Saturday, March 26, 2011

Willows and Asteroids

In the interest of lowering my hypertension below its customary pressure-cooker level, I took a long stroll today along a neighborhood bicycle path. I saw hints of spring. Some of the bushes are starting to bud out. One tall willow (above) had striking yellow-green branches that looked almost luminescent.

The stroll was so restful that I decided to extend it to pay a visit to Apophis, the killer asteroid. I found him hurtling through the vast empyrean beyond the sun. As a rule, Apophis disdains talking with carbon-based life forms, but I persuaded him to make an exception for me.

Wagman: "So, the NASA scientists are calculating that you'll pass close to the Earth during 2029 and then pass by again in 2036."

Apophis: "Let the scientists calculate if it makes them happy. It's too early to tell. There's a lot of stuff pushing and pulling me out here: overlapping gravity wells from The Big Guy himself and all his major planets, attraction by other asteroids that are wiggling around in complicated trajectories, and solar wind. Call it a hunch, but I'm betting on a 2029 impact myself."

Wagman: "This astonishes me! Yet you say this so calmly. Don't you feel anything when you think about a possible impact with the Earth?"

Apophis: "Feel? It's all just astrophysics; I don't take any of this personally. Although, to be honest with you, as I get older I begin to see the benefits of giving up my solitary wandering to settle down with a nice plump planet."

Wagman: "The collision would be devastating."

Apophis: "Only to the Earth's surface."

Wagman: "That surface is home to all of humanity. And I have a townhouse and an old Volvo there."

Apophis: "Pity. But like I said, it's astrophysics. What can I do about it?"

Wagman: "Well, I notice that you have some asymmetrical craters."

Apophis: "You're no beauty yourself, but I don't point out your wrinkles and blotches."

Wagman: "No, you misunderstand me. I'm referring to drag. Just like a golf ball's dimples affect drag, you could rotate your craters to adjust your drag going through the solar wind. Generate the right amount of spin, and you could hook or slice your way clear of the Earth.

Apophis: "No thanks. Too much risk of losing control and spending the coming eons madly tumbling head over heels."

Wagman: "Head over heels?"

Apophis: "A figure of speech that I picked up from the radio waves that Earth has been blaring into the solar system for the last eighty years. Hey, I'm making the effort to speak to you in your own vernacular, buster. Spare me the sarcasm.

Wagman: "Sorry."

Apophis: "Anyway, no more time to chat. But I'll see you later."

Wagman: "For a second chat, you mean? I have many questions to ask you."

Apophis: "No, no second chat."

Wagman: "Oh, you mean in 2029."

Apophis: "Bullseye."

Friday, March 18, 2011

Lasting Impressions

I was finishing my master's degree at the University of Wisconsin and had the opportunity to return to Iowa State University, my alma mater, where I had been graduated with a bachelor's degree in engineering. I strolled around the campus and then visited my old dorm. A number of fellows that had been underclassmen when I was a senior were still residing there. As we sat in the television room and chatted about old times, a student who was a stranger to me heard my last name, got off the couch, and went running down the hall yelling, "Wagman's come back." Soon freshmen and sophomores rushed to greet me. I could not account for my celebrity, as I had not made a big splash during my time at the university.

It was explained to me that my name had become infamously linked with a unsportsmanlike tactic during penny-ante poker: the so-called "Wagman move." Allegedly, as a hand was being dealt, I would pick up my cards from the table one by one. If I didn't like what I was seeing, I would knock my final card off the table and declare a misdeal.

I protested to the throng that I had been defamed. They scoffed and jeered.

I returned to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin to complete my master's degree and then left to take a job in industry. I was off to a good start on my career. Yet I was troubled. My humiliation at Iowa State University still weighed on my mind. If Iowa State University remembered me as a miserable card cheat, how might the University of Wisconsin remember me? As a modern day Jack the Ripper?

I decided to buy myself a favorable lasting impression. I saved up two weeks' pay (roughly equal in present day dollars to the value of my current Volvo motorcar) and sent it back to my graduate school colleagues as an endowment for beer and pizza. The following year I repeated the donation.

Microsoft's Bill Gates followed a roughly similar course decades later. Philanthropy is often a bribe offered to History.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Family memories

A week ago I was pleased to receive some genealogical information of my mother's family and learned that my great-great-great-grandfather Vaclava was a blacksmith in a small Czech town south of Prague in the early 1800s. Nothing else is known about him. Time effaces all.

Even the 20th century is fast receding from memory. While I have many memories of my paternal grandfather, a Missouri farmer, only two remain persistently vivid in my mind. The first memory was the time we were walking in the pasture to check on the cows. I must have been about eight. As I recollect, he took his pocket knife and cut off a short piece of wood from a slender sapling. He notched it, pushed back the smooth bark, trimmed a thin slice up to the notch, and then slid the bark back into place. He handed me this handmade whistle and told me to give it a try. I blew on it and sounded a strong, clear note.

The second memory, from about the same era, was the time he read me the macabre poem The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service. (My grandfather's farm was far beyond the reach of radio or television in those days, and fiction – especially Mark Twain's writings – and light poetry were his favorite leisure pastimes. Of course, leisure back then signified something quite different from what we consider leisure today. A Missouri farmer's weekly leisure was concentrated into about an hour on Sunday afternoon.)

Service's 1907 poem had an unusual internal rhyme scheme that still makes me smile fifty years later:

First stanza:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Check it out.

Listen to the mocking bird

Yesterday afternoon was unseasonably warm for late winter. I celebrated by playing guitar on my front porch. I was working out a walking bass arrangement of the 1935 Rodgers and Hart standard Blue Moon, the version that goes:

'Blue moon, you saw me standin' alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own
Blue moon, you knew just what I was there for
You heard me sayin' a prayer for
Someone I really could care for...'

A blue-tinged sparrow, attracted (or possibly annoyed) by my playing, landed on a branch of the crab apple tree sheltering the porch and proceeded to tweet. Unfortunately, the bird was tweeting in the key of A flat, whereas I was playing in the key of C. The discordance was distracting to me. The bird didn't like it either and flew off to a tree beyond the swimming pool.

I resumed my Blue Mooning. But soon the bird returned and made a racket in A flat once again. I held my ground and insisted on the key of C. You can't let a bird push you around. Otherwise, the neighborhood squirrels and rabbits start getting ideas.