All posts by Dale E. Lehman

I'm the guy who owns the site. You can read more about me at the "About" link.

Recently Read

I have an author profile on Goodreads. In addition to listing my own books there, I list books I’m reading and post reviews when I finish them Here are links to a few of my recent reviews:

The Life and Death of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan
An excellent examination of the troubled history of the Great Lakes, the world’s largest supply of fresh water.

Hey Ranger! True Tales of Humor & Misadventure from America’s National Parks by Jim Burnett
Funny, incredible, hair-raising real-life adventures mitigated by those unsung heros of our national government, U.S. Park Service rangers.

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P.D. James
The final collection of mysteries by one of the grand masters of the field.

The Sun’s Heartbeat and Other Stories from the Life of the Star That Powers Our Planet by Bob Berman
A close, enjoyable look at the sun in its various aspects.

A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller
A topical mystery set in West Virginia. This is the first novel in the Bell Elkins series.

You might enjoy picking up some of these volumes. I sure did.

 

Totally Eclipsed

The traffic notwithstanding, it couldn’t have gone better. This past Monday, in Seneca, South Carolina, my wife, my son, and one of my daughters witnessed three minutes and thirty seven seconds of totality.

The journey began last summer when I decided, without consulting my wife Kathleen, that we had to make the trip to see the eclipse. We had seen partial eclipses before, but never a total eclipse, and here it was, passing just a day’s drive south of us. In terms of weather, South Carolina wasn’t the best choice. It probably had the highest chance of clouds of any part of the path, not to mention the potential for a hurricane or tropical storm. But in this case, closeness counted, because I only had limited time I could take off from work. After selecting Seneca and finding an available hotel, I sprang the surprise on Kathleen and booked the rooms.

In January, I bought a pack of solar filters–not the glasses, but the cheaper cards that you hold in front of your face. I also constructed a cheap projection viewer the weekend before the eclipse. (See the photo at the top).  This was based on plans found online by one of my colleagues and made use of lenses he purchased. He got two sets for $6 and kindly gave me one set.

The morning of August 21, clouds began to drift over Seneca, but by the time the eclipse began, the sun was in the clear and remained that way the entire time. While the moon’s disk bit into the sun, I monitored it using the projection viewer and took some time to watch the goings on here on Earth. The light became noticeably dimmer by the halfway point. Gaps in the leaves of nearby trees projected images of the eclipse on the asphalt parking lot. Shortly before totality, streetlights and security lights switched on.

We watched through our filters as the last sliver of sunlight shrank and winked out, then lowered them and looked into the inky dark of the moon surrounded by the blaze of the solar corona. Venus shone brightly to the west. Kathleen saw another object, probably Jupiter, to the east, although I missed it. To the northeast, the only part of the horizon we could see, the orange-red of sunrise/sunset appeared although the sun was high in the sky. As the moon continued its crawl across the face of the sun, sparkles winked on and off in the gaps between the lunar mountains. Near the end of totality, a couple of them sparkled ruby red on the trailing edge of the moon.

You try to take in everything in those brief moments, but there is too much. It is the longest/shortest two and a half minutes of your life. And there is something else, something you can feel rather than see, something born of the whole complex of phenomena that make up a total solar eclipse: a sense that this is organic, alive, intimately connected with your own life.  We know the sun is the source of all life on our planet, but for those couple of minutes when it isn’t there in the middle of the day, this knowledge becomes tangible. The whole world changes. The temperature drops. The light diminishes. Animals prepare for the coming of night even though it’s nowhere near nightfall. It is as though the universe is reminding us that we, ultimately, are not in charge.

Being an amateur astronomer, I don’t think people ever really feared that the sun might not return following an eclipse. Eclipses don’t happen that often in any one place, but they happen somewhere on Earth every two or three years, and people have long understood the reason: the passage of the moon in front of the sun. Nothing happens to the sun itself, and the moon never stops in its orbit. So no eclipse ever lasts more than three or so hours, and no total eclipse lasts more than a few minutes. But witnessing a deep eclipse, and especially totality, does bring our dependency upon the sun home in a way nothing else can.

 

Get Real

In literature, realism has a technical meaning. Or two. Or maybe three. In a general sense, it refers to representing characters as they really are, or would be if they weren’t fictional. It means writing about people without glamorizing them, without glossing over their failings, presenting everything–even the most banal aspects of their lives–exactly as it would be.

Realism renders characters, well, real. That’s good. We relate better to real characters than to stereotypes or caricatures. Even superheros have to be real in a certain sense: they must have weaknesses. Even “truth, justice, and the American way” characters sometimes struggle with the impulse to lie or the desire for revenge rather than justice.

But like anything else, realism can be carried too far. Do you want to watch every character go through every trivial moment of their day? Of course not. You don’t care what they had for breakfast Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday… You might care if Joe had an argument with his wife during breakfast. Or if he received a shocking text message while munching on his toast, choked, and ended up at the hospital. But if nothing happened except he ingested some crispy bread? Nah.

Even the details of most people’s jobs make for bland reading. I write computer software. You might think that would be interesting. To me, it generally is. But if I led you step by step through a typical day on my job, you’d be yawning before the first half hour was up. Some fiction–such as the mysteries I write–does follow people through their work days, but not in excruciating detail. I may show a detective doing their paperwork, but only as background to something more interesting. Nobody wants to watch somebody fill out forms. Moreover, not being a detective myself, I’m sure I don’t get everything right. Probably some of what happens in my novels would not happen in real life. How important is that? It depends. If you’re a detective or know more about detective work than I do, you might gripe. But to be honest, so long as I don’t make any gross errors, it’s not all that important. I’m telling a story, not documenting a day in the life of a cop. If you’re pulled into the story, then it works, unreality and all. Don’t believe me? Consider how much unreality works its way into novels and TV shows and movies. Real crime scene investigators sometimes wish they had all the gadgets their TV counterparts do. Quite honestly, unreality can keep us on the edges of our seats more effectively than reality.

So there is a balance to be struck: stories should be real enough to be convincing, but not excruciatingly real. Fiction is, after all, fiction, not reality. I sometimes compare writing to another art I practice, bonsai. In bonsai, one trains the growth of a small tree grown in a pot in such a way that it gives the illusion of being a full-grown tree. But many of the principles bonsai artists follow are entirely artificial. Branches should not cross, for example. In nature, branches will grow any way they can to get to the light, but in a bonsai the branches must be carefully pruned and shaped. It’s not a natural tree. It’s a contrived tree that gives the illusion of being natural, which the best bonsai actually do. Same with stories. They aren’t reality, but when well written, they can give the illusion of being real.

In the process, a lot of reality is necessarily left out.