Neil Armstrong


Neil Armstrong, the quietest celebrity in modern memory, died last weekend at 82. He was a household name, but a very private man, I knew him through books about the space program, especially “Carrying the Fire,” the wonderful autobiographical / historical book written by Apollo 13 crew member Michael Collins.



You can tell in photos how guarded Armstrong was; even when smiling, there’s a sort of veil over his eyes.  In my favorite photo (at the head of this article), taken by one of his Apollo 11 crewmates, Armstrong actually looks exhilarated, and open, and exhausted, and happy.



I’d ask if you remember that evening in July 1969 when Armstrong first stepped onto the moon’s surface, but I remind myself that many of you are too young for that; it would be like you asking me if I remembered when the Confederates started firing on Fort Sumter.



But I remember it. We’d just come home from a day trip to my Grandma Boitano’s house. I was twelve years old. I remember sitting in our living room in the twilight, watching the spectacle on television – a man on the moon! – and then getting up to look out the picture window at the moon (which I remember as being maybe six days old, a little less than first quarter). I remember thinking: There are human beings up there right now.



And I got a little shiver.



Memory is tricky. I go online now, and check myself. What was the phase of the moon on July 20, 1969?


Six days after new.



I actually remembered my childhood accurately.






Armstrong’s family has asked that, “next time you see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”



I think that’s lovely.



And we have to keep the moon in its place, after all, as the following clip (featuring Tina Fey and Buzz Aldrin) demonstrates:





Rest in peace, Neil.


The Darlingtonia preserve


In 2005, on one of our trips to the Pacific Northwest, Partner and I were running up and down the Oregon coast: Lincoln City, Yachats, Florence. 



On our way to Florence I noticed an odd sign pointing to a DARLINGTONIA PRESERVE.  The name rang a very faint bell, but I couldn’t quite place it, and I suggested that we stop.



I am so glad we did.



It is a small park which serves as a natural preserve for a rare local plant, the Darlingtonia californica, aka the cobra lily.



Darlingtonia is a carnivorous plant resembling the pitcher plant.  Its body is a cup of water, topped by a cobra-like hood.  Insects blunder inside and fall into the water to drown; the hood helps keeps them inside if they try to escape.



Once they’re dead, Darlingtonia californica eats them up, slowly, by dissolving them and absorbing their delicious little bodies.



Bloodthirsty, I know. But the plants were gorgeous, and you have never seen so many together in one place in your life.  They were shining bright green in the fitful Oregon summer sunlight, hundreds of them in their damp little peat bog, humming to themselves, waiting for the little buggies to arrive for lunch.



Plants are remarkable.  We animals have always had an advantage over plants, seemingly; we move faster, anyway. But plants are sneaky and malevolent. Some are poisonous, like nightshade and datura and pokeweed. Some sting and burn, like nettles and poison ivy. Some are beautiful and dangerous, like the foxglove. Some can gash the hell out of you, like the cholla cactus. Some of them can poison the ground beneath themselves, so that nothing else can grow (many conifers do this).



But all of them, just like Darlingtonia californica, are beautiful in the sunshine.



Cabbage butterflies


I like butterflies, especially the big 747 models with snazzy colors, like the monarchs and the swallowtails. But I also have a nice feeling about the simple dull colorless ones; they give a pleasant fluttery feeling to the day when you see them, and they seem pretty harmless. (As Bart Simpson once said: “No one ever suspects the butterfly.”)



For example: now and then I see cabbage butterflies, AKA cabbage moths, AKA Pieris rapae. You know them: the white ones that swirl and dart through the garden like animated dinner napkins.



My parents used to grow basketball-sized cabbages, and the cabbage butterflies loved them. They don’t eat them, you see; they lay their eggs in them. Then their children (green oozy-looking caterpillars) eat the cabbage.



My mother hated those caterpillars. She had a giant salt-shaker of some infernal pesticide, which she used on the cabbages the way you’d sprinkle Parmesan on your spaghetti. It certainly didn’t kill all the caterpillars, and I marvel that it didn’t kill all of us. (One of our neighbors saw her strewing poison on her cabbages once, and wrote a letter to the local paper about “my neighbor lady who sprinkles poison on her vegetables.” He also said something like “I’d rather eat a bug once in a while than poison my own food.”)



(We thought he was crazy. Forty-five years later, I see that he was ahead of his time.)



Mom’s poison didn’t seem to reduce the population of cabbage butterflies, as I recall. And what’s a summer day, after all, without a few cabbage butterflies wheeling and pirouetting in the sunlight? 



I suspect that, if I’d been born a butterfly, I’d have been a cabbage butterfly: not extraordinarily beautiful, but with my own quiet charm.



And I do like cabbage once in a while.


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