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Wednesday, July 01, 2015


Hershey, June 16, 2015

Hershey died Saturday morning.

Or, to put it another way: On Saturday morning before I went to work, I took Hershey on one last trip to the vet's. I pressed my forehead against his and assured him that the doctor was going to make everything all better as he injected the drugs that would anesthetize him and then make his heart stop.

He wasn't my dog, not really.  He belonged to the next-door neighbor. She got Hershey (a chocolate Cocker Spaniel) and Columbus (a Pug) shortly after she moved back into her house after her estranged husband died of a massive heart attack while doing some yard work in the summer of 2001. She also had several cats: Tinker, Romeo (an orange longhair who is currently trying to roll onto my ChromeBook as I type this), Juliet, and Baby Boy. Tinker ran off early and was never seen again. The other cats escaped with such regularity that she eventually locked them out of the house.

Columbus was hideously inbred, as are many Pugs, and was subject to numerous health issues. He was diabetic, his teeth were in horrible shape, his eyes were grotesquely popped out of his head (more than is normal for a Pug) and eventually stopped working entirely He was also insanely friendly and lovable. He died in the summer of 2011, and the neighbor lady's life went into a downward spiral. After numerous health scares, she checked into the hospital one last time in September 2011 as the first bands of Hurricane Lee began to brush Northeastern Pennsylvania. She never checked out. I don't know what she died of, but I think it was a lot of things at once.

My mom and I had taken care of Hershey during the neighbor's earlier hospitalizations. We also located Romeo and Baby Boy lurking around her yard, both surprisingly well-fed. We brought them back indoors and began feeding them cat food from cans again. Juliet was located sometime later, after the neighbor's sister had hired some people to clear the accumulated junk out of the house. It was on September 11, 2011. My mom called me over to see what had been uncovered on the enclosed back porch: the body of a brown longhair, strangely well-preserved. I felt like she was staring at me accusingly from her eyeless sockets: You saved them, why couldn't you save me?

Romeo, Baby Boy, and Hershey, November 29, 2011

After a while it was clear that the neighbor wasn't going to be coming home again, and we added a dog and two more cats to our household. Romeo and Baby Boy had both grown accustomed to life in the great outdoors, and for the first few months they ran away every chance they could. Romeo was a tick magnet, though the engorged ticks were easy to remove. (They may have been the source of the tapeworms he eventually let us know he had, in the most disgusting way possible. The trip with him to the vet to get him de-wormed was when we found out that he wasn't really a nasty, anti-social cat, as his hissing and fighting with the other cats suggested; he just wanted to be the center of attention. He was in absolute ecstasy as the vet and his assistants examined him.) Baby Boy (who has now taken over Romeo's position as roller-onto-ChromeBook as I try to type this) also performed routine excursions of several hours to overnight or longer. These ended when he got into a tussle with the neighborhood ferals and came home with a gash splitting his scalp open. (With home care the injury healed quickly and completely, and he never tried to run away again.)

Hershey was...special. He was not a smart dog. Actually, he was dumb. Really dumb. I frequently said that he didn't have the brains that the Good Lord saw fit to give to a gnat. He wasn't potty trained: if you let him outside he would stand around, baffled as to what you expected of him, and he would poop and pee wherever he happened to be when he got the urge. We realized that negative reinforcement wouldn't work to get him trained, so we adopted a positive reinforcement approach. We figured out what his favorite treat was - Pupperoni sticks -  and from that point on, he only received Pupperoni treats (and copious, effusive praise) if he pooped outside. If he pooped inside we treated it as an accident, and he received neither condemnation nor treats. He soon made the connection between pooping outside and treats. Maybe too well: I am convinced that he would turn a single pooping session into multiple pooping sessions to earn more treats. (Maybe he wasn't so dumb, after all!)

Hershey, October 23, 2014

Hershey wasn't a fit dog. He came to us fat, and did not care much for exercise, which was fine by me: not too many years ago I attended to the euthanization of a friend's Cocker Spaniel who had developed a lethally twisted stomach, probably caused by vigorous running soon after eating. Hershey was content to lounge around all day, and got along fine with his cat brothers and sisters. He was a picky eater, and would fixate on a single food for weeks at a time until suddenly he would decide he didn't want it anymore. We would then have to cycle through a variety of food types until he decided he liked one, and he ate that one variety exclusively until he decided he wouldn't anymore.

Of course there was always room for cat food, which he would steal every chance he got, even though it played hell with his digestion.

He preferred to eat his food directly out of cans, except when he didn't. He would eat with such gusto that he would bite holes in the aluminum cans, making them hazardous to rinse out for recycling. (I saw several cans with tooth marks in the recycling container on the porch where Juliette's body was found. I assumed that she, starving and afraid, trapped on a porch with no direct access to her old house - it was separated by a garage - has desperately bitten into the cans seeking the last scraps of food. Now I wonder if it was just Hershey doing his thing.)

Like many Cocker Spaniels, he was prone to ear infections. He made frequent trips to the vet, and everyone there got to know him. He also developed an eye condition where tear production in one eye dropped to almost nothing, and the other eye was lower than usual. The vet put him on a regimen of antibiotic drops and artificial tears, which he warned us he would be on for the rest of his life.

Hershey loved going to the groomer's. I called it his "spa." He would be a bit concerned as we drove there, but when he arrived he would become very excited, even when we went to their new location for the first time back in March or April. The groomer loved him, and he never gave her any trouble. He would usually be sound asleep when I came to pick him up again.

I took my mom for a routine mammogram in early May, and it revealed an item of concern. A second scan confirmed a small mass the size of a grapefruit seed. We had to set up an appointment with a breast cancer specialist to schedule a biopsy. The appointment was set for May 13, the same day Hershey had a follow-up exam scheduled with the vet. We had just enough time to run home after her appointment, run to the bathroom, pick up the dog, and run back to the vet. Ironically, the two offices were across the street from each other.

We had a bit of a wait at the vet's, and Hershey started to get antsy. I checked his eyes: they were much better than they had been. I patted his head. I scratched his ears. I scratched under his collar. I scratched his throat.

I found a lump the size of half an egg.

Uh-oh, I thought.

I told my mom before we went into the exam. I told the vet tech before the exam. I told the vet when he came in the room.

He checked Hershey's eyes. They were fine. We should keep doing what we were doing, but we would have to keep doing it for the rest of his life.

The vet checked Hershey's throat and grew visibly concerned. He began an exam of other parts of his body: the sides of his neck, his lower ribs, even a brief internal exam.

And then he told us: Cancer. Lymphoma. Without treatment, he would be dead in one to four months. With treatment - hours of treatment each week, thousands of dollars each week, hours of driving to a faraway facility each week -  there was a very slight chance that he might live a little longer before the cancer killed him.

We knew. We knew before he told us, and we understood what he was telling us. "Let a dog be a dog," we always say. Not some thing, broken and isolated and in fear in a desperate attempt to add a few weeks or months to his suffering.

The lymphoma would progress, the vet told us. The tumors would grow. Hershey would become more and more lethargic. (This made me laugh. How would we notice?) His breathing would become more and more difficult. He would lose interest in food, in water, in everything. Eventually he would lose the ability to walk, and to stand. He would begin drooling. His breathing would become rapid and shallow. He would become virtually comatose. And then he would die.

We took him home. We had been through this before, or variations of it. Haley had died of lung cancer in 2005.

Everything seemed normal for the first few weeks. Maybe the doctor was wrong. Maybe the cancer had gone away on its own. Maybe he never had cancer. Maybe it was just mumps, or something else that caused his glands to swell. Maybe he was going to be fine.

Then he lost interest in dog food.

Fine. He doesn't want his food? We've been through this before. Cycle through every variety we have. When he showed interest in none of them, try the cat food. When that didn't work, I pulled out the roast chicken I had made for my lunch.

He liked roast chicken.

Fine, roast chicken it is. I bought chicken twice a week. Wash, add a thin film of olive oil to a nonstick roaster, toss chicken on both sides to coat with the oil. Lightly season with salt, pepper, onion salt, garlic powder. Add a little water. Roast uncovered at 400 degrees for an hour. Add more water and a dash of white cooking wine, cover with foil, roast another hour and a half at 325.

For several weeks he ate little more than roast chicken. We tried to mix other things into his diet, but he was uninterested. Maybe he would eat a little cheese one day, some pieces of a cookie another. Not much. But he loved his chicken.

Until he didn't.

OK, what next? We had some stew in the refrigerator, and my mom had made burgers, Turned out he liked the stew meat and, with some coaxing, the burgers.

I tried a London Broil. He liked that, too. I wondered if he was pulling a con akin to his trick for increasing his supply of poop treats, to be fed roast chicken and London Broil.

Over the past month I had doubled up his poop treats. I didn't want him to die with a bag full of treats he had never gotten. But the poop treats went too fast, and I had to buy a new bag. He lost interest in Pupperoni shortly after that.

Hershey, June 16, 2015

My mom's biopsy indicated a malignant tumor. It would have to come out, along with some surrounding tissue and some lymph nodes. Her lumpectomy was scheduled for Monday, June 22. There was a long delay in getting her into surgery, but the surgery itself went smoothly.

By then Hershey was showing less interest in London Broil. I tried Burger King. I got him some on Sunday, June 21. I also bought some Chinese that day, chicken and broccoli. He ate a burger patty, as well as the chicken from the chicken and broccoli.

By Tuesday, June 23 he was no longer interested in Burger King.

I bought some Nutri-Cal on Friday, June 19. It's a high-calorie paste for supplemental feeding. I began using it on Tuesday. I thought maybe it would stimulate his appetite, and would at least get something into him. My mom had also found that he would eat one specific cat treat, so we let him have as much of that as he would take.

Hershey was having a harder and harder time breathing. His breathing was shallower and faster. He also began to have a discharge from his nose. Clear liquid, like he had a cold.

He was still getting his eye drops and artificial tears twice a day.

For weeks Hershey had been panting, and I had worked out a solution: an air conditioner and a fan. He would lay between them, and after a while the panting would stop and normal breathing would resume. Even when he slept, it would either be in an air-conditioned room or with a fan on his face. In his final week, neither of these things gave him any relief.

He was having a harder and harder time sleeping, He would wake up several times in the night and bark to go out to go potty. Midnight, 2:00 AM, 4:00 AM. I would wake at the sound of his barking and let him out. His bark had become higher in pitch and more strangled as the tumors on either side of his throat, each now about half the size of a baseball, gradually crushed his windpipe.

By Thursday, June 25 Hershey was having tremendous difficulty navigating steps. His breathing had become rapid, shallow, and desperate. He had lost interest in pretty much all food, and would only drink water if coaxed. (I poked a hole in the cap of a water bottle and turned it into a squirt bottle to spray water into his mouth.) On Friday he seemed to lose his sight entirely. His eyes, once bright but clouded by cataracts, had become dull and gray. He wandered the house aimlessly. Or maybe he, like Haley, was looking for a place to die.

On Friday, June 26, my mom got the pathology report from her surgery: lymph nodes clear, no sign that the cancer had spread. The cancer was a preliminary Stage I and had been caught early.

Friday night Hershey didn't bark at all to go out. I woke at two and again at five to let him out. I walked down the steps ahead of him to catch him if he fell. I carried him back up the steps when he was done.

I sat with him Saturday morning. The vet would be open at 8:00 - I had checked the night before - but would close at noon. They wouldn't open again until Monday at 8:00.

Hershey panted relentlessly, the air conditioner at full blast, the fan practically pressed against him. He swallowed the Nutri-Cal, but drooled out the squirt of water. He lapped a little water from a bowl placed under his chin.

He began to moan. Then, quietly, softly, to howl.

I petted him and reassured him. I cried with him, I took him back to my mother's air-conditioned room and told her that I would go in for a shower now, and would be ready to get out of the house before 7:30.

I took my shower, dressed in a black shirt, and went up to check on him. On her. To get a final verdict.

It was torture to keep him going. We could do this thing now, or we could do it in forty-eight hours. Maybe in between he would die on his own. Maybe he wouldn't be in too much agony when he did.

I called in to work to let them know that I might be late, because I would be having my dog put to sleep.

I put on Hershey's leash to take him for one last ride to the vet. But then I remembered: he hadn't had his eye drops that morning. His antibiotic drops, I figured, we could skip. But I put a generous squirt of artificial tear paste in each eye.

My mom saw Hershey off, told him she loved him, told him he was a good boy. I apologized to him for all the times I had yelled at him for being so damned dumb.

I left with him, my lunch, my drink, my coffee, a blanket, and a box of tissues.

Hershey peed in his usual spot, once I got him down the steps, but he didn't want to poop again. He began to wander the yard aimlessly. I had to coax him down to the car. He seemed to catch on to what I was doing, and wanted to get into my car. But that wasn't the plan. My car had no air conditioning, and he would need that to be comfortable. We would take my mom's car. I opened the passenger side door, put the blanket on the seat, and lifted him into the car. He lay sideways across the seat with his head facing me.

I pulled out of the driveway and an alarm began to sound. The car had detected an unbelted passenger in the car. I obligingly clicked the belt behind Hershey and we continued on our way.

I petted him and talked to him the whole way. He seemed comfortable. He seemed like he was enjoying the ride.

For once, I didn't mind the red lights. They gave us a few extra seconds together.

We got to the vet's a few minutes after 8:00. Hershey wandered the parking lot aimlessly for a while, but eventually I coaxed him to the doors. Through the doors, one last time. They were ready for us.

We were escorted to a back room. Cool, warmly lit, comfortable seats, a soft blanket on the table. Hershey staggered slowly, seeming older and older with each step.  He lay down on the floor of the room as I went over the details with the vet tech. Yes to cremation. Yes, we wanted the ashes returned. I signed the form and she took him off to another room to install an IV shunt, to make the next steps easier.

Alone, I wept bitterly. This was it.

The vet and his team arrived with a suddenly revived Hershey. He was squirming, more awake and aware than I had seen him in weeks. Adrenaline, they told me, a reaction to having the IV shunt put in. I looked it up. Adrenaline is released in response to a stimulus. Usually as a reaction to fear.

Hershey wanted to jump off the table. He would have broken a leg. I held him in place, calmed him down, offered him words of encouragement. Told him that the doctor was going to make everything all better.

Hershey was panting like a steam engine again, as he had been since we got out of the car. The vet introduced himself. I had met him once before, years ago, shortly after he had joined the practice. He asked me if I had ever attended a euthanization before. I told him I had. He talked me through what to expect, what each injection would do. I spoke gentle words of reassurance and farewell to Hershey. Told him he would soon be with his mommy, and with Columbus, and with his old friend Haley. Told him to tell Haley that we would be seeing her soon. Told him that we loved him, and that he was a good boy.

The doctor gave the first injection. Hershey's desperate breathing became slower, less urgent, and then stopped. The vet tech gently lowered his body to the table. The doctor gave him the second injection. He waited half a minute, then put his stethoscope to Hershey's chest and assured me that his heart and breathing had already stopped.

Hershey was dead.

They left me with him for a few minutes. I talked to him some more, then folded the blanket over him. The vet tech came in and removed his collar. We talked for a bit, then I made my goodbyes. His ashes would be ready on Thursday.

I made it to work fifteen minutes early.

The next day we had a huge rainstorm just before sunset. A rainbow formed opposite the setting sun. From our back porch it looked like the rainbow was extending out of his old house.

Rainbow. June 28, 2015. Hershey's old house is in the foreground.

Hershey lived with us for less than four years. We tried to give him a good life and a good death. I hope we succeeded.

He was a good boy.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Predictions for 2016

I haven't been blogging at all lately. Mostly that's been from working as much overtime as possible to try to bring in something close to a living wage. In part it's been because I've been spending my precious BEU's in other ways. But it's also been because things have been pretty grim and it seems that nothing I can say will make any difference.

Many, many years ago I bought a journal from the Lee Valley Workshop. I imagined that I might use it to preserve my thoughts about the events of the day, and see how those thoughts held up over time, how history would judge those events. I put in one entry, about the single most important event of the day: the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which was consuming the nation and threatening the very stability of the Union. Remember that? Remember how important that was?

I never used it again. I still look at it from time to time. It's a really nice journal.

I've been thinking about something that I expect to happen in the near future, and then thought of something else that could almost be considered a fashion trend. I realized the two things are related, and one naturally flows to the other.

I see the time frame for both to be eighteen months, possibly far less. As this is April 2015, that would easily place both of these things well before the end of 2016. So I feel comfortable predicting both of these as things that will happen by the end of 2016:

1. Wearable cameras for the masses.  After several incidents involving police confrontations that were caught on dashcam or body cam, and countless others where an audio/video record of the event would have been very useful, many police departments are requiring their officers to wear body cameras. Which is nice, except that if there is ever a controversy over an encounter, only one side has access to and control over the records. There was a recent non-police interaction involving a reporter for ESPN and a staffer at a towing company, after which the towing company released a heavily-edited version of the altercation that presented the reported (who was keenly aware of the presence of the recording equipment, and addressed it directly) in a very negative light, but did not include any record of provocation by the staffer. If everybody is making their own record of every confrontation, this wouldn't be an issue.

There are several technical hurdles to overcome: Such recordings are illegal in many states, where both sides need to agree to a recording before it can begin. Recording of the police is still maintained to be illegal in some states (including Pennsylvania), though recent court findings have taken issue with this. Recording in some locations -  tunnels, for example - is considered a danger to national security. And most recorders store the record in the device, rather than in "the cloud" or some remote location - so destroying the recording device often destroys the record.

I expect these obstacles to fall away fairly quickly, and the prices of wearable cameras to drop to less than an iPhone.

2. Police killed in self-defense. Sometime before the end of 2016, a police officer will be killed while on duty. The person doing the killing will maintain that it was in self-defense. And a judge - or jury - will agree.

One of the recent events that have shaken this nation involved Walter Scott fleeing from police after an altercation following a traffic stop. Officer Michael Slager draws his gun, fires numerous times at close range, mortally wounds the fleeing victim, and then drops his TASER next to the man to create a justification for the shooting. All of this was captured on video by a passer-by on his way to work. Without this video, this would have been just another "good shoot."

The more  recent event happened to Freddie Gray. In a crime-ridden part of Baltimore, he spotted a police patrol and, for reasons unknown, fled from them. They gave chase and took him down, retroactively justifying their arrest based on his possession of a knife whose blade length exceeded legal limits. He was trundled into a prisoner transport van, unbelted, unsecured, and was taken for what a police union spokesman has suggested was a "rough ride" - after which he was found to have a nearly severed spine. He died of his injuries a week later. If Freddie Gray fled because he was afraid the police would kill him, he was right.

At some point someone in one of these confrontations will respond with deadly force, and maintain that they feared that if they did not, they would have been killed. A judge or jury somewhere will review the evidence and declare that, yes, the person acted in self-defense, and they will be free to go. (Until, of course, they are accidentally killed a week or two later. Oopsie.)

I'm not saying that I want to see this happen, or that it will be right. It won't be. I want to see bad cops off the streets, stripped of their badges and guns. I want to see criminals off the streets forever. But I see this thing as an inevitability. And I expect it to happen very soon. Probably before the end of 2016.

We'll see.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Characters and plots, in writing and life

I'm a writer. Sort of. I've written quite a bit. Once upon a time my writing was mostly confined to personal communications, intended for one person at a time. Then I became a blogger, and my writing became a sort of journaling intended to be shared with the general public.  After a few years of that, I began to start flexing my fiction-writing muscles. Then I got involved with a now-defunct writing group and decided to try my hand at poetry, something I hadn't done since college.

I haven't been writing much lately. I've been doing other things, some of which I can't really talk about - though if I could, they'd make great (yet preposterously unbelievable) stories. (I may turn one of them into an opera, if I can ever connect with anyone who knows anything about opera. It's full of heroes, villains, sacrifice, love, violence, and death. Needs music, I suppose.)

Through it all I've met a lot of people. Some have been nice, some have been awful. Some have come into my life, left their mark, and vanished.

We like to think of people as complex creatures, full of layers and surprises and hidden motivations. Characters in stories tend to be much simpler: they perform functions, serve as plot devices, do what the writer needs them to do to move the story along. Characters in stories can be summed up in neat character sketches, but real people are too complex for that.

I have learned that in many cases this is simply not true.

Over and over again I have met individuals who can be described in just a few sentences. From that basic sketch you can predict most of their future behavior with a disappointingly high level of accuracy. You can hope that they will prove you wrong, surprise you, pull out a spectacular twist that reveals depth and complexity: the inner hero in the villain, the good guy waiting to be brought out of the "bad boy", the strength and courage of the timid coward.

For the most part it's wishful thinking, naive at best, dangerous at worst. It sounds like pessimism, and maybe it is. It's certainly not a new idea. "The leopard cannot change its spots," the old saying goes. The scorpion saved from drowning by the toad stings the toad to death, and when the dying toad asks it "Why?", the scorpion responds "Because it is my nature."

Accepting this suddenly opens up new pathways for predicting the future.

From every moment an infinite number of futures are possible. But only one of those futures happens, as far as we can observe. Which future that is is based on an enormous number of factors, from the quantum scale on up. Some large-scale variables are based on the decisions made by people. If those decisions are dictated by a very simple set of rules, the number of possible futures becomes very small. For certain items under consideration, a single possibility becomes far more likely than all the others.

I was involved in a situation where this came into play some time ago. It's one of those things that I can't really talk about. It was a matter of life and death. Several other individuals were involved, with one of them largely in control of the situation. I had never met her. She had attained a status in my mind of a legendary boss monster, someone others had encountered and survived, but not me. And now she had done something - we weren't sure what - which could profoundly affect the health and well-being of another person. Shortly after becoming aware of the situation, I found myself in a police station, explaining what was going on in agonizing detail to a police officer. His face betrayed an increasing level of consternation bordering on disbelief as the story went on. (A quote from Shakespeare was running through my head the whole while: "If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as improbable fiction." – Twelfth Night, Act III, scene 4.) Finally we got to the end, and I did a thing you're probably not supposed to do: I conjectured. I told him what most likely happened next in the story, where he would be most likely to find the person in danger, based on my understanding of the actions and motivations of a person I had never met.

Forty minutes and many phone calls later he confirmed that every conjecture I had presented to him was correct. Unfortunately, the person who we believed to be in danger was now well beyond our reach. A few weeks later, my worst projections turned out to be true. (The police officer never knew this, as far as I know. I have long hoped to be able to run into him again to let him know.)

It wasn't the only time in the last few years I've had a chance to watch a character play out true to their brief sketch. In fact, it has become disappointingly routine. Sometimes there are surprises, but these are rare, and not always for the better.

It seems to me that what we perceive as a good or interesting or well-written character is often unrealistically written, in that they are complex and full of hidden motivations, capable of changes of personality or great or noble deeds quite unlike their real-world counterparts. Iago, the villain from Othello, is frequently criticized as being one-dimensional. He is rotten from start to finish, and unrepentantly so. He feigns an appearance of trustworthiness and honesty, but this is a falsehood from the beginning.

In the same way, plots in stories are sometimes far more complex than in real life. Greed, lust, hate, jealousy: sometimes that's all there is to a plot in real life. But stories written with such simplistic motivations will not hold readers' interest long, on bring them back for more. So we weave intricate storylines and backstories to explain motives and consequences. Because, ultimately, fiction is more than a journalistic chronicle of the acts of individuals. It has its own goals, and serves a need in the lives of readers. Writers need to recognize those needs and create characters and stories that fulfill them.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Venus and Mercury at sunset, January 13, 2015

While the big news for amateur astronomers right now is the visit from Comet Lovejoy, other stuff is going on on the heavens. Venus and Jupiter are currently putting in a beautiful appearance after sunset. I have seen Mercury before, but it's nice to have something like this to remove any doubts about what you're seeing.

I saw Venus and Mercury together late Saturday afternoon. They were technically at appulse, the point where they appear closest together in the sky. Today was another clear day, so I was hopeful that I would get a clear view. I knew I would be near Montage Mountain in Moosic tonight at sunset, so I packed my camera and tripod to see if I might get a good shot of the pair.

I did.

That's Venus on the left and Mercury on the right. If Mercury looks lopsided , it's because it is. Here's a map of the apparent disk of Mercury at approximately the time the photo was taken, according to .

Venus and Mercury will continue to put in appearances after sunset for a while. Go out and see them if you can!

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Starting off 2015 with a BOOM

Thursday is garbage day in this part of town, usually. But when a holiday falls on or before Thursday in any week, the schedule gets offset by a day. Today is Thursday, and it's also New Year's Day, which means our garbage will get picked up tomorrow.

I happen to have the day off, which means I can take the garbage out throughout the day, rather than after work. I was hauling out the first bags at 3:23 this afternoon when I heard the BOOM.

It was a low, deep, loud rumble, like thunder, or at least like the beginning of thunder. It didn't have the rolling sense of thunder, the changes in tone or volume, or any sort of crack to it. It would have been odd for it to be thunder, as the day was clear and cold and the sky was a nearly cloudless crystal blue. It was loud, though, disturbingly loud.

I went right to Facebook and posted this:

What the hell was that? Very loud boom - sounded like thunder. 3:23 PM, January 1, 2015, Nanticoke, PA.

My friends started to respond:

I heard it too although I didn't pay any attention to it until I saw you mention it here.

Definitely sounded like an explosion...I'm sitting on the couch and I actually felt a vibration!

We heard it too. At first we thought it was a car accident but checked around and nothing.

Sorry my bad. I had Taco Bell for dinner last night

Sure it wasn't somebody setting off some home made stuff?

I heard it as well. That's so weird.

you're in Dallas, right? That makes me think sonic boom, exploding meteor, or something else well above ground level. We have some mountains between us and you!

Yep, Dallas. That's crazy. I thought of thunder at first, too.

People on Hanover and Washington heard and felt it. Just read a post.

(Friend from local news station) We're checking into it. Haven't heard anything definitive.

We also heard it in Nanticoke and the pipes in the house shook.

(Friend from North Carolina) Well don't leave us hanging here. What was it?

Still no idea. We have contrails all the time. Lots of jets - military ones - are able to break the sound barrier, and some hot-dogger might do so over Northeastern PA without a second thought. Sizable meteors blow up in the atmosphere every day, though usually over the ocean or over sparsely-populated areas, since that accounts for most of the Earth's surface. Could have been some prankster setting off a haul of unused fireworks all at once, or a house succumbing to a gas leak. Maybe just business as usual at a fracking site tens of miles from here. Who knows? Folks are looking into it, though.

Likely a giant Quarantid Meteor. Several sightings already all along the East Coast.

This is the third time I've heard a big explosion like this.. The first two were covered in this post:


So. There you have it. Still don't know what it was. I'm seeing reports of an East Coast fireball from last night, so maybe this is from the same meteor shower. Maybe we'll never be sure.

UPDATE: From local media:

UPDATE 1/3/2015: From national sites: Loud, House-Shaking Boom Heard and Felt Throughout Luzerne County, Pennsylvania
Includes a link to this post, and an archive of entries about other mysterious sounds heard all over the world.

Mystery Booms Heard Across the U.S.
An older article with frequent updates. They seem to have drawn a one-size-fits-all conclusion that I don't endorse or concur with. While the Earthfiles site is downright Fortean -  something I rather enjoy - the Poleshift site seems to be more crackpot in nature, as can be seen by checking out other entries on the site.

I've long been fascinated by mysterious sounds that have been heard, well, pretty much forever. Some are sounds that have been lost in our modern, noisy world: the hum of wind passing over mountains, or the similar hum of the tide rubbing against the shore - though hums are still reported today. I once heard an enormous hum as the remnants of a hurricane blew through the area in late October 2012, a time when many leaves were still firmly attached to trees despite the lateness of the season. Others, like the fairly well-known "Seneca Guns" (a booming noise heard near Lake Seneca in New York) have been combined in a single Wikipedia entry for "Skyquake," which covers phenomena exactly like the one I heard.

Could there be absolutely mundane explanations for this? Of course. Early on the morning of January 3, as I let my dog out to do his business, I heard a series of "ba-bang" noises in the distance, much like the lid of a dumpster being dropped closed. And this might have been exactly that, from one of two industrial sites (a boot factory and a junkyard) that are just half a mile or so away on the outskirts of Nanticoke. Maybe some employee, annoyed at having the garbage detail in the early morning hours of a Saturday, performed his task as noisily as possible. Maybe some forklift operator had set down their load less gracefully than anyone would have liked. Maybe a bear had broken hibernation and was looking for an early-morning snack in a dumpster. Or maybe it was a truck hitting a pothole on nearby Route 29 and driving along. Traffic on this road has always provided a background noise in this part of Nanticoke. Actually, Route 29 is close enough that as a child I would eagerly watch for the orange flash of my father's Volkswagen to know that he would be home in a few minutes. The sound is, as Tom Petty describes highway noise in "American Girl", "like the waves crashing on a beach."

At around 2:00 PM on January 3, Columbia County EMS reported a sound like an explosion that rattled windows throughout the area. Again, this could be anything: a sonic boom, distant thunder, an exploding meteor, somebody playing with explosives a discharge at an industrial site - anything. The lack of a house reduced to matchsticks or a mushroom cloud over a fracking site would rule out certain possibilities. It seems odd that there would be two of these incidents within three days within the same vicinity. But maybe these noises are being heard all the time, and most people are simply dismissing them rather than asking the simple question, "What the hell was that?"

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Poetry in Transit 2014

This past Monday I received this email:

Poetry In Transit 2014 Launch

Calling all poets--

Friday, December 19th

The Launch of Poetry In Transit 2014


Barnes & Noble Wilkes-Kings Bookstore
Public Square, Wilkes-Barre, PA  18702

Hope to see you there!

Bring your poem that's on the bus to read along with up to two others poems you'd like to share. We'll have a podium and microphone.

Everyone welcome--bring family, friends, and colleagues.

See you then, and thanks for being part of the poetry community.


I found out about this program pretty randomly last year. It's the local version of a national movement to get poetry displayed on public transportation - in this case, pieces by local poets displayed on buses  throughout the Luzerne County Transportation Authority (LCTA) system. I found out about it shortly before the 2013 launch. I attended that, mixed and mingled and expressed interest in participating in the next year's event. I even had a poem in mind, one that I had written a few weeks earlier - coincidentally, based in part on events that took place the evening that first I met the person who runs the program, in the aftermath of an unrelated poetry reading.*

The thing is, the poem, while quite short, was still too long to fit the submission guidelines. So I submitted the last stanza only, with the line structure subtly modified. Here's the poem in its entirety:


You should hold hands, they say,
whenever you cross the street
or walk through a parking lot
or when you're in the supermarket
so you don't get lost

We should hold hands all the time
when we're sad
when we're scared
when we feel alone

It's a small planet
but a big universe
and it's easy to get lost
So it's good to have someone by your side
to hold hands with
as you try to find your way

I submitted this back when the call for submissions came out - in April, I think. I publicized it to my fellow writers. I don't know if any of them submitted as well.

I wondered from time to time if this had gone anywhere, but I never heard anything about it until last Monday - or so I thought. A search of my email revealed another message from the person running the program, dated October 24, advising me that my poem had been accepted, and asking for information on where I resided so it could be added to the placard with the poem. By this past Monday it was too late to supply that information; based on my past associations, the assumption was made that I lived in Scranton. (I do not.) But that's fine. It allows me to preserve some shred of anonymity, and serves as a reminder that I should always remember to check my InBox!

So: Friday, December 19 at 5:00 at the Barnes & Noble in downtown Wilkes-Barre (next to Boscov's) there will be a rollout event for the 2014/2015 Poetry in Transit series. I've seen what my placard will look like and it's pretty nifty. I will be reading the complete version of "Hands" as well as two other poems. I'd love to see you there!

*Due to some horrible and traumatic events,  a friend and I were unable to make it to that reading until after it was over, twenty minutes after it started. I tried to strike up a conversation with the person who had invited us there, a person I thought of as a friend, but he deliberately snubbed me in the most overt way possible - his way of expressing contempt for anyone who would be so uncouth as to show up at a reading late. I wanted to think that if he had known the reason for our lateness he might have felt horrible and wanted to crawl under a rock to hide in shame. Later I realized that he was - and is - incapable of feeling empathy for others or remorse for his own bad behavior. Fortunately I cut him out of my life long ago, though we still move in some of the same circles.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A bird on the face of the Moon, October 9, 2014

Early in the morning of October 9, about eighteen hours after I had photographed that morning's Lunar eclipse, I went out to get photos of the just-past-Full Moon.

I prefer to use a manual setting when I take pictures of the Moon when it is close to Full. The manual setting takes sixty frames per second and creates images that are a bit dim compared to the automatic setting. This reduces the blinding glare of the Moon and allows subtle details that would otherwise be washed out to be visible.Unfortunately, it also puts the camera into a "widescreen" mode that reduces the overall image area to something that some of this Summer's "Super Moons" haven't been able to fit in. So it's very easy to cut off the top or bottom of the Moon in a standard landscape photo.

I was interested in capturing the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in the shadowed regions (on the right in these photos.) I set up the shot as best I could, centered it as well as I could, set the ten second timer, pressed the button, stepped away -  and watched with annoyance as the image on the screen showed that the Moon had slipped slightly out of the frame.

I also noticed something else - a speck that appeared after about five images, moved across the face of the Moon, and disappeared halfway through the shot.

I had captured a bird crossing the face of the Moon.

The Moon is big, really big. But it's quite small in the sky. Even in its extra large "Super Moon" state it still appears barely larger than an aspirin or the eraser at the end of a pencil held at arm's length. Now, look at how small that bird appears against the face of the Moon, and imagine how incredibly tiny it appeared in the sky. And yet I caught it as it flew between me and the Moon!

Photos of birds crossing the face of the Moon are not uncommon, which tells you something about just how many birds there are flying around at night. Still, the odds of getting one crossing your shot as you take pictures of the Moon seem...well, literally astronomical.

This bird appeared in twenty-six of the sixty images in that burst of photos. In most of them it isn't doing anything very interesting. In fact, it seems to be dropping like a rock with its wings either edge-on to the camera or completely folded back against its body. Starting with the first image and ending with the third image above, here is every third image in the sequence. (No wing flapping is apparent between any of these images.)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

An account of the Lunar eclipse of October 8, 2014 and the sunrise that followed

I was going to post this on my Lunar photography blog, Shoot the Moon, but then I decided it would be more appropriate to post it here and link to it from there.

I woke up extra-early on the morning of October 8, 2014. The weather forecast had not been promising the night before, and clouds had been thundering across the face of he Full Moon when I went to sleep a few hours earlier. Still, I dragged myself out of bed, took a shower, made coffee, ate some breakfast, and took a peek outside to see if I could see anything. A red glow in the West suggested that if nothing else, I might get some interesting cloud photographs. I made my lunch, gathered up my gear, walked down to the car, and headed for the Nanticoke-West Nanticoke bridge, where I would have a pretty good view of the Western sky - and maybe the eclipsed Moon.

Threading my way through the pre-dawn traffic in Nanticoke, including taking a detour caused by an ambulance parked outside of the local senior high-rise, I caught occasional glimpses of the Moon. The first seemed shrouded in clouds, but those that followed appeared to be clearer. I parked in the semi-paved lot on the Naticoke side of the bridge, grabbed my coat, a hat, my tripod, and a camera, and walked out until I was over the Susquehanna river.

6:26 AM: The Moon was there! Clouds darted around it, but I could see it.

6:31 AM: My camera was having a hard time focusing on a low-light target at infinity. I played with the settings a bit and realized that the standard Landscape mode would work best in this situation - but only once the eclipse had reached totality. Before then, everything was an unfocused blur. After totality, the Moon brightens up a bit, usually. (There was one that I remember from sometime in the late 1980's when the Moon actually became a dark purplish shade, and hung in the sky like a burned-out cinder. Through binoculars it looked ridiculously three-dimensional, like it was a ball hanging just out of reach.) Clouds were still present, but I decided they added a nice touch.

6:32 AM: I was on the walkway of the bridge, which is several feet wide and separated from the automobile traffic by a thigh-high guardrail. I had my tripod positioned so two of the three legs were touching the guardrail. Even in the hour preceding sunrise there was still quite a bit of traffic on the bridge. In this image, a car drove by just as the shutter opened. The reflected sodium vapor lights on the bridge created an eclipse-colored blur.

6:32 AM.

6:32 AM.

6:34 AM: I tried to establish context for these photos by pulling back to include the nearby disused railroad bridge. The camera did not take kindly to the change of state and lost focus.

The clouds settled in for a bit. I took a few more shots and got some fuzzy images. After a few minutes I heard and felt someone approaching on the bridge from the Nanticoke side. I was wearing a black longcoat but had made sure I was wearing relatively light-colored jeans and a beige baseball cap for contrast and increased visibility. I moved against the guardrail, pressed my tripod against it, and eyed the stranger warily: A stocky redbearded fellow, mid-30's, appeared somewhat unkempt. Could be some homeless guy, could be someone out for a morning constitutional. Could be someone who would want to steal my $400 camera and $30 tripod and sell them for enough money to get his next fix and maybe the one after that. 

"Morning," he said.

"Morning," I grunted back.

He walked past silently, then stopped and looked at my setup. "Whatchu lookin' at?" he asked, looking at the Western horizon.

"The Moon," I said. "Lunar eclipse. Snedeker's been going on about it all week." Joe Snedeker is a local meteorologist whose TV forecasts involve more clowning than actual weather information. But he had actually been talking extensively about the eclipse for most of the last week.

"I don't see it," the stranger said.

"It's - " I looked towards the horizon and the Moon was mostly hidden by clouds. "Aw, heck," I said, and hit the playback button on the camera. I had to go back a bit to find a decent photo. "Here," I said.

"Huh. That's pretty neat," the stranger said. "Well, have a nice day." He resumed his walk across the bridge.

6:43 AM: Nine minutes after the last shot the clouds cleared out for a while. The Moon was now much lower but the context was much easier to capture. Many outlets had been referring to this dramatically as a "Blood Moon" - apparently, that's another term for a total lunar eclipse. Despite the hype, I found this one had a rose-pink hue.

6:44 AM: I zoomed in a bit to capture the Moon as it sank closer to the treetops.

6:46 AM: The "Moon Illusion" in a photo. I pushed my zoom all the way to capture the dawn-faded and mist-shaded eclipsed Moon full size, and then I decided that wasn't a very interesting image. I backed off a bit and dipped the camera to include the trees. Reviewing this picture later I thought "My God, the Moon is HUGE there." It's not. I routinely take pictures of the Moon that fill much more of the image. But in this one you are clearly seeing foreground objects - trees that are less than half a mile away - and you're looking at the Moon in terms of them. Trees are big; the Moon is bigger than trees!

6:46 AM: Clearly, the end was near. The Moon was still well above the horizon, but about to pass below a local obstruction that would block it from view. Fun fact: by this point the Moon might have been much lower on the horizon, but its image was refracted up by the atmosphere. This can - and did - result in a condition called a selenelion, a situation where the setting Full Moon and the rising Sun are 180 degrees apart but both appear in the sky at the same time, due to both of their images being refracted above the horizon.

6:47 AM: Going...

6:47 AM: ...going...

6:48 AM: ...going...

6:48 AM: ...going...

6:48 AM: ...going...

6:48 AM: ...OK, we're gonna call it "gone" and move along.

So that was the end of the eclipse for me. Well, I thought I was seeing a bizarre atmospheric effect as the Moon began to peek up over the treetops again, much larger than it had been before. But this turned out to just be a cloud.

And there I was, with a tripod and a camera on a bridge over a river, on a crisp Autumn morning with the Sun rising in the east and some time to kill before I had to head to work. So I hiked out farther onto the bridge to get a better look at the Eastern sky.

I saw this:

6:50 AM: These beams are crepuscular rays - think of them as anti-sunbeams, shadows cast by clouds on the water vapor in the atmosphere.

6:52 AM: The crepuscular rays were strong and clear. A friend in Williamsport got almost the same images, so atmospheric conditions were similar across the area.

6:52 AM.

6:55 AM: Some of the gold-rose hue is leaving the horizon. The Sun will soon clear the trees, but that will be fundamentally uninteresting. Plus, I knew I should head home, review my images, and get to work.

As I walked back towards my car I realized that with such strong, clear crepuscular rays, I might be able to see the rarer phenomenon of anticrepuscular rays, shadows cast by clouds that stretch across the sky and converge on the antisolar point - creating a "dark Sun setting" effect. I turned to the West toward the railroad bridge that had given some context to my images, and...

6:58 AM: Yep.

6:58 AM: Exactly as expected.

I walked back to my car, went home, and got ready to head to work.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

New blog: Shoot the Moon

I've been taking a lot of photos of the Moon lately - mainly because I can. My Nikon Coolpix P520 seems to be optimized for lunar photography, both in closeup shots and in-context landscape shots, so I've been trying to capture as many different images as I can through each cycle. I realized that if I were to post them here they would quickly come to dominate the blog. To avoid that, I've created a new blog where they can be showcased. I'm calling the blog Shoot the Moon, though the "shootthemoon" address was already taken in Blogspot, as was "moonshots." Surprisingly, "mymoonshots" was not, so I snagged it.

Shoot the Moon

Check it out!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Vintage: a personal history

The Vintage is closing at the end of August, 2014. It's not the first time it's closed, but it feels like it might be the last.

I first got involved with the Vintage in September, 2011. I was invited to take part in a "bloggers' roundtable" by Rich Howells, who was blogging and working for publication Go Lackawanna.  Back then I would normally have been reticent about such an invitation, but had just started a "say yes to everything" approach to life, so I agreed.

I was a little confused as I was heading up there. I had looked up the address ahead of time, of course, and the place wasn't where I expected it to be.  I remembered reading about the Vintage Theater when it had first opened a few years earlier, in an article in a copy of the Scranton Times someone had left in the break room. The article talked about how a brother and sister were someone was opening a new venue in the old Ritz Theater, a place where my friends and I used to go to see dollar movies in college.  I didn't remember much more, except maybe something about classic films.

In any event I found myself turning left where I would have expected to be turning right - if it hadn't been a one-way street. But there it was, right where the computer map said it would be, at 119 Penn Avenue - several blocks from the old Ritz Theater.

(I would later learn that this was the second home for the Vintage Theater, and it had in fact originally been located in the Ritz Theater building.)

As I described in the linked post, the Bloggers' Roundtable was followed immediately by a poetry reading being put on by a group called the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers' Collective. And the rest, as they say, is history.

There's a lot more to the story, of course. I didn't decide to meet with the group until a second encounter a few weeks later:

My work schedule meant I wouldn't be able to attend every meeting, but I attended all that I could. Soon I found myself going up to the Vintage Theater for other events, like the BlueKey Tweetup in December 2011, the first Pecha Kucha night in NEPA in January 2012, and the first Scranton StorySlam in late March 2012. Plus the monthly Third Thursday Open Mic Poetry nights, and the occasional performance or event.

Then, on June 1, 2012, the Vintage Theater closed.

Not for good. We were assured that the Vintage Theater would be coming back someday, in some form. In the meantime the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers' Collective found itself a new, temporary meeting place at Scranton's Northern Light coffee shop, though our performances were put on hiatus indefinitely.

The Vintage Theater came back a few months later in a new home, the old Manhattan Room bar of the old Hotel Jermyn at 326 Spruce Street. It was rechristened as The Vintage, and for a while shared space with the independently operated Morning Glory cafe. It took a while for the NEPWC to find its footing again, but after a few months of struggling we began presenting poetry to full and nearly-full houses.

And that's where we've been since then. The Vintage has continued on its mission as Scranton's premiere artspace, featuring bands and art exhibits and literary events, plays, a second Pecha Kucha night, and numerous other events.  It's been a popular place, but expensive to run.

This week, Conor O'Brien announced that the Vintage would be closing its doors again at the end of August. This time, for good.

It's not over yet, as I write this. There's a concert this Saturday, August 16. The Last Third Thursday Open Mic Poetry Night is going on next Thursday, August 21. A  music, poetry, and performance art event called velveteen will take place next Saturday, August 23.

On Saturday, August 30, there will be a farewell party. After that, the Vintage will be closed.

The Vintage has been a big part of my life these last three years. I've met a lot of amazing people because of it. Become a part of a community I might otherwise never have known existed. I've grown personally because of the things I've experienced and people I've met because of the Vintage. But now it's over.

So that's that. The Vintage will soon join the long list of places in Scranton that played a big part in the local arts, entertainment, and culture scene, had their time, and went away. Prufrock's. Cafe del Sol. The Test Pattern. Anthology. The Banshee. New Visions.

The Vintage.

Friday, July 18, 2014

I Own the Moon

Many years ago I got a telescope as a Christmas present. It's what's known as a "department store scope", a silver-gray refractor with a small aperture and a variety of overpowered eyepiece lenses. Serious amateurs bemoan the popularity of these scopes as gifts: they are difficult to use, difficult to aim, and produce poor-quality or overly-sensitive images. The frustration that results from trying to use one of these telescopes to see anything tends to convince many aspiring amateur astronomers to take up another hobby.

I made mine work.

I remember the first time I saw Saturn through it. I had followed the advice in my astronomy magazines and used the lowest-power eyepiece. I aimed the tube carefully, peered in the eyepiece...and there it was. Tiny, very tiny, but pin-sharp. I could see rings. I think I could even see bands, if I squinted just right. But it was there. This wasn't Saturn in a photograph. This was Saturn, live, real. In my telescope. In my lens. In my eye.

Mine, I thought.

This was my Saturn. Maybe at that moment I was the only person looking at Saturn through a telescope. Probably not, but even if other people were watching, no one else had these photons. These photons had come from the sun, bounced off Saturn, traveled back across space, penetrated the atmosphere, found their way into my telescope and onto my retina, and no one else's. This Saturn was mine.

One of the great frustrations of my early efforts with digital photography was my inability to get a good photo of the Moon. My zoom wasn't strong enough, my image didn't have enough pixels, my camera couldn't adjust for the brightness. At best I could get fuzzy pictures that had some Moon-like features on them.

Earlier this year,courtesy of my job, I became the owner of a new digital camera, a Nikon Coolpix P520. It is my third Coolpix camera, but it has capabilities far beyond the previous two. It has a 42x zoom. This is interesting, not just because of the Douglas Adams connection, but because 42x is a sufficient zoom to result in an image of the Moon that nearly fills the frame. It also has very sophisticated image stabilization and the ability to adapt to different levels of image brightness. It turns out that it is ideally suited to take pictures of the Moon.

May 5, 2014

May 11, 2014

June 7, 2014

July 11, 2014
The level of detail is astonishing. And take note: the first three of these photos were taken freehand. At 42x, in Sports (high shutter speed) mode. (The last one was taken using a tripod and 60 frames per second imaging, with brightness and contrast enhanced.)

And these are my images. Mine. My photons, my camera, my lens, my imager. No one else saw exactly these same images. This is my Moon.

So how about you? Wherever you are, unless you live underground, the Moon is visible some time during the month. It is bright enough to penetrate even the most light-polluted urban environments. You almost certainly have a camera, very likely a camera better than mine. What's keeping you from aiming it at the Moon and snapping some photos?

This is what I think of as the Shoot the Moon Challenge: everybody should go out and get some photos of the Moon. Post them online, on your blog or Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or wherever. Share them with the world. Check out other people's images. Hone your skill, improve your photos. Take better images and post them. Whatever you get will be your Moon. Other people will have images of the Moon, but none of them will be the same as yours. None of them will be the same as mine.

So get some photos of the Moon. Share them online. Realize how amazing what you've just done is. Realize that in a sense you now have possession of the Moon - or at least, of the particular set of photons you captured to make your image. You own that set of photons. You own that Moon.

But not these. These are mine. I own these.

I own the Moon.