NASA announced yesterday (6/19/17) that their Kepler space telescope has found 219 new candidates for life-supporting planets in the universe. They keep finding more and more. Man, if this doesn’t give wings, no, rocket boosters, to my imagination! That said, chances that life evolved on any of these planets to a sentient point in sync with our own are infinitesimal, considering all the fits and starts it took us to get to where we are. Mass extinctions, severe climate fluctuations, natural selection, the age of our planet and solar system, things that like to eat us – from the inside and out, and so many other random factors (many would argue non-random) brought us to this exact moment.

antenna - My Favorite Martian

Uncle Martin

It took our planet 4.5 billion years to nurture a form of life that can wonder aloud about alien life and actively seek it out. And that only occurred within the very-most recent blip of time in earth’s history. There may be life on some of these planets but it’s unlikely they’ll look like Mork or Uncle Martin (there’s a reference for oldies). That life could be a billion years ahead of – or behind – our own. With regard to the former, it could be of an ilk that doesn’t reach out. Maybe it can’t. Maybe it doesn’t wanna. When you remove the carbon-based requirement for life (Hey, why not silicon?), who knows what can be out there? I’m not saying that would be the case, but I’m also not saying it can be ruled out. Many physicists are surely open to the possibility.

Now, NASA isn’t claiming that any of these planets support life of any kind. What they are saying is they are somewhat “earthish” in their size and distance from the sun. It’s something called the “Goldilocks Zone”. Because we know that our planet, of the size it is, and of its distance to the sun, does for a fact support life, a good starting point in searching for extraterrestrial life is to find planets similar to the one we know was successful in that regard. It all worked out here; why not elsewhere?

Despite these possibilities, I have difficulty believing UFOs are what some say they are. Yes, they’re “unidentified”, and they “fly”. And they’re “objects” (sometimes). But the idea that they traveled tens of thousands of years from another planet to visit us on this little mote in the universe is a bit anthropocentric (unless they’re really here to see the whales), and hard for me to imagine. Not impossible, but improbable. I do feel compelled to leave that door open a bit. To a civilization millions of years ahead of us it could simply be a coffee run. We do have good coffee on this planet – one of the perks (ugh) of the long, circuitous path of life on earth. Maybe they can fold time and space, a theory of space travel suggested by many in the field of astrophysics. The laws of physics dictate that ONLY light can travel at 186,282 miles per second (speed of light). Even if a traveler could approach that speed, at say 185,000 mps, that’s still a hell of a long trip. Bear in mind, too, that mass increases as it grows closer to light speed, adding what would seem an insurmountable challenge to the problem. Based on our current understanding of such things, folding space-time would be one of the few theoretical options left to make possible a trip from even the closest of these discovered planets. Hey, but maybe they know something different. And not to brag, but we humans do seem to figure things out over time, making possible what once seemed impossible. Maybe the whales know something (sorry, watched too much Star Trek*). But right now we humans are at the “impossible” stage.

Heady stuff…

Still, life of any kind existing anywhere off earth – even within the icy, high-oxygen seas of  Jupiter’s Europa, is dream fuel. And Europa we can do – we’ve already been there. How they/we will detect that life is beyond me. But one step at a time. Step one: As it’s done here on earth, find the right habitat. It seems we’re making some progress there.

So why do I care about humans finding something I will likely never see? As a naturalist, I spend a lot of time seeking out living things here on earth; fauna and flora I’ve never seen or heard before. There’s something about discovering another living thing that took a different life path to get to where it is now. We share a planet, an atmosphere, the victories (for now) over all of earth’s fits and starts mentioned above, and the chemical building blocks of life – DNA. I’m grounded by both their differences from the human I am and the many things we share. Every new thing I find gives an answer, but better yet, asks two more questions! It’s the questions that keep us moving forward. Expanding that search into the cosmos seems a natural extension. We don’t share a planet, but a universe. We share the same stuff that makes up all matter in existance. Will that bring us answers? No doubt. Will it bring even more questions? How can it not! I don’t care if it’s a single celled organism or endoparasitic xenomorphs. Just as I take tremendous armchair satisfaction in knowing there are places on earth teeming with life that I will never see, knowing life can exist elsewhere else in the universe is enough for me. (I do hope they’re not endoparasitic xenomorphs)


One of those xenomorphy thingys

Again, I think the chances of hearing from representatives of some cosmic community are slim – at least in my lifetime, and likely that of my children’s children.

But a haystack can surely hide a needle. And if one looks long enough…

*A good read! “The Physics of Star Trek” Lawrence M. Krauss

I Found It!”

Okay, this happened a couple of years ago. However, I still think of it often, usually in the morning or in the middle of the night when I’m remembering a particular dream. For over 35 years I’ve had a recurring dream. It went like this:

I’m in high school. The building is huge. I’m late for math class. That’s bad, because I’m failing math. I run through hallways and up and down stairs, taking them two or three at a time. I can’t find the classroom! The clock is ticking and everyone else has settled into their rooms. I’m still running through the empty halls like a mad man. Where is that classroom? I peek into rooms, hoping to find the right one. Students are busy at work and don’t notice me. It occurs to me that I have been unable to find the room for quite some time – weeks now, and that my absences will likely cause me to fail the class. I will not be able to graduate.

Then I wake up.

This started in my late teens and continued into my 50’s. I HATED this dream! Where did it come from? The seed likely germinated from the fact that I was having one hell of a time passing Algebra. So much so, I’d get up early every morning and go for extra help before school started. It was a very stressful time, and frustrating. Algebra just was not clicking for me.

I did some reading on this kind of dream. Not being able to find your classroom is fairly common, it seems. Right up there with forgetting your locker combination (had that one, too, off and on). Most say that it’s simply the subconscious revisiting a time of high anxiety. One of the functions of our brain is to solve our problems; to seek solutions for what it perceives to be damaging to our mind and body. I heard somewhere that the phenomenon of seeing your life pass before your eyes when facing death is actually the mind rapidly searching for an experience that could come to your aid. I had a near-death experience many years ago and that really happens! Images fly through your head, sliding through, one after another; each one recognizable, but lasting only a millisecond. Even while asleep, our brain is on duty, sifting through solutions to problems.

So, it seems that math class did a number on my psyche. Then one night I slipped back into that dream. Running! Running! Running! Where is that room? Will the teacher even recognize me anymore? And then…


I stepped into the class. Everyone was there already, taking a math test. The teacher sat casually on one desks and smiled. I apologized to her for missing so many classes. She said not to worry about.

“But I’ve been away so long,” I said. “I am going fail this class!”

“No,” she said. “Life experience counts toward your grade. You’ll be fine.”

I realized at that point I was my current age. My teacher, Miss Zorn was the age she was when I last saw her – mid-twenties. I was actually over 25 years older than her, but it didn’t seem that way. She was still my teacher. I was still her student. “Life experience counts toward your grade. You’ll be fine.” I will never forget those words – hell, they did come from my own brain. It’s a cliche to say that the “relief washed over me”, but there’s no better way to put it. Decades of seeking resolution came to an end.

Then I woke up. I was smiling and shaking my head in disbelief. I said aloud, “I found it!” That feeling of relief in my dream carried over into my waking world. It was true elation! I felt a real sense of accomplishment.  I balled my fists and shook them victoriously in the air. “I FOUND it!” I repeated.

I wondered then if I’d visited that scenario for the last time. Wouldn’t it be interesting if a single resolution in a dream had the power to vanquish forever the problem that demanded that resolution?

The answer is yes. I have not had that dream since.

Day after day after day after day… I pick up a newspaper and read about another “author” who has published another book. The key point here is that he or she published the book. It wasn’t acquired by a publisher, where it is vetted, deemed print-worthy, paid for, sent out for reviews, and bought by bookstores and libraries. Instead, the writer paid some online entity to print it out for them. Or, with print-on-demand, the equivalent of a consignment shop for words, they can forgo the payment to that entity. If that writer wants his friends to read what he wrote, he pays the “consignment publisher” to send them a book, a percentage of which goes to the writer. Once the friends and family have their copies, the book generally dies on the vine.

Why does this drive me crazy? I AM a published author – for real. I’ve worked for over 30 years at this craft. My ability to make a living depends upon my ability to write stories that will get me paid. My work has to be thought good enough by people who have read thousands of books over the years. Even after all this time, getting an editor to acquire something I’ve written is a major accomplishment. It – is – not – easy. Seriously.

So now anyone can get their book in print – no matter how awful it is – and I mean anyone and I mean awful! And that’s fine. What drives me mad is seeing the newspapers touting this as a newsworthy achievement. The self-published writers (Hmmm… SPriters? SPauthors?) give author book signings and lectures. They get on TV to talk about their project.

They are watering down the market.

In the back of Black Belt Magazine, there are ads where for a walletful of money, you can buy a black belt. You get the certificate, the belt, and the title of a “blackbelt”. Does that make the recipient a real blackbelt artist? Hell no.

There are exceptions to my outrage here. Our Town Historian, for example, wrote an excellent book on the historical buildings of Killingworth. There are no houses out there to publish books where the readership is not expected to expand much further beyond a single town. There are other instances where the subject can be so confined to micro-interests that the only way to share what you know is by self publishing. Great! Do it! I own some of those books and love them – warts and all! Some authors have backlogs of books that were published and the rights have reverted back to them. Again, the book has already been vetted and edited. It jumped through the literary hurdles and made it past the finish line. This level of quality control is absent in self published work.

That’s not to say that gems cannot be found among the works of the SPriters/SPauthors. They certainly exist. However, they are rare gems. A vast majority of the SPbooks (okay, that one’s not working) are … dreck. They are riddled with the cliches, spelling and grammatical errors, and just plain bad writing that are otherwise weeded out by editors or are simply cause for rejection. I saw one self published children’s book getting the royal treatment in a local paper where the illustrations were photos of a stuffed animal posed different positions. They looked like they were cropped by a six-year-old playing in Photoshop. And it was a store-bought toy – probably legal issues there! The SPriter/SPauthor and SPillustrator was lined up to do all kinds of book signings.

As my rant winds down, I’ll admit that not all books published by real publishers are good reading. The difference, though, is that the odds of it being good for what it is are in indirect proportion to those put out by vanity publishers.

The media needs to distinguish the difference between SPriters/SPauthors and those who are real published authors. Bookstores have to do the same. It’s tough enough making a living at this. It’s why so many give up. We’re battling the shrinking numbers of publishing houses and bookstores, the decline of actual books, strained budgets, competition with “celebrity authors” (don’t get me started), and now the droves of people claiming to be what they really are not. When you get paid to write, you are a published author. When you pay someone to print out what you wrote, you are something else.


A beam of Venus' light in Cape Cod Bay.

A beam of Venus’ light in Cape Cod Bay.

   Over the course of one month, I’ve witnessed two incredible night-sky phenomenon – each over a different bay in the Northeast. The first was “moondogs” over Winter Harbor in late August. The second occurred in Cape Cod Bay in North Truro, MA on September 28, 2013. Shortly after watching the sun set from our beachfront porch, our party observed Venus come into view directly across the horizon. It was the brightest “star” in the sky and it cast a long, pale beam on the calm bay.  I have seen plenty of moonbeams on the water, but never one created by another planet! Had I been sitting in a boat in that spot, I could have read by the light of Venus.

I tried to take a picture of Venus itself using my Coolpix camera set on “night portrait”, but, as evidenced by the photo below, I couldn’t hold the camera still enough. I think I need to cut back on my coffee intake.

Yeah, that's a handheld night-portrait-setting shot of Venus.

Yeah, that’s a handheld night-portrait-setting shot of Venus.

Stuffed Peppers redux


As a kid, I HATED green peppers! Every once in a horrifying while, my mother would make us STUFFED GREEN PEPPERS – a meal celebrating that reviled vegetable. She was kind enough to let my brothers and me skip the offending container if we finished what was inside it – ground beef/rice/tomato sauce, which was actually pretty good. The empty pepper would be pushed as far to the edge of the plate as we could get it. Bleh!

Tastes change. I eat raw fish now. Love asparagus.  Onions rule! And I kind of like green peppers*. Of late, I’ve been experiencing a craving for those stuffed peppers, partially fueled by this year’s great crop of them in our garden. I called Mom, got the recipe, and made some up. Not bad! Betsy liked it, too, but…. didn’t eat the pepper. Who am I to blame her?

*Still won’t eat liver.

Prehistoric Birders

I just came across a cartoon I did back 1994 – when I was president of the New Haven Bird Club. Part of the job was writing a “From the president” piece for our newsletter. I couldn’t think of anything to write that month, so I drew a picture.




Traveled through time with this one...



I was thinking about a book I reread in the 90’s and thought I’d share how I came to rediscover it.

Many of us have books we remember as a child that left behind the gift of a fond, albeit hazy, memory. There are several in my past, many of which I remember quite clearly. One, however, stood out. While the title eluded me, the story continued to visit, usually in the wee hours while trying to fall asleep. I remembered a young king with a yodler’s hat and a pointed beard. He lost his kingdom and was told that he could be a king again if he could accomplish a number of impossible feats. To do this, he enlisted the help of some men he rescued from various dangers along the way. I remembered that one turned into an elephant (and drank a huge vat of wine, as only a king could do). Another, a swarm of bees (who defeated an army). One, a hatchet, and one a tree. There was also a man who could become a snake (who spanned a gorge, making a bridge for them to cross) and one who could turn into fire (who “consumed” a king-sized meal). The last line of the book was etched indelibly in my memory. When asked why the king should be given a kingdom when these impossible tasks were accomplished by his friends, the elephant guy said, “He did what a good king should do. He led us.”

So, that was the gist of the story. It was also the first time I put the then-newfangled Internet to its proper use. I consider myself a pretty decent “keyword artist” and was able to track it down, despite having forgotten the title. Turns out it was called “The King With Six Friends”, written by Jay Williams.

I will never forget receiving the book in the mail and reading it for the first time in over thirty years. It was truly just as I had remembered! But here’s the surprising part; while the story had changed little in my memory, neither had the feeling I had inside as I read it. As we get older, the way we look at things change. However, while there are different triggers to different feelings and emotions, the effect of those emotions on the who we still are, can be the same. Happiness is still happiness. Sadness is still sadness. In reading this book, the warmth of friendship and the feeling of satisfaction in watching the impossible overcome had not changed. Nor did the ability of Imero Gobbato’s illustrations to draw me into this world.

In a way, this was time travel, or as close to it as I’ll ever come.