Observations on an Eclipse

I saw the eclipse. A few millions of my fellow Americans did as well.

I argued and fretted with a company who contracts with me to allow me to arrive about twelve hours earlier than required in order for me to view the eclipse. They fretted and argued back and thus it was that I ponied up the extra $645 to make it to Saint Louis at 9:45, after nearly missing my connection in Atlanta due in part to a cabin attendant who must have been trained by the Gestapo.

I got to the car rental joint and stood in line for forty-five minutes to get my Corolla. 11:21:15 Apparently, I am not the only one who had made an assignation with the moon. Heading south, absent breakfast and lunch, I was contemplating famishment, going through my carry on, one-handedly searching for my emergency strip of wintergreen chewing gum to stave off hypoglycemic coma. I had chosen the hamlet of Festus, Missouri as my goal. Nearly along the line of maximum duration, Festus had the advantage of being off the beaten track. After a short repast at the local Burger King, I made for Sunset Park, attracted by its public status, ease of navigation, and absence of tree-cover.

I chose well. When I arrived at 12:15, a little over an hour before the Event, a few dozen people had already set up. I donned my bona fide sun gazer’s goggles and could already see that a good solid bite had been taken out of the sun’s disk. The air was hot and humid but in my gypsy lifestyle, a large selection of garb is not generally possible. I lounged in my trousers and long shirt on the grass, a victim to small crawly things and sweat. The crowd swelled to maybe three score. Listening to a green-haired siren with a voice that could etch glass, I learned she had driven down with her unfortunately bearded companion from Chicago. She interrogated those within my earshot. The winner of the distance contest was a dark, intense and constantly busy man from Dubai who had set up shop on an abandoned basketball court. I heard Mandarin spoken from a small group behind me. A middle-aged guy with three daughters had brought a Sunspotter Scope, projecting a six-inch image onto a paper screen. He was the star of the show.

12:47 Closer. The bite had become a gulp and now the slice of the sun is about half gone. Nothing else has changed. The sun feels just as hot. The sweat is as sticky. I lie back to view through my glasses, over-warm but still comfortable except for the sweat. The crowd is no larger even as Sunspotter Man holds forth about sunspots as they are eclipsed. Dubai Guy is quietly busy, taking photos with a large camera, holding his generous sun-filter in front of the lens with each shot. I tried the same with my cell-phone with no success.

13: 15 The slice has passed through sliver to become a serpiginous smiley-face. Cicadas and cricket have started up. It has become cooler, a breeze has sprung up. My place on the grass is quite comfortable. The Mandarin boys are impressed. The light is odd, seemingly just as brilliant but without there being enough to go around. The grass under the trees is dappled with flights of overlapping crescents. The street lights have come on. I turn back to the smiley-face and discover I am wrong. The smiley face is not a smooth line but has become knobbly, the extremites almost like a string of beads, in this case, Baily’s Beads. The sun, shining between the high passes in the mountains of the moon, seen in profile blossom into brilliance along the thin limbs of the decreasing crescent. It is cooler now. Momentarily I am happy for my long-sleeved shirt. A voice over a loudspeaker counts down the last ten seconds to 13:17:07. I watch as the sun’s light is turned down, as if by a rheostat, until it is dark. Inside my goggles, I can see nothing. I rip them off to see the magnificent corona, unsuspected until the last of the last sliver is obscured. It shines out against a dark sky where a few stars peek out. I think I can see Mercury. The light once more has changed, not twilight, odd, the sky still giving it illumination, if only slightly. The corona, a ring around the absolute black of the moon, changes while I watch, almost as if on fire. The loudspeaker cuts in giving a countdown for the last ten seconds to 13:19:45. I regret I did not drive fifteen minutes further to have it last 3 seconds more. The light breaks out as if anxious to escape. Immediately, the light changes again, brightening second by second to what looks, but does not feel, like full sun. People arise and collect their blankets, walking under the hickories and their flights of crescents.

Green-haired Girl and Beard have left Dubai Guy, Sunspotter Man and me to the remainder of the Event. I rise to leave, looking up briefly to see the other parenthesis has appeared, to join, belatedly and unsuccessfully, the first one.

Driving back through the celestially-created traffic jam, I have more than enough time to contemplate. Millions of American have spent the greater part of a day to view a transient solar accident: almost three minutes where we can actually look at our life-giving sun without protection or damage. During any of the other 12,107,280 three-minute periods of my life, looking at the sun for even a few seconds would have struck me blind. Yet, without this deadly irradiation, our world is itself dead, cold, airless, waterless and desolate. When I thought about it, however, we cannot live long on most of this globe we presume to call home. We can stay but hours aloft and mere months afloat without assistance from the smallest portion, dry land. We cannot breathe water, although other creatures do. We cannot even drink from the largest collection of water, it is a poison to humans, driving us mad before we die. Vast portions of the water are unusable even for travel during much of the year, frozen into a hazard we can barely maneuver within. Any water we do drink must be carefully treated and tended lest the effluvia of our fellow creatures kill us.

Air is available in immense quantities without purification or storage, yet a man can walk to the very edge of breathability. We dwell at the bottom of a shallow pool, five miles deep or so, the distance a “wee stretch of the legs” for a fit person.

The inherent hostility of our dwelling, like a hammock over a viper-pit, should be telling us something about the care put into our creation, and upkeep.


What good the Retarded?

What good are the retarded?

America has done much to improve the lives of the “intellectually challenged,” the currently acceptable designation of those who were designated “mentally retarded” when I was a child, as “idiot” when my parents were children and “moron” when my grandparents were children. No doubt, we will have another euphemism in the next generation when we have used up the current one, when the disdain from the old term has been fully transferred to the new term.

Since the mid-seventies the “Intellectually challenged” have undergone mainstreaming in public education, being placed in classes based on their abilities rather than a global classification of intellect. Whether this has improved the education of the ninety-and-nine normal children in the class was not considered important by the social experimenters in that age of the triumph of Science (All Science, mind you). Each new wrinkle of advance which could generate a pilot project and its attendant grant money, was embraced as timeless educational doctrine.

Not surprisingly, the cost per capita of public education has skyrocketed, almost doubling (in inflation controlled dollars) in thirty years (1970-2000). This is during a time when the college board scores fell precipitously, even requiring a “resetting” of the score in the mid-1990s, and high school graduation rates fell. With little to show for the policy of mainstreaming, one wonders why it has continued, save for inanition and momentum.

Last Saturday, I went shopping at a grocery story. It was relatively crowded and there was a fair amount of backing and filling of cart to allow people to navigated up and down the narrow aisle of the Schnucks Store of Alubus, Missouri. I started down an aisle and noticed that another man and cart were coming my way. I pulled over and motioned for the man to come on. He did it clumsily. The reason for this was that on his arm was teenage girl.

The man was small, slim, and middle-aged (as opposed to my own age, bordering on the elderly) dressed in a neat button-down plaid shirt and slacks. On his arm was a girl, taller than he by perhaps three inches, overweight, lumpish and drab … except for her face, which smiled at me as she turned the corner.

“I going shopping with my daddy,” she said to me as our eyes met.

“Yes, you are!” said I. “How lucky for you,” I thought.

I looked back at the duo as they proceeded slowly up the narrow aisle past me, stopping every once in a while to  look at one thing or another.

I was mostly done and checked out almost immediately. Carrying my few purchases across the front of the store toward the exit, I looked back to see if I could find and capture the eyes of the girl who was shopping with her daddy. I did and waved to her. She did not see me, having eyes for her father. Her father did see me and waved back at me. When I got to my car I wept, for no great reason.

Our care for the disabled, our love for those who may never be able to pay us back in kind, seems to me to be assessed wrongly. We do not do it for them so much as for ourselves, to remind us all that our selfless care is a boon to all mankind and a joy to the hearts of us all.

New Update of My First Tattoo

tattooNovember 23, 2016

Tattoos, so common now as to be clichéd talismans of adolescent angst or narcissistic souvenirs, I have avoided.

Condemned to one of those odd loci of non-abrogation of the Mosaical Law, tattoos were anathema to my childhood home even while pork, cream sauces, and lobster were ushered in to glad cries, when available. Then, meaning the 50’s, tattoos were a mark of the outsider: sailors, soldiers after the second war, the down, the out, and the grubby. Moreover, tattoos had a well-deserved horror to them as well, a meticulous line of numerals along the wrist revealing those who had emerged alive from the obscenity of Hitler’s death camps.

Tattoos were not for real people; you know what I mean … real people.

Thus the indescribable titillation, once I had heroically freed myself from darkest suburbia (only with the financial, emotional, and intellectual support of my bourgeois parents), in learning that some vaguely acquainted colleague, a few years older, had a tattoo, there, right on her ass, never to be seen or referenced. But there! My imagination tended to butterflies.

Then, the mid 60’s) I dissuaded myself from getting a tattoo of my own for several reasons. Not insignificantly, as a professional student, tats were déclassé.

Richard Gere, in An Officer and a Gentleman, demonstrates the point nicely. He is enrolled in flight school, a first step to the gentleman thing, and the last thing he does before leaving the ranks of the enlisted is attempt to hide his ink (unsuccessfully) from the drill sergeant (Brian Gossling). An object lesson was provided me by my patients in the Veterans’ Administration Hospital, moreover. These were mostly WWII vets and mostly in their late forties. They made a game of sneaking off the floor to smoke cigars and buy milkshakes in the commissary. All were well tattooed, and all said that they had gotten them while drunk, young and dumb. Other than their service tats, they wished they had never gotten them. As a very young medical student (twenty when I started), I tried to absorb worldly wisdom where I could; they seemed to have it.

Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man was made into a movie in 1969, emphatically freaking me out. Rod Steiger is not who I wanted in my dreams. I was still hung up on butterflies on intimate flesh.

Then came the deluge.

Tattoo came out in 1981 with Bruce Dern as an obsessive tattoo artist, kidnapping Maud Adams to receive, rather involuntarily, his magnum opus. Not the kind of image I wanted for my personal life as physician, husband, and father.

Subcutaneous ink became the rage, moving centripetally from arms to torsos to genitalia as if it were a pernicious rash. Actors, those you might think would abjure marring the tools of their trade, began to sport more and substantially more bizarre tats. Pugilists indulged, when not biting each other. The NBA, showing more skin than most sports teams, became a menagerie of mobile ink, moving pictures indeed.

Tats have become clichéd self-expression, a message, if an inchoate one, commemorating some act, thought or conviction. Simultaneously, tats, the poorly done variety, have become a sign of membership in criminal organizations of various ilks.

So ink has been, at one time or another: membership credential, souvenir, bookmark in a life story, curse, rape-substitute, curriculum vita, and de-humanizer of the despised.

I add one more.

Currently, three small blue marks mark my pristine (if one discounts an assortment of scars provided me by several surgeons, a motorcycle, a knife-wielding gentleman of my rather brief acquaintance, and various mishaps of my own manufacture) pelt. My new tats are not close together being port, starboard and amidships. There is no great art involved. They are each single dots.

In a week’s time, I start radiation therapy for a recurrent cancer in the hope that I may be cured of it and have to find something else from which to die.

It’s nice to finally join the club.

January 12, 2016


38 of 38 done today. No significant side effects. No great tribulation.

Now we wait, off meds, to see if the dreaded number, currently bumping along near zero, ticks up or embraces its zero-ness. My odds are about 45:55 for a cure, an actual cure.

April 22, 2017

Prostatic Specific Antigen, PSA, is a name about 20 million men in this country do not know when they are thirty but are highly concerned about it a mere twenty years later. It rises and falls with the success of treatment of Prostate cancer, the most common cancer of men after lung cancer.  When I had my original surgery in 2003 it had gone from 1 to10.1. After surgery it went to zero, along with a lot of things. In 2015 it started to rise and was a convincing 1.7 when I started treatment. After the radiation and the waiting for the neoplastic dust to setttle, it has now returned to zero. If it stays there until I die, I am cured. If not, I am not.

October 29, 2017

I am not. PSA has risen to 0.4, definitely non-zero. I am to have it checked in four months. Basically, the radiation, being based on merely a best guess, missed some cells.

Treatments there are aplenty. Most are rather unpleasant. I am persuaded that a slowly advancing untreated cancer may give me 8-10 years. I might live as long as my parents, 81. It does not look like I will exhaust retirement savings or see my granddaughter graduate high school.

Use it up, wear it out, make do, do without.

I should be able to finish publishing the books.

Why do I think I got cancer? Probably becaause I am a man. 1:16 of us will get it. When I am feeling particularly maudlin, I imagine it is due to  a little too much radiation in an NICU over the last 45 years. Intensive care means stuff happens. Lots of times I was in the field when an xray was taken. The baby needed it. Small price.