Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Countdown to Discovery's Last Mission

For you NASA fans out there (and really, who isn't), tomorrow is the scheduled launch of STS-133, the space shuttle Discovery's final mission. She is scheduled to liftoff at 4:50 PM Eastern Standard Time from Cape Canaveral en route to the International Space Station. I've added a countdown clock to my sidebar. It's supposed to play the sound of a shuttle launching when it gets to zero - or it might just blow up my blog. Either way, spectacular!

If the stars align, I hope to be there with my family to view the launch. Fingers crossed! A lot (millions) of things have to go right to get a shuttle off the ground. The last scheduled shuttle launch will be in April. That will be Mark Kelly's mission on the final flight of the space shuttle Endeavor. NASA is trying desperately to get funding for one more mission in June - one more launch for Atlantis to the ISS, but budgets are tight at the moment, as we all know.

Assuming Discovery takes off before the end of the weekend, I will post launch video and pictures next week. I wish I could share the whole body experience, but sound and images are the best I can do. If you want to watch the launch live, go to the NASA TV website. Your cable company might also carry the NASA TV feed.  Maybe CNN, too. They've provided pretty good coverage of space shuttle launches in the past.

Tell your kids this is one of the last two or possibly three times they will see their country's storied space program send astronauts into space (sigh). The future of manned space flight in America is in the hands of the commercial sector once the space shuttle is retired. I'm not sure my heart will swell with quite the amount of pride when Americans start going into space for profit instead of as the national heroes that they have been throughout the history of NASA. It certainly won't be the same without the NASA meatball onboard.

Godspeed Discovery...

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day!

Happy Valentine's Day! I hope everyone is in a Valentine's Day frame of mind.  It can be brutal for those in the lonely hearts club. I've been all over the spectrum of loving or hating Valentine's Day through the years. I've loved it when I've had someone with whom to share the sentiment of the day and hated it when I didn't. I've been occasionally annoyed by the obligation of sending cards or flowers but always delighted to receive them.Growing up, I could always count on a sweet treat from my Mom and maybe something new and red to wear. That's what my kids have come to know - that and a heart-shaped pan of Pilsbury cinnamon rolls with pink icing, a pink chocolate rose for Kathryn, and Swedish Fish or Twizzlers for Henry.

I was going to write about the history of Valentine's Day, but NPR does a perfectly good job of it in this story.  No need to reinvent the wheel:

The Dark Origins of Valentine's Day

Well OK, I can't resist embellishing with a little additional info. that I came across in my internet sleuthing. The day as we know it probably has it's origins in the medieval tradition of courtly love. Chaucer is the first person known to mention a "Valentine's Day" in his poem, The Parliament of Fowls, written somewhere around 1382 give or take a few years. 

The first actual Valentine known to us was written by a French Duke - Charles, Duke of Orleans - from his river-view room in the Tower of London. He was confined there after being captured at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. During his relatively comfortable 25-year long captivity in England, he became something of an accomplished poet, and this note to his wife can still be seen on display in the British Museum:

“Je suis desja d'amour tanné
Ma tres doulce Valentinée…”
(Charles d'Orléans, Rondeau VI, lines 1–2:)

The old French roughly translates to

“I am already sick/bored of love
My very gentle Valentine…”

An illumination of Charles, Duke of Orleans
imprisoned in the Tower of London

Wishing everyone a heartfelt Valentine to start the week.  I've included an incredibly random playlist below of Valentunes from my iTunes library.  I have a truly bizarre mix of songs as a result of my kids and I sharing a library.  There is no rhyme, reason or order to the song selection.  The songs might be a little slow to load, so be patient.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Happy Groundhog Day! (or Candlemas, St. Brigid's Day, Imbolc, or Marmot Day!)

Good riddance, January! The darkest month is in our rearview mirror, and the countdown to spring is on. Our days are steadily getting longer, and valentines and presidents' birthdays are on the horizon. One day I'm going to find something to love about cold, dark January, but it hasn't occurred to me yet. Any month that starts with a hangover and ends with W-2s can't be good.

February may actually be my favorite month of the year, maybe just by virtue of following January. I know we are still in the throes of winter weather, and some of our biggest snowfalls have historically nailed us in February, but it is always the month when spring shows herself in some way for the first time. Maybe I'm a little overeager, but something about February feels like the dimmer switch is being turned up just a little.

Clearly ancient civilizations sensed this as well, because many of them marked the first days of February with customs and celebrations. In Ireland, the ancient festival of Imbolc, also called St. Brigid's Day, was celebrated at the first of the month, which the ancient Gaels considered the start of spring. The days midway between the solstices and equinoxes are called "cross-quarter" days and were all considered significant to the ancient people. Ireland has its own Stonehenge-esque monuments that mark the position of the rising sun on these dates. Imbolc, in Old Irish, means "in the belly", referring to ewe's which are pregnant with spring lambs. The festival was, and is, associated with hearth and home, and is a celebration of lengthening days, diminishing shadows, and the coming of spring.

Astronomical Cross-Quarter Days

The ancient Christian observance of Candlemas also falls on February 2nd, or 40 days after the Nativity. As with many religiously significant events, the early Christian church attached dates to them that coincided with entrenched Pagan festivals, whether Roman or Gaelic, perhaps to help assimilate into local traditions. Similarly, Saint Brigid, one of the patron saints of Ireland, is often considered a Christianization of the earlier Gaelic goddess Brigid, further intertwining these dates and customs. As the Romans swept through Europe in the early part of the first century, bringing Christianity with them, local traditions were integrated, adapted, and disseminated. These were further spread after the withdrawal of the Romans when the Germanic tribes had a go at the British Isles.

Whatever the belief system or folklore, the underlying seasonal significance of the early days of February has long been recognized in one way or another. And as with other ancient customs tied to cross-quarter days (e.g. Halloween), the observance of this mid-winter point of the astronomical calendar has made its way down through the ages and across the Atlantic to us here in the good old US of A. Can you believe our own Groundhog Day is a derivative of these ancient traditions? Pennsylvania German immigrants brought this charming piece of folklore with them to America, and it has been with us in roughly its current form since the 18th or 19th century. The Germans were partial to the hedgehog. Since there are no hedgehogs in America (other than Sonic the Hedgehog), we went with the groundhog here in the States. Yes, Punxsutawney Phil can trace the origins of his celebrity as far back as the British Iron Age. Who knew?

Groundhog in Nature.

Punxsutawney Phil.

Most of us these days are familiar with Punxsutawney Phil, thanks in part to the movie, Groundhog Day, with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell (LOVE that movie - always makes me wish I had do-overs - see the clip below). Phil is one of the more famous of the many groundhogs that make an appearance across North America on Groundhog Day. As tradition would have it, Phil wobbles out of his burrow every February 2nd, to much fanfare and hype, and everyone waits to see if he casts a shadow. If it is cloudy outside and no shadow is visible, winter is over. If it is sunny and bright, Phil, or the groundhog at hand, sees his shadow, and spring will not arrive for six more weeks.

One of the first mentions of this folk tradition in America can be found in a diary entry dated February 5, 1841, of Berks County, Pennsylvania storekeeper James Morris:

"Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters, and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate."

This Scottish poem also draws an association between either bright weather or overcast skies at Candlemas signifying a longer or shorter winter, respectively:

As the light grows longer
The cold grows stronger
If Candlemas day be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight;
If Candlemas Day be clouds and rain
Winter be gone and will not come again.
A farmer should, on Candlemas Day
Have half his corn and half his hay.
On Candlemas Day if the thorns hang adrop
You can be sure of a good pea crop.
This is the Day of Bride
The Queen will come from the Mound
This is the day of Bride
The serpent will come from the hole

Another poem that comes down to us from 17th century English poet, Robert Herrick encourages people to get their Christmas decorations down by Candlemas or risk being visited by goblins. Hint hint, Capers! Even in the 1600s, people tried to stretch the holidays too far! Nobody wants to see that tacky holly, ivy, and mistletoe hanging around after the first of February!

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and misletoe ;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress'd the Christmas Hall :
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind :
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there (maids, trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.

Again, the early February traditions have many sources and variations throughout different countries, cultures and religions. In some folklore, the animal is a bear, snake, or badger rather than a hedgehog or groundhog. I bet nobody is waiting outside the groggy, hungry bear's cave in a top hat and overcoat with an ump-ah band and festival bunting. For more information on the annual Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, PA, or to see Phil's prediction live, check out their website.

In Alaska, since they don't have many groundhogs (Marmota Monax - also known as woodchucks), the Yellow-bellied marmot (Marmota flaviventris) is the weather prognosticating creature of choice. As one of her final "maverick" acts before jumping ship in 2009, then Governor Palin signed into law a bill replacing Groundhog Day with Marmot Day. I guess they didn't trust Phil or any of the groundhogs of the lower 48 to predict their spring. I have to wonder just how close can spring really be in February in Alaska, anyway? Does the sun even rise there in February? Can the marmot see Russia from his house? Just kidding all you awesome Alaskans! (My blog stats actually show a couple of hits from Alaska - go figure).

If you're "Anchored Down in Anchorage", the day is almost a full eight hours long by February 2nd - plenty of time for a marmot to come out and take a look around. Although, while the high temperature in Anchorage today is 31 degrees and not so different from what we've seen this winter in Annapolis, six weeks from now, they will still just be cracking 30 degrees (decidedly NOT spring), while here in Maryland, we will be averaging 55 degrees, the temperature at which forsythia blooms (unquestionably spring). I guarantee you, the marmot will be scared silly by his shadow and retreat to his cozy burrow. Just as well for that furry creature to keep his head down, anyway.

Regardless of what Phil or any other critter sees today, spring will in fact come sooner or later, even in Alaska. I bet if you step outside, you will see signs of spring already in the form of swelling leaf and flower buds. Don't let the cold and ice fool you. And if you see your shadow and it scares you (in my case because it's about five pounds wider than before winter), crawl back into your warm burrow and bide your time until warmer temperatures entice you out into the light. It won't be long, Capers.

I came across this article online that I thought did a much more concise and less rambling job of explaining Groundhog day and its relationship to cross-quarter days:

Cross-quarter Groundhog

PS - Of course I don't know all that Groundhog Day information off the top of my head. I do, however, have it at the tips of my fingers thanks to Google. All the facts are courtesy of Wikipedia. Take it for what it's worth.

Anybody know if they have groundhogs in Hawaii? Aw, who really cares. It's summer there all the time.

And how could I blog about woodchucks on Groundhog Day without including my favorite woodchuck clip...

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Casualty of Hostess Cupcakes and the Egyptian Uprising

I made it to the gym today for the first time in a while. I hopped on one of the treadmills with a TV screen and plugged my earphones in for what I expected to be a 5-mile run. This is pushing the limits of what my recovering heel will handle, but I had some guilt calories to work off.

Before I hit the gym, I stopped by Magothy River Middle School to lead my son's 6th grade Recreational Reading group. I really enjoy facilitating these book discussions. The kids are always entertaining and engaged. To make sure they are willing participants, I always bribe them with tasty snacks, which we are asked to bring. Normally, I bake cookies or brownies, but time did not permit on this occasion, so I stopped by Graul's to grab some treats. I generally try to take something salty and something sweet, so I picked up some water bottles, a carton of Goldfish, and then went to find something sugary.

I had Valentine's Day on the brain, so the box of pretty pink strawberry Hostess cupcakes caught my eye (surprisingly enough, Hostess cupcakes are on the list of "healthful" snacks provided by the organizers - certainly fine for an occasional treat or bribe, but hardly healthful). Hostess products aren't something I routinely purchase, but I was sucked in by the seasonal color, and like I said, it's all about buying off the kids. Middle schoolers can be scary if you aren't on their good side. Plus, unlike elementary school when cupcakes are in front of the kids practically every day for one celebration or another, I believe they are rarer in middle school. I grabbed the cupcakes and also picked up a box of Valentine Tasty Cakes to be sure I had enough and headed off for my book club.

Pretty Pink Sugar Bombs

I knew most of the kids in my group this time, and they were all delighted with their snacks. Except one little girl, that is. We'll call her Susie. Susie proceeded to politely inform the group that she had NEVER eaten a Hostess or Tasty Cake product and that she NEVER would. "They are loaded with fat and calories!" In the same breath, she rattled off that she had read not only the assigned book but the entire series and, "I read at a college level, you know." I told her she was absolutely right, that I was very impressed with her reading ability, that I didn't doubt either of her claims, but that I didn't believe there was any harm in indulging in the occasional treat (her classmates were already happily doing just that).

We launched into our discussion, which was animated and inclusive as I've known it to be in the past. Everyone seemed to be having a fine time, and Susie lead the field with her contributions. About halfway through our time, I noticed her eyeing the box of Tasty Cakes. She stopped mid-sentence in her description of one of the events in the book and said, "I think I'm going to try one of these just to see how it tastes." I told her she was welcome to but not to feel pressured. She slowly and tentatively bit into the forbidden cake to the delight of all her companions.

Well, she made a big show of HATING it, but managed to choke it down. We all applauded her willingness to try it and appreciated the sacrifice and courage. I suspect the flavor will stay in her subconscious for a very long time and tempt her again one day when she's not expecting it. I also worry that I might get a call from an angry mother later this evening! ("Mrs. Roberts fed us HOSTESS CUPCAKES and TASTY CAKES at rec reading today...")

So what does any of that have to do with the uprising in Egypt? Well, first, as I left the school, the one remaining Hostess cupcake peeked at me from my bag. As I savored all 190 calories of it, I rationalized that I would add a mile and a slight incline to my planned run on the treadmill. Once I reached the gym, I hopped on said treadmill and tuned into CNN to see what was going on in the streets of Cairo. As I ran, I watched with great interest the unfolding events in Tahrir square, which I had the good fortune to visit during my college days.  That was early in Hosni Mubarak's "reign". Who would have thought he'd still be in office all these years later? If the Egyptian people have their way, he won't be much longer.

Tahrir Square, Cairo

At any rate, I trudged through my four + one cupcake miles on the treadmill waiting for the promised recorded speech by Mubarak announcing his intention to not run for election in the fall. I was curious to see what the reaction would be from the massive crowd which claimed they would accept nothing less than his immediate departure. As I passed mile five, the address still had not been broadcast. Mile six, no address. Finally, at a very unintended mile seven, CNN was still blowing filler waiting for Egypt's president, and I was starting to feel some real pain in my 44-year old ankles and knees. I called it quits but bought another couple of minutes stretching on the treadmill. Finally, I noticed the after-work crowd arriving and didn't want to overstay my welcome, so I headed on out the door.

Of course, I just missed the speech. Eight miles would have gotten me there, but I would be even more of a casualty than I already am after running much farther than I am in shape to. I will pay the price tomorrow as it is.

Still, monumental changes and accomplishments were afoot today in different worlds. Egypt is taking its first real bite in over 30 years of the sweet but fraught taste of democracy. I took a significant but painful seven-mile bite out of ten miles, which I haven't done in over two years. And Susie took a small bite of her first Tasty Cake... EVER.

Wishing everyone courage, wisdom, strength, and restraint as we all stretch forward in our individual ways...