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Great Flounder

The Great Flounder Float at the start of the 2019 Mermaid Parade

I’m sorry about last week’s paucity of blog posts.  I was busy building a float for the 2019 Mermaid Parade at Coney Island! This annual festival to Poseidon occurs on a Saturday close to the Summer solstice and is the scene of enormous creative extravagance and burlesque merriment…all in the name of ocean appreciation, of course.  Last year I attended with a rolling flatfish float, and although that was a hard day, it was also a noteworthy success.

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Mermaid Parade 2018

Alas, parades are like Hollywood blockbuster movies…sequels require even bigger and better special effects (and it is easier to get things wrong).  Last year’s float worked and people really enjoyed the spinning wheel of horoscope signs, but it was nearly impossible to transport.  After an unhappy run-in with the front door, my roommate and I ended up death marching the thing to Coney island (which is about 7 miles away) at 2:00 AM the day before the parade.  Thus, for this year’s Mermaid Parade, I decided to build a magnificent 6.5 meter (21 foot) flounder puppet out of fabric which I could roll up and transport with ease! Genius! We could handle the flounder high above our heads with 3 meter (10 foot) wooden poles and their would be no difficulties like last year.

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A quick trip to the trimmings district provided me with hundreds of iridescent ultrasequins to use as scales. Then it was just a matter of hours and hours and hours with the scissors and the hot glue gun (coincidentally, I don’t think I have fingerprints anymore).  I bullied some hapless friends into attending the parade with me and another one of my friends, the great Lebanese artist Lara Nasser took these pictures (you should check out her brilliant but disquieting art which contextualizes the uneasy nexus of religion, politics, and gender in contemporary Beirut).

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Now, people who have jobs as actuaries, account supervisors, and crooked economists do not recognize this, but when you make actual things, there are always unexpected problems.  I should have built some prototype giant puppets, or at least watched old footage of carnival in Brazil.   Although I did some test runs and reinforced the fish with some struts made of rigid plastic tubing (cough, chopped-up hula hoops), the great flounder float had a tendency to droop when there was not a stiff wind.  When there was a stiff wind, the mighty halibut was more than capable of manhandling the puny humans trying to move it around the Coney Island environment.

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The giant tablecloth was weirdly translucent, yet it was heavier than expected as well, as were the 10 foot poles.   In the disorganized scrum to line up we kept getting stiff armed by groups of majorettes and half-naked flamingos.

Then, as the parade started in earnest, so did the wind and we were suddenly wrestling a giant sky halibut.  It must have looked like a sad episode of “America’s Stupidest Catch” as we reeled around Surf Avenue trying not to get knocked down.  The fish gods were angry!

Although we tried valiantly to contain this situation, the float was stronger than the three of us.  The glistening flatfish snapped the two outermost poles and then angrily bludgeoned the woebegone attendants with its fins as the audience watched with good-natured drunken derision.  We tried to carry the flounder horizontally (like the tablecloth it originally was), but soon there were recriminations, counter proposals, and a decision to withdraw.  Arguably this was the right decision, but we were trapped in a 2 mile chute bounded by steel barricades.  There was no escape except a long sprint of shame with the now unworkable fish sadly dangling behind us.

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This stung at the time, but, in retrospect, who cares about a good competent performance? This is America in 2019 and what we love most here and now is a hot mess!  Parades are about spectacle anyway.

So, um, does anybody want to come with me next year? I am not sure how I can top being beaten up by a 21 foot long flatfish in front of 50,000 people but we will think of something (although this particular group of friends may not be into additional parades).  There is no way to know what will happen in 2020 (not without some sort of all-knowing oracle, anyway), but I have a feeling it is a year which will feature plenty of new melt-downs and unintentional floundering.

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Discovered by Sir William Herschel in 1781, the seventh planet in our solar system is named for the Greek deity Uranus, the original skygod of the Greek cosmology.  In classical myth Uranus was castrated and supplanted by his youngest son Cronus (Saturn) who then fell before Zeus (Jupiter) and indeed, the third largest planet in our solar system (in volume) is often overlooked by astronomers, whose eyes are trained on the dramatic gas-giants Jupiter and Saturn.  Only one mission has flown by Uranus–Voyager II, which captured the following undramatic photo in 1986 as it whipped through on its way to Neptune.

Photograph of Uranus taken by Voyage II in 1986 (not a cue ball!)

All of this is a shame, Uranus is not only the first ice-giant planet but it is unique in the solar system for rotating vertically rather than horizontally (probably thanks to some apocalyptic super collision long ago in the planet’s history). From our perspective, the moons of Uranus orbit around it like a clock’s hands and its sporty red rings sometimes give it the appearance of a target.  Uranus has an incredibly long rotation around the sun.  One Uranus year equals 84 Earth years.  Because it spins vertically rather than horizontally, one pole is cast in a super winter which lasts twenty of our earth years (remember the poles of Uranus are on the equator).  Voyager flew by during the deep freeze of winter to get that boring photo up there, but now the seasons are changing and spring is coming to Uranus’ northern pole while fall is coming to the south (I wish there were a different name for the side poles—this is really confusing to write about).

Planet Uranus is seen in this composite image by the Keck II Telescope at near-infrared wavelengths. (Lawrence Sromovsky, UW-Madison Space Science and Engineering Center)

Because of the seasonal change, huge storms (the size of a continent on Earth) are tearing through the Uranian atmosphere with 500 kilometer-per-hour methane winds.  Keep in mind that Uranus has the coldest atmosphere in the solar system, probably because the collision which knocked it on its side dissipated its primordial heat (although nobody really knows). Temperatures there get down to a chilly –224 °C.  Brrr!

A similar bright spot photographed by Hubbel in 2005 just before the vernal equinox

The spring storms are apparently dramatic and fierce enough to be seen from Earth.  Yesterday astronomers reported the appearance of a huge white speck with an albedo ten times that of the planet.  This methane storm probably looks like an immense immense thundercloud spreading above the usually placid blue cloud cover of the ice world.  Saturn has been going through its own cycle of super storms recently (in addition to the great hexagonal storm raging on its north pole).  Its tempting to adapt the folksy mannerisms of country smalltalk and suggest that weather in the solar system has been bad lately–but humankind is probably only just now able to apprehend such phenomena!

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