Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013: The Year In Review (Part 3)

Here we are in the strange, surreal, no-man's-land between Christmas and the start of the New Year, and 2013 is on death row.  There will be no last-minute reprieve from our 400-year-old, hatchet-faced governor, nor a last-minute phone call from Amnesty International.  2013 sits in its dank little prison cell, marinating in melancholy, and dejectedly gnawing on its bitter last meal of broken dreams and unfulfilled promises.  So, when the prison chaplain shows up at the door with his Big Black Book of Contradictory Nonsense to make one last-ditch effort to redeem the soul of this year before it gets marched off to the electric chair and be plugged into eternity, 2013 will spit in his face with cheerful defiance and blurt out, "Stuff it, Padre!  I apologize for NOTHING!"  There were some good things in this year, some bright spots of greenery in a desert of bland mediocrity, and we're going to remember some of them:

The WELL, BUTTER MY BISCUITS AND CALL ME SCREWED Award goes to the redoutable Paula Deen.  Paula was the nation's Buddha of Bad Eating, the Princess of Pork Belly, the First Lady of Fricasseed Funk, and a Southern-Fried Cracker Queen whose toothy, perfect smile graced dozens of magazines every time I stood in a grocery store checkout line.  She was like a lowbrow Martha Stewart, but without all the murderous psychopathic qualities and barely-concealed hatred for the people who buy into her house-of-mirrors media empire.  In Paula Deen's world, there was no problem that could not be fixed with a couple of pounds of butter and a big ole mess of possum skracklings, or a hundred other things I would never consider putting in my mouth.  Well, maybe except for the problems that will arise from injudiciously dropping the N-word at a court deposition, seemingly tolerating an atmosphere of sexual harrassment at the restaurant she co-owns with her brother Earl "Bubba" Hiers, or letting plans slip out about a "plantation-style" wedding with black waiters in white jackets.  Fancy white jackets are apparently one of the many wonderful perks slaves enjoyed during their working vacation, I mean, servitude to white people, if that old Duck Dynasty scumbag is to be believed.  For the national media, it was Thanksgiving Day and Paula was the biggest, fattest turkey they had ever layed eyes on, and they went after her with a vengeance usually reserved for mass murderers or child molesters.  Paula immediately went on an I-so-sorry tour of morning talk shows and seemed genuinely repenitent for her gaffes.  But Our Lady of Perfect Gravy is nothing but resilient, and as recently as this month was spotted cheerfully visiting a bunch of backyard chickens in Savannah.  Hang in there, Paula!  Redemption is yours for the asking, just don't say the N-word out loud anymore. And yes, I don't mind if I have another one of your delicious crescent dinner rolls.

The CRAP HIT THE FAN, THEN HIT IT AGAIN 90 MINUTES LATER award goes to the movie "Gravity."  According to - the Careless Whispers preferred resource for movie statistics - the highest grossing film of 2013 was "Iron Man 3," which earned over $400 million in its US release.  Pretty impressive, when you consider that the third installment of a film franchise featuring a second-tier Marvel Comics character can pull down nearly a half-billion dollars worth of scratch.  I'm not sure why that is, but I'm thinking it has something to do with the appeal of its star, Robert Downey Jr., who seems to be very talented and a good person, and not as grubby and unkempt as Johnny Depp.  But this item truly moves into WTF? territory when you consider that "Iron Man 3" made TWICE as much in foreign release, bringing its total worldwide gross to nearly $1.25 BILLION!  Well played, Buena Vista Pictures, for a $200 million investment.  It's been a very nice Christmas for you, indeed.  I haven't seen 95% of the major movies of 2013, but one I did see and enjoyed very much was "Gravity."  This movie had EVERYTHING!  Sandra Bullock in her underwear!  Authentic looking space hardware!  Mind-twisting special effects!  George Clooney's GHOST!  A cloud of hypersonic satellite debris ripping the crap out of a space station, and then doing it AGAIN ninety minutes later as it circled the earth!  Oh, my inner science nerd was having a field day with this movie!  A number of other people agreed, because "Gravity" made $254,592,000 domestically and $653,292,000 worldwide, on a production budget of $100 million.  Not as much as Robert Downey Jr. in an aluminum jump suit, but still nothing to sneeze at.  Contrast, if you will, the number 54 movie of the year, "Ender's Game," based on the novel by homophobic garden gnome Orson Scott Card.  That resounding flop of a movie had a worldwide gross of $88 million on a production budget of $110 million, costing Lionsgate Pictures over $20 million, more if you factor in the advertising and promotion money the studio had to spend publicizing that stinker.

The IT'S COMING!  IT'S COMING!  IT'S... NOT COMING! award for 2013 goes to Comet ISON. We astronomers are a prickly lot.  Some might even consider us dour; spending endless nights when normal people are sleeping, freezing to death while peering morosely into tiny glass eyepieces attached to big metal tubes, hoping to spot a dim smear of gray light from an object impossibly far away.  People just don't grasp the awe and excitement we feel when we do see that tiny bit of fuzzy light, knowing that it took 50 million years or more to travel to our earthbound retinas and register in our tiny mammalian brains, and that it, in fact, represents an entire galaxy composed of hundreds of billions - if not trillions - of stars, with many billions of planets circling them, and many millions of intelligent civilizations with sentient beings very different from humans, who may be looking right back at us with the exact same sense of astonishment.  We get really excited about stuff that happens up in the sky, and a whole lot of stuff does happen.  But, ironically, we are bound by our gravitational attachment to Earth, and being able to see many astronomical events depends on exactly where we are on Earth and what time zone we're in.

For instance, by all accounts the most amazing, mind-blowing astro-event you can witness is a total eclipse of the sun, but the path of totality - which is the only place to be, really - is a tiny little strip of land often 50 miles in width or less, and almost always in the most remote, desolate, god-forsaken location possible, such as the Antarctica, sub-Saharan Africa or the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  Even if, through the greatest of luck or the most expensive of efforts, you find yourself in the VIP seating section for a solar eclipse, you are still at the mercy of a passing weather front, which can most surely obscure your much-sought-after vantage point and basically ruin your life.  I lucked out majorly in May 2012 when I was able to see a very rare annular eclipse of the sun, and I only had to drive 5 hours to northern Arizona, which was totally worth it.

Other celestial events are more widely observable, such as the aurora borealis (or the southern hemisphere counterpart, the aurora australis), but they are best viewed in high latitudes, above 50-60 degrees.  Here in Phoenix, at 32 degrees north latitude, we never see the northern lights, and if we did, it would probably mean big trouble, since the earth would have to be blasted with an epic, historic radiation storm to see them down here.  Other astronomical sights are very widely viewable, such as meteor storms, or total lunar eclipses, which are visible over entire hemispheres with clear skies.  Another such event is a comet.  The appearance by Comet Hale-Bopp, a number of years ago, was a world-wide event which sparked huge excitement and interest in these dirty snowballs which cross our path every so often.

When Comet ISON was discovered, immediately the hype started.  Portrayed as the incipient "Comet of the Century," lots of people painted vivid word pictures about the "Christmas Comet," which would grace the skies in December, make a close encounter with our sun, and (remember these words ==>) if it survived, would continue on a path which would take it even closer to our planet.  It would then put on a spectacular show in January, with some people saying (be still, my heart) that it could be as bright as the full moon.  Many astronomers (myself included) dreamed many, many dreams of a brilliant comet hanging suspended in a clear winter twilight sky, gossamer tail extending almost to the horizon, and being there for weeks if not months on end.

Astronomers tracked ISON with pain-staking precision, and the expectations grew faster than the comet did in telescopic photographs.  Things started to unravel a bit in September when some Debbie-Downer-type astronomers said ISON wasn't brightening quite fast enough as it plunged through the outer solar system toward the sun.  But we didn't care because comets are notorious non-conformists and will do whatever they please, light-curve predictions be damned.  We watched in breathless anticipation as satellite-based solar observatories saw ISON cruise in past Mercury, getting bigger and brighter as it approached our central star, finally disappearing in the harsh glare of the sun, an Icarus with white wings soaring into the light and heat.

Now, those three words I asked you earlier to remember: "if it survived"?  This is where they come in.  ISON swung around our Sun, barely a million miles above its searing surface and then.... broke into a bunch of pieces.  Scientists the world over expected to see a big, brilliant cometary body with a long, bright tail sweeping in front of it, but instead saw a small, indistrict bright patch with a tiny tail, which eventually got smaller and smaller until there was nothing but small pieces left.  It was officially declared dead a couple of weeks later.  Thus, Comet ISON, the "Comet of the Century" became Comet ISON - the DUD of the century, leaving us astronomers severely disappointed and demoralized.  But we went right back to scanning the skies in hopes of being the first person to spot the next incoming Great Comet Hope, which would again be granted the mantle of Comet of the Century, and this time maybe will actually fulfill that promise, instead of breaking all our astronomical hearts.

The ALL THINGS MUST END... SOMETIMES BADLY award goes to the series finale of Dexter.  The Showtime series finished up its eight-season run earlier this year, not in a blaze of glory, but a resounding THUD, reminiscent of the sound your head makes when it hits the side of the toilet as you rush to puke into it.  When it was firing on all cylinders, Dexter was a stylish, intelligent, and well-written tour de force through the labyrinthine mind of a serial killer.  His "dark passenger," as he called his murderous alter-ego, alternately surfaced and retreated in the ever-changing facade that Dexter presented to his family, friends and the outside world.  But things really derailed for the last season, and in the climatic episode, Dex was shown carrying the dead body of his sister Deborah Morgan out of the hospital in the midst of massive hurricane evacuation through crowds of police and public-safety officers onto his boat, and NO ONE STOPPED HIM.  After dumping Deb into the ocean, the last we saw of Dexter was him driving his power boat directly into the swirling maelstrom of the approaching storm.  Well, "the last" until he surfaced inexplicably somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, where he labored as the Unhappiest Lumberjack Ever (or stunt double for a post-apocalyptic Bounty paper towel commercial), living in numbing isolation in a dreary, decrepit boarding house, with only his memories of his previous life in Miami.  I can't remember another series finale that was so thoroughly and universally condemned and reviled by fans and critics alike, with levels of hateful derision and virulent contempt normally reserved for Republican presidential debates.  Sorry things ended so badly for you, Dex, but it could have been worse.  You could have been one of your fans. 


TV Shows I Like:  Boardwalk Empire, Homeland, True Blood, Breaking Bad, Live From Daryl's House, Later with Jools Holland, Real Time with Bill Maher, Sons of Anarchy, The Rachel Maddow Show, Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, Nurse Jackie, House of Cards (on Netflix).

Things I Love:  Rabbits, animals in general, my dear friends (both local and Facebook), Brambley Hedge Rabbit Rescue, hiking, secret crushes, sunsets and sunrises, astronomy, sushi, my friend Meme's homemade Chinese Seafood soup, chocolate, writing, photography, artwork, dinners with friends.

Here's hoping 2014 is a turning point for our country, and we can get back to being the great nation we truly are.  Sometimes it's very hard to see that potential.  I wish there were no unwanted and unloved children and animals, everyone had a decent standard of living and health care, and a decent place to live.  I wish people in power weren't so evil and hypocritical and dishonest and deliberately ignorant.  I wish people would mind their own damn business and stay out of the lives of others with whom they have no reason to meddle.  I hope people continue to turn away from religion and other stifling, suffocating poisons of the human spirit.  Most of all, I wish for peace, love and continued health for my friends.  I hope I never lose the sense of child-like wonder I feel when I look up into the night sky, or into the eyes of a beloved rabbit.  I also hope I never lose my belief in angels and miracles.  If I die tomorrow, it will be with the knowledge and satisfaction that I have lived my life exactly as I wanted to live it, and I have no regrets.

1 comment:

  1. This great Stephen. I wish for what you wish for.