On Thinking About Things

My house was burglarized last month. Thieves took pretty much anything I owned that could be sold via classified ad, plus a bunch of crap that is monetarily worthless and heart-rendingly irreplaceable. I've run out of swear words for these people. But it's got me thinking about things.

Some of it makes me laugh. For instance, the acoustic guitar, the electric bass and its amp, but not the French horn. Sheesh. Everybody's a critic. Or the smart phone that is actually a Windows Phone 7. Good luck with that, suckers. Or the earring from Dad. I'd lost one of a pair of earrings, and made the orphan into a necklace. The night before the break-in—I kid you not, the night before—I found the missing earring. They took the necklace.

Then there are the things that don't make me laugh. All my earrings. All my earrings that my grandmother had given me, a new pair for each play I performed in during high school, which she drove two hours to come up and see. All those. Not worth pennies to anybody, and memories I delighted in every morning as I got dressed. No hyperbole here; I knew who had gifted me each pair of earrings I had, and I thought of them as I selected something to complement my outfit. A little wave hello across time. These were hand-made by Leandra. Those were part of a set of five, owned by five different friends, all cut from the same tree branch. These were grown-up earrings entrusted to my young self by my mom's best friend. Those were Dad's way of saying I could get my ears pierced (finally!). These I made. Those were from the first boy I ever kissed.

They were all Really. Damn. Important.

So I'm thinking about things. I'm thinking, a bit frantically, what else did Grandma Sandy give me? No, I mean, what that can't be taken away did Grandma give me?

I remember lying with her on the big bed, under the afghan she had crocheted, while she read to me: Snipp, Snapp, and Snurr, with their buttered bread; The Wizard of Oz; Motherly Smith and Brother Bimbo, which I have since come to learn is the most boring book ever. I don't know how she put up with it, but I loved it, and I suspect she loved me.

Of course I remember her sweaters. Early in my life, they were all hand made. I remember a full-color rendering of the Wizard of Oz in yarn. It had Dorothy and Toto and the Lion on the front, and the Scarecrow and the Tin Man on the back, with the Wizard's balloon on one side and the Emerald City on the other, and the Yellow Brick Road running around the hem. I'm telling you: pictures in yarn. It was amazing. Later, as the family grew through marriages and children, the Christmas crunch became a drudgery, and she branched out into machine-assisted knitting. She designed the patterns on her computer.

I remember Thanksgivings with two pumpkin pies. One for the family, and one for me. Which I would also have for the following breakfast. With a mountain of Reddi-wip.

I remember going for walks around Arden, where I learned that when I grew up I wanted to live in a neighborhood where people waved to each other, which I have now done. I remember her flower gardens.

I also remember her work with the Civil Rights Movement, and raising my mom by herself in Philadelphia, and her pursuit of a Masters degree in sociology. She had a computer and an email address and knew how to use them. She was strong and funny and patient.

She taught me never to buy anything on credit. That right there is a hell of a gift.

I stood in the shadow of Venus

I also stood in a stairwell for a really long time, but that was fun, too. The UT astronomy club opened its rooftop to the public and recruited an army of volunteers, who were completely astonished by the size of the crowd.

I bumped into Brandon just as I arrived, and we entered the back of the line at the 7th floor. Luckily I was mistaken about how many floors there were—the flier mentioned a gathering place on the 13th floor, and that didn't sound so bad. Part way up I learned that the roof is above the 17th floor, but at that point I was well invested.

A stairwell full of people starts to smell like a stairwell full of people after a while. Each landing became a reprieve, a chance to catch some fresh air through the held-open doors (passed hand to hand, as we each climbed by) and, if you were quick, to dash out to a water fountain. An enterprising soul could set up a thriving business selling ball-park concessions to the people standing in line. It was the kind of line usually reserved for rock concerts. Which is why I love Austin.

Brandon got a call from a friend a few floors below us, and actually ceded his place in line to go join her. That left me to... shrug, talk to the people around me.

I met a bartender who said she received all kinds of verbal abuse as a bouncer but considerably more respect as a bartender. And no, people don't actually pour out their hearts to bartenders. I met a someday-med-student-but-currently-enterprise-support-agent who works at Dell. He camps under the awe-inspiringly dark skies in Big Bend, struck dumb by the sky-splitting blue gash of the Milky Way, and quieted by the realization that the mountains he could see from his cliff-side perch were in Mexico, 200 miles away. I met a photographer who got up at 2:30 this morning to capture time-lapse footage of the wheeling stars for his friends' film about the Bastrop wild fires. He went to space camp when he was in high school, so many years ago, and practiced a simulated space walk repairing the optics in the Hubble telescope.

So happy to burst out of the stairwell onto the 17th floor, and so resolved to stay chipper as we filed into a line that snaked down the hallway and back. We stood there for a while—at least it was air conditioned—until finally the mind starts to notice that the only movement is from the compression of the crowd. Cloud cover. They've halted the line to wait for clouds to clear. I wonder if we could all get on the roof and wave our arms to push the offending wisps out of the way. But I think about terms like "time invested" and "sunk cost," and waiting isn't so bad. Plus, we're talking about dark matter and SpaceX and deep-sky images, and I got to tell the story of visiting the Hobby Eberly Telescope, twice.

There is a time limit, though. You can't see Venus transit the face of the sun if the sun has set. 7:00 ticks by, which, rationally, I know is plenty of time, but I start to rehearse making the decision that night has fallen and it's time to go, having missed the whole thing while inside a windowless spiral of concrete.

But then the line moves, and we're up to the roof, and there are telescopes and people everywhere. And more lines, but at least there is air and sunlight. A volunteer with a basket of cardboard solar-viewing glasses gives me the chance to get my first look at Venus.

And, there it is! Plain as day, a disc in front of the red face of the sun. A shadow, interposed. Cheeky girl.

Spilling onto the sidewalk below, a fellow viewer said, "See you in 105 years." I replied, "I'll be there."