Goodbye Galen

Two nights ago, my uncle Galen passed away after a return of cancer. I have said all that needs to be said in a forum more appropriate than this, but he was a second father for me at times; I will miss him dearly.

What I loved most was his direct approach to life. He never held back what he thought. Direct. Even blunt. In our final conversation, just hours before he passed, there was again story telling and laughter.

I am going to miss that. Thank you.

When Nature Calls

Adriaan, Holy and I went to Natures Valley with the intent to camp for three nights, kayak, hike, and relax. The kayaking was wonderful, as we engaged in a guided tour of the shallow estuary, its tributaries, and hatcheries. We enjoyd a mid afternoon nap on the first day there followed by a fabulous dinner cooked over two camp stoves and an open fire.

But on the second evening, it began to rain.

That night, I woke to the realisation that the floor of my tent was holding back a substantial amount of water. I looked outside the door to find my shoes floating. By the time I sat up, put on my shorts, and threw the few loose items into my backpack, the water had risen over the waterproof portion of the tent and soaked my sleeping bag.

I yelled, “Adriaan! I think it is time to go!” He yelled back, “Yeah, I agree. Already packing!”

I raced from my tent to the back of his bukkie (truck). Holy was already in the camper shell, having escaped the drips on her face in their large, shared tent two hours prior. The water was up to the wheel wells but the started the engine. Adriaan drove off to make certain he could get the vehicle out.

The entire camp ground came to life. Car engines sputtered and choked. Horns and sirens sounded as electrical systems shorted. People drove and walked to the higher ground just outside the entrance. We were lucky, as our campsite was but 50 meters from the gate. I can’t imagine the effort those further into the camping ground and further downhill must have mustered to escape.

I pulled each corner of my tent from the ground, throwing it over my shoulder. I walked, barefoot, to the top of the road and found Adriaan, Holy, and the bukkie. We went back to get more of our things from their tent and the picnic table. By this time, we waded through water nearly to our waist.

We helped the neighbours escape as they had three children, the youngest of which could not have been a year old. Their car was on higher ground, the water to the undercarriage. They did not seem to recognize what they had to drive through to get out. We walked with their car to make certain they made it, their tent and some belongings left behind.

The water went down nearly as quickly as it had risen. We removed Adriaan’s tent and by 2 am were on the road again, soaked, chilled, and overwhelmed by all that had happened.

Adriaan drove all night. I slept in back, wrapped in a damp sleeping bag, Holy in front with the heater on high. The day went well, with a visit to the southern tip of Africa and then a national park just outside of Hermanus. There we dried our gear and enjoyed a four hours hike.

The next week, I was discussing the adventure with one of the astronomers at SAAO. He was there also, but arrived the next morning. When he and his family arrived, it appeared to be a war zone, downed trees piled across the bridge and riddled across the campground. Gear, tables, chairs, and toys scattered everywhere, soaked, snapped, or destroyed.

The sad truth, Petri explained, is that this happens every couple of years, yet there is not a single sign warning patrons of the possibility of flash flood.

Loggerhead Saved!

Kai Staats: turtle rescue This past Friday I walked to the beach for a short run and yoga session when a surfer walked up and handed me a Loggerhead hatchling, an incredibly small turtle.

I took him back to my apartment complex and knocked on my neighbour Hannah’s door. The look on her face was priceless when she said good morning, but then saw the turtle cupped in my hands.

It was 7:30 am. Hannah called the Two Oceans Aquarium which instructed us how to care for him (her?) until we could make it to town. We placed her on a dry towel inside a small tupperware container and drove to Town. The turtle become more and more listless, eventually not moving unless I touched his shell or front flippers. Even then, almost no reaction. I was afraid she was not going to make it.

Kevin, a marine biologist greeted me at the front counter. I was given a behind-the-scenes tour as we worked our way up a few flights of stairs to a room full of noisy compressors, filtration systems, and glass aquariums which contained a variety of rescued sea animals. One was a very large turtle which was blind in both eyes, but is apparently recovering.

Kai Staats: turtle rescue

Kevin washed the hatchling in fresh water, removed a barnacle, and then placed her in a deep plastic tray at the bottom of what will be his new home for the coming year. He filled up the tank with room temperature water which in turn heated his container.

Kevin explained that Loggerheads do not nest on this side of the continent, so far south for the water is far too cold. He was likely caught in the Indian ocean current that periodically warms False Bay (and Muizenberg beach). He was adrift for no less than two weeks. Only one in a thousand reach sexual maturity (17-33 years), and even then, they have very low reproductive rates.

Within just a few minutes, the turtle came back to life. I had forgotten how much reptiles are affected by the temperature of their surroundings. The cold Atlantic water and then dry, cool air in the car had slowed her down considerably.


I know you only by your silhouette.
Walking, running, dancing in the sea’s foam.

I know you only by your outline,
glowing against the rising sun.

I know you only by the shape
of what I hoped we’d become.

Live Long and Prosper

Mr. Spock

The death of Leonard Nimoy is moving for me. Nimoy was an actor who incorporated the essence of what the character Mr. Spock meant for him, into his every day life.

Having grown up with Star Trek re-runs, even ten years after they had aired (played at prime times throughout the ’70s), much of who I am and what I yet expect of our species was given foundation in that sci-fi TV series.

Perhaps it is a curse, to always compare where we are to where we thought we’d be, but even 100 years from now it seems the foundation of Nimoy’s character Spock will remain an important goal.

He continually strove for balance between the deeply rooted emotional, reactionary side of being a human and the reasoning which enables us to work together, to grow beyond our animal foundation and achieve what no one person can do alone.

Yes, live long and prosper. But more importantly, perhaps, find balance and thrive.

Only a surfer knows the feeling

The sun rises over the back-line, black silhouettes against the shimmering horizon. Sometimes, only shoulders or a head show, the full upper body of the surfers adjacent to me temporarily hidden in the rise and fall of the swell.

But this morning, the sea is nearly perfectly flat. Trapezoids suspended in a web of reflections are bound by shifting edges. They break and rebuild, again and again, each a fragmented mirror for the sparse clouds overhead.

Some days the water is turquoise blue. Others, a dark, river bottom red which gives the false appearance of a far thicker substance. The spring tide brings high water followed by broken shells, sea life, and the occasional body of an adult seal or lost, barking pup.

My legs below the knee are wrapped beneath my surfboard while my upper body constantly adjusts to the undulating water, stomach muscles tensing and relaxing to counter the shifting centre of gravity. Even after months of surfing, I yet find it difficult to bring my arms across my chest or to my front when sitting on a shorter board. Instead, my arms are at my sides, touching the surface of the water to maintain balance, a fluid equilibrium.

I look around me am reminded how new I am to this sport. The more adept sit upon far smaller boards, sometimes lying back as though in a reclining chair. Relaxed, they seem far more at ease. I keep reminding myself how far I have come since mid December, from total frustration to riding every wave I catch.

A poster in the window of a local surf shop caught my attention. A determined man, tangled hair high above his head, turns one hundred eighty degrees far above the crest of a wave. As I walked past I noticed the caption, white on blue, “Only a surfer knows the feeling.”

If to be a surfer is to know the feeling, then I will claim, even with such limited experience on board at sea, to be a surfer. As my instructor and friend William has said more elegantly, it is not just riding the waves that makes surfing so compelling, but the time spent between the runs, sitting on the board at the backline, watching the sun rise or clouds roll in

Some days, hours after I have come in from the water, showered, and transitioned to the confines of brick, mortar, and office walls, my chair feels as though it is in motion, rising, falling, and rising again. Inside my body, I undulate with the same rhythm. I nearly grasp the edge of my desk before I am returned to the reality of the moment, and look out the window to determine if the waves provide the ideal medium for my return.

I am learning to read the water in a way that I have not since I kayaked in Glacier Bay, Alaska for ten days, or when I spent a summer running rivers in Utah and Colorado. There is a subtlety to the sea’s motion that tells you the direction of the wind, if the tide is rising or falling, and sometimes its temperature too.

On the water, body prone, head lifted to see just inches above the tip of the board, the smallest of eddies toss and turn the prone, paddling surfer. One meter, two meter, three meter swells remind you how small, how incredibly minimal the mass of your body is against the tireless force.

Looking to the South, toward the backline, surfers seek breaks in the wave, places to pass such that less energy and time are wasted to gain the ideal position. For every wave, full or broken, you must choose a course of action. Dive beneath by shifting your body to the front of the board; lift your chest high to force the water to channel between you and the board; or flip upside-down, the board remaining on the surface, you beneath, only to right yourself again on the other side.

Long board, mini-Malibu, or fish–you must find the best spot to launch your campaign. Depending upon your board, fitness, and experience, you catch what is right for you.

I find my way to the back line, sometime with ease and grace, sometimes with an exhausting, twenty minute struggle, … sometimes not at all no matter how hard I paddle.

Last week, just before 7 am, the water was incredibly smooth, the swells minimal. As I paddled out to where a dozen surfers had already arrived, I noted the fins and bodies of dolphins rising and falling all around the boards. Everyone was talking in hushed tones, pointing. For more than fifteen minutes these sleek creatures moved in and around our human figures. Two women were furthest out, having tried to catch-up with the dolphins given their relatively slow pace.

The dolphins did not seem to mind, for they circled one or twice and surfaced right along side, less than two meters from the women on their boards. One surfer slipped off his board and dove as far as his leash would allow to get an underwater view of the pod.

It was, as I have heard people report, an emotionally charged encounter. I don’t believe they are healing nor necessarily incredibly intelligent as we have heralded without evidence for so long, but there is something beautiful about sharing the water with another mammal. It just feels … familiar.

The wind picked up, driving the small swells into proper wave faces, cresting and breaking in a nearly straight line. Muizenberg is ideal for learning in many ways, for you can walk out and ride in on most days. The only frustration is that the waves do not maintain a proper, clean face for long. You must get on fast, choose your direction, and allow the wave to pass beneath you when it collapses to foam.

I face out, looking beyond the backline where I rest. The swells grow over the course of a half hour. They begin to break close to the beach, the cheers of surfers catching the first waves of the morning carry to us and onto shore. It’s motivating, to witness the success of your companions.

Finally, one I believe I can ride. Sitting on the back third of my board, I spin to face the shore again, lying down quickly. I tap my toes against the very tail of the board to confirm my position given what I judge to be the vertical angle of the on-coming wave, adjust for balance, and paddle.

The sea rises slightly and with it, I rise too. I look to my right and see two meters of water behind and above me. I paddle three, for times more and then as my board tilts forward, throw my arms over my head at the same time for a few power strokes. To my right another, more experienced surfer catches the wave and is carried away as though some mighty creature chose him to carry to shore.

I, however, did not time my approach and missed the opportunity. Frustrated, I am reminded how much I have to learn. Unlike climbing or running which seem to dictate a fairly similar body type for success, surfers come in all shapes and sizes. Guys with bellies bigger than a pregnant woman do flips and turns while a white haired, arched-backed man clearly in his seventies catches every wave he intends. He is a regular, one I watch intently each morning we share.

My third try I am on the cusp, my board balanced just over the edge of the face of the wave. I look down into a well two, maybe two and a half meters deep. I throw my arms over and over, kicking my legs in the air to break the inertia and finally, I drop down the face at a tremendous speed. Quickly, I find my hands on the edges of the board, prop my chest high, confirm I am not about to run over anyone, and then spring onto my feet.

Leaning back, I allow the wave to catch-up (for many times, I am not yet quick enough to catch the wave properly), and then adjust my hips and shoulders and stance to ride what remains until it crumbles to foam.

On a good day, with long runs, I enjoy the simple accelleration, fine tuning my ability to gage the direction of the break and to stay on the face. For others, I am up for only ten, maybe fifteen seconds. On those short runs, I work on quicker turns and walking to the front of the board as the waves presses down on the back end.

As the poster says, “Only a surfer knows the feeling.” Falling, falling, falling–as long as the wave is moving forward, you are granted a liquid, perpetual motion machine.

Time just sitting at the backline. The potential sighting of a seal, dolphin, or shark. The sweet taste of the sea. The smell of atomised salt water in the gusts of wind. Even the hard pounding one can take in the face of large waves is part of my life now. I find it difficult to imagine moving back to the desert or high mountains where the ocean has not provided this kind of engagement for tens of millions of years.

Until the next opportunity, my body longs for the motion of the waves.

LIGO Generations

Funded by the National Science Foundation through the University of Mississippi, LIGO Generations shares the passion and the motivation of individuals who have worked for nearly three decades on a single science experiment. We engage in the stories of those who motivated a new branch of physics in order to prove the last piece of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and to hear the universe in a new way.

Read more …

A Daily Unfolding

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 inherent 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.

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.

Homeless in Cape Town, part V

Growing up as the son of a Lutheran pastor meant that our family was integrally involved in the Christmas season. There was planning and orchestration in preparation for the celebration. All of us played a part, while my father’s days were spent mostly away from home for the week preceding.

Being a part of the team that made it all work carried a sense of pride, in part because it was a church organisation, in part the theatrics themselves were not unlike a stage production.

When I was but 3 or 4 years of age my father built a wood and cardboard extension on the back of my tricycle. I rode this through the makeshift isles of folding chairs in Springfield, South Dakota, where my parents managed a Christian dormitory. I first distributed then collected the hymnals each Sunday morning.

More than a dozen years later, at Faith Lutheran in Phoenix, Arizona, I ran the lights, making certain they were dimmed at the right time for the candle light service. The pipe organ was one of the finest in Arizona, the fruition of my father’s effort to have it shipped, rebuilt, and installed. Often, I wished the Christmas service was without accompanying vocals, for the pipe organ alone was enough to invoke the desired emotion.

Christmas Eve was a busy time for us, but most of all for my father. He was at the church all day, preparing for the service while my mother, brother and I prepared food for dinner. Our tradition for this occasion evolved to include manicotti, a zesty, frozen fruit salad, spiced green beans, and a light desert. The aroma of apple cider spiced with cinnamon sticks, cloves, and an orange slice permeated the entire house.

We joined my father at church for the first service, then came home and waited for his later arrival to eat dinner. Back to church for the second, midnight service. Finally, home for opening gifts into the early morning hours. 1:30 or 2:00 A.M., the only time I recall my parents staying up that long. Last night, I received a WhatsApp message from my mother at 12:30 am, her time. The tradition continues.

Even when one or more of us slept in the living room, as kids near our gifts or as visiting adults on the sofa, somehow, Santa managed to sneak into the living room and fill the stockings which hung from the 1800s pump organ.

With Thanks Giving and Christmas both, we always sat with guests, relatives, church members, or friends of friends who didn’t have a place to call home that year.

We often discussed the street population in Phoenix, and how we could assist those without a home. One year I served food at the shelter in down town Phoenix; years later in Denver Colorado. Each year I would suggest that we invite one or two of the homeless, total strangers easily found on a street corner our home. Each year the expressed concern was for the safety of our family, and of course, the potential drama.

As my father spent the better part of his career serving the homeless population (as all inner city pastors do), it was not for lack of desire nor effort, rather, our Christmas celebration was a time for family.

We did our best to keep it simple, quiet, and familiar. Some of my most fond memories are of those Christmas eves, both as a child and adult.

Last night, Christmas Eve, I hosted a dinner for nine friends here in Muizenberg, South Africa. It was a spontaneous gathering, and an eclectic mix of people.

Two from the States, one from Ethiopia, one from the African country of Benin, and five from South Africa. We gathered with only two days notice, quickly organising a menu which in the end was more food than planned and all quite tasty.

I baked three home-made pizzas, an apple crumble, and a dozen cinnamon rolls from the left-over pizza dough. Zoe helped prepare the pizza sauce, Zama the fruit salad. Gilad and Fran brought a chick pea salad and Sam, summer greens.

Four of us are student researchers, one a tutor, three working professionals, and two without a home, living on the mountain, just above Boyes drive. Combined, we speak at least ten languages with one individual fluent in five. The diversity of backgrounds generated a wonderful unfolding of stories.

As I had desired many times as a child, I invited relative strangers to my home. Just twenty four hours prior a fight had broken out between two car park attendants, one having taken the job of the other. I broke up the fight, physically carrying Eureka away from the man she was hitting.

No, that drama did not find its way into my home, nor our unique dinner.

We all told stories. Stories of our childhood, stories of where and how we grew up. Surely, there were difference from Chicago to Nebraska to Ethiopia and Benin. Each was unique, rich in the telling. But it was when Eureka spoke that we the room grew totally silent.

She grew up in a township of South Africa. She lived in constant fear of being attacked, of being raped. Her childhood was spent with the gangs, shooting guns as a past time. She said, “We didn’t know any better. We’d go out shooting at people. We didn’t expect to live long. There was no future. That’s all we knew.” She paused, then continued, “I don’t think it’s change much. It’s just about the same for them. I got out, praise the Lord, but my son, he’s getting involved with the gangs too.”

Mixed conversation slowly rose again. Two, three threads quietly entertained. Sam engaged Eureka and her friend for more stories. I baked cinnamon rolls while I imagined her childhood, growing up like that.

For me, it was perhaps the best Christmas holiday I had ever spent. It was, in many ways, an engagement of the holiday as intended, a celebration of diversity under one roof.