Finding Our Stars


When I was 12 years old, I wrote a silly poem called “A Well-Rounded Gal” featuring lines about being able to recite poetry while standing on my head wielding a sword with my left hand, and all manner of other skills that a prepubescent girl who’d read all the classic Arthurian, science fiction and fantasy novels thought were requisite to qualify as a Renaissance woman. Though the list was a bit on the fantastical side (though I would still love to learn how to properly sword-fight), in reality, like everyone I think, I kept a mental list of things I wanted to be knowledgeable about, skills I thought a real adult would know. Perhaps it is part of the pitfalls of perfectionism or some crackpot bill of goods sold to all of us, that dangles that carrot of “If Only”, this feeling of inadequacy that comes from knowing less than I should.  It’s not that Socratic knowing-what-I-don’t-know inspiration that prompts us to seek knowledge, but the palm-sweat inducing sensation brought on by the sound of “should.”

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On that mental list that a Renaissance, always-prepared Girl Scout dragon mama carried in the toolbox is the ability to navigate by way of the constellations. Now as anyone who knows me will tell you, I have a terrible sense of direction. I frequently turn left, meaning to turn right.  I get lost, or as I call it “go adventuring” on a regular basis–in places I’ve lived for years.  I’ve learned that when in doubt, whichever way my instinct tells me to go, I should go the opposite, which is then usually the correct way home. Before we moved to a place where my mountain is always in the East, determining where North lies without GPS was a multi-step process that involved:

1. Looking to first determine where the sun was in relation to where I was (not as easy as you think in a state like Michigan where it’s frequently overcast).

2. Humming the lines to an old Girl Scout song: “The golden sun sinks in the West, Great Spirit calls Girl Scouts to rest… ”

3. Recalling which way I-75 runs, and where I was in relation to this freeway

4.Imagining a compass rose and mentally walking around this to determine in which direction lay North.

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So, perhaps being able to navigate by the stars is asking a bit much.  I would be willing to settle for being able to find the constellations, I thought.

So when my middle daughter asked me to come as a chaperone on the school trip to the planetarium, I was stoked. Here was an opportunity to add to my repository of Renaissance woman skills. Our astronomer guide was a woman who had clearly given the talk to elementary school children numerous times throughout the years. One thing I had not counted on was how dark the giant room became once she shut off the lights so we could look up at the ceiling and pretend we were looking up at the night sky.  It was breathtaking, and enlightening, but unfortunately, my super-hero power of being able to sleep anywhere at any time kicked in.  Life skill NOT achieved, though a refreshing nap was had, luckily without any embarrassing snores.

The next opportunity for redemption presented itself at our trip to Chaco Canyon with the Boy Scouts.  The ranger gathered us for a hike after dark (which in my mind seemed like a great opportunity to sprain ankles or have small children fall into gullies) then began speaking about the ancient people who had built the mysterious dwelling places at Chaco Canyon. He told a legend of how the stars were placed in the sky, the constellations a way of explaining how the world began, when crops should be planted, how men and women interacted, and as we sat under the brightening stars waiting for the moon to rise and show us the way, he recounted how these stories told with the constellations as illustrations and backdrop would be told over and over again.  The people knew those stars and the moon like we know street signs, he said.  Their world revolved around lightness and dark, without artificial light to lead them astray.

I realized then, we all have that longing in us to know and understand the heavens, from ancient people to all of us with our Kindles and smartphones.  We all struggle to make meaning of those bright lights in the distance, beckoning us to wonder what lies in the abyss and the unknown.  What I longed for at 12 is the same thing we all have wanted across millenia– to be able to find our way home in the darkness, and no amount of “Shoulds” can dim the stars.  They are there, as they have been for millions of years, waiting for us to tell our stories.

As National Blog Post Month begins again, I’m trying yet again to find my way back. Unlike the mariners of old, keeping journals, star charts and compasses that helped them differentiate the days on dark seas, navigating their way home by the constellations, I lost my internal compass, stopped writing, and got a little lost as I tend to do.  I am grateful today for the observatories that allow us to grasp for brighter lights on the horizon, for the stars in our world that stay constant, and for those wise people in our life like Socrates, who remind us to keep searching for truth. I hope you enjoy this month’s journey to find it with me.

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We visited the Griffith Park Observatory in February,  which is located atop Mount Hollywood, and was featured in the James Dean film Rebel Without a Cause.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Soccer Mom’s Ode to Baseball & Dia de Los Muertos


I planned a post today about All Soul’s Day, a day we celebrate the lives of those we’ve loved who have passed away. Living here in the Southwest, Dia de Los Muertos is big, with festive parades and sugar skull decorations everywhere. Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Day, is a Mexican holiday celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, honoring the deceased with food, ofrendas, and calavera make-up.  

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It also happens to coincide tonight with Game 7 of the World Series, a tied series between the Cleveland Indians, and the underdog favorites, the Chicago Cubs.  Being from Detroit, my team is the Tigers, but I’m a sucker for the underdog, so I’ve been rooting for the Cubs. But tonight of all nights, we had no TV reception.  Though we live in the Southwest, we live in high desert, which means that November has brought cooler temperatures, and the winds were whipping over the mountain, shaking our tiny little antenna beyond its capacity. Like my dad always taught me though, “This is history!” We had to witness this, and so I dragged my husband out to the local pub to watch the game, despite a long day after soccer practice for our little guy.

As I’ve posted before, I’m not an athlete.We don’t watch a lot of sports except when my kids are playing or the Olympics are on.  My son has been playing soccer for 7 years, and I still don’t get what off sides (not even sure this is one word or two) means when the ref calls it.  But I grew up watching baseball, and the 1984 World Series Champions were my Tigers.  I can still remember the faces of the players from Sweet Lou Whitaker to Gibby, and my personal favorites, Alan Trammell and for some reason Darrell Evans. Hot Sunday afternoons we sprawled out in front of the TV, fan rotating over all of us ineffectually, or my aunt would pull the antenna up on her stereo to catch the broadcast on WJR by Ernie Harwell.

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Tonight, I wanted a little of that baseball magic back.  Watching those games made time stand still, and the game tonight did not disappoint.  I don’t know these faces like I knew my Tigers, but I recognized the same intensity in them.  That drive to win, to play at the top of your game, the agony of a strike when the count is down 3 balls, 2 strikes, and it’s the bottom of the inning, it’s still there.  We sat in the pub with complete strangers, our eyes rooted to each swing of the bat, each bounce of the ball across a rainy field, and all of our cheers and groans somehow united us.  One couple, Marshall and Jennifer, happened to be from Illinois, with long generations of die-hard Cubs fans who never had seen the Cubs get this far in the World Series.  Marshall’s grandfather died two years ago at age 88, having never had his lifelong wish to see the Cubs win the World Series fulfilled.  His wife Jennifer rubbed the back of his Cubs shirt as the score tied at 6-6, and we headed into a 10th inning with a rain delay.

I looked around the pub, at the bartenders who were kind enough to stay open past closing time, at the customers wandering in and out to stand, arms folded in front of the television, at the waitstaff expertly whisking away glasses and plates, and thought of all the other baseball fans across the world, sitting like we were, on the edge of our seats, praying and watching, jumping up with every hit, cheering every catch, holding our breaths collectively.  This, then, is what draws people to sports, though we are not all athletes.  This drama, this heightened awareness of each passing second, it makes us feel alive, makes us feel as connected as if we are all related to the players, like me on the sidelines cheering for my little guy kicking that soccer ball towards the goal.

And when the Cubs did win it, hard-fought as we watched with fingers clenched, palms sweating, Marshall raised a glass in honor of his grandfather, as fans all across the world did, for those who have passed, and didn’t get to be here celebrating with us.  We honor our dead by remembering them, by cherishing their memories, by our longing to share moments such as this with them. After the game, we lingered in the pub, savoring the atmosphere charged with the joyous aftermath of victory, then walked out into the darkness, a blessing of rain echoing that on the baseball field, a strangely fitting end to Dia de los Muertos.

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Adventures at 101 Independence Ave SE


In honor of National Book Lovers Day, I thought I’d share with you the most nerdly adventure a book lover like me could have–a day spent at the largest library in the world, which is located in our own nation’s capital. If you’ve never had the luxury of exploring the Library of Congress, I’ll offer my portrait of a beautiful and wondrous place that could not have existed without one man whose quote all book lovers can identify with:

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In Washington D.C. for the day after a phenomenal conference on genetics and genomics where I was representing PAs, I started off the day getting off the Metro at Union Station, and headed to the U.S. Capitol Building, where I had signed up online the night before for a tour at 8:45 am (the earliest available). It’s free, but you must sign up, as the tours tend to fill up fast.  I’ll share the tour of the US Capitol in another blog post (one of those patriotic, sappy ones, so be forewarned now!), but suffice it to say, I was thrilled to see a sign that pointed to a tunnel between the U.S. Capitol and the Library of Congress.

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This tunnel, besides the cool factor of travelling underground between two very different buildings, had the advantage of bypassing security (though you have to pass back through security when heading back from the Library of Congress into the Capitol), as well as being literally cooler given the muggy D.C. heat even at that time of day.  For the members of Congress to have the Congressional Research Service which directly serves Congress in such close proximity is likely quite useful.

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Besides the sheer beauty of the frescoes and statuary there, the immensity of the Library of Congress and all it encompasses is astonishing.  It is actually 3 large buildings, the Jefferson, Madison, and Adams buildings which are all interconnected (yes, more tunnels!). This is the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building. Hours could be spent in this part of the library alone.

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At any time, numerous exhibits are ongoing at the library including one currently on Gershwin, another on World War I propaganda art, and another on a collection of maps including one of the first of America.  As part of their bible exhibit, which contains 18 from their collection of over 1500 in over 150 languages, I got to see the Gutenberg Bible, pictured here, and the Giant Bible of Mainz. Everyone knows about the Gutenberg Bible and its significance in regards to movable type, but to have it juxtaposed with the Giant Bible of Mainz which was hand lettered, and produced in the same time and place provided a great contrast.  Seeing first-hand the visible guidelines so that those lettering it could write in a straight, neat line, really brought home how time-consuming a process it was. It took the scribe 15 months, ending on my birthday in the year 1453 of all days!

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While exploring all the buildings, I came across the U.S. Copyright Office housed on the fourth floor, which I did not know was a department of the Library of Congress. It contains the world’s largest database of copyrighted works and copyright ownership information. In fiscal year 2015, it registered an astounding 443,812 claims to copyright.  So, there are definitely new things under the sun, though many would claim the opposite to be true.  An office where hearings regarding copyright are conducted is imbued with a modern art twist. By some strange chance, I happened to come when no one was present, and I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland come upon some strange alternate dimension, as its decor was so different from the rest of the library.

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In my travels through the basement, I came across hallways lined with card catalogs.  I thought perhaps they had been abandoned for computer records, however, Carl from Engineering soon disabused me of this notion. Apparently, most resources can be found via computer, but they keep the card catalog because not everything has been put into the computer databases, and he still finds researchers standing with drawers open, writing on pull-out wooden shelves in the basement searching for hidden treasures.

I also came across a giant globe, and one of the engineering workers in hard hat stood studying the topographic map for a long time whilst I took a picture of this giant globe.  It allowed me to give a perspective of just how big it was, and the way he stood there just begged to have the picture taken.

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There’s an even larger one upstairs on the second floor in the Madison building, but I was told it was in an area of mostly offices, and the woman on the elevator could not tell me what its significance was.  In my very active imagination, I thought that perhaps they had to be separated because the force of gravity between the two massive globes would wreak havoc on mortal beings and delicate instruments betwixt them.  Either that or having 2 globes next to each other wouldn’t be structurally sound, but that seems a rather boring answer if you ask me.

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I did my part in rescuing our economy from financial ruin by making sure to visit the gift shop where I had to stop myself from buying a large scarf printed like an old library card, and one of these fun purses made from recycled Reader’s Digests. The children ended up with a keychain globe of precious stones, a parchment set with quill and glass inkwell, and accurate, readable copies of the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights.

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Lest you think the library is only for adults, the Young Reader’s Center is a cozy set of rooms on the ground floor with the requisite puppet theater, low tables for artwork, a television with DVD player in a small viewing room and a cushy sectional with large bean bags for curling up to read books and listening to Story Time. If I lived nearby, I would come here every day with my children.

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Windows everywhere fill the rooms with natural light. There are step stools throughout to reach the upper shelves (so thoughtful, says the short person), with whimsical carved animals like this one.

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All this walking began to make me hungry, and thinking I didn’t want to go back out into the heat, then come back in through TSA-like security, I asked if there was a place to eat nearby.  It turns out in the basement of the Madison building (far away from all the books), there was a Dunkin Donuts, Subway, and a small coffee shop, none of which sounded sufficiently adventuresome to me. On the 6th floor of the building, though, I also learned that there was a large cafeteria, which according to another man with a silver hard hat in the basement, “Is excellent. I mean, really outstanding.” So, of course, I had to make my way up to the Madison Café. Unfortunately, the elevators chose that moment to go out of service, so I earned my lunch by climbing up the stairs to the 6th floor. And the man in the hard hat was right. The variety of choices was a vision especially with my stomach growling loudly enough to be embarrassing.  It included a buffet with offerings included deep-fried oysters, stuffed cabbage, a salad bar, 3 different types of soups, numerous desserts including bread pudding, as well as a grill for made-to-order burgers and sandwiches, a sushi bar, an Asian section with phở, udon noodle soup,  a bibimbap bar, and a breakfast food area.  I chose a beef bibimbap with japchae and cucumber kimchi that was surprisingly good for $7.99. The Asian girl serving the food behind the counter ended up with a similar plate behind me in the checkout, so I knew it had to be at least palatable, or at the very least not poisoned. Perhaps it was because I was so famished, but it was, in fact, delicious.

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I couldn’t get over the fact that I was eating delicious Korean food in the Library of Congress while sitting looking out over the city, when a church bell from nearby St. Peter’s Catholic Church began to toll in the tower across the way from the library.  It was definitely surreal.  The glowing cylinders in the air aren’t ghosts of presidents past hanging about, just the reflection of the pretty light fixtures in the cafeteria which was decorated also with posters from all over the world, and photographs of children reading.

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Thus refueled, I went next to the Moving Image Research Center, where you can view movies, though you have to request it at least 2 weeks in advance as they store most of the films offsite.  They began collecting motion pictures in 1893.  Films are shown and open to the public in the Mary Pickford Theater which is within the Library of Congress itself. Seating is first come, first serve though. It was there that I learned that anyone over the age of 16 could get a library card.  So being the giant book nerd that I am, I had to get my very own Library of Congress card.  I’ve covered up the picture of me grinning like a fool and part of my signature with my Metro card, which I suppose I’ll save until I come back to D.C.

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The process to get a library card was surprisingly quick, starting with a line-up to speak to a lady who requested my driver’s license, asked me if I had requested a library card online, and since I had not, directed me to a set of computers where I filled out a form, then went to sit in line to get my picture taken.  The whole process with 2 people in front of me in line took at most 10 minutes, and was much more enjoyable than any visit to the DMV.

Upon leaving, I saw a curious sign and heard Barry Manilow and laughter spilling from the adjacent room.

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I peeked inside and saw an incongruous sight–couples waltzing, ranging from young to old, of all different races.  They beckoned me in, saying “Come on in and join us.” So I did.

My only previous exposure to ballroom dancing was a dancing instructor hired for Dana’s 30th birthday party, where I learned that I am awful at following and possibly born with 2 left feet, and resolved at that point to avoid any kind of structured dancing without more instruction.  Well, the more instruction day had apparently arrived, in the form of Dean. I could not tell if he was with the other 2 instructors, one a matter-of-fact early thirty-something Caucasian lady in pants and dancing heeled shoes, and the other a smiling tall African American man in polo shirt and chino, or just really loved ballroom dancing.

Thanks to Dean and his “big step, little, little” and “1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3” I acquitted myself reasonably well with a “Well done!” from the tall African American man who asked if I’d done this before, and learned the twinkle step and the patty cake. The pictures are somewhat blurry because most of our time was spent dancing, as it should be.  I spent about 30 minutes in this slice of alternate reality, most of it smiling like a crazy person, because who goes ballroom dancing in the Library of Congress? Me, I guess.

Oh, and at the Library, there are also a bunch of books. Stacks and stacks of lovely books–in case you thought I only like libraries for all the other cool stuff. I once worked with a PA, and perhaps he was teasing me, given what he knew about me and my love of libraries, who said that he didn’t see the point of libraries, stating that if he wanted a book, he would just go buy one at the book store.  I sputtered, and tried to articulate all that libraries mean to me, a person who could count the number of books in the house while growing up on 1 hand.  My adventures at 101 Independence Ave SE just confirmed what I knew when I was just a little girl with a library card: Libraries are a portal to another world, a place where magic becomes reality if you can only open yourself up to all the possibilities and knowledge the world has to offer. I’m thankful for libraries, and for a country that believes that knowledge is important enough to preserve for everyone in a place of unsurpassing beauty and wonder.