Category Archives: Uncategorized

Swimming Without Walls

Just published a short story, my first fiction piece, in the Spring 2017 issue of Razor Literary Magazine, a literary magazine exploring the creative process with support from The Mellon Foundation and the Digital Humanities program at Gustavus Adolphus College. Enjoy!

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Dix Field Panorama

To do science…

Recently came across this quote from T.S. Eliot’s 1942 poem, Little Gidding, and thought it a wonderful description of the scientific endeavor.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

—T.S. Eliot

A referral…

Des Latham explores the evolution of definitions for the term “aviation” from 1934 until 2015, and includes the 1934 meaning of “aviator.” As a bonus you find out why the word “avigation” was invented. A nice end-of-the-year aviation post. Whether you fly for business, fun, or out of necessity, and regardless of where you sit, remember what you’re doing up there!

See Navigation, Avigation, and the Sexless Aviator, by Des Latham.

WW II VETERAN, December 28, 2015

I converged on the compact four-door approaching the Kroger parking lot entrance. It slowed, perhaps a bit more than conditions warranted, and the license plate on the Chevy came into focus. “WW II Veteran” lined the plate’s left side.
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At first glance, the Chevy driver’s slim, trim face appeared a bit young to be the WW II veteran who owned the license plate. He turned left and parked in a handicapped spot close to the store. I spared a moment’s judgment of a son or grandson using the veteran’s prestige to park up close. That judgment continued as I pulled past and parked much farther down the lane and walked back towards the store.

I passed in front of the Chevy and risked a surreptitious front-faced glance at the driver. Perhaps caution was in order. He could be older than I at first thought. Or maybe he waited for his father to come out of the store. In either case, he just sat, stone-faced, behind the wheel, his age difficult to estimate.

Fifteen minutes later, with about that many items checked out and bagged, I headed towards the door to leave. The WW II veteran, yes, he was the veteran, almost shuffled slowly on his way in, grim face stiffly facing forward. Tell-tale wrinkles gave away his age, but only just. Graying, thinning hair and his slow progress confirmed the estimate. The license plate belonged to this man, this veteran of World War II.

Walking to my car allowed ample time to do the math. The war ended 70 years ago. He was at least 18 in 1945, which meant this veteran carried no less than 87 years on his shoulders, on top of memories of war he may or may not have shared with his wife and children and grandchildren. Did he recall those events more today than when he was younger, as my mother recalled trauma she suffered as a teenager perhaps more acutely after age 80 than before? Did those memories plague him now, while he walked through Krogers, while he tried to sleep at night?

What kind of courage does it take to face those memories, or just to face the aches and pains and imbalances of nearly 90 years of life and drive to the grocery store? The courage which led a generation to defeat Nazism and overcome vicious and powerful enemies on two fronts – maybe it helped him face another day.

 

 

Conquering our fears while that star-spangled banner yet waves

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Francis Scott Key wrote lines that most of us now repeat, or at least listen to, at nearly every sporting event we attend. For my wife, it’s her favorite part of any football game. Okay, she’s not a fan of football nor of standing around in cold, rainy weather, but you’ll still find her standing straight, hand over heart, eyes glued, ears alert as the band starts to play, indoors or out.

Some may struggle to remember all the lines of The Star-Spangled Banner. Most will struggle to hit all the notes. I often tear up and wonder how many others do, too.

I get emotional now just thinking about that hymn honoring my homeland. It’s not a happy emotion. Though our star-spangled banner still waves overhead, by this dawn’s early light, something essential is missing. I speak of our once-acclaimed compassion and courage.

At this Christmas season, we face grim facts of life. The red glare of violence, hatred, and fear overshadows the bright stars we strain to see. Millions of the world’s citizens fleeing bombs bursting in terror find themselves homeless, looking for safe shelter, not unlike a family-about-to-be many of us will celebrate in the days to come.

Faiths of all kinds would have their followers extend a hand to those in need. We bemoan the fact that a particular family found no room at the inn late one night. So why do we resist taking in fleeing families today? Fear.

Fear is nothing to be ashamed of, but it must be faced and overcome. The American soldiers who gathered under Fort McHenry’s ramparts knew fear. Few thought they stood much of a chance to survive the night. Less than three weeks earlier, the British fleet had landed a force in Washington and burned the Capitol, the Treasury, and President Madison’s house. The poorly-equipped American Army and Navy were outmatched.

Finding the courage to overcome that fear took strength and leadership. American major George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry, somehow convinced his soldiers to vanquish their fear, and they lived through that perilous fight.

We face a fight of our own. With its complexity, our challenge – terrorism – presents perils different from those posed by the British navy on the night of September 13, 1814, but threats nonetheless.

Others face the same risks we do, and have found the strength to resist their fears. I joked with my son-in-law from Toronto a few weeks ago about maybe emigrating to Canada, after reading of Canada’s resolve to accept twenty-five thousand Syrian refugees by March. This week, seeing pictures and reading stories (N&O, 12/10/15) of Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, welcoming a planeload of those refugees to his homeland, made me lament my own homeland’s cowering fear. Canadians can remind us how to conquer fear as they band together to sponsor refugee families, embracing the opportunity to practice their humanity, whatever their faith.

We can do the same. We have overcome fears in the past, though not before making withering mistakes along the way. We turned away Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, imprisoned innocent Japanese citizens during World War II, and conducted witch hunts for communist sympathizers. Our lingering racism owes much of its power to fear.

How do we quell our fears? Maybe we remember those bright stars we saw gleaming before terrorism’s twilight dimmed their brilliance. It might help to refuse to let our fears overrule our common sense and bury our bravery, giving in to dark voices shouting about danger all around. Perhaps we recall our pride in the stars and stripes gallantly streaming after hard-fought victories from 1776 and 1814 to 1918 and 1945.

Our best hope lies in shared convictions and collective action. We cannot do it alone. Pray for the leaders we need in both parties to find the courage and honor to lead us together through the night.

The next time you hear the band start playing that song, or a singer starts with “Oh, say can you see…”, see through your misty eyes to the bright stars of our past and remember the final six-words of our National Anthem.
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You may also find this story in Raleigh’s News and Observer for December 25, 2015. See News and Observer, Op-Ed page

December’s Bird-of-the-Month: Double-crested cormorants

Double-crested cormorants have returned to the Apex Reservoir. It’s not that they’ve been absent for any period of time, it’s just that a large flock has returned. I can see cormorants much of the year, but the more common sighting is of just a pair or two. But come December, the past two years at least, double-crested cormorants at Apex Reservoir can number in the hundreds.

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One seagull amidst a gathering of double-crested cormorants in Apex, NC

They love the NC Wildlife Resource Commission’s automated fish feeders, of course. Though these birds hardly need any help catching fish, they don’t mind us making the task a little easier. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Double-crested_Cormorant/id) reports that cormorants eat more than 250 different kinds of fish. They will occasionally eat a crustacean, an insect, or an amphibian. When eating crustaceans, they’ve been seen flipping the animal up in the air and catching it headfirst to make it easier to swallow.

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Double-crested cormorants waiting for fish.

 

The double-crested cormorant is a large, colonial black bird, up to a yard long with a wingspan that can stretch to four feet. It has a beak that starts from a yellowish throat patch and extends forward three or four inches. With binoculars you can see the slight downward hook at the end of its upper bill that it uses to catch fish.

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Portion of a large gathering of double-crested cormorants on the Apex Reservoir, NC

Young birds are brownish with pale breasts. The birds nest in colonies, and the young often cluster together in groups called a creche. Only a mature, breeding male exhibits the “double-crest,” which I’ve never seen. The oldest reported double-crested cormorant was banded in 1984 in Canada and recovered 22 years later in Louisiana. Cormorants will return to the same nesting areas year after year, and in some much-used locations trees have toppled due to the accumulated weight of nest after nest. Large pebbles frequently find their way into a cormorant nest, and the birds will treat these pebbles as they would an egg.

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Three double-crested cormorants, low in the water, necks riding high.

Most of the year, cormorants on the Apex Reservoir may be found floating low in the water, their long necks the most conspicuous feature. The beak and head will usually be pointed slightly up. Oftentimes a pair will be separated by a few yards to a few dozen yards. One at a time the birds will take turns fishing. A bird will thrust its beak forward and down, surface diving underwater, disappearing for what seems like at least a minute or more. It will resurface twenty to forty yards away.

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Double-crested cormorant in flight

With all four toes connected by webbing, and powerful wings, the double-crested cormorant makes a powerful underwater swimmer, and a dangerous predator, if you’re a fish. Though I’ve never seen it swim underwater, it reportedly beats both its webbed feet and wings to propel a streamlined body along after its prey.

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Cormorant landing on the Apex Reservoir, NC.

An interesting behavior I have seen is a cormorant drying its wings in the sun. Cormorants apparently have less oil in their feathers, which means their wings get soaked when swimming. Although this means they have to make the effort to dry out their wings, it may also help them swim faster underwater. Perhaps due to the time it takes to dry their feathers after fishing, cormorants often spend half their day perched above the water on an overhanging branch or rock.

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Double-crested cormorant drying its wings

The double-crested cormorant, scientific name Phalacrocorax auritus, is related to frigatebirds and boobies, winters along the shorelines of North America, and summers on inland lakes. In the past the birds suffered from overhunting and pesticide exposure. DDT thinned their eggshells, leading to reproductive failure. Since the 1970s, double-crested cormorant populations have rebounded, in some areas colony sizes doubling in five years.

Although I’ve never identified one, neotropic cormorants will sometimes mingle with double-crested cormorants. The former species is the smaller of the two, and the space immediately forward of its eyes is covered with black feathers rather than the pale featherless skin found in the double-crested cormorant.

 

…the home of the brave

When I taught high school, near the end of the course we had awards day, and I gave each of my students a candle, which was the most important award I gave out. It symbolized my belief that they would each make valuable contributions to the world. Cory Scheviak, a former student, unintentionally reminded me of that award when he posted a drawing by Penny Redshaw of a piglet holding a lit candle. He posted it in reference to the current discussion of the refugee crisis and our response to it.

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It also brought to mind a favorite quote when I was in high school:

“When you no longer burn with love,
many others will die of the cold.”

I am saddened more than I have been in a long time by the fear-filled responses of so many Americans and many of our leaders to the unavoidable risks inherent in helping others. I believe we live in a great country with a legacy of liberty and compassion and acceptance. We honor and confirm our greatness when we extend a hand to those in need, and welcome them to our shores.

Yes, I am fearful that there’s a chance a terrorist would take advantage of our very strength to attack us. But I am more fearful that should we let the candle burning inside us go out, we will lose our greatness as a nation.

We have the resources to safely admit and care for many refugees fleeing terror, and as our National Anthem celebrates, we are “…the home of the brave.” Let’s act like it.