Protected: The Incident in Which My Middle Finger Meets The Vice President of the United States

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

But where’s the butter?

“Hon, where’s the butter?”—a cartoon on our fridge.

A cartoon hung on our fridge for a couple of years. Its caption became a humorous private code, let’s call it The Code, between my wife and me. The Code is about assumptions, although, as with most frequently revisited negotiations, however small in the wider tapestry of life, a richness to it has developed over time.

honey wheres the butter
(click to enlarge)

Several years ago, I was searching the house for something (I forget what). I am thorough, and, like all pack-rat tendencied people, I am intimately familiar with all my Usual Locations for this or that object, the particular hierarchy of locations depending on how I categorize the object. They may be varied, but they are specific. I’ve noticed people tend to not believe this of us, because, probably, they are not like that. This is mistaken. I had searched the Usual Locations for where this thing, whatever it was, would have been, had I been the last one to move it. Having exhausted all known possibilities, I finally asked if she knew where it was. The thought of inefficiently looking in random places did not appeal. She interpreted my question as an accusation. I don’t remember it that way. Yet, in light of modern research on the fallibility of our recollections, which apparently are not the recalling of information so much as gap-ridden reconstructions of it, I cannot now be sure. Our brains seem to have uncommunicative minds of their own. Or maybe we still haven’t learned, most of us, to listen very well.

My demeanor can seem stern to others. But I am just being plainspoken. I don’t do sugar-coat very well. My wife excels at social diplomacy. Sometimes, I secretly wish I could do this. I marvel at people for whom this seems effortless (a sign of artistry). This societal expectation of largely inane filler pre- and post-pended to the message content—at times I view it as an affliction—seems in turns silly and exasperating to me much of the time, but even so I just don’t have the ability. (Or is it a skill? I would rather it be an ability, an innate talent, because then I would not be responsible for my learning difficulties with this chore.) Now I wonder: do our individual abilities, or lack of abilities, cause our value judgments? Do I think this inane because I’m not good at it? If true, this is disconcerting: is it even possible, then—especially in light of the spackled-over patchwork that is our memories—for any of us to assess objectively? Anyway, if the proffered filler accompanying a communication is (usually inaccurately) perceived as insufficient or insufficiently deferential to fragile egos, why do most people assume the intent is to attack? Perhaps in addition to physics I should have pursued psychiatry.

“Did you check here? There? . . .” She rattled off the most likely Usual Locations, surprising me with a couple I didn’t know she knew—an indication of how well we know each other, which in hindsight pleases me no end but at the time felt a little invasive, like a private area had been found out. “Yes, it’s not there. Yes, not there, either.” She assumed I had not thoroughly checked the Usual Locations. Or could it be my assumption of her assumption is inaccurate, and I don’t really know where this was coming from? She marched off to physically visit these places and check them herself, fully assuming it’d be sitting somewhere in plain view. As she passed through the kitchen I trailed along, a bit sullen. Try and imagine, if you will, a gait that broadcasts, “Rolling my eyes now”. Telling her that checking the same spots that I had just checked would be pointless would have been pointless. We can both be stubborn. And wrong.

She brought up short, arm outstretched, triumphal finger aimed at the counter. Imagine, I’m sure you can, a posture that fairly shouts, “See, I told you so!” Saying the words out loud would have been redundant. There it was. In the Wrong Location. But right in front of me this whole time, easily seen had I been less narrowly focused on only the Usual Locations. I had passed by it at least three times. I think we both felt a certain amount of smugness in being right, each in our way, neither of us really yielding to the other’s frame of reference, but also a small but significant awakening of awareness, a crack, inside our respective sectarian mental domains. Thus was born The Code, which showed up on the fridge I think a day or two later.

The Code is now a shortcut for reminding that one of us may not see a disagreement about something the same way as the other. “Honey, where’s the butter?” is a not infrequent non sequitur, which is not a non sequitur, in our back-and-forth. Couples and close friends tend to develop such language and (therefore) cognitive shortcuts, which often have their roots in a humorous—hence easily-remembered—episode which they happened to have navigated successfully. We remember these episodes, not always with the greatest fidelity to all the details, but for their lessons and the insights they give us into our personal relationships. And that is the important part.

 

Of Small Men: Apparatus and Scaffolding

[Washington, DC, 2005]

I turn off the alarm. It is just after 6am on a cold, overcast Thursday. The idea for this expedition surfaced several days ago, while listening to the news on NPR. I have been imagining different scenarios and looking forward to a minor adventure, but at this moment I waver. I lift the cat off my neck, trying not to wake her, and get up anyway. On my way out, I detour to the kitchen and remove two eggs, secreting them to an inside pocket of my winter coat. I hope my wife won’t notice them missing. I have to remember to be careful not to bump my chest into anything. I leave through the kitchen door of our comfy brick bungalow in suburban DC, kick the car to reluctant life, and drive to a nearby Metro station. There is almost no traffic.

__________

[Budapest, 1945]

The Gray Man is master behind the government-issue desk, in the gray building, in the gray city, under gray skies brooding over a dun land.

His eyes are small, sunk in over-sized sockets. They stare, implacable, dark steel. The Gray Man’s eyes are a lifetime of empty, devoid of emotion, of empathy, of kindness. Of humanity. His mind is narrow and rigid—like his tie, like his long nose—its machinations not reaching his eyes; this is by design. His conscious time is spent plotting, staying two steps ahead of his subordinates, of his superiors, of the authorities, of Stalin. The emptiness of his eyes protects his position, his life. For, in the gray city, to let slip one’s thinking, one’s emotion, if it exists, one’s thoughts—this invites scrutiny, danger. The Gray Man is careful, meticulous; his eyes reveal nothing. What is going through his mind? Does he look at his wife this way?

__________

Cold and sleepy, I climb the stairs from the Metro Center subway station, cross the street, and make my way toward Pennsylvania Avenue. A Metro bus blocks my path, forcing a detour. Budget constraints, I suppose. Or somebody’s novel idea. I walk, feeling the deep January chill seep through my pants, my shoes, my gloves. Left and right, I can see snow-lined, icy streets cordoned off by concrete Jersey barriers, and more slumbering buses. I am five hours early, so I do not have to struggle through crowds yet. A gloomy oppression hangs over the city.

Even this early, the presence of authorities intrudes. Two TSA employees are nearby. TSA personnel? What are they doing here? The two women, despite their dark blue pants and thick padded coats, the multiple officious patches on their arms, and the “TSA” emblazoned across their backs, look friendly, non-threatening; the one with the short curly gray hair even smiles. Neither one swaggers. I walk past a building with flags out front, two American and one I don’t recognize; an embassy, perhaps. At the corner of 12th Street, a man stands by a Jersey barrier and points. He is asking a camouflage bedecked military man for directions to somewhere. Now I can see my involuntary goal: a block down, a pavilion stretches across 12th Street; makeshift chain link fencing funnels us into the maw of a checkpoint. It will take only fifteen minutes for me to get through. Later I will learn that authorities closed a number of these already-few access points, forcing people wait two and three hours to get through.

A half-dozen more men in camouflage mill about, trying to look important instead of bored, stamping their feet to get warm, to feel their toes again. Two are talking with civilians. One nearby glares at me, and at my camera, but doesn’t say anything. I resist flipping him off. The military men wear no identifying insignia, so it’s not clear which branch, or agency, or contractor, they’re from. Maybe the National Guard. Their dark glasses are incongruous in the dim, early gray light. Security is more paranoid than I had thought it would be. How little did I imagine.

__________

The Gray Man is the son of a tailor. Yet he wears a nondescript gray suit that is too big for him. Or perhaps, in his small frame of flesh and bone, he is too small for the suit. The sleeves are almost too short and his wrists are bare. He does not wear a watch. His nose is thin, and long for his face. A small, neatly kept mustache sits above his small mouth. He has dark hair, impeccably neat and trimmed, receding and streaked with gray. The tie he wears is dark, with a small, tight knot that rumples the collar of his starched white shirt. When he smiles, he is almost handsome. He rarely smiles. His posture, the set of his arms on his desk, his face, despite dead eyes, exude authority. He is calm and practiced, accomplished, and he wears it well.

__________

I stand in line at the checkpoint. A swaggering browbeater with appropriately chiseled Aryan features and wearing a police uniform—dark blue police jacket, badge on his breast, radio mic clipped to his left shoulder, starched white shirt and a narrow black tie under the jacket, holstered 9mm gun on his right hip—blusters up the line straight to me and insists I stop taking pictures with my little Canon point-and-shoot. He has no such authority. What is it about these men that they have to derive their sense of worth from putting on a belittling facade? Yes, Mr. Policeman, I get that you are important and must make sure we all know this. What are you really trying to protect? I forget what exactly I say to him, but he backs down and goes in search of someone else to impress.

I am at the front of the line. About thirty feet ahead, under the white canopy, which is larger than I had thought, are four gray-framed whole-body scanners, with rented folding event tables and more uniformed people in between. Beyond are more Jersey barriers and another bus blocking the street. I soon find out the scanners detect more than just metal. Hiding behind an assumed authority in the face of threatening authority is an art form; I am a neophyte.

__________

His desk is his, and it is not his. Dark, squat, it presides over this room on the second floor of the gray building, unsubtle, unforgiving, as the unsubtle, pitiless Gray Man sitting behind it presides over the lives of men (and they are all men) he does not know, will never know, can never know. For a government-issue desk, it is ostentatious. Though not overly so: it does not cross the line of attracting too much notice, of inviting scrutiny. If it has been beaten, its scars are well hidden. Someone has polished the stained wood of the desktop. It gleams, and reflects the man behind it. For that is its function.

__________

The funny-looking portal starts beeping and flashing its lights as I step under its frame. I roll my eyes and pull out my camera, keys, and flashlight—the only substantial metal on my person—and the man facilitating this small set of a Kabuki theatre sets them on the table. I try again. Beeping, lights. He thinks to ask me if I have any food with me, a sandwich perhaps. He is friendly and courteous, which surprises me a little. But I have no choice but to unzip my coat, reach into the inside pocket, and hand over the two uncooked eggs I’d hoped to smuggle in. He takes them, tells me I can’t bring these in with me. Technically, he has to assume the eggs are my lunch. He hands me my metal items, gives me a knowing smile that says he might have tried the same, and I’m on my way, relieved. These machines are smarter than the ones at the airports. This man is quite unlike Mr. Policeman.

__________

A long, slender pen with a light brown wood barrel, impeccably neat, sweeps back, graceful yet stark, from a black holder at the front of his desk. He does not use this pen, favoring instead featureless, utilitarian, government-issue black pens. A black rotary phone is to his right, far enough away to show that the papers before him, the business at hand, are more important. But it lies within reach, just in case. Across from the heavy wood desk, incongruous in this spartan gray room with the dark wainscoting, sits a plush wingback chair, bright red, facing the desk. Dividing the space between the desk and the red chair, two rows of buttons line the edges of the desktop—like the graceful pen, meant for conveying a message. They tell the clenched-fisted men standing, shaking, before the desk, “I am above your station, I am important, valued; you are not.” For these miserable men, it is a terrifying tableau. But is the man hiding behind the desk, dutifully meting out doom, any more sure of his position than they had been?

A perfunctory portrait of Stalin hangs on the far wall.

__________

I make my way along Pennsylvania Avenue, searching for what I think might be a good place from which to view the coming events. Workers are busy setting up metal risers all along the street. A 20-piece band across the street, in front of the ornate Old Post Office Building, plays patriotic tunes; they are miserably cold, their only audience being workers putting up barricades and heavily geared police stamping their feet. A squadron of troops in gray-green uniforms and overcoats marches smartly by, in stark contrast to the unkempt milling of the bored police. Army, perhaps. They march four abreast, and the column goes on for more than a block.

I pass a so-called “Designated Demonstration Area”, an absurdly small, 25 by 25 foot area on a corner, boxed off with yellow police tape, black bold “POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS” tickering around its circumference. If we want to yell, and protest, this is where that’s “allowed”. Each of the many press areas, set aside for TV production crews whose members far outnumber the cardboard pretty-people who dutifully recite the lines prepared for them, is noticeably larger, blocking the wide sidewalks. They, too, are cordoned off by yellow crime scene tape. Somebody’s idea of a cynical jab at the absurdities imposed upon us? I have no wish to be near these and so walk a few long blocks further.

I stroll along the sidewalk fronting the squat, J. Edgar Hoover Building, headquarters of the FBI. The architecture, black granite facing, and narrow, fortress-like window openings of the building are striking. A pair of police, clad in riot gear and brandishing ash-colored three-foot billy clubs, accost me for having a camera. They know they have overstepped. It is almost comical to watch them search their minds to justify their intimidation. One accuses me of trying to take pictures of the inside of the closed building. Through the thick slabs of black granite, I presume. Incongruously, American flag patches are on their right shoulders. Do they have no shame? To hell with them. I take more pictures. I hear in passing a couple of troopers at the curb, more bullies joking overly loudly, promising to “toss” one another a “liberal or two”.

Somewhere past 9th Street, I find a likely viewing spot right at the curb. Four rows of police, the third row in full riot gear, and a fifth row consisting of Navy enlisted stand between us and the street. The police appear to be mostly from Virginia; they are rowdy, ill-mannered, clearly hoping they might get to break some heads today. By now, more people have arrived, yet we will remain outnumbered by “security”. Such brave men, these. I find myself among a group of thirty or so like-minded angry people. And one lone supporter of Dear Leader—an older man, former military. I feel bad for him; this is not his fault, and I wonder if what is happening here, the reasons, the context, might be beyond his ken. Age is the great ossifier. Those of us near him watch out for his well-being, and form a buffer around him, even though we hold adamantly opposed world views. A seasoned, gray-haired man in a Virginia State Police uniform and barking into a walkie-talkie, clearly someone in a leadership position, breaks from the phalanx of cops and heads straight toward a twenty-something next to me, then proceeds to verbally assault the kid. It turns out he’d just made a snide joke to his girlfriend on his phone. They are monitoring our cell phones. I look up. Snipers walk the rooftops of these classical monumental symbols of freedom, and several helicopters buzz about, patrolling. High up, an AWACS plane is circling the area. Inside lie the ears that picked up and pinpointed the kid and his joke. Impressive technological demonstration. I snap a picture.

Welcome to America, land of the brave and the free, I think, and not for the first time this gray day.

__________

The small Gray Man with the unremarkable pen in his hand and the officious papers on his desk is Gábor Péter, a man hated and feared. He is at the crest of his power, though he does not know this yet. In his rumpled gray suit, starched white shirt, and dark narrow tie with the small tight knot, he calmly presides over his gray office from behind his dark government-issue desk, across from the padded red chair, in the house of terror with its thick—to hide the screams—gray stone and cement walls and floors, home to torturers by day, famous for their brutality, and by night to condemned men in its squat gray bowels, snatched from streets and beds, their broken bodies shrunken from escaped hope, arms over their ears to muffle the agonies of friends and neighbors and comrades screaming, impossibly still screaming, from pointless torture, huddled for weeks on hard, narrow wooden benches bolted to the walls in claustrophobic basement cells swimming in excrement and piss and sweat and fear, on the northeast corner of the wide boulevard at 60 Andrássy út, across from the Music Academy, a few blocks from Heroes’ Square, on the Pest side of the cold gray Danube, under the baleful skies of communist Hungary. Gábor Péter is the new Chief of the State Protection Authority (Államvédelmi Hatóság or ÁVH). Ahead lie seven more years of dispensing dispassionate, brutal inhumanity before he, too, fails to stay a step ahead of Stalin’s ever-growing paranoia.

It is 1945.

Victims adorn the walls of the Terror House on Andrássy út.
Victims adorn the walls of the Terror House on Andrássy út.

__________

The small man hiding in back of the armored limousine…or perhaps it is that armored limousine—two of them scream past going forty to fifty miles per hour—is George W. Bush, newly reelected (fairly or not is another matter) President of the United States. He flies by too fast for me to even snap a picture. I look at the crowd, and the police, all of them agitated. I spy a lone Navy person in dress blues at the nearby intersection. Stoically at parade rest until now, she smartly comes to attention and salutes as the limos fly past. Her comportment, her discipline despite the numbing cold, her dignity, are a stark rebuke to the remarkable lack of such among the hundreds of troopers and police. The contradiction is disturbing. I still wonder what was going through her mind that whole time; her demeanor revealed nothing.

This small man is hated by some, maybe even feared. I think that is a shallow view. It was clear even four years ago that this, too, is a man living in circumstances only partly within his control. The men around him, and the state apparatus in which he is embedded, require of him a certain behavior, a certain projection of an image which may or may not be an accurate reflection. Our countries, the United States and Stalin-era Hungary, are tremendously different states. Yet both brandish a threatening, cold, implacable authoritarian scaffolding to which its respective minions, if they are to survive, must conform.

It is January 20, 2005.

Inauguration Day, 2005: View towards the White House.
Inauguration Day, 2005: View towards the White House.

The Gray Man

The Gray Man is master behind the government-issue desk, in the gray building, in the gray city, under gray skies brooding over a dun land.

His eyes are small, sunk in oversized sockets. They stare, implacable, dark steel. The Gray Man’s eyes are a lifetime of empty, devoid of emotion, of empathy, of kindness. Of humanity. His mind is narrow and rigid—like his tie, like his long nose—its machinations not reaching his eyes; this is by design. His conscious time is spent plotting, staying two steps ahead of his subordinates, of his superiors, of the authorities, of Stalin. The emptiness of his eyes protects his position, his life. For, in the gray city, to let slip one’s thinking, one’s emotion, if it exists, one’s thoughts—this invites scrutiny, danger. The Gray Man is careful, meticulous; his eyes reveal nothing. Does he look at his wife this way?

The Gray Man is the son of a tailor. Yet he wears a nondescript gray suit that is too big for him. Or perhaps, in his small frame of flesh and bone, he is too small for the suit. The sleeves are almost too short and his wrists are bare. He does not wear a watch. His nose is thin, and long for his face. A small, neatly kept mustache sits above his small mouth. He has dark hair, impeccably neat and trimmed, receding and streaked with gray. The tie he wears is dark, with a small, tight knot that rumples the collar of his starched white shirt. When he smiles, he is almost handsome. He rarely smiles. His posture, the set of his arms on his desk, his face, despite dead eyes, exude authority. He is calm and practiced, accomplished, and he wears it well.

His desk is his, and it is not his. Dark, squat, it presides over this room on the second floor of the gray building, unsubtle, unforgiving, as the unsubtle, pitiless Gray Man sitting behind it presides over the lives of men (and they are all men) he does not know, will never know, can never know. For a government-issue desk, it is ostentatious. Though not overly so: it does not cross the line of attracting too much notice, of inviting scrutiny. If it has been beaten, its scars are well hidden. Someone has polished the stained wood of the desktop. It gleams, and reflects the man behind it. For that is its function. A long, slender pen with a light brown wood barrel, impeccably neat, sweeps back, graceful yet stark, from a black holder at the front of his desk. He does not use this pen, favoring instead featureless, utilitarian, government-issue black pens. A black rotary phone is to his right, far enough away to show that the papers before him, the business at hand, are more important. But it lies within reach, just in case. Across from the heavy wood desk, incongruous in this spartan gray room with the dark wainscoting, sits a plush wingback chair, bright red, facing the desk. Dividing the space between the desk and the red chair, two rows of buttons line the edges of the desktop—like the graceful pen, meant for conveying a message. They tell the clenched-fisted men standing, shaking, before the desk, “I am above your station, I am important, valued; you are not.” A perfunctory portrait of Stalin hangs on the far wall.

The small Gray Man with the unremarkable pen in his hand and the officious papers on his desk is Gábor Péter, head of the State Protection Authority (Államvédelmi Hatóság or ÁVH), hated and feared. He is at the crest of his power, though he does not know this yet. In his rumpled gray suit, starched white shirt, and dark narrow tie with the small tight knot, he calmly presides over his gray office from behind his dark government-issue desk, across from the padded red chair, in the house of terror with its thick—to hide the screams—gray stone and cement walls and floors, home to torturers by day, famous for their brutality, and by night to condemned men in its squat gray bowels, snatched from streets and beds, their broken bodies shrunken from escaped hope, arms over their ears to muffle the agonies of friends and neighbors and comrades screaming, impossibly still screaming, from pointless torture, huddled for weeks on hard, narrow wooden benches bolted to the walls in the claustrophobic basement cells swimming in excrement and piss and sweat and fear, on the northeast corner of the wide boulevard at 60 Andrássy út, across from the Music Academy, a few blocks from Heroes’ Square, on the Pest side of the cold gray Danube, under the baleful skies of Hungary. Gábor Péter has been chief of the ÁVH for five years; ahead lie two more years of dispensing dispassionate, brutal inhumanity before he, too, fails to stay a step ahead of Stalin’s ever-growing paranoia. It is 1950.

Victims adorn the walls of the Terror House at 60 Andrássy út.
Victims adorn the walls of the Terror House at 60 Andrássy út. (Click to enlarge.)

The Windowpane

Chit-chit-chet-chit-chet-chet

swish-swish-swish-chit-chit-swish…

intense feline scrutiny:

a murder of crows squabbles over bugs

beneath new snow, under old Ponderosa—

stymied.

 

The ISS Passes over Flagstaff

Moved to here.

Hornet Whiskey Tableau

We are stretching our legs from our van ride back to the Thai border through seemingly endless, lush jungle and verdant rice paddies. Despite their tiredness, my eyes feel contented in a way they rarely do; even on a cloudy day, there is no dull color in this strikingly beautiful, oppressed land north of the border. We are returning from an afternoon boat ride along a placid section of the Mekong River, brown and turgid from recent rains. (Monsoon season is near.)

This morning, Lao officials at the border crossing exude hostility toward the three Westerners in our group (me, my wife, and our friend Edlin). We are only able to enter Laos at all by being in silent and submissive tow of local area Thais, who persuade and obtain a price on our behalf. It is a lot of money; we pay. I am compelled to surreptitiously peek my point-and-shoot from my jacket pocket and snap a few pictures of the comically authoritarian border compound. It seems absurdly out of place to me, but I soon learn this is real life for the people here. We had already been warned to keep cameras well hidden, so my wife quickly admonishes me for being reckless.

One of our necessarily few stops along the road is this market, large enough to swallow us in relative anonymity, noisy with garrulous, haggling customers and a tinny radio blaring from some hidden place. Tables are full with fruits and vegetables, most of which I cannot even recognize, much less name. We are strangers, small, incongruous. I wander, senses saturated. Somewhere in the midst of this mélange of colors and shapes, I spy a table that seems odd and walk over to it.

Several richly colored brown hexagonal cells sit empty. These intermittently follow the curved periphery of a spiral assemblage that fills most of a table improvised of unfolded pages of recent newspapers, in colorful Laotian script, atop layers of flattened old cardboard boxes, and supported by mud-crusted, faded white and blue plastic milk crates regimentally stacked two high. From the side, I can see that the insects had built up these paper cells layer by layer, in alternating colors of light and dark brown wood particles. Two different tree barks, I presume. But why did the builders alternate layers across the hive, like sedimentary rock formations? It must have taken some time to finish this repetitive, dull, but necessary task.

Edlin (not his real name) appears and pulls my elbow, insistent. “Come, you have to see this.” Edlin is German, with a big German nose. His new bride is Thai. We’ve all been friends for several years back home in the U.S., where Edlin and she are naturalized citizens. She has the small, button nose typical, she says, of most Thai people. Indeed, among her relatives and childhood friends in Udan Thani, her husband’s much envied, magnificent nose is the first feature they cannot help but stare at. Not his white skin, his odd clothing, the strange American speech, or his funny mannerisms. When they meet him, their children, being delightfully uninhibited as are children everywhere, gape and point and giggle. At his magnificent nose. This amuses but embarrasses Edlin, who is already particularly self conscious about his nose. But in Thailand, where Thais are self conscious about their noses, he is genuinely, greatly admired. For his magnificent Teutonic nose. His face turned red when he told me this.

(credit: National Geographic)
(photo: National Geographic)

The Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) is the largest hornet in the world, with a body length of two inches and a wing span of three. Their wings seem too small to lift such girth, much less propel it through the air at twenty-five miles per hour. No human can outrun an angry Asian giant hornet. Normally, they are not particularly aggressive toward us. But these armored, yellow and black striped killing machines are furious predators of other insects—mantises, other hornets, and especially honey bees—which they efficiently dispatch by severing heads with their proportionately large mandibles. Their victims stand no chance of escaping or surviving an attack.

The partial nest I’d been looking at is massive, that piece alone nursery to four or five hundred incipient little monsters. (I did a quick count and estimate.) Later, I learn that this is but one of a dozen or so layers, like floors of a tenement building, that constitute the typical nest. As I’m being pulled away, and not for the first time this trip, I wonder how the dirt-poor employees of this roadside open-air market, or the people from which they bought this disc of horrors, managed to subdue and take the fortress intact—and at what cost.

Apparently, hornet grubs are a delicacy in Southeast Asia. I am normally game to try things strange to me, but not even I am the least bit interested in popping one of these in my mouth. (Perhaps my lunch of spicy shrimp salad—live shrimp salad—aboard the riverboat is exerting a delayed influence.) With their wormlike body segments, these emerging creatures look like large—very large—stubby white maggots with disproportionately small orange button heads at their tips. Their translucent skin glistens, shiny clean; I don’t know why this surprises me. Maybe grubs are supposed to be grubby.

Most of the cells are occupied, lidded with paper-thin, white segmented domes. Some of the domes are bulging, while others have burst. Larvae, large as my thumb, poke half out of their cells, writhing, pulsing, blindly nodding to attract attention and a meal that will never come. Even for a bug enthusiast, up close it is a quease-inducing sight. I am the only one of our party of ten that is captivated, the others having quickly dispersed to find something—perhaps anything—else to ogle.

Asian giant hornet nest 2012-07-30
Asian giant hornet nest 2012-07-30

I follow Edlin through a confusing maze of narrow aisles and animated customers to a table in one corner under the large, corrugated-tin canopy. Along the way we pass a battered analog radio (so that’s where it is!) blaring Western pop music. I am immediately lost, so I am glad he knows where he is going.

We arrive. An old woman with gray hair sits on a stool behind the table. I am drawn to her dulled eyes, framed in wrinkles and leathery skin. She seems tired, weary, as does her stool, as does everything else we’ve seen in Laos—cars, fences, roadside businesses, houses and shacks, rafts on the river. (Oddly, the roads are in surprising good shape.) I imagine hers is the weariness of lifelong factory workers drudging their way through endless days at the same unchanging, mind-numbing task. But it is not that. This is how life is here, a culture stuck in a dreary bygone decade. Much of this is likely our—America’s—fault. It is tremendously saddening. I force myself to pay attention. On the table are a dozen or so 750ml bottles of a pretty, dark amber-colored liquid, presumably alcoholic.

Despite being proficient killers, these hornets do not eat their prey. Instead, they carry the massacred back to the nest. There, they chew up the bodies and make a paste with their saliva, which they feed to their larvae. In turn, the larvae secret an amino acid cocktail which the adults feed on, and from which they derive their manic energy and exceptional stamina.

Now I understand Edlin’s excitement. Floating in the top quarter volume of each bottle are drowned Asian giant hornets. The woman has been stuffing bottles of arrak, by bare hand, with groggy live hornets. The amber color has been leached from the hornets by the alcohol, which a label tells me is 45 percent by volume. The soon to be drownees drag slowly about on the table. I think of stingers, and angry wasps, my imagination (I learn later) falling far short. I don’t smell smoke, so again I wonder how they were subdued, and how long this stupor will last. She could probably tell me, but our translator, Edlin’s wife, is nowhere in sight.

V. mandarinia is a forest floor dweller, so it pays to be observant when tromping about in hornet territory. Their venom contains a potent neurotoxin. It can dissolve flesh, leaving behind ghastly craters of destruction. Stings from this hornet are extremely painful. If you are not allergic, a jab or two with their quarter-inch stinger will not kill you. But thirty or more injections will induce anaphylactic shock and even multiple organ failure, landing you in the hospital—if you are lucky enough to be within range of one. The unlucky few are destined for a morgue.

She gestures for us to try a sample. That concentration of ethanol will have killed any bacteria or viruses that had hitched a ride, so I think, why not? Like many of the strange things we’ve encountered in Southeast Asia, the texture is surprisingly complex, vivid, and enjoyable. After a brief pantomimed conversation (we’re getting pretty good at this), we pay for two bottles with the Thai baht equivalent of just a few American dollars. Our respective senses of exploration now fulfilled, Edlin and I navigate the muddy puddles and make our way back to the van.

We get back to Udan Thani and our hotel room late that night, having begged off kind Thai uncles imploring us to an evening of spicy street vendor food, noise, traffic, incomprehensible chatter, and smells of questionable origin vying for olfactory supremacy. I pull the bottle of drowned amber fury from its worn white plastic bag and set it on our room’s little entryway table, on top of a dilapidated pad of paper bearing the hotel’s faded red letterhead. It is only then that I realize the woman had not corked the bottles. It will be impossible to get this home in our luggage. Neither will it be possible for me to drink even a substantial part of this exotic potion in our short remaining time here. Edlin and I commiserate over our predicament the next day. Our spouses are not overly sympathetic.

 

 

Preparations

The evening looks promising.

Transparent air, crystalline blue—emblematic of Flagstaff even in summer—has soothed my soul since childhood. “I can see for miles and miles…” spins in my head, unbidden, as I walk a short patch of worn asphalt, dull gray and pitted from winter’s attacks. Dark green Ponderosa forest broods to the horizon, turning black as the light dims and the usefulness of my retinal color sensors fades. Thin, dry air is a poor thermal insulator, so it chills rapidly after sunset. I zip my jacket.

Ritual scan of the sky, projecting ahead several hours: gauging the night’s weather and observing conditions is an habitual game. I occasionally misjudge, but not tonight. The door clacks shut behind me. I know my keys are in my pocket, but I check anyway. I aim toward the chipped, institutional-turquoise railing in front of the dome. Cirrus lie low in the southwest, painted grunge by twilight and distance (thirty, forty miles). These will likely keep to their remove and not interfere. I pretend to decree it so.

As I shuffle southwest, my face parts the breeze. My felt hat stays on my head, unassisted. I’ve no need to glance at our rooftop weather station’s wind vane or anemometer. It should be a good night, the air clinging to the forest laid out before me as it flows, laminar and unturbulent, lifting with the ridge upon which we root and gliding smoothly overhead. Trudy, our night observer, should get one arcsecond seeing at the 61-inch telescope, perched on its massive concrete pedestal three stories up. It is the world’s most precise star measuring engine. Down here at the parking lot, the air will be more agitated. I’ll see two arcseconds, maybe a bit less, at the 51-inch telescope which squats inside a dome off the edge of the cooling asphalt. The dome resembles R2D2 from Star Wars.

“Seeing” is astronomer jargon for what our roiling atmosphere does to starlight, pushing and shoving it, forcing it to wiggle erratically in random directions as cells of turbulent air, refractive indexes varying slightly from their neighbors, scurry across our line of sight. These pockets of air, fleeing distant large-scale atmospheric pressure gradients, attest to forces at work beyond our tiny purview. This is why stars twinkle.

Baleful blood-red Scorpion heart, Antares, sits low in the south. The orb flashes sharp red and green and yellow and blue (if you stare carefully), dancing. Astronomers hate that. Twinkling harbingers fuzzed, mushy, corpulent images. Spica is higher in the sky, its hard, white-blue light passing through less of our atmosphere. It holds fairly steady, only an occasional flicker. I look higher. Orangey Arcturus, one of my favorite stars, stares unblinking, steady, solid. Some part of my brain registers that stars higher than about forty degrees above the horizon will be sharp tonight. I notice muscles relaxing, a growing anxiety over data quality now dissipates. Mona Lisa smile: in this clear air, the night will be dark and the Milky Way will billow, almost flocculent, and span the entire vault of the sky. I will remember later to emerge and gape at this wonder until my neck aches. Da Vinci would understand.

g16d018.087.sdssr.c.stack-120.fits__--__m_37__--__c=(_765.18,_2289.28)__--__a=7973.4
models fitted to a star’s intensity profile (click to enlarge)

Scientists quantify. Astronomers’ measure of seeing—our means of taking the guesswork out of comparing one night to another—is the size of a star’s disk at the focal point of a telescope (that is, on the sensor hanging off its butt end). The width of a circle drawn half-way down from the central, brightest point of the disk that is a star image to its edge as it merges into the sky background is that measure. We call it “full width, half max”, or FWHM.

We measure angles with telescopes—immense, expensive protractors. This star is so many fractions of a degree from that star. A sixtieth of a degree is an arcminute. Your eyes can resolve details down to about one arcminute, or slightly less. A sixtieth of an arcminute is an arcsecond. An arcsecond is a very small angle: the apparent size of a U.S. quarter, 3.1 miles away. (The 61-inch telescope can measure angles to within one thousandth of an arcsecond.) “Good” seeing is when the FWHM of a star image is one arcsecond or less—a useful cultural agreement. Three arcseconds is bad. Five is horrendous, and the stars are dancing madly, taunting and useless, all the way to the zenith.

Inside the dome, chill seeps through my clothes as I wait for dome shutters and mirror covers to open the telescope’s eye to the heavens. As the liquid nitrogen tank satiates the camera dewar in pulsing spurts, a valve trips and vents excess pressure; the hiss is painful. I escape into the side room and toggle switches, powering various devices. The air compressor initiates a new aural assault. I plug my ears. Why did it choose now, I think. Several of us conjecture that the 51-inch telescope is inhabited by gremlins, not so much malevolent as impish, irritating. Maybe they are leprechauns. Back in the dome, motors stop and the nitrogen tank has finished its rhythmic regurgitation of cold. Pulling on insulated blue gloves meant for such things, I disconnect and stow the thick umbilical hose, its business end caked with ice, thin sheets of condensing air flowing to the dome floor. The drive motors wake and hum, a happy sound, as I feed them power. Everything inside this dome is thirsty.

We are ready for the night.

the 1.3-meter telescope (click to enlarge)
the 51-inch telescope (click to enlarge)

Impending Disturbance

vap’rous backlit wrack

flee

the cold turbulent flow

blear

that baleful winter’s orb

Moon & Overcast 2016-01-19

Prolegomenon

You recognize as a youngster that science, and music, and literature and writing—creative wonders—draw you along comfortable invisible force lines. But not opera. Overbearing, embarrassing falsetto vibrato is just wrong. As your joints grow creaky and more of your pate warms to the Sun, you know that this is a misperception. You stumble upon more of these, as you notice yourself more often assigning past vigorous feats of physical prowess to the unimportant pursuits of the unimportant young. You ponder these, your various misperceptions. And your misperceptions of misperceptions. Recursion tickles you.

$$\dfrac{\mathrm{d}^2\overrightarrow{r}}{\mathrm{d}\theta^2}+2\widehat{z}\times\dfrac{\mathrm{d}\overrightarrow{r}}{\mathrm{d}\theta}+{\left(\widehat{z}\cdot\overrightarrow{r}\right)}\widehat{z}=\frac{1}{{1+e_{p}\mathrm{cos}\mathrm{\theta}}}\overrightarrow{\nabla}\mathrm{\Omega}$$

You realize in the shower one day that your—and others’—universal cognitive foibles smacking into observable reality are an irresistible rabbit hole, wondrously vast and an endless source of material to contemplate. Like a particle in the three-body problem of celestial mechanics, your orbit is a tangled meandering, variously lured into the sphere of influence of first one and then the other of those two massive attractors, science and the creative urge. This resonates, and you realize a re-appreciation of past love.

$$\mathrm{\Omega}=\frac{1}{2}r^{2}+U=\frac{1}{2}r^{2}+\frac{{1-\mathrm{\mu}}}{r_{1}}+\frac{\mathrm{\mu}}{r_{2}}$$

Thus: what shall you write? Unuseful question. The world is big. Where shall you intend your aim? Better. Get thee to the shower!, your ever-reliable Delphic font of nearly every good idea.§ You love nature, and science—especially astronomy and math—and the scientific way of thinking, which come to you with joy and not pain. (This cannot be weird, surely—friends’ and society’s protestations notwithstanding.) The chasm awaits.

$$r_{1}=\sqrt{{{\left(x+\mathrm{\mu}\right)}^{2}+y^{2}+z^{2}}}\hspace{2.222222em}r_{2}=\sqrt{{{\left(x-1+\mathrm{\mu}\right)}^{2}+y^{2}+z^{2}}}$$

On a whim you schlep to a National Association of Science Writers conference, where you are isolated and small, sole introvert amidst a mind-bruising cacophony. Drilling through your crushing discomfort, you meet Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (you buy three copies), you hear Jonathan Coulton sing his wistful nerd anthem, “Code Monkey” (you buy three CDs), and a merciful soul tells you to read Lewis Thomas’s classic medley of essays, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (why is there no Kindle version?). This is it. A trigger, an unlatching: your dormant writing compulsion awakens.

Astronomy with math. True stories, precisely told. A worthwhile target.

$$v^{2}-\frac{{2\mathrm{\Omega}}}{{1+e_{p}\mathrm{cos}\mathrm{\theta}}}+z^{2}+C+2\int\frac{{e_{p}\mathrm{sin}\mathrm{\theta}}}{{\left(1+e_{p}\mathrm{cos}\mathrm{\theta}\right)}^{2}}\mathrm{\Omega}\hspace{0.222222em}d\mathrm{\theta}=0$$


Halfway through college, you end the pleasant agony and decide astronomy over music. Seemingly by crazy random utterly naive inevitability, you become a professional astronomer. As your mop grows thinner and your knuckles grow larger, you realize the apparent randomicity is a misperception.

The equations, if you are wondering, tell how a massless particle moves in the combined gravitational fields of two massive objects in orbit about each other.¤ Think, for example, Sun–Jupiter–spacecraft. In astronomy, we call this the restricted three-body problem. It is astonishingly complex.

§ Perhaps only Death is a greater surety—though, surely, only by a little.

¤ For completeness:

$$\mathrm{\mu}=\frac{m_{2}}{{m_{1}+m_{2}}},\hspace{2.2em}r=\sqrt{x^2+y^2+z^2}$$

and

$$\begin{array}{rcl}\overrightarrow{\nabla}\mathrm{\Omega}&=&\left[\begin{array}{l}x-\dfrac{1-\mathrm{\mu}}{r_{1}^{3}}\left(x+\mathrm{\mu}\right)-\dfrac{\mu}{r_{2}^{3}}\left(x-1+\mathrm{\mu}\right)\\\\y\left(1-\dfrac{1-\mathrm{\mu}}{r_{1}^{3}}-\dfrac{\mu}{r_{2}^{3}}\right)\\\\z\left(1-\dfrac{1-\mathrm{\mu}}{r_{1}^{3}}-\dfrac{\mu}{r_{2}^{3}}\right)\end{array}\right]\\\\&=&\left(1-\dfrac{1-\mathrm{\mu}}{r_{1}^{3}}-\dfrac{\mu}{r_{2}^{3}}\right)\overrightarrow{r}-\mathrm{\mu}\left(1-\mathrm{\mu}\right)\left(\dfrac{1}{r_{1}^{3}}-\dfrac{1}{r_{2}^{3}}\right)\widehat{x}\end{array}$$

 

Primordial Realm

Primordial realm,
ice and cold —
we near the mists of Niflheim

A barge on the Danube River (click to enlarge)
A barge on the Danube River (click to enlarge)

Flagstaff Skywheel 2015-11-07

distance to downtown (red line = 2.5 miles)
distance to downtown (red line = 2.5 miles)

Dark skies are a treasure, a part of our culture, a part of who we are as humans that we must preserve. Due to some enlightened and forward thinking in the late 1980s, the outdoor lighting code implemented in Flagstaff has thus far kept light pollution from completely overrunning our beautiful natural skies.

From my back yard, 2.5 miles from the downtown commercial business center (click the thumbnail at right), I can see stars as faint as about magnitude 5.5 on a clear, Moonless night. In the video, North is towards the upper left corner. On the left side (NE), you can see that the sky background is noticeably brighter than toward the SW at right. The center of downtown Flagstaff is toward the  NE.

This is 3.25 hours of the sky wheeling by in my Flagstaff back yard. Famous objects that appear: the Andromeda Galaxy (passes straight overhead), the Double Cluster in Perseus (left of Andromeda Galaxy), the Pleiades (towards the end, at the bottom), and Capella (towards the end, bright star at left).

Camera: Canon G3 X, 30 seconds per “video” frame (15-second exposures).

Panopticon Inverted

A 360-degree panorama from the U.S. Naval Observatory 61-inch telescope dome catwalk, stitched together from nine photos. (You’ll notice I caught the catwalk railing in one of the photos. Oops.) This was on 2015-11-06, with a Canon G3 X.

Probably the best way to view (and download) the full-resolution version of this 23,890×2,597 image, which has such an extreme aspect ratio, is to use the Google viewer (use the magnifier):  https://goo.gl/RTXJxp. The version below is 1/6 resolution. (After clicking to enlarge, right-click and open in a new tab to view the 1/6-resolution version.)

A catwalk panorama (click to enlarge)
A catwalk panorama (click to enlarge)

Purpose

 

Eight cores, working hard:
orbits, orbits…
more orbits.

Suki is cold.
Laptop is warm.
Suki sits on keyboard.

Machine vexation,
reboot.
Sadness.

 

(click to embiggen)

Zodiacal Light West of Flagstaff, Feb. 2015

U.S. Naval Observatory - Flagstaff Station (click to enlarge)
U.S. Naval Observatory – Flagstaff Station (click to enlarge)

The zodiacal light at 7:51 pm (MST) on February 10, 2015, as seen from the west parking lot of the U.S. Naval Observatory near Flagstaff. If you’re wondering where the Observatory is, it’s about five miles west of downtown (Google maps link).

Below are two versions of a stack of eight 30-second exposures taken with a ZWO ASI120MM camera mounted on a camera tripod. This was 1h 47m after sunset (6:04 pm), and 21 minutes after the end of astronomical twilight (7:30 pm). You can see several naked-eye astronomical wonders, which are marked on the annotated version:

Zodiacal light from NOFS, 2015-02-11 (click to enlarge)
Zodiacal light from NOFS, 2015-02-11 (click to enlarge)
Zodiacal light from NOFS, 2015-02-11, with annotations (click to enlarge)
Zodiacal light from NOFS, 2015-02-11, with annotations (click to enlarge)