Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Stars Are Going Out



Our star party coordinator made the sad announcement on Tuesday that this year's Twin Lakes Star Party, the twenty-fifth, will be the last. TLSP has been one of the most enjoyable events sponsored by the West Kentucky Amateur Astronomers, and it is not the first star party that has ceased to operate in recent years.
          Why, my wife asked me at dinner that evening, have these star parties been disappearing? I gathered my thoughts to try to give some answers. She knows, having been head of a volunteer humane society, one of those answers. Star parties are run by volunteers, and in these sorts of organizations, the same people volunteer year in and year out. Eventually they wear out or their time is taken up by other matters.
          Finally the problem is lack of new, young blood in amateur astronomy. And there are many reasons for fewer young people becoming interested, not all of them having to do with video games competing for their attention. More than half of America's population now lives in congested areas where the night sky is barely visible. I believe a wondrous dark sky full of stars and a visible Milky Way make as many converts to astronomy as our heroic efforts to show interesting sky objects to the public on planetarium nights and at other public outreach events. And telescopes themselves may be so good that, paradoxically, they become part of the problem. One of my friends got into astronomy sixty years ago by grinding his own 4-1/4-inch mirror for a telescope he then assembled. That time and effort invested him in amateur astronomy. And the time many of us have spent in pushing scopes around while star-hopping to things we wanted to see—that was time we spent learning the sky. You don’t learn the sky that way if a computer takes you to your target. My point is that lifelong amateur astronomers come from the ranks of people who find the night sky marvelous whether or not a telescope is anywhere around.
 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Thurber's Thirteen Clocks



          I recently reread James Thurber’s delightful children’s book, The Thirteen Clocks , published in 1950. The cold aggressive Duke of Coffin Castle sets impossible tasks for the suitors for the hand of his niece Saralinda, and when they fail, he whips out the sword from his cane, slits them from their guggle to their zatch, and feeds them to his geese. “Everyone has flaws,” says the Duke. “Mine is being wicked.” Saralinda’s is the only warm hand in the castle, where there are thirteen clocks frozen at ten ‘til five since the Duke “slew time” one snowy evening. Yet everyone is aware of time here. Knowing it would take our hero, Zorn of Zorna, ninety-nine days to get to his father’s castle, get the thousand jewels the Duke demands, and get back, the Duke gives him ninety-nine hours to do it (and to start the thirteen clocks).  Saralinda is not really the Duke’s niece, but a princess he stole, and he is under a spell to keep her safe from himself and give suitors a chance at her, but when she turns twenty-one, he’ll be free to marry her, and that day is the next one after Zorn’s time expires.
            Zorn is assisted by the Golux, a hapless and forgetful wizard, who suggests the jewels can come from Hagga, who weeps jewels. Of course Zorn is successful, and the Duke is left to deal with the monster, the Todal, that he has kept in his prison to prey on others.
            Thurber’s book is full of wordplay, of word invention, rhyme and other sound patterns. It begs to be read aloud. And some people just don't get it. "What slish is this?" they ask in slightly different words, but echoing the Duke's reaction when his jewels turn to tears.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

You Look Like My Father, Who's in Heaven



I was sitting in the Mosaic tonight waiting for my cazuela when I noticed a couple approaching my table. They were leaving, but had veered toward me—a tallish Mexican guy, not bad-looking, and his slightly whorishly-dressed companion. The guy, who looked to be in his mid-forties, walked behind my chair and leaned over. “You look like my father, who’s in heaven,” he said. “I’m buying your dinner tonight, my friend.” And with that he pushed a fifty-dollar bill under the salsa bowl. He stuck out his hand, which I shook, but I barely had time to say “Wow, thanks” before he was gone.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

What Is Your Favorite Book?

I have trouble with the question. The book that gave me the greatest pleasure on first reading was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and maybe that’s the one I should choose. It is also the book, along with Pride and Prejudice, The Odyssey, and Hamlet, that I’ve most often reread. Going back to a book again and again might qualify it as a favorite, though in these cases, except for the Sherlock Holmes, the rereading was for my teaching of these books. Another way to choose a favorite might be the desert island choice: if I could take only one book it would be the works of Shakespeare. If I could take two, the second one might be Don Quixote. Okay, there are six favorites. Here are forty-four more, in no particular order. Tomorrow's list might be different.

 Moby-Dick
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Six Easy Pieces
Death Comes for the Archbishop
Alice in Wonderland
Swann’s Way
Civilization and Its Discontents
Archy and Mehitabel
Richard Wilbur’s Poems
Endangered Pleasures
The World of Mr. Mulliner
The Killer Angels
How to Play Your Best Golf All the Time
Montaigne’s Essays
The Screwtape Letters
Drink to Yesterday and
A Toast to Tomorrow
Middlemarch
The Maltese Falcon
A Moveable Feast
Falling Through Space
A High Wind in Jamaica
Gargantua and Pantagruel
Treasure Island
Cry the Beloved Country
Gulliver’s Travels
Master and Commander
Ada
A Shropshire Lad
Pogo, volume 1
Poetic Meter and Poetic Form
The Moonstone
South Wind
The Importance of Being Earnest
Flannery O’Connor’s Stories
The Chronicles of Clovis
The Odes of Keats
Fathers and Sons
Catch-22
The Bookshop
The Origin of Species
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
The Oresteia
Tristram Shandy

Friday, February 7, 2014

Trendy Word

Tranche seems to be a trendy word. It means slice or portion, though why it should be preferable to those words or part, piece, chunk, hunk, bit, section, division, third, fourth... or whatever, is not clear. It comes in through finance talk, where it has been in use to signify a portion of a loan or deal, a piece of money, a section of capital. The noun turns into a verb and more commonly a participle: tranching is a process of dividing a deal into separate liens or timed disbursements, bonds into classes, and so on.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Oysters Mosca

Across the river on the Sunshine Bridge from New Orleans is Mosca's, a little roadside restaurant that can fill your car with the aroma of garlic even if you blow by at sixty. After some experiment over the years, David Earnest and Kathy and I believe we have recreated their signature menu item, a baked oyster dish simply called Oysters Mosca.  Here it is:



Oysters (a dozen per person), shucked, with half their water carefully sieved)
1-1/2 cup seasoned bread crumbs
1-1/2 sticks of butter or a combination of butter and olive oil
1 large or two medium onions coarsely chopped
1 cup mushrooms, chopped
3 cloves garlic, more if you like, minced
Parsley, chopped, if available
Juice of ½ lemon
Pepper & salt to taste
Cayenne pepper

Melt the butter and sauté onions until soft, not brown. Then add the garlic and mushrooms and sauté a few minutes more. Add bread crumbs, lemon and oyster water.  A little more moistening might be needed.  Cook for a few minutes and add salt, pepper, parsley, cayenne pepper to taste. Spread the oysters in a single layer on the bottom of a baking dish, cover with the bread crumb mixture, and bake in a 400° pre-heated oven for 10-15 minutes.

Serves 4
     The key to this dish is the amount of moisture. You may like it moist; Mosca's serves it with the oysters just done but the bread crumb mixture dry. But you can't achieve this result by cooking it longer, since that will ruin the oysters. You will have to experiment, and that's the fun.