Sunday, April 14, 2024

From the Archives - So We Missed the Eclipse


I initially drafted this post back when my older daughter, A—, was home for Thanksgiving the year she moved away for college (but before COVID-19 brought her temporarily home again). I took advantage of her being around to query her on something close to my heart: what I should blog about next. (For me, coming up with a topic is, hands-down, the hardest part of being a blogger.) So long as she responded, this would be a can’t-lose situation: I might get a useable topic, and either way we’d have a meaty conversation.

In this case, I got both! Her topic? How our family missed out on doing anything fun around the total solar eclipse back in August of 2017. “I have a lot to say on that,” my daughter declared. So I grabbed my laptop to take notes, and we had a nice dialogue, which became a blog post. But for some reason, I never posted it. Now, with another eclipse have recently transpired, I’ve decided to remedy that.

Why would you read this? Maybe you are a father, or are going to be. Maybe you’re a daughter or son, or used to be. Or, maybe you care about astronomy, eclipses, or just science in general. Or perhaps you just hope I can make you laugh. As always, I’ll do my best.

By the way, this is the one photo I snapped from last Monday’s eclipse:

So we missed the eclipse – Nov 13, 2019

We didn’t entirely miss the eclipse but we sure didn’t get the most out of it. As I described in these pages at the time, I was totally disorganized and hadn’t thought up any great way to see it. My wife and I were vaguely aware that people were traveling to rural Oregon to experience the full effect, but we weren’t too keen on braving any crowds.

(By the way, here is the photo that pops up when you do a Google Maps search on Culver City. The 2017 eclipse has evidently put the place on the map.)

After the eclipse was over, that evening, my wife and I noticed that A— seemed glum. We tried to draw her out, to figure out the problem. College prep worries? A falling out with a friend? Finally I said, half-jokingly, “Is it the eclipse?” My daughter almost smiled. “It is, actually,” she said, a bit sheepishly. 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-y dad. Little did I realize my daughter would bring this up, two years later, in one of our first real conversations since she went off to college.

DA. Okay, so yeah… we missed the eclipse. We could have traveled to see it but we didn’t. In my defense, you had not indicated any particular interest.

AA. I just thought that was one of those things you’d figure out. My friends’ parents booked hotels in advance and I expected you had a plan. I figured that as the offspring of a rocket scientist you would be interested in it the same way I was. You’d seen stuff like that as a kid … your dad had done so much when the eclipse came through your town.

[My late father was literally a rocket scientist.]

DA. At what point did it dawn on you I wasn’t stepping up?

AA. Well, when my friends were talking about their plans I started to realize we probably weren’t doing anything. But I wasn’t too disappointed because I thought it would probably be one of those lame things like “Oh, your shadow’s a different color,” where you have to try to feel impressed by it. Or maybe I was being all skeptical just so I would be disappointed.

DA. So it never occurred to you to speak up and let me know you had interest.

AA. I think I mentioned it in passing. But I wanted to seem chill, like I didn’t really care, you know. It wouldn’t be very “cool teen” of me to say, “Hey, we should build a vacation around this!”

DA: But you’re bringing it up now, so clearly you’re a little bitter.

AA: Yes, I’m bitter.

DA: So does this reflect on my parenting?

AA: More than anything else you’ve ever done in your life. This is what will come out on the therapist’s couch in twenty years. It’s what led me down the road to academic ruin.

(This “academic ruin” comment is my daughter having a bit of fun. Decades ago, my brothers and I were in our dad’s car, along with his second wife, and as we passed by Bear Creek Elementary School our dad said to her, “There’s the school that led my boys down the road to academic ruin.” This comment produced only awkward silence at the time, but ever since my brothers and I trot it out routinely, along with other famous Dad-isms like, “You’re not very bright, are you.” After our Thanksgiving dinner the other night, I took a walk with my wife and daughters, and as we passed by their old elementary school, I said to my wife, “There’s the school that led our kids down the road to academic”—here I paused for effect and to feel my daughters’ glare, and then continued—“glory.”)

DA: How much of this eclipse remorse is just envy of your friends, a FOMO thing?

AA: It’s one of those bucket list things, a cultural phenomenon, like this mass pilgrimage to the Pacific Northwest where everyone can all be there for the same reason … but we just sat at home, not doing that, just being lame.

DA: Are both your parents equally culpable?

AA: No, it’s more you, because this was more your area, with your rocket scientist dad and everything, so you should have seen this as a bonding opportunity.

DA: Did it occur to you that astronomy was not something that brought my dad and me together?

AA: Well, it was an interest he had that I thought you might share. Anyone can appreciate an eclipse whether or not you know much about it.

DA: So it never occurred to you that science in general, and astronomy in particular, was a sore spot where my dad was concerned…

AA: I didn’t know your dad ruined astronomy for you … I thought it was the other way around!

(Here I need to provide some more background. My wife, you see, is famous within our family for having “ruined astronomy.” Here is the whole story, as recounted in my 2017 eclipse post:

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. 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.”)

 AA: An eclipse isn’t like being lectured to … you could reclaim astronomy for yourself instead of associating it with boredom.

(At this point, my younger daughter L— happened to wander by.)

DA: L—, are you at all disappointed that we didn’t do anything to see the eclipse?

LA: What eclipse? I don’t remember. I don’t care about eclipses.

DA (to A— again): So here’s the thing. When I pointed out Orion’s belt to you, I mentioned that it’s my favorite constellation because it’s so simple and easy to see. So did you really take me for a guy who cared about astronomy? How science-y have you taken me to be, historically?

AA: I think you’re non-science-y as a deliberate act. You’re a smart guy and you’re good at math, so it’s almost like you’re trying not to care, like you want to act like it’s not a big deal because you have these negative associations…

DA: Associations based on …?

AA: On your dad, because he always lectured and made you feel lame, and small, and insignificant, and inferior.

DA: So you totally do get that he kind of ruined astronomy for me.

AA: Yes, but I thought this could be your chance to make it yours, to get it right, like a do-over. Like your entire family, Mom and L— are I, are your do-over. And this is why you’re so sorry to see me move away, because this family was your chance to have that positive father-child relationship, and now that’s coming to an end somewhat.

DA: But obviously I want you to go off to college.

AA: Yeah, but now your world is shrinking and something is coming to an end. Of course, our relationship is stronger [than what you had with your dad] which means you got it right.

DA: Do you think there’s anything pathological in my do-over thing?

AA: No, that’s totally natural, that’s the American dream, to give your kids better than what you had.

DA: Well, I certainly want to say that I didn’t become a father just to have a do-over. I wanted to have kids from so early on, I hadn’t yet realized there was anything wrong with my family. I still thought my dad was The Man.

AA: Well, yeah, that was a complex relationship, thinking your dad was The Man.

DA: But don’t all kids think their dad is The Man?

AA: Yes, but then you had to realize over time that this wasn’t a guy just to imitate like so many kids end up doing … that you had to figure out what was wrong with his parenting and not repeat that. I remember early on, when I was a little kid, how you told us that whenever you were trying to figure out how to be a good father you’d think of what your dad would do, and do the opposite.

DA: I’m a little surprised I would say that … I must have been sleep-deprived.

AA: Well, you wrote it in my journal.

(Yes, I had written something pretty scathing in her childhood journal but won’t print here. When I wrote it, on the occasion of my first Father’s Day as a father, I was definitely sleep-deprived and grumpy, but of course I could have revised it later and toned it down. But my judgment, though harsh, wasn’t wrong and I let it stand.)

DA: Well, in terms of doing the opposite of my dad, failing to get excited about the eclipse was at least consistent. My dad’s efforts around that Boulder eclipse were the rare example of him going above and beyond. There’s no way I could have come close to matching that. I don’t know how to rig up a telescope eclipse projector or make pieces of smoked glass to view the eclipse through. Of course I did have the resources to take you to where the eclipse was happening, but it didn’t occur to me you were interested. It just never came up. I didn’t even know that Uncle Bryan’s family was traveling to see it. We could have all gathered together for it … somehow we just never touched base on the whole thing. What a wasted opportunity.

AA. I thought it was one of those things where it’d be cool if it had been your idea.

DA: But you didn’t get really upset until you read what Randall Munroe said about it.

AA: Well, that was the icing on the cake, one more person saying this was an amazing experience.

DA: And a real authority too.

AA: Yes, a guy who has probably seen all kinds of cool science things but thought this was exceptional.

DA: You pointed out earlier that my dad’s lecturing made me feel small and insignificant … and I think it’s interesting that that’s exactly what looking at the stars is purported to do: to make us realize our insignificance.

AA: Yes, but in a way that doesn’t involve the ego. Stargazing is the broad and nihilistic way of feeling small, where there’s nothing we can do about it, nothing anybody can do. Knowing about rockets doesn’t matter, this is too vast. Ego is like people vs. people, whereas the heavens remind us we’re all small and insignificant, so there’s no point butting heads over it.

DA: I think that’s a passive way of appreciating nature’s grandeur, but I like an active way of fully experiencing nature’s power by butting up against it. I’m talking here about—

AA: Biking?

DA: Yes, about tackling a mountain on my bicycle to appreciate its sheer size and power, but without totally submitting. I’m putting myself against it, and though the mountain will be always be larger than me, I’m better for having flung myself at it.

AA: But there’s no way to actively fight the universe like that. Not even an astronaut can scratch the surface, and there’s nothing you can ever do in your life to take it on. An analogy I can make is that my friend is a math major at MIT so she knows a lot of math people, and most of them prefer applied math, because you can put it to use, so you’re, like, wielding it. But my friend prefers pure math, which is so heady most people will never understand the concepts or make any headway, so for her it’s like an art form, like beauty for its own sake, because the math has this unattainability. So she appreciates it in a different way, like we would appreciate music and other things that aren’t so concrete. Most people are more interested in things we can apply, because it makes us feel more powerful, more in control, more like “We’ve got this.”

DA: But you like tackling mountains.

AA: I like both realms. The attainable one is just easier. It’s easier to find the applications that give us that control. Chemistry is about what we can observe, what we can measure, experiments we can conduct, whereas astronomy can help us feel that awe, that cosmic awe. That’s the name of my band: Cosmic Awe.

DA: You’re in a band?

AA: My hypothetical band. Obviously.

DA: Had you shown this love of awe before the eclipse, and I just didn’t see it?

AA: Everybody appreciates that awe. I assumed you did too.

DA: It’s one thing to be awake to it, another entirely to plan a big road trip to go seek it. You know that I love the power of nature, apparently more than a lot of people around here who never take advantage of our regional parks, and cycling (especially mountain biking) is how I indulge that. That’s a lot easier than heading all the way to Oregon.

AA: But Oregon is more special, the rarity of this occurrence makes that worth the trip.

DA: Fair enough. So … the next full solar eclipse is in Austin, Texas in 2024. Let’s plan on it.

AA: Yes, let’s!

[Oops. That obviously didn’t happen. But at least my daughter, now a full adult living on her own, was complicit in not getting around to doing anything for it. At least we exchanged photos.  Maybe we’ll head up to Montana for the next one, in 2044! Check these pages in a couple decades for a full report.]

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