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Memorization has never been my strong suit.  I had spent six months just memorizing two short pieces–Handel’s E minor Sonata and the C-sharp minor Piano Prelude by Rachmaninoff for one of my college recitals.  At last the day had arrived and I was finally ready to play these pieces by memory.  I would play the Handel sonata on the harpsichord, then I would move to the concert grand Steinway for the prelude.

I was a romantic when it came to music and Rachmaninoff was a brilliant composer of the romantic style.  This prelude began with both hands playing descending octaves.  Then came three full chords, each hand overlapping the other, alternating the overlapping between each chord.  From there the music exploded into alternating octave passages and multiple overlapping chords.  The brooding mood of the opening measures then moved into rapid triplets before coming to a grand, dramatic finale.  I would be in my element.

Like the Romantic musicians of old, I was also enamored with Baroque music.  My love of classical music dates to my hearing J. S. Bach’s First Brandenburg Concerto.  Thus my choice of the Handel Sonata, with its onslaught of rapid and glorious polyphony, which would complete my romantic approach to this recital.

I played the Sonata flawlessly, relishing the plucked notes of the harpsichord.  I rose, took my bows, and moved to the piano.

I should have checked the piano before sitting down to play.  The instrument had been wheeled in and a heavy, metal piano bench with padded seat had been set in front of it.  I sat down, adjusting the bench, while moving mentally from the Baroque to the Romantic era.  I began to play.

The soft, brooding octaves rose to the audience’s ears.  The three full chords moved into the second set of brooding octaves, with the dynamics growing over the next set of full chords.  The next set of octaves and full chords came, each stroke growing louder.  Than then, reaching fortissimo, the piano rolled away from me.

The piano movers, setting up for the recital, had failed to lock its wheels.  What followed happened in only a moment.

I considered my options.  On my piano at home I had learned how to hook my left leg around one of the piano bench legs and with a single motion, pull it closer to the piano.  But this bench was far heavier, and when I had moved it as I first sat down, the metal legs had made a loud screeching sound.  I abandoned that idea.

I could also slide easily over the smooth wooden surface of my piano bench at home.  But this bench had a padded leather seat.  Sliding to get closer was not an option.

While the piano had rolled away from me, it had not rolled beyond my reach.  Leaning forward in imitation of Glenn Gould, I continued playing.  And as I played, I dug my fingers into the keys as if I could pull the instrument closer.  Fortunately, I didn’t miss a beat, a note, or my outward composure.  I was aware, however, of a buzz through the audience and of the sudden intensity of my professors concentrating on how I was handling this situation.

As the final chord ended my part of the recital, I vowed the next time I played a piano mounted on wheels, I would personally check them to be sure they were locked.  The devil may be in the details, but he surely was in those wheels.

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1001 Things to do With an Empty Bleach Bottle

Creativity.

My Dad should have written a book entitled “1001 Things to do With an Empty Bleach Bottle.”  He would have been hard pressed to limit himself to such a low number.

Raised on a farm, Dad’s family moved into town just in time for the Great Depression.  He left school after eighth grade.  Like his father, he became a jack-of-all-trades.  And like most depression era kids, he learned how to make do with what he had.

He never threw things away.  “We may need that someday,” he would say as he dropped one more used screw into a nearly filled gallon bucket.  There were buckets for nuts, straightened nails, washers, bolts, and a host of other used items.  We didn’t have a fancy word like “repurposing” to describe what he was doing.  We just had that phrase, “We may need that someday.”

And then there were the bleach bottles, washed out, cut up, and serving in ways their manufacturers never dreamed.  They bailed water out of our motorboat.  They became garden implements.  They served many varied functions in his shop and about our home.  I wish I could remember all the ways he used those bottles.  Then I could have written the book.

So when we baby-boomers came along, our parents encouraged us to use our creativity.  We built go-carts out of scrap lumber and baby carriage wheels.  We made scooters out of fruit boxes and clamp-on roller skates.  A few years later, we made skate boards from two by fours and those same roller skate wheels.

No place to play baseball?  No problem.  We turned an open field at the end of the street into a baseball field.  When that field was made into a housing development a few months later, we turned the street into our field of dreams.

That short street served as our football field and, at times, as our tennis court.  It was a humongous tennis court, so we allowed two bounces after the ball crossed the invisible net.

At school during recess we turned our bodies into MIGs and Sabre jets, patrolling the skies of the playground with our arms thrown back like wings.  The bathrooms served as our air bases, the playground our battlefield.

Old cardboard boxes were flattened to ride down the spillways of overflowing reservoirs.  Scrap pieces of plywood were gathered and cut into two-foot wide circles.  Then we painted designs on our boards.  During summer trips to the nearby ocean beaches, we would toss our boards onto the ebbing water after a good wave, run after the board, then jump on them and skimboard away.

Yes, we did all these creative things and more with our parent’s blessings.  And then, like today’s generation that insists on high-tech activities for their leisure pursuits, we would complain, “I’m bored.  There’s nothing to do!”

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The Best Part of Waking Up

Morning.

Before I can open my eyes I smell it.  In our kitchen the pot is perking a merry plo-plo-plo-plop.  The aroma dances down the hall, through my closed bedroom door, and pirouettes on my nose.  Ah, coffee.  I open my eyes to another morning.

How I love mornings.  False dawn give way to sun rise.  Colors wash the sky.  A mockingbird sings in the orange tree.  The aroma of coffee fills every room of the house.  A Scrub jay carries an acorn to the rooftop, places it against a shingle, and begins hammering it with its beak.  I am dressed, ready for the day.

Dad has already left for work.  Mom is busy in the kitchen.  I settle in behind a bowl of Rusketts, my favorite breakfast.

It is the aroma of coffee that lingers after six decades.  That rich scent promising ecstasy.  How disappointing when, years later, I was allowed my first taste.  How could a brew so bewitching taste so bitter?

Now when I awake, it is that scent I miss.  No modern brew machine releases that aroma like an old percolator.  I worked six years in a coffee shop and can brew a decent latte.  I know that what Starbucks calls a cappuccino is just a latte in the witness protection program.  Not even there have I smelled the aroma that daily rose from my Mom’s old-fashioned percolator.

Mornings are still special.  The sun still rises amid the stillness as the day begins.  It is now European-collared doves I hear instead of Mourning doves, although the House sparrows still cluster at the bird feeder as they did sixty years ago.  There are no Scrub jays banging on acorns up on the roof, but the passing Blue jays make as much noise.

I still love the stillness of “a brand new day with no mistakes in it yet.”  Rusketts have vanished from store shelves, but oatmeal is an acceptable replacement.  Sort of.

And when I want it, I will brew up a morning cup of Java (Ethiopian Yirgacheffe is very tasty).  Yet I am aware that one of the most important parts of morning is lacking.  There is no rich aroma wafting into the bedroom before I open my eyes.

And I miss that.

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Filed under Coffee, Essay, Mornings, Sunrise

My Astronomy Anonymous Confession

Hi.  My name is Louis, and I am an astroholic.

It all began so innocently.  I had not intended to become an habitual star user, a Messier-maniac, and a lunar-lister.  I mean, what rational person decides, “I’m going to become addicted to a substance so powerful, it will forever turn me into a compulsive obsessor needing not just a daily fix, but roman-candlesque ecstasies?”

Innocently, I had moved to a place that had no electricity.  That’s right—no electricity.  No electric stoves, refrigerators, automatic coffee makers, televisions, sound systems, or lights—especially no lights.  There was just bottom-of-the-ocean-floor inkiness.  No street lamps, no porch lights, no flashing neon signs, no windows lit up with an unearthly glow—there was only an ebon sky and a million stars.  Actually, only slightly more than 6,000 visible to our naked eye, but any astroholic will know what I mean.

Perhaps as innocently, there had been placed in my hands a small book.  How small? It fit in my shirt pocket.  It had an innocuous enough title:  The Sky Observer’s Guide.

There I was, under dark skies inhabited by countless glowing stars, holding in my hand a signpost to an astronomical garden of delights.  Had I known then what I know now, I would have flung her into the depths of my cooking fire and burned her along with my eggs and bacon.

Instead, I opened her shiny new portals.  I read her text.  I looked at her pictures and diagrams.  How was I to know that asteroids and nebulas, globular clusters and binary stars were so addictive?

There was something poetical in her text.  I don’t mean romantic poetry with its flowery nonsense and strange phrases like “plasky,” “twixt,” or “ne’er.”  This is taunt, minimalist poetry that could easily be written in free verse.

“Stellar magnetic-field lines stretch

and pile up

in front of the planet’s

magnetosphere

as the planet sweeps through the solar wind.

 

This pile up discharges its energy in sporadic

Outbursts

Similar to solar flares.

 

The flares accelerate

charged particles,

which follow stellar magnetic lines

down onto the star’s chromosphere,

producing the hot spot.”

 

Oh, yeah.  Lay it on me, brother.

Well, the temptation to use grew stronger.  Out on my front steps, book in hand; I looked up at the stars.  I’m not ashamed to admit it.  I felt a rush—a chaotic, overwhelming, delicious rush.  I had never felt so alive, so attuned to the universe.  “Tune in.  Turn on.  Drop out.”  That was what Timothy Leary called out to my generation.  At that moment, I took the first step down his merry path to total addiction.  I was in the grips of CAD (Compulsive Astronomy Disorder).

҉

At first, I was a naked-eye user.  It is amazing how heady such light dosages seemed.  My nights were given to learning names (beetle-juice or beetle-geese?), shapes (how does a trapezoid of four stars look like Corvus the crow or Lepus the rabbit?), and associations (that smatter of stars is supposed to look like a crab?).

The stars seemed like nothing less than 88 dot-to-dot pictures without benefit of numbers.  I would study charts by day.  At night, I would sit under stars, straining to make out those patterns found in the book.  It was slow going, but each use intensified my desire to “get high” on stars.

Then, after a couple of months, I could talk constellations like a pro.  I would look up and say, “There’s Cassiopeia, wife of Cephus there, mother of Andromeda over there, who suppressed all motherly feelings and offered her daughter as a sacrifice to Cetus, the sea monster down there.  Fortunately, Perseus, over there, was flying by aboard Pegasus, the winged horse up there, holding the head of Medusa in one hand.  He saw the Lovely Andromeda, rushed to her rescue, defeated Cetus with the Medusa’s head, married the princess, and they rode off into the sunset to become constellations, where they all lived happily ever after.”  I didn’t even have to look at The Sky Observer’s Guide.  I was right.

I was knocking off constellations left and right, happily writing in dates in the sky guide for each new one I found.  You can’t imagine how glorious I felt when I added Telescopium and Microscopium to my list.  All was bliss.  But something dark, something sinister lay hidden in the pages of The Sky Observer’s Guide.

҉

I had to dig to find my old binoculars.  Years ago Dad and I had bought two bins to study birds, but Mom had confiscated them when she found us studying some Yellow-headed Babysitters in our neighbor’s yard.  The bins were old and boxy, but the optics were superb.

I turned them on several Messier objects:  M44—the Beehive Cluster, M42—The Great Nebula, M6 and M7—two brilliant open clusters, M31—the Andromeda Galaxy.  Oh, the flood of new pleasure.  What had been faint smudges of light became rich fields of pleasure.

But the higher the ecstasy the deeper the despair.  I was moving into the dark side of astronomy.  I longed to see more. This should have warned me of how serious my addiction had become.

My checkbook was another indicator of the lesser-known syndrome I had developed—AROS (Astronomical Resource Overdose Syndrome).  My Sky Observer’s Guide was no longer sufficient for my needs.  Soon I was adding Norton’s Star Atlas, Asimov’s Quasar, Quasar, Burning Bright. Hoyle’s Cosmology, Burnham’s handbooks, the Web Society’s guides, Sky and Telescope,  Scientific American, and a new bookcase to house all my astronomy resources.

And while I could pick out Tycho on the lunar surface, Proclus was only a bright spot through my bins.  And Hadley Rille? It was beyond the power of my bins to find, let alone study.

The whirlpool was just a faint smudge of light.  I couldn’t find the trapezoid in the Great Nebula.  The Horse head couldn’t be found.  Jupiter’s bands were hinted at, but few details could be discerned.  I needed more power.

҉

A small box arrived in a plain brown wrapper—which should have warned of the dangerous ground I was now treading.  Inside was a package of pitch, containers of grit, a mirror blank, and a cutting tool.  I attached handles to both cutting tool and mirror blank.  I shaped a workbench from an old wooden crate.  I set up shop in the garage.

Each night found me busy in the garage, working my way around and around the workbench, skimming the cutting tool across the face of the mirror blank.  The sound of glass scraping over glass sandwiching a layer of grit was quite pleasant to my ears.  My dad became captivated by the process.  As I cut away, he built the first of an eventual three telescope bases and mounts.

One hundred hours of cutting later, my mirror was silvered, placed reverently into its cell mount, and trundled out onto the front lawn.  I aimed the Double-Delta six-inch Newtonian Reflector at Jupiter and eagerly peered through its eyepiece.  What a rush.  This was nirvana.

҉

My Dad was stronger than me.  He never went beyond being a recreational user.  Occasionally he would use the Double-Delta to observe the moon or one of the planets.  I, however, was now a heavy user.  My Messier list was growing along with my eyepieces, accessories, and advanced books.  I studied my Alpher, Betha, Gammaw, and Einstein.  I memorized NGs numbers.  I debated the relative merits of the Uppsala General Catalogue of Galaxies, the Catalogue of Galaxies and Clusters of Galaxies, and the Morphological Catalogue of Galaxies.

It is sad to see a person who is fully in the grip of EACD (Extreme Astronomy Compulsive Disease).  I have stopped caring for my appearance.  My hair is often disheveled, my clothes rumpled, and my color scheme mismatched.  I live for occultations.  I glory in perihelion, apogee, perigee, and syzygy.  I dream of superior conjunction, opposition, parallax, and elongation.  I even use those phrases in conversation, causing people to stare at me as if I was some lunatic conversing with inner demons.

Of course, I am a lunatic.  My demons have names like Autolyeus, Doppelmayer, and Herschel.  They come equipped with impact melts, oblique rays, proclastics, linear graben, and ejecta.

I need help.  If you have a 24-inch Dobsonian or Schmidt-Cassagrin, I’m your patient.

I am an astroholic.

I believe in a higher-powered Celestron.

I live one star at a time.

Someday, there will be a cure, but I can wait.

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Filed under Astronomy, Essay, Humor