Dancing with the Stars on the Shortest Day of the Longest Year

The Great Conjunction of Saturn & Jupiter Rising on December 21, 2020 . Photo JAL

Winter crossed the starting line last night. Shiver ye timbers – stoke up the hearth – we’ve set course to sail through the seas-on of very long nights.  Many folks think of winter as the doldrums of the year; a monotonous period of waiting for warm spring breezes to fill our sails.   That’s not the best approach to this Winter Solstice. We’ve been stuck in irons for far too long to diddle away the next dozen weeks.  

Photo courtesy nasa.gov

Time and distance are relative. It’s somehow fitting that the longest year in memory, not counting pregnancies and freshman classes, is a leap year. It’s been 800 years since Jupiter got close enough snag Saturn’s rings. Back then, here on Earth, Emperor Phillip founded the University of Paris to offer a liberal education while Genghis Kahn was tweaking the recipe for gunpower. Blue and red medieval pennants rallied rival troops with promises of eternal glory. If we jump back another 800 years we find ourselves marking the first Julian calendar. It too was a leap year (400 AD) when we could settle by the fire to read the Roman physician, Caelius Aurelianus’ best seller, Concerning Acute and Chronic Illness. The world was ripe with contradictions and possibilities for changing our ways.

Saturn by Ivan Akimov. Courtesy Wikipedia

The contrasting forces of nature are best explained through stories. Take for example the Roman myths behind the two seemingly merged bright spots in last night’s Solstice sky. Saturn and Jupiter were Greek/Roman gods who had eternity to wax and wane together. It’s no coincidence that their namesake planets never come closer than 456 million miles of each other while humming Cats in the Cradle. According to legend, so it’s probably not fake news, Saturn was exiled from Mount Olympus. Something about eating his own kids irked the people. Fortunately, most Romans lusted to be Greek-like. They welcomed the great god Saturn.  And so it came to be that Saturn wisely ruled the Roman Empire during an age of peace and prosperity. With no wars to fight or babies to eat he had plenty of time to dabble with viticulture, the art of grape production. It’s unlikely that Saturn ever shared a bottle of red with Genghis Kahn though because he was devoted to ridding Rome of barbaric customs like sacking and pillaging. Saturn had reset his moral compass, a millennium later he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities by the University of Paris.

Then, by Jove, along came Jupiter, Roman god of heavens and sky, ruler of laws and social order. Jupiter was an enormous god so it’s no surprise that the hugest planet in our solar system is his namesake. Jupiter’s mother saved him from his father’s heinous habit of devouring his sons at birth. Eventually, Jupiter overthrew his father, a gentle ruler but a down right scary pater familias, and reigned supreme over the universe. Who’s his Daddy?

Saturn. The son wanted to be just like his Dad who unfortunately was busy making wine and had no time to play. To this day their relationship ebbs and flows as young, mighty Jupiter briskly circles the sun once every 12 years and his old man shuffles along making the circumnavigation in 29 years. It’s hard for a kid to be that patient waiting to get together, so Jupiter makes off with his dozens of moons while Saturn lags behind and spins his rings. Every 800 years they have a family reunion and sample Saturn’s vintage wine.

As Harry Chapin asked, “When you coming home son?” The reply holds in many homes this season,
“I don’t know when, We’ll have a good time then.” Photo of Jupiter. Simple English Wickipedia.

If a Father who rules the sky with peace and his son, known for a jolly, optimistic world view, are able to spend eternity apart but together, we can endure a dark season of social distancing. This Christmas Eve falls on a Thursday – that’s Jupiter’s day when he makes a cheery toast to his father. Take a moment to raise a glass as the father and son climb the heavens.  It’s okay to call it the Christmas Star of 2020. Christmas is the day the Son will light the way for our next circle around the sun.  

Wishing you Merry and Healthy holidays.

A Smoko for Sweet Fanny Adams

A lot of things that we think matter a lot turn out to be worthless. During this pandemic I’ve spent substantial time reflecting on what holds value and what is just a Sweet Fanny Adams[1]. Another Fanny, this one from Broadway, sang, “people who need people, are the luckiest people in the world.”  Those are the people who will always remember Spring 2020 as a bleak and lonely season. Regardless of the plight of humanity, the earth continued to spin on its axis, days grew longer, and boating season returned. People who need boats are the second luckiest people.

Joshua Slocum was a self-sufficient 19th century sailor who circumvented the globe alone. His life partner was his boat, Spray. He found people were like Sweet Fanny Adams, they were insignificant, except to buy his book. While Slocum was obsessed with single-handed sailing, I prefer Noah’s two by two plan for crew on the Ark. I can’t do with both hands what Slocum did with a pinky finger. Sometimes it takes four or six hands to keep Ex Libris afloat.

Forget Waldo, Where’s the Leak?

This past weekend I filled my tanks with fresh water and was startled to note that the head (bathroom) floor had quite a bit of water that seemed to be coming up from the shower drain. I wiped it up and found that it wasn’t a trickle of tinkle. The water was clear and odorless. The last time we found water dripping in the head was on a New Years Eve when our boat was taking on river water. This puddle did not resemble melted yellow snow.

Fully embracing the “many hands less work” theory, I hailed our good friend, a retired Naval engineer who spent his career working with nuclear submarine engines. I fretted that we could sink from the sink, after all water drains from the sink into the river so what’s to stop the reverse? Joe troubleshooted how sink water could appear on the floor of a different cabin. He taught me how to check sea cocks and blow out clogs from a drain. Heady stuff that appeared to quell the leak. We kept to our plan to socially distance our two boats overnight on a quiet slough off the Mississippi. I relaxed knowing a guy who spent most of his career under water wasn’t concerned about puddles in my head.

We dropped anchor. I sopped up another pint of water and tried to remember the first prayer on a rosary chain.  After a fine meal on deck, George went below to use the head and shortly called up, “I fixed the leak!” The submariner and I were baffled. George, who is a damn fine first mate is not noted for his acuity for fixing things at sea or on land. Beaming a broad smile, he tossed me a nearly empty gallon water jug kept in the bathroom on a low shelf that we use to flush the head. It was dented and had a small bottom crack. Only a couple of ounces of water remained at the bottom of the jug. He had fixed the leak.

The next day, George and the submariner took a smoko. That’s an old naval term for a taking a break from all seaman duties. They savored a couple of expensive cigars together (appropriately distanced) and spoke quietly about the many things men do at sea and with boats. Some, like engines that won’t kick over are serious. Others, such as distilled water jug floods are not. We were glad to be in the company of a Navy sailor on this Memorial Day weekend. He recalled another sailor who advised; the first thing to do on a boat is raise the flag. The last thing is to take it down, fold it respectfully, and store it until the next time. It’s good to honor our troops, past and present whose heroics big and small are never Sweet Fanny Adams. Life is more than luck. Few of us can make it single handed. We need people like them to keep people like us safe.   


[1] An old Royal Navy saying referring to the content of tinned meat rations that were considered worthless. It’s a twisted tale born of a tragedy but kept for something.

Hope Floats

Sink or Float is a simple game best played with young kids. I prefer playing it riverside or alongshore but it can be played in a bucket, a bowl, sink, or tub (skip the toilet). Just add water. Players gather up things, twigs, bits of asphalt, younger siblings to toss in the water. The object of the game is to guess whether each bit of stuff will sink or float. Stones can skip but then they sink. It’s an easy game unless you are new to the world, as children are, and the laws of gravity aren’t obvious. There are a lot of surprises in the realm of sinking and floating stuff.

And then there is hope. It can’t be seen on shore or picked up to toss in a pond, but it is real. Hope, by its nature, floats, like boats are built to do. There has been a lot of fuss during this pandemic over the question of whether or not we are all in the same boat. The answer is, no. First, the loosest of social gathering policies sets 10 as the top limit for touchable togetherness. Second, unless you’re escaping Cuba, a crew that big needs a decent size boat and a captain with a hefty wallet. This means an awful lot of people, and many who can’t swim, are struggling to stay afloat.

To swallow the anchor is to retire from the sea. Just the thought chokes me up.
Palisades. Alton Pool, Mississippi River
Photo by JAL

Anyone who has ever simply messed about in boats holds tightly to the notion that it’s better to float than to sink. Charles Dickens wrote that while hope may well float, it’s like a buoy that can’t be steered. You must keep wishing you’ll stay afloat while knowing that the wind and current may or may not bring you to where you want to be.

Unlike the game of Sink or Float, where science wins, wishing on a star and hoping for the best, is proof that our inner child still holds fast to the belief that life doesn’t play fair. That little kid who stays down deep within our aging bodies knows for sure that hope floats and wishes come true. In fact, they are as real as dreams and strong as boats that sail the seas. Hope floats because we believe it floats. Disbelief sinks our spirts to deep despair.

I’d rather have faith in hope than to swallow the anchor. To do the later would mean giving up the sea and retiring to a landlocked boat-less life. I’m using hope to keep my head above these turbulent seas where getting splashed can sink me to the bottom. So, if you come to our dock and ask for permission to come aboard, unless you’re willing to mask up and keep a safe distance, don’t be offended if we shake our heads but not your hands and sail off alone. I’m hoping that this talisman will protect you, me, and all we love until the tide changes and we cruise safer waters together.