!

11:35:48 PM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []  

 Tuesday, January 3, 2006

In the Aisle at Row 4

In the aisle of the plane, people line up behind a woman dressed in trendy black. She has short dark hair, and her facial features are sharp. When she gets to row 4, she leans over.

As she moves toward what must be her seat, she struggles with a cell phone held to her ear, a laptop computer, a large black floor-length coat held under her right arm, and some sort of musical instrument in a canvas case that keeps sliding off her back.

Excuse me, she says to the man in the window seat of row 4 as she throws down her coat and tries to set her laptop down, holding her phone to her ear talking to someone on the other end.

People stand in the aisle behind her.

Hold on, she says into the phone. I'm in an airplane. Hold on, ok?

She tries to set her laptop down, but the instrument on her back keeps slipping, and she only has one hand free. As it slides into the face of the person across the aisle, the woman drops her laptop into her seat, and her phone falls out of her hand into the lap of the man by the window. Her instrument slips further down.

Oh excuse me, she says to the person across the aisle, grabbing the case by its strap and turning around to put it into the overhead bin, which is mercifully empty except for a pile of fuzzy blue blankets, which she shoves out of the way.

The man by the window says something to her that the rest of us can barely hear. She chuckles.

What can I say? I gotta work, and I gotta play. That's why I bring my computer and violin along.

He hands her the phone, and she sits down. The people in the aisle stream by.

Hello? she says into the phone. Are you still there?

10:42:43 PM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []  

 Monday, January 2, 2006

There Was Snow

For a week, there was snow, and there was ice, and the wind blew thru the city streets and made us pull up our scarves and search for shelter at the bus stops. The sky was grey, showing us what a Canadian winter looks like, and the barely-glowing circle of the sun sunk below the horizon at half past four, making it dark before dinner time.

It was all these things, winter was, but it was all these things only to us. To the Canadians around us, the weather must have felt balmy. They walked around without gloves and without hats, some without coats, and some with bare shoulders exposed to the wind. Certainly, no one had the besieged look that we must have had.

Then yesterday we flew home. The night sky was clear and Orion was climbing out of the east as we began our descent. From 30 thousand feet, the view out the window was astounding -- the stars, the lights of cities splayed across the landscape, glowing sky far in the east where Houston hid beyond the horizon.

Overhead, there was not a cloud to be seen. Imagine what the daytime must have been like. As we touched down, there were no piles of shovelled snow to step over or a spots of ice to negotiate. Indeed, as we got off the plane, we did all we could to take off our coats and the layers under them that had served us so well just a few hours before.

And today the sky was blue and the birds were singing when Trudy slid open the patio door to let in the morning air. We rolled down the windows on the way to lunch, and I opened the sunroof on the way home in the afternoon. The subfreezing winter of the north was far away.

So why do I feel like riding up the ski lift for another run down the hill?

Returning to Austin from Ottawa

9:16:04 PM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []  

Shock and Awe -- backfired

Historian Richard Drayton offers some insights into American megalomania and our blundering in Iraq:

[Drayton/Guardian - shock and awe]: The US has proved able to destroy massively - but not create, or even control. Afghanistan and Iraq lie in ruins, yet the occupiers cower behind concrete mountains.

7:56:58 PM   permalink: []   feedback: Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.   comments: []