Monday, September 21, 2020

Introducing Dr. Electro

 Letters from Josh

  Introducing Dr. Electro 9/21/20                                                                           Letter 24

Hey there, folks!  How’s everyone over there?  As COVID drags on and you’re surely growing tired of it all, remember, the CDC gives much guidance on masks, but has neglected to mention pants.  Make of that what you will (and you didn’t hear it here.)  Greetings and bad influence from...Professor Plum’s Library!  It’s DONE!  It’s DONE!  The room remodel is FINISHED!  Well - almost - is anything ever done? There’s a clock from 1896 that belonged to my great Grandmother ticking away, the classical radio station plays on a unit from 1962, and the dark wood floors catch the last of the evening’s light.  It’s fun to hear that everyone has been following along with the progress, so I thought it would be fitting to have the first dispatch from this room be a Letters from Josh.  All aboard!

  One time when I was playing my broom guitar in New York City (more about that another time), I heard a pure sound drifting up from the filthy subway entrance to the West 4th street station. Following the strains of baroque violin, I wandered below ground to find someone who would become a friend.  Alex was playing Bach and Vivaldi for the New Yorkers, a talented cricket in a concrete jungle.  He saw the photo of the Professor Plum room I posted online, and he commented “What is this?  Are you writing a sequel to The Raven?”  (The room intentionally looks old fashioned and mysterious.)  Bopping down the halls at work today, that question kept rattling around in my head, like the last few scraps of coffee in the can. 

  Why YES, this could be fun!  What if we embarked on a voyage of serial fiction?  A little nugget, a bit of a tale each week, something to look forward to?  I haven’t the faintest idea of what’s going to happen, both with the success of the format or the direction of the story, so I guess we’ll all be surprised!  And so, I’m pleased to introduce to you a man who arrived unannounced (in my head) this afternoon and is known as..

Dr. Electro  (Episode 1 - Rutherford Calling)

It was a dark and stormy night, although Dr. Electro would have preferred it to rain harder.  The rockstar Prince famously requested the same when the heavens opened on his Superbowl halftime performance in 2007, but Dr. Electro wouldn’t have known on this Jazz Age evening, eighty or ninety years prior.  He hadn’t built a time machine - yet.  The coils and wires gleamed in the gloom, and the four bulbs were understaffed in lighting a cluttered workbench.  A smell of ozone bit the air, unrelated to the thunderstorm in the distance.  Dr. Electro was thinking out loud, the electrons in his neurons seeming to pace the electricity in the massive strands of copper on the bench. 

“Where’s the damn..err..darn screwdriver?”  he muttered, rummaging around, checking his language.  His girlfriend was trying to clean him up a bit before her parents were introduced. Dr. E was smart enough to dream up fantastical dynamos and revolutionary circuits.  Unlike the ten thousand volts on the bench, though, he wasn’t exactly sure about the subtleties of Mabel, and his confidence was uncharastically shaky.  “Ah, there it is!”  Leaning in, carefully, carefully, around the glowing vacuum tubes, singeing three arm hairs, he turned a small screw, sweat beading on his forehead as the voltmeter started to climb.  “8,753  8,824  9,210 9,317” when...there was a knock.  At his window. 

What the Devil is that?” he barked to himself, head snapping up, almost dropping the screwdriver into disaster, and then wondering if Mabel’s parents would frown on mention of Lucifer in non-theological discourse, and then, remembering the knock at the window?  Squinting through the rain streaks was to no avail, so a grumpy creaking and sliding up of the pane matched the equally grumpy Dr. Electro.  “Who the heck is there?”  (Ah, he was getting better at this.)  “Shh!  They’ll hear you!” “Who?  What?  Who’s there?”  The azaleas rustled, and an oilskin hat popped up like a seafaring groundhog.  It was Rutherford, the eccentric, paranoid, well-meaning Englishman who had spent a bit too much time in a boiler room.  “The orphans need us, old chap!”  “Come in, come in, Rutherford”, Dr. Electro sighed.  The rickety workshop door slammed a gust of night rain out, and the Englishman dripped his way into the laboratory, waving his arms wildly.  “My good man!  The orphans!”  

(To be continued next week….)  

- Josh

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Spirits and Sawdust - Letters from Josh, Vol. 23

 Letters from Josh

  Spirts and Sawdust 9/15/20                                                                           Letter 23

  Hey there, crew!  How’s everyone doing over there?  If you’re having knee pain today - I can relate.  I’m stiff, sore, and achy.  Lyme disease?  COVID?  Nope, just...flooring!  That’s right, the floors are half down in the new room!  Remember the Professor Plum fiasco from last week?  I had painted the walls a stately admiral blue and then, upon getting a new gallon mixed to put a final coat on...somehow PURPLE ended up on the walls!  I went back to Home Depot, and said “Umm….”  They looked at the cans, figured out the date code on the label, and said “oh YEAH, that’s the day someone put purple in the blue machine!”  WHAT?  They tried to match the color, to no avail.  It was right then and there I fell in love with the shade.  Talk about super rare and obscure.  “Like my paint, man?  TOO BAD, you can’t get it!”  

  So, the walls a peculiar share of purplish blue, the flooring install has commenced.  My brothers stopped by last night, and gave me some mighty help.  We had the music going, the hammers were ringing, and I ran out of the room to go over to the garage saw to cut a piece to size.  Suddenly, the memories that had been flitting in and out of view all night snapped into view.  

  It must have been the table that I write from - a massive walnut slab dining room table we had built when I was 23 with my dad.  I glanced at it as I ran by, building yet another thing, and suddenly thought of all of the memories, efforts, and spirit embodied in these tools.  Back in the room was the nail punch I had learned to use when I was 9.  I remember struggling to get clean cuts and, anything.  The air compressor kicked on, like a telephone call from a long-ago neighbor who had given it to us kid brothers.  I hadn’t thought of Georgia in forever. She used to buy generic grape soda for us grimy barefoot boys, and give us an ice cold can on a blazing July day, the condensation half-rinsing the dirt off our hands.  How I’d like to stop by her back porch and sit in one of those plastic lawn chairs now.   

  My great-Grandfather’s rip saw hung patiently on the pegboard, a grizzled veteran of the Oak battles, waiting for another century of service.  I had it out for a spin the other night, it’s gruff voice patiently grinding through the fragrant pine board.  It was a contrast of the yippy yap of the little dovetail saw from my 7th birthday (I always liked strange gifts) that nipped around the trim of the doorframe, much like the neighbor’s toy dog that always tries to bite me.  

   “Brrrrrr!” whined the miter saw, as I brought the blade down, slicing cleanly through the hard oak board.  My stepdad gave me this years ago, when he was fairly new on the scene, and generously making sure I could install the first floor I’d ever done in my brand new house many years ago.  He really had gone above and beyond with it, and not only did I get a saw, but a philosophy that things were possible to do, and they might as well be done right.    

  Flipping on the bandsaw, there was the generosity of a buddy named Jim thrumming in the noise of the motor, making the difficult cuts possible, one kind deed continuing it’s ripple across my life.  Something that would take a half hour (with grave risk to a hand) now was safely done in five minutes.    

  The hammers rang, and the ghosts of the projects past watched and smiled.  One day, I’ll have built everything that I need to, and these tools can go on to the next craftsman, working at speed on a crisp September evening, using steel and wood to create something a little better, and make the world slightly less jumbled.  I’ll sit and smile, knowing that although the tools may be long gone, I’ll still have the recollections of the sawdust and spirits.  

  I’m sure every one of you has done some hard work in your life.  Let me know, I’d love to hear the stories!

  • Josh   

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Now Boarding at Gate 3

Heya folks!

  I was hunting around for what to write this morning, when I remembered that a friend had asked the fatal question.  "Hey Josh, what telescope should I get?"

  So, here's a post that's actually useful to the world at large, my buddy Pam specifically, and hopefully, you too.  

  "What telescope should I get?"  Oh MAN, you're about to buy both a starship and a time machine.  I'm gonna do the opposite of a recipe blog, and tell you the info FIRST, and then the details.

What a telescope does;

It magnifies things, but this is less important than gathering light.  Your eye, fully dark adapted, opens to about 7 mm.  The smallest telescope below is 76 mm.  That's a lot more light!  Once you've scooped up those photons, you magnify them.  Generally speaking, you'll be more concerned with the objective lens/mirror size than the actual magnification.  (Which is changed with the eyepiece.  So, in a telescope, you'll be able to swap out eyepieces, and even buy new ones.  The eyepieces are what determine the mags, but again, don't worry about that too much at the moment.)  

What you're looking for

  When I shop for a telescope, I look at two things:  1. The optical design, and 2. The Mount.  

The optical design roughly falls into three categories - the first is the classic Telescope telescope that's long, pirate-looking, and uses lenses to gather more light than your eye does.  That's called a refractor, using lenses to refract the light (bend it.)  

  The second is my favorite - the reflector.  Invented by Sir Issac Newton way back in the day, and still bears his name - the Newtonian Reflector, which uses mirrors to gather more light than your eye can, and then focus it for you using curved (parabolic) mirrors.  

  The third is a combination of the two, usually in a Schmidt-Cassegrain or Maksutov-Cassegrain design.  These are a little pricier, and frankly, I don't like them as much.  

The Mount also falls into three categories:  Altitude-Azimuth (up and down) on a tripod, Equatorial on a tripod (this tracks the motion of the Earth), and Dobsonian, which is a plywood version of the Alt-Az mount.  

  John Dobson created the Dobsonian style, and it's currently my favorite.  It allows for a great-moving scope made out of particle board and stovepipes, making sure all of the money is spent on the biggest and best optics possible.  Think of it as an old pickup truck with a big ol' race motor crammed under the hood.  Sure, it's not fancy, but MAN it's fast!  

  Dobs can also be home-built, to nice specs with nice materials and premium views. Here's a picture of one of my dobs - hand built by a buddy, actually, and SIGNED by John Dobson himself!  

  And they can get REALLY fancy.  I also have a variant of a dob design that costs more than several old pickup trucks, to reference that analogy again. 

Top Choice 
A 6" "dob" is an iconic configuration, and rightly so.  This one has a 2" focuser, too, allowing future upgrades for fancy eyepieces. It's portable, manageable, and will show you many things in the universe.  Now, they'll be small and faint - no color photos here, BUT - to actually see the rings of Saturn, or a star cluster that's billions of years that's cool!

A Good Place to Start
A drawback of the hobby that almost did me in was the high cost of admission.  Although I haven't used this exact model, my first telescope was an 80mm Celestron similar to this one.  Things are small in the eyepiece - and you'll want to add some accessories.  But, this is a simple platform that can open up the skies for your inquiring mind to visit.  (Saturn will BARELY have rings with the included eyepiece, but the Moon will be awesome.)  

For a Few Dollars More
Yeah BUDDY!  This 8" dob is quite a "serious" telescope, and for under $500, you can see far, far away.  I regularly observe with an 8", and love it.  

Don't forget

 (And my brother got a $12 pair off eBay that gave my fancy ones a run for their money!)

What I recommend

  If you've got some money to burn, a 6" "dob" (Newtonian reflector mounted on a Dobsonian base) is an excellent scope to buy.  Another nice thing about reflectors - they avoid the bane of inexpensive refractors, which is chromatic aberration.  This is when a lens focuses red and blue light slightly differently, resulting in a halo of color around bright objects.  Mirrors don't have that problem.  

    If you don't, or are still wondering if astronomy is for you, a small refractor, or even a little tabletop "dob" would be a good choice.  Now, I haven't personally used this one, but it sure looks intriguing:

For sixty bucks, it seems worth a gamble.  

What I would avoid

Wobbly, spindly mounts, especially of the "EQ" (Equatorial) variety.  I love EQ mounts, but they have to be big, expensive, and heavy to work right.  Here's a video where I review a rig that costs about $800.  I use it all the time, and love it, but I wouldn't recommend it as a first scope.  

  I'm not a big fan of Newtonian reflectors mounted on tripods in this price range, but....more on that in a moment.  

What to expect

TEENY tiny "dots" and smudges.  Even through my premium gear, with the exception of the Moon, most things are gray smudges, and the scale of things is tiny.  Now, the light has been traveling since before the age of the Dinosaurs, and THAT'S cool.  But, you won't see color, you won't see (much) detail, and you'll have to learn the sky to figure out where you're looking.  It can be frustrating, but it's SO SO COOL.   

A word about binoculars

  A nice pair of binoculars should be in every observer's toolkit, be it your primary instrument or another horse in the stable.  Their effortless wide fields, and cruising along the Milky!  Plus, their lenses gather much more light than your eyes can, so you'll see more, and farther.  Generally, stick to 10 power or below, and a range of 35-50 mm is a good target for the lens.  (A 10x50 model is ideal, and a 7x35 is excellent as well.)  

In closing

The best telescope is the one you have!  (Or the one you can afford.)  The sky can be enjoyed in so many ways, so definitely get out there and do some stargazing!  Keep in mind that the cheaper scopes can require a little more patience, and a $100 pair of binoculars will be much higher quality than a $100 scope.  That being said, the priority is to look at the sky.  

  Let me know if you have any questions, and of course, check out my YouTube channel, Astronomy with Josh!

Clear skies,

Monday, September 7, 2020

Professor Plum

Letters from Josh

Professor Plum     9/7/20                                                                           Letter 22

  Hey there, folks, and Happy Labor Day!  Josh here - if you’re just “tuning in”, I’m a fellow who, pre-COVID, went around and brought you music and eclectic lectures.  Nowadays, it’s letters with a variety of tales.  

  This week, it’s the answer to CLUE:  Professor Plum killed the Home Depot Paint Lady in the Library with the Lead Pipe.  Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

 Life has a strange way of cutting me down to size - repeatedly.  I’m actually grateful for this, because like the Zoysia grass in the front yard, I’d get out of control without a regular leveling.  Moreover, I’m learning when to expect one of these reality checks.  If I’m walking along, the sky is blue, and I really think I’ve got my act together...expect lighting.  

  Cut to today.  I’ve been renovating a room in my house, turning it into a library and study.  I’ve replaced rotten beams, patched soft floor, ordered new hardwood and a nailer (I’ll be installing it, too), replaced drywall (with the huge help of my stepdad), am going to build floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, mill my own crown molding, and, of course, am repainting.  

  Aiming for the 1930’s study vibe, the ceiling is a beautiful dark teal green, and the walls are “Admiral Blue”, a deep shade of the ocean, dignified and stately.  With endless prep work, the dust must have gotten into my thinking.  Hours and hours of sanding and painting found me thinking the fatal thought:  Oh wow, I’m really something.  I’ll think big thoughts in here.  

  In the interest of doing it right, it seemed prudent to get one more gallon of Admiral Blue - just to make sure the coat was nice and thick.  The sun smiled down as I made my way back to Home Depot, taking forever to get another gallon of paint.  Man, were they busy there.  A little too busy, apparently.  

  Back home, I rolled the Admiral Blue on the walls, and touched up the corners.  “Boy, look how cool I am.  I’m going to think the important stuff in my new Library.”  

  “Huh, that’s funny, it looks like a different color.  Well, the paint must just have to dry.”  

  Still, this morning, the finish was...patchy.  I start to touch it up, and when, standing in the middle of my big boy library/study in which I’ll be SO cool and think the big thoughts and do re-search (emphasis on the last syllable)...

  I realized I was painting my wall  PURPLE.  It’s like I’m living inside a grape.  So much for dignity.  Ha!  Ohhh, Life, you ol’ scoundrel, ya really got me again!  I am...Professor PLUM!  This is my library. Yeah yeah, forget James in the Giant Peach - I’m Josh in the Giant Grape.  As for the Home Depot lady - don’t worry, I’ll forgo the lead pipe for polite questions and kindness, and we’ll get it sorted in a way that works for everyone.  I actually kind of like it, and might keep it this way.  

  The purple walls echoed with chuckles of sudden realization this morning.  Bet the guy who actually ordered the purple paint is saying “HEY!  This is Blue!” 


  In parting, I hope your Labor Day is relaxing, enjoyable...and just a little unpredictable.  Eat some grapes, and think of me!  

Yours Truly,

Josh...aka Professor Plum  

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Sunbeams and Uncle Charlie

Remember great-great-great-great (10 x whatever) Uncle Charlie?

  I don't, either, but I can just picture him, our distant ancestor, a hundred thousand years ago, snorting, eyes flickering open with a jolt.  "Ah, morning!"  (In fact, in the morning, sometimes my mirror is mean, and says I resemble him.)  

  And, just like Great Uncle Charlie, I too sit there, staring groggily at the beautiful morning.  The Cedar Waxwings grace the yard with a surprise visit to the Pokeberry.  Their sleek gray wings are tipped with brilliant yellow, like they got too close to God's paint bucket.  The birds' masked faces are some I don't mind, a jet band around their eyes, robbers of berries.  

  And there's ol' Mister Sun, getting ready for another shift of rolling around Heaven and smiling down at us all all day.  His beams are creeping through the forest, suddenly illuminating a spider's unbelievably perfect handiwork.  "HEY EVERBODY!  LOOK AT THIS SPIDER WEB!"  Well, the spotlight is absolutely silent, but if it could talk... 

  When Uncle Charlie was surveying the ancient scenery at the dawn of Humanity, ol' Mister Sun was busily at work, too, fusing hydrogen into helium, a giant factory of everything, for, if it wasn't for him and his light, we wouldn't have anything.  

  Deep in the core, four hydrogen atoms got squished into two helium atoms, the reaction releasing a bit of light (photons.)  The photon immediately encountered a morning phenomenon and...ran into traffic. ("Ga, Monday rush hour, man.")  Slamming into another particle, it got absorbed, and that particle re-emitted a photon, and THAT one got "stuck in traffic", and so on, for...a hundred thousand years.  It takes  that long for the light to work its way out of the core!  (As far as they know.)  

  Finally, the photons reach the "surface" of the Sun, and are greeted with the sight that gladdens every commuter's frazzled heart - the open road.  And, just like the drivers on Rt. 210 once they clear Old Fort Road, boy do they gun it, traveling almost 93 million miles in...8 minutes.  

  So, as I huff and puff on my morning run, and smile up at the sunbeams smiling back at me, just think:  The light illuminating that spider web in a dewy delight first got cookin' when...Great Great Great (etc) Uncle Charlie was going about his morning, doubtless grumbling about the politicians and their ineffectual plans regarding the Saber-tooth problem.   Or something like that.   

  Boy, if he could just see me now.  Bet he'd like these wheels!  

- Josh

Monday, August 31, 2020

The Night Watchman

 To all of my nocturnal friends, and the slumbering ones, too.  

The Night Watchman

  I am the night watchman, although what I watch for, I do not know.  My contemporaries have a purpose as clearly cut as a pine board ripped by the table saw - make sure things stay in order, quiet hours lit by the glow of closed circuit television.  

  If only ET would bike himself across the moon that I gaze at in equally quiet hours, then I could point with a trembling finger and say “THAT…!”  But he never does, and if he did, I might not say.  Who would believe a lone astronomer, after all?  

  The best I can figure is it’s the Night itself that I watch, scooping up ancient photons with my telescope, wandering across the deep, swimming with Pisces the fish, peering at the drama of Perseus rescuing Andromeda as the sky wheels that story of antiquity into view.  Saturn dances a hula with her gigantic hoop, and a hurricane three times the size of our planet churns away on Jupiter. My chair is firmly rooted to Earth, the crickets hum in the humid air.  The moon looms in a clear sky, casting searching rays that find scattered diamonds of dewdrops in the thick grass.  A dog yips in the distance, while a street racer somewhere cues up his machine to dominate these terrestrial streets.  It would take him six months to drive to the moon, maybe five if he really built that motor right.  

  A cloud drifts across Luna, my eyes, glued to the telescope, drinking in a desolate surface, watching the early scene of Halloween, vapors of this planet scudding across the echoing plains of another.  Jagged mountains jut up at the edge of a forgotten flat of cooled lava, a crater that was once mighty, half-swallowed up by the event.   Leaning back in my chair, a fragment of a moon-bow - the nighttime rainbow - says hello.  The Katydids sing in the trees, impressing the lady bugs - “Katy did, katy didn’t.”  All of the heat and light of the day - the yes sirs and the problems to solve and the numbers to verify and weights to lift - all seem to drift away like the cloud that’s sailed east ,towards Aquarius.  “Katy did, katy didn’t.”  The Night seems alive, no boundary between me, the trees, the humid air, and the cosmos.  Alberio blazes down, a orange sun waltzing around a blue one, the eye of Cygnus the swan as he flies down the Milky way.  

  The Infinite echoes, reminding me that I’m a speck on a speck spinning ‘round a mote, as I stare up, stupefied in the best sort of way.  

  Yet on this speck on a speck spinning ‘round a mote - there’s a night watchman.  Watching the Night.  Sleep on, let the moon sail high above your pillow.  Katydid, Katy didn’t.  I’ll be keeping an eye on the Night.

  And, I suspect, it’ll be keeping an eye on me.  


Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Greetings, Earthlings!

 Letters from Josh

Spaceships and Table Saws     8/17/20                                                        Letter 19

  Greetings, Earthlings!  Now, that’s got a good ring to it, doesn’t it?  However, unlike the similar salutation of “My fellow Americans”, it plants several seeds of doubt - doubt of sanity, doubt of planet of origin - doubts which can be leveraged to the benefit of the original bearer of the phrase.  After all, negotiation is often the art of throwing your opponent off balance, and what better way to do so than to have THEM wonder if YOU think you’re an alien.  But I digress…

  I hope you’ve been well!  I have - been out at the telescope a few nights this week, as you may have guessed.  ‘Tis the season for the summer Milky Way.  The Earth, in it’s journey of a year, orbits ‘round ol’ Mister Sol, and presents a slightly different section of the sky each evening.  As such, just as the seasons may be observed to change by watching the foliage and listening for the arrival of the August crickets (singing now, mingling their delightful notes with Bach’s English Suite in A minor), so too may the passage of time be marked in the Heavens.  The Summer sky is a joy to behold - a star-studded event, the Oscars of the celestial sphere, where the party starts late (it doesn’t get truly dark till about 9:30), the music pulses in the night, and a horde of paparazzi mosquitoes drone about the ears.  Our Earth’s orbit places the stargazer looking straight into the hub of our home galaxy, the glittering river of stars pooling into mysterious hazy patches, resolving into billowing clouds of dust, gas, and stars when viewed through a telescope.  And viewing is what I’ve been doing, marveling at these ancient stellar nurseries, the light traveling a “nearby” tens of thousands of years to appear to my wondering eye.   High overhead, the bright rays of Vega in evening-gown blue dance across the zenith of this splendor, and occasionally, an owl hoots deep in the forest.  I sit quietly at my telescope, occasionally referencing a star atlas, changing an eyepiece, in a quiet observation of the Universe.  Last night, I aimed near Vega, in the constellation of Cygnus, the swan, and came face to face with a familiar sight that makes me gasp every time.  A ghostly tendril of gas snaked for light years around an obliging star, as I held on to the telescope as if not to fall into Infinity.  It’s the Veil nebula, a supernova remnant .  In “down to Earth” terms, if you’ll pardon the pun, it’s the guts of a massive star that went BOOM in a violent explosion when the star ran out of fuel.  Interestingly, this type of catastrophic end is the source of life on Earth.  An oversimplified explanation is as follows: Stars fuse hydrogen into heavier and heavier elements - elements we are built from.  But, they don’t do anyone any good if they’re locked in the core of a star.  So, when it explodes, it scatters these seeds of possibility across space, which eventually form into new stars, solar systems, planets, people, cell phones, etc.  So, it’s quite moving to see this ghostly apparition floating in space, eventually to gift it’s elements into something new, far, far in the future.  

  It seems a telescope is almost like a spaceship, and so I moved it back home, stopping at Saturn and Jupiter on the return voyage, marveling at the cosmic hula hoop (Saturn), and cloud details several times the size of Earth on Jupiter.  Then, I gently “landed” back in my front yard, refreshed from my wander among the stars.  With a “click”, I powered down the finder scope, smiled, heard the katydids singing in the trees, and brought the spaceship back into the hangar...err, garage.  What a Universe we live in!

  In other news of an Earthly note - I got a new used table saw yesterday.  (It, too, started out from a supernova remnant a long time ago.)  My stepdad found a great deal online, so drove up with a trailer, and loaded the 400 pound piece of shop machinery on a slick wood ramp in a drizzling rain.  Now THAT was something to make one focus.  (Fortunately, nobody got hurt!)  Don’t you just love a new piece of gear?  I often think that if I put a pegboard in my kitchen and hung up the spatulas like screwdrivers, I might be more inclined to cook...  

  Have a great week over there, and until next time, Earthlings!

  • Josh

Monday, August 10, 2020

On the Subject of Time

 Letters from Josh

Advice Sought on the subject of Time     8/09/20                                                Letter 18          

  Howdy, folks!  How’s everyone doing over there today?  I’m...a whole mix.   I was sad this afternoon, and wrote a real doozy of a letter.  Then I had a nap, some greet tea, and an evening walk in the humidity, the forest quiet, the clouds towering fantastical pinks and purples in the summer sky. Now, after some much-needed edits to this volume, I’m pumped for a dive into the sea of Philosophy!  Ahoy, mateys!  Diver down!  

  So, I closed two books this weekend - ended out two eras, and it knocked me for a loop. 

Yesterday’s was saying goodbye to my first car, now a project Camaro, passed on to my younger brother, who will fix it up into a lean mean street machine.  Still, I waxed nostalgic as I drove it on a farewell spin to the river, complete with a noisy burnout and neighborhood annoyance on the way back.  All good things must come to an end, though, and as if on cue, the driver’s window almost didn’t roll up. 

Today’s was much harder.  I said goodbye to a place that I’ve grown up with.  It’s an art gallery that - well - it’s a long story best reserved for another time.  Suffice to say, this community had been a family for mine in our darkest hour.  It’s going on to something different, my family in another direction, and like the Camaro, there’s a time when one lumbers out of the driver’s seat one last time, pats the bumper affectionately, and goes inside, the closing of the door echoing much longer than it should.  One must, image comes into my mind, a ghost, really.  It’s of a much younger version of myself, complete with scary rockstar long hair, and my family, all of us crammed inside a tiny blue car that was a lifeline in a dire strait.  We’re all intently staring at the road stretching out in the valley - and the challenges in front of us - not knowing how we’ll prevail, but knowing we must.  It moves me to tears to realize that we did, but my God, how keenly I miss those days when we all wandered through a ferocious wilderness, daily confronting (metaphorical) single log bridges over yawning chasms...and we all made it.  We all made it. That cold sharpened us like nothing else could. These days are easier.  Us boys are grown and established.  Mom’s earned a well-deserved opportunity to breathe a sigh of relief.  The story has ended with almost a fairy-tale quality.  We are all better people.  Yet, I can still see that little blue car in my mind’s eye, but now I’m grown, standing on the road, watching it hurtle by, westward, into the mountains beyond, and the setting sun.  Maybe it’s the golden light that sparks a tear in my eye.  What do you do with closing books?

  Walking quietly this evening save for the buzzing of a persistent deerfly friend, I got to thinking about how Sunday is quite the day for pondering memories.  The twilight seemed misty with the ghosts of them - the cicadas singing of summer nights in childhood...The muggy August of leisurely strolls with old girlfriends, where our meandering steps could never slow the clock, no matter how hard we tried.  The Black Walnut tree waved from 1987, and I remembered watching water of the Greenbrier river flow under a bridge years ago in the town my parents met, wondering “where does it all go?”  Do we really understand Time?  I suddenly imagined all of these scenes crystallized into little baubles, Christmas ornaments strung across the Cosmos, just waiting for me to peer through my telescope and say “ah yes, I remember when…”  It seems to me the spirit of these times lives on, and we often know it when we move through these days, the feeling that we’re in something that we’ll recall one day on a quiet Sunday evening.  

  I bought a photo from the gallery today before I left.  It’s been there forever, and although unremarkable, I’ve been drawn to it since Day One, as if I knew.  It’s a set of empty railroad tracks at twilight, stretching into the distant mountains ablaze with autumn color, empty now, but perhaps waiting for the next train?  Seems fitting.  Shh, if I listen close, I can hear an echo.  Who knows what’s next?

 So, what do you do with books to close, ones to open, and memories to cherish?  I’d love to hear.  

  • Josh

Monday, August 3, 2020

The Hypothetical Hermit of Hawksbill Mountain

Letters from Josh
Hypothetical Hermit of Hawksbill Mountain - Letter 17                                                

  “Howdy, folks!”  Howdy - that’s an excellent greeting, as my brother pointed out yesterday on the trail.  I had returned to my Mountain Troll territory, this time with my mom and brother accompanying me down the side of Hawksbill Mountain, heading towards Rose River Canyon, when he made that observation.  “Yes, and best said with the snapping of suspenders” I concurred, snapping mine.  So, in the spirit of that conversation - Howdy, folks!

  I hope you’ve been doing well over there.  Today, I’d like to bring you some sights from a Sunday ramble, and an interesting thought experiment.  
Yesterday found me heading west again, in search of vistas and a reminder of perspective.  I don’t know about you, but I get so wrapped around the axle of my own focus that it’s hard to know what’s up and what’s down.  The News doesn’t help, providing endless moles to whack, a never ending show of Outrage and Offense, with “something for everyone!  Step right up, step right up, folks, you’llllll hate it!”  The good news is: I’m in charge of what I pay attention to (even the phrase pay attention is a clue for me), and one can find as much respite in the sunlit spiderweb in view right now, as sweeping vista of a meadow by Old Rag mountain. (So, exotic locales are not needed for a chill pill.)  But, speaking of the meadow by Old Rag mountain - there was some sort of alpine Bee Balm out in purple-y force yesterday in that clear mountain air, delighting our bumbly friends to no end as they worked the flowers as busy as a...err…Well, you know.  A multitude of other botanical gems celebrated the sunshine with all the quiet joy of young women in love, greeting the source of their amor with devoted, radiant faces.  I sat and pondered this mountain meadow, the 1.2 billion year old rocks looming in the distance.  A dark forest edge invited my eye to wander, and imagine untroubled bears snuffling along through their daily forage.  Later, arriving at the bottom of the Rose River Canyon, I again stuck my head under the clear waters by the little waterfall for a mountain baptism, letting the spring cool my brain, so overheated by the world.  I still have water trapped in my ears, but hey, that’s OK.  The climb back up to the top was arduous, but, fortunately, the scenery made up for the effort, and here and there through the wise trees, I’d spy quiet glades where the clear sunlight lit ancient rocks, with only a squirrel for a visitor.  Wouldn’t it be neat to spend a few years living in a cabin tucked away in the woods, being The Hermit of Hawksbill Mountain?  Well, actually, I’d guess I’d hate it, get lonely after three hours, aggravated when the cistern broke in a week, and end up trying to sell it on some real estate website, BUT, for the thought experiment, I’ll call it The Hypothetical Hermit of Hawksbill Mountain, where everything works well.  (I view myself as less traveled, but more honest, than John Muir. Ha!  Well, actually, I think he really liked being the original Mountain Troll.)  Oh, to sit out on the front porch in the late afternoon, noticing how the birds start to wrap up their daily routine, the glory of High Noon echoing in the wistful song of the Veery, fast becoming a memory.  And here come the shadows creeping, like softly folding fingers on the grateful hands of the mountain, saying Grace before supper, thankful for another day.  Hear the crackle of the woodstove inside the screen door, and smell the sweet smoke.  Ah, how that scent can bring me back to boyhood in an instant.  Glancing up, watch the first stars pierce the deep blue overhead, as an occasionally breeze dips the maples in a waltz, letting us spy the Distance stretched out below, fading into soft pinks and coppers and blues, the Day snuggling into a downy comforter, off to dream about lands faraway, and rest up for tomorrow.  I can hear an old friend say in a soft country drawl “this is God’s country, Josh”, and I’d have to agree.  As the Hypothetical Hermit of Hawksbill Mountain...I invite you to imagine your own little scene, especially if the troubles of the world kick you around today.  Although what I outline is fiction, the beauty exists.  I often forget, but Rose River doesn’t, and keeps on laughing over the rocks, while the bees work the flowers in the meadow up above.  

  • Josh


Sunday, July 26, 2020

I am a Mountain Troll?

“Mommy, who was that man who just walked by and said Hello?” the little boy asked his mother.  She paused her singing - a beautiful sound, a Spanish melody with all of the melancholy and tenderness of a wood thrush, maternal instinct personified, fiercely loving today, sad that children grow up, yet with an eternal aspect as old as these mountains we were hiking in - and said “Uh...he’s a nature lover.”  

  Wrong.  I could be a mountain troll.  

  Bucket in hand, ratty blue Adidas on my feet, a baseball cap wrapped in a print of galaxies perched on my birds’ nest hair, I was ambling down the trail when I stopped to say hello to a family passing, and perplexed the young son.  

  Something about me.  Maybe I’m a mountain troll. Perhaps it’s just a touch from a time far ago.  I heard there’s some Siberian in my blood, and who knows what missed.  I was 15 and a friend of the family jokingly suggested a nickname of “Trollboy.”  Water droplets condense on a mote of dust borne aloft in a cloud to form a raindrop.  Maybe nicknames coalesce around a kernel of truth.  I mean, I tell myself I’m just friendly, but there I am, lurking by the brook, gnawing on a granola bar, furry legs plunked in the cool stream, half an eye out for trout.  A crowd of small boys disturbs my reverie, but I amble up along the rocks with an amenable greeting.  “The water’s perfect!”, my hair dripping from a forest canyon baptism. Other hikers catch glimpses of me, lumbering up the grade between trees and rocks, muttering to myself.  “If “God” could be thought of as the Transcendent, Jesus as the archetypical example of a human, and the Devil as what comes to life with a constant aiming of Down, that case, I’d subscribe to that notion, yes.”  (Mountain trolls are not to be confused with bridge trolls, mind you.)  

  It happened later on, too.  The little boy couldn’t look away, his feet barely traversing the rocks as he raised his gaze, up, up, up, from his height of two feet to my uphill six.  
“That’s a nice hat, buddy!”  

“Mommy - who was that man?”  

Anybody see any trout? I could go for a snack.   

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

More Letters

Letters from Josh
On Comets, Walnuts, and Firewood  7/20/20                                                   Letter 15

  Well, hey there, and hello, folks!  Welcome to Letters from Josh, bringing you a few scenes of summer, and a note about our most recent astronomical visitor.   Staying cool over there?  It’s hotter than a Fourth of July firework out there, which is why I had to laugh at myself on Friday.  Morning dawned hot, the sun glaring in the sky, sending bright beams weaving among the forest, like a dog snarling through clenched teeth, about to take a bite out of anyone who dared venture into his kennel.  I sharpened my chainsaw, loaded up a jerry can of gasoline, plus a brand new pair of bright orange chaps, and drove to my neighbor’s house a mile away.  He had some firewood for me.  He was there with his tractor, pickup truck, chainsaws, canthooks, and a winning attitude.  The saws blared in harmony, brash trumpets of the worker, as we cut the wind-felled oak logs, ants scurrying through the sawdust, sweat dripping and pouring.  We loaded the logs into a pickup truck, delivering them to my yard, rolling ‘em down planks like giant bowling balls.  “STEE-RIKE!”  If I were the weatherman, I’d say it was 94 degrees with a Real Feel of 1,072.  It seemed the Sun himself was helping load the fragrant oak timber.  But, it was actually fun.  Boy did we enjoy the power tools of saws and diesel tractors with loaders.  Man was the seltzer water cold and refreshing.  And by George, was it satisfying to survey the three truckloads of massive oak slabs by the existing firewood pile, ready for the winter snows that seem a distant figment of the imagination.  Plus, great conversation during and between the work happened, as well.  Funny how some things that would be a surefire recipe for misery turn out to be not only tolerable, but actually preferable.  Maybe it’s not what you do, but how you do it.  (Plus, tractors..!)  Even the talk of this hot work makes me want a snowcone, but then again, you’ve gotta be careful of what you wish for.  Have you heard of the GIANT one?  Well, technically, it’s Comet Neowise, a three-mile wide chunk of ice and rock hurtling through “nearby” space 64 million miles away.  It likely started out oh...about 4.6 trillion miles away in a mysterious outer region of the solar system called the Oort Cloud.  To visualize a number this big, think of The Compact Edition of the Oxford Dictionary, the massive two-volume set of print so tiny, they include a magnifying glass.  If you count up each letter in each book - and one of these thin pages has about fifty thousand letters on a side.  The current distance of Neowise is about 640 pages in (if each letter were a mile.)  4.6 trillion letters would require a stack of dictionaries….a half mile high..!   And, again, if each letter represented a mile, you can see what a long way Comet Neowise has traveled to say hello.  This icy visitor is being blasted by the radiation emitted from the sun (the solar wind), plus, bombarded by sunlight, which gives rise to it’s beautiful tail of dust and sublimating gas.  (Ice that’s transformed into gas.)  It’s really booking, too - moving at about 44 miles per second, but, unlike a “shooting star”, which is a grain of dust burning up in Earth’s atmosphere, it’s so far away, that it appears stationary in the night sky, really only appearing to move from night to night.  It also won’t return for almost seven thousand years.  However, even though the news is yelling about this, it’s actually surprisingly hard to see without binoculars or a telescope around here.  So, if you don’t get a chance to see it, don’t worry.  It’s perhaps best appreciated through the understanding of what it is, the vastness of “nearby” space, and the marvel that we all get to live in a universe with comets and oak firewood.  

  I’d like to leave you with an invitation to a memory. I stopped at the Black Walnut tree growing by the wayside this morning. Picking up a fragment of a green husk of walnut, I sniffed it’s curious and pungent scent.  It brought me right back to childhood, and the walnut tree in the backyard.  Mom learned the hard way not to hang the clothes out to dry on a line under the tree, the falling walnuts streaking the shirts.  Funny how a smell can bring you back to another time, and another world, with fresh July mornings reaching across time to tap one on the shoulder, saying “hey, have a walnut - and a memory.”  

  • Josh