Saturday, March 30, 2024

Covid! Getcher Covid Heah!

Covid Update, Day Three. Because I know my friends and "friends" care. 

My sister texted a bit ago asking if I was kicking its ass. I replied that it's a mutual ass-kicking. I'm doing all right, but this is the weirdest virus I've ever had. Every few hours I rotate through a suite of different symptoms: first sore throat, then that goes away and I get aches and pains, then sneezing and coughing, then high fever and chills, then a deep fatigue, which is where I am today. Can't wait to find out whether I get green spots or my ears fall off tomorrow.

A couple of wags have asked if I'll be making a comic about it. This drawing is my reply. It would be 200 pages of me sleeping in my beanbag chair, interspersed with episodes of eating, showering, and tippy-tapping on the computer, like I'm doing now. Riveting literature.

I'm very confident I'll be fine (although the fever worried me, but it fell to a reasonable number pretty fast). If you don't hear from me for a while, assume I'm napping.

Friday, March 29, 2024

Dr. Glen Erickson

Oh. I just learned that one of the important mentors in my life, Dr. Glen Erickson of UC Davis, died in 2021. I caught a mention of him in an alumni newsletter and looked him up.

I majored in physics at Davis but my real passion was astronomy, of which Davis offered very little at the time (in recent years the school has become a cosmology powerhouse!). I clearly remember when Dr. E. came into my freshman astronomy class and asked if anyone wanted to earn half a credit helping him with a little project. I sprang out of my chair faster than a meteor.

For the next year or two, we spent long nights in the small campus observatory doing photometry on an object called Nova Vulpecula. By measuring the brightness and color of a variable star over time, you can deduce a lot about its age, size, fate, etc. Every quarter I wrote up a little report and got my half credit. Dr. E. never published our research. I think he just liked doing it.

In retrospect, Dr. E. was incredibly patient with me, especially when I took his "Mathematical Methods for Physicists" course my junior year, which was deliberately designed to separate the wheat from the chaff who maybe ought to reconsider their life choices. I struggled. He helped. I passed.

At the same time, I was involved in the Astronomy Club, for which he was the advisor, and we spent a few evenings peering through the Lick Observatory's historic 36-inch refractor (life-changing!) and doing more photometry at UC Berkeley's Leuschner Observatory. I also ran the university's public viewing program and TA'ed astronomy labs on the roof of the physics building.

I earned my degree, graduated, and kept in touch with Dr. E. for a few years but then drifted away, as students and teachers do. That would have been the end of it except 25 or so years later, when a UC Davis physics professor I didn't know contacted me out of the blue and asked if I'd like to speak to a weekly seminar he held on the general subject of "What You Can Do with a Physics Degree."

I wasn't sure I was the right person for the job. I've never worked in physics, never done real research. I was an environmental chemist for 12 years, but that was mostly pushing buttons. I was an odd choice; he assured me that odd choices were just what he wanted.

So I went, along with Karen and our daughters, who were UC Davis students at the time. And who did I find when I walked in the door but Dr. E., then a retired professor emeritus. He saw my name on the schedule and came!

The first thing he did was pull out a framed caricature I'd drawn of him and posted in the astronomy library 25 years earlier. I remember clearly: it had hung there for a week or so and then one day it disappeared. I figured someone had tossed it. But Dr. E. had taken it himself, kept it in his home office, and now, decades later, wanted me to sign it.

That meant the world to me. I'm glad my wife and kids were there to see it.

I told the seminar about how I used physics in my brief career as a newspaper reporter, taking on any story remotely science-tinged (including the Challenger disaster) and writing a weekly astronomy column. I talked about how I drew on my physics background to pitch stories to the producers of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "Deep Space Nine," and "Voyager." I never sold one but learned a lot about character and story structure that has served me well. I talked about my environmental chemistry career, which was really just physics (heavy metal spectroscopy), and my subsequent career as a science writer specializing in renewable solar, wind, hydrogen fuel cells, etc.

I think it went well. Everyone seemed happy. My host took me, my family, and Dr. E. out to lunch.

I again began to almost apologize for not being a model physics alumnus. I didn't go to grad school, didn't continue in the field, never contributed to answering the great questions of science. Dr. E. sat back and twinkled.

"You're a very successful physics graduate," he said. "You made physics a part of everything you've done. You integrated it into your life. You are exactly what I always hoped my students would become."



Holy moley.

I'd spent the previous 25 years feeling like a mediocre student who'd more or less wasted my degree--kind of a physics failure, really--and Dr. E. turned that perspective around 180 degrees in half a minute.

I, in turn, said how much his support, encouragement and friendship had meant to me, and I could tell that meant a lot to him. If you have a mentor who changed your life, and I hope you do, take the time to thank them while you can If you can be a mentor, do it.

As a cartoonist, I've long considered my physics education my "secret sauce." It's an unusual background (but not unique, Jim Ottaviani!). It colors all of my books to one extent or another, and wait until you see my next one: a real science-palooza! Physics has never been something I do, but it is the lens through which I see the world. It's kind of who I am.

Dr. E. gave me that. I'll always be grateful.

EDITED TO ADD: I KNEW I had this photo someplace! I just had to dig for it (through the few small boxes of old photos we saved from the fire).

This is Dr. Erickson and I on the roof the UC Davis physics building on Picnic Day 1986. Picnic Day was (and still is) a very popular open house held in the spring. Former students return, prospective students explore, everyone throws open their doors and puts on a show. I had graduated by then, but was working in the area and still came back to campus from time to time.

I forget the details on this telescope. It was old and historic, maybe an Alvan Clark? It's obviously been set up to project an image of the Sun on the white screen at the bottom of the business end.

Some of my happiest times happened on that roof.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

The Intellectual Life #24

A Peek into the Intimate Intellectual Life of a Long-Married Couple, Part 24:

(Karen and I are waiting in Terminal 2 of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to board an airplane for a 6-hour flight home.) 

Brian: Y'know, whenever I'm about to end a trip like this, I often think, "What if I just didn't get on the plane?"

Karen: What would you do?

Brian: I have no idea! That's the point! What would I do?

Karen: Don't you want to go home?

Brian: Of course! But haven't you wondered? I'd have to figure out how to eat and sleep and get a job . . .

Karen: No. I just want to go home.

Brian: I could be the oldest Congressional intern! Or mow the grass on the National Mall!

Karen: I don't get why you don't want to go home.

Brian: I do! But it's like when you're standing on the edge of a cliff and wonder what it would be like to just jump off.

Karen: I never, ever wonder that.

Brian: Really? I mean, I'd never want to actually DO it, but--

Karen: I would never, ever even think of that.

Brian: Huh!

(Karen side-eyes me in wary silence until our boarding group is called, perhaps wondering if an annulment is still possible.)

This has been a peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple.

These birds were inside the terminal and appeared to live on crumbs dropped by travelers. I can't imagine how they'd ever get out. Maybe they don't need to; it's a pretty cushy life!

"Positive" is Good, Right?

My turn!

This is my first skirmish with the 'Vid. I feel all right: scratchy, phlegmy throat and some aches, like a mild cold. I am vaccinated and am on-boarding hot tea as I type, and Karen has banished me from our shared living space. We had some plans next weekend that I've spoiled, including a fun wedding celebration, and I feel bad about that. 

Of course I caught it during our recent trip, either from the throngs of tourists in DC or the wretched refuse with whom I spent 6 hours in a plane. Let this be a lesson: Never go anywhere or do anything. Play it safe. Just stay home and drink tea and watch the world pass by your window.

Nah. No regrets. 

Will keep you posted.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Washington, DC

The White House. We were surprised that tours were self-guided. We were allowed to peer into, but not enter, many rooms. Others we could loop through. Karen and I were both struck by how small everything seemed. Still very classy and grand, with beautiful woodwork, decoration, and architectural detailing, but intimate. Even the East Room, which runs from the front to the back of the White House, and the State Dining Room, are not the awesomely grand spaces you might expect. That alone gave me some perspective on how 19th century Americans saw the work of governing, which was only reinforced when we later saw the surprisingly grand-but-intimate spaces of the Capitol building. 

Karen and I are home from a five-day vacation to Washington, DC that we took to celebrate our anniversary! Karen has been to DC a few times for work but I, a West Coast guy, never have. I think it's a pilgrimage every citizen should make, and mine was long overdue.

We hit many museums and monuments. The cherry trees were fully abloom, drawing throngs (plus us) to the Tidal Basin. We took a self-guided tour of the White House and, thanks to our U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman and his intern Charlie, got a personalized tour of the Capitol. We went to the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, both under renovation, and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM), likewise renovating. Toured the National Portrait Gallery, U.S. Botanic Garden, Library of Congress, the National Zoo, and more. We walked nearly everywhere; took the easy and convenient Metro everywhere else.

I won't list all the places we went because one thing I've learned about visiting DC is everyone says, "OMG, do not miss the National Barbed Wire Museum, it's the best thing there!" If anyone posts a comment like, "Hope you didn't miss the National Barbed Wire Museum!" I will reply, "It sure is terrific, isn't it?" Maybe we did, maybe we didn't. We did the best we could in five days and couldn't have seen it all in another ten. 

The White House. My general impression of security throughout DC was that it was appropriate and maybe lighter than I would have expected in these insurrectionist times. While the White House is certainly a fortress, the Capitol and Supreme Court building were approachable.

The Washington Monument through the trees. 

Our timing on the cherry blossoms was perfect--as was many other people's. Depending on the time of day, the major cherry blossom walks ranged from pleasant to impassably crowded.

The Jefferson Memorial across the Tidal Basin and through the blossoms.

We made a special effort to find the celebrity cherry tree nicknamed "Stumpy" (I'll save you the trouble of asking a bemused park ranger like we did: it's near the Jefferson Memorial). Stumpy is a stunted "Charlie Brown Christmas Tree" of a cherry tree that is due to be chopped down, along with 140 other trees, so that the wall surrounding the Tidal Basin behind it can be rebuilt. There are petitions demanding that Stumpy be saved. I'm not optimistic but was happy to make its acquaintance.

My favorite thing about traveling is assembling my own mental map of a place--especially a famous place, where I've seen all the landmarks individually but have no feel for how they relate. You can study maps, but nothing beats walking for tying things together. We were on Day 4 when Karen and I realized we hadn't seen the Supreme Court building and had no idea where it was. Turns out it's behind the Capitol, and if we'd walked another 20 feet when we toured the Library of Congress on Day 1 we would've stumbled right into it.

I know: yokels from the sticks. But I'm not too proud to play tourist when I actually am one. You can learn a lot by asking simple questions, and some of our favorite interactions came from talking to folks like groundskeepers and docents who were more than happy to share. 

Trust me when I say this photo dump only skims the surface. We took hundreds. It was a great trip. Five stars, would recommend!

The Library of Congress, a space genuinely too large and awe-inspiring to photograph. This is the reading room, where specially vetted researchers get access to the library's resources. We were not vetted. The building is vast, with many displays ranging from a Gutenberg Bible (ca. 1455) to Steve Ditko's original art for the first Spider-Man story. Not to be "the barbed wire guy," but the LOC is worth a visit.

You may know that the Library of Congress began when Thomas Jefferson sold his personal library to the nation. Those books are housed in a special gallery. If it's not obvious, the shelves have glass on both sides so visitors can see both the spines and edges of all the books. Ribbons denote whether a particular book was actually Jefferson's or an identical substitute of a book known to be in his collection. The depth and breadth of Jefferson's prodigious intellect is displayed here, especially since there's little doubt he actually read all of them. History, philosophy, religion, fine arts, science, logic, reason. I was struck by one volume I wish I'd taken a photo of: it was titled "The American Revolution," published in London in something like 1790, and I thought, "Dude! You WERE the American Revolution! Why do you need the book when you were there?!" Maybe he appreciated an English perspective. Probably griped about everything they got wrong. 

At the National Portrait Gallery with an unfinished portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. It's widely considered the best likeness of Washington ever painted, including by Martha Washington herself, and was the model for the etching made for the $1 bill. I very much appreciated its sketchy "work in progress" quality, much more interesting to me than the other finished portraits around it. 

I found a new favorite artist at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is in the same building and intertwined with the National Portrait Gallery: Alma Thomas. It's risky to say that, because there's a possibility that everybody else already knows about Alma Thomas and I'll come off like, "Hey, this Rembrandt guy is pretty good, ever heard of him?" But she's new to me, and I'm not afraid to admit that I don't know everything but can be taught. Honestly, a lot of modern art leaves me confused at best and cold at worst, but there was something about her work that really excited and spoke to me. You could see the thoughtfulness and deliberation in every brush stroke. I thought she was just terrific, and the Smithsonian has the largest collection of her work in the world. 

Through all the landmarks, monuments, and museums we visited, there was only one time I turned a corner and said, "Hey! I know her!" Not the subject of this piece in the National Portrait Gallery, cartoonist Alison Bechdel. I've never met her. Rather, I know the artist, Riva Lehrer. She's a friend through graphic medicine. Riva is obviously a great artist; she's also a kind, friendly, compassionate person and disability rights activist, and it was a real thrill to see her work hanging beside Everett Kinstler's, Elaine deKooning's, and Gilbert Stuart's. 

An unusual angle on the Lincoln Memorial, I think. When I'm in a place like this, I like to look in the corners and edges. Like, everyone knows that the Lincoln Memorial has the famous statue of Lincoln with his speeches carved into the walls around him, but what does the ceiling look like? Now you know, too. 

The Vietnam War Memorial. I don't have anyone close to me who served in Vietnam. I was way too young, and my parents' generation was a bit too old. Even without a personal connection, this memorial is deeply moving, especially with the addition of little notes and mementos left for loved ones by visitors. A beautiful design free of the typical bombast you might find at, for example, the nearby World War II memorial, which is all towering columns and gushing fountains. It's great for what it is, but it was a different war. 

Cherry blossoms weren't the only flowers a-poppin'. Tulips were everywhere, and made beautiful picture frames. 

The National Air and Space Museum (NASM). Many of my friends probably know that NASM has, and recently beautifully restored, the studio model of the USS Enterprise from the original "Star Trek." What fewer may know is that you never saw the port side of the Enterprise because that's where the electrical wires protruded from the model. On the rare occasion they had to show that side of the ship, they shot the starboard side with reversed decals and flopped the film. This is me peering into the corners and edges again. BTW, the Enterprise was lit up when we arrived (they turn on the lights for a few minutes at the top of every hour) and I took about 300 photos of it but will not bore you with any more of them. 

The Apollo 11 Command Module "Columbia." I teared up. What a privilege to see this craft. I don't even know what to compare it to. It's as if you could visit the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria without the taint of colonialism, just the pure heroic spirit of discovery. To me, this ship is the embodiment of the greatest thing humanity has accomplished in its couple million years as a species, and I was alive to witness it. How lucky I am! 

At NASM still, with Neil Armstrong's spacesuit, which was recently conserved because some of the layered materials used in its construction are already breaking down. I can only repeat what I said in my notes on Columbia. I am standing three feet away from Armstrong's suit, which still has Moon dust ground into its knees. Armstrong's actual honest-to-God suit. What a time to be alive. I teared up again. 

At the Jefferson Memorial, where Karen noticed a nifty alignment with the Washington Monument between its pillars. 

Intern Charlie from Congressman Jared Huffman's office gave is a fine tour of the Capitol, including passes to sit in the House and Senate galleries--less than riveting since Congress is not in session, but still very cool. The Capitol rotunda itself is a towering cathedral to the ideals of freedom and democracy, and the view up into the dome is breathtaking. But, as with the White House, we were struck by the intimacy of the 19th century approach to government, the twisting maze of corridors and tiny rooms where important things happened. Even the chamber of the House of Representatives seems much smaller in person than it does during the State of the Union address on television. It's hard to imagine how they fit 435 people in there for regular business, let alone hundreds more for that address. I appreciated the perspective. 

While there were many visitors throughout DC and the Capitol grounds, there were also many moments like this, where Karen had the east steps of the Capitol entirely to herself. Well, almost entirely..... 

.....As you'll notice this armed officer keeping an eagle eye on her to make sure she's not an insurrectionist fascist who's about to vault over that barricade. 

Probably my favorite unexpected find of the trip was the U.S. Botanic Garden, part of which is housed in that greenhouse to the left. We just wandered past it and decided to check it out. Smart decision. 

George Washington advocated the establishment of such a garden to promote the importance of plants and collect flora still being discovered throughout the continent. Established in 1820, it's been located in various spots throughout its history and is the oldest continuously operated public garden in the United States. 

The U.S. Botanic Garden has areas representing different ecosystems: tropical rainforest, desert, Hawaii, etc. We walked into one little space and both said, "Hey, this looks like our yard." We were in the Mediterranean garden, in which you'll find weather and plants like those around the Mediterranean (naturally) and that little orange patch in California, which is where we live. It was funny to see our ordinary landscaping represented as some rare and exotic ecosystem, but sometimes you've got to go someplace else to appreciate what you've got. 

The view of the National Mall looking from the Capitol toward the Washington Monument. 

The National Zoo has a carousel. Who doesn't love a carousel? All the animals were different. Karen rode a bison and I rode a bear. 

Tamarins at the National Zoo. I like Tamarins. They seem less impressed with me. 

As I mentioned, this was an anniversary vacation for us: 40 years. I hesitate to mention that because people tend to say "Ooo!" and applaud. Don't applaud. We're not that adorable and I, frankly, am something of a curmudgeon. But we do clean up all right. 

Friday, March 22, 2024

Regarding Louise Nevelson

I may have just shot the greatest photo I’ve ever shot in my life. In an art gallery, I saw two people with white hair and black jackets sitting on a black couch contemplating a black sculpture on a white wall. I kneeled down enough so their white heads just broke the plane of the black art, et voila! Possibly the most artistic thing I’ve ever done.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Mercury Ahoy!

Just stepped out into the backyard when a twinkle on the horizon caught my eye. I knew there weren't any bright stars in the area, but it wasn't moving, either, so not an airplane. A quick look with my SkyView app confirmed that it's the planet Mercury!

Astrophotography by iPhone is dodgy, but I took a shot. The bright "star" at upper left is Jupiter. Can't miss it. Mercury is down toward the twilight glow, just above the tree branches. I circled it in the second pic below.

A Mercury sighting isn't especially rare, but it is probably the most difficult naked-eye planet to spot because it's close to the Sun and relatively fast. It's said that the great Renaissance astronomer Copernicus never actually saw Mercury, although that may be apocryphal. I love delightful little discoveries like this that come your way when you're paying attention.

There he is!

Monday, March 18, 2024

The Intellectual Life #23

A Peek into the Intimate Intellectual Life of a Long-Married Couple, Part 23:

Karen came home from a meeting around dinner time. I had tonight's stir-fry ingredients chopped and ready but hadn't begun cooking yet.

Brian: We can eat dinner anytime. I mise-en-placed it.

Karen: What?

Brian: I mise-en-placed it.

Karen: ??

Brian: When a French chef has all their stuff set up to cook, that's the "mise en place." 

Karen: Uh huh.

Brian: I verbed it.

Karen: You certainly did.

Brian: Anyway, we can walk the dog first since I haven't started cooking yet.

Karen: So you mise-en-paused it. 

(Fist bumps and hearty congratulations all around.)

This has been a peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple.

Friday, March 15, 2024

Wow, Is It the Ides of March Already?

I know of two types of people who have good reason to Beware the Ides of March:

1. Roman emperors who enter a room to find senators brandishing knives, and;

2. Expectant parents of twins who enter an operating room to find doctors brandishing scalpels.

Today is my daughters' birthday. I don't post this picture often (if at all, I don't recall) because it's kind of clinical and the girls aren't very visible, but this is the first photo I took with them both in the same field of view. Many more would follow.

They were born a few weeks early and Karen had eclampsia, so there was some urgency and concern. Each baby had a dedicated medical team, as did Karen. Somehow I was left to fend for myself. It was the sort of pregnancy that in the 19th century might've killed them all, but everything went just fine in the late 20th. A few days later the hospital shoved us out the door with two babies but no instruction manual. We winged it. All survived.

Happy Birthday, Chiquitas! Love you. 

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Hornet + 2300

Carrier Con Photo Dump: What a nice day aboard the USS Hornet Sea, Air and Space Museum for Carrier Con 2024, which I attended mostly to take part in a conversation with ElfQuest's Wendy and Richard Pini that a hundred or so people came to watch. 

I last went to Carrier Con in 2022, and the event has grown a lot in both attendees and vendors/participants. It's hard to make a cavernous aircraft carrier hangar deck feel snug--the last time I can recall was a special visit by Buzz Aldrin--but it did today. Although Carrier Con is growing, it's still a sweet, sincere little convention.

I think my panel with the Pinis went very well; they were happy and we got great feedback. Immodestly, I think the fact that I'm in the same line of work produced some gems that others wouldn't have mined.

I'd say it was a very successful day and I was happy to be a part of it. Pics!

The Hornet's manga-styled mascot welcomed visitors at the entrance. I love the stickers on her duffle bag: they're the historic crew-made signs that greeted the astronauts of Apollos 11 and 12 when they returned from the Moon, which are currently on display on the Hornet and which I have held in my hands.

Fun on the flight deck. Many participants came up here to do photo shoots, including the character running off to the right and the guy waving the giant sword in the center. Note the San Francisco skyline across the Bay.

A wide view of my conversation with the Pinis, shot by my daughter Robin.

A closer view of the panel, also by Robin.

An even CLOSER view, shot by me!

The line to meet and talk to Wendy and Richard following our talk. ElfQuest fans are usually dedicated, and the Pinis return the love.

An overview of part of the hangar deck.

Some cosplayers: Alligator Loki and Captain America.

An impressive couple.

Admiral on the bridge! Well, near the bridge.

This young woman creeped me the hell out. Marvelous!

A corner of artist's alley, where I bought a couple of books to help keep up-and-comers up and coming.

I took my leave as the Sun set on another good day aboard the Hornet.