A Colored Version of the Flammarion Engraving

Flammarion Engraving Colored by Olen RambowI couldn’t remember what it was called or where I’d seen it; but over the last couple of years, the image had been coming to mind again and again, and I realized that I’d begun to think of it as one of the most profound pieces in the history of art — one that perfectly captures what it means to be a scholar, an inquirer, or anyone who feels compelled to break through boundaries. It wasn’t until this fall (of 2017), as I was teaching a lesson on imaginary numbers, that I finally resolved to track it down and get a poster of it for my classroom.

Some trial and error on Google eventually led me to it. It’s called the Flammarion Engraving, after the French astronomer Camille Flammarion, in whose 1888 book it first appeared (L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire). Interestingly, no one is sure where the image originally came from — whether Flammarion commissioned it for his book, engraved it himself, or found it in some now-lost repository. This mystery only added to my delight.

When I searched for a poster of a colored version, I found one available for $430 — which was obviously out of the question. And so I decided to create my own. The original black-and-white image is in the public domain (available through Wikimedia), so I downloaded a high-resolution copy, had it printed on a 2-foot-by-3-foot piece of paper, and began to think about how I would color it in. Water color? Colored pencil? Bolivian yak’s blood mixed with cuttlefish pigment?

Here was what I would be working with:

I ended up going with colored pencil, since yak’s blood has an unpleasant odor — and since the art teacher at my school was willing to let me borrow a set of Prismacolors. I began by picking out the colors I’d use for the sky. I wanted a sunset that faded from yellow to orange to red to lavender to deep purple. After an afternoon of coloring, I ended up with this:

On the second day, I colored in the sun, the moon, the tree in the foreground, and the robed figure:

Then I spent a day coloring in the mysterious heavenly realm beyond the celestial sphere. I picked what I thought of as vibrant, other-worldly colors:

Then it was time for the distant part of the landscape:

And the foreground:

And then the water: (I also went over the sky and the robe a second time here.)

And finally, I filled in the border and then went back to make some of the other colors a little more vibrant (especially in the heavenly realm):

The last step was to take a high-resolution photo of it and touch it up digitally. (There’s one coloring error that I fixed. Can you find it?) I also decided to make the region outside of the border black instead of white, in order to detract less from the brightness in the interior of the piece. And I thought the text would look good in gold. Speaking of which, the text (which was Flammarion’s original caption for the piece) says, “A missionary of the Middle Ages tells that he had found the point where the sky and the Earth touch…”

Altogether, the project took me about three weeks. The image at the top of this post is the final version. (Click on it for a semi-high resolution version.) I’m really proud of how it turned out! Feel free to share it — but please give me credit for the coloring.

A Bed Time Script for All of Us

I’m trying to teach my son to be as forgetful as I am. Most nights, when I put him to bed, I go through something like the following script with him. Note the bit about “letting go” at the end of the second paragraph. (Also note that my son is only three years old, so the language is intentionally simple and repetitive.)

It’s time to go to bed, and it’s time to go to sleep. And we love going to bed, and we love going to sleep because we get to rest, relax, and look forward to tomorrow. And we love looking forward to tomorrow because tomorrow will have new opportunities to learn and grow.

But before we go to sleep, we think about everything that happened during the day. We remember all of the good things that happened, and we hold onto those memories so that we will always have them with us to make us happy. We also think about the bad things and the mistakes that we made so that we can learn from them. And after we learn from them, we let go of them so that they will never bother us again.

[Here I ask my son to tell me his favorite parts of the day—friends he played with, fun things he learned, etc. Then I say, “Hold onto that memory. Whenever you feel sad, think about that, and then you’ll be happy again.” Then I ask him to tell me about something bad that happened or a mistake that he made. “We won’t do that again,” I might say. “And now let’s let go of it so that it will never bother you again.”]

I believe this is a good exercise that we should all practice, no matter how old we are. The busier we get, the harder it is to find time to reflect on our experiences. And if we don’t reflect, we’re probably not storing up all the good memories that we’d like to have in the future. We’re also probably not learning from our mistakes. I hope that one day my son will see this habit as a gift I gave him—something he will always hold onto that will make him happy long after I am gone.

Join me on Twitter: @OlenRambow

Memory Loss: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

For two months now, I’ve been trying to remove a shotgun-blast-shaped cranberry juice stain from the wall beside my bed. When I say this, it sounds like I’ve tested various stain-removal remedies—soapy water, bleach, an abrasive sponge, etc.—and that none of them have worked. But in fact, the problem has nothing to do with how difficult the stain is to remove; it’s just that I can’t remember to wipe the damn thing off.

Every night goes something like this: As I get ready for bed, I set the contents of my pockets on my nightstand, and my eyes fall on the stain. I think, Oh, that’s right. I’ll clean that up as soon as I finish changing clothes. But then, by the time I’ve changed—which takes all of thirty seconds—I have completely forgotten about the stain. Or, on one of my sharper nights, I will actually walk into the kitchen intending to get a wet cloth to clean the stain, but then, upon arriving at the sink, promptly forget why I went there.

That this has only been going on for two months is also a bit odd, because it was six months ago that I actually spilled the juice. The difference of four months is how long it took me to notice that there even was a stain on the wall—and when I noticed it, I had to think for a long while before I realized where it had come from. Thus, my powers of observation would seem to be just as bad as my memory. (In my defense, though, at the time of the spill, I was frantically engaged in getting the juice out of the carpet and soaking up the puddle from the nightstand, so it’s understandable that I missed the splatter on the wall.)

Every time I repeat this nightly ritual of forgetfulness, I mentally kick myself, and a worry bubbles up inside of me: Am I losing my mind? Are these the signs of early-onset dementia? But I dismiss the question every time for the same reason, which is that I distinctly recall having this problem all the way back into my childhood. And when I remember that, I’m forced to acknowledge another ugly (but not as frightening) truth: I just have an abysmal memory.

Sometimes I wonder what things I’ve forgotten without ever realizing I forgot them: How many times have I ordered takeout from a restaurant and then gone to the store, bought groceries, and cooked dinner? (Would the restaurant bother to call me and ask why I never came to pick up the food?) And how many times have I set a drink from McDonald’s on top of my car to free up my hands so I could put my son in his child seat, only to drive off and lose the drink somewhere along the way? (There was at least one occasion on which I arrived home and discovered the cup still resting on top of my car.)

Few things are more terrifying to me than losing my memory. Memory is a big part of what gives us our identity, after all. Sure, you could keep living after losing your memory—but without memories, the person you once were would be every bit as gone as if you had died. On the other hand, memory loss can be a blessing. How many jokes have given me a fresh laugh a second, third, or fourth time because I’d forgotten the punchline? And how many of my relationships have been saved by the forgetting of grievances?

I suppose that forgetfulness is not all bad. Even in the case of this cranberry juice stain, it has given me a reason to laugh at myself. But I would like to move on. And so, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see if I can walk over to the kitchen right now, wet a cloth under the faucet, head to my bedroom, and wipe that infernal splatter off the wall once and for all.

[PS: I did it!]

Join me on Twitter: @OlenRambow

The Death of Bruce

Bruce ought to like ants, I thought.

I was seven years old, and I was playing God — though I didn’t think of it that way at the time. My aim was to create a glorious paradise for the lone inhabitant of my domain: Bruce.

I had found Bruce in my parents’ garage, and I managed to catch him without pulling his tail off — a feat of which I was quite proud. I should mention here that Bruce was an anole, that common backyard-dwelling lizard that can change from green to brown.

Bruce’s Garden of Eden would be the 2.5-gallon aquarium that had previously housed a school of guppies, all of which had recently died as a result of my attempt to convert them from freshwater to saltwater. In that aquarium, I lovingly sculpted for Bruce a dirt landscape that sloped down to a “pond” at one end of the tank. I added sticks. Leaves. Grass. All that was missing was food.

I was pretty sure that lizards ate insects, so I went looking for some. And right there in our front yard, I hit the jackpot: Against the curb was a beautiful anthill — plenty of food for my little Bruce!

I carried Bruce’s aquarium outside, scooped up a generous chunk of the anthill with a trowel, and dumped it about six inches away from Bruce, who didn’t seem to notice. After watching until I grew bored — probably about ten seconds — I left, intending to come back every once in a while to see whether Bruce had yet found the food I’d so lovingly provided for him.

As it turned out, Bruce didn’t find the ants, exactly; they found him. At least, that’s how I imagine it went. All I know is that when I came back to check on him, he was lying upside down, his body swollen and motionless, covered with a swarm of fire ants.

And so for the second time in as many weeks, I emptied out that little 2.5-gallon aquarium and honored its erstwhile occupant, whose death I had caused, with a shallow backyard grave marked by a cross fashioned from popsicle sticks. (This, I believed, would ensure Bruce’s entry to heaven.)

It was a shame that Bruce had to die, but at least I learned a valuable lesson: Don’t try to feed a lizard five hundred fire ants all in one go. Of course, I never put this lesson into practice, and that does still make me feel a bit guilty. But what can you do?

Perhaps tomorrow I’ll go out and catch another lizard.

Daddy, Are You Dying?

“I can’t see the stars,” I said.

I was talking about the glow-in-the-dark dots on my son’s new space-themed pajamas. He was excited about them, as only a two-year-old could be, and he wanted to show them off to me. But they were invisible to my eyes.

“Why?” he asked.

I thought for a moment. I would probably be able to see them in a few seconds, once my eyes had adjusted to the darkness; but it also occurred to me that my sight just wasn’t as good as it used to be. Eliot’s was better.

“My eyes aren’t as good as yours,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

Once more, I paused.

“Because my eyes are old,” I said at last.

Why are your eyes old?” he asked.

“Because I’m old!” I said.

This time, Eliot was the one who paused. During the silence, I began to make out the stars on his shirt, but I couldn’t see the expression on his face as he looked at me, processing what I’d just told him. When he finally answered, his voice was much quieter and more serious than it had been just moments before.

“You’re dying,” he said.

I stared into the darkness. He was only two. He had seen plants and flowers die, but as far as I knew, he’d had no cause to think about people dying. Had someone told him about the connection between old age and dying, or had he just known? I suddenly had a spooky feeling that perhaps Eliot’s mind was connected to some well of universal truth—a source we all begin life connected to but then lose touch with as we grow out of childhood.

“Daddy, are you dying?” he asked.

“No, buddy,” I said. Not yet.

After we said good night and I closed his bedroom door, I couldn’t get his little voice out of my head. Daddy, are you dying? Just how much did he know?

It wasn’t until the next morning, as I was walking him to the playground, that I would get another hint as to what was going on in his mind.

“Daddy,” he said, “I don’t like you.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because you’re old.”

I laughed, even though it actually hurt a little.

“Well,” I said, “when you get old, I will still like you.”

He looked up at me, eyes narrowed.

“No,” he said. “I will still like you.”

A moment later, he was running toward the slide.

Merel and Tony Live at Discovery Green

merel_and_tony

Merel (standing, far left) and Tony (sitting, far right)

On Saturday, Cathy and I took Eliot to Discovery Green in downtown, Houston, where we saw the musical duo Merel and Tony perform live (with their band “The Woe Woe Woes”). They have a fresh, unique sound, and I highly recommend checking them out:

Merel and Tony’s Facebook Page

A Song by Merel and Tony

I met Tony about a year ago through a mutual friend who kept telling me random facts about him. “Did you know that Tony writes music for This American Life?” he asked me. And on another occasion, “Tony writes books, binds them himself, and sells them at private readings.” It didn’t take long for me to start calling Tony “the most interesting man in the world.” And so it was a treat to finally get to hear him in concert.

The weather was beautiful, and we thoroughly enjoyed relaxing in the park over a cup of lemonade, listening to the music, and watching as the sun set behind the band. After a few songs, Eliot said to us as he looked longingly at the stage, “I want to sing.”

“What do you want to sing?” we asked.

“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” he replied.

While the musicians were taking a break, he approached the stage to ask them if they would let him sing, but he turned shy at the last second and posed for a photograph instead:

eliot-with-m-and-t

Join me on Twitter: @OlenRambow

A Rule to Live By

Eliot in life jacket

Cathy and I just returned from a short camping trip on which we inadvertently discovered a new rule to live by. It could be that my judgment is a bit clouded at the moment, as my emotions are still running high from the ordeal, but right now I would say that this rule trumps all others, regardless of context:

NEVER BRING A TWO-YEAR-OLD CAMPING.

Every checklist in the world needs to be rewritten with this rule in mind. If you’re going on a trip, first make sure that it won’t involve camping with a toddler. If you’re planning a wedding, proceed only if you’re certain there won’t be any camping with two-year-olds. If you’re a heart surgeon, then before you crack open another patient’s chest, you really need to double-check — just to be safe — that you won’t end up getting roped into a camping trip with a toddler as a result of the operation you’re about to perform.

I’ll leave the details of the debacle to the reader’s imagination and focus on some positives here: (1) In the end, we did still decide to keep the two-year-old in question. (2) The child, who shall remain anonymous, seemed to have enough of a blast at certain moments on the trip that the hellish periods may indeed have been worth enduring. For him, at least. (3) We got to see a beautiful starry sky from the dark woods of Goose Island State Park.

A Nice Texas Road Trip

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Just before the end of my summer vacation, Cathy and I managed to squeeze in one last road trip. It was only two days long, but even in that short time we found some gems that are worth sharing. They are:

  • Longhorn Cavern State Park
  • Inks Lake State Park
  • The Lakeside Lodge at Lake Buchanan
  • Colorado Bend State Park

Longhorn Cavern State Park has some nice views of the hill country and a few buildings of historical interest; but the main attraction there is, of course, the cave. There are three things about it that make it interesting.

First, it was formed by flowing water rather than acidic solution. As a result, it has broad passages with smooth walls and ceilings. Some of the chambers are quite large, and one of them is sometimes used as a venue for underground concerts and weddings! During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers made gunpowder in it, and during Prohibition, somebody turned it into a restaurant (that served alcohol).

Second, the cave is home to about 30 to 40 Eastern Pipistrelle bats, which are interesting because (1) they are really tiny and cute, and (2) they are solitary. Whereas most species of bats huddle densely together on cave ceilings, each of these little guys prefers to have one chamber to itself.

The third interesting thing about the cave is a chamber that they call the Hall of Gems. Its walls are covered with beautiful crystals, many of which are about the size of your fist (some as big as your head). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get any good pictures.

From Longhorn Cavern, we drove to Inks Lake State Park. The lake is quite small, but the scenery is nice, and you can rent kayaks and canoes. There are well-maintained campgrounds as well, which we intend to return and use in the near future.

That night, we stayed at the Lakeside Lodge. The building itself is somewhat old, and it is not a luxurious resort; but the view of the lake is quite nice (especially at night, with the Milky Way overhead), and the hosts, John and Virginia, are great people. We enjoyed hearing their stories, eating a huge, home-cooked breakfast, and playing with their collies, which are all rescue dogs.

The next morning, we drove to Colorado Bend State Park (note: in Texas, not Colorado). One of the main attractions there is a 60-foot waterfall (Gorman Falls), but because of the recent drought, it was all dried up. It would have been a bit hot for the lengthy trek to the waterfall anyway, so we took the Spicewood Springs hiking trail instead, which has a beautiful, emerald-green swimming hole.

You could see straight to the bottom of the hole. About twelve feet deep (maybe more), it was teeming with fish, some almost a foot long, with dark orange and blue coloration. As we swam, they played around our feet! The photo at the top of this post is us at the swimming hole; unfortunately, it doesn’t do the water justice. (It really was clear!)

There’s more to explore in the area, so we’ll be back for sure!

Our Most Costly War Is One We Won’t Even Acknowledge

Image-1I ran across the above graphic on Twitter, and I thought its point was quite powerful. It’s based on a New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof that was written after the slaying of two journalists in Virginia back in 2015 and was verified on Politifact.

What it says to me is that without knowing it, we’ve been engaged in a very real war right here on American soil — a more costly one than any of the others we’ve ever fought. We freak out over terrorism — which is indeed a real and frightening threat — but perhaps we ought to be devoting more resources to combating routine gun violence (which is a bigger problem precisely because it has become “routine”).

The question, of course, is what to do about it. Some simple regulations might help. Kristof writes:

Gun proponents often say things to me like: What about cars? They kill, too, but we don’t try to ban them!

Cars are actually the best example of the public health approach that we should apply to guns. Over the decades, we have systematically taken steps to make cars safer: We adopted seatbelts and airbags, limited licenses for teenage drivers, cracked down on drunken driving and established roundabouts and better crosswalks, auto safety inspections and rules about texting while driving.

And then there are people who assert that we’d be safer if more people carried guns (an idea that conjures an image of the Wild West in my mind). To them, I want to ask: If that were true, then shouldn’t it be the case that in places where more people carry concealed handguns, the percentage of self-defense shootings ought to be higher than in other places? And shouldn’t it be possible to show that the percentage of overall shootings that are justified acts of self-defense increases when conceal-carry laws are enacted and more people begin to carry guns? For that matter, shouldn’t we hear about self-defense shootings much more often than we do?

Maybe the logic behind the above questions is flawed. But even if that’s the case, I’m sure they could be modified into a logically valid form. And it should be easy to do some research and find the answers. With a little research, it really is possible to figure out once and for all what kinds of action need to be taken in order to reduce gun violence. Right?

Oh, yeah. Congress has banned research on gun violence. And it’s the NRA that lobbied for the ban. Which is funny, because the NRA states with great confidence that more guns are better, and more guns make us safer. But there’s something funny going on here, because if that were true, the research would bear it out.

What is the NRA afraid of? They should be encouraging such investigations if they are so confident that guns make America a better place. Until they do so, they might as well just admit what they clearly know to be true: Common sense gun regulations and/or fewer guns would result in less gun violence, making America much safer.

In the meantime, we’re losing a war.

Please go here and sign the petition to end the ban on gun violence research.