A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Dark Side

“Look Mama, it’s a waxing gibbous!”  One small mitten was pointing skyward.

“Oooh, yeah!”  My two daughters had both stopped in their tracks directly in front of me – presumably because the neurons needed for walking, talking, and looking at celestial objects are wired in series rather than in parallel in their brains. “I can see the shadows -- where the long-ago meteors hit it!” 

The kindergarten astronomers were entranced.  It’s the moon!  It’s in the sky!  It’s shining!  Clearly this merited some kind of public service announcement, at the very least.

I tried to share their enthusiasm.  But we’d seen the moon the previous morning on the way to school.  We would see it again tomorrow.  I was concentrating on keeping my footing on our narrow, winding, snow-covered boardwalk while hauling a sled full of groceries.  My headlamp kept slipping down and illuminating random clumps of snow-covered shrubbery.  If we didn’t get moving, the lettuce would freeze into a state of irredeemable black nastiness.  Besides, I was feeling distinctly ambivalent about the giant ball of rock that orbits the earth.  When the moon takes center stage in the afternoon sky in Fairbanks, it means that the sun has headed off towards the Tropic of Capricorn for a vacation.  A long vacation.  That pale celestial orb is the Harbinger of Gloom.  She’s the Queen of Darkness.  She’s the Seasonal Affective Satellite.

I never used to have anything against the moon.  In fact, during the nerdy-science-fiction and wannabe-astrophysicist phase of my life (roughly encompassing everything from age five onwards) I learned an egregious amount of trivia about not only our own moon, but also more esoteric satellites such as Ganymede, Titan, Phobos, and Charon.  Other planets have hordes of little followers.  We have just one, but she’s special.  For a planet Earth’s size, Luna is enormous, practically a sister-planet, which is why she wreaks all kinds of interesting tidal havoc on our world.  Contrary to popular belief, the moon doesn’t have a dark side – at least not a permanent one.  She always shows us the same face, but the phases we see, from new to full and back again, are the month-long lunar day.  Even though our moon’s surface is actually as dark as coal, she reflects an appreciable amount of sunlight – a.k.a. moonlight -- to Earth’s surface.

Enough light, perhaps, to allow a bumbling human to haul groceries along a boardwalk. I gave up on my headlamp, and turned it off.  Minus its distracting flicker, the waxing gibbous seemed even larger, brighter, and more in command of the firmament.  She cast cool shadows across the snow.  The spruce trees were gray against the sky.

“Will it be a full moon tomorrow, Mommy?”

“Um… probably the day after tomorrow,” I hazarded, switching hands on the sled’s narrow tow-rope. 

When I was a kid, I noticed the moon too, but I could never keep track of its phases, and I never thought of it as a source of light.  It also never struck me as being a depressing sun-substitute. The moon decorated the sky, but didn’t illuminate the ground.  That job was already more than covered by the omnipresent street lamps, headlights, and chain-store-neon, as well as the amorphous yet ubiquitous combined glow of Bos-NY-Wash.  I looked at books that showed me which constellations ought to be in the sky.  I remember finding the faint outline of the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia, and then giving up in disappointment.  In the suburbs of New York City, it doesn’t get dark. Not really dark.  Not ever.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager camping in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton Wilderness that I found a sky that looked like a planetarium,  If the moon was full, it felt bright enough to read by (teenagers have good eyes).  At the new moon, it was dark enough to walk straight into the privy pit or the side of a moose.  This was the moon that humanity has obsessed about for the past couple of hundred thousand years. 

Throughout history, the moon has sparked imaginative beliefs, quaint rituals, and a plethora of paranoid and illogical behavior.  Worldwide, we’ve created enough legends about the moon to stuff a library, and enough lunar gods to satisfy the most ardent pantheist.  Artemis, Thoth, Hecate, Chandra, Tarqiup Inua, Luna…  Not everyone agrees what the moon-god’s gender is, although I seem to have been brainwashed by Greco-Roman cultural imperialism in my bias toward “she.” There’s also disagreement as to what awe-inspiring powers he/she/it has, but there are some common threads.  The moon is potent, and mysterious, and might make you a little unbalanced. In fact, it might turn you into a werewolf, a vampire, or – eponymously – a lunatic.  Everyone also seems to agree that the moon is the opposite of the sun – and that the two of them don’t always get along too well.  In November in Fairbanks, this kind of mythology makes perfect sense to me.

Don’t be ridiculous, says my scientist-self.  Cosmically speaking, a G2V yellow dwarf star is no more the opposite of a rocky planetary satellite than a jet engine is the opposite of a piece of belly-button lint.  Sure, ancient people were understandably misled about the whole equal-and-opposite thing, because by strange coincidence, the moon appears to be almost exactly the same size as the sun. This only goes to show that binocular depth perception isn’t worth much at astronomical distances – although it also means that solar eclipses are really cool.  Nevertheless, it’s hard not to think of the moon as a winter-time booby-prize as our daylight dwindles.

“Are there any people on the moon right now, Mommy?”

“How come there’s no air there?”

“How did the astronauts breathe?”

“Are air tanks heavy?”

“Why is everything lighter on the moon?”

The kids have lots of questions, but they don’t ask why people went to the moon.  Neither did I, as a kid. I remember being sadly let down when I finally realized, as a much-older child, that NASA astronauts were goaded moonward in the 1960s not just by the wonderful tempting proximity of that bone-dry cratered surface, but also by America’s peculiarly immature competition with the USSR. 

And somehow, it’s the memory of that disappointment, coupled with my own kids’ eagerness, that finally sets me straight.  I knew, once upon a time, that the moon is wonderful in its own right, without comparison, and without a hidden agenda.  When my younger self saw the shadow of our national hubris on the moon, it made me squirm.  Now, when I see my former enthusiasm in a couple of new-millennium kindergarteners, I suddenly notice how irritatingly negative I’m being.  I’m failing to appreciate the subtle-yet-serviceable light on offer, because I’m too busy resenting the fierce glow that is absent. Kids provide a fantastic – and often uncomfortably acute – means of self-examination.  They are merciless mirrors.

The moon is a mirror, too.  For millennia, it has mirrored humanity’s fears about darkness and the unknown, and our dreams about magic and eternal rebirth.  It mirrors our desire to divide everything neatly into black and white, day and night, right and wrong, yin and yang.  And, in the simplest and most literal sense, it mirrors the sun’s rays. 

Far from stealing my sunshine, as I stood there in the snow with my groceries and my grouchy mood, Luna was giving a little sliver of it back to me.   Somewhere, on the other side of the world the sun was blazing.  In South Africa, maybe, or India, someone was catching its full glare.  But here in Fairbanks, we were being treated to a magic trick of sorts.  A trace of sun was being conjured out of space, and donated to us here on the dark side.  It wasn’t much, perhaps, but it was enough to guide a sled, and cast a shadow, and see two kids’ grins.  And like many good magic tricks, it was all done with mirrors. 

Luna is waning now.  I already miss her.  In her absence, I have to recharge my headlamp batteries more often.  I need to take a light with me every time I wander out to the outhouse or check on the dogs.  Without her, I have no shadow.  But here in Fairbanks, a single month represents only a small portion of winter.  Before we hit the very darkest of dark days, the moon will be back.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


The Big Bad Wolf raced after the Wicked Witch, oblivious to the fact that the unicorn was lagging.  The ladybug was swaddled in so many insulating layers that she was sweating profusely on this five-degree-Fahrenheit night.  The mouse, incandescent with joy, had long since stopped caring whether her tail was dragging in the snow. And the 35-pound grizzly bear kept hopping about erratically, shrieking, “Trick or Treat!  Trick or Treat!” to no one in particular.

I love Halloween.

Logically speaking, that should be a sarcastic comment.  This year Halloween was a Monday night.  A week’s worth of unfinished chores and unanswered emails haunted my subconscious.  Nonetheless, I didn’t do a single load of laundry or open the eighteen-page spreadsheet that was festering on my hard drive.  Instead, I spent the evening lurking in the icy darkness with four other parents, a jester’s hat pulled down over my ears.  My job was to hand out glow-sticks and blinkers, haul around the spare clothes, marshal everyone out of harm’s way every time a car crept past, and say fifteen times, “Don’t forget to say thank you!”  The mouse and the bear – my own little beasts -- were filling bags with atrocious foodstuffs at an alarming rate, while cavorting with gleeful greed.  Halloween, after all, is basically a festival of sugar and death, with some mischief thrown in for good measure.  I ought to hate this annual ritual.  But somehow I adore it.

“Just take one!  One!” 

There’s always a house or two where the owners leave out a bowl of goodies, and trust to social graces and good manners – something that can be in scant supply on October 31st. Maybe I like the holiday for its sheer perversity.  As parents, we all try to teach our kids a few basic social rules.  For example, pajamas and a tutu do not constitute formalwear; begging is never acceptable; talking to strangers is dangerous; and Laffy Taffy is not packed with essential vitamins and minerals.  Then, once a year, we let them dress in gauze, tinsel, face paint, and cardboard boxes, give them each a sack, and set them loose on the neighbors.  The irony is almost as delicious as the mini-Snickers.

“Wait for the unicorn!  She’s only three.  She can’t keep up!” 

She’s trying to, though – and I empathize, because I can remember being a three-year-old. I was convinced that wearing a white pillowcase over my head transformed me into a scary ghost. I was suitably irritated that all my grandmother’s friends wanted me to take it off so they could tell me how cute I was.  This year’s assorted menagerie, with the witch as their mentor, took themselves pretty seriously, too -- despite looking like a waddling brigade of stuffed toys.

My kids adore plush animals so much that they’ve overwhelmed a closet with their collection -- so their costume choices were no surprise.  In fact, they seemed to think the highlight of the evening was visiting the home of the school nurse, because she and her family gave out toys instead of Instant Tooth Decay.  The bear adored the tiny fox.  The mouse was in love with the bunny.  Species confusion abounded in this universe.

Even if she’s not a big fan of candy, the nurse – my friend Sharon -- wholeheartedly supports the creative aspect of this festival, and I have to agree.  By the time I was six or seven, Halloween became a great excuse for ludicrously ambitious craft projects.  The year I was Robin Hood, I wanted to make a bow and arrows that really worked, using only randomly selected bits of wood from our suburban back yard.  When I decided to be a knight, I set out to craft a full set of armor from old cereal boxes coved in aluminum foil.  Now that I have kids, I can leap back into this creative arena.  The mouse and the bear were pretty enthusiastic about costume construction, and harbored an ardent desire to sew on their own ears.  No needle-wounds were inflicted in the process.

“Hey!  You’re stepping on my tail!” 

The mouse made the tail herself.  It’s a trace long.  Her grey fleece footie pajamas had a dump truck on the front, but we hid it with a picture of Swiss Cheese drawn on yellow duct tape.

At the elementary school costume parade, I was a little disheartened by the ubiquitous Batmen, Spidermen, and Disney princesses, all in prefab printed nylon.  Where was the duct tape, the badly-aimed hot glue, the repurposed cartons?  But even if the artistry left something to be desired, I was soon suckered in by the enthusiasm.  Every little Batman exclaimed in excitement over every other little Batman.  No sugar had yet been consumed.  These kids were rocketing along on the mere anticipation of sugar.

I didn’t blame them.  Because, whatever its drawbacks, Halloween is undeniably fun.
Maybe I like Halloween because it doesn’t try to have any purpose besides entertainment.  On Halloween, I don’t feel bad about borrowing festivities from a religion to which I don’t belong, and I don’t feel guilt-tripped by hearts and flowers, fatherly neckties, flags, monuments, or rewritten bits of history.  I am not supposed to think deep thoughts or reflect on my failings.  I’m just supposed to be silly and eat candy.  Even on a bad day, I can usually manage that.  Looking monstrous isn’t too hard either, as several of our neighbors demonstrated.

“Aaaaaaarrrrr!”  The man behind the mask made quite an impression.  In the flickering pumpkin-light, it took me a few moments to realize I knew him, even when he quickly doffed his headgear to avoid psychologically scarring my children.  I often see Tom on his bike, and we recently visited the backwoods cabins he owns at Tolovana Hotsprings, but I never knew exactly which house was his – or that he owned such a remarkable rubber ghoul head. 

Then again, why shouldn’t he?  Halloween also offers the allure of transformation, the chance to change personas for a night, no questions asked – even if it’s been thirty or forty years since you were a kid.  Want to cross-dress?  Dye your hair purple?  Wear fishnets?  Morph into a lime-green Crayola?  Go for it! 

Tom wasn’t the only unexpected friend we found in a circuit of a mere dozen or so houses.  The mouse bounced down the steps of another cabin ecstatically proclaiming that she’d found a classmate there.  It wasn’t particularly surprising, of course.  We were a half mile from home, still in the wedge of Fairbanks that makes up our elementary school’s district.  And yet – it was news to me, too.

And that, I realized, is perhaps the thing I like most of all about Halloween.  It turns every other holiday inside out.  Not that I don’t I love the traditions and festivals that look inward, toward home, hearth, family, and friends.  Generosity and thankfulness are a big part of these, too.  But only on Halloween do we turn outwards so completely.  And when we do, we find goodwill along with the Good-n-Plenty -- not to mention some remarkable amateur performances, free of charge.

As the kids cavorted through the icy darkness, pumpkin after pumpkin grinned at them.  Door after door opened.  There were friends behind those doors, and strangers, and people somewhere in between the two: might-be-friends, and recognizable strangers.  There were people who admired the children’s costumes even as they misidentified them, and people who cooed.  There were people who smiled, and people who mock-terrified.

I was grateful to each of them.  I really earnestly hoped that Mouse and Bear were remembering their thank-yous, because I wasn’t appreciative of those folks just for giving away treats.  I was also thankful to them for showing my kids that the world is full of creativity, humor, kindness, generosity, and surprises -- and that sometimes, taking candy from strangers is exactly the right thing to do.