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Sunday, February 07, 2016

Shakespearean January

A friend and I have been to numerous plays and other events together over the last - geez - ten years. (Well, nine years and five months, but still, that can't be right, can it?) The last thing we went to together was A Midsummer Night's Dream at King's College in Wilkes-Barre in April 2014. In January of this year we made up for that by going to two plays by Shakespeare.

Image from The New Vintage Ensemble Facebook page.

The first was Hamlet, presented by The New Vintage Ensemble at the Scranton Cultural Center. We saw the final performance of the run on the evening of January 16. It was an unusual experience for me, since I knew several of the actors personally; in a way it reminded me of watching my friends appear in plays in college. Conor O'Brien, former proprietor of The Vintage Theater, played the title role, while blogger and NEPA BlogCon co-organizer Mandy Boyle Pennington (who I first met at an event at The Vintage Theater) portrayed the First Player, Osric, and Francisco (the first character to appear in the play). Simone Daniel, who I met several times at The Vintage, took on the role of Horatio, Hamlet's best friend and confidante.

This was the first outing for The New Vintage Ensemble. The story unfolded on a spare stage; costumes ranged from simple to surrealistic. Hamlet runs over four hours when presented in full, but even this somewhat abbreviated version ran close to three. While the performance started off slowly, the action of the story quickly took hold and carried the characters off to their sundry dismal fates. Conor O'Brien made a fine Hamlet, more cunning and clever than the indecisive semi-madman he is usually portrayed. Hamlet was given the line regarding the fates of his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a statement usually delivered by the late-arriving Ambassador from England, whose role - like that of Fortinbras, the Norwegian prince who claims the Danish crown for himself (since no one else is using it) at the end of the play - was eliminated.

On January 30 we went to see the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble's presentation of Romeo and Juliet. We have actually seen a production of Romeo and Juliet previously, in February 2011 at the Weis Center for the Performing Arts at Bucknell University. In that earlier production the action was translated to a conflict between competing early 20th-century organized crime families. This production also brought the action and into a more modern setting, one that is recent history now, but was actually an event whose beginning was still seven months in the future when we saw the Bucknell version: the "Occupy" movement of late 2011.

We have seen several performances by the BTE together over the years, including Macbeth (2011), Flood Stories Too (2013), As You Like It (2013), and The Merchant of Venice (2013.) While neither of us know any of the performers personally, we feel like we know the ensemble members from seeing them play different roles in different plays.

Even the theater itself was a character in this production: Upon arriving at the doors you immediately saw notices from the management advising that the pitching of tents, setting up campsites, or any similar activity was strictly prohibited. Going through the doors you entered into a lobby under occupation, with hand-lettered cardboard signs dotted around the tents that filled much of the space. The performance space was immersive, with sets spilling off the stage, the walls covered with more protest signs (incongruously including the hand-drawn logos of the play's corporate sponsors), spectators seated on the stage with the actors, and actors performing throughout the audience, on ladders, and on the catwalk over the stage. Characters wore the garish fashions of four and a half years ago - the Montagues now being protesters in the Occupy movement, and the Capulets representing the Establishment (embodied primarily by ambitious political candidate Lady Capulet.) The Prince, who is fed up with the violence between the two factions, has been distributed over several masked police officers in riot gear, his proclamations announced through a bullhorn. Invitations are written on iPads, messages are sent by text, and Romeo's misplaced cell phone spells disaster

This was a very engaging and energetic production, bringing new life to a play that for many has been done to death from high school on. Strangely enough, while the "Occupy" theme of the play seemed remote, almost more like something from the early 1970's than the early 2010's, the positioning of Lady Capulet as an ambitious politician, particularly one in conflict with a movement composed of idealistic youths, opened the possibility of another interpretation. The story was basically one step away from being in the here and now, portraying a conflict between the "establishment" supporters of Hillary Clinton and the "progressive" supporters of Bernie Sanders.

One missed opportunity was the complexity of the character of Mercutio. Mercutio was, as usual, portrayed as the closest friend of Romeo. Yet Mercutio is neither Montague nor Capulet; he is instead a relative of the Prince, and as such can move relatively freely among both sides of the conflict. He can also defy the Prince's orders with some degree of impunity. In the context of this production, Mercutio, excellently and playfully played here, is solidly with the protesters. But his (in this case, her) connection to the Prince in the original would translate into a connection to the riot-geared police in this version - an interesting complication that was not touched upon.

Perhaps the "Occupy" theme was carried a bit too far. There were no programs or playbills provided with cast lists or production notes - nor, as far as I can tell, is this information available at any official site. Instead, audience members were provided with double-sided hand-drawn photocopied sheets, with instructions given by a member of the cast on how to fold them into a matchbook-sized booklet. Unfortunately, this booklet contains very little useful information, and is pretty much just a souvenir of the play. (I was able to glean a partial cast list from several newspaper reviews published online.)

As the actors mingled with the audience before the play I noticed one young lady in a long green dress, and wondered what role she would perform. When the play began she took her place on a riser above the main stage. While she did speak some lines at the beginning of the play - chiding the minions of the Montagues and Capulets squabbling in the street, just before the forces of the Prince show up - it turned out that her role was to provide the music for the play, singing, playing guitar and keyboard, as well as both body and cardboard box percussion. Her voice had a lush, rich, haunting quality to it that reminded me most of Colbie Caillat. (Others have compared her to Norah Jones.) She was joined late in the play by the actors who had portrayed the by-then-deceased Mercutio and Tybalt, and a few others who joined their voices to hers on her song "Man in Black" as the story spiraled to a tragic conclusion. Her musicianship was remarkable almost to the point of being distracting: I realized I was paying more attention to her singing than I was to the action of the play.

Image from

Her name, I learned after the show, is Sydney Panikkar, and she is just fifteen years old - remarkably young, it seemed to me, to be so deeply involved in this production, though I realized later how ironic this is, since the titular characters of the story are only thirteen or fourteen years old. She does not have a website for her music yet, though she does have an online presence through Twitter and Instagram. She also has her music available for sale at the website, where you can download one song at a time or her entire album, "The Perfection in Imperfection."  (Per the site it is available as a download only, but her representatives had physical copies for sale after the play.) She is a talented and promising young musician, and I hope we will be hearing more from her in the future.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Another Monkey Consumer Price Index, 2/2/2016

It's been nearly six years since I've done one of these. Click here to see the last Another Monkey Consumer Price Index post for a single point comparison, or click here to see all my AMCPI posts.

Groceries purchased at Weis, 1 Weis Plaza, Nanticoke PA
(only staple items listed)

2% milk, Weis, half gallon: $1.59
Loaf of Maiers Seeded Italian bread: $3.99*
3 lb. bag McIntosh apples: $4.99*
1 dozen large eggs, Weis: $2.59
1.06 lbs. American cheese: $5.29

*bought on sale

Most recently observed price of gallon of gasoline, 87 octane:

Sam's Club, Wilkes-Barre Township $1.85
Sunoco, Sans Souci Highway, Hanover Township: $1.94

Selected exchange rates for 2/7/2016, per

$1.00 =

0.896142 EUR (Euro)
0.689551 GBP (Great Britain Pound)
67.8797 INR (Indian Rupee)
1.41538 AUD (Australian Dollar)
1.39153 CAD (Canadian Dollar)
116.832 JPY (Japanese Yen)
8.58954 NOK (Norwegian Krone)
77.6146 RUB (Russian Ruble)
6.57315 CNY (Chinese Yuan Renminbi)

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Alpaca in the Sun, November 15, 2015

I've realized I have a lot of untold stories to share - or in this case, a story I shared on Facebook but not here. Time to correct that.

Sunday, November 15, 2015. An old college friend had come up to visit. We had taken a quick ride up to our alma mater, the University of Scranton. I gave him a driving tour of the city and pointed out the changes that had taken place in the twenty-six years since we had graduated. We stopped at a Chinese buffet for lunch, and then tried to think up something fun to do. I suggested taking a ride out to The Lands at Hillside Farms. This little hidden gem in Shavertown, PA is a working dairy farm that also houses conventional farm animals along with some more exotic types, like alpacas.

I find alpacas serenely beautiful, with their thick wooly coats and their faces that seem to display a lack of concern for anyjing happening around them. I was glad I had brought my camera along, since the setting sun provided beautiful backlighting for a the animals, particularly outlining the white alpaca with a brilliant glow.

It was only when I looked at the picture more closely that I realized the sun was also brilliantly highlighting a line of urine being sprayed by the white alpaca.

So, yeah, alpacas.

Hillside Farms was a lot of fun. If you find yourself in Northeastern Pennsylvania, especially in the Back Mountain area near Dallas, check it out!

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Seven days of nature photos, day 7: The Rainbow Bridge

For the last photo in this series, I've chosen a rainbow.

Why this image? I've got lots of pictures of rainbows; this isn't one of the better ones. It's dim, it's only a partial arc, you can't make out any secondary bows. Why this rainbow?

I wanted to pick for my last image something that wasn't just beautiful, but was also recent, and held some meaning for me. Recent nature photos posted to my blog were hard to find. I found myself considering just grasping at something: snow on roses, a pseudoscorpion, a landscape from Ireland.

Then I remembered this rainbow, and its significance. How it appeared over our late neighbor's house just hours after I had accompanied her dog, a dog we had taken care of four four years, to the vet's one last time, to see him off and hold him and hug him as the doctor injected the drugs that would slow his breathing and stop his heart. And there, over his old house, a rainbow that seemed to start at the roof and end in the sky.

I figured this was as good a place as any to end my seven days of nature photos. I hope you enjoyed these posts. Thank you for reading them.

The original post, from July 1, 2015, can be found here.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Seven days of nature photos, day 6: Clouds

And this is the point where I began to understand the reason for this exercise.

I wanted to add a cloud photo to the list. I've always been fascinated by clouds. Clouds are a lot like fire: constantly changing, never appearing the same to two people even if they view it at the same time. No one else is seeing the same thing, and no one else will ever again see the same thing - including you. Once this moment has passed, the cloud you are viewing will be gone forever.

I've taken a lot of pictures of clouds over the years, and I've included some of them on this blog. At least, I did in the early years. In the last few years my blogging has slacked off. In part it's been because I've been extremely busy. Which is sad and ironic: At the time I've been having more things going on in my life than in a long time, I've had the least time to keep a record of those things on my blog. And the place I have been keeping a record, Facebook, I have always considered to be an ephemeral platform, owned and regulated by someone with their own business reasons for doing things. It's Mark Zuckerberg's playground, he's just letting us use it for the moment.

I scrolled through thousands of blog entries looking for interesting pictures of clouds, and realized I hadn't labeled them in a way that would make them easy to pull out. So I created a new label, Clouds, and started labeling old posts with it. I realized then that I had lots of recent cloud posts that I've posted to Facebook but never posted to my blog. Indeed, I hadn't posted much of anything to my blog for the last few years.

When I was presented with this challenge, my friend specifically suggested pulling the photos from blog posts. I think he was actually trying to encourage me to take a look at my blog, see what it used to be, and see how much effort it would take to start posting to it regularly again.

Maybe it's done the trick. There are new blog posts pressing at me now, wanting to get out. Maybe I will start blogging on a regular basis again.

The image above is a sunrise over Nanticoke on October 20, 2005. The original post can be found here.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Seven days of nature photos, day 5: Ants, locked in combat

For day five of the seven day nature photo challenge, I'm doing something a little different. My photos so far have focused on beautiful aspects of nature that are easy to overlook, sun pillars and the shadow of the Earth, an Ambush Bug hiding in a rose and a Full Moon emerging from a cloud bank. This photo is also something easily overlooked, but not quite so beautiful. A great ant battle, hundreds of ants locked mandible to mandible, the dead and dying all around. Why was it happening? I have no idea. I just happened to witness it, and just happened to have a camera on hand.

The original post, from April 23 2007, can be found here.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Seven days of nature photos, day 4: Moonrise over the Susquehanna

Of course I had to include a Moon photo in this series. It was hard to decide on which one to post. Ever since I got my new camera back in 2014, a camera that allowed me to take decent photos of the Moon for the first time, the Moon has been my favorite photographic subject. I even created a whole blog dedicated to it.

This particular photo was part of a larger effort. It was taken September 27, 2015, the night of a total lunar eclipse. I set myself up on the Nanticoke-West Nanticoke bridge, in a location near to where I photographed the shadow of the Earth, hoping to photograph the full Moon rising. I was thwarted by a thick layer of clouds, but eventually the Moon broke through and I got this and many other photos.

Compare the reflection of the Moon on the water to the shape of the sun pillar featured in a previous photo in this series. The Moon's image is being reflected by the surface of the water, while the light of the Sun, still below the horizon, is being reflected by ice crystals in the air.

The original of this photo, as well as the story of what went into getting it, can be found here.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Seven nature photos, day 3: The shadow of the Earth

Like yesterday's entry, the shadow of the Earth is a not-very-rare phenomenon that is nevertheless seldom seen. It is visible on pretty much any relatively clear day just before sunrise or just after sunset. The trick is, it's on the side of the sky opposite the sun. So you need to have the sunrise or sunset at your back to see this. As a bonus, just above the shadow of the Earth you will see a bright pink glow known as the Belt of Venus - the reflected light of all of the sunrises or sunsets taking place just below the opposite horizon!

Like yesterday's Sun Pillar, the shadow of the Earth and the Belt of Venus are featured prominently in a short story I've written - as is the bridge from which these pictures were taken. See the full entry from which this picture was taken - including photos of the bridge itself, and Venus at play in its girders - here.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Seven nature photos, day 2: The Sun Pillar

This second photo is from a post dated April 23, 2006, but was actually taken May 10, 2005, making it more than four months older than yesterday's image. A sun pillar is an amazing and beautiful optical phenomenon, not especially rare, and visible shortly before sunrise and shortly after sunset when the conditions are just right. I have woven a short story around a sun pillar, among other things. And, as always, there was more going on here than just what's in the photo: This was taken during a walk with my dog Haley, who would die of lung cancer just two weeks later. You can read all about it in Untold Tales: The Sun Pillar.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Seven nature photos, day 1: The Lurker in the Roses

A friend on Facebook has invited me to take part in an online exercise, to post seven nature photos in seven days. This is an easy enough challenge, but he further suggested that I do it using photos from posts on my blog.

I decided to take up this challenge, starting with my earliest posts and working my way forward. I was a little surprised to find that very few of the 172 posts from 2004, my first year of blogging, contained any nature photos. 2005 did a bit better, and I found myself with several candidate posts.

I selected this image:

It's a simple enough photo of a rose from the Royal Highness bush I had planted a few years earlier, back in the late summer of 2001. But it was taken on the day my father died, so there's a story that goes with it. And there's a surprise hidden in the image, something I had never seen before, and have never seen since. You can read all about it in my original post, The Lurker in the Roses, from August 30, 2005.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Writers' Showcase, February 27, 2016

On Saturday, February 27 I will be one of the featured readers at the Winter edition of the Writers' Showcase. It will take place at The Old Brick Theatre, 126 W Market Street in Scranton, Pennsylvania from 7:00 PM - 9:00 PM. Admission is $4.00. Readings will include poetry and prose. I will be debuting a brand-new poem that night. Come on out and see (and hear) us!

poster by Alicia Grega
Facebook event page for The Writers' Showcase Winter Edition
Facebook page for The Writers' Showcase

Sunday, January 24, 2016

All Winter in a Day

This past December was exceptionally mild to the point of being warm, on par with the rest of 2015, which was the warmest year on record. Some plants broke their dormancy and started to bud out. Critters that should have been hibernating were out and about. Even some insects flitted around, doing whatever it is that they do.

Christmas Eve was exceptionally warm, but the warm spell didn't last much into the new year. More seasonable temperatures inflicted themselves upon Northeastern Pennsylvania by mid-January, causing much grumbling.

Early in the third week of the month meteorologists were calling for a weekend storm. "Too soon to call," said some. "Not sure how much, but something is sure to happen," said others. "PANIC!" cried others, and the people panicked.

For some people, panic was a smart move.

The storm crawled its way across the country, building strength, drawing moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. It hit the South first, disrupting air traffic on Thursday in places like Raleigh and Charlotte before gathering more moisture from the Atlantic and looping back in a clockwise Nor'easter punch aimed at the Mid-Atlantic seaboard.

By midday on Friday, January 22, meteorologists had a pretty good idea of what the storm would look like for Northeastern Pennsylvania. It would hit that evening and drop light snow overnight, with the heaviest precipitation on Saturday. The snow accumulation would have a sharp gradient in diagonal bands stretching from the northeast to the southwest; the farther to the south and west east , generally speaking, the more snow you would get.

And so it happened.

Scranton got from a dusting to an inch and a half. Williamsport, where a friend had just had a baby, got nothing. Nanticoke received between four and six inches. Hazleton got over a foot.

The worst of the storm seemed reserved for major communities closer to the ocean, though it may simply be those places that are getting the most coverage. Washington, D.C., already crippled by their lack of preparedness for the light snow that fell on Friday, was buried under and paralyzed by about two feet of snow, as were Baltimore, and Philadelphia, and New York, which had been expected to be spared the worst of it and instead received near-record accumulations. Even Boston, for which some forecasts had been predicting zero inches, got a sizable accumulation. Stone Harbor, New Jersey, where I have vacationed in the past, received extensive flooding from the "Back Bay" - a result of a low pressure-induced "storm surge" coupled with a Full Moon-strengthened high tide.

Not that smaller communities haven't been affected. They have. A man near Lancaster died in his running car, half-buried in snow, where he was either taking a break from shoveling or trying to warm the car up to get it free. It was buried by a passing plow, trapping him inside. He apparently died of carbon monoxide poisoning, which I suppose is marginally better than suffocating or freezing to death.

Is this it for Winter? Here in Northeastern Pennsylvania we have had some of our worst snowstorms later in the season, including and particularly the Valentine's Day storm of 2007. There are some rumblings of another storm lining up for later in the week.

I suppose we will just have to wait and see, and keep a good supply of milk, bread, and eggs on hand. Just in case.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Christmas Eve 2015

It's easy to forget about the weather, to think of it only in the context of the moment. Today, January 10, 2016, was gray, clammy, and rainy, not too cold, not too warm - until a brief, windy rainstorm blew through around 5:00 in the afternoon. But last week, briefly, it was cold.

The Winter of 2015-2016 has so far been a sharp contrast to the last two Winters, and even that memory is misleading; neither of those Winters was particularly cold until later in the season, though once the temperatures dropped, they stayed in the bone-shatteringly cold range. The deep freezes of late 2013 and early 2014 were the first in several years, meaning that water that had seeped into cracks in roadways over the previous few years froze all at once, causing three or four years of potholes to emerge in a matter of days. In early 2015, the snows that fell fairly regularly were not particularly heavy, but the snow never melted between snowfalls. While it was easy to shovel the sidewalks after any one snowfall, the snow on the sides of the sidewalks just piled higher and higher.

December 2015 was the warmest on record in Northeastern Pennsylvania. So much so that when I pulled up at my brother's house after work on Christmas Eve for our Vigil Supper, no coat was required.

Christmas Eve 2015 featured a Full Moon. When I arrived at my brother's house I pulled out my camera and grabbed a few shots of the cloud-shrouded Moon rising through the trees.

What used to be "Midnight Mass" was held at my church at 10:00 PM on Christmas Eve. Parishioners used to wearing winter coats in church filled the pews in shirtsleeves. Stepping out after Mass brought some relief - temperatures by then had plummeted into the low 50's and I took the opportunity to try to grab some shots of the Full Moon over the church. This turned out to be a bit of a challenge: the Moon was still wrapped in thin clouds, while the church was surrounded by bright lights. Properly exposing the Moon might mean underexposing the church, while any attempts to get much of the church resulted in all sorts of glare. In the end I settled for two compromise shots. 

Here the overexposed Moon can be seen directly over Orion. I didn't notice Orion when I first took the image, and would not have tought it visible through the clouds.The green orb in the lower left is an internal reflection.

This is a more zoomed-out image, which unexpectedly caught my Mom coming out of the church. (She had assumed I was on my way to the back parking lot to get the car and pick her up in front of the church.) Behind her the lone altar server emerges. She promptly ran up to her parents to let them know how hot she had been!

The warm Christmas Eve was a strange experience, and not entirely unpleasant, though it left everyone with a sense of a world seriously out of whack. The Full Moon was just a nice added touch. What will future Christmas Eves be like? Was this an anomaly, or a new normal?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Ten years of The Littlest Turkey!

While posting it to Facebook last night, I realized my silly little Thanksgiving story is ten years old! Enjoy, and be sure to share it with the kids!

The Littlest Turkey (complete in one post)

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Two poems from 1990, Newark, Delaware

I attended the Writers' Showcase at the Old Brick Theatre in Scranton last night. While I enjoyed all of the featured poets - especially Maggie Glbertson, whose poetry was as always incredibly brave and powerful - I was inspired by the autobiographical narrative poetry of Ali Pica to tell some stories from my own past using the medium of poetry. I thought of two stories I wanted to tell - one, an incident in my apartment in Newark, Delaware in the summer of 1990, and another, a description of working in a TV faceplate factory in the summers of my college years.

I sat down today to write these out, but a third poem came out, based on something I thought about one day while working at AstroPower, a solar cell manufacturer (which today would be termed a "startup" company) that I signed on with after my single, disastrous semester of grad work at the University of Delaware.

I finally did write out one of the other poems. So here they are! First, or at least early, drafts of them.

(By the way: I will be one of the featured readers at the February 27, 2016 edition of the Writers' Showcase! Be there if you can!)


Coffee for roses

the dead go into the pile
leaves and blades of grass
eggshells and vegetable scraps
rotten fruit from the crisper

lobster tails from a New Year's feast
coffee grounds from breakfasts shared
the dried-out husks of a bouquet of flowers
from back when the world was a little bit brighter
back when the smiles came a little bit easier

all go in the pile

bacteria have their way
heat builds, killing seeds
air and water feed the decay
memories consumed by slow fire

and when it is done
when the past has been reduced to small black crumbs
I will take it from the pile
work it into the soil
and plant next year's garden

The ants of Newark, Delaware

When I was renting a room in a townhouse
in Newark, Delaware in the summer of 1990
our kitchen was invaded by ants
a small army of then, little brown things
marching in a line from the back yard
across the concrete patio
through the track of our sliding glass door
across the 70's-era linoleum
up the wooden counter
across the formica counter top
and up the wall into our cabinets

I found them fascinating, and wanted to study them
one housemate wanted to eradicate them
another wanted to deter them gently,
break their trail with peppermint oil
(she was a bit of a hippie, but had a cute girlfriend)

We tried her idea. It didn't work.
Neither did vinegar, or bleach, or baking soda.
The ants kept marching, undeterred by our efforts to protect our food
I stopped being fascinated when I found that they
had worked their way into the threads of a jar of peanut butter
and into the peanut butter itself

I rode off to the supermarket and bought three different types of ant traps
three different brands, in case the ants found one or another unappealing
I placed them every few feet along their track
not just in the house, but outside as well, along the concrete patio,
along the trail that led to the lawn

They didn't work, at first. The ants walked around them, or over them,
unwilling to take the bait
and carry it off to the nest
to poison their queen
and all the other ants

And then, after three days, no more ants.
The ants were gone. Stopped. Dead? I wasn't sure.
But they weren't in our kitchen anymore,
weren't raiding our pantry anymore
weren't getting into my peanut butter anymore

I left the traps out for a few more days
then brought in the ones from outside, before they got rained on
I picked up one and wondered if it had worked
or if the ants had suddenly lost interest and moved on

when I saw that the holes were plugged
with little slivers of plants, no bigger than sawdust
bits of grass or bark or stems
cut and carried from somewhere
carried to the ant trap, the little puck with holes in the sides
filled with poison bait for the ants to carry back to the colony
did they know that this was why they were dying?
did they realize that this was the source of their doom?
did they seal it off in an attempt to save themselves?

Did it work?
Did the poison kill the queen and the entire colony?
Did they seal up the trap and move on?

I never found out. I threw out the trap, washed my hands,
and checked the peanut butter for ants.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Facebook and the November 13, 2015 Paris attack aftermath

I didn't change my Facebook profile picture to the rainbow image back when the Supreme Court made its historic decision to end anti-homosexual discrimination in marriage. I thought it was too trendy, too bandwagon-y. What would I be saying? "Look at me, I am on the side of right, if you disagree you are wrong"? Yeah, pretty much. Even so, I chose not to change it.

After the November 13, 2015 terrorist attack in France, things were different. An indisputably evil act had been done, an assault on random civilians enjoying the benefits of a free society. One of many, to be sure, and not the only one that week. But Facebook again gave the ability to do a profile image overlay, and this time I chose to participate.

ISIS / ISIL / DAESH / fuck those guys, whatever is a barbarous and evil organization that practices a twisted fundamentalist version of Islam. But at the same time they are sophisticated and media-savvy, with slickly-produced recruitment videos, a nicely-put-together magazine featuring a column written by a captive British journalist, and a strong social media presence.

There's not a hell of a lot you or I can do to stop them, short of not joining them and convincing others to not join them. (Carpet-bombing them into the Stone Age might be as effective as it was in North Vietnam, and sending in troops is exactly what they want.) But Facebook's profile image overlay of the French flag gave users a chance to send a message. Not just a message of support for the people of France, but a message to the terrorists. A wall of people from all around the world standing shoulder to shoulder, middle fingers raised, saying "FUCK YOU" with one voice.

It didn't last.

Almost immediately there came the point-and-laugh brigade. "Haha, what do you stupid assholes think you're doing? Y'all ain't doin' shit!" At the same time, Facebook had made this into a temporary option: at the time you modified your profile picture, you could also specify a date when the image would revert. (There were rumors that the rainbow flag image was a social media experiment to see how long users would keep it up, and - probably - under what circumstances they would take it down.)

And then some of the images began being replaced with a new image, mocking the original idea, suggesting that anyone who thought they were helping or changing anything by changing their profile picture was an idiot.

And now, a week after the attacks, most of the images are gone. Taken down, or timed out. Politicians are taking strong and resolute stands about cowering in fear from not just the terrorists, but from anyone who is trying to flee the terrorists, on the assumption that these people might also possibly maybe perhaps have amongst their number a terrorist posing as a refugee. The leading candidate to be the Republican 2016 Presidential nominee is agreeing that registration and monitoring of Muslims is a good idea, while Rhode Island state Senator suggests that the U.S. needs to segregate - or, should we say, concentrate - Syrian refugees into camps.

I don't know where this is going. Maybe in a little while it will be as forgotten as the events of last year. I just wanted to put this out there as a reminder of the events of November 13, 2015, and the way some people chose to respond.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Chaz Bennet: Encounter with a Cow

This is not my story. This is a Chaz story. I first heard this from Chaz Bennett at our writing group, the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers' Collective, the group he founded, in early 2014. By then he had almost completely lost his voice, and was using a voice synthesizer on his tablet to read the story to us. The voice he had chosen was male with a very proper British accent, which made an already funny story that much funnier.

I saw this absurdist tale as a meditation on the Undiscovered Country: not necessarily death, but the unknown that lies beyond this moment. I wanted to read it as the final story at the final open mic at the Vintage Theater back in August of 2014, but I didn't get it from Chaz in time. But he did send it to me, and I think he knew that I would hold onto it until a specific future event happened.

That event has happened. Chaz Patrick Bennett (nee Charles) died on Tuesday, October 27. His obituary was published October 29, and I found out about the funeral this morning, three hours before it took place. I made it there. His wife recognized me and remembered my name. For some reason, that more than anything else made me burst into tears.

Chaz wrote many, many stories over the years. I hope someday they are all seen by the world. Here is one of them.

Note: This story is edited from the version Chaz sent me, to clean up some typos and format the punctuation. It also cuts off a few lines at the end that were not included in the version he read to us. This is not necessarily the definitive version of this story. 

I am walking on a country road.   It' s a sunny day in May and I  feel like obliged to reconnect with nature. I've my Brownie Instamatic hoping to get a picture of robin red breast, the only bird I can recognize. I think I should do this more often. I pause and practice deep breathing.  My friend on nature walks, he stands his head and mediates.  I consider this and rule it out.  For one thing, I don’t know how. For another thing, he’s crazy as a loon.

I hear Louie Armstrong singing ‘What a wonderful...’

Satchmo stops singing, I stop dead and stare.

“You looking at me?  Never saw a talking, purple fucking cow before?'

 I shook my head.

“I cannot hear you.”

“I didn't say anything.”

“Get over here.  You’d think we’re a couple of farmers shouting at each other.”

I'm thinking not every day you get an invite from a purple cow.

I take the bait. I walk to the purple cow making sure the fence is between us. 

“Took you long enough.”

“Can I take your picture?'

“Nooooo. Did that sound like a moo?'

“Yes it did.'

“It did?  I’ve got to work on it.”

“You’re a cow, for christsake.”

“Hey, watch it buddy. I’m born again. As a matter of fact, you can not take my picture, you can not say 'that got past your eyes,’ and if ever call me Betsy, I will bury you under of avalanche of cowshit.”

I sensed that I pissed off the purple cow. Since I have an aversion to manure, I’d continue my nature walk.

“Hey. Where you going”

“No where, man - I mean, cow."

“Don’t lie to me.” 

“I won’t.”

“I like you, pal.  Want to see something?  Come over the fence.”

I do. Why, I don’t know.

“Twist my tail."

I do.

A set of steps pop out of the purple cow.

“Climb  in."

I do.

My feeble attempt at illustrating this story, painted on the wall of The Vintage in Scranton at the very last 24 Hours of Art celebration. The Vintage closed shortly afterwards.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Moon over downtown Nanticoke, October 27, 2015

I stopped at the grocery store after work tonight to pick up some things for my mom. As I turned from Market Street onto Main on my way home, I saw a sight that made me think "I wish I had my camera with me." The just-past-Full Moon was rising through clouds, lighting up the sky gray and silhouetting the century-old architecture  and modern sodium vapor lights that line Main Street. Then I remembered that I did have my Nikon p520 camera with me. I pulled over into a parking spot in front of one of Nanticoke's  ancient banks to see what I could do.

I first tried a shot from inside the car, with the camera propped on the steering wheel. This was less than ideal: The Moon was off-center, the bent street sign for South Prospect Street was in the way, and the windshield wiper scratches created lens flares that would make J.J. Abrams swoon. I decided to step out of the car and try my luck with taking pictures from the middle of Main Street.

You'd be surprised at how much traffic there is on Main Street in Nanticoke at 7:30 on a Tuesday night. I know I was. My location in the middle of the road gave me a better angle on the Moon, but also meant I was in danger of getting run over. Also, the low light levels meant the camera needed more stability than just being held freehand, so everything came out blurred.

Finally I gave up and packed it in. The oncoming traffic was one thing, but the sound of cars approaching from behind was unnerving. Plus, the Moon was moving out of position and into obscuring clouds. Most of my photos came out blurred and useless. I laughed when I reviewed the images and realized that the best one was one that I took from the safety and stability of my parked car.

And the lens flares don't look so bad, either!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Susquehanna (poem)

The theme for this year's Poetry in Transit was "River." For those who don't know, Poetry in Transit is a project led by Mischelle Anthony from Wilkes University to have short poems by local poets displayed in the advertising spaces of Luzerne County Transit Authority buses. The project has been going on for a few years, though I only became aware of it two years ago. I submitted an excerpt of an already-written poem last year, and it was chosen as one of the poems for display.

I didn't have a suitable poem to submit this year, so I realized I would have to create one. I mused on it while mowing the lawn - this is actually an excellent time to compose poetry or plot out stories - and tried to think of the images that came to mind when I thought of the Susquehanna river. ("Susquehanna" wasn't a requirement: the theme could just as easily have been used to compose a poem about River Tam, or River Song, or the River Styx.) The most pressing memory was one that was idiosyncratic and personal, and, I realized, would be understood by no one but me. The others were also personal, but wouldn't need the same level of explanation.

Books  pressed against the ceiling
a lifetime of memories at the curb
Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" at sunset
unseen fish breaking the surface of morning
girder shadows blue on the ice
thus will I remember you

I hate poetry that needs explanation to be understood. I have heard some excellent poems that made no sense without prefatory comments - and would future readers have access to these comments? So how could I explain the "Books pressed against the ceiling" line without doing this very thing?

And then it hit me: I could explain it in a poem - which I presented at the Poetry in Transit rollout event.


Agnes came through when I was four and a half
young, but not too young to remember a time before then
it wandered up from the Gulf on a drunkard's walk
came ashore through New York City
and hit Pennsylvania

the rain came down and the winds blew for days
our basement flooded, but that was about it,
and then the storm moved further north and stalled out
dumping its load of rain into the headwaters of the Susquehanna

My uncle was getting married the day the flood came
the river carried away his wedding cake
A few days later he drove us to the edge of town, where Main Street in Nanticoke becomes the San Souci parkway, drops down to head for Wilkes-Barre
It dropped down into water. There was no more road after that
And the lights of Wilkes-Barre were dark

My father took us into the flood zone a few weeks later, after the river had receded and the cleanup had begun
the streets were brown, like the grass and the trees, yellow-brown and dusty
we found a glass decanter, probably from Avon, in the shape of an old Volkswagen
it had belonged to somebody, and now it was garbage
we kept it, heedless of the toxins that coated it

We went to his aunt's house
she had stayed there, had planned to ride out the storm,
and had to be rescued by boat from her second floor window
Her front room had held a library, hundreds of books, maybe more
the Susquehanna's waters had floated them out of their shelves, floated them to the plaster ceiling
held them there and kept on rising
when the water receded the books were ruined things, dead, destroyed,
but they had left imprints on the ceiling,
colored stains on the white plaster,
faint images of the covers of hundreds of books, jumbled and arrayed where no books should ever be
ghosts of the books they had once been

Books  pressed against the ceiling
a lifetime of memories at the curb
Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" at sunset
unseen fish breaking the surface of morning
girder shadows blue on the ice
thus will I remember you, Susquehanna

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Moonrise over the Susquehanna, September 27, 2015

I spent some time on the Nanticoke-West Nanticoke bridge at and after sunset on Sunday, September 27, 2015. That was the night of the conveniently-timed (for the East Coast of the U.S., at least) total lunar eclipse described here. I wanted to catch the moonrise. I only had a vague sense of where the Moon would rise, within about sixty degrees, but I was hoping I would get some cool moonlight-on-water effects. As you can see in the image above, I did.

I wanted to get the moonrise because the Moon that night was going to be a "Supermoon," significantly larger than the average angular size of the Moon thanks to it being at its closest point in its orbit at the same time as being Full. This is something you can't really notice without some sort of measuring device, like an aspirin or pencil eraser held at arm's length - normally this will cover the face of the Moon entirely, but for a Supermoon it will not.

I had the timings of the Moon's rise memorized, but the appointed time came and went with no sign of it. I didn't realize until the next day that the time displayed on my camera was four minutes faster than the actual time, but even with such an allowance the Moon was distinctly absent. I began to suspect some supervillain had stolen it. Then it appeared, like headlights piercing the fog.

It had been above the horizon but hidden behind a thick layer of clouds. But that didn't matter: it was here now, and all was forgiven!

Until a minute later, when it vanished again behind another layer of clouds.

And so we began a waiting game, waiting for the Moon to clear the clouds and put on a show for me. After a few more minutes of being gawked at by passers-by who wondered why I was on the pedestrian walkway of a bridge taking photos of nothing, the Moon again broke through the cloud layer.

The Moon was safely clear of the thick light-blocking layers, so now it was just a matter of waiting for the sky to darken a bit to allow better images.

I posted my favorite photo of this sequence at the top of this post.

Finally, it was time to call it a night, head home, and get ready for the eclipse in a few hours. I grabbed one last image as I was getting ready to pack away the camera and tuck the tripod under my arm.

And so ended the first part of the evening's lunar photography.