Hmm Weekly for July 21, 2020

Weeks away and hundreds of miles up a river and plugged straight into Tuesday.

OBSERVATORY DEP’T.

Tailing the Comet

I WAS FULLY prepared to be thwarted by comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE). The idea that celestial phenomena are fleeting or disappointing was planted in me very young, probably from my reading a short story about a boy going out with a grandparent to try and fail to see a spectacular shower of Leonids. It was an odd little story, in a way that stuck with me: written for young readers but treated as real literary fiction, with an adult dissatisfaction at the heart of it. In the story, the meteor shower was an event that would only come around at an interval of decades, and when the narrator, seeing a sky full of clouds, threw a tantrum about how long it would be until he would have another chance to see one, he was chastened by the fact that his grandparent would never get another chance at all. 

The fact that Halley’s Comet was a dud didn’t help. I don’t even know if I saw it, the most famous comet of all. I know we tried; I remember going to the community college campus, where my friend Dwayne’s dad, whose day job was as an Army weapons engineer, was operating a big telescope for the public to look through, but I can’t recall whether I struggled to see a crappy little blur or I never even saw that much. Dwayne and his older brothers played center one after the other for the high school basketball team and his father was taller than all of them. Some summer after that, I had an internship with him on the Army base, and he set me to work building a simplified solar system in Pascal and modeling Earth–Moon Lagrange points in it. Lagrange points are the places where the gravitational influences of two bodies and their orbital speeds balance out so that a third body will stay in a fixed position relative to them. Who knows what the Army was thinking of putting out there? Al Gore later on proposed putting a camera out in a Lagrange point, pointed at the Earth, so we could watch our own planet from a distance as it turned. This was less exciting when you realized the implications, spectacle-wise, of the fact that it takes 24 hours for the Earth to spin around once; nevertheless, Al Gore’s internet tells me now that the project got cancelled and uncancelled and the camera finally did get out there. You can look at the images right here

NEOWISE sounded just accessible enough to try for. The first advice I read about finding it said it was supposed to be visible in the east, in the predawn hours, but the predawn hours are brutally early at this time of year, and we’re in a west-facing apartment on the West Side. Then I saw that it was also due to start showing up in the evening sky, which seemed more achievable. If we went down by the river, we might get a clear shot. 

We tried twice, and got nothing. I paid $9.99 to download a more advanced star-guide app than the free one we’d been using, and we brought along some binoculars on our after-dinner constitutional. The app showed NEOWISE low in the sky—low enough to maybe be behind the tallish buildings in New Jersey, or worse yet behind the bluffs the tallish buildings stood on—and even if we had the right angle, clouds kept showing up in that one part of the sky that mattered. 

App’s-eye view

But the comet was supposed to be getting higher in the sky each night, even if it was also getting more faint. One evening, I checked the app at my bedroom window and discovered that, according to the chart, NEOWISE should have been in an unobstructed patch of sky, off to the right, above the low twin pyramids of the roof of an apartment building a few blocks uptown and west. I cut the lights and searched the spot, rolling the binoculars’ focus knob back and forth so the silhouetted pyramids sharpened and blurred. I could see the lights of inbound planes, one at time, heading for Newark, but nothing any more distant than that. No comet, not even a single star or planet. Light pollution hung in the air. We were trapped in the city, and the city was no place for seeing the night sky.

Then, a few nights later, a friend in Wisconsin mentioned that he’d gone to see the comet with his kids. I told him about our bad luck, and how there weren’t really any stars to be seen. He confirmed my suspicion—it was dimmer than the main stars in the Big Dipper, he wrote. And I certainly hadn’t been able to make out the Dipper under our conditions. 

But that meant that I now had a frame of reference, in theory. If I ever could see the Big Dipper, it might be possible to see the comet. That very night, thunderstorms were supposed to come, but they didn’t. The west was clear. I darkened the bedroom and waited with the kids, letting my eyes adjust. After a long while, I could see a single yellow star high overhead to the left, above the tower we used to live in. I tried to identify it via app, but my eyes were too old to read the dimmed words on the screen while aiming the phone at the star. 

We kept looking as the night got darker. Suddenly, I could see other stars—the frame of the Big Dipper, straight ahead, dangling near vertically. It must have been 30 degrees out of alignment with where the app said it would be on the landscape. But it was there in the actual sky, and NEOWISE was supposed to be straight below the top front corner of the dipper’s bowl. I found that star with the binoculars and scanned down and up. A whitish smudge went by. I went back, found it, and held it. It was too fuzzy to be a star. I’d found the comet. 

Could I share it? The children were clambering around in the dark, on the turned-off air conditioning unit, as the room heated up. I moved the binoculars straight up and down: directly below the comet was another building top, striped vertically with lighter and darker stone ridges. I handed off the binoculars. Find the striped building, I said. Go straight up until you see the star, then come back down again, slowly. It worked immediately for the younger boy, then, with a little more coaching, the older one got it too. They had seen the comet. 

Later I put children’s short story trying to see leonids into Google and got it right away: “The Night of the Leonids.” It turned out to be by E.L. Konigsberg, the author of the immortal and canonical From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The short story collection was out of print, but was available for $6.99 as a Kindle ebook. The ebook was full of messed-up spacing and the illustrations looked like bad photocopies and Amazon seemed to have somehow lost page 15 altogether, but there was the story, meeting me again after maybe 40 turns around the sun. 

I’d thought the grandparent was the narrator’s grandfather, but it was his grandmother. The Leonid viewing was in Central Park, which would have only been some place in stories to me, if that, at the time. I forgot that the grandmother was mad enough to hit him for whining about missing the meteor shower, but the hitting was still incidental to the knowledge that his grandmother had missed it forever and that he’d been a jerk about it. The next Leonid peak is supposed to be in 2034. NEOWISE won’t be back for 6,800 years. There are two meteor showers peaking next week, though, if you look for them. 

Another Week, Another Hmm Weekly

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ADVICE DEP’T.

Ask The Sophist

Dear The Sophist,
J. Crew is in financial trouble. I'm sure they're counting every penny. And yes, their clothes have been overpriced for years, but they are still pretty good clothes for those of us who can't afford to go to fancy tailors like we're Carl Reiner (RIP) in Ocean's Eleven. Recently, I ordered a J. Crew shirt, but the shirt never arrived. I emailed customer service and they issued an immediate refund (very polite). Two weeks later, the shirt magically appeared. Tried it on. Did not like it. The return shipping fee is $7. I don't want to keep a shirt I'll never wear, but also don't want to pay a return fee. Would it be OK to donate it to a preppy charity?

Sincerely,
Don't Wanna Get Shirty

Dear Post-Prep,
Speaking of clothing sales, I'm going to take a moment here to complain about online promotions that offer "up to" 60 percent off or whatever. There are so many genuine price-slashing promotions in the inbox—40 percent off everything, 50 percent off everything—that the partial-sale "up to" pitch does nothing but generate ill will. If I click that link, any discount I see that's less generous than the full 60 percent feels like a ripoff. 

I felt justified in taking a little time and space to vent about that because I have almost nothing to add to your entirely appropriate judgment of your shirt situation. J. Crew is not merely "in financial trouble"—it's in bankruptcy protection. At the moment, it is not even an overpriced preppy clothing business, but a meta-business whose purpose is to rearrange the assets and debts accumulated in the past process of selling overpriced preppie clothes, so that someday it may go back to selling overpriced preppie clothes. This may have had something to do with its inability to send you the shirt on time (though that may also have been a result of the ongoing sabotage of the Postal Service). 

You were not really a customer but a creditor, and you settled up and got your money back. The last thing J. Crew needs under the circumstances is to have to deal with a shirt they had already written off. Even many retailers that aren't in bankruptcy have quietly given up on the hassle of processing and repackaging returns, so they just send them to the garbage dump instead. Returning the shirt would be a waste of your own money, of the delivery company's fuel, and of the shipping workforce's labor. It would be better for everyone involved, and for the planet, if you threw the shirt in the trash. Donating it to charity is, relatively speaking, an act of heroism. 

Remember, grosgrain is also for hanging medals with,
The Sophist

The Sophist is here to tell you why you're right. Send your questions to AskTheSophist@hmmweekly.com, and get the answers you want.

THOUGHT DEP’T.

Do you have a thought? Send it to hmmweekly@hmmweekly.com.

SPORT DEP’T.

Attempts to defeat the censorship feature on the YOUR NAME HERE interface for Men's Baltimore Orioles Nike White Home 2020 Replica Custom Jersey

A tip of the cap to Twitter’s @dankois for ASYMPTOMATIC, originally depicted on a Washington Nationals jersey, not reproduced here.

UNRANKED LISTS DEP’T.

A Selection Of Good and Fun Product Names For Marijuana Products On Offer At State Licensed Cannabis Dispensaries In Baltimore, Maryland
  • Bubba Kush

  • Clementine X Amnesia Haze

  • Gorilla Girl

  • Moby Dick

  • Motor Breath

  • Superglue

  • Thunderwookie

  • Trainwreck

A Selection Of Bad And Dumb Names Of Marijuana Products On Offer At State Licensed Marijuanaries In Baltimore, Maryland
  • Agent Orange

  • Code Hazard

  • Dixie

  • Poison

  • Raspberry Cough

  • Ray Charles

  • Tainted Love (Untrimmed)

SANDWICH RECIPES DEP’T.

WE PRESENT SELECT recipes from the leviathan and encyclopedic 1896 edition of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, by Fannie Merritt Farmer, Principal of the Boston Cooking-School.

Russian Sandwiches.
Spread zephyrettes with thin slices of Neufchatel cheese, cover with finely chopped olives moistened with Mayonnaise Dressing. Place a zephyrette over each and press together.

Jelly Sandwiches.
Spread zephyrettes with quince jelly and sprinkle with chopped English walnut meat. Place a zephyrette over each and press together.

Cheese Wafers.
Sprinkle zephyrettes with grated cheese mixed with a few grains of cayenne. Put on a sheet and bake until the cheese melts.

If you make one of these sandwiches, before you eat it, please won’t you send a picture to hmmweekly@substack.com.

HMM WEEKLY IS written by Tom Scocca, editor, and Joe MacYournamehere, creative director. If you enjoy Hmm Weekly, please let a friend know about it! If you're reading this because someone forwarded it to you, go ahead and sign up for a copy of your own right now.
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