Rhythms and Transitions in Life

This pandemic year of 2020 brought us a long, hot, dry summer in Southern New Mexico. Usually we get some relief when the monsoon rains come in July and August, but this year, the monsoon only made a few fleeting attempts at getting started. During the long, hot summer, I fell into a regular daily rhythm. I woke up in the morning, ate breakfast and checked my email, then took a three-mile walk through the neighborhood where I plotted out my goals for the day before the temperatures climbed back over 100 degrees. I would then come home and set to work. I usually wrapped up in the late afternoon when dinnertime rolled around. Dinnertime was generally enforced by my daughter who had just graduated from high school.

All in all, this has been a healthy life rhythm. I’ve been getting regular sleep and exercise and I’ve been making a real effort to make healthy diet choices. This has paid off for me. According to the scale at home, I’ve dropped fifteen pounds this summer.

The campus observatory at Northern Arizona University

As the summer comes to an end, I find myself going through several transitions. My daughter has moved away to college. So far, her school, Northern Arizona University, has done admirably well at keeping any COVID-19 outbreaks from occurring on campus, so it looks like she’ll be away until winter break, which begins this year starting on Thanksgiving weekend. A cold front moved through, breaking the streak of hot weather. The forecast indicates temperatures will heat up again, but right now, we’re looking at 80s and not 100s. Also, I’m writing a new longer work, plus starting edits on another novel. What’s more, there’s word that Kitt Peak National Observatory plans to transition to having more staff on site as soon as local authorities give approval, so I’m on alert that I may begin shifts at the observatory again soon.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that I often do my best writing first thing in the morning before I’ve had any significant interaction with other people. In short, the story flows without the clutter of other life business getting in the way. If I wake up, have breakfast, then sit down and write about 500 words, I have a much higher chance of continuing writing later in the day. Even if I don’t, I at least have the satisfaction that I completed that much. Once that’s done, I then check my mail. From there, I usually get at least one work task done and then go for my walk. All in all, it’s still a healthy rhythm, but one that may shift if I do indeed add observatory shifts into the rhythm.

These thoughts about life rhythms and transitions at a time I’m starting new writing and editing projects also has me thinking about rhythms and transitions in storytelling. I’ll dive into that subject in Tuesday’s blog post. In the meantime, remember that you can learn about my books by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com

Documentation

Kitt Peak National Observatory is one of many large observatories around the world shut down in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally, I was part of a skeleton crew scheduled to be on site making sure there were no problems with site infrastructure during the shutdown. However, management decided to reduce that crew, pulling our team from the rotation for the time being. So my main job at the moment is working on telescope documentation from home.

This is an important job. Four years ago, the control system at the Mayall 4-meter went through a major hardware and software upgrade in preparation for the Dark Energy Survey Instrument (DESI) that we’re now using. Those of us who operate the telescope learned how to do things on the fly before the telescope was shutdown for the actual DESI upgrade. During that period, the programmers and engineers who did the control system upgrade were, of course, occupied installing DESI and making it work. The upshot is that it’s now time to actually document how the new control system works.

As it turns out, a lot of the basic “how do you make the telescope go” level of documentation is already complete. That’s stuff I was able to do before and during the DESI upgrade. The stuff I’m working on now is more “under the hood” level documentation. For example, the image above shows two sets of coordinates: Target and Sky. Both are the same in the picture. The kind of information I need from a programmer is what does he mean when he refers to the “Target” coordinates and what does he mean when he refers to the “Sky” coordinates. It turns out, the two should only be different if you know the telescope is slewing from one target to another, or the servos are turned off and the telescope is not tracking the sky.

The other day, I shared a news article about the closure of observatories on social media. I received a lot of surprise from people. Observatories are, after all, remote places and you’d think they’re about as “socially distant” a place to be as possible. In fact, on my last night of observing, I shared a control room with an observer from the UK and one from Mexico and we even joked about that a little. Look back at the previous sentence, though, and you actually see part of the problem. Large observatories attract observers and tourists from all around the world. We may not have a lot of people on site, but they are people who have traveled far to get there, possibly exposing themselves to the virus on the way.

Even if we closed down to just remote operations where only local people were allowed at the observatory, we’d still have a problem. If something breaks, you often need a team of engineers and technicians to get it operating again. You could imagine allowing the observatory to run until something breaks, and then just leaving it at that point until someone could fix it. The problem with this scenario becomes clear if you imagine a situation where the broken mechanism is the dome shutter and rain is approaching, which could, in turn, damage the telescope and instrumentation.

Fortunately, even though many large telescopes are shut down, many smaller facilities are still operating and monitoring the skies for “transient” objects like asteroids and supernovae. Science is still happening. It’s not quite full stop as far as monitoring the skies. Many of these smaller facilities only require one or two people on site to fix problems. So there’s much less danger in this case.

Related to my job at the observatory, I heard an interesting statement from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US Infectious Disease Specialist. In an interview with CNN, he said, “What we’re seeing right now are some favorable signs. It’s looking like that in many cases particularly in New York we’re starting to see a flattening and turning around. We would want to see … I would want to see a clear indication that you are very very clearly and strongly going in the right direction.” What really struck me in this description of early signs the COVID-19 pandemic may be improving is how much it reminded me of how I describe safe conditions to open the telescope for observing after bad weather has closed us down. Let’s say humidity or wind are too high for the telescope to be open safely. We have officially stated limits for when we can open, but sometimes I don’t open right at those limits and I give an explanation similar to Dr. Fauci’s. It’s all too easy for wind or humidity to have a momentary downward blip, then come up again right away. We want to see a clear indication that conditions are improving. Let’s hope the pandemic turns around soon and we get the clear, strong indications that we’re moving in the right direction.

Pandemic Past

Most of us are working to find ways of coping in the era of social distancing imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. My friend, Kenneth Silsbee, has come up with an innovative approach to create some social time by hosting a Friday evening “cocktail hour” where friends can gather via a Zoom conference call. It’s allowed me to connect to some of my college alumni friends and make some connections with Kenneth’s Seattle-area friends.

During the first of these cocktail hours, Kenneth asked whether any of the attendees had any family stories from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. All I remembered was a brief mention that my maternal grandfather was serving in the Army Air Corps in France during one of the pandemic’s waves. However, the question did make me think of a book I read two years ago when I prepared to moderate a panel called “Magical History” at the Tucson Festival of Books. The photo below shows me with the panelists, Beth Cato, Mindy Tarquini, and Gail Carriger.

The book I’ve been remembering is Mindy Tarquini’s The Infinite Now. In the novel, Fiora Vicente, the daughter of an Italian immigrant fortune teller living in Philadelphia, loses her parents to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 and is taken to live with a friend of the family in a tenement house. She takes possession of a magical curtain that allows her to see five minutes into the future. Afraid that the old man who has taken her in will die, she creates a bubble around the house to keep time from progressing. Meanwhile, a frightening healer seeks to entrap Fiora and take the curtain. The magic is subtle and metaphorical, and the author even introduces a bit of Clarke’s Third Law, the notion that sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic, at the novel’s end.

I’m sorry to have seen this year’s COVID-19 outbreak force the cancellation of the Tucson Festival of Books. That said, it’s clear from the way the virus is spreading that the organizers made the right call. Still, the Tucson Festival of Books has long been one of my favorite venues to meet and talk with authors from all around the country. In the panel, I not only discovered Mindy’s book, but I read books by Beth Cato and Gail Carriger as well. I highly recommend all their works if you’re looking for something good to read while social distancing.

As it turns out, the 2018 Tucson Festival of Books was not my first opportunity to meet Beth Cato. I had actually published her work on a few occasions in Tales of the Talisman Magazine. Volume 9, issues 2 and 4 along with Volume 10, issue 4 all have poems by Beth Cato and they are still in stock. As long as the post office is deemed an essential service, I’d be more than happy to pack up copies and send them to you. You can find all the issues of Tales of the Talisman at http://www.talesofthetalisman.com.