Sign for the Times

A few days after the November 8 election in the US, I found myself at El Pueblo De Los Angeles Historic Monument.  This was after taking the Amtrak Sunset Limited train from Houston to L. A. and arriving very early on a cool, clear California morning.  So we walked across the street from Union Station to see this park.  The colorful vendors mostly weren’t open, but the buildings and works of art were there to tell of the history of Los Angeles.

This spirited artwork caught my attention.

wishing-well decorated with flowers and Day of the Dead skull art

How amazing – this is Northern European and Mesoamerican pre-Christian imagery, wishing well and decorative skulls, intertwined just as these cultures are woven together in the Southwest.

All kinds of public fountains can turn into penny-strewn wishing wells, but that likely dates back to tossing coins into sacred springs as offerings to deities that live there – water being a source of life and a sometimes scarce necessity. The Day of the Dead abounds in sweet sugar skulls and lively skeletons, but that comes from Aztec religion which took death very seriously and graphically – with the skull an image of hope.

This decorated wishing well was an unforgettable reminder that our world has roots that are deep and dark and yet, though not optimistic, profoundly hopeful.


Smart City

Growing up I thought Columbus had to be the biggest small (-minded) city in the state of Georgia.  Things have changed!  Besides renewing the historic downtown and many other achievements, Columbus is working with Phenix City Alabama to create the world’s longest urban whitewater course.  They’re taking out two old mill dams and giving the Chattahoochee River back its natural undammed flow, plus sculpting the rapids so as to attract paddlers ranging from the church-excursion level up to world class.  Way to go!

Spiders A La Mode

We  love a holiday for which we can decorate our houses and doors, ourselves and our pets, and our workplaces. And ourselves at the workplace.  Today at the Library the Reference Desk was being staffed by a librarian in a witch’s hat – a really good one with a curved brim and a floppy tip.   

 Another great thing about  Halloween is the opportunity for wordplay.  Every store and online merchant that can work a pun into its ads has done so.  (Terror-ific Deal!  Unboo-lievable Savings!)   Today’s Houston Chronicle contrived five (5) Halloween-themed headlines just on Page One:  “Perry not spooked by slumping poll numbers,” “Texans scare up another victory,” “Mosquitoes engineered to kill their offspring,” “Hospitality begins at home. . . for the living,” about a local haunting, and “They go bite in the night” – a teaser for an article in the entertainment section about vampire bats. 

My favorite Halloween thing is the spiders.  There are hosts of black-furred, purple-kneed, king-sized arachnids on the roofs and front doors of houses.  One was clinging to the front of  the hostess’s podium at Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant in Galveston this week;  the hostess cheerfully introduced the giant black tarantula as Walter and told us he’s harmless.  On campus this morning I stopped at a street to let a cyclist whizz by and admire her deely-bobbers.  Bobbing above her head were four curled-up black spiders, each on a webby puff of white feathers.  In real life spiders unnerve me.  That may be why fake ones rather charm me. Especially when they have purple knees.


Yesterday the Soaring Club of Houston couldn’t fly because of Temporary Flight Restrictions having to do with a wildfire to the east of the Field.  The last time I remember it being clear, bright weekend weather when we couldn’t fly our sailplanes was the days after 9/11/01, when US aviation was grounded.  It’s deja vu  with the perspective of ten intervening years.

Sunday’s Houston Chronicle Editorial pages include a column by Kathleen Parker in which she says, ” We stumble at last upon a purpose for columnists – to say that which no one else dares.” This in a column in which she posits that 9/11 caused America to go temporarily insane;  that today’s political dysfunction took root in the soil of Ground Zero.  Well, in observing the American mindset today, I’ve had to conclude that you can’t understand it without invoking psychopathology, or religion, and in particular, religion and psychopathology intersecting like a Venn diagram of doom.

Earlier this week Thomas Friedman dared too.  He said,   “. . .  rather than use 9/11 to summon us to nation-building at home, Bush used it as an excuse to party — to double down on a radical tax-cutting agenda for the rich that not only did not spur rising living standards for most Americans but has now left us with a huge ball and chain around our ankle. And later, rather than asking each of us to contribute something to the war, he outsourced it to one-half of one-percent of the American people. . . . We used the cold war to reach the moon and spawn new industries. We used 9/11 to create better body scanners and more T.S.A. agents. It will be remembered as one of the greatest lost opportunities of any presidency — ever.”  The entire Friedman column is worthwhile reading.

Good Neighbors

Flying canceled again today because of flight restrictions and a DC 10 observed to go right through our traffic pattern en route to drop fire retardant. Yay for the DC 10 – the fire looks more under control. The Soaring Club of Houston is breathing a sigh of relief and taking up a collection for our fire-struck neighbors. Our resident Piper Cub pilot took a neighbor who’s running a Facebook fire information page up for an aerial perspective which was appreciated.

Meanwhile the Texas Renaissance Fair grounds have fire-fighting ops being staged while the Fair people get ready for opening day in less than a month;  the Waller County Fairgrounds are housing all kinds of displaced livestock and pets, with some displaced owners living there too;   and the news media report that a lot of the fire-fighting on the ground is being done by volunteers from all over.

We’re all in this together.

No Joy

THE question for a soaring club on the weekend:  are we flyin’?   Is the weather OK and the tow plane in good repair?  A week ago, I was at the Field to fly and answered a phone call from a member who lives in Lake Charles, Louisiana.  “It’s pouring from the tropical storm here! Are we flying?  Is the contest on?”  Yes, yes, yes, even with winds of 15-20 mph from the north (thanks to that storm) we had a dozen gliders and sailplanes up in the air for training flights, local flights, and a contest with the other Houston soaring club. We even had a member test-flying his new self-launching sailplane.  He was taking advantage of the strong wind straight down the runway, like how Orville and Wilbur did their first flights.  It’s always easier to get an aircraft aloft with a strong headwind.

Unfortunately, the winds from the north further dried out the parched vegetation in our region.  Fires flared up and spread – like wildfire.  The Riley Road fire is so close that half of our pattern is in the Temporary Flight Restrictions area.  The club member who lives and hangars his power plane beside the Field was able to slip up into the air and see that the actively burning area isn’t moving our way.  But this week was a nail-biter and the weather people say this colossal risk of fire may persist through the Fall.  Today we are not flying – just hoping for the best.

Fire and the Field of Dreams

Texas wildfires are hitting too close to a lot of homes and too close to the homes of many hearts.  Parks and schools have burned in addition to hundreds of houses.  Now there’s a fire east of my soaring club. One of our members lives in a house adjacent to the Field and he’s been doing aerial reconnaissance with his Piper Cub. Today he says the Field (our field of dreams with thirty gliders and sailplanes, two tow planes, a nice new clubhouse, and a lot of equipment) will be OK provided the winds don’t shift the wrong way.  Fire bomber airplanes have been hammering at the west edge of the fire. At present the Field is covered in smoke. May God forbid we should hear a Mayday to come to the Soaring Club of Houston and try to trailer out the sailplanes!

Drought Etiquette

In a searing and seemingly endless drought we have to cut each other and our fellow beings some slack. Early this week  a Library patron returned a book saying it had been in his closet, and a palmetto bug (large leggy outdoors roach) got into the closet (like many other creatures trying to find water and shade) and this bug ate the hand-inked title and call number on the old book’s spine!  The title and call number were completely gone but the  binding and glue intact.  No blame.  The book went to the Marking Table.  Mid-week there was a story in the Austin newspaper about a couple who live in Manor, Texas and own llamas, which are Andean creatures with thick coats.  The heat was getting to the llamas so now they get let into the house every afternoon to cool off.  The photographer got some adorable photos  of llamas in the house. Llamas have amazing ears. 

Now e-mail is going around my soaring club’s listserv about a neighbor’s cow that has  invaded our airport.  The cow was apparently attracted by the strip of  green grass that the club has tenderly watered with our well water to be there for takeoffs.  It is NOT pleasant for a glider being pulled behind the tow plane to be enveloped in a cloud of dust!  Anyway, the cow got in and has eluded capture so far. There was idle chat about inviting the cow to our Labor Day BBQ picnic – as the entree.  But actually we’ll return the cow to its owner and continue to operate with complete courtesy to our farmer-neighbors.  After all, every so often we misplace a little something on their land, like for example a $40,000 glider making a landout.

 It’s in everybody’s interests to stay neighborly.  Especially in such an inhospitable, distressing drought.  Hurrah for those who have put out  a bowl of water out for the birds or lugged water out to a city tree, and for the retired teacher, featured in today’s Houston Chronicle, who relocated ducks and turtles from a dried-up pond at Hooks Airport to wetter and better places!

Black Rain

66 years after Hiroshima, the New York Times reports that survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have joined the Japanese movement against nuclear power.  The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster this year moved them and a great many other Japanese people out of the stance of quietly accepting nuclear power and the government’s reassurances that radiation from it will never hurt anyone.  This reminds me of one of the best novels I ever read:  Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse. The story relates, with unforgettable detail and quiet humor as well as great sadness, the lives of some ordinary people in Hiroshima the day the bomb dropped.  The young woman at the center of the story was exposed to unnatural, black, radioactive rain.  Years later radiation sickness rears its ugly head to scuttle her chances for a good marriage.  This is one of those novels that you read once and never forget some of the characters, the scenes, and the ways it made you think.

Genesis Discovery

Despite an unfortunately emphatic return to Earth in which the parachute failed to deploy and the sample return capsule pancaked onto the Utah desert, the NASA Genesis Discovery Mission succeeded. Witness the June 24 issue of Science. The magazine’s cover is a photo of the particle concentrator extricated from the spacecraft-pancake. Two articles announce important findings from analysis of the concentrator, changing our understanding of the composition of the primordial solar system. And these are just two high-profile examples of the journal and conference papers occasioned by Genesis samples being sent to researchers around the world who have asked for them.  Not bad for a mission with a spectacular equipment failure at the end!

What saved the science was contingency planning. The nominal mission would have had the sample return capsule, dangling under a parachute, delicately snagged in mid-air by a helicopter. But design decisions were driven by considerations of how to salvage the samples even if the return capsule broke. Five silicon collector arrays that basked in different regimes of the solar wind were each of a different thickness. Every fragment bigger than a breadcrumb revealed what array it came from. The particle concentrator and its matrix were more robust than they might have needed to be. So the concentrator, which was identified in the early proposal stage as being of potentially high scientific value, ended up mainly intact – high value science and all.