Monday, August 10, 2009

The mystery about lightning

Whether for lack of common sense or for sheer excitement, I decided to venture off on my Sunday walk through the hiking trails of Memorial Park as a thunderstorm started to loom over me with thick, roiling black clouds. As I entered the trail head, a loud peal of thunder cracked above me. Two more bangs quickly followed, and then the sky opened up. As the rain began to move through the trees, the din became louder and louder. I opened my umbrella and stood underneath a clump of cross vines straddled between two pines.

This summer in Houston has been HOT. Second hottest summer since 1932 according to Channel 11 news. I don’t know about that, but it certainly has been the hottest since I moved here from Maine in 2006. And as I found out by eating breakfast at the House of Pies on Friday a few weeks back, Texans are as good at telling jokes about the heat as New Englanders are at telling jokes about the cold: “Been so hot here lately that the farmers are having to feed their chickens chipped ice to keep them from laying hard boiled eggs.”

Not that I haven’t experienced hot weather before. Spent a couple of summers in Wichita, KS where 100 plus degree temperatures were not uncommon for August. But it was a dry heat. Houston, though, the humidity makes taking the heat a real challenge. A 100 degree day with 70% humidity can make it feel like 112. As Leon Hale put it in his column in today’s Houston Chronicle, you have to be a “heat lover” to enjoy being out in that kind of weather.

As I stood there with the rain misting around me, a couple more loud crackles of thunder went off. Then the rain really started to come down. A bright flash sizzled through the trees followed by a loud boom. That was close, I said to myself. Really close. I started having second thoughts about venturing out on my walk today. It’s one thing to enjoy a storm sitting next to a window inside the comfort and safety of your home, and an entirely different thing to be outside in it. The mystery about lightning is that you never know when or where it’s going to strike.

Such was the time I was at a Boy Scout summer camp in W. Lee, Mass. when we were enveloped in total blackness from clouds roiling in from the west. The rain fell so hard that you couldn’t see more than three feet from outside your tent. We were in one of those big miner tents that had four bunks in it—two to each side. I was sitting on the far bunk down from the camp counselor who was sitting on the edge of the bed facing toward me. He was a Bee Gees fanatic and was nuts about their new release: “I’ve Got to Get a Message to You.” With his GE am transistor radio tuned into WBEC, he was trying to sing along with the Gibb brothers, but was having a hard time trying to get good reception with all the static that was crackling through the speaker. He picked up the radio to see if could find a stronger signal with the antenna.

No sooner than he did, zap, a sizzling, white hot lightning bolt struck the tent pole, exited into the antenna, blew through the radio and struck the counselor, knocking him a clear five feet outside the tent. The tent pole and radio were smoldering. One of the scouts from the tent next to ours ran out to check on the counselor. I was stuck on the bed, still blinded from the flash. The scout that went to help the counselor yelled for me to come help him. I stood up and noticed I was shaking all over and it seemed to take me forever to finally get my feet moving. I wasn’t hurt, but for a second after the flash and the enormous bang that followed, I thought I had died.

We both rolled the counselor over. His color didn’t look very good, and his breathing was shallow. I ran off to the administration building to find one of the scout leaders. The counselor was eventually carried off on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance, and was taken to the hospital. We later learned he had suffered second to third degree burns on both his hands, and that he also suffered burns on his stomach and back. As bad as it seemed at first, though, we were told he was going to be OK.

The rain started to let up. I closed the umbrella and as I did, I noticed a squirrel on the pine tree to my right peering down at me. Except for a few small twitches of its tail, it almost looked frozen. Maybe it was the umbrella that had drawn its curiosity. I could imagine if I were a squirrel, I would be puzzled if I had come across something like that. Although I couldn’t imagine what the squirrel could have possibly thought what an umbrella might be. A giant black mushroom, perhaps, the biggest black mushroom it had ever seen. It twitched its tail a couple more times and then turned and scurried back up the tree.

As I made my way toward the back part of the trail that wraps along the edge of the Buffalo Bayou, I found out I’d have to take a different route. The back part has quite a few knolls that are fun to run down and up on. Not so fun, though, after it’s rained. Soil here in Houston is mostly clay, and after it rains, it feels like you’re walking on Crisco.

When I came to the first knoll and stepped off, I slid down like I was on a nice ride at a water slide park. With my right hand, I stuck out my umbrella to break the slide, and with my left hand faced palm down, I broke my fall. I almost went down again when I tried to stand up, but with the support of my umbrella, and a tree branch hanging close by, I finally pulled myself back up. My walking shoes were globed in a thick coating of mud that became heavy with pine needles and leaves as I started to walk along an alternate trail.

The rumble of thunder could be heard again in the distance. Only it was not from the storm that had just passed. I walked to a clearing and looked to the north, the sky a purplish black. I decided I had enough adventure for one day, and headed back to the car.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Dark clouds on the horizon

Last night I went to the AMC Studio 30 on Dunvale to watch Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. I enjoyed The Order of the Phoenix so much that I’d thought I go see this one as I was curious whether the continuing saga with Voldemort would play out as well as I had envisioned from reading the book.

After the last preview played, the lights started to dim for the feature presentation. Then, suddenly, the theater went dark. There was a hushed silence, and after a few moments, the cavernous space took on an eerie green glow from the emergency exit lights. “I wonder if this is part of the movie,” someone blurted out.

The guy sitting behind me replied, “Yeah, they’ve put us in some dark room at Hogwarts to make the movie seem more real.”

Another few minutes went by. “There isn’t any light on in the projection room,” someone shouted.

We collectively turned our heads toward the projection room. Sure enough, no light—no movement. It was then that some of us began to realize that maybe something had happened. A few of the patrons left the theater to let the management know that the movie had stopped playing.

They returned a couple minutes later with a manager: “Sorry, folks. Didn’t realize you people were still in the dark.” The overhead lights came on. “There’s been a lightning strike close by, and it’s knocked the power out to the building. We don’t know when we’re going to get it back, but the fire department wants everyone to evacuate the building. You’ll receive a 'Re-Admit Pass' on your way out so that you can come back some other night.”

The guy behind me stood up and said, “Imagine that. A lightning strike knocks out the showing of Harry Potter. How’s that for a little wizardry?”

After I got my Re-Admit pass, I decided to head to the House of Pies for a cup of coffee and a slice of egg custard pie. There was considerable lightning and thunder going on, but only a slight sprinkle of rain was falling. That all changed quickly when about half way to the restaurant, I drove into a torrent of water falling from the sky. Considering that we have been under severe drought conditions for the last month and a half, this rainfall was a welcomed sight.

I pulled off into a parking lot and found a spot with a clear view of the churning, black clouds and marveled at the light show that was being put on. The massive streaks ripped from the sky to the ground with thunderous booms that followed. One was so close and so loud that it set off the car alarms. For me, thunderstorms have always had an ominous, mysterious quality about them. Ever since I was a small child growing up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, I felt a sense of urgency to beat it on home whenever the dark clouds began to appear over the mountains that separated us from New York.

When I was at a Boys’ Club summer camp in Richmond, Massachusetts, a thunderstorm coming off the pond sometimes would have us young campers huddling in the middle of the cabin. One night when we were watching a movie during a storm, a lightning bolt struck a pine tree close by. It splintered the tree in half. We noticed that several pieces of the splintered wood were steaming. Without thinking I picked up a piece to look at it more closely, not realizing that doing so was akin to putting my hand on a hot iron. I spent the rest of that week with my hand in a bandage that had to be changed every day.

I watched the last of the grayish white wisps of the clouds from the storm scuttle on by, the rain slowing to a slight drizzle. I turned the car on and continue on to the House of Pies. A few of my friends scoffed at me for taking such an interest in "Harry Potter."

But then many of the things they say about J. K. Rowling’s work—that it’s not literature; it’s pure pap that only a kid could appreciate; that there isn’t anything original about her work—sound vaguely similar to much of the criticism that was levied against Stephen King when his first books started to appear.

But as in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, I find the same lesson in Harry Potter that I have found from reading Apollonius of Rhodes Jason and the Argonauts, Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, and Leo Tolstoy’s Lord of the Rings, and that is how to remain focused on completing our quest when faced with insurmountable forces that challenge us to either rise up and prevail, or else succumb to oblivion. In The Deathly Hollows, Potter has his final confrontation with Lord Voldemort in a classic good versus evil showdown: “It’s just you and me,” Harry says to Voldemort. “Neither can live while the other survives.”

As I sat down to the counter at the restaurant, I thought about the events that have transpired in our lives during the last couple of years. With the deep recession that has resulted in the loss of so many jobs, the uncertainty of the housing market, and the widening conflict in Afghanistan, it seems as if we are challenged by forces so little understood but every bit as menacing as the servants of the Dark Lord Voldemort.

My server tonight was a young lady I hadn’t seen before. She placed a cup of coffee and a slice of egg custard pie before me. “Anything else I can get you, hon?”

I looked up at her. She had a smile as wide as the pie plate. “I’m all set, thanks.”

The hot steam wafted from my coffee. I stared into the cup. There was something there about rumbling clouds appearing on the horizon, the sudden downdraft of a cold wind that portends a coming storm.

Considering the ongoing bickering over the “stimulus bill” that Congress passed, the recent debate on developing a national health care plan that won’t bankrupt us into oblivion, and the need for additional troops to vanquish the Taliban, one can’t help wondering if this storm of events will pass, or if it will wreck us for sure. Let us hope, then, that the wand President Obama wields against the problems our country is faced with is truly powerful and magical, and not just some ordinary stick.

Featured in the Waldo County Republican Journal

Thursday, July 9, 2009

29 years from now



(A father reflects on his daughter’s graduation from UC Davis)

By S L Cunningham

Friday, June 12, I flew out from Houston to Sacramento to attend my daughter’s graduation at the University of California at Davis. Shortly after arriving at my motel in Woodland, my daughter called and asked if I had arrived. We met up with each other at her apartment on campus.

After introducing me to her roommates and showing me her room, we headed for downtown Davis. First order of business was lunch at Burgers and Brew. From there, we spent the next five hours on a walking tour of the downtown area and the campus.

With most cities today, downtowns are a throwback to a bygone era. With their crumbling brick facades, boarded up windows, and a spattering of antique shops, attorney offices and banks, such places leave you wondering what they were like when “downtown” was the focal point of the community. Downtown Davis, however, is the focal point for this community: dynamic, vibrant, with hundreds of people milling about on foot and malingering in its shops, art galleries, and coffee houses. With its tree lined streets, its ambiance is what many shopping malls try to achieve but never quite get right.

While walking along with my daughter, I couldn’t help noticing all the bicycles whirring by. On the sidewalks, more bikes were parked in racks then there were cars parked on the street. Davis is sometimes referred to as the “Bicycle Capital of the United States.” The streets have designated bike lanes, and even one of the traffic lights is bicycle friendly. Instead of your typical red, yellow and green traffic light, this one uses red, yellow and green bike icons.

We visited a couple of art galleries, and then walked onto the campus that abuts the community. After walking quite a distance, I mentioned to my daughter that the area seemed much bigger than I thought. “Biggest campus in the UC system,” she said. I later learned that the campus is spread over 5,300 acres.

The highlight of my campus tour was the UC Davis Arboretum. As we stood on the knoll looking at the green hillside nudging downward to the pond, I could see why my daughter saved this particular place for last. Both a park and a garden replete with several varieties of trees, plants, flowers, and wildlife, there are several pathways to take for an easy stroll. And if you want to sit a spell to indulge in quiet contemplation, you have your choice of several benches placed underneath the boughs of the trees, in the flower gardens, and along the edge of the pond.

We spent a few moments watching a small flock of ducks chasing after a couple of students who were tossing breadcrumbs out on the grass for them. At one point a few of the ducks came over to where we were as if we might have something for them, too. My daughter then looked at me and said, “Come on. I want to show you the best part.”

She led on as I followed her through the Redwood Grove. Among the redwoods, especially along the waterway are succulents and deer grass indigenous to California. We each took a turn to lean up against one of the small giants to take a picture of each other. We capped off our excursion by walking back to Davis to where I had parked the car. Dinner that evening was at Caffe Italia.

The next morning I woke up early and headed back to Davis. First order of business was finding a place to eat for breakfast. Even though I had spent most of the previous afternoon walking the entire downtown with my daughter, I had a hard time trying to get my bearings. I kept ending up in certain sections that seemed outside of the downtown area, and not a place to eat was to be found. I walked along 5th Street, and then started walking up E Street. I saw an older lady, stopped, and asked her; “Oh, Good Morning. Ah, you wouldn’t know of any place that serves a really good full breakfast, would you?”

CafĂ© Bernardo’s if you’re looking for fresh prepared and a cup of coffee with a bit of a bite to it.”

“Sounds good,” I said.

She started to give me directions. “It’s on 2nd St. You walk up to 3rd St, take a right. . . Oh, heck, I happen to be going that way. How about if I just show you?”

She led me right to the door. I invited her to join me. "No thanks," she said; "But I appreciate the offer. Enjoy yourself in town.”

A more enjoyable recommendation could not have been made. Before sitting down to a table, you have to order at the counter first. At 8 am in the morning the line was considerable, but the wait was worth it. I had the Amaretto French Toast with almonds , served with pure maple syrup. The dining area has small tables spaced closely together. You can also eat at the tables outside on the sidewalk terrace. The atmosphere feels more European than American. If I were to return to Davis for another visit, this place would be first on my list.

I knew it would be sometime before I would eventually catch up with my daughter again. After we had had dinner last night, she spent the evening hanging out one last time with her college friends. After finishing breakfast, I spent the rest of the morning playing tourist. I explored almost every inch of downtown, browsed several of the shops and bookstore, and watched an Amtrak train pull in from Sacramento and pull out headed for San Francisco.

It was around 11 am. From the train station, I walked down 2nd St to C St and made a beeline to the Davis Farmer’s Market. California is world famous for its agriculture. There isn’t any kind of grain, fruit, or vegetable that doesn’t grow in this state, and considering the numerous vendors here this morning from local farms around the area, the abundance is quite evident. Most everything offered is organic and fresh picked. At $3.20 a pound, it was hard to say “No” to a couple of pounds of Bing cherries. I also bought a pint of blueberries for $2.75 and a pint of Santa Maria strawberries for $3.50. I spent the next hour and half sitting on a park bench gorging myself.

The park was filled with people spread out on the lawn with blankets and picnic baskets. I observed a father helping his small daughter get a kite up into the air. Other children were running around in a game of tag. Dogs were chasing after Frisbees and balls. Several small groups of people were engaged in simple conversation. And the music from the live bands playing at the market made it feel more like you were at a festival, a celebration of joining together with family, friends, and even complete strangers. This is a community that basically likes to hang out together; its people, very friendly and helpful.

Liz met up with me shortly after. She asked me if I had had anything in mind for lunch. Considering I was quite stuffed as it was, I said anything light would be fine with me. She bought a bag of pumpkin bolani bread and a small tub of orange lentil sandwich spread. We headed off to the Arboretum on campus and shared a quiet lunch together on one of the benches. Later that evening we drove to Sacramento to meet up with her mother and a friend of hers for dinner.

Graduation was Sunday morning at 9. I arrived at The Pavilion at 7:30 to make sure I got a good seat within viewing distance of the stage. Considering the cavernous size of the facility that is used mostly for athletic events, getting good pictures proved a real challenge for my digital camera. The lighting and distance made it impossible to get a clear picture of my daughter as she sat with her class waiting for the commencement to begin. Chancellor Larry N. Vanderhoef gave the Welcome speech, which did not seem very encouraging. He congratulated the students on their hard work and significant achievement, but then apologized that many of them might not be able to find jobs because of the suffering economy.

After the ceremony, her mother and I joined together with other friends who came to celebrate the occasion for picture taking with results that were much better. My daughter is at least fortunate that she will have a job as a reservations coordinator at UC Davis throughout the end of the summer. She hasn’t decided whether she wants to pursue a career in radio or TV broadcasting, but at least she has a few months to consider her options and to apply for positions.

Monday morning after getting together for coffee and bagels at Starbucks on campus, my daughter had me walk with her to work. She introduced me to her supervisor and co-workers and then showed me the small cubicle she works at. At least she has a nice window view. On her desk is a two foot high trophy. As I began to look at it to see what it was for, she said; “That was here from the last person who worked here. I thought it made a nice decoration, so I left it as it was.”

As I walked back to my car after we had said our goodbyes, it struck me how odd this journey through life can be. It was 29 years ago when I graduated from California State University Long Beach with a Bachelor’s Degree in English. Then, I did not reflect on what had transpired in the past; instead, I looked toward the future. I envisioned myself developing a career as a writer and teacher, and even dreamed of maybe teaching overseas someday. It never occurred to me, though, that I would have a daughter who would one day graduate from UC Davis.

I turned and looked at the building where my daughter was settling in for her day at work. As she shapes her dreams over the summer as to what the beginning of her next journey will be, I hope that 29 years from now she will be as amazed with the events that have transpired in her life as I am with the events that have transpired in mine.

Featured in the Culture section of Blogcritics.