Friday, September 7, 2012

Blue Moon

An August dedicated to the backyard grilling, Berkshires hikes, and blue moon watching.
We’ll start with the last. On the night of the recent full moon, the second of the month in August therefore qualifying it for the title of “blue moon” – an explanation that does not in any way account for the notion of "blue" – we are driving into the city center to check out the new Indian restaurant when a large round circle of mysteriously reflected sunlight nosed up from the rooftops and smacked us in the eye. (Supply the rhyme here.) We parked the car and went inside the restaurant, but the image remained in our minds, or, perhaps, our “mind’s eye.”
The next night, hard upon another vacation-month restaurant experience, three of us watched sunset darken into twilight, shading the windows, and roused ourselves from our postprandial stupor to drive down to the Wollaston shoreline and look for our big, round orange friend. I was guessing when it would appear. There is a notation in the daily newspaper called “moonrise” that would have given me a darn good guesstimate, but I preferred relying on experience.
Experience guided us to the right place along the waterfront to see the moonrise and enjoy the moonshine reflecting off the ocean water. But I was somewhat late on the actual unveiling moment, and la luna was a couple of moon-size circles up over the South Shore horizon by the time we glimpsed it.
No matter; stunning. A clear night. We hoisted ourselves up on the wall, sat and gazed.
Passersby doing the beach sidewalk perambulation kept stopping, leaning on the wall and pulling out their cameras. Phone cameras; bigger fancier cameras – these folks came prepared. While others snapped, we debated whether the moon looked winsome, shy, self-conscious, or a little sardonic. Or some combination of mental states that only four billion years of looking down on the earth and its confusion of inexplicable doings could produce.
Things go up and down with us. The moon is more reliable.
Traditionally, of course, the moon has been regarded by as mutable – both the poets and the ancients agreed – in contrast to the sun, which doesn’t change its shape from day to day. But the moon’s habits are obsessively regular. These constantly remarked upon shape-changings can be predicted with great success.
Unfortunately, however, most of us don’t understand the behavior on which these fabulously accurate predictions are based. After all, you have a flashlight glowing on an orange, which airborne fruit turns around itself like a third-grader trying to make himself dizzy (“No, Marvin, you’re the sun!”); and another orange, or is it a grapefruit, also spinning around itself (how exactly is it possible to spin around one’s own middle?) on its axis (“Class, can we say axis?”) – as if that explains anything.
Do you have an axis? Do I? Neither my house, my car, my computer or even my dizzy cat appears to spin about on an axis, defined as an invisible line running down its middle. Astronomy, it appears, is the science of invisible lines. However it happened, the moon is different from you and me – appositely defined by the poet Donne as “dull, sublunary beings” – and is subject to heavenly forces we can only imagine.
Okay, back to the flashlight and the oranges. One of the oranges, pretend it’s the moon, is pirouetting around its own middle (unlikely story though that is), while simultaneously tiptoeing around a much large body, which somehow turns out to be the earth (heaven knows why); which body (the earth) is also turning around the middle of itself, elsewise we would not have night and day. Remember what we said about the “axis,” class? Well, think how tired you’d get if it was always daytime and be glad of this axis, whatever it is.
Besides, since, as we’ve established, night happens, we have plenty of time to appreciate the moon, which lately is beaming down at us hour after hour these end-of-the-month nights all full of itself. This, of course, returns us to the questions of why we get the full picture of lunar contentment sometimes (though exactly predictable times) and only half of it others, and only thin little slices at still others, called “crescents,” as if they were French pastry.
The answer, as I recall being taught, has to do with the reflection – uh, the angle – or the earth’s shadow – I mean the dark side – oh, well, with lots of other invisible lines whose relationships to one another, eerily predicted by big cosmic factors whose names I can’t remember, and finally to little old you and me who are standing on a continually rotating celestial object, not to mention a revolving one as well – and, well, no wonder the whole thing makes me dizzy.
My daughter and I stare up at the full moon making orange-glow moonshine on the ocean waters, each of us absolutely sure that we have competently addressed this phenomenon on a written examination in our respective Astronomy classes many years ago (in my case; a considerable time ago in hers). It’s a humbling thing to realize how little of one’s expensive education actually stays with one.
We make up for this lapse of academic insight by sitting on the stern of the Provincetown ferry all the way home the next evening, staring up at the stunning and still pretty damn full moon. There are other kinds of wisdom.