I see fireworks
I see the pageant and pomp and parade
I hear the bells ringing out
I hear the cannons roar
I see Americans, all Americans free
–John Adams, Is Anybody There? from 1776
Bamboo shoots make the best firecrackers. At least, that’s what the Chinese thought, and they ought to know, since they are credited with inventing them. Most folks probably learned the abbreviated history that I did, where Marco Polo brought gunpowder and spaghetti back from China to the Europeans. Not exactly true, since Roger Bacon referenced the gunpowder formula when Polo would have been only about 13. But legends, including those in the U.S., are an important part of the formula. So is China, as one of the most noted artists of our century is a man who paints the sky with gunpowder.
Founder of Crackers
The invention of firecrackers has multiple Chinese stories behind it. One says that folks in the Han Dynasty, (200 BC -200 AD), developed a custom of throwing bamboo stalks into the fire to ward off evil spirits. Since bamboo has hollow air pockets, it pops when it burns, ending with a bang. Continue reading “Pyrotechny Legend and Lore”
I really wanted to find out that the octopus came from outer space. With eye stalks that rotate, suckers on its multiple arms, and a “brain” located mostly along the tentacles, the octo is curious to some and downright disturbing to others. When I saw the headline: “Alien” octopuses “arrived on earth from space as cryopreserved eggs” I had to trace the theory back to the paper in a legitimate scientific journal which suggested this intriguing occurrence.
Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed by Snopes and the article’s lack of deductive reasoning and relevant facts. Bummer! The ghost of Darwin has, for now, fended off the extraterrestrials but, as an encore, has performed biological magic with starfish.
First, an important grammar lesson. I was taught that the plural of hippopotamus is hippopotami, so that the plural of octopus would be octopi, but my mother was wrong. Octopus is not Latin–like the word radius (plural radii)–but Greek oktṓpous (ὀκτώπους, ‘eight-foot’). So the plural is octopuses (or octopedes) but never octopi.
I spent summers as a kid at a place called the Finn Camp in the woods of suburban Detroit. The summer program was swim lessons in the morning, drama rehearsals in the afternoon, saunas on the weekends, and a lot of tag played on and underneath the docks of the lake. At the end of each school year, I lived in great anticipation for the start of all this in mid June, after the solstice party called Juhannus.
Solstice celebrations, which happen between June 19 and 21, are curiously named “Midsummer” events. In the U.S., summer is tightly linked to the school year, and most children’s seasonal school year ends near the beginning of June. So, why isn’t it the Begin Summer celebration?
The summer solstice occurs when the earth’s tilt is at maximum toward the sun in your hemisphere. In the north, we’re as close to the sun as we’re going to get during the year on that day. Daylight will be the longest–maybe you’ve felt the sky lightening earlier in the morning as you get your coffee or seen the sun peeking through the kitchen window long after dinner. After tomorrow, the daylight hours will start getting shorter again. In that sense, you could say that we’re at the “mid” point; the year is all downhill from here. Continue reading “Happy Juhannus”
In the 143 years that the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes have been run, only 13 horses have won all three (9%). Fifty-two horses have won only two of the races; 23 failed the third race. The Belmont is the longest, so a horse that likes the front–like Justify–would have to hold the lead forever after already becoming The Target. Thus, I found myself teary-eyed watching Justify complete the Triple Crown even though we had only just been introduced.
Winning is hard enough when everyone tries equally, but even harder when everyone tries specifically to beat you.
The Lengths That They Must Go
I still remember that other chestnut thoroughbred from 1973. Everyone should watch that Belmont race (thanks, Youtube!). Secretariat was a once-in-a-lifetime horse, although I didn’t know it then. What sticks out is his surge along the back stretch, “Big Red” on his way to winning by 31 lengths. TV cameras couldn’t zoom out as they do now, so as the horse pulls away, the camera has to pan farther and farther right to see the rest of the field. Continue reading “Clean Winning at the Triple Crown”
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
—The Odyssey, opening, Fagles translation
The Trojan war lasted nine years, not counting pre-war skirmishes, trade negotiations at Grecian Menelaus’ palace, or the kidnap of Menelaus’ wife Helen by the Trojan prince Paris. The Trojans and the Greeks had a long history. Epic hero Odysseus wandered among the magic isles of the Mediterranean for ten years. Still older Sumerian tales of Gilgamesh spanned decades while the Indian classic epic Mahabharata lasted for generations. So it may seem impudent to talk of a four-year basketball rivalry in the same terms. Yet many parallels lie between sporting events today and the stories of old, and a contest that now covers an unprecedented four meetings could be described in the language of the epic. Continue reading “Basketball as Epic”