Tuesday, November 19, 2002  [!]

Successfully watching the Leonids is an exercise in overcoming disbelief.

Disbelief that after a sunny November SoCal day (it was over 80°), you gotta change out of that sleeveless summer dress into silk thermal underwear, jeans, heavy turtleneck, big heavy cloak, fuzzy gloves. Antelope Valley, part of the high desert an hour north of L.A. was forecast to be clear, but cold: low 30s/high 20s. The big fluffy load of picnic blankets and down comforter and sleeping bag hauled to the trunk of the car seemed to be sheer excess: "How could we possibly be cold with all of this?"

The drive was gorgeous, though the brilliant moonlight on the San Gabriels caused doubt: How much will we be able to see with all this light? Well, it's a beautiful night to be out playing all-night hookey, if we don't see anything we've already had a good experience.

Pity the poor driver, who had to keep his eyes on the road, while my nose was pressed to the window. I looked for signs that it'd gonna be a good meteor night. Oh! There's one! A cosmic bottle rocket with sparkly tail. Yes, it'll be a good viewing. I kept looking. Over the next half an hour I saw maybe two or three more.

Okay, here's the turnoff. A little further: Here's that street in the middle of nowhere. We'll find a place to pull over. Yes, after the pavement ends, near the end. The exterior temperature gauge reads 34°, 33°, 32° (Once in the 30s, it adds a little snowflake icon. Cute.)

We pile out. We won't be using those red night-vision flashlights we brought. Won't need to. Set up chairs, folded picnic blankets on the back of chairs to insulate from cold behind. Before I get on my fuzzy gloves, the cold bites. That fluff doesn't seem excessive now, more like "just right." Sat down, arranged cloak. Fussed with hood, fussed with hat. Both shield the moon above from view, but neither takes away the sting on my ears. Oh, that wool scarf would have been nice.

It's a little after 1am; the Leonids don't peak until 2:40. I feel like a 5-year old, fidgeting, fidgeting. Rustling under the down comforter, pulling one cloak flap while cold finds its way in through the other side. Rustle, rustle, fidget, fidget. And though it's hot and comforting, drinking hot thermos coffee involves unwrapping myself from comforter and cloak. By the time the cup is empty, I'm cold again.

What do we see, as we sit fidgeting under blankets? (Okay, *I* fidgeted more; my boyfriend was better enclosed in his sleeping bag and ensleeved in his down jacket.) Stars, planet, a lighter horizon. And after a few minutes of fruitless looking, a bright streak. Another one. Then waiting.

My boyfriend, "They're coming in twos, one streak, followed by another one." I wonder if meters come in twos."

I say, "No, it's because of the human capacity to create meaning and patterns out of anything."

"Well, there's some scientific validity to it; the particles are breaking up as they hit the atmosphere so two streaks could be from same meteor."

Speaking of humans attempting to create meaning out of anything and everything, I wonder if I must be quiet in order to more meteors to appear, as if they need me to be quiet and paying close attention? No, they'll show up if I'm noisy, too. So I'll sing to the sky.

We three kings of Orient are
Watching streaks that travel afar.
Field and fountain, blond California mountain,
following yonder star.

Oh! meteors of wonder,
meteors of light,
won't more of you come
and visit us tonight.

Then, having recently watched "O brother, where art thou?" we try to do something with the lyrics to The Big Rock Candy Mountain.

In the big eye candy mountain,
you have plenty of socks.
And the blanket you have
keeps you toasty warm
while you watch those streaking rocks
And you can see the faint ones
Even when the moon does shine
And the wind don't blow
And there ain't no cold
And the meteors fly
Across the sky
I'll see you all in the coming fall
In the big eye candy mountain.

This year's bright night and cold makes for a different reaction to the meters. Last year when we saw longer streaks, we said long "eeeeeeees" and "oooooohs" in response. This year, we see only the brightest streaks. They're shorter than last year. Likewise the response: The "oh" and "ope" are clipped punctuation compared to the eeeeeee of last year.

Plus, I don't want to talk too much. I finally fidgeted upon a way to keep my ears warm, pulling my turtleneck up around part of my head, covering my ears, covering my chin and just over my lower lip. Too much breath and I'll fog my glasses.

I look at the dome of the sky, bright streak here and there and try to imagine it in three dimensions. We're on this big ball hurtling through space, but not close to any of those bright dots that are way out there. That zinging streak, is that how fast we're travelling along our orbit? Are we passing through a cloud of dust that is itself stationary, or is this the combined speed of two bodies moving, the earth and the particles? I try to reassemble the image to allow for all of this, and to feel myself moving in space. But even before I can fully place us in the vast and fast dimensions of space, disbelief sets in. The illusion unravels, he three-dimensions disappear, and the sky is a flat dotted surface once again. We are not moving. We're staying right here. Something out there is causing these bottle rockets to sparkle here and there in the sky. The only moving I'm doing is a shiver tap dance to keep warm.

2:30. We're seeing multiple streaks. Here, there, and there.
Pause.
There. Oh, I missed it.
Pause.
There. Here.
Pause.
Oh, a bright one overhead.
They come on at a steadier pace for about a half and hour or so.
The occasional bright leaves a bright smoke trail. No loud poppers like last year.

By 3:15, the pauses grow longer. Surely it's gotten colder, I figure it has to be down to 28! Two or three wisps of clouds appear near the moon. We gather up our things, pack the trunk, look up one last time to see a streak. "Okay, that's the last one. Let's go!" I watch the temperature readout. Yes, it colder, but only from 32 to 31. The night sky has rotated, the moon has moved further west. We drive south, switching the radio from soporific music to NPR's morning edition to keep from swerving onto those lane-dots. Home and warm bed and sleep.

I write this while sitting in my robe, drinking the last of my hot thermos coffee. It's a clear warm day. It's gonna get up past 80 again. I'll probably wear shorts today. Who can believe that it was 50 degrees colder last night and the sky had streaks of light?