The missing Blue Moon

I was all set to drag my 8-inch LX-90 telescope out of the garage tonight for a view of the latest Blue Moon.  I was, anyway, until the facts smacked me in the face.

The Blue Moon was big news here in Phoenix.  The story made Page One in the morning newspaper.  It covered half the page with a big altered photo of the moon silhouetting a desert landscape and a prominent headline above the fold, “Lunar cycle makes this New Year’s Eve truly once in a . . . (and then big letters) BLUE MOON.”   And in a way, much ado about nothing.

A Blue Moon, as everyone knows by now, is the second full moon to appear in a month.  We had an earlier full moon on the 2nd of Decmeber.  The Blue Moon  isn’t blue.  It is the same old cream color with dark bruises, or lunar seas.  And it isn’t that rare.  The last Blue Moon was a couple of years ago.  The next one lies 2 1/2 years ahead.  What is rare, of course, is the Blue Moon appearing on the night of New Year’s Eve, tonight.  A duplicate act won’t come for another 18 years. 

It took much of the lustre off my viewing plans to learn, at least technically, the full moon would be no longer full as nightfall came to the desert, that it is not an official, full-blown Blue Moon. 

 There is a precise time when the full moon is at its fullest.  That time for this Blue Moon was, according to my Sky & Telescope magazine, 2:17 pm, Eastern Standard Time.  That was shortly after 12 noon, Phoenix time. The moon was still below the horizon out here, unviewable.  Now, 8 hours later, the moon is percentage points shy of Full — and it has not yet risen halfway in the eastern sky.  It is what is known as a waning gibbous moon, showing more than half its disk yet losing its brightness. 

I suppose it is a small point.  I suppose I may still venture out with the telescope to take a peek.  But I now know I’ll only be gazing at a symbolic full Blue Moon.  That makes me truly blue.


Another disappointing reading list

I’m an avid book reader.  I read slowly, and at the end of the year, like this one, I’m usually disappointed with my reading list. Disappointment lies not only with the numbers, a paltry 11 for 2009, but in the quality.

Contenders for 2010

There is seemingly little I can do about the number.  I not only read slowly but tend to take notes for future reference.  I devote at least a few notebook pages to every book.  If something strikes my fancy, I jot down  the subject and page number. I also draw diagrams and maps.  I also spend a lot of time writing and reading magazines and newspapers.  But probably the biggest distraction is the Internet.   I gobble up great amounts of time by numerous daily visits to my email, the stock market, paying bills, research, etc.   But, really, numbers are not that important to me.  Quality is what counts.

The quality of my book-reading this years is on the low end of average.  Here, in chronological order, is my 2009 list:

Clouds by Aristophanes, Thomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin, Father and Son by Edmund Gosse, Sea and Sardinia by D. H. Lawrence, Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb, The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia, The Whole Truth by David Baldacci, The Mother Sea by Dominique Fernandez, The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (volume 1) by Edward Gibbon and Equal Danger by Sciascia again.

This is a list only an esoteric could love.  I myself could punch a thousand holes into it.  For instance I spent far too much time on Italian books in preparation for a trip to Rome and Sicily.  The Italian reads did have a good side.  They introduced me to the pithy novels of Sciascia and his sobering views of the Mafia.  

Also, I have this irrational idea that I must venture into the world of bestsellers ever so often.  I rationalize I need to know what my neighbors are reading.  Nine times out of ten I’m disappointed.  In the case of Baldacci, it was a grand waste.  There is a reason book covers highlight bestselling authors names and put their titles in small print.  That should be my first signal to move on to something else.  Snobbish perhaps.  It’s the way I am.

While I’m glad I got through them, the two classics on my list, Clouds and Decline and Fall, were tough reads and I struggled with them.  Gibbon in particular was troublesome, though I’m very interested in the Roman Empire.  He writes long, convoluted sentences, and you must pay strict attention to structure.  Subject and verb often live far apart.  

I am not a masochist.  I began a classical-book reading program several years ago.  It is based on a list compiled in the appendix of “How to Read a Book,” by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren.  I can not hope to complete every book on that list in my lifetime.  Choices, better ones, must be made.

The best book I read this year was Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia, the author’s account of a train and bus trip he made with his wife, Frieda, in 1921 through the heartland of the Italian island.   This is not some noble description of an English snob traveling in style, dealing with peasants from a safe distance.  Lawrence and Frieda speak fluent Italian and immerse themselves in the unique culture.  In one of the book’s most memorable segments, the two travelers, hungry and cold and tired, sit impatiently in a dirty hut with a clutch of Sardinians, awaiting a shepherd to butcher and cook a goat for supper.   It is Frieda who comes across as the tougher one.  She admonishes Lawrence for complaining about a filthy hotel room in Sorgono.  “Why don’t you take it as it comes?” she said.  “It’s all life.”  Anthony Burgess was right on when he called Sea and Sardinia “a small miracle of a book.”

My hopes are high for better reading in 2010.  As usual, I’m plying through several books at a time.  Some I toss aside and never complete.  But I know I will finish at least a couple of the books I’ve started:  The Savage Detectives, fiction by the late Roberto Bolano, volume 2 (of 6) of Decline and Fall and Ulysses Found by the historian Ernle Bradford.   A book a month is my goal.

War and rage on 15th Ave

I was going to write this piece as a future victim of road rage.  This would be my grand farewell. 

I envisioned my assaillant would be one of the many cheating drivers I’ve refused to let cut me off on 15th Ave.  I could see the fitting memorial of my martyrdom.  A wood cross and plastic flowers stuck in a pile or rocks by the side of the street.   A sense of shame and guilt would strike all those pansies who felt the same as I did and yet refused to step hard on the gas.   

For those who play by the rules and think others should too, 15th Ave can be a mind-destroyer with racing lanes.   At the major intersections, from at least McDowell Road on the south up to Northern, 15th Ave widens on one side and narrows again on the other.   The right lane at these intersections are, to my mind, reserved for buses and right turns.  But they are not so-marked.  And not so-used.  It’s in this little 50 yards of wide space that a war takes place everyday. 

These unmarked, undesignated right lanes prove open invitations to the thoughtless and self-centered drivers who believe their time is more valuable than their neighbors on the left, the ones stopped in a queue.  When the light changes, these divisive miscreants charge ahead and swerve back into the left lane before the street narrows again,  trying to gain ground on one or even two cars.  I have seen as many as four cheaters line up in the right lane and pass everyone of five cars in the queue on the left. 

I believe this.  The offending drivers would not dare cut in on a theater line.  Why do they feel so sure they can cut in to a traffic line?  For one, these insecure drivers feel empowered by their vehicle’s big engine.  For another, they feel anonymous, assured they are safe from confrontation or physical harm, walled up inside their mobile fortresses. I was willing to take them on.

There was this time last summer.  I was in front of the queue at Camelback, having waited at the light for almost a minute.  A cream-colored sedan pulled up on my right full of young kids. It was clear the driver wanted to take advantrage of me.  He’d issued a challenge, and  I was outraged.  I put a foot on the clutch, shifted up into first gear, and began pressing down lightly on the accelerator.  At green, the two of us peeled out from a rolling start.  I inched ahead by a foot or two as the lane narrowed by the bus stop, going north.  The other driver began to pull toward me, a scare tactic.  He edged to within a foot or two of the passenger-side door, both of us traveling fast.  My second gear was whining and about to max out, but I didn’t want to shift yet.  That shift might cost me valuable pavement.  The thought of dying in a horrible crash crossed my mind but not for long.  I wanted to teach the asshole a lesson.   Finally, the other driver backed off.  I had held my position at the front of the pack.  At the next light, there was some minor shouting back and forth.  A passenger in the backseat of the frustrated lane-cheat conceded my superior driving abilities and courage.  He used a hand to say I was No. 1.   

A similar incident happened with Nebra in the car.  As I raced up 15th Ave, her face grew white and she  slipped lower and lower into the passenger seat and began to shield her eyes with her hands.  I won again, but she was unimpressed.  She voiced her disgust with me.  It took a few days to sink in.  But sink in it did.  True, the right-lane cheaters are assholes.  But I was an idiot.  I could’ve killed Nebra or maimed her and maybe myself.  I could’ve taken a gunshot to the head.   Over what? 

Several months ago I changed mental gears.  I began driving north and south to my destinations via 7th Ave, a wider street with no racing lanes.  I mellowed.  Now, I have returned to 15th Ave in a better frame of mind.  I welcome the right-lane bandits now.  I refuse to give in to the flaws that kill.  The anger, the competitiveness, the strong desire to punish the disrespectful. 

The city of Phoenix could help alleviate the racing-lane mentality on the street.  Even in these harsh economic times, surely the city could find funds for a little white paint for the right lanes, or even a small sign at the edge of 15th Ave.  “Buses and right turns only.”   It won’t completely wipe out the racing.  But it might save a life.

Sports, the `Chinamen’ and me

I have this strange malady.  I can’t become a sports fan.  More specifically I can’t become a Cardinals football fan. It is constitutionally impossible. Only the gods know how hard I’ve tried. Only the gods know why the Kool-Aid can’t be swallowed.

The scene of my most recent malady

The problem only gets worse.  It arose again yesterday at the Arizona Cardinals stadium in Glendale as the home team pummeled one of the most pitiful National Football League teams imaginable, the St. Louis Rams.  I was miserable.

I sat there in my seat near the end zone, my irritation growing amid the tumult and the shouting.   “Defense, defense,”  the fans around me roared, imploring their team to stop the Rams from scoring, even though the Cardinals led, 24-7, at the time, well into the fourth quarter.   What’s the point? I thought.  The game is won, the Cardinals in minutes will have recorded their 10th victory, the most wins in a season since they arrived in the desert more than two decades ago from St. Louis.   The point is this.  Fans can never get enough of a good thing.  Even if the score had been, 100-7, those Cardinals fans would’ve begged for more.

There was a time, and maybe it is still that way, that some football coaches and sports writers sneered at the hardcore fans.  They called them Chinamen.  One well-known college coach invited the writers to a social event at his house to have drinks “and talk about the Chinamen.”   It was common useage.

I’m uncertain where or when “Chinamen” originated as a term for fans.  I’m even uncertain of what it truly means.  A sports writer friend of mine said it began with “How much rice can a Chinaman eat?”  I assumed the answer was, “The Chinaman has a bottomless stomach.  He can eat rice forever.”   If I were asked to translate,   I would say “Chinamen” means that vast sea of fans have an insatiable and irrational appetite for their teams and that it is an incurable condition, perhaps brought on by a missing component in their own lives. 

Four years ago, when the Cardinals moved into their new stadium, I bought season tickets for Nebra and me.  The tickets came at a dear price which has now risen to almost $1,500 a year for the package of 10 games.  At the time, I thought I could make the transition from sports writer to fan.   After all, I’d been out of journalism a long time, a trade that preaches dispassionate observation.  And, in that first season, 2006, I did pretty well.  I stood up numerous times and yelled until I was hoarse, using my rolled-up program as a megaphone, “Dee-fense,  dee-fense.”   And I was shocked and somewhat disappointed when the Cardinals imploded and lost in ways I thought nearly impossible. 

The highlight of my adventure into FanWorld was the lowlight for the true Cardinals fan.  Without doubt the most entertaining game I’ve witnessed in the stadium so far was the so-called Monday Night Meltdown against the undefeated Chicago Bears on national TV in 2006.   The Cardinals blew a 20-point lead in the final 15:05, yielding three touchdowns on two fumble recoveries and an 87-yard punt return.  Afterward, Nebra and I stuck around in the near-empty stadium to watch on the big screen as coach Dennis Green went ballistic with the now-famous rant, “They were who we thought they were.”   I love it when coaches lose it like that.  It’s a side of their personalities you rarely see as a fan, an outsider.  I do not think the true-red Cardinals fan valued the moment as I did.   To most fans, winning is the only elixir, and the bigger the spread the better.  They miss, it seems, the human side of the game.

From that game three years ago my career as a potential Cardinals fan has steadily gone downhill.  Each season the Cardinals have become more successful under Green’s replacement, Ken Whisenhunt.  And each season  my enjoyment has decreased.   And now decreases with each game.  I tend to like the underdog.  That’s only part of my problem.  I also have a great deal of cynicism regarding anything that is big and successful.  As the Cardinals are becoming.  Here in the arid lands, they have become like the big banks, almost too big to fail. And yet . . . .

My one moment of enthusiasm yesterday came in the fourth quarter.   It was at the moment the Cardinals rookie running back, Chris Wells, took a pitchout, turned on his after-burner and sped easily around the left side and into the end zone for the final touchdown.  I got to my feet, punched my right arm into the air twice, and yelled, “Yes, yes.”   A few nearby probably thought I had completely lost it. 

I of course was not cheering another Cardinals TD.  I was cheering for Wells.  Almost everybody in our section is in awe of  him and uses only his nickname, Beanie.  He is very popular.  “Come on, Beanie,” I often hear muttered.    Beanie is a No. 1 draft pick and has great potential.  He is arguably the most exciting player on the team.  And yet, he does not start.  He alternates with an inferior player.  The coach does not allow Beanie to get into a rhythm, and he has designed no special plays that would quickly get him into the open field.  A quick-pitch would be nice to see now and then.  Anyway, to my mind, that makes Beanie an underdog and something I can root for. 

There is a reason, I’ve rediscovered, for a press box and sound-proof glass that separate the sports writer and the fans in the stadium.  They are two different species.  Or they should be.  The writer, by training, covets a dispassionate view of the game, and writes a review, a game story, that reflects his own honest opinion of what is seen hundreds of feet below on the field.   It is a view unlike the fan whose world is heated and black and white.

So the way I’m thinking at the moment I may not renew my season tickets next year.  I want the melody of life to return and the malady to go away.  It will be hard to do.  Nebra has become a fan.  “You’ve created a monster,” she says.  Unlike me, Nebra knows every player by his number, knows his tendencies.  She thinks Larry Fitzgerald, the wide receiver, walks on ocean water.  

I could buy just one ticket next year, one for Nebra.  Or we could stay home and watch the Cardinals on TV.  Or I could revert to baseball.  It is a cooler sport, little of this loud, angry fan madness that pervades football.  So I do have options.  My malady is not incurable.  It is just football-fan specific.

Not the Milvian Bridge

I’ve changed the Title of the photo on the About page.  The old title was “On the Milvian Bridge.”  It now reads “Crossing the Tiber.”   Looking at the photo more closely I’m almost certain it is the Ponte Castio, the second bridge crossing the Tiber from the Capitolina district of Rome into the Transtevere via Isola Tiberina.  The bridge in the photo is way too neat and the plane trees way too close to be the Milvian Bridge, or Ponte Milvio, far to the north.  It is a small thing but I want to be as accurate as possible.

Frost Patrol is working, well, kinda

Frost Patrol has been busy of late here in the desert.  Busy yet a tad undisciplined. 

Three straight nights of covering selected plants with bed sheets.  The first night was a good effort by Jack Frost but a near miss, only 33 F at the house here in Phoenix.  That was followed by 30 on Christmas and a 28 this morning.   So far so good.   Little if any frost damage.

The two frost-sensitive plants I stew over most, the bacopa and wedelia, are still looking strong, green and vibrant.  It is my first venture at growing the bacopa,  a tender native of South Africa.  I’m testing it as a ground cover in one of the front beds. The hope is to see a few zillion of its little white flowers popping out by late February.  At this time, it is nowhere near its mature size of 4-8 inches high and 10-12 inches in width.  If the bacopa does well, I will attempt to propagate it by cuttings.  The wedelia is also a trailing plant and one I’ve done very well by.  Until a hard frost that is.  Then, unprotected,  it dies back considerably. 

As captain of Frost Patrol, I rang the bell for action six times so far this month.  Four times the thermometer sank below freezing.  And only twice did my assistant, Nebra, answer the call.  Lately, she prefers to stay inside and bake.  Some years the Patrol’s discipline is very good.  This isn’t one of them.

The jobs I’ve had, no one wants

Looking at the latest jobless rates in Arizona got me thinking.   I began to roll over in my mind all the different jobs I’ve had and that maybe I could pass along a few tips to the 8.9 percent of my neighbors who are out of work.  Write a book, make a few coins.  I sat down at the keyboard and strained my brain.  The number of  jobs on my typed resume astounded me.  At least 30 had found their way to the computer screen.    

Here is the list I made, in no particular order:

Farm worker, lifeguard at a swimming pool, sports writer, waiter at a campus steakhouse, bridge construction laborer, grocery bagger, ditch-digger for a railroad signal crew,  highway flagman, freelance writer, combine operator for a custom wheat-cutter, airplane parts cleaner, data entry clerk for a bank, librarian’s assistant, janitor in a Titan II missile silo, soldier  in the U.S. Army, carpenter’s helper, newspaper correspondent, stacker at a cardboard box factory, baseball umpire, door-to-door deliveryman, cabinetmaker’s apprentice, gas station attendant, election poll worker, salesman/clerk at an auto supply, roofer, truck loader for a peanuts operation, book reviewer, petition verifier for a state agency, roughneck in the oilfields and probably a few other jobs now forgotten.

I analyzed those jobs and came to this conclusion.  I don’t have much to offer the unemployed American citizen.  The best paying job I ever had, sports writer, is in the dying newspaper industry.  Some jobs, like missile-silo janitor, probably don’t even exist anymore.  Some, like roughneck, don’t provide a regular paycheck.  Others, like farm worker, are seasonal.  And some, like data entry clerk, are so pitifully boring I wouldn’t recommend them to Osama bin Laden. 

To be candid, I think many self-respecting American citizens would be mortified to work some of the jobs I’ve held.  Most paid minimum wage and required hard, physical labor and no skill.  My true audience probably lies elsewhere.  Trouble is my Spanish isn’t that good.