Sunday, January 26, 2014

Owen McKenna's Ten/Ten Rule Of Sunlight

In Tahoe, as with everywhere else in the northern hemisphere, the two darkest months are over.
Like Owen McKenna, I don't like long winter nights. Yes, sitting in front of the fire, reading a good mystery while sipping a glass of wine is great experience on a cold, dark night, and winter gives us that. But I like sunshine, and I like it to be light at least through the entire afternoon.
In Tahoe, the days during the month before and the month after the Winter Solstice (December 21st) each have less than ten hours of daylight. Not good for me. So I'm unhappy to see the approach of November 21st. This last week, exactly two months later, I was relieved to see the sun climbing back into the sky. The sun is once again high enough that we can now enjoy ten months of days that are longer than ten hours.
Welcome to Owen McKenna's Ten/Ten Rule Of Sunlight.  
The 21st day in January is when Tahoe's daylight is once again ten hours
long or longer. It will remain that way until November 21st.
There are multiple websites that allow you to calculate your day length for any latitude and for any day of the year. One I like is Here is the link for Sacramento.  You search by finding the closest major city to you that is a similar latitude, i.e. on a north-south basis. You can pick your month. It will give you sunrise and sunset times, day length, and the altitude in degrees of the sun at noon. (Note that the third hit on my Google search - had wildly inaccurate sunset times for Sacramento - an obvious mistake - so like anything on the internet, you can't always assume accuracy.)
It's fun (really!) to compare day lengths and sun angles for cities farther north or farther south. For example, our friends in Seattle find the sun 9 degrees lower in the sky than we do. And during the last week of January, their day length is still 50 minutes shorter. Ouch! But come the Summer Solstice (June 21st) their day length will be over an hour longer than ours.
You can also see how the amount of change in day length increases as we get closer to the spring and fall equinoxes and decreases as we get closer to the summer and winter solstices.
The bottom line is that Tahoe is south enough to get good winter sun but north enough and high enough to not bake in the summer.
For sun lovers, Tahoe is one of the great climates.

Compared to the more than half of the USA that is north of us,
Tahoe has great, high winter sun.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

What Writers Can Learn From Plein Air Painters

I'm writing this note as I sit inside our car in Hope Valley. Across a snowy meadow, 200 yards away, I can see my wife standing at her easel out by the ice-covered West Fork of the Carson River.
My wife paints plein air landscapes (among other subjects). This morning, taking advantage of a low-snow winter and beautiful warmish weather, we decided to make another foray out to a river/mountain view, she to set up easel and paint, me to write under the warm high-altitude sun.
But shortly after we'd hiked out across a snow, the wind came up. Of course, one always brings extra clothes when going out into the Sierra, winter or summer. We put on everything we had. Yet twenty minutes later, the windchill had taken its toll. My fingers were too numb to type. My wife struggled to mix paint on her palette and even hold her brush.
You should go back to the car and write where it's warm,” she said.
But what about you?” I said.
I came all the way out here. I won't quit until I get a painting done,” she said.
The sky was clear, and the wind wasn't life threatening, so I agreed. I could come back out and help her carry her gear when she was done.
Now that I'm back in the car, toasty warm, I can see her out on the snow, doing jumping jacks, trying to get enough warmth into her fingers to continue painting.
In the center of the photo, straight above the fence post,
just below the line of trees, is a little speck on the snow.
That's my painter lady.

Here I've zoomed in with the camera.
The jumping jacks weren't enough. She's got the hood up on her anorak.

I'm reminded of some of the emails she gets. “I want your life,” people often write after she sends out her weekly “Art In TheMorning” email with a picture of her newest painting, one that often features a plein air landscape.
And yes, it is a great life. Like me making up stories, earning a living painting pictures is a great job. And as a bonus, she gets to spend many hours outdoors in some of the most beautiful places on earth. What's not to love about it?

This one is called "Peaceful River"
But the next time I'm at one of my wife's shows, looking at a collection of her landscapes, I'll remember what I've witnessed and heard about. Slapping the biting flies, searing your skin under relentless summer sun, watching the wind pick up the easel and the fresh beautiful painting and carrying it into the lake or river or plopping it face down in the dirt, passersby whose excited dogs leap up and knock your lunch into the sand, blowing grit that embeds itself in the paint, the toothless mountain man who emerges from the forest and is too interested in you just after your paint companions have left and you are still packing up solo as twilight descends and your car is a quarter mile away. And of course, I'll remember the jumping jacks. Whenever I see anyone's plein air winter scene, placid and glowing and looking like it must have been a great joy to paint, I'll remember the jumping jacks, a try-anything attempt to stay warm enough to complete a painting.
This one is "Sunlit Sierra Winter"

"Turn In The West Fork"

It's a good lessen for us writers. Whenever I feel like it's hard to write, hard to create something out of the ether, I'm going to recognize that I've got it pretty easy and use that perspective to dive in and get to work. For most of us, most of the time, we don't have to write outdoors, and we don't have to do jumping jacks to keep our fingers working.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Writing With Special Colors

The other day, my wife and I went out to one of the great Sierra beauty spots on a winter day when the sun was bright, the wind calm, and the temp in the shade hit 53. She set up her easel and palette, and I parked my butt on a folding chair and turned on my laptop.
By the end of the day, she had a fabulous painting of the snowy mountains and I had a scene of dialogue.
Back home, she set her painted panel on a stand and showed me some little dabs of color that she'd put in the scene, colors that she said weren't actually in the landscape but were necessary to make the scene seem real.
It made me think of my written dialogue, which had word choices that aren't exactly the way people talk. I told her about it and how I put in wording that might not actually be there in real conversation but was necessary to make the scene seem real.
It's amazing how often this happens with us, similarities between painting and writing.
Dialogue is unusual in that you can't actually write what people say. If you did, readers wouldn't tolerate it. “Whassup, dude?” “I'm like totally bummed... you know, that bro was getting on my case, so I thought, man, jus' don't smoke that stuff. Like, you know, jus' don't smoke it.” “Right on, dude. You tol' him. Right on.” Yikes.
To make dialogue work, a writer has to take out most of the dialect and vernacular and add some dabs of color that might not exist in the real world.

Considering how often painting and writing are similar, I wonder if the same applies to music, theater, sculpture, photography, dance, and the other arts.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Size Doesn't Matter

I've written before about how a mountain lion looking at a house cat only sees lunch. But a large dog looking at a tiny dog only sees a pal.
We were in The City a week ago, walking along Post near Union Square, when we saw two puppies playing inside a hair salon.

Chorgi about to leap on a Great Dane's head
Turns out they were both 4 months old. One was a Great Dane, maybe 65 pounds already. The other was a Chorgi, a Chihuahua-Corgi mix, maybe 2 pounds.
The Chorgi was up on a table, and the Dane stuck his head over the table's edge. The Chorgi jumped around on the Dane's head, nipped at the Dane's nose and ears, and acted as if he'd just discovered the best new ride at Disneyland. The Dane endured the assault, wagging the entire time.

It was a classic example of how dogs recognize their brothers, and it was great entertainment to watch.