Life On Mars

It’s been 40 days and 40 nights since New Year’s– when we finally kicked 2020 to the curb.  And even though every person on this planet shouted “Goodbye and good riddance!” (I know I did) we’ve largely forgotten about it.  The hats have been thrown away, the champagne bottles recycled, and the resolutions … well … the resolutions really didn’t stand a chance this year, did they?  But not to worry.  You can renew those resolutions with a clean slate and a fresh start all this week– because last Sunday was also New Year’s Day – on Mars.

I’ll grant you, unless you’re a NASA scientist, it’s not something you think about, but now that you are, it definitely makes sense, doesn’t it?  After all, Mars has a different rotation from Earth and a different orbit around the sun, so our time – 24 hours/365 days – just doesn’t apply.  Actually, the Martian day, called a sol (pronunciation still in doubt) is 24 hours, 39 minutes long.  (That 43-minute difference is just enough to screw things up.)  And it takes Mars 687 days to get all the way around the sun – a Martian year.  So, since Mars has four seasons (just like us) a quick pen and paper calculation and you have 12 months (BTW, you can name them anything you want; nobody’s done that yet!) and there’s your Martian calendar.

Of course, none of this really mattered before we started sending our machines to Mars to have a look around.  But the minute we did, we discovered we needed a way to keep track of them: Earth time just wasn’t going to do it.  For example, right now in the Pacific Time Zone, it’s about 5:30 p.m. and the sun is going down, but on Mars (where the Rover is) that same sun is shining in the middle of the afternoon.  So far, so good.  But tomorrow (relative to me) Martian time is going to slide backwards 43 minutes, and it’ll do it again the next day, and the next.  By this time next month, me and Mars are going to be out of sync by nearly a whole day!  Oops!  So what NASA did was lengthen the Martian second by (approx.) 1.027.  Then they chose the Martian Spring Equinox as Day One of the Martian year. That allowed them to measure and schedule Martian time accurately from that fixed point.  (FYI, this is no different from Great Britain setting up Greenwich Mean Time in the 19th century, Pope Gregory XIII rebooting the calendar in 1582, or Julius Caesar naming the 7th month after himself when he was running the show.)  Anyway, for some reason (I can’t find out why) NASA decided to backdate Martian time to begin with Year Zero on Earth Year 1955.  That makes this Martian Year 36!

Ever since humans dropped out of the trees and looked up into the sky, the Red Planet has captured our imagination.  It’s our nearest celestial neighbour.  We can see it flickering red with the naked eye.  It has mysterious canals, polar ice caps, volcanos and canyons.  It’s been part of our literary culture for two centuries and part of our scientific world for nearly as long.  So, go ahead and celebrate the hell out of this Martian New Year — cuz the next one isn’t going to happen until December 26th 2022!

Christmas At Pyaridge Hall

It was the kind of December morning Victorian novelists dream about.  Diamond frost sparkling over the trim English pastures, horses with steam breath puffing in the air, a slanted sun line on the stable roof, shiny with melt.  On the hill, past the white plank fences, the winter bare trees were pencilled against the too-blue sky.  And not that far beyond where the old stone Roman road curved behind the fruit groves, there was the village steeple, arrow sharp and tiny in the distance.  Emily could hear the Dilfords, mother, uncle and daughter, opening the paddocks and starting the tractor.  She wouldn’t ride today, or any time soon; it was difficult with the bandages, and anyway there was too much work to do.  Besides, she was tired – tired, bitchy and sore.  Her hand had hurt in the night with a black ache, clock-ticking sleeplessness that almost made her cry.  She could still feel it, the dull pressure of the bandages on her fingers that didn’t have enough courage to be pain but had settled in to irritate her.  And she was cold – just out of bed chilly through flannel pajamas and a thick duvet hugged around her shoulders.  She turned away from the window, looked at the cold stone hearth and shivered.

“Damn the insurance,” she thought, “Tonight, I’m going to have a fire.”  She swept the duvet off her shoulders and back onto the bed.  Then awkwardly, she pulled heavy green trousers over her pajamas and a red checked work shirt.  She struggled with the buttons, gave up after two and went down to breakfast.  Not quite the lady of the manor, but . . . .  She ran her fingers through her hair to smooth out some of the tangled sleep.  It would be warmer downstairs where the wheezing old Pyaridge’s boilers could reach, but there was no way she was going to endure another winter like this.  Something would have to go out of next year’s budget.  Next year’s budget?  She hadn’t paid for this year’s yet!  She ran her hand over the thick oak bannister like you would an old dog and continued down the big step staircase, through the high, wide entrance hall and into the breakfast room.

No matter what time Emily arrived for breakfast, it was there waiting for her.  In winter, porridge, eggs and toast, sometimes bacon, sometimes sausage, coffee and juice.  She knew if the salt and fat didn’t kill her the cholesterol eventually would, but it had been a war to get rid of the beans, tomato, mushrooms, wheat cakes and assorted other fried bits, so . . . .   Mrs. Tisdale ran the Pyaridge kitchen with an iron ladle, fed the entire estate on a budget that would embarrass Gandhi and hadn’t taken no for answer since Emily was 6 — which meant, after winning half the battle, it was an act of valor for Emily to just shut up and eat her breakfast, nice girl.  And she did that, every morning, alone at a huge table, in a room built for twenty.

In London, Dreyfus Sinclair didn’t usually eat breakfast unless he was travelling or Mrs. Flynn was in the mood to cook.  And since Mrs. Flynn only came in 3 days a week and was seldom in the mood, it was mostly just coffee and a newspaper under the tall windows in the loft over the river.  That day, there was a crawling mist on the Thames, so there wasn’t much boat traffic, and the lights on the far shore looked distant and scuffed.  It was a perfect day to sit back and contemplate the woes of the world.  Actually, Dreyfus didn’t much care about that, but he did enjoy the style and variety of Fleet Street journalism, so he had the concierge bring him a different/random newspaper every morning.  It made the read a little more interesting.  (Today was The Guardian, full of opinion.)  He thought about going to work later, but he wanted to write a few letters, and he enjoyed writing letters, so . . . .  Plus, he had that neatly-wrapped plastic package of clothes to deal with, and he wasn’t sure what he should do about that.  They had arrived yesterday back from the cleaners with a note that read.  “Our apologies.  Unfortunately, we were not able to remove the extensive bloodstains from the garments without ruining them, and the style and quality dictate that they would not be easily replaced in that event.  Therefore, we are returning them to you.  Regards …”

Friday – Part II