One Eclipse at a Time

This column ran Tuesday, August 15, 2017, in the Manhattan Mercury.


My gut and experience tell me one’s reaction to Monday’s total solar eclipse will depend, in large measure, on where one lives and probably more importantly, how high up it registers on one’s own personal ‘give a hoot’ meter.

I heard somewhere that next week’s eclipse is one of those “once in a lifetime” celestial events. Well, kinda. I’m no scientist, but I think I get the basic gist. One moon rotating around one planet, rotating around one sun, all the time. Logic and common sense would dictate that every now and then, they’ll line up, single file, and offer us a show.  

I vaguely recall casting my hazels on some type of an eclipse through some manner of makeshift retina-saving contrivance a couple of times in my life. Once, surrounded by like-minded, curious fellow 4th graders on the front lawn of South Pleasant Valley Elementary in Wichita. The second time, a dozen years later, surrounded by like-minded, curious young adult chums gazing skyward, likely through the bottom of a bottle of Coors Light.

 Save the retinas. Don't worry about the brain cells.

Save the retinas. Don't worry about the brain cells.

Clearly, my own reservoir of personal experience with orbiting body alignment is shallow. To get deeper, I went to the one place on our planet in the 21st century where one can attain peace of mind, secure that the knowledge and insight derived therefrom can hurtle one into another dimension of human enlightenment.

If it’s on the Internet, it must be true.

The last total solar eclipse visible in North America was in February 1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to adoring revolutionary crowds in the streets of Tehran and Rod Stewart was topping the charts, crooning the timeless question, ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ My answer then and now: Not particularly. I learned early in my professional career, if you seek to influence hearts and minds with a song, poem, commercial, political message – any form of communication, really, never lead with a question that can be easily answered and dismissed with, "uh… no."
      
Turns out that total solar eclipses (eclipsi?) occur every year-and-a-half and are visible from somewhere on the surface of the planet. According to my arithmetic, that’s two total eclipses every three years. If one had the means and the inclination, one could chase eclipses all over the globe. Because I suspect most people have neither, this one’s turning out to be a thing.

Try getting a hotel room in Casper, Wyoming or St. Joseph, Missouri this weekend. Lives are being re-arranged. K-State is looking the other way on absences during the first day of the fall semester, a meeting of a Manhattan Chamber committee on which I serve has been postponed, the college-age daughter of some friends is trekking a couple hours north to Lincoln to experience three minutes of solar obscurity with her BFF.

It’s a once-in-their-lifetime event around which genuine human connections can be shared. I don’t know why I didn’t think about that back in 1979. Wait a minute, yes, I do.

Never mind.

When I think of enlightenment, as a species, we’ve come a long way since a total solar eclipse spooked the Mayan rulers into thinking the sun gods were frowning on their human sacrifice and saved the life of Mel Gibson’s protagonist hero in his 2006 movie, “Apocalypto.” Last time I checked, the Mayan civilization didn’t survive.

Time and enlightenment don’t appear to have done away with narcissistic leaders of governments on our planet who seemingly try to eclipse each other with rhetoric. Maybe the jury’s still out on our civilization.  

Science allows us to predict with extreme precision when eclipses will occur and where on Earth they’ll be most visible. During the minutes of totality on Monday, when a swath of our continent will be plunged into middle-of-the-day darkness, my wife and I will be negotiating the moving sidewalks at O’Hare, to catch the 1:30 back to MHK after a weekend in Boston. When I eyeball the trajectory maps, it appears we’ll be pretty far north of the pièce de résistance.

But if I cast my hazels to the south, I may just remember that as long as a moon and a planet continue to rotate around a star, cosmic alignment is gonna happen and I can determine, one eclipse at a time, how much of a hoot to give to each.  

Then I’ll board the aircraft, don my noise-cancelling headphones, crank up Steely Dan, and come home.

Mike Matson was born in Manhattan, raised in Rooks County and Wichita. He’s been back home in Manhattan since 1998. His column will appear in The Manhattan Mercury twice each month. Follow his blog at mikematson.com