Monday, August 03, 2020

Some Starry Night 

Sometimes the Universe doesn't care for your plans.

As Toronto finally joins the rest of Ontario in “Stage Three”, which sounds more like a cancer diagnosis than a pandemic economic recovery plan, we’re trying to return to normal except we really aren’t. We’ve had almost 40,000 cases of COVID-19 with almost 2800 deaths, so there’s really nothing normal here, new normal or otherwise. Whether it’s all the restaurants that can’t fully re-open or the closure of movie theatres or the fact that travelling somewhere, anywhere, now feels unnecessarily risky, the pandemic has sucked a good deal of fun from the summer. More than the pandemic however is my own skin which won’t quite heal from the urticaria that has plagued me for the last eighteen months. Fun in the sun is a no-go. Stepping out in the searing bright sunshine almost immediately leads to painful hives. I’d love to go for a paddle but sitting in kayak sweating would be my undoing. A cool swim might be the perfect summer treat until I have to shower and soap up which may turn my skin into a living version of kimchi.

Instead, I’m trying to focus on the stuff I can enjoy this summer instead of all the stuff I’ll miss due to either the Pandemic or Urticaria. I might not get the long rides, kayaking or swims but there will be hammock hangs, grilled meats, home made ice cream, and movies on a shiny, new TV beneath the chill of the A/C.

Air conditioning bathing is one of my great thrills now. It’s easy. Simply turn up the a/c unit which is about seven feet up on the wall, strip off unnecessary clothing and stand there letting the artificially cooled air cascade over your burning skin. It is my pleasure. On social media, an old friend who is more environmentalist than human, chided and attempted to guilt me over my air conditioning unit, but I would have none of it. Years ago it was very true in Southern Ontario that a/c was a massive culprit in a death spiral of worsening air quality and an increasing number of smog days. Older a/c units were more than a double-edged sword of emissions and electricity use that only drove up the demand for more coal-powered electricity. The hotter it got, the more people used their a/c, the more electricity was generated, the worse the air quality and the more accelerated climate change became. It was the very definition of a vicious cycle. While the climate change crisis has worsened, you can hardly blame a/c alone. Now in Ontario our power comes primarily from Nuclear reactors which will require a forty year plan to decommission but in the short term it took us from 48 smog days in 2005 (one smog advisory lasted 8 days; six people died from heat and other complications that year) to 1 or 2 since 2014 when we closed the last coal-fired plant. The air conditioning I have, which are far more popular now, uses 30% less electricity than central air units. Supplemented with fans and much more efficient windows my home has become far more tolerable than the tandoori oven it used to be. I’ll say this simple fact, air conditioning saves lives. To guilt someone for using it would be like shaming a sick person for the ineffectiveness and over prescription of antibiotics. All that is to say a/c bathing is one of my favourite things.

In our new pandemic time bubble I've also taken the opportunity to look skyward, particularly at night. In June I noticed an immense full moon and it’s partnering planets, Saturn and Jupiter, who were behaving sort of like celestial wingman. While I missed the Neowise Comet, which was impossible to spot in the city’s hazy horizon glow I have been enjoying the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter only seen this close to each other every twenty years. Living downtown in Canada’s largest city, it is unlikely that you’d become an amateur astronomer. Yet the same blues skies that have given us sweltering heat has given clear evening skies and with the help of a handy mobile app I’ve become a terrestrial stargazer. I’m such an urbanite that for several nights what I thought was an emergency light from a construction crane, was in fact the planet Jupiter. Similarly, I mistook Antares, the brightest star of the constellation Scorpius as a taillight of a passing high altitude aircraft due to its orange hue. I thought it was strange it wasn’t moving. Once you start, you begin noticing others, such as the star Arcturus, the anchor of the constellation Bootes (The Ploughman), or Altair, which is part of the head of Aquila, the Flying Eagle. I mean, you have to admit, these constellations have incredibly boss names. While my attempt to spy the Neowise comet failed, my expedition meant leaving the house at 10 PM to walk to a nearby park that gave a better view of the northern part of the sky where for the first time in years I looked at Ursa Major, the Big Dipper. For a moment my mind drifted back in time to Terra Nova National Park where we always spent evenings staring up at the sky to find both Ursa Major and Minor directly above our heads. If you slouched in your plastic and aluminum lawn chair and let your head loll back and your eyes drink in the night sky you would be rewarded with awe inducing moments of seeing meteorites sparking through the atmosphere mingled with a floating ember from the campfire.

My streak of stars seen from Earth came to an end last night when I sallied out to Sherbourne Common to spy the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter and the Sturgeon Moon, August’s full moon. A day of rain and cloud cover meant inky clouds blanketed the sky and the only lights to be seen were those reflected from the city below. Occasionally, the moon could be seen behind the clouds it backlit like a dance club Klieg light but only momentarily. Still, it made for a stunning reveal like a burlesque dancer showing an icy white leg from behind an ostrich feather fan.

Right now there’s a gloomy light of a heavy thunderstorm passing over the Lake. Thunder in the distance sounds like a muted prairie train rolling along. I’ve opened all the windows to let the cool ionized air permeate the house. The summer heat has relinquished to damp coolness that is as refreshing as any iced drink. See? Sometimes you have to enjoy what the Universe gives you. At the moment, that’s a rainy afternoon and a pizza in the oven. Cheers to you, Universe.

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