Category Archives: Travel

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.

 

Mayhem in the Garden

In the summer of 1992, I wrote a short story titled “The Planter of Flowers.” Memory of its origin has long since faded from my mind, but the date hints at a possible connection.

Also in the summer of 1992, my wife, children, and I traveled from our home–then in the Chicago suburb of Streamwood, Illinois–to Wounded Knee, South Dakota for the annual Lakota Baha’i Conference. A do-it-yourself conference organized by adherents of the Baha’i Faith living on the Pine Ridge Reservation–one of the poorest areas in the nation–it offered locals a chance to meet and learn with a diverse group of Baha’is without expense.

“The Planter of Flowers” has no obvious Lakota connection. There is one mention of a character who looks like he could be native American, but that’s coincidental. The real connection is Baha’i. I’ve often wanted to work Baha’i elements into my stories, but seldom succeed.  I can think of only three short stories where I’ve done so. If you knew what to look for, you’d find them hiding in my first two Howard County mysteries as well, and the next novel, Ice on the Bay, will include Baha’i characters. But given the number of stories I’ve written over the years, these are a paltry few, and this story is one of them.

I did try to sell the story, but by and large editors didn’t seem to get it. I later modified it, but still found some readers didn’t quite get it. I wonder if you will?

Let’s find out. Without further ado, here is “The Planter of Flowers.” Enjoy!

 

Writing on the Train

A couple of months ago, I started working in Washington, D.C.  I live in Baltimore, which is reasonably close to the nation’s capitol, but it’s still a fair commute, around 55 miles driving distance and well over an hour travel time.   That’s why I don’t drive.   I take the train.

Commuting by train doesn’t reduce the travel time, but it makes it a lot easier.  Instead of driving, I can read, write, stare out the window, or sleep.  Frequently, it’s some combination of the above.  With a book and my laptop in tow, I’m ready for anything.

At first, I wasn’t sure how well I could write on the train.  It’s not always a quiet environment, nor is it necessarily private.  I had visions of the person seated next to me reading my words as I wrote them, while people behind me chattered away to my intense distraction.  But it hasn’t turned out that way.   Commuters aren’t much interested in what the person next to them is doing, and once I start writing, I’m nearly oblivious to the noise.

Many of my fellow passengers, in fact, are plugged into their cell phones, listening to music.  Many others read, either from books or tablets or e-readers.  (Book readers like myself seem to be in the minority, but we are still a large minority.   Print isn’t dead yet–not by a long shot!)  Others close their eyes, possibly to sleep, possibly to shut out the world.

In this environment, I can get sufficiently lost in writing that the journey seems far shorter than it is.  Nor, it seems, am I the only one.  Just yesterday, a young fellow sitting next to me opened up his laptop and began writing.  Although I didn’t read over his shoulder, I couldn’t help but notice his fingers flying almost nonstop until just before we arrived at Penn Station in Baltimore, where he closed up shop and debarked.  Whether for work or school or a project of his own, he’d written an impressive quantity during the ride.

We both had discovered the same thing: writing is a great way to commute!