Monthly Archives: March 2012


update: back home again

Chile was an interesting trip, to say the least. Due to a missed connection, I ended up stranded in a Chilean mining town where almost no one spoke English.  There followed the unique and anxious experience of negotiating in broken Spanish a taxi ride between Calama and San Pedro.  The driver spoke a rapid fire Chilean dialect which might as well have been Greek. Nevertheless, we finally struck a deal to the the tune of $55,000 CLP*,  and soon we were roaring along the desert with Chilean hip-hop blasting from the radio and the furnace-like air blasting my face. Hint: don’t take pain mediation with a side effect of nausea before engaging a Chilean taxi. . . and especially one whose driver is falling asleep.

I kept seeing rock shrines along the roadside while we drove.  Just like in the US, they are built to honor the dead who failed to complete their journey. This did not help.

Well, the short version is: we made it.  It is good to be home. More later.
* Not as bad as it sounds. $55,000 pesos converts to roughly $112 USD. It was about a 1-1/2 hour trip.

why I came this way. . .

12-M antennas at the AOS

I’ve been away from home this week due to a  job assignment in Atacama, Chile.  We have come to conduct antenna cabin temperature tests on DV-18: a state of the art 12-meter diameter antenna and one receiving instrument of the collective ALMA project  – the most sophisticated radio astronomy instrument ever conceived.

The terrain here is the closest you will find on Earth to the planet Mars. The rugged, barren vistas open you up inside.  Your perception tries to fill this vast space, and you end up feeling both small and expansive at the same time.

Situated at the edge of the Northern Andes, the air here smells of dust and snow cap melt, and dries your nasal linings quickly.  At the high site, we must carry oxygen due to the thinness of the atmosphere.  The UV radiation at this altitude burns exposed skin rapidly.  You take no chances in this extreme place.

Long dormant and smoking volcanoes punctuate the Andes here, which tower astonishingly high into the atmosphere.  In some cases, a hot caldera pushes out a continuous trail of condensed steam which slowly becomes indistinguishable from the stray stratocumulus clouds.

Licancabur, inactive for 12,000 years

And at night, you look up into God’s own jewelry display.

I remember something like it from my childhood in the late fifties when, on clear nights, every square inch of sky scintillated with twinkling gems. The silent grandeur of that vast sky whispers something timeless, a secret told to each individual alone.  It is difficult not to be changed by this place.

In the spangled arch of the Milk Way hangs the Southern Cross. Stephen Stills got right to the heart of it with these lyrics:

“When you see the Southern Cross
For the first time
You understand now
Why you came this way. . .

Southern Cross: most memorable sight of the entire southern sky

“‘Cause the truth you might be runnin’ from
Is so small.
But it’s as big as the promise
The promise of a comin’ day.”*

I’m down here working, in my small way, to advance this cutting-edge science.  I’m going where they told me to.  And I’m earning a living.  But somehow, it’s much more than that.

Sometimes, the best reason to go someplace different is to come home again.


* “Southern Cross” – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 1982 (Daylight Again.)


I came away from last night’s two-hour crash-course in beekeeping* with eight pages of scribbled notes, a fistful of handouts, and enough enthusiasm to last until the colony arrives in April.  A big kudos to Nelson County Agricultural Extension Agent, … Continue reading

On reading, in a one-liner world

I have begun to suspect that my brain may be ruined. Short-circuited. Re-programmed. Made over into a Borg-like artifact of the 21st century – now that I have subjected myself for so many years to the buzzing, pinging siren call of the cell phone, the Tweet, the Facebook wall, the RSS feed and the short bursts of attention that online reading requires.

And then, enabling my impulsive addiction to video gaming, comes legions of solo and multi-user role-playing opportunities.  XBox, Playstation, Wii: each provide instant immersion into compellingly rich, enchanting or spine-tingling situations.

Oh, I do love all this stuff!  But I wonder.

Is it still possible anymore to become so transported by a book that I forget who and where I am? More to the point, where have the unbroken stretches of two and three hours gone? I find it difficult, anymore, to stay focused on one thing for any length of time. I remember another era, when spending a few hours with a good book in a quiet house was sufficient.

Alan Jacobs’ book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, is a tonic for readers who struggle with this daily deluge of modern media.  His book takes the form of one long essay, penned in notes of commiseration, humor and encouragement but broken by a series of bold-faced headings into sub-topics (‘Yes, we can!,’ ‘Whim,’ ‘Slowly, slowly’. . .).  These could easily be read in ten to twenty minutes.

Reading is still alive! That is the good news that can be taken to heart. Millions of readers flock to bookstores daily. Large chains, such as Barnes and Noble are in no danger of folding, and publishing is exploring – for better or worse – a brave new world of electronic books and journals.

We were often told to read in school because it’s ‘good for us’, like eating our vegetables. And sometimes from that coercion came a conditioned, if guilty, dislike.  Our educational system can fail, in this regard, to communicate the sweet, soulful pleasure of trekking, unhurried and unbidden, through an author’s world.

Jacobs encourages readers to champion the authority of self in their reading – a force which he calls Whim (with a capital ‘W’), in which one’s passion determines what course we follow in choosing reading material, in which great books are marvelous opportunities for growth, not obligatory hurdles on some pedantic to do list.

Not surprisingly, he encourages us to throw off the binding chains of those canonical book lists of Adler, van Doren and Fadiman, and more especially those of the newer ‘1000 Books to Read Before You Die’ ilk. At least, he says, do not religiously follow these paths simply because somebody ‘more important’ than you said it would be good for you.

When significant works are read for accomplishment, or when strip-mined for content (as online media is designed to be), books lose their primary capacity to involve and radically change you, he says. Slow down. This is actually harder to do than it sounds.

Yes, ‘slow down.’ This could well be the saving mantra for humanity, as we rush pell-mell into our new digital century.

I do suspect our brains are being re-wired by the highly connected, electronic society we live in.  But the process is not necessarily evil or Borg-like – witness the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ and ‘Occupy’ movements which have sprung largely from the ability to instantly communicate with one another. It seems that tyranny cannot so easily hide behind disinformation any more.

And besides, our ‘re-wiring’ is not irrevocable: “The amazing thing about our brains is not that they are hard-wired to accomplish some particular task, but that they are not.”  So goes current neurological thinking. This is good news, and I agree with Jacobs when he asserts that books are not in danger of becoming extinct.

But we have choices to make: how to read and why to read. And in making them, we should heed the authority of our personal journey.


Check out this egg laid by one of our White Rocks. Normal sized eggs in background!  Our hen seems fine. She must have combined two eggs in one shell.  I think I overheard her practicing goose honks the other day, though.  … Continue reading

Ode to an Old School Desk

My dad drove me to Fleetwood Elementary that first day in the Fall of 1962.  We had moved up the Blue Ridge from Salem during the summer.  I was a fresh-faced second grader, and hitting Fleetwood was like landing on Mars.

These were rough-hewn, mouthy kids, sent in from local farms and the mountain hollows of Nelson County.  I had no training in their glaring, shoving code, and I was in constant danger the first couple of weeks.  All seven grades were thrown together on the open field at recess.  You kept your radar up.

“Kirk, why don’t you sit over there?” Mrs. Webb said to my shell-shocked face as I stood in her class.  She motioned to an empty seat one row over from the windows.  I slid into my very first school desk.

At West Salem Elementary, we had modern classrooms. The chairs and tables were bleached oak and shined with a handsome luster.  The room smelled new, heavy with the aroma of clear glossy varnish. Our tables had little compartments along each side where you could hide your hands or a half-eaten jelly sandwich. We blinked at each other like confused nestlings around those tables.

At Fleetwood, on the other hand, the desks appeared to have been taken wild from the nearby mountains.  They were scarred with graffiti and compass needle ruts.  I regarded my first desk apprehensively, not knowing whether it would buck or tolerate the skittish newcomer.  Other than one good-natured creak, it made no complaint. I quickly became a seasoned desk jockey.

Picking a desk each year was an art, like selecting a used car. You kicked it around a little, checked its level, wiggled the top.  As in real estate, location became the major concern: a balanced decision  involving bullies, hissing steam radiators, windows and the teacher’s line of sight.

A kid developed a strong bond with a desk.  After working it over for a few days, you knew its finer points –  how to play Yankee Doodle from its squeaks, and how far you could lean without catastrophe.  If you were lucky, the bumps on the underside were pieces of gum you had hidden there. So too, the boogers. You soon memorized that inverted landscape, restlessly exploring it day after day.

When it rained outside, the phys. ed. teacher sometimes had us sit on our seat backs and play dodge ball.  This was stratagem no sane teacher would countenance nowadays.  We put our feet in the seats, balanced our butts on the chair backs, and from this precarious position we took turns flinging the ball at one another.  The luck of the draw determined who got the first ball, and the kids who sat beside you had no chance.

If you caught the ball, you were okay, but if it bounced off you, you sat down. This did not mean you could let your mind wander. You hadn’t left the field; the action continued mere inches above your head. By the end, the survivors were evenly spaced around the room, at least one kid had fallen off their desk, and we had all been covertly trained in the art of home wrecking.

I never won, but it was the greatest fun to have that big red ball zooming around the room. It never hurt when it hit you, and the whole idea of being emotionally damaged by being struck from another kid throwing an object at you was as alien as . . . well, it was just alien. Even city kids knew the world dealt lumps. Can you imagine what would occur now if someone let that happen to their poor darlings?

I’ve gone a bit off track from the desk.  But reminiscing will work this tangential effect. We carry a reservoir of stories within us, and for good or ill they constantly whisper to us who we are.  The past is a quilt of experience, and the pattern our memories form can be more revealing than the memories themselves. We wrap ourselves in our experiences.


(Desk image courtesy: Greenpoint Vintage Furniture)

a few choice words…

Now you, too, can get more sideways glances from your friends! Try slipping these gems into a casual conversation about morning traffic, or last night’s ‘American Idol’ :

absquatulate – (v.i.) to leave abruptly, to depart in a hurry. (This word is just hilarious. It groans with potential off-color puns. You figure it out.)

lexiphanic – (adj.) the use of bombastic or pretentious words.  (Hmm, could be a self-fulfilling description…)

adoxography – (n.) skilled writing in praise of a trivial subject. (So would that label be a backhanded compliment, or a complimentary backhand?)