Archive for August, 2010

Missing the Perseids

I’ve missed the Perseids again. Again. I haven’t seen them in years, but there was a time when I saw the Perseid meteor shower every single year.

I’m thinking of this now because of several things I noticed in the heavens two nights ago. First, the moon came up red as a tomato. I knew it would. I had been watching for several evenings and since it rises a little later each day I figured it would come up just after sundown when the sky was still bright. I saw it peeking over the horizon and called for Mara to get out of bed and come have a look. This is strictly against protocol, so she was tickled pink getting to go out on the deck with me, where I held her up by her armpits so she could see through the trees east of the house to the spot on the horizon where the old cheeser was hoisting himself above the Cascades.

The Perseids' namesake. Edward Burne-Jones' 1888 Perseus in high-tech actionwear rescuing Andromeda, who likes him a lot but is not as into fibers as he is.

Then later on, when the moon was high and glaring white, I noticed that a fairly bright planet — my guess was Jupiter — was trailing behind it. Even if it had not been hideously bright, I would have known it was a planet because as a kid I learned to find and name all the First Magnitude stars in the northern hemisphere and that celestial map has never left me, so I can instantly spot the migrants. The stars all sweep across the night sky in fixed relationship to one another. If it’s summer, you’ll see a great triangle directly above you at 10pm or so formed by the stars Vega, Altair and Deneb. If you glance up on a winter night, it will be a large circle topped by Capella and including Sirius (Alpha Centauri), the closest star to our solar system. But the planets are migratory — they move, as do the sun and moon, among these stellar groupings and come into and out of alignment with the stars and each other in different ways at different times.

I peered through my Tasco 8×21 birding binoculars, which were just strong enough to satisfy me that there were no rings visible, so…not Saturn. Anyway, Saturn even at its closest is not so large in the sky. Mars would likewise be smaller, and would be redder. Venus is bright and large like that, but a little cooler looking and anyway never so far from the sun. Jupiter, then.

I think I grunted, because aside from these two headliners and the three First Magnitude stars of the Summer Triangle, I could see nothing but void, and that’s a shame, because I know there’s so much up there. Living in the city, our view of stars is occluded by the haze of light bouncing off of everything, what’s called “light pollution”. A city at night is not a dark place at all to those who have seen nature’s dark. The darkest place I ever was was a remote and stormswept island in the Aleutians called Unalaska. In that southwestern string of tundra-covered hills reaching out into the Bering Sea, the blackness on a cloudy night is disorienting, maddening, fear-inducing. Your eye wants to fall upon something, but it can’t. You feel a little nervous like you did when you were crouching in the living room coat closet in a game of hide and seek, but there’s no reassuring brush of wool sleeves against your cheek.

Once Angela and I were driving home from Leavenworth in my old truck, up over the mountains on a night in September. As we headed up the pass, the darkness outside the car was disturbed only by the occasional glaring headlights of cars coming down the pass towards us. The forest on either side of the highway formed a dark corridor, and I craned my neck to see upwards to where the blue of the night sky would be lighter by comparison to the forest. I was startled; the sky was a riot of silver-white light, the night absolutely clattering with stars. At that instant a fortuitous coincidence occured: we were passing a turnout and there were no cars coming down the hill toward us. So I pulled off the road at about 70 mph and brought the old buckboard to a heavy stop amid flying specks of dirt and turned the headlights off and shut off the engine so that even the dashboard would emit no light. Angela did not know what had happened and was in a flutter in the sudden silence and dark. “What is it! Why are you stopping!”

“Quick! Get out of the truck!” I said, jumping out and racing around to her side. “Look up!”

She looked up and she gasped. She made a real, honest-to-gosh gasping sound as air rushed into her lungs. “What is that?” She had never seen stars so numerous and bright before. There were stars in every single point of the sky. There was no place where there was not a star. The whole sky radiated like phosphorescence in the wake of a nocturnal oarstroke. And it wasn’t just the Milky Way coincidentally lining up with the gap in the trees. It was clear mountain air and the absence of light pollution. You could have read the New York Stock Exchange figures by that light.

Minus the green glow, an August night in my childhood looked a lot like this. Note the several shooting stars. Photo licensed according to Creative Commons.

When I was a kid, my neighborhood friends and I would “sleep out” as many nights in August as our parents would allow. Over the years the group included a number of kids, but usually it was Mark and Chris and me, sometimes my young brother Ben, too. We almost always slept in my front or back yard, though I recall a few nights over in Mark’s front yard and a few in the tree fort we built in his back yard, and even a time or two at Chris’ house at the far end of the street. We slept in sleeping bags under south Bellevue’s open sky, which at that time was still far enough away from Seattle’s light pollution that we could see myriad stars all night. We spread a big polyethylene tarp on the ground to keep moisture from the ground from seeping into our bags overnight and provisioned ourselves with comic books and Cragmont Grape Soda (what we in the west called “pop”) and, if one of our moms was in a generous mood, popcorn. Ribby from down the street turned us on to some sinister radio theater (almost certainly CBS Radio Mystery Theater), macabre little morality plays that we listened to on a little handheld transistor radio. My dad would always come out and check on us once, make a little small talk. I remember him telling us that the things that looked like slow-moving stars were satellites. I remember too some notion we had that the satellites that moved west to east across the sky were “ours”, while the ones that moved north to south belonged to “the Russians”, though now that I think about this it doesn’t seem very likely. Maybe we misunderstood my dad or maybe he was pulling our legs.

It was exciting and kind of spooky to see a satellite, because they didn’t move very fast, they just kept plodding until they were out of sight over the horizon, and it was strange to think that they were big machines we had put up there ourselves. But the real thrill was the Perseid meteor shower, what we called “shooting stars” or “falling stars”. We would lie wide-eyed on our backs in our big, square flannel-lined sleeping bags, which when rolled up were each the size of a refrigerator, and we’d watch for the quick bursts of light — terrifying for their absolute and utter lack of sound — meteorites entering and burning up in the earth’s atmosphere at speeds we could not even imagine, much less follow with our eyes. “There’s one!” one of us would shout, but by the time you rolled your eyeballs around or turned your head it was too late. You almost never saw one that someone else saw unless — and this happened at least once every year — a meteorite shot clean across the middle of the sky from one end to the other, like a knife slashing the dark curtain of night from a brightly lit room behind.

The expectancy was exhausting and invigorating both, and after a while my mates would quit talking and silently drop off lucidity’s edge into the clutch of Morpheus. I was always the last one awake — the obsessive compulsive, desperately seeking the blessings from on high. If I woke up early or stayed awake all night, I remember that moment of visually realizing that the sky was no longer absolutely black, that it had become a dark blue, and that the stars had lost their sharpness and some had even faded already. The transition was impossible to see happening; you could only recognize that it had happened and, moment by moment, that it had continued to happen. Our pillows were always wet in the morning from the dew, and usually there were muddy cat prints across them too.

For Christmas one year my Aunt Vivian gave me a book called How to Read the Night Sky by W. S. Kals (Doubleday, 1974). It was one of those rare gifts that come zinging into your life at exactly the right time. As a teenager I was already a stargazer, what with the sleeping out since I was a young kid and a Sears telescope my folks had bought me years earlier. Though undisciplined and lazy, I have always been smart, and somehow this book activated the self-learner in me. In clear, simple language with lots of illustrations and charts, this book organized the heavens for me and explained how to calculate sidereal time and figure latitude, among other things. In the back were charts that showed what constellations and asterisms the planets would be hanging out in for the next ten or twelve years (well into the ’80s!). But what grabbed me the most was the mnemonic devices by which the author made me memorize the names and locations of the northern hemisphere’s 13 First Magnitude stars. These are the stars that are the brightest.

"Vegetable alteration denied." Image borrowed from the Society for Popular Astronomy without permission.

You had to imagine a sailing ship preparing to set out to sea, and one of the seamen making the following report to the captain. “Captain, all de rigging seems properly polished”. This sentence contains aural reminders of the names Capella, Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, Procyon and Pollux (Castor’s twin). If you look up to the zenith of the night sky on a winter evening, Capella is the bright star there at the top. The others form a large circle going around to the right, clockwise. Rigel is the left foot of Orion (assuming he’s facing Earth). Sirius is low and bright and blue, part of the Dog constellation. Pollux, at about ten o’clock in this great circle, is at the head of the eponymous twin of Castor, whose capital star is close by but slightly dimmer.  

Trouble is afloat, however, for the cook on board our imaginary ship, as he prepares the crew’s food with “regular spices and arsenic”. This phrase is the key to the next four stars, which are grouped in a low, broad-based double triangle that  is visible during the spring: Regulus, Spica, Antares, and Arcturus. Antares means “the opponent of Ares (or Mars)” and you can remember this because it competes with the red planet in color. It is a slightly warmer looking star. If I remember correctly, Antares travels a very low arc in the sky and so is very seldom seen, especially if there is light pollution or smog or haze of any kind.

Finally, newspaper headlines telegraphically express the unremorseful plea of the cook, who has been accused of poisoning the crew after they all get sick: “Vegetable Alteration Denied”. The stars corresponding to this last phrase are Vega, Altair, and Deneb, the largest stars in the constellations Lyra (the lyre), Aquila (the eagle) and Cygnus (the swan). The large triangle these brighties form on summer nights is unmistakeable. Vega and Deneb delineate a side near the top of the sky, and the long point of the triangle ends at Altair, toward the south. This arrowhead swinging across the summer night represents the only First-Magnitude stars in the dome of the sky until Capella and Aldebaran arise many hours later. Jeff and I once were caught far from camp when night descended on our annual Ross Lake adventure, and lots of little cumulus clouds were scudding across the sky, densely packed together. But I only needed to see one thing — a First Magnitude star peeking through one of the momentary holes in the cover — and I was able to assure myself where south lay. At that time of year that single bright star could only have been Altair.

The "Big Bear". Ursa Major in Johannes Hevelius' 'Uranographia', 1690.

I have a memory earlier than all of these, of being in my dad’s arms at night in the back yard, on the brick patio where, later, he would build his shop. He was as tall as a tree and I sat on his left forearm as though it were a sturdy limb, looking up to where he pointed. I remember him telling me that there was a bear up there. I peered into the night but couldn’t see anything but stars and darkness. I imagined that two of those stars might be the bear’s sparkling eyes.

I have not stood outside at night in my old hometown for many years, but now that Bellevue is a city of high-rise buildings and 130,000 residents, I wonder whether those stars I used to study from my back yard would even be visible. I wonder how far out of town you’d have to go to see the bear up there.


Hand tight, R.I.P.

Angela has warned me again not to screw the lids on Emilia’s feeding bottles so tight. I did it again tonight. At first I thought she was just complaining because she, while strong in many many other ways, is peculiarly wimpy with regard to that kind of wrist strength that is required to unscrew the lids of things. Jars of spaghetti sauce and capers. We go around and around about the lid to the marionberry jam (although the issue there is compounded by stickiness). “Hon,” she’ll say, handing me a jar whose last user was I. “Will you loosen this?”

But tonight she explained to me why — technologically — the baby bottle lids must not be screwed on so tightly.

And this does not even include the cap.

We have special bottles because Emilia has a sensitive stomach and we need to reduce the amount of air she gulps while feeding. All babies gulp air, which is why you burp them, and we still have to burp Emilia, but this system — they’re not even called bottles; they’re a feeding system — is made in such a way as to vent air more efficiently. These are not your father’s baby bottles, so to speak. The traditional bottle is a bottle and a nipple and a ring to cinch the nipple down with. This new system is a bottle and five separate pieces that make up the lid assembly. One of the pieces is rubbery like the nipple and it goes under the lid and has tiny, almost invisible grooves in it that channel air into the bottle from somewhere around the neighborhood of the threads inside the lid ring. Angela showed me these grooves. The problem is, if you cinch the ring down too tight, the vent grooves squish closed and then you’ve negated the benefit of your high tech bottle.

Last week on two separate occasions I encountered the meme — not a new one — that traditional men are either obsolete or doomed shortly to be so.  Changes in his daily surroundings are forcing the twenty-first century male to adjust or be undone. Every once in a while someone writes a book or an article to that effect. One I have not read but seems to be an unusually sympathetic examination of the plight of modern males is Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. I used to write letters to Jeff about this back in the ’90s. It occurred to me many years ago that technologies that have transformed work — technologies mostly invented by men — have effected a ruinous parallel transformation of the male psyche, or rather of the landscape that that psyche inhabits. By this I mean chiefly the separation of men — and women too, though I can’t recall any women I know ever complaining about or even acknowledging this — from any true sense of self-agency. An apt if comic example from one of my favorite books, Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, which Marni directed my attention to last year, are the faucets in restrooms that no longer have levers on them. I don’t know if women’s restrooms are similarly fixtured or if so, what women feel about this, but I have seen grown men reduced to rageful impotence waving their soapy hands underneath these “water-saving” devices, which are supposed to detect when you need another splash but often seem to be looking down their own drainholes or otherwise occupied. Crawford notes that the frantic thought goes through the traditional, solution-oriented, engineer-man’s mind: “why wouldn’t there be a lever on this thing?”

This is the kind of subtle encroachment on a man’s dignity that causes many to lapse into apathetic ingestion of reality TV, or perhaps excessive and compulsive trimming of the edge of the lawn. Our work life, and so many little things pecking at our sense of empowerment all day long, amount to a world quite different from the one that we started out in.  

Don't squish this groove. Air vent is visible under my finger along top edge of this rubbery component of the feeding system.

This business of tightening things is another example. One of the things I learned about The Art of Tightening at the knee of my very manually capable father was the concept of screwing things “hand tight”. I still remember the confusion I felt when I first asked Dad how tight and he said “oh, you know, just hand tight.” Did that mean as tight as I could comfortably tighten something with my hand or as tight as I could possibly tighten something with my hand? It was a mystery. One of The Mysteries. It was a rite of passage to eventually understand what hand tight meant, and not understand it intellectually but in my body. 

In its most basic sense hand tight meant a degree of torque that lay (it almost goes without saying) somewhere between still freely spinning and moveable further only by the use of tools. I learned that there was a sweet spot, and I learned it early, and I learned it by doing it with my hands on the innumerable bicycle, train layout, tree fort and other “shop” projects that childhood life on my street occasioned. There were of course many situations that required tightening by tools (and induction into the distinct and more advanced mysteries that tools presented), but for a large portion of life’s twist-tight operations, hand tight was your go-to solution.

But mastering hand tight had implications as well for non-material, not-physical problems one encountered in growing up. The nerve-wracking situations of “not-too-little and not-too-much” and “you’ll just know” — situations that tended to paralyzed me with fear because of the ease with which it seemed one could err fatally in either direction — lost some of their bogeyman terror as I became conversant in the art of hand tight. Human relationships often needed an intervention or tweaking that corresponded to hand tight. Moving forward with intellectual tasks often required evaluations in a hand-tight mindset. Hand tight was a way of being in the world.

When I go to put the lid on a baby bottle, my goal is to prevent leakage, which means it must not spin freely — that’s just a basic, intuitive rule — and yet I don’t want to tighten it so tight that Angela can’t remove it later. The sweet spot (so I thought) is easy to find. And yet…it’s wrong. What I’m hearing from Angela is that the sweet spot that I now know intuitively, unthinkingly, is wrong. It’s too tight. It will result in system failure. Angela is telling me that the lid must be tightened only to, and not beyond, a degree that for all my life I would have called “too loose”. The new technological plastic age of microvented bottles means that “hand tight” is now “too tight”. The sweet spot has shifted.

This is not a little thing for a late-20th-century male and I’m having some trouble adjusting. Why would anyone make a bottle — I mean a feeding system — whose lid is meant to be too loose? Is hand tight becoming a thing of the past? I feel like a giant, grunting and pushing and using too much MIGHT. Obsolete might. Blundering, anti-technology might. I am a mighty man and my might is excessive in the new world.

I am lucky I am married, and to such a gracious Goldberry who knows where the new sweet spot is. “Hon,” I can say, handing her the baby bottle. “Will you tighten this?”

Update 8/29/2010: The photo is too hideous, too hideous, so I’m only linking to it rather than posting it directly in here, but a package arrived on our doorstep yesterday containing the following gift, addressed to Angela from Marni: click here to see.

The Big Noise and other flying things

The United States has been at war for 20 percent of its life as a nation, by some recent counts. As we all know, a militaristic nation that happens also to be a republic run (in theory) by the people who live in it must have a robust PR and marketing program in place for selling the populace on the idea of war and warmaking. Fellow Americans, I give you the Blue Angels — heartthrob flyboys bringing the world’s fastest, baddest air battle equipment right to the people for a demonstration of just how much other political entities don’t want to get on our grumpy side.

An expectant crowd.

I must admit, it works on me every time. I get a thrill watching the skies, my eyes flitting thither and yon in hopes of catching a glimpse of the blue and yellow arrowheads shooting low across the treetops of Seattle, forming up into pairs and quads and the occasional sextet. You have to scan, too, because if you wait until you hear them before looking up you’ll never see them. They’re that fast.

The purpose of these machines, or rather of their front-line active-duty cousins, is deadly violence against human beings. Let’s just say that out loud once and get it over with. Actually, their ideological purpose might be said to be the threat of violence, but if the threat doesn’t work, they’re fully capable of the follow-through. But we Americans are not unique in the maintenance of an air force, or of showing off our war equipment as entertainment (and please don’t get me wrong — I love America, still the safest and possibly most profitable place on earth to complain about the abuses of government). I was crossing a little bridge over one of the canals in Venice when the roar of jets echoed down into the narrow street and pummeled the cobbles, and a squadron of Italian fighters darted across the sliver of sky between the buildings trailing green, white and red smoke, a momentary unfurling of the Italian flag. Stalin had his missile parades and Hitler his giant revolving human swastika. Throughout history every state on the globe in possession of three sharp sticks has marched them through their public places to assure the citizenry and unnerve the neighbors.  

Hey! -- Oh....false alarm.

George Washington, who turned down an offer of unlimited executive power over the government of the United States two centuries before another George W. simply arrogated it, was adamant that this federation should not have a permanent professional soldiery, what they called in those days “a standing army”. It would tempt and then enable office-holders to abuse power and enslave the populace. Rather, he said, arms should be raised when arms were needed to defend our soil and keep despotic leaders in check. I love that about him. Of course, he didn’t realize that most Americans would come to prefer being enslaved to a kind of false idea of liberty anyway (“itsafreecountryIcandowhatIwant”), and if his warning had been heeded we’d be a French overseas department now, or New West Cornwall or Far Eastern Kamchatka or a colony of Germany or Japan, and there would never have been a 1967 Fastback Mustang or Gene Kelly or the Whee-Lo.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom many Americans long regarded as an uninformed president who golfed while the world went close to hell in a handbasket (even though we now understand he bore the weight of unspeakable secrets about what our intelligence apparatus was doing around the world in the 1950s), was the person who coined the phrase “military-industrial complex”. It debuted in a speech he gave on his way out of office by way of a warning for the future, after having seen the writing on the wall. 

There they are! Your tax dollars at work.

Still, the jets are amazing. My brother, who was a YOU-nited States Marine and of my admiration for whom I have elsewhere written, worked on similar machines as a mechanic at an air base in Southern California. He once described for me a morning when he paused in his wrench turning to lie back on the wing of — I think they were A-4s or F-15s (Ben?) — anyway he lay back on the wing and watched the last of the night’s stars fading into the deep blue of morning, imagining himself to be looking down on them from high above, as though he were on the underside of the wing and the stars were lights on a wide blue sea. Every time those metal birds took off, and every time they came home safe, he felt a deep satisfaction. My brother’s concern was the safety of his pilots. While I would have to cast my vote with Ike and the master of Mount Vernon in any debate about standing armies and the MIC, I can totally get behind my brother’s dedication to his mates.  

Our friend Marni brunched with us Sunday [update: Saturday, per her comment below], and after a big feast at Leena’s involving much syrup, and after Angela took Emilia home for a quiet nap, Mara and Marni and Marni’s golden retriever Darby and I all hastened down to the marsh-lined meadows behind the Center for Urban Horticulture to watch the Blue Angels rehearse the show they would be putting on the next day for the annual hydroplane races on Lake Washington, which have been a staple of Seattle’s Seafair celebration since the middle of the last century.

Ike's "unwarranted influence"? You be the judge, but hand me those binoculars first.

Kids love the Blue Angels as much as grownups do. My niece Joelle is one of the most articulate people under age 30 that I know, but I remember when she barely had words for what she needed to say. My folks lived for most of my life, and all of Joelle’s early life, in south Bellevue directly beneath one of the invisible skyborne curves followed by the Blue Angels every year as they performed their show. Consequently for several days every August, we’d now and again hear the ripping thunder of the jets as they approached and tore up the sky over the house. Usually this happened while my dad was enjoying a sandwhich at the dining room table or lining up a cut out in the shop, and you never saw a grown man move so fast in flannel. Dad had to see them. I had to see them. Their effect on us was a little like that of the blimp, only…well, they were terrifying sleek fighter planes, not a big friendly galoot of a lumbering gasbag. We heard the jets, we ran outside as though the house were about to be bombed.

When Joelle was old enough to be excited about jets, she was only about two. She called them “the Big Noise!” and she said this with a slight pause and intake of breath between Big and Noise. I don’t know if she remembers my dad, her Pop-Pop, holding her up in his arms while the jets whooshed overhead toward the lake. I remember the look of wonder and amazement on her face. I’m surprised she didn’t become a pilot.

You see them before you hear them...if you know where to look. Darby, Mara and Marni raise a quad of Blues from a nearby thicket.

We joined a little flock of watchers who had come with umbrellas, even a tent (?!) at a spot that gave us a wide sky to watch, and the Blues did not disappoint. We were at the northern end of their demonstration pattern and they flew by several times, singly and in various groupings. Against a grey sky, which is much brighter than blue sky, they are rather hard to look at. And the roar actually hurts your ears. Mara commented, “I’m big of seeing them, but I’m not big of the hearing.” In any case, she spent the intervals between appearances playing with Darby, and since I had promised her a stop at “the 31 Flavors” for an ice cream cone afterward, I got the feeling that she had begun to view this trip to the swamp as merely a side-show on the way to Baskin & Robbins. She asked about ice cream every five minutes.  

The meadows behind the Center for Urban Horticulture are wonderfully wild. Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota) and a papery blue chicory (Cichorium intybus), both introduced species.

Not a native, but a cheery resident anyway.

I had my own distractions. It kept occuring to me what a lovely and restful place this meadow would be absent the ear-splitting din of America’s air power, which would be any other time but last week. It’s out of my way, but it would be swell to have the habit of walking daily among the grasses and wildflowers, the tall cottonwoods standing suspiciously close together in clumps, the ponds surrounded by shores of muck and ten-foot cattails. Where there are cattails there are usually also redwing blackbirds, though I didn’t notice any. But we saw a hawk sitting watchfully in a small dead tree in a patch of meadow that burned (or was burned) last year, and we observed two blue herons lifting up from a pond on their impossible wings. Canadian geese several times worried themselves into flight, taking a V formation that rhymed with that of the jets. Supposedly you could spot one hundred and fifty species of birds here.

The most interesting person I know working in her favorite medium: water.

We didn’t hang out long after the show. Darby wanted to play with the ducks, so we got her interested in the long trot back to the parking lot instead, and Marni let Mara hold the leash. The jets were gone. Ice cream was next. At least for another year, I’m a loyal fan of the Big Noise, an adherent of the military-industrial complex that our past presidents warned us about.

That fifth of August feeling

I’m a slow learner, but even so, there’s a thing that happens that takes me by surprise every year, even though it always happens right around the same time — on or about August fifth. I started telling my mom about it when I was a teenager, and she knew exactly what I meant; she experienced the same thing. Later, when I told my wife Angela about it, she got it right away. We never came up with a name for it, which might have been useful, but instead just refer to it as The August Change, or That Fifth of August Feeling. It may happen on August third or fourth, or a day or two after the fifth, but it usually centers around that day. 

What it is is, you’re outside somewhere, walking up your street or somewhere else familiar, maybe in your backyard, not particularly thinking about the time of year, when all of a sudden you realize that something you can’t put your finger on has changed, something about the whole universe, like you blinked and you’re in a different world. It’s a feeling that Fall is coming — it’s not here yet, not by a long toss, but it’s coming, it’s now on the horizon, it is a reality of the near future.  

In the moment previous to getting struck by That Fifth of August Feeling, you could not have imagined Fall, or coolness, or dimming or dark. You were full-on involved in that bright, muggy, narcotic expansiveness of summer. Then Boom! you get this whiff of something that hints at every close and cozy thing to come — woodsmoke and autumn leaves, school, flannel and wool, hot cocoa, choir music and jigsaw puzzles as big as the biggest tabletop you have. It hits hard at first, like the prick of a needle, and then it is not as intense, but after that moment everything is different. 

Eddie, he got it. "The Long Leg", 1935.

It’s not that the days are getting shorter; that’s already been happening for more than a month. It’s not that it’s necessarily cooler out — it’s not the weather. It’s more something Edward Hopper-ish about the light, the way sunlight is entering into the atmosphere. And yet it’s not only that. If there’s any breeze, it sounds hollow and carries a misty melancholy. It’s like one of the five senses, only it’s not one of them, too. It’s a sense of change, a sudden awareness of mortality.

I suspect, after many years of thinking about this, that the decreasing angle of the sun causes its light to refract differently through the prism of the earth’s atmosphere, but why the phenomenon always hits so suddenly and with such a feeling of surprise, I have never been able to divine. 

I think that part of the answer is that the physical change — whatever meteorological thing is occuring every year around the fifth of August — is just the trigger. It releases something inside us that we have over the long course of the year allowed to become dormant, which might be the sense that all things end and begin again, a sense of Earth’s and our own aging and mortality. That Fifth of August Feeling snaps us out of denial and we recognize that the year is about to start winding down as the spiritual part of the physical world succombs to and celebrates that seasonal truth.

I remember sitting on my tricycle at the top of my driveway one morning as a small child and watching my best friend Heather, the little girl next door, walking away down the street with her mother, and feeling a delicious melancholy in that yearning for her. My friend, going. Gone. That morning may or may not have been a day in early August; for some reason I believe it was more likely a day in September. But I associate that memory with a moment years later, in my late teens or early twenties, when I was writing in my journal. I wrote that encountering this mysterious shift in August enables even small chldren to encompass a sense of loss and longing. I probably didn’t use the word “emcompass”, but I wrote something profound, I’m pretty sure. What I can say is that by my late teens I knew that The August Change was a thing I had experienced long before I was old enough to be able to get a thought around it, much less articulate it — which may be one reason the memories are always so strong when it hits.  

This year The August Change came early for me. I felt it when I was walking home after getting off the bus from work a few days ago. Just an awareness that hadn’t been there the moment before that the year has entered middle age. 

And now in the morning the smell of the bull kelp blistering in the warmed up waters of Elliott Bay reaches my nose. And how long has the grass been brown? Now, suddenly, the blackberries are ready.

New about

I’ve written a new About page, updating the family photo and assessing this blog’s dreadful record in terms of keeping “on task”.  For the sake of historicity, I’m leaving the old About page up just as it was.


The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt