When you wish upon a Geminid.


Photo from Spaceweather.com by Gregor Srdog-Marino Tumpic,
Sarsoni near Rijeka, Croatia, Dec. 12, 2020Wairarapa


Last Monday night while walking our doggie, I happened to look up into the clear, dark almost-winter sky ... and a giant shooting star streamed past. I yelped! And scared the bejeezus out of my husband, who looked at me with such fear and concern, thinking--he told me later--that we were about to be attacked by a falcon. (I won’t get into the details of ... well, okay, this was sort of a delayed post-traumatic reaction to a story about falconry we’d half-heard on NPR a few mornings before, after which he dreamed falcons were diving at us. I think this fear of urban falcon attacks has mostly passed.)

I felt badly that my razor-sharp reflexes failed me at that moment (it was
cold out there) so instead of yelping something useful like “Omigosh LOOK!” and directing his attention to the stellar streak above us, I uttered some sort of ominous death howl which gave him terrifying flashes of us about to be hopelessly mutilated by bird talons. And because of that he missed the whole thing.

David-Harvey1Photo from Spaceweather.com by David Harvey,
Kitt Peak National Observatory, Tucson, Arizona USA, Dec. 13, 2010

After we both caught our breath, and I reassured him there were no falcons diving at us (I was reasonably sure about that), I told him what I’d seen. That, I announced, was a Geminid! In retrospect I think it was something even cooler--a fireball--and a fine preview of things to come, for the annual Geminid meteor shower was peaking that very evening. We spent the rest of our chilly dog walk peeking cautiously up to the sky so as not to: 1) slip on the treacherously icy sidewalks while attempting to see more meteors; and 2) do anything that might catch the attention of hungry raptors.

I am a skywatcher, such as it can be done on the fringes of a city whose sodium vapor lights mask most of the Milky Way with orange glow. I am moderately conversant in the language of astronomy and space technology. And I love looking up at night and knowing
that’s the Pleiades, that’s Jupiter following the moon across the sky, that’s Venus rising in the east, that’s the International Space Station passing over. (And wait ... is that a really huge bird ...?) I don’t own a telescope (yet), but I do subscribe to Spaceweather.com e-mail updates, so usually I know some of what’s going on up there. And I get very excited about meteor showers. Who doesn’t like to see shooting stars? All those wishes!

Babak-Tafreshi2Photo from Spaceweather.com by Babak Tafreshi,
Zagros Mountains, Iran Dec. 14, 2010

The Geminids--so named because they appear to radiate from the constellation Gemini (specifically the star called Castor)--are famously active, with some estimates for this year’s shower of at least 100 meteors per hour in very dark skies. That meant even we had a good chance of seeing a few, sodium vapor glow notwithstanding.

The catch is that the best time to catch them is in the dead of night when it’s five frigid degrees and you should be tucked between your warm flannel sheets dreaming of sugarplums. Usually I sleep through meteor showers, but it so happened I woke up around 2:00 a.m. the next morning. Prime meteor viewing time! After a 30-minute internal debate between staying in my nice warm bed vs. seeing the
most spectacular meteor shower of the year that I was actually awake for (said debate making me ever more awake and alert, so falling back to sleep was out of the question), I finally bundled up and slipped out of the house.

Outside in the very cold, very quiet night (except for my boots scrunching
loudly on the crusty snow), I leaned against a tree and looked up. The sky was deep dark velvety blue, scattered with a few bright crisp constellations, most notably Orion -- a constellation so impressively huge and recognizable I can’t help but stare at it. Ah, but the trick to catching meteors is to look between the stars, at the blank dark spaces -- not easy because our eyes are drawn to all the twinkly things.

After a few minutes, I adjusted and focused on the darkness, sometimes scanning the sky, sometimes fixating on one spot. Then finally,
flit! A sliver of white sliced the sky for a second, then vanished, like the final moments of a fireworks sparkle dropping from the sky and quickly fading. Thrill! I massaged my neck for a moment, then looked up again to watch for more. I should have been in a reclining lawn chair (which we don’t have) or lying on the ground (on about 20 heated mattresses), but there was only a tree to lean against so I had to occasionally relieve my achey neck from all the upward craning.

P-M-HedAcn1
Photo from Spaceweather.com by P-M Hedén,
Vallentuna, Sweden, Dec. 15, 2010

The Geminids are unique among meteor showers in that the source is not the usual debris-spewing ice ball commonly known as a comet. When comets swing past Earth their debris collides with our atmosphere, burning up in white streaks we call shooting stars. The Geminids emanate from an asteroid -- or, to use Nasa’s scientific term, a “weird rocky object” called 3200 Phaethon. Although occasionally suspected of accidentally killing off dinosaurs, asteroids don’t usually carry lots of debris with them, as comets do. Scientists are still trying to figure out how 3200 Phaethon creates enough celestial rubble to cause one of the busiest meteor showers each year. Nevertheless, it orbits merrily around our solar system, flinging loads of meteors through our atmosphere every December, resulting in a profusion of wishable shooting stars.

Back on Earth, I managed to catch six meteors in the space of half an hour -- some like a flicker in my peripheral vision (
was that a meteor? or just a star appearing from behind a tree branch?) and some a split-second streak (like the one in the animated photo above) that fell exactly where I happened to be looking. All of them were magical, even if they came and went in the blink of an eye. I could have watched all night but it was cold, I was tired, and they weren’t exactly flying out of Gemini at an eye-popping rate -- at least not over our house. Once inside I kept peeking out the windows hoping to see just one more. I saw three! then put myself to bed -- happy that I hadn’t missed it after all, and comforted knowing there was something special happening above us.

I’ve been tracking meteor showers through Spaceweather.com for several years now, and have been outside in the wee hours to catch only a few of them. I don’t know if it was coincidence ... or something more cosmic? ... that made me look up precisely when that fireball zipped overhead. If it hadn’t, I might not have been so willing to stand in my frozen back yard scanning the sky for flaming bits of space rock. The moon, stars and planets doing nothing at all in the sky is magic enough -- but when light shoots around quietly (or actually not so quietly -- click to hear what a meteor sounds like) in the night, I want to see it!

We may see only a fraction of the Milky Way’s full splendor in our suburban Chicago skyscape, but a good number of planets, moons, stars, comets, meteorites, asteroids and other twirling, whizzing, icy, molten, cosmic leftovers from the Big Bang manage to shine through the veil of city lights, bringing the huge and distant awesomeness of the Universe to our little planet. If we miss the rare passage of an unusually bright comet, we can look forward to a more common lunar eclipse--mark your calendars for the next one December 21, 2010.

Babak-Tafreshi4Photo from Spaceweather.com by Babak Tafreshi,
Zagros Mountains, Iran Dec. 14, 2010

There’s always something (but hopefully not man-eating falcons) to see in our skies at night -- just step outside and look up! And by the way, I made just one wish after seeing all those shooting stars, and it was for more northern lights.

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Part Christmas, Part Hanukkah.

Although I was born Christmas, I feel like I’m slightly part Hanukkah now. Each year since I remarried--an event which brought two Jewish step-children into my life--I have anticipated the Festival of Lights with almost as much excitement as my hybrid celebration of the winter solstice/yule, and Christmas. In turn, my step-kids--who are no strangers to Christmas--are heavily exposed to a month of Christmas festivities while sharing their rituals of Hanukkah with the Christmas folk they now live with. (I'll wait a moment while you fully digest that sentence.)
2nd night of Hanukkah
My step-kids are actually half-Christmas and half-Hanukkah (their mother is Jewish, their father is not). Their parents long ago agreed the children would be raised Jewish, so they are attending the several years of Hebrew school that prepare them to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Having grown up with Christian and Jewish extended families, however, they have honored their heritage from both sides by celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas from the time they were born. As each year draws to a close, they look forward to lighting Hanukkah candles as well as decorating the Christmas tree with their doting out-of-town Presbyterian grandparents.
Latkes 2Since their father and I were married, they now live half-time in a home brimming with Christmas during December, including decor and symbols that honor my own Christian and Celtic pre-Christian ancestry. I love to cozy up every shelf and corner with cinnamon scented candles, colored lights, evergreen branches, holly, ivy, mistletoe, pine cones, Santa Claus and Father Christmas figurines, little bottle brush trees, images of Victorian Christmas, a Mexican nativity scene (to honor my half-Mexican son), and of course a Christmas tree. All kinds of Christmas music--from popular and New Age to Renaissance and Celtic--plays in the house during the holiday season, and the everyday dishes are stored away in favor of holly-trimmed plates and mugs. There is no mistaking what we’re celebrating at this address!
Latkes 3
Not wanting my stepkids’ Jewish heritage to disappear amidst all the trappings of Christmas, my husband and I cooked a batch of potato latkes (yes, that's the recipe I use each year, served with applesauce and sour cream, yum!) and noodle kugel starting the first year we all lived in the same house. We bought a menorah so they could light candles and sing Hanukkah blessings just as they do when they are in their fully Jewish home. I can tell they appreciate celebrating Hanukkah with the non-Hanukkah parents. I loved seeing the delight on their faces when they realized there was a menorah in this house, and when they saw the colorful Hanukkah platter we bought for serving latkes. I’m happy to help create a comforting atmosphere for them with familiar foods, symbols and decor while they take the lead in song, prayer and sometimes even dreidel games during this quiet festival. I think we’ve succeeded in letting them know their Jewishness is a welcome part of their new family and not strictly reserved for when they are with their mother.
Latkes 7Just about when Hanukkah is wrapping up, our little blended family (which includes my very Christmasy teenage son) has a tradition of purchasing the Christmas tree together. We bundle up and trundle off to my stepson’s high school (also my alma mater) to buy a fundraiser tree, then stop for hot chocolate and mochas to warm our hands. We decorate the tree with Christmas rock music playing in the background and plates of cookies nearby. Everyone must put at least one ornament on the tree, an easy requirement for the kids to satisfy as each of them has their own collection of ornaments, which we add to every year with a new ornament tied around their stocking. Those half-Hanukkah kids know their way around a Christmas tree, and always have a good time dressing it up! They enjoy waking up in our house on Christmas morning to stuffed stockings and gifts under the tree, a family breakfast, a lazy day enjoying their new books and games, and then a nice family dinner. It's not a religious celebration, but one of family, love, music, light, warmth, and togetherness. And plenty of homemade food. Oh, allright ... and presents!
Latkes 9We’re lucky our blended family gets along as well as we do, and I’m grateful that we share these very different winter holidays together. I hope that by celebrating both holidays we’re creating experiences and memories to help our Christmas and Hanukkah children honor their ancestry and be as open to diversity as their parents were (and still are). I know we will always have a menorah in our home and look forward to making delicious fried latkes every year. I’m not as certain what will become of my stepkids’ Christmas ornaments when they are grown and start their own holiday traditions. Will they celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas? or both? something else maybe? At the very least I hope they will happily remember these two holidays in a home that made room for them both.
Menorah and tree

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Pup-kin treats.

At some point, pumpkin season in the kitchen has to end, even for me. Which is, I'm sure, a relief to my family, who would like me to start cooking more wintry Christmasy fare such as shephard's pie, comforting stews, gingerbread, cinnamon rolls, and Christmas cookies. Just ... nothing with pumpkin.

There are, however, still a few pumpkin dishes left to
write about, including these pumpkin dog treats from Everything Pumpkin. I have made them twice for Piper, our sweet flop-eared Corgi, and she loves them! Or at least, like any normal healthy dog, she employs her "eat now and ask questions later" philosophy of food consumption whenever I offer her one. As yet, she hasn't questioned the worth of ingesting these treats and keeps coming back for more. Frequently. All day, every day.
Pumpkin dog biscuits 1Last year's canned pumpkin shortage inspired me to stock up on Trader Joe's organic pumpkin. Now, Trader Joe's can almost do no wrong. However, this canned pumpkin tasted pretty poorly. Bad, even. Downright yucky. So instead of using it for pie (I decided even sugar and cinnamon couldn't save this stuff) into the dog treats it went. Dogs don't know good canned pumpkin from bad, right? By the way, canned pumpkin is actually recommended for treating doggie diarrhea so it's safe for canine consumption.
Pumpkin dog biscuits 3Just a few ingredients: pumpkin, water, vegetable oil, cinnamon, oatmeal, and wheat flour. Mix everything into a stiff dough, roll it, and cut out fun shapes. No need for dog bone cookie cutters--any shape will do. Doggie does not care!
Pumpkin dog biscuits 6Dogs pretty much don't give a hoot about anything with regard to food except its eatability. They have little regard for the shape, size, flavor, color, texture, temperature, or toxicity of their food. It all goes down the same gullet with such blinding speed one wonders why they even have a tongue. Time to consider such trivialities later, while napping peacefully on the couch and filling the room with the gaseous after-effects of their last meal. Sometimes the smell of food matters, in that the more offensively smelly it is to humans, the more culinary appeal it holds for dogs.
Pumpkin dog biscuits 9Ah, but these cookies smell good while they're baking! Everyone in the house asks, "Ooh, what's in the oven?" whenever I'm making up a batch of dog treats. They don't spread at all, so you can squeeze a lot onto a cookie sheet. Once they are baked hard (they do take longer than regular cookies to bake all the way through) and cooled, watch your pup pounce on them.
Pumpkin dog biscuits 10Piper loves these spread with a little all-natural peanut butter, to keep her tummy happy between meals (her vet would roll her eyeballs in the direction of Piper's extra heft if she read that). She'd prefer huge slices of cheddar cheese or and turkey sandwich meat, but she seems happy enough with her pumpkin treats. Another pumpkin lover in the house! A pup after my own heart.

I do a decent amount of cooking for the humans in my life, so it's gratifying to make these easy from-scratch treats for my beloved doggie. The recipe yields a lot of treats so they last a good long time, although if Piper had free access to these things they'd be gone in 15 minutes flat. There's something to be said for the devotion of a creature who never questions the quality of your cooking.

Two pumpkin dog treat recipes are
here along with lots of other pumpkin recipes, including one for pumpkin latkes that I missed for Hanukkah. Darnit! Next year. Bone appetite!

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