Escape velocity is the speed that an object needs to be traveling to break free of a planet or moon’s gravity well and leave it without further propulsion.
Today’s a day about plans, and thwarted plans, and how plans go south when you mean to go north. The day’s about comedy, since, as a close friend of mine told me, we are not kings, so this story can’t be a tragedy. Today started last night, like all days do. It’s a day of shrugged shoulders, of four wheel drives sent out in the night on a mission to restore power, a day when the hope of that long delayed meetings would occur, and this time, this time, result in definitive action… and instead, we can’t get down our driveways. It’s a day that reminds us that we need to eat and stay warm before we can consider weighty philosophical subjects, a day that when we shudder at the prospect of a few hours without wifi, but a broken heater is much more uncomfortable. It’s a day when we wonder if we could make it to the doctor if we needed a doctor, and except the most ill among us, we are not really worried. We may not think much about plumbing on most days, but today, most of us have had thoughts about water and pipes.
Portland is having is eighth! (eighth?!) snow day this winter, a year of note. Since it “hardly ever” snows here, Portland civic leaders forgot to or decided not to buy too much snow equipment, and we’re pretty much locked down. It’s far short of a pioneer adventure, but we can think about Lewis and Clark holed up with their traveling companions in Astoria two hundred and more years ago, unable to move, and Clark getting more and more depressed, mud seeping into cabins, food running short. Their mission was in some ways, completed. They had reached the west coast of the continent; there was no coast to coast waterway, the easily navigated route of their dreams. They sat in an Oregon coastal winter, snow in some amounts, but mostly relentless rain. They had to wait to walk, ride and paddle East to say what they had seen. It was Jefferson’s vision Lewis and Clark carried out; the two leaders and their small party struggled forward to the edge of the land, buckled down, and then waited and waited to bring their lofty findings home.
The return mission was delayed by weather.
Weather is a mighty force that affects escape velocity. One thing I know about myself…I have spent many years planning, executing and delivering the goods. When the carefully crafted plans didn’t work out, I often assumed I lacked something in the execution. I was confused. I was thinking I was a king, and that my thwarted plans were tragic, a personal shortcoming.
I think now it might have been the weather. Or the earth as a whole. A bit of a cosmic joke played on a small player. It’s just hard to achieve that escape velocity, the energy needed to make the plans fly. Something as simple as snowfall can stop it all.
Our bodies keep us connected to the earth, they are part of the gravity, and they have a relationship with the earth and atmosphere that keep us grounded. Our feet hurt, our noses run and we slip and fall. Someone develops a fever. The snow falls from the sky, we need to put on hats and gloves and coats and long underwear. The sun beats down, water dries up or rushes down, we need something to drink. We are foolish to ignore the weather and its bigger cousin, the climate. Go outside without a coat today in Portland, and you’ll feel it and fast. Now think bigger. Civilizations with mighty plans, one on Easter Island, for example, disappeared because the jesters used up what was there, and the earth fought back.
We’re pretty smart, we comedians. We’ve found ways of hiding and protecting ourselves from the real ruler, the planet we live on. We build warm houses, we have snow plows (if we decide to buy them) and we know ways of melting snow and cooling off in the heat. We found a fluid that keeps our heated and cooled vehicles moving. We create tools and machines, and plans to achieve escape velocity and arrive somewhere else, coming back with soil samples or a new type of flower.
But make no mistake, we’re not kings. The earth froze my toes today and moved my personal economy just a little bit in the wrong direction. My orbit was much closer to home and I had to slog to get away from the house and slog to get back. I can plan all I want, and gravity pulls me down, and the snow piles up in the driveway.
I have occasionally shared my disappointment that no human has yet walked around on Mars. After today, my hometown in paralysis, I realize I should fall over in utter shock that we reached the moon, and that a couple little remote control buggies from California have chug a chugged all over Mars without a human driving.
Plans thwarted are the norm. I’m going to rejoice on the rare days when myself, or someone else, reaches escape velocity, and even more amazing, returns to earth without burning up on reentry. If you get to bring back a soil sample too, or maybe a flower, or a snowflake…well, maybe I will reconsider and call you a king.