Lava Versus Snow

New Scientist shows footage of an awesome lava flow at Tolbachik in Russia.

Rain, Rain, Come And Stay

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about weather. Specifically, how it affects your mood. This might sound strange, but I prefer rainy weather over everything else. Rain is typically associated with gloom and sadness, but I look forward to it. The sound of drops hitting a roof is soothing and peaceful. There’s a leak in the gutter over my bedroom window, so I always get treated to the splatter of a miniature waterfall. Rain is one of the easiest ways to see nature at work. As a child, I was fascinated by the way clouds were formed and how they reflected even larger natural processes. Seriously, if you have some time, read up on meteorology and geophysics. Or physical geography in general, for that matter. It’s fascinating stuff, and rain is just one reminder of it. A lot of people gripe and refuse to go out, but I almost always walk in the rain. Armed with my trusty umbrella (nicknamed Masamune due to its size), I’ll gladly stay outside. But if it gets too stormy, I know when to quit. I’ll just head back inside, grab a book, and enjoy the noise.

On the other hand, I dislike hot weather. It’s stifling and suffocating; it slowly steals all my energy and leaves me yearning for sleep. Growing up, summer meant 100° Fahrenheit or higher every day. When you have to walk four miles a day to get to and from school, the last thing you want is a broiling sun looming over you! That I routinely have nosebleeds in hot, dry weather doesn’t help. It’s all a matter of perspective, though. I went down to Chichen Itza about a dozen years ago. While it was definitely an epic, bucket-list-entry experience, it was also about 120° there! After that trip, I never complained about heat waves again. Besides, it gives me a rare, but legit excuse to indulge in ice cream. As long as there’s a decent breeze involved, I can shrug off sunlight and keep moving. Spending more time on urban exploration and photography has given me a much greater appreciation for sunny days.

One other note: I’m nearly 30, but I’ve never seen snow fall. I blame it on being from the Bay Area. I’ve camped out under thunderstorms in the Sierras. I’ve walked through hail on my way to school. I’ve gotten a little frostbitten in Paris. I’ve briefly walked on snow on Mt. Diablo. But I’ve never actually touched snow as it’s falling from the sky. I wonder how that would make me feel…

All It’s Cracked Up To Be

Hey, folks. Yesterday’s Daily Prompt is all about perfection. It’s worth noting that perfection is inherently impossible. Perceptions are subjective; “perfection” could mean “fair to middling” or even “abysmal” for someone else. It’s a matter of standards, realism, and common sense; if you have so much riding on a single thing or moment, you’ll probably be disappointed. If your expectations are too low, it’s easy to miss the real value of an experience. It’s really rare for something to turn out exactly as you’ve hoped. And while I can’t say that I’ve seen perfection, I’ve come pretty close a few times.

My visit to Paris was one of the most enthralling and awkward trips of my life. It was early March, and winter still held France in an icy, iron grip. It never went above 25 degrees the entire week I was there. It was the coldest temperature I’d ever been in; imagine a kid raised in California suddenly having to stumble around in five layers of clothing. Now imagine that same kid standing in line for the Eiffel Tower elevator for an hour and a half, trembling against the wind chill and the ice forming on his nose and cheek. Yes, the view was definitely worth the wait, but my face literally ached when I showered later. The Eiffel Tower is a lot like the Golden Gate Bridge here; they’re both amazing marvels of engineering and symbolism, and they’re huge tourist magnets. The Arc de Triomphe was slightly more enjoyable, only because there were less crowds and I’m a history geek. Its massive scale and unbelievably intricate designs almost made me forget that it stood in the middle of a gargantuan, noisy roundabout.

I could say that wandering around the city was perfect. I love exploring, so I was drooling at all the stuff to see and do. Stumbling across Les Invalides about an hour after it closed, settling for pictures of its front instead. Checking out Musée d’Orsay, specifically Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone and Rodin’s The Gates of Hell. And managing to talk the guards into letting me view a special Impressionist exhibition, for that matter. Wandering down and crossing the Seine, coming across Notre Dame without even realizing it. Walking down the seemingly endless line of cafes and restaurants as evening fell, a boisterous maître d’ trying to coax people inside with promises of amazing French cuisine. Retreating into a quiet Greek place and wolfing down my first gyro. Catching the last train back out to Marne-la-Vallée, and desperately trying to keep myself warm while waiting for a hotel shuttle.

Speaking of which, Le Métropolitain deserves a special mention. Before that, the only trains I’d ever ridden were BART, New York City Subway, and the Washington Metro. Paris’s subway system trounces them so much (the horrible, wretched stench at Les Halles notwithstanding), it’s not even funny. It’s not because of its size, but the layout. On a map it looks like a gigantic multicolored spiderweb, but it’s surprisingly easy to navigate once you’ve gotten the hang of it. I got lost on it for a few hours, mainly because I didn’t speak a word of French. It took some trial and error, but I eventually got it down. At one point a beautiful young woman approached me:

Her: Bonjour.

Me: (Glancing up in surprise) Huh?

Her: Savez-vous comment atteindre cette station?

Me: (Looking around awkwardly) …Uh, no parle vous français.

Her: …Oh. (Moves away)

Me: (Mentally) Damn it. WHY? Why didn’t you study French before coming here?

Any missteps were promptly forgotten once I visited The Louvre and the Palace of Versailles. If you’re a history and art geek, you already know how awesome they are. The former is the museum; 35,000+ items spanning across the whole of human history. The place looks huge on just the street level, but it’s much, much bigger once you enter that little pyramid and go underground. You’d need at least a month to see everything. If I could, I’d totally live there. I distinctly remember making a beeline for the Winged Victory of Samothrace, one of the greatest masterpieces of Ancient Greece. I was positively giddy at seeing The Coronation of Napoleon, The Raft of the Medusa, and Liberty Leading the People, and so many more. It’s very different from reading about them in history books or on a computer screen; you’re confronted with their sheer size and scope. Some of them are literally bigger than the rooms in my house. The amount of effort and skill required for those works must have been mind-boggling.

That’s also true for Versailles. If you want to see “living like royalty” taken to its logical (and historical) extreme, the palace is probably the best example. It doesn’t look like much when you’re approaching it from the front; its sloped entryway looks bland and aged. But that changes really quickly once you step foot inside. I spent hours gaping at The Hall of Mirrors, the Royal Chapel, the ornate drawing rooms, the Battles Gallery, the gardens that seem to stretch out into infinity, that ridiculously detailed bust of Louis XIV…it just went on and on and ON. Of course, it was also a reminder of why living so lavishly isn’t such a good idea; the amount of upkeep required for a place like this must have been staggering. This palace had so many fountains that it created water shortage issues. Such extravagant living was just one of the many factors leading up to the French Revolution. It may have been completely wasteful and unsustainable, but the king lived in style.

Looking back, the only thing that kept my trip to Paris from being perfect was the timing. I went about a decade too early; there were no digital cameras back then. I forget how many rolls of Kodak film I went through, but my pockets were stuffed with them. There’s a photo album somewhere down in storage, and there’s no feasible way to upload it for posterity. One of these days, I’m going to go back and do the adventure over. It’ll probably be better the second time around.

The Door Opens

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/challenge-collecting-detail/

It’s 2:13 AM. I don’t know why I’m still up. Too many things to read? Insomnia? Depression? All of the above? It doesn’t matter anymore. The laptop bathes me in the glow of its backlight, like a digital campfire. It doesn’t hurt my eyes. Yet. The fan hums quietly, its white noise ever-present but not comforting. The old analog clock on my headboard ticktocks ten minutes fast, a reminder of my mortality. There is no music left; the night’s playlist has long run out. An empty teacup languishes on a coaster, chilly to the touch. The portable heater sits unplugged two feet away, tempting me with promises of warmth on multiple settings. No, not now. It’s too late for that. It’s too late for anything. I’m no longer sure that I really exist.

My bedroom door opens.

The air catches in my throat. I don’t turn my head to look. Just my eyes. I stare frozen and wide-eyed at my door. The white paint has faded over decades, and a couple of shirts hang from the top. The doorknob is a massive chunk of brownish metal, with an old-fashioned keyhole beneath it. Quaint. But there’s no lock. There never was a lock. The latch has slipped loose, and now there’s a half-inch gap between the door and its frame. And within that half-inch, there is nothing but darkness. An endless, inky expanse that devours all who ventures into it. No light, no sounds. There is nothing out there.

Reality does not exist beyond that door.

I sit there for what seems like hours, transfixed by that narrow crack in reality. I’m shaking, and it’s not just because it’s freezing outside. How did the door open by itself? Is there someone or something out there, peering at me? Waiting? An icy wind crashes headlong into the house, and snaps me out of my thoughts. Of course! It was the wind! It stopped raining a couple of hours ago, but the wind is still going strong. This house is old – at least a century – and it’s got plenty of drafts. The breeze must have gotten in and pushed the door. It’s powerful enough to do that. I can hear the fallen leaves rattling on the pavement outside. They’re being stirred up by the wind, not the footsteps of some beast lurking in the cold. It’s okay. You’ve just got to close the door and go to sleep. It’s fine. You’ve just been awake way too long. I choke out something that resembles a laugh, stand up, and grab the doorknob.

Are you sure it’s safe?

Damn it. I can’t remember if the side door downstairs is locked. It’s the only way someone could sneak inside without causing detection. Or slightly opening doors to spy on impressionable, insomniac writers. Okay, I have to go down there and check. It’s the only way to be sure. I grab a small flashlight, swallow hard, and open the door wide. The hinges creak, and I practically jump out of my skin. Idiot, calm down!  I hope I didn’t wake anyone up. And if there’s someone prowling in here, they know someone’s awake. They’re probably hiding, or looking for an escape. Oh, I’ll give them something to escape from! I reach behind me and grab my walking stick. Anger replaces fear, and I step confidently into the darkness. Flashlight on, nothing moves. I’m surrounded by silhouettes that vaguely resemble my home. But I know better.

At this hour, anything is possible.

I miraculously make it down the stairs without stumbling over anything. I tread lightly, avoiding all of the creaks and cracks that I’ve spent years memorizing. The carpeted surface is a mottled relic of the mid-70s. Still-life paintings and photographs line the stairwell, and I’m grateful that none of them feature people. I don’t think I could handle seeing a human face staring back at me in the dark. An old cane hangs from the lower banister, a remnant of a someone long past. The door is right there, and both locks on it set. I jiggle and twist the doorknob a few times just to make sure. Good. Ye gods, it’s cold. I once nicknamed this lowest part of the house the Ninth Circle of Hell, because it’s always freezing down here. It’s not an exaggeration this time; I can see my wispy breaths float in the glare of my flashlight. Shivering, I walk over to a window and peek out. I can just make out the trees thrashing in the wind, but a plastic rainwater bucket steals my attention. It’s filled to the brim, and the water is frozen solid.

It’s too cold for this.

I make my way back to the stairs and glance back. Everything is fine. Freezing, but fine. I sigh and take a step up. A low creak rises up out of the dark, and I freeze. What was that? I turn around and fumble the flashlight. I know I heard that. It came from somewhere down here. Thirty feet of dusty storage boxes and relics of days long gone stretch out before me like a labyrinth. The light switch is on the other end, and I don’t think I’m in the right frame of mind to go searching for anything. It’s okay. It was probably nothing. It could’ve been something. No, the door was locked! You’re done, go to bed! I take a step backward and stumble. I feebly grab the railing, and in that brief second I glimpse something in that darkness, some unspeakable horror poised to kill.

I’m beyond thinking at this point. I scramble up the stairs and frantically speed-walk back to my room. I shut the door with a shaky hand, and stand there panting. It’s okay. There’s nothing there. There’s nothing there. The door is locked, nothing got in. I shut off my computer, and my world is silent save for the endless ticktocks. 2:19 now. It’s pitch-dark, and I practically fall into my bed. I lay there on one side, wishing the blankets would warm me up faster. I let out a sigh and close my eyes.

My bedroom door opens.