Eclipse: Last Update from the Field

Awesome, in the true sense of the word. From the slopes near Borah Peak, watched the shadow of the moon move quickly across the vast valley. As the distant mountains to the west turned dark we looked up in time to see the string of pearls just as the sun’s disk went dark.

For two minutes 14 seconds the world was dark and beautiful with the eerie light of the sun’s corona casting odd shadows and coloring the world in unearthly hues. We saw a second string of pearls as the moon passed. The weird half light of the partial eclipse seemed very normal by comparison, and quickly passed into what seemed normal sunlight.

We spontaneously sang a couple hymns and spirituals. And a couple Bill Withers songs. However the spirit moves you.

Everyone was very happy we did this. See you, eclipse, in 2024.

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Set up for the Great Eclipse

Posting from my phone – always an adventure.

About a quarter hour before the eclipse, we have pulled off of Highway 93 up the road to the Borah Peak Trailhead about a mile. Checked out our gear – viewers made of number 10 welder’s glass, and a big cardboard box with white paper on the bottom, a rake handle with a monocular duct taped to it. 



Son Thomas did the engineering, removing the clear safety plastic from some cheap eye protectors, then duct taping in the welders glass. But that wasn’t cool enough – so the women decorated them.

Further updates as events warrant.

Home Improvement Projects: The Pizza Oven of Doom

So, this actually doesn’t happen all that often, but I’m pretty much completely funned out on the brick oven. Building the vault was just too darn difficult and time consuming to be much fun. Now, I need to A. build the front arch out of regular bricks; B, put on the insulation and chicken wire over that; C. stucco over that; and D. install and stucco around the decorative tiles.

Over the weekend, added the chimney base and the – what do you call that thing? – the slightly smaller front arch that acts as a lip to help the smoke go out the chimney and for the door (ultimately) to fit up against.

Looks like this:

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Front. Those semicircles are pieces of the support for the vault, and are here deployed to block off the opening for the smoke test. 
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Back. While the actual firebox is sealed up using refractory mortar, I went over the outside with regular mortar just to smooth it up some. Probably meaningless, seemed like a good idea at the time. 

We smoke-tested it, meaning we built a small fire inside to see if smoke leaked out anywhere it wasn’t supposed to. Not too bad, a few minor easily plugged gaps.

It will look pretty once it’s all stuccoed and the nice Mexican tiles are installed. This one goes on the side:

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11″ square – large. 

Wish I could find a nice San Jose tile for the back.

Thursday, we all – all four kids + parents + a sweet woman who lives with us, 7 total – leave to drive up to Idaho for the eclipse. We’ll stop in Elko, NV that evening, then leave for the Salmon River Friday. Saturday, we river raft; Sunday we find a church; Monday we drive for an hour or two down near Rexburg to maximize totality. Then it’s down to Salt Lake City to put two of the kids on planes to SoCal for school and a drive to Eli, NV for the night. Then it’s on to Carson City, NV, where we’ll probably sightsee and putter and spend the night. Finally, we’ll take Highway 89 to Highway 4 over Ebbitts Pass and past Lake Alpine – scenic doesn’t do it justice, 8,000’+ up in the forested granite mountains of the Sierra.

I’ll try to get my head cleared.

A Psychological Aside

Once upon a time, I read way too much psychology (general conclusion: 98% claptrap), but one writer who impressed me (1) was fallen away Freudian Alice Miller. Her basic argument was that the instinct to belong and to learn the ropes are so strong – it’s a life or death issue for children – that abused kids 1) believe whatever they need to believe in order to have a place in the ‘family’ and 2) will incorporate the behaviors they observe and suffer under into their view of themselves and the world. Result: excuses get perpetuated, and abuse gets passed on from generation to generation.

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Alice Miller

What I like about this argument is that it’s fundamentally Darwinian: we’re not asked to believe based on ‘insights’ available only to the enlightened, we are asked to consider a child’s environment from an evolutionary/survival perspective. What have human children had to do to survive to reproduce? They need to stay joined to the family/tribe that assures their survival. They’re dead if they don’t. They need to find mates and raise children themselves or they’re out of the gene pool. The tribe (broadly considered) is where they’ll do those things, if they do them.

Now we reach the modern age, where simple survival is so easy that almost any amount of crazy behavior doesn’t get one killed. Parents used to need to take great care that their children would not only survive to adulthood, but had a place in the tribe once they did – otherwise, they lose the survival game one step removed, when their offspring fail to produce offspring.  We all come from a long line of successful reproducers.

Raised, as one woman I know was, by a single mom with 4 siblings each by different fathers? She has a baby, who is very likely to survive. Raised by the crazy grandmother who raised your even crazier mom? Still on the market. Cast aside like garbage when mom decides she’s tired of dad, and then given an ultimatum: actively approve of mom’s actions if you want to have any relationship with her? Done! And these are comparatively minor issues, almost beneath the notice of the properly conditioned modern mind. The bar keeps getting lower. The more serious abusers – Marion Zimmer Bradley, for example – are having their behavior normalized. Miller would have predicted this.

The scary part, according to Miller: these kids are very likely to repeat exactly what was done to them, because that’s what they absorbed as children! To do otherwise is to break the treaty, to reopen the wounds. Besides, what else would they do? What other behavior do they know? Thus, children left with relatives who molested them are very likely to leave their own children with relatives who will molest them; children molested by parents are likely to molest their children. Sadly, I have personally seen this type of behavior.

This is not rational – not something people understand and decide to do – but is rather the result of seeing no other option – if, in fact, the behavior even rises to a conscious level. Miller says that, in her experience, the presence of some sympathetic witness is key. If somebody at some point is able to let the kid know that this is not normal nor acceptable, that the kid is not crazy or evil, then the likelihood of resistance and recovery is greatly increased.(2) Other than that, we hope and pray for a miracle of healing.

All of these horror stories have introduced a line of reasoning which,  when applied in general and to less traumatic situations, leads to and converges with a lot of what’s going on in the world. Here’s a brief list of topics where I think Miller’s logic is enlightening:

  • The tribalism of American politics. The level of vehemence is pre-rational. Rare is the person, it seems, whose political positions are based on anything other than tribal allegiance, which is instilled in the cradle.
  • Stockholm Syndrome. You believe what you need to believe to survive and belong.
  • Public Schooling. Defended on purely theoretical grounds, even when real-world criticism is acknowledged. It’s one thing to admit mommy and daddy have flaws, another entirely to suggest we get rid of them. Thus, public schooling is routinely admitted to be a disaster AND something we must enthusiastically support. To admit it is merely an abusive system of control would be to question our own place in the tribe.
  • Attacks on marriage. What could be more hurtful (and a greater cause of painful cognitive dissonance) than to insist that marriage is between a man and a woman for the sake of children and culture, when we all know it’s just an arrangement of convenience for any number of more or less serial mommies and daddies?

When I write about school, politics, and culture, Alice Miller’s analysis is always there, more or less in the background.

  1. My main problem with Miller is that she had not fallen away enough from Freud. She realized that his theorizing was wild overreach, but often failed to stop herself from doing the same sort of stuff. She did an entire book where she applied her modified form of psychoanalysis on a bunch of dead people – you know, based on their writings or art and other people’s biographies. Iffy, to put it mildly.
  2. I wonder if a particularly resilient and intelligent child couldn’t find his sympathetic witness through reading? Seems possible.

Cats and Gender

Once again, slipped up and clicked some bait, and watched a little video about some wild cats found in a Russian barn. (1) Turns out they were not the little feral kittens the barn’s owner first thought they were, but were rather Pallas’s cats, a fairly rare and people-avoiding wild species. Flatter faces, shorter, rounder ears, stockier build – and a very anti-social attitude, as far as hanging out with people go.

The kittens were really small when discovered. Soft-hearted animal shelter people took them in and found some lactating housecats to nurse them. They grew, after the manner of their kind.

After only a month, the little hellcats were looking to kill things – they wanted meat, not milk. So they were fed meat. The only person who could safely approach them was the staff member who had cared for them since they’d been brought in. Anyone else who got close enough got scratched and bitten.

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Picture credit. Note the ‘I would kill and eat you if I could’ expression on its face, an expression only found on domesticated cats maybe 50% of their waking hours.

Two of them caught some feline disease and died young.  The other two grew to near full size. This is where the story gets weird, at least to me: by now, some biologists are involved. They throw radio collars on the two young cats and let them loose in the wild.

OK – so here’s the nature/nurture thing: clearly, it is the nature of cats such as these to live far from people and hunt food in the wild. So far, so good. But as sophisticated, intelligent mammals, their raw instincts – hunt and kill food – are shaped into a useful form by their mothers. They have the claws and teeth; they have the instincts to use them – but on what, in this particular environment? How do you find prey? How do you stalk and kill it? Not prey in general, but what’s available in your neck of the woods? They won’t know this unless their mother shows them – a behavior found in many different species of cat.

Lions, tigers, jaguars on down to tiny little cats each get taught not how to hunt in general, but how to hunt what’s available to be hunted. Lions learn to cooperate; tigers how to go it alone. Some jaguars hunt mostly capybaras; others mostly caiman. Some hunt turtles. Some mix it all up – depends on what’s available in your neighborhood. It’s a much different approach, hunting caiman – stalk, swim, ambush or spring, avoid getting killed yourself – than turtles (the shells of which jaguar teeth can pierce – yikes!).  Some prides of lions hunt warthogs and zebras, some hunt baby elephants; some ambush hunt near watering holes, some out on the plains; some mix it up, some stick to a specialty. All learn the basics from mom.

For sophisticated animals like cats, many key instincts are general, and need a lot of formation in the particular context the animals find themselves in to be useful. Mom takes care of that while raising them. She is infinitely qualified, as she has obviously survived to breeding age in exactly that environment.

After a few weeks, the starving wildcats were so thin that their radio collars fell off.  The biologists were nonetheless able to find them (see a problem here?) and bring them in and nurse them back to health. The little clickbait video ended by saying the new plan was to wait until a more opportune time, when prey was most plentiful, and to try the release again.

I’m going: why don’t you just shoot them, then? The possibility that they’ll successfully compete with the other cats and predators in their environment so that they survive the 18 -24 months or so that wild cats tend to live is pretty slim; that they will in turn know enough to avoid their own predators is likewise slim. Better to put them in a zoo or at least keep them caged and fed. They’re almost certainly not going to make it in the wild.

This got me to thinking about human beings, who, on the merely material level, are the most sophisticated and intelligent animals on the planet, current politics notwithstanding. We have a much more complicated set of skills to learn than cats, so complicated that we need around 15 years of childhood to learn them. Like cats, we learn largely from our mothers, at least in infancy, then, as the environments in which we hope to live in long enough to reproduce contain many people in many complex and varied relationships, we need years of Dad and uncles and aunts and siblings and friends and neighbors and cousins and so on to get the hang of surviving in the particular environment we find ourselves in.  Continue reading “Cats and Gender”