What I Learned from the Road IV

My time in South Africa has been one of constant adjustment, of intentionally holding doors open in order that they do not prematurely shut; and sometimes being surprised by those which present themselves without even the sound of a key being inserted nor the turning of the knob.

The beach has become my home. It’s daily redesign by wind and water presents a new realm to explore. I no longer find the need to move from place to place, for each day there is something new unfolded before me.

Massive piles of kelp appear overnight while some mornings bring a scattering of snails, blue bottles, or sharp, black shells. What would require a labour force of hundreds of pairs of human hands coupled with powerful engines, scoops, and locomotion is undone in a matter of hours by the liquid fingers of the wave, tumbled foam, and gravity.

Sometimes the ocean brings a baby seal onto shore, separated from its mother, abandoned for reasons unknown, or orphaned by the success of the sharks which reside just past the surfers’ backline. The seal swims onto the beach, is rolled by the next wave, and while curious about the human lookers on, any approach is met by its bark and retreat.

Unfortunately, it is not only the sharks that torment these young, for humans too seem to share a propensity for harming those things which should be left alone. Last month a surfer rescued a baby seal not from the sharks, but from kids who kicked it and threw stones while it moved along the shore. It seems respect for life is gained only after our oni hernet curiosity about death is explored.

As when I lived at Buffalo Ranch in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, I have again learned to shape my day based upon what happens out of doors. The weather, the motion of the sea, the rise and fall of the tide. Running, surfing, or swimming based upon what is presented, but combined, a daily routine that carries me from week to week, month to month, for nearly a year.

I have learned to find joy in a place that is not always easy for me.

I have learned to find comfort in the waves that once scared me.

I am again learning to accept what I am given for a day, knowing it may be gone the next.

Here, on the southern tip of the African continent, even if for a short time, I have found home.

St. James Tide Pool

Kai Staats: St. James Tide Pool A day of good intentions started at 7 AM. After five days of editing the LIGO film, hour after hour sitting on my back side, it seems a day of simply re-organising, of catching up was in order. I sorted hundreds of photos and some documents, conducted a full computer backup (minor backups conducted every Friday evening), and then ventured to the St. James Bay tide pool.

One of the perks of living here is a two minutes walk to the waves, surf board under arm. But on those days which are overcome by wind (November through January), the St. James Bay tide pool offers a respit, warm(er) water, and the company of hundreds of families from across this part of Cape Town.

After lunch, I walked the fifteen minutes to the tide pool for a swim. I asked a local stranger to watch my bag which contained only my shoes, towel, and shirt. It is simply too easy for things to be stolen here.

I swam across the pool and pulled myself up onto the wall. I sat next to a man who introduced himself, our backs to the ocean and feet dangling in the protected water. At just one and a half meters deep, I was astounded by the dives the local kids were performing. I would have cracked my head open if I were to have attempted these–but they have a trick, a kind of ‘spring’ in their upper body which releases when they hit the water. No matter how high they jump or how far they twist, roll, and dive, they enter the water nearly flat, compressed, and then open on impact. This keeps them from hitting bottom. The guy who was watching my bag promised to teach me when I returned.

One of my classmates from Madagascar swam up while we were talking. I had seen her coming, but did not recognise her with only her backside to the sky. I joked, “Not to hard to find the white guy in this crowd, huh?” She laughed. The man to my right noted, “It’s funny, eh, how each beach, each place has a majority. This is where the coloured and some blacks go. But just over there, at the next bay, the beach is almost all white. And back at Muizenberg, you have your white tourists and a mixture of locals. But it is a good mix, there.”

He was right. It’s strange how that happens. Comfort in the familiar.

We discussed comfort zones, independent of colour. I commented on how much personal space I grew up with, never in a crowd but for certain occassions. He laughed, “In Africa, you are always near someone. You are always in a crowd. If you leave, you miss the energy and want to come back.” The same could be said for all big cities, for Africa has many small towns and villages with open space. Yet here, people are more … visible, not indoors nearly as much. I told him about the fist time I returned from Kenya to Colorado. I felt I had come upon the scene of a nuclear holocaust sci-fi, everyone hiding or obliterated.

Indeed, there were hundreds of individuals, yet there were maybe a handful of whites, only two of us in the water. It’s part of what I love about living here. My comforts have changed considerably, what I find normal was, perhaps, even uncomfortable at one time.

Yet yesterday was the opposite, for among the thousands who attended the “Hot Water” concert (which was astounding), the number of black people could be counted on two hands.

Time to edit, edit, edit … LIGO awaits.

The man in the seal suit

During my run this morning, I came across a dead seal rolled onto the beach by the waves. I touched it, to see if it was yet warm. But it was cool and slightly bloated. I recognized the opportunity to learn more about this animal, one I had never encountered this closely before.

I spread its front flippers and counted the fingers contained within the webbing. Five, just like mine, with what I believe are the same number of joints. Its rear flippers have toe nails. Not flat like ours, but tubular like a dog. Some just barely pressing through the skin, others nearly an inch in length.

The wave came in and rolled the seal higher than lower on the beach again. The seal was presented anew.

I bent the fingers at each joint, making a fist the size of my own. I was amazed at the similarities, the distance between knuckles nearly identical on the lower digits. Thin, strong bones suspended in a cape of black felt, cool to the touch in this inanimate form.

So very familiar. I half expected a small man to jump out from the suit.

The nose is so much like the snout of a dog, with stiff whiskers and familiar teeth. Large eyes left open when the life no longer occupied this creature, alone on the beach.

Best Feature Apple has to Offer

While my dedication to Apple hardware is all but dwindled, the quality of hardware undermined by lack of any upgrade path, there is a valuable feature of the firmware which enables a total system copy and restoration.

This is perhaps the most underutilised, little known feature of Apple computers. Interested? Follow these instructions:

1) Attach the USB drive and make certain it shows up.

2) Reboot the computer. The moment you hear the chime, press and hold the ALT key.

3) A simple graphical interface will appear with what should be 3 or more icons. 2 of which will be for your internal drive, 1 or more for the USB.

4) Using the cursor controls, choose the “RECOVERY” partition of your internal drive and hit ENTER or the button at the bottom.

5) Select your language.

6) Select “DISK UTILITY” (see screenshot.png)

7) Select the icon on the left which is your internal drive.

8) Select “RESTORE” from the upper-right of the 3-4 options. This drive should now be in the SOURCE entry.

9) Drag the icon for the USB drive to the DESTINATION entry.

In this step, you can backup to a partition on the backup USB drive and ONLY replace the partition. This is what I do. But that would be ONLY if the backup drive is substantially larger than the internal drive and you don’t want to waste the space.

Else, if the 2 drives are closely matched, then select the primary (not indented) and see what happens. It may reject it. In which case you simply use the indented instead. It will rename that partition anyway, to match the drive it is copied from.

10) Double-check that the SOURCE is your internal drive and that the DESTINATION is the external, USB drive. Else, you will wipe-out your entire computer. Not good.

11) Press RESTORE and accept the warning for total doom.

12) Between 35 minutes and an hour and a half later, your computer will have made a complete, bootable copy.

What’s more, the external USB drive will now have 2 partitions, one which is a bootable copy of your internal drive, and the other a RECOVERY partition. When next you conduct this backup, you will again boot from the internal RECOVERY partition, not that of the external USB drive, just to play it safe (and it is faster).

Partner in Time

Cities have never given me comfort. I find the visual arena less than compelling, a clear example of the human species’ inability to plan beyond a few years at a time. In the audible arena, it is overwhelming. The constant drone of traffic, sirens, and construction is enough to drive anyone to commit a heinous crime.

Yet, I realise, I am in the minority. Some ninety percent of the population of the planet lives within high density populations and not only survive, but apparently thrive.

We adapt reactively far better than we do proactively develop.

I am both enjoying my social interactions and at the same time lonely here in Cape Town, in a way that I am just now coming to understand. I enjoy direct human interaction, day to day, week to week. Yet, the conversations seldom last long enough to garner what I feel is a deepening relationship for any given topic. The pace of life in the city is one that forces us to carve a few minutes here and there into lumps which may or may not span an hour such that we press against the momentum of a machine of our own blind design in order to stand still long enough to simply … talk.

I miss corded telephones. I may have a mobile phone at my side, but the telephone was once a device which demanded a kind of concentration on conversations that found depth through time. In this African standard pay-as-you-go market, no one can afford that luxury. The mobile phone encourages multi-tasking, not good listening. SMS and WhatsApp are now the de facto means of communication, incomplete, written sentences with conveyed attempts at emotion have all but replaced the sound of a human voice.

I often return an SMS with a phone call, in order to conduct a proper conversation, only to receive an answerig service. I am successful in that I enjoy the recording of a human voice, but the thumbs which conveyed an SMS just moments earlier were apparently exhausted, unable to execute the required swipe and press of just one more virtual button.

I recall, as a child, staying up late into the night at the side of my childhood friend Chris Boernke. We were at her parents’ home in semi-rural South Dakota, not far from Rapid City. Our families, four and four, two sisters in their clan, two brothers in mine, would come together a few times a year for a long weekend.

After a day of hiking and home cooked dinner served between thick, wood beam walls whose sap, in places, yet ran, we talked. I could hear the murmur of my parents speaking upstairs from where I sat with Chris. My brother Jae and Chris’ sister Melissa were already asleep. Chris and I told ghost stories authored on the spot. We spoke of California sliding into the sea and of a future in which humans would live on another planet.

We sat side by side. I could feel the heat of her body, but as we were just kids, holding hands, even leaning against each other was not a consideration. We talked. For hours. In a darkness in which we could not discern other’s faces, we shared things we would never express if our eyes were visible to each other.

Sometimes it is the silent visual domain and opaque sound space that gives us the freedom to be present in a moment. Sometimes it is doing nothing that enables a future in which everything is possible.

I have too many times these past six months experienced days and weeks as though only hours had passed. Friends and associates claim this is age, that it happens to us all. I argue instead it is the age of expectation which drives time at the end of a whip, not a leash.

I know where one can return to that space and time, that domain in which time slows again.

Where asphalt and concrete are but reflections lost to a glow on the horizon and the rumble of traffic is replaced with the audible crumble of a gravity bound stream, falling over and over again, time too takes notice and relaxes its pace.

I may yet purchase a car while living here, if for no other reason than to visit a friend when the last train has retreated to the other end of the line. Or I will continue to call, at the expense of my mobile minutes, hoping for an answer.

But I prefer a night soon spent, side by side a nearly invisible partner, engaged in conversation in which time takes us to a multi-verse. California is an island retreat, ghosts are haunted by humans, and we return from an interstellar voyage with tales of far away places waiting to be explored.

There, in the silence of darkness unperturbed by the reminder of time, will the minutes become hours and hours days, and the city is but a relic of one’s fading memory.

A Night Beneath the Stars

Kai Staats: south pole from Sutherland Kai Staats: 20" telescope at Sutherland

Last night I sat alone, on the flattop remnant of an ancient volcanic intrusion, it’s hardened crust resisting erosion moreso than the surrounding terrain. This is where the telescopes reside, spaceships that travel millions of light years but never leave the launching pad.

I sat on a folded blanket, three layers on top, two on the bottom. The air was perfectly still, the sky dark overhead. I read the latest novel by sci-fi master Ben Bova while pressing the shutter on my camera, via remote, over 200 times. Each exposure was 20 seconds long, capturing the SALT observatory silhouetted against the centre of the galaxy.

Satisfied I had captured enough for a timelapse animation, I repacked my camera, book, water, nuts, and blanket and walked along the paved road to the observatory which houses the 20″ telescope on which I have been training. Pierre was conducting his observation run, and doing research into which objects we might photograph the following night.

The moon was rising when I departed, visiting the two astronomers in the 1.9m observatory. Danika, a Ph.D. student from Serbia training under her professor from Australia.

I had left my camera running, a long exposure at low ISO to capture star trails behind the SALT observatory.

Ever time I step into an observatory dome, I am overcome with a sense of childhood thrill, the kind that Jae and I likely shared when we built a fort in our shared bedroom, made of card tables and blankets and flash lights, or when as a child I first visited NASA JPL and saw the Galileo spacecraft under construction.

For me, the observatory has this kind of mind-expanding capacity, for it reaches to the night sky and receives photons from distant galaxies each with billions of stars, massive explosions closer to home, and of the stuff that gives foundation to the formation of planets which may be home to inquisitive creatures looking back at us.

The telescopes are tremendous achievements of engineering and design. There is an incredible sense of accomplishment when you one move, a 3-story, multi-ton creature of iron, steel, and glass as graceful as a dancer; as accurate as a laser.

Like astronauts, the astronomers reside in a small, cramped quarters monitoring the light received by the telescope just outside. Following each observation, one rises, slips through the door which isolates the telescope from their heat and light, to adjust the direction the instrument is pointing.

Returning to their seat, warm cup of tea or coffee or hot chocolate, the music, conversation, and observation resume.

Night after night, week after week, across the planet, thousands of individuals dedicate their sleepless hours to gathering data which helps us better understand our world.

Return to the Karoo

Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa

Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa

Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Just outside of Sutherland, South Africa, a small town like so many others yet recovering from the effects of the apartheid era, lies the primary site of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO).

At 1800 meters elevation, this plateau hosts a wide variety of observatories, including Africa’s largest telescope, SALT (South Africa Large Telescope). The area surrounding the site is an extension of the Greater Karoo desert, in the high western Roggeveld Mountains.

Astronomers visit the SAAO Sutherland site from around the world. The U.S., Germany, France, Poland, Korea, Australia, Japan and many more are annually represented.

As with all professional astronomical sites, distance from large cities and light pollution is imperative. This lends itself to a place that can be challenging for those who feign relative isolation, and a safe haven for those who crave places where man-made inventions do not overwhelm the senses.

Kai Staats: Sutherland, South Africa Today, my first day on site, I packed a bottle of water, jacket, and camera and set out on foot to explore. The upper reaches of the site feed a wide water drainage. To one side of the shallow canyon there exists a broken sandstone canyon wall which caught my attention last year, when conducting interviews for “The Explorers“.

What I discovered brought me back to who I am, camera in hand, watching, listening, discovering. Lichen, moss, armoured locusts, and piles of bones. The rusted wire fence lines alone captured my attention for half an hour. The warm sun and brisk wind did battle for command of the weather while I oscillated between overheating and feeling chilled despite my thermal layer.

Kai Staats: Milky Way over Sutherland, SA  
Where the wind-blown, sun-baked desert
meets myriad firey stars,
A yet stagnant, earth-bound species
contemplates worlds it may one day explore.

Of Mars and the Moon

I dreamed I was part of a mission to Mars.

Long, flowing landscapes of golden orange, grey, and tiny slivers of silver and blue.

I wanted to walk for days, for months, turning over stones, peeking beneath every ledge, peering into the deep valleys. I was as intersted in the shadows as I was the sunlit scapes and dunes.

I was the crew photographer, but reprimanded for not taking quality photos.

Too soon, we had to leave.

We stopped at the Moon on the return to Earth. Cold, barren, drab in contrast to Mars.

We stayed only for an afternoon.

I brought my lenses, but left the camera behind.

The adventure of a lifetime, come and gone.

The Run

Morning fog mixes with city pollution, the heavy haze filters the sun through white and brown.

Eager surfers wade into shallow water, others stretch, meditate, and welcome the sun.

A woman who each morning wears only a one-piece suit, no matter the weather, has already finished her routine swim.

Car park attendees tote florescent yellow striped vests over three layers of winter garb, waiting simultaneously for the heat of the sun and for the first patrons to arrive. Mercedes, BMW, Toyota and Ford. For me, barefoot in shorts and a T-shirt, this is a warm day spring day in Colorado.

On the beach, my bare feet press into the soft sand where the high tide delivered seaweed and shells hours before. Poorly paid employees of an unseen entity will labour in dress shoes and slacks to remove the undesirable debris.

I bend forward, barely able to reach my ankles, let alone toes. I welcome the pain that cascades through muscle in my back, shoulders, and lower legs. Heavy eyelids yet sleeping are flushed of excess blood, made lighter and more awake.

I commit to a half dozen simple moves borrowed from yoga, wondering if those who never stretch feel more or less ready for the run. As though my arms grew longer, or my legs less, I reach my toes, even press fingers into the sand.

In response to an invisible gun, I turn East and run.

Quick, light strides. The cool breeze at my back, my chest is a sail.

The front of my feet displace the quartz crystals, heels seldom leaving a mark. Head up, shoulders back, chest out. I look forward and around, the view compelling.

To my right the waves tumble over one another, competing to reach the shore. A half dozen attempts and then one spills over the others and well past where they had arrived before.

Feet, ankles, and lower legs now wet with salt tell me if the current comes from East or West, the temperature this day relatively warm.

I reach the first estuary outlet. Surface ripples the colour of tea reflect its depth. Soft waves of sand mirror those on the surface, the water only knee deep this time. I recall stream crossings in Colorado, Alaska, and Washington State, face upstream, and shuffle side to side to keep my balance.

Picking my way through the sharp shells deposited for a dozen meters on the other side, I again drop into my runner’s pace. Hard packed sand gives rebound to my mass for as much as it softens my stride.

The path before me is the one I have taken many times, and yet it is rebuilt twice with each orbit of the Moon around the Earth. I feel selfish, the labour of unseen hands prepare for me a totally new route for every run.

Perhaps someone will notice I have not renewed my membership to this facility, yet this morning I am unchallenged by those who claim payment due. Another kind of runner yet lies dormant in narcotic slumber.

Nearly four kilometres finds me at the second estuary outlet, a deeper, wider channel I have not yet attempted to cross. Its odour is strong, deep red from the natural oils of the local fauna or pollution I do not know.

I pause to enjoy the way in which the dunes have been reshaped over and over again. What was a meter high wall of sand just at the ocean’s edge is now a hundred meters wide, sickle shaped inlet whose serpentine channel moves brackish water in both directions.

Turning, I scan the dunes for potential confrontation, lean forward and begin the return. Conscious of my form, I open and close my hands, roll my shoulders, and make arcs with my arms. When my feet grow weary, heels again contacting sand, I emphasize the arc of my legs, draw knees higher, and increase my gate.

After the water crossing I am but several hundred meters from the bath house. More surfers have arrived. Instructors in pink and blue shirts over wet suits lead students to beach-side instruction. Lying on their belly they practice strokes.

I learn forward to pick up my pace, nearly double what was. Two hundred meters later I shift to my highest gear, pumping arms at my sides with knife blade hands slicing air. Bare feet force water to spray which soaks my shorts and lower shirt. Tender skin warms on the bottom of my feet. My lungs are pleased to meet the challenge and inhale larger, rhythmic volumes of moist atmosphere. My concerns for the day vanish as I am momentarily given the freedom of flight.

As the water moves from left to right, forward and back, the apparent speed at which I fly doubles then stalls and resumes.

Homeless men and women who have just finished bathing stop to look as I drop back to a jog just shy of their morning, temprary abode. I consider the luxury I have in my health and time to afford such a thing, knowing a warm shower awaits me behind locked door, key, and dry room.

When the Coyote Calls, The Gathering

“I don’t believe this is a good idea Lion,” stated Bear.

“It is the only way,” she responded.

“He may not understand. He may not understand the reason, our intent.”

“Then you must help him to understand, when it is done.”

“How?” asked Bear?

“Talk to him. He trusts you. You know him.”

“But he will feel betrayed.”

“Yes. At first. But he will come to understand,” said Lion.

“I don’t know,” shaking his wide head, “I just don’t know.”

Coyote shuffled his paws, pulling at the back of the right front to remove something from the fur with his teeth. He did not look up, apparently uninterested in the conversation.

Bear said, “Coyote?”

Coyote paused, hesitated, and then looked up, “No amigos, es not for me to say. I will bring him to you. Si, es what I will do. No mas.”

Bear shook his head again, frustrated with Coyote’s response.

None of the three said anything for some time. A small but heavy cloud momentarily blocked the sun and the temperature fell. A breeze shook the cottonwood leaves, a coordinated ensemble sustained for just a few moments. The smell of looming rainfall touched each of them.

Bear was the first to speak again, “Ok. It is the only way. And when it is done, I will be there.” He stopped, looked to Coyote and Lion, to the cloud overhead which would soon give way to the heat of the sun, and concluded, “I just wish there was another way.”

Coyote was alert again, looking up from the back of his paw, “Muy bien amigos. I go now?”

Lion responded, “Always eager for the chase, aren’t you?”

Coyote did not respond, but stood, stretched, and without a word, trotted down the trail, in the direction of the meadow and cabin.

“Now, we wait,” said Bear.