My Least Favorite Day of the Year, Yet the Last Day of My Favorite Month and Season

I dread the last day of October, probably about as much as I look forward to the second day of October (being my natal day).  All Hallow’s Eve, commonly compressed to Halloween (or Hallowe’en as I prefer to render it), leaves me cold and exasperated, at least as it’s hyped by the media and the movies.

Case in point:  My husband and I slummed to the Lifetime Movie Network late yesterday afternoon in search of a non-horror movie to watch.  In all the years we’ve been cable and now satellite television subscribers, we rarely (if ever) watched that particular channel.

I can expect to be invaded by children just a few minutes after I arrive home from work this evening.  The City of Lansing stated the official hours for the invasion on their website and Facebook page to be between six and nine o’clock.  Usually, the teenagers (and sometimes a few college students) trickle through past that time, but they can have the most interesting costumes.  My daughter, a senior at UNT in Denton, Texas, dressed up as Flo (of Progressive fame) this year, even performing her Opera On Tap selection in it.

I don’t have many fond memories from childhood of Halloween.  Since I grew up in the country, a half-mile from my nearest neighbor, I can count on one hand the times I trick-or-treated, because my mom had to drive us into town (Leavenworth was 10-15 miles away from where we lived).  At least our local church held an annual fall festival for the children, which I did enjoy.

I do remember watching ‘It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown‘ annually.  I wonder if I’ve already missed the broadcast?  Or do they even both to re-broadcast these old classic animated holiday specials from the 60s?  A quick check at confirms my theory that either I’ve missed it or it wasn’t aired at all this year.  Oh, well, I guess I could watch it on my laptop through Hulu or some other similar site.

The true horror story haunting my sleepless nights concerns my large oak tree in my front yard.  Even though I’ve raked ten bags worth of leaves and acorn shells, the oak tree still sports nearly all of it’s mostly green foliage.  I’m looking forward to the windy day forecast for tomorrow, which I hope will strip the branches bare and I can finally put the nail in the coffin of that particular tedious autumn chore.

Far-Out Transportation

Strange how craziness infests my best intentions.  I started this blog entry Monday to recap an interesting weekend experience.  Now, I find myself approaching noon on Thursday with no progress on the blog front.

Last Saturday morning, I attended the  Annual Driver Training for all Advantage Vanpool Drivers in Kansas City, Missouri.  We left our vans for their annual inspection by the KCATA mechanics at their garage and took a bus to the facility for breakfast and training.  The Vanpool Coordinator handed out updated policies and procedures for reporting accidents, maintenance and safety.  Two of the biggest changes included a complete moratorium on the use of any kind of personal electronic device (PED) while driving (violating this policy would result in the termination of the vanpool) and when returning a loaner van, we are too top off the gas tank and remove all personal items and trash.

Our instructor had trained hundreds if not thousands of people to drive, from high school teenagers to 86-year grandmothers.  He also taught commercial drivers education and is a native of the Kansas City metro area (in fact, Noland Road in Independence is named for his great-great-grandfather).  He recently retired from a long career as a teacher and coach and now consults to keep busy.

Four hours later, I survived the videos and enjoyed our instructor’s anecdotes without nodding off more than once.  We returned to our vans via the bus and I drove back home to Lansing.

That evening, I took my father and my husband to the October 2011 meeting of ASKC at the Gottlieb Planetarium.  The featured guest speaker, Jack Dunn of the Mueller Planetarium in Lincoln, Nebraska, spoke on the last Shuttle flight and the future of human space flight and exploration, mentioning SpaceX and Virgin Galactic by name (and showing us some prototypes via video on the planetarium’s dome.  He claimed even Amazon’s Bezos is investing in private space exploration, but information on that venture is hard to come by (or not as it took me like ten seconds to find Blue Origin’s website … I just need some help deciphering their logo).

Prior to the Dunn’s presentation on far-out space tourism low Earth orbit vehicles, we learned about the Gottlieb Planetarium’s spherical projection system from it’s director.

As we were leaving, we admired an old fire truck, street car and noticed an Amtrak train with vintage Pullman cars waiting to leave the station.  Fascinating mix of old and new transportation separated by mere minutes and/or light years.

I had hoped to report the status of star visibility from Union Station, but clouds obscured the night sky and reflected the abundance of light emanating not only from the Crown Center area but the Power & Light District to our north.  I have two more opportunities to report from a location other than my backyard – tonight and tomorrow night, but with my son and his wife on the road from Texas to attend a wedding Friday evening, I probably won’t get the opportunity to make another entry in the Great World-Wide Star Count this year.

Book Review: Mockingjay by Collins

MockingjayMockingjay by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this as part of the The Hunger Games Trilogy omnibus ebook edition.

I had high hopes for the final novel of the series, especially after thoroughly enjoying the second novel, Catching Fire. I agree with a few other GoodReads reviewers who stated that Collins accomplished her goal in painting the stark reality that war and violence accomplish nothing and apparently humans can’t help but repress and destroy each other, even unto their own extinction.

I also had hope of learning more about the history that led up to the rise of the Panem. But Collins only choose to go back three generations and only once or twice made a reference to the world before the rise of the Panem from the ashes of our civilization.

I suspect a nod to Ray Bradbury in the name of the sharp shooter squad District 13 assigned Katniss and Gale to as part of the rebel army. The prevalence of Ancient Roman names among the Capital citizens and a reference to ‘bread and circuses’ paints the Panem as a resurrected Roman Empire imploding faster than the original.

While predictable, the ending left me dissatisfied. I don’t feel comfortable recommending this book to young adults, even though Collins wrote it for that audience.

As a ‘former’ parent (my kids are grown, either married or in college), I would treat this entire trilogy just like an R-rated movie. Don’t read it unless you’re seventeen (sixteen maybe), mostly due to the violence and gore. Very little if any sexual content exists in any of these novels.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Lighthouse Duology by Berg (4 stars)

I read both of these books (the Lightouse Duology) back-to-back during the Spring of 2010. They came highly recommended from a respected author-friend, who also suggested I read them together as if they were published as one book. I heartily agree with that suggestion.

Flesh and Spirit by Carol Berg

4 of 5 stars

Read in February 2010

Superb storytelling, twisting plots, puzzles and mysteries, and an apocalyptic convergence made for an excellent and enjoyable read. If it weren’t for the press of other book club selections, I would immediately proceed to the second half of this duology, Breath and Bone.

Even though the story is told in the first person, by Valen, it flowed well. I struggled to connect with Valen, a fugitive from his family, constantly on the run and hiding for twelve long years. Magic is strictly registered and contracted among pureblood families and any offspring willful enough to escape the privilege are hunted down relentlessly.

Escaping a battle gone badly, set upon by his own comrade and left to die in a ditch, Valen wakes up in a monastery’s infirmary and claims two weeks sanctuary. Thinking he can hide out among the tonsured brothers, he resolves to join their ranks, vowing falsely to obey their Rule for the rest of his days.

Yet all is not prayer, singing, reading, scribing or toiling among these gentle quiet monks. Valen soon finds more than just the porridge is thickening in the unseasonable cold.

Highly recommended for lovers of fantasy, adventure and apocalyptic fiction.

Breath and Bone by Carol Berg

4.5 out of 5 stars

Read in February 2010

Two worlds, symbiotically connected, only touching each other on the periphery of the senses, plagued by a scourge destroying the human realm which in turn shrinks and blinds the Danae realm. Can a cure be found? Can the world be healed?

But what sacrifice justifies the means? Does Osriel hold the answer in his pact with the ‘devil’? Does Silas’ goal to purge the world of all classes, races and knowledge, to reboot the world in her egalitarian vision offer the best hope? Or Valen, standing astride both worlds, perceiving the health just beyond his grasp, if only he can overcome his past and the obstacles and enemies in his present.

Beautiful world building, stunning prose, intriguing magic system (in both worlds), satisfyingly twisty plot and exceptionally well drawn, deep characters round out this remarkable conclusion to the Lighthouse series.

I highly recommend both Flesh and Spirit and this novel to all fantasy readers. I suggest they be read together, as one large volume.

Book Review: Catching Fire by Collins (4 Stars)

CatchingFirecoverCatching Fire by Suzanne Collins

4 out of 5 stars

Read in October 2011

I read this in record time and surprised myself by liking it better than the first book, the Hunger Games. Katniss’ relationship with her family, friends and handlers evoked more emotions, believability and depth. The Victory Tour provided a glimpse of the wider world, showing me tantalizing bits of the various Districts and the ruins of civilization destroyed during the Dark Days seventy-years before.

I still find it hard to believe that fascism could survive so long. The unbearable inhumane conditions of the District ‘citizens’, the calculated cruelty of the Hunger Games, augmented in this novel by the Quarter Quell, a sadistic 25-year anniversary twist to the regular annual reaping of the rebel Districts’ youth. The cost in lives, and the sacrifices made, reflect a horror I hope we never forget from our own not-too-distant past.


Book Review: The Hunger Games by Collins (3.5 Stars)

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

3.5 out of 5 stars

Read in July 2009

I loved this book and yet at times I hated it. Several times it made me cry, nearly sobbing out loud. It never made me laugh and pricked me to anger often.

Katniss lives in District Twelve, an area devoted to coal mining in what was the Appalachian Mountains of North America. Her father died working in the mines and her mother suffered severe debilitating depression after his death. That left Katniss, at age twelve, to provide for her mother and her young sister, Prim. She sneaks out of the confines of District Twelve, underneath a tall electrified fence, to hunt and gather in the nearby woods, keeping them from starving – barely.

Continue reading “Book Review: The Hunger Games by Collins (3.5 Stars)”

Swan Song Encore

For the second night in a row, I spent fifteen or twenty minutes outside, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness before participating in the Great World Wide Star Count.  I relaxed on my upper patio, hiding behind my pile of firewood, which blocks the bright lights from the doctors’ office to my west.  Apollo joined me both nights, enjoying the cool autumn breeze and quiet evening.

I zoomed in on the Northern Cross, also known as the constellation Cygnus, as the target of my naked eye observations both nights.  I printed the observing guide Friday before leaving work.  Despite being surrounded by city streetlights, prison security lighting and a nearly full moon, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I could see down to magnitude five, but not quite to magnitude six, again according to the Northern Hemisphere Observing Guide.

Friday night I even setup the tripod and Canon camera to snap a three second exposure of the constellation Cynus:

Cygnus (just after 9 pm Central Fri 14 Oct 2011)
Cygnus (just after 9 pm Central Fri 14 Oct 2011)

Tonight, rather than setting up the camera, I brought out the binoculars to see if I could discern the blue and yellow stars that make up Albireo in the head of the Swan.  Having to look almost directly overhead and holding the binoculars away from my eyes did not result in a steady enough magnification to confirm.  Perhaps tomorrow night I’ll haul the telescope up out of the basement and get a better, steadier look at that gem.

I need to find another place at least one kilometer away from my house to do a second observation to report back to the website referenced above.  If only Lansing didn’t lock up all of it’s parks promptly at sunset, I might have an opportunity to observe from the new park out west on 4-H Road.

So how many stars can you see of the Swan?  Step outside tomorrow night, give your eyes fifteen minutes to adjust and look directly overhead.

Keep looking up!

A Year in the Life of My Blog

Last year, a few days after my birthday, I scrapped my MySpace blog, mostly due to interface changes, and ventured here to WordPress with a backup blog at Blogger.  My original intention was to journal my astronomical adventures here and do some inspirational topics on the backup site.  While I didn’t blog daily, I did manage to craft over two hundred blog entries here (this being my 225th).

Cygnas (the Swan)
Cygnus (the Swan)

In honor of my original intention to explore the heavens, I wanted to encourage everyone (and motivate myself) to participate in this year’s Great World Wide Star Count.  Don’t be shy!  Anyone can participate and it doesn’t require any equipment beyond your eyes.  This project is an annual survey of the night sky, held this year between October 14th and 28th (7-9 pm optimal viewing window) to record how many stars you can see in the constellation Cygnus (the Swan) in the northern hemisphere (follow the link above if you reside Down Under).  This helps map the spread of light pollution.  I plan to get out my telescope (for the first time this fall) and view the beautiful blue/yellow double-star Albireo. I can’t tell from the survey’s website if they are affiliate with the IDA (the International Dark-Sky Association), but I’m doing my bit (via this blog) to raise awareness about the value of dark skies and their preservation and restoration.

And now, a brief retrospective of some of my favorite blog entries (indicated with asterisks) from the past year and a few popular (according to the stats) highlights:

Autumn Reveries

I am so tired I literally cannot see well as I write this blog entry.  I felt the need to preserve my tiredness for posterity by sharing the highlights of the first whirlwind weekend of October 2011, which coincidentally corresponds to my birthday.

I planned earlier in the week (still in September) to attend the Friday opening night showing of Courageous with my hubby.  Since I ended up driving the van for the workday commute last Friday, I got home early, around 5:15 pm.  While changing out of my work clothes, I received a call from my uncle, who is visiting Winfield, Kansas for events surrounding Homecoming at his alma mater, Southwestern College.  I’ll spare you the details from the thirty minute conversation and instead refer you to last month’s post about interfamily technical support.  I dispensed what help I could and we headed south to the Legends, making a quick stop at Subway for a bit of supper.

With a good fifteen or twenty minutes to spare, we were surprised to learn the movie was nearly sold out and we ended up seated in the second row of theater eight.   While Terry and I thought the movie was good, we did not think it was as great as Fireproof or even Facing the Giants. It suffered from scrambled subplots, sprawl and heavy handed preaching at the expense of good story. There were a few laugh-out-loud moments. While the theatre was packed, but you could tell you were ‘preaching to the choir’ from the composition of the audience.

Saturday, the first of October, we had planned to board the dogs and head south to Wichita to visit Terry’s life-long friends after the recent death of several family members, with the intention of attending the memorial dinner Sunday evening.  As noon approached (and the cutoff for dropping off the dogs at the kennel), we learned one of the family members thought they had the flu, and since neither Terry nor I have received this year’s flu shot yet, we opted to do a marathon trip on Sunday rather than expose Terry to potential viruses.   I canceled the boarding and Terry canceled the lodging, which left us with time on our hands.

Terry wanted to take me out for a birthday dinner, since my actual birthday would be spent driving to and from Wichita to attend a funeral.  I struggled for an hour trying to find someplace relatively close to dine at, finally deciding to try Stone Canyon Pizza in downtown Parkville, Missouri.  We drove through a beautiful fall later afternoon along K-5 and Missouri 45 only to discover upon arriving in Parkville that the city was overrun with an Octoberfest and locating a parking spot close enough for Terry became a pipe dream.  The backup plan became Zona Rosa and we eventually ate at Abuelos, a Mexican restaurant (not my first choice for cuisine, since I despise cheese, but they were convenient and not overly crowded and we got front door parking on a Saturday evening).

Terry suggested that we drop by High Noon Saloon to listen to Southern Reign.  We arrived shortly after the first set completed, spoke to the band members briefly, then found a table and enjoyed the next two sets.  I surprised myself by ordering a hot chocolate as my first drink, since the door to the Saloon was propped open and the temperature kept falling quickly as the night progressed.  I must admit that hot chocolate proved to be one of the best, if not the best ones I’ve ever drank.

I spent most of Sunday morning recording DVDs from the DVR (same way I spent Saturday afternoon once we decided not to drive to Wichita).  I even sneaked a watch (without the hubby) of the season finale of Doctor Who (more on that later in the week) and the latest Star Wars: the Clone Wars.  Terry woke up before noon and we hit the road by one o’clock.  Having forgotten that Kansas recently raised the speed limit on Interstates from 70 mph to 75 mph, we made record time down the turnpike, savoring the autumn beauty of the Flint Hills.

Many friends and family attended the memorial service and dinner, including half of the decedent’s high school Class of 57 (all eight of whom drove up from Oklahoma on Sunday and planned to return that night).  Of the two hymns we sung a capella, I loved singing In the Garden, which had been my great-grandmother’s favorite hymn.  I received several complements on my singing, even though I haven’t sung regularly in months and tried to keep my volume as soft as I could without sacrificing pitch and phrasing.  The dinner, provided by the host restaurant (Yaya’s Euro Bistro) proved delicious and soon afterward the guests began to depart.  We tarried long enough to briefly speak with our grieving friends, then hit the road north, shortly after eight o’clock.

I drove the first leg of the trip, stopping briefly at the Matfield Greene Service Center to get some water for Terry.  His poor digestive system needed some heart burn relief via Alkz Seltzer.  I spied a couple of interesting paintings of sunflowers, my favorite being the one below:

I continued driving north and took a brief side trip to Emporia for my one birthday treat of the day:  ice cream from Braums.   Terry drove while I enjoyed my butter pecan waffle cone, returning to the turnpike.  The clear skies shone with brilliant stars, such that I even asked wistfully if Terry could drive without the headlights just so I could enjoy such pristine dark skies.  He ignored me and kept driving safely.  Soon after finishing the cone, I fell asleep.  I drug myself out of my dreams after we crossed over the Kaw River east of Lawrence and stayed awake until we pulled into the driveway at a quarter past eleven.  I stumbled upstairs and crashed into bed, but failed to fall back asleep until after midnight.

After such a jam packed weekend, I dreaded the five o’clock alarm that would set me off on further adventures, this time for my employer, with a business trip to the Windy City aka Chicago (a misnomer if you consider the factual data that points to Dodge City as the windiest city in the States).  In fact, I’m finishing up this blog post in my hotel room after a long day of work and travel.  I’m so looking forward to more than five hours of sleep.