Saturday, August 26, 2017



Oh, shit! I’ve only got an hour and a half to write about the big eclipse! If you missed it yourself, maybe I can help give you a sense of what it was like. And if you saw it in person, clearly you love a solar eclipse and this post is for you, too.

Total solar eclipse of Aug 21, 2017

I witnessed the eclipse from the Bay Area, or to be precise my house at 37.8851 latitude, -122.27531 longitude. (Well, that’s precise enough to give you the idea, without helping you burglarize my house.) Of course I could have found a better locale, but to be honest I put off my eclipse planning until the morning of. Local options, according to a helpful website, included Indian Rock Park, UC Berkeley, Civic Center park, the public library, and the Chabot Space & Science Center. Most of these recommendations centered around who else would be there (e.g., “There are sure to be gaggles of smart Cal students viewing the solar eclipse around campus”). While I can appreciate this—after all, the most fun part for me about touring Amsterdam’s Red Light District wasn’t watching the sad, ragged prostitutes but rather the Oklahoma hayseeds ogling them—astronomy really is more of a solitary activity, don’t you think?

Part of my decision came down to weather, of course. I wasn’t about to drag my family up to the Chabot Space & Science Center if the Berkeley hills were blanketed by fog, so at dawn I did a little recon of the area, by bicycle. (Full disclosure: I’d have ridden up there anyway.) Here’s what I found:

Dang it! I decided to avoid any kind of hassle and just watch from home. My hopes weren’t entirely dashed, though, as the forecast was for the fog to burn off by 10 a.m., with the eclipse starting at 10:15. It was going to be close.

At 10 sharp, with the sky still a uniform grey, I decided to wake up my kids. (Yeah, that kind of teenager, that kind of summer.) I made like this was gonna be epic. My younger daughter grabbed her camera. We headed out back. I’d set a timer to count down until 10:15, without telling my kids the inconvenient truth that they’d probably already missed a lot of it. To be honest, I was a little vague about the details myself. I knew I was supposed to get some kind of special viewing goggles, so that we could see a progressively larger bite being taken out of the sun before things got dark, but I never got around to procuring them. My wife was similarly useless.

Speaking of my wife, I’ll confess I have no idea where she even was for the eclipse. It’s possible she didn’t know what time or even day it was to transpire. She’s not a giant astronomy fan. Back in like ‘97 we were vacationing at Canyonlands National Park and my dad joined us. We went to this very remote place, far away from any lights or people, and my dad set up his telescope. For the next 2 or 3 hours (or so it felt) he gave us an astronomy lesson. I’m not a great lover of this subject myself; the only constellations I can make out are  the Big Dipper and Orion’s Belt. My interest waned, at a very young age, after I found out my brother Max had lied to me about the Big Dipper. He said that meteorologists can predict rain based on whether the Dipper is right-side-up or upside-down. This seemed so incredibly useful that I couldn’t take the truth later. Plus, to a simple guy like me, the constellations seem like such bullshit. It takes so much imagination for this or that collection of stars to resemble something, you might as well just make it up from scratch. “There’s the Devil’s Skateboard over there, you see, and if you follow that line of stars up—there, you see that cluster there? That’s Dracula’s Harelip.”

So anyhow, my dad’s lesson was losing me entirely, I was suffering from museum knees, and then my wife heard a noise and turned on a flashlight to make a quick scan around us.  “Thanks a lot,” my dad chided, “you just ruined astronomy.” (The flashlight beam had spoiled our night vision, you see.) I’ll never let my wife live this down. If she ever suffers a setback I say, “Well, you are the woman who ruined astronomy.”

It’s tempting to say our poor eclipse preparations were a result of my intimidation in the face of science types, or my wife’s emotional scars from the Canyonlands episode, but the truth is, we’re just kind of disorganized. This poor parenting is particularly flagrant considering how well my dad had risen to the occasion for my last solar eclipse, which was in February 1979 and which I witnessed from my hometown of Boulder, Colorado. My dad, who was an actual rocket scientist, had equipped my brother Max and me with these cool little flat rectangles of smoked glass. If we stacked the two of them together, we could look right at the eclipse. This might not seem like a big deal in this modern day and age where everybody and her mom gets special eclipse glasses, but in those benighted days nobody had this. We were all just supposed to go outside and prance around and be excited until the darkness came.

And that’s what my less fortunate classmates were doing (the whole elementary school was let outside for this, and it was a brilliant sunny day) when they spied Max and me taking in the action and uttering spontaneous wow-cool noises. They crowded around and begged us to let them have a turn with our little glass pieces. This was unprecedented. I mean, sure, kids gathered around us on the playground all the time, but only to shout insults, pummel us, witness us being pummeled, and so on. They never gave us anything approaching friendly interest.

(You might think I’m exaggerating. I encountered a Bay Area native recently who has always thought of Boulder as a dreamy, hippie, flowery place where everybody is sweet and good and nice. I assure you that Boulder in the ‘70s was nothing of the kind. Schoolyard bullying was entirely tolerated and the place was full of vicious little bastards. Believe me.)

So this benign attention from my classmates was novel. Kids were actually saying “please” to me. And so, after I’d had my fill of the spectacle of the sun looking a bit like a progressively less full moon, I relented and allowed my friends a try. “Now here’s the thing,” I cautioned, “you can’t put one lens over each eye. You have to stack the little glass lenses together and look through the pair with just one eye.” (Actually, however I put it was surely less articulate than that.) I went on, “If you look through just one of them, you’ll be blinded!” My dad had driven this message home to Max and me, and we weren’t even tempted to push our luck. But my friends ignored this warning completely and put one lens over each eye.

“Man alive, that’s AMAZING!” they cried. Now they were set upon by the other kids, and of course my friends (all two of them) let their friends have a try, and they let their friends, or at least the more popular kids they wanted to curry favor with, and pretty soon half the school was getting a turn. I kind of wanted my lenses back, but the more pressing matter was that every single kid was doing it wrong, holding one lens up to each eye, so I knew the whole lot of them were going to go blind and it was all my fault. I could have yelled, “Stop it, you fools, you’ll go blind!” but I was just too shy.

Finally, some even quieter kid (who had probably been waiting in vain for a turn) said, “Isn’t everybody going to go blind?” I shrugged and said, “Yeah, I guess.” This kid went running off to get the Principal, who came running out, horrified, and confiscated Max’s and my lenses. He eventually gave them back but on the condition that we only blind ourselves with them since we had our parents’ permission to do so. Ah, those were the days.

But Max and I only got the basic eclipse gear… for our older brothers, Dad did something even cooler. He built this thingy that would attach to the non-eyepiece end of a telescope to turn it into a projector. Little wooden rods a few feet long attached to a white disk onto which an image of the eclipse would be projected. I don’t suppose this is actually a miracle of engineering, as I’ve just looked online and found similar (though frankly less elegant) versions depicted. But back then, nobody ever took initiative like this. Boulder dads were smart, I guess, but in my experience they were either absentminded professor types always puttering in the lab, or granola-loving hikers wandering around on trails, or the generic grunting type of dad who seemed to always be watching the Bronco or Buffs game. These men didn’t send their kids to school with a precious telescope, tripod, and handmade thingy to worry about breaking.

And so my older brothers, Geoff and Bryan, were even bigger heroes than Max and I were. The whole fricking junior high crowded around them as they assembled the amazing eclipse-viewing apparatus, and everybody oohed and aahed at the sight of that bitten-into sun. In fact, one teacher was overheard telling her colleague, “I heard Dr. Albert is an honest-to-god rocket scientist, plus he’s tall and has broad shoulders. I would sleep with him in a heartbeat.” I might be exaggerating a bit here, because a) I wasn’t actually there, this being at my brothers’ school, and b) I totally made that up. But it could have happened.

The newspaper showed up, and my brothers with their telescope apparatus made the front page—big photo, story, the whole bit!  The reporter spelled both their names wrong … I mean, he wasn’t even close. It was like “Brien and Gorrlfley,” almost like he deliberately got them wrong out of spite, or so it seemed to me back then.

Getting back to 2017, and this recent eclipse: when my timer chimed, indicating the official start of the totality, I yelled, “Kids, it has begun!” I tried to get them to prance around joyfully but they seemed a bit disappointed in the reality of the spectacle. At this point, special eclipse goggles would have been useless. What would we have even looked at? From across the fence I heard my neighbor yell, “Where’s the sun?”

Now, don’t think I didn’t bring any gear to the event. I did have my camera and made a movie. Look, here it is!

My favorite part of the eclipse was when my neighbor called out over the fence, “Dana, I’m so glad to have shared this profound experience with you.”

But the eclipse wasn’t over yet! I ran inside and called my brother Bryan. He was witnessing amazing things even as we spoke, having taken his lucky family on a long road trip to Culver, Oregon, near Bend (i.e., in the middle of nowhere). I tried to find Culver on Google Maps. “It’s near this hippie commune called Madras,” Bryan explained unhelpfully. Here’s the map.

Bryan was so excited. “Dude, did you see the Bailey’s Beads?” he asked. “Did you see the Diamond Ring?” I’d never heard of either of these phenomena in my life, but I confidently answered, “We did not.” He hadn’t either, somehow, despite everything else being perfect.

“It wasn’t pitch dark,” he said breathlessly, “but we could feel it getting colder. The streetlights came on. We could see planets, but not stars. We were supposed to see these snake-y shadow things, like snakes slithering over the ground. Maybe the hippies up in Madras could see those. It was so, so unbelievably cool. The shadow moves at 4,000 mph across the ground. We could see this mountain range in the distance that wasn’t dark yet.”

I asked about this thing only lasting for two minutes. That really didn’t match my memory of it. “No, it’s the total darkness that lasts for two minutes [you fricking moron],” he said. “The bite being gradually taken out of the sun takes like” (what did he say, an hour? two hours?). “I’m still watching the sun come back out from behind it, even as we speak [you ignorant fool]!”

I asked if he had protective goggles. “Yeah, stupid protective goggles!” he said. “They’re so lame, they’ve got these warnings all over them, across every printable surface, warning how dangerous this endeavor is, saying it every way they can think of, saying ‘Do not look for more than 3 minutes.’ Why not? I’m gonna look for an hour and then write them a letter!”

Here are a few of my nieces rocking their über-cool eclipse goggles:

I bemoaned my lost opportunity to travel to a good eclipse-viewing spot where I could inculcate in my offspring the majesty of the celestial heavens. “Well, there are lots of lunar eclipses you could watch with them,” Bryan offered. I made the mistake of admitting that I’m not real clear on what a lunar eclipse even is. He started to explain it, and I felt like a kid again. A stupid kid.

“You see, the Earth rotates around the sun on one plane. The moon rotates around the earth in a slightly different plane. When these line up you get an eclipse. So there’s the shadow of the moon that’s smaller than the earth, so it crosses over the humina humina humina and then there’s this arctangent and blah blah blah penumbra, and then over here you’ve got your lunar orbital plane 5.1 degrees from the ecliptic, and then [unintelligible], and you are getting very sleepy, keep your eyes on the swinging watch, you are going down, down, down….”

Suddenly my neck jerked. “Hello, hello, hello?” Bryan was asking. “Sorry, I was talking to Mute,” I said sheepishly. “So … tell me about your road trip. Tell me about the venue. [Tell me something I can grasp.]”

“Dude, so, you need to get signed up on Twitter, because NASA has some really cool stuff. I’ve seen countless lunar eclipses because I’ve been on guard for them,” Bryan said, apparently in earnest. So if there’s anything I’ve learned from this eclipse, it’s that there are even nerdier people in this world than I.

“[Enough with the lunar eclipse!] So tell me about your road trip,” I persisted. “Tell me about Culver.”

“Oh yeah! So we got here at like 3 a.m. No problem parking. Biggest issue is that the town didn’t really prep for the eclipse crowd. Fortunately there are 3 San-O-lets left over from the crawdad festival (kinda bummed I missed that), but they were totally overflowing, each with this mountain of crap almost up to the hole, and no toilet paper of course. That was pretty gross. On the plus side, the mayor came through with all these pans of cornbread, also left over from the crawdad festival, which she was trying to get people to take. We ended up accepting a 20x30-inch pan of cornbread which we ate with chili. It wasn’t bad. Apparently here in Oregon they believe that incarcerated people should work, so the cornbread was baked by prisoners.”

 “So you found all these files baked into it?” I asked. He replied, “Yeah, and wads of spit too. But good.”

That’s almost my entire story of the big eclipse. But then there was this sad epilogue yesterday evening. My older daughter was sitting at the computer looking really glum. My wife was concerned and trying to draw her out, to figure out the problem. College prep worries? A falling out with a friend? My wife was getting nowhere.

Finally I said, half-jokingly, “Is it the eclipse?” My daughter almost smiled. “It is, actually,” she said. She was touring the Internet reading about the eclipse and came across Randall Munroe’s xkcd cartoon about it. If you hover your mouse over the cartoon you get an extra caption: “It was—without exaggeration—the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” Munroe is to my daughter what Justin Bieber is to most teenage girls, so this was a profound statement. It was dawning on my daughter just how much she’d missed out on by having a deadbeat, incurious, non-science-obsessed dad.

I had to make it up to her. So we looked up the next big eclipse, which hits Texas in 2024. We studied the eclipse path online. It goes right through Austin, a city I’ve always wanted to visit. “Look,” I told her, “your Uncle Peter raced on the national team with Lance Armstrong. Surely Lance will remember him. Lance has a place in Austin. A big ol’ ranch, I’ll bet. I’ll send a few e-mails, call in some favors, and get us invited.  I’m getting such an early start … surely this can be arranged. So. Count on it. You, me, Lance … ECLIPSE 2024, BAYBEE!”

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