Part One: Barbie was Right*

Planning for the eclipse weekend had started almost a year ago. My oldest sister Kathy was the first to alert us all to the importance of the event, and months ago discovered that many houses and camping sites in the Path of Totality had already been booked. But my youngest sister Karen was persistant enough to find a huge log cabin-ish farmhouse in southern Indiana that would sleep the entire family. While not directly in the Path, it was close enough that we could get there before the eclipse.

(As is fitting for her profession as a psychiatrist, Karen is pragmatic and practical. But as a sign of her committment to this event, she had dressed the statue in her front yard as an eclipse enthusiast. Karen calls the figurine Georgeanne and she has an outfit for every holiday. I warn my sister that this is one step away from decorating a concrete goose and I mock her accordingly, but damn, the old girl looked good.)


So we gathered on the Friday before the event at the Wise Old Owl cottage, where every surface was decorated with either an owl or a moose, but sadly, no woodchucks. My other sister Carolyn and I were the last to arrive from Chicago, as we had been led down the wrong road by an arrogant, disembodied voice from Google maps. In my phone, the voice is known as Joyce, and she insisted we turn at a place we had no business turning. We had been warned that cell service could be spotty and had printed out two different sets of directions, neither of which matched the way Joyce urged us to go: yet still we followed her instructions rather than our own instincts. She gayly led us down winding, unmarked roads and then abandoned us in a field. I believe this was a test by the robot overlords to see if people would blindly follow the voices coming from their phones and may be the precursor to the robot uprising, as we did exactly what we were told and then pleaded for Joyce to come and save us. When they instruct us all to drive our cars into quarries, we will  join all the other lemmings at the bottom, holding up our iphones and searching for bars.

Eventually we came upon two gentlemen and a chihuahua sitting on a front porch and they gave us directions back to the main road in a bemused tone, as if we were not the first fools that the voices had led down their road. The chihuahua, however, was furious and had to be restrained, no doubt angered by the clear and present danger that no one except him seemed to understand. It was a weird beginning to the trip.

The house was huge and supposedly slept 20, if your idea of sleeping is two bedrooms on the top floors and then sixteen assorted bunk beds, double beds and pull out couches in one big basement room. It was very cozy down there with all the nieces and nephews and aunts and owls and squirrels. It was also very cold and completely dark, or as I call it, perfect vacation sleeping weather, with none of that pesky natural light to wake you up. I felt like Kevin in Home Alone when I woke up in the dark silence and realized that I had no idea where my family had gone.

The next two days were a whirl of activities, with some people participating in everything and some not moving from the porch swing. I like a vacation where no one judges you for inertia. There were fabulous meals and many bottles of wine, and games and a fire pit and a funtoon boat with a slide, but always lurking in the back of our minds was the event on Monday. We became obsessed with finding gas, stopping at every tiny station to top off a tank in a car that had only driven 2 miles since the last time it was filled. We worried that there would not be enough ice for the coolers and ended up with enough to fill the back of a station wagon. One of my favorite finds out in the middle of nowhere was an ice ATM. You fed two bucks into the slot and it dispensed 16 pounds of ice, no clerks needed. You could even get it unbagged and let it flow right into a cooler. Clearly this is once again the robots looking to catch us off guard as we complacently let them control the flow of cubes, but I’m willing to let them have this one. You can just never have enough ice.

Sunday was our last evening at the house, and after another amazing meal with lots of wine to wash it down, the core four sisters sat down to try to figure out who owed what. We are all smart women; some of us hold advanced degrees and at the very least, all of us can use a calculator. So we were amazed and chagrined when the simple task of dividing up costs turned into an SAT math problem, one that assured that none of us were getting into college, not even a community one. For over an hour, we subtracted and divided and swore and multiplied and could not come up with the correct sum. A spread sheet was created and abandoned, amounts were rounded up and down and the final amount owed was furiously scratched out in order to begin again. One by one, the grown nieces and nephews left the room, completely embarrassed by their algebraically impaired mothers. At one point, my brother-in-law begged to let him eat the cost of the whole trip, just to get us to stop. I’m still not sure the number we came up with was correct, but it was such a relief to move on that I don’t even care. There is no place for math on a vacation, especially when combined with a nice red.

*Math is Hard.

Next: Part Two: Hopkinsville

Burn, Baby, Burn


Countless articles are warning that you will need special glasses if you plan on looking at the eclipse. Make sure you get the right kind —shameless grifters are apparently repurposing old 3D glasses and trying to pass them off as NASA approved, so be suspicious if yours have a Captain America logo on the side. I found a pair at a local hardware store for under two bucks and was surprised at how flimsy they are. For all the worry about blind woodchucks, I was expecting something a bit more substantial.

Some procedural questions for those of us who already wear glasses: do you duct tape the cardboard ones over your existing specs or shove them underneath? What if you have bifocals? Can I get these in my prescription? Are the disposables biodegradable or will they still be in landfills by the time we go through this again in 2024? Can I get the eclipse pair in those really thick, dark frames that all the hipsters are wearing?

Not peeking may be the safest option, but you can’t hear all the hype about this event and then elect to just stare at your shoes while it is happening. Looking at your feet should at least remind you to make the classic Pinhole Shoebox experiment. This diagram shows how to construct this project. It works exactly as described but should come with a warning— opinions may vary on its effectiveness.

Pinhole Shoebox

The last eclipse that was visible from the midwest area of the U.S. was in 1994. Chicago wasn’t anywhere near the path of totality so there wasn’t quite the amount of coverage there is now, but it was still in the news. I had been talking it up to my kids (who were nine and four at the time) and perhaps raising expectations for this great event in the sky just a tad more than I should have. Since I was all about Safety First and crafty as hell to boot, we constructed the Pinhole Shoebox as a family project. It was very low-tech but I assured them it was going to work perfectly. They seemed doubtful.

The afternoon of the eclipse found us out on the playground of the elementary school with kids milling about waiting for something momentous to happen. As the time approached, the light started to vaguely dim but it wasn’t as if total darkness fell. It just seemed cloudy. I had the shoebox positioned correctly to catch the light and as the moon moved in front of the sun, a perfect crescent shadow slowly advanced over the white circle that was the sun projected at the back of the box. It looked exactly as Carl Sagan had promised!

The problem with this whole experiment is that it happens inside of a shoebox and the image is about the size of a pencil eraser. You could call it anticlimactic. Others might use the words profoundly underwhelming.

Excitedly I called the kids over to show them that it had worked and they looked baffled. They had imagined something like the stream of light hitting the crystal staff and sending a laser beam through the darkness of the pyramid tomb in Raiders of the Lost Ark. What they got was their mother with her head in a shoebox acting like she had discovered something about the sun that Galileo might have missed. As I handed the box to my daughter so that she, too, could marvel at this astronomical event, I caught the look on her face. It was the dawning realization that this was to be the first of many moments when her up-to-that-point cool mom was actual going to turn out to be the embarrassment of her life. She’d heard about this in the girl’s bathroom but hadn’t expected it to happen this soon. And why was the waist of her jeans so high?!?

Shortly after this, she refused to be picked up from school in the battered old Chevy Chevette I was driving at the time. My advice is don’t try the shoebox experiment with anyone over the age of eight. You’re setting yourself up for humiliation. It’s going to happen eventually, but why add fuel to the fire? And for God’s sake, stop wearing those mom jeans.

Fun fact: Galileo was completely blind by the age of 74. Coincidence? I think not. 

Animal Crackers

An interesting factoid about the solar eclipse is how it will affect the behavior of animals. Clearly the woodchuck* may be regretting some of his decisions, but how will his furry friends react to this natural phenomenon? According to the internet, not well.

“Researchers of the Zoological Survey of India studied rock bees during an eclipse, finding that the number of them leaving and returning to their hive every minute increased dramatically during a partial solar eclipse. These social bees are known for their aggressive defense strategies and vicious behavior when disturbed. As the sun dipped behind the moon, more than 150 bees buzzed about, when normally only a few would move away from the hive. Said the researcher, “It would appear that during the partial solar eclipse, the rock bees became distinctly restless and more active.” 

Distinctly restless and more active is not how I want my bees to behave, and that was just during a partial eclipse. They are going to totally freak during a total one. It also appears that the colonial orb-weaving spiders of Mexico will have no idea what to do with themselves, as they start ripping apart their webs when the day goes completely dark, then reconstructing them when the light returns. Even the hippos are going to need Xanax:

“Hippos on a sandbar in the Zambezi River began entering the water as the eclipse set in — possibly mistaking it for the onset of evening, when the animals typically leave their resting places and traverse the bottom of the river. Sunlight returned before any of the herd had reached the riverbanks, and the study reported an apparent sense of confusion, even apprehension among the animals. They continued in this state, seemingly, for the rest of the day.”

So now we’ve got angry bees, confused spiders and apprehensive hippos all running around, as well as an extra million cars on the roads trying to get to the Path. And apparently ground squirrels go completely nuts as well, as the length of their “non-stop running sessions were much greater than normal during and for two hours after the eclipse.” This should make for some interesting roadkill. Between the angry bees and the manic squirrels, I may not even get out of the car.

Oh, sure, you say, it’s just a squirrel. They are small and cute and can be beaten to death with a shovel if necessary. But have scientists considered how this lunar event is going to affect werewolves? The moon will be full as the shadow passes in front of the sun, even though it’s the middle of the day. If this is messing with the hippo’s heads, what will it do to werewolves? Once again, I turned to the internet for expert advice:

“A lunar eclipse during a full moon will cause a werewolf to de-transform from their monstrous hairy wolf form during the eclipse. Yet they will maintain their mindless violent werewolf rage while in human form and will totally lose all sense of humanity, causing them to go on a serial killing spree of anything that crosses their path.”

And I was worried there wasn’t going to be any cell phone service.


*There was some chatter on Facebook about the fact that a woodchuck and a groundhog are the same thing. While that may be factually correct, please be assured that nothing on this blog can be assumed to be true as my main research tool is But it would explain the nightmare that I had where I kept thinking I had written a new post, only to wake up each day and find it was the same one over and over.

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck stared directly into a solar eclipse?

woodchuck_eclipsebehind it

I think the answer is obvious. The first rule about watching the solar eclipse is don’t watch the solar eclipse. Foolish woodchucks who don’t wear their special glasses during this event will find themselves scorned and mocked by the other rodents. They can be very mean.

I hope the rest of the woodchucks have already ordered their glasses from NASA, because on August 21, 2017, North America will be able to experience its first solar eclipse in almost a century. For a total of 2 minutes and 41 seconds, the moon will move in front of the sun, blocking the light and warmth of the star we depend upon for our very survival. It’s a preview of what life will be like if Donald Trump stays in office much longer.

A total eclipse is said to be an awe-inspiring moment.  The light dims and goes flat, the temperature suddenly chills, birds and animals go silent (except for my cats, who will assume it’s time to eat since it will be dark). Woodchucks will make bad choices.

Most of the U.S. will be able to see at least a partial eclipse (or as Congress calls it, “a skinny eclipse”), but to get the whole experience of Black is the New Orange, you will need to be in the Path of Totality. The Path is not some flower-laden trail of dirt that little girls skip along; it is a wide arc of the sightline that swoops across the country, suddenly throwing tiny little midwestern towns into the spotlight simply because of where they are geographically located.

One of these towns is Hopkinsville, KY, population 31,000. That’s for today. On August 21, it is expected to be more like 150,000; or rather, 150,011, as my entire family and I will be there, too.

The Blind Woodchuck, besides being a cautionary tale, is also your guide to All Things Eclipse. Check back frequently for a first person narrative of how to prepare for this great event, and moment to moment observations about whether thousands of people standing together in a field staring up at the sun will simultaneously burn their retinas to a crisp. We can all learn from the woodchuck.