Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Thoughts from Melinda

Dean has been so good at keeping the blog updated, whereas I've been a real slug! I just down loaded my pictures from the Grand Canyon, and of course that was weeks - and miles - ago.

The GCSP was a lot of fun this year! It was different than the previous years that I've been there (this was only my fourth). First time we've had clouds - but managed to get some good things for people to see anyway. First time I've set up my telescope there - the first night was filled with frustrations as the new star pointer wasn't aligned even close to the telescope. Once that was remedied it was great, though! First time I haven't "worked" the star party (no digging in the van for t-shirt boxes, no moving pylons at the end of the night, etc.). First time we weren't camped with the rest of the group - and I missed them! It was a lot of fun though, and was especially exciting when we saw the deer and elk roaming around! It was sad to leave the group early, too. I think Dean and I both felt that. Both ends of the trip were marked with dining at the Polakis home - breakfast at the start, dinner on the return home to Tucson. It's always good to visit with Tom and Jen!

After the star party it was home to a few nights of work, then pack up and set the course for Illinois! We did a commendable job in getting on the road, this past Wednesday. I got home from work (hadn't packed yet), and we still were pulling out of our driveway by 12:30pm! I dozed in the car for a while, but perked up as we neared White Sands in New Mexico. We arrived there in time for sunset, and enjoyed every minute of climbing on the beautiful white sand dunes and enjoying the quietness. Standing on top of the dunes I was reminded of the book, "The Little Prince". It was a nice break from riding in the car, as well! From there we hit Alamogordo, NM to spend the night. The next morning, feeling refreshed and ready for a long day on the road we grabbed some breakfast and took off. We stopped, however, to visit the Valley of Fire recreation area, just north of White Sands. It was incredible to see the white dunes on the distant horizon, and yet be standing in an area of black lava flow! Typically, we have done most of the driving through New Mexico at night, so this seems like it was the first time I've seen much of it during the day. It was great! After a very long day on the road we arrived in Tulsa, Oklahoma - our goal city for the night. Oklahoma is a very pretty state - coming from the midwest, as we do, we enjoyed seeing the fields of farms blowing in the breeze - the very hot breeze, I might add. I will also state that Oklahoma has the best vistor/welcome center of any place I've ever been! Leather couches....huge, clean, bathrooms...it's great! All through our drive we were touching base with sister, Maj, as her husband was flying her to Joplin, Missouri to join us in our visit with our Aunt Erna. Aunt Erna, who we have stopped and visited a couple of times in the past year, is having health problems and is currently in the hospital. Our timing was perfect on arrival in Joplin on Friday morning, as we were a few miles from the airport when Maj called to say that she and Jeff had landed! We picked her up and Jeff was on his way back to Illinois! It's always bitter-sweet when visiting an older relative in the hospital. There is the fear that this will be the last visit; and this was no exception. We spent a lot of time sitting and talking with Aunt Erna; spent some very valuable time with 4 of her 5 children; and while we hated to say good-bye, we left with even more wonderful memories than we already had. We stayed in Joplin until Sunday morning, when we hit the road early for Sugar Grove and St. Charles, IL. That leg of the trip was punctuated by the a/c in the van quitting! Fortunately, for us, it had cooled off and was a delightful day to drive with the windows open! We had breakfast in Springfield, MO and lunch in Springfield, IL (we didn't waste much time, in otherwords!). After dropping Maj at her home in Sugar Grove, we pulled into our little oasis on the Fox River around 8pm! Ahhh!!! The time is already going too quickly here! Today I did a little bit of work in the guest room (soon to be the master bedroom) while Maj and Dean cleaned out the shed - getting rid of what we no longer need. Dean is also having that a/c in the van fixed today. It will be a long hot ride back to Tucson if he doesn't!

Last evening I was invited to join 4 of my Nurse friends for dinner, a "girls only" event. We enjoyed talking "Nurse talk", and catching up. This evening is the last night of "Dollar Burgers" at our favorite, Rookies, so we are meeting a group of friends there for dinner! Our friend, Roger Ceragioli will be arriving from Vancouver on Thursday, and will visit with us for 6 days; and we will be spending the July 4th holiday with our Iowa family! It's so nice to be back with the family for a while!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Road Trip!

It has been an age since we posted, but we have a good excuse - we've been on the road and are currently residing in St Charles, Illinois! Ideally, we would have posted along the way, but the combination of Internet accessibility and family obligations made it difficult. So forgive us and we promise to catch you up the next few days, and bore you with our dronings from the Midwest!

It was not a totally event-free trip. The venerable Ford van, now past 315,000 miles ran great, but had starter issues. This happened once while in Tucson a month ago, and our mechanic thought a new battery ground strap fixed the problem, which it did. But it happened during a bathroom break in MON (Middle of Nowhere) Oklahoma, where even a battery jump wouldn't rile it. After 20 minutes it started on it's own, but a spectre loomed. In a call to my mechanic the next day he was thinking the heat was compounding a starter issue, and a trip to a Firestone dealer in Joplin, MO confirmed that in "failure mode", the starter was drawing a huge 700 amps, so just clicking when trying to start. $200 and 90 minute later it was again roadworthy. Oh, the A/C also failed (it had also been making noises, but according to the mechanic, was working ok), but fortunately, the last leg of the trip occurred in 80 degree temps instead of the 100s 2 days before! Will get that looked at here in St Charles.

On our Midwest trips, we generally stop at the 3-corners area of Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri to visit Melinda's Aunt Erna. She has been a gracious host to us the past year or two - overjoyed to see us, and even welcoming the cats we've travelled with the last 2 visits. Of late she has been in a nursing home and more recently in a hospital after a fall. Melinda's sister Maj flew down to Joplin to meet us and spend a couple days with Erna and family there. She was frequently in fine form, and reminiscing about the old days brought out a lot of laughs and hugs.

The heat wave broke and the last day's 600 mile trip had perfect blue skies and temps perhaps hitting 80 - a good thing with the A/C out! Leaving the pre-monsoon browns of Tucson and entering the greenery of the Midwest seems nothing short of amazing to me, even after making this trip many times. Arriving home, thanks to Maj, the house was ready for us, the bed was made, even the refrigerator was partially stocked with supplies! We were able to sit down, relax and watch a little TV instead of clean and prep the house. A quick walk around the house this morning (75F at noon) showed a welcoming committee of Canadian Geese with their no-longer-so-little goslings, and even a 16" carp came up to me on the Fox River to say hi. Melinda is here for 10 days, I'll be here for over a couple weeks before heading back down towards Texas, where Melinda will rejoin me for the last swing through that state to visit family and friends. Stay tuned for some of our recent and upcoming adventures!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hint Of Things To Come...

There just doesn't seem to be enough hours in the day to blog! Yesterday was Melinda's day off, the weather cleared and we joined some other TAAA (Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association) members out at the Empire Ranch observing site north of Sonoita. It was a beautiful night, nearly an all-nighter, though the light domes over nearby towns seemed accentuated, perhaps from some of the fires in the area. We still had fun - Melinda tried some astro-photography with her new camera, and I used the C-14 and Hyperstar for a few summer Milky Way shots. Knowing how I like the dark nebulae, you can bet there are a few of them on the observing list. Here is a quick-and-dirty average of some jpeg images, total exposure of 10 minutes with the 20Da and Hyperstar at ISO 800. This is the west end of a dark nebula called the Pipe nebula, also visible as the back leg of the "Prancing Horse" Nebula we showed a couple weeks ago here. It never fails to amaze what a little more focal length and aperture does for an image! Anyway, more to come, but not likely until we have time, likely next weekend after we locate temporarily in the Midwest!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Canyon Flora and Fauna

I've got images of flora, fauna and other natural observations made at the Canyon last weekend and thought it would make a good post. The first one is of the shadows of jet contrails. I've commonly seen shadows of them cast on lower level clouds, but never a double contrail like this one. A first for me!

Except for this time of year, one of the easily overlooked plants at Canyon's edge is the Cliffrose. It is a pretty common shrub reaching to 8 feet or more. In mid and late spring, it is covered by pale yellow flowers. Sometimes when the star party is early, they are still in full bloom. This year, the flowers were definitely past their prime, but what was interesting was the long hairy stalk that develops from the seeds that aid in wind-dispersion. I've also read that this curved stalk twists to help drill the seed into the ground.

With the higher elevation of the Canyon (about 7,000 feet), the growing season is delayed from here in Tucson. As a result, many of the cacti there were still in bloom. In Tucson, the large majority of prickly pear cacti have the bright yellow flowers, like seen here at the Canyon. What is much less seen in southern Arizona, but only a few yards from the yellow-flowered cacti was this prickly pear with bright fuchsia flowers. I still need to get a good cactus book and learn the subtle differences between the different varieties - a good project before next spring's flowering season.

Years past at the star party we've often seen occasional deer and elk at the Canyon and even wandering through the campground. Nothing will quite get your attention that stumbling into an 8 foot high elk on your way to the bathroom at 2 in the morning! Elk have seemed rarer the last couple years, and we didn't see any until our last day this year - and then we saw 9 on the 2 mile drive from our dinner restaurant to the observing site! Pictured here is a cow elk with 2 fawns still sporting spots. A couple large males were nearby. A few minutes later there were a couple mule deer that sauntered by while we waited for the bus. A few of these large mammals anywhere near a road and there were instant traffic tie ups. The rangers are pretty good about breaking up the loitering and reducing the chances of fender benders.

Finally I'm wrapping up with a lil' lizard I tracked, but couldn't get very close. It may have the blue belly of the Colorado River Tree Lizard, but other than that, I'm not sure. It was fun watching him do push ups - in this case they are "broadcast push ups", done in a prominent location as a territorial display. In any case, check out those arm muscles!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Back From The Grand Canyon Star Party!

Just a brief post to tell all we've returned safely from the Grand Canyon. It was a jamb-packed 4 days and the narrative of all that happened would likely bore everyone, so will touch on some of the high spots here. No doubt Melinda will post her own pics from her camera and viewpoint.

We've landed running here - not a moment for a break from our "vacation". I worked today, and after sitting most of the day at the DMV, Melinda is back to work tonight too.

It is strange to depart after only 3 nights at "my" event - I restarted the Grand Canyon Star Party back in 1991 and organized it for 18 years, and it was interesting to keep my distance this year, though I was available to assist Jim and Susan, who are the main organizers this year. While more relaxing this way, it was still work to set up telescopes and deal with the public for several hours a day. Normally June is the clearest month in Arizona, but we've seemingly been plagued most of the spring with clouds, and our Canyon time was no exception. Both Saturday and Sunday evenings it looked totally overcast, but magically cleared both nights for a few hours to show the public some of the sky's highlights. Our luck ran out Monday, and it didn't really clear that evening, though we were able to show Saturn to a few dozen visitors through the clouds. We gave up by 10pm and a few of us drowned our observing sorrows by sampling some microbrew beer at the Maswick Sports Lounge till their 11:30 closing time. It has been a good 4 years since we've had a cloudy night to do that! I've heard reports since then that the weather has remained poor. But it is not for lack of trying!

So while we've not been able to stay out late observing, we did set up daytime scopes a time or two, interacting with the public, showing views of hikers, river rafters, the north rim lodge, and putting out the word about the night time observing. And of course, there is no lack of things to do if you look around. Even after 18 years of spending a week at the Canyon, we took in an art exhibit at Kolb brothers Studio (here, Tucson Astronomers check out some of the Lawrence Ormsby originals for a children's book on condors), we did some hiking, actually spending some time below the rim on the Bright Angel Trail, and here is Melinda getting up close and personal with a female mule wrangler. She might have been dressed exactly the same 100 years ago, save for the radio clipped to her back pocket!

With the clouds, the temperatures were cooler than normal - I wore long sleeves most days and they reached below 40F at night, making tent camping great, once nestled under the thick sleeping bag...

What observing we had was great. When the skies relented for the 2 nights mentioned above, we had a couple hundred visitors each night from all around the world. This was just about the most international crowd we've had at the Star party. It was difficult to get information across to non-english speakers, but all enjoyed the views. We had our normal crowd of telescopes - likely 50 or so any given night. The Park Service continues to do a great job making the parking lot "astronomer only" after 5pm, making setting up big telescopes a lot easier when you don't have to compete with the public going out to watch the sunset. With the shuttle buses running till 11pm, it was easier for them to attend by bus.

All in all, a great trip, though a couple more nights would have been fun. After 18 years, I thought 8 nights was too long, but I'm a little sorry I didn't stay longer now!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Grand Canyon...here we come!

We are leaving in the morning (early) for the long awaited Grand Canyon Star Party - 2009! This is Dean's first year of not being the sole organizer, so we are looking forward to a more relaxed time - more opportunities to observe, and maybe even do some photography. While we don't have any new pictures to post tonight, look for some starting Tuesday night (okay, give us until Wednesday to do some processing on them) when we return home to Tucson!
This is Dean's 19th GCSP (which he and late wife, Vicki, started in 1991), this is only my 4th! The first year I had no idea of what to expect - had never been to a star party! It knocked my socks off, to say the least! Each of the last three years have been clear and great seeing (though some of the astronomers may not agree 100% with that statement). If we have a cloudy night this year, it will be the first in several years. The only downside, this year, for me is that we can't stay the full week as we have in the previous years. This year we will only be there for 4 nights instead of 8. We are going up a day early, so that helps. Did you know that most visitors to the Grand Canyon National Park stay for 30 minutes!! I can't even imagine! That's scarcely long enough to do a passable "Clark Griswold" imitation and leave! So, while our visit is shorter there, this year; it is still longer than the 'average visitor'. If, by chance, you are planning a visit to the Grand Canyon next week....give a shout and look through some telescopes! If you are visiting at some time in the future - try to plan to stay longer than 30minutes....it's too majestic to be taken lightly.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Test Shots...

Melinda posted about the new camera that we got over Memorial Day at RTMC, and fortunately, I called it an anniversary present to justify it. Well, yesterday she surprised me with my gift - a brand spanking new Canon 100mm macro lens! And yet to come is a set of extension tubes to aid in my newly found hobby of imaging the tiny world. I didn't get home till about sunset tonight, but I was eager to see what it would do. Fortunately, there is an unusual cactus in neighbor Susan's yard with pretty white flowers, so in the fading light I grabbed a couple exposures. And in the other direction, neighbor Audrey has a beautiful bush of Mexican Bird of Paradise that I shot too. Unfortunately, the f-stop was nearly wide open with longish exposures, so had to settle for limited depth of field, but it looks like the lens will be lots of fun. I've got Nikon macro lenses that will work through an adaptor, but focus is always a gamble with the stopped down lens, even with Canon's Live View. The new lens' autofocus will be great! Oh, and did I mention it will also work great on Melinda's new camera!

Melinda also gave an update on Scruffy - it has been 2+ weeks now since his neutering and shave job. Jason finally got his quarantine bathroom back, but Scruffy really doesn't like the dog crate he is currently inhabiting in our living room. He gets to roam when everyone else is out of the house to get used to the new surroundings. I think he likes it here, especially the steady diet, and our other cats are mostly ignoring him, but Scruffy gets pretty hissy and defensive when others are around. We're hoping he calms down quickly as we are traveling over the weekend!

Monday, June 8, 2009

A year later...

What?! No new entries for 5 days??? We have a good(ish) excuse, I promise!

I worked for three nights, during which time Dean worked full time, instead of his usual half time. Add to that, we had work to do at home. Yesterday was our 1st wedding anniversary! Yippeee! We thought about the idea of just the two of us going out, but we go out a lot so it's more fun to eat in and have some friends join us here! It's just not possible to invite everyone we know, so we stick with inviting a handful of friends (tonight there was 11, including us). Dean did his wonders with smoking pork loins in the smoker, as well as making toss salad and potato salad. He is clearly proven to be the better cook of the two of us. I made dessert (brownies a la mode) and did the cleaning and clean up! Dean helped with the cleaning of course, it helps if he puts things away where he will know where to look for them. We don't have any pictures to share, however, we were too busy enjoying the guests to get any of the cameras out!

So, here we are - a year after the "I do's", and nearly a year into this blog! How is it possible that after spending this much time together we still have never said an unkind word to each other, still make each other laugh, and still want to spend the rest of our lives together?! Clearly, the man is a Saint - that's all I can say!

Next up will be preparing for the annual Grand Canyon Star Party! Dean has turned the organizing and preparation over to the TAAA, but we will attend as amateur astronomers for 3 nights. Actually, we'll go up a day early (on Friday), since we have the time to do that. Fortunately, we have our live-in student, Jason, to care for the cats and the house. After the GCSP we will return to Tucson for a week (long enough for me to get 6 nights of work in) and then it's road trip time - destination, St. Charles! I promise pictures of the upcoming events, whenever possible as it proves to be a memorable trip!

A little update on Scruffy, our newly house tamed feral...
Scruffy lived in Jason's bathroom for a little over a week, then we decided it was time for him to start getting used to 'the others' (and we felt sorry for Jason, sharing his bathroom with a rather smelly cat). Scruffy is now living in a kennel type of crate in the living room, though it seems to be a little small for his liking. We have had him out a few times, to wander the house when the rest of the clan are outside hunting lizards to bring into the house as a surprise for 'Mommy'. For being a feral, Scruffy seems to be quite fastidious about using the litter box - which is always a good trait in a cat. He also seems to be pacing his eating a bit, no longer ravenous and unsure of where his next meal is coming from. He has finished his antibiotic therapy and his hair is starting to grow back some! He seems quite docile, even when youngster Atticus comes up to his cage and hisses at him. The rest of the clan, while aware that he's here, do not seem to distressed to see a new cat in the house. Hannah seems to think he's awfully cute, and frequently noses around the cage to get a better look at him! I would imagine that Scruffy will be out of his cage soon, as all seems to be going well so far. We want him to feel safe and comfy when we take the cage away. A hiding cat isn't a good thing. His voice sounds different, now that he's healthier and stronger. When he was outside he had this horrid, grating yowl that sounded desperate. Now is voice is quieter, and no raspiness about it. About the only time he meows is at night, when everyone has gone to bed and he's lonely (such as now). We aren't to the point of calling this a success story yet, but we're well on our way!

We look forward to more exciting posts in the near future, and hope all of our friends, families, and passers-by continue to read our little story!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Melinda's first astro-photo...and a sign of the times

Dean's been doing most of the blogging lately, and to be honest, he's far more creative than I am. However, as was mentioned before - Dean bought me a new camera for our anniversary (06/07)! I had been talking about getting a digital SLR (DSLR) for some time, and was leaning towards a Nikon since I have a couple of Nikon lenses that would be nice to use. However Nikon doesn't seem to be competitive in the astrophoto arena, whereas Canon has historically been very well represented there. The new camera is the latest on the market (in the past month) Canon Eos Rebel T1i. Since it is very new, there hasn't been much said about it's astrophoto applications, but the best way to find out is to try it! Dean took it for a 'spin' last Friday night, with some very respectable images as a result. Last evening we attended the AstroPhoto group (offshoot of the astronomy club), where he presented those images. That just fueled me to get out and give this a try! Since we didn't plan on observing, and didn't get home until 9pm or so, my option was to take a picture of the waxing moon - from the back yard! I think it's a great place to start! So! - here's my very first astrophoto attempt! This picture was taken using my Sigma zoom lens (with a Canon mount adapter ring). Using this lens meant that I had to hold the camera still (though used a very fast shutter speed), and focus (the auto focus doesn't work with an adapter ring in place). All in all, an honorable first attempt if I do say so myself.

The "sign of the times" title isn't in reference to my new venture into astrophotography. It is in reference to something that I observed, very acutely, yesterday. Since it was my day off I thought I would do some shopping. We've found that whenever we invite people over for a cookout we never have enough chairs, and it distresses me that some people have to sit in the living room to eat their dinner. I don't mind eating in the living room - I feel like guests are being left out of the conversation though. Just not polite! Last Fall, when I bought the new table for the dining area I hit all of the local thrift shops to find enough chairs - and did very well in finding what we wanted, as well as getting great bargains. That being said, yesterday was a thrift shop day! I'll admit, there was a time when my only places to shop were Marshall Fields, Lord & Taylor, and at the 'low end' Penney's. My sisters have long been advocates for resale and thrift shops, and I did get some good deals there from time to time. Over the past several years, however, I have grown to prefer thrift shops (great for finding hard to replace items, as well as finding clothes at a great price!). The other bonus for thrift shops is that they are usually pretty quiet - not a lot of shoppers, never a wait to checkout, and your money is going to a good cause. Yesterday I started with my local "Casa de los Ninos" thrift superstore. Throughout the day I explored a total of 4 thrift stores, finding 2 chairs, various and sundry items, as well as shorts and t-shirts for the summer! All of that for less than $100.00!!! The thing that hit me, in making my rounds, was that every store was busy! Not just a few customers in each, they were busy. Long lines waiting to check out, people bumping into each other in the aisles, busy! That brought to light the state of our economy. These shoppers weren't homeless, they weren't destitute - but they were feeling the crunch of our broken economy. It was a great reflection of the state of the country; but I think that it also reflects that more people are thinking about how they spend their money. As I was pulling into one of the many Goodwill stores there was a woman pulling out of the parking lot - driving her very expensive Jaguar. If you take a lesson away from this posting, let it be - shop the thrift stores first. You'll be helping your pocketbook as well as a charitable organization when you do!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Dexter Morgan Is Back!

While channel surfing Sunday night we discovered that Showtime is rerunning one of our favorite shows - Dexter! And even though we have seasons one and two on DVD, it is similar to how I feel about certain classic movies - even though you can pop it in and watch it anytime, if it is "live", you have got to watch it! Showtime is promoting it as "The Summer of Dexter", showing 3 shows each Sunday evening, so each season will take a month of Sundays, then Season 4 starts in September...

For those of you not in the know, Dexter Morgan works in the forensics lab at the Miami Police Department. Specializing in blood-spatter analysis, he carries a dark secret - like a modern day superhero, he takes care of bad guys who have escaped justice from the legal system. Yes, he is a serial killer, but a very likable serial killer!

We first met the actor who plays Dexter, Michael C. Hall, on the HBO series "Six Feet Under", another favorite cable series both of us enjoyed, playing the younger son, David, of a funeral home director. As a result, when we first saw the publicity for Dexter, we had to check it out, and have been hooked since! Michael has received 3 Golden Globe nominations for best actor for "Six Feet Under" and "Dexter", and 2 Emmy nominations for best actor for "Dexter".

So our unbiased opinion is that you have 3 options - A: Subscribe to Showtime for your Dexter pleasure, B: Rent or buy seasons one through three, or C: Stop by our house Sundays at 8pm for the next three months, but expect to sit down and be quiet! Oh, and a disclaimer - there is occasional graphic violence, bad language and nudity on the show, so it is definitely not suitable for anyone under driving age!