"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, December 31, 2011

An American Penguin

When I first created a cute penguin using Adobe Illustrator, I could not have anticipated the outpouring of support, the clamoring for more, the sheer love that this fella would generate from my readers. It is with great pride that I show where the penguin now resides, ensconced among the most revered historical figures of this land.

Sincere thanks to Adobe Photoshop CS5, y'know, for helping me crop the image...and thanks to Jim Bowen and Wikimedia Commons, y'know, for taking a photo that looks remarkably like mine.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Not a Creature was Stirring...

But they were about to be stirred...

As part of my investigative photo journalistic efforts, I infiltrated my parents' home during Christmas and found this disturbing sight. I swear I did not personally stage this photo. Said fuzzy critters were subsequently rescued and the nearby turkey was cooked instead. No statements were provided by my niece or nephew despite repeated attempts to get them to sit still. Asked for comment, grand-parental figures only giggled. I am going ahead with releasing this photo in the hopes that this never happens again.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

My Cosmos Clearinghouse for December 2011

Solar Sail To The Rescue

It turns out solar sailing, using energy from the sun to propel spacecraft, may help improve quality of life on Earth. Observing spacecraft powered by solar sails could provide more advanced warning time. Warning time to whom? And for what? To operators of satellites and power grids so they can brace for harmful solar flares. This brief NASA video includes some great footage and graphics.

Regular readers know I have blogged about solar sails before. I am a fan. For some background, you can read my post Harnessing "The Wind From the Sun"

Dawn Spacecraft Getting Even Closer to Vesta

Also proving the relevance and wonder of space exploration is the Dawn spacecraft. As I write these words, Dawn is in a low orbit that brings it within 130 miles of the asteroid Vesta. In addition to radiation and gravity data, Dawn's successful orbit of the second largest asteroid in the main belt brings us one step closer to human exploration. Given that similar objects have routinely struck the Earth and likely will again, the need to be well-practiced at intercepting them should be obvious. Sadly, it isn't obvious to many, including elected officials. So here is another reason to explore asteroids and comets that should reach a wider swath of humanity: mining profits.

Artist concept based on Dawn images of the asteroid Vesta
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Excerpts from a Novel Rough Draft

As promised, here are some excerpts from the rough draft of my first novel. To me, they seem very rough but have promise. Who knows if they will survive a second revision? I would be grateful for any reactions you have from reading these smidgens.

From Part One of Retrograde, Wanderer

Though he was now husky, and his clothing underscored a lack of vitality, even a haggardness, still when he pivoted to walk back up toward town center, he did so with the elegance and poise of a dancer--and this was no coincidence. Even having let himself go quite a bit in the past couple of years, he walked with a purposeful bounce, an inherent deliberateness. Passing by the trinket shop that fronted the street and creek on two sides, he took on the gate of a man about to get something over with. Past an empty store front and then past the chamber of commerce, he turned onto Middle Street. A new car was parked on the street in front of the office he was about to help close for business. The last client, Evan surmised.

From Part Two of Retrograde, Wanderer

Now Evan listened to the vintage 56K modem connect to a remote server and download his latest e-mail. Simultaneously, he opened up his draft folder to a document with the subject line: Notice of Voluntary Suspension of Membership.

The document read as follows:

Dear Worshipful Master, Sojourner’s Lodge No. 103

With due respect, and gratitude for the brotherhood and fellowship I have often enjoyed in the Lodge, I respectfully withdraw my membership. For a variety of reasons, which I am more than willing to discuss if you desire clarification, I cannot continue as a member of Freemasonry. In good conscience, I hereby withdraw my membership. Simply put, I do not feel that this is either the civic or theological home for me ... You also have my word as gentleman, that I will never share with others those secrets of the Lodge which I was provided as part of my membership, Again, if you have any questions, please feel free to write or call me. But I must cease my formal association with the fraternity, effective immediately.


Evan Lawrence Morgan

From Part Three of Retrograde, Wanderer

“Don’t name him,” the suddenly impish Phil said. Evan whirled again toward miniature Marlotte. “Why must you name him? Why must you ravage every last sacred tale? Let some things remain mysterious and fabled. Your brain will feel so much better.” And now he, they both, stood in a cold horizontal pillar of cobalt haze. Marlotte shivered and then spoke again. “Evan, this universe is getting so cold. It’s moving too fast away from itself. It’s…it’s…” Evan stumbled forward and then back. The sun turned cool blue and icy like a crystal sphere. Then Phil dropped down into a crouch and slammed the backs of his hands on the dirt drive so that they shattered into ice shards. “It’s too architect-damned cold!”

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Pining for 'Life on Mars' and Earth

Life on MarsLife on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What I find most enlivening about Life on Mars is how naturally and completely Tracy K. Smith erases the line between sci-fi, sci-reality, and contemporary poetry. This isn’t one genre impersonating another. Nor is it a medley that vacillates awkwardly between different idioms. This is a singular work with no confines other than the governing forces of the universe: space, time and gravity.

Ms. Smith doesn’t other the universe as so many of us do—compartmentalizing it into a distant and foreign place that some foolishly regard as irrelevant. All that existence is mingles on the page to produce a longing for emotional communion and intellectual understanding. For me, it is heartwarming to see another creative thinker who interacts with the cosmos on such a spiritually holistic, yet grounded humanistic plane.

I find Life on Mars very accessible, but not thin or superficial. Smith’s voice is confident and unapologetic, but also exudes tenderness. The poems give voice to a range of universal feelings: desire for intimacy; desire to transcend; and desire to renew. Life on Mars explores what it means to be human in the post-Einstein, post-Apollo, and soon to be post-Hubble universe.

Lastly, I had the delightful chance to share a couple of these poems with a niece and nephew over Thanksgiving weekend. They are teenagers. We were looking for things to do other than watch TV, so I exercised my avuncular gravitas and made them read poetry. I had them take turns reading a poem aloud. And I told them not to get hung up if it didn’t make sense right away.

Afterwards, we discussed what the poems got them thinking about. I won’t go into specifics but it was wonderful to see their intellects churning, coming up with ideas while mulling over initially cryptic phrases. We arrived at a place where we could talk candidly about what it means to be a human these days. My thanks to the author. Life on Mars is poetry that provokes rich discussion across generations.

View all my reviews

Friday, November 25, 2011

Winner Status for a Childe Novelist

For my currently 52,610 word manuscript, I have earned the below badge from
National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo). To be a winner required writing 50,000 words during November. Today I'm thankful for my sister Andie, who reminded me about this month-long event for writers. But the work isn't done. I need to sit back down and write some more to reach the end of the story. My personal goal is to have a complete rough draft by November 30th.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Washtenaw County Leaves and Berries

But first

Much gratitude for the outpouring of support I received on Facebook earlier this week after my biggest, wordiest session of National Novel Writing Month. If all goes well, I will summit Mount Fiftythousandwordmanuscript later this week. Expect a few sneak peeks of the rough draft on a blog post coming soon. And now...

Happy Thanksgiving to All
And to All a Good Bingefest

Autumn Leaves in Washtenaw County, Michigan

When next we interact, I will likely be digesting a turkey sandwich made with leftover dark meat and a wee bit of cartilage. But in the meantime, I hope you enjoy this photo that I snagged just outside the office one afternoon a few days ago. On a bittersweet note that matches the tone of my novel, I call the above image Goodbye or See You Soon

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Blue Shift and the Penguin Cometh

I created the above starburst in Adobe Photoshop CS5. It is made entirely of fill layers, filters and effects and does not utilize a photograph. Wish I could say I did it all on my own, but I actually relied on an easy to follow video tutorial from PhotoShop Gurus Forum. The tutorial was created by site member Apengo. However, I customized the finished image to include the blue shift. In Einstein-speak, a blue shift indicates the star is moving toward you.

And Here's the Penguin

I built this fella in Adobe Illustrator CS5. I say 'built' because I didn't really draw him. He's more an assembly of shapes and gradient patterns that have been carefully assembled in layers. Kinda makes me feel like Dr. Frankenstein...y'know if Frankenstein created a cartoon penguin.

Anyhoo, I made said penguin by following a tutorial created by designer Chris Spooner over at Blog.SpoonGraphics. Thank you very much Mr. Spooner. I spent about 4 hours on this guy, and about a third of that was spent trying to figure out the mesh gradient on the darn feet. Seriously though, this one was very fun and rewarding. Don't ya just wanna snuggle him?

Now for some seriously fun (and funny) comic creation, go explore the phantasmagorical world of Dead Duck.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

My Run for the 'Rose Red'

But first...

My thanks to prolific blogger Pillownaut for giving last week's post 'Humility' a nice influx of readers via social networking. Always nice when bloggers give one another a boost. 'Humility' is the second in what will hopefully be a series of pieces that combine original poetry and pictures of the cosmos. The first was 'Pilgrimage Vignette.'

Now for a fun review!

Fables: Rose Red (Vol. 15)Fables: Rose Red by Bill Willingham

Growing restless during the final days before National Novel Writing Month, I sought a diversion. And I found it, or rather her, reposing in a literary fortress that overlooks the town in which I reside. For many months, I have gazed longingly at Rose Red, ever since her Fables compilation appeared on the New Release shelf at my public library.

Breaking the spell of procrastination, I seized Ms. Red from yon stacks and carried her to the Circulation Desk. “No, Mrs. Librarian,” I said coolly, “I don’t need a printed due date slip. Kindly demagnetize Rose Red and I will be on my way.” Once back in my lair, I set to removing layer after layer of her
engrossing back story.

Richly illustrated and finely lettered, Rose Red was as entertaining as any graphic novel I’ve ever read…and not merely because Fables is a sexy universe. The coloring and composition were enchanting, especially in proverbial locales like the forest at night. Yet more importantly, over the course of some 200+ pages, the story kept me on edge.

Alas, our weekend together was not perfect. Rose Red’s participation in the larger storyline proved anti-climactic. That doesn’t mean the story was weak or underdeveloped, just her portion of it. Red, who first appeared on the scene burnt out, soon got her act together. But then a different impossibly beautiful heroine took center stage for the grand duel with evil.

Again, I’m not complaining about the larger storyline. It was a fantastic mix of gritty contemporary motifs and traditional fairytale magic. In short, it was Fables at its best. But, as I contemplate releasing Ms. Red from my vile clutches to retake her rightful place in the library stacks, I do wish her creators had made her central to the story’s magical showdown. Nevertheless, if you’ve read and relished previous Fables installments, don’t miss this one.

View all my reviews

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Humility: A Poem of the Cosmos

For another cosmic poem, read Pilgrimage Vignette


This piece was built using Adobe Photoshop CS5. Obviously, it includes the same image as I use for my blog's banner (a shot of me taken by my friend Stef). The background image is of the "Black Eye Galaxy" M64. Image credit goes to NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI), with acknowledgments to S. Smartt (Institute of Astronomy) and D. Richstone (U. Michigan).

Yet, I would be remiss if I didn't also credit the makers of Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back. They first got me to fall in love with the sight of humbled humans staring off into a nearby galaxy. Lastly, the poem is my creation--inspired largely by reading Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson's excellent book Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Childe's Novel Insecurities

Believe it or not, the quotes I'm about to share are for fun, though they reveal my artistic insecurity. I'm not trying to engineer a pity party. What follows is business as usual whenever I write creatively. I've taken these excerpts from the journal I'm keeping for National Novel Writing Month. Beneath them is a quick cellphone shot I took yesterday while treating myself to an afternoon walk in Waterloo Recreation Area.

From October 11, 2011:

One of my major insecurities to this point, albeit early point in the process, is that I worry I can’t turn this premise into a compelling story with action and suspense—that I can’t get it to rise above the sort of preachy blogging voice I and others often fall into in our writing. I want to write a story. I want it to be compelling. And I am aware that if the story is overly preachy and one-sided, it risks being distasteful via didactic overtones. I don’t want that. The tougher road, the worthy outcome, is to build a story that lets readers draw most of their own conclusions. It also needs to be multi-faceted and offer a compelling development of events. It can’t just be one guy sitting around waffling to himself...
From October 16, 2011:

Last night as I was at Zouzou’s CafĂ© listening to a friend’s duo perform, I had a strong bout of insecurity in relation to the direction of this novel. I start having thoughts about switching... . Oddly, when I think of switching to that, it’s almost like I feel that story, even more overtly autobiographical in theme and plot, would be safer. The quality of safeness is certainly no reason to embark on a major writing project. It ought not to be for the writer. So, I’m sticking with this one, admitting it’s not good enough in present form, has a certain amount of rehash from past stories I’ve written, and will need serious work and even research to get better. But having admitted that, I’m encouraging myself to see that as an attainable goal.

Mill Lake in Washtenaw County, Michigan

This photo makes me think of a fun line from the movie Wonder Boys. A best-selling author speaks of "the water's edge of inspiration" and the "far shore of accomplishment." It's a worthy enough metaphor. But it draws pretentious laughter from one of the film's main characters (who presumably regards it as pathetically quaint...not unlike this cell phone shot!)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Regarding Henry: I Plead the Fifth

But First

Important Announcement

Childe Jake has signed on to participate in National Novel Writing Month 2011
Please get ready to root him on!

Now for a Light-hearted Review

Henry VHenry V by William Shakespeare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thanks to Kenneth Branagh, this Henry history play was the cool Shakespeare movie when I was in high school. Eat your heart out Franco Zeffirelli. Mr. Branagh acted and directed his butt off. There were lots of arrows flying between England and France. The French were portrayed as snobs, a testament to the Bard’s high research standards. The original score was majestic. Did I mention the cool arrows?

Honestly, I’m still not sure why England and France were fighting—something about tennis balls being very tacky gifts. So I make it a rule never to invite a British person to play tennis if he is holding a longbow. Oh, yeah, and having now also seen a good stage production, I find myself not the least bit bothered that a whole section of the play is done in French. It involves Henry’s bride-to-be chatting it up with a girlfriend, I think. At any rate, the deep symbolism for me in that scene is that whenever I find myself surrounded by chatting women, I can’t follow what they’re saying. But if I pay attention to their mood, things generally turn out okay.

Anyhoooo, having read it and seen it on stage and screen, Henry V remains for me a cool, exciting Shakespeare play. I had to dock a star because I made the mistake of attending college and becoming a critical thinker. So now the war sections don’t have the same pizzazz that they did in high school. And I’ve also realized that the love story has no pizzazz. “Hi, lovely French lady. I’m Henry. I killed more of your relatives than your country killed of my relatives. I love your eyes. Let’s consummate.” Yup, pretty sure that’s the final act in a nutshell.

Bottom line: Whatever literary gripes may exist about this play, the St. Crispin’s Day speech is rightfully one of the greatest moments in all of dramatic literature. Don’t miss this Shakespearean history play.

View all my reviews

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Rocket in Congress' Pocket

But First

It occurs to me that I haven't forced a Kate Beckinsale reference into my blog recently. My sincere apologies.

A Long Time Ago, in a Committee Far, Far Away...

Shortly after getting elected, President Obama came up with a plan for space exploration that sounded decidedly Republican: a free-market competition to drive down costs and spur innovation. But then the U.S. Congress, including some Republican members, fired back with ideas that looked decidedly Democratic: a big-government Apollo Program redux...or should I say reflux?

Here is the result, potentially the most powerful rocket ever to grace a government blueprint. It is called Space Launch System. (The Childe chuckles to himself, wondering if we've finally run out of sexy names from antiquity.) SLS hasn't been built yet, and won't for several years, hence the artist rendering:

Image Credit: NASA
For readers who are not well-versed in NASA politics, the appropriate response to the above image is this:

Oh my! The Saturn V rocket knocked up the Space Shuttle and they've had a love child!
Here is the more astute response:

So this is what happens when Congress (comprised of folks who aren't rocket scientists) tells NASA (comprised of folks who are rocket scientists) exactly what kind of rocket it is allowed to build (a behemoth machine favoring existing contracts, materials and the constituents of currently elected officials).
Sincerely, I think the above image is a tribute to NASA brilliance. Despite having to cope with a government that underfunds--in part because it was elected by a citizenry that is increasingly undereducated--NASA still achieves compelling and cool results. So I remain a fan...of NASA.

The Private Sector Gears Up

Now here is a great video detailing a private sector design: the Falcon Heavy from SpaceX. It is also being billed as the "most powerful." What I care about for now is that, more and more, the world doesn't have to rely on the U.S. Congress to fund worthy endeavors. The bottom line is that if either of these rockets makes it into orbit, we all win.

My refrain for the coming year will be, "Some taxes are worth paying."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

My Lightfooted Quest for Cooler Status

So I checked with a friend in California. Unfortunately, having attended the Gordon Lightfoot concert this past Wednesday does not make me cooler. This is a regrettable setback for my lackluster concert-going career.

By way of background, my quest to become cool by attending concerts began in high school. Trusted buddies Mike and Jeremy invited me to join them at a Harry...excuse me, an Harry Connick Jr. concert at Wolf Trap in Virginia. The show was awesome and I thought for sure I was on my way to being cool.

Sadly, I failed to follow up with more trips to Wolf Trap or other prestigious venues. Once in college I fell into a pop-culture dry spell that lasted several years. Though I attended a slew of Utah Symphony concerts--including all three performances of Gershwin's 'Piano Concerto in F' conducted by Maestro Keith Lockhart--my coolness quotient failed to rise substantially.

Seeing that I was struggling to become a hip music aficionado, my grandma asked me to drive her to a Neil Diamond concert. This was it! Finally, in my mid-twenties, I was on my way to coolness. But the magic didn't last. I soon graduated college and made the fateful decision to accept low-paying work in a field that I give a damn about. Money for concert tickets dried up.

Then Lady Luck made an appearance early last week. Michigan Radio--in the tradition of my grandma--provided this Childe another chance to become a hip concertgoer. The station drew my name at random to attend An Evening with Gordon Lightfoot at Ann Arbor's Michigan Theatre. Frankly, I fail to see how this makes me less than awesome. Not only did I win something, I have joined the ranks of devoted Lightfoot fans, their fathers, and their fathers before them. What's not cool about that?

Seriously though, despite a voice that isn't what it used to be, Mr. Lightfoot and his excellent band put smiles on lots of faces by revisiting the oldies and most-definitely goodies from his storied career. And when he sang one of my favorites, 'If You Could Read My Mind,' I thought to myself, "How cool that I get to hear this song live!"

Friday, September 16, 2011

Alan Arnette and a Seven Summits Update

For the most current Everest coverage from Alan, visit www.alanarnette.com

Alan Arnette continues his climb of the Seven Summits to raise support for Alzheimer's Research. Having successfully tagged the summit of Mt. Everest, amongst others, he is now climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa. Here is one of Alan's posts, from just a few days ago, as he began his ascent of the fabled volcano.

Higher on Kilimanjaro

Vicky Jack's Seven Summit Adventure

The Sky's the Limit: Vicky Jack and Her Quest to Climb the Seven SummitsThe Sky's the Limit: Vicky Jack and Her Quest to Climb the Seven Summits by Vicky Jack
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Over the past year I’ve followed climber Alan Arnette as he seeks to reach the highest summit on each continent--the aptly named “Seven Summits.” (Arnette is doing it to raise support for Alzheimer’s research.) In addition to following his blog, I decided to seek out a book about previous climbers who’ve attempted this feat. My local bookstore happened to have The Sky’s the Limit: The Story of Vicky Jack and Her Quest to Climb the Seven Summits.

More than any other climbing book I’ve read, this retelling of Ms. Jack’s adventure gets a light and life-affirming treatment. This book is highly congratulatory and inspirational, in contrast to other climbing tomes that focus on controversy. For a few chapters, I even worried this book would prove too watered down to be compelling.

In particular, the chapter on climbing Mount Kilimanjaro almost reads like a day trip—and climbing that African summit is no small achievement. So my one literary criticism would be that author Anna Magnusson doesn’t appear to have dug especially deep. However, like the heroine of the story, The Sky’s the Limit won me over. In fact, I read the whole thing in one marathon Saturday session.

As the book progresses, and as Ms. Jack’s climbs grow increasingly risky, the narrative likewise deepens and intensifies. This may not be an exhaustively researched biography, but neither is it skin-deep or forgettable. It is personable and engaging in ways that other climbing books sometimes lack. Plus, it’s quite fun to read. I relished the chance to unabashedly root for someone fulfilling her dream.

I would place The Sky’s the Limit alongside Touching My Father’s Soul, as a book that treats an almost mythical quest in a remarkably personal and life-affirming way. There are doubtless more prestigious accounts of climbing the Seven Summits available. But this book caters especially well to readers like me who aren’t mountain climbers. In particular, if you are looking for an adventure book with a worthy female role-model, The Sky’s the Limit is well worth seeking out.

View all my reviews

Saturday, September 10, 2011

My Cosmos Clearinghouse for September 2011

ISS View of Hurricane Irene

August 22, 2011 image of Irene from the ISS - Photo Credit: NASA
For all the hubbub generated by a perennially dissatisfied citizenry--over whether the government has done too much or not enough--this photo reminds me of how the great labor of scientists and engineers has made hurricanes a remarkably manageable natural disaster. Asteroids and comets may one day hold that distinction as well, if we ever attain the vision and dedication needed to harness resources we already possess.

Now for my Review of a Damn Good Biography

Light This Candle: The Life & Times of Alan Shepard--America's First SpacemanLight This Candle: The Life & Times of Alan Shepard--America's First Spaceman by Neal Thompson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Light This Candle is a biography that adopts the swagger of its subject: Alan Shephard. Mixing new interviews with material from earlier records, author Neal Thompson delivers a book that proceeds at a steady, confident clip. As such, Light This Candle achieves a gut-level intensity that seems appropriate given the ambitious man it depicts.

At times, this book feels like a piecemeal eulogy. While the bulk of the narrative recounts Shephard’s storied career, chapters dealing with his youth and post-flight years have a summary quality. Even accounts of memorable flights have a no-frills aspect. And this is generally to the author’s credit. It could be tempting to weigh down descriptions of aerial adventure with extravagant prose. However, Thompson wisely takes a no-nonsense approach to rehearsing Shepard’s past.

Light This Candle falls short of feeling revelatory. But this appraisal is not meant as harsh criticism. As the author remarks, Shephard vigilantly maintained privacy in spite of his fame. Like the many who brushed shoulders with the first American in space, Thompson doesn’t gain full-access to Shephard’s personal life. Readers may even be left with the impression that no one, not even Shephard’s beloved wife Louise, was privy to the real story.

Ultimately, Light This Candle is about taking stock of a man who competed and won often. Shephard’s exploits in and out of the cockpit dominate the pages, as they should. In a broader context, Light This Candle is a worthy tome about the American test pilot. It proves a lively read that can stand shoulder to shoulder with other notable books and films about Shepard and his fellow explorers.

View all my reviews

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Best of Facebook Status Updates: Volume 4

  • I enjoy how--anywhere I've lived--the locals think they coined the phrase, 'Don't like the weather? Wait five minutes. It'll change.'
  • Having a specific--especially a mystical--muse, seems kinda hokey. It strikes me as an elegant way of admitting you hope your artwork gets you laid.
  • We got trouble!...Right here in Chelsea City!...With a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pissed-off pretentious pooches barkin' at people walkin' on the other frickin' side of the street.
  • Important Kitchen Tip: It's a good idea to keep a backup set of twisty ties. You may never need them. But if the twisty tie you just barely removed from a loaf of bread disappears into an alternate universe, you'll be prepared.
  • 7 or 8 finches out on my front step just engaged in what to my ears sounded like a terribly heated argument. I suspect it was about the debt ceiling.
  • I find that when a squirrel is having an existential crisis, it's best to just give him a few minutes and some space to work through it.
  • NPR's Scott Simon just favorited one my tweets. YEAH!!
  • Lunchtime Mission: Okay folks, this photo I took is scoring in the Top 10 search results for 'startled squirrel'. I want to reach the Top 3. Help me out. Please do a Google Image Search for "startled squirrel' and click on this image when you see it. This is why I got into writing. Thanks.
  • Thanks to everyone who has taken the time and clicked the links to help my blog reach 3,000 page views

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Childe's Farewell to Borders

This week I guest-blogged over at Wheat and Tares, my second gig for them. The post recounts my final visit to a favorite store. I hope you'll visit, read, and leave a comment if you feel inclined. Thank you for stopping by.

Happy waning days of summer to each of you!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Pilgrimage Vignette

The above vignette utilizes NASA/JPL images taken by the Galileo Orbiter in 1997, the primary image being of Jupiter's moon Europa. On that I overlaid a swatch of blue taken from a false color Galileo image credited to NASA/JPL/University of Arizona. The rest of this piece is original. It was generated using Adobe Photoshop CS5.

For another cosmic poem, read Humility.

--Jake Christensen

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Oh Redford, My Redford

Robert RedfordRobert Redford by Michael Feeney Callan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

By way of confession, I approached Robert Redford the biography in an attitude of hero worship. Since childhood, I have unquestionably regarded him as an iconic American actor. The first time I watched he and Paul Newman go into haunting freeze frame at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is etched in my mind. My parents used The Natural as a practical tool for schooling me in allegory. While a college student in Utah, I felt the Redford mystique grow during regular trips into Salt Lake City to watch indie films, including a Sundance Film Festival screening.

Robert Redford the book provided big discoveries for me. Author Michael Feeney Callan spent years drumming up over 300 interviews in addition to many sessions with Redford. He also gained access to notebooks, journals and other original research. Initially the book was mesmerizing. Redford’s roots seamlessly interwove with 20th Century American history.

After about 100 pages, my reading slowed. The book became less fun--not less worthwhile--just less recreational. It turns out Redford isn’t much like what I assumed. His silver screen gravitas belies the reality of an often erratic and stubborn personality. In fact, I found the early Redford to be arrogant and annoying. Still, whether deflating or ingratiating, Callan’s study effectively peeled back the glossy Hollywood veneer. I came to see Redford and his colleagues as real people engaged in risky creative endeavors.

As a work of serious biography, Robert Redford has a couple of weak points. At times Callan’s narrative feels soupy and convoluted. Some passages combine a dizzying list of names and minutia with an 'Oh by the way' quality, leaving me unsure of their particular significance. On a related note, the passage of years is not always apparent. At times I felt disoriented as some major developments were mentioned off the cuff. The variable pace of Redford’s career was difficult to track.

In fairness, some of these criticisms probably boil down to the challenge of delivering a cohesive account of a disjunctive professional life. From the days of his “breakthrough” performance as the Sundance Kid, Redford’s acting career took on a Sugar Ray Leonard quality. He has seemed ever on the verge of retiring or staging a comeback.

Ultimately, I have great admiration for Callan’s stalwartness as a biographer. This is no slapdash expose. And if Robert Redford the book is sometimes a rough read, it is in large part because Redford the man is hard to read. About two-thirds of the way through I sent an e-mail to my Mom saying how much I was enjoying the book, even as it chopped Redford down to eye-level. I summed up my newly seasoned appreciation for him this way: "Oddly, I respect him just a bit less but identify with him a great deal more."

Viewing Recommendation: Obviously a reading of this biography benefits from having seen Redford’s major films. I strongly suggest watching both Jeremiah Johnson and Downhill Racer before or while reading this book. These films are often revisited by both Callan and Redford as major touchstones in “Bob’s” artistic development.

View all my reviews

Saturday, August 6, 2011

'Little Green Men' Sports Pinball Wizardry

Little Green Men: It's A Big World after AllLittle Green Men: It's A Big World after All by Jay P. Fosgitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First off, this compilation contains the adventures of three finger-sized aliens trying to conquer Earth. There is simply no way for this premise to be less than amusing. Unless you are a complete sourpuss, Little Green Men comics do not allow for utter disappointment. That said, when delivered through the mind and pen of artist Jay P. Fosgitt, this story becomes rich entertainment for readers of all ages.

My reading of this compilation was skewed toward the nostalgic because of the context in which I got my copy. A few months ago, I preordered it online from Borders and requested in-store pickup. In a poignant coincidence, my copy arrived in the store on the same day Borders began its going-out-of-business sale. Little Green Men: It’s a Big World After All is the last new release I will ever buy from what was my favorite bookstore.

Needful to say, I was in the market for light humor and goofy action, especially action suffused with a charming affection for pop-culture. Happily, Mr. Fosgitt delivered again. He is now three for three with me as a reader. After plopping down in my reading chair, I was treated to a plot that seamlessly mixes slapstick-laden sci-fi, precision parody and cotton candy-flavored Americana. Fosgitt’s Little Green Men is entertainment for folks who love banana splits.

For me there was a particularly magical moment late in the book. One of the aliens sneaks off alone. He rockets through the mail slot of an arcade with the firm intent of going one-on-one with a pinball machine. Keep in mind he’s three inches tall. What follows is a scene of wonderful hijinks and physical comedy. However, it’s the buildup I want to praise. I loved the vitality Fosgitt achieved via a low-angle image of the little fellow striding boldly towards his nemesis. For me it held all the magic of an early Spielberg film--a pure, even tender reminder that I am still in love with my childhood, and so too is Fosgitt.

Bottom line: Little Green Men is extremely fun. I highly recommend it to all carbon-based life forms. To try the series out for free, stop by Apecmx.com.

My Other Fosgitt Reviews:
View all my reviews

Monday, August 1, 2011

A 'Martian Summer' For the Books

Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars MissionMartian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission by Andrew Kessler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For me, there is a sentimental connection to the Phoenix Mars Mission. Along with many others, my name is preserved in a special data disc mounted on the outside of the lander. Phoenix now rests silent on the surface of the red planet. The disc awaits recovery by future Martian explorers.

Martian Summer focuses as much on human drama as it does on science. Many personal stories lie behind the mission, which rocketed a robotic lander all the way to Mars’s polar landscape. To his credit, author Andrew Kessler constantly shines the spotlight on several mission MVPs. Still it’s fair to say the heart of this book is Kessler’s personal quest to access the protected environment of mission control. Consider this profound moment:

“I ended up squished in the back of some half-crazed Hollywood producer’s Mustang with a pile of scientists on my lap.”

Okay, so trying to embed yourself in a space mission can sometimes be a comedy of errors. It’s no exaggeration to say I laughed out loud many times while reading Martian Summer. It is loaded with entertaining gems like the one above. Kessler, who begins the book as an outsider, rightly compares the culture of mission control to the hit sitcom The Office. So if you enjoy that sitcom, there is a good chance you’d enjoy following a NASA mission.

It helps immensely that Kessler is a gifted writer. To keep the intricate story readable, he makes some great choices. He keeps the prose light whenever possible (which is often). He provides needed context without letting the narrative grind to a halt--even as the mission itself progresses in fits and starts. Plus, Kessler always stays close to one or two human subplots. Though a few technical passages went over my head, I never felt lost while reading Martian Summer.

The joy of lively prose notwithstanding, there was a point in this book when I grew disheartened. Not coincidentally, so did Kessler and mission personnel. There were incessant technical glitches, losses of vital image data and distracting intrusions by politically-minded higher-ups. Personally, I started wondering if space exploration is just too challenging for humans. But as I kept reading, I remembered the following line Kessler wrote earlier in the book:

“If I can find the beauty in moving bits across space, there’s hope for me.”

Here on Earth we enjoy, even depend on, an information superhighway. As this book shows, the data route between Earth and Mars is more of a hazardous byway. Yet through cooperation and persistence, the Phoenix mission team traversed the void many times over one summer. Discovery resulted when the data came home safely. And via Martian Summer, a similar gap has been bridged between elite scientists and lay enthusiasts.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Visit My YouTube Hovel...er Channel

Childe Jake's Pilgrimage Now Sharing Video

I've set up a YouTube channel, linked above. Not unlike my periodic "Cosmos Clearinghouse" posts, it is a gateway to content I've encountered, enjoyed, and find enlivening. As of yet, it does not include videos of my own making (Your welcome). Upon arriving, you'll be treated to the following playlists:

  • My Cosmos Clearinghouse
  • Featured On My Blog
  • deGrasse Tyson (Meet one of my favorite scientists)
  • Fresh Hell (A hilariously self-deprecating web series by actor Brent Spiner)
  • Potter's Field (A local duo including my friend Rochelle. They specialize in "Creepicana.")
I hope you'll stop by. If you do, consider leaving a comment letting me know you visited. Below is a sampling of what you will find. It also demonstrates the musical style "Creepicana." Happy summer to you!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

My Farewell to Our Space Shuttle Program

Original Photo's Credit: NASA

The above photo, prior to me adding a caption and frame in Photoshop, was taken from the space shuttle Atlantis on July, 19th, 2011 after undocking from the International Space Station for the final time.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

My Cosmos Clearing House for STS-135

What is STS-135? Look Down and Dream Up

My brilliant plan was to do a post showcasing dramatic images from the Cassini Solstice Mission taking place at this very moment above Saturn. But...

A few moments ago I read a wonderful post by a fellow blogger. If you are one of those folks who gives my blog the time of day, I thank you. But this week, I ask you to spend a couple of minutes reading the following piece instead:

An Eye Witness Perspective from Blogger Pillownaut

It is my favorite type of blog post--personal, straightforward and well-written. If you enjoy it as I did, I hope you will pay Pillownaut the compliment of posting a comment.

Now for my favorite image of STS-135...so far!

Shuttle Atlantis as seen from a NASA training aircraft -- CREDIT: NASA/Dick Clark

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Spring Images of Washtenaw County Michigan

An Oak Tree Near Dexter, Michigan

I shot this at my supervisor's request earlier this Spring. She wanted a nice picture of this particular tree using the company's new Nikon D7000, and she wanted it before the leaves arrived. I did a bit of touch up in Photoshop to bring out the clouds and hide a utility box.

Below is how the same tree would appear in a bad Highlander sequel (which is to say...a Highlander sequel). I wish I could say this abstract version was a technical feat, but I was just experimenting with Tone Curves in Adobe's Camera Raw. What are Tone Curves? As the picture makes clear, you should ask someone other than me.

Here is the same scene touched up with the Patch Tool in Photoshop. Bye-bye to all evidence that there are parking lots and vehicles nearby.

'A Bird of Free and Careless Wing...'

The above words are Lord Byron's and reference a bird of spring. The stanza I took them from is kind of a downer, so I won't quote the whole thing. In any case, here is one of many finches that abide in Washtenaw County--seen through the blinds of my office window. It made several concerted attempts to get through the window before settling down and saying cheese. This photo was taken with an older Nikon Coolpix 2500. For me this image, like the ones above, was really about introducing myself to serious cameras and software.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

O'Brien's Novel Take on a Childe's Life

Byron in LoveByron in Love by Edna O'Brien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Edna O’Brien’s writing style perplexes me. I remember being mystified by it when I read her excellent novel House of Splendid Isolation. I felt this disconnect again while reading Byron in Love. I was impressed with the tightness of the plot and the lack of excess in her prose. The trade off is I tended to feel a bit detached and unemotional while reading this book. At times, Ms. O’Brien’s poise and restraint as a novelist unduly bridled the sauciness of Byron’s story.

When I read Ms. O’Brien, I feel like I’m staring in through a mildly warped window at the characters. The scene appears slightly blurred and the sounds are a bit muffled. It is like O’Brien has me off to the side, watching from a discreet distance--as one might do when witnessing a couple argue in public. It’s a compelling style, but not the one I would pick for a biography of Lord Byron--especially one that is delivered like a novel. Yet I still feel this is a great book.

O’Brien’s unvarnished recounting of Byron’s scandals, as well as his chauvinism, challenged me (though I retain my affinity for him). I don’t believe one can take a serious look at Byron without acknowledging his great failures as a father and husband. But it also makes me consider one of the callous byproducts of traditional marriage culture. No child should ever be termed “illegitimate”, even when born out of wedlock to irresponsible parents.

This book also reminded me--as any objective biography of Byron should--of the rampant and abrasive hypocrisy that emanates from intensely heterosexual cultures. Byron could have been subjected to the death penalty for his homosexual liaisons. But when he engaged in heterosexual adultery, he was just fitting in. Ms. O’Brien brings this harsh double standard into sharp relief.

My chief complaint with this book is grammatical. O’Brien’s abrupt shifts between present and past tense annoyed me. Given her abilities and authorial maturity, I have to think the shifts were deliberate. I just found them acutely distracting. Other than that, I don’t have anything much to fault, except my lingering sense of disconnectedness with Byron in Love.

I’ll sum it up with an analogy. I love the musical Les Miserables. I also love composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. But even on his best day, providing his finest work, I cannot imagine Mr. Sondheim musicalizing Les Miz to my satisfaction. There is simply an incongruity between his style and the way my heart yearns to experience that story. This also sums up why I didn’t fall head over heels for Ms. O’Brien’s take on Byron, though I found the book excellent. In any case, I feel the definitive portrayal of Byron was written long ago, though its main character is a childe called Harold.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Spring into Waterloo Recreation Area

But First A Squirrel in Peril, aka Merkel Furniture

Yeah, I know this is a picture of a chipmunk. But Dictionary.com confirms that chipmunks are squirrels (albeit with Napoleon complexes). I nabbed a photo of this little fellow after he invaded Merkel Furniture in downtown Chelsea, MI. I felt bad for the critter. I can only assume store owners are not forgiving toward life forms that pee on the showroom floor (even if they are doing so out of primal fear).

Cinnamon Fern on the Bog Trail

I'm not sure why these are called "cinnamon" fern, though I am aware that a neighboring member of the class Filicinae has dibs on "Royal Fern." At any rate, the above is an early spring shot of said fern impersonating Childe Jake as he appeared in junior high school. Below is an image of the same cinnamon fern on a subsequent visit--this time it's impersonating Jake after he scored a lead role in his high school's spring musical.

My Favorite Overlook on the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail

If I'm mistaken, Crooked Lake is named after the hedge funds that its lakefront property owners made their money in. It is a gorgeous portion of Ice Age leftovers, even when one finds himself coveting the palatial homes along the shore. This view is from the Hickory Hills Trail--one of several trails originating at the Gerald Eddy Discovery Center in the Waterloo Recreation Area.

For some 2012 images from the Lowland and Bog Trails, click here.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Childe Battles with the Beast

Episode 3 in the Quest to Become a Transparent Eyeball

In a previous post I spoke of my quest to become one with Nature. I resolved to achieve this goal by using the method of the great Ralph Waldo Emerson. He spoke of transcendence as becoming "a transparent eyeball." Twice before, I have sought to reach this epiphanic state and failed. Then, a few evenings past, while sitting on my porch I made a third attempt.

Thus reposed, I began reading from the letters of Lord Byron. All of a sudden, I was confronted by a beast of the field.

This beast, having thoroughly upset my meditation, shied at a given finger. I supposed him prepared to yield. And having made explicit my wish that he depart, I returned to perusing the personal letters of Romanticism's Poet Laureate. Soon I felt myself caught up in the majesty of reflection. Around me, adolescent leaves rustled playfully in the breeze that blows eastward from yon Waterloo.

But what to my surprise, the beast tarried in my path. He hunkered down between me and the goddess of Surcease (known to the ancient Latins as 'Supersessus'). And so I strove to block the foe's advance.

Here upon these stones, I steeled myself against the opposition Nature had set before me. Again, my eyes roamed Lord Byron's letters as he detailed the wiles of seduction and abandonment. Oh great Childe of my heart's library!--great were thy conquests, yet great thy follies also.

(On a side note, what manner of dude becomes pen-pals with the aunt of his most jaded booty call? Woe is him.)

But what to my further surprise...

"Once more through all he bursts his thundering way--"
--Lord Byron, 18-something A.D.
"Can it be?" I thought to myself. "Am I being charged by a beetle? Surely he has lost his tiny mind. No sensible beetle would rush a 6'2" man holding a hardbound book. Unless...this beast cannot see me. Yes, it must be. I have become a transparent eyeball!"

In my transcendent state, I noted the sheen of the beetle's carapace. Filled with the benevolence Emerson must of have known while floating transparent in the woods, I relented. The beetle passed by my size 13 feet, unflappable to the last. Only then did I realize his true intent--and my folly

"'tis past--he sinks upon the sand!"
--Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto 1: ln. 782

I looked on while the little fellow burrowed through a craggy egress in the concrete step. My world came into focus. Heed these words, good reader. When you find yourself being disregarded by one of Nature's creatures, do not assume you have become a transparent eyeball. You might have. Or you could just be standing, arrogant and foolhardy, between a beetle and his home. What an asshole ...me that is.

No natural beings were harmed in the making of this blog post.

How My Transparent Eyeball Quest Began

Read Episode 1 Here

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Norman Mailer's Gospel as Fan Fiction

**Fair Warning: This Review Contains Spoilers**

The Gospel According to the Son: A NovelThe Gospel According to the Son: A Novel by Norman Mailer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twice I was fortunate enough to hear Norman Mailer speak in person. He was the keynote speaker at the National Undergraduate Literature Conference at Weber State University, my alma mater. As Mr. Mailer spoke to our gathering, he mentioned The Gospel According to the Son. Why did he write it? As he put it, quite cockily, he’d read the New Testament gospels and felt that he could write the story better.

To be clear, he was speaking of the Gospels in literary terms, not theological. Simply put, Mailer felt the story of Jesus deserved to be told as a first-rate novel, and he felt confident he was the writer to do it. Not long after his remarks, I purchased a copy. But, as with many books I buy on impulse, I didn’t get around to reading it for several years.

The Gospel According to the Son was not what I expected, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I figured Mailer would construct his gospel along skeptical and profane lines. Not so. Skepticism is woven into this novel, but in a masterfully nuanced way. There is some of the profane, but it is surprisingly restrained. Mailer’s Jesus is devoutly celibate--a vulnerable human, open-minded and prone to passionate emotions. Yet he is also admirably righteous.

Now here is the spoiler: Mailer depicts Jesus as truly being the Son of God. There are plenty of points left open for interpretation in this book, but the question of Jesus’s divine status is not left in doubt. Mailer’s Jesus is the Christ.

As the story progresses, it becomes evident that Jesus really has visions and healing power. The author debunks some miracles, but not the biggest ones. Mailer’s Jesus, speaking in hindsight from the right hand of God, shows how the Biblical gospels are tailored for maximum persuasion and are rife with exaggeration. Yet still, Mailer’s Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and contends bravely with a real Satan.

Mailer succeeds in crafting a better narrative than the gospel writers. He converts their choppy and sometimes conflicting accounts into a single fluid and carefully paced narrative. There is a meticulously constructed conflict with the Pharisees. It feeds into the political tension between Jews and Romans, which Mailer renders adeptly without diverging into sprawling historical commentary about who really supplied the nails. And this lean, crisp plotline drives ever purposefully from manger to cross.

Mailer’s Jesus is multi-faceted, given to inner conflict and impulsiveness. He doesn’t have a perfect knowledge of his mission. In fact, much of the skepticism in the novel comes from the Son. Though poignant and engrossing relationships develop with John the Baptist, Peter and others, the arc of Jesus’s character explores the troubled and tenuous bond between Father and Son.

I do recommend The Gospel According to the Son, though as I’ve said it was not what I expected. Mailer proves quite content to err on the side of tradition by mostly honoring the spiritual outline set forth in the New Testament. As such, this is a surprisingly devotional work, rich with the same inspirational musing found in scripture, albeit delivered in an edgier manner.

By the end, I felt like I was reading an elaborate piece of fan fiction. It’s just that this particular Jesus fan was a two-time Pulitzer winner and not a devout Christian (I safely assume). I can even imagine Mailer typing the last chapter, looking over at a copy of the Bible and smirking, then saying aloud, “Father, forgive me. I know exactly what I’m doing.”

View all my reviews

Sunday, May 29, 2011

My Cosmos Clearinghouse for May

Another Great Night Shot from the ISS

Photo Credit: NASA

An ISS photo I posted back in January revealed the veiny sprawl of urban culture in Florida. In a similar vein (Ha!), the above photo strikingly depicts human dependence on water. In this case, we are looking at how Egyptian society clings to the Nile River. And though I'm guessing at the exact locale, it also appears that one heck of a house party was taking place up on Cyprus when this photo was taken.

An Exciting New Asteroid Sample Return Mission

Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

A while back I did a post speculating on which proposed mission would be NASA's next Cosmic Idol champ. The winner is OSIRIS-REx. If you really want to slog through the translation of that acronym, you can read my previous post. Expected to launch in 2016 (pending the continued functionality of Congress's tiny fiscal balls), OSIRIS-REx will fly to a nearby asteroid and scoop up samples. After literally dropping the samples off in Utah, OSIRIS-REx will continue on for more cosmic groping. Also, the Planetary Society will be playing a direct role in publicizing the mission. Click here for the details.


My apologies for the parenthetical testes joke above. (The parentheses were uncalled for.) The joke came to me as I was typing and I lack the couthiness to delete it. Besides, I'm too busy grinning because I just noticed how this post has taken on a nifty Egyptian theme. But now I'm feeling sheepish for not realizing that earlier in the writing process.

A Childe Can Dream

While checking my links for this post, I was invited to take a web survey at www.nasa.gov. My one suggestion was that they hire Kate Beckinsale as a spokeswoman for new science missions. Not sure that one is gonna make it up the ladder to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, but y'know, nothing ventured...

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Best of Facebook Status Updates: Volume 3

For the Enjoyment of Those Left Behind

  • SCOPING UPDATE: From my seat here in the library I notice this gal about ten yards away. She appears to be made almost entirely of scarf and parka. Her hair is pulled up, little or no make-up, just cheeks made rosy from the chilly breeze outside. Nothing in her appearance says pretense or show. And she is leafing intently through a "Fables" graphic novel. Damn that is sexy.
  • It happened to me again. After a night of fretting and worrying, I woke up this morning in combat boots, green fatigues, and I was chomping on a cigar. I need to reduce my stress because I'm tired of waking up in the Fidel position.
  • Watching Jeopardy...Very unsettling. Ken Jennings has this expression that could best be described as Open-the-podbay-doors-HAL! But IBM had to have an engineer share a funny anecdote on Watson's behalf. So I feel superior again.
  • In Egypt, citizens have risen up en masse to demand civil liberty and human dignity. In the U.S., our House of Representatives has taken up a bill to defund access to Cookie Monster.
  • Dear Orphaned Puppies, While doing my taxes I threw some extra sugar in the state treasury for animal shelters. If that $10 contribution doesn't make it to you in next fiscal year, you have my blessing to bite the nearest elected official on the
  • Thought I prepared. I have flashlights, canned food, juice, water, chips, a frozen pizza, a backup frozen pizza, and candles. But I forgot to check my supply of Frank's Red Hot Sauce. Does anyone have four-wheel drive?
  • In Holy Writ it is said that a little child shall lead them. At the coffee shop it is shown that a little child can get a table of grown men who are strangers to play with blocks.
  • Jeff Bridges briefly popped into my dreams last night. I asked him if he had fun making the Tron sequel. He gruffly replied, "Well obviously it didn't turn out too well!" Awkward.
  • Gearing up for hike #2 of spring. Backpack loaded, except...where's my Lord Byron anthology? I can't find it. Serious problem! Might have to postpone the hike...Oh, there it is. Under the bills. Nature! Here I come!
  • Jarring the tranquility of the library, an old guy sitting alone at a computer just exclaimed, "Bullshit." I snuck a peek at his monitor. He's doing genealogy.

For my previous collection of pathetic, but successful, attempts to get attention, please read Best of Facebook Status Updates: Volume 2.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Notes on Everest Before the Summit Push

For the most up-to-date information on climbing and Alan's support of Alzheimer's research, visit www.alanarnette.com

UPDATE ON ALAN ARNETTE'S CLIMB of Mount Everest, In Progress

Those of you who check in regularly know I've been following Alan Arnette's climb of Mount Everest. He is doing so to raise funds for Alzheimer's research. At this moment, he is waiting for a break in the weather prior to pushing for the summit of the world's highest peak. Here is a link to his most recent blog post from Everest Base Camp in Nepal:

A Review of A Great Everest Book

Touching My Father's Soul: A Sherpa's Journey to the Top of EverestTouching My Father's Soul: A Sherpa's Journey to the Top of Everest by Jamling Tenzing Norgay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I read this book, I kept feeling sorry for people who only know Mt. Everest through Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. They are missing out. It's not that Mr. Norgay's book is better, only that it offers a sharply different perspective. Put another way, this book taught me that a true understanding of Everest cannot be achieved from the perspective of only one nationality or ethnicity.

Like so many people, I thought the term "Sherpa" was just a job title, not the name of an entire people with a history and culture independent of their iconic vocation. This book takes a deep and personal look into the life of Sherpa through the eyes of one of their prominent sons. It is also a multi-generational story, because the author--Jamling Tenzing Norgay—is the son of the Sherpa who successfully climbed to the summit of Mt. Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953.

In particular, I enjoyed Mr. Norgay's exploration of Buddhism, and especially how the climb helped him make peace with his late father. The author describes Buddhist rituals that all climbers participate in, whether out of genuine faith or obligation. He describes frankly the tension created with his wife when deciding to climb. And most touching is the seamlessly woven story of his father's summiting Everest almost a half-century prior.

For anyone wanting to understand the international culture of Mt. Everest, this book is a must-read. It also offers a fascinating discussion on Tibetan Buddhism. And if Mr. Norgay's devotion to his faith sometimes results in an unbalanced, less-objective rendering of the Everest experience, this is forgivable. He writes with an awareness of this bias. In the end, he hopes that the culture of Everest will bring all people together, as it brought together a father and son.

Kudos also to Broughton Coburn for his role in bringing this story to print.

View all my reviews

Sunday, May 8, 2011

I Claim No Tears for Monsters, yet...

A Post Before I Celebrate Mother's Day

“For pleasures past I do not grieve,
Nor perils gathering near;
My greatest grief is that I leave
No thing that claims a tear.”

-Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto I, ll. 178-81
Many have passed away this week--some who deserved more mention than they received. But that is not what I mean to critique. It is fit that the death of a single monster draws our fascination, gives us pause, and causes our deeper nature to surface. We can learn from this. We might not. But we can.

Like millions, I listened as President Obama announced the death of a monster. Immediately I felt mixed emotions. It took days for me to hash out how I really felt. When I did, I summed up my reaction in a text message to a friend. She asked how my life was going. Here was my reply:

“Well, nothing too noteworthy. ...Got some good TV reception and started to watch CSI: Miami, but then something happened in the world y’know, and Horatio Caine got preempted for a speech that felt strangely like the ending of a good CSI episode.”
The police procedural is one of the most entertaining and simultaneously trite forms of storytelling. That is why we relish cop shows, even finding them comforting. We need to believe that tough cases can be solved and villains can be defeated.

Still, as I watched the President announce a monster’s demise, I did so with a seasoned admiration. He spoke as a proud American. Yet he spoke soberly, suggesting we had won a single round in an ongoing fight. He also spoke as one who knows what it means to order death. And so his speech, rich in somber nostalgia for 9/11, was darkened by the shadow of having employed reciprocal brutality.

Why does any person aspire to be president? Especially when one of the few guarantees of the job is that you will be called upon to order the killing of other humans. Why would anybody want such a position? Why would they seemingly thirst for it as candidates often do?

Perhaps it is a generic urge for power and success, a desire to be the center of attention. I have to think it is related to the same urge that led many college students to hustle over to the White House gates and hold a football-style pep rally. Waving uncouth signs and chanting trite cheers, they looked like fools to me. Only fools would revel after just hearing that our military had invaded a sovereign nuclear power and initiated hostilities with residents there.

I confess feeling a bit of pleasure after hearing the news, even as I considered how I had helped pay the wages of the warrior who put a bullet in the monster’s brain. But this monster was also a man, a husband (several times over), and a father whose son was close by. He was not an alien. In fact, down at the genetic level, he was almost indistinguishable from any other human. That ought to haunt us. Else we risk not learning from it.

I do not claim a tear for this fallen terrorist. I--we--have shed so many for our fellow humans he murdered. But I also draw a lesson from history. Heroic gun fights, and the barbaric celebrations that happen after, are not the cessation of anything except a few souls. Rather, these events comprise the eve of whatever comes next.

Today is Mother’s Day. Like many holidays, it gets me musing about the types of lives and events we tend to celebrate. Some are worthier than others. Hopefully, more and more, we will cultivate fascination for lives spent waging benevolence, instead of lives given over to the rhapsodizing of feuds. Such are the lives which can and should claim our tears when they cease.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Returning to Waterloo-Pinckney in 2011

My Encounter with a Serpent, but first...

"I always feel like I'm repenting when I go hiking."

--Childe Jake, Oct. 3, 2010
Early spring flowers on the Lowland Trail
The poet in me had fun while taking this shot. These little flowers were positively percolating in the crisp breeze. At first, I saw them as giddy children playing for the camera. A breath later I regarded them as shivering pioneers hunkered down against the chill of a winterish breeze.

This weekend was my first visit to the Waterloo Recreation Area in 2011. I was curious to see how much spring growth had occurred. The above picture sums it up. The woods remain mostly brown and gray following a very mild April. Early spring gives the Waterloo Recreation Area a rustic beauty.

Some Political Harping and then onto Snakes

A raised pathway and skunk cabbage on the Lowland Trail
Sometimes government gets it right. Recently, the state of Michigan overhauled its parks pass system. Not only did they make it easier and more efficient to get a pass--check a box on your car registration renewal form--they made it cheaper. I paid a measly $10 extra as part of my registration renewal. Click here for more information on Michigan's Recreation Passport.

Still, as I traversed the above walkway I worried about the DNR's ability to maintain state parks in the coming year. Especially in Michigan there is a prevalent, and thoroughly overzealous notion, that any discretionary spending constitutes big bad government. Not so. The above image, showing a cherishable interplay between nature and civilization, reminds me that some taxes are worth paying.

A Snake on the Bog Trail

The Bog Trail runs about 1.5 miles round trip. I had forgotten what an enjoyable trail it is, boasting an easy-going assortment of raised walkways, gravel sections and intimate vistas. As I reached the trail's end, I encountered a snake. Can you see him?

A snake slithers away on the Bog Trail.
I suppose I'm like most folks when encountering a snake in the wild. Following an initial burst of primal fear, I find myself beset with curiosity and a keen desire to pick fruit. In any case, it must be underscored that I was not the more nervous soul in this encounter. In fact, the above photo is of the second snake I saw at the Bog Trail's end. A smaller one fled just after I arrived.

A few minutes later, literally as I was writing about the first snake in my notepad, the above fellow slid halfway onto the path. It took at least 10 minutes for the snake to convince itself I wasn't about to attack. Then, slowly and coolly, it brought its full body up onto the walkway. Perhaps 2 feet in length, it always kept an eye on my 6'2" body. When I shifted my stance to pull out my camera phone, the snake cocked its head up accordingly. Nor did it ever move toward me. When he slithered back into the tall grass, I got within five feet for a closer look at his black back and yellow stripes.

My first two visits to the Waterloo Recreation Area in 2011 resulted in hiking about 3 miles of trail. Not a bad opening weekend for a husky guy in his mid-30s. After all, I'm just repenting for too many fair-weather days wasted on the couch. More hikes are planned for May!

For more information about the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail, click here.

5/4/11 UPDATE:
Thanks to some nifty pictures and descriptions from the DNR website, I am pretty sure the second snake I encountered was either a Butler Garter Snake or a Northern Ribbon Snake. My guess would be the Butler. Click here for DNR information on snakes in Michigan.