Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"once in a very blue moon"

A few of my blogger/Facebook friends Deborah Godin and Beth Patterson, alerted me to the fact that there will be a "blue moon" tomorrow December 31, 2010. These days a "blue moon" is defined as the second full moon that occurs in a calendar month. These are pretty rare.

NASA has a great piece on the origin of the phrase "once in a blue moon" and the more recent association of it with the astronomical phenomenon of two full-moons in a single calendar month.

My favorite piece of music about a blue moon, is performed by Nanci Griffith and is called "Once in a very blue moon" a song which she co-wrote with folk singer Patrick Alger.

some of us may end up owing the IRS in 2010

Many people may have forgotten this, but back in March of this year, your pay check got a boost from a tax cut included in the stimulus package. How much it was depended upon your income and your tax filing status. My personal tax cut amounted to a little more than $80 a month, or $40 per half month pay period. Over the course of the year that amounted to an extra $800.

Today we received our 2009 IRS 1040 instruction booklet and forms in the mail, and they held an unpleasant surprise. The calculation of taxes for 2009, was reduced, but by LESS than than the amount that withholding was reduced.

The 2009 standardized deductions was increased from $5,450 (in 2008) per person to $5,700 -- an increase of $250. The 2009 individual exemptions (multiplied by the number of persons/dependents) was increased from $3,500(in 2008) to $3,650 -- an increase of $150. And in the 2009 tax tables, the amount tax amount for each level of income was reduced by about $30.

So all told, a single person with my income, who was had $800 less withheld from their pay check over the past ten months, will get an actual tax break of $430 over last year, and could end up owing the government $360. Of course a person with one income and a dependent child (or two) will have additional exemptions, and that will change the equation. Married people with more than one income, will have larger standardized deductions and more exemptions, but both incomes will have had less tax deducted over the course of the year.

Everyone's situation will differ, but in all likelihood many people will end up with a smaller tax refund this year, and some will end up owing the IRS come April 15. Seems like someone in the Federal government didn't think things through carefully enough.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

dangerous beauty

Just before the power went out at 8 AM Saturday December 19, I spent an hour tromping around documenting the snow fall. Notice how much snow is on the telephone and power lines!

This is the most snow we gotten since we've lived in eastern Kentucky (now 13 years). And its the second major snow before Christmas -- a highly unusual occurrence. For those in the know, this is just another example of the weather weirding that results form over all global warming. Here's the explanation:

The unprecedented melting of arctic sea ice the past two summers has undoubtedly had a significant impact on the early winter weather over the Northern Hemisphere. Several modeling studies presented at the December AGU meeting showed that sea ice melt on this scale is capable of injecting enough heat into the atmosphere to result in a major shift in the jet stream. Dr. Overland [Jim Overland of NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory] remarked that the early cold winter over North America this winter, and the exceptionally cold and snowy early winter in China last winter, were likely related to arctic sea ice loss. The sea ice loss induced a strong poleward flow of warm air over eastern Siberia, and a return flow of cold air from the Pole developed to compensate. Thus regions on either side of eastern Siberia--China and North America--have gotten unusually cold and snowy winters as a result. Source: Dr. Jeff Masters' WunderBlog

Not all signs of global warming are warmer days, instead what we see are important shifts and changes in the weather patterns.

the miracle of Chanukkah

Not to make light of my religious observances, but we had our own little Chanukkah miracle -- the Chanukkah candles that kept burning for four extra days.

The last night of Chanukkah was the night the snow storm started - the night all eight of the Chanukkah candles plus the shammus (which makes 9) are lit. My menorah is not a conventional Chanukkah menorah. First of all it does not conform to Halakhah (Jewish rules of observance and ritual). Halakhah requires that the eight candle holders for the eight nights all be the same height, no one more important than any of the others, and only the shammus, the candle used for lighting, is at a different height.

The year I converted (1981), for my first Chanukkah, I asked my father to create a simple menorah for me. I gave him instructions, but he did not understand that the instructions were based on Halakhah. He assumed that I was just trying to describe the simplest possible design. He wanted to do more for me. So he created the beautifully turned candle holder pictured below, which followed conventional western, (non-Jewish) ideas of design. I decided that love trumps Halakhah and have used that menorah every year since, despite its failure to conform to ritual rules.

The second way that my menorah is unconventional concerns the size of the candles it takes. Because Halakhah requires fresh candles for every night, most families' Menorahs are sized to take small candles, just slightly larger than those for birthday cakes. But in my instructions to my father, I asked for a menorah that would take regulation size tapers. That I have come to regret over the years since it takes 44 candles for all eight nights.

Since one uses fresh candles each night, I have quite a store of partially burned candles from year to year that I use for other things. At this point I had nearly 50 such candles that were more than 3 or 4 inches in length plus a few brand new, unused candles from this year (we forgot to light candles one night).

When the power went out, we just kept the menorah on the mantel filled it with previously used Chanukkah candles and kept the family room alive with warm light. Not enough to read by -- for that we had our LED headlamps -- but it made everything seem cozy and added warmth literally as well as figuratively for the duration of the power outage.

P.S. Note the really intriguing way in which the wax from the center candle (which is not lit) is drawn towards the flame of the lower candle.

merry electricity and happy running water

100 hours (4 days and 4 hours) after the power went out, it came back on -- noon today. The water is still not back to full power, but at least there is something coming out of the tap. [The water company's pumps went silent due to the power outage.]

We were very, very lucky. We were able to stay warm and comfortable in our own home, and did not have to seek shelter elsewhere. We would not have wanted to leave all our furry children. Between a nice fireplace and a modern kerosene heater, we were able to keep the central rooms -- family room, living room and kitchen -- around 62 to 63 degrees (warmer right next to the heater), which is not much cooler than we keep them when we do have electricity.

We bought the kerosene heater after two day power outage in our first winter in the house -- thirteen years ago. We never used it, as we've had no winter power outages that lasted more than a few hours in the intervening years. But once new batteries were installed and it was filled with fresh kerosene it worked perfectly. I still have it going to help ease the furnace's load in warming up the whole house. Besides the kitties love the warm glow!

Because John has done a lot of backpacking in previous years, we were well equipped with two propane burners and a number of unexpended propane containers. Plus we had freeze dried trail food packages to cook on them, as well as plenty of easily heat-able canned foods. Piling bags of ice that we had in the freezer into the refrigerator instead allowed us to keep the small amount of fresh foods (eggs, milk, cheese and juice) safely cool -- more important than a vain attempt to keep the pizza and ice cream frozen.

Because of the unreliable quality (many boil water notices) and poor taste of our municipal water, we have drinking water delivered in reused five gallon bottles every three weeks, and our last delivery was less than a week ago, so we had plenty of water for drinking, cooking, and even a little washing.

We had our battery run radio --although the number of stations one can receive in our holler is limited -- to inform and entertain us, and our LED head lamps for reading, and most of all we had each other to talk to, discuss the news of the day, tell jokes and stories.

We were both very lucky in our circumstances during the outage and we are very lucky now, because our electricity is back and tens of thousands of people in the region are still without power, especially in neighboring Virginia. Our thoughts go out to all those still struggling.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

seeing beauty versus photographing it

I live in a beautiful place. There is certainly some ugliness -- mostly in the form of strip-mines, but also a lot of litter on the road sides -- but overall this is a beautiful place. Hills and mountains close in around the narrow valleys and hollers, where communities form like Christmas lights strung along the creeks and streams, and narrow ribbons of asphalt thread among the houses.

Every day, as I drive to and from work, or go out to run errands and go shopping, I see beautiful, inspiring scenes that make my heart sing with joy. Yet when I contemplate photographing this beauty I run up against rarely discussed, yet nonetheless existing "rules" about what makes a beautiful photograph.

For example, electrical wires, light poles, transformers, and other such things are not suppose to "mar" a beautiful photograph of nature. Yet, almost every view I have of the mountains, forest and sky has such things within it. Over the last several years, as I've done more and more photography, I've thought a lot about this.

The human eye in daily life, looks past things like wires and poles, street lights and traffic, and is inspired by the natural landscape beyond them. In our minds we edit out these things, they do not distract us from the view. But the literal eye of the camera locks these trappings of modern industrial society into view, creating images that do not conform to social conventions of natural beauty.

Some man-made objects are acceptable in nature photographs -- the older the better! Old barns, old fences (at least wooden ones), old houses, antique cars (not your old rusted clunker on cinder blocks), old wagons, old tools hand tools (not old rusting mining equipment!). But the kinds of man-made structures (untidy utility poles, trailers and double-wides, pick-up trucks, gas stations and Dollar General Stores) that often end up in one's view around here don't qualify as acceptable backdrops or foregrounds for nature photography.

The biggest problem with this disparity between people's daily experience of nature, and social standards for natural beauty as represented by nature photography, is that it can lead to degradation of the environment. Places like this are often viewed by those with the power to make such decisions as not beautiful or scenic enough to be worth saving.

Between 1976 and 1982 as I did the research for my masters thesis and doctoral dissertation in the nearby mountains of southwest Virginia, I observed a distressing scenario unfold. The United States Forest Service was developing the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and had selected the theme "Rural Americana" for their development. To achieve the idyllic rural vistas that the Forest Service desired for tourists, they decided it was necessary to obliterate several existing rural communities, such as Fairwood, condemning property through eminent domain and bull-dozing homes and outbuildings. Real rural Americans were not "rural" enough for the Forest Service.

It is this type of mindset that also leads decision-makers to say, "what's one more strip-mine?" in eastern Kentucky? How can it matter to anyone whether yet another mountain top gets denuded of forest and turned into rubble. But it does matter.

I live in a beautiful place -- for now.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A really good cup of coffee

While doing shopping for my parents in California this past May, I chanced upon a regional chain of coffee shops, Peets, that I had never heard of before. Peets was started in 1966 in Berkeley, California, and remains a small to moderate sized business today where coffee beans are roasted in small batches by hand and shipped within 24 hours of roasting.

While in the coffee shop I indulged in a steaming cup of Decaf Sumatra and fell deeply in love. I brought a half pound home with me and my husband fell for it too the same way. We have since discovered we can order from Peets on the Internet and last week received a wonderfully redolent box with two pounds of Decaf Sumatra.

My husband feeds his caffeine addiction with the cheapest bargain brands on sale at Walmart, while we reserve the Peets for the occasional leisurely mornings when we can sit down, chat, and savor the full taste of a good cup-a-joe.

sweet buford

Here's my kitty Buford Jacob -- originally named (by me) B.J. after a character on "General Hospital" that died in a heartrending story about that time. My husband who started dating me the very same weekend (July 4th 1994) that tiny, lost kitty Buford wandered onto my back patio, said that every cat deserved to have a real name instead of just initials. So B.J. became Buford Jacob. He's getting a little long in the tooth (what teeth he has left), but is still one of the sweetest natured kitties I've every had. He likes to occupy my desk where he can reach out and pat me, and get lots of pats in return.

Update December 14, 2009
At Bufford's annual vet visit today, the vet was alarmed to note that he had lost four pounds in just six months (since he had dental work in June). Today's blood tests were all mostly normal, so the cause is still a mystery. Something new to worry about.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

take my breath away

I stepped out to let the dog out and saw this, and it did just what my title suggests.

Both photos taken by sgreerpitt this evening (©December 2, 2009) just before sunset.